The Obama administration was blindsided by the backlash against the release of American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl because Republicans had urged the Defense Department to use any means necessary to get the missing soldier home from Afghanistan.
NBC’s Chuck Todd told the “Today” show Wednesday (at the 5-minute mark in the video above) that White House aides were “caught flat-footed” by the reaction to the prisoner swap in which the U.S. released five high-level Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl. Todd said the administration anticipated criticism over the release of the Gitmo detainees because the status of Guantanamo Bay is a contentious issue, but it never foresaw the controversy over Bergdahl.
“I’ve had a few aides describe it to me as ‘we didn’t know that they were going to Swift Boat Bergdahl’,” Todd said, referring to the campaign to discredit then-presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam service in 2004. “And Matt, of course, that’s a reference to that political fight back in 2004 over John Kerry’s military service which became so controversial in that campaign. So there’s some fighting words there.”
How could the administration not have seen the criticism coming, given previous reports that accused Bergdahl of deserting the Army when he left his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was subsequently captured?
“Because there were so many Republicans on Capitol Hill that were urging the Defense Department to do whatever it took to get Sgt. Bergdahl,” Todd said. “You had op-eds … by Republican senators, including one in New Hampshire. You had John McCain, three or four months ago, saying he would be open to the idea of some sort of exchange to free Sgt. Bergdahl. The initial euphoria in that first 12 hours surrounding the president with the parents of Sgt. Bergdahl. [The administration] really assumed there’d be a rally-around-the-flag moment, not just for the country, but on Capitol Hill.
“Obviously, they had no idea that there would be no member of Sgt. Bergdahl’s unit that would go public and praise him or support him,” Todd said. “So yeah, they were caught off guard.”