POLITICS: PennAve

Senators not buying Obama administration's explanations on prisoner swap

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Congress,Barack Obama,Marco Rubio,Senate,Afghanistan,National Security,PennAve,Sean Lengell,Guantanamo Bay,Lindsey Graham,Dick Durbin,Saxby Chambliss,Mark Kirk,Joe Manchin,Taliban,Bowe Bergdahl

A closed-door briefing with White House officials late Wednesday did little to assure senators that President Obama's decision to swap Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders was the right move.

Republicans who emerged from the all-Senate meeting at the Capitol were particularly troubled, with many saying the move will compromise national security, poses risks for Americans abroad and was possibly illegal.

"The mood was, I think, for Republicans, definitely no sale on this deal," said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

The senator said the administration officials who led the meeting, which included Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, "ducked" the question of whether Bergdahl may have deserted his post in Afghanistan.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said "there is no question that the president violated the law by not notifying Congress" well in advance of the swap.

"The most pressing challenge that we face is the fact that the president has now released five of the most dangerous individuals in Guantanamo [military prison], if not the five most dangerous," he said. "They will soon return to the fight against America and our interests around the world.

"We have now created an incentive for the enemies of the United States to try to capture American men and women in uniform in an effort to exchange them."

Democrats generally were more willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said if faced with making the decision himself, "I might have come to the same conclusion under the pressure of the moment."

"The premise was sound; bring home our troops," the Illinois Democrat said. "If they are captured, bring them home. And I think we've got to keep returning to that, because there are many who want to dismiss this and say, 'we have suspicions about this man'…. [but] those questions will ultimately be answered."

Durbin said a video made by Bergdahl's captors to prove he was alive, which was shown to the senators at the briefing, suggested he was in ill health — a point he said motivated the administration to act quickly.

"His condition in the video made it clear that this man was not in good condition," Durbin said. "The actual transfer of Sgt. Bergdahl was only known hours, or a day before [it occurred]. It was really moving extremely quickly."

But Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, said he's withholding judgment on whether the swap was justified until he gets more information.

"There's still an awfully lot that has to be looked into," he said. "There's a lot of information that came out of this [briefing] but this is something that is extremely disturbing and needs to be looked into."

Several Republicans agreed that Bergdahl looked sick or drugged in the video. But Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., bristled at suggestions the administration used the sergeant's health as an excuse for rushing the swap without properly consulting Congress.

"You can't conclude a whole lot from [the video] from the standpoint of any serious health issues," he said. "I don't think from a health standpoint there was any issue that dictated the release of these five mass killers in exchange for Bergdahl."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said suggestions the administration gave up the Guantanamo prisoners as way to reconcile with the Taliban and foster peace in Afghanistan was "a complete disconnect" from reality.

"I found that to be the most offensive theory of all, that they've been pursuing this release for a couple of years to enhance reconciliation," said Graham, who has called for public hearing on the matter.

"The price we paid is — we've empowered terrorists, we have undercut our efforts to secure Afghanistan, we have unleashed forces that will make it more likely that Americans will be kidnapped in the future, and we sent the worst possible signal to those that have been trying to change Afghanistan for the better."

Kirk agreed the administration officials "did mention that there was this context that the approach [to the swap] could've been related to reconciliation" with the Taliban.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he walked away from the briefing "total convinced" that releasing the five Taliban prisoners was a serious national security breach.

"I promise you, in a year from now, if not before, they will be back in Afghanistan in the fight," he said.

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