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Lawmakers blast Hagel over failure to communicate on Bergdahl deal

June 11, 2014 at 6:23 PM EDT

UDY WOODRUFF: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stepped into a firestorm today, facing angry lawmakers upset over a controversial deal that freed a U.S. soldier in exchange for five Taliban detainees.

CHUCK HAGEL, Secretary of Defense: We could have done a better job, could have done a better job of keeping you informed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Hagel struck two different tones at a House hearing today, as he discussed the prisoner swap that freed Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He was conciliatory at first, then firm.

CHUCK HAGEL: The exchange needed to take place quickly, efficiently and quietly. We believe this exchange was our last, best opportunity to free him. We didn’t know the general area of the handoff until 24 hours before.

We did not know the precise location until one hour before. And we didn’t know until the moment Sergeant Bergdahl was handed over safely to U.S. special operations forces that the Taliban would hold up their end of the deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The hearing was the first time an administration official has testified publicly on the deal. It comes less than two weeks after the U.S. agreed to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl.

Lawmakers have since sharply criticized the White House for releasing the detainees without the required 30 days’ notice to Congress. That became a centerpiece of the questioning today, starting with Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon.

REP. BUCK MCKEON, Chair, Armed Services Committee: The detainee transfer raises numerous national security, policy and legal questions. The explanations we received from the White House officials were misleading and at times blatantly false.

There is no compelling reason why the department could not provide a notification to Congress 30 days before the transfer, especially when it has complied with a notification requirement for all previous Gitmo detainee transfers since enactment of the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel disputed that claim, which also came from other Republicans and Democrats, saying time wasn’t on our side.

CHUCK HAGEL: But under these exceptional circumstances, a fleeting opportunity to protect the life of an American service member held captive and endangered for almost five years, the national security team and the president of the United States agreed that we needed to act swiftly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel said the administration consulted the Justice Department and was told notification was unnecessary. He also said the administration was concerned about leaks.

The hearing grew tense at times, including one exchange between Hagel and Florida Republican Jeff Miller over why Bergdahl is still being treated in Germany at a U.S. military hospital.

REP. JEFF MILLER, R, Fla.: You’re trying to tell me that he’s being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?

CHUCK HAGEL: Congressman, I hope you’re not implying anything other than that. The fact is…

REP. JEFF MILLER: I’m just asking the question, Mr. Secretary, that you won’t answer.

CHUCK HAGEL:  I’m going to give an answer too, and I don’t like the implication of the question.

REP. JEFF MILLER: Well, answer it. Answer it. Answer it.

CHUCK HAGEL: He’s being held there because our medical professionals don’t believe he’s ready, until they’re — they believe he is ready to take the next step to his rehabilitation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s hearing comes as new opinion polls shed light on the public’s view of the swap. According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the prisoner exchange for Bergdahl.

And if officials find that Bergdahl did, in fact, desert his post before his capture, the disapproval rate jumps above 60. Meanwhile, new details emerged about the soldier’s past. The Washington Post reported today that Bergdahl had been discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons.

His case has raised larger questions about prisoners being transferred from Guantanamo Bay. Hagel noted today 620 detainees have left Guantanamo since 2002, 532 during the George W. Bush administration and 88 since President Obama took office.