WASHINGTON — It was supposed to spark a national celebration. Instead, the White House now faces another political mess.
The furor over the swap of American POW Bowe Bergdahl for five top Taliban commanders has angered key members of Congress, including some top Democrats. It has fueled a debate about the wisdom of President Obama's decision-making on national security. And it has revived questions about whether a top official, dispatched to make the administration's case on Sunday morning talk shows, was straight with the American public.
It's a long way from the glowing Rose Garden event Saturday when Obama stood between Bergdahl's overjoyed parents to announce his release on national television.
The list of complaints that have erupted since then sound a lot like Benghazi, the attack in Libya from 2012 that continues to be the topic of congressional inquiry. This time, it's the decision to release Taliban fighters from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay without informing Congress beforehand — as required by law — and apparently without fully appreciating questions about the circumstances behind his capture in Afghanistan five years ago.
Like Benghazi, the issue seems all but certain to be dissected at congressional hearings, to be fodder for political ads and to raise questions for Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of State was part of earlier deliberations over winning Bergdahl's release.
The White House, trying to quell increasing criticism on Capitol Hill, was sending a team of top State Department, Pentagon and intelligence officials to meet in a closed session for the full Senate on Wednesday night.
"He thought everybody would be cheering," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said of the president in an interview Wednesday on Fox's On the Record. suggesting that Obama didn't consult with Congress for fear some might object to the swap. "But when we see these five guys on TV, it reminds every American that radical Islam is our enemy, and that he's let our enemy out."
To be sure, much remains unknown: How Bergdahl was captured, how he has been treated, the state of his health and more. The criticism isn't focused on the administration's determination to win his release, especially as U.S. forces continue to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Instead, the controversy is centered on:
• The wisdom of the deal. Could the decision to release the Taliban commanders encourage terrorist groups elsewhere to try to capture American soldiers, diplomats or citizens in hopes of winning a valuable reward for their release? And will these five particular commanders return to wage war against the United States and its allies?
While prisoner exchanges are a standard part of the conduct of war, political scientist Christopher Gelpi of Ohio State University cites as potentially problematic the administration's equivalent treatment of an American POW and Gitmo detainees, who have not been granted POW status by the U.S. government. What's more, the administration negotiated the swap with the Taliban, not the Afghan government.
"Once again, the U.S. may appear to be granting the Taliban some legitimacy as an international actor, and in doing so may undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government," says Gelpi, chairman of OSU's Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution program.
• The decision not to inform Congress beforehand. Federal law requires the Defense secretary to notify Congress 30 days before a Gitmo detainee is transferred. This time, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel didn't alert key members of Congress until the transfer was taking place.
That brought a flood of protests, including from some Democrats typically allied with the White House. Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, questioned the administration's argument that Bergdahl's failing health meant there was no time to let Congress know.
• The characterization of Bergdahl's record. On Sunday, national security adviser Susan Rice said on ABC's This Week that Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction." In 2012, when she was United Nations ambassador, it was Rice who delivered talking points about Benghazi on Sunday morning TV shows that critics call misleading and politically calculated.
Since Bergdahl's release, soldiers from his unit have done interviews accusing him of walking away from his post on his own volition.
"I believe that he totally deserted not only his fellow soldiers but his leadership that wanted the best for him and our country," Justin Gerleve, Bergdahl's former squad leader, said in an interview Wednesday on CNN's The Lead. Although he agreed the U.S. should have worked to bring Bergdahl home, the former staff sergeant said: "I feel like the hero's welcome is not right."
The issue dogged Obama on his European tour, overshadowing his meeting Wednesday with the newly elected president of Ukraine and a muscular foreign policy address in Poland. It has erupted as Clinton prepares for a publicity tour surrounding the publication next week of memoirs of her tenure at the State Department, Hard Choices.
Richard Eichenberg, a political scientist at Tufts University, says this decision may reflect a new chapter in Obama's presidency.
"I would speculate that the president is entering a phase where he feels that if he has tough decisions to make, he's going to have to make them," he says, noting also the announcement Monday of tough EPA restrictions aimed at addressing climate change. "He's given up any hope of finding bipartisan solutions or getting a bipartisan reception on some of them. It looks to me as though he's going to do what he thinks is right and absorb the partisan criticism that comes with it."