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Chuck Hagel Testifies Before House Armed Service Committee; Analysts Break Down the Hearing

Aired June 11, 2014 - 11:30   ET


DEL. MADELEINE Z. BORDALLO, (D) GUAM: 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?

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE : Well, in the sense, Congresswoman, that as I answered in a previous question, about putting at risk American lives to capture him -- I mean, not to capture him, but to -- to get him back. And to do that if it would've taken another course of action, or if we would have taken another option, that would've put our men and women at risk.

Our men and women are at risk, in fact, carrying out this one mission, but fortunately, it was done the right way, and I don't think, again, that effort has gotten enough attention. This was all done in less than 60 seconds. Not one death. Not one issue. Not one problem.

I've seen very little recognition of that given to our forces by anybody. I mean, that was a significant effort by our armed forces, knowing as little as they did, but planning it as well as they did, and having the outcome as positive as it was. So, thank you.

BORDALLO: I agree. My next question is for Mr. Preston. With the heightened media attention, how will you ensure Sergeant Bergdahl receives a fair investigation?

PRESTON: Thank you.

We will pursue our usual policies and practices with respect to investigations and follow on actions. A key element of that is avoiding what is referred to as unlawful or undue command influence. So, you will see that the leadership, military and civilian, at the department have been entirely neutral in their discussion of this, and focused on insuring due process without prejudging what the outcome should be one way or the other.

Those dealing with Sergeant Bergdahl more directly, and the Army more generally are, I believe, sensitive to insuring that in the process of bringing him home, restoring him to health, debriefing him for intelligence purposes, and then ultimately reviewing the circumstances of his -- of his capture, that -- that fairness be preserved and that his rights be preserved.

BORDALLO: Thank you. And my final question is for Secretary Hagel. Prior to securing the recovery of Sergeant Bergdahl, had you received correspondence from members of Congress requesting that you take action to obtain Sergeant Bergdahl's release?


BORDALLO: Thank you.


REP. JEFF MILLER, (R) FLORIDA.: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary for being here. I'm looking at your testimony, and on the first, third page, excuse me, it says that we complied with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014. Did you or did you not notify Congress within the 30 day time frame? Yes or no?

HAGEL: No. What I...

MILLER: No sir. Yes or no.

HAGEL: All right, no.

MILLER: Does the administration intend to violate the notice requirements of section 1035 of the NDAA and section eight -- 8111 of the DOD Appropriation Act in future transfers?

HAGEL: Not unless there -- not unless there is an extraordinary set of circumstances like this one, when we have -- when we'd be in a position to make a call...

MILLER: Will you assure this committee that the department will not proceed with future detainee transfers without notifying Congress, consistent with the law?

HAGEL: We have, I believe, and before my time, in every circumstance, except this one. And we intend to continue to do that.

MILLER: You were a part of the legislative branch as a member of the United States Senate. We make the laws. You're part of the executive branch now, which the responsibility is to enforce the law. Whose responsibility is it to interpret the law? Is it the president's responsibility or is it the court's?

HAGEL: The court's.

MILLER: Then why did the president make the decision, or you make the decision, not to notify Congress?

HAGEL: We believed in the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel to the department... MILLER: Part of the executive branch.

HAGEL: ... told the president that he had the constitutional authority to do that.

He had, under his constitutional powers, the authority to make the decision that he did.

MILLER: You said that you would put American lives at risk if the -- if the Taliban prisoners that were swapped in the secret deal would rejoin the fight, if they rejoined the fight in Afghanistan. What if they rejoined it from somewhere else? They don't have to necessarily be on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Certainly, we would pursue them wherever they are.

HAGEL: We would do everything we needed to do to -- as we have said, to deal with that threat, as we are doing today.

MILLER: You -- your testimony is we're doing everything that we can...

HAGEL: To deal with the threats to the United States of America, whether they are in Afghanistan, whether they're in Yemen, whether they're in homeland defense. It isn't just limited to Afghanistan, the threats that face this country.

MILLER: Mr. Secretary, you keep saying we can't get the facts from Sergeant Bergdahl until he returns home. Have you ever thought about going to (inaudible) and talking to him there?

HAGEL: Well, I don't know how much medical training you had, Congressman. I haven't had much. And what we are doing is we are allowing the doctors...

MILLER: Tell you what, Mr. Secretary...

HAGEL: ... the doctors to make the decision.

MILLER: No, Mr. Secretary, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why hasn't he been returned to the United States? We have seriously wounded soldiers that are returned to the United States almost immediately after they are stabilized. How long did Jessica Lynch wait before she was returned to the United States? You're trying to tell me that he's being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?

