President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended his decision to release five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for freeing an American soldier, saying his administration had consulted with Congress about that possibility “for some time.”
Obama also brushed aside questions about the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s capture by insurgents in 2009, saying the U.S. has an obligation to not leave its military personnel behind.
“Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American solider back if he’s held in captivity,” Obama said during a news conference in Poland. “We don’t condition that.”
The Pentagon concluded in 2010 that Bergdahl walked away from his unit, and, after an initial flurry of searching, the military curbed any high-risk rescue plans.
Bergdahl was in stable condition at a U.S. military hospital in Germany. But questions mounted at home over the way his freedom was secured: Five high-level members of the Taliban were released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and sent to Qatar. The five, who will have to stay in Qatar for a year before going back to Afghanistan, include former ministers in the Taliban government, commanders and one man who had direct ties to the late al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
Republicans in Congress criticized the agreement and complained about not having been consulted, citing a law that requires Congress to be given 30 days’ notice before a prisoner is released from Guantanamo. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee said the Pentagon notified the panel by phone on Saturday that the exchange was occurring in the next five hours.
Obama suggested Tuesday that lawmakers were aware of the prospect that the U.S. could agree to a prisoner swap with the Taliban. And he defended how his administration handled the formal notifications, saying that when the opportunity to free Bergdahl presented itself, “We seized that opportunity.”
The U.S. and the Taliban negotiated the prisoner exchange indirectly, with the government of Qatar serving as an intermediary. The five Afghan prisoners are now in Qatar and are banned from traveling outside the country for a minimum of one year.
Obama acknowledged that there was always a chance that the released Afghans could return to the Taliban or other groups seeking to harm the U.S. If they take those steps, Obama said the U.S. “will be in a position” to go after them.
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