White House briefing fails to calm Bergdahl storm

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 10, 2014 

— The Obama administration suggested Monday that the deal to swap five Taliban detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could rekindle peace negotiations between the terrorist group and Afghan government.

The suggestion of a possible benefit from the deal came as the White House continued to work to quell the controversy over the deal and how the White House handled it. A private administration briefing for House members appeared to change few minds.

Those who supported the exchange, mostly Democrats, continued to support it. Lawmakers from both parties who opposed the deal continued to express concern about the precedent of the U.S. swapping five prisoners from a nonsovereign entity, and anger over House and Senate leaders being notified about the trade only after it had happened.

If anything, the briefing caused some lawmakers to become more upset after being told that 80 to 90 officials in the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and other agencies knew about the deal while key members of Congress didn’t.

“I think it’s part of an erosion of the relationship between Congress and the executive,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “I support the swap; I mean, the president made a very difficult decision, but I am concerned about the growing distance between the executive branch and Congress, and I think some consultation sooner would have been appropriate.”

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the White House’s handling of Bergdahl’s release is “a pattern, and they need to learn that we actually matter under the Constitution.”

“It’s hard to trust this administration on anything they tell you,” Walden said.

Meanwhile, White House officials continued to defend the deal. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the swap could be a step in reinvigorating talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government.

“If that paves the way, if that builds a little trust and creates some space to enhance or restart negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government and there’s a role for the United States and our coalition partners to play in that then we’ll welcome that opportunity and we’ll certainly consider it.”

The House members were briefed by Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken; Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work; Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Deputy Director of Intelligence Robert Cardillo.

Some House members said the administration officials were pressed for assurances that the five freed former Taliban leaders, who were dispatched from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar, wouldn’t return to the battlefield.

As in last week’s briefing for the Senate, administration officials showed House members a so-called proof of life video of Bergdahl made by the Taliban last January to show that he was alive.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a critic of the deal, said the video didn’t convince him that Bergdahl was in dire physical condition and thus n need of an immediate deal.

“I’m not a doctor, but to me, he well could have been drugged, sedated,” King said. “As far as being close to death, it didn’t seem that to me.”

The administration had defenders, mostly Democrats.

Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, left Monday’s meeting saying he understands why the White House was quiet about the deal.

“In this situation I can I understand this administration would not want to do it (tell Congress in advance),” he said. “Because of the information from the Taliban to Qatar that if there were any leaks whatsoever, the deal was off. And this would probably be the last opportunity to save his life.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said she was “mystified and quite frankly disgusted that there has been a demonization” of Bergdahl.

“Sgt. Bergdahl has been discussed for a number of years with members of Congress …. This was something that was in the public domain, and so nothing was hidden except for a very sensitive operation that resulted, I think, (in) the perfect solution,” she said.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said she understood why the White House kept Capitol Hill out of the loop on the Bergdahl deal.

“I wouldn’t tell 435 people a secret either,” Slaughter said, referring to the House.

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©2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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