A Taliban Threat May’ve Kept Congress in the Dark on the Bergdahl Swap

A new report suggests that the Taliban said it would kill the sergeant if news of the swap leaked.

National Journal
Elahe Izadi Matt Berman
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Elahe Izadi Matt Berman
June 5, 2014, 9:31 a.m.

Here’s a new reas­on the White House is giv­ing for why the United States ac­ted quickly and quietly to con­duct a pris­on­er trade to pull Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl out of Afgh­anistan: cit­ing un­named con­gres­sion­al of­fi­cials, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ports that White House of­fi­cials told law­makers that the Taliban threatened to kill its cap­tive if news of the pris­on­er swap, which res­ul­ted in five mem­bers of the Taliban be­ing re­leased to Qatar, leaked be­fore the trade happened.

Fear of such a leak, these of­fi­cials sug­gest, is one reas­on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion didn’t give Con­gress a sig­ni­fic­ant heads-up be­fore the trade.

This re­port comes after a clas­si­fied brief­ing on the Hill Wed­nes­day dur­ing which White House of­fi­cials showed sen­at­ors a “proof of life” video, al­legedly filmed in Decem­ber, that pur­por­ted to show Ber­g­dahl in fail­ing health.

Earli­er on Thursday, Pres­id­ent Obama brought up Ber­g­dahl’s health, not a spe­cif­ic threat to his life, as a driv­ing force for mak­ing a deal. “We had a pris­on­er of war whose health had de­teri­or­ated, and we were deeply con­cerned about, and we saw an op­por­tun­ity, and we seized it,” he said at a press con­fer­ence in Brus­sels. “I make no apo­lo­gies for that.” The con­gres­sion­al of­fi­cials told the AP on Thursday that the threat to Ber­g­dahl’s life, more than just con­cerns over his health, factored in­to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pulling the trig­ger on the deal.

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Some sen­at­ors at Wed­nes­day night’s clas­si­fied brief­ing were not con­vinced of the White House’s ra­tionale, and it’s a sure bet that crit­ics of the trade won’t be put at ease by the sug­ges­tion that the Taliban helped pres­sure the White House in­to keep­ing Con­gress in the dark.

Earli­er in the week, Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein con­ceded that con­gres­sion­al op­pos­i­tion to the swap may have been one reas­on the ad­min­is­tra­tion did not no­ti­fy Con­gress 30 days in ad­vance. “But the White House is pretty uni­lat­er­al about what they want to do, when they want to do it.”

Some law­makers cited leaks earli­er in the week as one pos­sible reas­on they wer­en’t looped in soon­er. Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Carl Lev­in said Tues­day he “wouldn’t be sur­prised” if a con­cern over leaks was why Con­gress didn’t re­ceive the 30-day no­tice.

Many law­makers, mostly Re­pub­lic­ans, were clearly up­set at the swap and not hav­ing been no­ti­fied of it in ad­vance. It’s tough to say what they would have done had they re­ceived that no­ti­fic­a­tion, but sev­er­al said they would have done what they could to stop the trade.

What would mem­bers have done with that no­tice? Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices rank­ing mem­ber James In­hofe also said Tues­day that had Con­gress re­ceived the 30-day no­tice, plus de­tailed plans and ra­tionale for the swap, “we could have prob­ably en­gendered enough pub­lic opin­ion that that would not have happened.”

When pressed on wheth­er he would have been will­ing to ex­pose the pro­pos­al if the White House had no­ti­fied Con­gress in ad­vance, In­hofe re­spon­ded, “I would do any­thing that I could do to stop the White House from re­leas­ing these dan­ger­ous people on so­ci­ety.”

Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Rank­ing Mem­ber Saxby Cham­b­liss said if Con­gress re­ceived 30-day no­ti­fic­a­tion that these five Taliban pris­on­ers were to be re­leased from Guantanamo Bay, “I would have raised holy hell.” When asked if he would have gone pub­lic with his “holy hell,” he said, “Ab­so­lutely. I did last time and I would again.”

In a state­ment later, Cham­b­liss said he was re­fer­ring spe­cific­ally to the trans­fer of Taliban of­fi­cials “when they were re­leased or the deal was an­nounced, just like I did last time when it was made pub­lic. I would not have done any­thing that in­volved re­leas­ing clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion or that would have en­dangered the life of Ser­geant Ber­g­dahl.”

When the pos­sib­il­ity of re­leas­ing five Taliban lead­ers from Guantanamo Bay as part of peace talks with the Taliban was made pub­lic in 2012, Cham­b­liss said pub­licly that he and Fein­stein wrote twice to the ad­min­is­tra­tion voicing “strong ob­jec­tions” to the pro­posed move.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, who has been very vo­cal against the deal, said earli­er in the week, “I would have vehe­mently ob­jec­ted” if Con­gress had been no­ti­fied. “It would have giv­en us a chance to put our ob­jec­tions on re­cord and said don’t do this.”

When asked if he would have gone pub­lic, Gra­ham at first said yes, but then qual­i­fied it: He wouldn’t have put those in­volved at risk.

“But I would have, in an ap­pro­pri­ate fash­ion, said, ‘Please don’t do this. The risks out­weigh the be­ne­fits.’ Wheth­er or not I would have talked about it pub­licly would have been based on our na­tion­al se­cur­ity, the people in the op­er­a­tion,” Gra­ham said. “I would not have com­prom­ised the op­er­a­tion if that was what was on­go­ing.”

For Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Tom Coburn, the lack of no­tice “is not the im­port­ant thing,” al­though he does say it un­der­mines the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­la­tion­ship with Con­gress.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate that they don’t trust Con­gress enough to tell at at least the ma­jor­ity lead­er, the minor­ity lead­er of both houses and the heads of the in­tel and de­fense com­mit­tees,” Coburn said Thursday. “That says something more than any­thing.”

Not­ably, Idaho Re­pub­lic­an Sen. James Risch — who up un­til this point has re­frained from com­ment­ing on the Ber­g­dahl swap aside from say­ing his con­stitu­ents are happy Idaho nat­ive Ber­g­dahl’s out of Taliban cus­tody — blas­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion Thursday for what he calls “a pivot” of reas­on­ing for the pris­on­er swap.

Risch said he couldn’t talk about the spe­cif­ics of what was dis­cussed, in­clud­ing the pur­por­ted death threat over leaks, dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s clas­si­fied brief­ing. “However, hav­ing said that, first of all, I want to see the ac­tu­al fac­tu­al basis of that,” he said. “Right now thats just an al­leg­a­tion. But secondly, I’m very sus­pi­cious since they star­ted out say­ing this was a health is­sue and when it was proven that was false, they’re now pivot­ing to a dif­fer­ent reas­on.”

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This post was up­dated at 4:26 p.m. with com­ment from ad­di­tion­al sen­at­ors.

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