By Adam Levine and Tim Lister, with reporting from Ted Barrett and Pam Benson
As part of its efforts to explore peace talks with the Taliban, the Obama administration is considering the controversial release of several senior Taliban figures from the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. The names of those being considered for release have not been disclosed, and the conditions are still being discussed. But diplomatic sources say they would probably be relocated to Qatar in the Persian Gulf, where the Taliban is negotiating the establishment of a liaison office to facilitate dialogue with the U.S.
The administration has said any discussion about releasing the detainees is very preliminary and hinges on the Taliban renouncing terrorism and agreeing to peace talks.
But the proposal, confirmed in congressional testimony this week, has come under attack in Congress. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said Thursday that the U.S. was "crossing a dangerous line" by discussing the possibility of releasing the prisoners.
And in a letter to President Obama, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan, warned that the release would "send the wrong message to the Taliban."
"Releasing prisoners strictly for the purpose of accelerating negotiations undermines the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and deliberately ignores the threat of a Taliban resurgence," Hunter wrote.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who attended a closed briefing on Tuesday about the potential release, called it "really, really bizarre."
"This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we're leaving. ... Put yourself in their shoes."
"There are many people who are experts in the region who say they are rope-a-doping us."
McCain said Tuesday that he did not believe Qatar would ensure that the Taliban detainees were secured.
"These people really were in positions of authority. One of them was responsible for the deaths of several American soldiers," McCain said.
Officials say none of those being considered for release has been involved in killing Americans. And any proposed transfer would be part of consultations with Congress, according to James Clapper, director of national intelligence.
Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week that such transfers, though controversial, are not new when trying to end combat.
"In almost every case where we've had hostilities, that at some point in time, there are negotiations. I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," Clapper said.
"Of course, part and parcel of such a decision, if it were finally made, would be the actual determination of where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled."
Clapper and Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate committee that the five being considered for release were among those assessed in 2009 to be too dangerous to release and too difficult to be tried. But Clapper said that assessment, recently redone, was based on returning them to their "point of origin," meaning Afghanistan.
CIA analysts considered different scenarios, said CIA Director David Petraeus.
"Our analysts did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere - not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan - and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented to ensure that they cannot return to militant activity," Petraeus said Tuesday.
Clapper said the circumstances also need to be taken into consideration when assessing the risk.
"This is a different condition, though, in terms of the potential for negotiating some form of confidence-building measure with the Taliban," Clapper said.
A CNN analysis of detainee records at Guantanamo Bay published by WikiLeaks suggests the following detainees among those being considered for release. CNN has been told by a knowledgeable source that the list is accurate. The source spoke on the condition no name was used because the list has not been publicized.
Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa: Former Afghan minister of interior during Taliban rule, governor of Herat and a military commander. Alleged to have been "directly associated" with Osama bin Laden. According to a detainee assessment, Khairkhwa was probably associated with al Qaeda's now-deceased leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He is also described as one of the "major opium drug lords in western Afghanistan" and a "friend of current Afghan President Hamid Karzai." He was arrested February 2002 in Pakistan and was transferred to Guantanamo in May 2002. During questioning, Khairkhwa denied all knowledge of extremist activities.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl: Deputy minister of defense under the Taliban, senior military commander who was chief of staff of the Afghan army and commander of the Taliban's 10th Division. Wanted by the U.N. in connection with the massacre of thousands of Afghan Shiites during the Taliban rule. "When asked about the murders, detainee did not express any regret," according to the detainee assessment. Alleged to have been associated with several militant Islamist groups, including al Qaeda. Surrendered in November 2001 to Northern Alliance (opponents of the Taliban). Transferred to U.S. custody in December 2001 and one of the first arrivals at Guantanamo. Assessed as having high intelligence value.
Mullah Norullah Nori: Senior Taliban commander during hostilities with U.S. and allies in Mazar-e Sharif in late 2001. Taliban governor of two provinces and also implicated, according to detainee assessment, in the murder of Afghan Shiites. Nori claimed during interrogation that "he never received any weapons or military training." Surrendered in November 2001 to Northern Alliance and transferred to U.S. custody a month later. According to 2008 detainee assessment, Nori "continues to deny his role, importance and level of access to Taliban officials." Same assessment characterized him as high risk and of high intelligence value.
Abdul Haq Wasiq: Now 40 years old; formerly deputy director of Taliban intelligence. An administrative review in 2007 cited a source as saying that Wasiq was also " an al Qaeda intelligence member" and had links with members of another militant Islamist group, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin. Wasiq claimed, according to the review, that he was arrested while trying to help the United States locate senior Taliban figures. He denied any links to militant groups.
Mohammad Nabi Omari: According to the first administrative review of Omari in 2004, he was a member of the Taliban and associated with both al Qaeda and another militant group Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin. He was the Taliban's chief of communications and helped al Qaeda members to escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Omari acknowledged during hearings that he had worked for the Taliban but denied connections with militant groups. He also said that he had worked with a U.S. operative named Mark to try to track down Mullah Omar. Omari is now 43 or 44 years of age. He has been held at Guantanamo for more than nine years.