President Obama said Thursday he would not apologize for trading five Taliban detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who the White House says could have been killed if details had leaked before his release last weekend.
Speaking in Brussels, Obama pushed back against swelling criticism on Capitol Hill by insisting Americans should view Bergdahl as a prisoner of war, not a "political football."
"You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land who they hadn't seen in five years and weren't sure whether they'd ever see again," Obama told reporters.
"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," he added. Obama is to return to Washington on Friday after attending D-day anniversary ceremonies in France.
The administration suggested for the first time that Bergdahl's life could have been in danger if information had leaked about the secret negotiations between U.S. diplomats and Taliban leaders, working through intermediaries in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, that led to the trade.
"We had both specific and general indications that Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery, and potentially his life, could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Administration officials said they worried that Bergdahl faced danger, even after the deal was made, from Taliban guards or others who didn't agree with freeing the American.
There might be "someone guarding him that possibly wouldn't agree and could take harmful action against him," said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman. "Time was of the essence."
Democratic leaders mostly accepted those assertions, as well as administration claims that the talks in Qatar were touch-and-go and that the deal didn't come together until the final hours, leaving too little time to brief members of Congress in advance.
The choice not to consult Congress has infuriated some members, who say a 2014 law requires the White House to give 30 days' notice before seeking to transfer anyone from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The administration maintains that Obama had authority to act without consulting Congress.
Bergdahl's release Saturday initially sparked jubilation and a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, but it quickly turned sour for the administration. Critics have complained that releasing the five Taliban prisoners was too big a concession.
Bergdahl apparently had grown disillusioned with the war and, according to an initial Pentagon investigation, slipped away from his outpost in eastern Afghanistan. He was captured by the Haqqani network, allies of the Taliban, and held for nearly five years.
Bergdahl is being treated at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany, and his health "continues to improve daily," according to a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren. "He is conversing with medical staff and becoming more engaged in his treatment plan."
"The process is about helping the returnee gain control of his emotions," Warren said. "One of the methods the psychologists use to help the returnee is to allow him to tell his story."
Bergdahl has not spoken to his parents yet, and no date has been set for his return to the United States.
In an interview with the BBC, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration's national security leaders had all recommended Obama approve the deal that secured Bergdahl's release. "We all came to the same conclusion that we didn't want to take any chances here," Hagel said.
The controversy showed little sign of abating on Capitol Hill. At least one senior Democrat joined Republicans in taking offense at the implication that they couldn't keep the negotiations secret.
An aide to the GOP House leadership said the claim that the details were too sensitive to share with Congress was "a flimsy and frankly offensive argument." The aide said "it seems clear that a large number of administration officials knew in advance."
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Paul Richter in Washington and Kathleen Hennessey in Brussels contributed to this report.