WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that he felt confident the five Taliban detainees freed in a swap for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl posed little risk to Americans, adding that Qatari officials were not the only ones monitoring them — and that while the five might be able to return to the battlefield, “they also have the ability to get killed doing that.”
Kerry, in some of his first public remarks on the exchange, struck a decidedly tough tone, dismissing as “baloney” the suggestion that terrorists would have new incentive to kidnap Americans.
He also hinted, without offering details, that the United States had the means to monitor the Taliban members, who are now in Qatar, and act against them if necessary.
The Qataris “aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on them,” Kerry said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” He added, “These guys pick a fight with us in the future or now or at any time at enormous risk.”
Broadly defending the swap, Kerry said that it would have been “offensive and incomprehensible” to leave Bergdahl in the hands of people who might torture him or “cut off his head.”
‘These guys pick a fight with us in the future or now or at any time at enormous risk.’
Despite the determined defense of administration decisions by such officials as Kerry, the firestorm of criticism about the exchange continued unabated Sunday, with Republican lawmakers and one senior Democrat publicly expressing fresh doubts.
The administration received key support, however, from an influential retired military leader, General James N. Mattis, who said that the exchange would make it easier now to attack the extremist groups involved in Bergdahl’s detention.
Up to now, the general said, every time commanders weighed an attack on the Haqqani network, which operates on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, “we were concerned that Bowe Bergdahl could end up dead.”
That concern is gone, he said, also on CNN. “There’s also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn’t fully enjoy,” he said.
Mattis, who headed the US Central Command from 2010 to 2013, with responsibility for Afghanistan, also argued that the Qataris, with “some of their own prestige at stake,” had reason to monitor the Taliban officials closely.
Like Kerry, the general dismissed the idea that the swap might inspire terror groups to kidnap Americans, saying, “It’s not like all of a sudden they have a new impulse here.”
Key members of Congress have expressed serious concerns that the administration failed to inform them in advance of the Bergdahl exchange.
On Sunday, the leaders of the intelligence committees in both chambers, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, raised the question of why the administration had backed away from a goal enunciated in 2011: to make the Bergdahl deal the first step in a broader, behind-the-scenes effort to reach a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban.
Feinstein, a Democrat, also said that she found it hard to accept Kerry’s assurances that the Taliban members could be kept securely in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Previous negotiations, she said, had included a requirement for the house arrest of the five, in contrast to the current arrangement, which reportedly will allow them to move about the country.
“You can’t help but worry about them in Doha,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And we have no information on how the United States is actually going to see that they remain in Doha, that they make no comments, that they do no agitation.”
Rogers, a Republican, said that he was convinced at least three of the Taliban members, and perhaps all five, would try to return to the battlefield.
In the meantime, he said on ABC’s “This Week,” they can meet in Qatar with other Taliban figures, or with family, and send messages by courier to Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Rogers said he did not expect the five to plan anything “operational,” that is, to plan attacks. But he said the conditions of their time in Qatar would allow them “to prepare for what’s next.”
Bergdahl, who was released a week ago, is being treated at the American military medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany. He has told officials there that he was tortured, beaten, and held in a cage by his Taliban captors in Afghanistan after he tried to escape.
The Idaho soldier, now 28, was captured in June 2009 after he disappeared from his infantry unit. He was held for nearly five years by Taliban militants.
Taliban spokesmen could not be immediately reached for comment Sunday on the torture report. On Friday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that Bergdahl was held under ‘‘good conditions.’’ The claim could not be independently verified.
Military doctors at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center said that while Bergdahl is physically able to travel he is not yet emotionally prepared to be reunited with his family.