Hagel Admits Obama Ignored Law in Taliban Release

‘The trust has been broken’ between Congress and White House

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel / AP
June 11, 2014

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted that "the trust has been broken" between the White House and Congress following the Obama administration’s decision to skirt U.S. law and release five top Taliban leaders without first consulting with lawmakers.

Hagel admitted to lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday that the administration unilaterally inked a deal with the Taliban to release five top prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp without first notifying Congress, as is legally mandated.

The deal was signed "without providing 30 days notice to Congress," as is required by law, Hagel told lawmakers before attempting to justify the administration’s decision to ignore this law.

The White House’s decision to skirt this law has prompted the House Armed Services Committee to launch a full investigation into the matter, lawmakers revealed on Wednesday.

When asked directly by Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) if the Obama administration had complied with the law as written, Hagel responded, "No."

"We believe … the president has the constitutional authority to do that," Hagel said. "He had the authority to make the decision he did."

Meanwhile, it was disclosed in a classified briefing Tuesday that the top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan—Gens. Joseph Dunford and Lloyd Austin—also were not informed in advance by the Obama administration of the release of the five Taliban leaders, according to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.).

Hagel vigorously defended the decision to skirt the law, claiming that "under these exceptional circumstances" the White House "national security team and the President of the United States agreed we had to act swiftly."

Hagel went on to reveal for the first time that the deal to exchange the five Taliban leaders for captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was inked about a month ago, raising new questions about the administration’s decision to withhold the information from Congress.

The Obama administration "did what we believe was in the best interest of our country, our military, and Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel said, claiming that Obama has certain "constitutional authorities" that justify his decision.

"We made the right decision and did it for the right reasons," Hagel said, admitting that the White House’s decision to leave Congress in the dark has eroded its credibility with Congress.

"I know the trust has been broken," Hagel said.

Hagel went on to recount for the first time in a public setting the circumstances leading up to Bergdahl’s release.

In April, the Taliban "signaled interest in indirect talks on an exchange," Hagel said.

The United States then "intensified our discussions" with Qatar, which acted as an intermediary between the United States and the Taliban.

On May 12, a memorandum of understanding was signed with Qatar, paving the way for the prisoner swap, according to Hagel.

"We signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar detailing the specific security measures that would be undertaken and enforced by them if any Taliban detainees were transferred to their custody," Hagel said.

Defense Department General Counsel Stephen Preston, who was present at the hearing, then signed the agreement with Qatar "on behalf of the United States government," according to Hagel.

"In this [memorandum of understanding] were specific risk mitigation measures and commitments from the government of Qatar like travel restrictions, monitoring,
information sharing, and other significant measures which we will detail in the closed portion of this hearing," Hagel said.

However, it was revealed in a classified briefing Tuesday detailed by the Washington Free Beacon that in several instances "Qatar has failed to follow through on their agreements with detainees," according to a source familiar with the brief.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), the armed services committee chair, specifically detailed how the Obama administration broke the law by circumventing Congress, which was legally entitled to 30 days notification about the deal.

"We did pass a law last year that stated that Congress should be notified 30 days before any transfer of detainees from Guantanamo," McKeon said, explaining that the leadership was only briefed on the possibility of a deal in November 2011.

"This committee has begun a full investigation into the administration’s decision, its unprecedented negotiations with terrorists, the national security implications of releasing these dangerous individuals from U.S. custody, and the violation of national security law," McKeon said at the start of the hearing.

"The explanations we received from White House officials at a House-wide briefing earlier this week were misleading and often times blatantly false," McKeon said.

The release of the five Gitmo inmates violates sections of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which mandates that Congress be notified prior to the release of any prisoners.

"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 the notification requirement for all previous GTMO detainee transfers since enactment of the law," McKeon said.

"This decision undermines a lot of the working relationships in all these areas of national security," added Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas)

Miller, in one of the more heated exchanges of the hearing, went on to question why Bergdahl has not yet been brought back to the United States for questioning.

Miller suggested that the administration might be attempting to hide Bergdahl, a claim that Hagel forcefully denied and pushed back against.