President Obama’s aides met with unanimous opposition from Congress when they first raised the possibility of releasing five Taliban guerrillas from Guantanamo Bay in 2011 and 2012, and administration officials publicly and repeatedly vowed to return to Capitol Hill before making any final moves.
But with what they now say was a closing window to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Mr. Obama made the call to bypass Congress and make a deal swapping the five Taliban fighters in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl — and sparking a major constitutional battle with Congress.
With anger boiling over, the administration dispatched officials to deliver a closed-door briefing to senators late Wednesday, but many lawmakers emerged to say they still have too many unanswered questions about the legality of Mr. Obama’s move, the details of Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture and the likelihood that the five Taliban will return to the battlefield.
“I think there’s still an awful lot that has to be looked into. There’s a lot of information that came out of this, but this is something that is extremely disturbing. It’s something that needs to be looked into, and I came out of there with more questions than I got answers,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat.
Lawmakers were shown a short video that the Taliban-aligned group holding Sgt. Bergdahl provided as “proof of life,” and several lawmakers said the soldier did appear to be unwell in the video — countering speculation from some corners that his health situation was not as desperate as the administration had suggested.
But the administration made little headway in convincing senators that it was a good decision to release the five Taliban members, who have been sent to Qatar, where they are supposed to be monitored for a year but seem to be living openly.
“I promise you, in a year from now, if not before, they will be back in Afghanistan and in the fight,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
In an earlier closed-door briefing, officials even confirmed there was a great likelihood some of them will return to war-fighting, a possibility Mr. Obama himself had acknowledged earlier this week.
“I think the White House was looking for a twofer, to announce in one week that we were going to withdraw from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in U.S. history and, oh, by the way, as commander in chief I secured the last captive — the only captive — of that war. That was in their mind a pretty good political story for that week. It blew up in their face,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican and vice chairman of the intelligence committee, called on Mr. Obama to declassify the prisoner review files kept on each of the five Taliban.
He said Americans will see from the files that the men had been deemed too dangerous to release — if Mr. Obama approves declassifying the documents.
“Every prisoner at Guantanamo has a file. That file is updated every so often. What we’re asking for is that file on those five prisoners, with the recommendations of the review committee spelled out as to their opinion of what should happen with these guys. And their opinion — it’s already been stated publicly — is these five guys should have been held indefinitely,” the Georgian said.
In another sign of the growing skepticism about the prisoner swap, Sgt. Berdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, announced Wednesday that it had canceled plans for a welcome-home celebration. The town of 8,000 said it was not sure it could handle the expected crowds and pro- and anti-Bergdahl demonstrations at the planned June 28 event.
The split was reflected in two public opinion polls released Wednesday. A Fox News survey had 47 percent of Americans disapproving of the swap, while 45 percent approves. And a Rasmussen poll showed a similar split, with 40 percent agreeing with the government’s decision and 43 percent disagreeing.
But both surveys had error margins larger than those gaps that favor the “disapprove” answer, meaning those edges are statistically insignificant and the public is essentially evenly split.
Sgt. Bergdahl disappeared from night guard duty at a remote outpost roughly two hours south of the Afghan city of Sharana on June 30, 2009. Comrades said they found his gear — save for his compass — neatly stacked, which they took to be a signal that he had left of his own accord.
Some of those comrades say American lives were lost in the ensuing search for someone they termed a “deserter.”
A Pentagon official, who spoke under condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that Sgt. Bergdahl maintained a status of “Missing-Captured” but was not considered to be a deserter during the time he was being held by the Islamist militia.
Sgt. Bergdahl could, if the Army deems appropriate, receive a promotion to staff sergeant “in accordance with Army policy for captured personnel,” the official said.
Debate over whether to make the exchange has raged — within the administration and between it and Congress — since 2011.
Mr. Chambliss said that when the possibility of releasing the five Taliban fighters was raised, there was unanimous opposition from those in Congress who were briefed on it.
In the years since, both State Department and White House officials went on record saying that any final decision would be made in consultation with Congress and in accordance with the law, which requires Mr. Obama to give Congress 30 days’ notice before releasing detainees from Guantanamo.
The White House has argued that the short window of time to seal the deal for Sgt. Bergdahl’s release created extenuating circumstances — though they also argue that the previous secret briefings with Congress in 2011 and 2012 constituted consultation.
With questions about the legal situation mounting this week, a White House official said the Defense Department “consulted” with the Justice Department but declined to say whether a formal legal opinion was produced justifying the decision to bypass Congress.
“We’re not going to get into the details of our internal legal deliberations,” the official said.
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Times.
After initial reports of dissent, the administration presented a unified front Wednesday, including pushing back on press reports that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper had initially rejected the release of the five Taliban fighters.
“Like others, DNI Clapper expressed concern in 2012 about the prospect of releasing these five detainees. However, the circumstances have changed dramatically,” Shawn Turner, the chief spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a statement.
Mr. Turner said Mr. Clapper was swayed by Sgt. Bergdahl’s deteriorating health, the assurances of the Qatari government that the five will be monitored and the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which Mr. Clapper argued would make recovery efforts for Sgt. Bergdahl tougher.
Several Democratic leaders in the Senate also defended the administration’s moves.
“It was a very complex negotiation. It was a last-minute negotiation, and as we heard more and more detail and circumstances, I think it was a lot different than we’ve seen in the press,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said as he emerged from the evening briefing.
“I think it was a very hard decision. If I’d been challenged to make it myself, I might have come to the same conclusion under the pressure of the moment,” the Illinois Democrat said. “But now that you can step back and reflect on it, it’s easy to pick it apart and criticize it.”
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democrats’ leader in the chamber, said GOP critics were trying to harm Mr. Obama politically.
“It’s clear they’re worried his release could be seen as a victory for President Obama. Let me put that notion to rest — it’s not a victory for President Obama. It’s a victory for our soldiers, their families and the United States of America,” he said. “No member of the armed forces should be left behind, and President Obama saw to that.”
• Maggie Ybarra, S.A. Miller and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.