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State Department refuses to call Bergdahl a deserter

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 06: State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki attends a joint news conference with European Union High Representative Lady Catherine Ashton and Secretary of State John Kerry in the Treaty Room at the State Department May 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. The two leaders spoke about the ongoing conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Ukraine. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Monday repeatedly refused to call U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, despite numerous press reports indicating that Bergdahl may have walked off the base after deciding he no longer supported the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.

Many of those press reports cite soldiers who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan. That has led to questions about whether the U.S. should have offered to free five enemy combatant detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in order to ensure Bergdahl's return to the United States.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 06: State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki repeatedly refused to call U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, despite numerous press reports. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But Psaki twice rejected the idea that Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan after deserting his base. Further, she said Bergdahl was captured while in combat, although she did not elaborate.

"We would characterize him as a member of the military who was detained while in combat," she said.

Psaki also had no further comment on whether the government would seek charges against Bergdahl once he returns.

"There will be plenty of time to determine what the next steps are," she said. "That would be the purview of the Department of Defense."

The agreement allowing Bergdahl's return raises several key foreign policy questions, many of which are still unanswered. One key question is what assurances the administration got about ensuring that the five Guantanamo detainees will not pose further harm to the United States.

On this question, Psaki said the administration received "assurances" that these detainees would no longer pose a threat.

"They included among other things a travel ban, and regular information sharing on the detainees between our governments," she said. "I can also tell you and point you to the fact that… these assurances were sufficient enough to allow the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the National Security team, to determine that the threat posed by the detainees to the United States was sufficiently mitigated, and that the transfer was in the U.S. national security interest."

The detainees are scheduled to stay in Qatar for one year, but when asked what happens after them after that, Psaki said only that the government has assurances, and would offer no further details.

Another key question is the extent to which the Obama administration may now be open to negotiating with terrorist groups or others about the return of prisoners. A related question is whether the U.S. may now be open to agreeing to similar swaps.

Reporters pressed Psaki on whether there's any interest in a swap to ensure the return of Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who is a prisoner in Cuba. They also asked about U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who is a prisoner in Mexico.

But Psaki offered no indication that similar agreements might be reached to return those two prisoners. "We look at each case differently," she said.

Congressional Republicans are also irate over the decision to agree to the swap without first notifying Congress, as required under U.S. law. But Psaki noted that President Barack Obama has demanded flexibility on this, and said the decision was made without notifying Congress because of health concerns related to Bergdahl.

"In this case when you're the commander in chief and you're sitting at your desk and you are dealing with the question of the life and safety of an individual who has served our country in the military, you make choices," she said.

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