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Transcript

Episode 10: Thorny Politics

Note: Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Sarah Koenig

One of Bowe's lawyers sent a letter to Donald Trump about a week and a half ago, regarding a possible deposition of Trump, or a possible appearance as a witness during Bowe's court martial. "Dear Mr. Trump, I request to interview you as soon as possible," et cetera.

Trump's been doing this bit about Bowe on the campaign trail. I've watched video of it. It's about how crappy the trade was, how Bowe's a traitor, how these Taliban terrorists are back in the fight, about how in the old days, we shot people like Bowe on the battlefield. And then he sometimes does this stupid rat-a-tat thing with his fingers.

None of what Trump says about Bowe is true—not in the way Trump implies. But the audience always gives a big, meaty roar when he does it.

Donald Trump

In the old days, deserters were shot, right? [CHEERING]

Sarah Koenig

Ever since I've been reporting this story, when I've asked people, people on all sides of this thing, what bothers them the most about Bowe's case, they'll say, "I wish it hadn't gotten so political." "Sucks that it got so political." And usually I just nod, like, Yeah, politics. This trade for Bowe is just one more thing for Democrats and Republicans to yell at each other about.

But then, when I really looked at it, I was like, wait a minute: was it inevitable that it got this combative? Because maybe it could have gone another way. From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial, one story told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

The day of the trade, President Obama makes this big announcement. He's flanked by Bob and Jani Bergdahl. He hugs them, kisses them. And even though the president never called Bowe a hero, the heft of announcing it at the White House, in the Rose Garden, the pomp of it in front of all those cameras, it felt like the president was communicating something heroic, a triumph. Which, if you're someone who served in the military—maybe someone who went looking for Bowe, say—that message was bad enough.

But then, the very next day, National Security Adviser Susan Rice went on TV. She was on one of the Sunday news shows. And the host, George Stephanopoulos, asked her about Bowe.

George Stephanopoulos

Finally on this point—uh, Sergeant Bergdahl—there are a lot of questions about how he originally was captured and whether or not he had deserted, had left his post. Is that going to be investigated? And if it's found that he did indeed leave his post, will he be disciplined, or has he already paid the price?

Susan Rice

Certainly anybody who's been held in those conditions in captivity for five years has paid an extraordinary price, but that is really not the point. The point is that he's back. He's going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction, and we'll have—

Sarah Koenig

And that (yow)—honor and distinction—to a lot of military people, it was like the administration had reached out of their televisions and given them the finger right in their living rooms.

Mark McCrorie

And then it became this, like, oh, "he's a hero who served with honor and distinction" and blah-blah-blah.

Josh Korder

It really made me angry.

Shane Cross

They talked about how he "served with honor and distinction." That hit pretty hard.

Austin Lanford

I was irate.

Ben Evans

It was just like, whoa—wait a minute!

Sarah Koenig

Some government officials were saying that the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl's capture weren't clear. And the soldiers were like, oh, the circumstances are clear: he walked away.

Mark McCrorie

Wow, that feels so shitty to be told, well, we don't really know the truth.

Sarah Koenig

That's Mark McCrorie, who was in Bowe's battalion.

Mark McCrorie

It took us, you know, screaming into the internet to be heard.

Sarah Koenig

Some of the guys from Bowe's former unit got in touch with each other immediately. Someone started a "He's Not a Hero" Facebook group. People started tweeting.

One of them was Cody Full, who'd been in Bowe's platoon. Cody had actually roomed with Bowe back in training in Alaska. He didn't want to talk to me on the record for this story, but his tweets got the attention of a media guy named Brad Chase and of a guy named Ric Grenell, a public relations strategist who's worked for some big-name Republicans. (Chase and Grenell worked together.) And they said to Cody, do you want to go on TV, get a wider audience for what you want to say?

Megyn Kelly

Joining me first tonight, former army specialists Cody Full and Gerald Sutton, who are both—

Sarah Koenig

First stop was Fox News.

Megyn Kelly

Cody, let me start with you. Do you believe that Bowe Bergdahl deserted?

Cody Full

Yes, I do believe he deserted, without a doubt in my mind.

Sarah Koenig

The other guy on TV with Cody that day was Gerald Sutton. He was also in Bowe's platoon. He was friends with Bowe. He told me Cody had contacted him and said, we gotta do something—will you help me?

Years before, Gerald said, he had tried to tell people what had gone down, that Bowe had walked away. He wrote something on the internet; a few others had too. But he said nobody seemed to pay much attention back then, and he worried the same thing would happen now.

Gerald Sutton

I didn't think anyone would actually take us seriously. And I guess...I guess like the reason why we had so many people behind us is that if one of us just came out and said it, then people would just be like, oh, you're just a disgruntled person. So maybe if the entire platoon came out and said what we had to say on our end, that maybe it would be taken seriously for once.

Megyn Kelly

Well, we are joined now by six members of Bowe Bergdahl's platoon. Guys, thank you all so much for being here.

Sarah Koenig

So the group got bigger. A few days later, Fox again, this time a panel of platoonmates. Soldiers made other TV appearances: CNN, ABC, MSNBC.

Chris Matthews

We're hearing a lot about him from his fellow platoon members who served with him. And from those who—

Tamron Hall

Would you like to see a dishonorable discharge for him?

Josh Cornelison

Yes. Yes, he needs to be held 100 percent accountable for what he did.

