Positions harden on Bergdahl swap


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The White House has dispatched senior officials to brief lawmakers in closed sessions at least three times in the 11 days since Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released from Taliban captivity, but President Barack Obama’s efforts to assuage members of Congress -- even fellow Democrats -- seem to have changed few minds.

After a closed-door hearing Tuesday of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican and Democratic members of the panel largely issued the same talking points.

Some backed Obama’s decision, which freed five Taliban militants from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a difficult but necessary move. Others questioned the secrecy behind the negotiations.

“I remain convinced that the president would have been well served to consult with Congress,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said as he left the hearing.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the armed services panel, continued to defend the swap, telling reporters that the Joint Chiefs of Staff made the decision “knowing full well that Bergdahl had left his unit” in June 2009 before Taliban captured him.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the 2008 presidential nominee, said the classified briefings lacked enough specific information to modified lawmakers’ responses to to the deal.

“We never learn anything new at these hearings,” McCain said.

Democrats have criticized McCain for challenged the exchange after having earlier supporting a possible swap of prisoners for Bergdahl.

Outside the Senate floor Tuesday, McCain defended those in Bergdahl’s platoon who have suggested that he deserted in post in eastern Afghanistan just before his capture.

“They can attack me all they want to, but to attack these people in that platoon is disgraceful,” McCain said.

Republicans in the House of Representatives, which received a closed-door briefing on the affair from White House officials Monday evening, echoed the sentiments of their Senate colleagues.

Rep. Dona Rohrabacher, a California Republican, said he felt “even angrier” after the briefing.

“What we have now is an arrogant thumbing of his nose by the president of the United States at the Congress of the United States,” Rohrabacher said.

Rep. David Price disagreed. The North Carolina Democrat defended Obama’s decision, saying Bergdahl’s life was in danger and the deal would have been scuttled if word of it had leaked in advance.

“I’m sure it was a difficult call, but they made a good case for it,” Price said. “It is true that leaders of the Congress, if (only) the relevant committees, were notified for months, even years, about the general contours of this deal.”

The House Armed Services Committee was to hold the first open congressional hearing Wednesday on the Bergdahl swap, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scheduled to testify.

Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Hagel was prepared to answer lawmakers’ questions.

“He looks forward to explaining why the president’s decision to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl was the right one, and why the process we undertook in doing so was in keeping with our national interests,” Kirby told reporters.

Kirby said that Bergdahl was on the road to recovery at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, but the process would be a slow one.

“We’re told that his health continues to improve and that he is engaging with hospital staff more and more each day,” Kirby said.

Kirby added: “But this is going to be a long process, and nobody is going to push it any further or any faster than Sgt. Bergdahl and his caregivers are willing to take it. This soldier was held captive for nearly five years in what we must assume were harsh conditions. He’s going to need time to reassimilate, time to heal mentally and physically.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest sparred with reporters over some lawmakers’ claims that 80 to 90 people in the administration received advance notice of the prisoner swap while Congress was kept in the dark.

Earnest said the administration officials who’d briefed the House on Monday used that numerical range in a broader context.

“They were referring to individuals in the administration that had access to intelligence related to the Taliban’s activities in Qatar.”

The Qatari government brokered the deal, under which the five freed Taliban are to remain in Qatar for at least one year.

Earnest said fewer administration officials had advance knowledge of the exchange details itself.

“There was a smaller number of individuals who were aware of specific military actions, including the one related to the transfer of Sgt. Bergdahl out of Taliban captivity and into American custody,” he said. “And the reason for that is simple: This is a secret military mission in which disclosure of the mission could put into jeopardy not just the life of Sgt. Bergdahl, but also the lives of the American servicemen who were involved in the mission.”

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