President Barack Obama defended a prisoner exchange with the Taliban for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, saying the U.S. has the duty to leave no soldiers on the battlefield.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” Obama told reporters during a press conference today in Warsaw.
Bergdahl’s release on May 31 led Republican lawmakers to criticize the Obama administration for negotiating with terrorists and failing to give Congress a legally required 30-day notification for releasing the five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Obama said U.S. officials saw an opportunity, were concerned about Bergdahl’s health and had the cooperation of Qatar to execute the exchange.
We “seized that opportunity,” Obama said. “The process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we did not miss that window.”
The White House has “consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl,” Obama said.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the Obama administration hadn’t discussed a prisoner exchange with Congress since 2011, and that the panel is trying to determine if the White House violated the law.
“Is this the right decision to take four criminals, one of which is wanted by the UN for war crimes, and put them back out on the battlefield?” Rogers said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today. “I believe that three of the five for sure” will return to terrorism, and “likely four.”
The prisoner exchange has also led other soldiers and veterans to take to social media with postings denouncing Bergdahl for allegedly abandoning is unit. The U.S. Army has never described the circumstances of Bergdahl’s 2009 disappearance from a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan.
Obama said the U.S. would have acted to bring Bergdahl home “regardless of the circumstances.” He said Bergdahl has not be interrogated and is recovering and undergoing a battery of tests before he can transition home.
“Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that,” Obama said. “That’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect.”
He also said the U.S. will be keeping track of the released detainees. Obama said there “absolutely” is the possibility of some of them trying to return to attacking the U.S.
“We’ll be in position to go after them,” he said.
The administration acted legally in the prisoner exchange, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said today in a statement.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel determined that the law requiring a 30-day notice to Congress didn’t “apply to this unique set of circumstances” because to do so “could endanger the soldier’s life.”
“In these circumstances, delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the executive’s performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the president: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers,” Hayden said.