WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s inspector general has told a House panel investigating the five Taliban Guantanamo Bay detainees released in exchange for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that it found no evidence a ransom was ever attempted or paid to secure the soldier’s release.
The IG’s conclusions were included in a 98-page report released Wednesday by the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. The committee launched an 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 five Taliban leaders, held at the military prison in Cuba, 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. But there were other attempts seeking the release of Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban after walking away from his post in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
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. It limits the maximum punishment to reduction in rank, a bad-conduct discharge and a term of up to a year in prison.
The report said that in early 2014, another undisclosed U.S. government organization outside the Defense Department planned an operation to secure Bergdahl’s release. And a year ago, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., sent a letter to then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying he had been told that a payment was made to an Afghan intermediary who ran off with the money without facilitating Bergdahl’s release.
Hunter said the payment was made in early 2014 through the Joint Special Operations Command, which the congressman said had pursued at least two lines of effort to recover Bergdahl — a “rescue operation, if necessary, and; a payment to the Haqqani (militant) network.”
The committee, however, said that in August the IG reported that a review by its Defense Criminal Investigative Service “did not substantiate that a payment was made or attempted in connection with efforts to recover Sgt. Bergdahl.”
According to the report, the IG did find, however, that “small payments were made to individuals in return for information relating to Sgt. Bergdahl’s captors, location or physical condition. These payments were described as ranging from $100 up to $1,000 per payment.”
The committee said the IG’s findings track other information gathered during its inquiry. The probe 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 law. The report said that in the months before the transfer, the administration conveyed information about the case that was “misleading and obfuscatory.”
The report said the Pentagon’s own Office of Detainee Policy was kept out of the loop about the prospective exchange even though staffers there had experience about assessing national security risks associated with transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to third countries.
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. The memorandum, which was supposed to last just one year, has been extended indefinitely and the five remain in Qatar where they are prohibited from leaving the country or re-engaging in militant activities.
“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.”
They pointed to Hagel’s defense of the swap at a June 2014 committee hearing.
“The president has constitutional responsibilities and authorities to protect American citizens and members of our armed forces,” Hagel said. “That’s what he did.”
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