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Bowe Bergdahl Released

Five Questions as House Prepares to Grill Hagel on Bergdahl

Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel goes before the House on Wednesday. Octav Ganea / Mediafax via AP

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel goes before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday to answer questions about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and he can expect the questioning to be tough.

The Republican chairman, Buck McKeon of California, told reporters that "we ought to look at the price" — the five Taliban detainees whom the Obama administration released from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl's freedom.

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Outraged Republicans said after a secret administration briefing Monday night that as many as 90 people in government — but no member of Congress — knew about the swap ahead of time. The White House said Tuesday that the figure referred to people who "had access to intelligence related to Taliban activities in Qatar," the country that facilitated the negotiations for Bergdahl's release.

Here are some of the unanswered questions that may be posed to Hagel.

Did Bergdahl Desert?

Former members of his platoon have said so, but the administration has urged people not to jump to conclusions about the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance from his Afghan outpost in June 2009 and capture by the Taliban.

"His side of the story matters, too," national security adviser Susan Rice told CNN last week. "We'll have a full and comprehensive review of what happened, and then we'll be able to make that judgment."

Bergdahl is working with psychologists at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and the military has promised a full investigation. Hagel will probably be asked what, if anything, the military has learned so far.

"The key question is what really do we know about Bergdahl's conduct," said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. "What do we know about his behavior in captivity? What can Secretary Hagel tell us about that?"

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Why Wasn't Congress Told?

The White House first said that it moved quickly to make the trade because it believed Bergdahl's health was deteriorating rapidly. President Barack Obama told NBC News' Brian Williams last week that it was a "delicate situation that required no publicity."

The administration has not said why that would have precluded notifying the Gang of Eight, the small group of members of Congress that is customarily trusted with a heads-up on highly sensitive actions.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, told reporters Tuesday that the administration finalized the exchange only one day ahead of time and knew only an hour ahead of time where it would take place.

Hagel could be pressed for details about a video the Taliban released in December that administration officials have said raised grave concerns about Bergdahl's health. The video has not been publicly released.

"It is now obvious that Bergdahl was not in severe ill health," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News military analyst.

What Were the Consequences of Bergdahl's Capture?

In the days after Bergdahl was freed, some former members of his platoon blamed him for the deaths of as many as eight soldiers. Nathan Bradley Bethea, for example, wrote that soldiers from Bergdahl's own unit "died trying to track him down."

But a review by The New York Times found that the record was far from conclusive, partly because fighting was intense all over Afghanistan at the time and because insurgents had targeted Paktika province, where Bergdahl was, for years.

Bowe Bergdahl
Bowe Bergdahl, left, at an observation post in Afghanistan. Sean Smith / The Guardian file

What About the Five Detainees?

Hagel will almost certainly be pressed for specifics about the threat posed by the five Guantanamo detainees, who were released into the custody of Qatar.

Some Republicans have characterized them as extremely dangerous: Sen. John McCain of Arizona called them the "hardest of the hard-core," and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called them a "Taliban Dream Team."

Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out that, while the men may return to militant involvement, "they also have an ability to get killed doing that."

"They're a mixed bunch," said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Project, a journalist who began chronicling Afghanistan in the late 1990s and spoke to NBC News before returning to Kabul.

She singled out one of the five, Mohammad Fazl, who Human Rights Watch says could be prosecuted for war crimes for presiding over mass killings of Shiite Afghans in 2000 and 2001.

"I think only Fazl would merit the label — 13 years ago — 'violent and vicious,' which is what McCain called all five of them," Clark said.

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What Was in the Army's Initial Investigation?

The Army's first investigation into Bergdahl's disappearance was completed in 2009, two months after he disappeared. It remains classified.

Some details have leaked. The Military Times, citing officials familiar with the report, reported that Bergdahl walked away from his post at least once before he was captured and that he talked to fellow soldiers about a desire to leave unaccompanied.

"Were sworn statements taken from the platoon? If not, why not?" McCaffrey asked. "Were statements taken from the Afghan police unit? If not, why not?"

He said he would also ask about soldiers' claims that they were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements when they were interviewed.

Bob Costantini of NBC News Radio contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.