White House national security adviser Susan Rice defended the Obama administration’s decision to exchange Guantanamo detainees for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, amid criticism that the United States negotiated with terrorists in the process.
She also said the “acute urgency” of Bergdahl’s health condition justified President Obama’s not notifying Congress beforehand that Bergdahl was being swapped for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
“What we did was ensure that, as always, the United States doesn’t leave a man or a woman on the battlefield,” Rice said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If we got into a situation where we said, ‘Because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield we will leave that person behind,’ we would be in a whole new area for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform,” she continued. “Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back.”
Bergdahl, who was held for five years by Afghan militants, arrived Sunday morning at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany as part of his return to the United States.
U.S. special operations forces recovered Bergdahl without incident early Saturday local time at a pickup point in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. American officials said the government of Qatar brokered the deal.
Multiple Republican members of Congress expressed joy at the return of Bergdahl, but deep concern about what it meant for U.S. service members’ safety and the country’s policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
“These particular individuals are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands,” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in a statement. He added that he’s “eager to learn” what steps are being taken to ensure that these “violent Taliban extremists” won’t cause any harm to the United States in the future.
CNN learned that the detainees will be under a travel ban for one year, and Rice added that “there are restrictions on their movement and behavior” in Qatar, but said she was not at liberty to go into further detail.
“Suffice it to say that we are satisfied that it substantially mitigates the risk to the United States and to our national security, and we feel confident that the assurances given to us will be upheld,” she told CNN’s chief political correspondent Candy Crowley.
Some critics were perturbed by the lack of communication with Congress about the negotiations. The Obama administration is required by law to notify Congress 30 days before any terrorists are transferred from Guantanamo Bay.
Rice said the administration began telling members of Congress once Bergdahl had been recovered and before the prisoners left the Guantanamo Bay facility.
“This was held closely within the administration. We could not take any risk with … losing the opportunity to bring him back safely,” she said, adding the Department of Defense had consulted with the Department of Justice before making the decision.
“Given the acute urgency of the health condition of Sgt. Bergdahl, and given the President’s constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement, because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sgt. Bergdahl would have been lost.”
Pressed further on concerns that the deal violated U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists, Rice said Obama’s hopes to close Guantanamo Bay will help prevent similar situations in the future.
“I think the terrorists are intent on doing what they’re going to do, but … we have a commitment to close Guantanamo Bay,” she said. “The existence of Guantanamo Bay is itself a detriment to our national security, which is why the President has prioritized closing it and why we intend to get that done.”