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House Republicans: Bergdahl Swap ‘Violated Several Laws’

Report on the 2014 prisoner swap elicits a strong response from Democrats.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01:   House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) (C) delivers opening remarks during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. testified before the committee about the U.S. strategy to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq and its implications for the greater Middle East.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) (C) delivers opening remarks during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. testified before the committee about the U.S. strategy to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq and its implications for the greater Middle East. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A scathing 98-page report produced by House Republicans accuses the Obama administration of breaking several laws in swapping the custody of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners. The report, released Thursday, also said the Defense Department mislead lawmakers about the deal.

The May 2014 prisoner exchange enraged some congressional leaders who complained they were not given a 30-day advance notice of the swap, as required. The GOP findings were premised, in part, on an August 2014 Government Accountability Office finding, which said the transfer violated the National Defense Authorization Act.

However, the report disproved an earlier accusation by a U.S. Green Beret who said the U.S. government had tried, and failed, to pay ransom to secure Bergdahl’s release.

“Small payments were made to individuals in return for information relating to Sgt. Bergdahl’s captors, location, or physical condition,” the Pentagon’s inspector-general informed House Armed Services Committee leaders in an August letter, cited in Thursday’s report. But such payments, which ranged from $100 up to $1,000, are typical in overseas cases of missing Americans, and the report concluded there was no evidence of outright ransom.

The document also accuses Defense Department officials of failing to provide “complete and accurate information” to House investigators about alternate plans to free Bergdahl, which “threatens to upend a longstanding history and tradition of cooperation and comity” between the panel and the Pentagon.

The five Taliban leaders were held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, until May 31, 2014, when they were loaded on a U.S. military plane just hours after Bergdahl’s release and flown to Qatar, where they remain under house arrest. Since taking office, President Barack Obama has vowed to close the Navy detention center at Guantánamo, and Republicans have accused the White House of using the Taliban swap as a way to clear the maximum-security facility. As of Thursday, 107 detainees remained at Guantánamo.

Bergdahl was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and could face up to life in prison. However, the Army officer in charge of his preliminary hearing has recommended a much lighter punishment, saying there should not be “a jail sentence at the end of this process,” given the years of torture Bergdahl is believed to have endured at the hands of his Taliban captors.

Those recommendations were sent in October to Army Gen. Robert Abrams, who will make the final decision on Bergdahl’s fate. But some military legal scholars, and Bergdahl’s lawyer, claim the case has been further complicated by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who in October threatened to hold committee hearings if Bergdahl doesn’t receive jail time.

Bergdahl civilian lawyer Eugene Fidell has petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, arguing McCain’s comments were an act of “unlawful congressional influence.” Fidell said Abrams could be beholden to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which likely would approve any of the general’s future military jobs.

The House Armed Services report was produced by Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), who oversees the panel’s investigations. However, it was strongly disputed in a blistering eight-page rebuttal by two of the committee’s top Democrats, who called it “an unbalanced, partisan, and needless attempt to justify a predetermined position” regarding the transfer of the Taliban detainees.

“The report struggles to prove its assertions, yet it excoriates the Administration over the means by which Sergeant Bergdahl’s release was secured,” wrote Reps. Adam Smith of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat, and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). They described the findings “more advocative and speculative than determinative.”

That did not deter House Republicans from piling on.

The White House “clearly broke the law” in failing to notify Congress of the transfer of the five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo, Thornberry said. He also said Pentagon officials were “left out of the process” that he accused the White House of controlling.

“There were deliberate efforts within the entire government to mislead myself and others attempting to perform oversight,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

The report was released in tandem with the second season of the hugely popular Serial podcast, which features hours of interviews with Bergdahl detailing his desertion, capture, and release.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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