Obama: 'No apologies' for Bergdahl release deal
"I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction," Obama said, explaining why Bergdahl's release was announced at a Rose Garden ceremony last weekend. "This is not a political football. You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land who they hadn't seen in five years and weren't sure whether they'd ever see again."
Speaking at a news conference here, Obama added: "I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody's child and that we don't condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back."
He went on to say: "I'll repeat what I said two days ago. We have a basic principle: We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind."
For Obama, Bergdahl's release was, according to aides, a relatively easy choice that brought home the last American prisoner of war. Some military officials see it differently and are especially furious that the White House greeted the release of someone suspected of desertion with the trappings of celebration. In addition to the Saturday Rose Garden ceremony revealing the swap, national security adviser Susan Rice said on television that Bergdahl had served with "honor and distinction."
Members of his unit, which had been based in eastern Afghanistan's mountainous and remote Paktika province, say Bergdahl deserted his post and some blame him for the deaths of soldiers there. The Army is investigating.
"We have a clear sense of the strong reactions within the rank and file," said a senior military official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly. "This is an emotional issue."
The criticism from military circles comes amid a broader backlash, primarily along partisan lines, over the swap itself and how it was handled. GOP lawmakers say the administration failed to give them advance warning of the deal as required by law, and question whether the exchange was worth it given the danger the Taliban combatants could pose to U.S. troops once they are returned to Afghanistan next year.
"We knew that this action was going to be controversial and get a lot of attention, and that in 2014 everyone has an outlet," said one White House official, who asked not to be identified to discuss internal deliberations. But "we didn't expect this level of vitriol."
The Obama administration told senators it didn't notify Congress about the pending swap because of intelligence the Taliban might kill him if the deal was made public, the Associated Press reported. That fear drove the administration to quickly make the deal to rescue him, bypassing the law that legislators be notified when detainees are released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, congressional and administration officials said Thursday. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
Duke University political science professor Peter Feaver, who was a National Security Council special adviser under George W. Bush, said "the military drove the interpretation" of how many Americans and their representatives are reacting to the prisoner exchange.
"The deal the president struck is a deal you strike when the war's over," Feaver said in an interview. "The military, they're thinking about, 'We're still fighting this war.' For them the war's very much still on, and the question of will we win or not is up for grabs."
The president, by contrast, is now talking about Afghanistan in the past tense. "This is what happens at the end of wars," Obama said in Brussels. "That was true for George Washington; that was true for Abraham Lincoln; that was true for FDR; that's been true of every combat situation - that at some point, you make sure that you try to get your folks back. And that's the right thing to do."
Ralph Peters, a retired lieutenant colonel and intelligence officer, wrote in National Review that a "fundamental culture clash" exists between the president's team and those in the armed forces, as reflected by Rice's remarks on Bergdahl's honor.
"Both President Obama and Ms. Rice seem to think that the crime of desertion in wartime is kind of like skipping class," Peters wrote. "They have no idea of how great a sin desertion in the face of the enemy is to those in our military. The only worse sin is to side actively with the enemy and kill your brothers in arms."
This article has information from the Associated Press.