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Live Coverage of Chuck Hagel's Testimony Before Congress

Aired June 11, 2014 - 11:00   ET


STEPHEN PRESTON, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE GENERAL COUNSEL: The point is, we're currently in armed conflict with the Taliban and with Al Qaida. At some point, the armed conflict with the Taliban ends. And at that point, for those detainees that are being held as enemy belligerents in -- against our enemy, the Taliban, unless there is an additional basis for holding them, then we would no longer have that international law basis for holding them.

Now, it has been suggested that the Taliban may also be candidates to be held as associates of Al Qaida as the conflict with Al Qaida continues.

REP. HOWARD "BUCK" MCKEON, (R) CALIFORNIA: The point that Mr. Smith made is that this conflict may not end in December just because the majority of our troops are pulledout.


MCKEON: Is that your understanding?

PRESTON: That's my understanding as well, sir.

MCKEON: I mean, we see -- we thought the conflict was over in Iraq, and we see that it is not. That it continues to go on.

Now, the second thing, I may have left the wrong impression when I was talking to the secretary, saying that if you had given the same report that that probably would have just solved everything.

We still have big concerns about the five. And I didn't mention that when we were briefed in November of '11 and January of '12, that there was real concern of members of Congress that those five be released, in fact there was real opposition to it. And that's why we're very concerned that we weren't told, other than that if we'd re-entered those negotiations, you would be told, and then we weren't.

So those are things that we really need to have clarified and worked through.

Mr. Thornberry?

REP. MAC THORNBERRY, (R) TEXAS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Secretary, I'd like to just begin with a brief additional observation on the notification issue. For the past several years, this committee has worked on a bipartisan basis to establish an oversight structure for cyber-operations, for terrorism operations and for sensitive military operations and an oversight structure that allows the department to have the flexibility it needs to operate in a volatile, rapidly changing world and still give us the ability to execute our duties under the Constitution.

Now, the basis for all of those, in all three of those areas, is that we get timely, accurate information from the department. And this failure, even if it was ordered by the White House, undermines the ability to have that sort of oversight structure.

I've been a member of the Intelligence Committee for 10 years. Our work depends on getting accurate, timely information from the intelligence community.

If the president can violate the law and say, no, in this case we're not gonna give you the information, it undermines the oversight process that we have with the intelligence community.

So my point to you is it's not just about this incident, it's not just about somebody having their feelings hurt, this decision undermines a lot of the working relationship in all these areas of national security. And I think it's important that the whole administration understands some of the ramifications of this.

Let me ask a specific question: Press reports indicate that Sergeant Bergdahl was captured by a Haqqani Network commander and was held by the Haqqani Network. Is that true?

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: What I would prefer is, as I noted, in the classified session that we get into the specifics of that 15-6 commander's evaluation report that was done on the circumstances at the time of Sergeant Bergdahl's capture. I believe that was done in August of 2009. That's been sent up here, unredacted, sent up here yesterday. And I'd just as soon get into that in a classified hearing.


HAGEL: But I would say this, though, I'd say this. He was, in that report that the Army did, he was classified as missing/captive. So...


THORNBERRY: I wasn't really focused on him...


THORNBERRY: ... just to verify, as I understand it, administration people have said clearly it was the Haqqani Network that kept him.

HAGEL: Well, the Haqqani Network did have him through periods of time. This was another complication. Over a five-year period he was moved around. We had difficulty finding him and knowing where he was. Different groups held him.

(CROSSTALK) HAGEL: So the complication of the Haqqanis being part of this, that's right.

THORNBERRY: OK. And it's also true the Haqqani Network is listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

HAGEL: That's right. That's right.

THORNBERRY: Let me just turn...


HAGEL: But we didn't negotiate with Haqqani.

THORNBERRY: OK. I think that's a subject we'll want to discuss more, if we must, in the classified session, but I think...


HAGEL: Well, I want to make sure the record's 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, you know there's the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, there's a difference there. So we get back into definitions of who has responsibility for whom.

