President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended the prisoner trade agreement that secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay.
At a news conference in Warsaw, Obama batted away congressional objections that he violated a provision of a 2013 law that required congressional notification before the release of any prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. “We’ve consulted with Congress for some time about prisoner exchange,” Obama said. “We don’t leave our men or women behind,” he added.
Obama said negotiators seized an opportunity, offered up by intermediaries in Qatar, to secure the release of the only known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan before U.S. troops scaled back their presence in Afghanistan by the end of the year. “This is what happens at the end of wars,” Obama said. “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. We don’t condition that.”
Of the 5 released prisoners, now in Qatar, Obama said: “‘We will be keeping eyes on them.”
National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden added in a statement that the prisoner trade was fully within the bounds of presidential powers and that negotiators were working against threats of “grave harm” to Bergdahl that justified the need for a quick agreement. “We believe it is fair to conclude that Congress did not intend that the Administration would be barred from taking the action it did in these circumstances,” Hayden said.
Prominent Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain, have criticized the prisoner exchange, arguing that the terms of the release should have been vetted with Congress and that the exchange could expose troops to a greater risk of being captured.
Bergdahl has also faced criticism during his long journey home to Hailey, Idaho. Believed to have walked off his forward operating base in 2009 with still-mysterious motives, fellow soldiers have branded him a deserter or worse in recent days. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said that questions about Bergdahl’s conduct as a soldier were separate from the decision to rescue him, but suggested the Army would investigate the circumstances of his capture. “When he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts,” he said. “Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
=Obama also used the press conference in Warsaw on Tuesday to urge Congress to fund a $1 billion U.S. military build up in Europe as a bulwark against threats to NATO. The announcement comes as Obama visits east European allies increasingly anxious about Russia’s moves in Ukraine.