Hagel says time was running out to save Bergdahl

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Hagel says time was running out to save Bergdahl
SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 13: (From left) Colonel Bradley Poppen, Ph.D., Major General Joseph P. DiSalvo, and Colonel Ronald N. Wool deliver a press conference at the Fort Sam Houston Golf Course July 13, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. They are reporting on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, his return to the United States, and reintegration at Brooke Army Medical Center after being a prison of war under Taliban captivity. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: President Barack Obama walks with the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Jani Bergdahl (L) and Bob Bergdahl (R) back to the Oval Office after making a statement regarding the release of Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity May 31, 2014 in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was held captive by militants for almost five years during the war in Afghanistan. (Photo by J.H. Owen-Pool/Getty Images)
Bob Bergdahl, the father of freed US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, speaks following the release of his son, US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 31, 2014 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama and the Bergdahl's spoke after the release of Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of freed prisoner of war US Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl including representatives of the ANSWER Coalition, CODEPINK and March Forward, rally in front of the White House in Washington, DC, June 10, 2014, to welcome Bergdahl home after 5-years of being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Armed Services Committee about the about the prisoner exchange that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill June 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. The trade of Bergdahl for five senior Taliban officials has angered some members of Congress because they were not informed of the swap beforehand. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel listens during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee June 11, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing to examine the exchange of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl who had been held for almost five years by the insurgents in Afghanistan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
HAILEY, ID - JUNE 01: A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in the window of the Hailey Paint and Supply store on Main Street June 1, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. Sgt. Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 while serving with U.S. Armys 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in Paktika Province. Yesterday he was released after a swap for 5 prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay was arranged. Bergdahl was considered the only U.S. prisoner of war held in Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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BY BRADLEY KLAPPER

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.

Hagel Defends Bergdahl Swap, Says Quick Action Was Needed

"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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