GWEN IFILL: How the rescue of the last soldier held in Afghanistan turned into yet another fight between the White House and Congress and how a Mississippi Senate race could turn the midterm elections upside down, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) We have a basic principle. We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind.
MS. IFILL: If it weren’t real life, it would feel like a Hollywood plot. A soldier held hostage –
SERGEANT BEAU BERGDAHL: (From clip.) Release me, please, I’m begging you.
MS. IFILL: – five terrorists swapped in exchange for his freedom –
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-GA): (From clip.) A very dangerous precedent has been set here by this administration. It is a precedent negotiating with terrorists –
MS. IFILL: – setting off a political frenzy in Washington.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): (From clip.) It comes with some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation totally not following the law.
MS. IFILL: We explore the curious case of Army Sergeant Beau Bergdahl.
Plus politics of the more straightforward kind as a six-term senator and his tea party challenger battle to a tie.
CHRIS MCDANIEL: (From clip.) We sit here tonight leading a 42-year incumbent … But our fight is not over.
MS. IFILL: What does it say about the Senate and the senator?
And 70 years after D-Day.
Covering the week, Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post, David Sanger of The New York Times and Molly Ball of The Atlantic.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The negotiations to free Army Sergeant Beau Bergdahl had been underway for years. This is what the Obama administration now says it knew: Bergdahl had walked away from his outpost in the Afghanistan desert. After five years in captivity, he was the last American soldier held in America’s longest war. And to get him back, there would be a prisoner swap. This is what could not have been known when the president walked into the Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s last weekend: that the exchange would turn into such a huge flashpoint back home, for Democrats and Republicans.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From clip.) I remain increasingly convinced that we have now, the president has now set a precedent that will encourage enemies of the United States to target American men and women in uniform.
SENATOR JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): (From clip.) I think we agree that every soldier should be brought back under any circumstance. We leave no soldiers behind. With that being said, there’s a lot to be answered here, and there’s a lot of peculiar behavior that’s gone on between the family, this soldier and his actions.
MS. IFILL: Add to that the fact that the president did not notify Congress and that one of his top advisers described Bergdahl as a hero while those he served with did not, and you have a big messy story. David, did the White House see any of that coming?
DAVID SANGER: They sure didn’t see it coming with the ferocity that it arrived with, Gwen.
You know, there were really three big issues as you sort of sorted out this incredibly complex week. The first one was, was it worth going to all this effort and to do this kind of trade to rescue somebody who has been suspected of walking away from his post? And while that was the subject of some debate, I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, pretty well put that one away when he said, you know, what we do in the United States is we bring back everyone, and then we sort out how it was that they ended up leaving their post, getting captured. And so by the end of the week, that issue was going away.
But the two others weren’t. One of them was, could the president have notified Congress? Well, certainly he had time to because he had struck a deal with the Qatari government three weeks before this happened for how they would deal with the five Taliban being released by Guantanamo. So he had at least 21 days. He may not have had 30, but he had 21 days to go do this. And there were security concerns about doing it, but also, they knew what the reaction in Congress would be because the issue had come up in 2011 and 2012.
MS. IFILL: Let me ask Ed about the reaction in Congress. Did they see any of this coming?
ED O’KEEFE: They had been informed, at least senior lawmakers had been informed of the idea of swapping these five Taliban detainees for Bergdahl. As early as the fall of 2011, there had been a briefing for members of the House and members of the Senate around that time; it caused so much concern that they were firing off classified letters to the administration asking for more questions that by the end of January 2012, they had to hold another briefing to discuss this. Frankly, more recently it was in the pages of The Washington Post and elsewhere being publicly floated, the idea of a 5-for-1 swap. So for any lawmaker to really go out there and say we had no idea this was coming, look, if you’re a junior freshman lawmaker, maybe you didn’t know, but certainly senior leaders were aware, everyone from Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Boehner all the way through the Intelligence and Armed Services committees.
MS. IFILL: So if Congress knew about it in some form some time ago and the president had a little time to work with, as you suggest, David, then all that’s left to be believed is that the White house didn’t care if Congress knew.
MR. SANGER: Well, the White House cared because they knew that opposition was in fact pretty bipartisan, as you could tell from that intro that we had before. It was the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, who fired off some of those letters that Ed was talking about.
And that whole debate centered on the issue of whether or not it was worth releasing five hardened Taliban, including their former defense chief and their former intelligence chief, who had blood on their hands, not necessarily American blood but certainly the blood of many Shia who had been killed, and whether this was really a swap or whether this constituted negotiating with terrorists.
