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.”
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.
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.
When asked by Conaway if the five individuals will “strengthen the Taliban and their efforts to do whatever it is they want to do in Afgahnistan,” Hagel responded, “Maybe… We don’t know.”
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. The President added a “signing statement” to the NDAA in which the administration claimed that such a restriction was, “under certain circumstances,” a violation of constitutional separation of powers and warned the administration would implement them “in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”
Hagel had several tense exchanges with lawmakers over the cost of freeing Bergdahl. He acknowledged that war is “dirty” and that the solution was “imperfect.”
“You don’t send them chocolates and they’ll send him over. [It’s a] tough business,” Hagel said.
Hagel also clashed with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, over Bergdahl’s treatment at a military medical facility in Germany. Miller said he wanted to know why Bergdahl had not already been brought home to answer questions about his disappearance nearly five years ago. Hagel had said earlier the Army will launch a "comprehensive, coordinated effort" to find out exactly how Bergdahl fell into the Taliban's hands, including questioning Bergdahl.
“Why hasn’t he been returned to the United States? We have seriously wounded soldiers that are returned to the United States almost immediately after they are stabilized… You’re trying to tell me that he’s being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?” Miller asked.
“Congressman, I hope you’re not implying anything other than that. The fact is -” Hagel said.
“I’m just asking the question, Mr. Secretary, and you won’t answer,” Miller said.
“I’m going to give an answer too, and I don’t like the implication of the question,” Hagel said.
“Well answer it! Answer it! Answer it!” Miller said, voice rising into the microphone.
“He’s being held there because our medical professionals don’t believe he’s ready until they’re – until they believe he is ready to take the next step to his rehabilitation,” Hagel said. Hagel later added, “This isn’t just about a physical situation, Congressman. This guy was held for almost five years in God knows what kind of conditions… This is not just about, can he gt on his feet and walk and get on a plane.”
Hagel said that until military investigators can determine exactly what happened to Bergdahl, he still "has rights."
"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.