Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is not a lawyer. He's not famous for lawyerly evasions. But when it came to a few of the most critical issues discussed at the House Armed Services Committee's hearing on the Bowe Bergdahl case Wednesday, Hagel was full of wiggle words. Actually, just one wiggle word -- "direct" -- but Hagel used it repeatedly to sow confusion about some key questions.
The first question concerned the background of the five Taliban commanders traded by the Obama administration for the release of Bergdahl. Hagel sought to downplay the threat posed by freeing the five. "They've been in U.S. custody at Guantanamo …12, 13 years, but they have not been implicated in any attacks against the United States," he said.
That caught the attention of Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the vice chairman of the committee. Citing publicly-available intelligence suggesting some of the released Taliban had in fact planned attacks on Americans and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Thornberry asked, "At least at some point, there was evidence that they were involved in hostilities, military operations against the coalition, weren't they?"
"Yes," Hagel agreed. "They were mid- to high-ranking members of the Taliban. So yes, they were part of planning. But my point was, we have no direct evidence of any direct involvement in direct attacks on the U.S. or any of our troops. They were part of the Taliban — yes, they were combatants."
No direct evidence of any direct involvement in direct attacks. By throwing in so many directs, Hagel was engaging in some serious hedging, and Thornberry clearly caught what was going on. Whatever being directly involved means, he asked, they were certainly involved in some way, weren't they? "Your point was, they didn't pull the trigger, but they were senior commanders of the Taliban military who directed operations against the U.S. and its coalition partners," Thornberry said.
"That's right," Hagel responded. "As I said in my statement, they were combatants, and we were at war with the Taliban."
At that point, Thornberry's questioning time was over, but committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon added a postscript. "Bin Laden didn't pull a trigger," McKeon said, "but we went after him because he is the one who caused 9/11."
A few minutes later, Hagel used the "direct" maneuver again, this time when asked by Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin about reports that a number of Americans died searching for Bergdahl. Were those reports true, Langevin wanted to know.
"Your question has been asked a number of times," Hagel replied. "I've personally gone back and asked that question inside the Pentagon. In the Army, and all of our reports, I have seen no evidence that directly links any American combat death to the rescue or finding or search for Sgt. Bergdahl."
Hagel did not say he has seen no evidence that links any U.S. death to the search for Bergdahl. He said he has seen no evidence that directly links to the deaths. But there is evidence, direct or not, to suggest some links. "Some soldiers have gone so far as to say the six died while searching for Bergdahl," CNN's Jake Tapper reported recently after interviewing soldiers familiar with the missions involved. "Others say he is indirectly to blame -- after Bergdahl vanished, essentially every operation became a mission to find their lost colleague in one way or another, they say."
Hagel used "direct" yet again when asked by Republican Rep. Randy Forbes whether any American lives were lost in the original captures of the five Taliban commanders. "I have no direct evidence that there were any American lives," Hagel said.
By employing all those "directs," Hagel was in effect defining the evidence he would allow the committee to consider. If such evidence is not "direct," then Hagel did not offer it to lawmakers. As the Bergdahl investigation continues, those lawmakers might want to know more than just the evidence Hagel deems "direct."
Finally, Hagel did make a few clear, unhedged comments. In a briefing this week, White House officials raised lots of eyebrows among House lawmakers when they claimed that Hagel had made the final decision to go ahead with the Bergdahl swap. Given that such an order was the clear responsibility of the commander-in-chief, some saw that as an attempt to throw Hagel under the bus for the unpopular Bergdahl deal. On Wednesday, Hagel clearly and unequivocally said it was the president who "made the final decision" in the Bergdahl matter, adding that Obama acted "with the full support of his national security team."
The bottom line is that Hagel's appearance did not clear up a number of questions about the Bergdahl affair. But the investigation is just beginning, and more questions will be coming his way.