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WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will face angry lawmakers as he becomes the first Obama administration official to testify publicly about the controversial prisoner swap with the Taliban.
Hagel was scheduled to appear Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee, which is investigating the deal that secured the end of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's five-year captivity. In exchange, the U.S. transferred five high-level detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Gulf emirate of 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 and whether the U.S. gave up too much for his freedom. 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 Adm. 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 Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who told reporters Tuesday that the administration finalized the exchange only a day before it took place on May 31. The Senate's No. 2-ranked Democrat also said American officials didn't learn the pickup location for Bergdahl until an hour ahead of time, making the question of advance notification irrelevant.
Critics in Congress weren't convinced. In a bipartisan 33-13 vote, the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday added a provision to a $570 billion defense spending bill that barred money for the transfer of future detainees from Guantanamo. It also withholds other funds from the Defense Department until Hagel assures lawmakers that notification rules will be respected.
"We don't negotiate with terrorists," House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday. "We've made America less safe, here and around the world. And we're going to pay for this." Although Boehner and other lawmakers voiced concerns when told more than two years ago about the possibility of the trade, the Ohio Republican told reporters he "was never briefed on any specific negotiation."
Obama is "not going to get away with this one," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said after a closed-doors hearing of the House on Monday. He described the president's attitude as an "arrogant thumbing of his nose" at Congress.
Bergdahl, an Idaho native, had been held captive since 2009. The Taliban officials had been at Guantanamo for more than a decade. Under the deal, they have to remain in Qatar for a year.