The White House on Tuesday stepped up its defense of its controversial swap of Taliban detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, with President Barack Obama declaring that the U.S. seeks the return of service members in captivity -- regardless of the circumstances.
"The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule: We don't leave our men or women behind," Obama said at a press conference in Warsaw, Poland on his first day of a trip to Europe.
The deal to release Bergdahl in exchange for five senior Taliban members has infuriated critics of the administration and some of Bergdahl's fellow service members who have raised the question of whether Bergdahl -- who reportedly walked away from his post -- was a deserter.
But Obama said the question isn't relevant: "Regardless of the circumstances, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity," Obama said. "Period. Full stop."
Obama said the administration had “consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility” of deal for Bergdahl's release, refuting Congressional critics who say the administration broke the law by not notifying Congress of the pending deal.
As Obama finished speaking, the National Security Council provided a written explanation of why Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acted to move the detainees without notifying Congress.
"In light of the Secretary’s assessment that providing notice .. could endanger the soldier’s life, the Secretary of Defense’s failure to provide 30 days’ notice .. was lawful," spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden wrote.
And the White House pointed to a statement posted on Facebook by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which he says "the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity.
"This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him," Dempsey wrote. "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty."
Dempsey pledged that Army leaders won't "look away from misconduct if it occurred," but said "in the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family. Finally, I want to thank those who for almost five years worked to find him, prepared to rescue him, and ultimately put themselves at risk to recover him."