Hagel Fires Back at Bergdahl Criticism in Congress

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel lectures House panelists about war, says Bergdahl mission was the right choice.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, citing the recent Pay Our Military Act, will recall to work hundreds of thousands of furloughed civilian employees of the Department of Defense next week.
National Journal
Molly O'Toole, Defense One
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Molly O'Toole, Defense One
June 11, 2014, 7:58 a.m.

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.”

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