Insiders Support Bergdahl Swap — but Just Barely

Not one expert said Eric Shinseki’s resignation would fix the massive problems in the VA health care system.

National Journal
Sara Sorcher
See more stories about...
Sara Sorcher
June 9, 2014, 5:31 p.m.

A slim ma­jor­ity of Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion made the right de­cision to re­lease five Taliban de­tain­ees from Guantanamo Bay in ex­change for Army Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl.

“We have a mor­al com­mit­ment to bring home our sol­diers,” one In­sider said. “Quib­bling over the net be­ne­fit of the pres­id­ent’s pris­on­er ex­change when an Amer­ic­an POW is brought home should be deeply of­fens­ive.” 

Some In­siders tempered their op­tim­ism. “Time will tell if it was the best de­cision. It was right to ob­tain the re­lease of an Amer­ic­an sol­dier, who in time should be held ac­count­able for his ac­tions,” one In­sider said. “The U.S. should de­vel­op ac­tion plans to pre­vent the five re­leased de­tain­ees from ever re­join­ing the fight against the West.” 

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, sev­er­al In­siders spec­u­lated, may have “private un­der­stand­ings” with the Taliban that will lead to a big­ger dia­logue over sta­bil­ity in the re­gion — and the Ber­g­dahl swap may be a con­fid­ence-build­ing meas­ure. 

“Lost in the Wash­ing­ton fur­or … is the fact that a very im­port­ant con­nec­tion with the Taliban has been es­tab­lished,” an­oth­er In­sider ad­ded. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion should ig­nore the up­roar and keep the con­tact alive. The U.S. will, soon­er rather than later, need to make a truly im­port­ant deal or two with the Taliban, dis­taste­ful as that will be in­side the Wash­ing­ton Belt­way.” As an­oth­er In­sider put it: “If it leads to re­gion­al sta­bil­ity in Afgh­anistan/Pakistan, it is worth it.” 

A vo­cal 48 per­cent minor­ity op­posed the pris­on­er ex­change. “Now every group who has a pris­on­er they want freed knows pre­cisely what they need to do to get their man out. The safety of all Amer­ic­ans — and es­pe­cially mem­bers of our mil­it­ary — has just been di­min­ished,” one In­sider said. “And I would like to know how many Amer­ic­ans died in con­nec­tion with ef­forts to cap­ture the five men who’ve just been freed. How do you ex­plain the trade that was just made to their loved ones?”

Sep­ar­ately, all of the In­siders re­spond­ing to the sur­vey said Eric Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion as the head of the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment will not fix the prob­lems in the massive VA health care sys­tem. 

“The prob­lems are of long-stand­ing; they will suc­ceed Shin­seki,” one In­sider said. “As long as the Con­gress and the White House are will­ing to keep throw­ing money at the VA, and they have been for dec­ades, there will be little in­cent­ive to cre­ate a more ef­fi­cient sys­tem. More money does not mean bet­ter care; it means more bur­eau­crats and more pro­cess. The new sec­ret­ary needs to get tough and stop ask­ing for more.” 

Shin­seki, an­oth­er In­sider said, is “clearly a sac­ri­fi­cial lamb — but someone needed to take the fall for the massive prob­lems that have been ex­posed. It’s not un­fair to hold the Sec­ret­ary ac­count­able, but it’s also un­fair to sug­gest that he alone was the prob­lem and that by re­pla­cing him the prob­lem will be fixed.” Put simply, as an­oth­er In­sider said, Shin­seki was “the cap­tain of the ship, and so had to go, but the prob­lem is in the en­gine room.”

It may be dif­fi­cult to find someone to take the helm, an­oth­er In­sider noted. “It will be dif­fi­cult to get a new sec­ret­ary con­firmed. Few will want the job, and even few­er are more qual­i­fied than Eric Shin­seki.”

1. Did the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion make the right de­cision to re­lease five Taliban de­tain­ees from Guantanamo Bay in ex­change for Army Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl?
(66 votes)

  • Yes ““ 52%
  • No - 48%


“Good move to keep clear­ing Guantanamo per­son by per­son. Ber­g­dahl is no prize, but we re­trieve our own. Good rid­dance to the ter­ror­ists.”

“Yes, but only if this is de­signed to fa­cil­it­ate more am­bi­tious talks. If not, then we spent scarce lever­age with the Taliban for too little.”

