When he announced a deal to free prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl in the Rose Garden, President Obama assured the nation that the five Taliban leaders being released in exchange would not be a threat to the U.S., thanks to assistance from the the Emir of Qatar. “The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security,” Obama said on May 31.
But this is not the first time the Qataris have given their word in writing regarding the release of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner. And the last time it didn’t go very well.
On July 27, 2008, the U.S. released Jarallah al Marri, a Qatari citizen who had been detained in Afghanistan in late 2001 and held thereafter at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to State Department cables made public by Wikileaks. As part of the deal to hand him over, the Qataris signed agreements that contained “explicit assurances” that al Marri would not be able to travel outside the country, the leaked documents show.
That agreement was not kept. In early 2009, U.S. counterterrorism officials received word from British authorities that they had arrested al Marri attempting to enter the United Kingdom and were holding him, according to two former officials familiar with the case. The U.S. ambassador to Qatar at the time, Joseph LeBaron, held a meeting with the Qatari Attorney General to complain. The result, according to the leaked cables, “was far from satisfying.”
U.S. officials say this time, the deal with Qatar is more iron clad, in part because of personal assurances given to President Obama by the Emir of Qatar himself. “What is different now,” a senior administration official tells TIME, is that “we have stronger assurances and the personal commitment of the head of state, which is extremely unusual for GTMO or anything else.”
LeBaron, the former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, wrote in a leaked cable from March 2009 that the U.S.-Qatari counterterrorism “relationship is not working now and has not worked well for several years.” In an interview with TIME on June 5, LeBaron declined to discuss the contents of the leaked cables, but said the counterterrorism relationship has changed since the al Marri case.
In particular, he says the personal assurance of the Emir is an important element of the current deal. “The Emir has given a significant personal assurance about the five and that will drive the central government of Qatar’s actions across all aspects of counterterrorism, intelligence, the legal process and anything else, including border control,” LeBaron says.
The Obama Administration had previously rejected release for the five Taliban leaders because of secret and top secret intelligence showing they were a continuing threat. LeBaron now works in the private sector as an advisor of foreign governments for the firm Patton Boggs, and has private sector business interests in real estate and consulting in Qatar.