HAGEL: Congressman, I hope you're not implying anything other than that. The fact that...

MILLER: I've just asked you the question, Mr. Secretary.

HAGEL: I'm going to give you an answer to.

MILLER: Well, answer it.

HAGEL: Well, I don't like the implication of the question. MILLER: Answer it.

HAGEL: He's being held there because our medical professionals don't believe he's ready until they're -- they believe he is ready to take the next in his rehabilitation.

MILLER: Have you ever seen a traumatically injured servicemember brought to the United States immediately upon being stabilized at Landstuhl? We do it all the time. HAGEL: This isn't just about a physical situation, Congressman. This guy was held for almost five years in god knows what kind of conditions. We do know some of the conditions from our intelligence community, not from, by the way, Bergdahl. This is not just about can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane, these are...

MILLER: So you're telling me he cannot be questioned because of his condition?

HAGEL: I'm telling you that the medical professionals that we rely on their judgment for his health, which I assume everybody respects, have made the determination and will make the determination that when he is ready to move, and move to the next step, which will most likely be in San Antonio, then we can proceed. That's what I'm saying.

MILLER: Yeah, one other question. Why is the Army just now reviewing the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl's capture?

HAGEL: They're not. I said in my testimony and I said in my comments, they did it back after he went missing in 2009. That 15/6 (ph) report was filed, completed by General Scaparrotti, who now is our commanding general in Korea, in August of 2009. That 15/6 (ph) report, review, complete not -- not redacted, was sent up to the Hill, yesterday, to the committees.

MILLER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

HAGEL: And you're welcome to read it.

MILLER: Thank you.

MCKEON: And that will be made available to all the -- all the members in the proper setting to review.

Mr. Courtney.

REP. JOE COURTNEY, (D) CONNECTICUT: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to thank the witnesses for being here today, and Secretary Hagel for your powerful testimony, which again, laid out the fact that this is -- not every choice in -- in your position is always black and white. You've got to weigh a lot of factors. And one of the factors which I just want to kind of maybe reemphasize is that in terms of -- when you were deciding this back on May 27th, I mean, it wasn't like you had a lot of other options. I mean, there was no plan B or plan C that -- that was sitting on your desk in terms of how to -- how to get this American soldier back in our -- in our jurisdiction. Isn't that correct?

HAGEL: That's exactly correct. There was no option.

COURTNEY: There are members who have been on some of the shows saying that, you know, well, we should've sent special forces in to -- to get 'em. I mean, we actually were not totally clear about where he was. HAGEL: That's right.

COURTNEY: And so there really wasn't even a place to send special forces to -- to recover him.

You also, again, and this has been alluded to earlier, is that in terms of the risk mitigation of the five transferees, Taliban transferees, that if they do get back into the conflict, they do so at -- at their own peril. Secretary Kerry, I think in some public setting also made the comment that it's not like we're totally without options to -- to, you know, raise their risks in terms of getting back involved in the fight.

Again, they don't always involve the use of military personnel. I mean, we have all been on the CODELs over to Afghanistan, most of us, and have seen the availability of unmanned assets that we have to -- to take out targets that, again, have been identified through the chain of command. Isn't that correct?

HAGEL: That's correct.

COURTNEY: And certainly that would be available to us, again, if a situation arose that would not put soldiers or airmen or anyone necessarily at risk?

HAGEL: That's right.

COURTNEY: Mr. Preston, you know, we've been sort of talking about the legal sort of consultation that was going on with your office and the Department of Justice during that five- or six-day period when the decisions were being made.

Did DOJ address in terms of the legal opinions that you were given the question of consultation with Congress, the 30-day requirement?

PRESTON: Yes, sir. Pardon me.

The administration sought the guidance from the Department of Justice on the applicability and impact of the 30-day notice requirement under these circumstances and received guidance from the Department of Justice.

COURTNEY: And was that in writing?

STEPHEN PRESTON, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE GENERAL COUNSEL: It was not by means of a formal memorandum opinion, but rather by e-mail exchange principally. COURTNEY: OK. I know the chairman mentioned that he's, you know, got requests from the committee for documents, which it sounds like are gonna be forthcoming.

I mean, is that -- I assume that's one of the requests in terms of making any sort of a legal analysis that you requested and received or were offered from DOJ, that that would be one of the documents that you would share with us. I hope you would.

