Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday the military operation to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees was not relayed to Congress because officials believed the soldier's life was in danger.
In his first extensive public comments about Saturday's operation, Hagel said intelligence the U.S. had gathered suggested that Bergdahl's "safety and health were both in jeopardy, and in particular his health was deteriorating."
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Hagel said Congress was not told earlier about the operation because officials believed the soldier's life was in danger.
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Intelligence gathered suggested that Bergdahl's "health was deteriorating," Hagel told host David Gregory in an interview from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
"This was essentially an operation to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel added. "We had information that his health could be deteriorating rapidly. There was question about his safety. We found an opportunity. We took that opportunity.
"I’ll stand by that decision. I signed off on that decision. The president made the ultimate decision."
But a Republican lawmaker appearing on the same program said he was disappointed and shocked by the move.
"The release of five mid- to high-level of Taliban is shocking to me," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
"I’m very disappointed."
The trade of known terrorists is a "break with U.S. policy," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers added.
"The No. 1 way that al-Qaida raises money is by ransom — kidnapping and ransom. We have now set a price," the Michigan Republican said on CNN’s "State of the Union."
"If you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every al-Qaida group in the world, by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before," Rogers said. "That is dangerous."
Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, said the U.S. could have used military force to free Bergdahl rather than negotiate a swap.
"I do not think the way to deal with terrorists is through releasing other violent terrorists," Cruz said on ABC’s "This Week." "It's not the only way. We can go in and use military force, as needed, to rescue our fallen compatriots.
"The idea that we're now making trades, what does that do for every single soldier stationed abroad?" he asked. "It says the reason why the U.S. has had the policy for decades of not negotiating with terrorists is because once you start doing it, every other terrorist has an incentive to capture more soldiers."
Taliban members handed Bergdahl over to special operations forces in eastern Afghanistan, and later in the day, the detainees were flown from Guantanamo to Qatar.
The Pentagon did not give Congress the required 30-day notice for the release of detainees.
Hagel said it was the administration's judgment the military had to move quickly to get Bergdahl out, "essentially to save his life."
He said it was the unanimous consensus of the National Security Council, and the president has the authority to order such a release under Article 2 of the Constitution.
Only a handful of people knew about the operation and Hagel said "we couldn't afford any leaks anywhere, for obvious reasons."
Speaking to reporters traveling with him just hours after Bergdahl was flown from Afghanistan to a military medical center in Germany, Hagel said the special operations forces conducting the operation took every precaution, using intelligence gathering, surveillance, well-positioned security assets and a lot of helicopters to ensure that things did not go wrong.
"No shots were fired. There was no violence," said Hagel. "It went as well as we not only expected and planned, but I think as well as it could have ...The timing was right. The pieces came together."
Hagel said he was hopeful the prisoner exchange could lead to a breakthrough with the Taliban.
He said the focus of the operation was on the successful return of Bergdahl, but "maybe this could provide some possible new bridge for new negotiations."
The U.S. has long argued that the best way to a successful outcome in Afghanistan included reconciliation with the Taliban insurgents.
Asked if this type of swap might embolden other militants to take hostages, Hagel said that this operation was a prisoner exchange. And, he said, terrorist groups are already kidnapping young schoolgirls, business people and other innocent people.
Hagel declined to say whether he believes Bergdahl was attempting to desert the Army or go absent without leave when he walked away from his unit and disappeared nearly five years ago.
"Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family," Hagel said. "Other circumstances that may develop and questions — those will be dealt with later."
He added that his own time in Vietnam and the fact that he knew people like Sen. John McCain of Arizona who was a prisoner of war, gives him a personal connection to such an exchange.
"This is a very happy day for the Bergdahl family," Hagel said. "It's a very important day for our troops and our country."
But McCain said on CBS’ "Face the Nation" that the trade is problematic because the suspected Taliban-affiliated terrorists are only being held in Qatar for one year.
"It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight, and they are big, high-level people, possibly responsibly for the deaths of thousands," McCain said.
McCain described the terrorists released as the "hardest of the hardcore."
"I think the big issue here is what’s going to happen to these five individuals," McCain said. "If they re-enter the fight, then it is going to put American lives at risk, and none of us want that to happen."
Hagel said he planned to talk to the Bergdahls soon, and will speak with the soldier at the appropriate time, so as not to interfere with his health care needs.
"I am particularly happy for the family. What they have had to endure, how they've endured it — it's been remarkable. They have not been bitter. They have adjusted, they never lost hope and faith," Hagel said.
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