NPR Story
2:19 pm
Thu June 5, 2014

Senators Remain Skeptical About Bergdahl Release

Originally published on Thu June 5, 2014 2:31 pm

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate still have questions about the prisoner swap that led to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from five years in Taliban captivity this past weekend, after a closed-door briefing of the entire Senate last night by White House officials.

Critics say President Obama should have adhered to the law that requires him to notify Congress 30 days before transferring any detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

White House officials have said they had to act quickly to swap five detainees for Bergdahl because of Bergdahl’s declining health, but last night some Senators who viewed a classified video of Bergdahl in captivity say that Bergdahl’s condition was not as dire as White House officials described.

Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that there was “dead silence” for a few moments in the room after the video was shown because Bergdahl “looked terrible.”

King says the president is right that no soldier should be left behind, but he also says the White House should have notified “at least” the leaders of congressional intelligence committees about the swap before it occurred.

Interview Highlights: Sen. Angus King

On his reaction to the video the Senate watched in the briefing

“I thought he looked terrible and he sounded terrible, and I hope the White House will declassify that video, because I thought it had an impact. Just sitting in that room, when it was over, the place was dead silent for a few seconds. And, you know, you can’t diagnose somebody’s health on a 30-second video from, you know, 5,000 miles away, and I don’t claim to, but he certainly did not look good in that video at all. And the other thing that came out in the briefing yesterday that was important was that the administration had pretty clear information or intelligence or the impression that, were any of the details or even the fact that these negotiations were going on, had they leaked out, he might have been killed.”

On reaction from politicians over Bergdahl’s release

“I think it’s being overly politicized, I gotta be honest. You know, let’s talk about the facts. Let’s learn what actually happened and not talk about this being part of some kind of scheme by the president to do this or that. I mean, I gotta tell you, I’m getting a little tired of it. Let’s just try to get to the bottom of it. There is a basic point here — and the president stated it, and, you know, the military has stated it, the generals have stated it — is we don’t leave soldiers behind, period. We bring ‘em back.”

On his belief that Bergdahl deserves due process

“A basic premise of our country, that we fight for, is due process, and this guy’s being tried in the press. And the process is, we get him back, and then we determine what the facts were in terms of why he left camp that day, what was going on, and one of the assurances we have is if he committed an offense, that he’s gonna have to answer for that in the military justice system. But let’s get him over here. We shouldn’t be trying him, again, from 5,000 miles away, by assertions that, you know, we want to get to the bottom of.”

Guest

  • Angus King, U.S. senator from Maine and a political independent. He was governor of Maine from 1995 to 2003. He tweets @SenAngusKing.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, there has been a big uptick in the number of women and children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. We'll have a report.

YOUNG: But first, for the second time this week at a news conference in Europe, President Obama was asked about the political controversy over exchanging five Guantanamo Bay Taliban detainees for POW Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his unit. Here's part of the president's answer. (SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington. All right. That's par for the course. But I'll repeat what I said two days ago. We have a basic principle. We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind. We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorate and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw an opportunity, and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that. We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this might occur. But because of the nature of the folks that we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did.

YOUNG: Our president is required to give Congress 30 days' notice about detainee transfer. But President Obama recently issued a signing statement to a defense authorization bill that said he could act swiftly if needed. And in the closed-door meeting last night, White House officials tried to tamp down the controversy by showing the entire Senate a classified video of Bergdahl in captivity. Maine senator, Angus King, was there. He's the independent who caucuses with Democrats. He joins us from Washington. Senator, welcome.

SENATOR ANGUS KING: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: And after seeing the video, West Virginia Democrat, Joe Manchin, said it was from five months ago. So Bergdahl's condition maybe wasn't the same as it is now. But Republican Lindsey Graham said he didn't look gravely ill. What did you think, first of all?

KING: I thought he looked terrible and he sounded terrible. And I hope that the White House will declassify that video because I think it had an impact. Just sitting in that room when it was over, the place was dead silent for a few seconds. And, you know, you can't diagnose somebody's health on a 30 second video from 5,000 miles away, and I don't claim to. But he certainly did not look good in that video at all.

The other thing that came out in the briefing yesterday that was important was that the administration had pretty clear information or intelligence or the impression that were any of the details or even the fact that these negotiations were going on, had they leaked out, he might have been killed.

And I think one way to put all this controversy in perspective, Robin, is - what if it were the opposite? What if this guy had been killed and beheaded and left on a street in Kabul? You know, people would be saying, why didn't the president get our boy out? So, you know, these are tough decisions.

YOUNG: Well, but Senator, your thoughts on the president's pretty barbed comment about this being a controversy that's being whipped up in Washington. Do you think it is?

KING: Well, I think it's being overly politicized. I got to be honest, you know. Let's talk about the facts. Let's learn what actually happened. And there is a basic point here - and the president stated it and, you know, the military has stated it, the generals have stated it - is we don't leave soldiers behind, period. And this guy's being tried in the press. And the process is we get him back, and then we determine what the facts were. If he committed an offense, that - he's going to have to answer for that in the military justice system.

YOUNG: Well, what do you think about the shifting political winds, though. Some senators and some candidates for office are deleting the tweets that were congratulatory about Bergdahl initially. There are now tweet sites devoted to comparing the tweets before and after the weekend. What do you think about those shifting political winds?

KING: Well, they always do - they always go back and forth. And a lot depends on how things are presented. And, you know, I try not to pay attention to that. Like I said, I went into the meeting last night with some questions. And I still - I have some criticism for the White House. I think they should've notified at least the top leadership of the intelligence committees and of the Congress. I understand the need for secrecy, and I think they realize they made a mistake on that front. Whether or not they had to give a 30-day notice to the entire Congress, I think, is a different issue, given the fragility of the negotiations. On the other hand, I think, again, the principle is - bring him back, then we talk about the circumstances of his leaving. And, you know, we can also talk about, was it a good deal - five major Taliban leaders. But I guess sometimes we're a lot better at second-guessing than we are at making decisions ourselves.

YOUNG: Well, do you think it's because it's this president? The American University law professor, Stephen Vladeck, told the Wall Street Journal that the president may have disregarded a federal statute about notifying Congress, but on the other hand, prisoner exchanges are such a fundamental long-standing part of the laws of war, carried out by the commander-in-chief. He went on to say any president - this president, President Bush, President Rand Paul, would say it's within his power.

KING: President George Washington. Prisoner exchanges go back to the very beginning of the country, and it is part of the commander-in-chief's responsibility. And that's why there's sort of a fuzzy legal issue here. There's also a very interesting legal question as to whether we could have held these guys beyond next year anyway. Under the law of war, you can hold enemy combatants, but only until the end of armed hostilities. And hostilities between us and the Taliban will be over next year. And so some legal people are already arguing these guys would've had to be released next year anyway. So this was sort of a last clear chance to make a deal to get our young man back.

YOUNG: Senator Angus King, the Independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats. Senator King, thank you. >>KING: Thank you, Robin Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.