WARSAW (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended the deal to get U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl out of Taliban captivity, saying questions about the circumstances of the soldier’s capture did not negate the need to bring him home.
Speaking at a press conference in Poland, he also said the United States would be able to “go after” the five Taliban prisoners who were released in exchange for Bergdahl if they posed a new threat to U.S. security.
As Bergdahl emerges from five years of captivity, former comrades have accused him of walking away from his unit, prompting a manhunt that they say cost the lives of at least six fellow soldiers.
Obama rejected that as a reason for not doing the deal. “The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” he said.
“Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop.”
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday the army “will not look away from misconduct if it occurred” with regard to Bergdahl’s departure from his unit.
Other military officials have indicated he would not face any charges after his five-year ordeal.
Obama’s administration is ending the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of this year and was eager to have Bergdahl’s situation resolved ahead of that conclusion.
Bergdahl, who was flown to a military hospital in Germany over the weekend for physical and mental assessments, was not being interrogated and had not yet seen his family, Obama said.
The president, who has drawn criticism for not notifying Congress ahead of the transfer of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar in return for Bergdahl’s release, said his administration had told lawmakers earlier about a possible swap.
“We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sgt. Bergdahl. We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health,” he said.
“We seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window.”
Obama acknowledged that the freed Taliban fighters could potentially act against U.S. security but said the United States could go after them if they did.
“We will be keeping eyes on them. Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” Obama said.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security and we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if in fact they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses.”
A senior Gulf official said on Tuesday that Qatar had moved the five Afghan men to a residential compound and will let them move freely in the country.
U.S. officials have referred to the release of the Islamist militants as a transfer and said they would be subject to certain restrictions in Qatar.
Additional reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Tom Heneghan