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Idaho senators torn on Bowe Bergdahl swap

BOISE – Idaho senators who have pushed for years for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity in Afghanistan are in the odd position of 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. They’ve also criticized the release of the Guantanamo prisoners and statements supportive of Bergdahl amid questions about how he fell into his captors’ hands.

“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.”

Risch and Crapo have urged the administration to secure Bergdahl’s release the past five years.

“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 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 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 on 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 said the administration proposed the same prisoner swap in 2011 and 2012, and it “ran into a buzz saw from everyone.”

He added, “That was so unacceptable to Congress, Congress passed a law that said that the president had to give 30 days notice.”

The Obama administration has acknowledged it failed to give that notice, but said pressing circumstances including Bergdahl’s life being in jeopardy prevented it. Risch and Crapo, both attorneys, said the excuses don’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, who serves on the intelligence and foreign relations committees, said some of the exchanged prisoners should be tried as war criminals.

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