Why didn’t the White House notify Congress before swapping terrorist suspects for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl? Perhaps because President Obama knew he’d find resistance.
He already had once before, according to an aide to Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. In 2011, the administration floated the possibility of exchanging prisoners for the American POW from the war in Afghanistan but then backed off after lawmakers from both parties raised questions about the impact of the swap on the safety of other U.S. personnel, among other issues.
So when Obama decided to swap five Taliban terrorist suspects being held at Guantanamo for the captive soldier, only a handful of lawmakers were told in advance — and then only in the barest detail.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was among that small group. The staff director for James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also received a call shortly before Obama’s press conference on Saturday to announce the exchange. “Basically, they were giving us notification to tune into the press conference,” an Inhofe aide said, speaking under condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity about the timeline. “There were no details provided in that phone call.”
The next day, Senate Armed Services received the official notification — a document explaining that the exchange had already taken place. That too contained few details, the aide said, and the committee is still chasing down the answers.
Members of the House also were left in the dark. Rogers was notified “after the fact…. Whenever the swap happened, he was notified several hours later,” his aide said. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, too, was caught flat-footed by the announcement. “We got a call mid-week, around Wednesday, to the staff director saying, ‘Something may happen, sometime soon, stay near your phone,’ ” a McKeon aide said. “But there was no indication of what that was, or even the general subject matter.”
A few hours after Bergdahl was recovered, the staff director got another call explaining what happened. “What was supposed to be 30 days ahead, did not come until after the fact,” the McKeon aide said.
Members of Congress always knew it was possible Obama would do this without offering any warning, lawmakers and aides note, citing the signing statement Obama attached to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014. It stated the president intended to act swiftly in negotiations with foreign countries about detainee transfers, implying that the 30-day notice requirement would be ignored.
“Given that notice, members of Congress should not be surprised that he acted as he did in the circumstances that existed,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, who plans to hold a classified briefing with administration members next Tuesday.
Further, some congressional leaders knew the administration had already thought through such a swap. They had been briefed by senior administration officials from the State and Defense departments as well as the CIA and National Security Council in late 2011 and early 2012 about a possible exchange for Bergdahl, according to a House intelligence committee aide. In those meetings, Ambassador Marc Grossman and Denis McDonough, who now serves as Obama’s chief of staff, led the discussion.
Lawmakers pressed those officials for answers to questions about how an exchange might affect the timeline for pulling out of Afghanistan and whether the swap might encourage terrorist groups to attempt to snatch U.S. personnel.
After the second meeting between lawmakers and these senior administration officials, the White House decided against more briefings, saying the prospects of the exchange had diminished, according to the committee aide.
The White House might be acknowledging the damage it has done to already poor relations with Congress by going forward with an exchange without bringing those members of Congress back into the loop.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken called her Monday night to say he was sorry lawmakers were not notified sooner. “He apologized for it and said it was an oversight,” Feinstein said.