At his confirmation hearing in the Senate last year, Chuck Hagel looked unprepared, uninterested, and generally bored. Appearing before the House today to defend the controversial White House decision to trade POW Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban leaders, he was engaged.
At times, he was even combative.
Hagel offered a forceful response to critics who say that the deal to bring Bergdahl home, who many accuse of deserting his post, was not worth it. In his opening statement, Hagel, who won medals for his service in Vietnam, often sounded angry outlining the justification for the deal.
“We could have done a better job of keeping you informed," Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee. But he said that concerns about Bergdahl’s safety and health amounted to an "extraordinary situation" that required secrecy.
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“We grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger Sgt. Bergdahl," Hagel said. "We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end the negotiations 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.”
Hagel also blasted critics who argue that the deal should not have been made because evidence exists that indicates Bergdahl might have abandoned his post.
“And his conduct will be judged on the facts — not political hearsay, posturing, charges or innuendo. We do owe that to any American, and especially those who are members of our military and their families,” Hagel said. “Like most Americans, I've been offended and disappointed in how the Bergdahl family has been treated by some in this country. No family deserves this. I hope there will be some sober reflection on people's conduct regarding this issue and how it relates to the Bergdahl family."
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After the opening statement, the hearing quickly and predictably turned partisan, with committee chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) calling the deal to release Bergdahl “deeply troubling” and amounting to "unprecedented negotiations with terrorists." He also accused the White House of providing accounts of the deal that were "misleading and oftentimes blatantly false."
During his confirmation hearing, Hagel seemed unprepared for this kind of partisan questioning. Today, however, he gave as good as he got.
His most heated exchange came with Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican. Miller implied that Bergdahl was being kept in Germany for reasons other than health.
“How long did Jessica Lynch wait before she was returned to the United States? “ Miller asked, referring to a POW from the Iraq War. “You’re trying to tell me that he's being held in Germany because of his medical condition?”
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Hagel shot back, “Congressman, I hope you're not implying anything other than that. The fact –“
“I'm just asking the question,” Miller interrupted.
“I'll give you an answer. I don't like the implication of the question,” Hagel replied.
Despite Hagel’s strong showing, the controversy surrounding Bergdahl is not likely to go away. On Wednesday, new details emerged about whether he was fit for service.
The Washington Post reported Bergdahl was discharged from the Coast Guard in 2006 for psychological reasons. He also left behind disturbing writings that seem to indicate a fragile mental state.
“I am the lone wolf of deadly nothingness,” Bergdahl wrote in his diary prior to joining the Army. “The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I’m reverting. I’m getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness.”
“I’m so tired of the blackness, but what will happen to me without it,” he wrote a few pages later, according to The Post. “Bloody hell why do I keep thinking of this over and over.”
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