The real outrage about the prisoner swap

June 9, 2014

Nicole Colson explains what the media missed about the Taliban prisoner exchange.

FOR THE past week, the media--especially the right-wing media--have been obsessed with the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years as a prisoner of the Taliban in Afghanistan, as part of a "swap" for five detainees from the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

They've pored over every possible detail of Bergdahl, from his physical appearance to the length of his father's beard and use of Arabic (yes, really).

But there's been no real information at all about the five men traded for Bergdahl--why they were in U.S. captivity for years with no release in sight, until the U.S. government decided they could be used to win Bergdahl's freedom. Media commentators debate the wisdom of freeing "Taliban prisoners" without once acknowledging one of the great scandals of the U.S. "war on terror"--that the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay never held the "worst of the worst," as we were told.

The prison camp has been running for more than a dozen years now, but it became obvious from a very early stage that most of the supposed high-level detainees were minor combatants--or even totally innocent people caught up in the U.S. dragnet someone turned them in for money or revenge.

Bowe Bergdahl while a prisoner in Afghanistan
Bowe Bergdahl while a prisoner in Afghanistan

From the start, it was clear that the U.S. government viewed Guantánamo as a place where basic rights didn't apply. Reports of detainees being tortured and housed in cages exposed to the elements became familiar. Meanwhile, the Bush administration gathered the finest legal minds together to make the case that the Guantánamo detainees could be legally subject to indefinite detention, without appeal or recourse.

When he ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama promised he would make a priority out of closing down Guantánamo. But that promise fell by the wayside--Obama claimed the remaining detainees couldn't be released (or even transferred to a U.S.-based prison) without congressional approval.

Today, the men who remain in limbo in Guantánamo have tried by all possible means to assert their rights and their humanity through hunger strikes and other protests. They have been met with brutal repression, such as force-feedings by guards designed to inflict physical pain and break their spirit.

PLENTY OF Republicans--even some who previously accused Obama of not doing enough to secure Bergdahl's freedom--are fuming about his release. But are the five men released into protective custody in Qatar as part of the deal for Bergdahl's freedom actually "dangerous terrorist" combatants?

According to Anand Gopal, a journalist who has spent years covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan, "[A]ll five of the swapped prisoners were initially captured while trying to cut deals [to leave the Taliban and offer support to the Afghan government], and like [Khairullah] Khairkhwa, three had been attempting to join, or had already joined, the Afghan government at the time of their arrest."

Mohammad Nabi Omari, according to Gopal, was a small-time commander linked to a pro-Taliban strongman. After 2001, however, he switched allegiances to the Karzai government. According to Malem Jan, another local commander, "Omari was angry with the Taliban for throwing the country away" for Osama bin Laden, he said in a 2010 interview with Gopal. "He would sit there and tell me, Iif I see a Talib, I won't even let him take a piss, I'm going to turn him in.'"

But like so many that ended up in Guantánamo Bay, local squabbles for power and the promise of hefty cash rewards from the Americans led to false accusations--including some from Omari himself). In September 2002, he was accused of being an insurgent and whisked off to the U.S. prison camp.

Abdul Haq Wasiq, another of the five, was attempting to negotiate a meeting with CIA and Afghan warlords. According to Gopal:

Wasiq worked with the Taliban's spy agency, and he was negotiating on behalf of his boss, according to the memoir of Harry Crumpton, then deputy chief of operations at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. The CIA, however, was not interested in reconciliation, only in intelligence leading to bin Laden or other top al-Qaeda figures. Wasiq could not deliver this because he, like most Taliban members, did not actually have access to the Arabs. So the American team bound and gagged Wasiq and his companion, eventually shipping them to Guantánamo.

Will the released detainees--as the hyperventilating right-wingers fear--join an insurgency against the U.S.? Gopal finds this unlikely: "[W]ith the ongoing turnover of the Taliban's mid- and senior-level leadership in recent years, the arrival of a few individuals to Qatar is unlikely to make a significant impact on the battlefield in Afghanistan."

If anything, the release of the five prisoners undermines a key assertion of the Obama administration--that the administration is powerless to release any Guantánamo detainees without express permission of Congress.

It's true, as journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote, that the president is supposed to give Congress 30 days' notice before releasing any Guantánamo detainees, under the terms of the 2014 defense authorization bill. But, Greenwald adds, Obama has maintained, in signing statements, that Congress can't restrict his ability to release Guantánamo detainees. "[O]nce you take the position that Obama can override--i.e., ignore--Congressional restrictions on his power to release Guantánamo detainees," he wrote, "then what possible excuse is left for his failure to close the camp?"

So either Obama broke the law with this prisoner swap, or the law doesn't apply, and Congress can't restrict the ability of a president to release Guantánamo detainees. If the latter is the case, then Obama's arguments for keeping the remaining detainees imprisoned are bogus.

Meanwhile, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 149 prisoners remain in Guantánamo as of June 2014, with 78 cleared for release. Over 90 percent of prisoners remaining in the prison camp aren't categorized as al-Qaeda fighters.

BUT MOST of the mainstream media are too concerned with questioning the motives of Bowe Bergdahl to wonder about questions of civil liberties and human rights.

In particular, the right wing media machine has worked itself into a frenzy over whether Bergdahl "left his post"--implying that Bergdahl may have deserted before being captured by the Taliban. According to Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings, before his capture, Bergdahl wrote to his parents:

The future is too good to waste on lies...And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas, and I'm ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting. I am sorry for everything here...These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live. The horror that is America is disgusting.

During his time in Afghanistan, Bergdahl reportedly saw a U.S. military vehicle roll over an Afghan infant.

Six soldiers from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment died in the months following Bergdahl's disappearance, and some of the blame has apparently fallen on "personnel recovery" missions after Bergdahl's capture.

But the real question should be: Why were any U.S. troops in Afghanistan when Bergdahl vanished from his post on June 30, 2009?

From its beginning in 2001, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a failed war that did nothing to bring peace or stability to ordinary Afghans, much less combat terrorism. If Bergdahl did desert, he was refusing to take part in a war for empire that brought grief and destruction to ordinary Afghans.

But whatever his motives--and they are far from clear--the suggestion that Bergdahl was complicit in the deaths of U.S. soldiers killed after his capture or allied in any way with his Taliban captors is absurd. Video of Bergdahl in captivity with the Taliban showed him distraught and pleading for release. A video from December showed Bergdahl extremely malnourished.

But he nevertheless has been subjected to attacks by the likes of Republican Sen. John McCain, who denounced the prisoner swap as "outrageous" and "unacceptable." McCain was a lot less categorical four months ago, saying of a plan to swap prisoners: "I would be inclined to support such a thing, depending on a lot of the details."

No one sank quite as low, however, as former Army Col. Oliver North--the Reagan-era "intelligence" operative-turned-right wing hero, who was ultimately convicted for his part in the Reagan administration's secret deals with the Iranian government to trade arms and supplies for the release of U.S. hostages, with the proceeds going to fund the Contra army fighting the democratically elected Nicaraguan government.

A quarter century later, North took to the airwaves to speculate that the Obama administration must have paid a ransom for Bergdahl:

Whether the Qataris paid it, or some big oil sheik, or somebody used our petrodollars, but there was a ransom paid in cash for each one of them, my guess somewhere in the round numbers of $5 or 6 million to get Bergdahl freed. I know that the offer that was on the table before was close to a million.

So in the world according to Oliver North, financing a terrorist organization (the Contras, who were the beneficiaries of the arms deals with Iran) was okay when the terrorists were right wing and pro-U.S.

The Bergdahl story is still unfolding, so the foul stink of North's hypocrisy isn't the last.

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