But I just want to make sure that that's clear on the record, and we can go into a lot more detail.

THORNBERRY: Well, I think that you just pointed out some of the difficulty in making categorical statements that we don't negotiate with terrorists, when at least for some period, the Haqqanis were the ones who had him.

Let me just ask about one other thing, and that is the five detainees that were released. You've said that there is always some risk associated with releasing someone from Guantanamo, but you also said that they had not been implicated in any attacks on the United States.

I have some unclassified summary of evidence before the combatant status review tribunals. For example, for Mr. Fasal (ph), it says the detainee engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. Maybe there's a difference between us and our partners.

For Mr. Razik (ph), it says the detainee participated in military operations against the coalition.

So at least at some point there was evidence that they were involved in hostilities, military operations, against the coalition, weren't there?

HAGEL: Yes. They were mid- to high-ranking members of the Taliban government, of the Taliban. So, yes, they were part of planning. But what my point was, we had no direct evidence of any direct involvement in their direct attacks on the United States or any of our troops. They were part of the Taliban at the time some were given to us. We picked two of them up, captured two, but, yes, they were combatants.

THORNBERRY: So your point was, they didn't pull the trigger, but they were senior commanders of the Taliban military who directed operations against the United States and its coalition partners...

HAGEL: that's right.

THORNBERRY: Would that be a better way to do it.

HAGEL: That's right.


HAGEL: Now, as I said in my statement, Congressman, they were combatants. And we were at war with the Taliban. There's no getting around that, and I made that point, I thought, pretty clearly.

THORNBERRY: Thank you.

MCKEON: Just like bin Laden didn't pull a trigger, but we went after him because he's the one that caused the 9/11.

Ms. Davis?

REP. SUSAN A. DAVIS, (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

And thank you both for being here.

Mr. Secretary, I do think that your presentation did provide us an additional ways of really looking at the discussion.

I do understand how people feel in terms of notice, but I wanted to have an opportunity to just look at that issue and whether or not the circumstances under which he was captured or the fact that regardless of whether or not his life was in danger would have made any difference in terms of the 30-day notice. You know, it's difficult for me to imagine that members would have included that within the language of that bill.

How -- to what extent were those situations weighing on the decision of whether or not to engage in that discussion during the imminent danger period?

HAGEL: Well, all of those were factors that we had to consider as we were thinking through this. His deteriorating health, which was clear to us from the last proof of life video we had, the uncertainty of where he was, who exactly held him.

Again, I remind everybody, this servicemember was held in pretty difficult circumstances for almost five years, and we don't know the facts of all of that until he gets back and we're able to get the facts.

HAGEL: The urgency of getting him, the fleeting opportunity that was made clear to us by the Qataris in our engagements, negotiations, Mr. Preston was there through those. All these were factors. The concern about leaks, we were warned about.

Every one of these different dimensions we had to think through and we did believe, as I said, and we had information to support this, that this effort might be the last real effort that we have to get him back.

There were too many things floating around that we didn't control, that we didn't know enough about. So we had to factor in all of those.

DAVIS: Did you have any other -- did you, I guess, entertain other approaches to his rescue that you were looking at at that particular time, and why were any of those not followed?

HAGEL: Well, Congresswoman, we were, as I said in my statement, since the time he went missing, we were looking at different ways to get him back.

Our combatant commanders were always looking at plans, possibilities, options, rescue missions and so on.

But as I said in my remarks, we had to factor in the risks to our other forces to go get him. And if he was in Pakistan, we know he was moved in and out, across the border. That would also affect some different dimensions.

But yes, we looked at all the options, at all the possibilities. But up until this last time when we got him, this -- in our opinion, our intelligence community's opinion, our military, everyone who was involved, this was the best possibility that we had to get him out and we were concerned we might lose it.

And as I gave you some dimension of the timeframe, we didn't even know where we were going to pick him up. It was less than an hour...


DAVIS: And the...

