WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Obama administration has argued that exchanging five high-risk Taliban commanders imprisoned at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, (GTMO) was the only contemplated option to repatriate accused deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
However, a recently released report by the House Armed Services Committee and congressional testimony by a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel revealed that multiple alternatives were on the table, including options that apparently did not involve prisoner swaps.
Each one of the detainees were deemed “high” risk to the United States and its allies by the Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) review board convened on the orders of President Obama to evaluate the detainees held at the detention center to recommend how they should be disbursed.
Moreover, senior intelligence officials told lawmakers that the top five Taliban commanders—Mohammad Fazl, Mohammed Nabi, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Norullah Nori, and Khairullah Khairkhwa—were likely to return to terrorist activities against the U.S. if they were liberated.
That was confirmed recently by a House Armed Services Committee report, which revealed that “at least three” of the Taliban fighters have resumed “threatening activities” after being released to Qatar from Guantánamo Bay in May 2014.
The report also highlighted contemplated options other than the Taliban Five swap that could have resulted in the release of Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban in June 2009 after deserting his post in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, in June 2014, when testifying before the House Armed Services Committee about the Taliban Five prisoner swap, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel indicated that the exchange was the only alternative available to the Pentagon to repatriate Bergdahl.
“This was the one option that we had,” responded Secretary Hagel when he was asked if the trade was the only non-military option available.
Hagel also said the Taliban Five recovery option “looked like the best,” adding that no other “non-kinetic” alternatives were “serious.”
He also stressed that the Taliban Five exchange “was the one that was on the table that was the most realistic [and] viable.”
The committee, however, found that there were multiple alternatives offered, including options that reached “advanced stages.”
Committee investigators accused senior military officials of withholding what they knew about alternative repatriation options for Sgt. Bergdahl and of portraying the Taliban Five swap, which was backed by the Obama administration, as the only viable option being pursued.
In 2012, revealed in the House report, then-Lt. Gen. John Campbell, deputy chief of staff of the Army for operations and plans at the time, asked U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jason Amerine to help with the Bergdahl rescue. Lt. Col. Amerine was assigned to the U.S. Army’s directorate of operations and plans headquarters staff at the time. He worked on the Pentagon’s hostage policy.
Lt. Col. Amerine told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in June that he came close to reaching a deal to trade Haji Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban-linked warlord and drug trafficker known as the Pablo Escobar of Afghanistan, for at least six Westerners, including Bergdahl.
Once the Taliban got involved in the negotiations, the Obama administration decided that trading five Taliban commanders was the “only viable option,” said the lieutenant colonel.
Amerine, one of his subordinates, and a superior briefed Lt. General Campbell and presented “five potential activities” to rescue Bergdahl, noted the House report.
“Classification restrictions” prevented the House panel from providing a full description of the five alternatives to the Taliban Five swap.
On about May 3, Lt. Col. Amerine’s office obtained “formal authority from the secretary of defense to exercise” three of the five options, revealed the House investigation.
By then, the Obama administration had already decided to make the May 31 five-for-one prisoner exchange, noted the House investigation.
Another considered option was an alleged FBI plan to pay a ransom for Bergdahl. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Lt. Col. Amerine claim the Obama administration paid a ransom in hopes of liberating Bergdahl.
“What we know is that non-DOD [Department of Defense] organizations, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), undertook the recovery mission,” Rep. Hunter wrote in a letter Friday to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG), echoing comments made by Amerine before the Senate panel in June.
“In fact, in February 2014, it was the FBI that disclosed to military officials that Bergdahl’s release was imminent; however, after several days, nothing happened,” Hunter said.
The Daily Beast first reported on Hunter’s letter, which was later obtained by Breitbart News.
The Obama administration “paid [the] Haqqani Network for Bergdahl’s release and received nothing in return,” wrote the California Republican. The Haqqani Network, which has a history of negotiating for prisoners, is a known Taliban ally that operates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Although the Obama administration denies paying a ransom for Bergdahl, the Pentagon has conceded that the U.S. government does “on occasion,” pay money “to obtain information” on American hostages.
Amerine said there is “a good deal of evidence” that the U.S. government paid a ransom for Bergdahl and that ransom money was stolen.
The DOD IG has determined that no ransom was paid for Bergdahl. However, the watchdog agency only looked at whether DOD funds were used. In Friday’s letter, Rep. Hunter is asking the DOJ IG to investigate whether the FBI was involved, whether DOJ funds from other sources were used, and if the alleged ransom violated any laws.
The Obama administration also considered “an exfiltration plan,” involving the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), according to an email highlighted in the House report, sent to Michael Dumont, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
“For something that was to be very, very close hold and extremely sensitive, this is starting to get out. We need to somehow shut this down and get the info back under control,” wrote Dumont to Navy Rear Adm. Craig Faller, then- director of operations at U.S. Central Command and Army Brig. Gen. Robert White, then- director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell for the Joint Staff.
“I will do what I can from DC [District of Columbia], but this is getting WH [White House] attention,” added Dumont.
Nevertheless, when asked about alternative repatriation options for Bergdahl, Lumpkin, Dumont, and Gen. Joseph Votel, then-commander of JSOC, said they had no knowledge of activity to recover Sgt. Bergdahl which had reached advanced stages.