Hagel to Lawmakers: Why We Didn't Tell You About Bergdahl

PHOTO: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 11, 2014, before the House Armed Services Committee.

The Secretary of Defense appeared before a House committee today to tell lawmakers, including sometimes irate GOP critics, 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,” Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee today. “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.”

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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 question of leaks prompted Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, to allege that Hagel, “by [his] actions,” showed that he did not trust Congress, a statement that echoed previous comments by Speaker of the House John Boehner, who said Tuesday Congressional leaders were trusted with the location of Osama bin Laden before the operation that killed him, but not this.

“Trust is a fragile concept,” Conaway said. “And you said towards the end of your conversation that you broke trust with the committee and with Congress. And I would agree with that… It’s insulting, it’s disrespectful, and I get it.”

Hagel disagreed with Conaway, saying he had said “something different.” Both Conaway and Hagel were apparently referencing a portion of Hagel’s opening remarks when he said, “I value the Defense Department’s partnership with this Congress and the trust we’ve developed over the years. I know that trust has been broken. I know you have questions about that.”

Elsewhere in his opening statements, the Defense Secretary 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.” The 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.

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