HAGEL: ... to the general area.

DAVIS: ... and the detainees, were there -- was it always this five or were there others?

HAGEL: Well, this actually started with six, some of you may recall.

DAVIS: Right, one of them...

HAGEL: One of them died. And there had been back and forth; they wanted all of the Taliban detainees at one point and we said no.

And so this is part of the whole engagement of what we need to do and where we do -- we draw lines, saying no, we're not going to do this.

So, yes, there were different variations of that engagement over the years.

DAVIS: All right. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

MCKEON: Mr. Jones.

JONES: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much.

Secretary Hagel, Mr. Preston, it's good to see both of you. Thank you for being here today.

Mr. Secretary, on June 1, you were on "Meet the Press" and you expressed hope that the release of Sergeant Bergdahl would lead to direct U.S. talks with the Taliban.

Mr. Secretary, the Taliban have stated there will be no peace with the Afghan government, with the United States or any foreign presence as long as troops remain in Afghanistan and prisoners are contained at Guantanamo Bay.

They have repeated these statements time and time again and have proven they do not desire peace with the United States or its allies.

With this known, why did you at that point on "Meet the Press" express hope -- and we can all have hope -- that there would -- the release of the sergeant would lead to some type of direct negotiations with the United States?

And do you today feel that that is still a real possibility?

Maybe there's something you want to say in the classified setting that you can't say here today, but this, to me, your statement was received by many of the people that I represent in the Third District of North Carolina, that maybe there was in this negotiation about the sergeant, that maybe there was some signal sent to you, sir, or to the administration that there might be a opportunity for direct negotiations with the Taliban.

Knowing the history of the Taliban, knowing how they fought the Russians, Alexander the Great, the Brits and they're fighting the Americans, I would hope that maybe you do know something that you can share with us, if not in a public setting but in a private setting. Can you comment, sir?

HAGEL: Congressman Jones, thank you. Good to see you again.


HAGEL: Thank you.

First, as you know, the position of the United States government regarding the Taliban has always been we support a reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. That's been a general position, as you know.

As to the specific answer I gave on "Meet the Press," it was to a specific question when we were talking about Sergeant Bergdahl's release, and I don't recall exactly the question.

But if I can piece it together enough to respond, I think the question was set up, well, could this lead to talks with the Taliban or reconciliation. And as you quoted me, I said, well, I hope or maybe, whatever.

But, no, that wasn't any direct hint or wink or possibility that I know something that that's going to happen.

But I would also remind us again, too, that, if you -- if you recall, some of you do because you were in some of these meetings, briefings, in the 2011-2012 timeframe -- I wasn't in this job at the time, but I've looked at the files on this, I've seen it all.

There was a larger scope and framework of a larger reconciliation which included Bergdahl's release. But the current situation that we were in was a straight get Bergdahl.

Now, that doesn't dismiss, Congressman, the hope that there can be some possibility of the Afghan government and Taliban finding a reconciliation somehow some way, but in no way did I -- was I intending to imply in that answer that there's something else going on out here.

JONES: Well, my interest was simply that the Taliban's history does not seem that they want to see a foreign presence that's going to influence the future of their country.

And I was hopeful that maybe in the negotiations for the sergeant that maybe there had been some signal sent with the mediary (sic) that maybe had been shared and, again, if there has been maybe you could, through your staff or maybe in the classified setting, let me know that there are some possibilities, because my Marines down in Camp Lejeune, quite frankly, are tired of going to Afghanistan and getting their legs blown off.

So thank you, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.

HAGEL: Thank you.

MCKEON: Thank you, Mr....


HAGEL: And we will, Congressman Jones, do our best. Thank you.

MCKEON: Mr. Langevin?

REP. JIM LANGEVIN, (D) RHODE ISLAND: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary and Mr. Preston, I want to thank you for being here today for your testimony. As we were reminded just yesterday with the loss of five American special operating forces, Afghanistan obviously remains very dangerous and a battlefield for our voluntary military.

