The Cable

Exclusive: Taliban Gitmo deal is swap for a Westerner

The pending deal to move senior Taliban figures from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar is part of a trade for the return of a Western prisoner, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The Obama administration's plan to move five top Taliban officials to live under house arrest in Qatar has been extensively reported but never openly discussed by administration officials. And until Feinstein confirmed it to The Cable, the fact that the crux of the deal is a swap for a Westerner had never been publicly disclosed.

"That's the framework of the exchange. But it's presented as a confidence-building measure," Feinstein said. "We are giving up people who killed a lot of people, people who were head of major efforts of the Taliban."

Feinstein said the deal involved the trade of one Westerner for the five Taliban leaders. She also confirmed the name of the Westerner in question, but The Cable has agreed to withhold that name at the request of U.S. officials out of concern for his safety.

Under the deal, the United States would reportedly place the Taliban officials under the responsibility of the Qatari government, where they would ostensibly remain under some degree of supervision and imprisonment. According to reports, the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister; Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan; and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.

But Feinstein said she opposes it.

"These are major Taliban figures, they are not minor people. And they will not be in the same kind of custody, maximum-security custody. Forget that it won't be Guantánamo, just maximum-security custody," she said. "And in my view, there's no way of knowing what they may do and what kind of propaganda they may breed."

Afghan officials have spoken about the deal as a step toward peace talks meant to end the decade-long Afghanistan war, but U.S. lawmakers suspect the released Taliban could eventually end up returning to the fight.

Feinstein said the timing of the deal, with the Taliban still actively engaged against Western forces on the battlefield, was particularly problematic. "To do this as just a confidence-building measure without any acceptance by the Taliban of any rules or agreements or anything else, and at a time when the Taliban are still carrying out raids, planting IEDS, still killing people.... I think if you're able to achieve with the Taliban an agreement then it wouldn't be as horrible as it is," Feinstein said.

The administration has sought hard to preserve the secrecy around the prisoner trade, and administration officials won't confirm any of the details publicly.

Last week, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden denied that a deal had been struck, saying, "The United States has not decided to transfer any Taliban officials from Guantánamo Bay" after reports surfaced that the Taliban leaders in question had agreed to be transferred.

"We are not in a position to discuss ongoing deliberations or individual detainees, but our goal of closing Guantánamo is well established and widely understood," she said. "In general, any decision to transfer a detainee from Guantánamo would be undertaken in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress."

On Jan. 31, top administration officials briefed eight senators on the deal, including Feinstein. The other senators invited to that classified briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).

In a brief interview Tuesday, Levin declined to comment in any way on the trade. But he did say that he was opposed to any Taliban transfers unless it was part of a peace process.

"I believe that before there's a transfer of anybody that there should be some progress in the negotiations and discussions. That should be used as a way of promoting progress in the discussions with the Taliban, rather than doing that before those discussions have any evidence of success," he said.

McCain, in his own brief Tuesday interview with The Cable, said that a prisoner swap wasn't necessarily a bad idea in principle. But he poured cold water on the notion of linking any such swap to peace talks with the Taliban.

"If it's intended to be a ‘confidence-building measure,' that is an extreme measure. If it's a swap, it's worthy of consideration of Congress, if that is the premise of it," said McCain, a former prisoner himself. "But they're doing it as a ‘confidence-building measure.' That's not confidence building."

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Massachusetts senator waffles on intervention in Syria

As troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the opposition-held city of Idlib Tuesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) became the fourth U.S. senator to openly call for U.S. military intervention in Syria ... before he partially walked back those comments in an interview with The Cable.

"Senator, do you support a military intervention in Syria?" The Cable asked Brown in the hallways of the Capitol Building Tuesday.

"Well that's the million-dollar question," he said. "At what point do we do it? Is it 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 killed? At what point do we draw a line in the sand and get involved just based on the humanitarian [considerations] or just our belief that we are a great country and should be helping people?"

"We're at about 10,000 killed so far -- so what do you say?" we pressed.

"I'm at the point right now that I think we should handle it like we did with Libya: Get that coalition and go in and give the opposition a chance to regroup," he said.

"So you're for the U.S. getting involved in another international military intervention in Syria?" we asked. Then the Massachusetts senator appeared to have second thoughts.

"I'm still gathering information," Brown said. "I'm still asking for the appropriate briefings to see what we can do and what the limitations are and how this is different from Libya. And I'll have a more defined statement I think pretty soon."

Brown is not the only GOP senator grappling with the proper way forward in Syria, but other GOP lawmakers at least seemed to have their positions ready at their fingertips. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) confidently told us that he doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is about "democracy."

In another Tuesday interview with The Cable, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said she supports increased international pressure on Russia and China but doesn't support U.S. military intervention at this time.

"Right now, I'm very concerned about what's happening in Syria," she said. "There are a number of legislative actions we could take against Russia to stop them from what they are doing."

As for arming the Syrian opposition, Ayotte said, "I think that's something that we should look at doing, but I also think there are other partners that might be in a position to do that, including the Turks."

Robert Giroux/Getty Images