The secret talks to free Alan Gross from Cuba were complicated by the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in return for five Taliban commanders, The New York Times reports.
Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner in Afghanistan for nearly five years, had just been released for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay when two White House officials, Benjamin Rhodes and Ricardo Zuniga, traveled to Ottawa, Canada, for negotiations with their Cuban counterparts. The Cubans were able to point to Bergdahl’s release as the precedent for the Obama administration to approve a Gross exchange deal for three Cuban agents held in the United States, a senior administration official told the Times.
The Cubans were in a hurry to have the prisoner swap approved by the White House because Gross’s mother Evelyn was dying of cancer, and they feared her death (she died June 18) would result in a then-distraught Gross killing himself and thus wiping out their main bargaining chip.
Gross was working for a subcontractor of U.S. Agency for International Development in 2009 when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. As a contractor, he was installing internet access for the island’s small Jewish community that bypassed Cuba’s restrictions.
But Bergdahl’s freedom added a new wrinkle to the talks with the Cubans to get Gross out, especially in light of allegations that the soldier had deserted his outpost in a remote area of Afghanistan, according to the newspaper.
Bergdahl’s release in exchange for the Taliban terrorists caused a firestorm in Congress, with Republicans in particular taking aim at President Barack Obama’s deal. And the uproar led the White House to demand that any arrangement to free Gross and the Cuban spies would have to be more than a simple prisoner swap.
“We made the point, ‘This shows you how controversial swaps are. This is something we are only willing to consider in the context of an appropriate exchange,’ ” a senior official told the Times. “The important thing was not to see the swap as the end, but the gateway to the policy changes.”
Eventually, the deal included the controversial resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries after 53 years of enmity, as well as the release of 53 Cuban political prisoners and an ex-Cuban intelligence officer, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, who had worked for the CIA.
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