Covering the Controversy of a Swap and the Relentless Drive to Bring Americans Home


Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release from the Taliban over the weekend brought immeasurable relief to his family and friends, sparked heated debate on Capitol Hill, and also launched a mini Internet storm about the Yellow Ribbon Project's coverage of the case.

There are many questions surrounding Bergdahl's captivity, and many allegations raised by fellow soldiers since he was returned about the circumstances under which he disappeared from his post and the deaths of soldiers involved in efforts to locate him. These will and should be investigated. The Associated Press revealed today that a 2010 Pentagon investigation found Bergdahl walked away from his unit. Army Secretary John McHugh said in a statement today that they want to ensure Bergdahl is on the road to recovery before beginning their investigation in earnest. "As Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sgt. Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity," McHugh said. "All other decisions will be made thereafter, and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices."

There are additional questions about the timing and circumstances of the swap. Congressional sources working on the case indicated to PJM last month that there were missed opportunities to get Bergdahl back, particularly hampered by the fact that for the majority of his captivity government agencies were not working in tandem, a malady addressed when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel named a Pentagon overseer to the case in February. This increased the importance of Bergdahl's case from the standpoint of how the government is equipped to juggle potential POW/MIA cases beyond the Army sergeant.

There are questions about Bob Bergdahl, the father who grew out his beard, spoke in Pashto and tweeted to his son's captors. I prefer, though, not to judge a desperate family who tried in a multitude of ways to appeal to his captors to release the son they hadn't seen in five years.

And it was my retweet of one of Bob Bergdahl's tweets in January that sparked half of the Internet ire today:

One of the tragic things about the Bergdahl tweet was the fact that it shouldn't take a White House petition for the family of any captive or missing American to get the administration's attention. It's not, however, uncommon for these families to suffer the fate of disappearing in the headlines and sinking fast on the list of administration and Capitol Hill priorities. I chose to highlight the fact the Bergdahl family was going through this, and encouraged retweets of my retweet to raise awareness.

The petition stressed the use of force, along with "all means available," to secure Bergdahl's rescue or release. I didn't sign it myself; I've never signed a White House petition. I wrote a news article on the petition, touching on the White House reaction regarding the Taliban's proposed swap deal to get Bergdahl back, and included a link at the end in case readers wanted to add their names to the petition; you don't write a story on a petition without including how readers can find it. The choice was there for readers if they wanted to add their names or not.

The second half of the Internet ire asserted that I then proved hypocritical because of tweets questioning the strategy of the prisoner swap, thus going against the "all means available" part of the petition that was the subject of my news article and Bob Bergdahl's tweet. The argument centered around one tweet, in which I noted Israel's prisoner swaps haven't done much to increase their security. The Jewish State has a steadfast edict of not leaving any soldier behind, even if it's trading a thousand Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit. As these trades stoke debate in the Knesset and cabinet in Jerusalem every time, these are never easy decisions. The nearly uniform reaction from Congress, from many Democrats as well as Republicans, mirrors this sentiment: We're happy that he's free, but we're disturbed about how it happened. Lawmakers need to know more, as does the public.

And that reaction is what I spent much of the weekend rounding up. My tweets of lawmakers' reactions or the Taliban reaction to the swap, as well as the administration's defense, went to corresponding news stories. There is and will continue to be serious dissension about both the details of the swap and how it happened, and we'll know a lot more when congressional hearings get under way. There's also concern in Afghanistan, as reflected by their media, highlighting the regional and potentially global implications of the swap strategy as it played out in this case. This will and should be studied in the months to come.

What this debate should not do is pull any focus away from other Americans being held abroad. Whether it's Warren Weinstein in the hands of al-Qaeda, Bob Levinson, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini in the hands of Iran, Alan Gross in Cuba or Kenneth Bae in North Korea, there are Americans whose health problems are multiplying as they wait for release or rescue. I highlighted how Hekmati, a Marine veteran, told Secretary of State John Kerry in September that despite the hardships he's suffered for more than 1,000 days in Evin prison he would not want to be released as part of a trade with Tehran. The debate over the next several months shouldn't just be about what did or didn't go wrong in the Bergdahl case, but what we can do to look forward and bring other Americans home as well.