Judy Woodruff

Soldiers who served with him in Afghanistan have challenged his account.

Evan Buetow

The fact of the matter is, is he deserted us in the middle of Afghanistan to go and find the Taliban.

Gerald Sutton

They were a lot more like eloquent with what they had to say.

Sarah Koenig

That's Gerald Sutton again.

Gerald Sutton

And more precise, and they seemed more entertaining too, more than me. I'm very bland.

Sarah Koenig

Gerald didn't want to go on any more shows. He knew his limits, and he wanted to stick to the facts. No opinion, no speculation.

Gerald Sutton

And I don't want to...even though it's like 30-second snippets or whatever here and there, like, I don't want someone just to be like, "Oh, what the fuck?" Like, "This guy needs to shut up." So I said what I had to say, and then that was it.

Sarah Koenig

The problem was that maybe Gerald was, like Bowe, a fact-based dude, but he was just no match for the juggernaut that was now up and rolling. Fox News especially was all over it. In fact, just before they had that panel of six guys from Second Platoon on, they'd aired an exclusive report.

Megyn Kelly

Breaking tonight: we are learning exclusive and dramatic new details about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's time in captivity, including reports that he became a Muslim and at one point declared himself a warrior for Islam.

Sarah Koenig

The story was based on, frankly, bullshit intel from a discredited source, but now it was out there, and it was repeated and repeated. Next, the politics of it all—that became the story: The Obama administration was using Bowe's trade for political purposes. No, the right was using this for political purposes, using these former platoonmates for political purposes. After all, Ric Grenell, the media guy helping them, he was a big Republican strategist.

And again, for guys like Gerald, none of that was the point. They weren't trying to attack the president. They weren't even trying to attack Bowe. Even Cody Full, who's spoken early and often on the topic of Bowe—he testified at a congressional hearing, saying he wanted to make sure Bowe was held accountable for what he did—but even he resisted Obama-baiting by a Republican congressman.

Randy Weber

If you could say anything to President Obama regarding this trade, what would you say?

Cody Full

[CHUCKLES] I'm not gonna answer that.

[LAUGHTER]

Randy Weber

Fair enough. Mr. Waltz, you're forewarned, same questions. What would you say—

Sarah Koenig

At that same hearing, Mike Waltz also testified. He told the committee he was there before them in part because of the Rose Garden. Mike's a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, a former Green Beret. He'd been commander of Army Special Forces that he said went on lots of missions looking for Bowe. Before that, he worked in the Bush White House as a special adviser to Dick Cheney on South Asia and counterterrorism.

When I read Mike's testimony and Cody's, I was like, all this is because of a five-minute ceremony in the Rose Garden, just because of how it looked? I asked Mike about that, and he kinda schooled me.

Sarah Koenig

Are you saying, like...like, none of us would even be talking about this if, basically, you know, the president hadn't done that Rose Garden thing and...and—

Mike Waltz

And then tried to politicize it? I'll answer. [CHUCKLES] I'll...I'll be more forceful.

Sarah Koenig

Well, yeah, I mean...I mean...I mean is this all about the optics, in other words? Or is this like...you know what I mean? Are you just saying, like, "I wouldn't even be...I wouldn't have gotten my, like, feathers ruffled about this if there hadn't been the picture"?

Mike Waltz

I don't think...I can...I don't want to speak for anyone else. I don't believe that I would have been as vocal. Um, that was...that was just an incredibly tone-deaf move on the part of the White House. I think it shows how disconnected they are from both the Pentagon and I think, um...and just truly lack an understanding of the military culture.

And when you have the national security adviser, you know, in a civil military system, where the...who the military has to listen to, essentially knife-handing on national television, sending the signal that this man was honorable, um, you know, I was afraid that it would all be, you know, forgotten, and that this was going to be politically swept under the carpet.

Sarah Koenig

To Mike and to a lot of people watching and listening to the president that day, it wasn't just what he said: We're glad Bowe is back. We're committed to ending this war. We support reconciliation. We're committed to closing Gitmo. It's not just that he said all of that. It's what the president didn't say. That's what was glaring.

Mike Waltz

No recognition or even mention of "We understand there were some irregularities or some question about his disappearance, and I want to assure all veterans, all former POWs, and everyone involved with the search that we will objectively and fairly get to the bottom of what happened," dadadadadada. You know, I felt that justice was not going to even be attempted to be served.

Sarah Koenig

I've asked many people, lo these many months, in other parts of government, what was the White House thinking? Why did they do it? And everyone I've asked, they're like, "Yeah, I don't know what happened over there that day, but I'm sure they regret it now."

Well, they do regret it—because this Rose Garden event that kicked up so much anger and resentment, evidently it was put together kind of spur of the moment, one of those things where you're like, "I know—let's have a party. It'll be great!" Except, big, fat mistake. None of it—the president's speech, the podium, the Rose Garden—none of it was the original plan for how to announce this trade. The original plan was a much quieter affair.

No one would talk to me on tape about this, but off tape, I talked to several people who worked in the White House at the time. They all told very similar stories about what happened that day. So, this is their version. Here goes:

Bowe's rescue operation was touch and go for several days. Remember the C-17 sitting and sitting at Guantanamo? It was high wire, the whole thing. And it all went smoothly in the end—but leading up to it, you don't know if the special-operations guys, if their helicopter's gonna crash, or if they're going to get into a firefight. You don't know if Bowe's gonna get hurt or killed during the rescue. And it had to be stone secret the whole time. The Qataris had made it clear: if even a word of this gets out beforehand, the deal is off.

