US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was due to face angry lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday as the first official in US President Barack Obama’s administration to testify publicly about the controversial prisoner swap with the Taliban.
Hagel was scheduled to appear before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, which is investigating the deal that secured the end of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s five-year captivity. In exchange, the US transferred five high-level Afghan Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
Republicans and some Democrats have sharply criticized the Obama administration for not informing Congress in advance, with some accusing the president of breaking a law requiring 30-day notification of any Guantanamo prisoner release.
Other questions center on whether Bergdahl deserted in 2009.
Members of Congress have cited intelligence suggesting the detainees could return to the battlefield in Afghanistan.
Hagel will explain why the decision to make the trade was “the right one,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
The administration had a “very small, fleeting opportunity” to secure Bergdahl’s release and grabbed the chance, he said.
Kirby’s description of a small window for the agreement meshed with comments by Senator Dick Durbin, said on Tuesday that the exchange was only finalized a day before it took place on May 31. The Democrat also said US officials did not learn the pickup location for Bergdahl until an hour ahead of time, making the question of advance notification irrelevant.
Critics in Congress were not convinced.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday. “We’ve made America less safe, here and around the world. And we’re going to pay for this,” he said.
However, a group of former soldiers on Tuesday defended the exchange and accused lawmakers of stoking the furor over the prisoner swap for political gain ahead of congressional elections this year.
“Some of the harshest, most brutal attacks have been coming from our own senators, senior senators,” said Ann Wright, a retired army colonel and former US Department of State employee who resigned over the Iraq war.
Additional reporting by Reuters