WASHINGTON — The White House argued on Tuesday that the “unique circumstances” presented by the opportunity to return Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl gave President Barack Obama the authority to lawfully bypass a federal statute requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress a month before he transferred the five Taliban detainees necessary to complete the deal.
But the White House was forced by turns to defend its decision not to notify Congress and send important aides to Obama to try to apologize to angry lawmakers who said they were left out of the decision.
A timeline of the negotiations with the Taliban, provided by the White House, made clear that it knew an imminent transfer was possible by mid-May, roughly two weeks before it took place. And officials familiar with the sequence of events said it was a desire to keep the talks secret for fear that it would scuttle the negotiations — and perhaps a reluctance to re-engage with Democratic and Republican members of Congress who were critical of the proposed swap in 2011 and early 2012 — that motivated the White House decision.
Arriving in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday on the first leg of a four-day European trip, Obama also found himself on the defensive over whether Bergdahl deserved special efforts to bring him home. “The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is, we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind.” Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to calm Democrats at their weekly caucus lunch a day after, saying that “we didn’t have 30 days” to inform Congress about the negotiations with the Taliban. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she had received a call from Antony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, on Monday night apologizing for the failure to notify Congress. The ranking Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said he had received a similar apology Monday night.
The White House’s problem has its roots in a federal statute that requires the secretary of defense, before transferring a detainee from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to notify Congress 30 days beforehand. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel provided that notice only as the transfer was already taking place.
Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of violating that law.
On Tuesday, speaking in Poland, Obama cited exigent circumstances that made a month delay impractical and argued that the previous consultations with Congress, which spanned from November 2011 to January 2012, constituted the necessary consultation.