How the Obama administration’s story on Bowe Bergdahl and the Taliban fell apart
Stephen F. Hayes
June 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38
Late in the afternoon of Saturday, May 31, Barack Obama strode confidently to a lectern in the White House Rose Garden flanked by the parents of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who had gone missing from his platoon in the mountains of Afghanistan in June 2009.
“This morning I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son, Bowe, is coming home,” Obama said.
The president thanked service members who “recovered Sergeant Bergdahl and brought him safely out of harm’s way.” Obama also expressed gratitude to the diplomats who had handled the case, and he reported that his administration had “worked for several years to achieve this goal.” The president confirmed news reports from earlier in the day that Bergdahl had been freed as part of a prisoner exchange with the Afghan Taliban—a deal that was brokered by the government of Qatar. “As part of this effort, the United States government is transferring five detainees from the prison in Guantánamo Bay to Qatar,” he announced.
The Bergdahls were understandably emotional about the news and in brief statements thanked their friends and their government for supporting them through the long ordeal.
It was, for Obama, a fleeting moment of triumph. For more than a year, the president had been buffeted by events that he could not—or would not—control. The disastrous debut of Obamacare, the continuing fallout from the Benghazi attacks, the consequences of intelligence disclosures by Edward Snowden, the unfolding human tragedy in Syria, the Russian power play in Ukraine, the scandal that has engulfed the Veterans Administration—in one crisis after another, the man who once boldly declared his intent to be a transformative president had shown himself to be a reactive one.
But in the course of three days in late May, Obama sought to wrest control back by demonstrating progress on two of his longest-held goals: ending America’s overseas wars and closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. On May 28, in a commencement speech before cadets graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Obama declared that all combat troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. And three days later, in announcing the transfer of five senior Taliban officials, all designated at “high risk” to return to battle, Obama demonstrated his determination to shutter the detainee facility.
The morning after Obama announced the prisoner exchange, top national security officials from his administration fanned out on the Sunday talk shows. The job of explaining the president’s decision fell to defense secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice.
The president, recognizing the “acute and urgent situation” of the missing soldier, had an obligation to “prioritize the health of Sgt. Bergdahl,” Rice explained. “His life could have been at risk.” Waiting was not an option.
Bergdahl was a hero, she suggested, “an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield” who had served his country with “honor and distinction.”
In an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Rice explained that the five Taliban commanders would be transferred to Qatar, where “they will be carefully watched” and “their ability to move will be constrained.”
Rice brushed off concerns that the United States had engaged in hostage negotiations with terrorists, emphasizing that the United States communicated indirectly with the Taliban through the Qataris. Hagel, for his part, was clear about the U.S. diplomatic partners on the exchange. “We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” he insisted in an appearance on Meet the Press.
He downplayed the notion that the five Taliban commanders could present a threat to the United States, arguing that he wouldn’t sign off on any detainee transfer unless “our country can be assured that we can sufficiently mitigate any risk to America’s security.”
And then came the unraveling.
Many of Hagel’s and Rice’s key claims would be disputed quickly. Some would prove to be misleading, others simply false.
No risk to America’s security? Michael Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center under Obama, said it was “very, very likely” that the five Taliban leaders would return to the fight. An intelligence official who briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Rob Williams, the national intelligence officer for South Asia, said that there is a high likelihood that at least four of the five freed prisoners, and possibly all of them, will rejoin the fight. Even Obama, after downplaying the threat, conceded that “absolutely” there was a chance they would take up arms against America.
Didn’t negotiate with terrorists? The United States engaged in “direct discussions with the Taliban in late 2011, early 2012,” a senior administration official acknowledged in a background briefing with reporters on May 31. The Taliban took possession of Bergdahl in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military can freely conduct operations, and quickly transferred him to the Haqqani network, a Taliban-associated group in Pakistan, where it cannot go. The Haqqani network held Bergdahl until shortly before his release. They were formally designated a terrorist group by the United States in September 2012. One of the early U.S. requests in the talks was a simple one: The Taliban had to renounce terrorism. They refused.
The freed Taliban figures will be carefully watched? A report by Reuters quoted a senior Gulf official on security provisions for the Taliban in Qatar as saying, “They can move freely within the country. Under the deal, they have to stay in Qatar for a year, and then they will be allowed to travel outside the country. . . . They can go back to Afghanistan if they want to.” Reuters further reported that the men “will not be treated as prisoners while in Doha and no U.S. officials will be involved in monitoring their movements while in the country.”
Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction”? “That’s not true,” Specialist Cody Full told The Weekly Standard. “He was a deserter. There’s no question in the minds of anyone in our platoon.”
