In a closed-door briefing with top senators Wednesday evening, the Obama administration sought to quell the growing anger over the deal to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. But far from pacifying GOP critics, Republicans said they are even more skeptical and still upset about not being told the deal was imminent.
"I learned nothing," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after the briefing. He said he expected that the five senior Taliban officials released in exchange for Bergdahl would re-enter the battlefield. "I guarantee you that a year from now – if not before – they will be back in Afghanistan."
Lawmakers heard from Anthony Blinken, the deputy national security advisor, Bob Work, the No. 2 official at the Pentagon, and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others. They showed the lawmakers a "proof-of-life" video from December that the administration relied upon to determine that Bergdahl’s health was declining. (The Taliban provided the video to the administration before finalizing the deal).
Bergdahl "did not look well," remarked Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "I think it was a very hard decision. If I had been challenged in the moment, I may have made the same decision."
But a number of Republicans and even one Democrat said the video verified nothing. "That did not sell me at all," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). "That was from five months ago, he was impaired … That was not the person who was released here. He was not in that type of dire situation when released."
Other briefed GOP senators with bitter parting remarks included New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. "I don’t feel assured that these five Taliban detainees — who are high-level — will not get back in the fight against the United States and our allies," said Ayotte.
Although criticism from Capitol Hill Democrats is growing, most remain in sync with the White House. On Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada chastised Republicans for their rapidly evolving views on the importance of rescuing Bergdahl from the Taliban.
In a floor speech, he noted that "just a couple weeks ago," Ayotte called on the Pentagon to "do all it can to find Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home." He also cited legislation sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, declaring "no member of the armed forces who was missing in action should be left behind."
Reid countered: "Opponents of President Obama have seized upon the release of an American prisoner of war – that’s what he was – using a moment of celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games."
However, given that numerous of Bergdahl’s brothers-in-arms say he went AWOL, Americans don’t know what to think. City officials in Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, canceled his homecoming celebration Wednesday, saying they couldn’t control the large number of Bergdahl protestors.