By Greg Richter
WASHINGTON D.C. -Between 80 and 90 administration staffers knew about the trade of five Taliban leaders for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl even though Congress was kept in the dark, CNN reports, and members of both parties are unhappy about it.
During a classified briefing to the entire House of Representatives late Monday afternoon, White House officials said that up to 90 people had prior knowledge of the trade.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon called that news “disturbing,” partly because of the high number who knew and partly because the White House has been saying it didn’t inform Congress until after the swap was made because it feared Bergdahl’s life might be in danger if there had been a leak.
McKeon, a California Republican, told CNN he wants to get an exact number of those who knew and their names.
“My question to them was, if you don’t know who knew, then how could you – if a leak had happened and the sergeant had been killed – how could you go back and find out who leaked?” McKeon said.
“It strikes me as unfortunate that they could have 80 to 90 people in the administration aware of what was happening and not be able to trust a single Republican or Democrat in the House or the Senate,” Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, a member of the House of Representatives Republican leadership, told reporters after leaving a briefing on the exchange.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will testify on Wednesday before the Armed Services Committee. McKeon said additional hearings and briefings are planned as part of the panel’s investigation.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said President Barack Obama is “not going to get away with this one,” and described it as an “arrogant thumbing of his nose by the president of the United States at the Congress of the United States. … This is going to cost American lives.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, declined to offer a defense of the administration when offered the chance by CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield.
“It didn’t sit very well with those of us who were listening at the briefing,” Schiff said of the news that so many administration staffers knew of the decision ahead of time.
A law passed by Congress last year and signed by Obama requires a 30-day notice before any prisoners associated with terrorist attacks against the United States are released from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But Schiff said Obama had constitutional authority under Article 2 to make the decision.
Still, he told CNN, it would have been “far wiser” to have at least notified the leadership of Congress to preserve comity with the co-equal branch of government.
“And the fact that there were so many people within the know in the administration doesn’t help their case,” Schiff added.
He also pointed out that more leaks have come from the administration than from Congress.
Schiff echoed a growing number of Democrats unhappy with Obama. The National Journal’s Ron Fournier says he has been receiving a number of emails from Democrats saying they don’t like the way Obama is handling things. The controversial Bergdahl release is just the latest issue to set them off.
House Republicans said they planned an investigation of the exchange deal.
Lawmakers and human rights activists said they expected the furor would make it more difficult to win Congress’ backing for Obama’s avowed intention to close the detention camp, long criticized by human rights groups and others.
“Congress does not like to be left out of the loop,” Texas Representative Gene Green, a Democrat, told Reuters. If the White House had called at least the leaders of national security committees, “that would have been much better and maybe we would not have had this controversy,” he said.
To reinforce its case, administration officials showed the 90-second “proof of life” video from December that showed a debilitated Bergdahl.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said Bergdahl looked bad in the video. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Bergdahl looked “unhealthy but didn’t appear to be on his deathbed.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said in a Senate speech on Monday he would introduce a bill this week that would bar any federal funding for Guantanamo transfers for six months.
Congressional aides told Reuters that similar legislation is expected to be introduced as soon as this week in the Republican-led House, where opposition to closing the Guantanamo prison is far stronger than in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
A classified Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter is planned for Tuesday with senior defense and intelligence officials.
CNN also reported that the hearing disclosed something previously unknown outside the White House: that it was Hagel and not President Barack Obama who gave the final order to make the trade.
McKeon said that surprised him because when he saw the president in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents on Saturday it “sounded like he was taking full credit for the operation.”
McKeon speculated that blowback on the decision from both parties in Congress may have something to do with the new information that Hagel OK’d the deal.
“I don’t know who’s in charge or who’s making the decisions,” McKeon said.
Schiff did offer some defense of the White House, saying that it isn’t possible for the 535 members of Congress to make such a decision, and that it was right for Obama, as commander-in-chief, to allow his administration to make the tough call.
Still, he admitted, it isn’t possible to guarantee the five Taliban commanders will not return to the battle.
“There’s no way to eliminate the risk,” he said.