By Justin Sink - 06/03/14 07:22 AM EDT
President Obama dismissed concerns over the controversial prisoner swap to return U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after nearly five years in Taliban captivity, amid a new report suggesting the lone prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict deserted his post.
"Regardless of the circumstances, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity,” Obama said. “Period. Full stop."
Obama said U.S. officials “obviously have not been interrogating Sgt. Bergdahl” since his return.
“He’s having to undergo a whole battery of tests, and he’s going to have to undergo a significant transition back into life,” Obama said, noting that he “has not even met with his family yet.”
But, the president said, the U.S. doesn’t “condition” its “sacred” obligation to not “leave our men or women in uniform behind.”
And Obama said charges against Bergdahl was “not something we’re discussing at this point.”
“Our main priority is making sure the transition he’s making after five years of captivity is successful,” Obama said.
In a post to his Facebook page on Tuesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said questions about Bergdahl’s conduct were “separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity.”
“As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts,” Dempsey said. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
The president also defended the administration’s decision to ignore a law requiring Congress is notified 30 days before prisoners are transferred from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Five Taliban fighters were released to facilitate Bergdahl’s return to the U.S.
“We have consulted with Congress for quite some time that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange,” Obama said.
Obama said the U.S. was concerned about Bergdahl’s health and that the opportunity to make the swap could pass.
“The process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we did not miss that window,” Obama said.
In a statement over the weekend, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused Obama of having “clearly violated laws that require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated.”
“Our joy at Sgt. Bergdahl’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it,” the lawmakers said.
Shortly after the president’s remarks, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden offered a lengthy legal defense for the administration’s decision to not abide by the 30-day requirement.
“Delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the Executive’s performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers,” Hayden said.
“Because such interference would significantly alter the balance between Congress and the President, and could even raise constitutional concerns, 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.”
In Warsaw, Obama also looked to mollify concerns that the Taliban militants released from Guantánamo Bay would pose a threat to the United States.
On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he wanted more details on “what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan.”
Obama conceded it was a possibility that the detainees could return to the battlefield, but said the U.S. had the capabilities to go after them. He also stressed the deal was “conditioned on the Qataris keeping an eye on them.”
U.S. officials have said the Taliban militants are subject to a one-year travel ban, among other conditions.
Hayden said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had determined "actions have or will be taken that substantially mitigate the risk that the individual will engage in activity that threatens the United States" before authorizing the transfer.
— This report was updated at 8:06 a.m.