WASHINGTON - For President Barack Obama, it seemed like the right thing to do, according to officials in his administration: Release five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison in return for Bowe Bergdahl, the only known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
As a political firestorm engulfs the White House over that deal, Reuters interviews with current and former Obama administration officials involved in the negotiations, along with US lawmakers, reveal how a close-knit circle in the Obama administration pursued the plan despite intense discord in the past over similar proposals.
The White House was ultimately persuaded to go ahead, in part, after Qatar agreed to take the Taliban detainees and said it would allow the United States to track the five men in the Gulf emirate. Under that arrangement, the United States installed extensive surveillance equipment to monitor their movements and communications, the officials said.
The deal, however, has caused an uproar among Republicans in Congress, who have questioned both the secrecy of the prisoner swap and the wisdom of freeing five Taliban prisoners. Some of Bergdahl's former comrades have also accused him of deserting his post before his capture by the Taliban in June 2009. The Pentagon has declined to comment on those allegations.
While they were prepared for some political blowback, Obama administration officials said they felt the outcry would have been fiercer if in six months' time, as the United States wraps up its mission in Afghanistan, it emerged that Obama had missed an opportunity to secure Bergdahl's freedom.
The officials said Obama himself decided to make the swap and chose to broadcast the news on national television with Bergdahl's parents at the White House. He wanted to send a clear signal to Americans that this was his decision and that he would uphold the maxim that the United States will always bring home all its troops from the battlefield, the officials said.
"The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don't leave our men or women in uniform behind," Obama told reporters in Warsaw on Tuesday.
Obama was aware that Bergdahl had been accused of desertion in Afghanistan. But the vitriolic nature of the criticism has surprised some in the Obama administration, the officials said.