WASHINGTON — The U.S. military and intelligence community now suspect that one of the five Taliban detainees released from Guantanamo Bay in return for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in May of last year has attempted to return to militant activity from his current location in Qatar by making contact with suspected Taliban associates in Afghanistan, multiple officials tell CNN.
The development has led to an ongoing debate inside the administration about whether there is a new threat from this man, and potentially the other four.
This is the first known suggestion that any of the detainees involved in the exchange may be trying to engage again in militant activity. It comes at a politically sensitive time as the administration has quickened the pace of prisoner release in an effort to encourage the closure of the Guantanamo, and the Army must decide in the coming weeks whether and how to punish Bergdahl for leaving his post.
Several U.S. officials across different agencies and branches of the U.S. government have confirmed key details to CNN. The White House referred CNN to the Pentagon.
The officials would not say which of the five men is suspected. But an ongoing U.S. intelligence program to secretly intercept and monitor all of their communications in Qatar turned up evidence in recent months that one of them has “reached out” to try to encourage militant activity, one official said. The official would offer no further details.
“What I can say with confidence is this individual has not returned to the battlefield, this individual is not allowed to travel outside Qatar, and this individual has not engaged in any physical violence,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.
Under current law, this act placed the man in the category of being “suspected” of re-engaging in terrorist or insurgent activities. However, several officials say there is now a debate inside the administration that the intelligence may be stronger than the “suspected” classification. Some elements of the intelligence community believe the information is strong enough to classify the man as “confirmed” for returning to illegal activities. All five men are having their communications even more closely monitored right now, but the belief is there is no current threat, one official told CNN.
Publicly, administration officials are emphasizing that the activity in question was revealed through monitoring mechanisms the U.S. and Qatar put into effect for the very purpose of preventing recidivism.
“The fact that our mitigation measures helped alert us to potential concerns about one of these individuals means that our mitigation measures are working and have allowed us to make appropriate adjustments in a timely manner to properly mitigate any potential threats.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a briefing Friday.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby tells CNN that in addition to its discussions with the Qatari government, the United States is working across its various law enforcement and intelligence agencies to address the issue.
“We have a strong security partnership with Qatar, and are in constant dialogue with Qatari government officials about these five detainees and we are confident that we would be able to mitigate any threat of re-engagement by any of these members,” Kirby said in an interview that will air Thursday night on CNN’s ‘Erin Burnett Out Front.’
Under intelligence laws, the definition of “confirmed” for returning to militant activity is that there is a “preponderance of information which identifies a specific former GITMO detainee as directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.”
The definition of ‘suspected” is that there is “plausible but unverified or single-source reporting indicating a specific former Gitmo detainee is directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.”
Congress has been notified of the information but it has not been made public.
The precise terms of their release to Qatar — and the Qataris promise to monitor their activities — has never been made public. All five are believed to still be in that country, U.S. officials said.
The five, who mostly held mid- to high-level positions within the Taliban before their capture during the early days of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, were detained because of their association with the Taliban, not because of any ties to al Qaeda.
One of the men was alleged to have been “directly associated” with Osama bin Laden, while another commanded the main force fighting the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in 2001. Another of the men was a senior official in the Taliban intelligence service, while another served as head of the Taliban’s communications effort, and also helped al Qaeda members escape into Pakistan.
The release of the five Taliban has been highly controversial and politically sensitive for the Obama administration. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had to agree to the release, but his own staff has long noted his doubts.
President Barack Obama maintained he received assurances from the Qatari government about the five detainees before their release, but noted the difficult road ahead.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought that it was contrary to American national security,” Obama said at a news conference in Poland a few days after the transfer.
“And we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if, in fact, they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses,” he said.
Kirby said Hagel was well-aware of the potential danger the five men posed.
“He believes that the risk has been substantially mitigated through the assurances that we received through the Emir of Qatar,” Kirby said at the time of the release. “I would remind you that these are assurances that the emir personally gave to the President of the United States. I’m not going to go into every detail on these assurances, but — but the secretary is comfortable that the risk is mitigated through these assurances.”
Congress receives a report every six months on the status of detainees transferred out of Gitmo. The latest report in September 2014, showed about 17% of detainees transferred out of Guantanamo Bay are confirmed by the U.S. to have returned to militant activity. About 12% are in the suspected category.