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Hagel Defends Bergdahl Swap

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during June 11 testimony before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in Washington
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during June 11 testimony before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in Washington

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WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has told a Congressional committee that the United States needed to act quickly to secure the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from five years of captivity by the Taliban.

Hagel defended the swap of Bergdahl for five Afghan Taliban detainees in front of the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee on June 11.

The remarks were the administration's first public testimony on the issue since Bergdahl was released on May 31.

He said the administration needed to act quickly to secure Bergdahl's release because of warnings from Qatari intermediaries, who brokered the deal, that time was running out and uncertainty whether the operation would be successful.

"We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end the negotiations for Bergdahl's release," said Hagel. "We also knew that he would be extremely vulnerable during any movement, and our military personnel conducting the handoff would be exposed to a possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory."

Hagel offered details about the release, saying the final decision to move forward was made 96 hours before the swap. The general location was known 24 hours before, and the precise location was known just one hour before, said Hagel. He added that the administration was not sure the Taliban would hold up its end of the deal until Bergdahl was handed over.

Hagel also said that the administration acted legally in releasing the five detainees in exchange, saying that the Justice Department had signed off on it. "The president and I would not have moved forward unless we had complete confidence that we were acting lawfully, in the national interest, and in the best traditions of our military," he said.

Hagel added that the swap was constitutional. "The president has constitutional responsibilities and constitutional authorities to protect American citizens and members of our armed forces. That's what he did," he said. 

Lawmakers from both parties have claimed that President Barack Obama's administration broke the law by failing to inform them not later than 30 days in advance of the transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, under the National Defense Authorization Act.

Hagel conceded to Congress that "we could have done a better job at keeping you informed," but he added that it was an "extraordinary situation."

"I value the Defense Department's partnership with Congress and the trust we have developed over the years," Hagel told lawmakers. "I know that trust has been broken."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (Republican-California) and ranking member Adam Smith (Democrat-Washington) both said that the provision was still in effect, whether or not the administration thought it had no choice but to break the law.

Smith said the administration should have discussed the trade with Congress "when you were thinking about doing this deal." McKeon said the administration had "broken the law."

Some Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration for releasing dangerous Taliban prisoners. Hagel said that the commitment from Qatar to keep the detainees inside their country for a year convinced him that risk was mitigated but not eliminated entirely. 

"War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise," Hagel said. "The hard choices and options don't fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in 'how to' manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war."

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