WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel apparently isn't going to let the Obama administration throw him under the bus in the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl scandal. In fact, you could say just the opposite.
In his opening statement Wednesday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Hagel made a point of saying it was President Obama "who made the final decision" to swap Bergdahl for five top Taliban leaders.
Advertisement - story continues below
"Mr. Chairman, 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. Nor would the president of the United States, who made the final decision with the full support of his national security team."
The administration recently implied the final decision was made by Hagel.
After administration officials gave members of Congress a closed-door briefing Monday on the swap, committee chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said, "They indicated (it was) Secretary Hagel (who made the final call)."
Other members of Congress also left the briefing with the impression final approval for the trade was given by Hagel.
Advertisement - story continues below
An incredulous McKeon wondered, "It was the president of the United States that came out (in the Rose Garden) with the Bergdahls and took all the credit, and now that there’s been a little pushback he’s moving away from it and it’s Secretary Hagel?"
In Wednesday's testimony, Hagel emphasized more than once that it was Obama who made the call to make the swap, saying, "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 also told the committee, "The president and I would not have moved forward unless we had complete confidence that we were acting lawfully, in the national interest, and in the best traditions of our military."
And, "President Obama received a personal commitment in a personal telephone call from the emir of Qatar to uphold and enforce the security arrangements and a final decision was made to move forward with that exchange on that day."
Hagel also made sure to note, "The president of the United States has the ultimate responsibility for the security of this country."
Advertisement - story continues below
After the hearing, when asked how he did, Hagel responded, "You do what you gotta do."
After the secretary had delivered his opening statement, McKeon's first comment was an expression of appreciation for clarifying that it was Obama's decision to make the prisoner exchange.
Obama is under intense bipartisan criticism for the swap of Bergdahl for five top terrorists, who, the administration has admitted, it cannot guarantee will not return to killing Americans. The Taliban commanders were sent to Qatar, where they are supposed to be detained for a year.
Critics say the Taliban leaders were far too dangerous to be released from prison at Guantanamo. Members of Congress were outraged they weren't given the 30-day advance notice of the deal, as required by law. And several former squad mates say Bergdahl was a deserter and likely collaborated with the Taliban. No former squad mates have contradicted those claims.
Advertisement - story continues below
The appearance by Hagel did not begin with the fireworks many had expected, given strong bipartisan objections to a number of aspects of the deal.
McKeon actually complimented Hagel for making "a very strong case" for the Bergdahl swap but said he left just one thing out.
The chairman noted that negotiations began in January, and 80-90 members of the administration were informed about it. However, no one in Congress knew anything about a possible deal. In fact, McKeon speculated, the only elected officials who knew about it were the president and, maybe, the vice president.
McKeon told Hagel that if he had met with Congress beforehand and told them what he had testified in his opening statement, the administration would not have had any pushback at all. The chairman stressed that Congress did not even need to know any operational details. (He later backtracked and said the committee did have another issue with the deal, other than the lack of notification: the wisdom of releasing the five top Taliban commanders.)
The secretary insisted, "We complied with the law, and we did what we believed was in the best interests of our country, our military and Sgt. Bergdahl."
But lawmakers from both parties complained that Obama failed to notify Congress ahead of time, as the National Defense Authorization Act requires for transfers of Guantanamo detainees.
McKeon called explanations for not notifying Congress made by White House officials at the classified briefing "misleading and at times blatantly false."
Hagel admitted the administration should have tried harder to let Congress know about what he called rapidly moving developments, saying, "We could have done a better job of keeping you informed."
"As the opportunity to obtain Sergeant Bergdahl's release became clearer, we grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger" him, Hagel added.
Some members of the committee expressed angry frustration that the administration felt it could not trust Congress to keep a secret.
And some wondered whether the cost for Bergdahl was too great, because it turned loose five top terrorists, expected by most observers to rejoin the fight, in exchange for a soldier accused by those in his unit of deserting his post and possibly collaborating with the enemy.
McKeon said he was concerned the Taliban five "still pose a threat to Americans and Afghans alike" because "in a year, they will be free to return to Afghanistan."
The committee touched upon another contentious issue: Many people want to hear Bergdahl, himself, explain why he left his post, and what happened afterward.
Sparks flew after Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked Hagel why Bergdahl had not been returned to the United States.
The congressman noted how seriously wounded soldiers frequently have been returned to the states almost immediately after being stabilized, then asked, "You're trying to tell me that he's being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?"
A clearly indignant Hagel raised his voice for the first time during the hearing and bellowed, "Congressman, I hope you're not implying anything other than that. The fact is ..."
"I'm just asking the question, Mr. Secretary, and you won't answer," said Miller.
"I'm going to give an answer, too, and I don't like the implication of the question," the extremely agitated secretary replied loudly.
"Well, answer it! Answer it! Answer it!" the congressman demanded.
Hagel said Bergdahl was still at a U.S. military hospital in Germany because that was the advice of medical professionals.
Undeterred, Miller asked if Hagel had ever seen a traumatically injured service member brought to the United States immediately upon being stabilized at Landstuhl. "We do it all the time!"
