Media responded to the news that the Obama administration secured the release of prisoner of war (POW) Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban by parsing whether or not the administration violated longstanding policy by negotiating Bergdahl's release. In reality, experts say the U.S. has a long history of such negotiations, and Bergdahl's release was conducted using an intermediary nation.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Released By Taliban In Prisoner Exchange
NY Times: Captured American Soldier Bowe Bergdahl Released By Taliban In Prisoner Exchange. On May 31, the New York Times reported that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only POW remaining from the war in Afghanistan, was released to American Special Operations forces in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba:
The soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was handed over to American Special Operations troops inside Afghanistan near the Pakistan border about 10:30 a.m. Saturday in a tense but uneventful exchange with 18 Taliban officials, American officials said. Moments later, Sergeant Bergdahl was whisked away by the helicopter-borne commandos, American officials said. He was described in good physical condition. [New York Times, 5/31/14]
Wash. Post: Obama Administration Conducted Negotiations “Through Qatari Government Intermediaries.” As the Washington Post reported on May 31, Bergdal's release was negotiated by Qatari government intermediaries:
His release was secured after the Obama administration, working through Qatari government intermediaries, agreed to free five high-profile Afghan inmates held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The influential commanders, including the former head of the Taliban's army, were loaded onto a U.S. military aircraft bound for Qatar after U.S. officials got confirmation that Bergdahl had been freed. [Washington Post, 6/1/14]
National Security Advisor Susan Rice: “Because It Was The Taliban That Had Him Did Not Mean That We Had Any Less Of An Obligation To Bring Him Back.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice described the importance of securing Bergdahl's release during the June 1 edition of CNN's State of the Union:
“What we did was ensure that, as always, the United States doesn't leave a man or a woman on the battlefield,” Rice said Sunday on CNN's “State of the Union.”
“If we got into a situation where we said, 'Because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield we will leave that person behind,' we would be in a whole new ear for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform,” she continued. “Because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back.” [CNN, Politicker, 6/1/14]
Media Claim Negotiations Surrounding Bergdahl Release Are Unprecedented
Fox's Steve Doocy: “I Can't Remember The U.S. Negotiating With Terrorists Before.” On the June 2 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy suggested that the prisoner swap was unprecedented:
DOOCY: This was all brought about because, the United States government did something that, to the best of my knowledge, I can't remember us ever negotiating with terrorists before. Is that what we did here? [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 6/2/14]
CNN's Candy Crowley: Can It “No Longer Can It Be Said That The U.S. Doesn't Negotiate With Terrorists?” On the June 1 edition of State of the Union, host Candy Crowley asked National Security Advisor Susan Rice whether it was “no longer can it be said that the U.S. doesn't negotiate with terrorists”:
CROWLEY: Point-blank, did the U.S. negotiate with terrorists for his release?
RICE: Candy, what we did, was ensure that as always [the] United States doesn't leave a man or woman on the battlefield. And in order to do this -- It's very important for folks to understand. If we got into a situation where we said, you know, because of who has captured an American soldier on the battlefield, we will leave that person behind, we would be in a whole new era for the safety of our personnel and for the nature of our commitment to our men and women in uniform. So because it was the Taliban that had him did not mean that we had any less of an obligation to bring him back.
CROWLEY: Right, I mean, in fact, it was the Haqqani network, which really is listed as a terrorist. And this is not a judgment question, it's just a question. You had to negotiate with terrorists to secure the release of the Sergeant --
RICE: We actually negotiated with the government of Qatar, to whom we owe a great debt. But the point is, he was being held by the Taliban. We had the opportunity to bring him back. He's back safely in the hands of the United States and that's a great thing.
CROWLEY: Yes, and I don't think anyone argues, and I think the question now is, and you point to the kinds of warfare we're having now, that no longer can it be said that the U.S. doesn't negotiate with terrorists?
RICE: I wouldn't put it that way, Candy. I wouldn't say that at all.
CROWLEY: How would you put it?
RICE: Well, when we are in battles with terrorists and terrorists take an American prisoner, that prisoner still is a U.S. serviceman or woman. We still have a sacred obligation to bring that person back. We did so, and that's what's to be celebrated. [CNN, State Of The Union, 6/1/14]
Fox's Chris Wallace: “Didn't The President Negotiate With Terrorists, Which Is Against U.S. Policy?” On the June 1 edition of Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace repeatedly asked Senator Claire McCaskill whether the president negotiated with terrorists in opposition to U.S. policy to secure Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release:
WALLACE: Didn't the president negotiate with terrorists, which is against U.S. policy? And doesn't this give incentive to group like the Taliban to take other U.S. soldiers because they have a price now?
SEN. McCASKILL: Well, first of all, this was not a hostage, this was a prisoner-of-war. It's much different. When you're negotiating with the enemy over prisoners-of-war. We have done prisoners swaps many times in our history.
WALLACE: But always with nation states. We've never done it with an insurgent group like this.
MCCASKILL: Well unfortunately, this is our enemy now. This is our enemy now. We don't have nation states as enemies, we have, in fact, terrorist organization as enemies, and this was a prisoner-of-war.
WALLACE: So we negotiated with terrorists?
McCASKILL: I guarantee you, Chris, that if in fact this man's life had been lost and it came out that we had this opportunity and our commander-in-chief passed on it, the Republicans would be going crazy right now. We saved this man's life. The commander in chief acted within his constitutional authority which he should have done to in fact get that man after five years of captivity. I'm very proud we have no POWs left in Afghanistan and the president should be proud of it also. [Fox Broadcasting Co., Fox News Sunday, 6/1/14]
Experts: Bergdahl Release Follows History Of Similar Negotiations
PolitiFact: Bergdahl's Release Does "Not Signal A Change In Policy" For U.S. PolitiFact weighed in on Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) June 1 claim that Bergdahl's release signaled a change in the decades-long U.S. policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, rating the claim “mostly false.” Politifact concluded:
Even though presidents and officials often say “we do not negotiate with terrorists,” it has not proven to be a hard-and-fast rule. Obama's actions so far do not signal a change in policy, but rather the latest in a long line of exceptions presidents have made throughout recent history.
