Taliban swapped for Bowe Bergdahl: 'Responsible for 911' or 'a pretty good deal'?

We may never know whether exchanging Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five members of the Taliban held at Guantanamo Bay was worth the risk. Here are two very different ways of looking at that.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent more than five years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam, speaks to reporters following a briefing about the Obama administration’s decision to swap five members of the Taliban for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Sen. John McCain – certified hawk and ex-POW – says the five Taliban exchanged for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl were part of a group of prisoners at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “responsible for 911,” that they “worked hand in glove with al Qaeda.”

That’s news to retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, who was the former top prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay.

"My role as chief prosecutor was to review the information we had on the detainees to determine which ones we could potentially bring war crimes charges against," Col. Davis told MSNBC over the weekend
 "When I saw the names of the five individuals, when they were reported last weekend, my first reaction was who are they," he said. "I never saw the names before, which means there was not enough information to even make it on our list of potential prosecution.”

"We were told everyone at Guantanamo Bay was the worst of the worst," said Davis, echoing McCain’s description of the five. "But of the 779 men we took there, more than 80 percent have gone home; more than 500 of those during the [George W.] Bush administration."
"To trade five of them for a US service member, in my estimation, and I'm often critical of President Obama, I think they struck a pretty good deal," he said.

For McCain, it was a terrible deal, made worse by the Obama administration’s handling of it – failure to keep relevant House and Senate members in the loop, followed by an Oprah Winfrey-style Rose Garden event with Bergdahl’s parents.

“They were judged time after time during their confinement in Guantanamo, they were evaluated and judged as too great a risk to release,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday.

“What we're doing here is reconstituting the Taliban government, the same guys that are mass murderers,” McCain said. “One killed thousands of Shiite Muslims. These are the people that used to take women into the soccer stadium in Kabul and hang them from the goalposts…. These people are in the leadership. They are the ones who are dedicated, the hardest of hard-core. And, by the way, they became a lot harder after their years in Guantanamo.”

Sen. McCain’s passion here is understandable, and arguing against a deal that brought home a US prisoner of war cannot have been easy.

Shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, McCain was a POW for nearly six years – denied adequate medical treatment for the injuries he sustained in ejecting from his stricken Navy jet (injuries which affect his physical abilities today), held in solitary confinement for long periods (once for more than two years), and tortured to the point of being made to sign a false “confession.”

“I struggled against panic and despair,” he writes in his autobiography, “Faith of my Fathers,” sustained by his fellow POWs. "They were a lantern for me, a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home…”

Though McCain and Bergdahl spent roughly the same amount of time as POWs – one can imagine a conversation between the two – their backgrounds and experience were very different.

Like most of the 600-plus captured Americans who returned from North Vietnam in 1973, McCain had been an older man and a commissioned officer, highly-trained in an elite aspect of the military. Bergdahl was a much younger infantry private, assigned to a unit that’s been described (in the New York Times Sunday) as “known for its troubles … a misfit platoon that stumbled through its first months in Afghanistan.”

Most important, McCain was surrounded by many fellow Americans sharing a very rough experience, and they’d all been through the US military’s SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) with its mock interrogations and POW camp. Even in solitary, they could communicate using a “tap code,” slowly sharing stories and encouragement.

Bowe Bergdahl had none of this, which may help explain his initial difficulty communicating in English as well as his apparent reluctance so far to speak with anybody other than those helping him reintegrate. (Something Sarah Palin seems not to understand in her flip Facebook posts, or Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan in her superficial analysis Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”)

There’s an important caveat to Col. Davis’s observations.

"About a quarter of those released have returned to do bad things, so playing the odds, it is probably one or more of them could do something bad," he said. "But if we wait until the risk returns to zero, they could be doing life sentences."

Which is just what Sen. McCain wants.

Note: Monitor staff writer Brad Knickerbocker was a US Navy combat pilot who flew in Vietnam. He went through SERE training. John McCain had been one of his flight instructors in basic jet training.

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