Senate Dems back Obama on Bergdahl
By: Burgess Everett and Jeremy Herb
June 10, 2014 08:41 AM EDT
Senate Democrats are mounting their strongest defense yet of President Barack Obama’s decision to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
They are ridiculing the notion that Obama should have given Congress a 30-day heads up — as required by law — on the impending transfer. And Democrats are expressing growing confidence that public support for the deal will grow as more details emerge.
The debate over Bergdahl’s release is unfolding as administration officials took to Capitol Hill for the fourth time in a week on Tuesday to defend the deal — this time in a classified meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said providing lawmakers advanced notice was an “impossible” task that would have endangered Bergdahl’s life, given the chance of leaks.
“I can’t believe anyone’s arguing that as soon as we knew there was a transfer we had to wait for Congress to think it over for 30 days,” Durbin told reporters. “I will just tell you this they knew a day ahead of time that the transfer was going to take place, they knew an hour ahead of time where it was going to take place.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Congress should not have been surprised that Obama evaded the 30-day law — citing warnings Obama had in mind when signing the law that he might not be able to comply with the requirement if “there were circumstances which didn’t give him enough time.”
“That’s exactly what happened here,” Levin said.
Meanwhile, Democrats are pressing the administration to be more forthcoming under the belief that disclosure will put to bed Republicans’ attacks on the transfer that often take the form of unanswered questions.
“We believe that as people understand the circumstances of his imprisonment, it will help explain why the president considered this such a priority,” Durbin said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said as she left the briefing that open discussions in Congress would help clear up Republicans’ and Democrats’ different interpretations of the prisoner exchange.
“It’s always helpful to be as transparent as possible. And I think this is a case where there’s information that has been mischaracterized or not fully released that would be helpful to the public,” she said.
Democrats have reason to be worried over the political implications of the deal. A poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center and USA Today found 43 percent believed it was wrong for the administration to exchange the five Taliban detainees for Bergdahl. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in the poll said Obama should have notified Congress about these types of decisions.
And Republicans continue to hammer the White House on the deal. Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that people could die because of the it.
“We’ve made Americans less safe here and all around the world,” Boehner told reporters. “And we’re going to pay for this. There is not any doubt in my mind there are going to be costs.”
As is becoming typical of these closed briefings, Senate Republicans left the Tuesday briefing insisting they have more questions than answers and that little was revealed that is not already public.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday and likely face a litany of criticism from the Republican-led House. Senate Republicans are pushing Democrats to do the same after a series of closed briefings.
“If they could release the five files of the Taliban dream team then we can have a full open hearing, just on the national security implications of the transfer,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who attended Tuesday’s briefing. “That’s important for the people of this country to understand.”
On this point, there could actually be some bipartisan agreement.
“There should be [an open hearing.] It’s going to require the declassification of some information and I think the White House is working to declassify some of the information,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “I hope that they would do it. I think that would be a very good thing.”
But as the Bergdahl storyline stretched into its tenth day, fatigue is setting in after seemingly nonstop closed briefings and sniping between the White House and Congress.
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Sunday questioned the administration’s assertion that U.S. troops are not more at risk after the swap and on Monday said there’s been no personal outreach from the White House in the last week to assuage her concerns. But on Tuesday she had little appetite for criticizing the administration and argued further hearings would not be productive.
“We need to put an end to all of this now,” Feinstein said. “Enough is enough. I think the Senate’s had a hearing, and the House has had a hearing. I think everybody has heard what they need to hear.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), an Armed Services member, agreed — if for different reason.
“I’m afraid it would be very unsatisfactory to the public. Because so much of what they’re being asked about is classified,” he said. “The American people want a lot more information.”
Leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee are still weighing whether to hold an additional hearing open to the public and the media — an event that would offer the White House far friendlier terrain than Wednesday’s hearing in front of a highly critical GOP-dominated panel in the House.
“We’re going to see what comes through in all the other hearings as to whether it would add anything,” Levin said. “If it adds something additional, fine, and if it doesn’t we won’t.”
“I’d asked for one,” said the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. “We may be making progress. [Levin] wanted to wait until this part is over and then maybe do it.”
The White House sent seven officials to the Capitol Visitor Center to deliver a classified briefing to Levin and Inhofe’s panel: Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Winnefeld, Department of Defense General Counsel Stephen Preston, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Dumont, Brigadier Gen. Robert White and Deputy Director for Intelligence Integration Robert Cardillo.
Several of those officials had briefed the House on Monday — and received a poor review from Republicans, who emerged concerned that so many administration officials knew about the Bergdahl swap before congressional leaders. They also complained there was little new information behind closed doors.
Senate Republicans on Tuesday made a similar assessment.
“I do not know why the hearing was classified,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “There was nothing in that classified hearing that isn’t already in the public domain.”
The White House has been conducting a comprehensive outreach mission to Congress in the days after news of the Bergdahl swap first broke from the Rose Garden of the White House, hoping to clean up criticisms from both parties that the president skirted the law by not cluing in Congress — or any congressional leader other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In the past week the Obama administration has also briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee and opened up a briefing to all 100 senators — where they were shown a video of Bergdahl in poor health while being held by the Taliban.
While Republicans appeared largely unswayed by the latest effort by the administration to soothe Congress — there was definite progress toward convincing Senate Democrats on Tuesday.
“I find it justified,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “I was one of the big doubters because of the perception of trading a deserter for five people, but I have changed my opinion. I think they have made a very good explanation of the procedures that they’re doing.”
Nelson’s opinion is not yet uniform among Democrats. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, perhaps the most conservative Democrat, remains unconvinced of the logic behind the White House’s decision to release Guantanamo prisoners in return for just one American soldier.
“The bottom line is: Why all of a sudden five for one guy?” Manchin said “Why keep them for this long, and now they’re going to become a threat to the United States?”