Prisoner swap blows up on White House

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The Obama administration has apologized for bypassing Congress before it released senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay as part of a controversial prisoner exchange.

The expression of regret was a major shift for the White House, which had previously offered a defiant defense on why it could not adhere to the notification provisions of a 2013 law. 

Tony Blinken, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, apologized to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) Monday evening for the administration’s failure to alert Congress in advance.

“I had a call from the White House last night, from Tony Blinken, apologizing for it,” Feinstein told reporters Tuesday.

“He apologized and said it was an oversight,” she added.

But the “oversight” excuse is not resonating with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Critics claim the White House didn’t tell Congress for one reason: The administration knew legislators would have torpedoed the agreement had they been told.

Feinstein said leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence panels were almost unanimously against a prisoner trade when it came up in 2011.

She said the chairmen and ranking Republicans of the “connected committees” spent a lot of time three years ago reviewing the possibility of a prisoner swap and came out firmly opposed to releasing senior militants from the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

“There were very strong views, and they were virtually unanimous against the trade,” she said.

Obama secured the freedom of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured five years ago near a remote outpost in Afghanistan, by releasing senior militants, including the former chief of staff of the Taliban’s army.

Another senior administration official apologized to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the senior Republican on the intelligence panel.

“I got a phone call [Monday] night apologizing for not giving us advanced warning of it,” Chambliss said, describing the call as coming from a “high-level White House individual.”

“They said it had just been called to their attention that I had not received advanced notification of this transaction,” he said.

Chambliss said he will write a letter to the president pressing him to declassify the intelligence files on the freed Taliban militants.

“These are the guys that raise the money, that made the plans to develop the IEDs and in some cases are accused of inciting riots that wound up killing not hundreds but maybe even thousands of people, including Americans,” he said.

An administration official said members from the administration spoke to Senate Intelligence Committee staff on Saturday about the prisoner exchange and made follow-up calls to Feinstein and Chambliss to update them.

“In calls to Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Chambliss, the administration noted that we regretted we were not able to reach some Members personally on Saturday,” said the official.

White House officials have changed their tone markedly over the past 48 hours after insisting they had nothing to apologize for.

Blinken told CNN earlier this week that the administration didn’t tell Congress in advance of the deal because it faced an “urgent situation.”

“We had information that it was deteriorating. We had an opportunity that was very fast moving to close this deal, to bring him back. And based on the law, we had the flexibility to do that,” he said. “We had an urgent matter, and we had an opportunity, and we seized it.”

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Monday that Congress knew well in advance that the president might release detainees from Guantanamo in exchange 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.”

Other administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, have indicated swift action was needed because of Bergdahl’s deteriorating health.

Over the last several days, the White House has suggested that talks about a possible trade have gone on for years. During a speech in Poland on Tuesday, Obama said his administration “has consulted with Congress for quite some time” on the issue.

However, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) on Tuesday pointed out that lawmakers hadn’t been briefed on a Bergdahl exchange since 2011.

McDonough, meanwhile, struck a more conciliatory tone when he met with Senate Democrats at a Tuesday lunch meeting to discuss their concerns about the deal.

“He was brought to the caucus today to explain the situation with Bergdahl, and he ended his presentation by saying, ‘If anyone has any questions, I’ll be happy to talk to you,’ ” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters.

The Democratic leader defended the administration by asserting it did not break the law by not informing Congress 30 days in advance, a requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act. The White House notes that Obama issued a signing statement balking at the 30-day requirement.

Reid said the administration informed him of the prisoner exchange on Friday, a day before it happened, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) said they were not told until Saturday, the day the news became public.

Boehner accused the White House of keeping it secret to avoid blowback from lawmakers who were apprehensive about releasing Taliban militants from American custody.

“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,” the Speaker said in a statement. 

An administration official said Obama’s advisers “have been very clear about the reasons we did not notify the Congress 30 days in advance.”

The official emphasized that the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been in close touch with lawmakers since U.S. special forces collected Bergdahl from his Taliban captors.

“Over the coming days, our engagement with Congress, both at a Member-level and staff-level, will continue,” the official said.

Several Democratic senators expressed unease about the trade, which could put the senior Taliban commanders back on the battlefield after a year, before U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

“It’s very disturbing. The whole thing is very disturbing,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who added the administration should have notified Congress in advance.

“We’re going to get briefed, a secured briefing, where I’m going to ask questions … and we’re going to find out what happened,” he said.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who faces a difficult reelection race, said he has “real concerns” about the release of prisoners from Guantanamo. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), another vulnerable incumbent, voiced similar reservations.

In an MSNBC interview on Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the possibility that Bergdahl had deserted his post raised “a real question of whether you go in and trade” five Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

The White House scrambled on Tuesday to defend national security adviser Susan Rice’s assertion over the weekend that Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction,” amid more questions about whether he deserted his post.

“Sgt. Bergdahl put on the uniform of the United States voluntarily and went to war for the United States voluntarily. That takes honor and is a mark of distinction,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told CNN on Tuesday.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Bergdahl left a note in his tent saying he was disillusioned with the Army and did not support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Military veterans who served with Bergdahl said that troops died searching for the Idaho native.  

Obama admitted Tuesday that there is a risk the five Taliban militants could return to the battlefield. But U.S. officials are “keeping eyes on them,” he stated.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided Obama with some political cover on Tuesday, saying she doesn’t believe in “second-guessing” the president.

Laura Barron-Lopez, Justin Sink 
and Erik Wasson contributed.

This story was updated Wednesday at 3:46 p.m.