White House defends release of Guantanamo detainees

United States (US) Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the US Army. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
United States (US) Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the US Army. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US administration on Monday defended the release of five Guantanamo detainees in exchange for a US soldier held by the Taleban, but also ruled out similar swaps for civilian prisoners.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took to the US morning talk shows to downplay the threat posed by the five men - influential former officials of the Taleban regime that was toppled by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan - freed in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Bergdahl, who was the only US soldier held by the Taleban after being captured in Afghanistan, was freed on Saturday in a dramatic deal brokered by Qatar.

In exchange, the five Taleban prisoners were turned over to the Arab emirate where they will remain for a year, sparking criticism from some Republicans, who claimed they could return to the battlefield and pose a threat to Americans abroad.

"We have a history in this country of making sure that our prisoners of war are returned to us - we don't leave them behind," Carney told CNN.

"And it's entirely appropriate, given the determination made by the secretary of defence, in consultation with the full national security team, that the threat potentially posed by the returned detainees was sufficiently mitigated to allow us to move forward and get Bowe Bergdahl back home where he belongs." Carney added that a travel ban and monitoring was in effect, giving Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel "the confidence to make the determination he did".


The State Department also ruled out similar swaps for Americans held in foreign countries, and reiterated that Washington has a long tradition of not negotiating with terror groups.

"Sergeant Bergdahl is a member of the military who was detained during an armed conflict. That obviously is a unique circumstance," said spokesman Jen Psaki.

There were no plans, for example, to work out similar deals to free contractor Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba, or retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, believed to be held in Iran, she said.

"In any case, whether it's Alan Gross or Kenneth Bae or others who are detained American citizens, we take every step possible to make the case and to take steps to ensure their return home to the United States." Cuba has called for the release of three of the remaining so-called Cuban Five arrested in 1998 for infiltrating the Key West Naval Air Station and Cuban exile groups in Miami, in return for releasing Gross.

Gross, 65, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Cuba in 2011 after being convicted of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state" for allegedly distributing communications equipment as a USAID contractor.

Bae, a private US citizen, is held in North Korea serving a 15-year hard labour sentence after being detained in November 2012 on charges of seeking to topple the North Korean government.

Levinson disappeared from Kish Island, Iran, seven years ago. The US government repeatedly said he was on a business trip, but news reports earlier this year said the CIA had been paying him to gather intelligence.

Iran has said it is not holding Levinson, and denies any knowledge of his whereabouts.

Psaki said in Bergdahl's case there had been "a near-term opportunity to save his life" which had arisen "only in the last week". "We took steps needed to secure the return and release of a prisoner of war who was a member of the military, and that's why we made the decisions we did," she added.