Hagel, House committee talk Bergdahl trade - CNN

Hagel, House committee talk Bergdahl trade

  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faces the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in the hot seat as a House committee asks him about last month's trade of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl for five members of the Taliban.

The Obama administration says it couldn't leave a soldier behind, but it has taken heat from both parties. Some lawmakers complain the United States gave up too much, or that it can't guarantee that the five Taliban commanders will stay away from the battlefield. Other arguments from critics: The White House should have informed Congress ahead of time, or the White House negotiated with terrorists in opposition to longstanding policy.

The House Armed Services Committee hearing began at 10 a.m. ET.
Follow highlights of the proceedings below, and check out the full story.
    Welcome to today's live blog of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

    He'll testify about the United States' trade for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and the hearing's title -- "The May 31, 2014 Transfer of Five Senior Taliban Detainees" -- may point you to one of the aspects that is bugging some lawmakers.

    Expect some fireworks, for the reasons mentioned at the top of this page.

    The hearing starts at 10 a.m. -- stay with this blog for updates. You also can catch some of the hearing live on CNN.
    Setting the stage: What the transfer looked like

    Militants captured Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009. Some of his fellow soldiers allege he was captured because he intentionally left his post; Obama administration officials have said that issue will be investigated.

    When the swap did happen May 31, the Taliban had a camera rolling. Here is what the transfer looked like:
    Setting the stage: Hagel's previous comments

    Before we get to Hagel's testimony, it'd be good to note some of what Hagel has said before about the swap. On June 4, he said it would be "unfair" to judge the solider (video below). That comment came as some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers alleged he was captured five years ago because he walked off his base.
    Hearing begins

    Hagel has begun his opening statement.

    It was "urgent to pursue Sgt. (Bowe) Bergdahl's release," and the detainee transfer "was fully consistent with U.S. law, our nation's interests and our military's core values," he said.

    Hagel on the offensive: "Sgt. Bergdahl has rights"

    Hagel, in his opening statement, is trying to punch holes in some of the complaints about the trade.

    He's addressing the allegations that Bergdahl intentionally left his base shortly before the Taliban captured him in 2009 -- and in a sense he's saying those allegations are immaterial to the question of whether the United States should have traded for him.

    "Questions about Sgt. Bergdahl's capture are... separate from our effort to recover him, because we do whatever it takes to recover any and every U.S. service member held in captivity," Hagel said.
    Bergdahl has rights, and his conduct will be judged on the facts, not political hearsay, posturing, charges or innuendo," he added.
    Hagel: "Could have done a better job"

    Hagel has made a concession to the panel, as CNN's Jim Acosta notes:

    Watch:  Hagel -- We could have done a better job
    by Rachel Clarke

    "Time was not on our side"

    Though he's conceded the administration could have done a better job keeping Congress informed about efforts to free Bergdahl, Hagel stresses that things could have gone wrong if the White House hesitated or risked a leak:

    "The U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar on May 12 regarding how Qatar would handle Taliban detainees transferred to its custody," Hagel said.

    Soon after, "U.
    S. officials received a warning from the Qatari intermediaries that as we proceeded time was not on our side... This indicated that the risks to Sgt. Bergdahl's safety were growing,"  he said.

    Then: "We were told by the Qataris that a 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."

    Little lead time

    More indications from Hagel that the administration had to make a tough choice in very little time:

    Why no 30 days' notice?

    Hagel continues to address why the White House didn't give Congress 30 days' notice of the Taliban members' release, as lawmakers have said is required by the National Defense Authorization Act.

    "I fully understand and appreciate the concerns, the questions about our decision to transfer the five detainees to Qatar without providing 30 days' notice to Congress," Hagel said. "But under these exceptional circumstances -- a fleeting opportunity to protect the life of an American service member held captive and in  danger for almost five years-- the national security team and the President of the United States agreed that we needed to act swiftly."
    "We made the right decision"

    Hagel wraps up his opening remarks with his bottom line:

    "We made the right decision, and we did it for the right reasons -- to bring home one of our own people," Hagel tells the panel.

