By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A political storm over the trade of five Taliban inmates for a captured American soldier intensified on Monday when Obama administration officials told U.S. lawmakers that up to 90 people within the administration – but no members of Congress – were told in advance about the swap.
“It strikes me as unfortunate that they could have 80 to 90 people in the administration aware of what was happening and not be able to trust a single Republican or Democrat in the House or the Senate,” Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, a member of the House of Representatives Republican leadership, told reporters after leaving a briefing on the exchange.
The White House has been trying to appease angry lawmakers since President Barack Obama announced on May 31 that Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been exchanged for the five inmates from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
House Republicans said they planned an investigation of the exchange deal.
Lawmakers and human rights activists said they expected the furor would make it more difficult to win Congress’ backing for Obama’s avowed intention to close the detention camp, long criticized by human rights groups and others.
“Congress does not like to be left out of the loop,” Texas Representative Gene Green, a Democrat, told Reuters. If the White House had called at least the leaders of national security committees, “that would have been much better and maybe we would not have had this controversy,” he said.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said in a Senate speech on Monday he would introduce a bill this week that would bar any federal funding for Guantanamo transfers for six months.
Congressional aides told Reuters that similar legislation is expected to be introduced as soon as this week in the Republican-led House, where opposition to closing the Guantanamo prison is far stronger than in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Members of Congress were not informed about the prisoner swap deal despite U.S. law requiring that the House and Senate be given 30 days’ notice before any prisoners are transferred from Guantanamo.
Top White House staff have apologized to a few senior lawmakers. They have also held classified briefings including Monday’s session for the House and a similar one for the Senate last week.
A classified Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter is planned for Tuesday with senior defense and intelligence officials. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will testify in a public House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.
California Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, promised an investigation of the swap deal. He said it would start with the hearing on Wednesday with Hagel, but include additional hearings and briefings.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)