PRESTON: We'll certainly take that back. I'm sure we appreciate that there's interest, and we certainly want to make sure that interested members fully understand the legal basis on which the administration acted. As for the disposition of the document, we'll take that back.

COURTNEY: Thank you again. And I'll follow up with the chairman, because I think it is important that if the -- if the department was claiming a constitutional authorities (sic), which the secretary mentioned, in terms of that issue, I think we would like to see that analysis.

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

MCKEON: The gentleman yields back.

Mr. Preston, when did you consult the DOJ on the 30-day notification? On what date was that?

PRESTON: Mr. Chairman, I don't remember the precise date, but it was in the time frame in which we had completed our discussions with the Qataris over the MOU but before it was signed.

We anticipated that these issues would arise, and I engaged with my counterpart at the National Security Council who in turn engaged with the Department of Justice to ask them to consider the legal and constitutional implications in this setting.

MCKEON: Do you recall last week when you and other members were other members of the administration were briefing the staff

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, while Buck McKeon, the chairman of the armed service committee, is doing a follow-up question with Stephen Preston, legal adviser over the Department of Defense, we'll take a quick break, resume our extensive coverage of this important hearing, right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Washington.

We're continuing our special coverage of the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Bowe Bergdahl transfer, the freedom of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees who had been held at Guantanamo Bay. They are now in Qatar.

David Gergen is a former presidential adviser and is also one of our senior political analysts.

They are going through a sensitive issue right now, David, over whether or not the Obama administration broke the law by not notifying Congress within 30 days that these five Taliban detainees were about to be released, whether this was just a conscientious decision, whether this was just an accident. And now Stephen Preston, who is the legal adviser at the Department of Defense, says this was a conscientious decision not to notify the legislative branch. And it was reviewed by the Justice Department. There was a legal opinion the president was not breaking the law. Your thoughts?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think the administration is making a case that, look, we didn't comply with the law that was written but within the constitutional law of the president. But lurking behind this, of course, is a suspicion among many members of Congress that the reason they didn't come and consult with them is that they thought they would get blowback and there would a negative hostile reaction it would make it difficult to proceed and might well leak.

But overall, Wolf, I have to say, I think the administration must be asking itself if they wouldn't have been better off right from the beginning to make Chuck Hagel their point man and make the arguments about what they did. This is so much more effective. It's more reason. It's more balance. It's more realistic than a celebration notice Rose Garden and early comments that helped to ignite this storm.

BLITZER: So your conclusion, David, is they didn't notify the chairmen of House and Senate Intelligence Committees or chairmen of the Armed Services Committees, the speaker of the House because they were afraid they would get negative reaction and, as a result, they didn't want to hear that in advance? Is that what you're saying?

GERGEN: I'm saying that I've heard that more on the Senate side than the House side but that that suspicion exists. Nobody pinned that down. You know, when they first went to the Senate back in 2011 and 2012, there was real pushback from, say, Dianne Feinstein saying this is not a good idea, you shouldn't make the trade up front in negotiating with the Taliban. Get them to come to the table and begin making peace and then make the deal. Now they don't even have the peace side of that argument. So I think -- I don't think there's any question had they brought this to the Congress before they made the trade, they would have gotten a lot of blow back.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment, David.

I want to bring Matthew Hoh into this conversation. He's a friend of the Bergdahl family, a former State Department official, a former U.S. Marine captain who served in Afghanistan.

You heard the Secretary of Defense make a strong case out there that they did not have any evidence that suggest he was a deserter and that he was listed as missing in action. I assume, Matthew, you were pleased by the position put forward by Hagel? MATTHEW HOH, FORMER U.S. MARINE & FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL & BERGDAHL FAMILY FRIEND: Yes, I'm very pleased and I'm very happy that the secretary spoke as such. He said no charges were ever put against Sergeant Bergdahl and no charges are pending. The Army did conduct an investigation. From everyone I know who has read it, as well as from pretty extensive leaking of the report -- "The New York Times," it ran a big story on this five days' ago -- there doesn't seem to be any evidence that he deserted. Again, this was a case of him leaving base. He had done it before. For what purposes, we don't know, but it was not a case of desertion.

BLITZER: Bob Baer is one of our national security and intelligence analysts, a former CIA operative.

Bob, talk a little bit about this sensitive issue, whether or not the United States was actually negotiating with terrorists. The Secretary of Defense makes the case the U.S. was negotiating with Qatar. Qatar, in return, were negotiates with the Taliban. The Taliban, in turn, was negotiating with the Haqqani network, which was holding Bowe Bergdahl. The Haqqani network a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Was the U.S., because of this various splinters, if you will, this formula, was the U.S. actually negotiating with the terrorist group holding Bowe Bergdahl?