And people in the White House thought this might be the last real chance to get Bowe back, and it was stressful. For much of the week before the trade, inside the White House and the National Security offices, they'd been working around the clock.

Sarah Koenig

If I see this scene in a movie, what does it look like?

Jeff Eggers

Mostly I was sleeping under my desk for four days up until the recovery.

Sarah Koenig

Are you kidding?

That's Jeff Eggers. He was a special assistant to the president for national security affairs. He's also a retired Navy SEAL. He'd deployed to Iraq. He'd worked in Afghanistan. He'd been helping coordinate Bowe's recovery with the DOD and the State Department.

Jeff Eggers

'Cause it started to gain momentum that week, and it was—

Sarah Koenig

You're...are you..are you being euphemistic, you were sleeping under your desk, or you were actually sleeping under your desk?

Jeff Eggers

No, I was actually sleeping under my desk. Well, actually it was next to my desk.

Sarah Koenig

For four days?

Jeff Eggers

I think. That was also the week that the president made some significant announcements about troop decisions in Afghanistan. So it was actually a big week.

Sarah Koenig

Was the timing of that just coincidental, those two things?

Jeff Eggers

Purely coincidental.

Sarah Koenig

President Obama had already done a more solemn Rose Garden event that week—May 27th, 2014, he announced a big drawdown of troops by the end of the year and a plan to get out of Afghanistan fully by the end of 2016. Quote, "Americans have learned it is harder to end wars than it is to begin them," he said.

And now, a few days later, May 31st, they'd just gotten word the operation to rescue Bowe had worked. He was alive! He was safe.

The national security folks and the White House press folks knew it was going to be...lumpy, this news, that trading five Taliban was going to be controversial, that the circumstances of Bowe's capture were going to be a topic. They knew.

The people I talked to in the White House weren't strangers to military culture. Some of the people who worked on this exchange had been in the military, such as Jeff Eggers, or had worked closely with the military, had worked in war zones. They thought it was important that the president own the decision to make this trade, and that he explain the policy behind it.

So the original plan for how to announce it: release a written statement from the president. The Pentagon would also release a written statement at the same time. Done. But then, well, Bob and Jani Bergdahl happened to be in town. They'd come to DC for some meetings that had been scheduled long before with the administration. No one told them this was about to take place. Their visit to DC was not planned to coincide with Bowe's return. They were in a park, playing with some friends' little children, when they got the call. And it seemed to make sense. They're in town already. Instead of just a phone call, the president will see them in person.

And now, here's where I'd argue there was a blind spot about how all this would look, and that no one in the White House seemed to catch it. Some of the people on staff had been working on this for years—first the talks with the Taliban, then the operation to get Bowe. They'd met with Bowe's parents before, some of them.

And so what people told me is that, for them, it's not that they were oblivious. It's just that, that day, that moment, they felt so happy. They'd been on tenterhooks for days, weeks even. And now this horrible saga had come to an end. No one had gotten hurt, and you've got Bowe's parents right there—you can see their faces; they're crying. It's affecting.

Meanwhile, there are some very good reporters in Washington—and at Guantanamo, as I've mentioned. And a few of them had known this was gonna go down, but had held off reporting it. And so now the White House press people thought, Well, we need to placate them, to please them. Because if we have the Bergdahls here with the president, and we don't let some photographers catch that scene—give them what's called camera spray—they're gonna be pissed. So maybe let's arrange at least for that—maybe a shot of the president walking and talking with the Bergdahls, for instance. And then, well, it was such a sunny day. It was such good news, for once. Why not just do the whole thing in the Rose Garden?

So in the space of a few hours, it went from a simple statement to a Rose Garden ceremony. And the idea of Bowe's parents talking at all from the podium, much less Bob speaking some words in Pashto and Arabic, that was utterly impromptu.

As for the Susan Rice thing, Ambassador Rice politely declined to talk to me for this story, but the White House people I talked to told me they cringed when she said it. They said talking to the press is not her forte. She got a little defensive, and this cliché tumbled out: honor and distinction.

A few days later, Rice explained herself, saying she just meant that volunteering to serve his country in a time of war was an honorable thing to do. But by then, "honor and distinction" was already caught in amber. There wasn't gonna be any shaking it loose.

You're pretty isolated when you work in the West Wing. That's what one person who used to work there told me. You're pretty cut off from the normal workaday world, and it's easy to forget how iconic it all is: the columns, the podium with the presidential seal. They told me there wasn't a concerted effort to make Bowe Bergdahl into a hero, to whitewash what happened in Afghanistan. They say they know it looks that way, but there really wasn't a grand political calculus. They say they were just tired and abuzz with relief, and they thought, Everyone will feel this joy, right? They got carried away.

In hindsight, one former staffer told me, we should have thought about it more, that there were other audiences who were watching, people who'd suffered. Quote, "The Rose Garden put a target on our back." The thing is—and this is me talking—I think it also put a target on Bowe's back.

Just walk with me now, along this path from the White House, up the street a ways to Capitol Hill. I swear we won't stay there too long, but this is the next place where the politics of this trade hardened and intensified. And I get it—it's Congress, they're in a constant state of readiness to hate anything President Obama comes up with—but this time, well, first off, no one from the White House, or DOD, or the State Department, no one told Congress this trade was about to go down. So members heard about it on the news, basically, like everyone else. By law, the administration was supposed to notify Congress 30 days before any detainee was transferred out of Guantanamo. This time, they didn't. And that was on purpose. The White House didn't want members to get mad and to try to stop the deal from taking place—by leaking it to the press, for instance.

