Top Hill Republicans didn’t know of Bergdahl deal
By: Burgess Everett and John Bresnahan
June 3, 2014 12:04 PM EDT
Several key Senate and House lawmakers said Tuesday for the first time that they were not informed beforehand of the deal to release Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban officials detained at Guantanamo Bay.
Both Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that they were not told in advance by the Obama administration about the now-controversial prisoner exchange. A House GOP aide said the last time such an exchange was discussed with the speaker was over two years ago in January 2012.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that he did receive a heads-up on the deal on Friday, he told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. But the Democratic chairmen of both his chamber’s Intelligence and Armed Services committees said they were left in the dark.
The White House was forced to apologize to Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for failing to notify her of its plans. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken called Feinstein on Monday night to express regret for an “oversight” in not fully briefing Congress.
Unlike Reid, Feinstein said she did not hear directly about the swap before the news broke and only learned “after the fact.”
“It’s very disappointing that there was not a level of trust sufficient to justify alerting us,” she said. “The White House is pretty unilateral about what they want to do and when they want to do it … But I think the notification to us is important.”
It was unclear on Tuesday whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been briefed.
McConnell was notified Saturday morning after Bergdahl was already in American hands, an aide said. According to a House GOP aide, Boehner was also told on Saturday morning, about 30 minutes before the news broke publicly.
Administration officials plan to brief all senators on Wednesday evening on the issue.
“In calls to Senator Feinstein and Senator Chambliss, the Administration noted that we regretted we were not able to reach some Members personally on Saturday,” said a senior administration official.
The comments by House and Senate leaders were the first time senior lawmakers detailed their knowledge of the Bergdahl swap. And criticism of the administration was not limited to Republicans.
While glad that Bergdahl was released by the Taliban, Boehner and other top Republicans feel the White House potentially violated statutory requirements to inform Congress 30 days before such an exchange occurs.
“More than two years ago, Members of Congress were briefed on the possibility of such an exchange, and the chairmen at the time and I raised serious questions to the administration,” Boehner said in a statement released by his office. “At the time, the administration deferred further engagement because the prospects of the exchange had diminished. The administration provided assurances, publicly reiterated by the White House in June 2013, that its engagement would resume if the prospects for an exchange became credible again.”
House GOP aides said such a notification never took place, but Reid said that doesn’t mean he broke the law.
“I’ve been told no, he did not violate the law,” he said.
According to Republican aides, Boehner and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) — then the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee — plus McKeon, Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) — then the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee — were briefed by officials from the National Security Council, Pentagon, State Department, CIA and Director of National Intelligence on the possibility of peace talks in Afghanistan, with a swap for Berghdahl being seen as a “confidence builder” for such talks. The first meeting was held on Nov. 30, 2011.
The Republicans objected to any such deal for Bergdahl, fearing it could lead to further kidnappings of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan.
Following President Barack Obama’s statements that Congress was indeed informed of the deal, confusion and furor mounted on Capitol Hill over exactly who knew what and when. While mainly Republicans launched criticism at the White House for its handling of the swap, some Democrats complained and they were also left in the dark.
In a brief interview early on Tuesday, Reid said the White House contacted him ahead of the swap — but not by much.
“It must have been either the day before or the day of. I don’t remember for sure,” Reid said.
Beyond Reid, members of Congress said they were ill-informed of the Obama administration’s secret negotiations with the Taliban through Qatar. Feinstein’s counterpart on the Intelligence committee, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, said it had been more than a year since he’d heard a peep about Bergdahl from the White House — so long he couldn’t remember the precise date.
Republicans are furious that the Obama administration didn’t follow laws that require Congress to receive a 30-day notice on prisoner swaps. At a press conference in Poland on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said the administration had consulted Congress “for some time” though intelligence leaders in Congress indicated they hadn’t received a briefing on Bergdahl for several years.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there was a broad 2012 briefing about negotiations with the Taliban that contained “talk of release of Bergdahl.” But that consultation, he said, was not specific to a prisoner swap.
McCain’s successor on Armed Services, Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), said he’d “never” heard a word about Bergdahl since assuming the ranking member role on the panel in 2013.
“I didn’t know anything about Bergdahl until you guys did,” he told reporters.
The issue will begin to be hashed out by the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors on Tuesday. A classified briefing on Bergdahl has been arranged for senators on Tuesday afternoon to pepper top administration intelligence officials about how the swap went down — and why Congress was left largely in the dark.
“We’re going to continue to ask the right difficult questions of the White House as to why they did what they did, why they had the authority for doing what they did,” Chambliss said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a similar briefing June 10 — though Republicans are pushing for an open hearing as well. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has vowed to also hold hearings on the Bergdahl exchange.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Obama tipped off Congress in December when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act that included the 30-day requirement. Levin said the White House didn’t notify him of the swap until Monday.
“Signing statements can’t change the law, but what they did do in this case is notify Congress that the president had authority under the Constitution to move quickly in the area of detainees. He notified the Congress that he had that authority,” Levin said. He was not notified of the swap until Monday from the White House. “He put us on warning.”
Reid (D-Nev.) declined to discuss how much the Obama administration had kept him in the loop.
“Oh, I’m not going to talk about that,” Reid said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WestVa.), a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee and now a senior member of the panel, complained about the lack of information from the White House.
“I don’t like it when the White House says the intelligence committees were briefed. Because we weren’t. Dianne wasn’t. I wasn’t,” he said. “Saxby wasn’t. [Richard] Burr wasn’t. And [Ron] Wyden wasn’t. And we are the five senior people. Even that I can live with, but when they say, ‘Oh yes, they were briefed.’ What they are referring to is 2011-2012 when I was still in grade school.”
Typically party leaders and top intelligence members receive higher levels of briefings than rank-and-file members — but two sources familiar with the issue, one Democrat and one Republican, said that the administration’s Bergdahl briefings had largely dried up by the start of 2012.
“It was a conscious decision not to engage with Congress,” a Republican source said, recounting radio silence each time an inquiry was sent to the White House. That source described a sharp contrast with the White House’s disclosure on Bergdahl to the killing of Osama bin Laden, in which top members of Congress received regular outreach from the the White House well in advance of U.S. actions.
The Democratic source said that word on Bergdahl came shortly before Obama gave a statement in the Rose Garden regarding his release. The staffer said regular Hill briefings ceased about 30 months ago, which jibes with House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers’s assertion on Tuesday that Congress had received no briefings on Bergdahl since 2011.
There has been bipartisan concern for years about the proposed swaps of U.S. prisoners for senior Taliban figures, including comments by Feinstein to Foreign Policy in 2012 in which she expressed opposition to trading five Taliban members for one U.S. citizen.
Chambliss said he was assured by the administration that he would receive advance notice of negotiations for the release of Taliban officials. Chambliss has long opposed the rumored trade of Guantanamo prisoners for Bergdahl, and said that he can’t “believe a thing this president says now.”
The White House has argued that the Bergdahl deal is legal under the Constitution — and Reid did not seem to share concerns over its legality on Tuesday.
“I’m glad we brought one of ours home,” he said.