NEW: Partisan exchanges punctuate first congressional hearing on Bergdahl deal
Secretary Hagel says Bergdahl swap was last, best chance to get him out
The deal was "fully consistent with U.S. law," Hagel testifies
Critics say the cost was too high and Congress should have been notified
Critics grilled him on issues such as presidential authority and negotiating with terrorists, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel kept returning to the human side of the debate over a deal that freed Bowe Bergdahl.
“We got our one remaining prisoner back,” Hagel said near the end of more than five hours of testimony at the first congressional hearing on the exchange of Bergdahl, an Army sergeant held captive in Afghanistan, for five Taliban figures detained at Guantanamo Bay. “I don’t think that’s an incidental accomplishment.”
The May 31 swap ignited controversy in the partisan frenzy permeating Washington in an election year, and Wednesday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing devolved at times into political marksmanship seemingly aimed more at creating sound bites and fodder for new ads than promoting further understanding of the issue.
Hagel appeared frustrated and even angry at times, but stayed on-message after an opening statement that laid out the legal and ideological foundation for the agreement that the Taliban claim as a victory.
“War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise,” Hagel said early on, presenting a them he repeated throughout the hearing. “The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in ‘how to’ manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.”
’We complied with the law’
In defending the deal approved by President Barack Obama, Hagel declared that “we complied with the law, and we did what we believed was in the best interests of our country, our military and Sgt. Bergdahl.”
“The President has constitutional responsibilities and constitutional authorities to protect American citizens and members of our armed forces. That’s what he did,” Hagel said. “America does not leave its soldiers behind. We made the right decision, and we did it for the right reasons – to bring home one of our own people.”
Republican critics contended the cost was too high because it freed hardened terror suspects possibly to rejoin the fight against U.S. interests, especially in return for a soldier accused by some in his unit of deserting his post.
Legislators from both parties also complained that the Obama administration failed to notify Congress ahead of time, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act for transfers of Guantanamo detainees.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, the committee chairman, labeled as “misleading and at times blatantly false” White House officials’ explanations at a classified briefing Monday for making the exchange and not notifying Congress beforehand.
’We could have done a better job’
Hagel conceded the administration should have tried harder to let Congress know about what he called rapidly moving developments, saying he understood the frustration caused by the speed of the mission.
“We could have done a better job of keeping you informed,” Hagel said, noting that only a few hours elapsed between making the final arrangements with the Taliban through the government of Qatar, which mediated the agreement.
“As the opportunity to obtain Sgt. Bergdahl’s release became clearer, we grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger” him, Hagel said.
“We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any leak, would end the negotiation for Bergdahl’s release. We also knew that he would be extremely vulnerable during any movement, and our military personnel conducting the handoff would be exposed to a possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory,” he said.
Under the swap, the released Taliban detainees were taken to Qatar and will remain there for a year, with the Qatari government saying it will keep an eye on them.
McKeon said he worried the newly freed Taliban figures “still pose a threat to Americans and Afghans alike” because “in a year, they will be free to return to Afghanistan.”
Other GOP legislators accused the administration of acting on its own to evade opposition to the deal in Congress as well as trying to hide a shift in U.S. policy by negotiating with terrorists to secure Bergdahl’s release. They seized on Hagel’s confirmation that Bergdahl at times was held by the Haqqani network, a Taliban wing designated a terrorist group in 2012.
Negotiating with terrorists?
Hagel repeatedly said the on-off negotiations dating back to 2011 involved the broader Taliban that formerly governed Afghanistan, and that the government of Qatar was an intermediary in the final talks in April and May.
“We didn’t negotiate with Haqqani,” Hagel said, adding that Bergdahl was moved around during his five years of captivity. That brought accusations of deceptive reasoning, with Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, sharply challenging Hagel.
“How is it the United States could’ve been in negotiations with the Haqqani network, a listed terrorist organization, and it not conflict with our policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists?” Turner asked, to which Hagel replied that “we dealt directly with the government of Qatar.”
Turner shot back: “So now, the new policy of this administration is, ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists directly.’ “
The next legislator up, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, criticized Turner for being “prosecutorial” and wondered aloud if his Republican colleague might be running for House GOP leader after Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary defeat.
“I’m shocked, really, that this has become such a political football,” Cooper said.
Hagel also complained about the politicization of the Bergdahl exchange and said he was “offended and disappointed in how the Bergdahl family has been treated by some people” amid the controversy over the release.
The FBI is investigating threats against the family following the appearance by Bergdahl’s parents with Obama at the White House for the announcement of their son’s release.
In another heated moment that left Hagel visibly angry, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida badgered him about why it was taking the military so long to interview Bergdahl, who is being treated under a post-captivity regimen at the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany.
When Hagel started explaining that doctors treating Bergdahl will decide when he is ready to talk, Miller cut him off.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why hasn’t he been returned to the United States?” Miller asked, noting that wounded soldiers from battle zones get flown back for treatment within days. “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,” and the two continued to talk over each other.
“I don’t like the implication of the question,” Hagel said at one point, and when Miller persisted about injured combat troops coming back to the United States quickly, Hagel raised his voice.
“This isn’t just about a physical situation,” he said. “This guy was held for almost five years in God knows what kind of conditions. … This is not just about can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane.”
Shortly afterward, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California looked over at the Republican side of the committee room and asked for everyone “to think for a moment how we would be responding if Bowe Bergdahl was our son.”
“I really fear for his return to this country with the kind of rhetoric that is being spewed in this very room,” she said.
Members of Bergdahl’s unit have claimed that U.S. soldiers died on missions trying to find him after he disappeared in 2009, but Hagel said Wednesday that he had seen “no evidence that directly links any American combat death to the rescue or finding or search of Sergeant Bergdahl.”
Hagel’s testimony provided some added detail but otherwise hewed to previous statements by administration officials from Obama on down about what led to the exchange and