Dems: Bergdahl backlash shouldn't stop prisoner talks

Getty

Some Senate Democrats say President Obama should not let the angry backlash over Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl deter him from negotiating with al Qaeda for other American prisoners.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate, is pressing the Obama administration to renew its efforts to secure the freedom of a government contractor held captive by al Qaeda.

ADVERTISEMENT
She wants the Obama administration to pursue talks to free Warren Weinstein, a USAID contractor, who was kidnapped by al Qaeda in 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan, and Alan Gross, another USAID contractor, who is imprisoned in Cuba. Both are from Maryland.

“I have two Marylanders that were in service to their country working as contractors for [US]AID and I would like also now a renewed effort and also, using what they’ve done, how can we look to Gross and Weinstein,” said Mikulski. “What I’ve done is ask about that. I’ve brought it up as every meeting that I could. As their senator, my job is to advocate for them.”

Mikulski said she has spoken to White House chief of staff Denis McDonough about making a renewed effort to free Weinstein and Gross, and broached the subject at a classified briefing with senior defense, intelligence and diplomatic officials.

“We know that they’ve been working on it, but this seems to be a new step of trading prisoners for release, and I want to know how we could take a new look at the situation of my two Marylanders and even some other Americans that are being held,” Mikulski said Wednesday evening after a classified briefing on the prisoner exchange that led to Bergdahl’s release.

Caitlan Coleman is another American being held by al Qaeda, along with her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle. She disappeared in Afghanistan in late 2012. Her parents, James and Lyn, live in Pennsylvania.

The Associated Press reported that two videos of the Coleman and Boyle were emailed to James Coleman last year by an Afghan man who claimed to have ties to the Taliban.

Republicans have criticized the exchange of five Taliban commanders detained at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp for Bergdahl as setting a dangerous precedent of negotiating with terrorists.

But some Democratic lawmakers say those negotiations should continue to free other Americans.

When asked if the Obama should negotiate with al Qaeda to bring Weinstein back home, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said, “I would think so.”

Kaine declined to say whether he would endorse freeing additional prisoners from Guantánamo or other negotiating tactics until he was brought up to date on the captive Americans.

Several other Americans are being held by authorities considered enemies of the United States.

Amir Hekmati is a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Iran in 2011 and accused of spying for the United States.

Saeed Abedini is an Iranian-American who was imprisoned in 2012 for allegedly undermining the Iranian government after developing underground home Christian churches. He was accused of attempting to sway Iranian youth away from Islam.

Robert Levinson is a former FBI island who disappeared in Iran in 2007. The Iranian government has denied knowledge of his whereabouts but the Washington Post reported that he had been working for the CIA.

American Kenneth Bae was sentenced in 2013 to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea on charges of trying to overthrow the government. He was working as a tour guide and reportedly was carrying a computer hard disk with images of starving North Korean children.

Republicans fear Obama might trade other detainees from Guantánamo to secure his foreign policy aims.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Wednesday that he would introduce legislation to halt additional prisoner releases.

“We're hearing talk that they are now considering releasing yet another Guantánamo terrorist,” Cruz told Fox News host Sean Hannity.

“I intend next week to file legislation to halt any releases from Guantánamo until we get to the bottom of what happened with Bergdahl and provide some real Congressional oversight here, because it is really needed,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday warned Republican lawmakers would call for Obama’s impeachment if he released more prisoners from Gitmo without Congress’s approval.

Mikulski declined to say whether the administration should trade any detainees for Weinstein.

“Right now, I’m not into what is going to be the methodology. Right now, I want the focus and the exploration,” she said.

Mikulski said she would speak further to McDonough and State Department officials.