The Cable

Joint Chiefs: Taliban 5 Are Old and Washed Up Anyway

Despite thunderous claims from lawmakers that the five Taliban prisoners released for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May represented the "hardest of the hard core" -- members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hold a markedly different view of the threat posed by the former detainees.

On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) released seven separate letters from the members of the nation's senior military leadership explaining their supportive opinions on the concessions the United States made to free Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner by the Haqqani network since 2009.

Their reasons varied, but overall the responses fell into five basic categories, which we've condensed below.

  • It Was a Smart Move: The Taliban 5 Are Washed Up Anyway

Noting that the Taliban 5 "posed a real threat at the time of their capture," the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, wrote that 12 years of incarceration significantly reduced the detainees' relevance to the Taliban's leadership structure. "Each of the 'Taliban 5' has been replaced from within the Taliban Organization some years ago," he said. "This will significantly reduce their tactical relevancy."

Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed: "If, in a year, these detainees travel to Pakistan to rejoin the Taliban leadership, they will be among leaders with 13 more years of experience living comfortably in Quetta doing the same thing, and in my view will provide marginal additive benefit."

  • We Trust the Qataris

For Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, the assurances from the Qatari government, which helped broker the trade and agreed to keep the detainees in Qatar for one year, satisfied his concerns about the swap in the short term. "Qatari assurances significantly reduced the near-term risk," he said. "Longer-term risk is balanced by the fact that Afghanistan today is different from Afghanistan 12 years ago. The Taliban are widely challenged and control few areas. With continued international support and development of Afghan Security Forces, I believe the reintroduction of these former Taliban leaders will be managed at moderate risk."

  • Never Leave a Man Behind

For Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps' commandant, the military's sacred commitment to troops was paramount. "[I]t's a fundamental principle of the Marine combat leadership that we do not leave our people behind on the battlefield," he said. "[I]t is our warrior code, and simply what we do as Marines and as a nation."

In his letter, chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, agreed. "It is my personal assessment that the pledge to bring our service members home from captivity is sacred within the military community and our nation," he wrote.

  • Bergdahl's Health Was in Jeopardy -- We Had to Act

Winnefeld also cited concerns about Bergdahl's health, an issue that has been contentious given his reportedly clean bill of health from military doctors after his May rescue. "We were genuinely worried about Sergeant Bergdahl's health." Noting the fog of war, he said, "we were looking through a glass darkly. His last proof-of-life video was taken seven months before his transfer was arranged.… CIA physicians at the time said his condition appeared to have significantly deteriorated." That diagnosis meant that six months later, "we simply had no idea whether his health had further declined, leveled off, or improved; we had to assume the worst."

  • No One Consulted Me on This, but …

Other top military officers, who weren't consulted about the operation, offered much shorter statements of support. "I was not privy to the specific details or the negotiations that led to the exchange in advance due to the fast-moving nature of this operation," said the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh. "I do, however, support the return of Sergeant Bergdahl." In a similar response, U.S. Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert said, "While not consulted on the specific decision to exchange Taliban detainees for the release of Sergeant Bergdahl … [i]t was understood that some type of action would be necessary to secure his release prior to U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan."

You can read all seven letters here.

Photo via Getty Images

The Cable

Merkel to U.S. Spy: 'auf Wiedersehen!'

This story has been updated.

The German government has taken the extraordinary step of ordering the top U.S. intelligence official in the embassy in Berlin to leave the country, a German government spokesman announced Thursday. It was a strong and rare official rebuke, and the clearest signal that tensions over U.S. spying on the German government are threatening the historically strong ties between the two allies.

The expulsion of the official, who wasn't named, follows the revelation last week that a 31-year-old German intelligence service employee has allegedly been giving classified government files to the United States, including documents about Germany's own investigation into U.S. spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel, which was exposed by Edward Snowden. The expulsion of the most senior American intelligence official in Germany, known as the chief of station, seems unprecedented.

"It remains essential for Germany to work closely and trustingly with Western partners, especially with the United States, for the safety of its citizens and forces abroad," Steffen Seibert, a German government spokesman, said in a statement. "But trust and openness is necessary for this from both sides."

The White House had no comment on what spokesperson Caitlin Hayden described as a "purported intelligence matter."

"However," Hayden added, "our security and intelligence relationship with Germany is a very important one, and it keeps Germans and Americans safe. It is essential that cooperation continue in all areas, and we will continue to be in touch with the German government in appropriate channels."

Earlier this week, Merkel said that if the allegations of American spying on German soil turned out to be true, "it would be for me a clear contradiction as to what I consider to be trusting cooperation between agencies and partners."

Expelling a station chief signals that trust is broken. "When they throw out the chief of station, that's a very strong indication that the Germans are ticked," said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, adding that he couldn't recall the Germans ever taking such an action. "It sends that message to the U.S. But it also lets Merkel send a message to the people on her left, who are outraged about the spying Snowden exposed, and to keep them under control, too."

In response to American spying, the German interior minister said the country should step up its own spying on Washington, and German politicians and commentators are calling on the Obama administration to confirm whether the mole in the heart of German intelligence is, in fact, a spy for the Americans.

CBS News reported that an Obama administration official acknowledged that the German man, who also hasn't been identified, was recruited by the CIA. An agency official declined to comment. The Obama administration was reportedly expected to acknowledge publicly that the German was an American agent in an effort to smooth over the tensions between Washington and Berlin. But Thursday's announcement by the Germans seems to indicate that the relationship has reached a new low point.

"This is an effort by the German government to signal to their U.S. counterparts, 'Enough is enough,'" said Thorsten Benner, the co-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Berlin. "Spying on allies comes with real costs for the relationship, in terms of an erosion of trust and a growing anti-Americanism among the German public."

Benner said that the Germans expelled the station chief -- a "mini nuclear diplomatic option" -- because German officials weren't getting a satisfactory response from the Americans about their U.S. spying complaints. "They were hearing nothing but platitudes and stonewalling from Brennan & Co., and no acknowledgement that this needs to stop," he said, referring to CIA Director John Brennan. The message that German government officials are hearing, Benner said, is that "the U.S. government refuses to take this seriously."

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