President Barack Obama has vigorously defended the secret prisoner swap done last weekend with the Taliban that led to the release of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl amid new questions about the circumstances of his capture in Afghanistan five years ago and mounting criticism of the deal in Congress.
Last Saturday a joyous-looking Mr Obama stepped onto the White House lawn alongside the parents of the soldier to announce the return of the American. But what might have been chalked up as a stars-and-stripes coup for the president has since curdled into a nasty political controversy that seems set only to grow.
Trickiest of all are records showing that on 30 June 2009, Sgt Bergdahl, who had publicly voiced criticism of the US Army’s mission in Afghanistan, simply upped and left his unit at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, taking no weapons with him only to be snatched by Taliban militants. Critics have this week termed him a "traitor" and a "deserter" and argued that the military mission to find him at the time may have cost the lives of six other soldiers.
“Six of my best friends are now dead in direct relation to this man, who is now being acclaimed a national hero by the president of the United States, and he is not,” one former unit comrade, Joseph Cox, told CNN. “He is a traitor. He deserted his unit in a combat zone.”
Meanwhile, some Republicans in Congress, though wary of being seen as unpatriotic in querying the return of a man who had been America’s last known prisoner of war, are seeking hearings on the Hill. They question the price that was paid – the release by the US of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay - and why Mr Obama apparently overrode a law requiring that Congress be given 30 days’ notice of any Guantanamo releases.
Mr Obama attempted to address the full tangle of these issues at a news conference yesterday in Poland, at the outset of a three-day visit to Europe. But he insisted the swap was justified. “Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop,” he asserted.
The sudden swirl around the deal and the soldier’s real record threatens to dampen not just Mr Obama’s already strained political spirits but also celebrations that have been long-planned by his home-town of Hailey, Idaho, where lampposts and trees had been adorned with yellow ribbons as reminders of Sgt Bergdahl’s absence. For its 8,000 residents, the young man was meant to return as an American hero, not at all as a man accused of deserting.
For now, Sgt Bergdahl – he was promoted to the rank while in captivity – is under medical and psychological surveillance at a US military hospital in Germany. From there he will be transferred first to another base in San Antonio, Texas. It is unclear therefore when his return to Hailey will happen.
That he may in time be investigated for his actions in leaving his unit was hinted at by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, in a statement posted yesterday on his Facebook page. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.” But for now, he added, the priority was caring for him.
The point was also stressed by Mr Obama. “Our main priority is making sure the transition that he’s undergoing after five years in captivity is successful,” the president said.
Under the deal sanctioned by Mr Obama, Sgt Bergdahl was whisked away from Taliban hands in a US military hospital on Saturday while the five Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo were freed and sent to Qatar. The Qatari government had acted throughout as the negotiating intermediary between the White House and the Taliban. Qatar meanwhile gave the US its guarantee that the five men would be required to remain in the country for a year.
Today, however, reports that the men had been allowed to settle in a residential compound in Doha and would be free to move around within the country were likely only to deepen anxiety about the deal on Capitol Hill. Republicans demanding hearings into the swap include Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“The United States is less safe because of these actions,” Senator Graham, a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter demanding a congressional inquiry. “I fear President Obama’s decision will inevitably lead to more Americans being kidnapped and held hostage throughout the world.”
For his part, Mr Obama conceded that in the end the five freed men could eventually attempt to harm the United States. “We will be keeping eyes on them. Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” Mr Obama said. But he added: “I wouldn't be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security and we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if in fact they are engaging in activities that threaten our defences.”
He meanwhile insisted that while the specifics of the deal had not been discussed with Congress 30 days in advance, the possibility of a swap involving Sgt Bergdahl had been. In the end, he said, time was of the essence.
"We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sgt Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sgt Bergdahl's health,” Mr Obama said. “We seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window.”
Officials in the White House had long been concerned that the chances of getting the young man back would become greatly diminished after the end of this year when the vast majority of US soldiers are due to leave Afghanistan.