White House first discussed Bergdahl prisoner exchange with lawmakers in 2011

Updated 6:11 p.m.

Obama administration officials first discussed with senior House Republicans the possibility of swapping five terrorism detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in late November 2011, according to senior GOP aides.

The possible prisoner exchange was discussed again during a briefing on Jan. 31,  2012, after senior House Republicans sent two letters to the Obama administration seeking more information on the possibility of the swap, said the aides, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The aides said that no other communications between the administration and House Republicans about the possible prisoner swap took place after the January 2012 meeting -- until an aide to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) received a phone call from a Defense Department official notifying them of Bergdahl's release at 11:52 a.m. Saturday -- shortly before news of the release was first reported.

Details of whether President Obama and his aides kept lawmakers abreast of a possible prisoner swap have quickly become a political flashpoint on Capitol Hill. Republicans are generally furious with the decision to send five former senior Taliban officials to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl. Democrats, however, have rushed to Obama's defense, saying that they would have preferred to know about the exchange in advance but that the president properly exercised his powers as commander-in-chief.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he didn't receive any communication on the prisoner swap from the administration until Monday. On the issue generally, "I haven't had a conversation with the White House on this issue in a year in a half." Chambliss said Tuesday. "If that's keeping us in the loop than this administration is more arrogant than I thought they were."

Aides to Chambliss later said that he was first asked by administration officials in 2011 and 2012 about the general concept of swapping detainees to secure the release of a U.S. prisoner of war.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he first learned about the prisoner swap on Saturday and that a formal written White House notification arrived on Monday.

Asked if he would have liked to have known sooner, Levin said: "If possible, sure, but the president says he has the authority, if necessary, to move more quickly, under the Constitution," he said. "That's been a presidential position under various different kinds of circumstances as long as there have been presidents."

As debate over the merits of the prisoner swap continued Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior White House aides showed up for a Senate Democratic luncheon to further explain the prisoner exchange.

After the lunch, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that he first learned about plans for Bergdahl's rescue during a phone call from the White House on Friday.

Obama on Tuesday strongly defended his administration’s decision to return five detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to the Taliban in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, though he acknowledged that some of the released detainees could once again try to harm the United States.

“We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Bergdahl,” Obama said on a trip to Poland to discuss Eastern European security. “We saw an opportunity, and we were concerned about Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity.” He added that “the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure we would not miss that window.”

But Boehner said Tuesday in a statement that 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, despite assurance it would reengage with members on both sides of the aisle."

Boehner added that he supports plans for the House Armed Services Committee to hold hearings on the matter.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also said Tuesday that she and other senior lawmakers first discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap with administration officials in the fall of 2011. During the consultations, "there were very strong views, and they were virtually unanimous against the trade," the senator said.

Despite the objections, "the White House is pretty unilateral about what they want to do when they want to do it," Feinstein added later. "I think the notification to us is important, and I think that it would have been a much better thing to do, because you do try to work together and you understand you’re not always going to agree with the executive."

Feinstein said she received a phone call from White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken on Monday evening, during which he apologized for not informing her of the plans sooner. "He apologized and said it was an oversight, so I just accept that," she said.

Administration officials briefed some senior leaders of congressional national security committees on Bergdahl's condition and possible release as recently as December 2013, when a video of him surfaced. The video had been requested by American negotiators as “proof of life” ahead of a revival of indirect negotiations that had been stalled for more than a year. Several congressional aides said Tuesday that there was no discussion of a possible prisoner swap during the December briefing.

The outlines of the proposed Bergdahl swap had been public since the spring of 2012. Several news organizations, including The Washington Post, had learned of the proposal much earlier but refrained from reporting on it at the request of the Pentagon, which argued that public disclosure that Bergdahl was a subject of a negotiation between the Taliban and the United States could put his life at risk.

Tuesday's accounting from GOP aides provides more details of when members of the administration first privately discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap with Republicans.


This Dec. 8, 2010, file image shows a frame grab from a video released by the Taliban of  Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, left. (AP Photo/IntelCenter, File)

The Nov. 30, 2011, briefing was held at the request of administration officials, who wanted to discuss ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, according to the aides. The meeting included Boehner, the Republican chairmen of the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees and the late Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), who chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, and the ranking Democrats on each panel. Administration officials at the meeting included then-Ambassador Marc Grossman, who was the special U.S. representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan; then-Deputy Defense Secretary Michelle Flournoy; then-Defense Department General Counsel Jeh C. Johnson; then-CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell; and Denis McDonough, who was then serving on the National Security Council, the aides said.

During the meeting, administration officials first raised the possibility of swapping five detainees in exchange for Bergdahl, which prompted significant concerns among the Republicans, who quickly began drafting follow-up letters with detailed questions, according to the aides.

The disclosure of when and how House Republican leaders first learned of the possibility of swapping terrorism detainees for Bergdhal's freedom came during a briefing with reporters Tuesday. Aides allowed reporters to review a copy of the Dec. 12, 2011, letter sent to administration officials that was signed by Boehner and the GOP committee chairmen.

In the letter, the leaders sought more details on the possible prisoner exchange and asked whether there was precedence for swapping detainees from the Guantanamo Bay facility for other prisoners or hostages and whether releasing the five detainees could lead to further abductions of U.S. military or diplomatic personnel serving overseas. Another letter from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the committee's ranking Democrat, was sent on Dec. 19, 2011, aides said.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton replied to both letters on Jan. 13, 2012, but GOP aides said the contents of the letter were classified and not available for review by reporters.

Other senior congressional leaders first learned of the Bergdahl release on Saturday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was informed in a phone call on Saturday and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also was briefed on the situation Saturday, aides said.

Anne Gearan and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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