Boehner: White House kept prisoner trade secret because Congress opposed it

Greg Nash

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday said the Obama administration told congressional leaders about a possible prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl more than two years ago, but then never followed up.

In a statement, Boehner said lawmakers had thought they would be consulted again, and blasted the White House for trading five Taliban leaders for Bergdahl without notifying Congress.

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He also said lawmakers were opposed to the exchange when it was first raised, and accused the White House of keeping Congress in the dark because of that opposition.
"More than two years ago, Members of Congress were briefed on the possibility of such an exchange, and the chairmen at the time and I raised serious questions to the administration," Boehner said in the statement.
 
"Unfortunately, the questions and concerns we had were never satisfactorily answered and they remain today. At the time, the administration deferred further engagement because the prospects of the exchange had diminished," Boehner said.
 
Aides pointed to a June 21, 2013, statement by White House spokesman Jay Carney in which he said "we would not make any decision about transfer of any detainees without consulting with Congress" as reinforcing the belief by members of Congress that Obama would not act behind their backs.
 
“There was every expectation that the administration would re-engage with Congress, as it did before, and the only reason it did not is because the administration knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition,” Boehner said in the statement.

Boehner’s version of events was echoed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.

She said the issue of a prison swap had been raised with the intelligence panels and encountered virtually unanimous opposition.

GOP aides said that the administration began discussing the prisoner swap early in 2011 as part of confidence building measure with the Taliban.

At the time, members of Congress questioned whether the trade would create an incentive for terrorist groups to capture more U.S. soldiers. They also worried the U.S. would not be able to prevent released terrorists from returning to the battleground.

There was no discussion between the administration and House GOP leadership on the exchange between Jan. 30, 2012, and June 2014, after the exchange had occurred, GOP aides said. 

The speaker’s office was informed at 11:52 a.m. on Saturday that Bergdahl had been released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners. Aides said administration officials acknowledged that they had acted inconsistently with the law.

The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act requires that the secretary of Defense notify the relevant committees 30 days before releasing any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

The administration has pointed to a signing statement Obama wrote when singing the Defense Act into law, in which he said he believed the requirement was unconstitutional.

Boehner said that the exchange has “invited serious questions into how this exchange went down,” and that he supported House Armed Services hearings on the matter.

While stopping short of calling the exchange a mistake, Boehner said that it risks hostage taking of U.S. personnel abroad in the future.

“One of their greatest protections — knowing that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists — have been compromised,” Boehner said.