By Kathleen Hunter Jun 6, 2014 12:37 PM ET
The Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman said she hasn’t been convinced that there was a “credible threat” against the life of freed Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl that motivated the White House to keep its plans secret from Congress.
“I don’t think there was a credible threat,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said today in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “I have no information that there was.”
Senators were told at a June 4 classified briefing that President Barack Obama’s administration had received indications that Bergdahl’s life could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceedings were disclosed or derailed, according to a government official who sought anonymity.
Feinstein, a California Democrat, is among lawmakers who criticized the administration’s decision not to adhere to a law requiring 30 days’ notice to Congress before releasing detainees from the Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba. Prisoners from wars following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are held there.
Bergdahl, the last remaining U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, was handed to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan on May 31 in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees.
Feinstein said it was difficult for her to tell, based on the information she’s been provided, whether Bergdahl’s health had deteriorated to the point where his life was in serious danger without an immediate release.
“There’s no question he was debilitated,” she said. “There was no question he was under stress — blinking rapidly, probably held in dark surroundings for a long period of time.”
“But he’ll receive very good care and recover, and I think that’s what’s important,” she added.
Officials at the June 4 briefing showed senators a video of Bergdahl in Taliban custody, provided by that group, said several senators who attended.
Administration officials on June 2 called Feinstein and Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, the Intelligence panel’s top Republican, to apologize for not alerting them before the prisoner trade, according to the two lawmakers.
Feinstein said the evidence was “mixed” as to whether Bergdahl was, as some military members have claimed, a deserter.
Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made “crystal clear” during this week’s classified briefing that Bergdahl “was going to have justice, that the army was going to do the appropriate investigation, and the facts eventually will come out,” she said.
Feinstein said there were few other choices for securing Bergdahl’s return. In previous conversations with administration officials, it was never an active option to try to rescue Bergdahl rather than persuade his captors to hand him over.
“That was never discussed,” she said. “It was never discussed back in 2011, 2012.”
The prisoner exchange illustrates the challenges inherent in efforts to close Guantanamo, said Feinstein, who, like Obama, wants to see the facility shuttered.
“They’ve been held for approximately 12 years, which is a long time. And this is the problem with Guantanamo,” Feinstein said. “It’s the kind of circumstance that’s going to take a human being and either harden him or crush him, in my view.”
Feinstein said she didn’t know whether there was the necessary evidence to prosecute the five released detainees in a civilian court.
“I am of the view that, if there is, people should be prosecuted,” she said. “If there isn’t, people are released at the end of the war.”
Feinstein added that transferring detainees to maximum-security prisons in the U.S. could be an alternative to Guantanamo.
“We have hundreds of people who have either helped or committed acts of terror in those prisons,” Feinstein said. “No one has ever escaped.”
The five released Taliban were transferred to Qatar, where they are to be monitored for a year by local authorities. A number of Republican lawmakers who criticized the prisoner swap predicted the five will resume fighting against the U.S.
White House adviser John Podesta told reporters today that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided the trade was in the national security interest “and the threat posed by the detainees to the United States or U.S. persons could be substantially mitigated.”
“There are also ways we have to monitor them beyond what Qatar is doing,” Podesta said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “I think it’s fair to say we’re keeping an eye on them.”
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