WASHINGTON/WARSAW, (Reuters) – President Barack Obama defended yesterday the prisoner swap deal that freed a U.S. soldier from Taliban captivity in Afghanistan, and the Army pledged to investigate the circumstances of his capture after fellow soldiers said he had deserted.
Trying to defuse concerns of members of Congress who said the president broke the law by not giving them advance notice of the agreement, Obama told a news conference in Warsaw: “Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop.”
Top White House officials also tried to tamp down outrage in the Capitol by calling key lawmakers to apologize personally for failing to fill them in on the administration’s plans before last weekend’s prisoner swap.
Obama said the five Afghans released into the custody of the Gulf emirate of Qatar would be closely monitored there. Under the terms of the deal that freed 28-year-old U.S. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after being held for five years, the Taliban leaders must remain in Qatar for a year.
A senior Gulf official said on Tuesday the men had been moved to a residential compound in the capital, Doha, and can “move around freely within” Qatar.
The White House tweaked some Republican lawmakers for their criticism. It pointed reporters to Senator Kelly Ayotte’s remarks two weeks ago urging the Pentagon to “redouble its efforts” to return Bergdahl to his family and Senator John McCain’s comment in February saying he might support a prisoner swap.
Lawmakers from both political parties are concerned about the terms of the prisoner exchange, questioning how closely the released Taliban leaders would be monitored and whether it would set a precedent.
The five Afghans had been held at the much-criticized U.S. military base of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Congress is required to be given 30 days notice for any transfer of prisoners from there.
Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, emerged from a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and presidential adviser John Podesta saying there were questions about the required 30-day notification.
Durbin also said, “until I know the circumstances in Qatar, it’s kind of hard” to give an opinion about the prisoner swap.