Things get pretty ugly in “Thorny Politics,” episode 9 of the Serial podcast series. Just how did the Bowe Bergdahl trade become such a huge political issue? How did the White House so thoroughly misunderstand the reaction it would get when it decided to have President Obama announce the swap with a Rose Garden photo op? Just how dangerous were the five Gitmo prisoners we sent in exchange for Bergdahl? And, really getting down to the core issue for lots of military folks: just how many men were killed or injured searching for Bowe Bergdahl in the days and weeks after he abandoned his post?
The episode opens with presidential candidate Donald Trump’s riff on Bergdahl in his campaign stump speech, the one where he says that, back in his day, deserters were shot. Since we’ve already discussed whether the candidate’s stint at military school counts as substitute for service in Vietnam, let’s move on to the letter that Bowe’s attorney sent to Mr. Trump requesting a meeting as a prelude to calling the candidate as a witness at Bergdahl’s court-martial. Bowe’s legal team believes that his status has become such a political issue that Trump’s statements should go into the legal record.
How did things get to this point? Serial host Sarah Koenig points the finger squarely at the ill-advised Rose Garden announcement of the trade, the one where his dad Bob spoke Pashto. That moment was followed by national security advisor Susan Rice’s appearances on the Sunday news shows, where she claimed that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction” when challenged about the terms of the trade.
Several of Bergdahl’s platoon mates felt like the administration was “giving them the finger” and decided to go on television to remind America of the exact circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture. Those appearances quickly spiraled (as these things do) into fundraising opportunities for political groups and all of a sudden TV talking heads were debating exactly when and how Muslim convert Bowe Bergdahl had declared himself a “warrior for Islam.” (Note: all subsequent evidence suggests that this rumor is 100% not true.)
There are some real issues at play here: most important is the Obama administration’s decision not to give Congress 30-day notice that it planned to release prisoners from Gitmo. While no one went on the record for Serial, members of Congress (from both sides of the aisle) seem to feel a real sense of betrayal that the White House not only kept them out of the loop on this, but actively lied about what was up with the POW’s status. The administration might have legitimately believed that any leaks would screw up the deal, but they also knew that Congress wouldn’t necessarily approve of the prisoners who were to be included in the trade.
Koenig paints a portrait of a White House staff that got carried away and screwed up. They originally planned to have the White House and Pentagon release simultaneous statements that recognized the potential controversy inherent in the deal, but Bowe’s parents happened in be in DC, it was a pretty day and the press staff wanted to stage a photo op to appease the news reporters who knew (or at least strongly suspected) that something was up with Bergdahl and had agreed to sit on the story. Administration sources also maintain that Rice isn’t so good with the public appearances and fell back on a cliché at exactly the wrong moment. Both excuses sound pretty lame at this point.
There are questions as to whether the Taliban Five were fit for release, since they hadn’t gone through the military release evaluation protocol, but Serial‘s military intelligence source “Nathan” (who served at Guantánamo Bay) maintains that they were no worse (and probably not as bad) as other prisoners that we’ve released and that the five are so high-profile that we shouldn’t have much trouble keeping tabs on them in Qatar.
The episode ends with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s Congressional testimony that no one died in the initial search for Bergdahl. Men who were there claim otherwise. Serial attempts to get a definitive answer from the Pentagon and gets sent in a giant circle. It’s apparent that there’s never been a formal attempt to assess casualties from the operation to locate Bowe Bergdahl. Serial leaves that as a cliffhanger for next time, in what might be its most important and informative episode yet.=/*