We rate Cruz's statement Mostly False. [PolitiFact, 6/1/14]
PolitiFact: Experts Say “America Actually Has A Detailed History Of Negotiating With Terrorists.” According to PolitiFact, the U.S. “has a long history of negotiating prisoner trades in times of war.” Former State Department official Mitchell Reiss noted the U.S.'s history of negotiating with terrorists that dates back to the Founding Fathers:
“There's little that's actually new here,” said Mitchell Reiss, who worked in the State Department under President George W. Bush and served as national security adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “It may be new to certain individuals. Whether it's new or not is not as important as whether it's sound policy and promotes national security. That's the ground where there's a more legitimate debate.”
In his book, Negotiating with Evil, Reiss wrote that America actually has a detailed history of negotiating with terrorists and rogue regimes that support terrorist activity.
· After the North Koreans captured the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson apologized for spying as part of negotiations to secure the release of 83 American prisoners.
· In 1970, President Richard Nixon pressured Israel, Switzerland, West Germany and Britain to release Palestinian prisoners after two airlines were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
· During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, President Jimmy Carter agreed to unfreeze $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets after more than a year of negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries.
· In perhaps the most famous swap, after seven Americans were captured in Beirut, Lebanon, President Ronald Reagan agreed to send missiles to Iran in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
· President Bill Clinton's administration sat down with Hamas in attempts to negotiate peace with Israel. His administration also worked directly with the Taliban nearly two decades ago on several occasions to see if the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
Reiss also noted that President George W. Bush engaged in negotiations with Iran and North Korea even after decreeing them part of the “Axis of Evil.” [PolitiFact, 6/1/14]
Security Expert Bruce Hoffman: “We Have Long Negotiated With Terrorists.” Georgetown University security expert Bruce Hoffman said that the phrase 'we not to negotiate with terrorists' is “repeated as mantra more than fact,” arguing that sometimes there is “no alternative” to such negotiations and pointed to several past examples. From USA Today on June 2:
[S]ecurity experts like Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, said that however common the refrain “we do not negotiate with terrorists” has become, it is “repeated as mantra more than fact.”
“We have long negotiated with terrorists. Virtually every other country in the world has negotiated with terrorists despite pledges never to,” Hoffman said. “We should be tough on terrorists, but not on our fellow countrymen who are their captives, which means having to make a deal with the devil when there is no alternative.”
Hoffman lists a series of high-profile instances when U.S. presidents have negotiated with terrorists. There was the Iran hostage crisis that started in the 1970s and eventually led to the release of 52 Americans. Or the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s when the U.S. government sold arms to Iran partly to win the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. [USA Today,6/2/14]
Security Expert Charles “Cully” Stimson: Presidents From Both Parties Have Had “Small Scale Negotiations” In The Past. USA Today pointed to arguments from Heritage Foundation security expert Charles “Cully” Stimson, who noted that many examples of negotiations with terrorists are hidden from the public eye. According to Stimson, presidential administrations from both sides of the aisle have “had very quiet negotiations, or discussions at least, with adversaries over the years on a whole host of things”:
Charles “Cully” Stimson, a security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said there are even more examples of small-scale negotiations with terrorist groups that the public, and many members of Congress, just don't know about.
Under President George W. Bush, Stimson helped coordinate the Pentagon's detainee operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other places around the world. He said presidential administrations of both political parties routinely have been forced to deal with terrorist groups for “information, supplies, personnel -- a lot of different topics.”
“We have had very quiet negotiations, or discussions at least, with terrorist groups over the years on a whole host of things,” Stimson said. “They just haven't usually come to light.” [USA Today, 6/2/14]
Military History Expert Ret. Col. Peter Mansor: “This Is A Legitimate Prisoner Swap.” From USA Today:
“This is a legitimate prisoner swap,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University.
He pointed out that the Taliban was ruling Afghanistan when U.S. forces went in to topple the government after Sept. 11, 2001. “I would have much more heartburn if these were al-Qaeda leaders” that were released, Mansoor said. [USA Today, 6/2/14]
Gen. David Petraeus: “Prisoner Exchanges Take Place All The Time In Afghanistan.” In a June 2012 article on Bowe Bergdahl, Rolling Stone reported that “Prisoner exchanges take place at the ground level all the time in Afghanistan” and highlighted a reference Gen. David Petraeus' made to prisoner swaps in Iraq:
“The Pentagon is making the argument that American soldiers would become targets for kidnapping,” says a senior administration official. “We pushed back on that. They already are - the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been using their resources to kidnap Americans for years.” Prisoner exchanges take place at the ground level all the time in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, now the head of the CIA, has pointed out in discussions about Bowe that U.S. forces made distasteful swaps in Iraq - including one involving Qais Khazali, a Shiite extremist who orchestrated the kidnapping and execution of four U.S. soldiers in Karbala in 2007. Even a hard-line Israeli nationalist like Benjamin Netanyahu has recognized the value of a single soldier: In October, the prime minister agreed to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli corporal who had been held captive by Hamas for five years. The move was overwhelmingly supported by the majority of Israelis. “The Israelis really care about the value of one life,” says a senior U.S. official. “Does the American public?” [Rolling Stone, 6/21/12]
The language in this post has been updated.