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Obama administration officials refused to fully explain to key senators the justification for freeing five senior Taliban leaders that the White House had once considered to be among the most dangerous prisoners being held in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, according to senior Senate insiders familiar with a closed-door briefing held Tuesday for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Top Obama administration officials continued to defend the decision to skirt U.S. law and not inform Congress about the deal, telling lawmakers that “it was worth it; period,” according to one Senate insider familiar with Tuesday’s classified briefing.
The top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan—Gens. Joseph Dunford and Lloyd Austin—were not informed in advance by the Obama administration of the release of the five Taliban leaders, according to a public disclosure by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.).
Officials maintained that “new and different concerns” had emerged about the health of freed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdhal that forced the White House to sign off on the deal without consulting the appropriate congressional committees, the source explained.
There also was talk “about classified instances where Qatar has failed to follow through on their agreements with detainees,” causing alarm that the five released Taliban leaders may not be receiving proper supervision, according to a second Senate aide familiar with the brief.
Administration officials further claimed that a determination was made that the five top Taliban leaders no longer posed a significant national security threat to the United States, despite official evidence contradicting this claim and testimony by experts that these terrorists are prepared to reenter the battlefield.
“There was pretty broad consensus that four more years in prison didn’t make these leaders any less dangerous,” said the second Senate insider. “There was overwhelming skepticism that this was a good deal. There is alarming concern that these five will actively work with the Taliban to overthrow the Afghan government.”
“The stock answer [from the administration] is that things had changed,” added the first Senate insider, who said that officials would provide little information beyond that.
“They never thought they needed to tell Congress,” explained the source. “They just figured we can do this because we can do it. And there was no real effort to explore the difference in the decision, why this decision was made now, other than to say, ‘We felt like things had changed.’”
The administration further confirmed that it had informed multiple White House officials about the prisoner swap, but did not feel the need to send word to Congress, according to a second Senate insider familiar with the brief.
The five Taliban leaders in question had been designated in 2010 as prisoners who were unfit for release due to the danger they posed.
Lawmakers sought to determine what precisely had changed since then, but the Obama administration officials declined to explain, according to the first Senate source.
It remains unclear who the administration consulted with in making this decision and what information was relied upon. It also remains unclear what evidence the administration was presented with to convince officials that Bergdahl’s life was in immediate danger.
Obama administration officials have repeatedly stonewalled Congress during similar closed-door briefings about the prisoner swap.
During one such briefing to senators last week, Defense Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff officials declined to present new evidence about the exchange or explain the justification for determining that Bergdahl’s life was in immediate danger.
Senators who attended that briefing were presented with a “proof of life” video from December that showed Bergdahl in Taliban captivity. This video is said to be the sole basis for the administration’s decision to accept the exchange deal, according to Senate insiders.
Questions have circulated around the so-called “proof of life” video that was provided by the Taliban to the State Department in December.
Taliban leaders attempted to convince the administration that Bergdahl’s condition was rapidly deteriorating, a move that some have described as a “pressure tactic” to force the White House into making a deal.
While Bergdahl appeared “weaker” and in poor health in the video, sources say that there was no solid evidence to show that his life was in imminent danger.
NBC News has reported in recent days that Bergdah’s life was never in danger, contradicting claims made by the Obama administration.
Regional experts have noted that the White House negotiated the deal with the Haqqani Network, which is designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.
The Haqqani Network is tied to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Mullah Sangeen Zadran, the Haqqani commander who had been holding Bergdahl, is himself a specially designated global terrorist, according to Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the think-tank and editor of the Long War Journal.
“Sergeant Bergdahl was exchanged for five top-level Taliban operatives. Detainees who have previously been released have a history of returning to the battlefield. This raises an important question: if the administration is willing to release detainees of this value, has the precedent been set to clear out Guantanamo?” Roggio said in a statement provided to reporters by FDD.
Additionally, senior FDD fellow Thomas Joscelyn explained that two of the five Taliban members freed by the White House have been members of the Taliban’s Supreme Shura Council, an elite advisory group that reports directly to senior Taliban leaders.
“Only [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar himself has more power within the Taliban than the Supreme Shura,” Joscelyn said in comments to reporters.
“All five of the transferred Taliban leaders had extensive ties to al Qaeda,” Joscelyn further noted. “These men helped cement the relationship between the two prior to 9/11. Their dossiers show that al Qaeda and the Taliban have long colluded at the highest levels on paramilitary, intelligence, and other matters.”