Chuck Hagel, Jeff Miller Duel Over Taliban Prisoner Exchange and Bowe Bergdahl
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This week, at a congressional committee hearing on the Obama administration’s approval of exchanging five captured Taliban leaders for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Florida congressman and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had a tense confrontation on the matter.
During a House Armed Services Committee meeting on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., pressed Hagel on the prisoner exchange and Bergdahl’s health. Since his release, Bergdahl has been in American military hospital facilities in Germany.
Miller questioned Hagel about whether the Obama administration broke the law in authorizing the deal. “I’m looking at your testimony and on ... the third page, it says ‘we complied with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014,’” Miller said before questioning Hagel. “Did you or did you not notify Congress within the 30-day time frame, yes or no?”
“No,” Hagel replied. “What I ...”
Miller cut Hagel off. “Yes or no?”
“All right, no,” Hagel answered.
The Panhandle congressman pressed on. “Does the administration intend to ... violate the notice requirements of ... NDAA and ... the DOD Appropriations Act in future transfers?” Miller asked.
“Not unless there is an extraordinary set of circumstances like this one,” Hagel said.
“Will you assure this committee that the department will not proceed with future detainee transfers without notifying Congress consistent with the law?” Miller asked.
“We have, I believe, before my time, in every circumstance except this one, and we intend to continue to do that,” Hagel replied.
Miller reminded Hagel that before his time in the Obama administration he served in the U.S. Senate. Marking out the differences between the various branches, Miller asked Hagel, who was a Republican senator from Nebraska, if the president or the courts were supposed to interpret the law. After Hagel said the courts, Miller demanded to know why the administration made the decision not to keep Congress in the loop on the exchange.
“We believe the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel ....” Hagel said before Miller interrupted.
“Part of the executive branch,” Miller noted.
Hagel finished up his statement. “... told the president he had the constitutional authority to do this.”
Miller ripped the “secret deal” and wondered if the released Taliban leaders would be a future threat. Hagel assured the congressman that the Defense department would deal with any threats wherever they may be.
The testimony turned to Bergdahl.
"Mr. Secretary, you keep saying we can't get the facts from Sgt. Bergdahl until he gets home," Miller said. "Have you ever thought about going to Landstuhl and talking to him there?"
"Well, I don't know how much medical training you had, congressman,” Hagel said. "I haven't had much. And what we're doing is, we are allowing the doctors ..." Hagel said before Miller cut him off.
"Why hasn't he been returned to the United States?" Miller demanded. "We have seriously wounded soldiers that are returned to the United States almost immediately after they are stabilized ...You’re trying to tell me he is being held in Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition.”
"Congressman, I hope you're not implying anything other than that," Hagel said. Both the secretary and the congressman attempted to talk over the other which led to some tension between the two.
"I don't like the implication of the question," Hagel said. "He's being held there because our medical professionals don't believe he's ready until they believe he is ready to take the next step."
Miller, who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, noted wounded soldiers were often immediately transferred from Landstuhl back stateside but Hagel insisted this situation was different.
“This is not just about a physical condition, congressman," Hagel said. “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,” Hagel added. "This is not just about can he get on his feet and walk to a plane."
“You’re telling me he can’t be questioned because of his medical condition?” Miller asked.
Hagel said he would “proceed” with questioning Bergdahl during the “next step” of his recovery but was relying on medical experts for the moment.
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