WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- The risks to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl were growing as officials feverishly negotiated and made plans for his release from Taliban captivity, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Wednesday in a public defense of the administration's controversial prisoner swap.
"We believed this exchange was our last, best opportunity to free him," Hagel told the Armed Services Committee in prepared remarks. "The exchange needed to take place quickly, efficiently."
"After the exchange was set in motion, only 96 hours passed before Sgt. Bergdahl was in our hands," he told the House Armed Services Committee.
The decision to trade five Taliban leaders for the release of Bergdahl, who was held for five years, has come under intense criticism on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers were not notified of the deal in advance and the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance remain obscure.
The Army plans to investigate his disappearance once Bergdahl's health and reintegration are addressed. Officials have said he appears to have walked off his post without authorization in 2009.
Hagel's remarks are the most vigorous public defense of the prisoner swap to date. He is expected to face tough questioning from lawmakers who have remained skeptical of the arrangement.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R- Calif., said the prisoner exchange sets a dangerous precedent that puts U.S. forces at greater risk.
Hagel described delicate behind-the-scenes negotiations fraught with danger. Qatar was acting as an intermediary between U.S. officials and the Taliban.
"Throughout this period, there was great uncertainty about whether the deal would go forward," Hagel said. "We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any kind of leak, would end the negotiations for Bergdahl's release."
"We did not know the general area of the hand-off until 24 hours before," he said. "We did not know the precise location until one hour before. And we did not know until the moment Sergeant Bergdahl was handed over safely to U.S. special operations forces that the Taliban would hold up their end of the deal."
Hagel also pointed out that Bergdahl has not been charged with any crime and the speculation and criticism of his actions are unwarranted.
"Like any American, Sgt. Bergdahl has rights, and his conduct will be judged on facts – not political hear-say, posturing, charges, or innuendo. We owe that to any American and especially those who are members of our military and their families," he said.
"Like most Americans, I've been offended and disappointed in how the Bergdahl family has been treated by some people," he said. "No family deserves this."
Hagel said the prisoner swap was legitimate because Bergdahl was a prisoner of war.
"Sgt. Bergdahl was a detained combatant being held by an enemy force, and not a hostage, it was fully consistent with our long-standing policy not to offer concessions to hostage takers," he said.
Hagel said he met with the team of special operations forces at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan the day after the May 31 transfer in order to thank them.