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