And that’s all a question of whether you view the end of a war. You know, Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, came out and said, this is what we do at the end of war. We exchange prisoners. Now, the other way to look at that is that the Taliban were never an organized force, and you can’t negotiate with them without negotiating with terrorists.
MS. IFILL: And some of this is about Guantanamo too?
MR. O'KEEFE: Absolutely, the president himself suggesting that tonight in his NBC interview that you have to whittle away at the number of prisoners who went in Guantanamo, he says, as part of this transition out of the war in Afghanistan. I think what he really did this week is sort of begin to require the country to begin thinking about that. You know, we are only a little more than a year away from ending this war, and it is going to require potentially emptying out Guantanamo Bay and, if not sending them overseas, finding a way to detain some of these people in the United States, for which there’s actually decent support on Capitol Hill.
MOLLY BALL: David, if the White House knew that this was going to be controversial, knew that there were these objections already in place to this idea that had been floated, you know, why do the Rose Garden ceremony, this sort of patriotic wrapping themselves in the flag with the parents? I mean, could they have done it differently, do you think, and gotten a different reaction?
MR. SANGER: Well, there’s several things they could’ve done differently, Molly.
I think the first one is they could’ve gone to what’s called the Gang of Eight. These are eight senior members of Congress who frequently get briefed on covert activities. And they don’t leak. And they could’ve said after they signed this deal with Qatar, you know, the president’s going to have to make some fast decisions here because it’s a difficult thing negotiating with the Taliban. If word leaks out, the whole deal could go away. But we want you to know we’re on the verge of doing this. And then they could’ve said, yeah, we consulted, even if – the law only requires they consult. It doesn’t require that they take Congress’ advice. I think that would’ve defused a lot.
I’m not sure how well they thought through the ceremony in the Rose Garden because once we saw some of the postings of Beau Bergdahl’s father, where he talked some about releasing all of the prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and so forth, I think there were some concerns about whether or not the president wanted to seem to be embracing that. The president’s answer is, look, these are parents who have gone through the worst possible thing. Their son has been through captivity for five years. You set aside politics and you welcome the son back.
MS. IFILL: But by Wednesday, the White House realized they had to brief congressional leaders and say this is why we did what we did. Did that work? What did they tell them, and did that work?
MR. O'KEEFE: Well, we know among other things – remember, it was just the Senate because the House was out this week – they showed senators the proof of life video that the administration had received – what was it, in December of last year or January –
MR. SANGER: December-January.
MR. O'KEEFE: – and sort of demonstrated to them why it was the president felt he needed to act. Now, after seeing that, several senators, guys like Mark Kirk walked out and said, I get it, I can understand why he felt emotionally compelled to do something as commander in chief to get this guy back.
MS. IFILL: He’s – Illinois Republican.
MR. O'KEEFE: Right. But on the flip side, a guy like Joe Manchin, a Democrat of West Virginia, walked out and said, yeah, I saw the video, but this still doesn’t do it for me. This doesn’t explain why he felt the need to swap five Taliban detainees for this one guy.
MR. SANGER: So it’s interesting: The White House then came out and arranged to do briefings for many of us that were presumably cleaned-up versions of the classified briefing. And one of the reasons that they offered was that there were splits in the Taliban, and they were concerned that the people who were literally holding Bergdahl, who included members of the Haqqani Network, which is something of a split-off group within the Taliban, may not have signed off on this whole trade and that when they heard about it if it had leaked out, they might simply kill Bergdahl right there rather than turn him back.
MR. O'KEEFE: But showing how fractured congressional response was this week, you ask senators who went to the briefing, was the concern about potential threats against Bergdahl if this leaked out discussed in the briefing? Some said no, and others said absolutely. So you had total confusion, even when they received the information from the administration, about what was actually said in the room. Was that because of partisan disagreement? Was that because they weren’t paying attention closely enough? Either way, people were even disagreeing about the information they’ve been given.
MS. BALL: Well, and the ostensible reason to show this video was about his condition, correct? It was about showing the shape that he was in and the reason that in looking at it, the administration felt that he had to be rescued. What do we know about his condition? What do we know about the array of threats that he might have been under?
MR. O'KEEFE: The guy who gave the best description, again, was Mark Kirk, who said that – and his is how he described it to us, he said, you could hear it in his voice. It was very shaky. This is how he described it to reporters. And he said, for a guy who was maybe 19, 20 years old, that’s not the kind of voice you expect to hear from an Army soldier. It was clear he was in duress. And because of that and all the other information the White House had at the time, they said they were told they believed they had to ct.
