WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration asked intelligence agencies for additional assessments of the risks of transferring five senior Taliban detainees to a third country as part of efforts to broker peace with Afghan militants, U.S. spy chiefs told Congress on Tuesday.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence committee, the intelligence officials did not specify which country might be involved. But Reuters and other news agencies have reported that the detainees could be sent to the Gulf state of Qatar, which is acting as an intermediary in peace negotiations.
CIA Director David Petraeus said that analysts from his agency had provided the Obama administration officials with a more recent assessment - the last was done in 2009 - of the security risks of transferring the five Taliban leaders from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
If transferred, the five supposedly would still be subjected to detention or at least heavy surveillance.
But neither Petraeus nor other intelligence officials offered additional details as to what kind of control or surveillance measures would be imposed by any third country which might be willing to accept transferred detainees.
“In fact, our analysts did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere -- not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan -- and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented to ensure that they cannot return to militant activity,” he said.
Petraeus’ statement came in response to questions from the committee’s vice chairman and ranking Republican, Senator Saxby Chambliss, who has emerged as a leading Capitol Hill critic of the proposed transfer.
Chambliss said that any move to transfer five specific Taliban detainees who are the focus of discussions within the Obama administration is likely to meet with opposition on Capitol Hill.
“It appears from these reports that in exchange for transferring detainees who had been determined to be ‘too dangerous to transfer’ by the administration’s own Guantanamo Review Task Force, we get little to nothing in return,” Chambliss said.
“Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops and won’t even have to stop bombing them with IEDs. I have also heard nothing from the (U.S. intelligence community) that suggests that the assessments on the threat posed by these detainees have changed,” Chambliss continued.
He added: “I want to state publicly, as strongly as I can, that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantanamo.”
Chambliss called on the administration to declassify intelligence assessments on the detainees, “so that we can have a full and open debate about the wisdom of this transfer before it takes place.”
The 2009 assessment found that the five, along with 43 other militants detained by the United States, were too dangerous to release.
Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the panel his agency had not participated in a sweeping assessment of the issue since 2009.
Retired Lieutenant General James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said the White House had made no final decision on the detainee transfer, and stressed that the administration’s consideration of it was “very, very preliminary.”
Under normal circumstances, he suggested, the administration would not be considering such a move but “this is a little different” because it had the potential of building confidence among negotiating parties.
Clapper said that, for him, the key issue was which country the Taliban leaders would be transferred to and the circumstances under which they would be held. He said the administration would brief leading senators on the matter later on Tuesday.
Other lawmakers also expressed concerns about the possible transfer of Taliban prisoners. Republican Senator John McCain said on Tuesday that detainees in question had been “in positions of authority” in the Taliban. One of them, whom he did not name, had been responsible for several American deaths, McCain said.
McCain found it “bizarre” that the group might be transferred “in exchange for a statement by the Taliban.”
“They (the administration) were going to do it a long time ago, but with our strenuous objections, it’s been delayed so far,” McCain told reporters outside the Senate.
McCain did not think lawmakers could block the transfer, but “we can certainly marshal public opinion.”
But Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters that what was being discussed was “not a trade of prisoners.”
“We’re not releasing them. They are going to -- as I understand it -- be imprisoned in Qatar,” Levin said.
In an interview with Reuters last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Chambliss said there was “every reason to believe” some of the five Taliban detainees were involved in the death of CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann during an uprising by Taliban prisoners at a fortress outside the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2001.
“I think it’s bad policy. We don’t negotiate with terrorists. We never have,” Chambliss said, calling the detainees “five of the meanest, nastiest killers in the world.”
Two detainees slated for possible release, former senior Taliban army commanders Mohammed Fazl and Noorullah Noori, were held at the historic Qala-i-Jangi fortress outside Mazar-i-Sharif when the prison revolt erupted in 2001.
But a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier this month that he knew of no evidence that they were involved in the death of Spann, who was surrounded and killed by rioting prisoners.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman