US President Barack Obama arrives June 5 for the second day of the G7 summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels. (Georges Gobet / AFP)
BRUSSELS — President Barack Obama vehemently refused to apologize Thursday for doing a prisoner trade with the Taliban to free a US soldier, despite a fierce political storm over the deal in Washington.
Critics, both Republican and Democratic, have asked whether the transfer of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for the release of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was even legal, and question both the price paid and the principle of a swap.
But Obama, asked about the row raging in Washington at the G7 summit in Brussels was unapologetic, repeating that he had a duty as commander-in-chief to get Bergdahl home.
“We have a basic principle, we do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind, Obama said, adding that he had acted last week because the health of Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years was deteriorating.
“We saw an opportunity and we seized it and I make no apologies for that.”
Obama referred to the huge controversy on Capitol Hill which has drawn Bergdahl and his family into the political crossfire.
“I’m never surprised by the controversies that are whipped up in Washington,” Obama said.
“That’s par for the course.”
'Not a Political Football'
The president also defended his decision to announce Bergdahl’s release in a televised appearance in the White House Rose Garden with the soldier’s parents at his side.
“This is not a political football — you had a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land, who they hadn’t seen in five years,” Obama said.
“I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand this is somebody’s child.”
Some of Obama’s critics have warned that Obama, already burdened by a series of crises, has sunk deeper into political quicksand by negotiating with terrorists, keeping Congress in the dark or manufacturing a military success story in order to mask other scandals.
Democratic Party, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, has even accused Obama of breaking US law by failing to provide lawmakers 30 days’ notice before transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo.
The White House has offered several explanations for acting without congressional notification to recover Bergdahl.
At first, it argued his health and safety were in immediate jeopardy.
Later, it said a delay would interfere with the president’s constitutional function of protecting Americans. Dramatically complicating the defense of the swap are the questionable circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture, with some soldiers accusing the 28-year-old of desertion and the US military announcing it will investigate whether he should be disciplined.
“It doesn’t look good,” Sen.Joe Manchin winced on Wednesday ahead of a classified briefing for all 100 senators in which officials provided details on the exchange.
Homecoming Parade Canceled
But Manchin said he emerged with more questions than answers. With the backlash growing, officials in Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, canceled a June 28 homecoming parade “in the interest of public safety,” saying the town was too small for a large influx of supporters and journalists.
The town of 8,000 said it lacked the infrastructure to host a major event, citing expectations of a large crowd of “people who both want to support or protest against it,” according to a statement posted on Bergdahl supporters’ website.
One persistent question circulating in Washington: did Obama, whose administration spent years studying options for gaining Bergdahl’s release, mis-guage the potential political fallout of his move?
“I think he probably didn’t understand the backlash to releasing the ‘Fab Five’ from Gitmo,” Republican Sen. Mark Kirk told AFP.
He added that Obama, still feeling the political heat from a scandal that led to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation last week, might have rushed the Bergdahl swap in order to change the headlines.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a national security hawk, fueled the argument that Obama approved the deal as a way to whittle down the number of detainees at Guantanamo.
“Here’s what bothers a lot of people in Congress: many of us believe they seized an opportunity here to release five problematic detainees,” Graham told reporters.
“Their goal is to empty that jail.”