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Obama Defends Bergdahl Move But Questions Linger

Obama Defends Bergdahl Move But Questions Linger

By Alexis Simendinger - June 5, 2014

President Obama on Thursday said he makes “no apologies” about approving a trade of five detainees from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay in order to extricate Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity after five years.

Speaking at a joint news conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in Brussels, the president said he was responsible as commander-in-chief for the welfare of a U.S. prisoner of war and wanted to reunite him with his parents, regardless of congressional misgivings about captive swaps in the past.

The president’s comments, which did not examine how he weighed the risks posed by the five Afghans released to the government of Qatar, were unlikely to be the final word as lawmakers, predominantly Republicans, vowed to investigate, and the Pentagon evaluates the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture in 2009.

Administration officials said Obama kept Congress in the dark until after U.S. Special Forces retrieved Bergdahl in eastern Afghanistan because the U.S. believed the Army sergeant could be killed by those who held him if information about the one-for-five trade was disclosed in advance.

While briefing senators and their staffs in the Capitol on Wednesday, administration officials told lawmakers the president and his team worked with speed and stealth out of concern that once wheels were in motion, any public disruption could threaten Bergdahl’s survival.

According to a senior administration official in a statement, members of Congress were told that, apart from knowledge of Bergdahl’s apparent deterioration in health, the U.S. 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.”

Some lawmakers present during the Capitol briefing disputed that account, arguing the president had created diversions after flouting a statutory requirement that he advise Congress about transfers of detainees from Guantanamo at least 30 days beforehand. With his public focus on Bergdahl, Obama has not extensively explained his calculations about releasing the terror suspects, or U.S. options should they return to the battlefield. Nor has Obama been asked to describe the Taliban’s future in Afghanistan, or his executive options to close Guantanamo --without congressional action -- by transferring the remaining 149 accused combatants to other locales.

What follows is a dissection of the president’s brief remarks in Brussels before he flew to France for D-Day commemorations:

“I’m never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington, all right? That’s par for the course.”

Obama did not acknowledge uncertainties about the prisoner swap, which have been voiced by Americans nationwide. Instead, he focused his attention on critics in Washington, especially Congress, casting their objections in a partisan, political light.

“We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind. We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated, and we were deeply concerned about [him]. And we saw an opportunity and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that.”

The president repeated his argument that 28-year-old Bergdahl was a prisoner of war, was in poor health, and was recovered by the United States on the basis of a long-held principle that captive or injured servicemen are rescued, at all costs. He conflated a series of assertions: that Bergdahl was a prisoner of war (even if held by non-state combatants); that the United States was obligated to get him back, regardless of Bergdahl’s actions -- maligned by some of his fellow soldiers -- leading up to his capture; and that the soldier’s “health” compelled both secrecy and speed, leaving Congress out of the picture. All points are being debated on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon, and nationwide.

Obama’s unapologetic demeanor about his commander-in-chief role was in contrast with the apologetic tone his White House advisers adopted this week while explaining to displeased lawmakers why the president worked around the law.

“We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this might occur. But because of the nature of the folks that we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did. And we're now explaining to Congress the details of how we moved forward.”

Administration officials have offered various explanations about why they didn’t advise Congress prior to the prisoner release. They said the Taliban, through Qatar, warned that disclosure might cost Bergdahl his life or jeopardize the safety of the U.S.-Taliban exchange. (Nonetheless, it was the Taliban who released a lengthy video chronicling the sergeant’s release and describing the U.S.-Taliban negotiations that made it possible.) White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri said the administration tried to “protect this mission, to keep it safe and secure.”

Officials have also said that Bergdahl had to be retrieved because “we have a sacred obligation to protect our soldiers, to bring them home,” as Palmieri put it. But officials noted that that obligation, which had existed for five years, escalated because Bergdahl’s health deteriorated late last year. Making the storyline more complex, those reports of ill health have also been raised as a statutory exception to the 30-day notification requirement.

Officials further argued that Obama’s constitutional authority as commander-in-chief supersedes any requirement to advise Congress, law or no law. And they say they expected Congress to howl, once the mission was complete, no matter how it turned out. “We knew this was going to be a controversial decision,” Palmieri told MSNBC Thursday.

Nonetheless, Obama and administration officials maintain that key lawmakers had in fact been notified in late 2011 and January 2012, and again last winter, about a possible prisoner swap with the Taliban.

“With respect to how we announced it [in the Rose Garden], I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction. This is not a political football. You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land, who they hadn't seen in five years and weren't sure whether they'd ever see again. And as commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces, I am responsible for those kids. … I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents, and that the American people understand that this is somebody's child and that we don't condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back.”

The president maintained Thursday that his responsibility was to Idaho parents Bob and Jani Bergdahl, who appeared with him Saturday, and to their son. He sought to place Bowe Bergdahl -- the “kid [who] volunteered to fight in a distant land” -- as the sympathetic figure in an uplifting story about war and obligations, despite aspersions that have been leveled at his commitment to military service.

But even after Obama’s remarks in Europe, his White House aides appeared to struggle in their search for a consistent narrative. Palmieri, standing outside the West Wing as Obama flew to Paris, said his advisers fully understood the controversies and criticisms surrounding Bergdahl’s capture, not to mention lawmakers’ well-known resistance to the release of high-risk Guantanamo captives.

“It’s not something that we expected to be a good-news story,” she said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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