Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelLobbying World Ex-Dem leader: Clinton should include GOP in Cabinet Even Steven: How would a 50-50 Senate operate? MORE defended Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday.
While Hagel said it was important to find out who was accountable for the VA's problems, he backed the embattled secretary in the interview with CBS's "This Morning."
Hagel said the top focus should be on fixing problems at the VA before seeking people to blame.
"There's no higher responsibility our country has than to these people who served and sacrificed," he said.
"Why did this happen? How was it allowed to happen? Who's accountable? Someone has to be accountable here, like in any institution," Hagel said.
Hagel also offered sharp criticism for ongoing budget cuts at the Defense Department, describing sequester cuts as the "most irresponsible, mindless actions" he had ever seen in his years in Washington.
Hagel was also especially critical of congressional involvement in deciding which elements of national defense would be maintained or retired following budget cuts. Plans by the military to eliminate weapons systems such as the A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane have aroused fierce resistance in Congress, resistance that Hagel said endangered the military's entire purpose.
"[If they don't] give us the flexibility to make the tough choices and prioritize, then we're going to be about the narrow, partisan, parochial, political interests of members of Congress only, and not about the national security of this country," he said.