Chuck Hagel, Susan Rice defend decision to trade terror suspects for Bergdahl


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during an April briefing on the Defense Department's fiscal 2014 budget at the Pentagon. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

National security adviser Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the Obama administration's decision to trade five Taliban-affiliated terrorism suspects for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, who on Saturday was recovered by U.S. Special Operations forces.

"This is a joyous day," Rice said during an interview Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Although the recovery of Bergdahl, who had been in Taliban captivity for five years, has been praised widely, the decision to trade five high-level Taliban officials has prompted heavy criticism from Republicans.

“The release of five mid- to high-level Taliban is shocking to me, especially not coming to Congress," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, during an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"You now are going to have five people on the ground targeting American troops, the Afghan troops and the Afghan people. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked here."

But Obama administration officials have defended the swap, insisting that it was consistent with the U.S. pledge to leave no man behind on the battlefield.

Hagel, speaking from Afghanistan during an interview on "Meet the Press," said U.S. officials were concerned about Bergdahl's health. He brushed off Republican criticisms.

"We didn't negotiate with terrorists," Hagel said, dismissing the suggestion that this swap could incentivize future kidnappings of American soldiers. "In war, things are always dangerous and there are vulnerabilities... but our record, the United States of America, in dealing with terrorists and hunting down and finding terrorists, is pretty good."

The swap, announced Saturday morning, has enraged some congressional Republicans, who argue that the decision potentially compromises national security because it amounts to a negotiation with terrorists.

But, earlier on Sunday morning, Rice told CNN host Candy Crowley — when asked whether this meant that the United States could no longer claim that it does not negotiate with terrorists — that she "wouldn't put it that way."

Other critics have argued that President Obama may have violated the law by not giving members of Congress the required 30-day notice before moving prisoners who were being kept at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Top Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees went so far as to accuse Obama of breaking the law.

“Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl’s release may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans. Our terrorist adversaries now have a strong incentive to capture Americans. That incentive will put our forces in Afghanistan and around the world at even greater risk,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.) and Sen James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement.

Rice, however, insisted that Obama acted within his power as commander in chief, framing the choice as one to secure the release of a prisoner of war who had been captured in battle — rather than one that amounts to negotiating with terrorists.

"Sergeant Bergdahl wasn't simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield," Rice said. "Regardless of who may be holding an American prisoner of war, we must do our best to bring him or her back."

“It was our sacred obligation, given the opportunity to get him back,” Rice said. “And we did so in a way that has brought him back safely into American hands. We did so in a way that resulted in the Taliban prisoners being monitored and kept in a secure way in Qatar."

Moments after Rice's interview with ABC, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) criticized the administration's decision, calling it "very disturbing."

"The terms of the deal are very troubling," Cruz said. "Have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?... That's a very dangerous precedent."

Cruz was far from the only Republican calling for more answers from the administration about the way the trade went down. Others, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), and former Senate candidate Liz Cheney appeared on various Sunday political shows, each saying they were happy that Bergdahl had been recovered, but also questioning whether releasing Taliban members was wise foreign policy.

“It is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight, and they are big, high-level people, possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands,” McCain said during an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation."

“The big issue here is what’s going to happen to these five individuals,” he said. “If they reenter the fight, then it is going to put American lives at risk, and none of us want that to happen.”

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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