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST & FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: I wouldn't describe the Haqqani network as a terrorist group. I realize it has been classified as such. But we're conflating with al Qaeda. The Haqqani network has never attacked American civilians. It's fought what he describes as a war of resistance in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We do it all the time, have back channels, whether it's to Iran or North Korea, it's done all the time. This is not an exception at all.

BLITZER: You know the State Department deemed the Haqqani network to be on their official list of terrorist organizations?

BAER: I know, Wolf, but we're conflating al Qaeda with these Islamic organizations which aren't the same. It's a clear-cut case al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11. The Haqqani network has only fought in the field of battle in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, stand by.

Everyone stand by.

We will take a quick break. We will resume our special coverage of this testimony by Chuck Hagel before the House Armed Services Committee right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our special coverage of important hearings going on right now before the House Armed Services Committee. The Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, he's been up there for a couple hours after a lengthy opening statement defending the Obama administration decision to transfer five Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl. The Secretary of Defense saying the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, made the final decision. He says that all of the top national security advisers to the president, whether at the White House, the State Department, the intelligence community or Department of Defense, they were unanimous in their support for this decision. It's been generating lots of controversy. We're continuing to monitor the hearing. We're going back to it.

But Jim Sciutto is with me here, our chief national security correspondent.

Jim, what do you think? How is the Secretary of Defense doing?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This is an impassioned, unyielding set of testimony from the secretary on a number of issues. First, on the legal issue, talked about the idea of not negotiating with terrorists. He has used language here-- he called Bergdahl, in no uncertain terms, a prisoner of war. This is something the administration has gone back and forth on, enemy combatant. He's calling him a prisoner of war. And the reason he is doing this to say we didn't negotiate with terrorists, these were warring sides in a conflict like any other, going back to the Revolutionary War. We negotiate with the other warring side to release our soldiers. That's our commitment. We didn't break the law. We didn't break any commitments, not negotiating with terrorists by doing this. Using that term, in no uncertain term, he was a prisoner of war.

The other thing is the passion behind this. Clearly, he's bristling at the criticism leveled at Bergdahl, in his view, the view of other military officials, without a full investigation, calling him a deserter, and that has bred criticism of the family and death threats against the family. He's taking issue with that. He's clearly insulted by it and thinks it's wrong.

Then, you had another moment, which I think was the moment of these -- of this testimony when Representative Jeff Miller, just a few minutes ago, suggested that Bergdahl is being held in the hospital in Germany to avoid questioning on his desertion. When you see that exchange, you could see the steam almost coming out of the secretary's ears, saying, are you kidding me? This guy is coming out of five years in prison. You see some of the passion pushing back against this -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Let me bring Barbara Starr in and discuss that issue for a moment.

Barbara, Jeff Miller, the Republican Congressman from Florida. He's the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. He knows how veterans are treated in the United States. The implication being, for some reason, I don't understand what he was driving at, but you saw the Secretary of Defense Hagel get very irritated by the questioning, as Jim pointed out. The implication is, for some reason, they're holding him at Landstuhl, at the U.S. military hospital in Germany for some extended period of time, and he's raising the suspicion that this may be inappropriate. He could be getting better care here in the United States. What do you make of that?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I got to tell you, I agree with Jim. I think in all the time I've covered Chuck Hagel, I have never seen him so flat-out publically angry. I think perhaps what the congressman might have been suggesting is, why has Bowe Bergdahl not yet been officially, legally interrogated? To the best of our knowledge, he is not undergoing legal questioning. He is in this cocoon, if you will, of medical care of the repatriation process. Not deemed yet ready to be undergoing any kind of legal questioning. Even if they brought him back to San Antonio, again, for further repatriation counseling and psychological assistance, that doesn't mean he would under go the interrogation process, participating in questions about his actions for any kind of Army review or Army investigation.

You know, the Congressman's point that badly-wounded troops come back very quickly is quite a different one. Landstuhl cares for the wounded when they have come out of the war initially. They are brought back very quickly stateside to military hospitals like Walter Reed, Bethesda, Brooke Army Medical Center for surgical care, for infection wound treatment, additionally for help with post-traumatic stress for treatment for their burns. They come back for really trauma-level medical care because it is so serious and so extended that physical care. By all accounts, Bowe Bergdahl is in a unique, separate medical, psychological situation. He has been locked up as a captive for five years. They are trying to help him get, basically, back into open society -- Wolf?