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Monday, December 5, 2016

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday battled a bipartisan storm of criticism over President Barack Obama’s decision to order the exchange of Taliban leaders for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Senior lawmakers from both parties are questioning the administration’s justification for acting without first consulting members of Congress and whether the deal put the nation’s security at further risk.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said in a statement Tuesday that members of Congress had not been briefed on the possibility of such an exchange with the Taliban since January 2012, and that there was “every expectation that the administration would re-engage” if diplomatic negotiations rekindled. The White House was aware that “it faced serious and sober bipartisan concern and opposition” to the idea, Boehner said.

“The administration has invited serious questions into how this exchange went down and the calculations the White House and relevant agencies made in moving forward without consulting Congress,” Boehner said.

Republican aides are promising “rigorous” oversight, particularly in the House when it returns from recess next week. House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) has invited Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to testify before the panel on June 11.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) defended Obama’s action, saying Wednesday that the president “acted honorably in helping an American soldier return home to his family.”

“Unfortunately, opponents of President Obama have seized upon the release of an American prisoner of war — that’s what he was — using what should be a moment of unity and celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games,” he said in remarks on the floor. “The safe return of an American soldier should not be used for political points.”

But other Democrats are among those expressing serious concerns. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned the administration’s justification for not notifying members of Congress before the exchange, casting doubt upon its contention that Bergdahl’s deteriorating health justified quick action.

“As I understand, he was undernourished — not necessarily malnourished,” Feinstein told reporters after a closed briefing of the committee. “Unless something catastrophic happened, I think there was no reason to believe that he was in instant danger. There certainly was time to pick up the phone and call, and say, ‘I know you all had concerns about this.'”

Feinstein also said she had received an apology from White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken for not contacting her until after the mission was successfully completed.

“I strongly believe that we should have been consulted, that the law should have been followed. And I very much regret that that was not the case,” she said.

A Boehner aide said that when the Defense Department called Saturday morning to notify the speaker — a call that came less than an hour before Bergdahl’s recovery was announced publicly — it was acknowledged that they were “acting inconsistent with the law.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he got a heads-up call Saturday from the White House. Reid was notified Friday, making him perhaps the only senior lawmaker given advance notice.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said he received a call Monday expressing regret.

“I haven’t had a conversation with the White House on this issue in a year and a half,” he said Tuesday. “Now, if that’s keeping us in the loop, then, you know, this administration is more arrogant than I thought they were.”

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) said he recalled briefings with the administration about possibly releasing senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo as part of an effort to begin political reconciliation talks — an idea he said he strongly opposed. But, he said, those briefings did not include a discussion of Bergdahl.

Levin, who said there was an attempt to notify him about the operation Saturday, said his colleagues should not be surprised that the administration acted as it did, because Obama “put us on warning” last December with a statement he issued after signing the defense authorization bill. In the signing statement, Obama said he intended to exercise his powers as commander in chief and, if necessary, “to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.”

“Does that change the law? No. But does that assert that he has authority under the Constitution? Yes,” Levin said.

An administration official said the White House, State Department, Defense Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence have “been in close touch with members of Congress and congressional staff” since Bergdahl was recovered.

“Over the coming days, our engagement with Congress, both at a member level and staff level, will continue,” the official said.

In addition to the Intelligence Committee briefing Tuesday, House staff will receive a formal briefing Wednesday, with others planned for both members of the House and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee next week.