The deal that won the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was immediately criticized on several grounds: that the five Taliban detainees who were swapped for Bergdahl were too dangerous to release; that the deal granted political legitimacy to the Taliban; and that the Obama administration violated a law requiring notice to Congress 30 days before a prisoner is transferred from Guantanamo. These criticisms were discussed (and mostly discounted) in a June 4 L.A. Times editorial posted online.
But in recent days the criticism has shifted to a different argument: that the 28-year-old soldier, who left his post in Afghanistan in 2009 under circumstances that are still unclear, wasn't worthy of being rescued.
President Barack Obama has ruled that question out of order. When he announced the agreement on Saturday, he insisted that "the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind." On Thursday, he said he would "make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents." The president characterized criticism of the deal as an example of the "controversies that are whipped up in Washington."
It's true that questions about Bergdahl's conduct five years ago have been shamelessly exploited by Republicans, some of whom earlier had called on the administration to secure his release or initially had welcomed the news that he would be freed. But not all of the criticism has been political, and not all from Republicans. Former comrades have come forth to accuse Bergdahl of desertion, and to complain bitterly that the search for him cost the lives of several of his fellow soldiers (a claim that hasn't been conclusively established).
We agree with Obama that men and women who serve their country in uniform and fall into the hands of the enemy are entitled to special consideration. We wouldn't extend that presumption to a soldier who clearly has defected to the enemy and taken up arms against his own country. But that isn't an accurate description of Bergdahl. (Nor, of course, is national security adviser Susan Rice's gratuitous comment that Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction." It's possible to defend the deal that secured Bergdahl's release without portraying him as a hero.)
The last word on whether Bergdahl was "worthy" of rescue should go to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wrote that "the questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover any U.S. service member in enemy captivity."
"This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him," Dempsey said. "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty."