WASHINGTON -- The nation’s top military leaders scrambled Tuesday to temper the clamor over the deal that traded five Taliban members for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, amid some soldiers’ claims that he deserted in 2009 before his abduction by Taliban insurgents.
Army Secretary John McHugh said the controversial case will be reviewed after Bergdahl recovers from his five years in captivity, which ended Saturday when he was exchanged for the five Taliban. McHugh said Army officials want to talk with the Idaho serviceman about his mysterious disappearance, but only after his health is restored.
Bergdahl was undergoing medical treatment – which military officials said would include evaluation of his mental and emotional well-being – at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, after being flown there from Afghanistan.
“Our first priority is ensuring Sgt. Bergdahl’s health and beginning his reintegration process,” McHugh said in a statement. “There is no time line for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery.”
As the only American to have spent such an extended period of time in close proximity with Taliban rebels, Bergdahl was also expected to be debriefed by U.S. intelligence experts.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Bergdahl, now 28, is entitled to a presumption of innocence, but he insisted that the Army won’t ignore misconduct if it finds evidence.
“As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts,” Dempsey said in a statement that appeared early Tuesday morning on the general’s Facebook page. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said “soldiers died looking for him” after Bergdahl went missing June 30, 2009, from his base in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.
“I certainly want to know more about whether this man is a deserter or not,” she told reporters at the Capitol.
President Barack Obama defended his decision to release the five Taliban captives from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and denied Republican lawmakers’ claims that he’d skirted the law by failing to give Congress advance notice of the move.
The high-stakes maneuvering reflected the complexities and rare circumstances underlying the case of the only American service member captured and held as a POW during almost 13 years of war in Afghanistan.
Obama said he had followed longstanding American historical precedent in bartering for Bergdahl’s freedom.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don’t leave our men and women behind,” Obama told reporters in Poland, where he was traveling on the first leg of a European trip. “And that dates back to the earliest days of our revolution.”
Obama denied that he’d violated the law by failing to give Congress at least 30 days’ notice before releasing the five Taliban detainees.
“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,” Obama said.
Senior lawmakers from both parties, however, provided accounts that contradicted the president.
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he was informed of the planned exchange one day before it took place, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he was told only afterward.
Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said White House aides called them following the exchange and apologized that they hadn’t received advance notice.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., defended Obama’s deal to free Bergdahl but questioned his handling of the politically sensitive case on Capitol Hill.
“From a PR standpoint with the president’s relations with Congress, I think that needs some help,” Nelson said in an interview. “And it’s not just on this. It’s on other things.”
Nelson added: “This White House does not consult with Congress – and specifically does not consult Democratic senators to the satisfaction of some of those Democratic senators.”
House Speaker John Boehner said the White House had not briefed lawmakers on any potential exchange of Taliban detainees for Bergdahl since January 2012.
“Unfortunately, the questions and concerns we had were never satisfactorily answered, and they remain today,” Boehner said in a statement.
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Boehner said the Obama aides failed to provide more recent notice of the deal because they “knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition.”
The president said he wasn’t able to provide more precise notice because of the need to move quickly to secure Bergdahl’s release amid concerns over his health.
“We saw an opportunity,” Obama said. “We were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute and exchange, and we seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window.”
That explanation didn’t satisfy Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who himself was a POW during the Vietnam War.
McCain said the five freed Taliban were “wanted war criminals” who will be free to return to Afghanistan after a year in Qatar under the terms of the prisoner exchange brokered by the Qatari government.
While McCain said he was happy that Bergdahl had returned, he said protecting the lives of Americans in combat is a higher priority.
“I think the deal should not have been made,” McCain said.
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McHugh said a key part of any subsequent inquiry would be allowing Bergdahl to give his side of a story in which some soldiers already have branded him a deserter.
“As Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sgt. Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity,” McHugh said. “All other decisions will be made thereafter, and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices.”
The Army’s normal process for probing potential misconduct, called a 15-6 inquiry after the number of the governing Army regulation, covers a broad range of behavior, from misuse of equipment to desertion or other gross violations.
Such an inquiry was started after Bergdahl went missing, according to senior military officials speaking on background because they were not authorized to discuss his situation. That inquiry was effectively put on hold over time, the officials said, and it was not clear whether it would be resumed or a new probe would be started after Bergdahl’s health was restored.
Dempsey said in his statement that “the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover any U.S. service member in enemy captivity.”
McHugh echoed earlier comments by Dempsey, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military leaders in expressing thanks for Bergdahl’s return.
“As an Army, we are grateful that an American soldier is back in American hands,” McHugh said. “The Warrior Ethos is more than words, and we should never leave a comrade behind.”
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “members of Congress should not be surprised that (Obama) acted as he did in the circumstances that existed.”
Levin scheduled a closed committee hearing for next Tuesday to question the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Stephen W. Preston, and other Defense Department officials.
(Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose. William Douglas, Renee Schoof, Hannah Allam, Lesley Clark, David Lightman, John Moritz, Jonathan Landay and Chris Adams of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)