My fellow Americans,
I want to be honest with you and tell you that I did not do as the law required and notify Congress 30 days in advance before I authorized the release and transfer of five detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar, as part of an effort to secure the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from nearly five years of captivity. But there is a reason for my failure to so notify Congress, and I want to explain why I did what I did, as well as explain to you what is happening to the conservative movement, and by extension the Republican Party, in this country, particularly as it relates to this whole episode.
The 2013 version of the National Defense Authorization Act is the law that specifies that I notify Congress well in advance of releasing anyone from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But when I signed that bill into law, I noted that, “Section 1035…in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles.” And this is one of those certain circumstances. I am the Commander in Chief and I have a solemn obligation to protect the interests of not only the country, but the troops we put in harm’s way. Securing the release of Bowe Bergdahl, which helps preserve a sacred tradition of not leaving any soldier behind, also helps the morale of the troops by letting them know, unequivocally, that their country will never forget them and do all that is possible to get them back home, if they are captured by the enemy. And this is irrespective of what they may or may not have done to be captured.
So, no, I did not give Congress the 30-day notice the law specifies, when I authorized the release of the detainees in Guantanamo, partly because Congress does not have the constitutional right to create a statute that restricts not just my own personal power as Commander in Chief, but any president’s power—Democrat or Republican—to do what I did in this case: secure the release of the last prisoner of war from our protracted efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by transferring Taliban detainees from Guantanamo. Whatever the young Bowe Bergdahl may or may not have done, it was necessary to act quickly to bring him home. It will be up to the Army to determine, after looking at all the facts, if any official action will be taken against him. But he will face American justice, rather than, as some commentators have suggested, have his fate determined by the Taliban.
I also want to note that in all likelihood, given that we are ending our combat efforts in Afghanistan and as a matter of international law, those five prisoners we released and transferred to Qatar would have to be released at some point in the near future anyway. Does anyone think that after we have essentially ended our part of the war in Afghanistan that we could indefinitely hold Taliban POWs that we captured on the battlefield? Does anyone think they could be tried in a federal court somewhere?
I also want to address another issue you might have heard discussed by the various pundits. Given all the criticism I’ve received regarding my alleged hypocrisy on the issue of signing statements and George W. Bush, I’d like to remind everyone what I said when I was running for this office back in 2008: “I believe in the Constitution and I will obey the Constitution of the United States. We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end-run around Congress.” In this situation, I am not doing an end-run around Congress. Congress, when it passed a provision in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, was trying to do an end-run around the Constitution and the powers it exclusively grants to the executive branch. The Constitution is very clear that there is only one Commander in Chief. And certainly no one could argue that a prisoner exchange, as we are winding down the longest war in our history, is not part of the powers inherent in a president’s role as Commander in Chief. Clearly it is part of those powers.
That’s not to say that I think the President of the United States is above the law. That’s not to say that I think I have unlimited powers to do whatever I want, even as Commander in Chief. But I do think that in this case, in the case of making sure we don’t leave behind one of our soldiers being held as a prisoner of war, I had the power to act without notifying or consulting with Congress.
Now I want to move on to what I consider to be a disturbing development, as far as the conduct of a lot of conservatives and Republicans these past several days relative to my decision to bring an American POW home. I don’t use the word “disturbing” lightly. What I have seen, what many of you have seen, should disturb every American who cares about the integrity and destiny of this country. This is serious business.
In 2009, not long after Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl was captured and a Taliban-produced video of him surfaced, a so-called strategic analyst for Fox News, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel—I don’t want to dignify him by saying his name—suggested on a Fox program that Bergdahl was a “liar” and that he was “collaborating with the enemy,” no matter whether he was “under duress or not.” This Fox analyst went on to suggest that if the imprisoned soldier had deserted his unit, then “the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills.” I think it is fairly clear the suggestion was that the Taliban simply kill this American soldier. Let me repeat that: the suggestion by an analyst on Fox News, a former soldier himself, was that the Taliban would do the country a favor by executing an American soldier. This reprehensible on-air conduct so outraged a group of congressmen that they sent a letter to the chief executive of Fox News demanding “an apology to PFC Bergdahl’s family and to the thousands of soldiers who put their lives on the line for our country.”
There was no apology. In fact, in recent days that same analyst has been on Fox saying even more reprehensible things, including attacking the mother and father of Bowe Bergdahl. It is clear from his past and present remarks that this Fox analyst has a profound hatred for me, and that kind of rhetoric sells very well on Fox News. But his past and present remarks about an American soldier, one who has been in captivity for almost five years, should be unacceptable for a paid contributor to a legitimate news organization. That his remarks are not unacceptable, that he still holds a job at Fox, should tell Americans all they need to know about that network and how far the conservative movement in our country has fallen.
But that isn’t all. If this kind of behavior were limited to a retired Army officer who despises me personally, or to a for-profit cable channel that traffics in all kinds of outlandish extremism about me and my administration, that would be one thing. I’m fair game. But it goes deeper than that. Almost the entire conservative movement in our country today has morphed into Fox writ large. That movement, as well as many of the politicians it supports, has allowed its hatred for me to become so pervasive and controlling, that it poisons every position its members take, including their position on an American soldier held captive by our enemies.
Once upon a time there was a demand from the right that Bowe Bergdahl be brought home, that no soldier should be left behind. And when I did just that, suddenly Bowe Bergdahl is a traitor. Suddenly I should be impeached. If you think I exaggerate, you don’t know what is happening among a lot of people out there, many of them your neighbors with Twitter accounts. But it is more than everyday conservatives who are poisoned by disdain for me. Republican politicians are, too, or at least they are heavily influenced by the hatred of others in the conservative movement who find everything I do, no matter what it is, reprehensible.
I will tell you the truth. I never thought I would see the day when any American, not to mention a fairly significant group of conservative Americans—without knowing all the facts—would rather have one of our captive soldiers, a prisoner of war, executed by our enemies, or else left to rot under their control, than be brought home to face whatever consequences he deserves under our military justice system. I am appalled at such thinking, to be sure. But more than that I am worried about the collective mental and moral health of those Americans who call themselves conservatives today. And I am worried about what the deterioration of the conservative movement means for our larger society.
I want to ask all Americans to think about what the strange reaction to the release of Bowe Bergdahl means for our national well-being. I am asking all of you to think about what the attacks on his mother and father say about many of our right-leaning fellow Americans and where they want to take the country. Something dark and ugly is emerging from a movement that has as its basis a very disturbing and pathological ideology.
Finally, regarding where we go from here, I will say that if Republicans in the House of Representatives don’t like what I have done relative to an American POW, if they don’t like the fact that I am preserving the doctrine of separation of powers rooted in our Constitution, they can impeach me. If they would have preferred that one of our soldiers die in the hands of the Taliban, let them say so openly. If they would have preferred that the America-hating Taliban execute justice for a young American soldier, let them come forth and speak boldly. If they want to critically damage the long and essential tradition of making sure our captive soldiers know they will never be forgotten by their country, then let them explain that to the American people, including to our troops and their families. If that is the ground they want to stand on, let them stand. As the twice-elected Commander in Chief of the greatest military in the history of the world, I will also stand my ground, my constitutonal ground.
And welcome any impeachment proceeding.