Podesta defends decision to release Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl

White House counselor John Podesta on Friday vigorously defended the administration's decision to release five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan for five years.

The prisoner swap has been roundly criticized by members of Congress who claim the administration did not notify them as required by law and are concerned that the swap, which released the men to the Qatari government, could imperil U.S. security.


White House Counselor John Podesta speaks at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor on Friday. (Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor)

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Podesta said that not notifying Congress was necessary for the operation and that word spreading about the deal could have cost Bergdahl his life. The White House ratcheted up its efforts to defend the swap Wednesday, giving U.S. senators a classified briefing on the mission. The administration showed senators a "proof of life" video of the American soldier  in which he looked sickly and stammered when he spoke.

“There was an analysis that a premature disclosure could result in the loss of his life,” Podesta said, adding that Congress will eventually hear why Bergdahl was released. The swap, Podesta said, was part of a U.S. commitment not to leave soldiers behind on the battlefield and "was the right thing to do."

Podesta said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made the determination that the transfer of the men "was in the interest of the United States." Podesta said the administration knew the decision to swap prisoners for Bergdahl would be contentious.

“I think the president knew this would be a controversial decision,” Podesta said. "This was a decision, and he’s spoken to this, that he’s taken ownership of."

The prisoners, senior Taliban leaders who were detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for years, are subject to restrictions by the Qatari government, including a one-year travel ban. Podesta said the administration received assurances that the threat the world faced by the detainees would be "substantially mitigated" by the Qatari government. The United States, Podesta said, also has ways of monitoring the men.

“There were assurances given by the Qataris and there are also ways we can monitor them beyond what Qatar is doing,” Podesta said. “We have a lot of ways of monitoring people."

Podesta said Obama made the announcement of Bergdahl's release in the Rose Garden on Sunday because it was important to explain “that this was about an actual human being who was under great distress being held by the Taliban," Podesta said. "While controversial, he had to explain that to the American people. He makes no apologies about that, as he said yesterday in Europe, and I think it was the right decision.”

Katie Zezima is a national political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential election. She previously served as a White House correspondent for The Post.

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