SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good morning. I know you've all been briefed on Sgt. Bergdahl. Let me just make a couple of opening comments and we'll go to your questions.
First, this is a very happy day for the Bergdahl family. It's a very important day for our troops and for our country. And I want to acknowledge that. And I want to acknowledge the tremendous efforts and professionalism that went into getting Sgt. Bergdahl back by our military, our Special Operations people, all of the diplomats who were involved.
I want to thank the Afghan government, and particular the country of Qatar and the Amir of Qatar.
Getting Sgt. Bergdahl back is a product that has resulted in intense efforts over the last few years. As you know, we have -- the United States was involved in conversations with the Taliban up until 2012 when they broke off those conversations.
But that has not at all stopped our efforts since then in trying to continually monitor and assess and get a sense of where Sgt. Bergdahl was being held, and trying to find every opening and opportunity to get him back.
Sgt. Bergdahl is a sergeant in the United States Army. He was a prisoner of war (POW). This was an exchange of prisoners. As secretary of defense, I authorized the five Taliban detainees to be released. They're on their way to Qatar now.
Again, we appreciate the government of Qatar's taking the responsibility for accepting those detainees and the assurances they've given us that in the end we had to be confident of as to give as much certainty as we could get that it was in the national security interests of our country.
So, again, you know a lot of the details and facts. There will be more coming out. You also know that Sgt. Bergdahl is on his way to Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. He will be there based on the evaluations of the doctors.
As to how long he will be there, I think most of you either saw or read the transcript of the Bergdahls with President Obama at the White House. And the reunification of Sgt. Bergdahl with his family will be based on a time-line on the family's wishes, and his own sense, and the evaluations of our doctors, and working with Sgt. Bergdahl to check his health and safety.
Then we'll take the next step. So I'll take your questions.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Lita?
Q: Mr. Secretary, a question on Bergdahl, and then one quick Afghanistan thing. Can you talk a little bit about sort of the pros and cons of this release? What does it gain for you, do you think, or for the U.S. in terms of any reconciliation efforts with the Taliban versus does it embolden, do you think, terrorists in thinking that now if they grab a member of the U.S. armed forces they might be able to get other prisoners released?
And just a quick thing on your trip to Afghanistan, since we're going to be landing there. Can you just give us some sort of assessment, do you think, of what the U.S. is going to be looking for in terms of improvement by the Afghan forces over the coming year to sort of determine the conditions there as they move along -- or their benchmarks?
SEC. HAGEL: Do you want to write all those out and (inaudible) (Laughter.)
First, our primary focus, I think, as you all know, was getting Sgt. Bergdahl back. And we've done, as I said, as President Obama said, as the result of the help of a lot of people. And so that's our first focus.
Whether that could lead to possible new breakthroughs with the Taliban, I don't know. Hopefully it might. But we pursued this effort specifically to get Sgt. Bergdahl back.
As to another part of your question, could this embolden terrorists? Again, I remind you this was a prisoner of war exchange. He was a prisoner. 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 school girls. 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. And maybe this could provide some possible new bridge for new negotiations.
As to your last question on Afghanistan, I'm very much looking forward to, first of all, thanking our troops, especially coming in behind President Obama's visit there, having an opportunity to talk with some of our leaders starting with Gen. Dunford, who I talk to a few times each week.
You know when the president made the announcement this week on the decision for America's post-2014 involvement, he laid out very clearly what our -- not only our role would be, and the specific number of troops that we would continue to maintain there, but also he acknowledged and I want to acknowledge, and we'll have some discussions about this when I get there, the tremendous progress that the Afghan army has made.
As I've said, and I noted this with all of you a few days ago, this is a process that we're engaged in, working with the Afghans to continue to help them build their capacity, strengthen their own institutions so that they are capable on their own.
And we have confidence that they will be able to do this -- especially since they are leading all of the combat efforts now -- that they will be able to stand on their own, defend themselves, support themselves, govern themselves.
And with the runoff presidential election coming in a couple of weeks, and with a successful first election a few weeks ago, I think that's a very good sign. It's a very positive sign.
So those will be a couple things I'll be talking to our guys about when I get there.
KIRBY: Okay. Karen?
Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, I wonder if you could give us a few more of the details of the actual operation itself now that its over. We were told that there were dozens of Special Forces involved.
How many helicopters? Was there any concern at any time that violence would erupt? How confident were you, were those troops that this was going to be a peaceful exchange, and to what extent were you prepared for something else?
And separately, on the question of the release of the Taliban, considering these people prisoners of war in a war that the president has said will end at the end of this year, are you concerned that that will change the legal status of about, I guess it's 12 or 13 Taliban who remain at Guantanamo in terms of their legal rights and demanding their release?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, regarding the specifics of the operation, I think you know some of those. We've not announced some. Some of those specifics are classified and will remain that way.
But let me address your questions this way. In an operation like this, where there is always uncertainty, where there is always danger, you prepare for all eventualities. I noted at the top of my remarks the skill and professionalism of our Special Operations people.
They took every possible precaution we could take through intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, through having enough of our assets positioned in the right locations having enough helicopters, doing everything we possibly could do to anticipate any violence or anything going in a different direction.
