Prisoner Swap Brings Obama Closer to Closing Gitmo

Karen J. Greenberg in Global Post, June 06, 2014

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Barack Obama's decision to release five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay has been attacked by some as illegal or reckless, but could bring him closer to his goal of closing the prison camp.

The five, senior figures in the Afghan movement, were released in exchange for a US soldier, captured five years ago on the battlefield and described by the White House as a prisoner of war.

Supporters of the president's efforts to close Guantanamo said the move showed that he is closing in on his goal.

"The move signifies the president's determination to take a strong and aggressive stance on transfers," said Karen Greenberg, head of the Center on National Security at Fordham University law school.

Obama has defended the decision to release the detainees, Taliban leaders caught early in the conflict and accused of some of the worst excesses of Afghanistan's pre-2001 regime.

The legality of the exchange has been questioned by Obama's Republican opponents, but it appears to mark a new step in the president's long battle to empty and close the notorious jail.

Obama came to office vowing to close down the prison, which has tarnished the US image internationally, by transferring the prisoners back to their home countries or by putting them on trial.

But Congress blocked any attempt to bring detainees onto US soil, while prosecutors struggled to put together legal cases against many of the detainees that would stand up in court.

Nevertheless, the number of prinsoners has fallen steadily as fixes were found and, of the 148 men still held there, 78 have been "approved for transfer" once countries agree to take them.

This weekend's prisoner exchange, however, marked a new development: The five had not been approved for release and officials and the Taliban accept that they were leading militants.

Marc Thiessen of think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said: "Freeing these terrorists may have secured the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, but it has put many more American lives at risk.

"If the Taliban or al-Qaeda captures another American and demands more Gitmo detainees be released in exchange for his or her freedom, it will be a direct result of Obama's actions this weekend."

Conservative lawmakers Congressman Buck McKeon and Senator Jim Inhofe issued a joint statement condemning the transfer.

Obama, they said, "violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer ... and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated."

Until the opportunity arose to win Bergdahl's release, the US had never released prisoners regarded first by George W. Bush's administration and then by Obama's as "non-transferable."

But a former Bush administration State Department legal adviser argued that the decision was probably inevitable.

"I do not agree, as some Republicans are already arguing, that these individuals should not have been released. In my view, the US would not be able to hold them forever," John Bellinger said.

"Indeed, it is likely that the US would be required, as a matter of international law, to release them shortly after the end of 2014, when US combat operations cease in Afghanistan," he daid.

"The backgrounds of these Taliban leaders do underscore, however, that the detainees in Guantanamo were not all 'innocent' people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time," he added.

Bellinger admitted that Guantanamo had damaged the US image abroad, but said the difficulty of what to do with dangerous prisoners had been underestimated by Obama and by human rights groups.

Campaigners and even a former Guantanamo prosecutor disputed this, however, arguing Obama's decision to release five top Taliban figures showed that he had had enough authority all along.

"The transfers last weekend show that when the president decides it is in the best interest of the United States to transfer detainees he can make it happen," argued retired colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor.

"I am hopeful that now he has exercised that power successfully he will feel more confident to use it more often. I believe Guantanamo will be closed by the time he leaves office in January 2017."