“There was no oth­er way to bring him home alive.”

“The ob­lig­a­tion to con­duct a pris­on­er-of-war ex­change was ab­so­lute. These men should have been clas­si­fied as POWs from the start. They were not be­cause the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion wanted to tor­ture them.”

“This was a pris­on­er ex­change, not a simple re­lease of five de­tain­ees. Fur­ther, over the long term, how were we to dis­pose of these pris­on­ers, par­tic­u­larly after the U.S. com­pletes its com­bat role in Afgh­anistan? Bet­ter to get something for them than noth­ing.”

“The United States is en­gaged in a war in Afgh­anistan. Ex­changes of pris­on­ers have long been a stand­ard and ac­cep­ted part of war­fare.”

“Yes, the USG must set a con­sist­ent prac­tice of ‘bring our troops home.’ Our sol­diers can­not ex­pect less, re­gard­less of the cost. If these five Taliban lead­ers break from Qatar, then we need to track them down, as should Qatar.”

“Only by a hair. De­cision would be more de­fens­ible if the ad­min­is­tra­tion had an Afgh­anistan strategy that en­vi­sioned con­tinu­ing Amer­ic­an in­volve­ment.”

“The hu­man im­pulse is clear, but when the U.S. shows it has a policy of ne­go­ti­at­ing for pris­on­ers, we also cre­ate in­cent­ives for great­er host­age-tak­ing. Not know­ing the pre­cise deal, I can­not say wheth­er this in­creased like­li­hood was worth it. But turn­ing it in­to a polit­ic­al foot­ball as Re­pub­lic­ans are do­ing in Con­gress is clearly wrong and against our na­tion­al in­terest.”

“This was a le­git­im­ate pris­on­er swap; we tend to for­get that the Taliban was the gov­ern­ment of a na­tion-state when the de­tain­ees were cap­tured. Pres­id­ent Obama made the right de­cision to se­cure the re­lease of an Amer­ic­an sol­dier.”

“In prin­ciple, yes, but they have made them­selves look fool­ish with a hero’s wel­come know­ing full well that he is, at the least, a desert­er. POTUS would do him­self a fa­vor by just keep­ing Susan Rice away from the Sunday talk shows.”

“Pris­on­er swaps are not new; they hap­pen in war. And it is im­port­ant for ser­vice mem­bers to know that they will not be left to lan­guish. The trick will be to en­sure these guys don’t go back to the fight. Also, the same stand­ard should be ap­plied to all ci­vil­ians serving the coun­try in war zones and risk­ing their lives.”


“To ne­go­ti­ate with ter­ror­ists in­vites kid­nap­ping. To do so for someone who was AWOL, and to break the law in the pro­cess, is simply bey­ond com­pre­hen­sion.”

“Snub­bing Con­gress was an un­forced er­ror.”

“It cre­ates a strong im­pres­sion around the world that the U.S. has con­ceded in its policy of not ne­go­ti­at­ing with ter­ror­ists. This polit­ic­al cost and that of al­low­ing five seni­or ter­ror­ists to leave Qatari con­trol a year from now are far great­er than the be­ne­fit of re­turn­ing Ber­g­dahl. If later he is found to have deser­ted, the cost will seem even high­er.”

“He set a dan­ger­ous pre­ced­ent and even in­cent­ive for ter­ror­ists to kid­nap Amer­ic­ans who can be used as pawns or col­lat­er­al for ne­go­ti­ations or pris­on­er swaps. One U.S. ser­geant’s free­dom was not worth let­ting loose five top Taliban ter­ror­ists.”

“This will put Amer­ic­an ci­vil­ians and mil­it­ary per­son­nel de­ployed over­seas at risk.”

“This is an agree­ment that will only look worse over time.”

“Un­less there is a clas­si­fied as­pect to this case not made pub­lic, it ap­pears as though this was not thought through from a stra­tegic or polit­ic­al per­spect­ive.”

“His­tory will judge this as one of the most sig­ni­fic­ant for­eign policy fail­ures of this ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

“The ser­geant was a desert­er, and his deser­tion caused six U.S. troops to die try­ing to find him. Also, the Taliban re­leased were top Taliban op­er­at­ives who are the most dan­ger­ous and most likely to cause ad­di­tion­al death and de­struc­tion, not only in the re­gion, per­haps in our area as well.”

“Bad de­cision, and rol­lout was even worse.”

“It was an il­leg­al act that set free known ter­ror­ists who are likely to re­sume ji­had against Amer­ica and its cit­izens.”

“This ex­change re­leases cap­able and mo­tiv­ated ter­ror­ists back in­to so­ci­ety.”

“The deal would be hard to de­fend un­der any cir­cum­stances, but par­tic­u­larly for a desert­er.”

“Very bad deal, and plays in­to the hands of ad­min­is­tra­tion crit­ics who ques­tion com­pet­ence on se­cur­ity and for­eign policy mat­ters.”

“Dumb move. Ig­nor­ing wheth­er Ber­g­dahl was a desert­er, we just set up every U.S. sol­dier for kid­nap­ping by al-Qaida or the Taliban. It is clearly part of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rush to clear out of Afgh­anistan and clear the decks for the 2014/16 elec­tions.”

“One for one per­haps, but not these par­tic­u­lar Taliban lead­ers and cer­tainly not five of them.”

“Of course it is good to get our man back, but this is a little bit like trad­ing Babe Ruth to the Yan­kees. One team got the bet­ter end of the deal, and it wasn’t us.”

2. Will Eric Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion as the head of the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment fix the prob­lems in the massive VA health care sys­tem?
(66 votes)

  • No - 100%
  • Yes - 0%


“Pres­id­ent Obama had no choice but to hold Sec­ret­ary Shin­seki ac­count­able for the VA’s fail­ures, but these fail­ures run much deep­er than Shin­seki.”

“Fix­ing the VA re­quires a ded­ic­ated, mul­ti­year ef­fort on the part of the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Con­gress. Just chan­ging out the per­son at the top is like re­shuff­ling the deck chairs on the Ti­tan­ic.”

“VA is­sues go well bey­ond cur­rent lead­er­ship. Mega-ques­tion is, can the VA ever provide ex­pec­ted med­ic­al ser­vices to vet­er­ans, or is a new ap­proach needed?”

“But it won’t hurt.”

“The VA may be Obama’s [Hur­ricane] Kat­rina.”

“The VA of­fers ex­pens­ive so­cial­ized medi­cine, fun­ded and de­livered by gov­ern­ment. As with mil­it­ary de­pots and com­mis­sar­ies, the gov­ern­ment should not con­duct com­mer­cial-like activ­it­ies that the private sec­tor is more ef­fi­cient and in­nov­at­ive at per­form­ing. VA budgets have ex­ploded, even though the pa­tient pop­u­la­tion has de­clined; throw­ing more money at the VA would be waste­ful. The VA sys­tem should be privat­ized.”

“The VA is an iron­clad ma­ture bur­eau­cracy which should be stripped of dead­wood.”

“This is a massive sys­tem­ic prob­lem. The in­cent­ives are all wrong, there is no ac­count­ab­il­ity. The vet­er­ans are pris­on­ers of a bur­eau­crat­ic sys­tem with no al­tern­at­ives.”

“Un­less the VA com­mand struc­ture is giv­en au­thor­ity to ac­tu­ally man­age its work­force, things will stay the same.”

“He is an hon­or­able man, but good in­ten­tions are not self-ex­ecut­ing. Sloan Gib­son will need to man­age change at all levels and quickly.”

“The VA is a heart­less bur­eau­cracy run amok. It will re­quire sus­tained non­par­tis­an lead­er­ship over sev­er­al years to en­force a real change in the VA’s cul­ture.”

“Much of the prob­lem with the VA stems from Con­gress’s fail­ure to im­pose some com­mon sense lim­it­a­tions on Vet­er­an’s with the non-ser­vice con­nec­ted med­ic­al is­sues.”

“This is just an­oth­er in­stance of head-rolling as a com­mon but mis­placed re­sponse to a prob­lem.”

“The VA is a no­tori­ously hide­bound bur­eau­cracy. It won’t change short of be­ing dis­mantled—which it should be. It’s an ana­chron­ism from WWII. Our vets should be fol­ded in­to the ci­vil­ian sys­tem, al­beit with high­er sub­sidies.”

“The VA will take years to fix.”

