WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday he felt confident the five Taliban detainees freed in a swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl posed little risk to Americans, adding that Qatari officials were not the only ones monitoring them -- and that while the five might be able to return to the battlefield, "they also have the ability to get killed doing that."
Mr. Kerry, in some of his first public remarks on the exchange, struck a decidedly tough tone, dismissing as "baloney" the suggestion that terrorists would have new incentive to kidnap Americans. He also hinted, without offering details, that the United States had the means to monitor the Taliban members, who now are in Qatar, and act against them if necessary.
The Qataris "aren't the only ones keeping an eye on them," Mr. Kerry said on the CNN program "State of the Union." He added, "These guys pick a fight with us in the future or now or at any time at enormous risk."
Broadly defending the swap, Mr. Kerry said it would have been "offensive and incomprehensible" to leave Sgt. Bergdahl in the hands of people who might torture him or "cut off his head."
Despite the determined defense of administration decisions by officials such as Mr. Kerry, the firestorm of criticism over the exchange continued unabated Sunday, with Republican lawmakers and one senior Democrat publicly expressing fresh doubts.
The administration received key support, however, from an influential retired general, James Mattis, who said the exchange would make it easier now to attack the extremist groups involved in Sgt. Bergdahl's detention.
Up to now, the general said, every time commanders weighed an attack on the Haqqani network, which operates on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, "we were concerned that Bowe Bergdahl could end up dead."
That concern is gone, he said, also on CNN. "There's also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn't fully enjoy," he said.
Mr. Mattis, who headed the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, with responsibility for Afghanistan, also argued that the Qataris, with "some of their own prestige at stake," had reason to monitor the Taliban officials closely.
Like Mr. Kerry, the retired general dismissed the idea that the swap might inspire terror groups to kidnap Americans, saying, "It's not like all of a sudden they have a new impulse here."
Key members of Congress have expressed serious concerns that the administration failed to inform them in advance of the Bergdahl exchange.
On Sunday, the leaders of the intelligence committees in both chambers, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, raised the question of why the administration had backed away from a goal enunciated in 2011: to make the Bergdahl deal the first step in a broader, behind-the-scenes effort to reach a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban.
Ms. Feinstein, a Democrat, also said she found it hard to accept Mr. Kerry's assurances that the Taliban members could be kept securely in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Previous negotiations, she said, had included a requirement for the house arrest of the five, in contrast to the current arrangement, which reportedly will allow them to move about the country.
"You can't help but worry about them in Doha," she said on the CBS program "Face the Nation." "And we have no information on how the United States is actually going to see that they remain in Doha, that they make no comments, that they do no agitation."
Mr. Rogers, a Republican, went further, saying he was convinced that at least three of the Taliban members, and perhaps all five, would try to return to the battlefield. In the meantime, he said on the ABC program "This Week," they can meet in Qatar with other Taliban figures, or with visiting family members, and send messages by courier to Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Mr. Rogers said he did not expect the five to plan anything "operational," that is, to plan attacks. But he said the conditions of their time in Qatar would allow them "to prepare for what's next."