To free or not to free


“Every circumstance is different,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in explaining why the U.S. trade of Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl does not necessarily mean that Washington will make trades for other Americans in enemy hands.

The list of Americans held includes Potomac resident Alan Gross, who is imprisoned in Cuba. Last week, supporters of the so-called Cuban Five – Cuban intelligence officers arrested by the United States in the late 1990s – held a series of events in Washington to lobby the U.S. government to negotiate with Havana over releasing, in exchange for Gross, the three remaining Cubans held in American prisons on espionage charges.

There is also Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007, and Warren Weinstein, like Gross a Maryland resident and a USAID contractor, who was kidnapped by al-Qaida in 2011 in Pakistan. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has called on the Obama administration to pursue talks to free both Weinstein and Gross.

In North Korea, Kenneth Bae is serving 15 years of hard labor on charges of trying to overthrow the government. And let’s not forget Caitlan Coleman, who was pregnant when she disappeared with her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, in Afghanistan in 2012. In the wake of the Bergdahl release, the families of the missing couple said they were disappointed the pair and their child wasn’t included in the same deal that freed the U.S. soldier.

Deciding whether or how to negotiate for the release of a citizen held hostage must be agonizing for any democratic leader. We see Israel go through national convulsions and intense soul-searching every time it trades prisoners for an Israeli-held hostage. Ultimately, Israelis console themselves with the rationalization that paying a high price to bring a compatriot home is a more important ideal than never negotiating with terrorists. How many people recall now that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was traded for the release of 1,027 Palestinian and other prisoners?

And so the full-throttled criticism on Capitol Hill of Bergdahl’s release sounds a bit harsh. As does the threat of some Republicans, like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who are talking of legislation to halt additional releases and even raising the issue of impeachment should the White House again neglect to inform Congress of impending prisoner swaps.

The administration has publicly defended its efforts to free Bergdahl, as it should. This is so, even if Bergdahl is ultimately tried for desertion, as some predict. But first, he needed to be freed and brought home.

Our country’s greatness lies in part in its determination to leave no soldier behind. Now is certainly the time to honor that commitment to all the others who, in the service of their country or its ideals, are being held by those who would do them harm.




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