On Tuesday, President Obama insisted that he had “consulted with Congress for quite some time” over the possibility of swapping Taliban detainees for American hostage Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. That’s news to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, who said it’s been more than two years since she was consulted on the issue, adding that the exchange was greeted by the Senate Intelligence Committee with “surprise and dismay.”
News of Bergdahl’s release this past weekend has stirred controversy in part because the Obama administration side-stepped a legal requirement to give Congress 30 days’ advance notice.
In late Nov. 2011, Feinstein was first briefed on the Obama administration’s proposal to trade five senior Taliban detainees at Guantanamo for Bergdahl, she told reporters Tuesday.
Alarmed at the prospect, Feinstein and her Republican vice-chairman Saxby Chambliss, wrote two classified letters expressing their views—in Dec. 2011 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to the president himself in Jan. 2012.
“Both letters registered concerns with the proposals, and opposed the transfers of the detainees to Qatar,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein and Chambliss say that Clinton responded in a letter on Feb. 13, 2012, acknowledging that a 30-day forewarning was necessary for any prisoner exchange and promising future consultation with Congress.
Feinstein said there was no additional consultation until mid-day Saturday, when one of her senior aides received a call from Deputy Director of National Intelligence Robert Cardillo.
Cardillo told the aide that Bergdahl was back in United States custody, and that the Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay were being flown to Qatar.
Feinstein’s description of the White House’s congressional consultations was backed by Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said this morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he hadn’t been briefed by the Obama administration on this issue since 2011.
Feinstein and Chambliss expressed frustration that they had not been warned in advance about the exchange, not only because forewarning had been demanded by Congress in previously-signed laws, but because they had worked with the White House in the past.
“We spent a lot of time on it. This was not a cursory thing,” Feinstein said. “Given the past briefings and concerns that we had addressed…I strongly believe that we should have been consulted.”
But at least in Feinstein’s case, the administration may have had a reason to keep her out of the loop. In March 2012 with Josh Rogin—then with Foreign Policy magazine—Feinstein accidentally acknowledged the negotiations, appearing to disclose classified information about a potential Bergdahl deal (Rogin also reported that the White House briefed eight senators, including Feinstein, on a potential deal in Jan. 2012).
But while Congress may have been kept in the dark about the possibility of a prisoner exchange, they were kept well-informed about Bergdahl himself. “There wasn’t a week that went by that we didn’t get a briefing” on the soldier’s whereabouts, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, told the Idaho Statesman.
On Tuesday, neither Feinstein nor Chambliss put much stock in the Obama administration’s claims that Bergdahl’s medical condition necessitated a prompt exchange.
Feinstein said that the last assessment of Bergdahl’s health had been made in December.
“He was undernourished, not necessarily malnourished,” she said. “So unless something catastrophic happened, there is no reason to believe he was in instant danger.