Hillary Clinton wanted tougher deal for Bergdahl, former officials say

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Story highlights

  • Former officials: Hillary Clinton was skeptical of prisoner trade plans
  • Clinton was pushing for tougher terms and didn't trust the Haqqani network, they say
  • She was also asking for a Taliban renunciation of terrorism

While secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was skeptical of early plans to trade Taliban prisoners for American captive Bowe Bergdahl, former officials involved in the process told CNN on Tuesday.

Clinton pushed for a much tougher deal than the one with Qatar that secured the Army sergeant's release in exchange for five terror detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, they said.

She left office in 2013, but the former officials said they didn't know whether Clinton would have signed off on the swap that culminated this past weekend with Bergdahl climbing aboard a military helicopter.

Clinton offered a measured defense of it in an appearance in Denver on Monday. But she but did not answer when asked directly if she would have approved, if still serving as America's top diplomat.

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"This young man, whatever the circumstances, was an American citizen -- is an American citizen -- was serving in our military," Clinton said. "The idea that you really care for your own citizens and particularly those in uniform, I think is a very noble one."

Bergdahl was the only remaining U.S. soldier captured during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clinton's thinking on the matter is in play as she considers whether to run for president in 2016.

    Republicans have taken aim at President Barack Obama's foreign policy, and some conservatives complain that negotiating with the Taliban illustrates weak leadership that could hurt America later on.

    Obama has defended his decision, saying, "We don't leave men and women in uniform behind."

    Bergdahl, 28, was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in June 2009, and was apparently moved between that country and Pakistan at that time.

    Clinton did not trust the Haqqani network believed to have held him, the former officials said, and she was skeptical that the trade would lead to peace with the Taliban. She reportedly was also concerned about the ability to enforce any deal.

    The Haqqani network has ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban, and the United States has designated it a foreign-based terror organization.

    Republicans and Democrats in Congress had also raised serious concerns more than two years ago with the Obama administration about the possibility of such a swap, and inquired about conditions.

    Key members from both parties wrote Clinton about their concern, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein said they received a "comprehensive response" that included "security assurances and a promise of consultation with the Congress."

    Feinstein and House Speaker John Boehner said this week they could recall no further consultations about the matter with the administration until last Saturday.

    A framework for negotiations approved by Clinton, however, had tougher measures aiming to ensure the detainees would not return to the battlefield, including releasing the prisoners in two phases.

    The former officials said that under her plan, the first three would be released and then the remaining two would be freed 60 days later when they released Bergdahl.

    She also wanted the Qataris to impose stricter restrictions and monitoring once they were in that nation's custody, the officials said.

    Under the agreement reached with the Obama administration, the five detainees were transferred to Qatar where they can live freely but will be monitored for a year. American troops are due to wrap up combat operations in Afghanistan at year's end with most forces leaving the country.

    While the deal resulting in Bergdahl's release resulted from indirect talks mediated by Qatar, administration officials led by Marc Grossman, Clinton's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, met several times with Taliban leaders in 2011 and 2012 to discuss the issue. The meetings occurred before the Taliban broke off talks.

    Clinton wanted the prisoner swap to be one of a series confidence-building measures, which also included the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar's capital, Doha, and a Taliban renunciation of terrorism, as part of larger peace efforts between the Taliban and Afghanistan.

    She also pushed Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to engage in the reconciliation talks to end the war, as the United States prepared to wind down in Afghanistan.

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    "You don't make peace with your friends," she told Congress in October 2011. "There first would have to be a demonstrated willingness on the Taliban's part to negotiate and to meet the conditions already laid out for joining negotiations."

    The Taliban office opened in June 2013, but closed the same day when the group violated the terms by raising their flag, effectively killing talks for six months.

    Ultimately, the Obama administration agreed to release all of the prisoners at once and, because the Taliban said it would only negotiate over the prisoner exchange, abandoned its efforts at wider reconciliation when the talks resumed earlier this year.

    Who was swapped for Bergdahl?

    Clinton on Monday said the ultimate outcome of the exchange is unknown right now.

    "I think we have a long way to go before we really know how this is going to play out," Clinton said. "You don't want to see these five prisoners go back to combat. There's a lot that you don't want to have happen."

    But she added, "You also don't want an American citizen, if you can avoid it, especially a solider, to die in captivity."

    READ: The lengths to which Bob Bergdahl went to save his son

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