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WASHINGTON — Even as President Obama defends his decision to trade five Taliban prisoners for one U.S. Army sergeant, there are early indications the American public is split over the controversy.
A Fox News poll shows, in the first few days, 45 percent approved of the swap while 47 percent disapproved. Saturday’s exchange and the administration’s failure to notify lawmakers beforehand have sparked intense debate on Capitol Hill.
Perhaps never has the liberation of an American soldier from enemy hands provoked such acrimony in Washington and beyond. In Brussels, Obama responded to a chorus of criticism.
“We saw an opportunity, we seized it,” he said. “And I make no apologies for it. We have a basic principle: we do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind.”
Such assertions do not sway Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who blasted the release of high-level Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I remain increasingly convinced from everything we have been presented that these five individuals that have been released will soon return to the fight against America,” said Rubio. “The president has now set a precedent that will encourage enemies of the United States to target American men and women in uniform.”
Some Republican critics of the the administration previously urged strenuous efforts to secure Bergdahl’s release.
Still others allege the administration violated U.S. law by failing to notify Congress prior to the prisoner swap, reigniting a long running debate over congressonal authority versus presidential power.
“The law seems to me to be pretty clear that the committee should have been notified or at least, the leaders of the Committee,” Senator Susan Collins said.
But the White House maintains Bergdahl’s declining health made securing his release an urgent matter, and a national obligation to the sergeant and his family.
“I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction, this is not a political football,” said Obama. “You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land who they hadn’t seen in five years and they didn’t know if they would ever see again.”
Critics say the administration is grasping at feeble justifications for a poor decision.
Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss said, “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.”
Adding to the controversy are widespread reports that Bergdahl wandered away from his post prior to being taken by the Taliban.
Analysts say the administration was unprepared for the outcry surrounding the sergeant’s release. Public opinion may change as more details emerge about Bergdahl’s disappearance and the administation’s handling of his release.