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The Unraveling

How the Obama administration’s story on Bowe Bergdahl and the Taliban fell apart

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Late in the afternoon of Saturday, May 31, Barack Obama strode confidently to a lectern in the White House Rose Garden flanked by the parents of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who had gone missing from his platoon in the mountains of Afghanistan in June 2009.

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“This morning I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son, Bowe, is coming home,” Obama said. 

The president thanked service members who “recovered Sergeant Bergdahl and brought him safely out of harm’s way.” Obama also expressed gratitude to the diplomats who had handled the case, and he reported that his administration had “worked for several years to achieve this goal.” The president confirmed news reports from earlier in the day that Bergdahl had been freed as part of a prisoner exchange with the Afghan Taliban—a deal that was brokered by the government of Qatar. “As part of this effort, the United States government is transferring five detainees from the prison in Guantánamo Bay to Qatar,” he announced.

The Bergdahls were understandably emotional about the news and in brief statements thanked their friends and their government for supporting them through the long ordeal.

It was, for Obama, a fleeting moment of triumph. For more than a year, the president had been buffeted by events that he could not—or would not—control. The disastrous debut of Obamacare, the continuing fallout from the Benghazi attacks, the consequences of intelligence disclosures by Edward Snowden, the unfolding human tragedy in Syria, the Russian power play in Ukraine, the scandal that has engulfed the Veterans Administration—in one crisis after another, the man who once boldly declared his intent to be a transformative president had shown himself to be a reactive one. 

But in the course of three days in late May, Obama sought to wrest control back by demonstrating progress on two of his longest-held goals: ending America’s overseas wars and closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. On May 28, in a commencement speech before cadets graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Obama declared that all combat troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. And three days later, in announcing the transfer of five senior Taliban officials, all designated at “high risk” to return to battle, Obama demonstrated his determination to shutter the detainee facility. 

The morning after Obama announced the prisoner exchange, top national security officials from his administration fanned out on the Sunday talk shows. The job of explaining the president’s decision fell to defense secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice.

The president, recognizing the “acute and urgent situation” of the missing soldier, had an obligation to “prioritize the health of Sgt. Bergdahl,” Rice explained. “His life could have been at risk.” Waiting was not an option.

Bergdahl was a hero, she suggested, “an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield” who had served his country with “honor and distinction.” 

In an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Rice explained that the five Taliban commanders would be transferred to Qatar, where “they will be carefully watched” and “their ability to move will be constrained.” 

Rice brushed off concerns that the United States had engaged in hostage negotiations with terrorists, emphasizing that the United States communicated indirectly with the Taliban through the Qataris. Hagel, for his part, was clear about the U.S. diplomatic partners on the exchange. “We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” he insisted in an appearance on Meet the Press

He downplayed the notion that the five Taliban commanders could present a threat to the United States, arguing that he wouldn’t sign off on any detainee transfer unless “our country can be assured that we can sufficiently mitigate any risk to America’s security.”

And then came the unraveling. 

Many of Hagel’s and Rice’s key claims would be disputed quickly. Some would prove to be misleading, others simply false.

No risk to America’s security? Michael Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center under Obama, said it was “very, very likely” that the five Taliban leaders would return to the fight. An intelligence official who briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, said that there is a high likelihood that at least four of the five freed prisoners, and possibly all of them, will rejoin the fight. Even Obama, after downplaying the threat, conceded that “absolutely” there was a chance they would take up arms against America.

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