By Alexander Bolton - 06/03/14 06:00 AM EDT
Republicans are raising questions about whether Hillary Clinton knew about the White House plan to release senior Taliban commanders in exchange for the last U.S. prisoner of war.
President Obama met with his former secretary of State for lunch on Thursday, two days before it was announced that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been released from captivity in exchange for five high-profile Taliban prisoners.
They are also suspicious Obama might have informed Clinton, the likely Democratic front-runner for the White House in 2016.
The White House has said it would not give a read out of Obama’s lunch with Clinton, calling it a private event.
But that has only made Republicans more curious about the timing between the lunch, and the controversial prisoner swap.
“If Mrs. Clinton remains politically active, people will want to know what her advice was on the subject,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said questions about the meeting are fair game.
“It’s fair game to ask her, “Did she know about this, what does she think about it, does she agree with the decision to withdraw troops in 2016?” he said. “These are all really good questions potential candidates for president need to answer.
“These are major policy decisions. This has ramifications long term for the U.S., this prisoner swap,” he added.
Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment on the Obama-Clinton meeting.
“We’re not reading out their private lunch,” he said.
A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.
Some Republicans said Monday that a congressional probe could seek to find out whether Obama told Clinton about the exchange.
“It appears that they consciously moved forward without notifying Congress over an extended period of time. Republicans think it’s fair for the White House to come clean about who was told what when, including former Secretary of State Clinton,” said a senior GOP aide.
The administration has said they had to keep the secret from Congress to preserve the Bergdahl’s safety, but that hasn’t satisfied Republicans.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has promised hearings. He said he was not alerted of the prisoner exchange until this past weekend and that this violates the National Defense Authorization Act, which required the administration give Congress 30 days advance notice.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has told Senate Republican colleagues that his panel will hold a closed-door hearing on the prisoner swap on June 10. Graham is pressing for a public hearing.
He also wants an independent probe into allegations Bergdahl deserted his post.
“I want a professional independent investigation by the appropriate military authorities with no interference by the Congress or the White House to find out what labels apply to Sgt. Bergdahl,” Graham said.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Monday that senior lawmakers were informed months ago that the administration was negotiating for Bergdahl.
“We've been consulting with members of Congress about this effort, including the potential transfer of five Gitmo detainees, for years” he said. “So this should not have been a surprise to any of the members of Congress who've been … commenting about it.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said critics should view Bergdahl’s release as a standard prisoner exchange instead of negotiating with terrorists, which the United States declines to do as a matter of policy.
He expressed hope it could lay the groundwork for a broader peace deal with the Taliban, one of Obama’s highest priorities in Afghanistan.
“Could this embolden terrorists? Again, I remind you this was a prisoner of war exchange. He was a prisoner,” Hagel told reporters in a briefing. “Maybe this could provide some possible new bridge for new negotiations.”
In 2011, Israel and Hamas announced a deal to swap 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who was held prisoner in Gaza for five years.
Clinton, then the secretary of State, praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his “courage and leadership” after winning Shalit’s freedom.
Peace talks with the Taliban broke off in 2012, after the United States rebuffed demands to free senior militants, which Taliban leaders said showed a lack of seriousness from American negotiators.
The exchange in Bergdahl’s case has also been controversial because of charges that he deserted his duties in walking off base before his capture.
Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon, told CNN Bergdahl was captured after going absent without leave.
“Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him,” he said.
Other members of Bergdahl’s platoon have corroborated that account.
Administration officials say they want to give Bergdahl time to recover from his captivity before delving into the circumstances of his capture. But national security adviser Susan Rice rebutted charges he was a deserter during a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
“Certainly, anybody who has been held in those conditions, in captivity for five years has paid an extraordinary price. But that is really not the point. The point is that he is back,” she said.