By Barbara Starr and Adam Levine
U.S. negotiations with the Taliban that have now stalled include an American proposal for the release of Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in June 2009, U.S. officials tell CNN.
"In the discussions with the Taliban there have been a series of confidence-building measures discussed. I am not going to deny that one of those potential confidence-building measures has been the release of Bowe Bergdahl," one U.S. official said.
Until now the administration has never directly acknowledged the discussions included Bergdahl. But in interviews with the New York Times and the Idaho Mountain Express, published Wednesday night, Bergdahl's parents said that the fate of their son was part of the negotiations.
The family told the New York Times they were speaking out because of frustration over a lack of progress in the talks.
"Everybody is frustrated with how slowly the process has evolved," Robert Bergdahl told the Idaho paper.
An administration official insisted that work is going on "every day, military and diplomatic," in an effort to get Bergdahl released.
"Our hearts go out to Bergdahl family and friends," the official said. "We want our guy back. Period."
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters on Thursday that he's met with the Bergdahl's himself several times.
"I can assure you that we are doing everything in our power, using our intelligence resources across the government, to try to find, locate him," General Martin Dempsey said at a Pentagon press conference.
The discussion on releasing Bergdahl was "in the context" of reconciliation talks, the administration official said.
The officials CNN spoke with declined to be identified because of the ongoing sensitivity of the matter, but agreed to discuss the issue now that the Bergdahl family is doing so.
"The Taliban understood the release would help build our confidence of their willingness to reconcile," the administration official added. The exchange would not necessarily have meant all five would be released at one time.
"Some sort of sequence would have been worked out," the administration official said. The source gave an example of a couple of prisoners being moved, and then when Bergdahl was released, the other three would be transferred.
"The Taliban understands his release would help build our confidence" in their willingness to reconcile, the administration official said.
Neither official knew how high up in the Taliban organization the discussion of Bergdahl reached. On the U.S. side, a top State Department official - U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman - had met with Taliban representatives earlier this year, and in a series of talks in 2011.
The talks have now largely been suspended. The Taliban suspended their diplomatic office in Qatar in March complaining of the United States' "alternating and ever-changing position."
There were concerns on the U.S. side that not enough assurances had been given in Qatar that the released detainees would not be able to return to Afghanistan and rejoin the fight.
The idea of releasing the Guantanamo prisoners to encourage reconciliation talks has been controversial and met with opposition from some key members of Congress.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, said earlier this year it was "really, really bizarre" that the United States would release detainees to encourage peace talks. McCain's office would not comment Thursday.
In a letter to President Barack Obama sent in February, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan, warned that the release would "send the wrong message to the Taliban."
"Releasing prisoners strictly for the purpose of accelerating negotiations undermines the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and deliberately ignores the threat of a Taliban resurgence," Hunter wrote.
He repeated his concerns to CNN in a statement e-mailed Thursday.
"If there's a chance to release an American prisoner, then that's something that needs to be taken seriously, but there are options and resources beyond detainee release," Hunter said. "The problem is that we don't know who these detainees are or the likelihood that they'll return to the battlefield to capture or kill more Americans. The odds are pretty good that they'll be back to targeting Americans at first chance. That's what they do, they're experts at killing Americans and facilitating attacks."
He placed an amendment in the just-approved House defense authorization bill that extends the amount of time the administration must give notice to Congress before any release from 30 days to 90 days, Hunter's spokesman, Joe Kasper, told CNN. The amendment further requires that a full history of the detainee be provided along with an assessment of the likelihood the detainee would return to the field of battle.
"The congressman understands the situation. He's served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as a Marine, and anytime there are reports of Marines and soldiers facing difficult or dangerous situations, he fully understands what it means and what's involved," Kasper said.
The U.S. official said, "Nothing is more important to us than getting a soldier back who has been taken prisoner. We have never lost the energy to do that. There have been enormous efforts to locate and recover him."
But this official and others have long said the difficulty is that Bergdahl is believed to be held inside Pakistan by the Haqqani network, which is believed to be moving him around often, making it difficult to track him. The United States, he said, has been pressing the Pakistanis as well to get him released.
Dempsey said the military has not forgotten about Bergdahl.
"If you go to the CENTCOM command center, where, you know, their conference room, there's about a four-by-six-foot poster of Bowe Bergdahl sitting in front of the podium to remind them, and therefore us, every day that he remains missing in action. I can assure you of that," he said.