Top Obama aides press Bergdahl case on Capitol Hill

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 4, 2014 

President Barack Obama dispatched top national security aides to Capitol Hill on Wednesday in a belated push to shore up congressional support for his handling of the deal that freed an American POW in exchange for five accused terrorists.

The move was aimed as much at disgruntled Democrats as it was at Republicans angry over the terms of the deal that gained Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release Saturday after five years in captivity.

Lawmakers from both parties were also upset over Obama’s failure to provide Congress advance notice of the prisoners exchange as required by law. In a deal brokered by the Qatari government, five former Taliban officials from Afghanistan were released from the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

With the president traveling in Europe, four senior Obama administration representatives gave the full Senate an unusual closed-door briefing that ran into the evening at the Capitol.

Emerging from the briefing, Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said it had done little to mollify his concerns.

“This is something that is extremely disturbing,” Manchin told reporters. “It’s something that needs to be looked into. I came out of there with more questions than answers.”

Manchin said he wanted to see an internal Pentagon report on the Bergdahl case and other classified documents that haven’t been released to Congress. Contradicting earlier statements by Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who had said the exchange had to be completed quickly because of Bergdahl’s failing health, Manchin said: “His health was not the critical factor right now.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, defended Obama’s decision and dismissed his critics as Monday morning quarterbacks.

“I might have come to the same conclusion (as Obama) in the pressure of the moment,” Durbin told reporters. “But now, when we step back and reflect on it, it’s easy to pick it apart.”

Saying he feels “more confident now in the decision that was made,” Durbin said “this was not an easy call.”

Durbin said the senators were shown a video during the briefing of Bergdahl during captivity that “made it clear this man was not in good condition.”

The men who briefed the senators were Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work; Robert Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence; and James Dobbins, a State Department expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, said afterward that Obama had mishandled the affair by keeping Congress in the dark.

“I think the sense is that this has gone pretty sour for the president politically,” Kirk told reporters.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate, predicted after the briefing that the five freed former Taliban officials would resume armed conflict after a one-year stay in Qatar required by the exchange agreement.

“We’re all pleased that an American serviceman is returning to the U.S. with his family,” Rubio told reporters. “I think that’s something to celebrate. But we’ve also released five very dangerous individuals who, I believe, will all rejoin the fight against America. And we’ve set a precedent that now will encourage other enemies of the United States to seek out, to try to capture American men and women in uniform.”

Amid anger stoked by some soldiers’ claims that Bergdahl went AWOL on June 30, 2009, before his capture by Taliban rebels, his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, canceled a June 28 rally it had planned to celebrate his freedom.

Rally organizers, who held “Bring Back Bowe” events during his captivity, said controversy-fueled interest in the planned celebration had grown beyond their capacity to control.

“The organizers and (the town of) Hailey expect a significant increase in attendance to this event, by people who both want to support or protect against it,” the organizers said in a release. “In the interest of public safety, the event will be canceled. Hailey, a town of 8,000, does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become.”

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff, gave the Pentagon’s clearest signal that it intends to investigate whether Bergdahl deserted his post five years ago in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan.

“At the appropriate time, we will conduct a thorough, transparent and complete review of the circumstances surrounding his capture,” Odierno said in a statement.

Odierno reiterated, however, that the first concern is continuing medical treatment of Bergdahl at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he was flown Saturday after his release.

“Now that Sgt. Bergdahl is back and under our control, first and foremost we must ensure his health is taken care of and he is properly reintegrated,” Odierno said.

Earlier in the day, the Taliban released a dramatic video that showed the tense encounter between U.S. Special Forces troops and Bergdahl’s captors who released him to them. In an extraordinary moment just as the Taliban turned Bergdahl over, one of the Americans reached out and shook the hand of one of the sergeant’s captors.

In the minutes before his release, Bergdahl looked dazed and somewhat disoriented as he sat in the backseat of a silver pickup truck the Taliban drove to deliver him to the Americans.

In Brussels, where he met with other NATO leaders, reporters asked Hagel, the Defense secretary, whether any soldiers had died searching for Bergdahl after his mysterious disappearance.

“I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sgt. Bergdahl,” Hagel responded.

Hagel, who fought in Vietnam, added: “Let’s not forget: Sgt. Bergdahl is a member of the United States armed forces. He is a sergeant in the United States Army. The United States of America has and always will have a responsibility for getting its soldiers back. Other questions and facts regarding Sgt. Bergdahl will be dealt with at a later time.”

Lesley Clark contributed.

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