Concern for Bergdahl’s safe return led to secrecy

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FILE – In this file image taken from video obtained from Voice Of Jihad Website, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, right, stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban said Friday, June 6, 2014, that Bergdahl was treated well during the five years they held him captive and was even allowed to play soccer with the men holding him. (AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video, File)

FILE – In this file image taken from video obtained from Voice Of Jihad Website, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, right, stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban said Friday, June 6, 2014, that Bergdahl was treated well during the five years they held him captive and was even allowed to play soccer with the men holding him. (AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video, File)

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., left, confers with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., as they join other senators for a closed-door briefing with intelligence officials about the Obama administration’s decision to swap five members of the Taliban for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., center left, speaks with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., as senators emerge from a closed-door briefing with intelligence officials about the Obama administration’s decision to swap five members of the Taliban for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Flags and balloons marking the release from captivity of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl adorn the sidewalk outside a shop in the soldier’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. The exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo and the still-murky circumstances of how Bergdahl came to be captured nearly five years ago have prompted a fierce debate in Washington and across the country. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the president pro tem of the Senate, walks to a closed-door briefing with intelligence officials about the Obama administration’s decision to swap five members of the Taliban for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.”

Hagel, in France wrapping up a nearly two-week trip to Asia and Europe, was being kept up to date on the Bergdhal matter and was scheduled to testify to Congress after he returns to Washington.

“The secretary knows there are questions from members of Congress about this decision to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Friday. “He looks forward to testifying next week and to answering those questions.”

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

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