House threatens to slash military funding in dispute over Bergdahl probe

A video screen grab shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sitting in a vehicle guarded by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.


By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: April 24, 2015

House lawmakers are threatening to slash Defense Department funding by about $500 million next year if Pentagon officials don’t hand over documents related to their probe into a controversial prisoner swap that freed five Taliban detainees in exchange for a captive U.S. soldier.

The Republican leadership of the House Armed Services Committee has tucked a provision into an early version of an annual defense bill that would cut funding for the Office of the Secretary of Defense by 25 percent in fiscal 2016, committee staff said, unless the Pentagon provides unredacted versions of e-mails related to the 2014 swap and additional information into the legal justification for the move.

The unusual move illustrates the depth of Republican anger over the decision to transfer the five detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Gulf state of Qatar. Critics allege the Obama administration endangered U.S. security and flouted U.S. law when officials failed to provide Congress a mandated 30-day notification prior to their transfer.

While the release of Bergdahl, who was held for almost four years by hard-line militants in Pakistan’s lawless tribal area, initially received widespread praise, the decision quickly came under attack from lawmakers angry about being left out of the loop and from those skeptical about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s initial disappearance. Bergdahl has since been charged with desertion for walking off his base in a remote area of Afghanistan in 2009.

Only days after the swap took place, the committee launched an investigation into whether the administration had broken the law in approving the swap.

In a June 9 letter to then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, then-committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon ordered the Pentagon to turn over e-mails and internal documents related to the transfer.

Lawmakers were particularly interested in officials’ internal deliberations about foregoing the congressional notification. While a probe into the matter by the independent Government Accountability Office found that the administration violated federal rules, the administration has maintained the transfer was legal and necessary to protect Bergdahl’s safety.

For months, committee staff sifted through e-mails and documents, called officials in for multiple briefings, and even visited Qatar to investigate. But staff members said their investigation had been impeded by heavy redactions to over 3,000 classified and unclassified e-mails provided to the committee. Staff said the redactions obscured information about legal discussions, negotiations with the Qatari government, and preparations for briefing Congress — the very information they believe they require for their probe.

In a sample of e-mails viewed by The Washington Post, substantial portions of messages were redacted, including the names of recipients and senders and portions of text contained in the body of e-mails. The Post only reviewed a small number of the unclassified e-mails that the Pentagon provided to the committee. In all, the Pentagon handed over more than 3,000 pages.

One e-mail relates to arrangements for a press briefing about the prisoner swap. One official writes “We should not use this line, which is just a pointless stick in Congress’ eye:” What follows is redacted.

In response, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), the new committee chairman, drew up the punitive language in the initial version of the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. Debate on the bill will begin next week.

Lt. Col Joe Sowers, a Pentagon spokesman, said the department had provided over 3,600 pages of documents and had sent officials to take part in multiple hearings and briefings about the swap. He said document redactions had been “minimal.”

“The Department will continue to work closely with the House Armed Services Committee staff regarding this matter,” he said.

Cutting funding for the Office of the Secretary of Defense would impact a swath of offices that report to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, including those responsible for global security policy, defense budgeting, weapons procurement and military personnel issues. In fiscal 2015, funding for the office was $1.9 billion, a Pentagon official said.

A committee staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss legislation that has not been made public, said that generally positive relations between lawmakers and the Pentagon didn’t mean “we’re not going to take serious steps.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s top Democrat, does not support Thornberry’s move to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in defense funding.

Michael Amato, a spokesman for Smith, said administration officials had taken part in 29 meetings or briefings.

“The Administration has been forthcoming throughout the course of the majority’s extensive investigation,” Amato said. “Given our ongoing military engagements around the globe, punishing the Secretary of Defense for something outside of his control is shortsighted and unwise.”

Even if few Democrats support Thornberry’s language, the provision is expected to remain in the bill as it makes its way through the Republican-controlled House.

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