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The last POW [Editorial]

The release Saturday of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years as a prisoner of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan surely marked a jubilant moment for his family and friends in Boise, Idaho. Sgt. Bergdahl went missing from his unit in 2009 under circumstances that remain unclear, and he was captured by Taliban six months into his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was the last American POW to remain unaccounted for as the U.S. prepares to wind down combat operations there next year and to withdraw all but a token military force by the end of 2016.

Yet happy as Mr. Bergdahl's impending return has made his parents, who never lost faith he would survive his ordeal, it doesn't come without concerns about the way his release was accomplished. In exchange for Mr. Bergdahl's freedom the U.S. agreed to turn over five high-ranking Taliban fighters held at the naval detention center in Guantanamo to the government of Qatar. The Obama administration says Qatar has given the U.S. assurances the five will be closely monitored for a year to prevent them from returning to the battlefield in Afghanistan. But the exact terms of their confinement to Qatar have yet to be announced.

Republicans in Congress have also criticized the administration for breaking with a long-standing U.S. policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorist organizations, which they charge will only encourage the Taliban to take more hostages in the future in hopes of trading them for victories they could never achieve on the battlefield. The administration has responded that the negotiations were conducted through Qatari officials representing its position and therefore the U.S. never met directly with terrorists. But such hair-splitting distinctions don't change the fact that the U.S. used an intermediary to talk to the Taliban indirectly, with potentially the same result.

Moreover GOP lawmakers including Sen. John McCain and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers have accused the administration of violating a law requiring Congress to be notified within 30 days of any release of prisoners from Guantanamo. The administration says there wasn't time to notify Congress in this case because the Taliban offer of a swap only came up over the last week and officials worried Mr. Bergdahl's health could deteriorate seriously if they didn't act on it immediately.

Why they thought that is also unclear, however, as is why the administration apparently so feared a leak might jeopardize its indirect talks with the Taliban that it not only didn't notify Congress as required but failed even to inform the Afghan government about what was going on.

It often happens in the conduct of foreign affairs that officials find themselves confronting issues of such diplomatic and legal sensitivity that negotiations aimed at resolving them must be conducted in absolute secrecy in order to ensure a successful outcome. Yet the administration hasn't really addressed the question of why that might have been the case here. If the president felt he could tell Congress the military had located Osama bin Laden's hiding place in Pakistan months before special forces troops attacked the site and killed al-Qaida's founder, it seems disingenuous for the administration to say it couldn't risk a leak regarding the return of an American POW.

At a time when the partisan divide in Washington rarely has been more bitter, perhaps it's to be expected that some critics of the president will take issue with whatever he does simply in order to prevent him from claiming a success. But not all the complaints are entirely without merit in this case, especially those regarding the nature of the assurances Qatar has given that it will keep a tight rein on the Taliban militants released in the exchange. In the past, fighters freed from Guantanamo to third countries have in fact returned to the battlefield to attack and kill U.S. troops.

The Obama administration needs to make clear why that won't happen again this time and explain exactly what was so urgent about the negotiations that led to Mr. Bergdahl's release that Congress couldn't be informed of what was afoot. We're willing to grant that there are times when the U.S. may have to talk to its enemies even if they are terrorists, and that there are situations when that can only be done through third-party intermediaries. But the administration has done itself no favor by its lack of transparency in Mr. Bergdahl's case, which predictably has given its critics leverage to turn a victory into defeat — a situation it might well have avoided by being more forthcoming in the first place

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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