Mr. Chairman, thank you. Ranking Member Smith, thank you.
To the members of this committee, I appreciate an opportunity to discuss the recovery of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and the transfer of five detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. And I appreciate having the Department of Defense’s General Counsel Steve Preston here with me this morning. Mr. Preston was one of our negotiators throughout this process in Qatar and signed on behalf of the United States the memorandum of understanding between the governments of Qatar and the United States.
Also here representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sitting behind me, is Brigadier General Pat White, who is the Director of the Joint Staff’s Pakistan / Afghanistan Coordination Cell. General White helped coordinate the Bergdahl recovery on behalf of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey.
The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Winnefeld, as the Chairman has noted, will join us later this morning in the classified closed portion of the hearing. And as you know, General Dempsey and Admiral Winnefeld played critical roles in the meetings at the National Security Council leading up to Sergeant Bergdahl’s release and supported the decision to move forward with this prisoner exchange.
In my statement today, I will address the issues of Chairman McKeon and Mr. Smith, issues they raised when the chairman asked me to testify, and explain why it was so urgent to pursue Sergeant Bergdahl’s release; why we decided to move forward with the detainee transfer; and why it was fully consistent with U.S. law, our nation’s interests and our military’s core values.
Mr. Chairman, members of this committee, I want to make one fundamental point. I would never sign any document or make any agreement, agree to any decision, that I did not feel was in the best interest 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.
I recognize that the speed with which we moved in this case has caused great frustration, legitimate questions and concern. We could have done a better job – could have done a better job of keeping you informed. But I urge you to remember two things. This was an extraordinary situation. First, we weren’t certain that we would transfer those detainees out of Guantanamo until we had Sergeant Bergdahl in hand. And, second, we had Sergeant Bergdahl in hand only a few hours after making the final arrangements.
There are legitimate questions about this prisoner exchange, and Congress obviously has an important constitutional role and right and responsibility to play in all of our military and intelligence matters. As a former member, Mr. Chairman, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the [Committee] on Foreign Relations, I appreciate the vital role Congress plays in our national security. And I will present to this committee within the limits of an open, unclassified hearing, and in more detail in the classified hearing, everything I can to answer your questions and assure you, this committee, the American people, that this prisoner exchange was done legally, it was substantial mitigation of risk to our country, and in the national interests of this country.
Let’s start with Sergeant Bergdahl’s status as a member of the United States Army. He was held captive by the Taliban in the Haqqani Network for almost five years. He was officially listed as missing/captured. No charges were ever brought against Sergeant Bergdahl, and there are no charges pending now. Our entire national security apparatus, the military, the intelligence community and the State Department pursued every avenue to recover Sergeant Bergdahl, just as the American people and this Congress and the Congresses before you expected us to do.
In fact, this committee knows there were a number of congressional resolutions introduced and referred to this committee directing the President of the United States to do everything he could to get Sergeant Bergdahl released from captivity. We never stopped trying to get him back, as the Congress knows that, because he is a soldier in the United States Army.
Questions about Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture are, as Mr. Smith noted and you, Mr. Chairman, are separate from our effort to recover him. Because we do whatever it takes to recover any and every U.S. servicemember held in captivity. This pledge is woven into the fabric of our nation and our military.
As former Central Commander Marine General Jim Mattis recently put it, quote, "The bottom line is we don’t leave people behind. That is the beginning and that is the end of what we stand for. We keep faith with the guys who sign on, and that is all there is to it," end of quote.
As for the circumstances surrounding his captivity, as Secretary of the Army McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Odierno will review later, and they’ve said clearly, last week, that the Army will review, they will review this exchange, circumstance, captivity of Sergeant Bergdahl in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sergeant Bergdahl. And I think I need not remind anyone on this committee, like any American, Sergeant Bergdahl has rights. And his conduct will be judged on the facts, not politically hearsay, posturing, charges, or innuendo. We do owe that to any American, and especially those who are members of our military wand their families.
Like most Americans I’ve been offended and disappointed in how the Bergdahl family has been treated by some in this country. No Army 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.
In 2011, the Obama administration conducted talks with the Taliban on a detainee exchange involving the same five Taliban detainees that were ultimately transferred after the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. These talks, which Congress was briefed on – some of you in this room were in those briefings, I understand – which Congress was briefed on in November of 2011, and in January of 2012, were broken off by the Taliban in March of 2012. We have not had direct talks with the Taliban since this time.
