'We didn’t negotiate with terrorists'

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Sunday insisted the United States did not deal with terrorist hostage-takers in negotiating the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Republicans have criticized the administration for obtaining Bergdahl’s release in exchange for the release of five Taliban members detained at Guantanamo. But Hagel insisted what occurred was a prisoner exchange, a routine part of war.

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“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Sgt. Bergdahl is a prisoner of war, that’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.”

While the U.S. had previously recommended that those Taliban members be detained indefinitely, Hagel insisted that the U.S. is well positioned to make sure those former Taliban detainees do not pose a threat going forward.

“We don’t let anyone out of Guantanamo, and I will not sign off on any detainee coming out of Guantanamo unless I am assured … that we can efficiently mitigate any risk to American security,” he said.

He also insisted that the deal would not encourage future foes of America to take soldiers captive in an effort to obtain concessions.

“America’s record is pretty clear on going after terrorists, especially those who take hostages,” he said. “I don’t think what we did in getting our prisoner of war released in any way would somehow encourage terrorists.”

Several congressional Republicans have harshly criticized the administration for failing to give the required 30-day notice before making the exchange for Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban for five years. Bergdahl’s health was failing rapidly, and the administration did not believe it had the time, according to Hagel.

“We found an opportunity, we took that opportunity,” he said. “I signed off on that decision. The president made the ultimate decision.”

Hagel avoided weighing in on whether Bergdahl was captured in the process of deserting the army, and why he was having difficulty speaking English, as his father indicated.

Instead, Hagel said the focus currently was on his condition and reuniting him with his family.

“I'm not surprised that there are still questions, and until we get the facts exactly what the condition of Sergeant Bergdahl is, we can't go much further in speculating,” he said. “This is a guy who probably went through hell the last five years and let's focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family.”

--This report was updated at 1:19 p.m.