Obama administration officials have told lawmakers they didn’t give Congress advance notice of a prisoner exchange with the Taliban last week because the Taliban had threatened to kill Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl if news of the pending trade deal leaked out, according to a Senate aide familiar with the discussions.
Senators were informed at a briefing Wednesday with top Obama officials that the U.S. had obtained credible information that if anything about the swap became public, Bergdahl would be killed, the aide said.
Combined with mounting concerns about Bergdahl’s health, the threat pushed the White House to move quickly in putting the prisoner trade together, said the aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the private briefing.
Because of their haste and concern about leaks, administration officials say they bypassed a requirement in the law that they provide 30 days notice to Congress before releasing prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
The White House was particularly worried because previous leaks had derailed past efforts to free Bergdahl, an administration official said in a separate interview with the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau.
Questions of health and safety have been at the center of the controversy over the release of Bergdahl, freed after five years in captivity last weekend in exchange for the release of five Taliban fighters at Guantanamo.
As White House officials interpret the law, they were permitted to sidestep the 30-day notice rule because delaying the transfer would have interfered with the president’s constitutional duties to protect the lives of Americans abroad and U.S. soldiers.
U.S. officials were already worried about Bergdahl’s health, based on his appearance in a proof-of-life video provided in late 2013.
But lawmakers, including members of both parties, have complained that the president didn’t consult them. Many Republicans question the legality of the release without compliance of the 30-day provision in the law.
Word of an imminent threat to Bergdahl’s life came in a briefing late Wednesday on the Hill in which administration officials described the general sense of urgency they felt in advance of the mission.
Among other pieces of information, they shared the proof-of-life video with lawmakers, several of whom said they thought the administration’s explanations made sense.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defended the lack of advance consultation in conversations with other members.
“We all know that the president had a very short period of time to make a decision. He made a decision to bring him home, and I'm glad he did,” Reid said. “Every day that he was there was a day a closer to his dying.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, Obama’s fellow Illinois Democrat, said the analysis should take into account the delicacy of the talks.
"It was a very complex negotiation,” Durbin said. “It was a last-minute negotiation. And as we heard more and more detail and circumstances, I think it's a lot different than we're seeing in the press."
But other lawmakers said Thursday they had not been told of the threat against Bergdahl.
"I haven't been told that," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, acknowledging that there may have been portions of the briefing she was not present for.
Still, she said it would have been very unusual in her view for even a select group of lawmakers not to be made aware of an operational mission of this significance.
"I still think you can inform," she said. "We do not leak. I take great pride in that."
President Obama reiterated his concern about Bergdahl’s health and safety on Thursday during a news conference with the British prime minister.
"We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about,” Obama said. “We saw an opportunity and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that."
Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.