On Monday, troops that served with or searched for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan came forward to publicly express their anger at the American POW. In interviews with several media outlets, they accused Bergdahl of desertion and blamed him for the deaths of soldiers who were involved in the effort to retrieve him after he was captured by the Taliban. For the most part, they seemed intensely focused on their personal feelings — and not on the increasingly partisan discussion of the prisoner swap that led to Bergdahl’s release — but, as the New York Times first reported, “Republican strategists” were responsible for putting some, if not all, of those soldiers in touch with reporters.
On Tuesday, BuzzFeed revealed that one of those strategists was Capitol Media Partners’ Richard Grenell, who previously worked as Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman and a Bush administration–era aide to U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. When reached for comment, Grenell’s partner, Brad Chase, acknowledged they were helping the soldiers “in getting their story out.” He also objected to the characterization of his firm as “Republican,” since he himself is not a Republican, though a media booker told BuzzFeed that Grenell was the main point of contact.
So, with assistance from Capitol Media Partners, the Times spoke to two of Bergdahl’s former platoon-mates, Joshua Cornelison and Cody Full. Both men said that they didn’t want to talk about “politics.” They also agreed that they wanted Bergdahl to be court-martialed. And, as others have, they specifically named soldiers who they said died while looking for Bergdahl. Overall, Bergdahl’s critics have attributed about eight fatalities to operations directly related to him but, the Times notes, “Pentagon officials say those charges are unsubstantiated and are not supported by a review of a database of casualties in the Afghan war.” At the very least, the situation seems to have been more complicated than the troops’ emotionally charged accounts suggest:
The most intense search operation, leaked war reports show, wound down after eight days — well before the deaths of six soldiers on patrols in Paktika Province in late August and early September. But, complicating matters, some soldiers contend they were effectively searching for 90 days because of clear orders: If they heard rumors from locals that Sergeant Bergdahl might be nearby, they should patrol the area.
Some soldiers have also contended that the Taliban, knowing the units were out searching extensively for Sergeant Bergdahl, chose July 4, 2009, to attack another combat outpost, which was nearly overrun and several soldiers were killed. But American military officers said they saw no evidence that the Taliban started the attack on the outpost because they thought everyone would be out searching for Sergeant Bergdahl.
A second former senior military officer, who also was briefed on the Bergdahl investigation, said there was no direct evidence that diversion of surveillance aircraft or troops to search for Sergeant Bergdahl encouraged the Taliban attacks, or left other American troops vulnerable. “This was a dangerous region in Afghanistan in the middle of the ‘fighting season,’ ” the officer said in an email, adding that although the search “could have created some opportunities for the enemy,” it is “difficult to establish a direct cause and effect.”
Elsewhere, opinions on Bergdahl’s release continue to split more clearly along party lines, with GOP lawmakers criticizing the Obama administration’s exchange of five Guantánamo detainees for the American POW, as well as its failure to tell Congress about the prisoner swap beforehand. (The conservative fringe is also working through a number of conspiracy theories.) While in Warsaw on Tuesday, President Obama defended the deal.
“Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that,” he said. Asked whether Bergdahl would be prosecuted for desertion, he responded, “That’s not something that we’re discussing at this point because our main priority is making sure that the transition that he is undergoing after five years of captivity is successful.” As for Congress’s complaints about being left out of the loop? “We saw an opportunity, we were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health, we had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange and we seized that opportunity,” he explained.
Later, the AP reported that the White House had “apologized” to Dianne Feinstein and Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Democrat and Republican on the Senate’s Intelligence committee, telling them that the lack of notification on the prisoner exchange was “an oversight.” But, as of now, the gesture seems unlikely to quiet the complaints about how Bergdahl’s rescue was handled.