Why did they think Congress would get mad? Well, because the administration already knew that Congress thought it stunk, this deal. Back in 2012, when the trade was still linked to peace talks with the Taliban and it really seemed like it might go forward, the White House had arranged some classified briefings in special rooms on Capitol Hill where this stuff happens, apparently. And members had made themselves pretty clear at the time. Their reactions to a proposed trade of five Taliban guys ranged from skeptical to horrified.

For instance, then senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican from Georgia, at a briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on January of 2012—almost two and a half years before it actually took place—talking about trading these Taliban guys for Bowe:

Saxby Chambliss

I want to state publicly as strongly as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantanamo.

Sarah Koenig

So the administration worried, understandably, that if they brought it up again, it'd get crushed, and they might not be able to get Bowe back at all. The decision was made: don't say anything.

So by 2014, a lot of people in Congress assumed the deal was dead, which was a reasonable thing to think, because that's more or less what they've been told over the years. You can see in State Department memos in January and February of 2014, even as the administration was working to revive the deal, officials called around to certain offices on Capitol Hill to update certain members of Congress about the Bergdahl situation. And the calls ended with, quote, "We told them we would keep them updated and continue to consult before taking any action," unquote. But they didn't consult Congress, because here Congress was hearing it on the news.

Mac Thornberry

All of that was a...was a surprise.

Sarah Koenig

Just how blatantly—

Mac Thornberry

Yeah, how blatant and intentional misleading Congress was as part of this.

Sarah Koenig

That's Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican. At the time of the trade, he was a member of the House Armed Services Committee, known as HASC. Now he's the chairman. HASC oversees the Department of Defense, and HASC staffers on the Republican side told me that that relationship with DOD has traditionally been pretty solid. It's cooperative, straightforward.

Now they realized DOD had been the lead on hammering out this final Bergdahl deal and had told them nothing. For instance, just three and a half months before the trade happened, the Washington Post published a story quoting unnamed sources. It talked about the five Taliban going to Doha. It was pretty detailed. And so some HASC staff, they say they asked the DOD about it: "Hey, is there anything to this?" And they say they were told, "Nope."

It's possible—probable, actually—that the person they called wasn't lying. They just weren't in the know. Meanwhile, emails are zinging among all these other government officials who are in the know. Quote, "Who's leaking this very accurate info? These leaks are killing us. We need to talk about getting control back."

Tony Blinken at the White House sent one around about his dismay and disgust over the leaks, since it could derail the deal. Quote, "Simply put, whoever is responsible should look him—or herself in the mirror and ask, by what right did I jeopardize the life of a fellow American?" Here's Thornberry again.

Mac Thornberry

We had specific questions. You know, are these press reports right? They denied...denied it. And looking back, now we know that in some instances they were too cute by half by saying, well, we're not in negotiations today, when the guy was about to get on a plane and go to the Mideast to have negotiations tomorrow.

Sarah Koenig

What he's talking about is a congressional hearing in late April, just a month before the trade. A State Department official was asked about efforts to recover Bowe, and he gives this kind of cryptic update. He says that agencies across the government were striving in the most, quote, "energetic and creative ways we can devise," unquote, to secure Bowe's release.

Jarrett Blanc

Unfortunately, uh, the Taliban broke off direct contact with us in January of 2012. We would very much like to return to direct contact with them, and if we do, at the top of our agenda will be Sergeant Bergdahl. It is certainly not the case, uh, as was reported, that somehow the Taliban and the Haqqani network are seeking to release him, and..and that interagency squabbles within the United States government are preventing or delaying that.

Jim Risch

Mr. Blanc, thank you very much. I continue to be impressed—

Sarah Koenig

That same guy was in Doha by the next day for a meeting about the Bergdahl trade. So, yeah, the administration wasn't exactly forthcoming with Congress. On the other hand, it was an open hearing, and he's talking about a deal so fragile still he doesn't know if it's going to fall apart, like the others before it.

Regardless, once HASC staffers on the Republican side went back and traced exactly what they were and weren't told, once they investigated the whole trade, issued a strongly worded report about it, that report then entered the political fray. Democrats called it an expression of shrill demagoguery, accused the Republicans of using the trade to push their national security agenda. Republicans accused Democrats of exactly the same thing.

I talked to some HASC staffers—again, on the Republican side—about this whole thing, and they sounded to me surprisingly, genuinely upset by what had happened to their once collegial relationship with DOD.

HASC Staffer

If that's going to be the relationship going forward, then there is nothing. What can we rely upon that they are telling us about any given issue?

Sarah Koenig

Like, you just feel like you don't trust those guys anymore?

HASC Staffer

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

Is this a biggie? Like, is this the biggie that you've seen, where you're just like, I cannot believe how this went down? Or is this just like, oh my god, there's like...this happens like three times a year on different things?

HASC Staffer

We view this as unprecedented.

Sarah Koenig

This staffer said we're not just foot-stomping here, that you guys didn't tell us.

HASC Staffer

It's actually a profound concern about national security risk, and the risk to, um, our...in particular—not exclusively, but in particular—our forces deployed overseas and in Afghanistan. And so it's..we're worried.

