WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry, in his first remarks on a U.S.-Taliban prisoner swap, said Sunday that the five Taliban leaders released in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could be killed by the United States if they re-enter the fight.
He spoke as reports emerged that Bergdahl, held for five years and released May 31, had been locked in a metal cage for long periods as punishment for trying to escape his captors.
Kerry, talking about the prospect of the former Guantanamo Bay detainees returning to the battlefield, said: “I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved, but they also have an ability to get killed doing that.”
He said that Qatar, where the Taliban leaders will live for one year, would monitor the men and that the U.S. would also keep an eye on them.
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“Nobody, no one should doubt the capacity of America to protect Americans,” Kerry said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was held captive in Vietnam for more than five years, took issue with Kerry in a separate interview on the same program by saying that 30 percent of the detainees released from Guantanamo Bay had resumed fighting, and “we certainly haven’t been able to kill all of them.”
“So what we’re doing here is … reconstituting the Taliban government, the same guys that are mass murderers,” said McCain, who was the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.
McCain said he had in the past signed off on the outlines of a prisoner swap to retrieve Bergdahl but not specifically the “top five picked by the Taliban.”
He said those held at Guantanamo Bay were the “hardest of the hard core” who “became a lot harder after their years in Guantanamo.” Others have raised questions about how dangerous the men were.
When asked whether allegations that Bergdahl deserted his Army unit made him less worthy of rescue, McCain said no.
But he added that the obligation to bring back captured military personnel had to be weighed against whether the effort “would put the lives of other American men and women who are serving in danger.”
“And in my view, this clearly would,” he said.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, decried the prisoner swap, saying he was “absolutely convinced” that some or all of the freed Taliban leaders would join the fight against Americans left in Afghanistan. The released Taliban leaders are subject to a yearlong travel ban intended to prevent them from leaving Qatar.
“Not all five, but I do believe three for sure, likely four … will probably play some role in active operations,” said Rogers, describing the fifth Taliban leader as being “on the fence.”
Rogers, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” warned of other dire consequences.
“This is a huge regional and geopolitical problem for the United States moving forward,” he said. “Hostages are now currency in this war on terror. That’s always dangerous for both diplomats, air workers, soldiers on the battlefield.”
He criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to pressure Pakistan to assist in winning the release of Bergdahl, who was reportedly held for a time in Pakistan.
“We never went at Pakistan with any level of pressure to say you’re going to have to help us solve this problem,” Rogers said. “There were other options on the table.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the panel had not been briefed by the Obama administration on Bergdahl being tortured or kept in a cage. The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, echoed Feinstein.
Both said they had heard “rumors” that Bergdahl had tried to flee and both had concerns about the prisoner swap and the administration’s lack of openness with congressional leaders. They spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“What’s unfortunate is that I see no sign of the Taliban relenting,” Feinstein said. “And so some of us worry very much when we pull out (of Afghanistan) the Taliban finds its way back into power. And that would be tragic.”
Chambliss said Bergdahl – who is being treated in a military hospital in Germany – was released on a Saturday and he and Feinstein were called by the administration the following Monday night. “So this administration’s acted very strangely about this … and it’s kind of puzzling as to why they did not let us know in advance that this was going to happen.”