(CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday that he's aware of the law requiring the Executive Branch to consult with Congress at least 30 days before agreeing to any prisoner swap.
"As to notification of Congress, yes, there is a 30-day notification. I notified the appropriate committee leadership, different committee leadership yesterday. That's part of the responsibility I have as the secretary of defense."
Hagel said the situation was urgent: "This was essentially, in our opinion, to save the life of Sergeant Bergdahl. As I said before, we had information that his health could be deteriorating rapidly. There was a question about his safety. We found an opportunity. We took that opportunity. I'll stand by that decision. I signed off on the decision. The president made the ultimate decision. We did spend time looking at this."
Hagel said he would not "sign off" on the release of any Guantanamo detainee "unless I am assured, unless our...country can be assured that we can sufficiently mitigate any risk to America's security."
Hagel said Bergdahl, who reportedly deserted his post in Afghanistan, had been held for five years -- "and that's five years of very difficult living." But he also noted that Bergdahl was able to walk to the extraction helicopter.
Asked if the prisoner exchange paves the way for a new round of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, Hagel said, "Well, it could, it might, and we hope it will present an opening.
"As you know, we have strongly supported an Afghan-led effort to come to an agreement with the Taliban. As you know, we had engaged with the Taliban up until 2012. They broke off those negotiations. We've had no formal relationship since then. So maybe this will be a new opening that can produce an agreement."
'Time was not something we could play with'
Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Congress wasn't notified about the prisoner swap, as the law requires, because of concerns about Bergdahl's health:
"[A]fter almost five years in captivity, our concern was increasing with every passing day, but we also had indications that indeed his health was growing more fragile, he had lost a good bit of weight, and we were were very concerned that time was not something we could play with, that we needed to act when we had the opportunity, and that's what we did."
Rice said Congress "has been briefed...when we had past potential to have this kind of arrangement. So it wasn't unknown to Congress."
Rice also said the decision to act unilaterally was made by the Defense Department in consultation with the Justice Department:
"And given the acute urgency of the health condition of Sergeant Bergdahl, and given the president's constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30-day notification requirement..."
She said members of Congress were notified "when Sergeant Bergdahl was in American hands, which was actually before the prisoners had left Guantanamo."
Crowley asked Rice, "So there was a conscious decision to break the law as you know it dealing with the detainees and the release of them?"
"Candy, no. As I said earlier, the Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice, and it is our view that it was appropriate and necessary to do this in order to bring Sergeant Bergdahl back safely."