The Sunday news shows were ground zero for Democrats defending President Obama's decision to circumvent the law by releasing high-level al Qaeda terrorists to secure the release of captured Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban custody.
In a politically calculated move, the White House deployed top Democrats armed with carefully crafted talking points to push the meme that Republicans constantly "say no" to the president. But Republicans fought back, making clear their objection is not the rescue of an American soldier, but that the president ignored the United States' longstanding edict of not negotiating with terrorists, something the Democrats and ranking White House officials found hard to deny -- yet did.
Missouri Democratic Senator and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Claire McCaskill said to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, “This was not a hostage; this was a prisoner of war. It is much different when you are negotiating with the enemy for a prisoner of war. We have done prisoner swaps many times in our nation’s history." But when host Wallace asked, "So, we negotiated with terrorists?" Sen. McCaskill quickly retorted, “I guarantee you, Chris, that if in fact this man's life was lost and it came out that we had this opportunity and our commander in chief passed on it, the Republicans would be going crazy right now."
McCaskill blames Republicans for playing politics: “We saved an American life on foreign soil, the president and foreign policy gets criticized. Are you seeing a theme here? It’s politics. We saved this man’s life. The commander in chief acted within his constitutional authority.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that Bergdahl's health was in danger, prompting the administration to act without congressional approval.
First of all, we didn’t negotiate with terrorists. Sergeant Bergdahl is a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back. Second, we are dealing with terrorism and hostage taking all the time everywhere. I think America’s record is pretty clear on going after terrorists, especially those who take hostages, and I don’t think what we did in getting our prisoner of war released in any way would somehow encourage terrorists to take our American service men prisoner or hostage.
Hagel, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, insisted that the released terrorists will in no way pose a threat to American security:
We do have responsibilities that we don’t let anyone out of Guantanamo, and I will not sign off on any detainee coming out of Guantanamo, unless I am assured, unless our government assured, our country can be assured that we can sufficiently mitigate any risk to America’s security.
Appearing on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, the president's National Security Adviser Susan Rice proved she was studied on the talking points. She defended the president's decision, saying, "We have the sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who are taken in battle and we did that in this instance. If for some reason we took a position now in the 21st century when some of our adversaries may not be traditional state actors, that we would not do our utmost to bring our prisoners of war home, that would break faith with the American people and the men and women who serve in uniform. So regardless of who may be holding an American prisoner of war, we must do our best to bring him or her back."
When pressed by Stephanopoulos if laws were broken to facilitate the exchange, Rice had this to say: "What we had to do, and what we did do is consistent with the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief -- is prioritize the health of Sgt. Bergdahl. We had reason to be concerned that this was an urgent and acute situation, that his life could have been at risk. We did not have 30 days to wait and had we waited and lost him, I don't think anybody would've forgiven the Unites States government."
Rice contended that Congress was "well aware" of the situation, but in the end, the president was unwilling to wait the required 30 days after informing Congress of a plan to move a Gitmo prisoner, deciding his way was "appropriate and necessary."
"We have in the past had extensive consultations with Congress. They were well aware that this idea and this prospect was one that the administration was seriously considering," Rice said. "But when it came to fruition, the Department of Defense in consultation with the Department of Justice determined that it was both appropriate and necessary for us to proceed in an expedited fashion and that's what the president decided to do and as a consequence, we have Bowe Bergdahl back." "He served the United States with honor and distinction," she added.
Rice also appeared on CNN's State of the Union with Candy Crowley and was met with an uncharacteristically obstinate Crowley, who was never satisfied over Rice's denial of negotiating with terrorists.
Here is their exchange, slightly abbreviated:
Crowley: This isn't a judgment question, it's just a question: You had to negotiate with terrorists to secure the release of the sergeant.
Rice: We actually negotiated with the government of Qatar, to whom we owe a great debt.
Crowley: No longer can it be said that the U.S. doesn't negotiate with terrorists.
Rice: I wouldn't put it that way, Candy. I wouldn't say that at all.
Crowley: Why didn't you notify Congress, which under the law it says you should?
Rice: It wasn't unknown to Congress. The Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice. And given the acute urgency of the health condition of Sergeant Bergdahl, and given the president's constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement, because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sergeant Bergdahl would have been lost.
Crowley: Is there no one in Congress you can trust with the information to call up the chairman of the intelligence committees or the chairwoman on the Senate side and say, 'I want you to know that this is happening, we have to act now?'
