House GOP says Obama misled, obfuscated ahead of Taliban swap for Begdahl

An undated photo of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009.

An undated photo of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009.  (AP)

Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill say the White House kept Congress in the dark about the controversial swap of five Taliban prisoners for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year, and aren’t convinced there are enough safeguards to prevent the former detainees from committing acts of terror in the future.

In a 98-page report released on Wednesday, House Republicans say the White House did not give them the required 30-day notice about transferring the Taliban detainees from Gitmo to Qatar. In fact, the report claims the Obama administration misled Congress about whether negotiations were even going on – and only informed members of the May 2014 swap two hours before it took place. 

"In the months preceding the Taliban Five transfer, the administration did not communicate any of the specifics or contemplated courses of action to the committee, and the information it did convey was misleading and obfuscatory,"said report, which was the result of 18 months of investigation.

Bergdahl, who wallked off his base in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, was kidnapped and held in Taliban custody for five years before the swap. He was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and is awaiting a special court martial, a misdemeanor-level forum. The five former Taliban leaders remain in Qatar where they are prohibited from leaving the country or re-engaging in military activities. 

Republicans charge that they “do not have confidence” that the Defense Department has really established safeguards to make sure the Qataris are monitoring the former detainees. 

"Some of the Taliban Five have engaged in threatening activities since being transferred to Qatar," the report said. "Regrettably, this outcome is a consequence of a poorly managed process undertaken contrary to a law specifically intended to minimize the risk posed by detainee transfers." 

Meanwhile, the report reiterates lawmakers' complaint and a General Accounting Office finding that the transfer violated the National Defense Authorization Act and other laws. It said the Pentagon's own Office of Detainee Policy was kept out of the loop about the prospective exchange. 

A Taliban statement to The Associated Press in June 2013 "contained more specifics about a prospective exchange than what was conveyed through official channels to the committee and others in Congress at the time," the report said. 

When news reports surfaced hinting at a swap, the report said administration officials told lawmakers that the U.S. was not engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban, which was true because the Qataris were acting as intermediaries. 

A State Department official testified in Congress on April 30, saying "the Taliban broke off direct contact with us in January of 2012. We would very much like to return to direct contact with them and if we do, at the top of our agenda will be Sgt. Bergdahl." The report said that after appearing before the Senate, the State Department official got on a plane to Qatar to work on the release. 

Reps. Adam Smith of Washington state and Jackie Speier of California, who wrote the Democrats' eight-page rebuttal, called the report "unbalanced" and "partisan." They said that while they agree that the Defense Department should have told Congress 30 days before the transfer as required by law, the question about the legality of the swap "remains unsettled." 

The Democratic members added that the report does not offer evidence of how the Defense Department has failed to take sufficient precautions to make sure risks posed by releasing the Taliban Five are mitigated.

Among details in the report:

--On May 12, 2014 -- more than two weeks before the transfer -- four officials from Qatar and various U.S. administration officials attended a memorandum of understanding signing ceremony in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. Afterward, the entire party dined at the nearby Metropolitan Club.

--The Taliban initially sought the release of six detainees. One died of a fatal heart attack at Guantanamo. In a last-minute request, the Taliban tried again -- unsuccessfully -- to again make it a six-for-one swap.

--Five Qataris arrived May 29 at Guantanamo Bay, but because it took longer than expected to get Bergdahl into custody, they ended up staying at a military hotel adjacent to the runway for two nights before they could escort the detainees to Doha. U.S. security personnel also were on the flight. Michael Dumont, deputy assistant secretary of defense, noted that there was "concern about one of the knuckleheads trying something" on the plane, but the flight was uneventful.

The Associated Press contributed to this report