A former Bush administration official broke with Republicans on Tuesday to defend President Obama’s prisoner exchange, arguing that since “the war in Afghanistan is winding down,” the United States would be required to return prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay back to Afghanistan.
“I don’t see how these particular Taliban officials could ever have been tried in the southern district of New York,” John Bellinger, who served as an adviser to President George W. Bush explained during an appearance on Fox News Tuesday. “They’re certainly some Al Qaeda detainees who committed actual terrorist acts against Americans who perhaps could have been tried in a federal court because they committed federal crimes, but these particular Taliban detainees I think could never have been tried in federal court.” Although some of the released prisoners posed a danger to the United States when they were captured in 2002, especially toward soldiers serving in Afghanistan, several of the detainees did not commit crimes against Americans.
Republicans — including former Vice President Dick Cheney — have blasted the administration for swapping five Taliban-linked prisoners to secure U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom. They argue that the trade endangers Americans stationed overseas by sending top Taliban officials back into the battlefield and could inspire other terrorist groups to capture American service members in order to extract concessions from the United States. GOP lawmakers also claim that the administration circumvented a law requiring Congress to be notified 30 days before prisoners are transferred from Guantanamo Bay.
Asked about reports that Bergdahl deserted his unit, Bellinger added that the former hostage “will have to face justice, military justice.” “We don’t leave soldiers on the battlefield under any circumstance unless they have actually joined the enemy army,” he said. “He was a young 20-year-old. Young 20-year-olds make stupid decisions. I don’t think we’ll say if you make a stupid decision we’ll leave you in the hands of the Taliban.”
Though Cheney told Fox News on Monday that he would not have agreed to the deal, Bellinger stressed that the Bush administration “returned something like 500 detainees from Guantanamo.” Statistics from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence show that only 6 percent (5 in total) of Guantanamo detainees released during the Obama administration have potentially engaged in militant activities. That compares with a rate of nearly 30 percent under the Bush administration.
“I’m not saying this is clearly an easy choice but frankly I think a Republican, a president of either party, Republican or Democratic confronted with this opportunity to get back Sgt. Bergdahl, who is apparently in failing health, would have taken this opportunity to do this,” he added. “I think we would have made the same decision in the Bush administration.”
President Obama defended trade in similar terms Tuesday. “The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” Obama said in Warsaw, Poland. “Regardless of the circumstances, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop.”