National News

House panel to investigate prisoner swap

By Donna Cassata And Bradley Klapper, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The House Armed Services Committee will investigate the Obama administration's swap of an American prisoner held for five years for five Taliban leaders that caused a political firestorm over the lack of congressional notification and fears the high-level Taliban could return to the Afghanistan battlefield.

"We ought to look at the price," Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the panel, told reporters after administration officials held a tense 90-minute, closed-door briefing for House Democrats and Republicans.

Officials from the White House, State and Defence departments and the intelligence community defended the exchange of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in June 2009 in Afghanistan after he disappeared from his infantry unit, for five Taliban militants from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The freed Taliban members were sent to Qatar which acted as a mediator in arranging the exchange and will have to stay in the Gulf nation for a year before going back to Afghanistan.

In the week since the deal, lawmakers have raised questions about whether Bergdahl was a deserter and whether the United States gave up too much for his freedom. Republicans emerged from the Monday night session incensed that 80 to 90 people in the government knew about Bergdahl's release ahead of time and not one member of Congress got a head's up, including leaders of the national security committees.

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann criticized the administration for not presenting any classified information.

The U.S. officials said neither the U.S. nor Qatar provided any money to the Taliban as part of the deal, according to Bachmann.

The administration pledged to look into how many American or allied servicemen might have died in efforts to capture the five Taliban prisoners and how many people the ex-Afghan government officials were responsible for killing, she said.

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said President Barack Obama is "not going to get away with this one," and described it as an "arrogant thumbing of his nose by the president of the United States at the Congress of the United States. ... This is going to cost American lives."

Lawmakers said they were shocked to hear Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken say that eight congressional committees had been briefed this past February on the deal. Congressional staffers insist those briefings never occurred.

Obama has defended the exchange and administration officials have argued that the government needed to move expeditiously due to Bergdahl's health. Officials also have said that any leak of information about the deal could have posed a threat to Bergdahl's life.

To reinforce its case, administration officials showed the 90-second "proof of life" video from December that showed a debilitated Bergdahl.

Republican Rep. Greg Walden said Bergdahl looked bad in the video. Another Republican, Rep. Tom Cotton, said Bergdahl looked "unhealthy but didn't appear to be on his deathbed."

But all the Republican criticism angered Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

"I am so grateful to the people who were up there that we didn't leave someone on the battlefield," she told reporters. "And now, they would demonize this individual and find technical reasons why they're bad that we brought the soldier home?"

Beyond securing Bergdahl's release, she said, "the rest is extraneous." The prisoners, she added, were former Afghan government officials who've never been charged with any acts of wrongdoing by the United States. Schakowsky also compared the five-to-one swap favourably with prisoner exchanges by Israel, which has sometimes released more than 1,000 Palestinians to secure the return of one soldier.

"I find it absolutely unacceptable that we're hearing these kinds of attacks on this administration for bringing someone home," she said.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel will testify on Wednesday before the Armed Services Committee. McKeon said additional hearings and briefings are planned as part of the panel's investigation.

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