Washington (CNN)The May 2014, transfer of five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to a plane bound for Qatar -- part of a deal to facilitate the return of a U.S. captive soldier -- was carried out in front of reporters apparently unaware of what was happening, a top U.S. military commander said Friday.
General: Reporters unaware as 'Taliban 5' flew out of Gitmo
The transfer, which Gen. John Kelly called "unusual," was part of a deal for the return of captured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, said Marine Gen. John Kelly, the outgoing commander of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
It happened as journalists and families of 9/11 victims were at the prison facility to witness ongoing legal commissions, Kelly said at a wide-ranging press conference Friday, less than a month before he is set to retire.
"It was a dicey transfer" because the reporters and others were nearby the airfield waiting for their transport back to the United States just as the five Taliban prisoners were flown off the base to Qatar in exchange for the release of Bergdahl, according to Kelly. "All of us were down there -- we were doing the transfer and we never got caught," he said.
The exchange, which caused an uproar on Capitol Hill because it was done without prior notification to Congress, did not come under Kelly's purview.
"It's a policy decision," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "We work on procedures. I didn't assume that anyone was ... doing something illegal."
At a wide-ranging press conference on Friday, less than one month before he is to retire, Kelly also addressed the issue if ISIS recruitment in the region. He said there had been approximately 150 people from Latin America and the Caribbean who traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS this year -- an increase from approximately 100 last year.
While that figure is low by the standards of those from European countries traveling to join ISIS, Kelly said there are a "few very, very radical mosques" in the region, with an imam from one in particular that has associated himself with the terror group.
Kelly, who commanded units during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and after, said Iraqi forces might be better equipped to battle ISIS today had the U.S. left a small military presence there to advise Iraqi forces instead of pulling out in 2011.
"The mentorship, the advising" was crucial, Kelly said, to earlier work to build the capability of the Iraqi military. Using an analogy of a parent teaching a child how to ride a bike: "You're running behind them the whole time, ready to grab the seat if they start (to) go over. And over time, they learn how to drive the bike, and I think that's one way to look at what we could have done."
And as Iraqi forces work to rout ISIS from major cities like Ramadi, and Mosul in the future, Kelly said he would favor having U.S. military advisers accompanying Iraqi forces closer to the front lines.
"I would say if we want to Iraqis to get good enough to fight this fight, I believe that we have to reinforce them in terms of not only the equipment, but as well as advisory capability, and that kind of thing."