Washington, DC, United States (4E) – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday defended before the House Armed Services Committee the administration’s decision not to inform Congress of the release of Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Hagel told irate GOP lawmakers at the tense hearing that a delay or leaks in the prisoner swap “could derail the deal and further endanger Sgt. Bergdahl.”
Hagel also cited a January video of Bergdahl showing his deteriorating physical condition and mental state compared to previous videos of the Taliban prisoner.
“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,” The Hill quoted Hagel as telling members of the committee investigating the prisoner swap.
The lawmakers said the administration violated a law requiring 30 days advance notice to Congress before any prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is released. The 30-day advance notice is required under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
“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,” Hagel said, according to ABC News.
Department of Defense General Counsel Stephen Preston also testified at the hearing saying the administration sought a legal opinion from the department about the 30-day notice. Preston said President Barack Obama had the authority to make the prisoner swap without telling Congress. Preston said the Constitution vests in the president the authority and responsibility of protecting American soldiers abroad.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) accused Hagel of not trusting Congress, which the secretary disagreed.
Hagel said there is a condition for the release of the five mid- to high-level Taliban figures from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar, which brokered the prisoner swap. He said the Taliban men will live in Qatar for five years and their movements will be limited and monitored.
As to the claims that Bergdahl had deserted his U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan before being taken captive by the Taliban in 2009, Hagel said the soldier will be interviewed about it when he is well.
Hagel and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Florida) had a heated exchange over the delay in returning Bergdahl from a military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany. Hagel said doctors said the soldier is not ready to be flown home.