Sarah Koenig

She's talking about the "Taliban Five." They felt like the president and the DOD had done an end run around the approval process for Gitmo transfers. And so, you know, who are these five Taliban guys anyway? How can we trust you that they're safe to release, that they won't rejoin the battle? Who signed off on this?

This part of the fight over Bowe's trade—I just want to talk about it for a minute, because it mirrors a deeper, bare-knuckled fight over Guantanamo. The president wants to close Guantanamo. Most Republicans in Congress, even though President Bush wanted to close it too, they've opposed the idea since Obama took office.

And one of the arguments they make is that some of the prisoners we've released from Gitmo have rejoined the fight. And that's true. Most haven't, but some have. So it's a fair question, right? What about these five Taliban guys? Were they safe to release from Guantanamo?

There's probably nobody, including the military, who knows the ins and outs of Gitmo better than Carol Rosenberg from the Miami Herald. I've actually asked military people questions about Guantanamo, and they've referred me to Carol Rosenberg. Carol explained that these five guys were what's known down there as "forever prisoners." They hadn't been cleared for release, and they hadn't been and wouldn't be charged with crimes.

But they also weren't going through the administration's new review process—an interagency board meant to assess each detainee who was still down there and figure out whether they could be cleared for transfer or should still be held. By all accounts, this review process is a much more rigorous and more rational look at the intelligence than has been done in the past.

But again, these five guys weren't on the list for review. Here's Carol.

Carol Rosenberg

Three of these guys got there on the first day. You would have thought that they'd get the first reviews, but they didn't. And I'm watching through the years, why aren't they reviewing these guys? Why aren't they reviewing these guys?

I mean, I started asking questions really early. Why aren't these guys...because my instinct was...my thought was, we know that they're trying to trade; wouldn't you think they're trying to push them through the board to get them in position? Um, and then...um, they're not. They're not. And I'm like, I wonder if they think that the intelligence people won't clear them.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

Carol Rosenberg

Got it?

Sarah Koenig

Right. If you have it on paper—

Carol Rosenberg

Then it would look even worse for the president, right?

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. Imagine if they'd been rejected for release by the board, and the U.S. had traded them anyway. Since there wasn't a review, we don't have, in any public way at least, a recent intelligence assessment on these five guys. However, I talked to someone who should know. That guy Nathan—not his real name—you heard him back in episode five. He's the guy who was close to the recovery effort for Bowe and had worked with Bowe's parents.

Nathan is not a lefty. He's former military, and he was an intel analyst at Gitmo. His specialty was Afghanistan-Pakistan. He did two stints at Guantanamo, for a total of three years, ending in 2013. So he knew all about these Taliban guys. His office at Gitmo was a stone's throw from where they were being held.

Nathan readily admits that he's biased, insofar as he wanted Bowe to come home, and he was working toward that very goal. But he was not happy about this trade. He doesn't hate it, like a lot of his peers in the analyst world. He just wishes it hadn't come to that—that the only option left for the president was this Gitmo option, that there wasn't the political will to do anything else.

But he also thinks, these five guys? They were OK to release. They're being watched closely in Qatar. They're high profile, so they can't hide. Everyone knows who they are and what they look like. Nathan says there's just not much they'd be able to pull off, even if they wanted to. Their value to the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said, is pretty much limited to a rallying cry.

Nathan

Yeah, I, you know, was very familiar with them. And, honestly, I didn't feel that it was that big of a danger to release them. I really didn't.

Sarah Koenig

You didn't?

Nathan

No.

Sarah Koenig

Even the...even the sort of guys, uh, Noori and Fazl, who were the kind of biggest fish, it seems like?

Nathan

Yeah, yeah, definitely. They're not gonna be that...they're not gonna be trouble. If they're ending up being trouble, it's because, you know, we let them be trouble 'cause we dropped the ball on, you know, keeping an eye on them, or—

Sarah Koenig

Do you feel like you guys had cleared, or...I know it's not your job to clear someone for release, but had recommended release, or had seen people released who were on par with these guys?

Nathan

Sure, sure. Yeah. Um, and, you know, we've released guys that we probably shouldn't have, that we didn't even know who they were. But yeah, definitely. We've definitely released some not-so-good guys that were pretty close to these...uh, in level with these guys.

Sarah Koenig

Right, so it's like you didn't see the names and just freak out, like, I can't...what?

Nathan

There's only like one or two people at Gitmo that would freak me out if we—

Sarah Koenig

Like KSM, if he were on the list? That might be weird?

Nathan

[LAUGHS] That's gonna be a problem, yeah. [LAUGHS] That's definitely gonna be a problem.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really? So...but it's...but you're being serious? Like, there are really only a few who...who...who just are—

Nathan

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

OK.

Nathan

You know, and frankly, we've got to do something with Gitmo. Them leaving Gitmo? They would have left, anyway. At least we made use of them. So.

Sarah Koenig

So the hot reaction to this trade, Nathan says he understands it, but he also says it's not exactly based on the facts.

Nathan

The...the anger over releasing those guys comes down to a lot of the, uh, same reasons why people are, you know, still mad at Bowe for walking off the base. Like, it's a very personal thing. Like, you don't...you know, they feel very strongly about what these guys have done and, you know, what kind of people they are, and you don't know negotiate. You don't make trades. You know. So they're wrapped up in a larger moral question.

