As a political firestorm engulfs the White House over that deal,
Reuters interviews with current and former Obama administration
officials involved in the negotiations, along with U.S. lawmakers,
reveal how a close-knit circle in the Obama administration pursued
the plan despite intense discord in the past over similar proposals.
The White House was ultimately persuaded to go ahead, in part, after
Qatar agreed to take the Taliban detainees and said it would allow
the United States to track the five men in the Gulf emirate. Under
that arrangement, the United States installed extensive surveillance
equipment to monitor their movements and communications, the
The deal, however, has caused an uproar among Republicans in
Congress, who have questioned both the secrecy of the prisoner swap
and the wisdom of freeing five Taliban prisoners. Some of Bergdahl's
former comrades have also accused him of deserting his post before
his capture by the Taliban in June 2009. The Pentagon has declined
to comment on those allegations.
While they were prepared for some political blowback, Obama
administration officials said they felt the outcry would have been
fiercer if in six months' time, as the United States wraps up its
mission in Afghanistan, it emerged that Obama had missed an
opportunity to secure Bergdahl's freedom.
The officials said Obama himself decided to make the swap and chose
to broadcast the news on national television with Bergdahl's parents
at the White House. He wanted to send a clear signal to Americans
that this was his decision and that he would uphold the maxim that
the United States will always bring home all its troops from the
battlefield, the officials said.
"The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is
we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind," Obama told
reporters in Warsaw on Tuesday.
Obama was aware that Bergdahl had been accused of desertion in
Afghanistan. But the vitriolic nature of the criticism has surprised
some in the Obama administration, the officials said.
The idea of swapping Bergdahl for Taliban detainees wasn't new. It
was first raised nearly four years ago and quickly ran into
opposition in the administration and Congress.
"There were real big, serious issues here about whether we should
exchange people, whether it would do any good” in terms of the
broader Afghan peace effort, said David Sedney, a deputy assistant
secretary of defense responsible for Afghanistan, who left
government in May 2013.
Sedney said he was skeptical of the deal while in government.
Officials involved in the diplomacy told Reuters that then-Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta and his predecessor, Robert Gates, along with
then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, initially raised strong
objections to exchanging Bergdahl for the five Taliban detainees.
At first, Clinton was deeply skeptical of talks with the Taliban,
but then supported a prisoner swap as a "confidence-building
measure" that would help start peace talks between the Afghan
government and the Taliban, the officials said. Those broader talks
never fully got under way, and Saturday’s prisoner exchange was all
that survived of that effort.
In public remarks this week, Clinton did not criticize Obama's
decision and said she supported the tradition of not leaving
soldiers behind on the battlefield. It was Clinton who authorized
the State Department-led talks with the Taliban, but "she set a high
bar and insisted on strict conditions for any deal," her spokesman
Nick Merrill said.
While Vice President Joe Biden was neutral on the prisoner swap,
Obama and two top White House advisers, then-national security
adviser Thomas Donilon and his deputy Denis McDonough, were all in
favor, one official said. Donilon resigned a year ago, but McDonough
went on to become Obama's chief of staff.
[to top of second column]
Obama oversees what many U.S. officials and independent political
analysts regard as one of the most insular national security teams
in modern times. Key decisions - and often, information - are
centralized at the White House with the president and a handful of
aides, some of whom have been with him since his first presidential
Gates, Panetta and Clinton raised numerous issues regarding the
sequencing of any prisoner release, the need to consult Congress and
conditions for monitoring the Taliban detainees, two officials said.
Panetta was not immediately available for comment on that account, a
firm that handles his communications said on Wednesday. A spokesman
for Gates declined to comment.
An earlier version of the deal, which U.S. envoys discussed directly
and indirectly with Taliban interlocutors, would have had two of the
five Taliban released at the same time as Bergdahl, two officials
said. The other three would be freed 90 days later.
The Taliban rejected that proposal, the officials said. Washington
also balked at some Taliban demands, refusing requests that the five
be allowed to travel outside Qatar post-release to Saudi Arabia for
religious purposes and to Europe for medical care.
The Taliban's chief negotiator, Tayeb Agha, noted at one point
during the talks that Israel had traded more than 1,000 prisoners
for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, two officials said. The
Taliban, he said, was asking only for five.
TALKS WITH QATAR
The possibility of a deal emerged just after Obama returned from a
lightning visit to Afghanistan on May 25, where he reiterated that
the U.S. combat mission would conclude by year-end.
Clinching it was a phone call Obama made two days later, on May 27,
with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who said
Qatari officials had agreed to measures to prevent at least an
immediate return to the battlefield of the five Taliban prisoners,
the officials said.
Those measures included the U.S. surveillance and a minimum one-year
ban on the released detainees leaving Qatar.
On May 28, Obama met with former Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin
Khalifa al-Thani at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New
York, where the president was making a speech. It is not clear
whether they discussed the impending prisoner swap.
While a rescue operation to snatch Bergdahl – believed by the U.S.
government to have been held in Pakistan’s tribal territories – was
discussed in the years after his capture, current and former U.S.
officials said the Obama administration never had enough reliable
intelligence on the soldier’s location to stage a raid.
Moreover, the geopolitical costs of doing so climbed steeply after
the May 2011 raid into Pakistan that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin
Laden, which sparked a rapid downturn in U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Another raid into Pakistani territory would have severely damaged
that relationship further.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Susan Cornwall and Patricia
Zengerle. Editing by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin)
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