Secretary Hagel faces tough questions on 'imperfect' Bergdahl exchange

The exchange of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantánamo detainees riled House lawmakers, who pressed the Defense secretary to explain why the US had 'negotiated with terrorists' and failed to consult with Congress.

Susan Walsh/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens while testifying about the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a skeptical congressional committee a spirited defense of what he acknowledged was an “imperfect” deal exchanging Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantánamo detainees. The deal honored a solemn military commitment to “leave no man behind” while mitigating national security risks to the United States, he said Wednesday.

“America does not leave its soldiers behind. We made the right decision” Secretary Hagel said in his opening statement, “and we did it for the right reasons – to bring home one of our people.”

But members of the House Armed Services Committee made it clear to Hagel that Congress remains deeply concerned about numerous aspects of the May 31 exchange of Sergeant Bergdahl for five senior-level Taliban officials.

Nearly three hours of committee questioning focused largely on two central issues: The Obama administration’s failure to notify Congress of the Guantánamo prisoner exchange, as required by law, and whether the exchange set a new precedent for negotiating with “terrorists” and would encourage more snatching of American personnel.

On the first issue, the Defense secretary’s said Congress was broadly aware of what an exchange might look like from earlier failed attempts. The urgency and “fleeting opportunity” of a deal that came together on May 27 precluded congressional notification.

Hagel also said that it was “the president of the United States who made the final decision with the full support of his national security staff.” Some members of Congress who participated in a closed-door briefing Monday with administration officials said the officials had suggested that the decision to swap Sergeant Bergdahl was Hagel's.

Moreover, Hagel rejected that the administration had negotiated with terrorists in exchange for Bergdahl, pointing out that the Afghan Taliban are “enemy combatants” that the US had removed from power and are still fighting. The US has never listed the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist organization.

“There’s no question these [released detainees] are bad guys, of course they are,” Hagel shot back at a questioner  at one point. “There are always going to be risks in a deal like this,” he said. But commitments the US received from the government of Qatar, where the five are to reside for a year, provide certain assurances that the former detainees will not constitute a near-term threat to the US, he added.

Hagel stopped short of offering details of those assurances, however, saying he could do so in a subsequent classified committee briefing.

At times, the questioning got heated and Hagel became testy, especially when questions from Republicans suggested that the administration was putting US security at risk or trying to hide details of the exchange.

At one point, Rep. Jeff Miller (R) of Florida asked why Bergdahl was not yet in the US but remains in Germany, suggesting that he doubted that the serviceman’s medical condition was a legitimate reason.

A furious Hagel fired back that Bergdahl had not yet been transferred based on the recommendations of his doctors. “I hope you’re not implying anything other than that," he added. "I don’t like the implication.”

But repeated questions from both sides underscored the deep bipartisan nature of concerns about the deal.

The committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, Adam Smith of Washington, said it was “wrong” of the administration to disregard a 30-day notification requirement for any Guantánamo detainee transfer. The White House opinion that the requirement is not constitutional is not a legitimate reason for ignoring it, he added. “Until the courts rule on this, it is the law.”

Hagel said that even as the deal was coming together, the word the US was getting was that any leak could scuttle the exchange. Secrecy was also necessary to keep the actual physical recovery of Bergdahl – the location of which was not known until the last minute – as safe for US forces as possible, he said. 

Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R) of California told Hagel he had made a “very strong case” for the administration’s approach in securing Bergdahl’s release. But he questioned why the plan was not shared at least with congressional leadership, especially when his information suggested that as many as 90 administration officials were in the loop on the deal.

Chairman McKeon said he doubted Congress “would have pushed back at all” if it had been informed. Instead, the administration’s failure to consult has damaged “the trust we should have between the Congress and the president of the United States.”  

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