Obama administration officials said Thursday that they feared the Islamic militants holding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would kill him if word of their deal to exchange him for five Taliban fighters leaked — offering the latest justification in the face of growing political controversy over why President Obama sidestepped Congress to make the trade Saturday.
That explanation didn't settle matters on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers said they are regularly briefed ahead of time on secret operations and that the law still required notice.
Mr. Obama, traveling in Europe, publicly chided critics in Washington and said he would "make no apologies" for striking the agreement, which has sparked complaints from members of both political parties.
"I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington, all right? That's par for the course," Mr. Obama said. "We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about. And we saw an opportunity, and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that."
He said administration officials were explaining the details to Congress but didn't cede any ground to those who accused him of breaking several laws requiring 30 days' notice before prisoners are released from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He also said the issue should not be used as a "political football."
News reports about Sgt. Bergdahl's condition and state of mind have only increased the murky circumstances that led to his capture five years ago and his release Saturday. The Daily Beast reported that Sgt. Bergdahl tried to escape twice from his captors, which the online publication said might contradict the narrative — endorsed by some of the soldiers who served with him — that Sgt. Bergdahl was a deserter.
Fox News, citing secret documents based on an eyewitness account, reported that the sergeant at one point in his captivity "converted to Islam, fraternized openly with his captors and declared himself a 'mujahed,' or warrior for Islam."
Nearly a week after the trade, a number of questions remain about the legality and wisdom of the deal.
Some of those questions surround Sgt. Bergdahl's health. Administration officials initially said they feared he was so ill that they had to act quickly before he died.
Some of the lawmakers who have seen classified information and video footage said that case hasn't been made.
"They have simply not made a case that his health had deteriorated to the point where they needed to get him out of there," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"I don't believe any of this," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. "First, we had to do the prisoner deal because he was in imminent danger of dying. Well, they saw the video in January, and they didn't act until June. So that holds no water. Now the argument is the reason they couldn't tell us is because it jeopardized his life. I don't buy that for a moment because he was a very valuable asset to the Taliban."
The Idaho-born sergeant has not been seen in public since his release and since he was taken for treatment to a military hospital in Germany. His hometown of Hailey, Idaho, called off a big celebration planned for his eventual homecoming, citing security concerns.
A Pentagon spokesman said Sgt. Bergdhal's health is improving daily at an Army medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, where he has been undergoing treatment under tight security.
"He is conversing with medical staff and becoming more engaged in his treatment plan," said the spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren.
A date has not been set for Sgt. Bergdhal to make his first phone call to his family in Idaho or to be transferred to an Army hospital in Texas, he said.
On Thursday, administration officials went further in their efforts to calm the political firestorm over the deal. They argued that they had to act quickly and without telling Congress because Sgt. Bergdahl's life would have been endangered if word of the deal had leaked.
"We had both specific and general indications that Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery — and potentially his life — could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed," a senior administration official told reporters.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Taliban might have walked away from the deal if it became public or "someone guarding him that possibly wouldn't agree [with his release] and could take harmful action against him."
She acknowledged, however, that the administration had been negotiating for Sgt. Bergdahl's release at least as far back as December, when the militants holding him provided a "proof of life" video.
That left lawmakers wondering why they weren't told of the negotiations earlier.
They said the need for secrecy doesn't excuse the president from his obligation under the law to notify Congress — or at least the key members designated to receive highly classified information.
"I believe they still should have contacted at least the chairs and the ranking members of the intelligence committee," said Sen. Angus S. King Jr., a Maine independent who sits on the intelligence committee. "I think there is something between notification of the whole Congress and no notification that they should have done. I think that if you press the White House, they'll concede that they would have done that. But one of the reasons that was mentioned was that it had been communicated to them in a credible way that if word of these negotiations leaked out, there was a possibility he would be killed."
The excuse also fell short for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, who said she and Mr. Chambliss often are briefed about top-secret operations that would be jeopardized by leaks.
"We do not leak, and I take great pride in that," Mrs. Feinstein said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Thursday that Mr. Obama made the right call to strike the deal.
"Let's assume he was in vibrant health and he was faking all this. He's an American soldier, he's been in captivity five years. The war's winding down, [so] let's bring him home, [and] we did," Mr. Reid said.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Reid found himself on the defensive over when he was alerted about the swap.
Mr. Reid initially said he was alerted Friday, which would have made him the only member of Congress to get a day's advance notice. Mr. Chambliss, one of those who is supposed to be given a notification on such operations, wasn't officially notified until Monday, two days after the swap — when the administration apologized for leaving him out of the loop.
Mr. Reid has since altered his claim of early notification but said Thursday that it's a nonissue.
"I'm not sure I'm the only one. I mean that's made a big deal over nothing. The whole deal is, is it Friday or Saturday? What difference does it make?" Mr. Reid said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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