The White House kept its plan to trade five Taliban fighters for captive U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl a secret from Congress because the Taliban threatened to kill Bergdahl if news of the swap leaked before it happened, the AP reported Thursday.
As members of the House and Senate, both Republican and Democrat, have lashed out at President Obama for making the exchange without notifying Congress 30 days in advance, the administration has insisted that the trade had to happen without notice because of pressing safety concerns. After a Senate briefing Wednesday night, attendees left unconvinced that Bergdahl’s situation was dire enough to ignore the law, according to The New York Times.
Republican Sens. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona disputed the AP report in interviews with NBC News. “I never heard that,” McCain said.
“I think it shows that the administration is trying to juggle anything they can to justify a blatant violation of the law,” Inhofe added.
A senior administration official told NBC News’ Stacey Klein that 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.”
The law requires that Congress be notified 30 days before any detainees are transferred out of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Administration officials have said that the president was within his rights as commander-in-chief to make the trade without telling Congress because there was a pressing national security interest.
Obama said Thursday at a press conference in Brussels that he would “make absolutely no apologies” for going through with the prisoner exchange. He also pointed out that, despite what critics have said, prisoner exchanges are normal parts of war that date back centuries.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid commended the president’s actions on Thursday. ”We all know that the president had a very short time to make a decision. He made a decision to bring him home, and I’m glad he did,” Reid told reporters.
Some soldiers who served in Afghanistan with Bergdahl have suggested that he was a deserter and did not deserve to be rescued, but a classified military report from 2009 found that on two prior occasions, Bergdahl wandered away from a post but returned a short time later, the Times reported. A soldier must leave his post with no intention of returning to be considered a deserter.
Bergdahl, the only U.S. soldier being held in Afghanistan, was released on Saturday after being captured by the Taliban in June 2009.