WASHINGTON -- Republicans criticizing President Barack Obama's prisoner swap with the Taliban find themselves in an awkward spot, relying in part on secret documents leaked by a military intelligence analyst and published by WikiLeaks in order to argue the trade threatens national security.
On Saturday, the president announced that the United States had worked out a deal to bring home Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, America's last known captured service member in Afghanistan. In exchange, the U.S. sent five Guantanamo Bay detainees to Qatar.
A number of prominent Republicans have suggested that the detainees the U.S. agreed to trade were too dangerous to be released. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the five prisoners "the Taliban Dream Team." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) characterized them as "the hardest of the hard core."
"Look, we're happy Sgt. Bergdahl is home, but we're not happy that five of the leaders of the Taliban are sooner or later going to be right back in the positions they were in before 9/11," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday, in an interview with NewsRadio 84 WHAS.
The senators might not have been able to make this critique if not for WikiLeaks, the nonprofit website that in April 2011 released classified U.S. military intelligence assessment briefs on the more than 700 people who had been detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. The dossiers distributed by WikiLeaks characterized the five prisoners in the current swap -- Mullah Norullah Noori, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, Mohammad Nabi Omari and Abdul Haq Wasiq -- as senior Taliban officials.
Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, is the intelligence analyst who provided hundreds of thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks and was sentenced to 35 years in prison last year. Most of the outrage over Manning's leaks focused not on the release of the Guantanamo detainee files in particular, but rather on how she was able to obtain and release thousands of secret files, including details about civilian deaths and the potential disclosure of names of sources.
Internal U.S. military logs that WikiLeaks disclosed in 2010 -- dubbed the Afghan War Diary -- have also been cited in stories about the efforts to find Bergdahl after his 2009 disappearance. Some former members of Bergdahl's platoon have called him a deserter and blamed him for the deaths of fellow soldiers, but the facts are still murky.
Republican senators now deploring the deal to get Bergdahl home were furious over the WikiLeaks revelations. In 2010, as the site prepared to release 250,000 diplomatic cables, Graham said the people working for WikiLeaks should be prosecuted and "could have blood on their hands." (The details in the diplomatic cables were ultimately judged to be more embarrassing to U.S. and international government officials than dangerous.)
McCain called Manning's leaks "the greatest, most damaging security breach in the history of this country" in 2011, while McConnell described WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a "high-tech terrorist" in 2010.
After WikiLeaks released its Guantanamo files, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly declared,"If I got leaked WikiLeaks documents, I wouldn't put them on air."
But on Monday, O'Reilly said the five prisoners being released are "Taliban terrorists" and "war criminals." The same day, an article on Fox News' website exploring the histories of those detainees directly cited WikiLeaks' Guantanamo documents.
The files on the Guantanamo detainees had been prepared by the Pentagon late in the Bush administration and were never intended to go public. Many of the assessments are now outdated, as several of the detainees who were previously declared "high" risk have been cleared for transfer to another country by the unanimous consent of the six national security agencies on the Guantanamo Review Task Force. The five detainees who were sent to Qatar, however, were not recommended for transfer and remained in the category of individuals the administration could not or would not bring up on federal or military charges but wished to detain indefinitely.
Some of the information contained in the Guantanamo files was evidently also available from open sources, so arguably politicians could have made their case that these detainees should not have been released based on what the military said elsewhere or what they could have gathered online without help from WikiLeaks. But the fact that the leaked detainee assessments provide fuller information from the military has given them some authority, even if the claims about the detainees were never proven in court.