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Congress Expanding Inquiries Into Bergdahl Swap

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The court-martial proceeding for accused Army deserter Bowe Berghdal won't begin until July, but the Republican Congress plans to put him back in the headlines much sooner by expanding investigations into the deal to swap him for five Taliban commanders imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Representative Mac Thornberry and Senator John McCain, have been top critics of the Obama administration's Bergdahl deal last May without notifying Congress in advance. Now, following the Army’s decision to indict him for desertion and misbehavior in the face of the enemy -- and weeks before the five Taliban leaders are to be released from their one year of house arrest in Qatar -- they tell me they will ramp up and broaden their investigations of the swap.

Their effort received an unexpected boost Wednesday when Obama decided to nominate General Mark Milley as the next Army Chief of Staff. Milley, the officer who decided to charge Bergdahl, will face a hearing and confirmation vote in McCain’s committee, where the prisoner swap will doubtless become a focus.

The Milley hearings will be only one part of the Republican offensive. “I plan on doing a full Bergdahl investigation,” McCain told me in an interview. “We need to look at that whole thing. I understand that next month the Taliban commanders will be released.”

McCain said that while his committee had already been looking into the issue, the staff will now expand the investigation to include several more aspects of the administration’s handling of the case, including why National Security Adviser Susan Rice went on the Sunday shows after Bergdahl’s release and said he served “with honor and distinction.”

The committee will also look into reports that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Admiral Mike Mullen, had long known the circumstances of Bergdahl walking off his base in Afghanistan in 2009. There’s no firm timeline on when the Senate committee’s investigation might be complete, McCain said.

The House, for its part, on is set to pass its version of a comprehensive defense policy bill for next year that would restrict the Office of the Secretary of Defense from spending $500 million -- 25 percent of its budget -- until it hands over every piece of correspondence it has related to the Bergdahl-Taliban swap.

A Thornberry spokesman, Claude Chafin, told me Wednesday that Thornberry has not been satisfied with the Pentagon’s cooperation so far, especially that the documents the committee has received were heavily redacted with no explanation.

At a hearing with then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last June, Thornberry criticized the administration for failing to notify Congress of the trade 30 days in advance, which is required by law for the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. He also scored points when he took issue with Hagel's contention that they had "not been implicated in any attacks against the United States." 

"Your point was, they didn't pull the trigger, but they were senior commanders of the Taliban military who directed operations against the U.S. and its coalition partners?" Thornberry asked Hagel.

"That's right," Hagel responded. “As I said in my statement, they were combatants, and we were at war with the Taliban."

In addition to withholding the funds, the new House bill also includes nine separate restrictions or reporting requirements designed to stifle the administration’s ability to release more prisoners from Guantanamo, restrictions that would last until the end of Obama’s presidency and effectively squash his campaign promise to close the facility.

McCain's Senate committee is marking up its version of the defense policy bill this week behind closed doors. He told me it would probably not include Thornberry’s provision withholding a portion of the defense secretary’s budget. But he said that restrictions on moving more prisoners from Guantanamo are needed, citing reports that one of the released Taliban commanders has already made contact with his former militant associates.

“We want to do everything we can to make sure people are not released that will pose a threat for further attacks,” he said.

The case against Bergdahl may never go to trial -- desertions usually end in a plea bargain. But the controversy over the administration’s handling of it is not going away. The White House really has no choice but to be more forthcoming about what it did last year if it wants all of the Defense Department’s funding back and its man confirmed as the next head of the Army.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net