WASHINGTON – Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Rep. Chris Collins have joined the chorus of critics of President Obama’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban to win the release of an American prisoner of war.
“Bringing home an American is a fundamental value, and I am glad he is coming home,” Gillibrand said in a statement about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. “But I do have concerns about the national security risks involved, and there are legitimate questions that still need to be answered.”
Collins was more blunt.
“The president broke the cardinal rule of not negotiating with terrorists,” the Clarence Republican said in an interview.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, also raised questions about the deal to free Bergdahl, which a top aide to the president defended as a matter of American principle that won’t threaten American security in the long run.
“First and foremost, the president thinks we have a commitment and a duty to leave no man or woman behind on the battlefield,” said John Podesta, senior counselor to Obama.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, also defended the deal, in which the United States traded five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl.
While Gillibrand and other lawmakers questioned whether the prisoner release might jeopardize U.S. security, Podesta said the U.S. government won’t let that happen.
“As you probably know, we have a lot of ways of monitoring what people are up to around the country and around the world,” Podesta said. “I think it’s fair to say we’ll keep an eye on them.”
The deal to win Bergdahl’s freedom became a topic of bipartisan concern in Washington last week, as reports detailed how the sergeant apparently wandered off from his camp in Afghanistan and into Taliban territory.
In interviews and statements to date, no Western New York member of Congress has gone so far as to question whether Bergdahl was a deserter, as some critics have. But several local lawmakers questioned other aspects of the deal to free him.
Perhaps most notably, Gillibrand – a Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and normally a supporter of the Obama administration – questioned whether the Taliban figures who were released in the deal might pose a national security risk in the future.
“This is a very serious issue, and what we know of these Taliban leaders is they’re quite senior,” she told Time Warner Cable News in Albany earlier this week.
Gillibrand also said the Armed Services Committee should have been notified of the deal in advance.
“No notice to this,” she told Time Warner Cable News. “We were aware there were discussions but normally you would be actually notified before a prisoner exchange or this kind of high-level negotiation.”
Reed, the Corning Republican, agreed.
“While I’m happy to see Sgt. Bergdahl released and being reunited with his family, the situation raises serious questions about why Congress wasn’t notified that a deal was being made,” Reed said. “We are stronger as a country when the president is communicating with Congress about what is happening.”
But Podesta, at a Friday breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, said there was a good reason why the administration did not notify members of Congress before striking the deal to free Bergdahl.
“There was evidence – or at least there was analysis – that a premature disclosure could result in the loss of his life,” Podesta said.
Higgins, who serves on the House Homeland Security and Foreign Relations committees, agreed that it would be risky to notify members of Congress of the Bergdahl deal before it was finalized.
And while Higgins said he understood why Collins and other lawmakers had criticized the administration for negotiating with a terrorist group, the Buffalo Democrat said such negotiations “have gone on throughout history.”
Politifact, a fact-checking website, cited several examples that prove Higgins’ point.
Compiling examples from a book called “Negotiating with Evil” by Mitchell Reiss, Politifact noted that President Jimmy Carter negotiated with Iran to try to end the 1979 hostage crisis, and President Ronald Reagan agreed to send missiles to Iran in hopes of winning the freedom of seven American hostages in Lebanon.
In the case of Bergdahl, “he was the only POW from the Afghanistan conflict,” Higgins noted. “Of course we’re going to try to get him free.”
But Collins said it was wrong for America to negotiate to win Bergdahl’s release and that the nation may pay dearly for releasing the five Taliban prisoners.
“They will be plotting to kill Americans in the future, whether it’s tomorrow or a year from tomorrow,” he said.
In contrast to Collins and the other local lawmakers, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., withheld judgment about the prisoner exchange.
“Everyone is glad that an American soldier is home. It is part of the American tradition not to leave a soldier behind,” Schumer said. “While I have received one classified briefing, I still have several questions that remain unanswered and I am awaiting further briefings in the days and weeks ahead.”