The White House on Friday rejected findings by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) that President Obama broke the law when he swapped Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay.
"We strongly disagree with GAO's conclusion, and we reject the implication that the administration acted unlawfully," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "The president has the constitutional responsibility to protect the lives of Americans abroad, and specifically to protect U.S. servicemembers."
The GAO report, released Thursday, said the Pentagon violated a law that requires the administration to inform Congress at least 30 days before any prisoner exchange from Guantánamo Bay. It also said the Defense Department wrongly used $988,400 from a wartime appropriations to facilitate the transfer.
"The Department of Defense violated section 8111 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2014 when it transferred five individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the nation of Qatar without providing at least 30-days notice to certain congressional committees," the GAO wrote in its report.
Lawmakers have criticized the White House for failing to inform them about the prisoner swap and for freeing the Guantánamo detainees. Some have suggested Bergdahl, who is suspected of deserting ahead of his capture, was not worth the risk of freeing captured Taliban leaders.
The Pentagon maintained to the congressional investigators that providing notice of the exchange "would have interfered with the executive's performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the president: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. service members."
The GAO said it would not weigh in on the constitutionality of the law requiring congressional notification, but noted the legislation passed through the legislature and was signed by the president. But the White House seized on that point to argue that the administration's actions should not be considered a violation of the law.
"It's important for everyone here to understand that the GAO report expressly does not address the lawfulness of the administration's actions as a matter of Constitutional law," Schultz said.
On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that, under the "exceptional circumstances" involved in the controversial prisoner swap, "the administration determined that it was necessary and appropriate to forego 30 days' notice."
"The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers," Kirby said.