Senators: White House Bergdahl Briefing Raised More Questions

Image: Senators: White House Bergdahl Briefing Raised More Questions A computer screen displays a video from the Taliban showing the release of U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Thursday, 05 Jun 2014 08:44 AM

By Melanie Batley

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The White House on Wednesday gave senior members of the Senate a two-hour classified briefing about the deal securing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, but senators from both parties say the meeting has left them with even more doubts about the terms and justification for the swap, which set free five senior Taliban members from Guantanamo prison.

Officials from the State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies answered pointed questions after showing an expanded video provided by the Taliban of Bergdahl's handover.

The intention was to prove that Bergdahl's deteriorating health was the justification for the administration's decision to secure his release without giving Congress the legally required 30 days notice before the swap, Fox News reported.

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said the video showed "He either looked drugged or sick or tired. But he did not look like a well person," but said he had doubts that the soldier's health justified the White House taking swift action and avoiding consultations with Congress before the swap was made.

"His health was not the critical factor," Durbin said.

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "I asked questions about life-threatening illnesses. No one could say that this man, Sgt. Bergdahl, was in a life-threatening situation near death," Politico reported.

Others also questioned whether his health was the administration's true justification not only for failing to notify Congress, but also for its willingness to engage in the deal.

Georgia GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "I don't think from a health standpoint there was any issue that dictated the release of these five nasty killers in return for Bergdahl," Fox News reported.

Chambliss also told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren that he believed the administration intentionally kept the deal a secret from lawmakers, particularly as he had been told of the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden weeks before the event.

"I don't see how anybody can walk out of there with any kind of comfortable feeling that the administration, from a notification standpoint, and I emphasize that, did what they should have done or what they had the opportunity to do. I mean, it was like they didn't trust Dianne [Feinstein] and me."

He added, "I'm not going to believe anything they tell me from now on. They are willing to violate the law, but even short of that, when they commit to us that they are going to give us 30 days notice, and then they don't do it, how in the world can we trust the administration on anything they tell us?"

Lawmakers also expressed deep concerns about whether the administration had properly negotiated terms that would ensure the Taliban leaders would not return to the battlefield and pose future threats to American interests.

"I was not satisfied from the briefing that I received today that the conditions that they've agreed upon are sufficient," New Hampshire GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte said.

Feinstein earlier this week expressed deep concerns about the terms of the deal, but notably, other Democrats are also expressing public concerns following the briefing about the possible future threats posed by the former detainees.

"Everybody is concerned about that," West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said, according to Politico. "These are high-level people. This is not low level … And these are people who basically have the ability to go back and hit the ground running."

Graham said, "I also asked: 'On a scale of 1 to 10, what kind of likelihood would exist for these guys going back to the fight after the year?' And let’s put it this way: The answer was very disturbing. Likelihood being great."

Graham also blasted the administration for engaging in talks to release prisoners as part of possible reconciliation with the Taliban, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

"The theory was that if we traded guys, that would show the moderate Taliban had clout," Graham said, calling the concept "disturbing." "I believe the decision to release these prisoners put our country in jeopardy."

Sen. John McCain, a former POW in Vietnam, said he had no doubts that the Taliban leaders would return to violence.

"I promise you, in a year from now, if not before, they will be back in Afghanistan and in the fight," the Arizona Republican said, according to Politico. "The Taliban has an office in Qatar. I'll bet they'll be down in the office sometime soon."

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the deal could undercut America's interests in the longer term.

"We've also released five very dangerous individuals who I believe will rejoin the fight against America. And we've set a precedent that now will encourage other enemies of the United States to seek out to try and capture American men and women in uniform."

Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance continues to mount. Service members who fought alongside him characterize him as a "deserter," and reports have suggested that he left a note at his base making comments critical of the United States and its mission in Afghanistan.

Officials, however, disputed the reports during the meeting.

"We were told today that is not true. There was no statement," Chambliss said following the briefing, according to Politico.

GOP Sen. Mark Kirk said officials in the meeting "ducked the question" about whether Bergdahl deserted his unit, Politico reported.

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