Bergdahl’s rapidly declining health required immediate intervention to save his life? In a video of the hand-over released by the Taliban, Bergdahl appeared gaunt but walked without apparent difficulty to the waiting helicopter. Doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany said he was having nutritional issues but listed him in “stable” condition. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, the video that generated the sense of urgency was filmed in December 2013, six months before the “emergency” prisoner exchange.
In the days following the announcement of the exchange, the public scrutiny of three aspects of the deal—Bergdahl’s disappearance, his health, and the threat posed by the release of the Guantánamo detainees—left Obama back where he started. His trip to Europe for a meeting of the G-7 was overshadowed by questions about the deal, and Obama found himself, once again, reacting to a crisis of his own making.
Almost immediately after the Rose Garden cere-mony, Bowe Bergdahl’s platoon mates began telling a story they’d been ordered to keep quiet. Bergdahl, they said, was a deserter. Specialist Full took to Twitter and in a long string of posts—interrupted only by short breaks for beer—provided his recollections of Bergdahl’s disappearance.
In a subsequent interview with The Weekly Standard, Full was blunt. “He was not a hero. What he did was not honorable. He knowingly deserted and put thousands of people in danger because he did. We swore to an oath, and we upheld ours. He did not.”
Specialist Josh Cornelison shared that view. “He walked off—and ‘walked off’ is a nice way to put it,” said Cornelison, the medic in Bergdahl’s platoon. “He was accounted for late that afternoon. He very specifically planned to walk out in the middle of the night.”
In total, nine members of Bergdahl’s squad have accused him of walking out on his fellow soldiers. An AR 15-6 investigation conducted by the Army came to the same conclusion, though it stopped short of formally classifying Bergdahl as a deserter because such a label requires knowledge of intent, which the Army investigators lacked.
Speaking out about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s departure took some courage. At the time of his disappearance, the soldiers were instructed not to talk about Bergdahl, his departure, or his possible whereabouts. That much is routine—any public discussion of the hostage could threaten his life and the lives of the troops and intelligence officials working to rescue him. But these soldiers were also asked to sign nondisclosure agreements. That step, a former senior Pentagon official says, is “highly unusual.”
Bergdahl’s platoon mates’ concern for his well-being quickly became a concern for their own. Within days of his disappearance, the U.S. military received intelligence reports that Bergdahl had deliberately sought out the Taliban. Evan Buetow, the platoon leader, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that they’d gotten a report that Bergdahl was in Yahya Khel, a village less than two kilometers away, asking villagers for someone who spoke English and could lead him to the Taliban. “I heard it straight from the interpreter’s lips as he heard it on the radio,” Buetow said. “There’s a lot more to this story than a soldier walking away.”
The minute-by-minute military log of Bergdahl’s disappearance and the subsequent rescue efforts was made public via WikiLeaks. And while that long, jargon-filled account includes reporting on Bergdahl’s asking for an English speaker, it does not include the rather important detail that the missing soldier, traveling without his weapon, was seeking the enemy.
Still, other soldiers have backed up Buetow’s version of events. And a Washington Post report on June 4 confirmed it. Villagers told the Post’s Kevin Sieff that Bergdahl was looking for the Taliban. Ibrahim Mankiel, the district intelligence chief, asked the obvious question: “Why would an American want to find the Taliban?”
While it’s important in the current context to avoid jumping to conclusions about Bergdahl’s motivations, those working to find him in rural Afghanistan—and trying to survive—didn’t have that luxury. In short order, Bergdahl had gone from fellow soldier to deserter to potential collaborator with the enemy. Did Bergdahl share valuable information with the Taliban—either voluntarily or under duress? A retired U.S. Army captain who led troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq tells The Weekly Standard that whatever the Army eventually finds out about Bergdahl’s possible cooperation with the enemy, his squad mates had to assume the worst—particularly after learning that he’d gone looking for their enemy. This officer says he would have told any soldiers who saw Bergdahl in a village to assume they were walking into an ambush.
That kind of suspicion may have been warranted. “Over the next couple of months, all the attacks were definitely far more directed,” Buetow told Tapper. “Before he left, we’d have IEDs go off virtually every day, but they were going off in front of the trucks . . . on the side of the road. Following Bergdahl’s disappearance, IEDs started going off directly under the trucks. They were getting perfect hits every time.” Soldiers in the region chased bogus leads on Bergdahl’s whereabouts that sometimes led to traps, well-orchestrated attempts to lure Bergdahl’s would-be rescuers into situations where they would be vulnerable to attack.
The results of the initial investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance remain classified, and the administration has resisted congressional calls to make them public. When top Obama administration national security officials briefed senators on June 4, they expressed frustration with the public debate around Bergdahl’s departure, telling lawmakers that his fellow soldiers were more nuanced in their initial interviews than in their recent comments.
