Senators 'learned nothing we didn't know' in new classified Bergdahl briefing

Following another classified briefing on the prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, senators still say they're unsatisfied with the administration's answers.
By Gabrielle Levy  |  Updated June 10, 2014 at 2:55 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 10 (UPI) -- Senators said they remained frustrated with the lack of information released to lawmakers about the swap of five Taliban detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Seven administration officials testified at a classified hearing Tuesday at the Capitol, but senators from both sides of the aisle still said they felt like the White House had acted rashly and was keeping the true reasons for its urgency a secret.

"All of [the officials] dutifully supported the president," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., leaving the hearing, adding that he was frustrated with what he said was a disturbing lack of assurances put in place for the five detainees sent to Qatar.

"It signals a lack of understanding of the reality of the conflict we're engaged in," he said. "It's got to be demoralizing for our allies, it's got to be demoralizing for our soldiers, and it's got to embolden the people we're fighting against."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed similar frustrations that the hearing was held behind closed doors, especially in light of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's scheduled appearance before a House Committee Wednesday.

"There's nothing in the briefing that I heard that was not already in the public domain," McCain said. "I do not know why the hearing was classified."

Bergdahl, who was captured in 2009 in Afghanistan under murky circumstances, was handed over to U.S. forces last month. Though the White House announced Bergdahl's release in an emotional Rose Garden event, criticism soon poured in, from Congress accusing the administration of breaking the law in ignoring a 30-day notification requirement and recklessly releasing dangerous terrorists back into the world, to Bergdahl's former platoon mates who accused him of desertion.

Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said the administration only knew a day ahead of time that the transfer was happening, and only an hour before when and where it would occur. Durbin said it would have been "impossible" and would have "endangered the man's life" to wait at that point.

"So we have a provision in the law about 30-day notification which doesn't square with reality," the Illinois Democrat said. "Could he, could anyone have contacted Congress sooner? Perhaps."

"But this notion of 30 days, I can't believe anybody's arguing, well as soon as we knew there was a transfer we had to wait for Congress to think it over for 30 days," he said. "That is not in the best interest."

But McCain accused the administration of trying to make excuses, exaggerating the urgency of the situation.

"They said it was because of the video" of Bergdahl appearing ill, "now we find out the video is six months old," McCain said. "Then they say that, well, he might have been killed."

"They're not going to kill an American prisoner," the Arizona Republican, himself a former prisoner of war, said. "That's why they keep them alive: It is of the utmost value to them to keep an American prisoner alive, and look what they got for it."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., noted that the Taliban had repeatedly tried to get the five detainees -- now disparagingly called the "fab five" -- released, and said he was confused as to why the president would agree to let them all go at once.

"Was it a good deal or a bad deal? In my mind, it's still a bad deal," he said. "I'm still concerned about the threat of these five having the expertise and the high-level rankings to enter the fight again."

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