As America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan was transferred back to U.S. custody, Republicans challenged the Obama administration's insistence it did not negotiate with terrorists in securing the soldier's release and say the move was illegal and could embolden terrorists around the globe.
As his parents and residents of his Idaho hometown celebrated the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Berdahl over the weekend, the circumstances surrounding the release — and the sudden freeing of five Taliban figures held at the Guantanamo detainee prison — were producing a full-scale controversy in Washington.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel insisted the U.S. did not negotiate with terrorists in the process of exchanging the transfer of the five terrorism suspects for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl, now 28, who had been in Taliban hands since June 2009.
"We didn't negotiate with terrorists," Mr. Hagel said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And I said and explained before, Sgt. Bergdahl is a prisoner of war. That's a normal process in getting your prisoners back."
Sgt. Bergdahl arrived at a U.S. military hospital in Germany Sunday after he was handed over to U.S. special operations forces by the Taliban Saturday, with the government of Qatar serving as a go-between.
In an emotional press conference Sunday afternoon in Boise, Idaho, Sgt. Bergdahl's father, Bob, likened his son's return to a deep-sea diver resurfacing and urged a gradual re-assimilation process.
"If he comes up too fast, it could kill him," said Mr. Bergdahl, thanking supporters and government officials for their help in the process. "The recovery and rehabilitation of Bowe Bergdahl is a work in progress."
Jani Bergdahl told her son to give himself all the time he needs to recover.
"I love you, Bowe — I'm so very proud of you," she said. "We praise God for your freedom."
Administration officials too said the focus right now should be on the fact that the only U.S. POW from the Afghan conflict is coming back home, even as President Obama is winding down the 13-year war there.
National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice told CNN that what officials did was ensure that the United States doesn't leave a man or woman on the battlefield.
"And in order to do this — it's very important for folks to understand, if we got into a situation where we said, you know, because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield, we will leave that person behind, we would be in a whole new era for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform," Ms. Rice said. "So [just] because the Taliban had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back."
But complicating the administration's narrative was a rare public statement Sunday from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who said the prisoner swap marked a "great victory" for the Islamist movement that led the military resistance against the U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan for more than a decade.
"The sacrifice of our mujahedeen have resulted in the release of our senior leaders from the hand of the enemy," Mullah Mohammed Omar said.
Ms. Rice and other administration officials insisted that, at the diplomatic level, the U.S. was negotiating with the government of Qatar, not the Taliban or its Afghan allies. But the handover followed secret and indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, and Qatar is taking custody of five of the Afghan detainees that had been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The detainees are believed to be the most senior Afghans still held at the prison: Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Norullah Nori, Khairullah Khairkhwa, Mohammed Nabi and Mohammad Fazl. Mr. Obama's efforts to close the detainee site have been frustrated by opposition from both parties in Congress.
'Very dangerous guys'
Republican critics Sunday criticized both the abrupt manner in which the Taliban prisoners were traded — with almost no advance warning to lawmakers — and the potential precedent the deal could set in dealing with other terrorist enemies.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon said that the released detainees are "five very dangerous guys that should not leave Guantanamo [and] should not have the opportunity to get back into this fight."
"And now we have set a precedent — the president has set a precedent," the California Republican said Sunday on CNN. "You know, he has violated the law and flouted the Constitution so many times. We have real concerns about this. They're not following the law. They know they're not following the law."
Added Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, speaking on ABC News, "What does this tell terrorists — that if you capture a U.S. soldier you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?"
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the administration assured him just six months ago they would not consider the release of the leaders without consulting Congress.
"The security assurances the United States has been given regarding these terrorists is feeble at best, and I fear it is only a matter of time before they resume their terrorist activities," he said. "These men are not soldiers; they are dangerous terrorists, and President Obama should be treating them as such."
But Idaho's all-Republican congressional delegation hailed the move. Rep. Raul R. Labrador told the Boise Weekly he was "thrilled" by the news, while Sen. Mike Crapo said that "our prayers have been answered."
Mr. Hagel acknowledged that the law now mandates that the defense secretary give at least 30 days' notice for such prison transfers but that officials moved under the timeline they did in order to save Sgt. Bergdahl's life.
"We had information that his health could be deteriorating rapidly," he said. "There was a question about his safety. We found an opportunity. We took that opportunity. I'll stand by that decision. I signed off on the decision. The president made the ultimate decision. We did spend time looking at this."
Ms. Rice said the sergeant's situation was "acute" and said the administration would have been criticized if it had failed to act when a deal materialized.
"We did not have 30 days to wait," she said. "And had we waited and lost him, I don't think anybody would have forgiven the United States government."
Mr. Hagel added that he will not agree to the release of any more detainees from Guantanamo unless the country can be assured "that we can sufficiently mitigate any risk to America's security."
Sgt. Bergdahl was captured under murky circumstances in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country, but neither Mr. Hagel nor Ms. Rice specifically addressed how that happened.
"We'll have the opportunity eventually to learn what has transpired in the past years, but what's most important now is his health and well-being, that he have the opportunity to recover in peace and security and be reunited with his family, which is why this is such a joyous day," Ms. Rice said on ABC's "This Week."
An annual event called "Bring Bowe Back" in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, scheduled for June 28 was quickly renamed "Bowe Is Back."
"It is going to be Bowe's official welcome-home party even if he's not quite home yet," organizer Stefanie O'Neill said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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