Sarah Koenig

So Obama released these five guys; Congress didn't like it. And to be clear, Congress doesn't get a vote on individual Gitmo transfers like this. They're just supposed to be notified. Right after the trade, the White House explained that the secretary of defense had followed all the requirements for the detainee transfers, that the 30-day notice could have endangered Bowe's life, and that they believed the president had the constitutional authority to make this decision.

But it was agreed all around, Republicans and Democrats, the administration had pulled a fast one by not giving the 30-day notice. And the Government Accountability Office, which is nonpartisan, found that the DOD broke the law by doing the transfer the way it did. Which, that happens sometimes. President Obama's definitely not the first to claim executive power in order to make a move like this.

But when a president does that, a rankled Congress tends to push back with whatever power it has. In this case, one way to do that: Gitmo legislation. And so here's a fairly tangible effect of the trade for Bowe. There's this massive annual defense bill that's put together by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. And tucked inside it for the past five years is language specifying what the secretary of defense has to do before he can sign off on any foreign transfers of Gitmo detainees.

After the Bergdahl trade, Republicans decided to change that language, to make it harder to transfer anyone. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, was one of four lawmakers trying to come to final agreement on that bill last year. I talked to him over the summer, when he was still in the thick of arguing with Republicans over the harsher transfer language.

Smith has been a big proponent of shutting down Gitmo. He and I were both on the phone when I asked him about it—both of us traveling in cars, actually, so the tape isn't great.

Sarah Koenig

How much is the Bergdahl trade for the Taliban...those five Taliban guys...is that a shadow over what you guys are doing right now? Like, or...and how big a shadow?

Adam Smith

It's a pretty darn big shadow. Um, absent that, I don't think we would be having the discussion of further foreign transfer restrictions.

Sarah Koenig

Really. Wow.

Adam Smith

Yeah. Well, we'd be having the discussion, but I'd be winning it.

Sarah Koenig

And yeah, Republican Mac Thornberry, who was also one of the four lawmakers negotiating that bill, said it's true: the Bergdahl thing was corrosive. They were not gonna budge on that stricter standard for letting people out of Gitmo.

Mac Thornberry

Well, there's no question. I mean, it was a direct result of the Bergdahl trade and, uh, the not telling Congress the truth.

Sarah Koenig

Another result—less tangible, maybe—was that outrage and suspicion over the trade spilled over onto Bowe himself. June 11th, 2014, the House Armed Services Committee held a packed hearing on the Bergdahl trade.

Buck McKeon

At the start of this hearing, I'm pleased to welcome members of the public, who have such an interest in these proceedings.

Sarah Koenig

The chairman opened by saying, we are not gonna talk about Bergdahl personally.

Buck McKeon

Let me be clear up front on the focus of today's hearing. It is not my intention to dive into the circumstances of the disappearance of Sergeant Bergdahl.

Sarah Koenig

And then, of course, it came up. Testifying before the committee was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He had to answer all the "who knew what when" questions that were pissing Congress off. Representative Jeff Miller, a Republican, took a turn at the mic.

Jeff Miller

Did you or did you not notify Congress within the 30-day time frame? Yes or no.

Chuck Hagel

No.

Jeff Miller

OK.

Chuck Hagel

What I was—

Jeff Miller

No, sir. Yes or no.

Chuck Hagel

All right. No.

Jeff Miller

Does the administration intend to violate the notice requirement—

Sarah Koenig

And then Miller started asking questions about Bowe. Why weren't we hearing from him? Why was he still at an American military hospital in Germany?

Chuck Hagel

Uh, and what we are doing is we are allowing—

Jeff Miller

I'll tell you what, Mr. Secretary.

Chuck Hagel

—the doctors...the doctors to make this decision.

Jeff Miller

No, Mr. Secretary. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why hasn't he been returned to the United States? We have seriously wounded soldiers that are returned to the United States almost immediately after they are stabilized. How long did Jessica Lynch wait before she was returned to the United States? You're trying to tell me that he's being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?

Chuck Hagel

Congressman, I hope you're not implying anything other than that. The fact is—

Jeff Miller

I'm just asking the question, Mr. Secretary.

Chuck Hagel

I'm gonna give you an answer, too.

Jeff Miller

Well, answer it.

Chuck Hagel

And I don't like the implication of the question.

Jeff Miller

Answer it. Answer it.

Sarah Koenig

The implication, I think, was that maybe something fishy was going on with Bowe, something embarrassing to the army—that maybe this Bergdahl fellow, an American soldier whom we had just brought home at enormous cost, had walked off to join the Taliban, and now they were hiding him away in Germany. Hagel fended all of this off.

Chuck Hagel

This isn't just about a physical situation, congressman. This guy was held for almost five years in god knows what kind of conditions. We do know some of the conditions from our intelligence community—not from, by the way, Bergdahl. This is not just about, can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane.

Jeff Miller

So you're telling me he cannot be questioned because of his condition?

Chuck Hagel

I'm telling you is that the medical professionals, who we rely on their judgment for his health—

Sarah Koenig

So what was going on in Germany? At an army hospital in Landstuhl, Bowe was undergoing this really pretty profound transition. The official word for it is reintegration. At first, as you can imagine, every single thing is weird for him. He can't talk, really. He's blinking and squinting. For five years, he'd had only a few things: a bowl, a blanket, a water bottle.

He says his mind had adapted to the simplicity of that.