“No, the fir­ing of an in­com­pet­ent de­part­ment head is a step to­ward fix­ing many long-stand­ing prob­lems in the VA De­part­ment, but le­gis­lat­ive changes will also be needed.”

“The VA has ser­i­ous cul­tur­al is­sues in the work­force des­pite provid­ing de­cent med­ic­al care. Cus­tom­ner ser­vice and in­teg­rity are lack­ing.”

“He was the scalp the Dems on the Hill de­man­ded, but Con­gress is part of the prob­lem. It will take a co­ordin­ated, bi­par­tis­an ef­fort. But the big­ger ques­tion is what is re­quired: ‘fix’ or re­form?”

“This was not about the per­son, Shin­seki, but a rot­ten bur­eau­cracy and myri­ad oth­er prob­lems. The in­clin­a­tion will be to throw more money at this prob­lem rather than ad­dress­ing root causes. That will be a nice Band-Aid but will not fix the VA.”

“No. The massive prob­lems are deeply sys­tem­ic and polit­ic­al. There are simply too many VA hos­pit­als and mid- and high-level bur­eau­crats. On the former, Con­gress needs to BRAC the hos­pit­al and fo­cus re­sources. I hope they bring in someone of stature to clean up the mess, but I don’t know who would take it on.”

“Ne­ces­sary to change the con­ver­sa­tion, not suf­fi­cient to af­fect change; bi­par­tis­an sup­port to im­prove is a plus, and the next sec­ret­ary has a plat­form to deal with the in­teg­rity and val­ues chal­lenges and to im­prove care.”

“His resig­na­tion is only the be­gin­ning of a long pro­cess to mod­ern­ize the VA. A lot de­pends on who Obama picks to re­place him and wheth­er or not Con­gress will play a help­ful role in giv­ing the VA the au­thor­it­ies it needs to re­form.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity In­siders Poll is a peri­od­ic sur­vey of more than 100 de­fense and for­eign policy ex­perts. They in­clude: Gor­don Adams, Charles Al­len, Mi­chael Al­len, Thad Al­len, Gra­ham Al­lis­on, James Bam­ford, Dav­id Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Ber­gen, Samuel “Sandy” Ber­ger, Dav­id Ber­teau, Steph­en Biddle, Nancy Bird­sall, Mari­on Blakey, Kit Bond, Stu­art Bowen, Paula Broad­well, Mike Breen, Mark Brun­ner, Steven Bucci, Nich­olas Burns, Dan By­man, James Jay Cara­fano, Phil­lip Carter, Wendy Cham­ber­lin, Mi­chael Cher­toff, Frank Cil­luffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clem­ons, Joseph Collins, Wil­li­am Court­ney, Lorne Cran­er, Ro­ger Cres­sey, Gregory Dahl­berg, Robert Dan­in, Richard Dan­zig, Jan­ine Dav­id­son, Daniel Drezn­er, Mack­en­zie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, An­drew Ex­um, Wil­li­am Fal­lon, Eric Farns­worth, Jacques Gansler, Steph­en Gan­yard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gun­zinger, Todd Har­ris­on, John Hamre, Jim Harp­er, Marty Haus­er, Mi­chael Hay­den, Mi­chael Her­son, Pete Hoek­stra, Bruce Hoff­man, Linda Hud­son, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Don­ald Ker­rick, Rachel Klein­feld, Lawrence Korb, Dav­id Kramer, An­drew Kre­pinev­ich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, Mi­chael Leit­er, James Lind­say, Justin Lo­gan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ron­ald Marks, Bri­an Mc­Caf­frey, Steven Metz, Frank­lin Miller, Mi­chael Mo­rell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kev­in Neal­er, Mi­chael Oates, Thomas Pick­er­ing, Paul Pil­lar, Larry Pri­or, Steph­en Rade­maker, Marc Rai­mondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Ro­ten­berg, Frank Rug­giero, Gary Sam­ore, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Steph­en Ses­t­an­ovich, Sarah Se­wall, Mat­thew Sher­man, Jen­nifer Sims, Su­z­anne Spauld­ing, James Stav­rid­is, Con­stan­ze Stelzen­müller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Town­send, Mick Train­or, Richard Wil­helm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Za­kheim, and Juan Za­r­ate.

What We're Following See More »
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
1 days ago

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.