On the Taliban Exchange (and Alan Gross)

Sunday, June 1, 2014
Predictably, some are using President Obama's decision to exchange Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, to push for a similar exchange of Castro's American hostage Alan Gross for three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States.

President Obama's decision has raised serious concerns that the Taliban exchange will further endanger U.S. troops in the future. Obama has responded to such criticism by underscoring that this was not a "concession," but part of his specific commitment to bring home all of the troops from Afghanistan and to close Guantanamo Bay. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also argued today that Sgt. Bergdahl was not a hostage, but a "prisoner of war."

First and foremost, President Obama should do everything within his power to pressure the Castro regime to unconditionally release Alan Gross. We have yet to see any tangible pressure applied. To the contrary, since Alan Gross' taking, Obama has continued easing sanctions and engaging in unconditional bilateral talks.

However, a similar exchange with Alan Gross would make this a dangerous trend, not part of a specific, strategic goal, which would rightfully expose President Obama to further criticism of encouraging hostage-takings by rogue nations and terrorist groups.

The following important differences apply to the Alan Gross case:

1. Alan Gross was not a spy. He was an innocent civilian contractor, whose activities in Cuba were consistent with international law, while the three imprisoned Cubans were spies. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (and Hillary Clinton before) has said on the record multiple times, there's no equivalence between Gross and the Cuban spies. Any exchange would imply Gross was a spy and give credence to the Castro regime's false accusations against him. Moreover, it would open the door to future attacks against any American traveler who supports Cuban civil society, which has been explicitly stated by Obama as the premise of his travel policy.

2. The Cuban spies were convicted in U.S. federal court. Unlike the Taliban prisoners, the Cuban spies were openly tried, convicted and sentenced in U.S. federal court. Moreover, they enjoyed all due process and appellate rights. A release of the Cuban spies would require a pardon for their crimes or a commutation of their sentence by President Obama, including of Gerardo Hernandez, who is serving a life-sentence for conspiracy to murder three American citizens and a permanent resident. The families of those murdered have strongly objected to such an exchange.

3. Alan Gross was explicitly imprisoned as a hostage. As Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote recently, the Cuban regime imprisoned Alan Gross to secure the release of the Cuban spies. Moreover, the regime was convinced that his value as a hostage went up because he was Jewish. “Everyone knows that the Jews have a lot of clout in Washington,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper was told while visiting Gross in Cuba.