House report: Obama officials misled public on Bergdahl swap

Getty Images

A yearlong investigation by the House Armed Services Committee has concluded that the Obama administration broke the law in swapping five Taliban members for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — and went out of its way to hide the negotiations as they were happening. 

The report said the administration broke a law requiring it to give members of Congress 30 days' advance notice of any detainee transfers from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, where the senior Taliban leaders were held. 

ADVERTISEMENT
It also found that it misled reporters and lawmakers about a potential prisoner exchange. Congress was instead notified just hours before the May 2014 transfer took place.

Bergdahl, who is facing charges of desertion, had left his base in Afghanistan in 2009, and was subsequently captured and held hostage for five years.  

"At the time, there were rumors that on-again, off-again talks about a prisoner exchange, which had broken down several years earlier, might be underway again, but the administration repeatedly suggested to reporters and to Congress that nothing significant was going on," the report found. 

The report also found that the administration kept some defense officials who would normally work on transfers out of the loop. The administration has said it feared a leak of the swap would scuttle the deal and could endanger Bergdahl's life. 

"Our report finds that the Administration clearly broke the law in not notifying Congress of the transfer," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).  

"Leading up to the transfer, DOD officials misled Congress as to the status of negotiations. Pentagon officials best positioned to assess the national security risks were left out of the process, which increases the chances of dangerous consequences from the transfer," he said. 

"It is irresponsible to put these terrorists that much closer to the battlefield to settle a campaign promise and unconscionable to mislead Congress in the process,” he added. 

The White House said Thursday it "absolutely" stands by its decision to exchange the Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl, describing it in line with its principle to leave no U.S. service member behind.

“There was a unique opportunity that was presented to rescue Sgt. Bergdahl and that is exactly what we did," Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The lack of notification angered both Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the time. Critics of the swap also argued that it went against U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorists, and could incentivize more hostage-taking.

Critics were further angered that Bergdahl was swapped for five high-ranking Taliban members who were on a list of those not eligible for transfer. 

The report suggests the administration hid the swap in order to advance the president's goal to fulfill a campaign promise to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.  

Last year, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office also found that the Obama administration violated the law on the Bergdahl swap. 

While Democrats on the committee agreed that the administration broke the law, they strongly objected in a dissenting report to the broader conclusions that the administration kept the swap secret for a political motive. 

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said the "most disturbing" finding of the report "are the calculated decisions and plans to mislead Congress and the American people as to the details and necessity of this transfer." 

“After rigorous investigation, there are still some unknowns. We still do not know if we negotiated for less than five detainees. We do not know how five was determined to be the ‘right’ number in this exchange," she said. "However, we now know to what extent this Administration is willing to go to achieve political goals.”

 

—Jordan Fabian contributed. Last updated at 6 p.m.