Every West Point graduate knows wars are won not with bombs but with information. Control the facts, and you control the battlefield.
Just days after U.S. Army Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl went missing from his base in Afghanistan in 2009, the men in his platoon were ordered to sign papers vowing to never discuss what he did or their efforts to track him down. Many of those men were already exhausted, searching endlessly in the hot dust and misery of the Afghan desert for a guy they knew had chosen to walk away. More than six months later, long after Army officials learned Bergdahl’s captors had smuggled him into Pakistan, commanders still had a sweeping gag order on thousands of troops in the battlefield. Some were told they could not fly home until they signed the nondisclosure agreements.
And even now, six years later, as America’s most notorious prisoner of war faces an August court-martial that could put him in prison for the rest of his life, the Army is still hiding the truth, refusing to let the public see critical documents in the case.
The Pentagon finished its formal investigation, known as an Army Regulation 15-6, more than a year ago. That report, led by a two-star general and a team of 22 investigators, includes interviews with roughly 57 people, including Bergdahl. In 371 pages of sworn testimony, he told General Kenneth Dahl what he did, why he did it and what he endured during his five years as a hostage of the militant Haqqani network. The 15-6 is not classified, and at a September preliminary hearing on the case, Dahl testified that he does not oppose its release. But the Army won’t budge.
A consortium of news and media companies, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Dow Jones (owner of The Wall Street Journal ), NBC News and Reuters, have taken the issue to the military courts, citing their First Amendment right to access unclassified and unsealed evidence from the hearing. In late November, the Army turned them all down, without explanation.
In the absence of facts, ignorance and bloodlust reign. At Donald Trump rallies, crowds roar when the leading Republican presidential candidate calls Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” who should be shot to death. To hoots and hollers, the taunting tycoon pretends to pull the trigger himself. Or he says Bergdahl should be flown back to Afghanistan and pushed out of a helicopter, sans parachute. On social media, a vast chorus of patriots and partisans agree: The longest-held American POW since Vietnam deserves no mercy. And the U.S. Army apparently agrees.
Despite the Army’s relentless campaign to hide the facts about Bergdahl’s disappearance and five years in captivity, the truth has slipped from its grasp. It’s out there. You don’t need to read Army Regulation 15-6 to know what Bergdahl did and why. The mystery is why the military, ignoring the findings of its own investigation, as well as the unspeakable torture Bergdahl endured as a hostage, seems determined to crucify him.
The First Cut Is the Deepest
Motive was always the confounding question at the heart of the case, but Fox News claimed it had the answer when it aired a stunning report in early spring 2015. “There is clear evidence,” said former Army intelligence officer Tony Shaffer, “that [Bergdahl] was going over to the other side.” Both Shaffer and Fox News intelligence reporter Catherine Herridge cited senior government sources with access to a 2009 report by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Bergdahl, Shaffer declared, “was actually trying to offer himself up to the Taliban.”
This was big news, and the cable network juggernaut touted its scoop on its most popular shows. “The NCIS report stated that Sergeant Bergdahl collaborated with some Afghans to desert his unit, possibly to aid the enemy,” Bill O’Reilly told his audience of more than 3 million on April 7, 2015. The story was picked up by the New York Post, as well as dozens of newspapers and blogs, and took root in social media, tarring Bergdahl as a traitor.
But there is a serious problem with that report: It doesn’t exist. Shortly after the Fox story aired, the NCIS told Newsweek that no one at Fox had called to confirm what the report said or even to verify that it existed. “There are no records of NCIS conducting an investigation of the type being reported,” said Ed Buice, NCIS public affairs officer. “There is no NCIS report.”
No matter—in the court of public opinion, Bergdahl never had a chance. In the absence of any plausible explanation for his disappearance, rumors swirled right from the start. Men from Blackfoot Company grumbled that Bergdahl liked to spend a bit too much time with the Afghans. He didn’t drink. He didn’t hang out. The soldiers didn’t question their duty to rescue him, but they weren’t happy about risking their lives to save this misfit.
Desperate to track him down, the Army solicited tips from Afghan sources. Soldiers traveled to impoverished villages, offering anywhere from $100 to $1,000 for tips. When the reward for quality information climbed to $25,000, Army intelligence was soon swamped with reports, most of it false leads and Taliban propaganda. The stories ranged from mundane (he was captured while drunk) to treasonous (he was teaching the enemy bomb tactics) to silly (he had taken several Afghan wives and was living in a lavish hilltop villa). “We were chasing rumors,” a former senior Defense Department official tells Newsweek. “There was a great deal of wild speculation but no reliable reports that indicated that he was a traitor.”
