WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials told lawmakers that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s life could have been in danger if details about a covert operation to swap him for five Taliban detainees had been divulged, a senior administration official said Thursday.
The disclosure came as the administration sought to tamp down bipartisan anger in Congress over its decision to conduct the prisoner exchange without first notifying lawmakers, as required by federal law.
“The senators were told, separate and apart from Sgt. Bergdahl’s apparent deterioration in health, that 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,” the official said in a statement.
Administration officials earlier had cited concerns about Bergdahl’s declining health, and the conflicting narrative provided at a closed-door briefing Wednesday night for all 100 senators raised more questions among some members of Congress.
“Remember what they said in the first place: they were doing this because of health reasons,” said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. “Now they’re backing away from that and they’ve got a new reason. That would cause one to question whether or not that is a legitimate claim or not.”
The administration official, however, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deal, said Bergdahl’s health after five years in captivity was a factor in the deliberations.
“Our judgment was that every day Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner his life was at risk, and in the video we received in January, he did not look well,” the senior administration official said. “This led to an even greater sense of urgency in pursuing his recovery.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called on the administration to release the legal analysis for not notifying Congress within 30 days of transferring the detainees, saying “the possible return of these individuals to the battlefield is a matter of high interest to members of our military and the American people.”
Some Democrats, including Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, said they believed the administration moved as it saw necessary.
“I think timing was everything, and I think it was important to get him out of there,” Begich said. “What’s more important is that we recovered military personnel that was captured by the Taliban and we’ll take it from there.”
From Brussels where he was meeting with European leaders, President Barack Obama defended the deal, saying he’d make “absolutely no apologies” for seeing that a U.S. servicemember was returned to the United States.
The president made no mention of a threat to Bergdahl’s life but reiterated concerns about his health, saying “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.”
Obama said the administration had briefed Congress earlier on similar deals to free Bergdahl and contends that it is not bound by the requirement that it notify Congress if it plans to transfer Guantanamo detainees.
“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,” he said.
The decision has infuriated members of Congress — even some who had earlier pressed Obama to do whatever he could to secure Bergdahl’s release.
Risch said people outside the administration “have real reservations about what was given in order to get” and said that although he wanted Bergdahl out of Taliban custody, “that doesn’t mean you’re willing to do anything. You have to weigh the consequences of this.”
Also sparking anger are claims by his fellow soldiers that Bergdahl went AWOL on June 30, 2009, before his capture by Taliban rebels and that his disappearance may have led to other casualties. Some have also criticized the administration for hosting Bergdahl’s parents in the Rose Garden to make the announcement. But Obama said “it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction.”
“This is not a political football,” he said. “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.”
He noted that as commander-in-chief he was responsible.
“I get letters from parents who say, ‘If you are, in fact, sending my child into war, make sure that that child is being taken care of,’ ” Obama said. “And I write too many letters to folks who, unfortunately, don’t see their children again after fighting a war.”
Obama said the release upholds a “basic principle” that the U.S. doesn’t leave its military behind.
“This basic recognition that that often means prisoner exchanges with enemies is not unique to my administration,” he said. “It dates back to the beginning of our republic.”
The release of Bergdahl comes as the administration has long sought to close the offshore detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine said there is a “reasonable legal argument” that the five detainees — held as enemy combatants — would have to be released when the U.S. ends combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of the year.
“Under the law of war, when hostility cease, enemy combatants have to be released,” King told CNN. “There’s a reasonable argument this may have been the last chance to get Bergdahl where these guys had true value to us as a negotiating tool, because if they had to be released anyway, we’d be in the same situation without Bowe Bergdahl home.”
A legal adviser to former president George W. Bush said it was likely that the U.S. would be required “as a matter of international law” to release the Taliban prisoners at the end of combat operations.
“The administration appears to have reached a defensible, hold-your-nose compromise by arranging, in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl, for the individuals to be held in Qatar for a year before they return to Afghanistan,” John Bellinger wrote on the legal blog, Lawfare.
The firestorm over the release has not diminished administration desire to continue clearing out some of the 78 captives at Guantanamo already approved for transfer from the detention center now holding 149 prisoners.
A U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition he be identified as a senior administration official, said on Thursday that the State Department was in the process of negotiating transfers for “a significant number” of captives already “in the pipeline in varying stages” prior to the Bergdahl release and ensuing controversy.
The official predicted there would be “substantial progress this year” in the effort to empty the detention center — but would not say how many detainees constituted the “significant number” in the transfer pipeline. Nor would he say whether the Pentagon had any active 30-day notices before Congress clearing the way for future transfers. He cited the confidentiality of the communications with Congress and the fact that the substance of the notice was classified.
Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.