Is Bergdahl Exchange Really Unprecedented?

June 11, 2014

Amid Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s testimony to a House panel about Bowe Bergdahl’s release came this nugget: Was the deal under which the Army sergeant was swapped for senior Taliban members in Guantanamo Bay unprecedented?

At the time of the deal, it was noted that the Bergdahl exchange was unprecedented — that the U.S. had never negotiated with a group like the Taliban to secure the release of an American. But Stephen Preston, the general counsel for the Defense Department, said it had indeed happened before.

He told the House Armed Services Committee: “We don’t see this as setting a particular precedent both because it does fall within that tradition of prisoner exchanges, and there have been in the past occasions where the United States has dealt with non-state actors who are holding a service member in order to achieve their recovery.”

And, when pressed, he offered details: “The one example that I’m aware of is the helicopter pilot Michael Durant in Somalia who was held captive by the warlord Mohammed Aideed, and there was a quiet, as I understand it, arrangement whereby the United States regained Durant freedom functionally in exchange for individuals that were captured in the same operation.”

You can watch the exchange below:

Durant, as you might recall, was the Army pilot captured in 1993 during the conflict in Somalia. At the time of his release, President Clinton had insisted “no deals” were made to secure Durant’s release.

Indeed, as NPR’s Tom Bowman is telling our Newscast unit, Robert Oakley, who was sent by Clinton to meet those holding Durant, disagrees with Preston’s assessment.

Oakley’s initial response: “Bulls – – – .”

The retired diplomat served as the U.S. ambassador to several countries, including Somalia.

“I said, ‘Look, release Durant or we’re going to blow you to hell,’ ” Oakley told Tom. “And they said, ‘What about our people?’ And I said, ‘We’ll see about that later.’ ”

Durant was then released. A dozen Somalis were released two months later.

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