Bergdahl backlash shocks White House

WASHINGTON - White House officials expected controversy when the deal was announced to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for the release of five Taliban detainees from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Despite the feel-good moment in the White House Rose Garden featuring President Obama and Bergdahl's beaming parents last Saturday, the five-for-one trade was sure to create an uproar, a White House official acknowledged.

What came as a surprise to White House aides, one official says, was the barrage of harsh personal attacks aimed at Bergdahl and even his family.

Critics of the prisoner exchange have suggested the U.S. received the short end of the deal, in part, because of the questions about the still murky events that led to Bergdahl's initial capture.

"It's very interesting to me that they would be willing to release five extraordinarily dangerous Taliban members in exchange for this soldier who apparently left his post. We don't know all the details," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in an interview on CNN's "Out Front."

Some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers have accused him of desertion. But Obama administration officials have cautioned against drawing any final conclusions about how Bergdahl fell into Taliban hands. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty.

Senior Democratic leaders counter that Republicans are simply using Bergdahl as a political football to damage the President.

"Opponents of President Obama have seized upon the release of an American prisoner of war. That's what he was. Using a moment of celebration as a chance to play political games," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday.

Conservative opponents of the President have also taken aim at the former POW's father, Robert Bergdahl, noting the long beard on his face when he stood next to the President.

"The reason why I said that Robert Bergdahl looked like Muslim is that he looks like a Muslim," Fox News Channel host Bill O'Reilly said on his program.

Robert Bergdahl told Time magazine in 2012 that he grew the long beard and studied the Afghan language of Pashto to better understand his son's captors.

Critics of the exchange have also seized on the video released by the Taliban showing Bergdahl being handed over to U.S. forces as evidence that the POW was not in the declining health that administration officials had claimed as an urgent reason for his release.

On Wednesday, senators were given an opportunity to view the "proof of life" video that emerged last January and became the basis for the administration's concerns. A senior U.S. official said the administration is now reviewing whether that video will be made public, as some senators have suggested.

While acknowledging there are still questions to be answered about Bergdahl's capture, administration officials say the freed captive will need to recover from his ordeal before he can fully cooperate with an expected Pentagon investigation into his actions.

"I think we all owe him and his family, regardless of our feelings on this, a little bit of time, so he can get in better health, he can reunite with his family, and then we'll figure out what happened," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Wednesday. "I think we owe it to him to do that."

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