The White House has defended its decision to act in "unique and exigent circumstances" to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sole American soldier held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, amid criticism from Republican lawmakers that US law was violated in securing the handover.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today that Bergdahl's "safety and health were both in jeopardy," necessitating speedy and decisive action to secure the 28-year-old's release in exchange for five high-ranking Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay prison.
Hours after news broke of Bergdahl's recovery, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said the president broke the law in approving the exchange because he ignored a legal requirement stipulating he must notify Congress 30 days in advance.
Hagel, en route to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, said, "It was our judgment that if we could find an opening and move very quickly with that opening, that we needed to get him out of there essentially to save his life. I know President Obama feels very strongly about that, I do as well."
On Saturday, Obama, alongside Bergdahl's parents at the White House's Rose Garden said "while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten." "The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind," Obama said.
Bergdahl was released by 18 Taliban members in a non-violent handover in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border on Saturday evening local time, government officials said.
Officials said Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk at the time of the handover. He was flown to a US military hospital in Germany on Sunday.
The handover took place after covert negotiations between the US government and the Taliban, which were facilitated by the Qatar government. Custody of the Afghan prisoners will be handed to Qatari officials under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between the US and Qatar.
US officials said the exchange would boost reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, which is key to reaching a level of security in Afghanistan. They also acknowledged the risks of the handover, which could prompt further kidnappings of US forces or citizens by insurgent groups in bids for exchange deals.
Bergdahl disappeared in 2009 from his base near the Pakistani border under unknown circumstances. Bergdahl, who is now 28, was a private first class when he was captured, but has since been promoted twice and is now sergeant.
Details of Bergdahl's capture remain unclear, but he is thought to have been taken on June 30, 2009 by the Taliban-associated Haqqani network and held in Pakistan for most of his captivity. Officials are unsure when he was moved to eastern Afghanistan, where he was released to several dozen US special operatives on Saturday.
Bergdahl reportedly broke down after special operations forces told him they had been searching for him, according to an unnamed senior defense official traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Singapore.
The official said that shortly after Bergdahl climbed into the helicopter, he took a pen and wrote "SF?" on a paper plate to confirm the identity of the special operations forces on board.
"Yes, we've been looking for you for a long time," they shouted at him above the noise of the rotors.
Bergdahl's parents were "joyful and relieved" to learn about the news, government officials said.
This 2011 video shows Bergdahl’s father Robert making an appeal for his son.
Speaking from the family's hometown of Hailey Idaho on Sunday, Bergdahl's father Bob thanked a long list of people involved in his son's recovery.
"We are extremely thankful and we are even more thankful to the people we'll never meet … like the guys in the helicopters the other day," Bob Bergdahl said.
Bob Bergdahl asked for patience from the public and media after his son is flown back to the US from the hospital in Germany saying, "The recovery and reintegration of Bowe Bergdahl is a work in progress. In many ways it's just beginning for Jani and I and our family."
"We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son," Bob and Jani Bergdahl said in a statement. During the news conference in the Rose Garden, Bergdahl's father Bob delivered a short message to his son in Pashto, the language used by the Taliban. Bob Bergdahl said his son has been having difficulty understanding English.
On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that he spoke with Afghan President Karzai regarding the exchange.
"As we look to the future in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to support steps that improve the climate for conversations between Afghans about how to end the bloodshed in their country through an Afghan-led reconciliation process,” Kerry said.
“As we’ve said, we look forward to working with the next President of Afghanistan and to standing side-by-side with the Afghan Government and the Afghan people as they build a secure, stable, sovereign, and unified country,” he added.
Hagel said in an earlier statement on Saturday that Bergdahl's return is a “powerful reminder of the enduring, sacred commitment our nation makes to all those who serve in uniform.”
“The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back,” Hagel said. “I am grateful to all the military and civilian professionals from DoD and our interagency partners who helped make this moment possible, and to all those Americans who stood vigil with the Bergdahl family."
On Sunday, Hagel did not comment on speculation that Bergdahl left his unit willingly when he disappeared and could be charged with desertion or being absent without leave (AWOL).
"Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family," he said. "Other circumstances that may develop and questions — those will be dealt with later."
Any decision to charge Begdahl would be made by the military, a senior U.S. official told the Associated Press. The unnamed official added that it was generally felt Bergdahl had already suffered enough from the ordeal.
The five former Guantanamo detainees, who were thought to be the most senior Afghan Taliban commanders in the prison, were moved from the prison base in Cuba on Saturday afternoon by U.S. military aircraft to Qatar, where they will be prevented from leaving the country for at least a year, under the conditions of their release.
The identity of the Afghan detainees, according to the Associated Press, are as follows:
- Abdul Haq Wasiq, who once served as the Taliban's deputy chief of intelligence
- Mullah Norullah Nori, a senior Taliban commander in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when the Taliban fought the U.S.-backed northern alliance in late 2001
- Khairullah Khairkhwa, a high-raking official who held various positions within the Taliban, including interior minister, and was directly ties with Osama bin Laden
- Mohammed Nabi, former Taliban chief of security in Qalat, Afghanistan, and later, a radio operator for the Taliban in Kabul
- Mohammad Fazl, who serves as chief of army staff under the Taliban regime and is accused of war crimes for the massacre of thousands of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001
Twitter photos showed the freed Afghan detainees landing in Doha.
The Taliban released a statement on their website which said "was and has been for a long time attempting to free all the imprisoned Afghan prisoners inside and outside the country, and restoring the right of freedom to them quickly," according to a translation by the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group.
VICE News' John Beck contributed to this report.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields