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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

By Michael A. Memoli and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl appeared “drugged” and “very weak” in a Taliban video shown to senators Wednesday during a classified briefing, the administration’s most broad-ranging consultation with lawmakers after a controversial prisoner swap.

The Obama administration contends that there was increased concern that Bergdahl’s deteriorating condition could diminish any prospects for recovering him, prompting the decision to renew talks that led to his safe release.

Despite Bergdahl’s visibly poor state, lawmakers continued to express doubts that his health justified quick action to exchange five senior-level Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I don’t think from a health standpoint there was any issue that dictated the release of these five nasty killers in return for Bergdahl,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

After three years of trying to negotiate Bergdahl’s release, officials began to worry that their window was closing when they received a proof-of-life video in late 2013 that appeared to show the sergeant’s health failing.

They worried that he was approaching a medical emergency, a senior administration official separately told reporters Wednesday night. Officials also worried that, if they couldn’t spring him soon, their ability to pull off a transfer might never happen. Past efforts had fallen apart due to leaks and other problems, the official said.

The short “proof-of-life” video was the most direct indication administration officials had of Bergdahl’s condition. Wednesday night’s extended briefing included administration, intelligence and Pentagon officials and was open to all senators in a secure room in the Capitol.

Senator Mark Steven Kirk (R-IL), said Bergdahl, sitting on a blanket, made references to the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela, which suggested the video was shot in December.

“I definitely think it would have had an emotional impact on the president, which is probably why the Taliban released it,” Kirk said.

“He looked either drugged or tired or sick,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-IL). “This man was not in a good condition.”

Durbin suggested that the information senators received cast a different light on the events surrounding the recovery mission.

“I think it was a very hard decision,” said Durbin, the assistant majority leader. “If I had been challenged to make it myself, I might have come to the same conclusion under the pressure of the moment. But now that you step back and reflect on it, it’s easy to pick it apart and criticize it.”

Others were unswayed, and the White House’s decisions continued to draw fire from both parties.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he saw “no evidence” that Bergdahl’s health posed an immediate danger that would justify swapping the high-level Taliban detainees. And Democratic Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia said the concerns over Bergdahl’s health “did not sell me at all.”

“We all agree we are not dealing with a war hero. … There’s a lot to be answered here,” said Manchin, who described himself as “very concerned.”

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) challenged the briefers to explain what assurances they could offer that the released Taliban prisoners would not pose a future threat to American interests or its allies.

“I was not satisfied from the briefing that I received today that the conditions that they’ve agreed upon are sufficient,” Ayotte said.