News / USA

Boehner: Americans 'Less Safe' After Bergdahl Deal

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., right, pauses while speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, June 10, 2014, after a Republican Conference meeting.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., right, pauses while speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, June 10, 2014, after a Republican Conference meeting.
VOA News
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said the Obama administration has made Americans "less safe" by releasing five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
 
Speaking Tuesday at a news conference with other House Republican leaders, Boehner warned the United States will "pay" for the prisoner exchange, saying there is no doubt in his mind there will be "lost lives" associated with the swap.

He added that he and other lawmakers had raised sharp concerns when briefed more than two years ago on the possibility of such a trade. But Boehner told the AP that he "was never briefed on any specific negotiation."

In the administration's defense, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said the White House only finalized the exchange of Bergdahl for the five detainees a day before the swap, the AP reported on Tuesday.

Durbin, speaking to reporters in the Capitol, said American officials didn't learn the pickup location for Bergdahl until an hour ahead of time.
 
FILE - Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army.FILE - Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army.
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FILE - Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army.
FILE - Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in an undated image provided by the U.S. Army.

Durbin presented the timeline as an explanation for why Obama didn't inform Congress 30 days before the May 31 prisoner trade.

"They knew a day ahead of time the transfer was going to take place," Durbin told reporters. "They knew an hour ahead of time where it was going to take place."

The Senate Armed Services Committee was briefed on the Bergdahl exchange Tuesday from Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and other officials.
 
Lawmakers' concerns

Boehner said while Republican lawmakers are glad Bergdahl is free after nearly five years in captivity at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he repeated lawmakers'  concerns that they were not informed of the deal before it happened.

Durbin criticized his colleagues in Congress for focusing on the lack of notification.

"Are we saying that once we decided to do the prisoner transfer, we had to notify Congress and wait 30 days? The president couldn't do that," he said. "It was impossible. It could have endangered the man's life by waiting 30 days."

The law on notification "doesn't square with reality," he added, according to the AP.

Congressman Xavier Becerra echoed Durbin's point.

“Sergeant Bergdahl’s life may have hung in the balance in being able to do this quietly and quickly when the window opened,” he said.

One of the loudest critics of the lack of notification is Durbin's fellow Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Other Democrats remain ill-at-ease about the swap. Senator Jeanne Shaheen emerged from the administration's classified briefing to House members of both parties on Monday saying she wants more answers. Fellow Democrat Joe Manchin deplored the release of high-level Taliban militants.

“It still does not justify [releasing] five of the most-notorious people we have had [at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba] for 10 years," he said. "If they were that important for us to keep them that long, then how can all five all of a sudden be released?”

Republicans heaped scorn on the Obama administration’s defense of the swap.

Senator John McCain dismissed any suggestion that the administration had to act swiftly out of concern for Bergdahl’s life in Taliban captivity.

“It is of utmost value to them [the Taliban] to keep an American prisoner alive," he said. "Look what they got for it.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz plans to introduce a bill that would freeze any prisoner releases for six months.

A visibly angry Senator Jeff Sessions summed up Republican outrage this way:

“We are in a war. This is what this White House does not understand. We have people now in combat, their lives at risk this very day.”
 
Members of Congress descend to a secure area at the Capitol to meet with national security officials for an intelligence briefing about the decision to swap captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in Washington, June 9, 2014.Members of Congress descend to a secure area at the Capitol to meet with national security officials for an intelligence briefing about the decision to swap captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in Washington, June 9, 2014.
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Members of Congress descend to a secure area at the Capitol to meet with national security officials for an intelligence briefing about the decision to swap captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in Washington, June 9, 2014.
Members of Congress descend to a secure area at the Capitol to meet with national security officials for an intelligence briefing about the decision to swap captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in Washington, June 9, 2014.

Administration officials have defended their decisions, saying Bergdahl's life was in danger and there was no time to wait. In Monday's briefing the administration showed lawmakers a 90-second "proof of life" video that showed a debilitated Bergdahl, the AP reported.
 
House Republicans said they are angered to learn on Monday that as many as 90 members of the Obama administration knew about the deal to free Bergdahl from the Taliban, but no one in Congress was informed.
 
California Republican Dana Rohrabacher accused the president of "thumbing his nose" at Congress and said he will "not get away" with it.
 
U.S. law requires a president to give Congress 30 days' notice before Guantanamo inmates are released, a step that was not taken in this case.
 
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is scheduled to testify on the situation Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee.
 
House bill would deny funds

Also Tuesday, in response to the congressional outcry over the prisoner exchange, a House panel overwhelmingly backed a measure barring the use of U.S. funds for the transfer of detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the AP reported.

The Appropriations Committee voted 33-13 on Tuesday for an amendment to the defense spending bill that captured bipartisan frustration with the Obama administration for failing to give Congress 30 days' notice before Guantanamo detainees are released.

The five Taliban who were exchanged for Bergdahl were sent to Qatar.

The amendment was sponsored by Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and backed by six Democrats. It would prohibit money for the foreign transfer of detainees.

The full House debates the bill next week.

VOA's Michael Bowman contributed to this report and some information was provided by AP.

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