watchdog finds Pentagon broke law in Bergdahl transfer
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[August 22, 2014]
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Defense
Department violated U.S. law by failing to alert Congress before
releasing five Taliban members held at Guantanamo Bay military prison in
exchange for a captured U.S. soldier, a government watchdog agency said
The Government Accountability Office said the Pentagon broke the
law by using money appropriated by Congress to carry out the
transfer of Guantanamo prisoners without giving lawmakers the
required 30-day notice.
"In addition, because DoD (the Department of Defense) used
appropriated funds to carry out the transfer when no money was
available for that purpose, DoD violated the Antideficiency Act"
barring agencies from spending more than authorized, the GAO said in
a letter posted on its website.
The GAO assessment was requested by Republican lawmakers who were
angered over the lack of notice they'd received about the U.S.
decision in May to transfer five Taliban prisoners to Qatar in
exchange for the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence, said the GAO finding validated the view
that President Barack Obama had "completely disregarded laws duly
passed by Congress and signed by his own hand" by allowing a
prisoner transfer that cost almost $1 million.
"This latest overreach regarding our national security has dangerous
implications," Chambliss said in a statement. "The United States has
a longstanding policy of not negotiating with terrorists for good
reason, and these senior Taliban leaders will soon rejoin the
But the Pentagon defended the transfer, insisting the prisoner swap
to recover Bergdahl was conducted lawfully after consultations with
the Justice Department.
"The administration had a fleeting opportunity to protect the life
of a U.S. service member held captive and in danger for almost five
years," said Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
He said it was necessary to forego the notice to obtain Bergdahl's
The Defense Department told the GAO that Defense Secretary Chuck
Hagel authorized the exchange based on a section of the law that
allows transfers of Guantanamo prisoners if actions are being taken
to reduce the risk that they will re-engage in hostile activity.
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The Pentagon told the GAO it did not believe the failure to give
30-days notice would make it unlawful to approve a prisoner transfer
that was otherwise permitted under the law. And similarly, payment
for the transfer would be lawful.
The GAO disagreed with the Pentagon's interpretation, saying it
would make the 30-day notification requirement "meaningless."
Bergdahl spent five years as a Taliban captive after walking away
from his outpost in Afghanistan.
His release was greeted by an initial wave of euphoria, but the
prisoner swap deal triggered a backlash among U.S. lawmakers angry
over the Democratic administration's failure to give 30 days notice
as stated in the law. Some of Bergdahl's former Army comrades also
charged that he had deserted.
Bergdahl returned to active duty after receiving treatment for
several weeks. He is hoping to return to civilian life, his attorney
said this week.
Army Major General Kenneth Dahl is currently investigating the
circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance to determine
whether he broke any military laws. He interviewed Bergdahl earlier
this month and is expected to report on the case soon.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Leslie Adler and Ken
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