White House apologises over prisoner swap

The White House has apologised for keeping Congress in the dark regarding the exchange of an American soldier for five Taliban fighters, senators say, as controversy grows over the issue.


Administration officials plan a classified briefing for the full 100-member chamber on Wednesday, with senators from both parties fuming over the trade, in which captured soldier Bowe Bergdahl was released on Saturday to US special forces in Afghanistan.

Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, said the White House breached US law when it failed to alert Congress to the proposed trade.

“It comes with some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following the law,” she told reporters.

“We’re very dismayed about it.”

Feinstein reflected mounting bipartisan concern as members of Congress questioned the merits of releasing from Guantanamo five hardened Taliban fighters and officials in exchange for Bergdahl.

Seeking to mop up the political fallout, a senior White House official called Senator Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence committee’s top Republican, late on Monday “apologising for not giving us advance warning”, Chambliss said.

Feinstein said she, too, was called Monday, by deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken, who offered his apology.

Lawmakers have pounced on Obama for not giving Congress 30 days notice before releasing any detainee at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, as required in a law signed in December.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was told of the swap on Friday and he supported the exchange.

But few others openly backed the president. House Speaker John Boehner said the only reason Obama did not give the necessary notice “is because the administration knew it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition”.

The swap will be debated in an open House hearing next week. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has been invited to testify.

The controversy puts Congress in a tricky spot. Cognisant of the American military code to leave no soldier behind, members agree that securing Bergdahl’s release after five years in Taliban captivity was admirable.

But they have blasted the swap for appearing to violate the principle of not negotiating with terrorists.

“I am concerned about what precedents we set here for exchanges, because I don’t want the message to be, you can go ahead and capture Americans and use them to barter for others,” Senate foreign relations committee chairman Robert Menendez told reporters.

Meanwhile, CNN reported Tuesday that a US Army fact-finding investigation conducted in the months after Bergdahl’s 2009 disappearance concluded that he left his post deliberately, according to an official familiar with the probe.

The official said there was no definitive finding Bergdahl had deserted because that would have required knowing his intent.

The probe also interviewed members of Bergdahl’s unit, none of whom reported seeing him go, according to the official.

Pentagon spokesman Steven Warren confirmed there was such a fact-finding investigation in 2009, but stressed its findings were classified.

Posted by at 24/01/2019
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