House Republican aides say congressional leaders from both parties expressed deep misgivings about a proposed prisoner exchange when they were briefed on the idea in 2011 and 2012.
The prisoner swap was first proposed to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, along with the top Democrats and Republicans of relevant Senate and House committees, on November 30, 2011. In the briefing, officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and the CIA, laid out the outlines of an arrangement they said had been working on since early 2011: to exchange five Taliban members being held at Guantanamo Bay for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, as the first step in a path toward reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
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House Republican aides say congressional leaders were so concerned about the idea that they ordered staff to stay late that night, drafting a letter listing questions about the proposal.
That letter, dated December 12, 2011, was signed by Boehner, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and others. Among the questions asked: Would such a move encourage terrorist organizations to take U.S .personnel hostage? And how could the administration guarantee that the five Taliban prisoners would not return to the battlefield?
A second letter, signed by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.; and others, was sent December 19, 2011. It posed many of the same questions.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the lawmakers on behalf of the administration in a letter dated January 13, 2012. The contents of that letter are classified.
Administration officials held a follow-up briefing for the same group of congressional leaders on January 31, 2012, where many of the same concerns were discussed. Aides say the tone of both briefings was "contentious." Lawmakers wanted to know why the U.S. would give up five Guantanamo prisoners in exchange for just one U.S. soldier. They also wanted to know whether the U.S. had exhausted all options to extract Bergdahl militarily. Hanging over the conversation, we are told, was the unusual way in which Bergdahl left his base and came to be captured by the Taliban in the first place.
There was no resolution, but shortly after the second briefing, the administration signaled to the group of top lawmakers that the chances of a prisoner swap had diminished, because of the Taliban's resistance to reconciliation talks. House Republican aides say administration officials assured them that if, at some point, the prospect of a prisoner swap was back on the table, they would notify lawmakers as required by law.
That didn't happen. House Republican aides say between early 2012 and last week, administration officials never indicated that the possibility of a swap was on the table. Instead, an aide to Boehner was notified of the swap via phone call at 11:52 a.m. this past Saturday. Republican sources said the Pentagon official who provided the notification acknowledged that the last-minute notification was "inconsistent" with a law that requires the president must provide Congress with 30 days notice before transferring prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
About half hour later, the White House issued a public statement from the president about the prisoner exchange.
Feinstein told reporters Tuesday that she received a phone call Monday night from the White House apologizing for not consulting Congress before making the swap.
"It's very disappointing that there was not a level of trust to justify alerting us to that," Feinstein said.
She added that Mr. Obama's deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken, who called Feinstein Monday, said the lack of consultation was "an oversight."