And I join many of my colleagues, of course, in an expression of gratitude at the return of an American prisoner of war. And the return of any U.S. service member from enemy captivity should be a priority for his or her fellow soldiers and of course for our country.

And Sergeant Bergdahl is an American soldier and we are certainly grateful that he has been freed.

That said, this whole situation raises many troubling concerns and among them, of course, this committee has a significant oversight role and there are legitimate questions regarding both congressional notification as well as long-term incentives for the Taliban and Al Qaida.

Certainly significant personnel and other resources have been expended to conduct what could result in dangerous and disturbing incentives on the battlefield, as one Taliban commander said, and I quote, "It has encouraged our people, now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird," end quote.

So, Mr. Secretary, how do you anticipate this transfer will impact the incentives and behavior for the Taliban and Al Qaida?

Are we prepared to counter any new behavior?

HAGEL: Congressman, I would answer this way.

First, I think everyone on this committee knows, some more than others, who served in war, that war is a dangerous business. And so a soldier is always, always at risk. That's number one.

Two, you probably know that the Taliban has standing orders to capture American servicemembers and that's been a standing order for 12 years. So there's nothing new here about where the Taliban have been and where they continue to be.

But I would say this also, now that we have our last prisoner back, this very much gives us more flexibility, quite frankly, to free up resources that every day we were thinking about, our commanders on the ground in that area, how, if we have the opportunity, how can we get Bergdahl. Now, that he's back, that frees up that obligation. I think that actually strengthens the point.

And the last point I'd make, I mentioned this in my comments. And again, those who've served in uniform on this committee know this, pretty basic to military. And I expressed it in different ways by quoting different senior members of our military and retired. That to have our men and women in uniform all over the world who -- some are more at risk than others every day -- to have them be reassured that this country will come get them, or will make every effort to go get them, it's got to be pretty significant. And I was told that by all of our commanders. It can be issues on the specifics of Sergeant Bergdahl, but that's irrelevant, quite frankly. He was a member of our armed forces and we went and we got him back after five years. I think that's pretty significant. And I think it also falls into the category of your question and answering that question. Thank you.

LANGEVIN: Mr. Secretary, thank you for that answer.

The -- as the chairman and the ranking member have -- have mentioned in their opening statements the questions about Sergeant Bergdahl's conduct should be addressed with due process at the appropriate time and such. But could you settle one conflicting report, at least, in terms -- regarding the number of -- the loss of soldiers who may have been involved in searches for Sergeant Bergdahl?

HAGEL: First, any loss of any soldier is a terrible loss to their family and to our country. And I think we should note that first. Second, your question has been asked a number of times. I've personally gone back and asked that question inside the Pentagon. In the Army, in all of our reports, I have seen no evidence that directly links any American combat death to the rescue or finding or search of Sergeant Bergdahl. And I've asked the question. We've all asked the question. I have seen no evidence, no facts presented to me when I asked that question.

MCKEON: Mr. Secretary, you did say there's nothing new here; that the Taliban's always out to try to capture us. But isn't it true that there is one thing new that we have now made a trade for a hostage?

HAGEL: No, he was not a hostage. He was a prisoner of war. That's not new.

MCKEON: Have we made other trades with the Taliban?

HAGEL: With the Taliban, I don't know. I don't think so. I don't think so.

MCKEON: Thank you.

Mr. Forbes?

REP. J. RANDY FORBES, (R) VIRGINIA.: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here and for mentioning the need for transparency. And as you talked about our inability to prosecute the individuals that were released, this administration has not exactly had a stellar record on prosecution of people at Gitmo. When you look at the fact that the lead prosecutor for the 9/11 terrorist had specifically said that he would have had a guilty plea out of all of them within six months, and this administration came in, shut down his prosecution, destroyed all of his pretrial work. And we've been five years and still haven't brought them to trial.

Secondly, I don't think even you would argue that the conversations that took place in 2011 complied with the law. And basically what we're trying to get across is that we're a nation of laws. You can't pick and choose just because they're convenient or not convenient, which ones we're going to enforce and which ones we aren't.