"This isn't just about a physical situation, Congressman. This guy was held for almost five years in God knows what kind of conditions," replied Hagel, adding, "This is not just about can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane."
"So you're telling me he cannot be questioned because of his condition?" Miller asked.
Hagel said the "next step" would be taken when medical professionals have determined he is "ready to move on."
Another heated moment came when Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., asked if the military would put American lives in danger to recapture any of the five Taliban commanders, if necessary.
When Hagel did not respond directly, Forbes asked the question again, only louder.
As the defense chief continued to evade in his reply, Forbes kept asking the question, his voice growing louder each time.
Hagel eventually conceded that the military would put American lives at risk to go after any of the commanders, if necessary.
Forbes pressed on, asking Hagel if he had made an assessment of how many lives would be put at risk if we had to recapture the Taliban.
"No," Hagel replied, and added that the administration had determined "there was a substantial mitigation of risk for this country, for our interest, for our citizens and service members when we made this decision."
Forbes replied, that "just flies in the face of all the other evidence we have."
The administration has claimed it did not negotiate with terrorists because it negotiated only with the government of Qatar.
But Rep. John Fleming, R-La., asked Hagel, "How is that not negotiating with terrorists? Simply because we put someone in between, how is that any better than direct negotiation?"
"We engaged with the government of Qatar," replied the defense chief.
"But at the other end of it was the was the Taliban, a combatant against us in war ..." retorted the congressman.
"But still a surrogate ..." countered Hagel.
When Fleming asked if the outcome would have been any different if we had talked directly with the terrorists, the secretary replied, "Well, I mean, you and I disagree on that."
After some more back and forth that went in circles, Hagel said, "We were very clear who we were talking to and why, and following the law. That's what I said in my testimony. I've said it all morning." The congressman's time for questioning then expired.
Meanwhile, the White House is planning to transfer even more Guantanamo prisoners, officials said Tuesday.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the White House was "making progress on a number of additional promising opportunities."
"While we do not generally discuss transfers before they take place, we are fully committed to implementing the president's direction that we transfer detainees to the greatest extent possible, consistent with national security and our humane-treatment policy, as we work toward closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay," she said.
Hayden said 17 inmates had been moved out of Guantanamo in the last 13 months, including the five Taliban commanders swapped for Bergdahl.
It was Monday that lawmakers became especially upset to learn that nearly 100 people in the Obama administration did know of the Bergdahl exchange, but no members of Congress had been briefed.
'It strikes me as unfortunate that they could have 80 to 90 people in the administration aware of what was happening and not be able to trust a single Republican or Democrat in the House or the Senate," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
''There was a sense of anger that members of Congress didn’t know about this," according to Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn, who added, "Obviously, if there is secure information – members of Congress knew about the capture of Osama bin Laden – and yet 80 to 90 staff in the White House knew about this."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said the officials who knew were likely from the State and Defense departments, the National Security Council and the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., claimed he was told the day before Bergdahl was released, but administration officials said that was not true.
Here is what Bergdahl's former squad mates have said about him.
Former Army Sgt. Evan Buetow was the team leader when Bergdahl disappeared on the night of June 30, 2009.
He said he heard Afghans from a nearby village say on the radio, "There’s an American here looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban."
Buetow said "we were incredibly worried" about what Bergdahl might tell the Taliban, and their improvised explosive device, or IED, attacks became much more effective in the weeks after the soldier left his post.
"Following his disappearance, IEDs started going off directly under the trucks. They were getting perfect hits every time. Their ambushes were very calculated, very methodical," said Buetow.
"Bergdahl is a deserter, and he's not a hero," Buetow told CNN. "He needs to answer for what he did."
Fellow soldier Nathan Bradley Bethea told the Daily Beast, “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
Bethea wrote that one morning, Bergdahl simply failed to show for the morning roll call.
“The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass. His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India.”
The soldier wrote that Bergdahl did not "lag behind on a patrol, as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night.”
Rather, Bethea said, Bergdahl was “relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted.”
Another member of Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing, Sgt. Matt Vierkant, told CNN, “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”
Vierkant said Bergdahl needs to face a military trial for desertion under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Army Sgt. Josh Korder bluntly told CNN that Bergdahl was "at best a deserter, and at worst, a traitor."
Former Pfc. Jose Baggett said he was close to two men “killed because of his (Bergdahl’s) actions.”
He told MSNBC that not only was Bergdahl not a hero, he "left his guard post and got real heroes killed," referring to the men who went searching for the missing soldier.
Full and Sutton
Former Army specialists Cody Full and Gerald Sutton were platoon mates of Bergdahl who appeared on Fox.
Full contradicted the claim made by National Security Adviser Rice that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. He said Bergdahl "violated his oath and put Americans in jeopardy" and wanted to see him court-martialed as a deserter.
Although Sutton was a friend of Bergdahl, he agreed, it was desertion.
At least six soldiers were killed in searches for Bergdahl, according to soldiers who looked for him.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth