By releasing the Taliban Five from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the sergeant without the 30 day required notice to Congress, the Obama administration has sparked a controversy in Washington that has some in his own Democratic Party questioning the wisdom of the president’s decision.
Rep. Adam Smith, the Democratic ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, did not quibble when he told Hagel the administration was wrong in its handling of the situation.
“The law is the law,” Smith said. “The way you challenge constitutionality is you go to court and the court says whether it is constitutional or not. Until the courts rule on that, it is the law.”
Obama administration officials have suggested the Gitmo Bay prisoner transfer notification law was sidestepped because Congress could not be trusted to keep the deal quiet. Further, officials maintain, leaks that Gitmo prisoners would be released somehow threatened Bergdahl’s life.
“We can in fact keep a secret, or I would say, we’re no worse at it than the administration,” said Smith, reminding Hagel that Congress was informed of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.
A recent CBS poll showed that 72 percent of Americans agreed that Congress should have been notified. Among veterans, 65 percent of those polled said the U.S. paid to high a price to secure Bergdahl’s release.
“I know the trust has been broken,” Hagel said. “You have to make a choice, you have to make a decision.”
“Wars are messy and full of imperfect choices,” Hagel said.
Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn noted during the hearing that prisoner exchanges come at the end of wars, and asked whether the swap signaled a unilateral decision from Obama to remove forces from Afghanistan next year no matter the facts on the ground.
“After Vietnam, after the Korean War, prisoner exchanges were done when a peace agreement was signed,” Lamborn said. “This is unprecedented to have a release like this before there’s even a peace agreement.”
Hagel responded that there was a limited window of opportunity to secure Bergdahl’s release and so it was seized. The administration has been negotiating with the Afghanistan Taliban through the Qatar government since January.
“I don’t think anyone would have wanted us to wait, if we had a chance to get Bergdahl, until the so-called war is over,” Hagel said. “We had an opportunity to get him, it was a fleeting opportunity, we did it.”
Hagel also disputed Lamborn’s assertion that the Obama administration had struck a deal with terrorists.
“The Taliban has never been designated by us as a terrorist organization,” Hagel said. “We’re talking about the Afghanistan Taliban, and these are bad guys, there’s no question they are bad guys.”
The State Department has not labeled the Afghanistan Taliban a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” However, President George W. Bush added them to the list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” through an executive order signed in 2002.