Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said in repeated public statements that the decision to trade five high-ranking Taliban officials’ freedom for the life of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was made at this time “to save his life.” The Obama administration did not act immediately, however, as the video used to justify the trade deal was reportedly obtained in January.
“It was our judgment that if we could find an opening, we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life,” Hagel said this week as criticism mounted of the deal. The blowback was precipitated by revelations of the dangerous reputations of those freed from Guantánamo and that of Bergdahl, widely regarded by his colleagues as a deserter. To convince Congress that Bergdahl’s life was on the line, a “proof of life” video, allegedly obtained in January, was shown to senators on Wednesday, some of whom wondered how imminent the threat to Bergdahl’s life could be if the government took months to act.
“In that one video you could tell that he had been drugged. He was in a different state. That was back in December, five months ago,” said Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who said the video “did not sell me at all” and Bergdahl “didn’t look sick to me.” Sen. Saxby Chambliss agreed, stating, “I don’t think from a health standpoint there was any issue that dictated the release of these five [Taliban members] in exchange for Bergdahl. Nonetheless, senators appeared to agree that Bergdahl did not “look good” but displayed few signs of imminent death.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) confirmed that the video was taken months ago, as it used markers meant to prove that he was alive in December. “He talked about proof of life about facts–like Nelson Mandela’s passing away,” he explained, adding that he spoke English. The video also showed, however, that Bergdahl had apparently lost much of his command of the English language.
The video’s release is not news, and nothing about the video appears to justify the need to release five Taliban members in June to save Bergdahl’s life. His life did not appear in peril, according to several senators, in December. CNN broke the story of the “proof of life” video in January, writing that “the clip shows the Wood River Valley, Idaho, native in diminished health from the effects of close to five years in captivity,” according to U.S. officials. The Agence France-Presse then reported that the deal “in which Bergdahl would be let go in exchange for the release of Taliban members held at the US-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” was already on the table, but “never clinched.”
There appeared to be no immediate response to the video’s release, despite repeated assertions by those in the Obama administration that Bergdahl’s health necessitated this trade. The Washington Post reported a month later that the White House had once again begun to reconsider the Taliban trade, but the offer had “not been formally made” and appeared only to be a consideration by Obama administration officials.
There is little evidence of what the Obama administration considered in negotiations–or even when those began in earnest–between February and June 2014. There is even less evidence that Bergdahl was in imminent danger of death from December on, or that rescuing him in June would have prevented his death in January. As fellow soldiers and military experts continue to demand answers to the Bergdahl case, the White House will have to dig up more than one old video as compelling evidence to convince many in Congress, as well as the American people, of the wisdom of this decision.