WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered an aggressive defense Wednesday of the secret prisoner exchange of five Taliban detainees for a U.S. soldier, telling Congress that the risks were too great and the situation too uncertain for the administration to tell lawmakers about the plan.
In a nearly five-hour Capitol Hill hearing that was at times contentious, House members accused Hagel and the White House of not trusting them enough to follow the law and fill them in on the decision to exchange Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five detainees at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
An equally combative Hagel said the deal provided "the best possibility that we had to get him out, and we were concerned we might lose it." He said officials discussed the law requiring that Congress get a 30-day notice of detainee exchanges but said the Justice Department told them that in such extreme circumstances President Barack Obama had the constitutional authority to forego the notice. The Justice Department declined to comment on advice it gave the White House.
The first Obama administration official to testify about the prisoner swap, Hagel acknowledged up front that the matter could have been handled better. But he offered no apology for keeping Congress in the dark, insisting that Qatari officials negotiating the swap between the U.S. and the Taliban made it clear that "time was not on our side."