In September of 2013, the government of Qatar offered to serve as an intermediary. And in November of last year, we requested that the Taliban provide a new proof of life video of Sergeant Bergdahl. In January of this year, we received that video, and it was disturbing. Some of you may have seen the video. It showed a deterioration in his physical appearance and mental state compared to previous videos. Our entire intelligence community carefully analyzed every part of it and concluded that Sergeant Bergdahl’s health was poor and possibly declining.
This gave us growing urgency to act. In April of this year, after briefly suspending engagement with us, the Taliban again signaled interest in indirect talks on an exchange. At that point we intensified our discussions with the Qatar government about security assistances and assurances, particularly security assurances.
On May 12th, we signed a memoranda of understanding with Qatar detailing the specific security measures that would be undertaken and enforced by them if any Taliban detainees were transferred to their custody – Steve Preston, who, as I noted earlier, signed that memoranda of understanding on behalf of the United States government and was included in those negotiations.
Included in this MOU were specific risk mitigation measures and commitments from the government of Qatar, like travel restrictions, monitoring, information sharing and limitations on activities, as well as other significant measures, which we will detail in the closed portion of this hearing. They were described, as you know, Mr. Chairman, in the classified documentation and notification letter I sent to this committee last week.
That memoranda of understanding has been sent to the Congress, to the leadership, to the committees, and every member of Congress has an opportunity to review that memoranda of understanding in a closed setting.
U.S. officials received a warning from the Qatari intermediaries that as we proceeded, time was not on our side. And we’ll go into more detail in a classified hearing on those warnings. This indicated that the risks to the Sergeant Bergdahl’s safety were growing. We moved forward with indirect negotiations on how to carry out that exchange, that exchange of five detainees and agreed to the mechanics of the exchange on the morning of May 27th, following three days of intensive talks. That same day President Obama received a personal commitment and a personal telephone call from the emir of Qatar to uphold and enforce the security arrangements. And the final decision was made to move forward with that exchange on that day.
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 Sergeant Bergdahl. We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any kind of leak, would end the negotiation 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 the possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory that we did not control. And we’d been given no information on where the handoff would occur.
For all these reasons and more, the exchange need to take place quickly, efficiently and quietly. We believed this exchange was our last, best opportunity to free him. After the exchange was set in motion, only 96 hours passed before Sergeant Bergdahl was in our hands. Throughout this period there was great uncertainty about whether the deal would go forward. We did not know the general area of the handoff until 24 hours before. We did not know the precise location until one hour before. And we did not know until the moment Sergeant Bergdahl was handed over safely to U.S. special operations forces, that the Taliban would hold up their end of the deal. So it wasn’t until we recovered Sergeant Bergdahl on May 31st that we moved ahead with the transfer of the five Guantanamo detainees.
The President’s decision to move forward with the transfer of these detainees was a tough call. I supported it. I stand by it. As Secretary of Defense, I have the authority and the responsibility, as has been noted here, to determine whether detainees, any detainees, but these specific detainees of Guantanamo Bay, can be transferred to the custody of another country. I take that responsibility, Mr. Chairman, members of this committee, damn seriously. Damn seriously. As I do any responsibility I have in this job.
Neither I nor any member of the president’s National Security Council were under any illusions about these five detainees. They were members of the Taliban, which controlled much of Afghanistan’s prior, all the territory, to America’s invasion and overthrow of that regime.
They were enemy belligerents detained under the law of war and taken to Guantanamo in late 2001 and 2002. They’ve been in the U.S. custody at Guantanamo since then, 12, 13 years, but they have not been implicated in any attacks against the United States, and we had no basis to prosecute them in a federal court or military commission. It was appropriate to continue to consider them for an exchange, as we had been over the last few years, as Congress had been told that we were. And if any of these detainees ever try to rejoin the fight, they would be doing so at their own peril.
There’s also always some risk associated with the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo. This is not a risk-free business. We get that. The U.S. government has transferred 620 detainees from Guantanamo since May, 2002, with 532 transfers occurring during the Bush administration and 88 transfers occurring during the Obama administration.
In the case of these five detainees, the security measures Qatar put in place led me as secretary of defense to determine, consistent with the National Defense Authorization Act, that the risk they posed to the United States, our citizens and our interests, were substantially mitigated.
