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Administration Defends Bowe Bergdahl's Release Amid Criticism

President Obama, Jani Bergdahl and Bob Bergdahl speak during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on May 31 about the release of their son, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama, Jani Bergdahl and Bob Bergdahl speak during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on May 31 about the release of their son, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

President Obama today [Tuesday] defended the deal under which Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was freedin exchange for high-level Taliban prisoners, saying his administration had consulted with Congress over a possible trade. And, he dismissed questions about how Bergdahl was captured by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan in June 2009.

"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," Obama said at a news conference. "We don't condition that."

He said the U.S. has a "sacred" obligation to not leave service members behind.

Separately, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Facebook posting that "questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity."

And, he added: "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred."

Army Secretary John McHugh issued a statement Tuesday saying that a "comprehensive, coordinated" review of Bergdahl's disappearance would be undertaken, but that restoring the former captive to health was a first priority. (Update at 4:45 p.m. ET)

As we told you yesterday, Bergdahl's release has spurred as many questions as answers. One of those questions is just how he was captured. We reported:

"Details are murky. In a video released by the Taliban a month after his capture, Bergdahl said he lagged behind while on patrol.

"The Associated Press has varying accounts of how he disappeared. In one, U.S. officials said the soldier walked off his base with three Afghans. Another account suggested Bergdahl was captured during an attack on his post. The Taliban, meanwhile, said they'd captured a 'drunken American soldier.' "

While Bergdahl's family, his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, and POW/MIA groups have welcomed the release, there have been questions raised by congressional lawmakers about the cost of the exchange. And many service members consider Bergdahl to be a deserter.

As Eyder pointed out over the weekend, the five senior Taliban members who were freed from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl were considered likely to pose "a threat to the U.S., its interest and allies."

Lawmakers also note that the administration is required by law to give Congress 30 days' notice before prisoners are released from Guantanamo. That was apparently not done in this case.

But in a statement today, Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said "it was lawful for the administration to proceed with the transfer notwithstanding the notice requirement."

She said that under law, the defense secretary may transfer a Guantanamo detainee to a foreign country if the secretary determines that:

"(1) that actions have or will be taken that substantially mitigate the risk that the individual will engage in activity that threatens the United States or U.S. persons or interests and (2) that the transfer is in the national security interest of the United States. The Secretary made those determinations."

And, the statement said, "the Administration determined that the [30-day] notification requirement should be construed not to apply to this unique set of circumstances."

Update at 3:31 p.m. Criticism Continues

Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the manner in which the deal was put together.

As NPR's David Welna tells our Newscast unit, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a strong supporter of the Obama White House, lamented that the president ignored the law requiring that Congress be notified of the prisoner release from Guantanamo.

"I had a call from the White House last night, from [deputy national security adviser] Tony Blinken, apologizing for it," she said. "I don't know whether it was an oversight or what."

She noted that it was Blinken who called the failure to notify Congress in advance "an oversight."

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
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