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Prisoner Swap Ignites Political Firestorm On The Hill


The prisoner exchange that freed Bowe Bergdahl has touched off a huge political controversy. NPR's Mara Liasson joins us now to talk more about it. Hey there, Mara.


CORNISH: Now, of course, Republicans over the last few days - sharply critical of President Obama and the administration's handling of these five Taliban officials in this swap. Tell us what they're saying.

LIASSON: Well, there are a lot of layers to the criticism. Congressmen from both parties are mad they weren't informed. But the White House said they didn't have 30 days advance notice to tell Congress, and any notice might have jeopardized the mission. Administration officials are meeting today on Capitol Hill with all 100 senators to discuss this. But then there is, as you say, the criticism of the swap itself - the release of those five Taliban prisoners. Here's Senator John McCain. Here's what he had to say about the swap.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: This decision is ill-founded, it is a mistake, and it is putting the lives of American servicemen and women at risk. And that, to me, is unacceptable.

LIASSON: Then, there's the issue of whether the President broke the law by failing to inform Congress, and there's another more - even more incendiary criticism. Some Republicans and conservatives are questioning why the military went to such great lengths to find someone they consider a traitor. Some of the criticism from Bergdahl's former comrades has been out in public for several years, but now it's being resurfaced by conservative operatives who are making these soldiers available to the media.

CORNISH: And could this hurt the President politically?

LIASSON: Well, I think it can become a rallying cry for conservatives, like Benghazi did. But ironically, the first political casualty might be the Republican senator from Mississippi, Thad Cochran, who's locked in a very difficult reelection race primary with a tea party candidate. He tweeted a tweet that said, welcome home Sergeant Bergdahl. A grateful American thanks you for their - for your service. And he immediately got an avalanche of criticism for saying that from libertarians and tea party supporters, saying, Senator Thad Cochran praises deserter - thanks him for his service - that's reason enough to defeat him in Mississippi. So I think this is causing kind of crosscurrents everywhere.

But speaking of politics, Hillary Clinton has let it be known, through former aides, that she pushed for a tougher deal - more restrictions on the Taliban detainees once they were released and sent to Qatar. But when she was asked about the final deal today, she wouldn't say whether, if she had still been in the government, if she would have approved it.

CORNISH: So a lot of voices in the mix here, but so far, what has been the White House response?

LIASSON: Well, the White House says, this is what you call a hard choice. The military has an ethos that the President, as commander-in-chief, upheld. No one is left behind on the battlefield. That's separate from any disciplinary action that might be taken in the future against Bergdahl if, in fact, he did desert. As for the five guys, the White House says they are five Taliban operatives, not Al Qaeda, who have been out of circulation for 13 years and that the US is perfectly capable of tracking them anywhere.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Mara, could the White House really have avoided any of this firestorm?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. There are some people who question the decision to hold that ceremony in the Rose Garden with the parents, instead of doing it privately or leaving it to the defense department. White House aides say the President was leaving for Europe the next day. It was his decision. He had to own it. The parents happened to be in town, and they have been in regular contact with the White House for years. Then there's the controversy about Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, who went on a Sunday show to say that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. There really is a question about that. I think you can expect some clarifications of that statement in the future. But I do think the President is on the firmest ground when he sticks to the military ethos of leaving no one behind, and Republicans are on the weakest ground when they question whether the military should have expended any effort at all to get him back.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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