Republicans Slam Obama for Bowing to Terror in Bergdahl Release

Senior Republican lawmakers are sharply criticizing the Obama administration over its decision to swap five senior Taliban prisoners imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier held by Taliban forces since 2009.

On a series of Sunday talk shows, Republican lawmakers slammed the decision to carry out the prisoner swap as a dangerous concession to the militant group and a violation of long-standing U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorist groups. They also said the White House had violated a law requiring the administration to give Congress 30 days notice before such a swap.  

"The question going forward is have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?" Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texan Republican, said on ABC's "This Week." "I do not think the way to deal with terrorists is through releasing other violent terrorists."

With Republicans blasting the Obama administration for, in their view, surrendering to terrorist hostage taking, the White House is defending the move as an effort to bring back a prisoner of war and show other troops the lengths to which Washington will go to ensure that none are left on the battlefield. On Sunday, administration officials said the swap was in line with the military's commitment to see all its soldiers return from war, as a reflection of its "leave no man behind" ethos.

"Sgt. Bergdahl wasn't simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war, captured on the battlefield," National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on "This Week." "We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our Republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who were taken in battle."

Appearing earlier on CNN's "State of the Union," Rice said the Justice Department had signed off on the trade before it was carried out and that the administration felt it had a narrow window to act.

"We didn't have 30 days," she said.

As part of the terms of the Bergdahl release, the five Taliban men held at Guantanamo will be transferred to Qatar, whose government mediated the talks and who has offered guarantees to the United States that the five will not be allowed to leave the country for at least one year. But on Sunday, Republican lawmakers questioned those guarantees and said they feared the men, all senior Taliban fighters, will be allowed to return to the battlefield.

"These are the hardest of the hard-core. These are the highest high-risk people," Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "It is disturbing that these people would have the ability to re-enter the fight and they are big, high level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands."

According to a Washington Post review of the detainees swapped for Bergdahl, the agreement will allow the release of a group of hard-bitten Taliban fighters and officials. One of the men, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, served as the Taliban interior minister during the 1990s. Mullah Mohammad Fazl  is believed to have overseen the killings of thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. He is also thought to have been present at the Afghan prison riot that resulted in the death of CIA agent Johnny Spann, the first American casualty of the war in Afghanistan. Also present at the killing of Spann was Mullah Norullah Noori, a former Taliban provincial governor now set for release. Another militant being freed as part of the deal, Abdul Haq Wasiq, served as the Taliban's deputy intelligence chief. Lastly, Mohammad Nabi Omari was a member of joint a Taliban-al Qaeda cell in Khost and is described by his case file as "one of the most significant former Taliban leaders" held at the prison in Cuba.

Speaking to ABC, Rice underlined that the administration has received what it believes to be a firm commitment from the Qatari government that the men will not threaten the United States. "Assurances relating to the movement, the activities, the monitoring of those detainees give us confidence that they cannot and, in all likelihood, will not pose a significant risk to the United States," she said. The exact terms of the agreement with Qatar remain unclear.

Republicans in Congress are questioning whether the White House, by failing to notify Capitol Hill of the impending prisoner swap, may have violated a law that requires the executive branch to inform Congress at least 30 days in advance of a detainee leaving Guantanamo Bay, where the five Taliban men traded for Bergdahl had been held.

"The release of five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially without coming to Congress. It says in the law you have to notify Congress," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican.

The administration counters by pointing out that when Obama signed that law last year, he issued a statement saying that the measure violated his powers as commander in chief and that he reserved the right to ignore it, particularly in cases of emergency.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that the swap had been spurred by concerns over Bergdahl's health and an imminent threat to his life. "This was essentially an operation to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel said.

The swap for Bergdahl comes on the heels of Obama's announcement that he will leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2015, with the vast majority leaving the following year. Bergdahl's release marked a rare bit of good news about the long and deeply unpopular war. He was the sole American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and his continued captivity had been hanging over the American withdrawal as a painful piece of unfinished business in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.


National Security

Spy Agencies Counter Snowden's Whistleblower Claim

On the heels of Edward Snowden's prime-time effort to bolster his case as a conscientious defender of civil liberties, the U.S. government is pushing back on a central aspect of the whistleblower's story: that he attempted to alert his superiors to what he viewed as excessive intelligence gathering techniques and that those efforts to blow the whistle were ignored.

