House Report Says White House Misled Congress On Bergdahl Swap

Dec 10, 2015
Originally published on December 10, 2015 7:14 pm
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Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee are out with a scathing new report today. It accuses the Obama administration of breaking the law - actually, several laws - when it exchanged five Taliban prisoners for captive U.S. Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl last year. The reports release coincides with the debut of the second season of the popular podcast "Serial." It's all about the Bergdahl saga.

NPR national security correspondent David Welna is here now. And David, the Taliban held Bowe Bergdahl for five years. It's been a year-and-a-half more since he was freed in this swap. Is this report saying he shouldn't have been rescued?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Kelly, you know, it's true that Bergdahl is charged with having deserted his Army unit in Afghanistan before being captured by the Taliban, and there are some who contend that six members of his unit died because they were trying to find him. Still, this report readily acknowledges that President Obama has what it calls the implicit authority to protect the life of a soldier, and it doesn't question Obama's efforts to free Bergdahl.

What it really dwells on is the fact that five high-value Taliban figures being held in Guantanamo were exchanged for Bergdahl, and Congressional leaders only found out about it three hours before those captives were flown to Qatar, whose foreign minister had secretly signed a deal two weeks earlier here in Washington agreeing to take those fighters without anyone in Congress being notified about it.

MCEVERS: And so lawmakers are saying they should've been kept in the loop.

WELNA: Right. By law, Congress is supposed to get 30 days notice of any prisoner's release from Guantanamo, but administration officials have argued that the circumstances were too fraught and time was too short for such notification. Even Democrats of the committee who disagree vehemently with most of this report say Congress should have been notified in advance. And they agree with Republicans that the administration misled lawmakers when it said no direct negotiations were underway with the Taliban in the months leading up to the swap. In fact, there were indirect negotiations going on with the government of Qatar.

MCEVERS: Does the report say why members of Congress were kept in the dark about this deal?

WELNA: Well, you know, there was a problem of trust - an administration that feared lawmakers could not keep a delicate national security secret. But the report also concludes that what this prisoner swap was really about was that President Obama was pursuing his promise to close the Guantanamo prison. The five Taliban prisoners who were freed, it says, were among the most dangerous and problematic detainees at Guantanamo, and getting rid of them in this swap, it says, helped reduce the population of problematic people there who were too problematic to transfer elsewhere.

But you know, there's no evidence to - cited back up that assertion. And in fact, it was the Taliban who chose the five detainees. They actually wanted more than five, but administration officials wouldn't agree to that.

MCEVERS: So could all of this lead to legal action against anyone in the Obama Administration?

WELNA: Well, if there is any legal action, it likely would not come from this committee which is simply charged with oversight of the Pentagon. There's simply a vague warning in the report's conclusion that the committee will continue to closely monitor the situation using all the capabilities available to it.

MCEVERS: And the podcast angle - I mean, is it just a coincidence that this new report comes out on the same day that "Serial" begins a new season on Bowe Bergdahl?

WELNA: There's no word on that from the committee, but that podcast will likely call a lot more attention to Bergdahl. You can hear him in its first episode talking about his captivity.


SERGEANT BOWE BERGDAHL: You know, there's times when I'd wake up, and it's just so dark. Like, I would wake up not even remembering, like, what I was.

WELNA: And Bergdahl's troubles aren't over. He's now facing the possibility of a court-martial for deserting his unit.

MCEVERS: That NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Thank you so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.