President Obama said he would “make no apologies” either for the controversial deal that freed captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan or the way the news of his release was presented. Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on Thursday, he also dismissed much of the negative publicity surrounding the deal as run-of-the-mill Washington scandalmongering.
“I’m never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington,” Obama said. “That’s par for the course.”
This prisoner trade that took place last Saturday carries considerable political risk if the public backlash against the release deepens and the President is seen as belittling the concerns of the voters. There has been widespread criticism of the deal, in which the U.S. exchanged five senior Taliban leaders who had spent the last decade imprisoned at the U.S. military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Many of Bergdahl’s former comrades have criticized the former POW, who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was promptly captured by the Taliban, some going so far as to call him a deserter. Some have blamed Bergdahl for the deaths of U.S. personnel killed during the period in which the Army was searching for him.
The president also risks further damaging his relationship with Congress, where members from both sides of the aisle have criticized the deal. Much of the anger on Capitol Hill arises from the fact that the White House made the deal without informing Congress in advance in contravention of a law requiring that lawmakers get 30 days’ notice before a prisoner is released from Guantanamo Bay.
The usually unspoken sentiment behind much of the public criticism of the deal is that Bergdahl didn’t deserve to be rescued, and the president pushed back hard against it on Thursday.
“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,” Obama said.
“As Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, I am responsible for those kids,” he continued. “And I get letters from parents saying if you are in fact sending my child into war make sure that child is being taken care of. And I write too many letters to folks who, unfortunately, don’t see their children again after fighting a war. I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child. And that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to get them back.”
Addressing the issue of whether or not the White House could have done a better job of informing Congress, the President was equally unapologetic.
“We have a basic principle: we do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind. We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about it. We saw an opportunity and we seized it, and I make no apologies for that.
“We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this might occur, but because of the nature of the folks 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.
He said that the administration is now briefing Congress on the operation. Republicans in the House of Representatives have already promised to hold hearings on the prisoner exchange, a process that Obama defended as having a long historical precedent.
“[T]his basic principle, that we don’t leave anybody behind, and this basic recognition that that often means prisoner exchanges with enemies, is not unique to my administration. It dates back to the beginning of the Republic.”
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