Did the detainees in Guantanamo Bay know about the transfer of five senior Taliban commanders before members of Congress?
Sources with knowledge of the transfer tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that prisoners at Guantanamo understood in the days before the transfer that something significant was imminent and may well have known who was being transferred. The security profile at Guantanamo had been raised, these sources say, and the daily routines of several prisoners had been broken up.
Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who has represented detainees, told the Associated Press that the coming transfer was hardly a secret among the prison population. Kassem told the AP that the guards explained the heightened security as cautionary measures taken in advance of a coming hurricane. "The prisoners saw right through that and knew something big was up," Kassem said. "Within a day or two of the event, everyone knew."
The five Taliban members spent most of their time in recent years held at Camp 6, a relatively low-restriction facility where detainees are free to interact with one another. Each prisoner to be transferred typically goes through a series of pre-release procedures, including a physical examination. One source tells TWS that there is virtually no chance the five Taliban commanders didn't understand what was coming, particularly because they would have all been subject to that pre-release processing. The detainees, who have access to a wide variety of media, had been able to follow the public reporting about a potential prisoner swap over the past five years, as some details of the potential swap were reported in the popular press.
"Certainly DMOs [Detainee Movement Operations] can be executed smoothly and quickly," said one former military official who worked at Guantanamo. "However, especially one of this magnitude would have had notice and the appropriate security measures put in effect."
This official notes that detainees have an extensive and sophisticated communication network inside the camps. It's not uncommon for detainees to know in advance about upcoming transfers, particularly operations that involved multiple prisoners.
But a U.S. government official tells TWS that while the freed Taliban detainees were considered "compliant" prisoners and housed "the facility with the lowest amount of restrictions," it's not necessarily the case that they went through the customary pre-release procedures.
"There is no factual basis to the claim that there was an increase in security, other than what necessarily must happen when any detainee is moved, the assertions of habeas legal counsel notwithstanding—especially since none were present and only parrot or otherwise convey the words or interests of their clients."
The Gulf Times, a newspaper headquartered in Doha, Qatar, reported that Qatari government officials had been at Guantanamo for three days prior to the transfer in order to escort the prisoners to Qatar. THE WEEKLY STANDARD could not independently verify that report and U.S. government sources would not comment.
The Obama administration’s failure to provide members of Congress with the 30-day notification required by the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act has generated tough criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has accused the administration of breaking the law by failing to provide lawmakers with advance notice.
In public comments, administration officials have offered a shifting series of explanations for their failure—or refusal—to notify Congress. They include: the health of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the possibility that the operation could leak and scuttle the proposed exchange, a simple "oversight," and, finally, the president's constitutional prerogatives.
In appearances on Sunday talk shows last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice emphasized Bergdahl's allegedly failing health. But administration spokesmen have moved away from those explanations in recent days. On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Bergdahl "shows few if any signs of the malnourishment and other ailments that Obama administration officials said he was suffering when they saw a video of him that the Taliban made in December and released a month later—a video so alarming, American officials have said, it made his release an urgent priority."
In testimony last week, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, was asked whether Bergdahl's failing health meant that the exchange had to be expedited. "The intel wouldn't support that," he replied.