But shady intelligence was better than none; rescue teams were told Bergdahl might not leave his captors peacefully and were instructed to use auto-injectors of Valium to quell him. One Navy special operations forces team dubbed their rescue mission Objective Cat Stevens, a snide reference to the British pop star who converted to Islam, changed his name to Yusuf Islam and sold all his guitars.
Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head
When soldiers desert their posts in war, they typically run from the fight, toward safety. Bergdahl did the opposite, walking directly into his own kidnapping. Over the course of his 1,797 days in blindfolds and chains, he was starved, beaten and under the constant threat of execution. For more than three years, he lived in a 6-by-6-foot steel cage with no running water, no toilet paper and severe chronic diarrhea.
Several months prior to his release, as secret peace talk negotiations with American officials finally progressed, his captors tried to improve his appearance. They fattened him up—fed him extra protein and exercised him on a collapsible treadmill. And then, on the morning of May 31, 2014, they dressed him in a white shalwar kameez, drove him to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in a Nissan pickup and handed him over to a group of clandestine American agents.
About 8,000 miles to the west, five Taliban detainees walked out of the Guantánamo Bay military prison and were flown to Qatar on an American cargo plane. The Taliban taped all of this, from Bergdahl staggering to the Black Hawk to the Taliban’s sun-drenched group hugging in Qatar, making the entire episode the most documented prisoner swap in American history.
Bergdahl was quickly taken from Afghanistan to Germany and the Air Force’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where he received medical care and was questioned. He asked if he could have some peanut butter. He was then transferred to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where hostage experts, survival psychologists, FBI agents and intelligence officers interrogated him further. He had been promoted twice in captivity, to sergeant, but he rejected the rank and asked others to address him as private first class.
About a week after Bergdahl was released, the Army put out a request for candidates to lead the investigation into his case. To his dismay, Dahl realized he was on the short list. “There were probably about three of us, so I began to advocate for the other two, but I failed,” he said with a wry smile on the witness stand during the September preliminary hearing. He flew to Washington, D.C., for his orders, but when his superiors invited him to do the two-month job from an office inside the Pentagon, he declined. “I thought it would be better to go back,” said Dahl, who was based in Tacoma, Washington, and “separate ourselves from the noise.”
He flew west, about as far as he could get from politics and the media, and recruited a team—an infantry platoon leader, nine officers, 10 enlisted men, an intelligence analyst, a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a few financial experts. Over the next 59 days, his team interviewed 57 people, including members of 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company and Bergdahl’s family.
Dahl was called to the preliminary trial at Fort Sam Houston as a defense witness, but he did not defend Bergdahl’s actions. He did, however, discuss the findings of his 15-6 report, which helps explain the seemingly inexplicable—how a maladjusted young soldier made a colossally bad decision born not of treason or malevolence but of tragic and remarkably naïve idealism. He described a 23-year-old with the delusional and sometimes grandiose perspective of a sheltered adolescent. “A lot of people are home-schooled and don’t have social interaction challenges,” Dahl said, but Bergdahl’s unique upbringing, 8 miles along a dirt-road canyon, “on the edge of the grid, denied him, frankly, some normal social development opportunities.”
He testified that Bergdahl joined the Coast Guard in 2006, “looking for some adventure.” He was “interested in saving lives.” He lasted three weeks. “He became overwhelmed and then found himself in the hospital,” Dahl said. “He wasn’t ready for it.” The Coast Guard categorized it an “entry-level separation” and diagnosed him with “adjustment disorder with depression.”
In 2008, with the war in Iraq pressuring military recruiters, 20 percent of U.S. enlistees that year entered the service under lowered standards. The Army issued Bergdahl a waiver, as it did for thousands of men with felony records. He joined the Airborne Infantry and sailed through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. But as the months progressed, so did his confusion.
He joined a platoon that had finished a tour in Iraq. At Fort Richardson, Alaska, a command sergeant major visited the men to explain how the war in Afghanistan would be different, a slower “assist-and-enable” and “hearts-and-minds” mission than what they had seen in Iraq. To make his point clear, the sergeant major spoke in a style he thought the younger men would understand. Dahl paraphrased that pep talk: “Look, heroes, I know you all joined the Army to rape, kill, pillage, plunder and do all that kind of stuff. So did I. And Iraq was that way, but that is not what we are doing here. We are going over to assist the Afghans.”
Bergdahl was dumbstruck, said Dahl. He took the remarks quite literally, thinking to himself, My sergeant major joined the Army to be a rapist, to be a murderer!
