Hagel: 'We Could Have Done a Better Job' of Keeping Congress Informed

By Susan Jones | June 11, 2014 | 10:47 AM EDT

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel  speaks about the prisoner exchange aboard a U.S. Military Aircraft on Sunday, June 1, 2014.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)

(CNSNews.com) - "We could have done a better job ... of keeping you informed," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday at a hearing on the swap of five Taliban fighters for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

"I recognize that the speed with which we moved in this case has caused great frustration -- legitimate questions and concern."

Hagel explained that the Obama administration was not sure that the five Taliban detainees would be transferred out of Guantanamo Bay until the U.S. had Bergdahl in hand. And he said the Americans took custody of Bergdahl only a "few hours" after the deal with the Taliban, brokered by Qatar, came together.

Hagel said the U.S. was told that any kind of leak would end negotiations for Bergdahl's release, putting the troops who went to rescue him in jeopardy.

The prisoner exchange "was done legally; it was substantial mitigation of risk to our country; and in the the national interest of this country," Hagel said in his opening statement.

"The president's decision to move forward with the transfer of these five detainees was a tough call. I supported it. I stand by it," Hagel said, adding that he takes such decisions "damned seriously."

Hagel said the administration knew the five Taliban detainees were "enemy belligerents" -- but they had not been implicated in any attack on the United States, and therefore, "we had no basis to prosecute them in a federal court or military commission. It was appropriate to continue to consider them for an exchange," Hagel said.

If any of the enemy belligerents chooses to return to the fight, "they would be doing so at their own peril."

"This is not a risk-free business. We get that," Hagel said.

But Hagel insisted that he would "never sign any document or make any agreement -- agree to any decision that I did not feel was in the best interests of this country. Nor would the president of the United States, who made the final decision with the full support of his national security team."