While criticism from congressional Republicans and some Democrats escalated Tuesday over President Barack Obama's exchange of five Taliban detainees for one American soldier, the bottom line remains the same. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl spent nearly five years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and this nation does everything possible to bring its soldiers home alive. The most partisan attacks are off base, and the legitimate concerns are not about what the president did but how he did it.
Contrary to claims that Obama's action was unprecedented, there is a long history of American presidents trading prisoners with the enemy in times of war. It's hypocritical to campaign on waging a war on terrorism and then complain that Obama acted as a wartime president to gain the freedom of a soldier who had been held for years in isolation and is apparently in poor health. Imagine the outrage from Obama's critics if Bergdahl had died as a prisoner of war because the president had failed to aggressively negotiate for his freedom.
It is fair to question whether this five-for-one swap was a reasonable trade. These five members of the Taliban had been held at Guantanamo Bay for years. The chances that they will return to Afghanistan and resume their involvement in attacks against the United States and its allies are unclear. Of more than 600 Guantanamo detainees who have been let go since 2002, about 17 percent have returned to some kind of terrorist activity, according to one report. The agreement calls for these five Taliban members to be monitored in Qatar for a year, but there are no guarantees about what happens after that. Five-for-one seems like a high price, but the Obama administration has little leverage as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
More concerning is Obama's failure to adequately inform Congress. There have been intermittent negotiations over Bergdahl's release for more than two years, and House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday it had been that long since key members of Congress had been briefed about a possible trade of prisoners. Federal law also requires a 30-day notice before any release of Guantanamo detainees, yet the administration did not tell Congress until after the deal was done. The administration's lawyers counter that the president's authority on such exchanges is grounded in the U.S. Constitution and that a signing statement he added to Guantanamo legislation further confirms it.
Regardless of the legal questions, the congressional leadership should have been consulted even if Obama then chose to disregard their concerns. The result of that failure to communicate will be that the president will endure more criticism in congressional hearings that could have been avoided.
There will be more to learn about who knew what when about the exchange of prisoners for Bergdahl. The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban also should be clarified. Critics accuse him of being a deserter, and some of his former fellow platoon members are bitter about risking their lives to search for him. The Army is expected to begin another inquiry.
These are all issues deserving further review. But the president saw an opportunity to win the release of America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and he seized a moment that may not have come around again.
Fortunately, he was successful. Unfortunately, he could have managed it better.