Idaho’s Politicians Walk A Careful Line In Debate Over Bergdahl Release
There has been no shortage of strong opinions about the release of the former prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl — except among Idaho's congressional delegation.
The two senators and two congressmen from Bergdahl's home state have largely avoided the national fray.
For years, Idaho's congressional delegation assured Bergdahl's supporters they were working behind the scenes to secure the soldier's release from Taliban captivity.
Then, on the morning of Saturday, May 31, they got what they wanted.
The news of Bergdahl’s release was initially met with jubilation. But the celebratory tone changed very quickly into a heated and largely partisan debate over whether President Obama should have agreed to the prisoner exchange that freed the POW.
Obama’s failure to notify Congress, and questions about whether Bergdahl deserted, have added yet more fuel.
David Adler, the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, said Idaho’s Republican congressional delegation is in a tough position.
"There’s certainly concern to be on the 'right side' of this issue," Adler said. "That is, they want to celebrate the release of a POW, having regained a son of Idaho. But I think the delegates are still weighing their options and trying to decide what their position ought to be."
All have been very clear that they are happy Bergdahl is free. But they haven’t been at the forefront of the national debate.
Congressman Raúl Labrador acknowledged his cautious approach recently at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C.
"I have been very careful in my statements to the media about this because I don't think we should criticize the sergeant right now," Labrador said. "We don't know all the details of why he left, whether he left voluntarily. And I think we should be very careful as members of Congress not to escalate the rhetoric."
Labrador said, instead, that Congress should focus on the prisoner exchange. "The question really is, should these five have been released at this time, and I think that's what most people object to."
Labrador did not say whether he objects, though, and his office did not respond to requests for clarification. He did say prisoner releases are historically part of winding down a war.
Other members of Idaho's congressional delegation have been more explicit about the exchange.
Senator Jim Risch has been openly critical. In an interview with the Spokesman-Review newspaper he said Bergdahl "needed to be released, but not at this price."
His Senate colleague Mike Crapo has also spoken out against the trade.
"I do believe it was a bad decision to make the trade that the president agreed to make," Crapo said on a recent conference call with reporters.
He worries the terms of the deal aren’t strong enough to keep the five freed Taliban leaders from aiding future Taliban activities.
But when asked what should have been done instead, Crapo said, "Well, you know, it's a very tough question. Because when we got news of Bowe Bergdahl's release, I was extremely happy. I called his parents, talked to his father. The fact that I don't feel this trade was a good trade obviously does not mean I don't think we shouldn't have sought every way to obtain his release."
The fourth remaining member of the delegation has been more reticent with the media.
Bergdahl’s hometown is in Congressman Mike Simpson’s district. Simpson responded to our request with a written statement saying, "there are serious questions that need to be answered by the Administration and by Bowe himself. I am confident that in time those questions will be answered. Until then, I sincerely hope some of the rhetoric dies down."
Political analyst David Adler said we probably won’t hear stronger statements from any of the four politicians until the facts are out. But in the meantime, "I think they’ve been fairly consistent, they’ve just been very quiet," Adler said.
Maybe too quiet for some. On June 4, the regional paper, the Twin Falls Times-News, published an editorial titled, "As Bergdahl Controversy Swirls, Idaho's Leaders Hide."
The small town of Hailey was unprepared - with perhaps all of Idaho- for the vitriol directed toward Bergdahl and his family.
Larry Shoen, a county commissioner in Bergdahl's hometown, wanted to see those attacks vehemently rebuffed.
"My expectations were that our elected leaders would speak up in support of the Bergdahl family, but above all be present, be a voice," Shoen said. "And I don’t know that my expectations have been met completely. There’s been a political firestorm, um ..."
Shoen stopped. He was reluctant to elaborate any more when asked. He worried about adding to the rancor.
"I would love to share some of my thoughts about what you are asking me," he said. "But I have felt the impacts of the political side of this story very strongly, as have members of my community. I don’t like what I’ve seen and I don’t want to feed that."
The Army says Bergdahl will be in San Antonio, Texas, for an indeterminate length of time to continue his rehabilitation.
The political controversy about his release will likely still be waiting when he finally returns home.