Intelligence provided by former Taliban captive Bergdahl is 'a gold mine,' officials testify
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 31, 2017
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has provided intelligence analysts and Pentagon hostage experts valuable information about the Taliban-linked group that held him captive for five years after he walked off his Afghanistan combat post in 2009, two officials testified Tuesday.
Bergdahl, who was kidnapped by Taliban fighters after deserting his combat post in eastern Afghanistan, is the only American servicemember ever to be held by the Taliban or their closely aligned partners in the Haqqani network, the witnesses said Tuesday, calling the information attained from the soldier’s debriefings “a gold mine.”
“We were able to build the [Haqqani] captor network like we’d not ever been able to do before,” said Amber Dach, who served 16 years in military intelligence as a soldier and a civilian. “It was just completely invaluable.”
Dach, then assigned to U.S. Central Command, served as the primary intelligence analyst on Bergdahl’s case throughout his entire captivity. She described the soldier as eager to provide her team information just days after he was freed from the Taliban.
“He was very motivated to just download all of the details he could recall,” she said Tuesday from the witness stand during Bergdahl’s sentence hearing at Fort Bragg. “As an analyst, it was a gold mine. It reshaped the way we did intel collection in the area.”
The attorneys who have defended Bergdahl during his court-martial hope his cooperation with military officials will help convince the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, to hand down a lenient punishment when he sentences the soldier. Nance is expected to make his decision this week. Bergdahl faces up to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy charges, admitting he endangered his fellow troops when he walked off Observation Post Mest in Paktika province, Afghanistan in June 2009.
Witnesses called previously by prosecutors detailed the massive, high risk search efforts launched to find Bergdahl in the weeks after he disappeared, detailing severe injuries suffered by three servicemembers during those operations. One soldier, retired Master Sgt. Mark Allen, was shot in the head, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak.
Bergdahl, who took the stand Tuesday, described gathering intelligence about the Haqqanis among the motivations that kept him going throughout his captivity.
After his release in May 2014 from the Taliban in a controversial exchange for five of the insurgent group’s commanders who had been held in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Bergdahl provided officials with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, or JPRA, information about the torture that he endured as a hostage. He said it included beatings with copper wires, burnings and long periods of isolation in disgusting conditions.
Terrence Russell, a senior program manager for the agency, testified Tuesday that Bergdahl’s captivity was the worst an American servicemember had experienced since the Vietnam War.
Information provided by Bergdahl has been built into updated courses on search, evasion, rescue and escape tactics taught to servicemembers before they deploy, Russell said.
For example, he said Bergdahl provided sketches of the small cage that the Haqqanis held him in for some four years, which they constructed after he escaped for about eight days. The JPRA built a model of the 6 feet wide, 7 feet long and 6.5 feet tall iron cage to use as a training aid.
Russell said he hopes to get additional access to Bergdahl, calling it “wrong” that he has not had regular opportunities to pick the soldier’s brain.
“I need him now. Honestly, I needed him three years ago when he returned,” said Russell, who has debriefed more than 120 former captives, including soldiers captured in high-profile incidents in Iraq and Somalia. “The information he can provide to us to use is critical to help the fighting force.”