White House faces growing fury in Congress over Bergdahl deal
WASHINGTON — The White House struggled Wednesday to quell a political storm in Congress over the trade of five Taliban leaders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and to repair relations with Democratic and Republican lawmakers outraged over the lack of consultation.
The two-front battle on Capitol Hill deepened as a 17-minute video, shot and released by the Taliban, showed Bergdahl looking thin, pale and dazed before he was hustled onto a Black Hawk helicopter by U.S. special forces and flown to safety.
The video did not answer questions about why Bergdahl left his outpost in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009, or whether any Americans died searching for him, as some former members of his unit have claimed.
“Directly or indirectly, people died because of what Bergdahl did,” said former Army medic Joshua Cornelison, who was part of a 30-man platoon that included Bergdahl. “He’s responsible for some soldiers’ deaths. They died looking for him.”
The Pentagon has promised an investigation into whether Bergdahl deserted, but has stopped short of promising to review assertions that soldiers died as a result.
“At the appropriate time, we will conduct a thorough, transparent and complete review of the circumstances surrounding his capture,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Wednesday.
The uproar over Bergdahl extended even to his hometown, the rural hamlet of Hailey, Idaho, where officials canceled plans to hold a celebration this month. They cited security concerns after being inundated with negative e-mails and angry phone calls.
Stung by mounting criticism that they had failed to notify Congress before moving the five Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, administration and military officials provided a classified briefing to the full Senate, a rare occurrence. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed to testify in the House next week, with more hearings to follow.
Senators were shown a video shot by the Taliban late last year; it has not been publicly released.
Many senators were clearly moved by the video, which they said portrayed Bergdahl sitting upright on a blanket, with a halting speech pattern.
“He looked either drugged or tired or sick,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who said the closed briefing gave him more confidence in the administration’s decision. “This man was not in a good condition.”
Sen. Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., said, “I definitely think it would have had an emotional impact on the president, which is probably why the Taliban released it.”
Others were left unswayed.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he saw “no evidence” Bergdahl’s health posed an immediate danger that would justify the swap of the high-level Taliban detainees. And Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia said the concerns raised by the administration over Bergdahl’s health “did not sell me at all.”
“We all agree we are not dealing with a war hero.... There’s a lot to be answered here,” said Manchin, who said he remained “very concerned.”
The fury in Congress was bipartisan, with some senior Democrats firing broadsides as the White House sent emissaries to apologize to key lawmakers and to promise better engagement in the future.
“I think that they expected everybody just to fall in line,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of those who received a personal apology from a senior White House aide.
Feinstein said the White House failed to anticipate that bypassing Congress would provoke anger on both sides of the aisle. The discovery that the five Afghans were top-ranking Taliban commanders has fueled concerns that the trade may endanger U.S. security.
“This is an issue that certainly those of us on the Intelligence Committee care a great deal about,” Feinstein said. “Because we believe that there is potential danger from certain of these five people.”
Bergdahl, 28, remained in stable condition at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was flown Saturday after nearly five years in captivity.
Obama, who is on a four-day trip to Europe, flew from Warsaw to Brussels for a meeting of Group of 7 leaders Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered a strong defense of the prisoner exchange, saying Obama “acted honorably” to help a U.S. soldier return home.
Obama’s opponents are “using what should be a moment of unity and celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games,” Reid said on the Senate floor.
But he was one of Obama’s few public defenders.
“You’re seeing some bipartisan push-back here that I think reflects the public’s unease about this deal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He said he would not have supported the prisoner exchange even if Bergdahl were “a Medal of Honor winner.”
Lawmakers said Obama ignored a provision in the 2014 defense authorization bill that requires the president to give Congress 30 days’ notice before moving any detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
But Obama gave himself a legal loophole when he signed the bill in December. In what’s known as a signing statement, he said he would exercise authority as commander in chief, if necessary, “to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.”
The White House also has framed its decision as consistent with the obligation to ensure no soldier is left on the battlefield. That put Republicans in the delicate political position of arguing against freeing an American prisoner of war because they opposed the prisoner swap.
The tumult over Bergdahl comes as a House special committee opens a new investigation of the 2012 attack by Islamic militants in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
Like Benghazi, the prisoner swap has become a campaign issue, particularly in states where endangered Democrats are trying to prevent Republicans from winning both houses of Congress in November.
Anthony Wanis-St. John, who heads the international peace and conflict resolution program at American University, said Republicans were taking a political risk by criticizing a successful effort to free an American prisoner of war.
“They are questioning the safe return of somebody who volunteered to fight America’s wars,” he said.
Times Staff writers Tony Perry in San Diego, David Zucchino in Durham, N.C., Tribune Washington Bureau Christi Parsons in Washington and Chicago Tribune writer Rick Pearson contributed to this report.