Still, it seems clear that Bergdahl, who walked away from his unit in the middle of a war and whose departure greatly increased risks to his fellow soldiers, was not “captured on the battlefield” and did not serve with “honor and distinction,” as Susan Rice had said. When Buetow was asked on Fox News what he thought when he heard Rice’s claim, he said, “It upset me.”
The Army has launched a second investigation into Bergdahl’s departure. Shortly after he was transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, counter-intelligence interrogators peppered Bergdahl with questions about his disappearance and his time in captivity. What he says in those interviews—and what he doesn’t—will shape the investigation.
Shortly after Bergdahl was handed over to the Americans on May 31, a helicopter whisked him to Bagram Air Base, and then he was flown to Germany. Doctors who evaluated him have provided few details, but they listed him in “stable condition and receiving treatment for conditions requiring hospitalization.” The statement cited only “attention to diet and nutrition needs” in its description of his treatment.
A National Security Council official who briefed reporters just two hours after the exchange took place said of Bergdahl: “He’s in good condition and able to walk.”
Susan Rice offered a similar assessment on This Week. Bergdahl “is said to be walking and in good physical condition.”
That must have been quite a surprise. In describing the urgency of the prisoner exchange, top Obama administration officials including Rice and Hagel offered descriptions of Bergdahl that made him sound as though he were near death. “We had information that his health could be deteriorating rapidly,” Hagel said on Meet the Press. “There was a question about his safety.”
Obama administration officials frequently used Bergdahl’s health to explain why they had decided to ignore the requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act to give Congress 30 days’ notice before transferring detainees from Guantánamo. Hagel acknowledged that the administration hadn’t given so much as a heads-up to key members of Congress until the transfers were already taking place, despite regular assurances—in public and in private—that Congress would be consulted. The withering criticism was bipartisan.
“Our views were clearly translated,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat from California who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, at a press availability on June 3. “So it comes with some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following the law.”
The more heat the administration received for ignoring Congress, the more dire their descriptions of Bergdahl’s health became. In a press briefing on June 2, White House spokesman Jay Carney pointed to “the state of his health” as one of the key reasons the White House had ignored the requirements of the NDAA.
But members of Congress, including top Democrats, weren’t buying it. “He was undernourished, not necessarily malnourished,” Feinstein said, pointing to a recent intelligence assessment. “Unless something catastrophic happened, I think there was no reason to believe he was in instant danger. There certainly was time to pick up the phone and call.”
On June 4, the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy story, sourced heavily to Obama administration officials, reporting that Bergdahl’s health was the main reason for the urgency of the exchange. “Two secret videos showing rapid deterioration in Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s health persuaded reluctant military and intelligence leaders to back the prisoner swap that has stoked a backlash,” the story began. According to the Journal, the Qatari government provided a proof-of-life video to the U.S. government in January 2014. It had been shot the month before, in December 2013.
The story did not explain why a video from late last year generated sudden urgency—six months later. Was additional intelligence gathered more recently that suggested Bergdahl might die without immediate intervention? If so, the administration has not cited it.
The Journal story quoted Shawn Turner, the spokesman for director of national intelligence James Clapper, explaining why his boss, previously skeptical of the prisoner exchange, now favored it: The intelligence community, Turner said, had “evidence that Sgt. Bergdahl’s health was failing and that he was in desperate need of medical attention.”
That same morning, the Taliban released a 17-minute propaganda video of the exchange. In the video, Bergdahl looks somewhat gaunt and confused, but otherwise healthy. He walks without assistance from a pickup truck to the U.S. forces who have come to retrieve him, and then on to the helicopter that will take him to Bagram.
A video isn’t enough to permit a medical diagnosis, of course, but there’s little question that images of Bergdahl were not consistent with the administration’s descriptions of him before his release. Neither are the things that top intelligence officials were telling lawmakers in closed briefings. When Clapper, the nation’s top intelligence official, answered questions on Capitol Hill Wednesday, he was asked directly if the United States had intelligence showing that Bergdahl’s health required immediate extraction. “The intel wouldn’t support that,” Clapper responded, according to sources familiar with his testimony.
By the evening of Wednesday, June 4, when the White House dispatched top national security officials to Capitol Hill to brief an all-Senate meeting, the administration was backing away from claims that Bergdahl’s health had required that the exchange take place when it did. Although the senators were shown the December proof-of-life video, administration briefers downplayed the urgent health issues that had been a key talking point over the previous several days. “It was a subtle, but a very real shift,” said one senator who attended the briefing. Instead, the briefers recast their argument, saying that they could not have told Congress because a leak about the negotiations could have killed the deal. That was the reason—not Bergdahl’s health—that Congress was not notified.
