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WASHINGTON – Fears the Taliban might kill Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl if word leaked that he was being exchanged for five Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees drove the Obama administration not to notify Congress in advance about the deal, according to congressional and administration officials.
There was no overt threat but rather an assessment based on intelligence reports that Bergdahl's life would be in jeopardy if news of the exchange got out and the deal failed, two senior U.S. officials familiar with efforts to free the soldier said Thursday. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment by name.
A federal law requires Congress to be told 30 days before a prisoner is released from the U.S. military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo. Obama administration officials said the rule was designed for normal detainee transfers, not an emergency situation involving a U.S. soldier held by the Taliban since mid-2009.
Since Bergdahl's release on Saturday, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice have said publicly the key reason they didn't tell lawmakers was because there were indications — from the latest video of Bergdahl — his health was deteriorating after nearly five years in captivity. On Wednesday night, administration officials told senators in a closed session that the primary concern was the risk the Taliban would kill Bergdahl if the deal collapsed.
"Because of the nature of the folks that we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did," Obama said Thursday at a news conference in Brussels.
State Department spokesman Marie Harf told reporters Thursday, "There were real concerns that if this were made public first, his physical security could be in danger." The risks, she said, included "someone guarding him that possibly wouldn't agree and could take harmful action against him. So, as we needed to move quickly, all of these factors played into that."
Not everyone in Congress was convinced.
"I don't believe any of this," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "First, we had to do the prisoner deal because he was in imminent danger of dying. Well, they saw the video in January and they didn't act until June. So that holds no water. Now the argument is the reason they couldn't tell us is because it jeopardized his life. I don't buy that for a moment because he was a very valuable asset to the Taliban."
Bergdahl was undergoing comprehensive medical evaluations at a military hospital in Germany. His hometown of Hailey, Idaho, called off a celebration planned for his homecoming, citing security concerns amid heated criticism of the young soldier and his actions before and during his capture.
Several administration and congressional officials said the latest Bergdahl video, which was shown to senators in the closed briefing, portrayed his health as in decline but not so desperately that he required an emergency rescue. An assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies about the video came to the same conclusion, said two congressional officials familiar with it.
Still, the administration continued to cite the health issue.
"We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about," Obama said. "And we saw an opportunity and we seized it."
Hagel was referring in part to the threat from Bergdahl's captors when he said Sunday that "there was a question about his safety," administration officials told the senators.
In the briefing, both Republican and Democratic senators complained that not even the chairman and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, who are trusted with some of the nation's most sensitive secrets, were notified of the agreement, said three congressional officials who were in the briefing. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, told The Associated Press in an email: "We were briefed that if these discussions had leaked out, there was a reasonable chance Bowe Bergdahl may have been killed. And that was one of the pieces of information that gave some credence as to why it had to be kept quiet."
Taliban fighters freed Bergdahl on Saturday and turned him over to a U.S. special operations team in eastern Afghanistan. Under the deal, five Taliban militants were released from Guantanamo and flown to Qatar, where they are to remain for a year under a travel ban and other restrictions that have not been spelled out in public.
A Taliban spokesman, Zaibullah Mujahid, told The Associated Press on Friday that Bergdahl was treated well.
Bergdahl was held under "good conditions," and was given fresh fruit and any other foods he requested. "You can ask him in America about his life (in captivity). He will not complain," Mujahid said in a telephone interview. He said the soldier enjoyed playing soccer as well as reading, including English-language books about Islam.
A senior administration official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that "senators were told, separate and apart from Sergeant Bergdahl's apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sergeant Bergdahl 's recovery — and potentially his life — could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed."
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Lara Jakes, Bradley Klapper, Nedra Pickler and Donna Cassata in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor in Paris and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.