WASHINGTON — As the White House argued on Tuesday that the “unique circumstances” to return Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl gave President Obama the authority to lawfully bypass a federal statute, questions continued to arise about whether the search for Bergdahl cost the lives of US soldiers.
A number of the men who served with him have called him a deserter. Some have gone further, blaming him for the deaths of six to eight soldiers.
That second claim is hardening into a news media narrative, including on CNN, which has reported as fact that “at least six soldiers died” looking for Bergdahl after senior US military officials say he wandered off his base. The Daily Beast published an essay by a former member of Bergdahl’s battalion, Nathan Bradley Bethea, who linked the search to the deaths of eight soldiers whom he named. “He has finally returned,” Bethea wrote. “Those men will never have the opportunity.” But a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive — even as critics of Bergdahl contend that every American combat death in Paktika province in the four months after he disappeared, from July to September 2009, was his fault.
All across Afghanistan, that period was a time of ferocious fighting. Obama had decided to send a surge of additional troops to improve security, but they had not yet arrived. In Paktika, the eight deaths during that period were up from five in the same three months the previous year.
In addition, a senior insurgent commander known as Mullah Sangeen, who was part of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, had been carrying out attacks in the area for several years.
Two soldiers died during the most intense period of the search after Bergdahl’s June 30 disappearance. Both were inside an outpost that came under attack, not out patrolling and running checkpoints looking for him. The other six soldiers died in late August and early September.
Where those incidents are identifiable in the logs, they do not mention any link to Bergdahl search operations, although the logs are terse and contain few contextual details. A retired senior US military officer, who was briefed at the time on the search for Bergdahl, said that even though soldiers were instructed to watch for signs of the missing American, they would have been conducting patrols and performing risky operations anyway.
“Look, it’s not like these soldiers would have been sitting around their base,” he said.
On Tuesday, the White House said that Obama had the authority to bypass the statute requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress a month before he transferred the five Taliban detainees necessary to complete the deal.
But the White House was forced by turns to defend its decision not to notify Congress and send important aides to Obama to try to apologize to angry lawmakers who said they were left out of the decision.
A timeline of the negotiations with the Taliban, provided by the White House, made clear that it knew an imminent transfer was possible by mid-May, roughly two weeks before it took place. And officials familiar with the sequence of events said it was a desire to keep the talks secret for fear that it would scuttle the negotiations — and perhaps a reluctance to reengage with Democratic and Republican members of Congress who were critical of the proposed swap in 2011 and early 2012 — that motivated the White House decision.
Arriving in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday on the first leg of a four-day European trip, Obama also found himself on the defensive over whether Bergdahl deserved special efforts to bring him home. “The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is, we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” he said.
The White House’s problem has its roots in a federal statute that requires the secretary of defense, before transferring a detainee from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to notify Congress 30 days beforehand. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel provided that notice only as the transfer was already taking place.
Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of violating that law.