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In Washington, Bergdahl Controversy Overshadows Obama's European Trip

Taliban Video Shows Handover Of U.S. Soldier Bergdahl
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WATCH: The Taliban released a video showing the handover of Bowe Bergdahl to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. The video on the Taliban-run Al-Amara website shows U.S. troops arriving by helicopter to pick up Bergdahl from armed militants. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- An ocean away, President Barack Obama just can't get away from Washington. On his trip to Poland, Belgium, and France, Obama has faced a flurry of questions on the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Obama announced the release to much fanfare when he appeared alongside Bergdahl's parents at the White House Rose Garden on May 31, just ahead of his European trip. But he has since found himself defending the deal cut with the Taliban to secure Bergdahl's release.

"We saw an opportunity, we seized it. And I make no apologies for it," he said in Brussels on June 5. "I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington."

The U.S. sergeant, who had been held since 2009 by the Taliban, was released in exchange for five Afghan Taliban members. The so-called "Taliban 5," who had been under U.S. custody at Guantanamo prison for more than a decade, were transferred to Qatar.

The ensuing controversy has inflamed hotly partisan Washington, where many lawmakers face midterm elections in November.

Criticism over the deal, most of it from Republicans, has come in several strains: Obama did not give Congress 30 days' notice as required by law to free the detainees; Obama negotiated with "terrorists"; the detainee release is a backdoor way of closing Guantanamo; Bergdahl was not worth the effort because he was a deserter; and the administration gave too much in the deal to release Bergdahl.

U.S. senators, swamped by throngs of reporters on Capitol Hill, slammed the administration on June 3 for the exchange.
Bowe Bergdahl, before his capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan
Bowe Bergdahl, before his capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan

"They're terrorists," said Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona), referring to the Taliban 5. "To release them, and now we find out that in Qatar they will be free to roam the country and leave Qatar after a year, we are putting additional American lives directly at risk." McCain said that he was for a swap but that the price was "unacceptable."

"This is a bad precedent to set," Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) said. "It makes it far more likely terrorists will kidnap Americans in dangerous posts throughout the world."

Obama's fellow Democrats have also voiced displeasure. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticized the president for not notifying Congress of the deal. "I strongly believe we should've been consulted, that the law should've been followed and I very much regret that was not the case," she said.

Senator Carl Levin (Democrat-Michigan) defended the swap. "Of course, we're all concerned," he said, referring to the possible security risk of the swap. "But the question is, you weigh that versus the release of an American soldier, where we have a sacred duty."

Murky Details Around Capture

Questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban in 2009, and whether he may have deserted his post, have attracted a storm of media attention in the United States.

An article in "The New York Times" on June 5 revealed that a classified military report on the investigation into Bergdahl's disappearance said he had a history of wandering off while on duty. The military report concluded that Bergdahl had walked away from his outpost in Afghanistan of his own free will.

Some fellow soldiers have characterized Bergdahl as a deserter in media interviews. CNN has reported that "at least six" troops had died looking for Bergdahl, although a report in "The New York Times" said the facts surrounding the deaths are far murkier.

To this point, Bergdahl has not been charged by the military and remains a sergeant in good standing. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno said in a June 4 statement that " at the appropriate time," the army "will conduct a thorough, transparent, and complete review of the circumstances surrounding his capture."

In the meantime, the controversy has led some members of Congress scrambling to delete tweets they initially issued in support of Bergdahl's release.

And the Obama administration has countered criticism of the deal by saying that the negotiations with the Taliban were carried out mostly by Qatar, and that Bergdahl's life would have been in danger had the impending swap been made public.

On June 4, it gave a classified briefing to senators that included a proof-of-life video from December 2013 showing Bergdahl in poor health.

A senior administration official later said on condition of anonymity that "Senators were told, separate and apart from Sergeant Bergdahl's apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sergeant Bergdahl's recovery -- and potentially his life -- could be jeopardized if the detainee-exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed."

Senate Republicans, who have a minority in the body, have called for a hearing into the matter. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, a Republican, has called for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to testify at a hearing on June 11 on Bergdahl.

Once the dust settles, the swap could end up being a positive for Obama, according to Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

"I think it will give him an opportunity to move towards a negotiated settlement with the Taliban," Korb says, noting that the war in Afghanistan is winding down. "It showed that he was willing to take a stand on an issue and say, 'Look, I'm the commander in chief, I'm doing this and I'm not apologizing.'"