Secrecy was critical to swap for Bergdahl, officials insist

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WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials told lawmakers that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's life could have been in danger if details about a covert operation to swap him for five Taliban detainees had been divulged, a senior administration official said Thursday.

The disclosure came as the administration sought to tamp down bipartisan anger in Congress over its decision to conduct the prisoner exchange without first notifying lawmakers, as required by federal law.

"The senators were told, separate and apart from Sgt. Bergdahl's apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sgt Bergdahl's recovery -- and potentially his life -- could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed," the official said in a statement.

Administration officials earlier had cited concerns about Sgt. Bergdahl's declining health, and the conflicting narrative provided at a closed-door briefing Wednesday night for all 100 senators raised more questions among some members of Congress.

"Remember what they said in the first place: They were doing this because of health reasons," said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. "Now, they're backing away from that, and they've got a new reason. That would cause one to question whether or not that is a legitimate claim or not."

But the senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the deal's sensitive nature, said Sgt. Bergdahl's health after five years in captivity was a factor in deliberations.

"Our judgment was that every day Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner, his life was at risk, and in the video we received in January, he did not look well," the official said. "This led to an even greater sense of urgency in pursuing his recovery."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called upon the administration to release the legal analysis for not notifying Congress within 30 days of transferring the detainees, saying, "The possible return of these individuals to the battlefield is a matter of high interest to members of our military and the American people."

Some Democrats, including Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, said they believed that the administration acted as it deemed necessary.

"I think timing was everything, and I think it was important to get him out of there," he said. "What's more important is that we recovered military personnel that was captured by the Taliban, and we'll take it from there."

From Brussels, where he was meeting with European leaders, President Barack Obama defended the deal, saying he would make "absolutely no apologies" for seeing that a U.S. service member was returned to the United States.

The president made no mention of a threat to Sgt. Bergdahl's life, but reiterated concerns about his health, saying, "We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated, and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw an opportunity and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that."

Mr. Obama said the administration had briefed Congress earlier on similar deals to free Sgt. Bergdahl and contends that it is not bound by the requirement that it notify Congress if it plans to transfer Guantanamo detainees.

"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," he said.

The decision has infuriated members of Congress -- even some who had earlier pressed Mr. Obama to do whatever he could to secure Sgt. Bergdahl's release.

Mr. Risch said people outside the administration "have real reservations about what was given in order to get," and said that although he wanted Sgt. Bergdahl out of Taliban custody, "that doesn't mean you're willing to do anything. You have to weigh the consequences of this."

Also sparking anger are claims by his fellow soldiers that Sgt. Bergdahl went AWOL on June 30, 2009, before his capture by Taliban rebels, and that his disappearance may have led to other casualties. Some have also criticized the administration for hosting Sgt. Bergdahl's parents in the Rose Garden to make the announcement.

But Mr. Obama said: "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."

He noted that as commander-in-chief, he was responsible.

"I get letters from parents who say, 'If you are, in fact, sending my child into war, make sure that that child is being taken care of,' " Mr. Obama said. "And I write too many letters to folks who, unfortunately, don't see their children again after fighting a war."

Mr. Obama said the release upholds a "basic principle" that the United States doesn't leave its military behind.

The release of Sgt. Bergdahl comes as the administration has long sought to close the offshore detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Sen. Angus King, I- Maine, said there is a "reasonable legal argument" that the five detainees -- held as enemy combatants -- would have to be released when the United States ends combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of the year.

"Under the law of war, when hostility ceases, enemy combatants have to be released," Mr. King told CNN. "There's a reasonable argument this may have been the last chance to get Bergdahl where these [Guantanamo] guys had true value to us as a negotiating tool, because if they had to be released anyway, we'd be in the same situation without Bowe Bergdahl home."

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