US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has expressed regret to a professor of Indian descent, officials said Friday, after he appeared to jokingly ask if the academic was a member of the Taliban.
Hagel's spokesman insisted the off-hand remark, which came after a speech at the University of Nebraska on Wednesday, was not meant to refer to anyone in the audience or to the professor's Indian heritage.
At Wednesday's event, after discussing prospects for talks with the Taliban insurgency, Hagel waited for another question and pointed to the back of the hall, saying:
"OK, so who has a -- way up in the back there. You're not a member of the Taliban are you?"
His attempt at humor appeared to fall flat, judging by the long pause that followed, according to a video of the event broadcast by the Pentagon channel.
The video did not show who he was referring to, but the question that followed his remark came from a man who introduced himself as Robin Gandhi, an assistant professor the university.
"This was an off the cuff remark not directed at anyone in particular in the audience, and he recognizes that even though it was a joke that it was perhaps off-key," press secretary George Little told reporters Friday.
"I would emphasize it was completely unintentional and not directed at anyone in particular."
Although the Pentagon maintained Hagel was not aiming his remark at anyone, the defense secretary called the academic afterward to express regret, Little said.
"Secretary Hagel did reach out to the professor a few hours after the speech and had a very good discussion. He wanted to leave no impression that this joke was directed at anyone in particular,including the professor," he said.
Asked if Hagel apologized, Little said: "He expressed regret for any trouble that this caused to the professor."
Gandhi, an assistant professor of information assurance who received his bachelor's degree from Sardar Patel University in Gujarat, India, issued a statement saying he was honored for a chance to ask the Pentagon chief a question.
"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," his statement said.