The five senior Taliban leaders released to Qatar after years of detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are subject to strict bans on militant incitement or fundraising that might pose a danger to the United States, according to people familiar with the negotiations that freed American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl.
The Afghans are also under a one-year travel ban insisted upon by Washington despite a Taliban request that the men be allowed to make the hajj, Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to nearby Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration has kept the document detailing the terms of the men’s conditions of release confidential, partly in deference to Qatar, the tiny Middle East country that served as intermediary. But people familiar with the talks and a classified briefing provided to senators said that negotiators sought additional security assurances from Qatar this spring and got them, and that President Obama personally shook hands on the terms with the Qatari emir.
U.S. officials and others who provided details of the negotiations spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the arrangement, much of which remains classified.
The men are not under lockdown in Qatar, and their relative freedom of movement after more than a decade under complete U.S. control has angered administration critics.
“It’s possible someone will see them on the streets of Qatar,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “But those types of activities don’t threaten our national security interests, and that’s the standard here about substantially mitigating the threat that they will pose.”
But based partly on Qatar’s past record with transferred Guantanamo detainees, critics fear that the five will be not be subject to the kind of strict monitoring that can prevent them from having a role in the Taliban insurgency.
“There is no dispute in the intelligence community about how dangerous these Taliban detainees are,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “It is highly likely that they will return to the fight against our country after their year in Qatar, which is why I share concerns expressed by many members of both parties about the administration’s decision.”
The five, all once part of the Taliban government that rose to power in Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, were traded for Sgt. Bergdahl, who was held by the Haqqani network, a branch of the Taliban, for nearly five years. He was the only American prisoner of war from the Afghan conflict, and the subject of years of fitful negotiations.
A backlash to the prisoner swap has mounted, with criticism of the administration’s willingness to negotiate with a terrorist group and questions about whether Bergdahl had deserted his post before his capture.
The independent Military Times newspaper reported Tuesday that Bergdahl may have walked off his patrol base in Afghanistan at least once before the night he was captured.
As the circumstances of the prisoner exchange become an increasingly partisan political issue, the Obama administration is struggling to explain its reasoning in agreeing to the release of men once deemed among the most significant prisoners at Guantanamo and potentially among the most dangerous.
Administration officials stressed that Bergdahl’s health was declining and time was of the essence to make a deal, if one was possible. Officials also stressed that once negotiations began they had to move quickly, for fear that a lag or a leak about the arrangements could put Bergdahl’s life in jeopardy.
The Taliban did not issue any explicit warning that Bergdahl would be killed if the deal fell through or leaked, one person familiar with the discussions said. But U.S. officials said concern for Bergdahl’s life was a main reason that Congress was not given advance 30-day notice of the transfer from Guantanamo Bay, as required by law. Waiting the 30 days would have left Bergdahl unacceptably vulnerable, U.S. officials said.
On Capitol Hill, senators disputed whether administration officials had told them during a classified briefing Wednesday night that the Taliban had threatened to kill Bergdahl if word of the impending exchange leaked beforehand.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said that administration officials who briefed senators said that “if word of the discussions had leaked out there was a danger that Sergeant Bergdahl would have been killed.”
But other senators, including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), told reporters that they couldn’t recall officials sharing that information during the briefing presented by officials from the White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA.
Kirk said the Taliban-made “proof of life” video shown by the administration depicted Bergdahl’s frail health after years in captivity.
“It felt like they had not treated him well for him to have a poor and halting voice,” he added. “I would say that the video had an emotional impact and that’s probably why the Taliban released it — to have an emotional impact on the president so they could have the Fab Five released.”
The Obama administration, however, says that it had demanded the video before moving forward with negotiations. The video surfaced in January, weeks after U.S. negotiators had told the Qatari intermediaries that after a long lapse in talks, the U.S. side needed to know that Bergdahl was still alive.
People familiar with the negotiation said the five had become less worrisome as the years wore on, and were now considered “graybeards,” or elders unlikely to assume top battlefield roles. That said, U.S. officials acknowledged that some of the five could take on other leadership roles within the Taliban.
The strict travel ban will keep them from returning to any active role fighting U.S. forces for at least a year, U.S. officials said. By that time, all U.S. combat forces will be gone from Afghanistan. A small force devoted to training and counterterrorism will remain.
U.S. officials stressed that the swap does not set a precedent either for flouting the 30-day notice requirement to Congress or for future releases of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
“Bergdahl is an exceptional case,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the longer-range process of closing the military prison.
The release of the five Taliban commanders ran counter to administration policy because the detainees had not been approved for transfer through a national-security vetting process, a category that now includes 71 of the 149 detainees that remain in Guantanamo. Many of those who remain have been there for a dozen years.
There are 12 Afghan detainees remaining in Guantanamo, eight of whom have not been cleared for release either to their home nation or a third country.
“There are a significant number of transfers in the pipeline, and I think you are going to see progress this year,” the official said.
Asked if the tension that Bergdahl’s release has caused between the White House and Congress would complicate future transfers, the official said, “The facts and the merits very much support the conclusion that Guantanamo should be closed. The fundamentals of that picture are clear now, just as clear as they were a couple weeks ago.”
Scott Wilson and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.