SundayReview | Editorial
The Milk Carton Guy
Bergdahl Critics Didn’t Howl When Bush Freed Prisoners
By THE EDITORIAL BOARDJUNE 14, 2014
In early 2003, military investigators traveled to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to interview one of the prison camp’s most valuable detainees, a Qaeda loyalist from Morocco named Abdullah Tabarak. According to multiple reports, Mr. Tabarak had been Osama bin Laden’s chief bodyguard and longtime confidant, and he gave himself up to help bin Laden elude capture shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But when the investigators arrived, Mr. Tabarak wasn’t in his cell. The guards would not say where he was. His disappearance was so mysterious that one investigator took to calling him “the milk carton guy.”
In August 2004, news reports from Morocco revealed he was back home in Casablanca. The Bush administration never explained the release, but, as Jess Bravin documents in “The Terror Courts,” his comprehensive account of the legal — and more often extralegal — events that have taken place at Guantánamo since 2002, it appears political expediency played a crucial role. Morocco had, among other things, hosted a C.I.A. “black site” and interrogated suspects secretly deported by the United States.
Republicans continue to rail against President Obama’s trade of five Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on May 31, but prisoner releases in wartime are never simple or clean.
Abdullah Tabarak — who remains free — arguably poses a greater threat to the United States than the five Taliban detainees. Yet there was no outcry from Congress after the Tabarak release, no charges that it would undermine national security, embolden terrorists, or risk the lives of American troops abroad.
Contrast that with the grilling Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel endured on Wednesday from the House Armed Services Committee, whose Republican members were falling over each other to denounce the deal that had brought Mr. Bergdahl home after five years in captivity.
Listening to their righteous fulminations, it was possible to imagine that the eight years of the Bush administration never happened. “For the last five years,” said Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, “the American people and terrorists themselves have watched in astonishment and disbelief as this administration has handed back blood-bought gains to our enemies.”
Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina said, “For the president to release them is just incredible to the people I represent, because they know that the terrorists have a goal in mind, and the goal is very clear: death to America, death to Israel.”
But neither Mr. Franks nor Mr. Wilson appeared to have similar concerns when President Bush released Abdullah Tabarak. Nor did they, or anyone else currently outraged over the Bergdahl swap, speak out when Mr. Bush undercut military prosecutors by sending two British men, Moazzam Begg and Feroz Ali Abbasi, back to England, despite plans to try them by military commission.
Both men were alleged to be Islamic extremists with ties to terrorists, and the cases against them were among the prosecutors’ strongest, according to Mr. Bravin, a Supreme Court correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. But Mr. Bush had other things to worry about, like helping his friend, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, appease a public that overwhelmingly objected to British citizens being prosecuted in American military courts. Upon their release in January 2005 — which was opposed by the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. — Mr. Begg and Mr. Abbasi were taken in for questioning by British authorities. Both were released the following day without charges. (Mr. Begg is currently facing trial in Britain on terrorism charges related to the Syrian civil war.)
Perhaps the Republicans were not troubled by such releases — and the more than 500 others that occurred during the Bush administration — because they were not then blinded by hatred of the White House occupant. In reality, as they know, prisoner releases and swaps are what Mr. Hagel called “part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.”
The committee members were rightly critical of the White House for ignoring the law that requires giving 30 days’ notice to Congress before any detainee is released (a restriction that was not in place during the Bush administration). Mr. Hagel’s defense of that decision — essentially, that it was justified by “extraordinary circumstances” — was, like Mr. Obama’s, less than persuasive. But it is disingenuous for Republicans to act as though Mr. Obama is putting the nation at greater risk than his predecessor did.