What Bergdahl lacked in social aptitude, he replaced with immersive reading. After graduating from his parents’ rigorous home-school lessons in Christian ethics, he lost himself in ancient Asian philosophy and the warrior codes of feudal Japan. “I did not know much about the Bushido warrior code until I heard that Sergeant Bergdahl was interested in it,” Dahl said with an amused smile. That code prescribes a life of study, honor and austerity. For the introverted idealist, it was no passing fad. “He attended quite a bit to those things,” said Dahl.
When Bergdahl was shipped out to Afghanistan, he carried small notebooks with him and, in his downtime, filled them with meticulous, handwritten stories. According to Josh Cornelison, the field medic in Bergdahl’s platoon who found one of the books after he left, he wrote about “a hero against the world, and Bowe Bergdahl was that hero.”
Dahl testified that Bergdahl “was very motivated to deploy” and wanted to do big things in Afghanistan, missions that a Navy SEAL team might be assigned, but that he had no realistic hope of doing. He was frustrated that he wasn’t kicking in doors and doing hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. “There were folks doing those kinds of things, but it wasn’t a PFC in a light infantry platoon,” said Dahl.
This portrait of Bergdahl—awkward, childlike, guileless in his Tom Sawyer schemes—is less dramatic than the plotting traitor cable news portrays, but it’s close to the descriptions provided by those in the Army who knew him best. “My gut tells me he grossly underestimated what he was doing,” another 2nd Platoon soldier tells Newsweek. “I don’t think he was a traitor. I don’t think he intentionally sought out the Taliban. I think he left and [then] said, ‘Oh shit, I made a monumental, horrible decision.’”
Morning Has Broken
The Article 32 preliminary hearing in San Antonio in September was Bergdahl’s first public opportunity to explain why he made that horrible decision. He said his plan was to hike about 18 miles to a nearby base, thereby triggering a missing soldier alert. After what he imagined would be his triumphant reappearance, he hoped to earn a private meeting with a general who would listen to his concerns about dire leadership and safety issues in his unit.
That story suggests he was delusional, but it is not a guilty plea to the charges he faces under the Uniform Code of Military Justice—one count Article 85, “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty,” and one count Article 99, “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command unit or place.” But it’s close.
“The accused acted with deliberate disregard for the consequences of his actions,” Army prosecutor Major Margaret Kurz said in her opening statement. “The facts themselves are straightforward, and they are undisputed.”
The defense offered three main arguments in response:
Argument one: Bergdahl is guilty of going AWOL, during which time (about eight to 10 hours) he was kidnapped. His decision to leave his base was not realistic, necessary or wise, but he did not intend to leave permanently and is therefore not guilty of desertion.
Argument two: The Army shares the blame for this tragedy. In 2006, Bergdahl washed out of Coast Guard basic training with a mental breakdown. In 2008, the Army issued him a waiver and deployed him to one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. This, despite the fact that an Army psychiatry board determined that at the time of his deployment he suffered from “a severe mental disease or defect.” In Afghanistan, his superiors ignored a concerned report about Bergdahl’s mental state from a sergeant in his platoon.
Argument three: The many years he spent in brutal captivity should be a mitigating factor. The grim details of that ordeal, as well as his good conduct in the face of such adversity, make a prison sentence both redundant and inhumane.
On the Road to Find Out
Bergdahl entered that San Antonio hearing room in full Army dress—ribbons on his chest and patches on his sleeves. On his right shoulder, he wore the braided blue cord of the infantry, and his upper arms showed the sergeant stripes the Army issued during his captivity. He sat upright, as if at attention, and for two days his face was gripped by what looked like constant pain.
One of his most grievous sins, in the eyes of many, was putting the lives of fellow soldiers at risk. To prove the endangerment charge, Army prosecutors called three infantry officers to describe the fallout after he left. Captain John Billings (then a second lieutenant), who was the ranking officer at Observation Post Mest in Afghanistan that morning, initially thought it was all a prank. “As a young lieutenant platoon leader, you expect the guys to…mess with you,” he said on the witness stand. He told his men to scour the base. “Go search the latrines. Check all the vehicles.” When they came back empty, Billings said, “I was in shock—absolute, utter disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my own men.”
The routines of the war they had been waging—keeping the outpost in order, engaging the local population, preparing for the Afghan national elections on August 20—were instantly shattered. Relative calm was replaced by what Billings called “franticness,” a virus of chaos that spread from 2nd Platoon to Blackfoot Company at large, Geronimo Battalion, 4th Brigade and eventually to all of the conventional forces and special operations forces in the region.
