The Obama administration is facing mounting questions about the controversial prisoner swap that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from jihadists in Pakistan in exchange for the transfer and ultimate release of five senior Taliban commanders previously held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Lawmakers are questioning the wisdom and legality of the move. Intelligence officials are expressing deep concerns about its ramifications. And those who served with Bergdahl—or took risks in the efforts to rescue him—are directly challenging the Obama administration's characterization of the former captive and his actions.
In an appearance on ABC's This Week on Sunday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed that Bergdahl "wasn't simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war, taken on the battlefield." She added: "He served the United States with honor and distinction."
"That's not true," says Specialist Cody Full, who served in the same platoon as Bergdahl, and whose tweets over the weekend as @CodyFNfootball offered an early firsthand account of Bergdahl's departure. "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."
"He walked off—and 'walked off' is a nice way to put it," says Specialist Josh 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."
"He was a deserter," says Specialist Full. "There's no question in the minds of anyone in our platoon."
In interviews, several of Bergdahl's platoon mates described a soldier who was contemplative, detached and quixotic. He wrote adventure stories—"Jason Bourne, Ramboish type of shit," says one soldier—that placed himself at the center of the action. "He'd write 'Bowe Bergdahl walked across the dark and dusty street' or something like that."
He spent his free time studying Dari and Pashto and took great interest in the lives of local Afghans. Fellow soldiers say that when the platoon dined with the local Afghan National Police forces, Bergdahl lingered to mix with the Afghans. In free time on Forward Operating Base Sharana, when others passed time playing games, chatting with friends or clicking around their computers, Bergdahl chose to engage the locals. "He'd spend hours drinking tea with them, just hanging out," says one of Bergdahl's former platoon mates. "He got to know the locals well and had many friends."
He was energized when his unit worked with local Afghans and helped them improve their own lives. But he was troubled when their missions included more traditional military functions. "It wasn't all rainbows and smiley faces," says Cornelison. "A lot of the time it was brutal and rough and he got very disillusioned. He got angry and frustrated."
"You don't mail all your personal belongings home, especially your computer. It's not like you can go to a sports bar -- there's no sports bars over there," says Specialist Full. "You just wouldn't give up your computer if you weren't planning to leave. He knowingly deserted and he put countless fellow Americans in danger -- not just his platoon mates."
If there is little question in the minds of the former members of Bergdahl's unit that he was a deserter, it's not clear that the military came to that same conclusion—at least formally.
Current and former military and intelligence officials tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the U.S. Army conducted an exhaustive investigation into Bergdahl's separation from his platoon. The investigation, undertaken by an officer from outside of the unit and called an AR 15-6, involved sworn testimony from virtually everyone who had regular contact with Bergdahl. The soldiers in Bergdahl's platoon were questioned repeatedly by investigators. Many were ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements, a step that a former senior military official calls "highly unusual."
Cornelison, as the unit's medic, was questioned virtually every time the platoon rotated back to a large base to clear up and get a hot meal. "We got 90 minutes for a shower and a meal -- and I spent 45 minutes every time answering their questions." Investigators asked about everything—from the circumstances of Bergdahl's departure, to his views on the Army and his interactions with other soldiers. A frequent line of questioning involved the kind of information Bergdahl possessed that could aid the Taliban—medical knowledge, how the Army responds to IED attacks, troop movements, rules of engagement.
Bergdahl was initially classified as DUSTWUN—duty status: whereabouts unknown. Two military sources involved in recovery operations tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that after the AR 15-6 investigation, the U.S. Army considered Bergdahl absent without leave. Pentagon officials engaged in a lengthy—and sometimes heated—debate about whether to reclassify Bergdahl as a deserter. In the end, he was not formally listed as a deserter, though the nature of his disappearance is far from a settled issue.
Bergdahl is at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he is under medical evaluation. He is undergoing a lengthy debriefing process by a variety of U.S. officials, including counterintelligence specialists, who will try to learn more about the circumstances of his departure and the nature of his time with the Taliban and, eventually, the Haqqani network.
In Washington, lawmakers are accusing the administration of ignoring laws signed by the president. "This is very serious," says Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon says the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed out of his committee on a vote of 59-3, required the administration to give Congress a 30-day advance notification on Guantanamo transfers. "This administration has flouted the law again and again and again. We will be having hearings about this."
Obama administration officials argued over the weekend that Bergdahl's deteriorating health required the administration to move urgently to return him to the care of the U.S. military. He is currently in stable condition.
The five Taliban commanders were transferred to Qatar in an agreement approved by senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban. Obama administration officials have said that the former Guantanamo prisoners—all of whom were considered "high risk" to return to the battle—will be monitored. The administration has not detailed what that monitoring will involve. Most the prisoners transferred from Guantanamo over the past decade have also been subject to post-release tracking, but nearly a third of that group are known or suspected recidivists.
And intelligence officials point out that the Qataris have funded jihadists throughout the region, including some of the fiercest fighters in Syria. For those reasons and others (laid out here by Thomas Joscelyn), officials take little comfort in security guarantees touted—but not defined—by the Obama administration.
One uncomfortable question that has vexed those involved in the Bergdahl case: Was Bergdahl merely a deserter or was he, possibly, a Taliban collaborator?
"I can't speak about what was in his head," says Specialist Full. "I can only speak about what I saw with my own eyes."
Still, several military officials who spoke with THE WEEKLY STANDARD noted privately that Taliban attacks on U.S. forces in the Paktika province seemed to increase in frequency and effectiveness.
CNN's Jake Tapper, who has done extensive reporting on Afghanistan and has spoken to many sources about the Bergdahl case specifically, reported that "at least six soldiers were killed in searches for Bergdahl." There may be a simple explanation: U.S. forces in the area were more exposed because of the frequency of their missions in search of Bergdahl. In the weeks following Bergdahl's disappearance, many regular missions were shelved so that rescue operations could be executed. These missions, and ones undertaken by tactical and special forces, were often conducted with less time to prepare and with fewer precautions taken than traditional raids.
But others wonder whether Bergdahl helped the Taliban, either willfully or under duress. In the hours after he disappeared, according to sources familiar with the intelligence, U.S. troops received an intelligence report that Bergdahl stopped in a local village and asked how to find the Taliban. That report, if it exists, is not mentioned in the Wikileaks documents related to Bergdahl's disappearance. But several sources with knowledge of the case insist that the report is true.
Says one platoon mate: "He's friends with the delivery driver, he's friends with the goat farmer, he's got relationships with all the locals—and he stops to ask how he can find the Taliban? He could have just gone to Habib the local goat farmer and floated along with the locals."
Whether a deserter or collaborator, the mere mention of Bergdahl's name generates the strongest of human emotions among those who served alongside him or participated in attempts to rescue him. "Guys are dead because of him," says one soldier involved in recovery operations. "Several KIA and others severely wounded."
"The amount of pain he's caused," says one of Bergdahl's platoon mates, his voice trailing off. After a long pause, he resumes. "The time he was DUSTWUN was the most miserable time of my life. It was absolute hell. A bunch of us had a pact if we found him. We'd each get him in a room for five minutes and short of killing him we could do what we want."
"There were times—there are still times—when I turn on the TV and I wish they'd just beheaded him on TV and gotten it over with."