WASHINGTON — Top Obama administration officials pushed back Sunday against Republican criticism that a deal freeing the last American held prisoner in Afghanistan could allow dangerous Taliban leaders to return to the fight, might encourage terrorist groups to seize American hostages and possibly violated a law requiring notification of Congress.
Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, spoke a day after years of fitful negotiations had finally yielded the release in Afghanistan of the prisoner, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The deal, brokered with Qatari help, also freed five high-level Taliban members from the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The release of the Taliban officials was sharply assailed by Republicans, including Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, as a dangerous transgression of long-standing policy against negotiating with terror groups.
“If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every Al Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding US hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before,” Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” He added, “That is dangerous.”
But Rice said: “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield. We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who are taken in battle, and we did that in this instance.” She was speaking on ABC’s “This Week.”
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for six years, welcomed the return of Bergdahl, who had spent five years in Taliban hands.
But McCain said he had serious concerns about the release of the five Taliban detainees, calling them “the hardest of the hard core.”
He added, “It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to reenter the fight, and they are big, high-level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands” of Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan.
Rice, appearing separately on CNN, noted that President Obama had received “very specific assurances” regarding the handling of the freed detainees when he spoke by phone Tuesday with the emir of Qatar. That country is taking in the five.
“They enable us to have confidence that these prisoners will be carefully watched and their ability to move will be constrained, and we believe that this is in the national security interest of the United States,” she said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said while visiting troops in Afghanistan on Sunday said he would not have agreed to the detainees’ release unless suitable security arrangements were in place.
Asked whether the sergeant, who by some reports was captured after leaving his base without authorization, might be subject to military discipline, Hagel replied, “This is a guy who probably went through hell for the last five years,” according to NBC News.
Republican lawmakers also questioned the failure of the administration to give Congress the required notice of releases from Guantanamo.
Rice said the administration had felt compelled to move swiftly because Bergdahl’s health seemed at risk and the opportunity to retrieve him possibly fleeting.
“We had reason to be concerned that this was an urgent and acute situation,” she said on ABC, adding that “had we waited and lost him, I don’t think anybody would have forgiven the United States government.”
The remaining 149 prisoners at Guantanamo fall into several categories. Nearly 80 have been approved for transfer to their homelands or a third country. Those moves have gradually resumed after coming to a halt because of security restrictions imposed by Congress that were eased somewhat last year.
The fear that freed Guantanamo detainees could help the Taliban resume hostilities against the United States prompted Congress to impose the restrictions on the transfer of prisoners out of the detention center.