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 and Matt Berman
See more stories about...
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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5008) }}

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.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5004) }}

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

What We're Following See More »
BACKING OUT ON BERNIE
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
15 hours ago
THE LATEST

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Source:
TRUMP FLOATED IDEA ON JIMMY KIMMEL’S SHOW
Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
1 days ago
THE LATEST
CAMPAIGNS INJECTED NEW AD MONEY
California: It’s Not Over Yet
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.

Source:
×