How Obama Convinced His Spies to Support the Taliban Prisoner Release
Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community and military were opposed to freeing five senior Taliban commanders in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl when the White House first began exploring the prisoner swap in 2011 and 2012.
The U.S. military wanted to bring Bergdahl home, but releasing Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khairullah Khairkhwa, and Mohammed Nabi Omari was seen as too dangerous at the time.
James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, according to three U.S. intelligence officials flat out rejected the release of the five detainees, saying there was too high a risk these Taliban commanders would return to the battlefield and orchestrate attacks against Americans.
Clapper was not alone. Leon Panetta, who was then the Secretary of Defense, declined to certify that the United States could mitigate the risk to national interests of releasing the Taliban commanders.
A lot has changed since 2012. To start, President Obama won reelection. Panetta is gone, and in his place is Chuck Hagel, a Republican former senator who has been much more in sync with Obama’s views on the war on terror than his predecessors.
But current U.S. intelligence and defense officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on Monday say the process for exchanging Taliban for Bergdahl this time was rushed and closely held, in some instances leaving little room for any push back against a policy clearly favored by the White House.
“This was an example of forcing the consensus,” one U.S. military official said. “The White House knew the answer they wanted and they ended up getting it.”
The White House did not even consult or inform Congress until after the prisoner release had begun. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Daily Beast, “Should we have gotten advance warning? I actually think so.” She added, “We had participated in a number of briefings some time ago [on a possible future deal] and there was considerable concern.”
At the end of the day, both Hagel and Clapper supported Obama’s decision. Hagel was willing to make the certification that the risk to U.S. interests posed by releasing the “Gitmo Five” was mitigated in part by the assurances of the Qatari government.
“Like others, DNI Clapper had concerns about these individuals,” said Clapper spokesman Shawn Turner. “However the agreement that was reached and circumstances under which these individuals will be monitored was sufficient enough to convince the DNI the risks had been mitigated.”
But the process for getting there was rushed, according to U.S. intelligence officials. This time around there was no formal intelligence assessment of, for example, the risks posed by releasing the Taliban commanders. While some intelligence analysts looked at the issue, no community-wide intelligence assessment was produced, according to these officials.
U.S. officials say that this time around there were three factors that swayed Clapper to support the deal. To start, the guarantee from the Kingdom of Qatar to monitor the detainees for a year under a loose form of house arrest. When the deal was first explored in 2011 and 2012, there was no such offer from a third party.
One senior U.S. intelligence official said the Qatar arrangement would allow the detainees to receive international visitors but would not allow them to travel for a year. “This is not a situation like returning detainees to Yemen, where there was a risk of a breakout,” one former senior Obama counterterrorism official said. “I expect the Qataris would keep them under house arrest but certainly communications with the Taliban are quite possible. After the first year there are no controls and they still will pose a danger to U.S. interests in Afghanistan.”
Another factor that changed Clapper’s view on the trade was that the five Taliban officials no longer had access to the same network of fighters that they would have had they been released several years ago. “A lot of their networks are decimated at this point,” one U.S. intelligence official said.
Finally, by the time the detainees will be allowed to leave Qatar, U.S. troops will be in the process of the final withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Anand Gopal, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and the author of No Good Men Among the Living, a history of the Afghan conflict, agreed. “I am a little surprised they did not think the networks were decimated in 2012,” he said. “The Taliban may be hoping these guys are going to rejoin the fight, but this is mainly a huge propaganda win.”
Indeed, even Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban that escaped the U.S. military in the first months of the 2001 invasion. said the prisoner swap brought his organization “closer to the harbor of victory.”
For now, U.S. counterterrorism officials are hoping that the prisoner swap will only be a propaganda victory and will not result in the Taliban regaining territory in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws. But many in Congress have their doubts.
“These people are the top fighters selected by the Taliban,” said Senator John McCain. “One of them could be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Shia Muslims. These are the worst of the worst, the hardest of the hardcore… they’re committed to killing Americans, they’re committed—that’s why they weren’t eligible for release before.”
Tim Mak contributed to this report.