WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Obama administration is facing mounting questions over the prisoner swap that won freedom for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years in Taliban hands.
The release of five terrorist suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is stirring a debate over whether the exchange will heighten the risk of other Americans being snatched as bargaining chips and whether the released detainees will find their way back to the fight.
U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl’s health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release.
Republicans said the deal could set a troubling precedent, one called it “shocking.” Arizona Sen. John McCain said of the five Guantanamo detainees, “These are the hardest of the hard core.”
Republicans also said the deal violated requirements that Congress be given 30 days’ notice before any exchange of captives at Guantanamo.
National security adviser Susan Rice said Bergdahl had lost considerable weight and faced an “acute” situation. Yet she said he appeared to be “in good physical condition” and “is said to be walking.”
“We did not have 30 days to wait,” she said. “And had we waited and lost him, I don’t think anybody would have forgiven the United States government.”
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said he wants to know more from the administration about the trade, WCBS 880’s Fran Schneidau reported.
“I’m hearing a lot of skepticism about this trade and also the lack of consultation with Congress,” he told Schneidau. “I think the administration still has a case to make with the American people and I hope to hear it in the next day or so.”
Blumenthal said he believes the president should have sought congressional approval for the prisoner swap.
“I’m going to ask for briefings on the background, the reasons and the rationale for both the trade and the secrecy,” he said.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer echoed Blumenthal’s sentiments.
“I’m waiting for a briefing as to why they thought they could let these five guys go and, obviously, you have got to care about safety as well. The administration thinks they have taken care of that issue,” Schumer said.
In Kabul on Monday, the Afghan Foreign Ministry called the swap “against the norms of international law” if it came against the five imprisoned Taliban detainees’ will.
The ministry said: “No state can transfer another country’s citizen to a third country and put restriction on their freedom.”
The five detainees left Guantanamo aboard a U.S. military aircraft flying to Qatar, which served as go-between in the negotiations. They are to be banned from leaving Qatar for at least a year.
Among the five: a Taliban deputy intelligence minister, a former Taliban interior minister with ties to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a figure linked by human rights monitors to mass killings of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.
Bergdahl was being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. The hospital said Monday that Bergdahl is in “stable condition and receiving treatment for conditions requiring hospitalization”
The hospital said Bergdahl’s treatment “includes attention to dietary and nutrition needs after almost five years in captivity” but declined to release further details about his medical condition due to patient privacy laws.
The hospital said in a statement that “there is no pre-determined amount of time involved in the reintegration process” for the 28-year-old.
Meanwhile, Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, thanked all who were behind the effort to retrieve him.
“You were not left behind,” Bob Bergdahl told reporters, as if speaking to his son. “We are so proud of the way this was carried out.”
He spoke in Boise, Idaho, wearing a long bushy beard he’d grown to honor his son, as residents in the sergeant’s hometown of Hailey prepared for a homecoming celebration.
Questions persisted, too, about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s 2009 capture.
“I strongly believe that the military, the Army, should hold investigations into Sgt. Bergdahl, because of the very cloudy circumstances about how he allowed himself to be captured,” Rep. Peter King told CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer on Monday. “Apparently leaving his base in the middle of the night after making a series of anti-American statements. Hundreds of soldiers whose lives were at risk trying to find him.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to comment on earlier reports that the sergeant had walked away from his unit, disillusioned with the war. Such matters “will be dealt with later,” Hagel said.
Hagel, visiting troops in Afghanistan, was met with silence when he told a group of them in a Bagram Air Field hangar: “This is a happy day. We got one of our own back.”
It was unclear whether the absence of cheers and applause came from a reluctance to display emotion in front of the Pentagon chief or from any doubts among the troops about Bergdahl.
That same point was made Monday morning by White House press secretary Jay Carney.
“In a situation like this, you have a prisoner of war, a uniformed military person that was detained,” Carney said. “The United States does not leave our men and women behind in conflict. It was absolutely the right thing to do.”
In weighing the swap, U.S. officials decided that it could help the effort to reach reconciliation with the Taliban, which the U.S. sees as key to more security in Afghanistan. But they acknowledged the risk that the deal would embolden insurgents.
Republicans pressed that point.
“Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?”
“We have to make it clear that this is a one off and also I think we should be stepping up our counter-terror activity against the Taliban and al Qaeda. I’m concerned that were slowing down, virtually stopping our drone attacks,” Rep. King said.
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