With evidence mounting that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl deserted his post and U.S. soldiers died in an attempt to rescue him, many Democrat leaders are reserving judgment on whether or not the exchange for five top-ranking Taliban leaders was a good deal for America.
But that didn’t stop Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from doubling down on his praise for President Obama’s decision, taking to the Senate floor Wednesday to chastise Republicans critical of the deal for trying to score political points.
Reid, who Saturday lauded Obama for “fulfilling a solemn obligation” to protect U.S. soldiers, charged Wednesday that Republicans are “using what should be a moment of unity and celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called the prisoner exchange “a joyful day for our nation.”
But a quick reversal by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., reflects the conundrum many Democrat lawmakers now face as more information about Bergdahl pours in, including a report that his team leader, who calls Bergdahl a deserter, intercepted radio chatter indicating the missing soldier was seeking out the Taliban.
On Sunday, McCaskill expressed pride in Obama’s decision in an interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace.
“We saved this man’s life. The commander-in-chief acted within his constitutional authority, which he should have done,” she said. “I’m very proud that we have no POWs left in Afghanistan and the president should be proud of it also.”
But when the Weekly Standard asked her 48 hours later whether or not she was still “very proud” of the deal, she demurred.
“I’m not going to comment until I look at the brief,” said McCaskill, who was described by the Weekly Standard as annoyed by the question.
Other Democrat senators who have said they are reserving judgment, the Daily Caller reported, are Dick Durbin of Illinois, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Pat Leahy of Vermont, Jon Tester of Montana, Carl Levin of Michigan, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Chris Coons of Delaware and Mark Begich of Alaska.
Feinstein ‘very dismayed’
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has criticized the White House for not consulting with Congress 30 days before the prisoner exchange, as required by law.
She told reporters on Capitol Hill her entire committee was “very dismayed” about the administration’s actions.
“[T]he White House is pretty unilateral about what they want to do when they want to do it,” she said.
Feinstein said Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken offered her a personal apology for the “oversight,” according to the National Journal.
Levin said he had concerns about the exchange, the Los Angeles Times reported, but noted he was assured Tuesday by Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the operation was fully supported by top military commanders.
The rationale was “simple,” Levin said. “We go after our guys. We get our guys out.
“They were really worried about this guy, in terms of his appearance in their last video,” Levin said. “They made an assessment as to what kind of health issues he might be having.”
Concern about Bergdahl’s health was cited by the White House as the prompt for immediate action. A video of the handover released by the Taliban shows Bergdahl in apparently good physical condition, but a Republican lawmaker Wednesday said it doesn’t matter anyway, dismissing the health issue as yet another poor excuse offered by the White House for its actions.
“I’m tired of this crap,” Republican Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock said in an interview with WTAD radio in Illinois Wednesday.
“I’m tired of the Obama administration walking out when there’s a crisis and there’s a scandal and saying, ‘Oh, we just learned about this. We just learned about this on the news.’ Hogwash. I’m tired of them walking out when he can’t defend what they just did and saying, ‘Well, OK, there’s maybe more to the story, don’t rush to judgment.’”
He said he didn’t need to know any more about the story.
“The guy deserted his post,” he said. “He put his comrades in harm and people died trying to get his butt back, OK? That is a court-martial-able offense. It’s a crime, it’s against the oath that he takes when he’s sworn-in as a member of our armed forces and he needs to be held accountable.
“His bad behavior does not need to be reward and quite frankly I don’t need to know more information about whether his health might have been in jeopardy or not.”
‘Monday morning quarterbacks’
In his rebuke of Republicans on the Senate floor Wednesday, Reid echoed Obama in calling the exchange “a victory for our soldiers, their families and our great country.”
“No member of the armed forces should be left behind. And President Obama saw to that,” Reid said.
He cited Republicans who previously called for Bergdahl to be released, including Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who said one year ago the U.S. “must make every effort to bring this captured soldier home to his family.”
Reid concluded: “It’s clear they’re worried his release could be seen as a victory for President Obama.”
The Senate leader acknowledged, however, there are questions regarding Bergdahl’s disappearance and whether he violated the military code.
“These are issues that will be resolved by the United States Army, not by Monday morning quarterbacks on Capitol Hill,” Reid said.
He reasoned it’s better to have the U.S. military mete out justice than the Taliban.
In his remarks Sunday in the Rose Garden at the White House, Obama said: “Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop.”
Along with Feinstein, however, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized the White House for not consulting Congress regarding the prisoner exchange.
Among leaders on Capitol Hill, only Reid was given a heads up on the exchange, just 24 hours before it was announced.
An administration official told the Los Angeles Times the White House, State Department, Defense Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence have “been in close touch with members of Congress and congressional staff” since Bergdahl was recovered.
“Over the coming days, our engagement with Congress, both at a member level and staff level, will continue,” the official said.
Violation of law
In an interview with CNN Monday, Georgetown University law professor Jonathan was asked if the White House violated a federal law requiring that Congress be notified 30 days ahead of the release of any prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
“They did,” Turley replied. “I don’t think that the White House is seriously arguing that they’re not violating federal law. And to make matters worse, this is a long series of violations of federal law that the president’s been accused of. … This is going to add to that pile.
“I don’t think there’s much debate that they’re in violation of the law.”
Levin offered a mild defense of the White House, saying he recalled briefings with the administration about possibly releasing senior Taliban leaders, which he strongly opposed, in conjunction with political reconciliation talks.
The Michigan senator said, however, there was no mention of Bergdahl in the briefings, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Nevertheless, he said Obama’s move should come as no surprise because the president “put us on warning” last December with a statement he issued after signing the defense authorization bill that contains the 30-day notice provision.
In his signing statement, Obama said that if necessary, he would “act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.”
“Does that change the law? No. But does that assert that he has authority under the Constitution? Yes,” Levin said, according to the Times.
Turley criticized the White House argument that Bergdahl’s health was at risk, pointing out negotiations have gone on for years.
“Clearly you have committees with classified proceedings, people who have been cleared for this information that could have been consulted,” he said. “And this really is the reason they enacted the law.”