Grading City Hall: See our report card for L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson
Opinion Editorial

Freeing Sgt. Bergdahl: Why it was a good deal for all Americans

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is free; does the rest matter?
The U.S. has made deals before to free prisoners; remember the Iran hostage crisis?

The release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a captive of Islamist extremists for almost five years, is good news not only for his family but for all Americans. But the price the Obama administration paid for the 28-year-old soldier's repatriation was freedom for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay who are hardened Taliban commanders.

Critics of the administration say that price was too high, and they make three other arguments: that the exchange violated a long-standing U.S. policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists; that this country shouldn't negotiate with the Taliban because it might legitimize the group in Afghanistan; and finally, that the swift release of the detainees violated U.S. law. Most of these arguments are invalid or overstated.

Undoubtedly there is a risk in releasing the detainees. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) isn't alone in worrying that they "would have the ability to reenter the fight." But under the agreement brokered by Qatar, the five men will be prevented from leaving that Persian Gulf emirate for a year and will be subject to monitoring of their activities during that time. Were they to return to Afghanistan later, it's likely that their movements there also would be followed closely. Finally, unless the U.S. were to assert the right to hold the detainees forever without trial, they would have been released at some point. Why not do it now when it helps to secure the release of an American?

What about the other objections?

The policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists has been honored as much in the breach as in the observance; a notable example is the 1981 agreement with Iran that secured the release of 52 Americans who had been held hostage after the Iranian revolution. As for negotiations with the Taliban, the U.S. and its allies long have been open to the possibility of an agreement between the Afghan government and elements of the Taliban that would be willing to participate in the political process. In the meantime, the Taliban and the U.S. are in a state of war, and sometimes enemies exchange prisoners.

Critics are on sounder ground in arguing that the deal conflicts with a law requiring the secretary of Defense to give Congress 30 days' notice before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo to another country. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has contended that the law is trumped by the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief.

Obama made a similar argument last year when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act that contains the notice requirement and other restrictions on the movement of prisoners from Guantanamo. But if Obama believed, as he said then, that abiding by the law "would violate constitutional separation of powers principles," he should have vetoed it. As we have argued before, it's bad practice for a president to sign a law and then question its constitutionality in a signing statement.

Congress is free to press the administration about details of the arrangement that won Bergdahl's freedom. But the president must be equally free to respond to a diplomatic opening that could mean the difference between freedom and captivity for an American soldier.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Republicans criticize prisoner swap that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

    Republicans criticize prisoner swap that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

    Senior Republicans criticized President Obama on Sunday for releasing five high-ranking Taliban prisoners to secure the return of an American prisoner of war, arguing that it breached longstanding U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists.

  • Malaysia and the cynical politics of free trade

    Malaysia and the cynical politics of free trade

    When Congress granted President Obama fast-track authority in June to negotiate trade deals, it included an amendment by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) barring any nation on the bottom rung of the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report from being part of a trade pact with the United...

  • Israeli policies sparked the deadly Duma fire

    Israeli policies sparked the deadly Duma fire

    Friday's horrific arson attack on a Palestinian home by suspected Israeli extremists, in which an 18-month-old Palestinian toddler was burned to death, was, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, "a terrorist crime." What he did not say was that the attack on the Dawabshe family...

  • A legal -- for now -- end-run around Citizens United

    A legal -- for now -- end-run around Citizens United

    With the 2016 election looming, Republicans in Congress want to make sure that the Internal Revenue Service won't crack down on tax-exempt "social welfare" groups that serve as conduits for untraceable political spending. And the commissioner of the IRS has indicated that, in any event, the agency...

  • Would you work for $1 to $3 a day?

    Would you work for $1 to $3 a day?

    Each year, tens of thousands of people being held in the federal immigration detention system are put to work scrubbing floors, cooking meals and landscaping grounds, among other menial jobs. They can work as much as eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. The pay: $1 to $3 a day.

  • Before Watts '65: A black cop's view of the LAPD

    Before Watts '65: A black cop's view of the LAPD

    Fifty years ago, five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to guarantee black Americans a voice at the ballot box, other black voices made themselves heard in Los Angeles. By the time the Watts riots were over, 34 people were dead. Watts was Norman E. Edelen's neighborhood...

  • A quick guide to the candidates in Thursday's Republican debate

    A quick guide to the candidates in Thursday's Republican debate

    The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, hasn't had many nice things to say about Donald Trump lately, but he ought to thank the trash-talking mogul for this: Trump will draw millions of viewers to the GOP's first presidential debate on Thursday, giving the party a chance...

  • Does owning a gun make you safer?

    Does owning a gun make you safer?

    The United States has the most heavily armed civilian population in the First World; our homes contain enough firearms for every man, woman and child.