    "I value the Defense Department's partnership with Congress and the trust we have developed over the years," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday. "I know that trust has been broken."

    by Rachel Clarke

    Time for the congressmen

    Chairman Buck McKeon is getting in his first comments as Hagel listens. 

    Hagel's testimony: I take my job damn seriously

    Chairman: Wish you would have told us

    Panel Chairman Buck McKeon, who previously said that Congress should have been informed beforehand, and that any argument to the contrary was “absurd,” made his same assertion in a perhaps more conciliatory way.

    "I wish that you or somebody ... had sat down with leadership of Congress, including the Senate, and told us the same things you just told us in the briefing here," McKeon, R-California, told Hagel. "I think it would have been very helpful in ... establishing ... the trust that we should have."

    Democrat: We didn't negotiate with terrorists

    A Democratic member of the panel appears to try giving Hagel some cover on one of the critics' arguments: that the administration negotiated with terrorists to free Bergdahl.

    Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington and the panel's ranking member, got Defense Department counsel Stephen Preston, sitting near Hagel, to recall that the United States once exchanged militants for a U.S. helicopter pilot who was captured in Somalia. Smith argued that the United States has previously made military-for-combatants exchanges during war.

    "Any characterization that (the United States was) negotiating with terrorists ignores the fact that we were at war" with the Taliban, Smith said.
    Lawmaker: What about the Haqqani network?

    Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, objected to the administration's lack of consultation with Congress before the deal, saying it undermines Congress' oversight of the intelligence community and military.

    Then he dug in on another issue: Can the administration really say it didn't negotiate with terrorists if the Haqqani network -- an Islamist insurgent group separate from the Taliban -- held him at some point?

    Hagel responded that the network did hold him "for periods of time," but that it was difficult to determine who had him at what time, and that made it difficult to find him. He added that the administration "didn't negotiate with Haqqani. ... We engaged the Qataris, and they engaged the Taliban."

    As CNN's Jim Acosta reports, he went on to emphasize that Berghdal wasn't a hostage held by terrorists, but a prisoner of war.

    Has the U.S. traded with Taliban before?

    Focusing on the administration's argument that Bergdahl was a prisoner of war, and that a swap could legally be made for him with combatants the United States is warring against, Chairman Buck McKeon asked Hagel whether the United States has made a similar trade with the Taliban before.

    "I don’t know. I don’t think so," Hagel responded.
    "I don't like the implications of the question"

    Rep. Jeff Miller and Hagel just had a testy exchange about why Bergdahl still is being held at a military medical facility in Germany, as opposed to being questioned about his captivity in the United States.

    Miller, R-Florida, argued that wounded soldiers are often transferred quickly to the United States, and he asked whether Berghdal was being held in Germany only because medical personnel don't believe he's ready for transfer.

    "I hope you're not implying anything other than that," Hagel responded. "I don't like the implication of the question." Hagel said Bergdahl remains in Germany because medical professionals don't believe he's ready to make his next step in his rehabilitation.
    Hagel: No evidence linking U.S. combat deaths to Bergdahl search

    CNN's Jim Acosta brings us this from the hearing:

    Previously, former platoonmates of Bergdhal claimed that he is partly to blame for the deaths of six soldiers who were killed after Bergdahl disappeared. in 2009. CNN's Jake Tapper recently wrote about the circumstances and details about those six deaths.
    Qatari assurances: Hagel keeping details for classified session

    Hagel said "he can't get into specifics" about the deal that the United States has with Qatar, which has publicly agreed to keep the five released Taliban members under watch for at least a year. Hagel said details would be saved for a classified discussion with the panel.

    But he stressed that every top U.S. person involved in deliberating the deal, including President Obama, agreed there were "strong enforcement mechanisms which would give us significant assurances that those five individuals would be kept in Qatar."

    He seemed to imply that Qatar would be keen to live up to the arrangement in part because Qatar relies on the United States -- including a contingent of U.S. troops in Qatar -- to influence geopolitical arrangements to Qatar's benefit.

    He said the agreement mitigates risks that the released detainees could go back to the battlefield. However, he conceded, they still could.

