Obama defends trade of detainees for Bergdahl
WARSAW - President Obama on Tuesday strongly defended his administration's decision to return five detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to the Taliban in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity, though he acknowledged the released detainees could once again try to harm the United States.
"We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Bergdahl," Obama said on a trip to Poland to discuss Eastern European security. "We saw an opportunity, and we were concerned about Bergdahl's health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity."
Amid mounting congressional criticism about the operation, senior military leaders also responded to criticism within the ranks toward Bergdahl, who walked away from his unit five years ago after becoming disillusioned with the war. In statements, both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Army Secretary John McHugh appeared to leave open the possibility that he could face a reprimand of some kind.
"Our first priority is ensuring Sgt. Bergdahl's health and beginning his reintegration process," McHugh said. "There is no timeline for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery."
The Army, he added, will "then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort."
'Period. Full stop'
Obama also refused to rule out that Bergdahl could face punishment.
Obama added that regardless of the circumstances of his capture, "we still get back an American soldier if he's held in captivity. Period. Full stop."
Bergdahl, 28, of Hailey, Idaho, is believed to have slipped away from his platoon's small outpost in Afghanistan's Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He was captured shortly afterward by enemy forces and held captive in Pakistan by insurgents affiliated with the Taliban. Some U.S. troops resented risking their lives in the weeks that followed to search for someone they considered a deserter.
Since Bergdahl's release, the administration has faced questions over its decision to free the five Guantanamo detainees and to not notify Congress 30 days in advance, as required by law. The administration has said it was forced to move quickly "due to a near-term opportunity to save Sgt. Bergdahl's life."
It has also said it had flexibility given a signing statement from Obama last year in which he contended that the notification requirement was an unconstitutional infringement on his powers.
The outlines of the proposed Bergdahl swap had been public since the spring of 2012. Obama administration officials first discussed with senior House Republicans the possibility of swapping five detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for the release of Bergdahl in late November 2011, according to senior GOP aides.
Still, House Speaker John A. Boehner said Tuesday in a statement that the administration "has invited serious questions into how this exchange went down."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, confirmed Tuesday that she and other senior lawmakers first discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap with administration officials in 2011.
"There were very strong views and they were virtually unanimous against the trade," she said.
In Warsaw, Obama said both the United States and authorities in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, who helped organize the trade, would closely monitor the released Guantanamo detainees.
"Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely," Obama said.
But he added that he would not have authorized the trade if he "thought it was contrary to U.S. national security."
A Rising Controversy
President Obama defended the release of five detainees in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's freedom, saying that it was vital to bring an American home and that Congress had been consulted "for some time."
House Speaker John A. Boehner and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) acknowledged past discussions but said they had gotten no heads-up recently.
The White House apologized to Feinstein and to top committee Republican Saxby Chambliss.
Boehner said he supported plans by House Armed Services Chairman Howard P. McKeon for hearings.
As more former comrades accused Bergdahl of desertion, the head of the Joint Chiefs left open the possibility of charges against him.
Senators will receive a classified briefing Wednesday, and House members the week of June 9.
Bergdahl continued treatment at a U.S. hospital in Germany.
- From Wire Reports