Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday morning defended the release of five Taliban detainees in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
"In the decision to rescue Sergeant Bergdahl, we complied with the law, and we did what we believed was in the best interests of our country, our military, and Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel told members of the House Armed Services Committee.
The defense secretary conceded that the administration could have done a better job of keeping Congress informed on the negotiations. However, reports from Qatari intermediaries that the risks to Bergdahl's safety were increasing made it clear that "time was not on our side," Hagel said.
"This was the best opportunity for us to pick him up and we felt our opportunity was fleeting," Hagel said.
He said negotiators grew increasingly concerned that any delay or any leaks could derail the deal and further endanger Bergdahl.
"We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end the negotiations for Bergdahls release," Hagel said.
Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a California Republican, said he agreed that everyone who "wears the uniform should be returned." However, McKeon, an outspoken critic of the release of the Taliban detainees, said the deal was wrong.
"This release sets a dangerous precedent in negotiating with terrorists," McKeon said.
In response to a question from the committee, Hagel said he personally went to the Pentagon to learn whether any soldier had been killed during the 2009 search for Bergdahl, a Hailey native, after he was captured.
"I have seen no evidence that links any combat deaths to the search for Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel said.
Hagel would not talk about the circumstances behind Bergdahl's disappearance, saying that information was best talked about in a closed, security discussion of the committee. That session was to follow the public hearing, he said.
He cleared up confusion on whether Bergdahl was held by the Taliban or the Haqqani network, an affiliated group in Afghanistan.
"Different groups held him," Hagel said. "The Haqqani network did have him during periods of time, while the Taliban had him at other times as he was moved around."
Hagel had a testy exchange with Florida Republican Jeff Miller, who pressed the defense secretary why Bergdahl has not returned to the United States nearly two weeks after his release.
Miller said many seriously wounded soldiers returned to the U.S. after being stabilized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where Bergdahl is being treated.
"This is not just about a physical condition and whether he can get up and walk and get on an airplane," Hagel said. "The medical professionals, who we trust, will make the decision on when he's fit to return."
Miller also asked why the military is just now asking about the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance. It has been widely reported that Bergdahl walked away from his post in Afghanistan.
Hagel said a full investigation was carried out at the time Bergdahl was captured. A copy of that report was delivered to Congress on Tuesday and McKeon said committee members will be provided a copy of it.