WASHINGTON — The nation's top military officer said Tuesday the Army could still throw the book at Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the young soldier who walked away from his unit in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and into five years of captivity by the Taliban.
Charges are still a possibility, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Associated Press as criticism mounted in Congress about releasing five high-level Taliban detainees in exchange for Bergdahl. Results of an Army investigation could conceivably lead to desertion or other charges.
Congress began holding hearings and briefings into the deal that swapped Bergdahl for Taliban officials who had been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The White House took a fourth straight day of heat for not giving Congress the required 30 days' notice of a detainee release. Obama had issued a statement when he signed the law containing that requirement giving himself a loophole for certain circumstances under the executive powers clause of the Constitution.
Obama, at a news conference in Poland, defended the decision to move quickly on the exchange, saying without offering details that U.S. officials were concerned about Bergdahl's health.
Obama also said the Taliban officials' release was conditioned on assurances from officials in Qatar, where they will have to stay for one year, that they will track them and allow the U.S. to monitor them.
"We will be keeping eyes on them. Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely," Obama said. "That's been true of all the prisoners that were released from Guantanamo."
Sen. Bill Nelson and his Republican counterpart Sen. Marco Rubio disagreed Tuesday on whether Obama had legal authority to strike the deal.
"If he needs to act and he needs to act quickly, I think he has the constitutional authority to do that," Nelson, a Democrat, said in an interview with Florida reporters.
Rubio, on Fox News, said: "Obviously, no one is lamenting the fact that an American serviceman is going to be back with his family. But the president's considerations have to go beyond that. It has to be about acting in the national security of the United States, and it has to be about following the law. No. 1, the president has violated the law here. The law is very clear. He must give congressional notification 30 days before any prisoner in Guantanamo is released. He failed to do that."
Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.