WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday vehemently defended the deal that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in sharp and at times angry exchanges with Republican lawmakers during the first open hearing on the controversial swap of war prisoners.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, was clearly primed to respond firmly to critics of the June 1 exchange of Bergdahl for five Taliban militants from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Pentagon chief said President Barack Obama's constitutional powers as commander-in-chief gave him the authority to keep Congress in the dark about the deal, ignoring a law requiring that lawmakers receive 30 days' notice of any release of Guantanamo detainees.
While Hagel said there was some risk in freeing the five Taliban, who include the former Afghanistan regime's deputy defense and intelligence ministers, he insisted that the deal contains adequate protections against them harming Americans.
With some of Bergdahl's former platoon members claiming he went AWOL on June 30, 2009, before his capture by the Taliban, Hagel assured lawmakers that the Pentagon will review his mysterious disappearance fully, but only after he recovers from his five-year ordeal as a POW.
Countering claims that U.S. soldiers died looking for Bergdahl, Hagel said he has "seen no evidence that directly links any American combat death to the rescue or finding or search of Sgt. Bergdahl."
The Qatari government brokered the exchange, which requires that the five Taliban stay in Qatar for at least a year. Asked whether they must wear restraints or monitors or are allowed freedom of movement, Hagel said he could provide such details only in a closed hearing.
For all his firmness, Hagel acknowledged the Obama administration had bungled the aftermath of the Bergdahl exchange in its relations with Congress and in public statements.
"We didn't handle some of this right," he told the panel.