And now, all of a sudden, there are all these people. He's got to interact with them. There's all this stuff around—furniture he's not used to. For instance, one of the first things that happens is they bring him into this room, and there are chairs and a sofa. And they tell him, wherever you want to sit down is fine.

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, I heard the word sit, so basically I just sat, because that's what I was used to do doing. Squatted down, and then plopped down in the Indian cross-legged style onto the floor.

Sarah Koenig

And so all these commanders, they follow suit.

Bowe Bergdahl

Everybody was sitting down on the floor—and we're talking like captains, we're talking like...I think there was a general there, there was a colonel or something. [CHUCKLES] Now that I think about it, it's kind of funny.

Sarah Koenig

For the SERE community—that's the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training—for them, this moment, getting back a POW who'd been held for that long alone and survived, it was huge. It hadn't happened since Vietnam.

The military had been practicing for Bowe's return for months—for years, really. They'd cleared out two entire wings of Landstuhl for him. In one wing would be Bowe and a few SERE folks. In the other wing, all the intel, the administrative people, the commanders, computers.

Bowe is interacting with just a small team, but everyone involved was so...overexcited, I guess. All these commanders and psychs who were supposed to take over when Bowe gets to San Antonio, they all showed up in Germany. And then they just hang out, sit around in the hospital wing with nothing to do.

Apparently, one psychologist from Europe arrived on his own dime, offering his services. They sent the poor guy away. One person who was on the Germany team told me that all these people, it was like they wanted to behold Bowe, to meet him, like they wanted to touch the stone.

I've spoken to several people who were involved with Bowe's reintegration and debriefing, and they told me it was all planned down to the smallest detail: how to walk Bowe from the plane to the bus that would take him to the hospital, how to speak to him. They'd explain exactly how the day was going to go. Food will come at 10. There's a strategic debriefing at 1. Is that OK? If it's not OK, we don't have to do it. You want your food at 11? That's OK too.

Bowe Bergdahl

They're trying to remove the helpless feeling by giving me complete control over everything, asking me everything. Even if they, like, were gonna move a sock off the bed, they'd ask me if it was OK to move the sock off the bed.

Sarah Koenig

And they asked him, are you comfortable sleeping in the bed? Bowe couldn't really talk yet, but he had to let them know, mm-mm, he was not comfortable sleeping on the bed. His body was in pain, especially the spots that had been in contact with the floor for so long. But somehow he couldn't deal with the softness of the bed either. Plus, the hospital bed was out in the open, open on all sides in the room.

Bowe Bergdahl

Somebody could, you know, very easily get to me, so it was just like this very, um, uneasy feeling. So what I had to do was I had to move over by the bathroom, where there was like a little hallway, and sleep on the...like, first night, I slept in the bathroom, because there is a door. I slept in the bathroom. I shut the door. So I could...you know, there's also distance between the front...the door to the room and the bathroom, so I knew that there is...that allowed me to hear footsteps coming.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe didn't end up being a model soldier, but he'd been, by all accounts, a model POW, and now a model returnee: cooperative, eager to be helpful to the SERE team, to the intel debriefers. He participated in debriefs for weeks. His progress was being watched very, very closely by lots of people, but especially at the Pentagon.

Every day, all the questions, all the follow-up questions the intel people were asking him, they had to clear them—all the way up through the Joint Chiefs, and then all the way back down again. The team is updating all these muckety-mucks from SOCOM, CENTCOM, JPRA, by video every day. And the muckety-mucks are asking, is Bowe telling the truth? Does he have Stockholm Syndrome? Is he really trying to help us?

All reasonable questions. But again, it seemed as if the people dealing with Bowe in a daily way had such a different, such a softer view of him than the higher-ups did. At one point, for instance, someone gave him a compass. (Bowe had always kept a compass before.) And one person told me that when the army chief of staff found out, he went, quote, "fucking ballistic." Why would you give a deserter a compass? They had to take it away.

About a week and a half after Bowe came to Germany, the same time that members of Congress made it clear, publicly, in that hearing with Chuck Hagel, that they're also watching this process very closely...

Jeff Miller

Wait a minute. Why hasn't he been returned to the United States?

Sarah Koenig

Word comes down at Landstuhl: they've got to speed it up, move it along to San Antonio. The army wanted him back, wanted more command and control over their soldier, this still unknown entity who was an ocean away. This was communicated rather forcefully to the reintegration experts in Landstuhl.

Michael Valdovinos

We're like, wait a second.

Sarah Koenig

That's Michael Valdovinos. He's a former Air Force SERE psychologist. He was in charge of the psych team for part of Bowe's reintegration.

Michael Valdovinos

You know, it really started feeling like it wasn't about the reintegration, per se, anymore. It wasn't about his overall wellbeing. It was much more...it started becoming really political and administrative. Um, it just felt, like, wrong, you know? And we would have liked to have maybe had him stay a little bit longer, but, um, there were other competing interests.

Sarah Koenig

Someone else who was there in Germany told me they started seeing these charts about Bowe, with categories for medical, psych, and intel. And the charts had colors: red, yellow, or green. Green meant cleared. They got the picture. They had to show progress. They were supposed to set specific goals for Bowe, such as, is Bergdahl able to deal with negative media attention? And every day at 4 o'clock, they'd need to brief the commanders to report whether they were meeting their targets. Every day, more and more green boxes turned up on the charts.

Of course, part of bringing Bowe back to the modern world was letting him know, gently, that he'd become popular. Valdovinos has been in contact with Bowe recently. They've talked about this.

