WASHINGTON — Senators emerged from a classified, closed-door briefing on the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl on Tuesday seemingly less convinced about the wisdom of swapping five high-level Taliban prisoners for the Army soldier after he spent years in captivity.
Senior Defense Department and military officials briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, again presenting a united front in their support of the prisoner exchange, said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee’s chairman.
But they appeared to make little headway in defusing the festering political controversy that has again pitted the administration against Republicans — and some Democrats — who question President Obama’s judgment on national security.
The terms of the exchange signaled “a lack of understanding of the reality of the conflict we’re engaged in,” Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, said as he emerged from the secure hearing room. “It’s got to be demoralizing for our allies. It’s got to be demoralizing for our soldiers. It’s got to embolden the people we’re fighting against.
“We’re in a war,” he continued. “I think this White House does not understand that.”
After the hearing, Levin offered perhaps the strongest defense yet of the prisoner exchange before congressional testimony Wednesday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs tell me as chairman of the Armed Services Committee — and try to tell the public — that they very much supported this deal despite the fact that they knew Bergdahl had left his unit and despite the fact that they knew these five Taliban were bad guys, that has a big impact on me,” he said.
But even some fellow Democrats would not join in the defense. “Was it a good deal or a bad deal?” said Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. “In my mind it’s still a bad deal. I still can’t explain it back home to my fellow West Virginians why these five who they’ve tried repeatedly to get some exchange for over the last 10 years, why these five all of the sudden all were released.”
Lawmakers in both chambers moved toward some kind of legislative confrontation. The House Appropriations Committee voted 33 to 13 on Tuesday to bar the use of federal money to transfer detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Six Democrats voted yes. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, has drafted similar legislation.
The briefers to the Senate Armed Services Committee included Robert O. Work, the deputy defense secretary; Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Joint Chiefs’ Pakistan and Afghanistan coordinator, the Pentagon’s general counsel, and the assistant defense secretary for special operations.
But they did not prove persuasive. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was a prisoner of war, said the administration’s rationale kept shifting. At one point, the administration used a video from early this year to show that Bergdahl was in ill health, and it later asserted that the Taliban were threatening his life.
“They’re not going to kill an American prisoner,” McCain said. “That’s why they keep him alive. It is of utmost value to them to keep an American prisoner alive. Look what they got for it.”
Militants in Pakistan and Iraq have killed US captives, including the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the US contractor Nick Berg.
Manchin did say that the briefers described the conditions Bergdahl was kept in as “pretty horrific.”
Levin said of the attacks against Bergdahl: “I think there’s been too much prejudgment. Before people reach any conclusion about whether he did anything improper, he’s an American soldier, and he ought to be given due process. That means we should hear from him before people jump to a conclusion.”
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Armed Services Committee, also cautioned, “There’s still an awful lot to be discovered from Bergdahl himself, as well as from other folks involved, and that’s still ongoing.”
The Defense Department officials were not able to alleviate concerns about the threat posed by the five prisoners released to the government of Qatar, in the Persian Gulf. Sessions said the five had been “taken basically to a resort town” where they and their families were being supported financially for a year.