POLITICS

Republicans 'Suspicious' Of White House Claims Bowe Bergdahl Was In Danger

06/05/2014 05:43 pm 17:43:58 | Updated Jun 05, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Republicans are not buying arguments that threats to Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's life drove White House officials not to inform Congress of the pending deal to trade five Taliban leaders for the captive soldier.

The five senior Taliban officials were held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Congress has passed numerous laws restricting the administration's ability to move anyone from the facility. Among them is a requirement that the White House inform key members of Congress 30 days in advance.

When lawmakers complained about the lack of notice on the May 31 deal to free Bergdahl, the Obama administration at first said Bergdahl's deteriorating health had required quick action. But as more details emerged, it appeared there had been little or no new information about the soldier's condition since this past December, when a video of him surfaced.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that administration officials told senators in a closed briefing that the Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if news of the deal leaked.

Republicans were deeply skeptical of that explanation.

"I'm very suspicious," said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), even though he was among the lawmakers who pushed the White House hardest over the years to do more to free Bergdahl. "They started out saying this was a health issue, and when it was proven that that was false, they have now pivoted to a different reason. So that makes me very suspicious of what they're doing."

According to senators, there has been no new evidence of Bergdahl's poor health since the December video.

"The film, as short as it was, was taken last December, and in June they decide his health was deteriorating?" said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "That obviously doesn’t work. They ran that one up the flagpole and nobody saluted."

While cautioning that he doesn't have specific classified information about the purported threats to Bergdahl's life, McCain also questioned the logic of those claims.

"Everything I know is that an American in the hands of a terrorist organization is so valuable that I do not believe that they would be inclined to murder that individual, because then that individual loses its value," said McCain, who was himself a prisoner of war for more than five years during the Vietnam War. "In Vietnam, the reason why they kept us alive was because we were valuable, not because they liked us or wanted to respect the rules of war."

The White House stood by the argument that officials were concerned Bergdahl was in grave danger, for health reasons and otherwise.

“Our judgment was that every day Sgt. Bergdahl was a prisoner, his life was at risk, and in the video we received in January, he did not look well," said a senior administration official. "This led to an even greater sense of urgency in pursuing his recovery."

"We can’t disclose classified comments from a closed congressional briefing," the official added, declining to offer specifics. "However, we are able to say that the senators were told, separate and apart from Sgt. Bergdahl’s apparent deterioration in health, that we had both specific and general indications that Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery -- and potentially his life -- could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed."

Risch, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that received the briefing, said he would need to see the specifics of the threats. "I want to see the actual factual basis of that," he said. "Right now, that's just an allegation."

McCain and Risch both took exception to the idea that they were the ones who had changed their positions on freeing Bergdahl.

Risch had offered legislation pushing for Bergdahl's return and repeatedly urged intelligence and defense officials to do all they could to secure the safety of the young man, who comes from Risch's state.

McCain once said in a TV interview that he would support trading members of the Taliban for Bergdahl.

But the senator told HuffPost on Thursday that it was a lie to suggest he would have backed this specific deal with five high-level Taliban officials.

"I said I would have to know the details," McCain said. "I would have to know the details, and anybody who says that I signed off on it is lying. It shows really the desperation of these people, particularly on the far left. It's amazing. It's amazing to me. No one could read, twice, what I said -- 'I'd have to know the details' -- before they say 'signed off on.' It's a lie. It's not very often that I call people liars, but they are lying."

Similarly, Risch said trading five high-ranking terror suspects was just going too far.

"I fall in the same category as John McCain did. I wanted to see [Bergdahl] get out of the hands of the Taliban and back into U.S. custody. I felt strongly about that, still feel strongly about that," Risch said. "But that doesn't mean that you're willing to do anything. I mean, you have to weigh the consequences, and I think that the vast majority of people outside of the administration who have looked at this have real reservations about what was given in order to get."

Asked if despite his own reservations, he wasn't at least a little glad that the White House had done the deal, Risch declined to say.

"I can't answer that question," he said.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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