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Idaho senators torn over deal that brought long-sought release of Bowe Bergdahl

Thu., June 5, 2014, 4:45 p.m.

BOISE - Idaho senators who have pushed for years for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan are now in the odd position of both objecting to the deal that bought Bergdahl’s freedom, and joyfully welcoming his return.

“He needed to be released, but not at this price,” Sen. Jim Risch said Thursday, aiming sharp criticism at the Obama Administration over the release of five high-ranking Taliban officials held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in exchange for Bergdahl. “The price that was paid was too high. Those five people are people that have a lot of blood on their hands.”

Sen. Mike Crapo told The Spokesman-Review, “I have problems with this specific trade. But I’m not about to say that I’m still not very glad that we have been able to recover Bowe.”

As the political rhetoric has escalated in Washington, D.C., congressional Republicans have faulted the administration for failing to inform Congress of the swap 30 days in advance, as required by law; for releasing the Guantanamo prisoners; and for statements supportive of Bergdahl, who is from Hailey, Idaho, amid questions about how he fell into his captors’ hands and whether he deserted his Army post.

“Unlike Benghazi, I’m not so sure this one’s going to go away on them,” Risch said. “It’s caught the attention of the American people, it’s caught the attention of the media, and they’re not letting go.”

Both Risch and Crapo have been relentless for the past five years in pushing the administration to secure Bergdahl’s release.

“I have a constituent, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who’s being held captive,” Risch told CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at a Senate hearing on Jan. 20. “I think we’d go a long ways to helping this family have some peace if you would reiterate publicly, as you have privately, about what a high area of concern this is for the United States government to return Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to us personally.”

Clapper responded that the administration was “doing everything we can to bring him home safe and sound,” and Brennan told Risch, “He is somebody who was on the front lines keeping this country safe. … Our thoughts and prayers are with the family as well as Sgt. Bergdahl.”

Last Thanksgiving, Crapo pledged in his annual Thanksgiving column to continue “raising this issue with senior administration officials whenever possible.”

On June 30, 2011, Idaho’s entire four-member, all-GOP congressional delegation issued a statement marking the “somber anniversary” of Bergdahl’s captivity, then at two years, urging “Idahoans and the nation to remember that Sgt. Bergdahl continues to be held by Islamic extremists.”

In January of 2010, Crapo visited Afghanistan and asked top U.S. and Afghan officials about the missing soldier. “Bowe Bergdahl is definitely not forgotten,” he said after the trip.

Crapo was more measured than Risch Thursday in his criticisms of the prisoner swap. “I continue to be absolutely elated that Bowe Bergdahl has been recovered and released from the custody of the Taliban, and I think that is good for all of us, not just for Bowe and for his family and for Idahoans, but for America,” he said. “Nevertheless, I have strong reservations about the release of the five Taliban terrorists from Guantanamo. I think that they are a high security risk, and I’m very concerned about their release.”

Risch, who serves on the intelligence and foreign relations committees, said, “Out of that five, some of those people can, should and maybe eventually will be tried as war criminals.”

Risch he’s had weekly classified briefings on Bergdahl since his capture, and pressed hard for military officials to make sure planned drone strikes in the region wouldn’t endanger the captive Idaho soldier. “I said, ‘Look, let me tell you what you need to be thinking about here,’” he said. “They were completely on board.”

Risch said the administration proposed the same prisoner swap in 2011 and 2012, and “ran into a buzz saw from everyone,” from both parties in Congress to the intelligence community. “That was so unacceptable to Congress, Congress passed a law that said that the president had to give 30 days notice,” Risch said.

The administration has acknowledged it failed to give that notice, but said pressing circumstances including Bergdahl’s life being in jeopardy prevented it from doing so. Risch and Crapo, both attorneys, said the excuses didn’t wash. “That does not, in my opinion, relieve the administration from notifying Congress,” Crapo said. “I believe the president did violate the law.”

Risch said, “These things should not be political, but I guess the American people view these types of issues as political … because the decision was made by politicians, not by the military people who were engaged in the execution of the war.”

He said, “I am glad that Bowe Bergdahl is out of Taliban custody and in United States custody. I’m not happy with the circumstances of how that happened.”


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