News / USA

Hagel Defends Taliban Prisoner Swap

Hagel Defends Bergdahl-Taliban Swap on Capitol Hilli
Michael Bowman
June 11, 2014 8:47 PM
The swap of a U.S. soldier for five Taliban militants continues to roil Capitol Hill, where U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the deal as the right decision made under imperfect circumstances. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Hagel testified before the House Armed Services Committee - the first public congressional airing of the controversy surrounding the liberation of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
Related video report by VOA's Michael Bowman
VOA News
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said exceptional circumstances did not allow time to provide advance notice to Congress about the release of captured Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday the decision to free five Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl was a tough call. 

He faced tough questions from lawmakers about the Obama administration's decision to not inform Congress ahead of time or give them details of the exchange, which has drawn criticism from lawmakers in both parties.

Representative Howard "Buck" McKeon, the Republican chairman of the committee, criticized the Obama administration of failing to consult with lawmakers over the exchange and said the move violated laws governing the transfer of Guantanamo detainees.

Hagel agreed that the administration may have fallen short on keeping lawmakers fully informed of the deal, but he stressed concerns that if details of the plan were leaked, it may have unraveled. He added that they viewed this option as a last chance to win Bergdahl's release.

McKeon called the exchange "deeply disturbing," saying "this transfer sets a dangerous precedent in negotiating with terrorists."

However, Hagel argued that Bergdahl was a prisoner of war, not a hostage, and winning his release conforms to long-standing U.S. policy to recover military personnel held captive.

"There are legitimate questions about this prisoner exchange," Hagel said. But "I would never agree to any decision that wasn't in the best interest of this country, nor would the president of the United States.

"In the decision to rescue Sergeant Bergdahl, we complied with the law, and we did what we believed was in the best interests of our country, our military, and Sergeant Bergdahl," Hagel said.
Exchange timeline

Last month, the Taliban agreed to free Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier held captive in Afghanistan for five years. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to free five high-level Taliban prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama administration officials have been defending a decision to move forward on the exchange without providing Congress the required 30-day notice before Guantanamo inmates are released.

Hagel described, in general terms, the details of the prisoner exchange and the administration's rationale for keeping the deal quiet.

Hagel called the attempt to free Bergdahl an extraordinary situation that had to consider numerous moving parts, including concerns about Bergdahl's health and safety, last-minute arrangements over where and when the hand-off would occur, and fears that the Taliban might not hold up their end of the deal.

In April, he said, the Taliban signaled an interest in indirect talks for an exchange. The U.S. then began intensified discussions with Qatar, which was acting as an intermediary.

On May 12, Hagel said, the U.S. and Qatar reached an agreement that detailed the specific security measures, including travel restrictions and monitoring, that would be undertaken and enforced by Qatar, should they take custody of any Taliban prisoners.

More specific security measures were to be discussed in a closed portion of the hearing.

Shortly after this agreement was signed, Hagel said U.S. officials received a warning from intermediaries that led them to think there was a growing risk concerning Bergdahl's safety.

After several days of intense negotiations, a prisoner exchange deal was signed on May 27, the same day that Obama received a commitment from Qatar to uphold the security arrangements of the exchange.

Fears of leaks

As the exchange date neared, "we were told by the Qataris that any leak would end the negotiations" for Bergdahl's release, Hagel said.

Given that Bergdahl would be vulnerable while being moved and U.S. forces conducting the hand-off would be exposed in territory that was not under U.S. control, "for all these reasons and more, the exchange needed to take place quickly, efficiently and quietly," Hagel said, in defending the administration's decision.

"We maintain the exchange was our last attempt" to free Bergdahl, he said.

"After the exchange was set in motion, only 96 hours passed" before Bergdahl was in hand," Hagel said.

The general location of the hand-off was not known until 24 hours before the rescue; the exact location was known only an hour before, Hagel said. 

It wasn't known until Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. Special Operations Forces that the Taliban would hold up their end of the deal, he added.
Taliban released

Republican House speaker John Boehner this week accused the administration of making Americans "less safe" by releasing five high-level Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl's freedom.
Boehner said he has no doubt lives will be lost because of the prisoner transfer.

In his testimony, Hagel said there is always some risk associated with the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo. 

But in the case of these five Taliban, Hagel said the threat they posed to the United States, American citizens and U.S. interests was substantially mitigated.

"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. It was appropriate to consider them for an exchange," he said.

"And if any of these detainees ever try to rejoin the fight, they would be doing so at their own peril," Hagel added.

Hagel said "the exchange was done legally" and the Justice Department told the administration the president had the constitutional authority to approve the deal.

Under terms of the deal, the five were released last month to the custody of Qatar for at least one year. Hagel said Qatar has committed to adequate security measures that led him to decide the risks of the transfer were substantially mitigated.

Republican House speaker John Boehner has accused the administration of making Americans "less safe" by releasing the five prisoners.

Bergdahl's condition

At the start of the hearing, chairman McKeon said the committee would not discuss the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance from his military unit in Afghanistan.

There are questions about whether he left on his own before he was captured. The U.S. Army has said it will investigate.

Bergdahl is being treated at a U.S. military hospital in Germany. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the soldier has continued to improve and is engaging with hospital staff more and more each day.
However, Kirby said, Bergdahl's reassimilation will be a "long process" and he will need time to heal mentally and physically.

You May Like

Video In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: corneliusvansant from: Florida
June 11, 2014 5:03 PM
Of course it would have unraveled because of the public firestorm. But the despot just arrogantly and giving comfort to the enemy did it anyway. There is no motivation for the Taliban to care about releasing the details and the very idea is disingenuous. The lies come so easily; that is the disturbing part. Some people think incompetence; others fear treachery.

by: meanbill from: USA
June 11, 2014 12:22 PM
MY OPINION? -- The (5) senior Taliban leaders were released because the Afghan Taliban demanded it -- (BECAUSE?) -- these (5) senior Taliban leaders will lead the negotiation with the US, (on the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan), with guarantees the Taliban won't attack the retreating US troops, (and) these secret negotiations offering other incentives to the Taliban), have been going on for over (4) years....

PICTURE THIS? -- The "official Taliban headquarters" is in Qatar, (and), where did they release the (5) senior Taliban leaders? -- (WHAT ABOUT BERGDAHL?) -- Bergdahl is just a diversion, to cover-up the real reason the (5) senior Taliban were released. -- (AND THAT IS?) -- The US and Taliban negotiations on US troop retreating from Afghanistan ...... REALLY
In Response

by: AfghanVet from: USA
June 18, 2014 2:43 PM
You're a fool to think the US actually retreats from the Taliban. If you've seen what i've seen, your mind may be persuaded. The US has superior firepower, training, and technology over these thugs. "Retreating" from Afghanistan and "withdrawing" are two totally different words.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs