Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel phoned Prof. Robin Gandhi at the University of Nebraska to "express regret" for a wisecrack he directed to the educator during a question-and-answer session on Wednesday, when he said: "You're not a member of the Taliban, are you?"
Pentagon chief spokesman George Little on Friday confirmed that Hagel "did reach out to the professor" by phone a few hours after speaking at the university.
"He expressed regret for any trouble this caused the professor," Little said, adding that the lame attempt at humor "was a comment directed at no one in particular."
The incident occurred after Hagel had finished an address on Syria, cyber war, nuclear disarmament and other challenges in his first trip back to his home state since becoming Secretary of Defense.
In taking questions from the audience after his speech, Hagel was asked about the current efforts by the U.S. to open negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar.
There was confusion at the back of the darkened hall as a microphone was passed around for the next question, said Little, who was present for the speech. An Associated Press reporter initially took the microphone but was told that only members of the audience could ask questions. The microphone went to Gandhi a few seats away.
Hagel then pointed to the back of the hall and said "OK, so who has a -- way up in the back there. You're not a member of the Taliban, are you?"
There was an awkward silence before Gandhi responded: "Mr. Secretary, I'm Robin Gandhi. I'm an assistant professor at UNO," and he then asked a question about cyber security.
"I don't think he could see precisely who was called upon," Little said of Hagel. "He recognizes, even though it was a joke, that it was perhaps off-key."
The university, Hagel's alma mater, later put out a statement on Gandhi's behalf: "I was honored to attend Secretary of Defense Hagel's speech on Wednesday. I was able to ask a question, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing his answer. Before I rose to ask a question, there was apparently some confusion that did not involve me," the statement said.
It was not the first time Hagel has had to back away from controversial remarks. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Hagel said he regretted stating during an interview regrets saying that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" on Capitol Hill.
Hagel later said "I regret referencing the Jewish lobby. I should have said pro-Israel lobby."