The senior Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said today that the Obama administration specifically told him the Taliban commanders released from Guantanamo wouldn’t be be used in a prisoner swap without consulting Congress.
Afghanistan’s Tolo News described the deep roots of the commanders exchanged: Mullah Khairullah Khair Khawah, who served as minister of interior and governor of Herat under the Taliban government; Mullah Fazel Mazloom, the Taliban Army chief of staff; Mawlawi Abdul Haq Waseeq, the deputy head of intelligence under the Taliban; Mawlawi Noorullah Noori, former governor of Balkh and later Kandahar army chief for the Taliban; and Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Omeri, a senior Taliban leader in southern Afghanistan.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) stressed that the U.S. “has a long-standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists,” adding he’s “deeply troubled the Obama administration not only broke this policy, but also did so without the notification or consent of Congress, as required by law.”
“Six months ago, I was assured by the administration they would not consider the release of these senior Taliban leaders without consulting Congress. Today, they violated that commitment,” Chambliss said. “The security assurances the United States has been given regarding these terrorists is feeble at best, and I fear it is only a matter of time before they resume their terrorist activities.”
“These men are not soldiers; they are dangerous terrorists and President Obama should be treating them as such.”
The Taliban prisoners were released to Qatar, where the Taliban said they’ll lead a “normal life” with their families.
“The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security,” Obama said yesterday in the Rose Garden with Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s family.
On NBC this morning, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the deal a possible “new opening that can produce an agreement” with the Taliban as the U.S. prepares to exit Afghanistan.
“As to notification of congress, yes, there is a 30-day notification. I notified the appropriate committee leadership, different committee leadership yesterday. That’s part of the responsibility I have as the secretary of Defense and we did this under the timeline we did for …to save the life of Sergeant Bergdahl,” Hagel said. “As I said before, we had information that his health could be deteriorating rapidly. There was a question about his safety. We found an opportunity. We took that opportunity. I’ll stand by that decision. I signed off on the decision. The president made the ultimate decision. We did spend time looking at this.”
A congressional staffer told PJM two weeks ago that “all sourcing” indicated “there’s been ample opportunity to secure his release” over the past five years.
The release came, though, days after Obama announced his timetable for Afghanistan withdrawal and laid out his broader foreign policy strategy in a pair of speeches. It also comes as he’s been angling to close Guantanamo and butting heads with members of Congress about what to do with its occupants.
“The president has made very clear he wants to close Guantanamo. We do have responsibilities that we don’t let anyone out of Guantanamo, and I will not sign off on any detainee coming out of Guantanamo unless I am assured, unless our government is assured, our country can be assured that we can sufficiently mitigate any risk to America’s security,” Hagel said.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists. As I said and explained before, Sergeant Bergdahl is a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.”
The Defense Department officially classified Bergdahl as “missing-captured” in early July 2009.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the timing of the deal “a little coincidence that on the day that Bergdahl is released is the day after we found out that the first American suicide bomber was part of Muslim extremists, al-Qaeda, blew himself up in Syria because we got out of Iraq, which we — when we could have left forces behind, and now the Iraq-Syria border is a haven for these people.”
“And the fact is that al-Qaeda is reconstituted,” he added.
McCain acknowledged that Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, was opposed to a swap for Bergdahl. “There was discussions that I heard way back as far back as two years ago to release these people. There was a bipartisan opposition to that,” he said, adding of the Taliban five, “There’s no doubt they will reenter the fight.”
National Security Adviser Susan Rice told CNN this morning that the deal to free Bergdahl “evolved over a period of time.”
“In fact, going back some years, we have had intermittent conversations through the government of Qatar about trying to obtain the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl,” Rice said. “It was an extraordinary day yesterday and an extraordinary day for America, because a member of our armed forces who had been in captivity almost five years will now be reunited with his mother and father, whom we had the opportunity to see yesterday and who are over the moon.”
Rice also denied that the White House negotiated with terrorists. “We actually negotiated with the government of Qatar… but the point is, he was being held by the Taliban.”
“This opportunity is one that has been briefed to Congress when we had past potential to have this kind of arrangement. So, it wasn’t unknown to Congress. The Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice,” she said. “And given the acute urgency of the health condition of Sergeant Bergdahl, and given the president’s constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement, because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sergeant Bergdahl would have been lost.”
“…When the deal was done and Sergeant Bergdahl was in U.S. custody is when we began making notifications to Congress.”
Rice wouldn’t delve into the security arrangements with Qatar for the housing of the Taliban commanders, but they have to stay there for at least a year with “restrictions on their movement and behavior.”
When asked whether the deal increases the risk for other Americans of being taken hostage, Rice replied, “I think the terrorists are intent on doing what they are going to do.”