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Congress Furious At White House Over Prisoner Swap


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was the only remaining American prisoner of war, and now he's been freed. That fact alone, something to celebrate. But a debate has erupted over his release. And this morning we'll learn more about why some people in Washington are angry. Some in Congress fear the price was too high. Five senior Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay were released in an exchange. Other lawmakers just wish they had been consulted. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The swap that freed Sgt. Bergdahl had President Obama making explanations to reporters yesterday in Poland, his first stop on a trip to meet with European leaders. Asked why he did not notify Congress of that deal in advance, Obama insisted the White House had already consulted for some time with lawmakers.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We saw an opportunity. We were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl's health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we did not miss that window.

WELNA: That failed to placate House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers. The Michigan Republican appeared on MSNBC shortly after the president spoke.


CONGRESSMAN MIKE ROGERS: I disagree with the decision. Now we need to determine, have they violated the law in this case? In their - at least their public rhetoric does not match the facts on the ground.

WELNA: Facts, Rogers said, that include the White House backing off initial claims that Sgt. Bergdahl suffered from an acute health condition that required getting him back fast. Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says he was told nothing about the prisoner swap before it happened, even though Congress passed a law last year requiring it be notified 30 days in advance of any prisoner transfer from Guantanamo.


SENATOR JAMES INHOFE: And I remember when we put that in the Defense Authorization bill because I knew that this president would try to think of any way he could to try to reach his legacy of closing Gitmo. This probably has something to do with that.

WELNA: But as Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel, pointed out, Obama did issue a statement when he signed that defense bill into law that left him some wiggle room when it came to prisoner swaps.


CARL LEVIN: What this president did when he signed that statement last December is specifically say that in this area of detainees that he might have to move quickly without this kind of notice. He put us on warning. Does that change the law? No. But does that assert that he has authority under the Constitution? Yes.

WELNA: Other lawmakers had separate complaints about the swap. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said it was simply unacceptable that five high-profile Taliban fighters are no longer in prison.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I'm all for having Mr. Bergdahl released. I've advocated that since his departure. But the fact is the price for that in an ongoing conflict with the Taliban is unacceptable to me because we're putting the lives of Americans at risk.

WELNA: There were other complaints as well, but the bottom line for most lawmakers - the White House shut them out.


SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It's very disappointing that there was not a level of trust sufficient to justify alerting us.

WELNA: That's California Democrat Dianne Feinstein who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. She said it would have been much better for the White House to have notify Congress in advance of the prisoner swap, even if many members might have objected as they did two and a half years ago when the Obama White House broached the idea of releasing Taliban prisoners to foster peace talks in Afghanistan. Feinstein said she got a phone call Monday night from White House Deputy National Security director Tony Blinken trying to patch things up.


FEINSTEIN: He apologized and said it was an oversight. So I just accept that.

WELNA: Still already one hearing on the matter is slated for next week, with more expected to follow. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.