U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is defending the deal to secure the freedom of an American soldier in a swap for five Afghan insurgents, even though Congress was not notified ahead of time as required by U.S. law.
Hagel said officials feared the life of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was in danger. As a result, he said congressional leaders were not given the required 30-day notice that President Barack Obama planned to release the prisoners from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and turn them over to Qatar. Qatari officials have pledged to hold them for a year.
Some opposition lawmakers in Washington have praised Bergdahl's release, but criticized the terms of the prisoner swap.
One Republican critic, Congressman Mike Rogers, called the prisoner swap "a fundamental shift" in U.S. policy that would give terrorists "a greater incentive" to take Americans hostage.
Bergdhal was flown Sunday to a U.S. Army base in Germany to undergo a medical checkup and initial questioning about his nearly five years in captivity at the hands of the Taliban. The circumstances surrounding his capture remain murky.
Obama, appearing with Bergdahl's parents at the White House Saturday, said that the soldier "wasn't forgotten by his country" and that the U.S. "does not leave our men and women in uniform behind."
The U.S. leader announced last week that by the end of 2014 it will end combat operations in Afghanistan, while leaving about 9,800 troops there to train Afghan military personnel and assist in counter-terrorism operations. Obama plans to further cut the troop level to less than 1,000 by the end of 2016.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy Taliban military operations at the heart of the terrorist attacks against the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.
Hagel said he hopes the prisoner exchange will lead to breakthroughs in relations with militants. He made the comments after an unannounced arrival at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to discuss the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Officials say Bergdahl's handover to U.S. Special Forces near the Pakistan border was non-violent.
The 28-year-old Bergdahl, a resident of the western U.S. state of Idaho, was captured by the Taliban on June 30, 2009, about two months after he arrived in Afghanistan.
His hometown of Hailey, Idaho had been planning its annual "Bring Bowe Back" event on June 28. But upon hearing of his release Saturday, the event was quickly renamed "Bowe is Back," and is now planned as a welcome home party.