John Kerry: Failing to rescue Bergdahl would have been "offensive"

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, right, talks to a Taliban militant as he waits in a pick-up truck before his release at the Afghan border in this still image from video released June 4, 2014. Reuters/Al-Emara via Reuters TV

A week after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released in exchange for five former Taliban leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay, the administration continues to defend its actions that have come under close scrutiny by lawmakers and the public.

Secretary of State John Kerry appeared in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday to argue that there was no choice but to rescue Bergdahl by any means necessary, because it "would have been offensive and incomprehensible to consciously leave an American behind...in the hands of people who would torture him, cut off his head, [or] do any number of things."

He offered confident, yet vague, assurances that the five detainees who were released into Qatari custody won't be able to harm Americans, an argument made by several lawmakers who opposed the exchange. In an interview on ABC's "This Week," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said he was "absolutely convinced" that at least three of the Taliban leaders, and possibly four, will look for ways to get involved again. Rogers said he expected the fifth leader to "play some role in active operations" even though he described him as "on the fence" about returning to the fight.

"We have made a serious, serious geopolitical mistake. We've empowered the Taliban," Rogers concluded.

On "State of the Union," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that there are other detainees who could have been swapped rather than five requested by the Taliban.

"I think we should do everything we can in our power to win the release of any American being held, but not at the expense of the lives and well-being of their fellow service men and women," McCain said.

But Kerry - though he conceded the Taliban members could have the ability to get involved - said it would be too risky to do so because they might be killed.

"These guys pick a fight with us in the future or now or at any time at enormous risk. And we have proven what we're capable of doing with al Qaeda," he said. Though Kerry did not go so far as to say the U.S. would kill them, he declared, "No one should doubt the capacity of America to protect Americans."

He said it was "baloney" to suggest that more U.S. troops will end up in danger from the Taliban because the administration has demonstrated its willingness to engage in a prisoner swap.

For the next year, the Qatari government will be monitoring the five men as they stay within that country's borders. Kerry said that the Qataris "aren't the only ones keeping an eye on them," though he didn't say how exactly U.S. would be involved. He would only say that the U.S. has "any number of avenues available to us" should the Taliban members go back on their word or the Qataris fail to monitor them and keep them inside the country.

Two retired U.S. generals lent some credence to Kerry's claims in separate interviews on "State of the Union." Ret. Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton called the five Taliban leaders "five joes out there who are not supervillains."

"They can be captured or killed in the future. So I'm not sure why we're so afraid of these guys," he said.

Ret. Gen. James Mattis, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, argued that securing Bergdahl's release gives the U.S. a chance to more freely operate against the Taliban because they no longer hold him as a bargaining chip.

"We no longer have that concern that they have this pawn that they can then play against us," he said.

Still, even some Democrats say that the administration hasn't told them enough to give them confidence in the safety of the prisoner swap.

"It's hard to be comfortable when you really haven't been briefed on the intricacies of carrying out this agreement," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein on CBS' "Face the Nation." She said that, despite Kerry's assurances, that she can't help but worrying about what the former Taliban leaders might do during their stay in Qatar.

Like all members of Congress, Feinstein was not informed of the exchange until after it had been carried out. She and her Republican counterpart on the committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., have been critical of the administration for failing to inform Congress 30 days in advance of releasing a prisoner from Guantanamo Bay, as is required by law. The administration has argued that it used a "signing statement" to assert executive authority on negotiations with foreign powers in circumstances like these when it signed the law that included the 30-day notification requirement.

In an interview on "Fox News Sunday," former Attorney General Michael Mukasey argued that while the president broke the law by failing to notify Congress, the law was unconstitutional to begin with.

"Article Two makes him commander in chief of the armed forces. These men -- these people were in the custody of the Armed Forces," Mukasey said. "I think it's unconstitutional, and he said so at the time that he signed it."

The administration has also argued that Bergdahl's health was deteriorating, necessitating a speedy rescue, and that the Taliban had threatened to kill him if the deal was made public. Chambliss said there was insufficient intelligence to back up either of those statements, and even said it would be "difficult to validate" claims made by Bergdahl over the weekend that he was put in a cage and tortured after trying to escape the Taliban.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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