Michael Valdovinos

He didn't know that he was on TV. He didn't know that this was...uh, that he was the subject of national interest. He didn't know that his parents had been on...had met the president.

Sarah Koenig

God, it must have been so weird to know not only, like, does the whole country know about you, but then, yeah—like, it's not...they aren't having parades.

Michael Valdovinos

Yeah, no, he...it was really hard. It was really hard, because there was so much of it coming so fast, and it was all bad. Like, telling somebody that, and just, you know, how do you prepare somebody that's gone through something like he did, and then, by the way, let him know, "Hey, dude you're home. You can relax now. But as soon as you walk out that door, get ready, 'cause there's a...there's a shitstorm, you know, and it's not going away anytime soon."

Sarah Koenig

Back to that congressional hearing with Chuck Hagel one last time. Representative Jim Langevin, a Democrat, he agreed that questions about Sergeant Bergdahl's conduct should be addressed with due process at the appropriate time, but he asked Hagel, could you at least answer this one thing?

Jim Langevin

But could you settle one, uh, conflicting report, at least, in terms regarding the number of the loss of soldiers who, uh, may have been involved in searches for Sergeant Bergdahl?

Sarah Koenig

Hagel started by noting that any soldier who dies is a terrible loss to their family and to their country. And then he got down to business. He knew this was coming.

Chuck Hagel

I've personally gone back and asked that question inside the Pentagon, in the army, in all of our reports. I have seen no evidence that directly links any American combat death to the, uh, rescue or finding or search of Sergeant Bergdahl.

Sarah Koenig

Hagel said it once, then right away he said it again.

Chuck Hagel

I've asked the question. We've all asked the question. I have seen no evidence, no facts presented to me when I asked that question.

Sarah Koenig

Hagel had to know that question was the consequential heart of Bowe's story. Did anyone die looking for him? And I have to think Hagel also knew that his answer would not settle this question, not by a long shot. Soldiers were talking about it. Commanders like Mike Waltz were talking about it, were testifying about it, that people did die looking for Bergdahl. That's part of what was so galling to them about the Rose Garden in the first place. Why weren't those families being recognized by the president?

I asked Mike Waltz about it. Why is the army saying the opposite, then, of what you're saying? Why are they saying nobody died in the search?

Mike Waltz

I'm not sure who did the investigation, and I'm not...I haven't seen, from you or any other journalist, a real dig into how the army came to that conclusion. What did they look at? Um, what was the basis of that statement? I don't know. I can only speak to my own experience.

Sarah Koenig

OK, then—let's find a journalist. Oh, wait. We're journalists. We put one of our staff, Whitney Dangerfield, on this question. Has there been an official investigation into whether people died looking for Bowe? Is there a record of people who got injuries looking for Bowe?

She started with Army Public Affairs, and they told her to ask FORSCOM—U.S. Army Forces Command. A guy there pointed her to the investigation by Army Major General Kenneth Dahl. But General Dahl, he didn't look into this question of whether people died or got hurt in the search. That wasn't his mission.

At a hearing on Bowe's case in September, Bowe's attorney asked Dahl about it. And Dahl said he'd heard a lot of discussion about it in his own interviews and just in the press, allegations one way or another, but he didn't pursue it. He said he was told, quote, "No, you don't need to do that, because Central Command is gonna take care of that," unquote.

OK, interesting. So Whitney, our Whitney, went to Central Command, CENTCOM. And CENTCOM wrote back to her, quote, "There is no official report or investigation that we are aware of directed or conducted by U.S. CENTCOM. I would direct you to the U.S. Army for any records they may have," unquote.

So army to FORSCOM to CENTCOM, which sent her back to the army—also known as square one. Unless we're missing something, the U.S. military hasn't done an official investigation into whether any soldiers died because they were looking for Bowe.

Here's the other thing General Dahl said about this question when he was on the stand back in September.

He said, quote, "I had asked the appointing authority, you know, should I investigate this? Because, really, this is something that, at the end of the day, is going to have to be answered. I mean, if I was a parent, I would want to know. Everybody should want to know. We really ought to close that out," unquote. Yeah, I agree. Next time on Serial.

Serial is produced by Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, and me in partnership with Mark Boal, Megan Ellison, Hugo Lindgren, Jessica Weisberg, Page One, and Annapurna Pictures. Ira Glass is our editorial advisor. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research by Kevin Garnett, and additional research this week by Benjamin Falin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Copyediting by Anaheed Alani.

Emily Condon is our line producer. Our music is composed by Nick Thorburn, Fritz Myers, and Mark Phillips. The show is mixed by Kate Bilinski. Kristen Taylor's our community manager. Other Serial staff: Seth Lind, Elise Bergerson, and Kimberly Henderson. Special thanks this week to Carol Giacomo, Jeff Melman, and Rachel Hammerman.

Our website is serialpodcast.org, where this week, you can watch the Rose Garden video and you can look through some of the emails government officials were sending to each other in the months before Bowe's recovery. Again, that's serialpodcast.org.

Serial is a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

Ira Glass

Coming up on the next episode of Serial.

Man 1

It's certain. There is no doubt in my mind that U.S. soldiers died looking for Bowe Bergdahl.

Man 2

And this guy says, "I want to let you know we're fixing to break this story."

Man 3

People are going to get hurt. People are going to get killed.

Man 4

And I just see the first truck just explode.

Sarah Koenig

But what was the mission?

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