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Hagel says time was running out to save Bergdahl

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 06:07 a.m. HST, Jun 11, 2014

WASHINGTON >> Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers Wednesday that last month's prisoner swap with the Taliban may have been the "last, best" chance to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. soldier held captive in Afghanistan. He said mediators indicated time was slipping away to get Bergdahl out safely.

Hagel, the first Obama administration official to testify publicly about the controversial deal, told the House Armed Services Committee that Qatari officials warned in the days before the exchange that "time was not on our side" and a leak would sabotage the deal. The transfer of five detainees at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar was legal and advanced national interests, he added.

Republicans and some Democrats have sharply criticized the administration for not informing Congress in advance, with some accusing the president of breaking a law requiring 30-day notification of any Guantanamo prisoner release. Other questions center on whether Bergdahl deserted and whether the U.S. gave up too much for his freedom. Administration officials have told Congress that four of the five Taliban officials will likely rejoin the fight.

"We could have done a better job of keeping you informed," Hagel told the panel. But he called the operation an "extraordinary situation" that combined time-sensitive concerns over Bergdahl's health and safety, last-minute arrangements over where to pick up the soldier and persistent fears the Taliban may have been negotiating in bad faith.

"We grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel said. "We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end the negotiations for Bergdahl's release. 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."

But a series of classified briefings in the 11 days since the operation has failed to answer a growing list of questions on Capitol Hill.

Opening Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the committee's chairman, described the agreement with the Taliban as the "deeply troubling" result of "unprecedented negotiations with terrorists."

McKeon, who has launched a committee investigation, said the deal could fuel further kidnappings of American personnel. And he described White House explanations thus far about the potential national security implications as "misleading and oftentimes blatantly false."

Hagel called the former Taliban government officials "enemy belligerents" and said they hadn't been implicated in any attacks against the United States. He said Qatar, which has promised to keep the former Guantanamo detainees inside the country for a year, committed to sufficient security measures that led him to decide the risks weren't too great.

At the same time, he said, "if any of these detainees ever try to rejoin the fight, they would be doing so at their own peril."

Hagel said Washington only engaged in "indirect negotiations." He said a logistical agreement was released May 27, four days before the exchange, and only then did President Barack Obama make a final decision to move forward. Officials learned the general area for the handoff of Bergdahl a day in advance and received the precise location an hour ahead of time, he said.

Bergdahl, an Idaho native, had been held captive since 2009. The Taliban officials had been at Guantanamo for more than a decade.

Beyond McKeon's investigation, the House Appropriations Committee also illustrated its displeasure this week. In a bipartisan 33-13 vote, it added a provision to a $570 billion defense spending bill that barred money for the future transfer of Guantanamo detainee. It also withholds other funds from the Defense Department until Hagel assures lawmakers that notification rules will be respected.

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cojef wrote:
After waiting 5 years and the President just announcing the drawing down of troops this year end and Hagel indicating return of prisoners of war, it was not imminently necessary to have a swap at this juncture. Politics have a way of getting this Administration to do drastic things that backfire. Meaning there is poor planning and common sense when making major decisions. Lack of maturity!
on June 11,2014 | 07:20AM
thepartyfirst wrote:
Who is to blame? The voters who voted for this current administration and like this current administration they have no sense or care for accountability.
on June 11,2014 | 09:49AM
Maipono wrote:
This is Hagel stuttering and making excuses for Obama superseding the Constitution and making a decision that was blatantly illegal. Not so much about Bergdahl as the irresponsible negotiation by the Obama Administration for releasing 5 extremely dangerous terrorists who could endanger Americans in the future. This is what happens when we vote for the wrong reasons.
on June 11,2014 | 07:58AM
AhiPoke wrote:
More spin. Our country has sunk to abysmal depts as politicians, both republican and democrat, continue to lie, lie, lie.
on June 11,2014 | 08:07AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
The story changes everyday. The stink of lies is strong on this one.
on June 11,2014 | 08:46AM
etalavera wrote:
The Obama administration gave members of Congress notice of the Osama bin Laden strike several days in advance and there was not a leak...yet they couldn't give them advance notice in this case? The real reason why no notice was given is because the White House knew members from both parties would have objected to the swap.
on June 11,2014 | 08:53AM
MakaniKai wrote:
According to Senator Saxby Chambliss the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he and Senator Diane Feinstein were informed months ahead IRT the ObL strike. This whole Bergdahl "thing" stinks!!!!!!!!! Laws broken, lies told, U.S. service members and citizens in greater danger at home and abroad. >>>> http://www.chambliss.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=5c30819e-3252-46df-bb53-9ef012ca9bf6 >>>> http://cnsnews.com/news/article/susan-jones/chambliss-we-knew-about-bin-laden-why-not-taliban-bergdahl-deal
on June 11,2014 | 09:17AM
DemBones wrote:
Bring them ALL home first. Then let's sort things out.
on June 11,2014 | 09:03AM
d_bullfighter wrote:
So....time was running out for someone who walked away from his post so we released 5 high level terrorists in exchange. With deals like this I think I'll offer Hagel a great deal on a property covered by lava flow. Moreover, Obama and Clinton didn't give a second thought to letting the clock run out on those Americans killed in Benghazi.
on June 11,2014 | 09:08AM
2localgirl wrote:
I'd heard that he was a deserter! Why save him?? This was done without consideration of others, like the whole of the world with these menacing Taliban released!
on June 11,2014 | 10:15AM
cojef wrote:
Other ramifications are how our allies portrays the arbitrary action taken by the Administration relating to POW swaps as in regards to coalition forces who are captured if any? Not a comforting feeling when an official does move to usurp the rule of law.
on June 11,2014 | 12:10PM
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