(CNSNews.com) - Speaking Wednesday in his home state of Nebraska, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel jokingly asked an Indian professor if he was a member of the Taliban.
A short time earlier, Hagel had praised Vice President Joe Biden as "one of the truly most informed people I've ever -- ever dealt with, and partly because he's smart."
After making remarks at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, Hagel took a few questions from the audience.
"Ok, so who has a (question) -- way up in the back there," Hagel said. "You're not a member of the Taliban, are you?"
The remark was greeted with silence and a long pause:
"Mr. Secretary, I'm Robin Gandhi. I'm an assistant professor at UNO." The professor then asked Hagel a question about using cyber capabilities as a deterrent to those who want to attack the U.S.
The Washington Free Beacon said the Pentagon later issued a statement saying, “Absolutely no slight toward any individual in the audience was intended. That’s the last thing the Secretary would do under any circumstance, in this or any other setting. He didn’t know who would be called next to pose a question.”
Shortly before calling on the Indian professor, Hagel had been talking about Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Earlier, another audience member had asked Hagel how he likes working with Joe Biden, who also is gaffe-prone.
"Well, this is being recorded, so..." Hagel said to laughter.
The defense secretary admitted to being "very biased about Joe Biden," calling him "one of the most human, honest, decent human beings I've ever -- ever worked with in my life in any job I've ever had.
"If you look at Joe Biden's voting record and my voting record, they're about as far apart as you could get, except on -- on the issues of foreign policy and national security. And that used to be a line that parties didn't cross.
"Now, since I'm not in that business anymore I won't go any further, as I've had now my Department of Defense staff waving flags -- 'Get him off the stage before--'
"He's one of the truly most informed people I've ever -- ever dealt with, and partly because he's smart. But I know a lot of smart people, and you all do too, and I wouldn't want them near power. (Laughter.)
Hagel noted that he, Biden, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry all served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Joe came up a pretty hard way," Hagel said. "Now, that doesn't mean that he's any better than anybody else. He had to overcome a lot of things. And I trust him on -- I just trust who he is. And he's fun to work with. He's very serious and he's very tough. And it's a pleasure."
Biden in 2006 was criticized for remarking, "You cannot go to a 7/11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”
And last year, while discussing the outsourcing of call centers, Biden started to imitate an Indian accent at the other end of the phone line: "How many times do you get the call, 'I'd like to talk to you about your credit card'?," the vice president asked.