President: “I make no apologies for making sure we get a young man back to his parents”

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

(CNN) — Calling the controversy over Bowe Bergdahl’s release from Taliban captors “whipped up in Washington,” President Barack Obama said Thursday he doesn’t apologize for swapping the captured Army sergeant for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

“I make no apologies for making sure we get a young man back to his parents,” Obama said at a news conference in Belgium at the end of the G7 summit.

The issue has roiled the political debate in America, with conservative critics calling the price for Bergdahl’s release too high and politicians in both parties complaining that Obama failed to notify Congress of the exchange ahead of time, as required by law.

Obama repeated his stance that he acted with legal authority to seize what might have been the last good chance to get Bergdahl out alive.

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Bergdahl

“We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and … we saw an opportunity and we seized it, and I make no apologies” for that, the President said.

Asked if he was surprised at the backlash, Obama said, “I’m never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington,” calling such a reaction “par for the course” and reiterating what he called a time-honored U.S. principle that “we do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind.”

Meanwhile, a knowledgeable source told CNN that efforts to free Bergdahl from Taliban hands were long and arduous, but the deal might pave the way for possible future talks between the United States and the Taliban.

“Often there could be a very long delay, even weeks, between passing a message and getting a response” from the Taliban, said the source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

For example, the negotiation team would “go to Qatar for a few hours, pass the message, and it could be a week or more before we heard back.”

The conversation over the past year was mediated by Qatar.

Then, on May 23, a U.S. negotiating team landed in Qatar and started another series of negotiations, the source said. That’s when the team realized it was closer to a deal.

The pace of the talks picked up. Messages were passed back and forth on a daily basis. By May 27, the basic structure of the deal was reached, and President Barack Obama spoke with the Emir of Qatar by phone, the source said.

Implications of the swap

The deal showed that the Taliban are able to reach and execute an agreement, the source added. It showed that the Taliban’s political commission can speak for the movement and can give orders to foot soldiers, which are then carried out.

The source said the real conversation going forward needs to be between Afghanistan and the Taliban, but did not discount the possibility that the U.S. would have future discussions with the Taliban.

Questionable deal

Bergdahl’s captors handed him over to the United States in exchange for the release of five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The source said the five ex-prisoners could return to the Taliban movement but still not radically affect the strength of the Taliban on the battlefield.

Those five men, while seen as senior officials in the Taliban, have not been in touch with their brothers for a decade, and their ability to be operational and hurt U.S. troops if they go back to Afghanistan is believed to be minimal, the source said.

The comments stand in contrast to remarks made by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who said the five members of the Taliban are going back to the battlefield “to kill Americans.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the prisoner swap, arguing that it puts American lives at risk by releasing terrorists and accusing Obama of breaking the law by not notifying Congress 30 days in advance.

Since announcing Bergdahl’s release over the weekend, Obama administration officials have repeatedly said they fast-tracked the operation over concerns about his health and safety, which appeared to be in jeopardy.

Recent intelligence, in addition to two proof-of-life videos of Bergdahl released in recent months, led to growing concern about his health and safety, a senior defense official said Wednesday.

Administration officials have said they consulted the Justice Department and acted legally. But some Republican lawmakers have said they’re not buying that argument, and they want proof that Bergdahl’s health was really in jeopardy.

On Wednesday night, Obama administration officials showed a proof-of-life video of Bergdahl at a classified Senate briefing. Lawmakers emerging from the closed session had mixed reactions as to whether his health was evidence that he needed to be immediately freed.

Some also continued their objections that Congress wasn’t notified of the swap.

But Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said the administration had intelligence that “had even the fact of these discussions (about the proposed swap) leaked out, there was a reasonable chance Bowe Bergdahl would have been killed.”

“That was one of the pieces of information that we learned … that gave it some credence in terms of why it had to be keep quiet so long,” King told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday.

Still, King said the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees should have been informed, if not all of Congress.

John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration who was not at the classified briefing, told CNN that the prisoner swap deal was “defensible.”

“This is one of those tough national security situations that presidents face,” he said, “where all the options are bad.”

Deserter or hero?

National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. But there’s a growing chorus of criticism from some who served with him, describing him as a deserter.

“I believe that he totally deserted not only his fellow soldiers, but his leadership that wanted the best for him and for our country,” said former Army Staff Sgt. Justin Gerleve, who was Bergdahl’s squad leader.

Some soldiers involved in operations to find Bergdahl have said at least six soldiers were killed searching for him. Asked about this point, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Wednesday that he did not know of specific circumstances or details of soldiers dying as a result of the efforts to find Bergdahl.

Gerleve told “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that he believes Bergdahl is at least partly to blame for the soldiers’ deaths.

“I can’t really say I blame Bergdahl to fullest extent, but if he wouldn’t have deserted us, these soldiers very well could have been in a different place at a different time,” he said.

An Army fact-finding investigation conducted in the months after Bergdahl’s 2009 disappearance concluded that he left his outpost deliberately and on his own free will, according to a U.S. military official briefed on the report. The official spoke to CNN on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

There was no definitive finding that Bergdahl deserted, because that would require knowing his intent — something Army officials couldn’t do without talking to the soldier.

Long road ahead

Bergdahl will remain at a U.S. Army medical center in Germany until he completes treatment, a U.S. defense official there told CNN. After that, he will return to the United States and go to a military base in San Antonio, Texas, the official said.

As the controversy continues, Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, canceled a “Bowe is Back” event planned to celebrate his return “in the interest of public safety.”

The city said organizers expected a large number of supporters and protesters.

“Hailey, a town of 8,000, does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become,” the city said.

