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House Republicans Stress Concerns Over Bergdahl, Prisoner Swap

Bachmann and others still skeptical after briefing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Bachmann and others still skeptical after briefing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Republicans made one thing clear Monday evening: They would not soon abandon calls for congressional oversight into the Obama administration’s decision to swap five Guantánamo Bay Taliban prisoners for U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl.  

Emerging from their first briefing from White House officials on the details of Army Sgt. Bergdahl’s May 31 release from Taliban custody, GOP lawmakers’ tempers were running high.  

Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., said he was “not satisfied” by the information he received. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., scoffed at the premise that the briefing was “classified” because, she said, no new information was disseminated to members. And veteran Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said the officials were “trying to put lipstick on a pig.”  

Above all, members appeared to be most upset that no member of Congress in either chamber was consulted prior to the transfer of the Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl, arguing that President Barack Obama acted unilaterally and, perhaps, in violation of the law . Obama administration officials have said they opted not to let members in on the plan based on threats that Bergdahl would be instantly killed should there be any leaks. They also have said it was within their discretion to act, despite accusations that they ran afoul of the requirement to notify Congress 30 days prior to carrying out such an operation.  

“It strikes me as unfortunate that they could have 80 to 90 people in the administration aware of what was happening and not trust a single Republican or Democrat in the House,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon. “This is a pattern, and they need to learn that we [Congress] actually matter under the Constitution.”  

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., called this a “tipping point for this administration,” adding the president is “not gonna get away with this one.”  

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he got a call from the White House on May 30 , the day before the swap took place. Bachmann said that officials at Monday’s House briefing dispelled that narrative.  

“I asked specifically if they let in Harry Reid … They said that is not true, that there is no member of Congress who was let into this ahead of time,” she said.  

In the thick of some confusion and conflicting accounts, House Republican leaders have said they plan to conduct oversight of the events that led to Bergdahl’s return to the United States after being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years.  

Specific questions remain over whether his health was deteriorating to the point where the White House had to act so quickly and whether he was a deserter who should be prosecuted for walking off his post.  

“It is important that we get clarity in the days and weeks ahead about not only how this exchange came about but what steps the President has taken to guarantee this exchange is not a signal that it is open season on our fellow citizens, both military and civilian personnel, serving our country abroad so faithfully,” said Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement last week. “One of their greatest protections — knowing that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists — has been compromised.”  

The House Armed Services Committee plans to hold a hearing into the matter on Wednesday, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scheduled to give testimony. The panel’s chairman, Howard Buck McKeon, R-Calif., blasted the administration’s actions  last week.  

A handful of Democrats leaving the House briefing on Monday admitted that it would have been helpful had party leaders and senior members of key congressional committees been given a heads-up.  

“I think we wouldn’t have a lot of debate and concern” had Obama consulted with lawmakers ahead of time, House Intelligence Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., allowed, “But … the president had the constitutional authority under Article 2, as the commander in chief, and he did sign a statement when the law came that he had the right to reserve that.”  

Taking a harder line than many of his colleagues, Massachusetts Democrat Steven F. Lynch said the terms of the swap made him uncomfortable, as did the lack of congressional consultation. He admitted, however, “I don’t know if the president had any better options.”  

Other Democrats, like Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, fiercely defended Obama’s actions.  

“I’m grateful to this administration for sending a signal to anyone who would wear the uniform of the United States of America that we will not leave you behind, and all the rest to me is extraneous,” she said. “Remember, these people were captured in 2001 … these were leaders who have never been charged with anything whatsoever.  

“I find it absolutely unacceptable that we are hearing these kinds of attacks on this administration,” said Schakowsky.

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