WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Wednesday stepped up its efforts to defend its decision to free five Taliban commanders in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, hoping to calm criticism from Capitol Hill and within military ranks.
Senior diplomats and intelligence officials involved in the negotiations, which culminated Saturday with Bergdahl's release, delivered a classified briefing to all U.S. senators in a secure Capitol meeting room.
During the session, the officials showed senators, many of whom have been critical of the administration's failure to notify Congress of the Taliban prisoner release, a proof-of-life video of Bergdahl recorded in December 2013.
People familiar with the briefing said the U.S. intelligence officials, including the deputy director of national intelligence, Robert Cardillo, pointed out video evidence of Bergdahl's declining health, comparing his appearance with the last images of him from three years ago.
Senators leaving the briefing said Bergdahl looked sickly in the video and that he stammered as he identified himself.
“It did not look good,” Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said about Bergdahl's condition.
“I would definitely think that it would have had an emotional impact on the president when he saw it,” Kirk said.
But other Republicans said they were not satisfied with the answers they received at the briefing and that they remain concerned that the released Taliban members could return to the fight.
President Barack Obama has said Bergdahl's frail condition was one reason for the need to act quickly, at the cost of notifying Congress in the legally required time frame.
The questions surrounding improper congressional notification are one aspect of the Bergdahl case that has clouded the return of the longest-held prisoner of war of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era. A moment that Obama celebrated Saturday in the White House Rose Garden – with Bergdahl's parents by his side – has in recent days emerged as a challenge to the president's judgment and management of delicate end-of-the-war issues.
Bergdahl left his small outpost in Afghanistan's Paktika province in June 2009. Some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers have called his disappearance tantamount to desertion. The subsequent search for Bergdahl, which ranged over months in the volatile summer and fall of 2009, may have imperiled U.S. troops and stretched resources better used in other operations, according to some former military officials.
At a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dismissed accusations Wednesday that the hunt for Bergdahl may have cost as many as eight U.S. troops their lives.
“I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sgt. Bergdahl,” Hagel said. “I am not aware of those specific details or any facts regarding that issue.”
Hagel reiterated that Bergdahl, now at a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, will be given time to recover before he is questioned about his disappearance. Military officials have said those circumstances will be investigated.
As administration officials in Washington sought to explain the Bergdahl exchange, the Taliban released a video of the soldier's transfer, which occurred in the Haqqani stronghold of Khost province.
The negotiations for Bergdahl's release took shape in the early months of 2011 and evolved over the next three years into the agreement announced over the weekend.