While the last episode of Serial focused on all of the behind-the-scenes work that went into Bowe Bergdahl’s release following his five years in captivity, the latest, “Thorny Politics,” looks at the fallout from that decision. In particular, Sarah Koenig and the Serial team shine a light on the unintentional political consequences on both sides of the aisle that Bergdahl’s return produced.
Koenig kicks the episode off with a letter from Bergdahl’s lawyers to Donald Trump, who has called Bergdahl a traitor, requesting to interview him. While Koenig’s use of Trump may feel like as much of an attention grab as the networks featuring him so prominently during election coverage, Koenig does so to make a larger point. Bergdahl’s release has become an increasingly political discussion, a facet of his story that Koenig says is often the one that most bothers people she speaks to about the case. She wonders if it could have gone another way. While knowing the answer to that would require some The Flash-level time travel abilities, Koening does explain how the extent to which Bergdahl became politicized goes back to one moment that almost didn’t happen.
President Obama announced the trade of Bergdahl’s life for the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees during a press conference from the Rose Garden, where he was flanked by Bergdahl’s parents. Obama never outright called Bergdahl a hero, but the pomp and circumstance of the moment, Koenig argues, communicated an sense of heroism and triumph. That implicit sentiment became explicit when National Security Advisor Susan Rice went on TV and said Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction.”
The combination of those two public speeches forced Bergdahl’s fellow service men and women to ask the big question: What kind of hero just walks away? To many who Koenig talked to, Bergdahl’s leaving made him nothing close to a hero, so much so that members of his platoon, in the wake of his return, got together to voice their displeasure with the public depiction of him.
Koenig recounts how other soldiers, including Cody Full, believed without a doubt that Bergdahl deserted, and so they began to appear in the press to make their point. Keying into this sentiment, Fox News ran several interviews and exclusive reports, including one that said Bergdahl declared himself a warrior of Islam. The report came from a discredited source, but it didn’t matter — the idea was now out there.
Koenig acknowledges that both sides were using the Bergdahl trade for political purposes. She can’t deny that Obama was using the situation, as was the right against him, but many of the soldiers involved were simply looking to have Bergdahl held accountable. And what’s more, as Koenig is told, their outrage may not have been as strong had that ostentatious Rose Garden ceremony not occurred.
And it almost didn’t. While no one would give Koenig the details on tape, she heard many recollections from White House workers that Bergdahl’s release originally was to be announced by a written statement from both Obama and from the Pentagon. But in just a few hours, the whole thing went from a dual statement to a full ceremony. Bergdahl’s parents just happened to be in D.C. at the same time as the deal was being made, and people involved with the deal felt an additional need to placate the Washington and Gitmo reporters who heard rumblings of a possible Bergdahl deal but held off reporting it. Putting the Bergdahls alongside Obama would make for quite the photo opp.
To make matters worse, no one told Congress about the deal. They are supposed to be alerted 30 days before a detainee is removed from Guantanamo, but the president invoked executive power and they weren’t, mostly because Congress publicly had not been in favor of such a deal for several years, Koenig believes. Congress, in turn, changed the legislative language about Gitmo to make transferring detainees more difficult than it had ever been before.
While his release created all this unintended political fallout, Bowe was thousands of miles away in a German hospital being rehabilitated. Those working with him attempted to relieve him of his feelings of helplessness. His direct caretakers did whatever they could to ease him back into life free of captivity while proving to higher-ups that progress was constantly being made. But there was something they couldn’t quite prepare him for: that the entire nation knew who he was.
Naturally, popularity doesn’t equal positivity, and one particular question during hearings about the Bergdahl case revealed concerns Bergdahl would face upon returning home. Officials were asked how many soldiers were lost in the search for Bergdahl, and the answer given was that there was no evidence linking the search to any American injury or death.
Yet the research to back up that answer remained a mystery, one that Koenig and her team attempted to solve, though they could find no formal investigation into whether or not Bergdahl’s search led to loss of life. General Kenneth Dahl, who was involved in the hearings, said he asked if this question should be investigated. “We really ought to close it out,” he said.
And Koenig agrees, but whether or not they actually did will have to wait until the next episode.