White House defends prisoner swap
By Justin Sink - 06/02/14 01:56 PM EDT
The White House on Monday defended a controversial deal that freed the lone American prisoner of war from the conflict in Afghanistan, saying that giving Congress 30 days to review the deal was "not an option."
Press secretary Jay Carney said "unique and exigent circumstances" forced the administration to move quickly to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The White House spokesman said the state of Bergdahl's health, that he had been held in captivity for five years and "the fact there were no guarantees the window would remain open" all played into the decision to make the prisoner swap.
Carney also said the transfer, under which five Taliban militants being held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay were freed, should "not have come as a surprise" to members of Congress.
"We have been engaged in an effort for years, as we should have been, to recover Sgt. Bergdahl, a prisoner of war in Afghanistan," Carney said. "And as part of those efforts, there have been ongoing discussions about how to bring that about. And that included conversations with members of Congress about at least the possibility of transferring these five detainees as part of getting Sgt. Bergdahl back to the United States and back with his family."
Some Republicans have argued that the president violated federal law, which requires the administration notify lawmakers a month before anyone is transferred from the Guantanamo prison.
Carney said the White House had "repeatedly noted concerns" with the requirement, believing it infringed on the president's constitutional powers as commander in chief.
The White House spokesman also dismissed concerns that the deal would incentivize the capture of American soldiers in ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. And Carney said the decision to negotiate with the Taliban for the swap was in keeping with U.S. tradition to conduct prisoner exchanges following conflicts.
"Prisoner exchanges in armed conflicts are hardly a new development, including in our history in the United States," Carney said. "Whether it's the Japanese or the North Koreans or others, we have engaged in prisoner exchanges in the past."
And Carney said the White House did not believe the freed Guantanamo detainees would pose a risk to the U.S. He did not detail what security assurances officials had received.
"Without getting into specific assurances, I can tell you that they included a travel ban and information-sharing on the detainees between our governments, between the United States and Qatar," Carney said. "I can also tell you that the assurances were sufficient to allow the secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, in coordination with the national security team, to determine that the threat posed by the detainees to the United States would be sufficiently mitigated and that the transfer was in the U.S. national security interest."
The White House spokesman sidestepped questions about reports Bergdahl may have deserted his post before he was captured in Afghanistan. Some troops have expressed anger over efforts to recover Bergdahl and the prisoner exchange.
"The Defense Department will obviously — has been and will continue to be the lead in terms of evaluating all of the circumstances surrounding his initial detention and his captivity," Carney said.
A spokesman for the Pentagon has said the Defense Department still does not fully understand the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance.