The release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has quickly escalated from a shining example of America's commitment to its military POWs into a relentless political attack on President Obama, with Sgt. Bergdahl as proxy. Fueling the attacks on Bergdahl are accounts, by his former comrades, of the circumstances surrounding his capture. Separate and apart from the merits of those accounts, the fact that former Romney spokesman Richard Grenell has been using his PR firm to book interviews for these men places them on terrain they don't seem to want to be on.
Several news outlets, including the New York Times, have reported on Grenell's efforts to book interviews for members of Bergdahl's unit, and Grenell has weirdly pushed back, attempting to lay the effort off on his partner, who once voted for John Kerry. The fact is, though, that Grenell has been simultaneously attacking President Obama, while loudly agitating for more media coverage of Bergdahl's former unit, so it seems silly to deny that he has succeeded. Bookers have also reported direct contact with Grenell to set up these interviews.
Grenell's actions have coincided with an escalating backlash against the release of Bergdahl, based on the suggestion that he was a deserter, or worse, and which has politicians backpedaling on well-wishes they expressed early on. Despite the White House's consistent posture of distancing itself from the particulars of Bergdahl's service, the right has made Bergdahl's capture a proxy with which to attack Obama, including, now, raising funds off of the issue.
Alongside these attacks, there's a mainstream media narrative emerging that the Obama administration was "blindsided" by the allegations surrounding Bergdahl's capture. On The Today Show this morning, NBC News' Chuck Todd caused a stir when he quoted an unnamed administration official saying that Bergdahl was being "swiftboated," but also concluding that the White House was completely unprepared for questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture:
The anonymous "swiftboating" quote has now become part of the attack machine against the administration, but it's really just a clumsy way of making a distinction that Todd seems to miss. Clearly, the White House has been cognizant of the questions about Bergdahl's service that would follow his release, but felt that there would be some time between that release, which was a genuinely momentous event, and the examination of those circumstances. What has "blindsided" them is the speed and ruthlessness of the political attacks, and the intensity of the sentiment against Bergdahl.
To be clear, the fact that Bergdahl's former comrades are being repped by Ric Grenell's firm does not, in and of itself, make their stories any less true, nor does it necessarily belie their stated desire not to politicize this issue. It's possible to tell the truth, and to be motivated only to bring your message to the widest possible audience, and to use a political flack to do that.
There will be some for whom that single fact will undermine their motives and credibility. I'm not one of them. These guys are justifiably angry, and their only duty is to their own experiences, their own points of view. That doesn't make it right for Republicans to exploit them for political purposes, and it also doesn't make it right for journalists to uncritically broadcast everything they say. These interviews haven't just been about the facts surrounding Bergdahl's capture, but also a great deal of extremely reckless speculation, again, which these guys have no duty not to do, but which journalists have a duty to at least contextualize. That has not been happening.
For example, speculation about Bergdahl's capture has ranged from desertion to outright treason. In multiple interviews (including one with CNN's Jake Tapper that wasn't facilitated by Grenell), members of Bergdahl's unit have cast him as a deserter at best, and speculated that he may have either cracked under torture or actively assisted the Taliban. That speculation is based on multiple suppositions and inferences of varying merit. There has been very little in the way of critical examination of these claims.
The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes did point out that "U.S. forces in the area were more exposed because of the frequency of their missions in search of Bergdahl. In the weeks following Bergdahl's disappearance, many regular missions were shelved so that rescue operations could be executed. These missions, and ones undertaken by tactical and special forces, were often conducted with less time to prepare and with fewer precautions taken than traditional raids."
Aside from the speculation, though, there are serious inconsistencies in what Bergdahl's fellow soldiers are saying. One crucial pillar of the Bergdahl-as-traitor theory is the fact that, after he left his post, he tried to locate a translator so that he could talk to the Taliban. Specialist Cody Full, during a long narrative on his Twitter feed Saturday night, said that this report came to them from villagers, in the hours after Bergdahl went missing:
But in an interview with Newsmax on Monday, Bergdahl's then-Team Leader Evan Buetow said that the report came from a radio intercept the same day Bergdahl disappeared. Full described other radio intercepts in detail during his Twitter narrative, but not that one. It was also not included in related Wikileaks documents.
Then, in his Tuesday interview with Tapper, Buetow again said it was a radio intercept, but that it occurred "one or two days" after Bergdahl's disappearance. Without this radio intercept or villager chatter, there's not much to the suggestion that Bergdahl was a traitor, so the inconsistencies loom large.
There's also the question of why Buetow and his team didn't relate any of this to the late Michael Hastings, who spoke with them for his now-indispensable Rolling Stone article on Bergdahl. Here's what Hastings did write about Buetow's interaction with Bergdahl:
In the early-morning hours of June 30th, according to soldiers in the unit, Bowe approached his team leader not long after he got off guard duty and asked his superior a simple question: If I were to leave the base, would it cause problems if I took my sensitive equipment?
Yes, his team leader responded – if you took your rifle and night-vision goggles, that would cause problems.
It's possible that they didn't tell this story to Hastings because they were still active duty, but that begs the question of why they'd tell Hastings (who had a famous knack for getting military sources talking) what they did tell him.
That detail, about the "sensitive equipment," was repeated by Full, and cited as evidence that when Bergdahl left, he intended never to return, but if Bergdahl's intent was to desert, why would he have left that equipment behind, knowing he'd never have to face discipline for removing it? According to a report by The Army Times, Bergdahl may have left the base on at least one other occasion and returned, and may have intended to return the day he disappeared:
An internal military investigation found that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl intentionally sneaked away from his forward operating base in Afghanistan just before he disappeared in 2009 — and that may not have been the first time he left the post without permission, according to officials familiar with the probe.
“We have no indication that he intended to leave permanently,” one government official familiar with the investigation told Military Times. Several soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit told investigators that Bergdahl talked about his desire to leave the base unaccompanied and that he may have done so and returned unharmed at least once before the night he disappeared for good, the official said.
Now, these guys have had five years to go over Bergdahl's every move, through the lens of their bitterness at what was, at the very least, a reckless action that endangered them all, but it's a journalist's job to square inconsistencies and speculation with the facts as they are known, and to be mindful that Bergdahl has had, as yet, no opportunity to defend himself.