It looks like Bowe Bergdahl may become Republicans' new Benghazi.
President Barack Obama on Saturday proudly announced the release of the only known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan. But the GOP appears determined to turn what seemed like a big win for the White House into a major thorn in the commander-in-chief’s side.
Republicans are piling on Obama for releasing five Taliban militants in exchange for Bergdahl, suggesting the president negotiated with the enemy. They're also complaining that he did not notify Congress before the swap. Complicating matters are questions about the circumstances under which Bergdahl, now 28, disappeared in 2009 -- with some of his former colleagues declaring him a deserter and claiming U.S. soldiers were killed as a result of searching for the Idaho native.
Many of the conservative arguments are, not surprisingly, bogus.
Prisoner swaps, like Bergdahl’s are not new. In fact, President George W. Bush released dozens of men being held captive in CIA prisons during his time in office. In 2011, Israel exchanged 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
And as msnbc has previously noted, while the five men were released from Gitmo were deemed “high risk” prisoners who could pose a threat to U.S interests, those designations remain somewhat murky. More than 80% of the men behind bars at Guantanamo were later proven to be to have been people sold for bounties instead of being militants. Today, more than 70 of the 149 prisoners at the facility have been given the green light to be released. And just half a dozen –those linked to the 9/11 attacks and a strike the year before against the USS Cole – face charges in military commissions.
But that hasn't stopped Republicans for seeking political gain. Indeed, one GOP operative is now acknowledging he had helped members of Bergdahl's unit paint him as a traitor in the press.
The New York Times ran such a story Tuesday, noting the interviews were “arranged by Republican strategists.”
The same soldiers also gave interviews to a number of additional publications, including Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail. Richard Grenell, a former national security spokesman for Mitt Romney, was thanked by one of the soldiers for “helping get our platoon’s story out.” Grenell tweeted back that the soldier, Cody Full, was “true American hero.”
Grennell, a Fox News contributor, later confirmed on Twitter that his public relations firm had offered “pro bono services” to the soldiers but disputed the New York Times’ political characterization. Brad Chase, Grenell’s business partner, said Grennell is “NOT a Republican. This isn’t political.” But several reporters told Media Matters that Grenell was personally involved in arranging the interviews.
Still, there’s no sign the GOP will ease up anytime soon. The skewering could very well stretch into 2016.
Several Republicans are calling on congressional committees to hold hearings on the prisoner swap. Former Rep. Allen West wants the House to file an article of impeachment against Obama. And now, some GOPers are asking if Hillary Clinton – the former secretary of state and potential Democratic frontrunner for 2016 – may have been involved.
“I do think Bergdahl is going to be the next Benghazi,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona college and of political campaign management at New York University. “That doesn’t mean Benghazi will go away -- Republicans will continue on that…but this will last well through the midterm elections and could continue beyond that to the 2016 period,” she added.
For his part, Obama has been playing a lot of defense over the prisoner exchange for Bergdahl, who was being held captive by what’s believed to be the Haqqqani terrorism network since 2009.
“We don’t leave men and women in uniform behind,” he said during a news conference from Poland on Tuesday. “Regardless of the circumstances, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period.”
Obama added that Bergdahl’s health depended on quick action and that he received assurances from Qatari officials – who mediated the deal—that they would prohibit future travel by the five former detainees for a year. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the Obama Administration had been consulting with Congress “for years” over potential transfer of detainees in Guantanamo in exchange for Bergdahl and that the swap should “not have been a surprise to any members of Congress.”
Obama’s announcement of Bergdahl’s release comes at a rocky time for the president – and a mere day after Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned following reports that VA hospitals falsified waiting lists.
Some observers are asking whether the Obama Administration may have miscalculated on how Bergdahl's release would be perceived.
"You have to question how well they thought out these optics,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said.
Aas for Clinton, the former secretary of staet delivered a cautious defense of the Bergdahl release during an event in Colorado on Monday night, insisting her former boss had a “tough decision.” She added that details have yet to be uncovered but “this young man, whatever the circumstances, was an American citizen—is an American citizen, was serving in our military.”
Bergdahl’s release could become a headache for Clinton as she contemplates another presidential bid. Already, some GOPers have raised the possibility that Obama may have told her of his plans when the two met for lunch at the White House two days before the announcement.
Still, O'Connell, the GOP strategist, warned Republicans have the potential to shoot themselves in the foot.
“Republicans need to tread lightly on this highly sensitive subject matter,” he said. “Not all the facts are on the table. There are a lot of unanswered questions. What they really need to be doing is pushing for accountability and transparency, otherwise they could go down the wrong rabbit hole and it could blow up in their face."
Bergdahl is currently receiving medical treatment in Germany. He’s expected to be moved to a military in San Antonio, where he’ll reunite with his family, later this week.