MS. IFILL: So by mid-week, the White House realized they had to defend what they had done a little bit more vigorously than they had. And the president was in Brussels as part of his European trip, and this is what he had to say.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated, and we were deeply concerned about it. And we saw an opportunity and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that.
MS. IFILL: The president is clearly not backing down, David, and neither is his national security adviser, Susan Rice, who was the one who said that the – that Bergdahl was a hero early in the week. And she said – repeated today she still believed him because – just by dint of his service to be a hero – or I don’t know if she used the word again. But the White house has decided they’ve got nowhere to go but to push on this forward on this one.
MR. SANGER: That’s right. And, you know, we don’t know how good his health was, but we do know that the White House believed, rightly or wrongly, that this was probably their last opportunity to get him back. And the reason for that is we’re leaving Afghanistan. And at that moment your ability to have the intelligence (even ?) about where he is, to have the leverage to conduct a negotiation –
MS. IFILL: Don’t we think the Taliban was also going to deal because of that very same thing?
MR. SANGER: Could well have been. Now, that takes you to the next question, though, which is when Susan Rice said that he had served with honor and distinction, what was she talking about? And what she said today, as you suggested, was he had signed up for service. I’ve had some people in the administration say to me since that if they had been advising her about how to speak on that Sunday show or subsequently, it would’ve been to say he served with distinction by signing up; we need to investigate how it was that he came to leave his post.
MS. IFILL: They-re very good at going back and trying to figure out how things should have been said after the fact.
MR. SANGER: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: But one of the things I’m curious about that members of Congress have been complaining about – and, as you pointed out early on, is one of the unanswered questions – is these five detainees, how dangerous are they and how worried are we that they could turn around and fight us again?
MR. O'KEEFE: And that’s one of the things – the one bit of recourse, perhaps, that Congress has is putting pressure on the White House to, OK, if you now think that they’re good enough to go, if not home, at least to Qatar for a year, then declassify all the information you have on them; show us why you think that is.
MS. IFILL: And what if –
MR. O'KEEFE: And whether or not that happens, it doesn’t matter because now they have sort of a way to continue raising doubts, sowing doubts about this, especially with House Republicans coming next week.
MS. IFILL: Which fits into that larger narrative about Obama’s foreign policy and whether he is weak and whether he is thoughtful enough and whether he’s taking the right actions.
MR. SANGER: Well, I don’t think there’s any question he’s a very thoughtful president. I mean, you see him think hard and talk a lot about why he makes the decisions that he does.
But I think one of the concerns is whether or not he is sufficient in pushing the concept of an America that remains strong. And that’s a difficult thing to do in a case like Afghanistan where we are leaving in an inconclusive war where we have not achieved almost any of the goals that George Bush laid out, and we haven’t even achieved many of the goals that President Obama talked about in the 2008 campaign, and then he did the surge, and then he convened a group whose name was so wonderful because it told you everything you need to know about the war; it was called the “Afghan good enough committee.” And that committee cut back what our objectives were. And now this looks like it fits into a narrative of let’s just get our guys and get out.
MR. O'KEEFE: One quick question I had for you because it became an issue as you talked to lawmakers this week, do we have any sense of how the opinions of military leaders have changed over the course of this? Because we know from the conversations that they had privately, in classified setting back in 2011, at least that there were many military leaders concerned about this. This week they’re coming out and saying, no, no big deal there.
MR. SANGER: That’s right. Among them were the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, who had opposed this, as had other military leaders, even when the release was in the service of the bigger goal trying to get the Taliban to talk a peace deal.
MS. IFILL: And there is talk that Hillary Clinton opposed it at the time when she was secretary of state, so that’s going to come back to resonate as well. Talk about that later.
Now we’re going to move on to plain old-fashioned straightforward politics and why the tea party, no matter what you may have heard, is not dead. One reason is Joni Ernst, the runaway winner in Iowa’s GOP Senate primary this week. And the other reason is Chris McDaniel, who battled six-term Republican incumbent Thad Cochran to a photo finish in the Mississippi nominating race. Cochran faces a runoff against McDaniel before the end of the month. But how did it come to this for someone who’s been in Congress and in the Senate, has delivered so much money for his home state over the years, Molly?
MS. BALL: Well, that’s really it, you know. The animating principle of the tea party, since they began and really gained steam and came out of nowhere in 2010, they really took a lot of longtime Republican incumbents by surprise because they felt that there was this gang of Republican officeholders who’d been in Washington too long and had gotten comfortable there and gotten used to going to cocktail parties and making compromises with Democrats and living in Washington, being out of touch with their home states and not being sufficiently conservative on the issues that matter.
