Negotiating hostages: Prison staff at risk

We must evaluate the change in our hostage negotiation policy


On Saturday, May 31, 2014, Taliban fighters released 28 year old Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after nearly five years. The release was coordinated by U.S. officials who agreed to free five high-profile Afghan detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. The prisoner exchange raises questions about America’s policy against negotiating with militant groups.

President Barack Obama hailed Bergdahl’s recovery stating, “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.” Correctional staff take exception to that comment.  As uniformed professionals, prison staff work with convicted terrorists and militant groups (and may have been left behind by placing them at risk with the new “inmate swap” procedure). They welcome home Sgt. Bergdahl, but are concerned about the shift in U.S. policy.

The recent hostage negotiation change creates hope for terrorist interested in negotiating the release of offenders. Inmates with terrorist connections will have greater incentive to take advantage of the weakened stance on negotiations.

Released Detainees
The five “high-profile” detainees are influential leaders and hardened terrorist. They were Taliban’s most influential commanders. They were each in prison for over a decade, but maintained their status within terrorist circles.

Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa – Taliban’s interior minister with close ties to Osama bin Laden.
Mullah Mohammad Fazi – Chief of staff in the Taliban army.
Mullah Norullah Noori – Provincial governor in several key areas during the Taliban regime.
Abdul Hag Wasiq – Deputy chief of intelligence for the Taliban.
Mohammad Nabi Omari – Member of a joint al-Qaeda-Taliban cell.

Staff at Risk  
Most correctional agencies stress the philosophy of “We do not negotiate with terrorists”, and “We do not release prisoners as part of negotiating with terrorists.” During my tenure as warden of a federal prison, I knew the negotiation process had items that were non-negotiable: release of captors from custody, providing of weapons, exchange of hostages, and immunity from prosecution. Many correctional staff would not feel safe if the non-negotiating policy was ignored.

Prison staff work effectively with radicalized offenders and known terrorists. They understand that inmates have friends who want to break them out of prison, and the techniques that worked in the past perhaps, will not work now or in the future. The recent release of known terrorists changes everything.

Summary
We need to celebrate the safe return of a U.S. soldier. We must also pause to evaluate the change in our hostage negotiation policy.   

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