Obama Has ‘No Apologies’ for Exchange to Free Bergdahl
President Barack Obama said he makes “no apologies” for the Taliban prisoner exchange that freed Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.
Responding to questions at a news conference today in Brussels, Obama dismissed the uproar in the U.S. over his decision to trade five Taliban prisoners and not tell Congress in advance.
“We have a basic principle: We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind,” Obama said at a joint news conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in Brussels. “We saw an opportunity and we seized it and I make no apologies for that.”
While Russian President Vladimir Putin and the crisis in Ukraine has dominated the discussions during Obama’s trip this week to Europe, the controversy over the terms of Bergdahl’s release has eclipsed the Ukraine situation in the U.S.
Since Obama announced Bergdahl’s release in a Rose Garden ceremony five days ago, pressure has mounted for an explanation on why the administration sidestepped a law requiring the president to give 30 days notice to Congress of plans for a Guantanamo prisoner release. Opponents of the swap have raised questions about whether Bergdahl is a patriot or a deserter.
“The American people understand that this is somebody’s child,” Obama said today. “We don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try and get them back.”
The uproar in Congress is “par for the course” in Washington, he said.
The bipartisan frustrations may complicate Obama’s efforts to shut the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the prisoners are held. It now holds 149 prisoners taken captive as part of the war on terrorism.
Of those, 78 have been approved for transfer to other countries and about 30 are facing prosecution, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington.
Democrats including Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have joined Republicans in attacking the administration’s handling of the deal.
“There’s considerable opposition to this and that’s just where things are,” she said yesterday after a more than hour-long classified briefing for senators by four Obama administration officials.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years, said yesterday, “I promise you -- in a year from now, if not before” the five released Taliban “will be back in Afghanistan and in the fight.”
After senators received a classified briefing from White House officials yesterday, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida told reporters that Obama “set a precedent that will encourage enemies of the United States to target American men and women in uniform and capture them in order to carry out a similar exchange in the future.”
Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said that while he didn’t know if he would’ve made the same decision Obama did, “I feel more confident now in the decision that was made.” He added, “The premise was solid. Bring our troops home.”
Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told Bloomberg reporters and editors at a breakfast today, “The administration left a lot to be desired on engagement with the Senate and House over time,” adding that the “decision wasn’t made in a couple of days.”
Several lawmakers and congressional candidates deleted Twitter statements supporting Bergdahl as the backlash against his rescue grew, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Politwoops, which tracks deleted tweets. Sunlight is an open-government group in Washington.
“So glad to hear that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is coming home safely. He’s a true American hero,” Ohio Republican Representative Jim Renacci wrote, along with a link to a news article on Bergdahl’s rescue. The posting was deleted June 4.
Others to delete Bergdahl-related Twitter posts include Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch and Paul DeMarco, a Republican running for the House in Alabama, Politwoops said.
Prior to Bergdahl’s release, some Republicans had pressed the administration to do more to bring him home. In February, McCain said he could support a deal that swapped Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl.
“I’d have to know the details, but I would support ways of bringing him home and if exchange was one of them I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider,” McCain said on CNN in February.
Two days after Bergdahl’s release, he told reporters that he “would not have made this deal.” Today, McCain’s office released a statement that said “the answer would have been ‘hell no’” if he had been asked about a swap involving “five hard-core Taliban leaders” who would be able to return to the battlefield in a year.
Further complicating matters for Obama has been the narrative that the five men, whose releases had been sought by the Taliban, are among the worst of the worst. In fact, only one of the five was a hard-core terrorist, said a retired U.S. military officer familiar with the inmates’ records who asked not to be identified discussing classified information.
The retired military official said only one, Abdul Haq Wasiq, has close ties to al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organizations. The other four, notably Mullah Norullah Noori, are tied to massacres and other war crimes, though weren’t active in supporting terrorist attacks on foreigners.
Since taking office, Obama has been at odds with Congress over his pledge to close Guantanamo by bringing some prisoners to trial and arranging to send the least dangerous ones home or to third countries.
Congress has put up hurdles to Obama’s efforts, barring transferring prisoners to the U.S. for trials and imposing restrictions on how and where they can be sent.
While this year’s defense authorization law requires 30 days’ notice to Congress before the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo, Obama asserted in a “signing statement” on Dec. 26 that he has executive authority to make exceptions.
The administration said it couldn’t give Congress the required notice because of the need to move quickly out of concern for Bergdahl’s health and safety.
The five released Taliban were transferred to Qatar, where they are supposed to be monitored for a year by local authorities.
The Guantanamo facility was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to hold suspected terrorists captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. In January 2009, Obama issued an executive order aimed at closing the prison camp within a year, though it remains open.
Obama sought to speed Guantanamo’s shutdown by transferring some prisoners to maximum-security facilities in the U.S., though Congress blocked that plan.