I consulted with all of the members of the President’s national security team and asked them, as they reviewed all the details, they reviewed the draft of my notification letter, the specific line by line, word by word details of that letter, I asked for their complete reviews, the risks associated, and I asked either concur or object to the transfer. The Secretary of State, the Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all supported this transfer. All put their names on it.
There was complete unanimity on this decision, Mr. Chairman. And the President and I would not have moved forward unless we had complete confidence that we were acting lawfully, in the national interests and the best traditions of our country. Our operation to save Sergeant Bergdahl’s was fully consistent with U.S. laws and our national security interests in at least five ways.
First, we complied with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 by determining that the risk the detainees posed to the United States, American citizens and our interests was substantially mitigated and that the transfer was in the national security interest of the United States.
Second, we fulfilled our commitment to recover all military personnel held captive.
Third, we followed the precedent of past wartime prisoner exchanges, a practice in our country that dates back to the Revolutionary War and has occurred in most wars that we’ve fought.
Fourth, because Sergeant Bergdahl was a detained combatant, being held by an enemy force, and not a hostage, it was fully consistent with our long-standing policy not to offer concessions to hostage takers. The Taliban is our enemy. And we are engaged in an armed conflict with them.
Fifth, we did what was consistent with previous congressional briefings this administration had provided, as I’ve already noted, in late 2011 and early 2012, reflecting our intent to conduct a transfer of this nature with these particular five individuals.
Mr. Chairman, I fully understand and appreciate the concerns, the questions about our decision to transfer these five detainees to Qatar without providing 30 days notice to Congress. But under these exceptional circumstances, a fleeting opportunity to protect the life of an American service member held captive and in danger for almost five years, the national security team and the President of the United States agreed that we needed to act swiftly.
We were mindful that this was not simply a detainee transfer, but a military operation with very high and complicated risks, and a very short window of opportunity that we didn’t want to jeopardize, both for the sake of Sergeant Bergdahl and our operators in the field who put themselves at great risk to secure his return. In consultation with the Department of Justice, the administration concluded that the transfer of the five could lawfully proceed.
The options available to us to recover Sergeant Bergdahl were very few and far from perfect. But they often are in wartime, Mr. Chairman, and especially in a complicated war like we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 13 years. Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. I saw this firsthand during my service in Vietnam in 1968. In 1968, this committee may recall, we sent home nearly 17,000 of our war dead in one year.
I see it as the Secretary of Defense. A few of you on this committee have experienced war, and you’ve seen it up close. You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them.
Those of us charged with protecting the national security interests of this country are called upon every day to make the hard, tough, imperfect and sometimes unpleasant choices based on the best information we have, and within the limits of our laws, and always based on America’s interests.
War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.
In the decision to rescue Sergeant Bergdahl, we complied with the law. And we did what we believed was in the best interest of our country, our military, and Sergeant Bergdahl. The President has constitutional responsibilities and constitutional authorities to protect American citizens and members of our armed forces. That’s what he did. America does not leave its soldiers behind. We made the right decision. And we did it for the right reasons, to bring home one of our own people.
As all of you know I value the Defense Department’s partnership, partnership with this Congress and the trust we’ve developed over the years. I know that trust has been broken. I know you have questions about that.
But I’ll tell you something else, I have always been straightforward, completely transparent with this committee since I’ve been Secretary of Defense. I will continue to do that. I will do that always with all my relationships and associations and responsibilities to the Congress. That’s what I always demanded, Mr. Chairman, of any administration when I was a member of the United States Senate. I’ve been on your side of this equation. I understand it.
That’s what I’ve done this morning with the statement I have made, and I made the decision I did. And I’ve explained that in general terms, the circumstances surrounding my decisions were imperfect and these decisions that have to lead to some kind of judgment always are. The President is in the same position, but you have to make a choice. You have to make a decision.
The day after the Bergdahl operation at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan I met with a team of special operators that recovered Sergeant Bergdahl. They are the best of the best, people who didn’t hesitate to put themselves at incredible personal risk to recover one of their own. And I know we all thank them. I know this committee thanks them. And we appreciate everything that they do. And we thank all of our men and women in Afghanistan who make the difficult sacrifices every day for this country.
Earlier this week, we were reminded of the heavy costs of war when we lost five American servicemen in Afghanistan. I know our thoughts and our prayers are with their families. We’re grateful for their service. And we’re grateful for the service of all our men and women in uniform around the world.
As I conclude, Mr. Chairman, I want to again thank this committee for what you do every day to support our men and women around the world.
Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to make this statement and I look forward to your questions.