WASHINGTON, June 1, 2014 – The release yesterday of former prisoner of war Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, after a years-long international effort to free him from nearly five years of captivity in Afghanistan, was an important day for U.S. troops and for the United States, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today.
Hagel briefed reporters traveling with him aboard a military aircraft en route to the next stop, Afghanistan, on his 12-day trip to countries in Asia and Europe.
During the briefing, Hagel said Bergdahl was then on his way to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Doctors there will evaluate the sergeant’s health, which the secretary said was a critical reason for the seemingly abrupt and stealthy special operations forces helicopter pick-up and transfer of Bergdahl out of Afghanistan.
Medical center doctors will determine the length of Bergdahl’s stay in Germany, the secretary added.
In explaining the details he could about Bergdahl’s recovery, Hagel said, “We believed that the information we had, the intelligence we had, was such that Sgt. Bergdahl’s safety and health were both in jeopardy, and in particular his health deteriorating.”
The secretary added, “It was our judgment that if we could find an opening and move very quickly … that we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life.”
Hagel also noted that President Barack Obama felt strongly about the need to quickly extract Bergdahl and consulted with his National Security Council, whose members were unanimous in their agreement with the plan.
The U.S. government had been working for years to find a way to open up possibilities with the Taliban to try to recover Bergdahl, the secretary said, “So this didn’t just start, it has been an ongoing effort that our government has been involved in at every level.”
He added, “We found some openings that I don’t want to [publicly discuss] that made sense to us. We had the Emir of Qatar, who was willing to take the lead on this, and his representatives in Qatar. The timing was right. The pieces came together. Our consistent efforts … over the years paid off.”
Specifics of the rescue operation are classified, Hagel told reporters, but he said, “In an operation like this, where there is always uncertainty … always danger, you prepare for all eventualities.”
Praising the skill and professionalism of special operations personnel involved in the sergeant’s recovery, Hagel said they took every possible precaution through intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and by having assets positioned in the right locations to anticipate problems.
“Fortunately,” the secretary said, “no shots were fired. There was no violence. It went as well as we not only expected and planned but I think as well as it could have.”
As part of the recovery effort, and because the Emir of Qatar and his government cooperated to help secure the soldier’s release, Obama said yesterday during a White House press conference that the United States is transferring five detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay to Qatar.
At that press conference, Obama noted, “The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.”
The president also thanked the Afghan government, which he said had always supported U.S. efforts to secure Bergdahl’s release.
In his own briefing with the traveling press, Hagel responded to a question about whether sending five detainees to Qatar could embolden terrorists to grab more service members to exchange for detainees.
“I remind you that this was a prisoner-of-war exchange. [Bergdahl] was a prisoner,” Hagel said. “And as we know certainly from what we’re dealing with all over the world today with terrorist groups, they take hostages. They take innocent schoolgirls. They take business people. They will take any target that they can get to. So, again, our focus was on the return of Sgt. Bergdahl.”
Hagel said he has not yet spoken with Bergdahl’s family or with the sergeant himself.
“I know how happy the president of the United States was, to have the family next to him in the news conference they had [yesterday], Hagel said, adding that the focus now is on Bergdahl’s health.
“I won’t interfere with that,” he said. “When the doctors say it’s appropriate that I can speak with him, I will do that and I look forward to that.”
On the 12-day trip so far, Hagel has spoken with troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, and in Singapore held several bilateral meetings with Asian defense leaders and participated in the annual Shangri-La Dialogue.
The secretary’s next stops include Afghanistan, Brussels for a NATO defense ministerial, and France, with stops in Paris and then Normandy to commemorate with President Barack Obama the Allied victory in World War II and the 70th anniversary of sacrifice and courage shown on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.