Bob Bergdahl (center) speaks about the release of his son Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as his wife Jani Bergdahl (left) and President Obama (right) look on, following a statement by President Obama regarding the release of their son Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban, May 31, 2014, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. Sgt. Bergdahl was taken prisoner after leaving his base in east Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. UPI/J.H. Owen/Pool | License Photo
WASHINGTON, June 2 (UPI) -- Amid the celebratory announcement that the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan was on his way home, there were those in Congress who saw the deal for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's freedom as reason for alarm.
Bergdahl, whom the U.S. government believed had been held by the Haqqani network in Pakistan since his 2009 disappearance, was released to a U.S. Special Forces team on Saturday morning in eastern Afghanistan. In exchange the U.S. would release five prisoners held at Guantanamo to officials in Qatar, whose government has acted as an intermediary between the U.S. and the Taliban in tenuous negotiations.
Update, 3:30 p.m.
House Armed Services Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said Monday the White House's decision to ignore a policy to notify Congress 30 days before trading five Guantanamo detainees for Bergdahl was illegal and would be the subject of hearings.
"My perception is he broke the law by not informing Congress 30 days before," McKeon said in an appearance on MSNBC.
"We will be holding hearings," he added. "I'm sorry that this is being portrayed as a Republican issue. Democrats also voted for this law. It was important for our national security. This is not a partisan issue."
"We passed a law last year," he said, referring to a 2013 law, signed by the president, requiring the administration to notify Congress 30 days before the release of detainees. "It passed overwhelmingly on the floor and through the Senate and the president signed it. And although he said now he had a disclaimer along with it that he apparently didn't support the law, he did sign it."
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Several members of Congress, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., expressed annoyance that the White House ignored a requirement to give Congress 30 days notice before executing prisoner exchange deals.
"You've sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world that there is some value now in that hostage," Rogers said on CNN's State of the Union.
Rogers said the exchange of one American for five high-level prisoners would encourage more hostage-taking. And while the terms of the release deal stipulate that the five combatants cannot leave Qatar for at least a year, lawmakers said, there was simply too great a chance they would return to fighting against the U.S.
"It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday. "And they are big, high-level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands."
"These are the hardest of the hard core," McCain, himself a former prisoner of war, said. "It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight."
Fellow Republicans, and potential 2016 presidential candidates Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas released statements expressing similar fears.
"The release of five senior Taliban commanders to Qatar under unspecified conditions is very troubling and may endanger American lives," Rubio said in a statement. "In the coming days the Congress must examine the circumstances under which Sgt. Bergdahl's release was achieved, and what conditions, if any, the administration secured to ensure these enemy combatants do not return to the battlefield."
"How many soldiers lost their lives to capture those five Taliban terrorists that we just released?" said Cruz, on ABC's This Week Sunday. "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. "
A rare statement from former Taliban leader Mullah Omar declaring "victory" over the release of the five prisoners seemed to concern those fears.
"I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the entire Afghan Muslim nation, all the mujahedeen and to the families and relatives of the prisoners for this big victory," Omar said Sunday.
But the White House and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel strongly defended the decision to circumvent the waiting period, saying they had learned Bergdahl's health was deteriorating.
"It was our judgment that if we could find an opening, we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life," Hagel said.
And National Security Advisor Susan Rice said the administration had warned Congress that if such a situation arose, negotiators would be allowed to move with necessary speed.
"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," Rice said on CNN. "In fact, we had briefed Congress in the past about this potential."
"We prioritized, as we always have, bringing back our men and women from the battlefield, to the greatest extent we can," she said.
Bergdahl, 28, was flown to Germany for evaluation at an American military hospital and will soon be returned to the U.S. There is some speculation Bergdahl was considering deserting the Army, and indeed may have voluntarily walked away before he was taken captive. If it is determined he deserted, Bergdahl will face dishonorable discharge and five years in prison.