Sources say the briefers expressed bewilderment that people thought the administration had claimed Bergdahl’s health condition was so poor it threatened his life. “That fell flat,” said an official in the briefing. “Even Democrats weren’t buying it.”
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, expressed skepticism. “His health was not the critical factor. . . . In that one video, you can tell he had been drugged . . . and he was in a different state five months ago.”
The Weekly Standard asked Turner, the DNI spokesman, to explain the discrepancies. He said that the Journal article had not used his entire statement and suggested that the edited version was misleading. In a new statement late Wednesday, Turner said: “Sgt. Bergdahl’s suspected deteriorating health was one of a number of factors that contributed to the DNI’s decision. It was not the only factor and certainly was not the determining factor. It was a data point—one of many.”
Subsequent requests for comment—about Clapper’s testimony and any fresh evidence that Bergdahl’s life had been in jeopardy—went unanswered.
If the administration was retiring the dangerously-poor-health talking point, someone forgot to tell the president and his secretary of defense.
Hagel, in an interview with the BBC that aired Thursday, went further: “It was our judgment based on the information that we had that his life, his health were in peril.”
Obama, one day after his top intelligence official rejected claims that Bergdahl’s health had made an emergency deal necessary, made the claim yet again. “We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about it. And we saw an opportunity and we seized it.”
The other side of that opportunity was the transfer of five senior Taliban commanders from captivity in Guantánamo to relative freedom in Qatar. The Taliban had been seeking the release of these five officials—plus another who died in prison—for more than three years. The assessments of the men conducted by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) found that each one presented a “high risk” of returning to the battle if he were released. Other detainees had been assessed as lesser threats, and some had even been cleared for release. Not these prisoners.
“All five of those guys are exceptionally dangerous,” says Paul Rester, the former lead interrogator at Joint Task Force Guantánamo. “These are men who ran entire regions for the Taliban, they had thousands of fighters under their command. They survived the Soviets, they survived the civil war, they survived us, they survived Sam Scott’s Gitmo chicken.”
Rester and his team were responsible for the threat assessments of the detainees. An experienced interrogator, Rester got his start during the Vietnam war and first interviewed mujahedeen in the 1980s when the United States saw them as allies against the Soviet Union. Rester interrogated many of those at Guantánamo and in some cases got to know them well. He and his team rewrote their assessments every year.
“Those assessments only tell the story of how they constitute a risk to us,” he says. “They don’t tell you how they are revered in the population. They can think rings around us in that environment.”
When Obama came to Washington, he made clear that one of the immediate goals of his presidency would be to close the facility at Guantánamo. So the president set up his own team, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, made up of lawyers, military officers, intelligence analysts, and diplomats, who would make recommendations to the president about how to handle individual prisoners.
JTF-GTMO’s job was to assess each detainee’s intent and ability to harm the United States, its interests, and its allies. Its assessments were done by men and women who were chiefly concerned with prosecuting a war. The Guantánamo Review Task Force’s mandate was different. It was established simultaneously with President Obama’s order to shutter the facility in one year. That deadline proved impractical, but the task force was formed for the purpose of closing Guantánamo. Clearly, the task force was willing to accept more risk in detainee transfers than JTF-GTMO. Indeed, the task force recommended that dozens of detainees who were deemed “high risk” by JTF-GTMO be transferred.
But even the Obama team recommended that 48 of the remaining Guantánamo detainees be held indefinitely. All five Taliban commanders that Obama released last week were in this group.
For Rester, that’s significant. “We had the best military analysts on the planet look at these guys and recommend against transfer,” he says. “And then Obama’s team—this administration’s most knowledgeable, courageous, and liberal legal minds came to the same conclusion. They could not bring themselves to recommend these guys for transfer or release.”
Many of the intelligence officials who have worked on Guantánamo agree with them. In a hearing on June 4, Clapper was asked to assess the likelihood that these individuals would return to the fight on a scale of 1 to 10. Clapper gave one of the men an 8 and the other four a 9.
But Obama and his team are telling the public a different story. “I will not sign off on any detainee coming out of Guantánamo unless I am assured . . . that we can sufficiently mitigate any risk to American security,” said Hagel on Meet the Press.
Those risks are not mitigated. They’re enhanced.
“Unless the goal is to increase the combat power of the enemy, they should have remained under U.S. government control,” says one former intelligence official who worked on Guantánamo issues. “Those five in particular should have remained at Guantánamo at least until the last U.S. military person [in Afghanistan] has been withdrawn.”