President Obama said Thursday that he had "no apologies" for approving the prisoner swap of five-high-ranking Taliban commanders for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
"We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about -- and we saw an opportunity and we seized it," Obama said. "I make no apologies for that."
Obama suggested that the firestorm of criticism in Congress over the trade for a soldier who may have deserted his post in Afghanistan was politically motivated.
"I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington. That's par for the course," Obama said at a news conference in Brussels that mostly focused on the European response to the crisis in Ukraine.
"This is not some abstraction. This is not a political football. We 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 if they would ever see again," Obama said. "I am responsible for those kids."
Republican leaders and several Democrats in Congress have said that Obama may have broken the law by failing to give the House and Senate Intelligence Committees the required 30-days notice on the release of the five Taliban detainees from the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.
Obama did not address the legal status of the 28-year-old Bergdahl, who went missing while serving in southeastern Paktika province with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Several members of the unit who served with Bergdahl have charged that he walked away from his post on June 30, 2009, after stacking his weapon and body armor. They have also charged that several members of the unit were later killed in search operations for Bergdahl.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said "I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. solders dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sgt. Bergdahl."
However, the father of Lt. Darryn Andrews, who was killed on Sept. 4, 2009, while serving in Bergdahl's unit, said the Army misled him on the mission in which his son died.
"On one hand, you're not all that surprised," the soldier's father, Andy Andrews, said on Tuesday. "But still, when you have lost your son, you hate it," Andy Andrews told Daily Beast.
The father said he was initially told that his son was killed on a mission to go after a Taliban commander but he only learned earlier this week that his son died on a search for Bergdahl.
Andrews, of Cameron, Tex., was awarded the Silver Star posthumously for saving the lives of others on the day he was killed.
"We need to make sure who the heroes are and say who is a hero," Andy Andrews told the Daily Beast. "And Bergdahl is not a hero."
At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, was continuing his recovery at the Landstuhl military hospital in German and his health was improving.
"He's resting better and showing signs of improvement," Warren said.
Bergdahl was conversing with medical staff in English, Warren said. Bergdahl's father, Robert Bergdahl, had earlier expressed concern that his son might now be more fluent in Pashto after nearly five years of Taliban captivity.
Bergdahl has not been permitted to speak with his parents since his release last Saturday and it was unclear whether he was aware of the controversies over his release.
Warren said that "exposing him to news and the Internet and the media is part of the re-integration process," but he could not say for certain whether Bergdahl had been given access.
As for Bergdahl's status in the military, Warren said "he's an active duty sergeant in the U.S. Army, just like any other."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the Army will conduct a review of the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance but "he's innocent until proven guilty."
Bergdahl was given two promotions to sergeant while he was held prisoner, but he was not likely to be eligible for promotion to staff sergeant on the Army's list that will be published shortly, Dempsey said.
"His status has now changed, and therefore the requirements for promotion are more consistent with normal duty status," Dempsey told the Associated Press Tuesday. Promotion to Staff Sergeant requires proper levels of education and recent evaluations of job performance that would appear to make Bergdahl ineligible.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org