Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testified before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday, reaffirming the Obama administration stance that the trade of five high-level Taliban officials for captive Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was the “last, best opportunity” to free Bergdahl and that Hagel takes his job “damn seriously.”
Hagel reiterated in his testimony talking points the Obama administration has made at various moments in this developing story before: that the trade “was done legally with substantial mitigation of risk” and that a six-month-old “proof of life” video released by the Taliban “gave us a growing urgency to act.” Bergdahl appeared in the video, he said, to show significant “deterioration in his physical and mental state.”
Hagel took the opportunity in his testimony to condemn those that have attacked Bergdahl based on various accounts by the troops who served alongside him that he deserted his colleagues and, in deliberately trying to find the Taliban, endangered and cost American lives. “His conduct will be judged on facts, not on political hearsay… we do owe that to any American,” Hagel told the committee. He added that he was personally “offended and disappointed by how the Bergdahl family has been treated,” but did not elaborate.
Hagel has previously defended Bergdahl and his family in interviews, noting that it was “irrelevant” whether soldiers died searching for Bergdahl. He has also admitted to being “unsure” as to whether soldiers died trying to rescue Bergdahl.
As Hagel appeared before Congress to explain why the White House kept them uninformed of the situation, he also offered an explanation for the decision to keep the swap secret. “We were told by the Qataris that a leak – any leak – would end negotiations,” he explained, and that “the exchange needed to occur quickly, efficiently, and quietly.” He claimed the Defense Department “did not know the precise location until one hour before” the pick-up of where they would find Bergdahl.
As to the safety of soldiers that must now serve with five highly dangerous Taliban officials newly freed into the world, Hagel reiterated that he takes the responsibility of keeping Americans safe “damn seriously” and that the Taliban members were worth the trade. “It was appropriate to consider them for an exchange,” he explained. “If any of these detainees choose to rejoin the fight, they do so at their own peril.”
Hagel concluded that the swap was “a military operation with very high and complicated risk and a very short window of opportunity that we didn’t want to jeopardize,” thus making it impossible to inform Congress.
Hagel’s testimony is particularly significant in light of White House declarations that put the entire responsibility of the Bergdahl affair on him, stating that Hagel was the final arbiter of whether the exchange would take place at all. Congress will continue to investigate and receive testimonies on the exchange as Americans demand answers over the Bergdahl affair.