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By Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in his first remarks on the prisoner swap involving American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, warned Sunday that the five released Taliban leaders risk being killed by the United States if they re-enter the fight.

He spoke as reports emerged that Bergdahl, held for five years and released May 31, had been locked in a metal cage for long periods as punishment for trying to escape his captors.

Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees dominated the Sunday talk shows amid reports that the FBI was investigating death threats against Bergdahl’s family.

Kerry, talking about the prospect of the former Guantanamo prisoners returning to the battlefield, said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved, but they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he said Qatar, where the Taliban leaders will live for one year, would be monitoring the men and that the U.S. would also keep an eye on them. Asked whether he meant the U.S. would kill them, he replied, “Nobody, no one should doubt the capacity of America to protect Americans.”

Sen. John McCain, who was held captive in Vietnam for more than five years, took issue with Kerry in a separate interview on the same program, saying that 30 percent of the detainees released from Guantanamo Bay had resumed fighting and “we certainly haven’t been able to kill all of them.”

“So what we’re doing here is … reconstituting the Taliban government, the same guys that are mass murderers,” said McCain, an Arizona Republican who was the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

McCain said he had previously signed off on the outlines of a prisoner swap to retrieve Bergdahl, but not specifically the “top five picked by the Taliban.”

Asked whether reports that Bergdahl deserted his Army unit made him less worthy of rescue, McCain said no. But he added that the obligation to bring back captured military personnel had to be weighed against whether the effort “would put the lives of other American men and women who are serving in danger.”

“And in my view, this clearly would,” he said.

Top Senate Intelligence Committee officials, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said they had not been briefed by the Obama administration on Bergdahl being tortured or kept in a cage, allegations first reported Saturday on the New York Times website. Feinstein chairs the committee; its top Republican lawmaker, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, echoed her.

Both said they had heard “rumors” that Bergdahl had tried to flee and both had concerns about the prisoner swap and what they saw as the administration’s lack of openness with congressional leaders. They spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“What’s unfortunate is that I see no sign of the Taliban relenting,” Feinstein said. “And so some of us worry very much when we pull out (of Afghanistan), the Taliban finds its way back into power. And that would be tragic.”

David Rohde, who was abducted by the same Taliban faction as Bergdahl more than five years ago while on leave from The New York Times to write a book, said news reports about Bergdahl enduring harsh treatment sounded “very credible.”

Rohde, who also spoke on “Face the Nation,” escaped after being held hostage for eight months.

Now working for Reuters, he said Bergdahl needed to explain why he left his Army outpost, but cautioned that many rumors surrounded his own kidnapping in 2008. The journalist said he still regretted going to an interview with a Taliban official that led to his abduction near the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Of Bergdahl, Rohde said: “He will regret this for the rest of his life, I guarantee you.”

Rohde said he had spoken to Bergdahl’s parents, and alluded to the reports of death threats against them. “They are heartbroken by what’s been happening,” he said.

If any U.S. troops had died in the search for Bergdahl, “that would break their hearts as well,” he said.

© / Jacquelyn Martin

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