Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the first administration official to appear publicly before Congress to defend the recovery and prisoner exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, hit back hard on Wednesday against criticisms that the White House and Pentagon endangered U.S. security in bringing him home.
“We made the right decision, and we did it for the right reasons,” Hagel said in his opening statement to the House Armed Services Committee.
In his remarks Hagel acknowledged what he called legitimate questions from Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. and members of Congress about the trade of Bergdahl, the only captive soldier from the Afghanistan war, in exchange for five Taliban detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2012. But from the outset, the defense secretary gave a strong defense of the decision.
“I want to be clear on one fundamental point — I would never sign off on any decision that I did not feel was in the best interests of this country,” he said in his statement. “Nor would the president of the United States, who made the final decision with the full support of his national security team.”
McKeon noted in his opening remarks that the House Armed Services Committee has begun a full investigation into the details of the exchange and the danger it may pose, but said the committee would not be digging into the murky circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009 on Wednesday.
“The matter before us is deeply troubling,” McKeon said. “Let me be clear up front on the focus “¦ it is not my intention to dive into the circumstances of the disappearance of Sgt. Bergdahl from his base “¦ there will be a time and a process for that.”
“Everyone who wears the uniform should be returned,” he added, but continued, “The explanations we’ve received from the White House “¦ were misleading, and at times, blatantly false. This transfer sets a dangerous precedent of negotiating with terrorists.”
Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., immediately disputed McKeon’s take, saying he believed the president made the right call, and rather than “negotiating with terrorists,” such discussions with the Taliban have been taking place throughout the war in Afghanistan.
Hagel sought to reassure Congress that the reason they were not notified before the swap was that it was not settled until 24 hours before it happened. The defense authorization bill stipulates Congress must be notified 30 days before the transfer of any detainee from Guantanamo detention center.
“After the exchange was set in motion, only 96 hours passed before Sgt. Bergdahl was in our hands. Throughout this period, there was great uncertainty about whether the deal would go forward. We did not know the general area of the hand-off until 24 hours before. We did not know the precise location until 1 hour before. And we did not know until the moment Sgt. Bergdahl was handed over safely to U.S. Special Operations Forces that the Taliban would hold up their end of the deal. So it wasn’t until we recovered Bergdahl on May 31st that we moved ahead with the transfer of the five Guantanamo detainees,” Hagel said.
But who knew what when is sure to be a continued sore point between Congress and the White House, as Hagel acknowledged in his statement that a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Qatar government on May 12, detailing the specifics of the security measures that would be undertaken if the Taliban detainees were transferred there. McKeon replied that “80 to 90” people knew of the mission by the time it happened, yet none of the appropriate Congressional leaders.
The secretary said that additional, classified details would be given in the closed portion of the hearing.
“The President’s decision to move forward with the transfer of these detainees was a tough call, but I support it and stand by it,” he continued in his statement. “As Secretary of Defense, I have the authority and responsibility to determine whether detainees at Guantanamo Bay can be transferred to the custody of another country. I take that responsibility as seriously as any responsibility I have.”
He said later, audibly angry, “I take this responsibility damn seriously. Damn seriously.”
Hagel put his Vietnam War experience on the table against the Armed Service Committee members. “Wars are messy and full of imperfect choices. I saw this firsthand during my service in Vietnam in 1968,” he said, pointedly. “A few of you on this committee have experienced war and seen it up close.”
“There is always suffering in war — not glory. War is always about human beings — not machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities “¦ but realities they are.”
But the point that Hagel returned to repeatedly in his statement is that while Congress debates the merits of the deal, and others focus on whether Bergdahl may have deserted, his primary concern, and that of the administration, was to bring the sergeant home.
“We do whatever it takes to recover any U.S. service member held in captivity,” he said. “This pledge is woven into the fabric of our nation and its military.”
“Hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions and how-to manuals,” Hagel continued. “We did what we believed was in the best interests of our country, our military and Sgt. Bergdahl.”