And so there’s a real culture clash between the Republicans who felt that it was their job to get as much of that federal money as possible back to their home states, to work their way up on important committees and be significant serious policymakers in Washington, and that was what it meant to be a senator. And then there’s this new guard that says, no, what it means to be a senator is to vote “no” as often as possible and to stop evil legislation from being passed by President Obama and by Democrats, even to shut down the government if you have to, to use every weapon at your disposal to make sure that your agenda is pressed; otherwise, all you’re doing is being a partner, basically, in the bad legislation.
MS. IFILL: When I covered Dick Lugar’s race for re-election that he ultimately lost in his primary in Indiana a couple years ago, he at the time was – everybody saw him and – as the avuncular – Dick – Richard Lugar – they’d known him as long – he’d been their senator as long as they were alive. They liked him a lot, but they still in the end narrowly didn’t vote for him. Was it the same scenario playing out?
MS. BALL: It’s very similar for Thad Cochran. So Thad Cochran has been in Washington for 41 years. He’s seeking a seventh term in the Senate. And it’s not clear how much he wants it. He didn’t decide whether to run for re-election for the longest time. He didn’t have hardly any money in his campaign bank account. And then suddenly, last December, after he’d already drawn a tea party primary opponent, Chris McDaniel, he sort of said offhandedly, OK, I’ll run. And, you know, his campaign has not been particularly aggressive. He does not have a terrible amount of fire in the belly. And he’s sort of going around the state that he hasn’t spent a lot of time in since moving to Washington sort of trying to remind people, well, look at all this spending I brought home, look at all this money I’ve gotten for Mississippi. Mississippi gets about $3 from the federal government for every dollar they pay in taxes.
MS. IFILL: Little (tone deaf ?).
MS. BALL: And that’s not where the Republican Party is right now. The party has shifted under his feet. And he seems either unwilling or unable to speak the new language of the Republican base.
MR. O'KEEFE: Molly – go ahead, David.
MR. SANGER: I was – I was just going to ask, what could happen in this runoff? Because there is some sense that the people who did come out and voted for Thad Cochran the first time might not, having seen this result, develop much enthusiasm for coming out a second time.
MS. BALL: Well, runoffs are very unpredictable. And it’s easy to sort of make a theory about it going either way. On the one hand, Chris McDaniel supporters, the sort of hardcore conservative base, are very committed, very enthusiastic. They’re probably going to come out and vote no matter what. A lot of Thad Cochran’s supporters may be sort of soft, moderate establishment Republicans who, in the first round, felt complacent, felt that he couldn’t possibly lose, he’s such an institution in Mississippi, so maybe there’ll be even more motivated to come out now. Maybe Democrats and independents, the Cochran campaign is trying to get them to come out by scaring them about Chris McDaniel and how very conservative he is and some of the inflammatory things that he’s said and done and that his supporters have done. So you could see a scenario where, you know, the Cochran supporters who couldn’t be bothered the first time come out the second time. On the other hand, runoffs are usually very low turnout. There is nothing on the – really on the ballot. So it’s easy to imagine that the more committed side is the one that wins.
MR. O'KEEFE: Real quick, an assessment of GOP primaries to date.
MS. BALL: Well –
MS. IFILL: You got 20 seconds for that.
MS. BALL: You know, this is really the exception I think that proves the rule. This is the one contest where we’ve really seen a knock-down, drag-out fight between the Republican establishment in very pure form and the tea party in very pure form. Other than this, there have been a lot more ambiguous cases, a lot of cases where the right flank of the party has been co-opted by the establishment candidate, and there’s been much more harmony overall.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be watching all of that, and we’ll be talking a little bit about another race we saw over the week in Iowa. Thank you, everybody.
We have to leave you a few minutes early this week because we need you to support your local PBS station because they in turn support us. But stay tuned online for our live “Washington Week” webcast extra where, among other things, we’ll peek inside the early leaks on Hillary Clinton’s new book. That’s at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time.
Before we go, and as we debate the politics of wartime sacrifice in Afghanistan, we offer this tribute to the 20,000 Americans who gave their lives in the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day 70 years ago today.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) These men waged war so that we might know peace. They sacrificed so that we might be free. They fought in hopes of a day when we’d no longer need to fight. We are grateful to them. …
Whenever the world makes you cynical, stop and think of these men. Whenever you lose hope, stop and think of these men.
MS. IFILL: Nine thousand three hundred eighty-seven Americans, including three Medal of Honor recipients, are buried today at Omaha Beach. We are honored once again to be able to thank them for their service. And we’ll see you again here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.