According to another former Pentagon official who was not authorized to discuss the case, the crisis altered strategies at the highest levels of the International Security Assistance Force in NATO-administered Afghanistan. Michael Waltz was a Special Forces major who took leadership over a team of Green Berets that day. “We unequivocally—all of my sources, all embedded forces, all trainers—stop what we are doing, pivot and devote every asset we had to this search,” he says.
After Billings reported his soldier DUSTWUN (duty status whereabouts unknown) to his chain of command, he organized a hasty nine-man foot patrol. His rush that morning, along with the increased danger it brought, is the heart of the Army’s case for misbehavior.
“Did taking out that unplanned nine-man foot patrol decrease your ability to defend Observation Post Mest?” Kurz asked.
“It absolutely did,” Billings replied.
But some veterans and their families want Bergdahl held accountable for more than just rushed foot patrols. Three chairs in that San Antonio courtroom were reserved for the wife and parents of Second Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, who they say was killed on a search mission in September 2009.
The Pentagon has made exactly one statement on the issue, when former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in June 2014, “I don’t know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl.”
The Pentagon’s inconvenient problem here is that the Army has never explained why Andrews, or any infantry platoon, was searching for Bergdahl nearly two months after officials believed his captors had moved him to Pakistan. As Newsweek reported in April, elite Army units were waved off the search within a week of his disappearance, and military sources told ABC News on July 20 that Bergdahl was in Pakistan. Pentagon public affairs insisted he wasn’t, and in an interview that day in New Delhi, India, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dodged the question.
It all leads to the troubling question: Why search for Bergdahl in Afghanistan when solid intelligence placed him in another country? Several military sources—enlisted men and officers—tell Newsweek the Army used the Bergdahl crisis to gain a strategic advantage in the war. “It was common knowledge that commanders in the field used searching for Bergdahl as a justification for more aggressive tactics to achieve stability in the area,” the former senior Defense Department official says. “Everyone knew it was going on.”
A former officer who served in the region at the time says the searches were a versatile tactic. “It was a good excuse,” because missions that included “personnel recovery” were granted greater assets and quicker approval for raids on Afghan villages and homes, he says. Some officers “were using that code to request assets months after the fact…. ‘Bergdahl’ became a language tactic to get assets.”
But regardless of these subterfuges, the former officer’s sympathy lies not with Bergdahl but with the men sent to find him. “All of the Navy SEALs, the leaders of Blackfoot Company, they all knew that Bergdahl was a shithead, but they still attacked every mission with absolute dedication. They risked their lives multiple times to go after and rescue someone they hated more than the enemy.”
The defense in San Antonio called Terrence Russell to talk about what had been the case’s least discussed chapter—Bergdahl’s 1,797 days as a POW. Russell is an Air Force veteran and, as the head of the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, was the Defense Department’s lead debriefer.
He has managed 125 such cases, including those of Jessica Lynch (captured in Iraq in 2003), Mike Durant (captured in Mogadishu in 1993) and Bobby Hall (captured in North Korea in 1994). In his career, Russell said, he has met just one or two former hostages he did not believe were being honest with him. Bergdahl was not one of them. “The intelligence debriefers, the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] psychologists, the FBI agents, the other debriefers, everybody remarked on the quality of information that Sergeant Bergdahl was providing,” Russell said in San Antonio. He added that Bergdahl rigorously catalogued his memories of captivity because “he knew that he would be an important source of information for the intelligence community and for special operations forces.”
No one will say whether the military applied that information, but there are some clues. In the five months prior to Bergdahl’s release, the CIA drones over Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan suspended their strikes. Ten days after he was recovered, the agency opened a sustained campaign in the tribal territories, where Bergdahl had been held. On June 12, drone-launched missiles in North Waziristan killed Haji Gul, a Haqqani commander, and at least six associated Haqqani militants. In the two months that followed, at least six more strikes took out compounds, vehicles and dozens of suspected militants.
But for those who call him a traitor, there is a more pressing question: What did he tell his captors? Before Russell met America’s most notorious POW, he’d heard the rumors trumpeted on television news that Bergdahl had colluded with the enemy. On the stand, Russell had a simple, blunt rebuttal: “I would be shocked if Sergeant Bergdahl had any classified information that he would have been privy to anyways.” As the former officer tells Newsweek, “He didn’t give up any information. He didn’t have any information to give.”
