Susan Rice compares Bowe Bergdahl controversy to Benghazi uproar


Susan Rice, right, White House national security adviser, told CNN on Friday that she regrets “the information I was provided was wrong” on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier in captivity who was exchanged by the Obama administration for five Taliban operatives. Photo by REUTERS/Larry Downing

It hasn’t been an easy week for Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser.

A day after the Obama administration completed the exchange of five Taliban operatives for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. service member held in captivity during the Afghan war, she said that the soldier had served with “honor and distinction.” That, despite a body of evidence suggesting Bergdahl had walked off his military outpost in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, raising the prospect that he went absent without leave or deserted his position. Both are crimes in the military.

CNN’s Jim Acosta pressed her on this point in an interview Friday. It seems unlikely that the resulting comments will do much to quell the criticism. The video:

Asked about her “honor and distinction” comment, Rice said that she understood “there has been a lot of discussion and controversy around this.”

“But what I was referring to was the fact that this was a young man who volunteered to serve his country in uniform at a time of war,” she continued. “That, in and of itself, is a very honorable thing.”

Rice has been accused of being wrong on the facts in the middle of a controversy before, most notably in the days after the deadly Sept. 11, 2011, attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya.

A day after the attacks, President Obama said “no acts of terror” would ever shake U.S. resolve. Rice said a few days later on Sunday political shows that the White House believed the incident at Benghazi began as a protest to an Internet video mocking Islam, and then was “hijacked” by extremists in the area. The attackers are now believed to have launched a premeditated attacks, and to have been members of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militia group. Three chapters of the group were added to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in January.

Asked Friday about her past comments on Benghazi, Rice did not shy away from comparing the two controversies.

“Similarly with Benghazi, as has been recounted on many occasions, I provided the best information that the U.S. government had at the time,” she said. “Parts of it turned out to be wrong.  I regret that the information I was provided was wrong and that I delivered to the American people.  That doesn’t make me a liar. That makes me a public servant trying to say what we knew at the time and when I gave that information I caveated it and noted that it was what we knew then and there, but it could well change.”

If Rice was not aware of Bergdahl’s past last weekend, however, it isn’t because questions about him had not arisen before. 

As first reported Tuesday, an Army investigation into Bergdahl’s actions found in 2010 that he had likely walked off his base in Afghanistan of his own volition. If he meant to return, he would still be considered AWOL under Army policy. He also could be charged with desertion, a more serious crime that typically arises in cases in which an individual planned to remain away from the military or to “shirk important duty.” A combat assignment like Bergdahl’s at the time would likely qualify.

Even if the result of that classified investigation did not reach Rice, however, there was ample evidence in the public domain ahead of Bergdahl’s release that he may not have served honorably. Most notably, a 2012 profile in Rolling Stone magazine by the late journalist Michael Hastings raised serious questions about whether he had chosen to walk off his base, even choosing to leave behind sensitive military equipment and his rifle to avoid problems. 

Opinions in the military about Bergdahl also were negative well ahead of last weekend’s prisoner swap. Consider this thread on Reddit, which asked people last year to not forget Bergdahl and called him a “true patriot and a hero.”

One response:

He’s not one of ours, he is no longer a soldier, he gave that up when he deserted. It doesn’t matter his intentions, he endangered lives by leaving the post especially in the manner he did.

No commander will waste resources to capture then detain him.

He’s technically still deployed, so he will continue to get promoted, though he doesn’t get pay for it and only worsens his punishment if he is ever found.

And here’s another:

This can’t be true enough. I actually just got out of a meeting with an Air Force PJ Captain who was in charge of personnel recovery in Patika whenever he got kidnapped. Though there is still a lot of rumor surrounding his disappearance, it’s pretty accepted that he abandoned his post.

And a third:

That’s not just a mistake. That’s desertion. We in the Army do not look kindly upon such things. We execute people for that. While I agree that the US shouldn’t just leave him in enemy hands, I do cringe when I see people making him out to be a hero.

The source of those comments are obviously anonymous and unverified. But they do point out that the sentiment against Bergdahl in the military existed long before five Taliban detainees were set free to get him back.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · June 6