BRUSSELS -- President Obama said Thursday that he makes "no apologies" for freeing five Taliban commanders in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
"We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw that we had an opportunity and we seized it," Obama said. "And I make no apologies for that." He made the remarks during a news conference in Brussels with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama is meeting with Cameron and other leaders at a Group of Seven summit expected to be dominated by discussion of the crisis in Ukraine.
Obama said his administration had discussed the "possibility that something like this might occur" with Congress. "But because of the nature of the folks we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did. And we’re now explaining to Congress the details of how we moved forward," the president said.
The White House ratcheted up its efforts to defend the swap Wednesday, giving U.S. senators a classified briefing on the mission. Members of Congress have sharply criticized the administration for swapping Taliban commanders in exchange for Bergdahl's freedom. Five Taliban commanders were released from Guantanamo Bay in a deal with the government of Qatar.
The deal stipulates that the Qatari government place a one-year travel ban on the men, but many in Congress have criticized the agreement because it could allow the men to again take up arms. Obama said Tuesday in Warsaw that "recidivism" could be possible.
“Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” Obama said in a news conference with Poland’s president. “There’s a certain recidivism rate that takes place.”
During the session, a number of senators watched a video of Bergdahl recorded in December 2013. Senators said Bergdahl looked sickly in the briefing and stammered as he spoke. People familiar with the briefing said U.S. intelligence officials pointed out evidence of Bergdahl's declining health in the video.
“It did not look good,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said about Bergdahl’s condition. “I would definitely think that it would have had an emotional impact on the president when he saw it.”
Many remain critical of the swap.
“I think we should have made efforts to bring Bergdahl home, but this price is higher than any in history,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who as a Navy pilot was held captive in North Vietnam for six months longer than Bergdahl’s time with the Taliban.
The effort to bring back Bergdahl started in 2011 and culminated with the handover this weekend. The Taliban released a video of the soldier’s transfer, which occurred in the known Haqqani stronghold of Khost province.
In the clip, Bergdahl, dressed in traditional Afghan clothes, his head shaved, awaits a Black Hawk helicopter, surrounded by about 18 Taliban fighters. He is handed over to U.S. Special Operations forces, who pat him down for weapons and explosives before taking him away.
“Don’t come back to Afghanistan,” one of the Afghan men is heard saying to Bergdahl. “If you come back, you will not leave alive.”
Obama said Bergdahl's release had nothing to do with politics, but is part of a basic American principle that the country doesn't leave behind its soldiers. Obama said this has, since the founding of the nation, sometimes meant prisoner swaps.
"With respect to how we announced it, I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction. This is not a political football. You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land who they hadn't seen in five years and weren't sure whether they'd ever see again.And as commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces, I am responsible for those kids," Obama said.
Bergdahl's parents joined Obama in the Rose Garden Sunday to announce that their son had been freed.
Obama recalled getting letters from parents who told him that if he sent their child to war, they wanted to be sure that the child was well taken care of.
"I make absolutely no apologies for making sure we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back," Obama said.
Zezima reported from Washington.