In San Antonio, Russell also talked at length about the degradation Bergdahl suffered at the hands of militants who “held the U.S. soldier in absolute contempt.” He reported that Bergdahl was beaten with rubber hoses and copper cables. After Bergdahl’s first escape attempt, guards tied his hands and feet to a bed frame, spread-eagled, and aside from one or two daily bathroom breaks, he was “left in that position for three months,” Russell said, “purposefully to atrophy his muscles. They were not going to risk him escaping again.”
Each time his captors moved him to a new location, Bergdahl tried to escape. “He is climbing up to the window. He is trying to get out of the ceiling. He is trying to dig through the wall, trying to dig under the wall,” Russell reported. “He’s manipulating the locks on his restraints so that he can get out. And he gets out, and he tries to climb the wall.”
In late 2011, at his sixth location, Bergdahl finally got free. “He successfully breaks his restraints. He gets out of his cell. He climbs down using a makeshift rope,” Russell said. “He hits the ground, and he starts running.”
He was gone eight and a half days, avoiding people, sticking to the woods. “To survive, he drinks what water he can find. To eat, he eats grass.” When they find him, he is sick, weak and nearly naked.
When they recaptured him this time, they built the 6-by-6-foot cage, with rebar welded to the side and no holes larger than what he could fit his hand through. When they moved him to a new cell, the cage was broken down and moved with him. “That was his home for the next three years, three and a half years.”
What Bergdahl endured, Russell said, was on par with the “most horrible conditions of captivity that we’ve seen in the last 60 years.” He also cited the code of conduct for POWs, which says, “If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape.” He did that, says Russell, who praised Bergdahl as “an Army of one” who took command of his hopeless battle without the psychological benefits of fellow prisoners. “He had to fight the enemy alone for four years and 11 months…. You can’t [overestimate] how difficult that is.”
Oh Very Young
Today, as Bergdahl and attorneys for both sides prepare for the general court-martial that threatens him with a life sentence, an information war is still being waged, with many pundits eager to convict him of even more heinous crimes, almost all of them imagined. In the weeks following the September hearing, Fox News viewers were told the following: that “seven of [Bergdahl’s] platoon mates died searching for him” ( O’Reilly Factor, September 14); that “this guy defected, he went over to the enemy, he gave them aid and comfort” ( Fox & Friends, October 11); that the day before he left, “Bergdahl tells his platoon mates he wants to join the Taliban and voluntarily leaves his unit during combat…. Afghanis tell reporters that Bergdahl came through their villages looking for the Taliban. Bergdahl actually calls his unit and says he’s not coming back. How do we know this? We intercepted his phone calls” ( Justice With Jeanine, October 11).
Not one of those claims can be verified. No one in 2nd Platoon was killed after Bergdahl was captured. Bergdahl did not defect. He did not tell anyone in his platoon he wanted to join the Taliban. His platoon was not engaged in combat when he left. His calls were not intercepted, because he did not make any calls.
But outrage trumps truth. After those broadcasts, multiple death threats were phoned into Bergdahl’s hometown—irate callers targeted individuals and small businesses that, in the days immediately following his 2014 release, publicly expressed their support for him or his family.
“I think the level of wildly inaccurate speculation is outrageous,” Russell said on the witness stand in San Antonio. “Bowe Bergdahl has been accused of many, many things, but what you cannot accuse him of is his lack of resistance, his willingness to serve his country with honor in captivity, to do what he had to do to maintain his dignity and return.”
A platoon mate of Bergdahl’s who knew him best is of two minds. “He was my friend, but at the same time I resent him,” he tells Newsweek. “He screwed the guys. You don’t do that to the guys. That’s who you depend on. That’s it. That’s all we have.” He wants to see him dishonorably discharged, but, like Dahl, does not believe Bergdahl should go to jail for a lengthy sentence. “I think he was just a dude that made a really, really messed-up decision. He paid for it. He paid for it dearly.” But in the end, he adds, “you gotta forgive people. I’m a Christian. God forgave all of us. It’d be pretty arrogant of me not to forgive.”
Russell, who has spent decades working with former hostages and detainees, was an imposing presence on the stand in San Antonio, a burly guy with a full beard, a booming voice and a military bearing. But when he was asked to discuss Bergdahl’s will to survive under duress, the facts overwhelmed him.
“I’ve asked this question of many POWs, ‘Did you do your best?’” Russell said. “And all you can do is look at yourself in the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I did the best job I could do.’” He stopped then, choked with emotion, as the hearing room went silent. “I think Sergeant Bergdahl did that,” Russell said, fighting back tears. “He did the best job that he could do, and I respect him for it.”