Over the weekend, news broke that the United States government had made the decision to exchange five Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl roughly five years after his capture by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. While many have applauded the effort to bring home a captured member of the American armed forces, not everybody has been so quick to label this course of action “correct.”
Bergdahl was initially captured in eastern Afghanistan in June of 2009, just two months after his arrival in the country. The circumstances surrounding his capture are still unclear. It appears that Bergdahl wandered away from his unit for unknown reasons without informing his officers of platoon mates. When asked whether he thought Bergdahl had deserted his post, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated, “Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family. Other circumstances that may develop and questions — those will be dealt with later.”
While many appear to be happy with Bergdahl’s homecoming, others are not as pleased with how the situation is being handled. Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon at the time of his capture, called Bergdahl a “deserter” and called for him to face a military trial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Sgt. Vierkant said Bergdahl “deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”
It seems unlikely at the moment that Sgt. Vierkant will get his wish. Officials say they will give Bergdahl time to decompress and readjust to a normal life as best he can. He will undoubtedly have a chance to tell his side of the story, a story many on both sides of the argument have been wondering about for five years, but Bergdahl is unlikely to face formal charges. As a senior official inside the DoD told CNN, “five years is enough.”
The harsh criticism has not stopped with Bergdahl as Republicans have been quick to chastise the Obama administration not only for releasing accused terrorists, but for sidestepping Congress in the decision making process. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that he was worried about the released detainees’ ability to return to the battlefield, calling them “the hardest of the hardcore.”
This may have been a valid concern a few years back when reports of detainee recidivism painted a dark picture, but more recent reports show that it may not be as big of a concern as Republicans make it seem. With a lower than 7% confirmed recidivism rate since 2009, the likelihood of these five detainees returning to the battlefield is not nearly as high as the right claims.
Also worth noting is that the government has used this “worst of the worst” defense before as justification for the mere existence of Guantanamo Bay, but reports from the Center for Policy and Research helped to debunk that claim. The government claims that the five released detainees were members of the Taliban, but it is unclear exactly what their role was or how reliable any potential evidence against them is. It seems unlikely that the DoD would even entertain the idea of releasing five high-value detainees in exchange for anything if they are, in fact, as dangerous as Sen. McCain claims.
Another criticism is that the DoD violated the law when it failed to notify Congress about the exchange within 30 days, which is the proper procedure any time a detainee is to be released. Secretary Hagel countered by claiming that, to the best of his knowledge, the decision was made as a result of an immediate threat against Bergdahl’s life. He also claimed that the the DoD could not afford to risk any leaks due to the delicate nature of the negotiations. Given the amount of knee jerk reactions in the past two days, this excuse may well have been warranted.
It is no surprise that the DoD’s decision to exchange five Guantanamo Bay detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sparked a heated debate in Washington, as nearly every discussion on Guantanamo Bay has since its opening. It is also unsurprising that Republicans opted to use the tried-and-true “worst of the worst” argument to chastise the Obama administration for the decision. What would be surprising and even refreshing would be if the public and politicians alike gave Bergdahl the opportunity to tell his story before jumping to conclusions. It would also be great to hear exactly what evidence the government had against these former detainees that made them “the hardest of the hardcore.” Will either of these things happen? Probably not, but we can always hope.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research