WASHINGTON — Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in an interview with CNN, indicated that he felt pressure from Obama’s White House to release detainees from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Hagel, who was reportedly forced to resign under pressure from President Obama, explained that the White House disagreed with how he handled the pace of transfers out of the detention center.
President Obama has vowed to shut down the facility in Guantanamo.
“I have made it very clear that I will not certify, sign anything to release a detainee as long as I am Secretary of Defense unless I am convinced that it is in the best interest of this country and the substantial mitigation of risk can be verified as closely as we can verify it,” Hagel, the only enlisted combat veteran to serve as Secretary of Defense, told CNN’s Barbara Starr.
“I have the responsibility and I play my own game here. And that is because by law I’m the one, the one official in government, charged with certification of releasing detainees,” the lone Republican on the White House’s national security team later added. “I take that responsibility very seriously.”
In the exclusive interview with CNN, Hagel also said that the May 2014 exchange of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five high-level Taliban detainees released from Guantanamo to Qatar was the “right decision.”
His comments came a day after CNN revealed that one of the five Taliban detainees released in return for Bergdahl, who has been accused of desertion, has attempted to reengage in terrorist activities.
“It was clear that Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. The circumstances surrounding that we have investigated,” said Hagel. “That investigation is over and I’m absolutely as committed to that decision today as when the decision was made.”
“Are you concerned when you release any detainee from Guantanamo? Of course, because there is no 100 percent guarantee of anything,” he added.
President Obama has ramped up his efforts to shut down the Guantanamo prison.
Under the current administration, 116 prisoners have been transferred out, including 28 detainees released in 2014 alone. Most transfers in 2014 occurred late in the year.
The release of five Guantanamo detainees already this year brought the prison population down to 122, including 54 who have been cleared for release by Obama.
Prisoners from Yemen make up the majority of detainees at the facility and the bulk (47) of those who have been approved for transfer.
The security situation in Yemen has deteriorated further following the fall of the U.S.-backed government in the country’s capital of Sanaa.