Senators shown Bergdahl video that Taliban provided White House before trade

White House and senior intelligence officials delivered an hour-long classified briefing to several dozen members of Congress on Wednesday, during which senators were shown the "proof of life" video that the Taliban gave the White House prior to finalizing the trade of five Guantanamo Bay detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

The briefing, which comes as questions mount over whom the White House informed prior to the trade and whether it was a violation of law, left members who spoke with the Post torn -- largely along partisan lines -- on whether they felt more reassured by the specifics and legitimacy of the trade.

Senators said the White House officials could not answer many of their questions -- including questions about whether Bergdahl was a "deserter" and whether other U.S. soldiers were killed while searching for him.

 

According to one senator, when asked if any other U.S. deaths in Afghanistan were directly linked to the search for Bergdahl, the White House officials giving the briefing responded that they were "running that down."

White House officials also walked through the timeline of when specific members were notified of the trade, but it remains unclear if any member of Congress other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- who did not comment on the briefing -- was informed of the trade prior to its execution.

Several senators exiting the briefing said White House officials showed them a video shot in December in which Bergdahl appears either drugged, emotionally distraught, or in poor health. In the video, Bergdahl identifies himself in a soft, stuttering voice and notes the then-recent death of Nelson Mandela.

"It did not look good," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said of Bergdahl's condition in the video. "I would definitely think that it would have had an emotional impact on the president when he saw it."

Some Democrats went even further.

"He did not look well to me....I think it was a very hard decision," said Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Democratic Senate leadership. "If I’d been challenged to make it myself, I might have come to the same conclusion under the pressure of the moment."

But other members of Congress disagreed sharply with that assessment, claiming that Bergdahl seemed drugged and that the video was not necessarily evidence that he was in poor health.

"That was over five months ago," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the last senators to leave the briefing, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders as he pulled up his shirt sleeve and motioned at his wristwatch. "I just find that difficult to believe that as the justification given."

Most notably among those who said they were unmoved by the proof of life video was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.).

"That did not sell me at all," Manchin said. "That was from five months ago, he was impaired...That was not the person who was released here. He was not in that type of dire situation when released."

Several Republicans, meanwhile, insisted that they were not at all reassured by the briefing.

"I learned nothing," declared Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), himself a former prisoner of war and a leading Republican on military, foreign affairs and veterans issues.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said she was not reassured in the briefing that the five members of the Taliban who were released will not be able to rejoin terror efforts.

"I'm not satisfied with our ability to prevent them from reengaging in the fight," she said. "I don't feel assured that these five Taliban detainees, who are high-level, will not get back in the fight against the United States and our allies."

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, discussed few details of the briefing, but said that the presentation by White House officials debunked reports -- by the New York Times and other media outlets -- that Bergdahl left a note at his Army camp before walking away.

"We were told today that is not true. There was no statement," Chambliss said.

Several Republicans, including Chambliss and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), said they hope the proof of life video will be made public.

"A public hearing is an absolute necessity," Graham said after the briefing. "The strategic consequences of this decisions have to be discussed openly. I'm more concerned now than when I went in."

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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