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Congressional leaders initially pushed back on Bergdahl swap

By Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett, CNN
updated 7:50 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
  • Republicans and Democrats raised concerns with the Obama administration
  • But they say they were ultimately ignored after getting assurances they'd be consulted
  • The White House signed off on a deal to free Bowe Bergdahl without notifying Congress
  • Senior lawmakers are dismayed, House may hold a hearing

(CNN) -- Republicans and Democrats raised serious concerns more than two years ago with the Obama administration about the possibility of swapping Taliban prisoners for captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl but said promised consultation never materialized.

That disclosure on Tuesday illuminated congressional dismay with the White House over its decision to finally negotiate Bergdahl's release in exchange for the transfer of five men held at Guantanamo Bay to Qatar.

A statement by House Speaker John Boehner referred to "serious questions" he and others raised in briefings that date back as far as late 2011 and in followup correspondence, and said promises of further discussions were ignored.

"Unfortunately, the questions and concerns we had were never satisfactorily answered and they remain today. At the time, the administration deferred further engagement because the prospects of the exchange had diminished," Boehner said.

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"The administration provided assurances, publicly reiterated by the White House in June 2013, that its engagement with Congress would resume if the prospects for an exchange became credible again," Boehner said.

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Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein said that she and the panel's vice chair, Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, were briefed on the administration's proposal in November 2011. A number of other top lawmakers in the House and Senate also received briefings, GOP aides said.

The California Democrat said she and Chambliss wrote a classified letter to Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time, in December of that year that was also signed by the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee.

Feinstein said another letter went to President Barack Obama in January of 2012.

"Both letters registered concerns with the proposal and opposed the transfer of the detainees to Qatar," she said.

The lawmakers received a "comprehensive response" from Clinton that included "security assurances and a promise of consultation with the Congress," she said. GOP aides said other lawmakers also received a response from Clinton.

But Feinstein, like Boehner, said she wasn't aware of any further consultation until receiving a call on Saturday from the administration saying that Bergdahl had been released and the terror detainees were on their way to Qatar.

"Given the past briefings and concerns we had addressed, and these were from both committees and the leadership of both committees, the concerns were bipartisan, and I strongly believe that we should have been consulted," she said.

"I think you can see that we're very dismayed about it," Feinstein said.

She said the White House deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, called her to apologize for the lack of advance notice.

Angry lawmakers cited a law signed by Obama requiring 30-day notice of plans to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo.

Obama told reporters in Poland on Tuesday that the circumstances required an immediate decision within his authority as commander in chief.

"We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility we may have to execute a prisoner exchange," Obama said. "We saw an opportunity and we were concerned about his health and had cooperation from the Qataris and we seized that. It was truncated to make sure we didn't miss that opportunity."

But Feinstein said there "has not been even the weakest case" made that Bergdahl's health required immediate action to negotiate his release,

In their previous correspondence with the administration, which CNN reviewed but was not allowed to copy, the lawmakers asked that a number of issues be addressed.

They included precedent for such an exchange, the impact it would have on combat troops, and the risks of the five terror detainees returning to the battlefield.

They also wanted to know whether the administration had exhausted all other options to secure Bergdahl's release before it pursued a possible exchange.

In all discussions and the private communications about such a step, there were exchanges about possible conditions placed on the detainees -- including renouncing al Qaeda and violence in the region. But those terms were not included in the deal.

Boehner said the administration's actions and lack of consultation with Congress merited further review, and supported House Armed Services Committee Chairman "Buck" McKeon's call for hearings.

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