WASHINGTON — Joy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl yielded Sunday to questions about Obama administration decision-making in the deal for the American prisoner of war, which included the release of five high-ranking Afghan Taliban detainees.
Congressional Republicans and others focused on a series of concerns that are likely to reverberate in coming days: whether the deal breached U.S. policy forbidding negotiations with terrorists, whether sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure that the released Taliban prisoners do no further harm to the United States, and whether Congress was informed about the prisoner trade, as required by law.
Separately, some inside the military raised questions about the cost associated with rescuing Bergdahl, who walked off his base and away from his unit five years ago after becoming disillusioned with the war effort.
Most of the immediate concern expressed by military experts, including a former national security adviser to President Obama, centered on the five Taliban prisoners who were released Saturday from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“It’s very, very important for the government of Qatar to make sure that these people are kept under control and do not return to the battlefield,” said Gen. James Jones, who served as Obama’s national security adviser until November 2010. He noted in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” that previously released Taliban prisoners had returned to the battlefield.
Susan Rice, the current national security adviser, said Sunday that the White House had received a “series of very specific assurances” from the government of Qatar about its role in keeping the released prisoners in the Persian Gulf state. The promises the emir of Qatar made directly to Obama “enable us to have confidence that these prisoners will be carefully watched, that their ability to move will be constrained. And we believe that this is in the national security interests of the United States,” Rice said.
The released Afghan detainees, including former Taliban deputy defense minister Mohammad Fazl, will be subject to a year-long travel ban in Qatar, according to a memorandum of understanding signed by U.S. and Qatari officials.
The Obama administration declined to provide details of the memo, and congressional Republicans expressed concern about it Sunday.
“It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight,” Sen. John McCain, Ariz., said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“These are the hardest of the hard-core,” said McCain, who was held prisoner for more than five years in Vietnam after his plane was shot down during that war.
On Saturday evening, McCain said that he shared “the joy that the Bergdahl family feels.” But he said that he is “eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States.”
Separately, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the White House made a mistake by deciding to “negotiate with terrorists” for the release of prisoners. He said the deal puts other Americans at risk from a group that routinely uses kidnappings and ransom demands to get results.
“This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages,” Rogers said late Saturday. He has called for a full Intelligence Committee review of the matter. On Sunday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said his panel will hold hearings on the prisoner exchange.
The congressional queries provoked a strong response from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who stopped in Afghanistan on Saturday while en route from Asia to meetings in Brussels.
“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Hagel said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Since the negotiations were handled mostly by Qatar, the United States did not negotiate directly with the Taliban. The administration’s announcement of Bergdahl’s release said only that negotiations began several weeks ago through the government of Qatar, and there was no indication of any direct contact between the United States and the Taliban.
Congressional Republicans have complained that the administration did not consult with Congress about the negotiations within 30 days of the prisoners’ release, as required by law.
“I think they violated the law,” Rogers said. “There is a reason that Congress is involved by law, by statute, by constitutional authority in these decisions,” he added, noting that plans to raid the compound of Osama bin Laden were shared with key members of Congress months before the event. “So some notion that this (Bergdahl rescue) was so secretive and so sensitive that it couldn’t happen is just wrong,” Rogers said.
The commander of the U.S. Special Operations team that retrieved Bergdahl on Saturday was in direct contact with his Taliban counterpart as the two sides arranged and approached their rendezvous near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, senior Defense Department officials said.
Officials said “dozens” of Special Forces troops went to the site in helicopters for the meeting with the 18 Taliban members delivering Bergdahl, while additional militants waited in the distance.
After being released by his Afghan captors, Bergdahl walked onto the waiting U.S. aircraft.
Once airborne, he scribbled the letters “SF?” on a paper plate, seeking confirmation that he was with Special Forces troops.
“Yes!” one of the troops yelled back above the din of the aircraft’s blades, according to a defense official who described Bergdahl’s first moments of freedom. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
Bergdahl then broke down in tears.