This story has been updated throughout.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the first administration official to appear publicly before Congress to defend the prisoner exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, hit back hard on Wednesday against criticism that the White House and the Pentagon endangered national 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.
Hagel acknowledged what he called legitimate questions from Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. and other 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 prison since 2012. But from the outset of the hearing, 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. “Nor would the president of the United States, who made the final decision with the full support of his national security team.”
McKeon said 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 from his U.S. outpost in Afghanistan in 2009.
“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 Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., immediately disputed McKeon’s take, saying he believed the president made the right call, and rather than “negotiating with terrorists,” pointed out that 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 National Defense Authorization Act stipulates that Congress must be notified 30 days before the transfer of any detainee from Guantanamo.
“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 one 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. Hagel acknowledged 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 no one told congressional leaders.
Hagel said additional, classified details would be given in the closed portion of the hearing, including the mitigating details of the agreement with the Qatari government that Hagel said gave a number of agencies confidence the detainees would be kept under close watch. That portion of the hearing was later cancelled, to be rescheduled at a later date.
“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,” Hagel said. “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, clearly angry, “I take this responsibility damn seriously. Damn seriously.”
As members of Congress pushed Hagel on whether the 30-day notification law would be bypassed for future detainee transfers, and whether such transfers posed a danger to Americans at home or abroad, both the secretary and Defense Department General Counsel Stephen Preston said the debate would likely intensify with the drawdown in Afghanistan.
“At some point, the armed conflict with the Taliban ends … for those detainees that are being held as belligerents … we no longer have that international law basis for holding them,” Preston said.
Hagel said the Pentagon has “no direct evidence of any direct involvement in their direct attacks on the United States or any of our troops,” while later allowing that, “I’m not saying these five individuals all of a sudden transformed into St. Francis.”
“But you don’t send chocolates and say, ‘send ‘em over,’” he noted later of the difficulty of the negotiations.
He also said that he has seen no direct evidence directly linking any American combat death to search operations to find Bergdahl and said the Army will conduct a comprehensive review of the circumstances surrounding the soldier’s disappearance.
“Let’s get him healthy, mind, body, spirit,” he said. “Then we’ll get on with the rest of it.”
Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I. and others suggested the swap has given the Taliban, and possibly others, a crucial morale boost. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. quoted a Taliban commander in the Helmand province who told The Daily Beast, ”His return is like pouring 10,000 Taliban fighters into the battle on the side of jihad.”
Hagel pointed out that the Taliban has had standing orders to capture American service members for more than a decade and added that Bergdahl’s return actually adds to U.S. military capabilities. “Now that we have our last prisoner back, this very much gives us more flexibility,” he said.
At times throughout the more than 4-hour hearing, questioning became heated, with a number of members of Congress interrupting and shouting down the secretary. But Hagel largely defied the criticism.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, who is also a member of the House Intelligence Committee, asked why Hagel hasn’t gone to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to speak to Bergdahl and why he hasn’t yet returned home, implying that the soldier remains at a U.S. military hospital in Germany for reasons other than medical.
“No, Mr. Secretary, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why hasn’t he been returned to the United States?” Miller asked, “You’re trying to tell me that he’s been held in Landstuhl because of his medical condition?”
Hagel responded in anger, “I hope you’re not implying anything other than that … I don’t like the implication of the question.” Miller interrupted, shouting, “Answer it! Answer it!”
“This guy was held for almost 5 years in God knows what kind of conditions,” Hagel said. “This is not just about, ‘Can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane?’”
The secretary did say the Bergdahl deal that was done could have been done, “better, smarter,” while emphasizing it was “the most viable, best avenue we could find” under what he repeatedly called “extraordinary” circumstances.
“What is unprecedented today are the threats and what we’re up against around the world: organized, sophisticated terrorist groups,” Hagel said. “Now have we declared war on any of them? … These are different dynamics … this country has never had to deal with before.”
But some things remain unchanged. Hagel put his Vietnam War experience on the table, telling committee members, “Wars are messy and full of imperfect choices. I saw this firsthand during my service in Vietnam in 1968. 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.”
At the end of the hearing, Hagel seemed resigned to the political realities on the Hill. When asked how he thought he did, he shrugged: “You do what you gotta do.”
The point that Hagel returned to repeatedly 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 Army 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.”