By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. military investigation of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban found he had slipped away from his unit before but had always returned, raising questions about whether or not he was deserting when he disappeared in 2009, people familiar with the findings said on Thursday.
Bergdahl, 28, was freed after five years as an Afghanistan war prisoner on Saturday when the Obama administration agreed to release five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo prison in exchange, a deal that touched off a firestorm of criticism.
Some soldiers who served in Afghanistan have accused Bergdahl of deserting from his remote outpost in the eastern region of the country on June 30, 2009, but the Pentagon has said publicly that the circumstances were unclear.
The people familiar with classified findings said investigators learned that Bergdahl, who was broadly portrayed as dissatisfied with the deployment in Afghanistan, had slipped away in the past, only to return a short while later. He did this once while undergoing military training in California, the sources said on condition of anonymity.
Friends and neighbors in Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, noted similar behavior before he joined the Army, saying the bookish, athletic youth was known for abruptly taking long hikes to Ketchem, about 18 miles away, with no prior notice.
President Barack Obama told a news conference in Brussels on Thursday that he made "absolutely no apologies" for the deal to secure Bergdahl's release. As U.S. military commander-in-chief he was "responsible for those kids" and ensuring no one was left behind, he said.
"This is not some abstraction. This is not some political football," Obama said, suggesting Republican criticism of the agreement was partisan.
Lawmakers in Congress were angry with the administration for failing to give them 30 days notice as required by law for any release from Guantanamo, and voiced concern about whether the Taliban leaders could effectively be monitored in Qatar, where they were to required to stay for a year.
One complaint among Bergdahl's former comrades was that their mission in Afghanistan had involved finding Taliban leaders like those released in exchange for Bergdahl.
LIFE WAS IN DANGER
The political uproar over the deal has been fueled by the White House itself, which has had difficulty explaining why it needed to move so quickly to free Bergdahl and has played down assessments of the potential threat posed by the release of the Taliban militants.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in an interview with the BBC, said the decision to strike a deal with the Taliban was unanimous among the tight White House group involved in the process because of concerns Bergdahl's life would be in danger.
U.S. officials said on Thursday they needed to move quickly because of concerns about Bergdahl's health as well as fears that leaks could cause the deal to collapse or prompt a Taliban member who disagreed with it to kill Bergdahl.
"We had both specific and general indications that Sgt Bergdahl's recovery - and potentially his life - could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed," a senior U.S. administration official said.
Classified intelligence reports said that two or three of the freed Taliban leaders were present during a November 2001 prison riot at Mazar e Sharif in which CIA paramilitary officer Johnny Micheal Spann was killed, four U.S. officials said.
But in decision-making leading to the prisoner swap deal, administration policymakers decided that alternate intelligence was more accurate and, in fact, the leaders in question did not arrive at the prison until after the riots, two officials said.
Bergdahl was transferred to a U.S. military hospital in Germany and is undergoing physical and mental evaluation. The Pentagon said on Thursday his condition was improving but he still had not spoken to his family.
"He remains in stable condition. His health continues to improve daily. He is conversing with medical staff and becoming more engaged in his treatment plan. He is resting better," said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren.
Bergdahl is expected to be moved to a U.S. military hospital in San Antonio, Texas, for further treatment, but Warren said there was no set time for the move.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball in Washington and Laura Zuckerman in Hailey, Idaho; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey and Grant McCool)