TIME Military

Chuck Hagel Defends Bergdahl Exchange Before House Committee

Hagel's opening comments stressed the dangers posed to Bergdahl's life had the administration delayed or exposed any details of the negotiation

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Updated 2:02 p.m. E.T. on June 11

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel defended the recent Taliban prisoner exchange before skeptical members of the House on Wednesday, calling it “a fleeting opportunity” to rescue Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from imminent danger.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee questioned Hagel for more than three hours on the legality and wisdom of the deal in a series of exchanges that were at times clipped, testy and as one committee member admonished his colleagues, “prosecutorial.”

Hagel acknowledged the release of the five Taliban detainees raised thorny questions about national security. “All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war,” he said in his opening remarks.” Nonetheless, he stressed that the decision was made with the “unanimous” consent of the President’s security council and amid threats that Bergdahl’s health was rapidly deterioriating.

Hagel said the first warning signs came in January, when officials received a “disturbing” video from Bergdahl’s captors. “It showed a deterioration in his physical appearance and mental state compared to previous videos,” Hagel said. The sense of urgency was compounded by a warning from Qatari intermediaries in May that “time was not on their side.”

Hagel also argued that the secrecy of the negotiations was critical for Bergdahl’s safety, saying that the exact location of the swap was not settled until 1 hour before the exchange took place. “We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any kind of leak, would end the negotiation for Bergdahl’s release,” Hagel said.

Republican members of the committee sparred with Hagel on the legality of releasing Taliban prisoners without giving Congress 30 days notice. Republicans also questioned whether Hagel had considered the ongoing risks posed by the released Taliban commanders. “Did you make an assessment of how many American lives may be put at risk if they have to be recaptured,” Rep. Randy Forbes asked in a repeated attempt to obtain a “yes” or “no” answer.

Hagel rebuffed criticism that the administration had underestimated the security threats posed by the transfer of five Taliban detainees to Qatar. “I take that responsibility damn seriously, damn seriously,” Hagel said, arguing that the detainees were placed under travel restrictions in Qatar and had no direct involvement in attacks on American soil.

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