President Obama and his top aides are taking satisfaction in the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from nearly five years of captivity by the Taliban. While it may be, as some former comrades allege, that Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture followed his desertion of his post, by obtaining his release the administration upheld the principle that, as Mr. Obama put it, “the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.” That will be a comfort to many families beyond the Bergdahls, whose dedication to their son is inspiring.
For all that, the administration’s handling of the matter raised some troubling questions. In releasing five senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay prison to the de facto custody of Qatar, Mr. Obama appears to have sidestepped a law requiring that Congress be notified before such releases from Guantanamo take place. The Afghan government, which was not informed of the prisoner swap before it took place, angrily alleged that it also violated international law by transferring detainees to a third country. Congressional Republicans charged that the administration had breached its policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists — a precept it confirmed just weeks ago in advising Nigeria’s government not to negotiate with the Boko Haram movement about abducted schoolgirls.
The administration’s answers to these critiques are only partially satisfying. It says it did not negotiate with terrorists, since the exchange was brokered through Qatar and not directly with the Taliban. Sgt. Bergdahl and the Taliban commanders, officials add, were prisoners of war, not hostages. Probably the president’s lawyers are correct in saying that the Constitution gives Mr. Obama the authority to carry out such exchanges; a signing statement he attached to the Guantanamo legislation asserts as much. Moreover, administration officials say they were obliged to move quickly because of concern about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health.