Fortunately, as you know, no shots were fired. There was no violence. It went as well as we not only had expected and planned, but I think as well as it could have.
Your question regarding the status of Taliban detainees at Guantanamo. I would start with what the president has said, it's his intention to eventually close Guantanamo. We're working within the limits of our laws. When we look at transfer of any detainees we look at a number of set requirements that must be fulfilled, and I, as secretary of defense must certify and sign off on, starting with the general - a question of national security for the United States.
Then you get into where would these detainees be transferred to, repatriated? Which countries would be willing to accept them? What assurances would they be willing give? What mitigations would be there that we could have confidence in that they would not return to the battlefield?
We are examining all of these individuals now. Some are more advanced than others as to where they are in that process. We'll continue to do that.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Kevin?
Q: Sir, did Sgt. Bergdahl go AWOL [absent without leave] or dessert his post? And if so, will there be any sort of punitive action against that? And in addition, did the Afghan government? Was the Afghan government aware of this operation before it occurred? It somewhat appeared from Kerry's statement that he informed President Karzai after the fact?
SEC. HAGEL: Secretary Kerry did inform President Karzai after the fact. And this was an operation, I think as everyone recognizes that had to be very closely held. Only very, very few people knew about this operation. We did not want to jeopardize any leaks. We couldn't afford any leaks anywhere, for obvious reasons.
As to your first question, Sgt. Bergdahl is a member of the United States Army. He's a sergeant in the United States Army. Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family.
Other circumstances that may develop and questions, those will be dealt with later.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Julian?
Q: Mr. Secretary, question one, Rep. McKeon said that you were -- government was in violation of the law in not notifying 30 days in advance. Obviously you had the concern about leaks. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how and why you decided to notify Congress only the day of and not do the 30-day notification, and if you think you are indeed in violation of that law?
And more broadly, why do you think the Taliban was ready to talk about Bergdahl's release now? Why did this negotiation restart?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, as to the first issue, we believe that the president of the United States is commander in chief, has the power and authority to make the decision that he did under Article II of the Constitution.
Now, that 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 particularly his health deteriorating.
It was our judgment that if we could find an opening and move very quickly with that opening, that we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life.
I know President Obama feels very strongly about that. I do as well. He consulted with his National Security Council on this. We were unanimous that this was the responsible right thing to do.
As to why now, well, as I said, we have been -- the United States government -- working to find way to open up some possibilities with the Taliban to try to get Sgt. Bergdahl back, so this didn't just start; this has been an ongoing effort that our government has been involved in at every level.
We found some openings that I don't want to get deeply involved in, in sharing those with you, that made sense to us. We had the Amir 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 that we had been making over the years paid off.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay, we'll go back to Helene, and then over to you Ali.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could you talk a little bit about how you feel given what's just happened with Bergdahl? I'd like to -- particularly given that you were an enlisted soldier yourself, just there must be a lot of, you know, emotions going through the fact this is one of the biggest things that happened on your watch as secretary of defense. I'd like to just hear a little bit more, just how you feel about it?
SEC. HAGEL: I think I am like, I hope, every American. I know the president feels strongly about this. When you can bring one of your own people home, and you think what he has endured the last five years. My own experience in Vietnam, as we had POW's taken. I do have some personal reflection of that time. So I am as intensely happy and gratified as I suspect anybody is.
I'm particularly happy for the family, what they have had to endure. How they've endured it, it's been remarkable.
They have not been bitter. They have adjusted. They have never lost hope and faith. They've been very supportive. I met with them a few months ago in the Pentagon. We have stayed in touch with them, our government, at every level. The president has met with them more than once.
That in itself is pretty remarkable. So yes, there's some emotion for me on this, because of my own experiences, and the people that I know, John McCain and others, who have endured many, many years of being separated and held in solitary confinement. In this case, Bergdahl was by himself. As far as we know, there were no other Americans. That's a -- that's pretty remarkable.
So that's why I said at the opening of my comments, this is a happy day, a happy day.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay, last one, then we'll go to -- we'll go to Ali here.
Q: Thank you, sir.
Just wanted to know, have you spoken to the family since Bergdahl has been transferred out, or do you plan to? Also do you plan to speak to Bergdahl himself?
You mentioned also his condition. I was just wondering if, obviously respectful of not getting into his particular medical situation, but can you just tell us, share with us at all, about this current mindset or his current mentality at this time? Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: I have not spoken to his family yet. I will speak with his family.
I know how happy the president of the United States was, to have the family next to him in that news conference they had.
I look forward to that conversation that I will have with him, and I will have that conversation with him soon.
As to my conversation with Sgt. Bergdahl, yes, I will talk with Sgt. Bergdahl.
But the first focus is on his health, and getting him the medical attention that he needs, and I won't interfere with that. When the doctors say that it's appropriate that I can speak with him, I will do that and I look forward to that.
As to his condition, I'm not a doctor. We just got him on a plane. We know that he walked to the helicopter. So we'll let the doctors examine him and take their time, as they should, and we're all hopeful that all that's going to work out.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay, thanks everybody.