WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Qatar said on Wednesday the emir personally assured the U.S. leader that the Gulf state would keep track of five Taliban detainees transferred from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Dana Shell Smith's confirmation hearing came in the midst of a political firestorm over the Obama administration's decision to exchange the Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army sergeant held captive in Afghanistan for five years.
The five are being held in Qatar for a year. Republican lawmakers, angry that the White House did not inform Congress about the swap in advance and who oppose closing the Guantanamo prison, have also been fiercely questioning whether the Gulf Arab state will keep the prisoners secure.
At the same time the Senate was holding its hearing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the swap before a committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Smith testified at her confirmation hearing, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the administration was confident security measures put in place would "substantially mitigate" any threat to the United States from the detainees exchanged for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
"The emir personally provided his assurances to the president," she said, referring to Qatar's Sheikh Tamim by Hamad al-Thani.
Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the committee, urged his fellow lawmakers not to let politics get in the way of quickly confirming Smith, a senior State Department adviser on public diplomacy and public affairs.
"We all have questions about the context of the negotiations, the Qatari government’s role in facilitating the talks, and its commitments regarding the status of the Taliban detainees," the New Jersey Democrat said.
However, he added, "This is not the time to debate those terms. It’s time to confirm an ambassador who will enforce them."
A committee spokesman said the panel's goal was to vote on the nominees this month, before the Senate leaves for its July 4 recess.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Eric Beech)