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Kerry defends Bergdahl-for-Taliban exchange

From Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
updated 10:04 PM EDT, Sun June 8, 2014
  • NEW: Taliban source: Bergdahl did not convert to Islam, learned to speak Pashto
  • NEW: Law enforcement official: Threats to Bergdahl family came via e-mail
  • John Kerry says released Taliban figures will be monitored
  • If they turn to violent ways, they could die violent deaths, he says

(CNN) -- The five Taliban figures who got out of Guantanamo in exchange for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release would be taking an "enormous risk" if they return to the battlefield, Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday.

"I'm not telling you that they don't have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that. " Kerry said in his first public comments on the controversial prisoner exchange.

Kerry defended the swap and told CNN the former detainees will be monitored closely -- and not just by officials in Qatar, where they were flown after being released. He wouldn't say who else will be watching, but he said the United States is confident the conditions of their release will be honored.

"And if they're violated, then we have the ability to be able to do things," he said, warning that the United States would do whatever is necessary to protect Americans "if these guys pick a fight with us in the future, or now, or at any time."

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Bergdahl was released May 31 near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in an exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Republican critics in Washington have complained that the exchange for Bergdahl gave up hardened terrorists capable of attacking U.S. troops and interests. In addition, legislators from both parties accuse the Obama administration of violating the National Defense Authorization Act by failing to provide 30 days' advance notice to Congress of a transfer of Guantanamo detainees.

Administration officials have given several reasons for the lack of notification -- a need to move quickly due to Bergdahl's poor health and the overall threat to his safety, and the likelihood that even a small leak of the plan could have led to his death.

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New reports about Bergdahl's time in captivity

Bergdahl is recovering at a U.S. military hospital in Germany as details slowly emerge about his condition after five years of captivity.

Citing an American official, The New York Times reported Sunday that Bergdahl told medical staff that the box he was kept in for weeks at a time was pitch black and like a shark cage.

CNN reported Friday that Bergdahl has said he was kept in a small box after trying to escape, according to a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of not being identified. The official also told CNN that Bergdahl suffers from psychological trauma caused by physical abuse.

A Taliban source with knowledge of Bergdahl's captivity told CNN's Nic Robertson Sunday that Bergdahl was kept in a house owned by an old man, then escaped and was on the run for three days. When he was recaptured after that escape attempt, according to the Taliban source, he was not punished with a cage or cell, but was taken to a more secure location where he had no chance to escape.

A U.S. official told CNN last week that Bergdahl may have tried to escape his Taliban captors on at least two occasions.

The Taliban source said Bergdahl was given books to read that included Islamic books, but he was not forced to convert and remained true to his Christian upbringing. He was allowed to celebrate Christmas and Easter, the source said.

Bergdahl learned to speak the local language of Pashto, was able to exercise and sometimes played soccer with the Taliban, the source said.

Hospital: Bergdahl is improving, but isn't ready to travel

Doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where Bergdahl was taken after his handover, said Friday that he was in stable condition and continued to improve but wasn't ready to travel to the United States.

"There is no predetermined timeline for Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery process," a hospital statement said. "The duration will continue to be based on the pace of his healing and reintegration process."

The Times report added that Bergdahl has taken walks outside his hospital room while wearing his Army uniform, according to the American official. Bergdahl, who was promoted twice on schedule while in captivity, objects to being called sergeant, the Times reported.

Bergdahl was a private first class when he went missing on June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan's Paktika province, where he was deployed with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

When he is ready, Bergdahl will be flown to the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas, where he may be able to reunite with his parents. Bergdahl has not spoken with them since his release.

Taliban celebrates

Nine songs celebrating the release of the five Taliban detainees were posted to a Taliban website Saturday.

On one tune, a singer calls the men "grand champions" and praises their Islamic faith.

According to a CNN translation, a man sings in Pashto:

Welcome a hundred times, welcome grand champions

Congratulations your new life, O freed men

Welcome a hundred times, welcome grand champions

Congratulations your new life, O freed men

Threats against parents

The FBI is investigating threats against Bergdahl's parents, who have not been seen publicly since sending their son messages of love through a news conference days after his release.

"We are working jointly with our state and local partners and taking each threat seriously," FBI Special Agent William Facer told CNN in an e-mail Saturday.

Facer declined to detail the nature and severity of the threats, and a military representative for the Bergdahls declined to comment.

Bergdahl's father received threats in three messages via e-mail at his home, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the contents of the e-mail. The first threat came on Wednesday, the official said, adding that FBI investigators will be tracing the messages to pinpoint who sent them.

Since Bergdahl's release, critics, including a former member of his unit, have contended that Bergdahl deserted. The Army concluded in a 2009 report that he left his post deliberately. But the Army has no definitive finding that Bergdahl deserted because that would require knowing his intent -- something Army officials can't learn without talking to the soldier, a U.S. military official told CNN.

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CNN's Barbara Starr, Qadir Sediqi, Ed Lavandera, Devon Sayers and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.

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