Facing growing skepticism on Capitol Hill about its decision to swap five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the White House told lawmakers at a classified briefing late Monday night that some of the freed militants were political figures, not hardened soldiers, according to lawmakers who attended the session.
In the past several days, the administration has rolled out a number of reasons to justify swapping Bergdahl, a potential deserter, for the five Taliban officials. White House officials said they had concerns about Berdgahl's health, felt an obligation to never leave a soldier on the battlefield, and feared the militants were preparing to kill the missing soldier. But House lawmakers exiting a late Monday briefing said the administration was now shifting to a new defense that emphasized the lack of threat posed by the individuals that were released as part of the deal.
They discussed "the dangerousness of the individuals," or lack thereof, said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) in an interview, referring to Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mullah Mohammad Fazi, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammad Nabi Omari, otherwise known as the "Taliban Five." While Turner said he didn't trust the way the administration characterized their rap sheets, other Democratic lawmakers were convinced that claims about the Taliban Five being "hardcore" terrorists were exaggerated.
"They don't seem to have been combatants at all," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who attended Monday's briefing. "The guys we traded, you hear all kinds of things about ‘they killed Americans.' Three of them were governors of provinces under the Taliban government...They were governors."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who also attended the briefing, agreed. "Who are these people? As it turns out ... they were government officials. They weren't soldiers, and they aren't soldiers now."
The takeaway from Democrats appeared to differ with the supposed characterization of the Taliban Five offered by intelligence officials last week in a briefing with Senate lawmakers, according to a report by the Daily Beast. In that story, a senior intelligence official allegedly told lawmakers that he expected four out of the five Taliban members to return to the battlefield.
Beyond the lack of threat posed by the Taliban officials, Democrats also said the swap was justified due to new legal considerations presented by the scheduled end date of the war in Afghanistan. "Since international law allows you to hold enemy combatants during a time of war, when the war's over, you can't keep them," said Lofgren. "It may be the issue is whether we're releasing him in May to get our soldier back or in December and not get our soldier back."
The briefings were led by Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, Adm James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, and Deputy Director of Intelligence Robert Cardillo.