Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has told a member of the House Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon has no information about a covert U.S. Special Forces ransom payment earlier this year that was made in a failed bid to win the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
In a Nov. 21 letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), Hagel, however, denied the Defense Department made the ransom payment, but sidestepped questions about whether the Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) gave cash to an Afghan intermediary who absconded with the funds earlier this year.
Hagel said in the letter that "Department of Defense efforts to gain Sgt. Bergdahl's release were fully consistent with our long-standing policy not to offer concessions to hostage takers."
"The Department of Defense did not make any payment of ransom nor make any attempt to pay ransom for the release of Sgt. Berghdahl," Hagel stated. "Further we have no information that any payment was made to an Afghan intermediary in exchange for facilitating Sgt. Berghdahl’s release."
The Hagel letter was carefully worded and left open the possibility that a payment was made, unlike the comments of Hagel spokesman Adm. John Kirby on Thursday.
Asked about the payment during a press briefing for reporters, Kirby did not say there is "no information" about a payment. Instead, he stated "there was no ransom paid. There was no money exchanged at all to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, nor was there an attempt to do so that failed."
Asked about the difference between what the Hagel letter says and his comments, Kirby said in an email: "I stand by my comments."
Hunter said in response to the Hagel letter that he will seek a further investigation by the Pentagon inspector general. The defense secretary’s response sidestepped key questions about the matter, including Hagel’s assertion that "we have no information" about the ransom attempt.
"The response is by no means adequate because it fails to account for JSOC's efforts to recover Bergdahl," Hunter told the Free Beacon. "There's a new opportunity to pursue an answer through the IG, and the investigation into what went wrong will continue as far as I'm concerned."
The Army sergeant was released from captivity in Afghanistan after nearly five years as a hostage in a controversial prisoner swap that freed five Taliban terrorists held at the Guantanamo prison.
Bergdahl was captured in 2009 along with a group of Afghan soldiers and later sold to the Haqqani Network, a terrorist group similar to the Taliban but distinct from it.
Hunter disclosed the ransom payment in a Nov. 5 letter to Hagel. In the letter Hunter said the JSOC made the payment covertly and an intermediary claiming to represent the Haqqani group took the money but failed to produce Bergdahl.
Hunter urged Hagel to "to immediately inquire with JSOC to determine the specific order of events," Hunter stated.
A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment, and a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, parent organization of JSOC, referred questions to the Pentagon.
"The only response you’re going to get is from DoD," said Ken McGraw, the Socom spokesman.
Disclosure of the ransom attempt is particularly sensitive because if the payment were made it would undermine a key tenet of President Obama’s counter terrorism strategy against the Islamic State terror group. The administration has said it is seeking to pressure governments, corporations and families of captives into not paying ransom.
The Islamic State has made at least $25 million this year by ransoming off western hostages.
The White House said last week that it continues to oppose ransom payments because they place Americans at greater risk of being kidnapped.
Defense officials have said the Bergdahl ransom payment was carried out by the Army’s elite Delta Force counterterrorism unit and that the FBI was also aware of the payment and had an agent in Afghanistan prepared to handle Bergdahl’s hoped-for release in January or February along the border with Pakistan’s North Waziristan.
Senior Pentagon officials have sought to explain the ransom payment as not part of an exchange for Bergdahl, but an intelligence payment under JSOC’s covert rescue operation.
Other defense officials, however, criticized the payment as clearly meant to gain the release of Berghdahl.
The JSOC payment was part of several simultaneous efforts working to gain the Army sergeant’s release. In addition, the State Department was negotiating with the Taliban for the release—despite the fact that Bergdahl was in Haqqani custody.
The Pakistani government also was working covertly to gain Bergdahl’s release, and according to Buzzfeed, Bergdahl’s family was negotiating a $10 million payment for the sergeant.
An aide to Hunter said the letter’s claim that the Pentagon did not make a payment for Bergdahl’s release is "both disingenuous and deceitful."
Instead, the incident involved payments to an Afghan that the aide described as a "work-around" to the prohibition against paying ransom for captives.
"If money is given to an intermediary, which occurred in the botched JSOC operation for Bergdahl, does that constitute a ransom?" the aide asked.
"If Pakistan is incentivized to work with Haqqani, is that a ransom? These options would fall outside that category—and therefore, are some ways among others that hostage situations are handled."
The aide said it makes sense to keep conversations going with captor networks, because it offers opportunity to collect more intelligence and buys time for efforts to recover hostages.