The director of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility on Friday described getting the call to prepare five Taliban prisoners to exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, revealing that the prisoners had been surreptitiously moved while a group of reporters were present at the facility.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, who also commands U.S. Southern Command, will retire this month following a 45-year military career. In a final brief to reporters at the Pentagon, he discussed the role he had played in the 2014 prisoner exchange for the Army sergeant, who was held captive by the Taliban Haqqani network for five years.
Kelly said the order to transfer the prisoners was unusual in that he received a direct call from a "senior official" within the Pentagon rather than getting a written notice with an order to move a given group of prisoners.
"It was, 'Get these guys ready to go,'" he said.
Kelly had previously served as senior military adviser for then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when a previous transfer for Bergdahl was attempted, and he said he recognized the list of prisoners.
"When they gave me those five names I said, 'Is this the Bergdahl crowd?'" Kelly recalled. "I follow orders. I said, 'Is this on the up-and-up? My question was, 'Am I going to get the paperwork on this? They said, 'The paperwork is coming but it's got to go quick.'"
The general clarified that he had not assumed that any Pentagon official would break the law, but wanted to ensure the paperwork was in order for the transfer. Kelly also noted that the transfer order presented another problem: getting the prisoners off the base without alerting a cadre of reporters who were there to cover a commissions period, in which military tribunals are partially opened to the press.
"When the press were waiting for their airplane and the families of the 9/11 crowd were down there, we were doing the transfer," Kelly said. "And we didn't get caught. I'm sure that anyone was down there at the time probably should have been able to pay a little more attention."
Kelly described the transfer as a policy decision and emphasized that his role was to follow the order he had received.
A government accountability organization audit would later find that the Pentagon broke the law by conducting the swap without giving Congress the required 30 days' notice.
Bergdahl remains on active duty and is facing general court-martial this summer on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
Kelly said the "Taliban Five" exchanged for Bergdahl were "pretty senior guys," and he had been pleased to see Qatar agree to extend a one-year ban on travel for the men.
But with those prisoners and other transfers out of Guantanamo Bay, Kelly said leaving the prison might put them back in American cross-hairs.
"If they go back to the fight, we'll probably kill them, so that's a good thing," he said.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com.