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Obama pushes back at prisoner swap critics as new details emerge on Bergdahl’s captivity

June 5, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been recovering in Germany after being released from the Taliban on May 31.  Undated photo by U.S. Army
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GWEN IFILL: A White House briefing containing more information on the deal to free Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captors hasn’t quieted many lawmakers.

So, today, the president and other administration officials launched a vigorous defense of their own of the prisoner swap that led to his release.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents.

GWEN IFILL: After days of rising criticism over the Bergdahl deal, President Obama pushed back.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction. This is not a political football.

GWEN IFILL: In Brussels, the president defended trading five senior Taliban figures and not telling Congress it was imminent.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this might occur, but, because of the nature of the folks that we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, it was reported today, officials kept the planned exchange quiet in part because the Taliban threatened to kill Bergdahl if it became public.

During an interview with the BBC, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, Bergdahl’s life and health were in peril.

CHUCK HAGEL, Defense Secretary: It’s easy for us to sit here and look behind and say, well, 24 hours, 48 hours? It was our judgment — and it was unanimous, by the way, I might add — it was the secretary of defense, secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, director of national intelligence, attorney general — and all came — we all came to the same conclusion, that we didn’t want to take any chances here.

GWEN IFILL: The Pentagon, State Department and intelligence officials made that case to senators last night in a closed-door briefing.

The meeting included a video that reportedly showed Bergdahl in declining health. Afterward, some senators on both sides, including Republican John McCain, said they remained unpersuaded.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R, Ariz.: We are glad that Sergeant Bergdahl is home, but the exchange of five hard-core, hardest-of-the-hard-core al-Qaida/Taliban, will pose a threat to the United States of America and the men and women who are serving.

GWEN IFILL: But McCain and others criticizing the deal are now being accused of changing their position on a prisoner exchange.

In February, for instance, McCain told CNN he’d — quote — “support such a thing, depending on a lot of the details.”

The Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, accused the critics of playing political games with Bergdahl’s release.

SEN. HARRY REID, Majority Leader: He is an American soldier. He’s been in captivity for five years. The war is winding down. Let’s bring him home. We did. We all know that the president had a very short period of time to make a decision. He made a decision to bring him home, and I’m glad he did.

GWEN IFILL: As the political fighting over Bergdahl heats up, new details have emerged about his time in the Army and in captivity. The New York Times reported today an investigation into his 2009 disappearance found he’d left from assigned areas twice before.

And The Daily Beast reported Bergdahl tried to escape from the Taliban twice, so his captors moved him often and added guards, making it harder to rescue him.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon said Bergdahl’s health is improving daily at a U.S. military hospital in Germany. There’s no indication of when he might return to the United States.