But the third thing is, and you said this, that there are limits to trades that we would make and somewhere we draw the line. And I want to talk about where we drew the line. The individuals we released were essentially equivalent to releasing a deputy secretary of defense, a deputy secretary of intelligence, a deputy secretary of interior, a governor and a commander.

And when the president was asked if there was a possibility of them returning to activities that are detrimental to the U.S., his answer was "absolutely." Our deputy director of national intelligence was even harsher. He said the latest community-wide U.S. intelligence assessment on these five terrorists said he expected four out of the five Taliban leaders would return to the battlefield. And this assessment was in accord with the 2008 Pentagon dossier that said that all five of the individuals released were considered to be a high risk to launch attacks against the United States and its allies if they were liberated.

Now, you state in your testimony that if any of these detainees ever try to rejoin the fight, they would be doing so at their own peril. So my first question to you is: Does this mean you would put American lives at risk to go after them?

HAGEL: Well, Congressman, we have American lives at risk every day...


FORBES: But not -- not for individuals that we've released and put back out there. So my question is: Would we put American lives at risk to go after them if they rejoined the fight?

HAGEL: Well, depending on the threat, but also let me remind you of the other pieces that you didn't mention in our analysis of these five. The intelligence community has said clearly that these five are not a threat to the homeland.

FORBES: Mr. Secretary, you have said in here that if they rejoin the fight, they do it at their own peril. My question is a pretty simple one. Would we put American lives at risk to go after them?


HAGEL: We -- we have American lives put at risk...


FORBES: I understand that, Mr. Secretary. My question is: Will we put American lives at risk to go after these individuals if they rejoin the fight? HAGEL: Well, yes if...


FORBES: OK. If that's the case, let me ask you just two other questions.

HAGEL: You could use the same argument, Congressman, on Yemen or anywhere else...


FORBES: I could do that, but not because of individuals we released.

And the second question I would ask you is two parts. In the calculus that you made for releasing these individuals, were you asked or did you make an assessment of the number of American lives that were lost or put at risk in capturing these individuals in the first place? And did you make an assessment of the number of American lives that may be put at risk if we have to go recapture them again?

HAGEL: Again, I saw no evidence, no facts. I asked the question about how these five found their way to Guantanamo. And I have in front of me the facts on the five. Two of them were detained by U.S. forces.

FORBES: Mr. Secretary, I understand that. And I understand we're running out the clock. I only have 50-some seconds left.


HAGEL: The answer is no.

FORBES: So you didn't even make a calculus as to how many American...


HAGEL: I said I did. And I said the answer is -- you asked if there were lives lost in capturing these.

FORBES: And you said no.

HAGEL: I have no direct evidence that there were any American lives...


FORBES: Did you make an assessment -- did you make an assessment of how many American lives may be put at risk if they have to be recaptured?


FORBES: OK. HAGEL: But there's risk that we have to our country -- threats to our country every day everywhere. And the other point I would make on this, we determined that there was a substantial mitigation of risk for this country, for our interests, for our citizens and our servicemembers when we made this decision.


HAGEL: Partly the MOU, partly -- and we were satisfied that could make that determination.

FORBES: It just flies in the face of all the other evidence we have.

And with that, Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

MCKEON: Ms. Bordallo?

DEL. MADELEINE Z. BORDALLO, (D) GUAM: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Secretary Hagel and Mr. Preston, thank you for appearing today and providing us with your testimony.

Secretary Hagel, I appreciate the detailed information that you had in your statement and I support your position.

I do appreciate also your continued commitment to our men and women in uniform and your steadfast leadership during these challenging times.

My first question is for you, Mr. Secretary. What impact would Sergeant Bergdahl's continued imprisonment if we had not engaged in his exchange have had on the security situation in Afghanistan as we draw down forces? Did his continued imprisonment create a heightened security threat to our men and women in uniform?