“Since I’ve been President,” Barack Obama said during his 2015 State of the Union address, “we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half.”
“Now it’s time to finish the job,” he continued. “And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It’s not who we are.”
Just how responsible the administration has been in pursuit of this mission is debatable. Perhaps understandably, the president failed to mention that his definition of what is responsible apparently includes breaking the law.
When the Pentagon agreed to the swap of five Taliban commanders detained in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and rushed to spirit those prisoners away, the Government Accountability Office determined that the Pentagon violated the 2014 Department of Defense Appropriations Act by failing to provide Congress with the minimum 30-day notice.
The dangerous precedents set as a result of that exchange are still coming to light.
According to an exclusive report in The Daily Beast, the Qatari government asked the Obama White House in 2014 to consider releasing a self-described al-Qaeda sleeper cell agent from an American maximum security prison in exchange for two Americans being held in a Qatar prison.
The proposal was apparently made just weeks after the Obama administration transferred those five Guantanamo inmates to Qatar under the condition that they not be allowed to travel.
The proposed swap involving the al Qaeda agent, Ali Saleh Al-Marri, raises troubling questions about whether the Bergdahl trade opened a kind of Pandora’s box, signaling to foreign governments that they can pressure the United States to make concessions on terrorism by trading American prisoners abroad for dangerous extremists held in the United States.
“I believe we must examine the administration’s decision in the case of Al-Marri and determine if his release is connected to negotiations of any kind,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s hostage negotiations, wrote Thursday in a letter to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, obtained by The Daily Beast.
The proposal was ultimately rejected and al-Marri was released last month prior to the completion of his 15-year sentence because of “time served.” The Americans held prisoner in Qatar were also freed in December when their convictions relating to the death of their adopted daughter were overturned. The White House claims they did not negotiate with Qatar for the release of the American prisoners, and that seems likely given the time that elapsed between the proposed prisoner swap and their release.
While it is clear the Bergdahl swap has set some dangerous precedents, this incident also underscores why Qatar no longer serves as a partner nation accepting released Guantanamo inmates. According to a Taliban statement released late last year, the five former Guantanamo detainees released in exchange for Bergdahl received a visit from two ranking Haqqani network operatives in October. This would be a direct violation of the terms of their release. Shortly after this was revealed, several Guantanamo detainees were transferred to Kazakhstan for permanent residency.
In the administration’s politically motivated rush to empty Guantanamo before the end of Obama’s presidency, it seems that a variety of disreputable actors are taking advantage of the situation. Who could have seen that coming?