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Monday, June 16, 2014

Idaho’s Congressional Delegation Largely Silent In Debate Over Bergdahl’s Release

A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits outside Zaney's coffee shop where Bergdahl worked as a teenager on June 2, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits outside Zaney’s coffee shop where Bergdahl worked as a teenager on June 2, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl remains in an Army medical facility in San Antonio, Texas, continuing his rehabilitation and waiting for the investigation to begin into the circumstances surrounding his falling into the hands of the Afghan Taliban in 2009.

Meanwhile, the congressional delegation in Bergdahl’s home state of Idaho are all responding differently to the return of their native son. For years, they pushed the Obama administration to secure his release. But, as the story turned into a partisan debate, the state’s four Republicans have largely avoided the national fray.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jessica Robinson of the Northwest News Network reports.




Let's turn now to the Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He remains in an army medical facility in San Antonio, Texas, continuing his rehab and preparing to answer investigators' questions about his capture by the Afghan Taliban in 2009. Meanwhile, members of the Congressional Delegation in Bergdahl's home state of Idaho are all responding differently to the return of their native son.

They pushed the Obama administration to secure his release. But as the story turned into a partisan debate, the state's four Republicans have largely avoided the national fray. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Jessica Robinson reports.

JESSICA ROBINSON, BYLINE: For years Idaho's Congressional Delegation assured Bergdahl supporters they were working behind the scenes to secure the soldier's release from Taliban captivity. And then on the morning of Saturday, May 31, they go what they wanted.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome back, everybody. We have some breaking news right now with this FOX News alert. The White House releasing a statement right now...

ROBINSON: 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 is the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. He says Idaho's Republican Congressional Delegation is in a tough position.

DAVID ADLER: There's certainly concern to be on the, quote, "right side" of this issue. 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 exactly what their position ought to be.

ROBINSON: All have been very clear that they're happy Bergdahl is free. But they haven't been at the forefront of the national debate. Congressman Raul Labrador acknowledged his cautious approach recently at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C.


RAUL LABRADOR: 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. 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 to not escalate the rhetoric.

ROBINSON: Labrador says instead, Congress should focus on the prisoner exchange.

LABRADOR: The question really is should these five have been released at this time? And I think that's what - what I think most people object to.

ROBINSON: Labrador did not say whether he objects, though, and his office did not respond to requests for clarification. Other members of Idaho's Congressional delegation have been more explicit about the exchange. Senator Jim Risch, in particular, 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. Crapo talked with reporters recently on a conference call.


MIKE CRAPO: I do believe that it was a bad decision to make the trade that the president agreed to make.

ROBINSON: Crapo 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 says it's hard.

CRAPO: 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 believe this trade was a good trade, obviously, does not mean that I don't think we should have sought every way to obtain his release.

ROBINSON: The fourth remaining member of the delegation has been more reticent with the media. Bergdahl's hometown is in Congressman Mike Simpson's district. He 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'm confident that in time those questions will be answered. Until then, I sincerely hope some of the rhetoric dies down. Political analyst David Adler says we probably won't hear stronger statements from any of the four politicians until the facts are out. But in the meantime...

ADLER: I think they've been pretty consistent. They just have been fairly quiet.

ROBINSON: 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 and perhaps all of Idaho was unprepared for the vitriol directed toward Bergdahl and his family. Larry Shoen is a county commissioner in Bergdahl's hometown. Shoen wanted to see those attacks vehemently rebuffed.

LARRY SHOEN: My expectations were that our elected leaders would speak up in support of the Bergdahl family, but above all, be present, be a voice. And I don't know that my expectations have been met completely. There's been a political firestorm.

ROBINSON: Shoen stops. He's reluctant to elaborate any more when I ask. Shoen is worried about adding more to the rancor.

SHOEN: Can I just say, Jessica, that I would love to share some of my thoughts about what you are asking me. But I have felt the impact of the political side of this story very strongly, as have members of my community. And I don't like what I've seen, and I don't want to feed that.

ROBINSON: 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. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jessica Robinson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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