Rice: Well we did do that. In fact, we had briefed Congress in the past and when the deal was done and Sgt. Bergdahl was in U.S. custody is when we began making notifications to Congress.
Crowley: But the deal had already been made and the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were already on route to a plane to go to Qatar.
Rice: No actually Congress began to be notified when Sgt. Bergdahl was in American hands which was actually before the prisoners had left Guantanamo Bay.
Crowley: But not telling a couple of folks up on Capital Hill might that in hindsight not have been a good idea?
Rice: Candy, what we put the highest premium on was the safety of Sgt. Bergdahl. This was very held closely [sic] within the administration. We could not take any risk with losing the opportunity to bring him back safely.
Crowley: So there was a conscious decision to break the law as you know it dealing with the detainees and the release of them?
Rice: Candy, no. As I said earlier, the Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice and it is our view that it was appropriate and necessary to do this in order to bring Sgt. Bergdahl back safely.
Crowley: What about the wrong message to terrorists that they can negotiate for more Guantanamo releases if they capture U.S. soldiers or civilians?
Rice: I think the terrorist are intent on doing what they are going to do. But Candy, we have a commitment to close Guantanamo Bay. The president's been very clear about that. The existence of Guantanamo Bay is itself a detriment to our national security, which is why the president has prioritized closing it and why we intend to get that done.
For Republicans, the release of Sgt. Bergdahl is celebrated, but not without a caution of how it came to be. Texas Senator Ted Cruz was a guest on This Week and slammed the president for forgetting how many American soldiers gave their lives to apprehend those five terrorists he agreed to release: "Well look, all of us celebrate with Sgt. Bergdahl and with his family… At the same time, the terms of the deal are very troubling… for one thing, how many soldiers lost their lives to capture those five Taliban terrorists that we just released? You know Ambassador Rice basically said to you, yes, U.S. policy has changed -- now we make deals with terrorists. And the question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists? That if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists that we've gone after, I mean that's a very dangerous precedent."
Stephanopoulos asked Sen. Cruz, "So if you were president you wouldn't have negotiated?" Cruz responded, "I do not think the way to deal with terrorists is through releasing other violent terrorists." Their conversation continued:
Stephanopoulos: But what if that's the only way to get Bergdahl home?
Cruz: It's not the only way. We can go in and use military force as needed to rescue our fallen compatriots. But look, Sgt. Bergdahl was fighting to capture these terrorists. Can you imagine what he would say to his fallen comrades who lost their lives to stop these people who were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for threatening or taking U.S. civilian lives. I mean, that's why we sent our soldiers there. And the idea that we are now making trades, what does that do for every single soldier stationed abroad? It says the reason why the U.S. has had the policy for decades of not negotiating with terrorists is because once you start doing it, every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers.
Stephanopoulos: Of course that policy has been broken in the past, but your policy would be no trades never?
Cruz: I think it is very disturbing that we are releasing five acknowledged terrorist Taliban leaders in a deal with terrorists. That precedence -- and you know, unfortunately George, it's part and parcel with the pattern we've seen with the Obama administration across the board.
When an American president is weak, it leaves our friends and allies vulnerable and it makes the world a more dangerous place.
Later during the Powerhouse Roundtable on This Week, the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol commented on the courage of Republicans for standing up against the president for breaking the law, despite the good intentions in releasing a POW:
I’ve been impressed by the courage actually of the Republicans who are willing to criticize what I think is an unfortunate deal made by the president of the United States. Obviously everybody is happy to have Sgt. Bergdahl back. Therefore it takes some political courage I think to say, ‘Wait a second, let’s look at the long-term national interest of the country. Let’s not just say as Susan Rice said twice, ‘It’s a joyous occasion.’
Kristol also criticized Rice's talking points as disingenuous and suggests what she should have said:
“I was very struck by that. She didn’t say what normally the president would say of a country that has to make a difficult and really an unfortunate decision like this says, which is, ‘We hated having to do this. No, we don’t want to set a precedent, but in this case – we reluctantly made the decision.’ They’re just spinning this as if it’s a wonderful day for America.
Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) said that while he is glad to have the last POW in Afghanistan home, he fears for the future of other American soldiers with this dire prediction:
I am extremely troubled however that the United States negotiated with terrorists…I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.
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