House lawmakers slam Bergdahl briefing

 

House Republicans emerged from a classified briefing on the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Monday night angry that Obama administration officials told them little new information.

Lawmakers said they pressed officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community for more details about the five Taliban detainees released from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl, in addition to why Congress wasn’t told of the exchange before it occurred. But several members said they came away empty-handed.

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“I didn’t learn anything in the briefing that I didn’t already know,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

While the briefing was labeled as classified, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said the officials told lawmakers that none of the information they were sharing was actually secret.

“I asked them why in the world they didn’t turn this into a press conference,” Bachmann told reporters afterward.

“It’s safe to say, on both the Republican and Democrat side, that people were disappointed,” she added. “They were underwhelmed at what was put forward. Also, I think there was a sense of anger that members of Congress didn’t know about this.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other top Republicans have criticized the administration for failing to inform them of the Bergdahl swap in advance, despite the fact that congressional leaders had been briefed on earlier rounds of talks with the Taliban.

Bachmann said one Democrat stood up to admonish the administration for its secrecy. “You needed to trust us, and you didn’t,” the Democrat said, according to Bachmann.

She and other lawmakers were irritated to learn that about 80-90 people knew about the exchange ahead of time, but none of them were members of Congress.

The briefers included Robert Work, deputy secretary of defense; Michael Lumpkin, acting under secretary of defense; Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Ambassador James Dobson, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They showed lawmakers a “proof of life” video of Bergdahl from January and said concern over his health and safety was a factor in the timing of the trade.

Several GOP lawmakers said that the White House could have at least told congressional leadership and top lawmakers on the Intelligence committees about the swap before it happened. 

Others said they were concerned about trading five high-ranking Taliban officials for Bergdahl and were noticeably frustrated at hearing little in the briefing that hasn't already been made public. 

“What we have now is an arrogant thumbing of his nose by the president of the United States at the Congress of the United States on a very important decision,” a visibly angry Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told reporters. “This is going to cost American lives.”

Democrats were, at times, quick to defend Obama, but several also acknowledged that the White House could have done a better job keeping Capitol Hill up to speed.

“I think there are a number of people who feel that there could have been better consultation,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) agreed and added that he was also concerned about the Taliban members released in the swap, even though he doesn't believe Bergdahl should have been left in captivity.

“Would they have taken some other individuals that weren't as dangerous? I don't know,” Lynch said.

“It would have helped if they had informed the Intelligence Committee. I think that would have been in compliance with the law, at least.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) angrily denounced her colleagues for complaining about being left out of the loop, instead of voicing gratitude at the safe return of a U.S. soldier.

“I am completely grateful to this administration for sending a signal to anyone that would wear the uniform of the United States of America that we will not leave you behind,” Schakowsky said. “And all the rest is extraneous.”

“I find it absolutely unacceptable that we’re hearing these kinds of attacks on this administration for bringing someone home,” she added.

At times, Schakowsky said, Bergdahl became an afterthought. 

“No one seemed to ask about him,” she said.

Other lawmakers said they understood the need for secrecy, even from Congress.

“I wouldn’t tell 435 people a secret either,” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said.