Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Qatar warned the U.S. that it had to act fast on a prisoner swap to free Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, making advance notice to Congress impractical.
Defending the deal that freed five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Hagel said today that top U.S. officials “received a warning from the Qatari intermediaries that time was not on our side” and the risks to Bergdahl’s safety were growing.
“We made the right decision,” Hagel said at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee. “And we did it for the right reasons -- to bring home one of our own people.”
The Pentagon chief’s testimony is part of an effort by the Obama administration to quell an uproar in Congress over a deal that has prompted bipartisan criticism for its secrecy and potential risks to national security.
A Bloomberg National Poll found that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of President Barack Obama’s handling of the deal. In the poll, conducted June 6 to June 9, 31 percent said they approved, while 18 percent said they weren’t sure.
“The explanations we received from the White House officials at a House-wide briefing earlier this week were misleading and at times blatantly false,” Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who heads the committee, said in his opening statement. He said the released Taliban prisoners “still pose a threat to Americans and Afghans alike, and in one year they will be free to return to Afghanistan or anywhere else.”
Republican lawmakers also said the administration violated a law requiring 30 days’ notice to Congress before any prisoner transfers from Guantanamo Bay.
Hagel said the risks to the U.S. from the five freed Taliban men were “substantially mitigated” because of travel restrictions, monitoring and “limitations on activities” imposed by Qatar. He said the five men “have not been implicated in any attacks against the United States, and we had no basis to prosecute them in a federal court or military commission.”
He later acknowledged the Taliban prisoners are “combatants” who served as “mid- to high-ranking members of the Taliban government,” though they had no “direct involvement” in attacks against the U.S.
Qatar brokered the swap of Bergdahl, captured in Afghanistan in 2009, for the five Taliban, who will be required to live in that country for a year.
The sense of urgency began in January, Hagel said, when the Taliban produced a video of Bergdahl requested by the U.S. to prove that he was still alive.
“It showed a deterioration in his physical appearance and mental state compared to previous videos,” Hagel said. “The intelligence community carefully analyzed it and concluded that Sergeant Bergdahl’s health was poor and possibly declining. This gave us growing urgency to act.”
Lawmakers have questioned that argument, pointing to a months-long gap between the video’s release and the prisoner swap.
“I’m still not convinced on that because that was six months prior,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said of the video explanation after a closed-door briefing yesterday for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Lawmakers were shown the video, which remains classified.
Hagel, in his testimony, referred only in passing to restrictions that Qatar will impose on the five Taliban leaders, saying details will be shared with Congress in a closed-door portion of the hearing, which was postponed to a future date. A memorandum of understanding with Qatar on “specific security measures” was signed on May 12, Hagel said.
Hagel denied the deal involved trading terrorists for a hostage, as several lawmakers alleged. “Sergeant Bergdahl was a detained combatant being held by an enemy force, and not a hostage,” he said. “It was fully consistent with our long-standing policy not to offer concessions to hostage takers.”
The decision to conduct the swap won unanimous support from the secretary of state, attorney general, secretary of homeland security, director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hagel said.
The five-hour hearing did little to placate lawmakers, many of whom used the session to complain about being kept in the dark about a prisoner swap that they said may make Afghanistan less safe for U.S. troops over the next two years.
“There are terrorists watching his hearing in jubilation,” said Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, who told Hagel the Taliban now has more incentive to capture U.S. soldiers. While respecting Hagel’s sincerity, Franks said, “I do doubt your judgment on that front.”
Hagel called that criticism “fair,” while defending the administration’s view that the five freed Taliban prisoners posed a manageable risk. A U.S. intelligence assessment concluded the return of the five men to the battlefield wouldn’t “appreciably change” the threat to U.S. forces, Hagel said.
On the decision not to give Congress any advance notice of the prisoner swap, Hagel said, “we grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger Sergeant Bergdahl. We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any kind of leak, would end the negotiations for Bergdahl’s release.”
Lawmakers, including some Democrats, questioned why even senior congressional leaders, who are regularly briefed on classified matters, couldn’t be trusted with some advance notification.
“It bothers me that you’re afraid that I would provide a leak,” said Representative Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican and Iraq war veteran who said he served as a surgeon in the Abu Ghraib prison.
Hagel sought to repair the administration’s relations with Congress, saying, “I know that trust has been broken.”
Without saying explicitly that members of Congress should have been notified, Hagel said, “Could we have done it better, smarter? Yes.”
While lawmakers and Hagel mostly maintained a civil tone, they grew combative at times.
Hagel interjected repeated denials when Representative Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, said the defense secretary had indicated he didn’t trust Congress.
“Your actions demonstrate, Mr. Secretary, that you don’t trust Congress,” Conaway said.