WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress Wednesday that officials of Qatar negotiating the release of captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl told the U.S. that "time was not on our side" and a leak about the exchange would sabotage the deal.
Hagel testified at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that the decision to transfer five Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees into Qatar's hands in exchange for Bergdahl was a tough call for President Barack Obama. He called the five "enemy belligerents" who had not been implicated in any attacks against the U.S.
Hagel also said that Qatar has committed to adequate security measures that led him to decide the risks of the transfer were substantially mitigated.
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. Administration officials have told Congress that four of the five Taliban officials will likely rejoin the fight.
"This prisoner exchange was done legally," Hagel told lawmakers.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in advance of the hearing that Hagel was set to explain why the decision to make the trade was "the right one."
Kirby said the administration had a "very small, fleeting opportunity" to secure Bergdahl's release and seized the opportunity, 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.