By Patricia Zengerle and David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican lawmakers angered by a White House deal to swap five Taliban prisoners for a captured U.S. soldier in Afghanistan on Monday demanded hearings over why the Obama administration reached the agreement without consulting Congress.
Adding to criticism of the decision to negotiate the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl were accusations by some soldiers who served with him that they consider Bergdahl a deserter who cost the lives of several comrades.
The State Department has said it considered Bergdahl “a member of the military who was detained while in combat” and the administration says members of Congress were briefed for years on efforts to free the Idaho native.
The Pentagon said it was unable to confirm media reports that six troops died trying to rescue Bergdahl and said circumstances surrounding his June 2009 disappearance were unclear.
“There have been several looks into the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, but we’ve never publicly said anything, primarily because we haven’t had a chance to speak with Sergeant Bergdahl himself,” said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Warren said Bergdahl was in stable condition at the U.S. Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where doctors were assessing his condition after five years of captivity.
Bergdahl, 28, has not yet spoken to his family, but will do so once he and psychologists believe the time is right, Warren said. He will return to the United States when doctors say he is ready.
Bergdahl, the sole American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, was released and flown to Germany on Sunday after being freed in a swap deal for five Taliban militants released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba for transfer to Qatar.
U.S. officials said that assurances from Qatar mitigated the threat potentially posed by shifting the detainees to the custody of the Gulf state.
Republican lawmakers said the White House action violated the law, had serious implications for national security and would lead to more Americans being held hostage.
‘GREAT WEEK FOR THE TALIBAN’
“We need a thorough review of this decision,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (pictured above), a South Carolina Republican. “With President Obama’s announcement of a total withdrawal (of U.S. forces) from Afghanistan by 2016 … and now releasing five Taliban leaders, it’s safe to say last week was a great week for the Taliban.”
Texas Representative Mac Thornberry, vice chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said: “The president violated a provision of law in not giving Congress advanced notice. And while you can always argue that, ‘well, this was an emergency, he needed to act quickly,’ this pattern of violating the law is also a danger to national security.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said briefings for members of Congress about Bergdahl had included the potential exchange for five Taliban militants. McDonough said the deal “should not have been a surprise” to lawmakers.
“We did not have 30 days to wait to get this done. And when you’re commander-in-chief, you have to act when there’s an opportunity for action,” McDonough said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A source close to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s palace in Kabul said Karzai was angry at being kept in the dark about the deal. “The president is now even more distrustful of U.S. intentions in the country,” said the source, who declined to be identified.
“He is asking: How come the prisoner exchange worked out so well, when the Afghan peace process failed to make any significant progress?”
Karzai has backed peace talks with the Islamist group, which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 and has fought a bloody insurgency since then against U.S.-led forces in the country.
The Taliban moved swiftly to dash hopes that the prisoner swap would rekindle negotiations. “It won’t help the peace process in any way, because we don’t believe in the peace process,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Sunday.
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham told reporters in Kabul the Karzai administration had been made aware of the impending prisoners’ swap.
“It’s not behind the government’s back. The government’s known that we’re trying to (do) this for a long time, and they agreed to it and they supported it,” he said.
“The only thing that was not transparent to anybody was the actual timing,” Cunningham said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Anna Yukhananov, Patricia Zengerle and Colette Luke in Washington, Hamid Shalizi and Jessica Donati in Kabul; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Grant McCool)