A special briefing by senior administration officials Wednesday evening failed to sell skeptical senators concerned about President Obama’s decision to trade five Taliban commanders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release.
The officials, led by deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken and Jim Dobbins, the special representative for Afghanistan, showed senators a video of Bergdahl in apparent poor health while in Taliban custody.
“His health was not the critical factor … in that one video, you can tell he had been drugged, and he was in a different state five months ago,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
Centrist Democrats said after the meeting they still had concerns about the deal, and Republicans emerged from the Senate’s sensitive compartmented information facility newly emboldened in their criticism of Obama.
Lawmakers have voiced anger and frustration this week that the administration failed to alert them in advance of the deal despite a requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act specifying 30 days notice.
The decision to share the video appeared intended to convince lawmakers that Bergdahl's health was so frail that the president had no choice but to act quickly.
But even Democrats were unconvinced.
“That did not sell me at all,” Manchin said of the video of Bergdahl, which he said was shot five months ago. “At that time, he was impaired.
“That is not the person that was released here. He was not in that type of dire situation when he was released,” he added.
The Taliban gave the video to U.S. officials to prove Bergdahl was still alive while they negotiated over the militants at Guantánamo.
Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat in the midst of a difficult reelection race in Arkansas, said the briefing did not alleviate his concerns.
“I still have concerns,” he said, declining to comment about the specifics of the briefing.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), another vulnerable incumbent, still had questions about the aftermath of the release but said the bottom line for him is the United States needs to rescue its prisoners of war.
“There are still some questions, but a lot of them are answered,” he said. “We don’t leave any of our military personnel behind.
He and other lawmakers voiced fears about the released militants plotting future attacks against Americans.
“I am always going to be concerned when you do swaps like this and what these folks might or might not do in the future. It is hard to predict, but at the end of the day, it is critical to go get those who have been captured, but I am still concerned about the precedent that it does set and what it means for the future,” he said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) emerged to say he was “more” confident but that the decision was still not a slam dunk.
“I know more. I feel more confident now in the decision was made,” he said. “I think it was a very hard decision. If I was challenged to make it myself, I might have come to the same conclusion under the pressure of the moment. Now that you can step back and reflect on it, it is easy to pick it apart and criticize it.”
He said he is still worried about the five Taliban detainees returning to the battlefield.
Republicans doubled down on their criticism after the briefing.
“To me, there is too much emphasis on Bergdahl. It is what the president did. If Bergdahl had been a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, it would have minimized the atrocity that was committed by President Obama in releasing these people,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said.
“I don’t feel assured that these five Taliban detainees will not get back in the fight against us and our allies,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.)
The Obama administration hoped securing the freedom of Bergdahl within days of announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 would be a public relations victory.
Instead, it has become a political liability, as Republican lawmakers have blasted the deal, and nervous Democrats have distanced themselves from the controversy.
Both parties accused each other Wednesday of playing politics with Bergdahl to position themselves for the midterm election five months away.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said White House advisers wanted Bergdahl’s release to coincide with the timing of Obama’s announcement to end combat operations in Iraq.
“I think they were looking at the end of hostilities as being a political shot in the arm for them and regaining a lost soldier would be seen as positive,” Graham said. “This was all politics all over again.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused Republicans of hypocrisy for criticizing the prisoner exchange after they called on Obama to do everything in his power to win Bergdahl’s freedom.
Reid noted that Ayotte released a statement urging the Department of Defense to “do all it can to find Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home,” and Inhofe made a plea that the United States “make every effort to bring this captured soldier home to his family.”
“Some of these senators are now denouncing the very same efforts that secured Sgt. Bergdahl’s release. They’re worried his release could be seen as a victory for President Obama,” Reid said.
The battle over Bergdahl has morphed into a proxy fight over the fate of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, a contentious subject on Capitol Hill for years.
Republicans said they would explore legislative language to restrict Obama from releasing more detainees from the camp.
The Senate’s pending defense authorization bill includes language barring the president from transferring terrorist detainees to Yemen and a provision requiring an up-or-down vote by Congress on any decision to close Guantánamo.
Graham warned Republicans would push for Obama’s impeachment if he released another flow of prisoners without congressional approval.
“There will be people on our side calling for his impeachment if he did that,” he said.
Reid on Tuesday praised the deal as a first step to reducing the number of inmates at the prison.
“My own personal opinion, Guantánamo has been there far too long, and I think that we should get them out of there as quickly as we can,” he said. “So, I'm glad to get these five people, send them back to Qatar, and I think the arrangements made there are, as far as I understand, what's been explained to me, adequate.”
Questions have also begun to swirl around Bergdahl and how he fell into Taliban hands. Soldiers who served in his platoon have accused him of deserting his post, leaving behind his weapon and body armor.
“We’re dealing with a soldier who should be looked into more extensively,” said Manchin. “There’s a lot to be answered here and a lot of peculiar behavior that’s gone on between the family, this soldier and his actions.”
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Wednesday that Bergdahl is still in Germany receiving care.
— Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.