The Obama administration sought to quiet critics who questioned its move to free the loneremaining American prisoner of war from the Afghanistan conflict, Bowe Bergdahl.
The White House pushed back hard Tuesday morning. President Obama defended his decision in Poland. A National Security Council representative released a statement explaining the legal rationale for the decision. And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey released a statement saying it was the “last, best opportunity” to free Bergdahl.
“Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity,” Obama said Tuesday during remarks in Warsaw. “Period. Full stop.”
After the weekend move, several fellow soldiers who served with Bergdahl said he willingly deserted his unit. And Republican lawmakers have levied claims the Obama administration’s swap of five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl was illegal because it did not feature a timely notification of Congress.
Obama did not follow a requirement in the 2013 version of the National Defence Authorization Act that states Congress must be notified of releases from Guantanamo Bay “not later than 30 days before the transfer or release of the individual.”
Caitlin Hayden, the NSC spokesperson, said in a statement Tuesday the administration determined the 30-day requirement did not apply in these unusual circumstances. She said Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, acting on behalf of the president, determined the normal notification process could endanger Bergdahl’s life.
“In these circumstances, delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the Executive’s performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers,” Hayden said.
“Because such interference would significantly alter the balance between Congress and the President, and could even raise constitutional concerns, we believe it is fair to conclude that Congress did not intend that the Administration would be barred from taking the action it did in these circumstances.”
In his statement, Dempsey defended the decision to free Bergdahl — even as he did not close the door on opening a potential investigation into the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s initial disappearance.
“The questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity,” Dempsey said.
“This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him. 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.”
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