By John Parkinson and Jake Lefferman
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – not President Obama – executed the administration’s final call to proceed with the prisoner exchange of five ranking Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, administration officials told Congress today in a classified briefing today.
“They indicated [it was] Secretary Hagel [who made the final call],” House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-California, told reporters following the briefing Monday evening. “It was the president of the United States that came out [in the Rose Garden] with the Bergdahls and took all the credit and now that there’s been a little pushback he’s moving away from it and it’s Secretary Hagel?”
Officials also told Congress that 80 to 90 people within the administration knew of its plans to go forward with the controversial swap, exacerbating tensions between the White House and members of Congress.
“They made it clear that there were 80 to 90 people who knew ahead of time about the Bergdahl release,” Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters. “There was a sense of anger that members of Congress didn’t know about this. Obviously, if there is secure information — members of Congress knew about the capture of Osama bin Laden — and yet 80 to 90 staff in the White House knew about this.”
While Bachmann says administration officials insist no members of Congress were informed before the exchange, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has repeatedly said he found out about impending plans from the White House the day before the exchange happened.
Despite the outpouring of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats since the May 31 exchange, the administration also has some defenders in Congress, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who cited partisan politics as the root of tension.
“I am so grateful to this administration for following through on what we all believed that we leave no soldier behind,” Schakowsky, D-Ill., said. “I am completely mystified and quite frankly disgusted that…there has been a demonization of the soldier. Every American deserves to be considered innocent until proven guilty.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a U.S. Air Force pilot who flew missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, told reporters that evidence is “obvious now” that Sgt. Bergdahl deserted his post, and therefore any notion that the United States does not leave its own behind was negated after Bergdahl apparently walked off base.
“Now look, if it comes out…somebody snuck into base and abducted him, that’s one thing, but I think every indication that we’re getting is that he walked off his base,” Kinzinger, R-Illinois, said. “When you leave your country behind, the assurance of your country will never leave you behind is null and void. That’s what I learned in survival training, that this is kind of a two-way street.”
Several lawmakers said they expected to receive additional briefings from the administration in the coming days, though those discussions are likely to continue behind closed doors in a classified setting.
“There’s a lot of problems with the administration’s story,” Bachmann said. “It keeps changing, and it doesn’t add up.”