The controversy over Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl came to a Congressional committee yesterday. Responding to questions about why Congress hadn’t been notified about the prisoner swap that led to Bergdahl’s release from captivity in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told members of the House Armed Services Committee that the White House was afraid of leaks that would scuttle the deal and endanger Bergdahl. Republican lawmakers remained skeptical—of the deal, which they said amounted to negotiating with terrorists, and of Bergdahl’s himself, who is believed to have walked away from his post at least temporarily.
In other words, the hearing was predictably partisan.
It is refreshing, then, to see Adam Smith, the Tacoma representative who is the top-ranking Democrat on the committee, break ranks and criticize the White House for failing to inform Congress of the deal.
Speaking to SW this morning, Smith explains that Congress passed a law in 2013 that requires the president to give 30 days notice before transferring prisoners out of Guantánano Bay. He says he recognizes that President Obama has an argument that he did not need to do so in this case, which resulted in the release of five detainees from the Cuba facility. “The Constitution gives him powers that supersede the law,” Smith acknowledges.
Still, the Congress member points out Democrats lambasted President George W. Bush when he cited special powers to override established laws and practices. Warrantless wiretapping comes to the Congress member’s mind. “Certainly, this is very, very small compared to what President Bush did.” Nonetheless, he says it was a mistake, and one based on what he contends is an erroneous notion that Republican lawmakers critical of the prisoner swap would take it public. The White House “could have trusted Congress with that information,” Smith says.
At the same time, Smith says that he would not have argued for a different outcome had he been forewarned. He calls the notion that the U.S. should have left Bergdahl with the Taliban, given accusations that he walked walked away from his post, “irrelevant and offensive.”
“It hasn’t been proven that he’s done anything wrong. To say, well, he might have, so we should just let him be tortured and killed by the Taliban....that’s ridiculous.”
Smith also sharply disputes suggestions that Bergdahl either permanently deserted or even possibly went over to the other side because of his disillusionment with American involvement in Afghanistan. He calls the first notion “flat out not true” and the second “completely, totally made up.” Neither, he says, are supported by a classified report on a military investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance, which Smith says he has read.
Given additional accusations that the search for Bergdahl might have led to the death of other soldiers, this controversy is not going away any time soon. Once Bergdahl gets back from Germany--a report today has him flying home on Friday--military investigators are going to look into exactly what happened, according to Smith.
On this, Congress, and the public, have a right to know.