The Obama administration again shifted its explanation Tuesday for failing to notify Congress about the deal to gain the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, saying it couldn't divulge "operational details" of the secret military mission without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers who conducted the exchange.
As the White House tried to quell growing bipartisan furor about the top-secret prisoner exchange with the Taliban, President Obama's aides said he had no choice but to keep lawmakers in the dark until the deal was completed.
"If you're going to put servicemen and women in harm's way on a secret military mission, making a lot of phone calls around town doesn't seem like a very prudent measure," said White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest. "Discretion on this matter was important."
It was a new defense from the White House as the president's advisers tried to explain why they failed to notify Congress 30 days in advance of any transfer of terrorism detainees from the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as required by law.
But the explanations rang hollow with the lawmakers who were supposed to be informed.
Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said some lawmakers were briefed months in advance of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, and that word of that closely guarded operation never leaked out.
"This idea that they couldn't trust us to not leak things is just not true," he said.
Lawmakers are beginning to push back against the White House.
The House Appropriations Committee cast a bipartisan vote to block U.S. funds for the transfer of more detainees from the terrorist lockup at Guantanamo Bay. The provision passed in a 33-13 vote as part of the debate over the annual defense spending bill.
With both chambers of Congress back in session this week, the White House is finding itself on the defensive.
Mr. Earnest pushed back against Mr. Boehner's claim, saying that lawmakers were never briefed on operational details of the bin Laden raid.
But Mr. Earnest didn't deny a report that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, not Mr. Obama, gave the final go-ahead for the secret mission that secured Sgt. Bergdahl's release on May 31.
Mr. Hagel is slated to testify to the House on Wednesday about the exchange.
While most lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they welcome Sgt. Bergdahl's return, they still have questions about whether it was right to trade the five Taliban commanders for him. They also say there is no justification for failing to notify Congress — a requirement contained in several laws.
The White House has given several explanations for its failure to comply.
Mr. Obama and his aides said they were worried about the deteriorating health of Sgt. Bergdahl after five years of captivity in Afghanistan, and that the opportunity for his release arose too quickly to notify lawmakers.
The president also has said he notified Congress when he signed the law last December that he reserved the right to ignore the 30-day requirement if he needed flexibility to negotiate with a foreign power.
And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said a new timeline provided to lawmakers shows the deal was only finalized a day before the swap, which left little time for briefing Congress.
"They knew a day ahead of time the transfer was going to take place," Mr. Durbin told reporters at the Capitol. "They knew an hour ahead of time where it was going to take place."
The explanation didn't satisfy Republican lawmakers.
"This is a deal that they have been trying to work on for years," Sen. Kelly A. Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, said as she exited a closed-door hearing with military brass. "This is a deal that I understand members of Congress from both sides of the aisle had said that they didn't think was a good idea. So I don't understand that as an explanation."
• Guy Taylor contributed to this article.
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