(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel appeared before a House committee Wednesday to say that the exchange for Taliban captive Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was too delicate, too uncertain and too fast-moving for him to have alerted Congress beforehand, as some have said the law requires.
“As the opportunity to obtain Sgt. Bergdahl’s release became clearer, we grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger Sgt. Bergdahl,” Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday. “We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end negotiations for Bergdahl’s release. We also knew that he would be extremely vulnerable during any movement, and our military personnel conducting the hand-off would be exposed to a possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory."
Hagel also said a new "disturbing" video of Bergdahl, received in January, led the intelligence community to believe the captive's health was "poor and possibly declining" and that the administration had to act fast.
“For all these reasons and more, the exchange needed to take place quickly, efficiently and quietly. We believed this exchange was our last, best opportunity to free him,” Hagel said. “I fully understand and appreciate concerns about our decision to transfer the five detainees to Qatar without providing 30 days advance notice to Congress. Under the exceptional circumstances -- a fleeting opportunity to protect the life of an American service member held captive and in danger -- the national security team and the President agreed that we needed to act swiftly.”
As to the delicacy of the actual operation, Hagel said the U.S. didn’t know even the general area in which U.S. special operations forces would recover Bergdahl until 24 hours beforehand, and were only told the exact location one hour before.
The Defense Secretary also said that his actions were “consistent” with previous briefings the administration had given Congress on a possible prisoner exchange in 2011 and 2012, “reflecting our intent to conduct a transfer of this nature with these particular five individuals.”
Those five individuals to whom Hagel referred are the five mid- to high-level Taliban figures that were released from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl. Hagel said those men, who will live in Qatar for a year, will be subject to “risk mitigation measures” such as travel restrictions, monitoring, information sharing between the U.S. and Qatar and “limitations on activities,” among other restrictions Hagel promised to explain in more detail in a classified setting.
“As Secretary of Defense, I have the authority and responsibility to determine whether detainees at Guantanamo Bay can be transferred to the custody of another country. I take that responsibility damn seriously, damn seriously,” Hagel said.
The Obama administration’s decision to trade five notorious Taliban figures for Bergdahl, whom fellow soldiers accuse of walking off his Afghan base on his own before his capture, has been a controversial one, dividing the country with more Americans disapproving of the exchange than approving, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. Lawmakers also rankled after they were not consulted about the exchange, noting that the National Defense Authorization Act calls on Congress to be notified 30 days ahead of any transfers from Guantanamo Bay.
Others also bristled that the administration was implying Congress could not keep a secret. On Tuesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner noted that he was briefed on the super-secret mission to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011, but was not told about the Bergdahl swap ahead of time.
Hagel said the Army will launch a "comprehensive, coordinated effort" to find out exactly how Bergdahl fell into the Taliban's hands, but noted that those questions are separate from the military's obligation to bring home one of its own "because we do whatever it takes to recover any U.S. service member held in captivity."
"Like any American, Sergeant Bergdahl has rights, and his conduct will be judged on facts -- not political hear-say, posturing, charges, or innuendo. We owe that to any American and especially those who are members of our military and their families," Hagel said.
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