© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hagel Defends Bergdahl Exchange Before House Panel


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stood his ground yesterday. Lawmakers were grilling him over President Obama's decision to trade five top Taliban leaders for prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. It was the first public hearing on Capitol Hill in the nearly two weeks since the prisoner exchange. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: For one brief moment, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did admit the White House could have shown Congress a little more consideration.


CHUCK HAGEL: I recognize that the speed with which we moved in this case has caused great frustration, legitimate questions and concern. We could have done a better job - could've done a better job of keeping you informed.

CHANG: But for more than four hours before the House Armed Services Committee, Hagel unflinchingly stuck to one thesis - the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl presented an extraordinary situation - one that didn't allow the luxury of informing Congress ahead of time. Hagel said the White House wasn't even sure it would transfer the five Guantanamo prisoners until Bergdahl was actually in U.S. custody. And it didn't know the precise location of the handoff until one hour before the swap. And there couldn't be any leaks. Otherwise, the deal was off. That rubbed the top Democrat, Adam Smith, the wrong way.


CONGRESSMAN ADAM SMITH: We can, in fact, keep a secret, or I would say we're no worse at it than the administration.

CHANG: And then there were the specifics of a law that the president signed just last year. It requires the White House to notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of Guantanamo detainees. Florida Republican Jeff Miller had a civics quiz for Hagel.


CONGRESSMAN JEFF MILLER: Whose responsibility is it to interpret the law? Is it the president's responsibility, or is it the court's?

HAGEL: The court's.

MILLER: Then why did the president make the decision - or you make the decision not to notify Congress?

HAGEL: We believe in the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel...

MILLER: Part of the executive branch.

HAGEL: ...Told the president that he had the constitutional authority to do that.

CHANG: War is necessarily messy, Hagel said. There are no perfect choices. And this was probably the last best chance to get Bergdahl back. But Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas said this one incident set a dangerous precedent.


CONGRESSMAN MAC THORNBERRY: If the president can violate the law and say, no, in this case, we're not going to give you information. It undermines the oversight process that we have with the intelligence community.

CHANG: Even if members concede, the president can carve out certain exceptions to the notice requirement. Some believe this particular prisoner exchange harmed national security. Republican Randy Forbes of Virginia asked if the White House could realistically determine just how much of a threat these five Taliban detainees posed.

CONGRESSMAN RANDY FORBES: Did you make an assessment of how many American lives may be put at risk if they have to be recaptured?



HAGEL: There's risk that we have to our country - threats to our country every day, everywhere.

CHANG: And a judgment simply had to be made here. Hagel pointed out the detainees had been off the battlefield for at least 12 years - that there hadn't been any basis to prosecute them up until this point - that there was no evidence they were involved in any attacks. But Arizona Republican Trent Franks said the damage was already done.


CONGRESSMAN TRENT FRANKS: What happened here is that the Obama administration has now telegraphed to terrorists the world over that all they have to do is to kidnap or capture an American soldier or citizen, and that the United States will capitulate and free some of their most dangerous terrorist leaders.

CHANG: House members will be continuing their discussion with Hagel behind closed doors in a classified hearing to be held later on. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.