NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The Pentagon is under fire for making a ransom payment to an Afghan earlier this year as part of a failed bid to win the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, according to U.S. officials.
Sgt. Bergdahl was released in May after nearly five years in captivity as part of a controversial exchange for five terrorists held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The ransom payment was first disclosed by Rep. Duncan Hunter in a Nov. 5 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Mr. Hunter stated in the letter that Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) made the payment covertly as part of a release deal. But the money was stolen by the Afghan intermediary claiming to represent the Haqqani terrorist network.
“Given the significance of this matter, as well as the fact that Pentagon officials have denied that a payment was even considered — and you also said you were unaware of any such attempt — I ask you to immediately inquire with JSOC to determine the specific order of events,” said Mr. Hunter, California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Hunter also asked Mr. Hagel whether ransom payments are being considered for other captives.
Disclosure of the ransom payment undermines a key financial element of President Obama‘s strategy to counter the Islamic State — pressuring foreign governments, corporations and families of captives not to pay ransom. In a speech in September, David S. Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the Islamic State made $20 million this year in ransoming hostages.
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White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday that Mr. Obama “continues to believe, as previous presidents have concluded, that it’s not in the best interest of American citizens to pay ransoms to any organization, let alone a terrorist organization.”
“And the reason for that is simple: We don’t want to put other American citizens at even greater risk when they’re around the world,” he said.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry also said in a speech Tuesday that ransom payments will not be paid. Both officials spoke following the latest beheading of an American, Peter Kassig, by Islamic State terrorists.
Officials said the Bergdahl ransom was an unspecified large amount of money and that the exchange was handled by the Army’s elite Delta Force anti-terrorism squad. The FBI also was involved in the ransom payment attempt and was waiting inside Afghanistan’s border with North Waziristan when the release failed, confirming that it had been a scam.
The Pentagon’s spin on the payment is that the money was not technically a ransom. Instead, defense officials are claiming the cash was intelligence money paid to a source for information that would lead to the release of Sgt. Bergdahl.
Before the prisoner swap for Sgt. Bergdahl, which angered Congress because it violated promises of consultations prior to the freeing of Guantanamo inmates, special operations commandos had been preparing to conduct a rescue raid if Sgt. Bergdahl’s location was uncovered.
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However, confusion and multiple lines of effort to win the American soldier’s release surrounded the entire affair. In addition to the JSOC ransom and rescue plans, the State Department held negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar, and Pakistani military and intelligence agencies also were involved. Also, the Bergdahl family was preparing to pay a $10 million ransom, according to BuzzFeed.
Sgt. Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in June 2009 along with a group of Afghan soldiers who were intoxicated. According to a person familiar with the capture, he was sold to the Haqqani network and moved to Pakistan, complicating any covert rescue attempt.
A spokesman for Mr. Hunter said the Pentagon has not responded to the congressman’s letter but is said to be working on a response.
RUSSIAN SUB TESTS MIRV
Russia’s recent flight test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile involved multiple warheads, according to U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports of the test.
The Nov. 5 test of an SS-N-23 Skiff missile was carried out from a Delta IV nuclear missile submarine submerged in the Barents Sea.
State-controlled Russian media reported that the missile’s unspecified number of multiple warheads traveled some 3,100 miles across northern Russia to the Kura missile impact range on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The SS-N-23 was declared in the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as having four warheads. However, more modern versions of the SS-N-23 have been reported in the Russian press as carrying between eight and 12 warheads. If confirmed, the additional warheads would violate the treaty.
The flight test highlights Russia’s continuing development of strategic missile capabilities, including systems with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs.
By contrast, the Obama administration is reducing its multiple warhead missiles. The last of 450 land-based Minuteman III missiles was downsized from three warheads to one in June.
Russia conducted a flight test of a new land-based multiple warhead missile, the SS-27 Mod 2, in April that some experts say may have violated the New START prohibition on adding warheads to existing missiles.
The Pentagon’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review stated that all U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles will be “deMIRVed” from three warheads to one.
“This step will enhance the stability of the nuclear balance by reducing the incentives for either side to strike first,” the review stated.
U.S. Trident submarine-launched missiles, however, will continue to be armed with multiple warheads.
There are concerns, however, that Russia may be improving its new Bulava submarine-launched missiles with multiple maneuvering warheads — systems designed to defeat U.S. strategic missile defenses.
“There is a lot of talk in the Russian press about maneuvering warheads and 10 warhead packages for the Bulava,” said Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic nuclear weapons specialist.
The Russian military enthusiast blog russianforces.org reported in August that the Makeyev Design Bureau, a nuclear missile center, is developing a maneuvering warhead for land- and sea-based missiles.
The Bulava was last tested in October and was equipped with six dummy warheads. It will be deployed on two new Borei-class missile submarines.
EAST EUROPE INTERCEPTORS
A ground-based version of the Navy’s SM-3 anti-missile interceptor is on track for deployment in Romania and Poland, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.
Frank A. Rose, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense policy, said in Warsaw that the Aegis Ashore missile defense interceptors are on track for deployment in Romania by 2015 and in Poland by 2018.
The Romanian defenses are Phase 2 of what the Obama administration calls its phased European missile defense program, and includes a base under construction at Deveselu that eventually will have 24 ground-based SM-3s.
“When operational, this site, combined with [ballistic missile defense]-capable ships in the Mediterranean, will enhance coverage of NATO from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East,” Mr. Rose said.
The Poland defenses are Phase 3.
“This phase includes an Aegis Ashore site in Poland equipped with the new SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, per the ballistic missile defense agreement between the United States and Poland that entered into force in September 2011,” Mr. Rose said.
“The interceptor site in Poland is key to the [European Phased Adaptive Approach]. When combined with other EPAA assets, Phase 3 will provide the necessary capabilities to provide ballistic missile defense coverage of all NATO European territory in the 2018 time frame.”
Earlier phases involved deployment in February of four Navy missile-defense ships in Spain and three more there over the next 18 months.
Mr. Rose did not mention that the administration canceled Phase 4 in March 2013, which would have deployed more advanced SM-3s capable of protecting the continental United States.
The cancellation was a concession to Russia as part of the administration’s efforts to win Moscow’s support for European missile defense.
The effort failed. Russia, despite U.S. assertions to the contrary, continues to claim that U.S. missile defenses threaten its offensive missiles.
Mr. Rose said Russian military aggression against Ukraine prompted the suspension of military talks with Moscow, including missile defense talks.
“Prior to the suspension of our dialogue, Russia continued to demand that the United States provide it ‘legally binding’ guarantees that our missile defense will not harm/diminish its strategic nuclear deterrent,” he said.
“We have made clear to the Russians that EPAA is not directed toward Russia and that we cannot and will not accept legally binding constraints that limit our ability to defend ourselves, our allies and our partners.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at email@example.com.
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