Bowe Bergdahl release: Expect pointed questions as Hagel takes t - KALB-TV News Channel 5 & CBS 2

Bowe Bergdahl release: Expect pointed questions as Hagel takes the hot seat

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(CNN) -- The brewing political debate over a captured American soldier traded for five members of the Taliban could boil over Wednesday in the first public congressional hearing on the matter. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the man who signed off on the prisoner exchange that freed U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on May 31, will appear before the House Armed Services Committee in a session that's likely to bring pointed questions and heated debate.

"He looks forward to explaining why the President's decision to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl was the right one, and why the process we undertook in doing so was in keeping with our national interests," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.

And there will be plenty of eager ears listening -- from both parties.

'A matter of courtesy'

The Obama administration has already held two classified briefings this week for members of Congress -- one to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and similar session on Monday with House members. The sessions have only intensified the rhetoric coming from Capitol Hill.

Members of both parties complain that the White House should have let Congress know ahead of time that the exchange was taking place. Some cite the 30 days' notice called for by the National Defense Authorization Act, while others say a simple heads-up would have been good enough.

"It's just a matter of courtesy, whether it was in law or not," said conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a regular critic of the President. "A matter of this importance should have been discussed with at least key leaders in the Congress."

Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, told CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" that White House officials should have told congressional leaders, even if the law gave them wiggle room.

"I think the President had the constitutional authority ... to make this decision without consulting with Congress," Schiff said. "But I think it would have been wiser, far wiser, for the administration to have notified, certainly the leadership of Congress in the interest of having good relations."

Discretion was 'important'

But administration officials say the deal came together quickly, and the risks to Bergdahl and the military commandos involved in collecting him near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border required keeping the exchange top-secret.

"This was a secret military mission in which disclosure of the mission could put into jeopardy not just the life of Sergeant Bergdahl but also the lives of the American servicemen who were involved in the mission," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday. "So discretion on this matter was important."

However, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon of California called such reasoning for not notifying Congress "absurd."

"Nothing in the law requires the Secretary of Defense to disclose the physical details of the transfer," said McKeon, a Republican. "They are merely required to notify us in a classified manner that a transfer will take place, and of the conditions set to prevent a terrorist from re-entering the fight."

House Speaker John Boehner noted that he was briefed ahead of another significant and secret military mission -- the 2011 raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

"I was given a heads-up several days before" the bin Laden mission, Boehner said. "So this idea that they couldn't trust us to not leak things is just not true."

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate from West Virginia known for criticizing the administration at times, said his main concern was the release of five Taliban figures who could return to the battlefield against U.S forces and interests.

'There are going to be costs'

It's a concern shared by Boehner, who told reporters he had no doubt "that there are going to be costs, lost lives associated with what came out of this" and called the swap a de facto deal with Taliban terrorists.

On the Democratic side, Senate allies of President Barack Obama said the deal mediated by the government of Qatar came together too quickly to consult with Congress over an exchange that critics from both parties have labeled too costly.

"All I can tell you is this: (the government) knew a day ahead of time that the transfer was going to take place. They knew an hour ahead of time where it was going to take place," said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, while his Democratic colleague from Michigan, Carl Levin, noted the military's top leadership fully backed the exchange.

"Whether you agree with them or not, its critically important that the American people know that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs strongly recommended this agreement knowing full well Bergdahl, one, had left his unit and knowing full well how bad these Taliban people were," Levin said.

'In a position to go after them'

Under the exchange, the released Taliban detainees were taken to Qatar, where the government says it will keep them under watch for at least a year.

But some lawmakers fear there's no guarantee.

"How we are sure that the Qataris are going to do what they are supposed to do and we are able to keep (the released Taliban figures) from engaging again?" Manchin told reporters.

A memorandum of understanding between the United States and Qatar on the deal that freed Bergdahl offered "no guarantee" that the five Taliban commanders exchanged for the captured Army sergeant would be tracked, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee told CNN.

Schiff, who reviewed the agreement, said, based on his reading, that it is possible the former U.S. detainees "might disappear even during the first year in Qatar."

He told CNN's Jim Sciutto that the United States has "some capability to track them while in Qatar," but after the first year, he said, all bets are off.

"We have to expect them to return to the fight," Schiff said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the swap in an interview with CNN over the weekend, saying the former detainees would be monitored closely, and not just by officials in Qatar. He wouldn't say who else will be watching, but he said the United States is confident the conditions of their release will be honored.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Tuesday that the Obama administration had received "assurances from Qatar" during the deal.

"We have acknowledged that some of these individuals could attempt to return to activities that are of concern. The President said so explicitly on his trip last week," she said. "But we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if, in fact, they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses."

Bergdahl went missing on June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan's Paktika province, where he was deployed with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

An Army fact-finding investigation conducted in the months after his disappearance concluded he left his outpost deliberately and of his own free will, according to an official who was briefed on the report.

The Army has no definitive finding that Bergdahl deserted because that would require knowing his intent -- something Army officials couldn't learn without talking to the soldier, a U.S. military official told CNN.

Bergdahl is "continuing to improve every day" as he recovers at a military hospital in Germany, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said this week, but he hasn't spoken with his family yet.

The "decision to speak with the family is a decision the returnee has to make when he or she is emotionally in the right place to make the phone call," Warren said.

When Bergdahl is ready, he will be flown to the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas, where he may be able to reunite with his parents.

As Bergdahl recovers, details are slowly emerging about the conditions he endured during five years of captivity.

Citing an American official, The New York Times reported Sunday that Bergdahl told medical staff that the box he was kept in for weeks at a time was pitch black and like a shark cage.

CNN reported last week that Bergdahl has said he was kept in a small box after trying to escape, according to a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of not being identified. The official also told CNN that Bergdahl suffers from psychological trauma caused by physical abuse.

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