WASHINGTON – House Republicans are claiming in a new report that the Obama administration misled Congress about the effort to release five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the militant group for nearly five years.
Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee released a 98-page report Wednesday on its inquiry into the case of the so-called Taliban Five after lawmakers expressed outrage that the Obama administration did not give Congress a 30-day notice about transferring the detainees to Qatar, as required by law. The report also provided behind-the-scenes details about the Defense Department's work with the Qataris, who played the middleman in negotiating the swap with the Taliban.
The five Taliban leaders, held at the military prison in Cuba, were informed that they were being released two days before the administration told Congress, the report said. They were put on a plane bound for Doha, Qatar on May 31, 2014, less than three hours after Bergdahl was released into U.S. custody.
Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a charge that carries up to life in prison. However, an Army officer has recommended that Bergdahl's case be referred to a special court martial, which is a misdemeanor-level forum. The five former Taliban leaders remain in Qatar where they are prohibited from leaving the country or re-engaging in militant activities.
The probe into the exchange involved 16 classified interviews totaling 31 hours, perusing more than 4,000 pages of written material, trips to Qatar and Guantanamo Bay and the review of several hours of classified video about the preparations for the transfer and how the five were flown to Qatar.
The report from House Republicans reiterated lawmakers' complaint and a General Accounting Office finding that the transfer violated the National Defense Authorization Act and other laws. It said the Pentagon's own Office of Detainee Policy was kept out of the loop about the prospective exchange.
"In the months preceding the Taliban Five transfer, the administration did not communicate any of the specifics or contemplated courses of action to the committee, and the information it did convey was misleading and obfuscatory," the report said.
A Taliban statement to The Associated Press in June 2013 "contained more specifics about a prospective exchange than what was conveyed through official channels to the committee and others in Congress at the time," the report said.
When news reports surfaced hinting at a swap, the report said administration officials told lawmakers that the U.S. was not engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban, which was true because the Qataris were acting as intermediaries.
A State Department official testified in Congress on April 30, saying "the Taliban broke off direct contact with us in January of 2012. We would very much like to return to direct contact with them and if we do, at the top of our agenda will be Sgt. Bergdahl." The report said that after appearing before the Senate, the State Department official got on a plane to Qatar to work on the release.
Moreover, the committee Republicans said they do "not have confidence" that the Defense Department has clearly established who is responsible for making sure that Qatar abides by a memorandum of understanding it signed with the U.S. outlining how it would monitor the activities of the five after their release.
"Some of the Taliban Five have engaged in threatening activities since being transferred to Qatar," the report said. "Regrettably, this outcome is a consequence of a poorly managed process undertaken contrary to a law specifically intended to minimize the risk posed by detainee transfers."
The Democratic members of the committee said the report does not offer evidence of how the Defense Department has failed to take sufficient precautions to make sure risks posed by releasing the Taliban Five are mitigated.
Reps. Adam Smith of Washington state and Jackie Speier of California, who wrote the Democrats' eight-page rebuttal, called the report "unbalanced" and "partisan." They said that while they agree that the Defense Department should have told Congress 30 days before the transfer as required by law, the question about the legality of the swap "remains unsettled."
Among details in the report:
— On May 12, 2014 — more than two weeks before the transfer — four officials from Qatar and various U.S. administration officials attended a memorandum of understanding signing ceremony in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. Afterward, the entire party dined at the nearby Metropolitan Club.
— The Taliban initially sought the release of six detainees. One died of a fatal heart attack at Guantanamo. In a last-minute request, the Taliban tried again — unsuccessfully — to again make it a six-for-one swap.
— Five Qataris arrived May 29 at Guantanamo Bay, but because it took longer than expected to get Bergdahl into custody, they ended up staying at a military hotel adjacent to the runway for two nights before they could escort the detainees to Doha. U.S. security personnel also were on the flight. Michael Dumont, deputy assistant secretary of defense, noted that there was "concern about one of the knuckleheads trying something" on the plane, but the flight was uneventful.