Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel on Wednesday staunchly defended the swap of five Taliban detainees for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, insisting it was the “right decision” despite the risks involved.
The choice to go ahead with the exchange was a “tough call” but President Barack Obama faced few options and needed to act given Bergdahl’s deteriorating health, Hagel told lawmakers.
“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.”
Seeking to counter a barrage of criticism from Republican lawmakers over the deal, Hagel said he endorsed Obama’s decision because “America does not leave its soldiers behind.”
“We made the right decision, and we did it for the right reasons — to bring home one of our own people.”
The May 31 exchange was in keeping with past US conflicts and there was no option to prosecute the Taliban detainees held at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Hagel said.
But the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, blasted the decision as “deeply disturbing.”
“This transfer sets a dangerous precedent in negotiating with terrorists,” McKeon said in his opening statement.
“It reverses longstanding US policy and could incentivize other terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda, to increase their use of kidnappings of US personnel,” he said.
McKeon accused the Obama administration of failing to properly consult with lawmakers over the swap and that the move violated laws governing the transfer of Guantanamo detainees.
Some Democrats in Congress have also criticized the White House for not keeping lawmakers fully informed of the situation.
Hagel acknowledged that the administration may have fallen short on that count.
“We could have done a better job of keeping you informed,” said Hagel, but added it was an “extraordinary situation” that could have unraveled if word had leaked of the plan.