The President's Very Real Military Problem
By Diane Dimond - June 7, 2014
The president of the United States is the commander in chief over all branches of the military. It is a historic time, given that no military member goes public to speak negatively about the ultimate commander.
But now, with the scandal in full bloom, after the administration's smokescreen about what triggered the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and after the president's tepidly received speech at West Point announcing diplomacy will replace military responses henceforth, the time for silence is over.
Now career military personnel are speaking out through gritted teeth, insisting they speak for active-duty personnel who cannot talk without being punished. They are speaking about injustice, ineptitude and impeachment.
The era of silence changed after President Barack Obama's super-secret prisoner swap -- five "high-risk" Taliban prisoners from Gitmo in exchange for one U.S. solider held for nearly five years in Afghanistan. The fact that the soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, walked away from his unit leaving a note saying he was "disillusioned with the Army," did not support his commander in chief's mission in Afghanistan and was "leaving to start a new life" left military types stunned that the president would stage a Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl's parents.
"I'm just surprised the president was dumb enough to stand next to them," Maj. Mike Lyons told me. "It's another example of (Obama's) reading the tea leaves wrong."
Lyons, a West Point graduate (class of 1983) is a highly skilled strategic operations specialist with a resume as long as your arm. He surmises the extraordinary secrecy surrounding the prisoner transfer boomeranged on the president.
"What do I think is part of the reason the president did it? He just didn't get good advice about the swap and the aftermath. This is not a stellar soldier. He has lots of liabilities," Lyons said. Not the least of Bergdahl's liabilities are unconfirmed reports that as many as six soldiers died in Afghanistan's Paktika province during missions to rescue him from the Taliban.
None of the almost dozen military men I heard from was against bringing Bergdahl home (save for one former Marine captain and CIA special ops member, who told me, "If the evidence had been clear from the beginning that this soldier had deserted his unit ... then 'no soldier left behind' does not apply, for he is no longer a soldier in the U.S. in our eyes"). It was the way in which the president negotiated Bergdahl's return that rankles.
Former Navy SEAL Steve Robinson, who works with the P.O.W. Network, says he is personally disgusted that the United States has now negotiated with terrorists, because it sends a signal to the enemy that if they capture an American soldier, the U.S. will eventually bargain with them.
He's equally disgusted to learn that soldiers from Bergdahl's unit were made to sign nondisclosure agreements not to talk about the missing soldier, the incriminating note he left behind or his odd behavior. Now that those agreements have lapsed, we've seen a parade of Bergdahl's colleagues on TV calling him a "deserter," a "traitor" and even a "collaborator."
"Every SEAL I have heard from (believes) this is the worst possible deal that could have been struck," Robinson said. "And five to one? It should have been the other way around," he said in an agitated tone. "The entire lineup of the top five has now been turned back to the bad guys!"
Every military person I spoke with predicted that the five returned Taliban leaders will re-enter the fight against America and be pressed to do so sooner rather than later.
President Obama says part of the negotiation, with the government of Qatar acting as the intermediary, included Qatar's "keeping eyes" on the five and restricting them to that country for a year.
"It's ridiculous to think those five will just sit there and not strategize, pick up a phone or get on a computer," one retired special ops operative told me. "That's so naive ... and dangerous to think that they won't."
I asked a former member of the Navy SEALs' elite Jedi Unit (the same unit that killed Osama bin Laden) to tell me how he feels about the whole episode. "Betrayed and angry ... both those words apply," he said.
Let's call this man Tommy, for his civilian life must necessarily remain as clandestine as his military service. He said he stays in touch with some 700 special operations forces team members, who all took umbrage with the president's national security adviser, Susan Rice, when she declared that Bergdahl had served "with honor and distinction."
"The White House is whitewashing the ill deeds of this deserter and is lying to the country on mainstream media," Tommy told me. And like all the other military men, he insists that Bergdahl must now account for his actions and face a military tribunal or court-martial.
None of those I interviewed is a lawyer, but each offered the opinion that the commander in chief committed an impeachable offense by ignoring the law that requires a president to give Congress 30 days' notice about any prisoner exchange.
As Robinson put it, "the president has to follow the law. He waited five years. ... Bergdahl's health was not an issue. Why couldn't he have alerted Congress and waited just 30 more days?" And then Robinson answered his own question.
"It's to show a success to the low-information voters ... a feather in his cap ... because the midterm elections are just around the corner."
In addition, these men (I was not able to interview any military women) wonder why Bergdahl is free while just across the Mexican border, a U.S. Marine still sits in a Mexican jail after being arrested two months ago. Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi insists that while moving across country, he accidentally crossed the border. His offense? He carried three (legally owned) guns among his possessions.
Forget what the politicians on Capitol Hill are saying about the prisoner swap. Forget the pontifications from the myriad talking heads on TV and radio. Now you know what members of our U.S. military are thinking and saying. They have lost all respect for their commander in chief.
It chills me to the bone.