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Bergdahl prisoner exchange sparks bipartisan backlash in Congress

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Bergdahl: 'I think there was no reason to believe that he was in instant danger'
White House faces bipartisan criticism over exchange of senior Taliban leaders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

The White House on Wednesday battled a bipartisan storm of criticism over President Obama's decision to order the exchange of Taliban leaders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Senior lawmakers from both parties are questioning the administration's justification for acting without first consulting members of Congress and whether the deal put the nation's security at further risk.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Tuesday that members of Congress had not been briefed on the possibility of such an exchange with the Taliban since January 2012, and that there was "every expectation that the administration would re-engage" if diplomatic negotiations rekindled. The White House was aware that "it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition" to the idea, Boehner said.

"The administration has invited serious questions into how this exchange went down and the calculations the White House and relevant agencies made in moving forward without consulting Congress," Boehner said.

Republican aides are promising "rigorous" oversight, particularly in the House when it returns from recess next week. House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) has invited Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to testify before the panel on June 11.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defended Obama's action, saying Wednesday that the president "acted honorably in helping an American soldier return home to his family."

"Unfortunately, opponents of President Obama have seized upon the release of an American prisoner of war — that's what he was — using what should be a moment of unity and celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games," he said in remarks on the floor. "The safe return of an American soldier should not be used for political points."

But other Democrats are among those expressing serious concerns. Sen. Dianne Fenstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned the administration's justification for not notifying members of Congress before the exchange, casting doubt upon its contention that Bergdahl's deteriorating health justified quick action.

"As I understand he was undernourished, not necessarily malnourished," Feinstein told reporters after a closed briefing of the committee. "Unless something catastrophic happened, I think there was no reason to believe that he was in instant danger. There certainly was time to pick up the phone and call, and say, 'I know you all had concerns about this.'"

Feinstein also said she had received an apology from White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken for not contacting her until after the mission was successfully completed.

"I strongly believe that we should have been consulted, that the law should have been followed. And I very much regret that that was not the case," she said.

A Boehner aide said that when the Defense Department called Saturday morning to notify the speaker — a call that came less than an hour before Bergdahl's recovery was announced publicly — it was acknowledged that they were "acting inconsistent with the law."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he got a heads-up call Saturday from the White House. Reid was notified Friday, making him perhaps the only senior lawmaker given advance notice.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said he received a call Monday expressing regret.

"I haven't had a conversation with the White House on this issue in a year and a half," he said Tuesday. "Now, if that's keeping us in the loop, then, you know, this administration is more arrogant than I thought they were."

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he recalled briefings with the administration about possibly releasing senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo as part of an effort to begin political reconciliation talks — an idea he said he strongly opposed. But, he said, those briefings did not include a discussion of Bergdahl.

Levin, who said there was an attempt to notify him about the operation Saturday, said his colleagues should not be surprised that the administration acted as it did, because Obama "put us on warning" last December with a statement he issued after signing the defense authorization bill. In the signing statement, Obama said he intended to exercise his powers as commander in chief and, if necessary, "to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers."

“Does that change the law? No. But does that assert that he has authority under the Constitution? Yes," Levin said.

An administration official said the White House, State Department, Defense Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence have "been in close touch with members of Congress and congressional staff" since Bergdahl was recovered.

"Over the coming days, our engagement with Congress, both at a member level and staff level, will continue," the official said.

In addition to the Intelligence Committee briefing Tuesday, House staff will receive a formal briefing Wednesday, with others planned for both members of the House and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee next week.

Whether there's any recourse for members of Congress remains to be seen.

"You can’t put the genie back in the bottle," Chambliss said. "What’s done is done. We’re going to continue to ask the right, difficult questions to the White House as to why they did what they did, why they think they had the authority for doing what they did."

But beyond the consultation issue, some members focused on whether the exchange itself posed new risks to national security.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)  said he would not have supported the exchange even if Bergdahl "was a Medal of Honor winner" because of the detainees involved.

"We applaud that he is home," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But the decision to bring him home this way "is ill-founded. It is a mistake, and it is putting the lives of American servicemen and women at risk, and that, to me, is unacceptable to the American people."

Levin said had concerns about the exchange but spoke Tuesday with Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who assured him the operation had the full support of top military commanders.

The rationale was "simple," Levin said: "We go after our guys. We get our guys out.

"They were really worried about this guy, in terms of his appearance in their last video," Levin said. "They made an assessment as to what kind of health issues he might be having."

But Chambliss agreed with Feinstein's doubts about that justification.

"There has not been even the weakest case, in my opinion, made that he was suffering from a health standpoint to the degree where a decision had to be made immediately."

Reid acknowledged Wednesday that there "are questions" about the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture and reports that he voluntarily left his base in Afghanistan. But "these are issues that will be resolved by the United States Army, not Monday-morning quarterbacks on Capitol Hill," he said.

 

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