WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the prisoner exchange that brought the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl after years of captivity with the Taliban, telling skeptical lawmakers on Wednesday that the operation had needed to be kept secret from Congress to ensure that the soldier was not killed by his captors in the days leading up to the swap.
In the first public testimony before Congress by a senior member of the Obama administration since Bergdahl’s release, Hagel described the exchange as a “military operation” that was in doubt until the very end. He called prisoner swaps part of the “dirty business” of war.
“War, every part of war like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise,” he told members of the House Armed Services Committee. “All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.”
Hagel showed brief flashes of contrition, acknowledging the complaints of lawmakers’ “great frustration” that they were kept in the dark about the operation and admitting that the Obama administration “could have done a better job” keeping lawmakers informed. A statute signed by President Obama requires that the administration give Congress 30 days’ notice before it transfers a detainee from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Obama issued a signing statement asserting that he could lawfully bypass the notice requirement under certain circumstances.
But Hagel did not give ground about the necessity of the prisoner swap, in which Bergdahl was exchanged for five senior Taliban detainees being held at Guantánamo.
Republican critics of the deal have compared it to “negotiating with terrorists,” an accusation echoed Wednesday by Representative Howard McKeon, a California Republican and the committee’s chairman. McKeon also said the deal would “incentivize” militants to capture more US troops.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has asserted that the five former detainees — now being held in Qatar for a year under the terms of the prisoner swap — have “American blood on their hands.”
On Wednesday, Hagel said they did not.
“They 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 said.
Later, however, under questioning by Representative Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, Hagel conceded that even though there was no evidence of “direct involvement” in attacks on US troops, the detainees had nevertheless been “combatants” because as mid- to high-ranking members of the Taliban government, they were involved in “planning” Taliban operations after the United States went to war in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl was being held in Pakistan by the Haqqani network, a group aligned with the Taliban that the State Department has listed as a foreign terrorist organization. On Wednesday, several Republican lawmakers asked Hagel to explain why the prisoner swap did not violate the longtime US policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
Hagel said that the Obama administration had dealt directly with Qatari officials, not militants, and that it was operatives of the Taliban and not the Haqqanis who were on the other end of the negotiations.