'Serial' podcast: Disarray among agencies hampered search for Bergdahl
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 21, 2016
The effort to find and rescue Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl after he was taken to Pakistan was understaffed and disorganized, hampered by competing interests, lack of interest and disdain for the soldier “up and down the chain of command,” according to the fifth installment aired Thursday of the podcast “Serial.”
Two Tampa-based Central Command analysts whose job it was to find Bergdahl, as well as other captives taken in Afghanistan, said he was not a priority. One described getting a meeting with a general officer only after providing the general’s executive officer with a bottle of scotch and some beef jerky. “Just to get in front of someone to talk about significant personnel recovery events,” said the woman, who like several others interviewed for the episode was not identified by her real name.
“The refrain was almost always that the guy’s a traitor,” said retired Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a former Army Green Beret and Afghanistan war hero who was brought in to help recover Bergdahl. “That attitude was everywhere up and down the chain of command.”
Bergdahl, who has since been promoted to sergeant, has admitted walking off his post in June 2009, just weeks after deploying to eastern Afghanistan, planning to run to the nearest larger base some 20 miles away to discuss what he perceived as flawed leadership in his unit. He was captured within hours and released in 2014 in a prisoner swap for five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is headed to court-martial in August charged with desertion and endangering troops who initially had to search for him.
But it wasn’t only the recovery effort in Bergdahl’s case that came under criticism in the podcast. Amerine said he was stunned to learn there were several other Western hostages languishing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, while a variety of government entities stood by, more or less uninterested.
“CENTCOM assumed SOCOM had it,” said Amerine, referring to the Central Command and the Special Operations Command. “SOCOM assumed the State Department had it, and months later, after a lot of meetings, I finally figured out the State Department assumed that the military had it. It was this big loop.”
All the while, he said, there was little time or sympathy paid to the hostages or their families. “To me it was bordering on criminal how we were treating our common citizens,” said Amerine, who testified about the matter before Congress, then was investigated by the Army after complaints from the CIA that he had disclosed classified information to Congress. Amerine was cleared.
The analysts interviewed, whose names were kept confidential, if not their voices, also expressed the frustration they felt in their daily jobs. They mentioned a Pennsylvania woman named Caitlan Coleman, still unrecovered, who was pregnant when captured in 2012 along with her Canadian husband.
“She gave birth in captivity. It hurts my heart,” said one of the analysts. Yet, “you ask the average American on the street, no one will know who she is.”
Coleman and her husband, Joshua Boyle, had been touring Afghanistan when captured; Bergdahl walked off his base. Other hostages as well may have made mistakes that made them vulnerable. According to the analysts, “circumstances of capture” are not supposed to matter to recovery efforts.
But politics also played a role. Bergdahl was held in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, where the U.S. military could not operate.
In political terms, Bergdahl’s fate was influenced by larger concerns, among them the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 by an elite team at a hideout in Pakistan.
“You know you really can’t go to the table and start talking about humanitarian releases on the tail end of a unilateral operation into a sovreign nation,” one of the analysts said. “It’s usually not the best time to ask for help.”