Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl awaits his release. (Intelcenter/Handout/EPA) Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl awaits his release. (Intelcenter/European Pressphoto Agency)

A word of caution when viewing the video of the Taliban handover of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to U.S. forces on May 31. Obama administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said that it was the Idaho native’s deteriorating health that pushed them to act on a prisoner swap deal that was initially rejected. But an unscathed-looking Bergdahl walking to the helicopter under his own power after nearly five years in captivity has raised more questions about what was done.

The Taliban has released footage of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release to U.S. forces in Afghanistan after spending five years in captivity. (Al Emara)

I urge caution because videos can be deceiving. I learned this lesson during the case of George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin. The story had been that the former neighborhood watch volunteer was in a fight for his life against the unarmed teen. Zimmerman said that Martin sucker-punched him in the nose and repeatedly slammed his head into the pavement. But when the surveillance video from the Sanford, Fla., police department was first released, Zimmerman didn’t look like he had just been in a life-0r-death struggle. As I said on MSNBC back then, he looked like he had been arrested for illegally driving a golf cart on the highway.

And then the photo of Zimmerman sitting in the back of the squad car with a bloody nose came out. And then there were the ones taken at the police station showing Zimmerman’s swollen nose and lacerated head. They also show him incredibly clean for someone who said he was fighting and rolling around in the wet grass with Martin. Curiously, none of Martin’s DNA was found on Zimmerman. But I digress …

The moral of this story is that video might not lie, but it can be deceiving. This is especially so at first blush and when there is nothing else to compare it to. The Wall Street Journal reports today that it was the comparison of Bergdahl’s condition in two videos that spurred the administration to action.

A secret intelligence analysis, based on a comparison of Taliban videos of Bergdahl in captivity in 2011 and December 2013 that were provided to the U.S., found that the soldier’s rate of deterioration was accelerating. The latest video, provided to U.S. officials by mediators in Qatar, has never been publicly shown. Officials who have seen the video described Bergdahl’s condition as “alarming.”

Bergdahl is undergoing treatment in Germany. We’ll know soon enough whether such alarm was justified. But just because Bergdahl appears to be healthy in the Taliban video today doesn’t mean that he is.


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