When Bergdahl Speaks

Eventually, the freed American prisoner of war will have to meet the press, and he could become a PR nightmare for the White House.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is receiving medical treatment at a military hospital in Germany after five years in captivity with the Taliban. So far, his parents have been speaking on his behalf. But eventually -- and perhaps soon -- Bergdahl will speak for himself, and depending on what he says, the former prisoner of war will either give the White House a badly needed public relations boost or dig it an even deeper hole.

Bergdahl could easily come forth and thank his rescuers, stress his relief at being back in the United States, and then say he's prepared to cooperate with the coming military inquiry into the circumstances of his capture that Pentagon officials have promised because of persistent rumors that he deserted his base before falling into Taliban hands. But there's good reason for the White House to fret that Bergdahl might wind up saying something else entirely -- sympathize with the Taliban or even mildly criticize the war -- and that his comments, which would attract enormous media attention, would make it even harder for the administration to justify the prisoner swap.

President Obama is already taking heat from a growing number of lawmakers who question whether it was worth trading Bergdahl for five senior Taliban members who had been in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, including at least one who U.S. intelligence officials say was present at the killing of Johnny Spann, a CIA officer who fought in Afghanistan in 2001 and was the war's first U.S. casualty. And some Congress members are fuming that Obama didn't inform them of the prisoner transfer 30 days ahead of time, as the law requires. On top of that, some of Bergdahl's own former brothers in arms have publicly called him a deserter, and say soldiers died searching for Bergdahl.

Aside from what Bergdahl might say, there's also the question of how he will look when doctors treating him for unspecified medical problems release him, a step likely within a couple of weeks. The administration initially justified its decision not to inform Congress of the prisoner swap by saying Bergdahl's health had recently taken a turn for the worse, leaving it no time to brief lawmakers about the impending deal.

But some lawmakers have said that based on a recent "proof-of-life" video the administration screened for lawmakers on Wednesday, and that was believed to show Bergdahl in captivity in December 2013, he looked healthier than the administration claimed. "I've seen the video; I don't buy that [he] was near death," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in an interview. "I hope they release the video to the country as a whole."

"If you look at [National Security Adviser] Susan Rice's statements on Sunday morning, it was all about his health," said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the Intelligence Committee who was briefed by the administration on Wednesday night. "They had received absolutely no information of any kind between January and May 31st, the day of the deal, relating to his health. You can't possibly say it was exigent circumstances."

The Bergdahl release has rapidly shifted from a good news story about the release of an American POW -- one that Obama initially hailed during televised remarks from the White House's Rose Garden -- to the latest controversy to pummel an administration already on the ropes over a growing scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department.

Facing mounting criticism and skepticism on Capitol Hill for its handling of the swap, the administration on Thursday put forward a new justification for the secrecy surrounding Bergdahl's release: The Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if the plan for his release leaked publicly, the Associated Press reported, citing congressional officials who'd been briefed by the administration. Later in the day, a senior administration official essentially confirmed the AP report.

"Our judgment was that every day Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner his life was at risk, and in the video we received in January, he did not look well," the official said, referring to the proof-of-life footage shown to lawmakers. "This led to an even greater sense of urgency in pursuing his recovery. We can't disclose classified comments from a closed congressional briefing. However, we are able to say that the senators were told, separate and apart from Sgt. Bergdahl's apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery -- and potentially his life -- could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed."

Still, some lawmakers were doubtful. "If [the Taliban had] killed him, they'd have no leverage to get their people out of jail," Graham said. "That doesn't make sense to me."

The administration has good reason to fear that its current political problems could grow even worse once Bergdahl himself starts talking.

Prior to his 2009 disappearance from a base in Paktika province in Afghanistan, for instance, the young soldier described in emails to his parents his growing disillusionment with the United States and the armed forces. And in his final email before his disappearance, Bergdahl described losing faith in not only the war but in his country.

"The future is too good to waste on lies," Bergdahl wrote in one email in June 2009. "And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american [sic]. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting."

"The title of U.S. soldier is just the lie of fools," Bergdahl wrote his parents. Those views have undoubtedly contributed to the intense criticism leveled against the prisoner swap by members of Bergdahl's former unit.

Bergdahl's father, Bob Bergdahl, has done his son no favors in currying support among the American public. In a tweet directed at a Taliban spokesman three days before his son's release, the elder Bergdahl wrote, "I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen!" The tweet has since been deleted and has become a centerpiece for conspiracy theories alleging that Bergdahl's father, who converted to Islam while his son was missing, has become an apologist for his son's captors. And it has raised questions among some military officers about whether the younger Bergdahl might express either Taliban sympathies or a similar belief that all Guantánamo Bay detainees should be freed when he eventually speaks.

Bob Bergdahl has taught himself some Urdu and Pashto, the languages spoken along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has also grown a long beard and has published YouTube videos in which he directly addresses the Taliban, pleading for his son's release. According to one conspiratorial line of thinking making the rounds in the conservative press, the elder Bergdahl's actions point toward a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Earlier this week, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade latched on to Bob Bergdahl's beard as evidence of his sympathy toward the Taliban. "I mean, he says he was growing his beard because his son was in captivity. Well, your son's out now," Kilmeade said. "You don't have to look like a member of the Taliban. Are you out of razors?"

