A day after the country celebrated U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's return to American custody after nearly five years in captivity, the White House found itself playing defense Sunday for failing to notify lawmakers in advance before transferring five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl's freedom.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused President Barack Obama in a statement Saturday of breaking the law by failing to give Congress proper notice of the transfers. The law requires the White House to tell lawmakers about Guantanamo transfers 30 days in advance. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, told Congress about the five Bergdahl transfers Saturday morning, just hours before the prisoners were on a plane and headed to Qatar.
“In executing this transfer," McKeon and Inhofe said, "the President ... clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated. Our joy at Sgt. Berghdal’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it."
Obama himself signed the 30 days rule into law last year. He also wrote a controversial signing statement along with that law in which he said he believes the President is allowed to "act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers." The Bergdahl deal is the first in which he's put this belief into practice. (It's also worth noting Obama campaigned in 2008 against the use of signing statements to enhance the executive branch's power).
Hagel, along with White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, were out playing defense for the White House on Sunday. Hagel said while en route to Afghanistan Sunday that Bergdahl's worsening health meant the White House needed to move quickly to make the exchange. And Rice, making the Sunday show rounds, told CNN's Candy Crowley that the administration had previously told Congress a Bergdahl-style scenario was a possibility.
" ... this opportunity is one that has been briefed to Congress when we had past potential to have this kind of arrangement," said Rice on CNN's State of the Union.
"So it wasn't unknown to Congress," Rice continued. "The Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice. And given the acute urgency of the -- the health condition of Sgt. -- Sgt. Bergdahl and given the president's constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30 day notification requirement, because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sgt. Bergdahl would have been lost."
Other Republicans, meanwhile, knocked the White House over what they said was a move that will put U.S. troops at risk in the future. Republican Texas Senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz pounded home that point Sunday on This Week, saying the administration paid a "dangerous price" to retrieve Bergdahl.
"How many soldiers lost their lives to capture those five Taliban terrorists that we just released?" Cruz asked ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "Ambassador [Susan] Rice basically said to you, yes, U.S. policy has changed. Now we make deals with terrorists. And the question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we've gone after?"
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), meanwhile, said during Sunday State of the Union that “if you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every al-Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before."
And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former P.O.W. himself, was also skeptical of the exchange. "I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan," said McCain in a statement.