President Barack Obama on Tuesday attempted to quell criticism over the prisoner exchange that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last known prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
“This is what happens at the end of wars,” Obama said in brief, cautious remarks at a joint press conference in Warsaw, Poland with Polish President Bronisław Komorowski. Obama insisted the steps taken to secure the release of Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban since 2009, were the “right thing to do.”
Conservatives have sharply criticized the trade, because it required the release of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay and lawmakers were not notified of the process in advance. Legally, Congress is supposed to be notified 30 days in advance of such a trade.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” Obama said. “We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange to recover Sgt. Bergdahl.”
“I don’t know what he means by consulted Congress for some time,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said on Morning Joe in response to the president’s remarks. “In 2011, they did come up and present a plan that included a prisoner transfer that was, in a bipartisan way, pushed back. We hadn’t heard anything since on any details of any prisoner exchange.”
Obama said that a “window” of opportunity appeared over concerns about Bergdahl’s health and the cooperation of the Qatari government. The five prisoners released from Guantanamo were sent to Qatar, where their movements will be restricted for at least a year.
“The process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss that window,” Obama said.
The prisoner swap prompted an immediate pushback from Congressional Republicans, who said it would embolden future kidnappings.
“Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl’s release may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans,” California Rep. Howard P. McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said on a joint statement with Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, following the news of the trade. “Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans. That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk.”
Others have protested because the murky circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture and allegations that he may have been captured while deserting his base in 2009.
“Let me just make a simple point here: 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,” Obama said.
He also added that he felt the U.S. is secure enough to release the five prisoners.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was detrimental to our national security,” he said. “We will be in a position to go after them if they are engaging in activity that threatens our defenses.”