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Bergdahl swap may make closing Guantanamo harder

Jun. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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WASHINGTON — President Obama’s goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison is facing re-energized opposition from Republicans and increased questioning from fellow Democrats amid widespread anger in Congress over the swap of five Taliban detainees for the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan.

Obama appeared to advance his effort last month when a Senate panel approved greater authority for him to transfer suspected terrorists to the United States, on condition he presented a plan to close Guantanamo and Congress approved it.

But the deal that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity has driven a new wedge between the president and lawmakers of both parties who accuse the Obama administration of breaking the law.

Hoping to ease mounting criticism from Capitol Hill, officials from the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies briefed senators Wednesday evening. Behind closed doors, the officials showed lawmakers a 1 1/2-minute video provided by the Taliban that proved Bergdahl was alive and suggested his deteriorating health required quick action.

“He didn’t look good,” Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Bergdahl appeared “drugged” but not at imminent risk of death.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper met with a few senators earlier Wednesday, a day after Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and senior adviser John Podesta struggled to soothe tempers among Senate Democrats. Some senators received personal apologies for not being consulted before the exchange.

A Clapper spokesman later released a statement saying the intelligence chief’s support for the operation was influenced by the upcoming drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which would allow fewer military resources to be dedicated to Bergdahl’s rescue.

Members of Congress say the prisoner trade almost surely will end with the Taliban commanders returning to the battlefield. Lawmakers also say Obama ignored the law and his administration’s own pledge to provide Congress with notification at least 30 days in advance. The White House insists it acted lawfully.

The disagreement is prompting some lawmakers to try to tighten rules on transferring prisoners from Guantanamo.

“This is one of the reasons why a number of us have been so strongly opposed to the release of individuals there,” Chambliss said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said senators would try to keep the jail open until a plan emerges that “would not result in the prisoners being released back on the battlefield.”

Even before the Bergdahl deal, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pledged to fight to keep Guantanamo open and leave the 154 detainees incarcerated. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., prevailed in adding a one-year freeze to the defense bill on transferring detainees from Guantanamo to Yemen, the home base of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., an Obama ally, acknowledged a fight was likely. Two weeks ago, he said the defense bill he crafted as committee chairman “created a path to close Guantanamo.”

Several Democrats have criticized the swap. On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was shocked not to have been consulted. The exchange went ahead “totally not following the law,” Feinstein, D-Calif., said.

Despite the bipartisan concern, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of playing politics. In the Senate on Wednesday he read aloud past statements from Republicans who said no U.S. service member should be left behind.

After the classified briefing, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, also backed the administration’s decision to secure Bergdahl’s release.

In a sign Obama has maintained some support to shutter Guantanamo, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key swing Democrat, remained amenable to closing the prison. Manchin described the Bergdahl deal as “disturbing” and suggested the soldier was a deserter. But, speaking about Guantanamo, he cited economic arguments against a facility costing more than $2 million per year per prisoner.

“We have prisons here in the United States and we can do the job that needs to be done and do it a lot more cost effective,” Manchin said.

Associated Press writer Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.

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