President Obama said Tuesday he had an obligation to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, regardless of the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban five years ago and despite claims he’s a “deserter” who walked away from his unit.
Speaking at a news conference in Warsaw alongside Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Mr. Obama said he, like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR before him, must take every possible step to bring home American fighting men and women held in captivity at the end of a war.
U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan will cease at the end of the year, though 9,800 troops will remain there through 2015.
As the end of combat operations drew closer, the president said the White House consulted with Congress “for quite some time” about a possible prisoner exchange to retrieve Sgt. Bergdahl.
“The U.S. has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind. And that dates back to the earlier days of our Revolution,” Mr. Obama said. “We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health … We seized that opportunity.”
The Washington Times reported Monday that the Pentagon on multiple occasions knew where Sgt. Bergdahl was being held but commanders scrapped rescue missions because they were unwilling to risk casualties for a man they believed to be a “deserter,” according to sources familiar with the plan.
The Obama administration over the weekend secured Sgt. Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five former Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Mr. Obama was asked directly about accusations Sgt. Bergdahl was a deserter and said any member of the U.S. military held in captivity, no matter how they ended up there, should be brought home.
“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,” the president said. “That’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over to the war theater should expect, not just from their commander in chief but from the United States of America.”
There is a possibility, Mr. Obama said, the five Taliban prisoners swapped for Mr. Bergdahl could return to the battlefield and target Americans. But, he said, the deal won’t affect American national security.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it would be contrary to American national security,” Mr. Obama said. “This is what happens at the end of wars. That was true for George Washington. That was true for Abraham Lincoln. That was true for FDR. That’s been true in every combat situation — at some point you try to get your folks back.”
Guy Taylor contributed to this report.