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Nonetheless, individual units pursued leads as they came in, according to the AP report, which cited an unidentified Pentagon official as saying: “I know for a fact that we lost soldiers looking for him.”

The AP also reported that the U.S. government kept tabs on Bergdahl’s whereabouts with spies, drones and satellites, even as it pursued off-and-on negotiations to get him back over the five years of captivity that ended Saturday.

The White House shot back against criticism from Republican lawmakers, several of whom said the administration had set a dangerous precedent of negotiating with terrorists and may have overstepped the bounds of executive authority by failing to alert Congress of the deal before finalizing it with the Taliban.

White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed those claims, asserting during a briefing with reporters that the administration has, in fact, consulted lawmakers for years about potential negotiations with the Taliban and the possibility of recovering a U.S. prisoner of war.

Sgt. Bergdahl is the only known U.S. service member held as prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and Mr. Carney and others in the administration, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, appeared eager to steer reporters away from questions about the fairness of exchanging five former Taliban commanders to secure the Army private’s release.

The swap “was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Mr. Carney, who downplayed the notion that Sgt. Bergdahl was an Army deserter. “In a situation like this, you have a prisoner of war, a uniformed military person that was detained,” the White House spokesman said. “The United States does not leave our men and women behind in conflict.”

But speculation over whether Sgt. Bergdahl was captured by the enemy, or fled from his unit in Afghanistan in June 2009, has long swirled through Washington.

That speculation appeared to come to an end Monday. The sources who spoke with The Times said military officials privately resolved the matter among themselves years ago, concluding that Sgt. Bergdahl willingly left the U.S. Army before he was apprehended by militants in Afghanistan.

The AP report on the matter Monday quoted Nabi Jan Mhullhakhil, the provincial police chief of Paktika province in Afghanistan, where Bergdahl was stationed with his unit, as saying that elders in the area had told him Bergdahl “came out from the U.S. base without a gun and was outside the base when he was arrested by the Taliban.”

Such claims were further bolstered by one of Sgt. Bergdahl’s own former unit members, who asserted outright in an article published Monday by The Daily Beast that “Bergdahl was a deserter.”

With Sgt. Bergdahl now headed to safety, it is “time to speak the truth,” wrote Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in the 1st Battalion of the Army’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment when Sgt. Bergdahl disappeared from night guard duty at a remote outpost roughly two hours south of the Afghan city of Sharana on June 30, 2009.

Bergdahl failed to show for the morning roll call,” wrote Mr. Bethea. “The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass,” wrote Mr. Bethae, adding that “his fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India.”

Mr. Bethea also wrote that during the three months immediately after Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance as many as eight “soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

The Pentagon said Monday that Sgt. Bergdahl was being treated at a U.S. military hospital in Germany as questions mounted at home over the deal that secured his freedom.

“Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. “What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?”

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