Obama officials head to Hill to talk Bowe Bergdahl
By: Burgess Everett and Manu Raju
June 4, 2014 11:31 AM EDT
The White House is moving quickly to quell growing bipartisan concern that Congress was kept in the dark about the controversial deal with the Taliban to release Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Senior administration officials will head to Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening for a rare private meeting with all 100 senators in a secure facility in the Capitol Visitor Center. The senators will hear from James Dobbins, a State Department specialist on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, Admiral James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Robert Cardillo, the deputy director of national intelligence.
The officials will likely get an earful from members of both parties, who have expressed frustration that the administration didn’t comply with legal requirements to give Congress 30 days notice before engaging in prisoner swaps. Lawmakers are also questioning the wisdom of exchanging five Taliban prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a single U.S. prisoner — especially one who is facing growing allegations that he deserted his colleagues.
Ahead of the meeting, the only senator to receive a heads up from the White House before Bergdahl’s Saturday release — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — took to the floor to defend President Barack Obama’s deal.
“Opponents of President Obama have seized upon the release of an American prisoner of war — that’s what he was — using a moment of celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games,” Reid said on Wednesday morning. “They’re worried his release could be seen as a victory for President Obama.”
Reid said that several GOP senators had recently touted their support for making “every effort” possible to return Bergdahl to the U.S. — then turned around to criticize President Barack Obama for doing just that.
But the criticism is hardly limited to the GOP.
Two senior Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia — criticized White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough at a Democratic caucus lunch on Tuesday, arguing that the White House’s claims that Congress was looped in falls flat. Speaking in Poland on Tuesday, Obama said his administration had consulted Congress “for some time.”
“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. Saxby wasn’t. [Sen. Richard] Burr wasn’t. And [Sen. Ron] Wyden wasn’t. And we are the five senior people,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a former Intelligence Committee chairman. “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.”
During the Tuesday lunch, McDonough said further questions would be addressed at the Wednesday briefing.
Other Democrats, too, say they have ample questions with the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s release and capture.
“If the guy was a deserter, and we traded folks for a deserter, that’s probably not good,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said. “I think we ought to find out what happened.”
The Wednesday briefing comes after senior White House officials privately called Feinstein and Intelligence Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) on Monday to apologize for not informing them off the imminent Bergdahl deal — but the criticisms go deeper.
Among the questions that are sure to come up are why congressional leaders were left in the dark — and what the Obama administration is doing to ensure the Taliban members don’t return to terrorist activity against the United States.
“What’s done is done. And we are going to continue to ask the different, difficult questions about why they did what they did,” Chambliss said. On Tuesday evening, he asked Obama to declassify information on the five released Guantanamo prisoners.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning to brief senators on the appropriations committee about intelligence spending and was peppered with inquiries about Bergdahl.
Reid said there are plenty of questions but blasted “Monday morning quarterbacks on Capitol Hill” criticizing the Obama administration’s decision-making.
“President Obama as commander in chief acted honorably in helping an American soldier return home,” Reid said. “The safe return of an American soldier should not be used for political points.”