The growing controversy over the recovery of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is once again pitting the White House against Congress, where members of both parties are questioning the president’s use of executive powers at the potential risk of national security.
And you thought the Veterans Affairs scandal was going to be the next Benghazi.
The Senate Intelligence Committee held a closed-door briefing Tuesday afternoon, wanting answers about why they were left out of the loop on the details of Bergdahl’s exchange for five high-level Taliban operatives held in Guantanamo prison.
“We feel that there is intelligence that potentially makes the majority of these people a danger for the future,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said after the briefing. “So it comes as some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following the law, and in an issue of this kind of concern to a committee that bears the oversight responsibility.”
Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said her fellow senators expressed concern about the potential transfer of five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl as early as November 2011. Despite the congressional opposition and promises from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and administration officials that they would abide by the legal stipulation that Congress be notified 30 days before any proposed transfer, Feinstein said there was no consultation before Deputy Director of National Intelligence Robert Cardillo informed her staff director midday Saturday that Bergdahl had been recovered and the detainees were on their way to Qatar. News broke of the prisoner exchange on Saturday morning.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was notified Friday. “As I recall, he was released on Saturday. I got a call from the White House on Friday,” he said.
Feinstein said Obama called her Monday night to apologize, but that wasn’t enough. “There certainly was time to pick up the phone and call.”
Less than 48 hours after Obama announced Bergdahl would be coming home, Republicans lambasted the president, saying he abused his power and negotiated with terrorists. The outcry has only grown louder in the days since, on both sides of the aisle.
“Bringing home an American is a fundamental value and I am glad he is coming home. But I do have concerns about the national security risks involved, and there are legitimate questions that still need to be answered, for example, whether there were viable alternative options to achieve this same goal,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said after Tuesday’s closed-door briefing that “not even the weakest case has been made” to back up the administration’s assertion that Bergdahl’s health was in grave condition, necessitating immediate action.
Leaving the briefing, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she did not believe Bergdahl’s health had been at imminent risk of failing. “I leave this briefing even more concerned than before the briefing,” she said.
A full Senate briefing has been set for Wednesday evening, underscoring the increasing demand from Congress that the administration must answer many questions. Did we pay too high a price in the release of five Taliban, potentially to rejoin the fight and incentivize would-be American hostage takers? Was Bergdahl a deserter, and did other service members die in the attempt to recover him? Did the State Department and White House leave other, potentially less costly options on the table?
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also called for an investigation. The House hearings are expected to begin next week, and McKeon has asked Hagel to testify. The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to hold a closed-door briefing next week. Reid told reporters he would support an open Senate hearing.
Sen. John McCain R-Ariz., a Navy fighter pilot who was held as a POW in Vietnam for 6 years, said releasing five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo puts U.S. troops at risk.
“This is the hardest and the toughest of all. These are wanted war criminals,” McCain said. “So this decision to bring Sgt. Bergdahl home — and we applaud that he is home — is ill-founded, it is a mistake, and it is putting the lives of American service men and women at risk, and that, to me, is unacceptable to the American people.”
“It’s just disgraceful we’d even consider releasing these people under any circumstances if they continued to pose a threat,” he said.