White House takes Bowe Bergdahl case to Capitol Hill
By: Burgess Everett and Manu Raju
June 4, 2014 11:31 AM EDT
The White House moved quickly to quell bipartisan concern Wednesday that Congress was kept in the dark about the controversial deal with the Taliban to release Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
While President Barack Obama continued his tour of Europe, his administration dispatched several officials to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in the evening for a rare private meeting in a secure facility that every senator was allowed to attend. The senators heard from James Dobbins, a State Department specialist on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Robert Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence.
The mood of the meeting was described as civil, but the questions were pointed. Lawmakers expressed frustration that the administration didn’t comply with legal requirements to give Congress 30 days of notice before engaging in prisoner swaps and also questioned the wisdom of exchanging five Taliban prisoners detained in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for a single U.S. prisoner — especially one who is facing growing allegations that he deserted his colleagues.
In an interview, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he raised questions about both of those issues but didn’t get acceptable answers.
“I’m not satisfied with the justification given with regards to not notifying Congress, and I’m deeply unsatisfied by the calculus that was used to determine that this was in the best national interest of the United States to move forward with releasing five dangerous individuals,” Rubio said.
Other Republicans also emerged from the meeting expressing frustration.
“I didn’t learn anything new that hadn’t been reported,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).
When asked whether Bergdahl deserted his unit, the officials “kind of ducked” the question, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said.
“For Republicans, definitely no sale on this deal,” Kirk said. “They didn’t go through [the] preconditions that led to the deal.”
Some Democrats were more positive leaving the meeting.
“It was a very hard decision,” said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber. “If I’d been challenged to make it myself, I might have come to the same conclusion under the pressure of the moment. But now that you step back and reflect on it, it’s easy to pick it apart and criticize it.”
“Good questions are being asked by both sides,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “Thoughtful answers are being provided.”
The Senate adjourned at 5:30 p.m. to allow members to attend the session and at least 60 lawmakers showed up, brushing past dozens of reporters and a bank of television cameras.
Ahead of the meeting, the only senator to receive a heads-up from the White House about 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. “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 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 Rockefeller, 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.”
Other Democrats, too, had ample questions about the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture and release.
“If the guy was a deserter, and we traded folks for a deserter, that’s probably not good,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said ahead of the meeting with administration officials. “I think we ought to find out what happened.”
“One of the issues I want to bring up: What is the precedent this sets or doesn’t set?” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).
The Wednesday briefing came 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 of the imminent Bergdahl deal — but the criticisms go deeper.
That did little to ease frustration in Congress.
“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.
James Clapper, 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.
“I asked questions about life-threatening illnesses. No one could say that this man, Sgt. Bergdahl, was in a life-threatening situation near death,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I also asked: ‘On a scale of one to 10, what kind of likelihood would exist for these guys going back to the fight after the year?’ And let’s put it this way: The answer was very disturbing. Likelihood being great.”
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.”