For now, Bergdahl remains at the U.S. military's medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany, where he is recovering after his release over the weekend. Pentagon officials said Thursday that he remains in stable condition and his doctors believe his health has been improving daily, though they have constantly refused to disclose what he is being treated for and what injuries, if any, he sustained at the hands of the Taliban.

"Sgt. Bergdahl is conversing with medical staff and becoming more engaged in his treatment care plan," said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. "He is getting better and showing signs of improvement."

Bergdahl, who has yet to speak with his parents, remains in what the military terms "phase two" of his reintegration from captivity. Defense officials briefing reporters Thursday said that second phase can last between a few days and a few weeks or more.

Pentagon officials said there was no way to know when Bergdahl would be released from the facility in Germany and that there were no indications that Bergdahl would be speaking publicly anytime soon.

When his doctors decide Bergdahl is ready to be moved, he will be transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where he would be expected to reunite with his family and begin the third phase of his reintegration treatment. His first media interviews would likely start then as well.



Another Russia-China Energy Deal?

Russia is talking up prospects for a second natural gas pact with Beijing, but this one might be a tougher sell.

If Vladimir Putin gets his way, Russia's eastern energy pivot is just beginning. That could make Russia a swing natural gas supplier between Europe and Asia -- good for Russia but potentially bad for Europe, which could see what leverage it has over Russia's energy sector wane.

Mere weeks after Russia and China inked a historic $400 billion natural gas deal, Russian officials are talking big about sealing another huge energy contract with Beijing.

"If it materializes, it will be a dream situation for Russia but will be a nightmare for Europe," said Keun-Wook Paik, an expert on Sino-Russian energy issues and a fellow at Chatham House.

Russia would get another outlet for its gas exports, possibly regaining some leverage over Europe, and China could further free itself from coal's chokehold.

Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said on Wednesday that the successful conclusion of the first gas deal in late May, coupled with China's seemingly insatiable appetite for gas, could open the door to a stalled project Russia has dreamed about for at least a decade.

"Considering the pace of China's economic growth and the agreed pricing formula, I'd say it is very likely that we will soon conclude a contract to build a western [pipeline] before long," Ivanov told reporters, according to Russian and Chinese media.

Ivanov's comments echo what Putin said immediately after finalizing the Shanghai deal: "This gives us the chance to start work on our next project with our Chinese partners, namely, planning a western supply route from the resource base in western Siberia."

Moscow favors this so-called western route because it requires less investment and would allow it to supply Europe and Asia from the same gas fields; theoretically that could give it greater market power and enable it to play two big customers against each other.

That is no small matter when European demand for gas is sluggish, and when many European countries are searching for alternative energy sources after Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula and given its hardball tactics over gas exports to Ukraine. Russian reliance on revenue earned from energy exports to Europe ties its hands in much the same way that reliance on Russian energy ties Europe's.

"It is a part of Gazprom's strategy to activate the Altai export route, which will ultimately make Russia the swing supplier between Europe and Asia," Paik said.

"It will take time to strike the deal, but if the terms and conditions are met, an early breakthrough cannot be ruled out," Paik said. "However, Russia has to make some sort of compromise for this deal, as China will not bite the bullet without a real incentive."

China's sparsely populated west hasn't been particularly thirsty for natural gas. But Beijing has clamored for Russia to ship to its denser, more industrial northeast.

Though the two sides signed a preliminary deal in 2010 on the so-called Altai pipeline in the west, the project basically died last year. Then, after more than a decade of haggling, Russia finally agreed in May's deal to develop new gas fields in eastern Siberia and feed China's northeast.

But Russian officials' remarks about reviving the Altai pipeline don't mean China's ready to play ball, especially after securing 38 billion cubic meters of Russian gas for 30 years. And bringing the Altai project to fruition still requires significant Russian investment.

"It might be less capital-intensive than the eastern one, but it's no doubt going to cost us tens of billions of dollars," Ivanov said.

Gazprom needs recapitalization in order to deliver on the first deal, according to Putin, so where Russia will find billions more is unclear.

Equally unclear is how much more Russian natural gas China needs. Central Asia has guaranteed it large amounts and China is building terminals to import liquefied natural gas to the coasts. Beijing also hopes to develop its own shale gas reserves, which, on paper, are among the world's largest.

And Russia already made concessions to secure the existing deal with China, agreeing to a lower long-term price than it receives from European customers. Shipping to China's sparsely populated west, far from the centers of Chinese energy demand, will hardly command a price premium.

"Unlike the eastern route, the Altai pipeline will hit the Chinese border in the middle of nowhere, far from gas-consuming regions," said Mikhail Korchemkin, the head of East European Gas Analysis, an energy consultancy. That means Russia might have to offer an even lower price to secure a second deal, he said.

That could benefit Europe. If the first gas deal promised to lower prices in both Asia and Europe, a second pact at an even lower price would embolden buyers from Brussels to Berlin.

"Europeans would use the low price of gas sold by the Altai pipeline to China to lobby for lower prices of Russian gas," Korchemkin said.

Aleksey Nikolskyi - AFP- Getty