BRUSSELS, Belgium – Calling the controversy over Bowe Bergdahl’s release from Taliban captors “whipped up in Washington,” President Barack Obama said Thursday he doesn’t apologize for swapping the captured Army sergeant for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“I make no apologies for making sure we get a young man back to his parents,” Obama told reporters at the end of the G7 summit in Belgium when asked about the issue roiling the U.S. political debate.
Critics call the price for Bergdahl’s release too high, noting that his Army colleagues say he deserted his post in Afghanistan. Politicians in both parties complain that Obama failed to notify Congress of the exchange ahead of time, as required by law.
The Obama administration and Democratic supporters have pushed back, saying Bergdahl’s life was under threat in captivity.
In Belgium, Obama repeated his stance that he acted with legal authority to seize what might have been the last good chance to get Bergdahl out alive.
“We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and … we saw an opportunity and we seized it, and I make no apologies” for that, the President said.
Asked if he was surprised at the backlash, Obama said, “I’m never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington,” calling such a reaction “par for the course.”
He also reiterated what he called a time-honored U.S. principle that “we do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind.”
Bergdahl is resting and showing signs of improvement as he recovers at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren. While Berghal is conversing in English and described as being more engaged in treatment, he has not yet spoken to his parents, Warren said.
In Washington, the back-and-forth over the Bergdahl release took on increasingly political overtones, with Republicans who once called for getting him out saying the swap that occurred Saturday released hardened Taliban commanders who could attack American forces and interests.
Consideration of such a deal dates back several years, but failed to gain traction when the possibility first emerged in 2011, according to sources.
A Defense Department official familiar with the thinking of Robert Gates told CNN that Obama’s first defense secretary opposed the idea back then, as did his successor, Leon Panetta, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
With combat operations in Afghanistan set to end no later than December, the U.S. thinking changed. The imminent conclusion of hostilities raises issues about the status of war captives, with adversaries traditionally exchanging prisoners.
Democratic Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the majority Democrats, told CNN on Thursday that the Taliban figures involved in the swap may have been freed soon in any event.
“There is a reasonable legal argument that these five guys would have had to be released any way within the next year under the law of war,” King said. “They were being held in Guantanamo as enemy combatants. Under the law of war, when hostility cease, enemy combatants have to be released.”
According to King, “this may have been the last chance to get Bergdahl where these guys had true value to us as a negotiating tool because if they had to be released anyway, we’d be in the same situation without Bowe Bergdahl home.”
At the same time, King said the Obama administration erred by failing to notify Congress ahead of time about the swap, as required under the National Defense Authorization Act.
However, he noted the administration had intelligence that “had even the fact of these discussions (about the proposed swap) leaked out, there was a reasonable chance Bowe Bergdahl would have been killed.”
“That was one of the pieces of information that we learned … that gave it some credence in terms of why it had to be keep quiet so long,” King told CNN’s “New Day.”
A Senate aide took that further. The aide told CNN on condition of not being identified that King and other senators were told in a classified briefing Wednesday that the United States had credible information that Bergdahl would have been killed if news of the exchange became public ahead of time.
King also backed the administration’s contention that Bergdahl was in bad physical condition.
“He could barely talk,” King said of a video the government received during negotiations late last year to prove Bergdahl was still alive. “He couldn’t focus his eyes. He was downcast. He was thin.”
Other senators who saw the video at Wednesday’s classified briefing said Bergdahl looked drugged, not sick. But King noted “there was a dead silence in the room” after it played.
Some members of Bergdahl’s Army unit in Afghanistan have called him a deserter, saying he walked off from his post and endangered others who spent weeks looking for him, possibly leading to the deaths of as many as six soldiers.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Justin Gerleve, Bergdahl’s former squad leader, told CNN’s “The Lead” that he heard radio intercepts that an American “was running around looking for people to speak English and wanted to seek out the Taliban.”
The accusations of Bergdahl’s desertion caused some GOP legislators to question if the United States should have exchanged Taliban terror suspects for him.
“It’s very interesting to me that they would be willing to release five extraordinarily dangerous Taliban members in exchange for this soldier who apparently left his post,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told CNN on Thursday.
Meanwhile, a knowledgeable source told CNN that efforts to free Bergdahl from Taliban hands were long and arduous, but the deal mediated by Qatar might pave the way for possible future talks between the United States and the Taliban.
“Often there could be a very long delay, even weeks, between passing a message and getting a response” from the Taliban, said the source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
For example, the negotiation team would “go to Qatar for a few hours, pass the message, and it could be a week or more before we heard back.”
Then, on May 23, a U.S. negotiating team landed in Qatar and started another series of negotiations, the source said. That’s when the team realized it was closer to a deal.
The pace of the talks picked up. Messages were passed back and forth on a daily basis. By May 27, the basic structure of the deal was reached, and Obama spoke with the Emir of Qatar by phone, the source said.
Implications of the swap
The deal showed that the Taliban had the capability of reaching and executing an agreement, the source added, and that the Taliban’s political commission can speak for the movement and can give orders to foot soldiers who then carry them out.
The source said the real conversation going forward needs to be between Afghanistan and the Taliban, but did not discount the possibility that the U.S. would have future discussions with the Taliban.
Bergdahl’s captors handed him over to the United States in exchange for the release of five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Under terms of the swap, the five were taken to Qatar and are supposed to remain their under watch by the government for at least a year.
The five men, while seen as senior officials in the Taliban, have not been in touch with their colleagues for a decade, and their ability to be operational and hurt U.S. troops if they go back to Afghanistan is believed to be minimal, according to the source.
In contrast, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Wednesday that the released Taliban figures were going back to the battlefield “to kill Americans.”
John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration who was not at the classified briefing, told CNN that the prisoner swap deal was “defensible.”
“This is one of those tough national security situations that presidents face,” he said, “where all the options are bad.”
Deserter or hero?
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on Sunday that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction, but some who served with him say he’s no hero, describing him as a deserter.
“I believe that he totally deserted not only his fellow soldiers, but his leadership that wanted the best for him and for our country,” Gerleve said.
Some soldiers involved in operations to find Bergdahl have said at least six soldiers were killed searching for him. Asked about this point, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Wednesday that he did not know of specific circumstances or details of soldiers dying as a result of the efforts to find Bergdahl.
Gerleve told “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that he believes Bergdahl is at least partly to blame for the soldiers’ deaths.
“I can’t really say I blame Bergdahl to fullest extent, but if he wouldn’t have deserted us, these soldiers very well could have been in a different place at a different time,” Gerleve said.
An Army fact-finding investigation conducted in the months after Bergdahl’s 2009 disappearance concluded that he left his outpost deliberately and on his own free will, according to a U.S. military official briefed on the report. The official spoke to CNN on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information
There was no definitive finding that Bergdahl deserted, because that would require knowing his intent — something Army officials couldn’t do without talking to the soldier.
Long road ahead
Bergdahl will remain at a U.S. Army medical center in Germany until he completes treatment, a U.S. defense official there told CNN. After that, he will return to the United States and go to a military base in San Antonio, Texas, the official said.
As the controversy continues, Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, canceled a “Bowe is Back” event planned to celebrate his return “in the interest of public safety.”
The city said organizers expected a large number of supporters and protesters.
“Hailey, a town of 8,000, does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become,” the city said.