TIME Foreign Policy

Fear for Soldier’s Life Led Obama to Hide Prisoner Exchange From Congress, Officials Say

The White House had reason to fear Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl would be killed if word of a prisoner exchange became public

The Obama Administration told lawmakers it didn’t notify them of the impending deal to secure the release of an American solider captured by the Taliban because it had reason to fear he would be killed if word of the deal became public, an official confirmed Thursday.

Officials told Senators at a Wednesday briefing that the U.S. “obtained credible information that, if anything about the swap became public, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl would be killed,” a Senate aide familiar with the briefing said.

Bergdahl was released Saturday after five years of captivity in exchange for five Guantánamo Bay detainees. The exchange has prompted fierce criticism from congressional Republicans who say they weren’t told about the deal and who say the Administration bucked a legal requirement to notify Congress before transferring Guantánamo detainees.

President Barack Obama again defended the deal on Thursday.

“I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back,” Obama said during a news conference in Brussels. “This is not a political football.”

A senior Administration official wouldn’t comment further on the congressional briefing.

“Our judgment was that every day Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner his life was at risk, and in the video we received in January, he did not look well,” the official said, referring to a so-called proof-of-life video officials had received. “This led to an even greater sense of urgency in pursuing his recovery. We can’t disclose classified comments from a closed congressional briefing. However, we are able to say that the Senators were told, separate and apart from Sergeant Bergdahl’s apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery — and potentially his life — could be jeopardized if the detainee-exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed.”

A Taliban commander close to the Bergdahl negotiations told TIME Thursday that the deal would embolden the group to try to kidnap more high-value American targets.

— With reporting from Zeke J Miller and Jay Newton-Small

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