(CNN) – Then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was “very uncomfortable” with the idea of a Guantanamo prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl when it was raised in 2011, a former senior Defense Department official familiar with Gates’ thinking told CNN.
The “fundamental discussion,” the source said, “was over the notion of negotiating with terrorists and hostage takers.” It was a position, the source confirmed, that was shared by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta-a powerful triumvirate.
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Gates’ view, the source said, was that “the only way you negotiate is out of a position of strength.” The source would not specifically elaborate on Gates’ view of the deal that was ultimately struck, but the history of his thinking as being “uncomfortable” with such negotiations is a clear indication.
The source added that back then, in mid-2011, “it wasn’t a really serious conversation.” It had come up more in the context of a Gitmo closure strategy, he said.
Gates left his position in July 2011.
Wednesday, in a speech in Pittsburgh, Leon Panetta, who succeeded Gates as Defense Secretary, gave a similar version of events. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune, Panetta told his audience “I don't fault the administration for wanting to get him back. I do question whether the conditions are in place to make sure these terrorists don't go back into battle.”
He went on to confirm that he had opposed a swap when he was defense secretary because the Taliban asked for “five top guys.”
The former senior Defense Department official also confirmed that the thinking of Panetta and Gates was shared by Clinton. There seemed to be an assumption that it would not happen. But since all three have left, the source said, he could not comment on the circumstances of the recent decision to make the swap.
What’s changed, of course, is the decision to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 9,800 beginning next year and withdraw almost all troops by the end of 2016. The announcement on transitioning out of Afghanistan–and the swap for Bergdahl–were just five days apart.