Critics attack soldier swap

The release of America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan in a trade for five senior Taliban commanders from U.S. custody took only minutes Saturday. But it followed 31/2 years of secret on-and-off negotiations that produced far less than the White House had hoped.

The idea of swapping prisoners emerged in early 2011, administration and congressional officials said Tuesday, when U.S. officials still sought to convince Taliban political leaders to come to the negotiating table to end the grinding war in Afghanistan.

That never happened, but the exchange forced the White House to launch a fierce defense of their actions Tuesday. President Obama and his top aides insisted were right to make the trade to get Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl home from Afghanistan as the war winds down.

On a visit to Warsaw, Poland, the first stop of a three-nation trip to Europe, Obama said the United States "has a pretty sacred rule. … We don't leave our men or women in uniform behind" on the field of battle.

"This is what happens at the end of wars," Obama said, arguing he followed in the path of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

He dismissed as irrelevant questions about how Bergdahl had disappeared. An initial Army investigation concluded four years ago that Bergdahl, who had written emails suggesting he was disillusioned with the Army and the war, had walked away from his unit's base near the Pakistan border on June 30, 2009, without authorization.

"Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity — period, full stop," Obama said. "We don't condition that. That's what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect — not just from their commander in chief, but also from the United States of America."

But top GOP defense hawks made clear Tuesday that they were not about to let the episode come to a quiet close, ensuring highly charged scrutiny as classified briefings and public congressional hearings are scheduled in the run-up to the mid-term elections this fall.

"We should have certainly made efforts to bring Bergdahl home, but this price is higher than any in history," said Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican, who was a prisoner of war for five and a half years in Vietnam, called the swap a "mistake."

Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the swap was illegal because Obama didn't give Congress the required 30-day notice before transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The requirement is in the 2014 Defense Authorization Act.

"The president has released, illegally, arguably the five most vicious, serious Taliban terrorists," the Oklahoma lawmaker said. "Sure [Bergdahl's family is] happy to have him home," he said, but "you weigh that against the circumstances that will present themselves by five terrorists out killing Americans."

Administration officials said Tuesday that they construe the law to allow a Guantanamo transfer without notice if the notice would "endanger the soldier's life."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Monday that the swap set a "dangerous precedent" that "puts all Americans at risk throughout the world."

"Since World War II we have not negotiated with terrorists or other groups," the Baltimore County lawmaker said. "What concerns me is the future. This puts all Americans at risk throughout the world, including our men and women on the front line ... for kidnapping."

Ruppersberger is part of a group of eight senior lawmakers focused on intelligence and military matters who ordinarily would be briefed before such a decision is carried out.

"I'm willing to at least hear the administration's point of view and justification," he said, "but I'm worried about the long-term affect."

Other Democrats in Maryland's congressional delegation have been quiet on the trade. Several said they wanted to learn more before saying whether the White House made the right move.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she wanted to know whether the United States now has a new policy for negotiating over missing Americans, and what the criteria for such a policy might be.

"I need the facts," Mikulski said. "The American people need the facts."

A spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Cardin said he would reserve judgment until he receives a briefing.