WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday acknowledged he could have acted differently during the negotiations for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from Taliban captivity.
“I value the Defense Department’s partnership with Congress and the trust we have developed over the years,” Hagel said during an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday. “I know that trust has been broken.”
For five hours, committee members barraged the administration with questions challenging its actions, motives, and decision-making abilities leading up to the May 31 exchange of Bergdahl, America’s last prisoner of war in Afghanistan, for five mid-level Taliban officials held at Guantanamo Bay.
Lawmakers from both parties have decried the exchange, claiming the administration negotiated with terrorists. While the Haqqani Network, a terrorist organization, held the soldier, the Defense Department used the government of Qatar as a middleman during talks.
“I do believe this effort has ultimately weakened America’s freedom in the world,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said.
Lawmakers say the White House overstepped its authority, ignoring requirements that it consult Congress before acting. Most of the committee agreed Hagel should have given Congress some notice because of section 1035 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This law requires the president to notify Congress at least 30 days before acting on a prisoner exchange.
Hagel opened the meeting with an explanation of why he didn’t. Though the Defense Department began talking with Qatar in January, no one was certain the exchange would happen until the last few hours before the handoff. Hagel also wasn’t sure about the wisdom of sharing the information with Congress. He argued any leak could lead to the end of negotiations, and possibly Bergdahl’s death.
“This was an extraordinary situation,” Hagel said. “Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices.”
Some committee members were not convinced. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, was dismayed Hagel wouldn’t trust at least a few key congressional leaders.
“It bothers me that you’re afraid I’d provide a leak,” Wenstrup said. As a surgeon on deployment in Iraq, he had access to private documents so he could prepare for injuries from upcoming battles. “I’m glad that when I was in uniform, I was trusted.”
While Democrats remained slightly critical of Hagel’s actions, Republicans lobbed the most aggressive questions.
Hagel tried to dodge questions from Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who asked if the release of Taliban officials could potentially put American soldiers in danger. Many lawmakers wonder if the detainees, after staying in a Qatari holding facility for a year, will return to Afghanistan and to their old terrorist activities. Hagel said if the detainees returned to terrorism it would be “at their own peril.”
Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Charles Stimson, who served under President George W. Bush as the first deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, thinks President Barack Obama and Hagel did not violate the Constitution. In fact, Stimson believes the president was acting out his constitutional role. Like president Bush, who transferred detainees out of Guantanamo, Obama is moving detainees out of the prison as Americans leave Iraq.
The problem this time, Stimson said, is that Obama is dealing with an already frustrated Congress because he hasn’t worked with lawmakers in the past: “He’s irking the Congress.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, filed a bill on Monday that would freeze detainee transfers for six months. But Stimson believes the hearing shows the administration intends to keep moving prisoners out of Guantanamo—this time with at least 30 days notice.
As both Bergdahl and the Taliban detainees await their return home, policymakers in Washington will continue to debate the overall impact of the exchange.
“This is not a risk-free business,” Hagel said. “The bottom line is we don’t leave people behind.”