Every media person knows to ensure maximum coverage for a story you put it out at the beginning of the week, a Monday. That gives pundits five days on the job to comment and amplify it. Conversely, if you are compelled to release information that you’d like to not get that kind of play, dumping it on a Sunday is as good as anything else.
So when you’re the president and you’ve just made another of those tough calls (bin Laden raid!) that risked American lives, in this case, to bring "one of our own" home from a foreign battlefield, it’s kind of odd that the news came out as it did about the "rescue" of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Where are the tense you-are-there photos of Obama in the Situation Room like with bin Laden? The info-graphics of the high-tech gear our brave Special Forces used in the op? The leaked stories about how agonizing it all was for the president?
It was almost as if Obama was ashamed of what he did. Likely, he is. And it’s all because of Guantanamo.
Bowe Bergdahl and the Taliban
It remains very unclear how Bowe Bergdahl ended up with the Taliban. There are clear suggestions that he willfully left his own unit. Without surprise, Fox News has the inside story from "senior Pentagon officials" laying out that case. Some soldiers in his former unit straight-out called him a deserter who aided the enemy and put American lives in danger. Maybe yes, maybe no, but definitely not the core issue in this whole thing.
One way or another, the United States owes its service members the ride home. They may face military court, or simply return to their lives, but leaving anyone behind is not right. Obama knew this, and of course wanted to "close-out" the Afghan occupation before America resigned there. But questions over Bergdahl’s motivations and actions are not what embarrases Obama.
Back to Guantanamo
The process that led to Bowe Bergdahl’s heading home is where we need to focus, and it points right back at the scab of Guantanamo.
Since Day One of his presidency, and often repeated over the last six years, Obama said he wants to close Guantanamo. He should. Gitmo is an ugly stain, an off-shore penal colony where America daily commits violations of international standards once done only by its scummiest enemies. Gitmo’s existence is a powerful recruiting tool for bad guys everywhere, living proof that what they say about America is true. One only need look at the limited pictures available, or read the dribs and drabs of information that come out. Guantanamo proves we are our own worst enemy, and theirs.
So close it already. Wait– Obama says he’d love to, but for a couple of problems. The two primary ones, the president has often said, are that some/many/a few of the people held there are hardened terrorists. They can’t be released without some assurance they will not return to the battlefield, and that’s damned hard to find we’re told.
The second thing Obama just can’t get around is Congress, whom he keeps saying has tied his hands on this.
Bad Boys: What’re You Gonna Do?
The thing is that all those "reasons" were tossed aside pretty casually this weekend to get Bowe Bergdahl home. Five Taliban prisoners at Gitmo, among the worst of the worst (the U.S. government previously called one of them "one of the most significant former Taliban leaders detained"), suddenly got approved for a flight out. Those hard-to-find assurances that the baddies would not return to the fight were rubber-stamped by the Emir of Qatar. The ever-supportive Susan Rice piped up with the details: "…The Taliban prisoners [are] being monitored and kept in a secure way in Qatar." The assurances include a one-year travel ban out of Qatar. Right. So that’s sorted.
Obama added "The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security." The assurances are apparently recorded in a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Qatar, a copy of which Obama declined to release.
There was not even much discussion over releasing the five. The process for getting there was rushed, according to U.S. intelligence officials. This time around there was no formal intelligence assessment for example of the risks posed by releasing the Taliban commanders. While some intelligence analysts looked at the issue, no community-wide intelligence assessment was produced.
And About That Congress Thing
As for Congress tying his hands, Obama was referring to statutory restrictions on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The statutes say the Secretary of Defense must determine that a transfer is in the interest of national security, that steps have been taken to substantially mitigate a future threat by a released detainee, and require the secretary notify Congress 30 days before any transfer.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated unambiguously he did not notify Congress. At all. Just didn’t. Not even a phone call or a text as it all went down.
Administration officials explained when Obama signed the bill containing the latest version of the Gitmo transfer restrictions into law, he issued a signing statement claiming that he could lawfully override them under his executive powers. Signing statements were made popular during the Bush-Cheney years, and are essentially a fuzzy addendum that even though the president is signing a bill into law to avoid a veto fight, he just may not follow the actual law he just signed if he does not wish to.
Another "administration official" added the circumstances of a fast-moving exchange deal made it appropriate to act outside the statutory framework for transfers, even though that statutory framework for transfers does not provide for any such circumstances.
A funny thing is that just seven days ago, Hagel was asked about the release of some other prisoners out of Guantanamo. Uruguay had agreed to accept them, but Hagel was not sure:
Hagel said he was taking his time in reaching a decision about six detainees Obama had discussed with Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, as well as other detainees, in order to be sure that releasing them was the responsible thing to do. "I’ll be making some decisions on those specific individuals here fairly soon," he told reporters.
Hagel said the U.S. Congress had assigned him the responsibility of notifying it of a decision to release detainees.
"My name goes on that document. That’s a big responsibility," he said. "I have a system that I have developed, put in place, to look at every element, first of all complying with the law, risks, mitigation of risk. Does it hit the thresholds of the legalities required? Can I ensure compliance with all those requirements? There is a risk in everything… I suspect I will never get a 100-percent deal."
What a difference a few days can make, right Chuck Hagel?
It is time. The Bowe Bergdahl episode proved that Obama can close Guantanamo, and he can do it quickly. Assurances of America’s safety, even from nasty Taliban leaders, require just a stroke of a pen from characters like the Emir of Qatar. Hands tied by Congress? Obama just went ahead anyway and is sitting back watching Congress fume. That whole business about not negotiating with terrorists? Um, not anymore. The fact that Bergdahl was held in ally Pakistan for five years, just like they harbored bin Laden? Whatever. People the U.S. captures are not POWs under the Geneva Conventions but we still do prisoner swaps? It’s complicated. Swapping prisoners 5 for 1? No problem.
There is nothing stopping Obama from closing Guantanamo now except Obama.
Mr. President, how about this? There are now some 143 human beings still being held in Guantanamo. Next prisoner swap that comes up, why not trade 143 for 1 and kill two birds with one stone?