WASHINGTON — The Obama administration only finalized the exchange of the last remaining U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo a day before the June 1 swap, a top Democratic lawmaker said Tuesday. He said American officials didn’t learn the pickup location Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl until an hour ahead of time.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2-ranked Democrat, presented the timeline as an explanation for why President Barack Obama didn’t inform Congress 30 days before the deal. Republicans and some Democrats have sharply criticized the president for failing to notify them and claim he broke the law. Obama says he acted legally.
“They knew a day ahead of time the transfer was going to take place,” Durbin told reporters in the Capitol, where military officials briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee behind closed doors. “They knew an hour ahead of time where it was going to take place.”
His remarks came as a House panel overwhelmingly backed a measure barring U.S. funds for the transfer of detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, amid the congressional outcry over the swap.
On a bipartisan 33-13 vote, the Appropriations Committee added the provision to a $570 billion defense spending bill that blocks money if the administration fails to notify Congress within 30 days of a transfer from Guantanamo as required by law.
The administration exchanged Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban for five years, for five Taliban officials who had been at Guantanamo for more than a decade. The five were sent to Qatar where they are to remain for a year.
“The violation of trust between the department and Congress to use funds in violation of current law cannot be easily overlooked,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the defense subcommittee, said in a description of the amendment.
The measure also bars 85 percent of the money in the account for overseas conflicts until the defense secretary reassures Congress that no money will be spent to violate current law requiring congressional notification.
The measure captured the congressional anger among Republicans and many Democrats over Obama’s failure to notify lawmakers in advance about the exchange. Particularly galling for lawmakers was one detail that emerged in the closed-door briefing Monday night with administration officials — 80-90 members of the government knew of the swap in advance but not a single member of Congress.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the Appropriations panel, said the administration went ahead with no respect for the law and the Congress “and now sort of waving a thumb at us.”
The full House is expected to debate the defense bill next week.