Senior Republican lawmakers are sharply criticizing the Obama administration over its decision to swap five senior Taliban prisoners imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier held by Taliban forces since 2009.
On a series of Sunday talk shows, Republican lawmakers slammed the decision to carry out the prisoner swap as a dangerous concession to the militant group and a violation of long-standing U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorist groups. They also said the White House had violated a law requiring the administration to give Congress 30 days notice before such a swap.
"The question going forward is have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?" Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texan Republican, said on ABC’s "This Week." "I do not think the way to deal with terrorists is through releasing other violent terrorists."
With Republicans blasting the Obama administration for, in their view, surrendering to terrorist hostage taking, the White House is defending the move as an effort to bring back a prisoner of war and show other troops the lengths to which Washington will go to ensure that none are left on the battlefield. On Sunday, administration officials said the swap was in line with the military’s commitment to see all its soldiers return from war, as a reflection of its "leave no man behind" ethos.
"Sgt. Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war, captured on the battlefield," National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on "This Week." "We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our Republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who were taken in battle."
Appearing earlier on CNN’s "State of the Union," Rice said the Justice Department had signed off on the trade before it was carried out and that the administration felt it had a narrow window to act.
"We didn’t have 30 days," she said.
As part of the terms of the Bergdahl release, the five Taliban men held at Guantanamo will be transferred to Qatar, whose government mediated the talks and who has offered guarantees to the United States that the five will not be allowed to leave the country for at least one year. But on Sunday, Republican lawmakers questioned those guarantees and said they feared the men, all senior Taliban fighters, will be allowed to return to the battlefield.
"These are the hardest of the hard-core. These are the highest high-risk people," Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said on CBS’s "Face the Nation." "It is disturbing that these people would have the ability to re-enter the fight and they are big, high level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands."
According to a Washington Post review of the detainees swapped for Bergdahl, the agreement will allow the release of a group of hard-bitten Taliban fighters and officials. One of the men, Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, served as the Taliban interior minister during the 1990s. Mullah Mohammad Fazl is believed to have overseen the killings of thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. He is also thought to have been present at the Afghan prison riot that resulted in the death of CIA agent Johnny Spann, the first American casualty of the war in Afghanistan. Also present at the killing of Spann was Mullah Norullah Noori, a former Taliban provincial governor now set for release. Another militant being freed as part of the deal, Abdul Haq Wasiq, served as the Taliban’s deputy intelligence chief. Lastly, Mohammad Nabi Omari was a member of joint a Taliban-al Qaeda cell in Khost and is described by his case file as "one of the most significant former Taliban leaders" held at the prison in Cuba.
Speaking to ABC, Rice underlined that the administration has received what it believes to be a firm commitment from the Qatari government that the men will not threaten the United States. "Assurances relating to the movement, the activities, the monitoring of those detainees give us confidence that they cannot and, in all likelihood, will not pose a significant risk to the United States," she said. The exact terms of the agreement with Qatar remain unclear.
Republicans in Congress are questioning whether the White House, by failing to notify Capitol Hill of the impending prisoner swap, may have violated a law that requires the executive branch to inform Congress at least 30 days in advance of a detainee leaving Guantanamo Bay, where the five Taliban men traded for Bergdahl had been held.
"The release of five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially without coming to Congress. It says in the law you have to notify Congress," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican.
The administration counters by pointing out that when Obama signed that law last year, he issued a statement saying that the measure violated his powers as commander in chief and that he reserved the right to ignore it, particularly in cases of emergency.
Speaking on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that the swap had been spurred by concerns over Bergdahl’s health and an imminent threat to his life. "This was essentially an operation to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel said.
The swap for Bergdahl comes on the heels of Obama’s announcement that he will leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2015, with the vast majority leaving the following year. Bergdahl’s release marked a rare bit of good news about the long and deeply unpopular war. He was the sole American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and his continued captivity had been hanging over the American withdrawal as a painful piece of unfinished business in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.