WASHINGTON, June 4, 2014 – Regardless of the circumstances that led to Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s five years of captivity, President Barack Obama said today, the United States needed to get him back.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” the president said at a news conference in Warsaw, Poland.
“We still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that,” he added.
Obama made the comments amid reports, some attributed to those who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan, that he may have deliberately abandoned his outpost in remote Paktika province before he was abducted by the Haqqani network in June 2009. An agreement between the United States and the Taliban, arranged through Qatari intermediaries, led to Bergdahl being handed over to U.S. Special Forces near the Afghan-Pakistan border May 31 in exchange for Qatar taking custody for a year of five senior Taliban commanders jailed at the Navy’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl remains in stable condition at the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and as of today, has not been able to speak to his family or brief the military on what led to his capture. While his recovery remains the first priority, senior military officials say, there will be an investigation, and punitive measures could follow if he is found to have violated military law.
“Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on his Facebook page. “Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
Later, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said the service is grateful that Bergdahl is back in American hands, but that “as Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sergeant Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity.” Future decisions will be made in line with regulations, policies and practices, McHugh added.
At his Warsaw news conference, President Obama also faced questions over whether it was appropriate for security reasons to trade five senior members of the Taliban for Bergdahl’s release, and why the White House did not provide 30 days’ notice before the detainees were handed over, as required by law.
Obama said the decision not to fulfill that requirement was based on concerns about Berdahl’s health, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said was deteriorating.
The prisoner trade was conditioned on the Qataris keeping eyes on the released Guantanamo detainees and creating a structure in which the United States can monitor their activities, Obama said.