Inside the Botched Rescue of Bowe Bergdahl
In late February of 2014, a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation traveled to the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, ready to bring home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held for nearly five years by an ally of the Taliban.
The operation wasn’t announced publicly. But within U.S. national security agencies, word spread that the most well-known American hostage, who had disappeared from his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009, was about to be released. It was a particularly anxious moment because the Taliban had recently broken off talks over a potential prisoner swap for Bergdahl.
But the FBI wasn’t anticipating a prisoner exchange. Instead, according to a member of Congress and another individual who is knowledgeable about the operation, the U.S. government had sent money to Bergdahl’s captors in the hopes of freeing him.
The FBI’s representative waited. But Bergdahl never came. Any hopes for his homecoming were soon eclipsed by concerns that the information that prompted the rescue effort was false or misleading. Had the FBI been duped? Had the U.S. paid a ransom for Bergdahl and been cheated?
Bergdahl was eventually freed at the end of May 2014, in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. But the botched rescue operation three months earlier raised questions about whether the FBI, which is in charge of efforts to repatriate all Americans held hostage overseas, had received shoddy intelligence about where Bergdahl was being held and his condition, and if other efforts to recover Americans might also be the victim of bad intelligence.
“What we know is that non-DOD [Department of Defense] organizations, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), undertook the recovery mission,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, who has investigated the Bergdahl case and is a critic of the Obama administration’s hostage rescue efforts, wrote in a letter Friday to the Justice Department Inspector General.
“In fact, in February 2014, it was the FBI that disclosed to military officials that Bergdahl’s release was imminent; however, after several days, nothing happened,” Hunter said.
A copy of the letter describing the FBI’s lead role, which hasn’t been previously reported, was obtained by The Daily Beast.
What had prompted the FBI to send an emissary to a dangerous border region, all while efforts were under way, albeit in fits and starts, to conduct a prisoner swap?
Hunter wrote to the the Justice Department that a senior official has claimed that the U.S. government “paid [the] Haqqani Network for Bergdahl’s release and received nothing in return.” The Haqqani are a Taliban ally that operates along the border region, and have a history of negotiating for prisoners.
Based on his own sources and information he has seen, Hunter said, the person sent by the FBI to the border “awaited Bergdahl’s arrival following some form of discussion about facilitating a payment.”
President Obama and his top aides have said many times that the U.S. will not pay ransoms for hostages, despite the willingness of the Haqqani and other groups, including al Qaeda, to barter for the lives of their captives.
But that policy is at best a half-truth. In fact, the government has paid money to hostage takers and helped hostages’ families do the same, and that practice is likely to continue, according to kidnapping ransom experts and current and former U.S. officials.
But the administration has never said it paid a ransom for Bergdahl. Instead, officials have argued that the prisoner swap was the only viable option. The administration faced opposition to the swap in Congress, after senior intelligence officials told lawmakers that the five Taliban were likely to return to hostilities against the U.S. if they were freed. And the families of some civilian hostages questioned why the president was willing to exchange prisoners for a solider but not their loved ones.
Hunter has previously raised allegations that the U.S. government paid a ransom for Bergdahl and questioned whether any intermediaries absconded with the money. But the release of a scathing report on the prisoner swap last week by the House Armed Services Committee has fueled a new effort to learn if the U.S. tried to pay for Bergdahl’s return.
Bergdahl himself is also back in the public spotlight, as the subject of Season 2 of the acclaimed podcast Serial, which premiered last week.
Some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers have said the Army risked lives trying to rescue him, and have accused Bergdahl of desertion. And the soldier has become a lightning rod in the 2016 presidential election. The leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has repeatedly called Bergdahl a traitor who abandoned his post and endangered other troops who tried to rescue him.
Allegations of failed rescue missions and secret ransoms would only deepen the controversy surrounding Bergdahl’s release.
The Defense Department’s inspector general looked into the allegations of a ransom payment and determined that none was paid. But the watchdog agency has no jurisdiction over the FBI and apparently only looked at whether Pentagon funds were used. Now, Hunter wants the Justice Department to investigate the FBI’s role and whether money came from there or other sources, and if such payments violated any laws.
Two sources familiar with the FBI-led operation in 2014 said it involved no exchange of prisoners, but that there was no reason to believe Bergdahl’s captors would let him go without getting something in return. Indeed, they had already been negotiating for a prisoner swap.
By late February, word of the plan was spreading throughout the corridors of government. On Feb. 27, the committee found, an email was sent around to personnel in the National Security Council, the Defense Department, and the State Department, about a report that “[i]n approximately 7-10 days, there is the possibility that the USG may be able to recover Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.”
The committee doesn’t identify the author of the email, but two knowledgeable sources said it refers to the FBI operation. There’s no indication from the committee’s report that anyone who received the message realized the operation was going nowhere, and that Bergdahl wasn’t about to be freed.
Some important details of the FBI-led operation remain unclear, including whether the person sent over the border was an FBI agent or a proxy.
A spokesperson for the FBI didn’t comment for this story.
But what is clear is that the Pentagon knew that the FBI was getting involved. How much military officials vetted the intelligence that prompted the bureau to go to the border, however, is an open question. Committee investigators claimed that senior military officials tried to obscure what they knew about the FBI plan, and to portray the five-for-one prisoner swap, which was backed by the administration, as the only real option being pursued.
The Defense Department “was aware of this operation and maintained situational awareness of it, but did not directly participate in it,” the Pentagon’s inspector general told the committee, referring to what sources told The Daily Beast was the FBI operation.
How closely the military and law enforcement worked together to recover Bergdahl is important for understanding whether more could have been done to secure his release without trading the five Taliban prisoners. There are also at least three Americans still being held by the Haqqani network, and understanding what has worked in the past—or hasn’t—could help speed their safe return.
The military was also pursuing a plan to rescue Bergdahl by force, the committee found, another option that apparently involved no prisoner swaps.
An email sent on Feb. 28, 2014, refers to a briefing and “slidedeck” that had been “evidently worked up by JSOC [the military’s Joint Special Operations Command], replete with a code name and an exfiltration plan,” according to the email’s anonymous author.
The email was sent to Michael Dumont, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. After receiving it, he wrote to two senior colleagues with concerns that the plan might be exposed.
“For something that was to be very, very close hold and extremely sensitive, this is starting to get out. We need to somehow shut this down and get the info back under control,” Dumont told Rear Adm. Craig Faller, who was then director of operations at U.S. Central Command, and Army Brig. Gen. Robert White, then the director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell for the Joint Staff.
The rescue plan was apparently never launched, and it’s not clear why. But Dumont’s email shows that the prisoner swap was not the only rescue operation on the Pentagon’s drawing board.
When the Armed Services Committee asked Dumont and other officials about alternate plans, they said they had no knowledge of them, a fact that “deeply concerned” the investigators considering there was an email trail and active discussion within several branches of government about multiple efforts, including the allegedly imminent release of Bergdahl to the FBI.
The committee asked Dumont how close any options besides the prisoner swap came to fruition. “Were you on the verge at some point [of recovering Sgt. Bergdahl]?”
Dumont responded, “During my tenure, I would say, no, we were not on the verge. Proposals that people were coming to talk to me about I thought were half-baked and ill-conceived and risky… I didn’t find anything that was viable.”
After Bergdahl was released, senior administration officials also said the trade was the only option to free him. Testifying before the Armed Services Committee in June 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked if the prisoner swap was the only non-military alternative to get Bergdahl.
“Yes…this was the one option that we had,” Hagel said, adding that there were no other “non-kinetic” alternatives that were “serious,” that is, options for freeing Bergdahl that didn’t involve the use of force.
The congressional investigators accused the Pentagon of misrepresenting those plans and how advanced they really were.
“The fact that the Committee did not learn about any prospective alternative recovery planning efforts until related information was produced in the course of this investigation additionally illustrates the fraught oversight relationship which exists between the Committee and the Department.”
The committee said it would continue investigating Bergdahl’s release.