Bergdahl reaches Germany as U.S. officials defend exchange that won his release

James Rosen | Tribune Media,Hannah Allam

President Barack Obama’s top national security aides on Sunday defended the deal that freed an Army sergeant captured in Afghanistan in exchange for five senior Taliban officials held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba even as the Taliban’s leader hailed the release as “a great victory.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s health was deteriorating and that his life was in danger, while White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the deal met a “a sacred obligation” to bring Bergdahl home.

Prominent Republican lawmakers continued their criticism of the deal, however, even as Bergdahl, who spent nearly five years in Taliban custody, arrived at a U.S. military hospital in Germany for medical treatment and debriefing by intelligence experts. It was still uncertain when he would return to the United States.

At a news conference in Boise, Idaho, Bergdahl’s parents, Jani and Bob Bergdahl, who met with Obama Saturday at the White House, said that they had yet to speak with their son, something that Bob Bergdahl said was by design. “If he comes up too fast, it could kill him,” Bob Bergdahl explained, comparing his son to a deep sea diver who must go through slow decompression when surfacing.

Bob Bergdahl said the family was being advised by a psychiatrist on what to expect from their son and that planning for his return had begun four years ago. He suggested for a second time in two days that his son may be having trouble speaking English after five years in captivity.

“I hope your English is coming back,” he said in remarks addressed to his son.

In a rare statement, Taliban leader Mullah Omar credited “the sacrifice of our mujahedin” for leading to the release of “our senior leaders from the hands of the enemy” and called for the release of “all those who have been imprisoned for defending the honor and freedom of their country.”

In comments on Sunday morning news programs, Republicans were unanimous in saying the the deal would embolden U.S. enemies to take other Americans hostage and that Obama had violated the law that requires that Congress be notified 30 days in advance of any release of Guantanamo detainees.

Obama advisers fired back by saying Republicans would be in full attack mode if the U.S. government had squandered an opportunity to gain Bergdahl’s release.

Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Asia, Hagel also left open the possibility that the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture might one day be investigated, but said that was not the Pentagon’s first priority. Bergdahl was first noticed missing from his base in Afghanistan June 30, 2009, amid allegations that he left the base voluntarily.

“Sgt. Bergdahl is a member of the United States Army,” Hagel said. “He's a sergeant in the United States Army. Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family. Other circumstances that may develop and questions, those will be dealt with later.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate, said the United States had paid “a very dangerous price” for Bergdahl’s freedom.

“I do not think the way to deal with terrorists is through releasing other violent terrorists,” Cruz told ABC’s “This Week” program.

Suggesting that the United States could have used military force to rescue Bergdahl, Cruz said: “The reason why the U.S. has had the policy of not negotiating with terrorists is because once you start doing it, every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers.”

Hagel dismissed that line of criticism.

“As we know certainly from what we’re dealing with all over the world today with terrorist groups, they take hostages,” Hagel said. “They take innocent schoolgirls. They take business people. They will take any target that they can get to. So, again, our focus was on the return of Sgt. Bergdahl.”

The controversy opened a similar debate in the United States that Israelis have engaged in for decades.

While Israel’s official line has long been that it never negotiates with terrorists, successive governments under the leadership of various political parties have cut deals that freed Palestinian and other prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldiers. In 2011, for example, Israel released hundreds of jailed Palestinians, including several who’d been convicted of terrorist attacks and murders, in return for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

New details also emerged about the exchange, a logistically complicated swap that required coordination across 8,000 miles and years of hatred and distrust.

A U.S. official involved in the release effort, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deal, said the deal relied on mutual Taliban and U.S. trust for intermediaries from Qatar, the Persian Gulf emirate that brokered the exchange and was the destination for the five Taliban after their release Saturday.

The deal called for the Taliban to move first, the official said, surrendering Bergdahl to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. Once that had been accomplished, the five Taliban were to be brought from their cell blocks at Guantanamo and turned over to Qatari diplomats, who other officials said had arrived at the detention center on Friday. The five Taliban detainees and their Qatari escorts then boarded a U.S. aircraft for the flight to Qatar.

According to the timeline U.S. officials have provided, the exchange was completed in less than four hours, with Bergdahl in U.S. hands at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time Saturday and the five Taliban prisoners “wheels up” from Guantanamo before 2 p.m. EDT.

“A lot of it was in the hands of the Qataris,” the official said. “They were a linchpin here, and there was trust placed in them. Obviously, the Guantanamo detainees didn’t get on the plane until we had Bergdahl.”

The official said a security arrangement for how the release detainees would be dealt with had been agreed to with the Qataris, though he declined to get into specifics, such as whether the former prisoners would be kept in a detention facility, placed under house arrest or go through a rehabilitation program like the one Saudi Arabia created for its Guantanamo returnees.

“We’ve worked out a series of security arrangements which are not terribly different from those that are in place with other countries,” the official said. “We’re not going to transfer anyone from Guantanamo unless we’re confident that the threat they pose is substantially mitigated.”

Rice, appearing on the ABC television show “This Week,” said the government of Qatar had a “detailed understanding” with the United States over the security of the five released Guantanamo detainees, who are to remain in Qatar for at least a year under the accord that freed Bergdahl.

The U.S.-Qatar understanding, Rice said, was spelled out Tuesday in a personal communication between Obama and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani.

“And those assurances relating to the movement, the activities, the monitoring of those (five) detainees give us confidence that they cannot and, in all likelihood, will not pose a significant risk to the United States,” Rice said.

Rice acknowledged that Obama had skirted the law by failing to notify Congress of plans to release the detainees. But she said lawmakers should not have been surprised by what developed because lawmakers “were well aware that this idea and this prospect” were in the works because of “extensive consultations with Congress” about earlier negotiations to free Bergdahl.

That explanation didn’t satisfy Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who himself was a POW in Vietnam.

McCain said he was disturbed that the Taliban had chosen the five detainees to be released from Guantanamo. He branded them “the hardest of the hard-core.” All five were on the Obama administration’s indefinite detention list, a status that meant they were slated to be held forever by the United States, without facing criminal charges. Their transfer dropped the number of such “forever prisoners” held at Guantanamo from 43 to 38.

“If they’re able to have _ after a year in Qatar _ to do whatever they want to do, there’s no doubt they will reenter the fight,” McCain said CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Other ones who have been released from Guantanamo Bay have reentered the fight.”

Qatar kept mum on its brokering of the deal. Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah acknowledged his country’s role, saying “when it comes to humanitarian matters, the emir does not hesitate.” But there was no reference to what had taken place on the Foreign Ministry’s website, and al Jazeera, the satellite news channel that the emir owns, offered no particularly revealing reporting on the exchange.

At Guantanamo, prison facility spokesmen would not say how, if at all, the remaining 149 detainees had reacted to the Taliban transfer. Of the five people transferred, three had been there as long as the detention center has existed. The other two arrived in the center’s first year.

The detention center’s population was almost certainly aware that they were gone _ and quite likely knew the circumstances of their departure. Despite U.S. claims that they were too dangerous to be considered for release, the five had been kept in communal cellblocks reserved for captives deemed compliant, where the detainees typically are allowed to see news broadcasts that include information about prisoner releases.

But the prison camp’s senior spokesman declined Sunday to make any comment about the transfer, including refusing to confirm whether compliant prisoners still had access to news programming.  

“Normal state operations continue,” the spokesman, Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, said in an email.

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald contributed to this report from Washington.

By James Rosen and Hannah Allam
McClatchy Washington Bureau