Fueling criticism of the decision to swap Army Sergeant Bowe
Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees being held at the Guantanamo Bay
Naval Base in Cuba were accusations by some soldiers that the Idaho
native was a deserter who cost the lives of several comrades.
The State Department said it considered Bergdahl "a member of the
military who was detained while in combat." The Pentagon said it was
unable to confirm media reports that troops had been killed in
operations trying to locate Bergdahl following his June 2009
"There have been several looks into the circumstances surrounding
his disappearance, but we've never publicly said anything, primarily
because we haven't had a chance to speak with Sergeant Bergdahl
himself," said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The White House pushed back against Republican criticism that the
administration may have broken the law by releasing the five Taliban
leaders without giving Congress 30 days notice. Officials said
lawmakers had been briefed for years on efforts to free Bergdahl,
including a potential prisoner swap.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the deal to secure
Bergdahl's release "should not have been a surprise" to lawmakers.
"We did not have 30 days to wait to get this done," McDonough said
at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
"And when you're commander-in-chief, you have to act when there's an
opportunity for action."
Congressman Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House of
Representatives Intelligence Committee, dismissed the White House's
portrayal of events leading to Bergdahl's release as urgent and
sensitive. In comments on CNN he called it "nonsense" and an "excuse
to try to violate or certainly circumvent the law".
Republican lawmakers on the Armed Services panels in both the Senate
and House called for public hearings into the prisoner exchange. The
Senate panel scheduled a closed session next week to hear testimony
on the issue from senior defense officials.
"The question is ... by getting the return of Sgt. Bergdahl, are you
placing in danger the lives of Americans in the future, and I
believe you are," Arizona Senator John McCain told reporters at the
'GET A SOLDIER HOME'
Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services
Committee, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had made the decision,
not the president, and pointed to remarks by the military's top
uniformed officer, Army General Martin Dempsey, supporting the
"I'm not going to be critical of this decision because itís an
excruciatingly difficult decision," Levin told reporters. He said
while the 30-day notification to Congress is important, "it's also
important that we get a soldier home."
[to top of second column]
But Republicans said they were concerned that the White House had
broken the law and set a dangerous precedent for national security
by negotiating the trade with the Taliban, in part to further
Obama's effort to close Guantanamo prison.
"These five would be
perhaps the most dangerous terrorists that were there (at
Guantanamo)," said Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican
on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I think the whole motive
here is that the president wants to continue to try to shut that
down. He knows he doesn't have the support of Congress, and that's
part of the motivation."
But other lawmakers said the main issue was Bergdahl's release.
Senator Jack Reed, a top Democrat on the Armed Services panel, said:
"Ultimately, it's about ensuring to everyone who wears the uniform
that we will do everything we can to get them back home. I think
that's the most overriding issue in my mind."
Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, said the people of his
state were happy the soldier was coming home, and declined to
discuss the prisoner swap or allegations he had deserted.
The Pentagon said Bergdahl was in stable condition at the U.S.
Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where doctors
were assessing his condition after five years of captivity.
Bergdahl, 28, has not yet spoken to his family but will do so once
he and psychologists believe the time is right, Warren said. He will
return to the United States when doctors say he is ready.
A source close to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's palace in
Kabul said Karzai was angry at being kept in the dark and more
distrustful of U.S. intentions.
But U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham told reporters
in Kabul the Karzai administration had been made aware of the
impending prisoners' swap.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Anna Yukhananov, Patricia
Zengerle, Susan Cornwell, David Lawder and Colette Luke in
Washington, Hamid Shalizi and Jessica Donati in Kabul; Writing by
David Alexander; Editing by Grant McCool and Ken Wills)
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