In a bit of unfortunate timing, PR-wise, former prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been thrust back into the news cycle even as America worships at the altar of slain Iraq war veteran and American Sniper inspiration Chris Kyle. Bergdahl was swapped for five Taliban prisoners last summer, to loud screeching from conservatives who accused the soldier of everything up to and including treason, and blasted President Obama for announcing Bergdahl’s return from an area of the White House that’s often used for that sort of thing. Eventually, the whole thing turned into a huge public relations disaster.
On Tuesday, NBC News’ Jim Miklaszewski reported that the U.S. Army has decided to charge Bergdahl as a deserter:
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by enemy forces in Afghanistan for five years, will be charged with desertion, senior defense officials tell NBC News. The officials say the charges could be referred within a week.
Miklaszewski went on to report the surprising fact that a charge for desertion would only carry a five year sentence (that seems really low), and that Bergdahl would likely get credit for the time he served as a POW, but the important detail here is the source attribution. Miklaszewski is relying on several (probably two) anonymous Department of Defense officials, while the DoD is denying the story. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby opened Tuesday’s DoD briefing by shooting down the Bergdahl story, noting that the decision rests solely with Gen. Mark Milley:
“And as I checked on this not long ago — he is still in very much in a deliberative process here of working his way through the investigation that General Dahl did. And has come to no conclusions and he has made no decisions.”
What you have here is a named source (Kirby) reporting specific information that not only refutes NBC’s report, but challenges its very premise, which is that the entire military machine is now in motion toward a Bergdahl desertion charge. This is significant because Miklaszewski (let’s go with “Mik” from here on out) was at that briefing, and he didn’t challenge Kirby’s denial, he sought to clarify that “Army leadership has no authority over General Milley” when it comes to deciding on charges for Bergdahl.
“No, not in terms of what he decides he believes the disposition of the case should be,” Kirby responded, which would mean that Mik was getting his information from two guys who don’t get a vote, and unless Kirby’s a liar, are way off base. But Mik’s a good reporter, and his sources are obviously well-place, so what’s happening here is pretty obvious, especially if you listen to Kirby’s segue away from Bergdahl:
Reporter: “Can we change topics for a minute?”
Kirby: “That would be welcome. Unless it’s something really hard.”
Reporter: “ISIS. ISIS….ISIL.”
Kirby: “I never thought I’d welcome a question on that.”
Man, Bowe Bergdahl is even more toxic than ISIS, which is why Kirby couldn’t wait to stop talking about him, and why all day long, Fox News has been salivating over the prospect of the White House once again having to deal with a headache that, at best, is a nuanced story of mixed blessings. That’s also why there’s every reason to be skeptical of this story’s timing, and of Mik’s sources (or rather, their motives). Lots of military folks would love to see Bergdahl punished, while lots of additional folks would love to see Obama politically slow his roll, and a leak like this guarantees at least the latter. The backdrop of the American Sniper moment gives the story maximum PR legs.
There are legitimate opinions to be had either way about the prisoner swap that freed Bergdahl, but the fact of the matter is that conservatives have tried to have all of them. Prior to Bergdahl’s re;ease, they supported Bergdahl, and even agitated for the trade, and if Bergdahl had been killed by his captors, conservatives would be flocking to see a movie about him, and cursing any liberal who dared to say a cross word about him. Whatever he is, though, Bergdahl is an American, and he deserves the due process American heroes fight and die to defend. Government officials with an ax to grind shouldn’t be manipulating that.