    Hagel made these comments in response to Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Massachusetts, who asked Hagel to expound on his earlier assertion that the exchange deal mitigates the risks that the Taliban members would return to the fight.
    Did U.S. make deal to free helicopter pilot in 1993?

    Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, has taken issue with an earlier assertion made today -- that the United States made a deal with militants to free a U.S. helicopter pilot in Somalia in 1993.

    Earlier this morning, Department of Defense General Counsel Stephen Preston, sitting near Hagel, testified that the U.S. made a functional exchange with Somali militants to free U.S. helicopter pilot Michael Durant, who was held by warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid. In exchange, Preston said, militants were released.

    Turner now has objected to that, saying that at the time, then-President Bill Clinton told the public that no deal had been made. The public was told that Aidid, according to Turner, was simply making a gesture of goodwill. Regarding the release of 32 of Aidid's aides, Turner claimed Clinton indicated that it would be a United Nations decision, not a U.S. decision.

    So, Turner asked: Was Clinton lying, or would Preston like to retract his statement? Turner was challenging the suggestion that Durant's release was a precedent for the Bergdahl swap.

    Preston didn't directly address the apparent discrepancy between his account and Clinton's.

    "I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that the former president lied," Preston said. He also said he didn't think he needed to retract his own statement.

    Democrat blasts "prosecutorial tone"

    Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, criticized Rep. Turner's questioning about the 1993 case, and wondered aloud whether Turner was "running for majority leader" -- a nod to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss in a primary last night.

    Cooper blasted what he said was the "prosecutorial tone" of his fellow lawmakers' questions.

    More incentive for Taliban to capture U.S. troops?

    Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona, touched on a theme that has come up a few times. He asked Hagel whether the Taliban, because of the deal that released five of their members, will intensify their efforts to capture other U.S. troops.

    Hagel responded that the capture of U.S. troops has been one of the Taliban's stated policies for 12 years. He said he didn't believe the deal would prompt the Taliban to intensify those efforts.

    "If I believed that would have been the case, I never would have signed off on this," Hagel said.

    Franks responded that he didn't doubt Hagel's sincerity, but he did doubt his judgment.
    "We don't trust you," lawmaker tells Hagel

    The administration's decision to make the deal without pre-notifying Congress -- "not even ... in the spirit" of the 30-notice called for by the National Defense Authorization Act -- is offensive, and lawmakers can not longer trust Hagel, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said during the hearing.

    Conaway said it was Hagel's responsibility -- not the president's -- to notify Congress, and then he asked whether Hagel made the decision to keep Congress in the dark on his own.

    Hagel responded that he made the decision in consultation with others in his agency, and that President Obama was aware of it.

    Conaway then whether the five released Taliban members were aware of the negotiations for release. Hagel deferred to Department of Defense General Counsel Stephen Preston, who said no, not to his knowledge.
    Democrat: Leadership of Congress should have been told

    The deal's execution without Congress' knowledge continues to be a theme.

    Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-New Hampshire, said that she understood why Hagel might not have wanted to tell all of Congress, "but certainly I (believe) the leadership of Congress should have been told."
    Restrictions for the 5 Taliban after 1 year? None, except ...

    What exactly happens after Qatar's yearlong monitoring of the five released Taliban members is over? Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, tried to get details minutes ago.

    The administration already has said that 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.

    Wittman asked whether the five Taliban members would be restricted in any way after that year.

    The response from Defense Department General Counsel Stephen Preston: No restrictions, except under circumstances that the administration will discuss with the lawmakers in a classified setting.

    Hagel earlier said details of the United States' memorandum of understanding with Qatar would be saved for a classified discussion with the panel.
    Roundup of Hagel's comments

    Below is a video roundup of what Hagel had to say in today's hearing, including a chunk of his opening comments.

    The video also includes Hagel's fiery exchange with Rep. Jeff Miller over why Bergdahl still is in Germany as opposed to the United States.
    Hearing adjourned

    After about two and a half hours of testimony, the hearing has paused. Check out the full story for more.

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