POLITICS
06/03/2014 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2014

Top Republicans Call For Congressional Hearings On Bowe Bergdahl Prisoner Exchange

WASHINGTON -- Leading congressional Republicans sharply criticized the Obama administration on Tuesday for not consulting with Congress over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo.

"The administration has invited serious questions into how this exchange went down and the calculations the White House and relevant agencies made in moving forward without consulting Congress despite assurances it would re-engage with members on both sides of the aisle," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also slammed the White House and President Barack Obama, saying he was not consulted or informed at all.

"I haven't had a conversation with the White House on this issue in a year and a half, and if that's keeping us in the loop, this administration is more arrogant than I thought they were," Chambliss told reporters on Capitol Hill, accompanied by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who also said he didn't hear about the deal until the morning it was announced.

Chambliss and McConnell said they wanted hearings on the prisoner swap, and Chambliss demanded that the White House declassify the files of the five detainees.

"The president needs to look the American people in the eye and explain to the American people why he was justified in releasing the five individuals, and why their backgrounds didn't demand and mandate that they be detained at Guantanamo for an indefinite period of time," Chambliss said.

Chambliss called the men the "fab five -- the new board of directors" for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri -- and predicted they would return to the fight in a year.

Boehner also expressed his support for congressional hearings to determine whether Obama was acting lawfully when he failed to notify Congress about the prisoner swap. He added that Congress was briefed more than two years ago, first in late 2011 and then in January 2012, that such an exchange was possible, and that the administration's proposal was met with opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

"Unfortunately, the questions and concerns we had were never satisfactorily answered and they remain today," Boehner said. "There was every expectation that the administration would re-engage with Congress, as it did before, and the only reason it did not is because the administration knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition."

Republicans were not the only ones disappointed that Congress wasn't told about the deal to transfer the detainees 30 days in advance, as called for by law. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also criticized the administration's decision to keep Congress in the dark.

"It's very disappointing that there was not a level of trust sufficient to justify alerting us," Feinstein told reporters on Capitol Hill. She added that National Deputy Security Adviser Tony Blinken called her Monday evening to apologize.

"He apologized for it and said it was an oversight," Feinstein said. Chambliss also said the White House apologized, but that it does little good after the fact.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he was told of the deal Friday. "As I recall, he was released on Saturday," Reid said. "I got a call from the White House on Friday."

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Reid was informed of the exchange on Saturday, not on Friday. Asked if Reid misspoke, his spokesman Adam Jentleson said, "No. We were alerted earlier in the week that a significant notification was imminent, and learned on Friday that the Bergdahl operation was going forward."

Reid didn't say whether he thought the deal was proper.

"Guantanamo has been there far too long, and I think that we should get them out of there as quickly as we can," Reid said. "So I'm glad to get rid of these five people."

Asked if he would support an open hearing into the swap, Reid said, "Of course. I would, yeah."

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday he would hold hearings on the issue. He also denied that Republicans, who have been overwhelmingly critical of the circumstances around Bergdahl's release, were politicizing the issue.

"It was important for our national security," McKeon told MSNBC. "It's important for our responsibility of oversight of the administration and our national security."

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), McKeon's counterpart in the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued that the White House had been clear in its communications with Congress about Bergdahl.

"We received a detailed classified notification from the Secretary of Defense that satisfies the many substantive certification requirements of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014," Levin said in a statement Tuesday. "Relative to the requirement that the notification be provided 30 days in advance of the transfer of detainees, the President put Congress on notice on Dec. 23, 2013, that he intended to exercise his powers as commander in chief, if necessary, 'to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.'"

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that not only did the law allow the deal, but that swift action was required because events were unfolding quickly and there were credible reports that Bergdahl's life was at risk.

"In these circumstances, delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the [administration's] performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers," Hayden said.

"The president also has repeatedly expressed concerns regarding this notice requirement," she said, pointing to the same notice Levin mentioned.

"In these unique circumstances, in which the Secretary of Defense made the determinations required by Section 1035(b) [of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014] and in light of the Secretary’s assessment that providing notice as specified in Section 1035(d) could endanger the soldier’s life, the Secretary of Defense’s failure to provide 30 days’ notice under Section 1035(d) was lawful," she said.

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