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Obama adamantly defends Taliban prisoner swap that freed U.S. soldier

The release of America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan in a trade for five senior Taliban commanders in U.S. custody was over in minutes Saturday. But it followed 31/2 years of secret on-and-off negotiations that produced far less than the White House had hoped.

The idea of swapping prisoners emerged in early 2011, Obama administration and congressional officials said Tuesday, when U.S. officials still sought to convince Taliban political leaders to come to the negotiating table to end the grinding war in Afghanistan.

The peace talks never took place, and the prisoner exchange has now forced the White House to launch a fierce defense. President Obama and his top aides insist they did the right thing by making the trade to get Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl home from Afghanistan as the war winds down.

On a visit to Poland, the first stop of a three-nation trip to Europe, Obama said the United States "has a pretty sacred rule.... We don't leave our men or women in uniform behind" on the field of battle.

"This is what happens at the end of wars," he said, arguing that he had followed in the path of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

The president's assertive defense came as questions continued to swirl around the exchange that led to Bergdahl's release: Does the swap make U.S. soldiers and civilians more likely to be taken hostage? How can the administration guarantee that the five Taliban commanders don't return to the battlefield? Did the U.S. try all other options to free Bergdahl?

Obama dismissed as irrelevant the concerns about how Bergdahl had disappeared. An initial Army investigation concluded four years ago that the now 28-year-old Idaho native, who had written emails suggesting he was disillusioned with the Army and the war, had walked away from his unit's base near the Pakistani border without authorization on June 30, 2009.

"Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity — period, full stop," Obama said. "We don't condition that. That's what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect — not just from their commander in chief, but also from the United States of America."

But top Republican defense hawks made it clear Tuesday that they were not about to allow the episode to come to a quiet close, ensuring highly charged scrutiny as classified briefings and public congressional hearings are scheduled in the run-up to the midterm election this fall.

"We should have certainly made efforts to bring Bergdahl home, but this price is higher than any in history," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who called the prisoner swap a mistake.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, said the swap was illegal because Obama didn't give Congress the required 30-day notice before transferring detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The requirement is in the 2014 Defense Authorization Act.

"The president has released, illegally, arguably the five most vicious, serious Taliban terrorists," Inhofe said. "Sure they're happy to have him home," he said of Bergdahl's family, but "you weigh that against the circumstances that will present themselves by five terrorists out killing Americans."

Administration officials said Tuesday that they construed the law to allow a Guantanamo transfer without notice if the notice would "endanger the soldier's life."

Army investigators plan to question Bergdahl, who is in a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, about his capture. Pentagon officials familiar with the case said it wasn't clear whether he would face charges or punishment. And it could be months before he is questioned, they said.

"Our first priority is ensuring Sgt. Bergdahl's health and beginning his reintegration process," Army Secretary John McHugh said. "There is no timeline for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery."

He said the Army would then interview Bergdahl to "better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity. All other decisions will be made thereafter and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices."

In a video, Bergdahl has said that he was captured after falling behind on a patrol.

If the Army decides to prosecute him, he could be court-martialed on a charge of desertion or a less serious offense, such as being absent without leave.

If convicted, Bergdahl faces punishments including dishonorable discharge and imprisonment, depending on how harshly the Army wants to treat a soldier who has already spent nearly five years in captivity.

The negotiations for Bergdahl's release followed a tortuous path.

When the U.S. side demanded the sergeant's return at the outset, Taliban negotiators demanded that the five detainees — plus another who later died — be transferred from Guantanamo.

But the administration wanted more than Bergdahl back. It viewed a prisoner exchange as a first step, a "confidence-building measure" that could pave the way for reconciliation talks between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban.

Whether that was realistic is arguable. The U.S. set conditions for the Taliban that would have amounted to a virtual surrender: recognizing the Afghan government, repudiating Al Qaeda and renouncing violence in Afghanistan.

On Nov. 30, 2011, congressional officials said, the White House offered a highly classified briefing led by then-special envoy Marc Grossman and seven military and intelligence officials to ranking members of Congress to discuss the nascent diplomatic effort.

Among those attending, officials said, was House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, House Armed Services Committee and House Intelligence Committee, among others. The briefing included the proposed trade of Bergdahl for the five Taliban prisoners.

The lawmakers were told the briefing was classified to ensure Bergdahl's safety and because it involved sensitive diplomatic negotiations as well as intelligence sources and methods.

The House members responded with two classified letters to the White House expressing concerns about the potential release of so many senior Taliban commanders, among other questions. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responded on Jan. 13, 2012, officials said, and Grossman led a follow-up briefing for the same group on Jan. 31.

A Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing sensitive material, said Tuesday that the concerns raised then were the same as those now roiling the GOP.

The briefings ended when the back-channel talks with the Taliban bogged down in 2012. The only sign of progress was that the insurgent group had been allowed to open a political office in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.

That office proved crucial when talks came to life again last fall. Taliban officials, speaking through Qatari intermediaries, expressed an interest in a prisoner exchange. They still showed no interest in peace talks or renouncing terrorism, however.

Administration officials were eager to get Bergdahl back as they closed out America's 13-year war in Afghanistan. They were especially concerned when a video, released in January after the U.S. side demanded proof he was alive, showed him thinner and apparently unhealthy.

They feared that their leverage to bargain — and their ability to collect enough intelligence to possibly locate him in Afghanistan — would be reduced when U.S. troop levels drop from 32,000 to fewer than 10,000 at the end of this year.

The two sides worked out a deal to transfer the five Taliban commanders to Qatar, where they will be monitored and barred from foreign travel for a year. Obama approved the arrangement May 27, after a phone call to the emir of Qatar, and Bergdahl was handed over to special operations troops about 6 p.m. Saturday in Khowst province in Afghanistan.

christi.parsons@latimes.com

michael.memoli@latimes.com

david.cloud@latimes.com

Times staff writers Paul Richter and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report from Washington and Warsaw, respectively.

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