Republicans have seized on President Barack Obama’s prisoner swap with the Taliban with a fervor that may turn the case of freed Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl into the next Benghazi.
Since Bergdahl’s release from Afghanistan on May 31, Republican lawmakers have sharpened their questioning of the deal that freed five Taliban prisoners, as they accused the Obama administration of negotiating with terrorists, jeopardizing national security and violating a law requiring congressional notification.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, mounted a petition drive on its website “to demand the Obama administration provide clear answers” about the deal, and lawmakers scheduled hearings.
“Republicans would like this to become the next Benghazi,” said Mark Jacobson, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project in Washington and former deputy NATO representative in Afghanistan, referring to the deadly 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The administration’s handling of that issue has become a political flash point and a potential issue if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton runs for president.
“Republicans have vastly overplayed their hand on Benghazi, which has diminished them more than Clinton or Obama,” Thomas Mann, a longtime congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an e-mailed statement. “The Bergdahl controversy raises legitimate questions and very complex trade-offs. A congressional inquiry is entirely appropriate, but Republicans could easily push this beyond its natural conclusion.”
Administration officials began a damage-control effort on Capitol Hill this week, offering the Senate intelligence committee’s top two members what they described as an apology for not informing them of the prisoner swap in advance. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met privately yesterday with Democratic senators and answered questions about the case.
While Republican lawmakers have questioned the national security risk in releasing five Taliban prisoners, they have stopped short of joining some of Bergdahl’s former fellow soldiers who’ve faulted him for allegedly deserting his unit.
A posting by the National Republican Congressional Committee early yesterday strayed from the party’s line of attack by posing four questions it said the White House must answer, including, “Did Bergdahl desert the U.S. military?” A revised posting eliminated that question, listing only three.
Left a Note
Some Republican strategists, however, have helped arrange interviews with former members of Bergdahl’s unit in Afghanistan who accused him of being a deserter.
Separately, a retired officer familiar with an Army inquiry into his disappearance said that Bergdahl, who was then a private first class, left behind a note criticizing the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The officer asked not to be identified because the Army’s findings haven’t been made public.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today that Obama’s opponents have seized on Bergdahl’s return “as a chance to play political games.”
“It’s clear they’re worried that his release could be seen as a victory for President Obama,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “No member of our armed forces should be left behind, and President Obama saw to that.”
Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who’s advised Arizona Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and many other candidates, discounted any partisan motivation for questioning the Bergdahl deal. Many national security-minded people of both political parties are troubled by the prisoner swap, Murphy said in an e-mailed statement.
Some Democrats have raised questions about the Bergdahl case and expressed irritation at not being notified in advance of the prisoner swap. Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has scheduled a closed-door briefing on the matter for next week.
Yet the demands for more information have come mostly from Republicans, some of whom already have declared their opposition to a deal whose details have yet to be fully disclosed.
“I am particularly troubled by the release of five senior Taliban leaders, men with the blood of many on their hands, and the implications for our deployed forces,” said Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who called Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to testify at a hearing next week.
“I am no less concerned that the Obama administration broke a national security law, passed with bipartisan support and signed by the president, in transferring these detainees,” McKeon said in a statement.
While this year’s defense authorization law requires 30 days’ notice to Congress before the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama asserted in a “signing statement” on Dec. 26 that he has executive authority to make exceptions.
Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said he would have opposed the deal to release five Taliban prisoners.
“I believe that three of the five for sure” will return to terrorism, and “likely four,” Rogers said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program yesterday.
Jacobson, the security analyst and former military intelligence officer who’s a Democrat, said Republicans in some cases are exaggerating the risk posed by the release of the Taliban prisoners.
“These five are not going back to the same battlefield they were on in 2001 or 2002,” Jacobson said in an interview. “In some cases, they’re not going to be wanted.”
Even if they return to Afghanistan, “the Taliban are not only much weaker than before, but the Afghan national security forces are much stronger,” he said. The deal requires them to remain in Qatar for a year.
House Speaker John Boehner also faulted the administration for not keeping Congress better informed.
“There was every expectation that the administration would re-engage with Congress, as it did before, and the only reason it did not is because the administration knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement.
Obama said yesterday in Warsaw that U.S. officials were concerned about Bergdahl’s health, and “the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we did not miss that window” for a prisoner swap brokered by Qatar. So far, the only public report on Bergdahl’s health has been that he’s suffering from malnutrition.
Taliban videos that haven’t been made public showed an alarming deterioration in Bergdahl’s health, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing officials it didn’t identify. The Taliban today released a video of Bergdahl’s handover.
Obama’s deputies worked to soothe tensions on Capitol Hill over the lack of advance notice before the Bergdahl-for-Taliban swap.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate intelligence committee, said in an interview yesterday that Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken had called her the previous night “apologizing for it.”
“I don’t know how serious it is, but it’s very disappointing that there was not a level of trust sufficient to justify alerting us,” Feinstein said.
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee, said an administration official whom he declined to identify contacted him to apologize.
“You can’t undo what the president has done, and I think the long-term potential for damage is enormous,” Chambliss said yesterday.
Two administration aides, including McDonough, also discussed the matter yesterday in an hour-long closed-door talk at the Capitol with Senate Democrats.
Bergdahl, the last remaining U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, was handed over to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan at about 10:30 a.m. Washington time on May 31.
Chambliss said in an interview that the prisoner exchange may set a dangerous precedent by showing the U.S. is willing to negotiate with non-state actors such as the Taliban, which he called “a terrorist group.”
He said the five men released from Guantanamo Bay “pose a serious threat to the national security of the United States.”
Senators are scheduled to get a closed-door briefing on the prisoner swap from administration officials today. House lawmakers are scheduled to be briefed next week, when they return from a one-week recess.