The Pentagon said Tuesday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl may still face disciplinary action if he is found to have walked away from his post in 2009, as Obama administration officials sought to answer increasingly pointed questions about the deal that saw the U.S. release five Taliban warriors in exchange for getting the sergeant back.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said President Obama may have illegally sidestepped Congress to release the five Taliban fighters from Guantanamo Bay, elevating the legal dispute to the level of a major constitutional clash between the branches of government.
But Mr. Obama, traveling in Poland, told reporters he saw an opportunity and had to take it — regardless of the questions surrounding Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture or the complexities of the congressional notification process.
“The process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window,” he said, dismissing questions about whether the sergeant deserted his post. “Regardless of the circumstances, 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.”
Back in Washington, however, the explanations failed to assuage Republicans and even many Democrats, who questioned both the wisdom of the five-for-one deal and the mixed signals from the White House over its legal obligations. The White House apparently gave at least one Democratic leader a day-early heads-up but kept most lawmakers, including Mr. Boehner, in the dark until just minutes before the Saturday announcement.
“I haven’t had a conversation with the White House on this issue in 1½ years. Now if that’s keeping us in the loop, then, you know, this administration is more arrogant than I thought they were,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Seemingly acknowledging its failure to comply with the law, a top national security aide to Mr. Obama called Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the intelligence committee, Monday night to say it was an “oversight” that they failed to notify her of the trade.
“I just think these are important things,” Mrs. Feinstein said of the notification issue. “I think it is important, if you can, to have a team — legislative [and] executive — that is supportive of something that is unusual, and this is unusual.”
Army Secretary John McHugh said there was no timetable on his recovery but said once the sergeant is healthy enough, the Army will conduct an investigation into the circumstances of his capture.
Some of his comrades have said he deserted his post, spurring questions about whether the efforts made to bring him home — including both the price of five Taliban fighters and the American troops that may have been lost in the search for the sergeant — were worth it.
Freedom of movement
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the decision to make the deal.
“This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him. As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts,” the general said. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
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. Comrades said they found his gear — save for his compass — neatly stacked, which they took to be a signal that he had left of his own accord.