In a welcome change, the media have apparently decided to cover a negative Obama administration story with an aggressiveness they haven’t shown for multiple other scandals over the past six years.
When the mud gets slung around so quickly in Washington, including apparent high-level leaks opposing the administration’s actions, it’s usually more than a partisan matter. Moreover, the complaints got real traction in mainstream journalistic circles. Within hours of this weekend’s announcement of the prisoner exchange, reporters started to dig up some significant information that had already been published about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his background.
For example, an article in 2010 in Britain’s Daily Mail described how Sgt. Bergdahl, according to the Taliban, had converted to Islam and taught his captors how to make bombs. Rolling Stone published an article about the soldier in 2012, which contained revealing nuggets such as:
• “As his tour dragged on, the ‘hellish reality of war’ — including seeing an Afghan child run over by an American truck — weighed on [then-Private] Bergdahl, who came to see America’s presence in Afghanistan as ‘disgusting.’”
• “There was an official cover-up — one that included White House pressure on The New York Times and AP to keep Bergdahl’s name out of the papers.”
Sgt. Bergdahl was clearly a troubled individual. He walked away from his unit in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban. Several news organizations quickly found some of his fellow soldiers, who criticized his actions and questioned his patriotism, even though they had been forced to sign agreements not to talk about Sgt. Bergdahl. “He’s, at best, a deserter and, at worst, a traitor,” Sgt. Josh Korder told CNN, which has been quite aggressive in reporting the story.
The Washington Times reported that the military, which had lost at least six men looking for Sgt. Bergdahl after he vanished, did not want to send a rescue team, despite knowing his exact whereabouts and the captors’ numbers and firepower. Even The New York Times questioned the deal in several ways in an editorial. “Mr. Obama’s decision is likely to make it harder for the United States to implore other countries not to negotiate with terrorists in the future,” the newspaper wrote.
Nearly all of the media quickly seized upon the angle of whether the exchange itself had been legal. Under the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama signed into law only a few months ago, the administration had to give Congress 30 days’ advance notice of any transfers from the Guantanamo detainee site. That clearly did not happen last week, but the White House maintained the soldier’s health had deteriorated and the deal needed to get done — yet another point some have questioned since Sgt. Bergdahl is listed in “stable” condition at a U.S. military hospital. CNN legal expert Jeffrey Toobin said the administration “clearly” violated the law — a position seconded by Jonathan Turley of George Washington University.
Mr. Obama, now on a tour of Europe, defended his actions: “We still get back an American soldier if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop,” he told a news conference in Warsaw. He later acknowledged that the Taliban leaders he released might go back to fighting U.S. forces — a position confirmed by estimates reported in The Wall Street Journal that about 30 percent of those released from American custody end up on the battlefield again.
Whatever the case, the media have aggressively probed the problems with this deal — a welcome relief from recent scandals from Benghazi to the IRS that dropped off journalistic radar screens after many news organizations lost interest in these and other stories.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51.