Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday vehemently defended the deal that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in sharp and at times angry exchanges with Republican lawmakers during the first open hearing on the controversial swap of war prisoners.
Hagel’s feisty testimony before the House Armed Services Committee was in marked contrast with his placid performance at his January 2013 Senate confirmation hearing, which was so flat that he himself now mocks it.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, was clearly primed to respond firmly to critics of the June 1 exchange of Bergdahl for five Taliban militants from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Pentagon chief said President Barack Obama’s constitutional powers as commander-in-chief gave him the authority to keep Congress in the dark about the deal, ignoring a law requiring that lawmakers receive 30 days’ notice of any release of Guantanamo detainees.
While Hagel said there was some risk in freeing the five Taliban, who include the former Afghanistan regime’s deputy defense and intelligence ministers, he insisted that the deal contains adequate protections against them harming Americans.
With some of Bergdahl’s former platoon members claiming that he went AWOL on June 30, 2009, before his capture by the Taliban, Hagel assured lawmakers that the Pentagon will review his mysterious disappearance fully, but only after he recovers from his five-year ordeal as a POW.
Countering claims that U.S. soldiers died looking for Bergdahl, Hagel said he has “seen no evidence that directly links any American combat death to the rescue or finding or search of Sgt. Bergdahl.”
The Qatari government brokered the exchange, which requires that the five Taliban stay in Qatar for at least a year. Asked whether they must wear restraints or monitors or are allowed freedom of movement, Hagel said he could provide such details only in a closed hearing.
For all his firmness, Hagel acknowledged that the Obama administration had bungled the aftermath of the Bergdahl exchange in its relations with Congress and in public statements.
“We didn’t handle some of this right,” he told the panel.
The hearing was often tense, as several Republicans on the committee took a prosecutorial tone with Hagel, repeatedly interrupting his answers and questioning his veracity. A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Hagel gave as well as he took, his voice rising at times as he accused his critics of misconstruing his statements and questioning his motives.
Stephen Preston, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, also testified.
In the most combative exchange, Rep. Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican, criticized the defense secretary for having failed to notify lawmakers of the pending exchange for Bergdahl.
“Over and over and over, you and Mr. Preston both have said, ‘We don’t trust Congress, we don’t trust Congress,' “ Conaway told Hagel. “It’s insulting, it’s disrespectful, and I get it.”
As Conaway pursued the point, Hagel said: “By the way, I never said that I don’t trust Congress. That’s your words.”
“Yes, you did,” Conaway replied. “Yes, you have. Over and over.”
“I never said I don’t trust Congress. . . . You want to check your transcript, congressman.”
In another contentious back and forth, another Texas Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry, tried to get Hagel to admit that by securing Bergdahl’s freedom, he and Obama had breached a long-standing U.S. policy of never negotiating with terrorists.
Hagel acknowledged that Bergdahl was held for parts of his five years’ captivity by the Haqqani network, an Islamist insurgent group based in Pakistan.
“And it’s also true,” Thornberry said, “that the Haqqani network is listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” Hagel responded. “. . . But we didn’t negotiate with Haqqani. I want to make sure the record is clear on that. We engaged the Qataris, and they engaged the Taliban. Now, if the Haqqanis were subcontracting to the Taliban or whatever that relationship is . . . there’s a difference there.”
That explanation prompted a retort from Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican: “That’s our footnote now? So now the new policy of the administration is we don’t negotiate with terrorists directly?”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, senior Democrat on the committee, said the Taliban will have to be involved in any eventual settlement of the almost 13-year Afghanistan war.
“The current Afghan government has said over and over again that they want to negotiate with the Taliban,” Smith said. “Any sensible person who looks at the situation in Afghanistan right now understands that there is no ultimate peaceful solution if at some point they don’t negotiate with some Taliban.”
In another tense exchange, Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, asked Hagel why Bergdahl is still being treated at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he was flown June 1 from Afghanistan after his release.
“Why hasn’t he been returned to the United States?” asked Miller, who also serves as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We have seriously wounded soldiers that are returned to the United States almost immediately after they are stabilized. How long did Jessica Lynch (held in Iraq for nine days as a POW in 2003) wait before she was returned to the United States? You’re trying to tell me that he’s being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?”
Hagel responded: “Congressman, I hope you’re not implying anything other than that.”
“I’ve just asked the question, Mr. Secretary.”
“I’m going to give you an answer.”
“Well, answer it.”
“Well, I don’t like the implication of the question.”
“Well, answer it.”
“He’s being held there because our medical professionals don’t believe he’s ready to take the next step in his rehabilitation,” Hagel said.
Hagel did make a peace offering to the lawmakers: an unredacted – not edited to remove classified or other sensitive material – copy for Congress of the Army’s 2009 report on its investigation of Bergdahl’s disappearance.