WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's controversial decision to swap five senior Taliban figures for the military's lone prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, is putting new pressure on the White House to do more to free the three other American citizens who have been missing in Afghanistan or Pakistan for years but have drawn little attention in Washington.
The American civilians thought to be in captivity include Caitlin Coleman, an American citizen who, along with her Canadian-born husband Josh, disappeared in Afghanistan in October 2012. Coleman was pregnant and would have had a child by the following January; if the infant survived, he or she would be considered an American citizen.
The third missing citizen is Warren Weinstein, 72, a government contractor who was doing work in Pakistan when he was kidnapped in August 2011. It was unclear from government officials this week what the status of these Americans was or if active discussions were taking place to secure their release.
In a letter to President Barack Obama on Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., demanded to know why they weren't part of the deal in which Washington agreed to send five detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar in return for Bergdahl's release. Bergdahl, 28, had been held by militants since wandering off his tiny outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
"My understanding is that three other Americans remain in custody of militants aligned with the Taliban," Hunter wrote. "Should this still be the case, I would like to know why these individuals were not included in the negotiation that resulted in the release of five detainees from Guantánamo Bay."
Hunter also urged the president to "expedite and exhaust ongoing lines of effort" to ensure the return of the three Americans, but was careful to stipulate that it should not be done by releasing additional detainees from Guantánamo Bay. There was no immediate response to the letter from the White House.
The deal, which has attracted growing criticism in recent days, has also raised new questions about the status of the other three Americans and whether the United States might part with additional detainees to secure their release. Upon hearing of the prisoner swap, the Weinstein family released a statement saying they were happy for the Bergdahls but hoped it would renew efforts to secure the release of their husband and father, grandfather and father-in-law. Weinstein has been held in Pakistan for more than 1,000 days, the statement said. The last "proof-of-life video" was provided to the United States in December, but it shows an ailing Weinstein, who will turn 73 in July.
"Warren has dedicated his entire life to working on development and humanitarian aid projects that have improved the lives and livelihoods of countless people around the world," the statement said. "Like all families with loved ones held in captivity, we are desperate for his release before it's too late."
Bergdahl's release also raised questions about other Americans in captivity, including: U.S. contractor Alan Gross, currently held in a Cuban prison; former FBI agent Bob Levinson, who disappeared from Iran's Kish Island while on a CIA mission; and Kenneth Bae, a South Korean with U.S. citizenship convicted by North Korea for trying to overthrow the government.
When asked if the prisoner exchange had any implications for their release, the State Department emphasized the importance of Bergdahl's service in the military, a factor that distinguishes his situation from Weinstein's as well.
"It's worth repeating, Sgt. Bergdahl ... is a member of the military who was detained during an armed conflict," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said. "That obviously is a unique circumstance. In any case, whether it's Alan Gross or Kenneth Bae or others who are detained American citizens, we take every step possible to make the case and to take steps to ensure their return home to the United States."