WASHINGTON — — The release of America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan in a trade for five senior Taliban commanders from U.S. custody took only minutes Saturday. But it followed 31/2 years of secret on-and-off negotiations that produced far less than the White House had hoped.
The idea of swapping prisoners emerged in early 2011, administration and congressional officials said Tuesday, when U.S. officials still sought to convince Taliban political leaders to come to the negotiating table to end the grinding war in Afghanistan.
That never happened, but the exchange forced the White House to launch a fierce defense of their actions Tuesday. President Obama and his top aides insisted were right to make the trade to get Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl home from Afghanistan as the war winds down.
On a visit to Warsaw, Poland, the first stop of a three-nation trip to Europe, Obama said the United States "has a pretty sacred rule. … We don't leave our men or women in uniform behind" on the field of battle.
"This is what happens at the end of wars," Obama said, arguing he followed in the path of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
He dismissed as irrelevant questions about how Bergdahl had disappeared. An initial Army investigation concluded four years ago that Bergdahl, who had written emails suggesting he was disillusioned with the Army and the war, had walked away from his unit's base near the Pakistan border on June 30, 2009, without authorization.
"Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity — period, full stop," Obama said. "We don't condition that. That's what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect — not just from their commander in chief, but also from the United States of America."
But top GOP defense hawks made clear Tuesday that they were not about to let the episode come to a quiet close, ensuring highly charged scrutiny as classified briefings and public congressional hearings are scheduled in the run-up to the mid-term elections this fall.
"We should have certainly made efforts to bring Bergdahl home, but this price is higher than any in history," said Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican, who was a prisoner of war for five and a half years in Vietnam, called the swap a "mistake."
Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the swap was illegal because Obama didn't give Congress the required 30-day notice before transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The requirement is in the 2014 Defense Authorization Act.
"The president has released, illegally, arguably the five most vicious, serious Taliban terrorists," the Oklahoma lawmaker said. "Sure [Bergdahl's family is] happy to have him home," he said, but "you weigh that against the circumstances that will present themselves by five terrorists out killing Americans."
Administration officials said Tuesday that they construe the law to allow a Guantanamo transfer without notice if the notice would "endanger the soldier's life."
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Monday that the swap set a "dangerous precedent" that "puts all Americans at risk throughout the world."
"Since World War II we have not negotiated with terrorists or other groups," the Baltimore County lawmaker said. "What concerns me is the future. This puts all Americans at risk throughout the world, including our men and women on the front line ... for kidnapping."
Ruppersberger is part of a group of eight senior lawmakers focused on intelligence and military matters who ordinarily would be briefed before such a decision is carried out.
"I'm willing to at least hear the administration's point of view and justification," he said, "but I'm worried about the long-term affect."
Other Democrats in Maryland's congressional delegation have been quiet on the trade. Several said they wanted to learn more before saying whether the White House made the right move.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she wanted to know whether the United States now has a new policy for negotiating over missing Americans, and what the criteria for such a policy might be.
"I need the facts," Mikulski said. "The American people need the facts."
A spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Cardin said he would reserve judgment until he receives a briefing.
Rep. Elijah Cummings expressed support for the swap.
"I can only imagine how happy the Bergdahl family is to know their son is safe and will be home soon," the Baltimore Democrat said in a statement. "This prisoner transfer was complicated, but it follows the practice of previous Commanders-in-Chief and affirms the core American value that we leave no service member behind."
Rep. Andy Harris, the only Republican in the delegation and the only member who has served in the military, said in a statement that the administration was "placing all Americans overseas, both in and out of uniform, in jeopardy." The Baltimore County lawmaker served in the Navy Reserve.
Army investigators plan to question Bergdahl, who is in a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, about his capture. Pentagon officials familiar with the case say it's not clear if he will face charges or punishment. And it could be months before Bergdahl is questioned, they said.
"Our first priority is ensuring Sergeant Bergdahl's health and beginning his reintegration process," Army Secretary John McHugh said Tuesday. "There is no timeline for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery."
He said the Army would then interview Berghdahl to "better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity. All other decisions will be made thereafter, and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices."
In a video released during his captivity, Bergdahl said he was captured after falling behind on a patrol.
If the Army decides to prosecute him, he could be tried in a court-martial for desertion or a less serious offense, such as being absent without leave.
If convicted, the possible punishments include dishonorable discharge and imprisonment, depending on how harshly the Army wants to treat a soldier who has already spent nearly five years in captivity.
The negotiations for Bergdahl's release followed a tortuous trail.
When the U.S. side demanded Bergdahl's return, Taliban negotiators demanded the five detainees — plus another who later died —be transferred from the U.S. prison at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba.
But the administration wanted more than simply getting Bergdahl back. They viewed a prisoner exchange as a first step, a "confidence-building measure" that could pave the way for reconciliation talks between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban.
Whether that was realistic is arguable. The United States set preconditions that would have amounted to a virtual surrender: Taliban recognition of the current government in Kabul, repudiating al-Qaida and renouncing violence in Afghanistan.
On Nov. 30, 2011, congressional officials said, the White House offered a highly classified briefing led by Ambassador Marc Grossman and seven other military and intelligence officials to congressional leaders to discuss the nascent diplomatic effort.
Among those attending, officials said, were House Speaker John Boehner and the chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, House Armed Services Committee and House Intelligence Committee, among others. The briefing included the proposed trade of Bergdahl for the five Taliban prisoners.
The lawmakers were told the briefing was classified to ensure Bergdahl's safety and because they involved sensitive diplomatic negotiations as well as intelligence sources and methods.
The House members responded with two classified letters to the White House in which they expressed concerns about the potential release of so many senior Taliban commanders, among other questions. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded on Jan. 13, 2012, officials said, and Grossman led a follow-up briefing for the same group two weeks later on Jan. 31.
A Republican aide, who spoke on condition he not be identified discussing sensitive material, said Tuesday that the concerns raised in 2012 were the same now roiling the GOP.
Does the swap make U.S. soldiers and civilians more likely to be taken hostage? How can the administration guarantee that the five Taliban don't return to the battlefield? Did the United States try all alternative options to get Bergdahl back?
The briefings ended when the back-channel talks with the Taliban bogged down in 2012. The only sign of progress was that they had been allowed to open a political office in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar.
That office proved crucial when talks came to life again last fall. Taliban officials, speaking through Qatari intermediaries, expressed an interest in a prisoner exchange. But they still showed no interest in peace talks or renouncing terrorism.
Administration officials were eager to try because they wanted to get Bergdahl back as they closed out America's 13-year war in Afghanistan. They were especially concerned when a video, released in January after the U.S. side demanded proof he was alive, showed him thinner and apparently unhealthy.
They feared their leverage to bargain — and their ability to collect intelligence in Afghanistan — would be reduced when U.S. troop levels drop from 32,000 to fewer than 10,000 at the end of this year.
The two sides worked out a deal to transfer the five Afghans to Qatar, where they are to be monitored and barred from foreign travel for a year. President Obama approved the arrangement on May 27, after a phone call to the emir of Qatar, and Bergdahl was handed over to Special Operations troops at about 6 p.m. local time Saturday in Khost province in Afghanistan.
Staff writers John Fritze and Paul Richter contributed from Washington, and Kathleen Hennessey contributed from Warsaw, Poland.