June 4, 2014 | The Hill

It’s Not The Deal, But The Dealing, That’s So Dangerous

We have swapped four Taliban terrorists, plus a member of the murderous Haqqani Group, for a kidnapped American Army soldier, Bowe Bergdahl.

No one should be shocked that we made this deal; there are many precedents for it. Despite the conventional piety that the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom for hostages, we have long done both. The major recent example is Iran, the world's biggest terror sponsor. The Carter administration negotiated for the release of American diplomatic hostages, and the Reagan administration did the same for hostages ranging from a top CIA officer to Christian priests. In each case, Iran was paid off for releasing the Americans.

Nor is Bergdahl's an isolated case. Indeed, it is part of a worrisome pattern in which President Obama has been personally engaged, as shown by his phone call to Bergdahl's parents and his public appearance to announce the deal. The president's concern about hostages was also shown to be an intrinsic part of U.S.-Iran talks. When he spoke by telephone with Iranian President Rouhani last winter, Obama, according to a White House briefing, “expressed concern about three Americans”: former FBI agent Robert Levinson; Amir Hekmati, a former Marine of Iranian descent; and Pastor Saeed Abedini. Obama called for their release, suggesting that the matter has been part of the discussions between the two countries (a longstanding part of the pattern; Iran often uses hostages as chips in the diplomatic games). There are other cases, including Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development employee incarcerated in Cuba.

Many will say we should never make such deals, but the negotiations themselves may well be more damaging to our national interest. That is because concern over hostages may overwhelm serious strategic issues, as took place in Iran-Contra. We sold weapons and shared military intelligence with the mullahs in an effort to gain the hostages' freedom. We surely wouldn't have done that if there were no hostages, any more than we would have released the five Taliban terrorists unless Bergdahl were in their clutches.

We should therefore worry that the president's concern about the fate of American hostages will influence our dealings with Iran and other countries over the nuclear issue and other matters. There is at least one reported reason to believe this is presently going on: When Abedini was recently moved from a hospital bed to Evin Prison in Tehran, a security guard told a member of Abedini's family that it was the result of difficulties in the nuclear negotiations.

There is another clue, this one more secret: An Iranian physicist, Saeed Alarodi, was unexpectedly released from a California prison in April 2013 after his conviction for attempting to obtain forbidden nuclear technology. Stories at the time linked the release to the nuclear negotiations, but it was more likely part of a swap for an Iranian-American CIA officer who had been arrested at Tehran airport at 1:30 a.m. on April 15, 2012. Both Alarodi and the CIA officer (who traveled on an American passport) were freed at about the same time. Other CIA agents, who had worked with the official in question, remain in Iranian hands.

We know from past experience that serious policy concerns can be trumped by concern about Americans in enemy hands. It's important for the national interest that the United States conduct delicate negotiations on their own terms, and not be distorted by an understandable desire to gain the freedom of American hostages. Congress and the press should investigate the extent to which this has happened. Have hostage questions been a part of the negotiations? Who participated in those discussions? Are they still part of the process? Has our concern about hostages led us to make policy decisions that otherwise would have been dismissed?

Ledeen, the author of more than 30 books, is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was special adviser to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig and a consultant to the national security adviser during the Reagan administration.