On Thursday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released what it says is the only email it has been able to find in which Snowden raises any kind of concern with NSA bosses. In the email, Snowden inquires about NSA training materials that describe the hierarchy of U.S. laws. According to the email, Snowden questioned whether that material placed federal laws and executive orders on the same level. A federal law can override an executive order but not the other way around.

Snowden inquired with the NSA's general counsel's office whether the agency meant to imply that agency employees should consider laws and executive orders as equal to one another. "My understanding is that EOs may be superseded by federal statute, but EOs may not override statute. Am I incorrect in this?" Snowden wrote in the email, dated April 5, 2013.

Three days later, a member of the general counsel's office wrote back to tell Snowden that, yes, "Executive Orders (E.O.s) have the 'force and effect of law.' That said, you are correct that E.O.s. cannot override a statute."

In releasing the email, the National Intelligence Director's Office noted that the communication between Snowden and NSA higher-ups did not address allegations of surveillance overreach, a rejection of Snowden's claim that he attempted to air his concerns internally before disclosing classified information to journalists. "NSA has now explained that they have found one email inquiry by Edward Snowden to the Office of General Counsel asking for an explanation of some material that was in a training course he had just completed," the National Intelligence Director's Office said in a statement. "The email did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed."

Snowden's legal counsel, Ben Wizner, called the email "a red herring," and said that it was a "selective release" by the government that doesn't reflect the totality of conversations Snowden had with government officials. If government officials are claiming that this email is the only communication that shows Snowden raised concerns or asked questions about NSA's legal authorities, they are incorrect, Wizner said.  

In the email released Thursday, Snowden doesn't mention any particular NSA programs, nor does he challenge the legality of surveillance. The email appears to have been prompted by training Snowden said he received on a U.S. intelligence directive, known as USSID 18, which lays out the rules for how the NSA is supposed to handle Americans' communications when the agency intercepts them.

Wizner said the email shows Snowden "raising concerns on the way they're [NSA employees] being instructed on their legal authorities." Snowden asks the general counsel whether executive orders have the same "precedence" as law. He's told in a reply that executive orders have the "force and effect of law," but that they cannot supersede statutes. Snowden goes on to ask a more arcane question about whether a particular department's internal regulations should be given more weight than others but he never mentions collection programs or sections of law that are at the heart of the NSA's surveillance programs.

Contrary to the ODNI's claims, Snowden said he expressed misgivings about NSA activities to several officials. In testimony to the European Parliament in March, Snowden said that he spoke "to more than 10 distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them." Snowden went on to say that as a contractor who worked for a company and not directly for the U.S. government, "I was not protected by U.S. whistleblower laws, and I would not have been protected from retaliation and legal sanction for revealing classified information about law-breaking in accordance with the recommended process."

Wizner said that Snowden had no productive avenues for airing his opinion that the NSA programs were unconstitutional. Determining the constitutionality of a program isn't within the purview of the agency's inspector general and other oversight officials at the NSA, Wizner said.

Moreover, the programs in question were already known to the agency's overseers in Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes NSA's activities, Wizner said, noting that Snowden would have been alerting them to programs that they already knew about, as opposed to other instances in which whistleblowers exposed wrongdoing or mismanagement that wasn't previously known to lawmakers. Had Snowden raised concerns, Wizner said, he would have been told the programs were legal and then likely punished or retaliated against by government officials.

Snowden's claims that he had no effective way to alert Americans to surveillance controversies by sticking to internal channels lie at the heart of his justification of going public with highly classified NSA documents, a claim he repeated in an NBC interview that aired Wednesday night. "I actually did go through channels, and that is documented," he said. "The NSA has records, they have copies of emails right now to their Office of General Counsel, to their oversight and compliance folks, from me raising concerns about the NSA's interpretations of its legal authorities.... The response more or less, in bureaucratic language, was, 'You should stop asking questions.'"

The competing claims from Snowden and the federal government place the two parties in a dispute over each other's credibility. "There were and there are numerous avenues that Mr. Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. "The appropriate authorities have searched for additional indications of outreach from Mr. Snowden in those areas and to date have not found any engagements related to his claims."

Read the full email exchange here.