Bowe Bergdahl release 101: four reasons Republicans are irked by POW case

Republicans say they will hold hearings into the prisoner swap that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, suggesting President Obama broke the law and compromised national security. Are the concerns valid, or is this just election-year politics? Here is a closer look at the charges.

Kyle Green/The Idaho Statesman/AP
Diane Walker takes a picture of a sign celebrating US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release in front of Zaney's coffee shop in Hailey, Idaho. Bergdahl had been held prisoner by the Taliban for five years. He was handed over to US special forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees held by the United States.

Republicans are criticizing President Obama for the May 31 release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who served in Afghanistan before he was captured and held for five years by the Taliban.

Among the complaints: The deal for his release – he was swapped for five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay – now puts Americans at greater risk of being taken hostage. And the Obama administration did not give Congress 30 days’ notice of a prisoner release from Guantánamo, which is required by law. The GOP-led House Armed Services Committee says it will hold hearings on that failure.

So far, Democrats aren’t complaining about the handling of the case, which raises the question: Are the concerns valid, or is this just election-year politics? Here is a closer look at the concerns and what Republicans on the Hill are saying:

How real is the concern about further hostage taking? Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a possible presidential candidate for 2016, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that he was happy for the return of Bergdahl. But he posed this question: “What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a US soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists?"

One can argue that Americans are already in danger of being taken hostage in any number of countries, and historically, prisoner swaps are part of war. For instance, the North and South exchanged Union and Confederate soldiers periodically during the Civil War.

The impact on future hostage taking will be hard to assess, says Anthony Cordesman, an expert on global security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “You are sending a message. What the marginal impact is, is anybody’s guess.”

What about the US policy of not negotiating with terrorists? That’s a concern raised in a joint statement Saturday by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R) of California, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who is the ranking member of the same committee on the Senate side.

“America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for a good reason,” the two men said. “Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans.”

For good or bad, though, presidents from both parties have negotiated with terrorists. The Carter administration negotiated with Iranian revolutionaries for the release of hostages seized at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. They were released when President Reagan took office. The Reagan administration negotiated missiles for Iran in exchange for Americans held by Iran’s terrorist proxies in Lebanon. Three hostages were let go, but three more were taken. The Clinton administration talked to Hamas to negotiate peace with Israel.

The Obama administration is hoping that the Bergdahl deal will actually open the way for Taliban negotiations with the Kabul government about Afghanistan's future, Mr. Obama indicated in a statement Saturday. Such negotiations have not gotten off the ground.

Will the five Taliban return to the battlefield? Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, appearing Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” called the five men “the hardest of the hard core” and said, ''It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight.”

White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice says the administration has assurances that Qatar, which negotiated the deal and where the five will reside, will closely monitor the Taliban and restrict their movements. They are to stay in Qatar for a year.

US forces are probably not at risk if Qatar “honors the delay,” Mr. Cordesman says, with most American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of this year. But Afghan forces will probably be at risk, he says: “Are we more likely to trade off Afghan lives for one US life? The answer probably is yes. And that is a matter of values.”

How serious is the failure to notify Congress? The Obama administration maintains that because Bergdahl’s health and safety were in danger, it had to act with urgency and did not have time to give Congress 30 days’ notice. Obama had objected to that provision, citing its unconstitutionality, when he signed the overall Defense Authorization Act at the end of last year. (The argument is that it’s unconstitutional because it infringes on his role as commander in chief.)

But just because Obama – as have other presidents – objects to a provision in a “signing statement” doesn’t change the law, says Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.

Indeed, the House Armed Services Committee plans to hold hearings on the breach. In a Monday appearance on MSNBC, Representative McKeon argued that the issue is of concern to both parties: “I’m sorry that this is being portrayed as a Republican issue,” he said. “Democrats also voted for this law. It was important for our national security.”

“This is not a partisan issue," he added.

Ms. Rice notes that the White House had briefed Congress in the past about a potential swap for Bergdahl, but says that the US had to act swiftly – not only because his life was at risk, but also because it could have lost the window of opportunity.

"Had we waited and lost him, I don't think anybody would have forgiven the United States government," she said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

Cordesman acknowledges the administration's political conundrum. "The same people who are criticizing this would have been equally criticizing if there had not been a trade. It probably is a warning that this is a president who is going to be judged far more on how he chose the least bad alternative than his ability to find a good one."

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