TIME National Security

How the Bergdahl Story Went from Victory to Controversy for Obama

What began as an uplifting tale of a rescued hero has become a political headache for President Obama. Did the White House oversell the controversial deal for Bowe Bergdahl?

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It was a rare Saturday afternoon presidential announcement—and a most unusual one. Barack Obama appeared outside the White House in the spring sunshine with the parents of Bergdahl, an American soldier been held captive by the Afghan Taliban since 2009, to announce their son’s freedom.

“This morning, I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son, Bowe, is coming home,” Obama said. “He wasn’t forgotten by his community in Idaho, or the military, which rallied to support the Bergdahls through thick and thin. And he wasn’t forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”

The first round of media coverage was triumphal, reflecting the president’s tone. “Obama Welcomes Release of Captured Soldier” proclaimed the Washington Post. ABC trumpeted “The Remarkable, Top-Secret Deal with the Taliban to Free US Soldier.”

An NBC story concluded with this uplifting exchange between Obama and Bergdahl’s mother: “Embracing President Obama later, she could be heard saying, ‘Yes, it’s a good day.'” Top administration officials chimed in with a flurry of celebratory tweets. In a fell swoop, the political media’s obsession with the resignation of Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki had been replaced with a stirring new drama.

It wasn’t long, however, before the many shades of gray that define the deal to release Bergdahl came to light. Republicans, military veterans and political analysts questioned everything from the price—five once-senior Taliban figures held at Guantanamo Bay—paid for Bergdahl, to Obama’s failure to give Congress expected notice of the deal, to Bergdahl’s own complicated story, one of possible desertion in a war zone.

By Tuesday, a reporter traveling with Obama in Poland even seemed to imply that the president hadn’t known the full details of Bergdahl’s story when he first announced the deal on Saturday: “I wanted to ask you if you have learned more about the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture, and whether he could be facing punishment given that the Pentagon has concluded that he left his unit?”

“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” Obama replied, adding that “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.”

Current and former administration officials say the White House knew full well how politically charged and complicated the Bergdahl deal would be (even if, as the sources suggest, they may have underestimated the bitterness of his fellow combat veterans). Which is why some wonder why it was presented in such an uplifting fashion, with little or no effort to pre-empt the inevitable criticisms.

“Why not roll out the announcement in a low key fashion?” asks a former White House official, “e.g., no personal statement from Obama, no appearance with the family, no tweets on what a great day this is?”

Compounding the question of tone was national security advisor Susan Rice’s comment on ABC’s This Week that Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction,” a phrase that White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to endorse at a Monday briefing that might’ve left Carney nostalgic for last week’s VA mania.

White House officials would not comment on their media strategy. But Tommy Vietor, a former national security council spokesman, strongly disputed the idea that the White House had oversold the Bergdahl deal. “We should be celebrating the return of Bowe Bergdahl, it’s a wonderful thing,” Vietor said, adding: “This is an important event in the history of the Afghan war. And also it’s a complicated effort. I think you need to explain to the American people what happened and why it’s important. You have a chance to make your case and explain it, and you know there are going to be complications so you do it in as robust a way as you can.”

Vietor says Republicans would have pounced on Obama regardless of how the news was disclosed. “It’s probably inevitable that there were going to be political criticisms, though I think it’s shocking the degree to which Republicans are going after Bowe and his family.”

Bergdahl’s parents add one more shade of gray to the story. Their presence at the White House on Saturday was the apparent product of coincidence: the couple had visited the capitol for a Memorial Day event and then stayed in town for meetings in Congress. Had they been at home in Idaho when the deal was announced, they likely would not have flown to Washington to appear with Obama—and a key visual element of the drama, replayed endlessly on television, might not have occurred.

That’s relevant given that conservatives are now accusing Robert Bergdahl of developing Taliban sympathies. The elder Bergdahl has said he grew his long beard, in the style of some devout Muslims, to better emphathize with his son’s captors. In hopes of communicating with them online, he also learned Pashto, and spoke a few words of the Afghan language at the White House Saturday—prompting a bemused smile from President Obama. Above all, critics point to a recent (and subsequently deleted) tweet in which Robert Bergdahl wrote: “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen.” [sic]

One might forgive the parent of a hostage for saying whatever he thinks his son’s captors want to hear. Whether it makes sense to associate the president with that parent is, seemingly like everything to do with the Bergdahl saga, a more complicated question.

With reporting by Zeke Miller and Tessa Berenson

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