The Obama administration broke the law when it exchanged five Taliban commanders for a captured U.S. soldier without giving Congress 30 days notice, according to a review by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.
The GAO released its opinion on Thursday, saying the Defense Department violated the Defense Appropriations Act by failing to inform lawmakers about its plan to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in a controversial deal to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The report also said that the Pentagon ran afoul of the law by funding the prisoner swap with money not intended for that purpose. The Antideficiency Act prohibits agencies from spending congressional appropriations on unauthorized activities.
“We have consistently concluded that the use of appropriated funds for prohibited purposes violates the Antideficiency Act, because zero funds are available for the purpose,” GAO said.
The Pentagon argued that the transfer was lawful under a section of the appropriations act that allows the defense secretary to move Guantanamo prisoners in the interest of national security. But GAO said the Defense Department was still required to give Congress advance notice of the action.
“To read [the law] otherwise would render the notification requirement meaningless,” the report said.
The Pentagon disagreed with GAO’s conclusions on Thursday, saying the Justice Department determined before the transfer was implemented that the move would be legal.
“The administration had a fleeting opportunity to protect the life of a U.S. service member held captive and in danger for almost five years,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby. “Under these exceptional circumstances, the administration determined that it was necessary and appropriate to forego 30 days’ notice of the transfer in order to obtain Sgt. Bergdahl’s safe return.”
GAO did not issue an opinion on whether the transfer was necessary for national security purposes.
The appropriations act mandates that the Defense Department report any violations of the notice requirement to Congress and the president. Under the law, the agency must provide information about the nature of the offense, how it occurred, corrective actions and whether any personnel will face discipline. There is no statutory timeline for delivering the report, according to GAO.
The Army is trying to determine whether to charge Bergdahl for deserting his post or going absent without leave, both of which are crimes under military law. The soldier went missing from his patrol base in Afganistan’s Paktika province in 2009, and Taliban militants held him in captivity for five years. He was released in May as part of the prisoner exchange.
Some soldiers from Bergdahl’s platoon have insisted that he abandoned his post. Army officials said last week that they had begun the final stage of an investigation into his disappearance, but they added that the final draft could take at least three more weeks to complete.