Classified Briefing on Bergdahl Trade Doesn’t Answer Questions for Critics

Administration officials showed senators video of Bergdahl to support claims that his health was failing.

A sign showing support for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl hangs outside Zaney's coffee shop where Bergdahl worked as a teenager on June 2, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi and Sarah Mimms
Elahe Izadi Sarah Mimms
June 4, 2014, 3:28 p.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion gave sen­at­ors a clas­si­fied brief­ing Wed­nes­day night on just what think­ing went in­to the pris­on­er trade to re­cov­er Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl from Afgh­anistan. But that won’t end ques­tions from Con­gress.

“This gen­tle­man needs to be looked in­to, quite ex­tens­ively,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., fol­low­ing the brief­ing, re­fer­ring to ques­tions about wheth­er Ber­g­dahl deser­ted the mil­it­ary.

Dur­ing the clas­si­fied brief­ing, sen­at­ors were shown a roughly minute-and-a-half-long “proof of life” video of Ber­g­dahl, which the Taliban had provided, in which the sol­dier “didn’t look good,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

A few sen­at­ors, in­clud­ing Manchin, ar­gued that the video could just as eas­ily have shown Ber­g­dahl un­der the in­flu­ence of drugs giv­en to him by his captors. Moreover, Manchin ar­gued, the video was giv­en to the ad­min­is­tra­tion in Decem­ber and wasn’t re­flect­ive of Ber­g­dahl’s state at the time of the trade. “His health was not a crit­ic­al factor,” a vis­ibly frus­trated Manchin told re­port­ers.

Sev­er­al Demo­crats who had already been sup­port­ive of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision emerged from the meet­ing with more con­fid­ence. Both Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip Dick Durbin and Sen. Mark Be­gich said they were sat­is­fied with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse, though Be­gich ad­ded that he still had some ques­tions.

“I think it was a very hard de­cision…. I might’ve come to the same con­clu­sion,” Durbin said.

When asked wheth­er he had con­fid­ence that the five Taliban mem­bers re­leased won’t kill any­more Amer­ic­ans, Durbin re­spon­ded: “How can you say that? How can I say that any­body in­ter­view­ing me is not go­ing to kill an Amer­ic­an? I will just tell you that when it comes down to it, they have been mem­bers of the Taliban, they were our en­emies, and that’s why they were de­tained. We have taken some steps to try to mon­it­or their con­duct through Qatar for at least one year, and that’s where we are. Thats why I don’t think this was an easy call. There’s the oth­er side of this equa­tion.”

But while of­fi­cials laid out de­tails on the terms of the pris­on­er ex­change and the con­di­tions of their re­lease, that did little to sway law­makers, mostly Re­pub­lic­ans, who had already been crit­ic­al of the deal.

“My con­cern from the be­gin­ning about this, I’ve not been re­as­sured, is the five high-risk Taliban de­tain­ees will not get back and reen­gage in the fight against us and our al­lies,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. “And I was not sat­is­fied from the brief­ing that I re­ceived today that the con­di­tions that they’ve agreed upon are suf­fi­cient to en­sure that they won’t reen­gage back in the fight against us and threaten either Amer­ic­ans or our al­lies in some way.”

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona said he at­ten­ded the meet­ing largely be­cause ques­tions would have been asked had he not ap­peared. These clas­si­fied brief­ings, he said, are nev­er pro­duct­ive. “Nev­er have I been to one that is,” he said.

An­oth­er ques­tion that came up dur­ing the brief­ing: wheth­er Ber­g­dahl was, in­deed, a desert­er. That’s one that Kirk says the ad­min­is­tra­tion ducked.

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