Congress, Bergdahl, and the Age-Old Culture War Over Freeing POWs

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 3 2014 2:50 PM

Congress, Bergdahl, and the Age-Old Culture War Over Freeing POWs

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In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag.

Photo by U.S. Army via Getty Images

The Bergdahl quagmire spreads, given new toxicity by the terrain in Washington. Over the course of the day, the leaders of the House and Senate intel committees have crab-walked away from the White House’s decision and told reporters that they were not—as is ordinary, and required—consulted before it was made.

On Morning Joe, MSNBC’s redoubt of disappointment with the Obama White House, House intel Chairman Mike Rogers said that he had not been consulted on a possible Bergdahl trade since 2011. At that time, he and his peers agreed not to do it.

“In a bipartisan way, they said, this is not a great idea,” Rogers said. “That's the last time we really heard from the administration.”

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Hours later, Senate intel Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said basically the same thing. “There were very strong views and they were virtually unanimous against the trade,” she told the Hill’s Alex Bolton. “I certainly want to know more about whether this man was a deserter.” She hadn’t been consulted this year; she’d merely gotten a call apologizing for the decision being made without her input.

The deal has also been opposed, post facto, by Sen. John McCain. He wasn’t supposed to be consulted, necessarily. But he’s got a particular credibility on POWs, for obvious reasons. In 1973 McCain was freed from the “Hanoi Hilton” as part of the Nixon administration’s “Operation Homecoming” negotiations. In the years since, he has reserved special venom for fellow POWs who, in his words, “lost faith” during imprisonment.

The ugliness has lasted for 40 years. McCain, in his memoir, accused (but did not name) fellow POW Edison Miller of making anti-war, anti-American confessions under pressure of torture, and receiving better treatment as a result. Miller has always denied that last part; he’s insisted that his criticism of the war was deeply felt. And over the years, he’s gone to court (and won) against fellow veterans who claim that his criticism of the war was meant as treason and as propaganda.

It’s a largely forgotten story, but it resonates today. Many conservatives, some who’d always wanted Bergdahl free, now look at the circumstances of his capture and the statements attributed to him and say, basically, that he wasn’t worth this deal. They’re now echoed by members of both parties who said they were queasy about freeing Bergdahl, and thus were ignored.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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