WASHINGTON -- U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey responded to some of the criticism about the rescue of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, writing on Facebook Tuesday that it was "likely the last, best opportunity to free him."
Bergdahl spent five years in captivity as the only known U.S. service member being held as prisoner of war in Afghanistan. On Saturday, President Barack Obama announced that Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. Special Forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees who were being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. The negotiations were mediated by the government of Qatar.
Questions, however, have lingered about the circumstances of Bergdahl's initial disappearance, with some of his fellow soldiers saying he was a "deserter" because he walked away from the base.
Since the announcement, conservatives have sharply criticized Obama, Bergdahl and even his family. Republican lawmakers are upset at the terms of the release -- exchanging five detainees for Bergdahl -- and the fact that Obama didn't give Congress 30 days notice, as required by law.
According to The New York Times, GOP strategists even organized a conference call for members of Bergdahl's former platoon to speak out against him.
But on Facebook Tuesday, Dempsey defended the exchange and emphasized that Bergdahl is "innocent until proven guilty":
In response to those of you interested in my personal judgments about the recovery of SGT Bowe Bergdahl, 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. 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. Our Army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family. Finally, I want to thank those who for almost five years worked to find him, prepared to rescue him, and ultimately put themselves at risk to recover him.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Dempsey added that the Army may pursue an investigation that could lead to desertion charges against Bergdahl.
Obama strongly defended the rescue of Bergdahl Tuesday during a press conference in Poland, stating, "The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind. Regardless of the circumstances, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity. Period. Full stop."
Conservatives like President George W. Bush's former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton argued that Obama "negotiate[d] with terrorists" -- even though the administration negotiated with the government of Qatar, not the Taliban. And as Michael Crowley at Time points out, cutting deals with bad actors is nothing new; former presidents, including Bush and Ronald Reagan, have done so. The Israeli government -- which usually has the unwavering support of Republicans like Bolton -- is famous for its prisoner swaps as well.
And the five detainees who were released as part of this exchange weren't going to be able to stay at Guantanamo Bay forever. Ken Gude at the Center for American Progress noted, "None were facing charges in either military or civilian courts for their actions. It remains an open question whether the end of U.S. involvement in the armed conflict in Afghanistan requires that all Guantanamo detainees must be released. But there is no doubt that Taliban detainees captured in Afghanistan must be released because the armed conflict against the Taliban will be over."
Obama also recently announced the end of the war in Afghanistan, saying that U.S. troops will pull out of the country by the end of 2016. U.S. leverage to negotiate for Bergdahl's release would also likely have decreased as that date approached, underscoring Dempsey's remark that the Obama administration believed it needed to act when it did.