A former top adviser to President Obama on Wednesday questioned the release of dangerous terrorists in exchange for an imprisoned American soldier as anger spread among lawmakers in Washington over the secret deal to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
“I don't fault the administration for wanting to get him back. I do question whether the conditions are in place to make sure these terrorists don't go back into battle,” former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a gas industry gathering in Pittsburgh.
Panetta, who was in the Cabinet for four of the five years Bergdahl spent in Taliban custody, said he opposed a swap for the terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when he was Defense secretary.
“I said, ‘Wait, I have an obligation under the law,'” Panetta said during a lunchtime address at the Hart Energy Developing Unconventionals DUG East conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. “If I send prisoners from Guantanamo, they have to guarantee they don't go back to the battlefield. I had serious concerns.”
He said talks fell apart because the Taliban “asked for five top guys.” He did not say when during his 2011-13 tenure in the Pentagon that discussions took place.
“I just assumed it was never going to happen,” Panetta said.
News of Bergdahl's release broke Saturday, and questions escalated into criticism and rebuke as members of his unit said the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan had left his remote base intentionally. Lawmakers complained they weren't advised of the swap in advance.
“This is one of the reasons why a number of us have been so strongly opposed to the release of individuals there,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said as renewed opposition grew to Obama's goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., defended the move, saying Obama “acted honorably in helping an American soldier return home to his family.”
Hoping to ease mounting criticism from Capitol Hill, officials from the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies planned a private briefing with senators.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper met with a few senators a day after Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and senior adviser John Podesta struggled to soothe tempers among Senate Democrats. Some senators received personal apologies for not being consulted.
Panetta's comments “will complicate things for that administration” because they came from a high-ranking former official, said former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Cully Stimson.
“He knew better than almost anybody that if you repatriate these senior leaders … they would be a threat. I can see why he would have been totally against the deal,” said Stimson, manager of the national security law program and senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy group.
Panetta repeated Obama's defense of the exchange by noting a longtime principle in the American military: “You don't leave anybody behind,” said Panetta, an Army intelligence officer in the 1960s.
The circumstances of Bergdahl's 2009 capture don't appear to be an issue for Panetta, who noted a long history of negotiating prisoner swaps.
“Sometimes people do stupid things. You still go after them,” he said.
But negotiators must take care to ensure that exchanged prisoners aren't sent back to fight against us, he said.
Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that four out of five prisoners in the swap are expected to resume activities with the Taliban, according to two senior congressional officials who were not authorized to speak publicly because the session was classified.
Republicans and Democrats have hampered Obama's attempts to move detainees to U.S. soil. Even before the Bergdahl deal, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pledged to fight to keep Guantanamo open and the 154 detainees incarcerated.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a key swing Democrat, remained open to closing the prison. Manchin has described the Bergdahl deal as “disturbing,” but in speaking of Guantanamo cited the economic arguments against a facility with operating costs of more than $2 million per year per prisoner.
“We have prisons here in the United States and we can do the job that needs to be done and do it a lot more cost-effective,” Manchin said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or [email protected].