TM & © 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

18 comments

  • Bill

    This president thinks he’s above the law! He knew that Congress would say NO to the transfer of terrorist because they did so before.
    It’s time for OUR elected officials to do their job…..start Impeachment proceeding’s. Our country has become a laughing stock of the world because this man CAN’t govern this country.
    America has been through tough times before and we’ll survive this idiot’s time in office. IT WILL take time to do damage control after he’s out of office as long. Then the biggest concern is that WE the people don’t put another idiot back ie; Hilary Clinton.

  • Pete

    Might as well have said “I make no apologies for the hundreds maybe thousdands of innocent lives lost to capture those sons of hitches Taliban.” I make no apologies for those families of soldiers who lost their lives looking for this AWOLl dirtbag soldier”.

    Obama should be impeached NOW.

    Those Taliban are now well versed in how our weakened Country is… now all they have to do is capture several US men and they can get back 20 Taliban. Stupid stupid stupid move Mr. President

    • Nonnie Mouse

      I am afraid Pete is right…but I pray every day that he is wrong. Are we seeing the fall of a great empire?

  • Michael

    “The issue has roiled the political debate in America, with conservative critics calling the price for Bergdahl’s release too high and politicians in both parties complaining that Obama failed to notify Congress of the exchange ahead of time, as required by law.”

    Yet his defenders will still say he isn’t imperial at all.

  • Antonio

    Strong words from you guys. But if that was your son, your brother, your husband, or your father……you would want him back home safe. Deserter or not, he is still an American, and no American deserves to die over there. You people should be a little more compassionate for your fellow man. You should be ashamed of your thoughtless comments.

    • Me

      I would hope that any relative of mine would have the sense not to make an idiotic decision such as that one. If it were a situation as simple as rescuing a soldier, ya know without the lives of many truly decent soldiers being cruelly taken, then this obviously would be a different story. It’s the fact that the sacrifice was in no way equal to the reward that has so many upset. Go on and preach your bs to those stupid enough to listen… i’d be willing to bet that if you were in fact related to one of the 6 soldiers killed you would clearly see the other side.

    • Branko Pezdi

      Your strawman arugment and attempt at laying a gult trip doesn’t fly, pal. Perhaps YOU’re the one who should be thinking about your lack of compassion and ashamed of your thoughtlessness. Do you have any sympathy at all for the eight American soldiers that were killed searching for this deserter? Do you have any compassion for the soldiers in the deserter’s unit who were killed or maimed because the deserter collaborated with his Taliban buddies. Do you have any compassion for the unknown number of Americans who lost their lives directly and indirectly at the hands of the high-level terrorists that were freed by your hero Obama? We know that Obama’s answer to all these questions is a resounding “No!”. Why do you enjoy handing a smashing victory to the Taliban, one of the most evil groups that ever existed in history? 12 years ago they were smashed and on the run, now in just a few short years your hero Obama has singlehandedly brought them back to power and prominence, and it is beyond doubt that within two years they will once again control and dominate Afghanistan. Do you have any sympathy for the thousands of Afghanis that will be hunted down and murdered by these thugs once they regain control? Do you have any sympathy for the Americans that will be kidnapped and murdered in the future as a direct consequence of your hero Obama empowering the Taliban?

      But never mind, it’s a futile exercise trying to reason with or expect common sense and decency from ideologically brainwashed drones such as yourself.

      • Say What

        Bunko, why do you call any comment that you do not agree with a straw man argument? It is starting to look like the only straw man around here is you!

      • Antonio

        Keep in mind Branko, not once did you hear me criticize your knowledge or thought process ” strawman”. The fact of the matter is, American’s should not even be over there risking their lives for any cause. And your notions that this man was a deserter or a collaborator is purely speculation. Now I don’t praise Obama for being a “hero”, but I do commend his efforts to bring our troops home from Afghan, Even you cannot argue that their our less troops over there in harms way than before he got into office. My heart goes out to every soldier who risk their lives for our freedom, but if we can do something over here to bring one of our brother’s home, then I’m all for it. So get the hostility out of your heart, and quit bashing everyone’s intelligence and thought processes that are not in tune with yours

    • Michael

      Antonio, try telling that to the families of the soldiers that were killed or placed in harm’s way looking for this clown.

    • Bill

      Have you served in the military antionio? I served 31 years in the military and I DO have compassion for my fellow man! Yes we needed to get him back…but NOT in a hero’s status! The president has made a FOOL of himself again struting around the WH “look what I did”. He’s a joke and doesn’t deserve to represent this GREAT country! He broke the LAW and deserves tio be held accountable just like we would be if we had broken the law.
      CONGRESS……..DON’T give the president a ‘Get out of jail free card” on this one.
      Antonio…you’re just another bleeding heart LIBERAL who thinks everything should be JUST RIGHT. Don’t hurt anyone’s feeling’s or hold people accountable for anything. If you did serve in the military,I’m sure you didn’t make it a career….at least I hope not.

  • paul

    Antonio, thank you for your common sense post. I’m a veteren, 3yrs, 9mons, and 27 days, and I know why some people make a career out of the military. I did my time; lifer bill road the gravy train i bet, probably never walk in harms way, unless he opened his mouth in some bar and showed his intelligence.
    Blanko is a, plainly stated, a loser. These type of folks have to have somebody, mostly their president, to bash to make themselves feel smarter and consider themselves a real American; the type Sarah Palin talks about, with all her intelligence.
    Did your president break the law? No
    Did Lifer Bill and Blanko and Bubba’s man, GW, release any Taliban? Yes, 540!
    Antonio, some folks have not evolved. They just don’t get it. I told myself I would never lower myself to the levels of blanko or a lifer bill and the other knuckle draggers. They still have over 2yrs of complaining on President Blackinstein; you know, the socialist kenyan they just can not rise above.
    Peace & Love to everybody

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