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The Unraveling

How the Obama administration’s story on Bowe Bergdahl and the Taliban fell apart

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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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.

Bergdahl’s Health

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.”

Guantánamo

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.”

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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