Our new show, S-Town, is now live! Listen to all 7 chapters →

Transcript

Episode 05: Meanwhile, in Tampa

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.

Bowe Bergdahl

I immediately saw that there is no way I was getting out of that cage.

Ira Glass

Previously on Serial.

Mark Boal

And this is a metal cage or a wood cage or what?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah, this is like an iron bar cage.

Mark Boal

Made for what purpose?

Bowe Bergdahl

For keeping me in it.

Man 1

And I knew we'd walked into the tribal areas over the mountains, the worst place you can be taken in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Man 2

Very scary. You have all kind of bad animals, and drone is 24 hour, like, making buzz, buzz, buzz.

Man 3

He did something that's, from a military perspective, from a lot of people's perspective, is unforgivable.

Sarah Koenig

The word just, like, "impunity" is just jumping into my head.

Bowe Bergdahl

If you say, you know, "I'm gonna take a video of you, and you need to think about what you're going to say to, you know, President Obama—"

Sarah Koenig

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial, one story told week by week—sort of. I'm Sarah Koenig. In very early July of 2009, just a few days after Bowe went missing, a woman named Kim Harrison went to her local police department in Portland, Oregon.

Kim Harrison

And I had to go up to the microphone, because they don't have a person out in front. It's a pretty big police department, and I think that part of it is the jail.

Sarah Koenig

So you're like pressing a button on the side of the—

Kim Harrison

Yeah, and then, "Excuse me, can I talk to somebody? I need to report a missing person." And so yeah, I mean, at the time I knew this that they're going to think I'm insane. I filed a report—

Sarah Koenig

Because what you're saying to them is, I'm reporting a missing person out of Mest, Afghanistan.

Kim Harrison

Well, I didn't really want to say that right off the bat, because I knew I wouldn't get very far. [LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

The person missing was Bowe, of course, a person missing from a place roughly 7,000 miles away.

Kim Harrison

"Who is this person?" And I said, "Well, he's a soldier." "What? You can't. He's a military personnel. Why would you do this?" "Well, it's complicated."

Sarah Koenig

So complicated. Here's what happened. Kim is a close friend of Bowe's. They're like family to each other. He's friends with her kids. Bowe listed Kim in army forms as a person to notify if something happened to him. So on June 30, 2009, army officials came to Kim's house to tell her he was missing.

Kim is not a person to sit by. That is not her nature. That first day, she thinks, How could I fix this? What can I do? Who can I call? And then she thinks, Interpol— her friend who happens to be high up at Interpol, the International Police Force.

She calls him, and he says maybe Interpol can help. They're nonmilitary, nonpolitical. They have cooperative agreements with police in more than 180 countries, including Pakistan. They'd been helping investigate the Mumbai terror attacks that had happened about seven months earlier, which meant they'd been looking into Taliban activity in India and Pakistan.

Interpol can actually move around in Pakistan in ways the U.S. military cannot. So Interpol—worth a shot. To get an investigation underway for Bowe, Interpol would need to issue something called a yellow notice—Interpol's version of a missing-person report, that gets distributed to police departments all over the world.

To get that going, though, you need to establish the situation as official police business somewhere—anywhere, apparently—which is why Kim ends up at the Portland PD. She needs them to file a missing-person report so that Interpol, in turn, can generate the yellow notice about Bowe. And they do. They make the report. Kim sends Interpol photographs of Bowe, some stuff with his fingerprints on it, DNA samples.

The best thing she had for that was a Halloween mask he had worn. They all went as Alice in Wonderland characters, and Bowe was the Cheshire Cat. So she sent the Cheshire Cat mask to Interpol. It's all ready to go. The last thing they need before Interpol can issue the yellow notice is permission from—

Kim Harrison

The Department of Defense.

Sarah Koenig

To say, "Can we do this?" Really?

Kim Harrison

They have to get permission because he was a military personnel.

Sarah Koenig

Oh.

Kim Harrison

And they denied permission instantly.

Sarah Koenig

Kim has notes she took from that time. And in them, it says the DoD denied the yellow notice 12 hours after it was requested. A certain colonel calls her and tells her the DoD was working in concert with the FBI and the CIA and that Interpol involvement could complicate, jeopardize, and delay the investigation and the search. And, P.S., that it was, quote, "in her best interest to not get involved," unquote.

I'm quoting Kim's own notes here, but the point is, she was annoying, she says.

Kim Harrison

They were just incredulous that I was just causing so much problem for them. I mean, that's how they saw it. I'm like this wah-wah-wah, you know, like, squeaking, nagging, you know, not-behaving female.

Sarah Koenig

And so, she keeps going. (Women.) Later that same day, a Sunday, Kim calls the colonel back. (She somehow gets his home number.) And he reiterates: he does not foresee the yellow notice going forward. Kim calls her congressman. She calls a senator. Maybe they can pressure the military to change the decision. No dice. That was that.

The question Kim is left with to this day is what if the DoD had said to Interpol, yes, go ahead. Could it have worked? Could Bowe have possibly gotten home sooner? When I heard this story, the question I was left with was, what the heck? Surely Kim hoofing it to the Portland PD is not the way this is supposed to work. So how is this supposed to work?

I talked to a bunch of people who worked on behalf of the military to get Bowe home, some on the record, some on background, and they all talked about how much of a doozy this one was, how there was just no handbook.

Man 1

You had a U.S. prisoner of war that is being held in the friendly nation of Pakistan by the designated terrorist group of the Haqqani on behalf of the lawful combatants of the Taliban.

Sarah Koenig

It's not like there was a cadre of people inside the United States government who had experience on how to untie this particular knot. Nobody had done this before.

Man 2

How do you manipulate an entire country to get an enlisted soldier home? You know? I mean, how do you do that? [LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

Well, how do you do that?

Man 2

Well, you don't.

Sarah Koenig

Of course, it wasn't a military operation that finally got Bowe home. It was diplomacy. We negotiated with the Taliban, and traded him for five men out of Gitmo. And that in itself is a fascinating story, and we'll get into all that. But for this episode, I'm going to lay out the twisty, turny, and often emotional path that came before the president signed off on that trade. Because before the most powerful person in the United States took hold of Bowe's fate, he was in the hands of well-meaning people much, much lower down the chain, or not in that chain at all. Because that's where the search for Bowe lived for years.

The same day Bowe walks away, the DUSTWUN goes into effect. For about a month and a half, there's this intense, no-holds-barred military and intelligence effort inside Afghanistan—all this equipment and hundreds of people redirected to search for Bowe. The nerve center for all that activity was back in the States, in Tampa, Florida. That's where U.S. Central Command is headquartered, known as CENTCOM.

CENTCOM has a group of people whose whole job is to find missing or captured people. They're in PR—not public relations, but personnel recovery. I talked to two people who worked in the PR office at that time. They're intel analysts, and they might search for anyone who's been reported missing from a conflict zone, not just U.S. military personnel, and not just Americans. Could be a contractor, someone working for an NGO, a hiker, foreign nationals, reporters.

I imagine their office as a super-high-tech workspace, like the way NASA looks in the movies.

Andrea

It's not that sexy.

Michelle

It's definitely not sexy. [LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

That's Andrea, not her real name, and Michelle, also not her real name. They told me the office is cubicles, computers, telephones. Andrea and Michelle did not want to talk specifically about Bowe's case, since it's ongoing in military court. But what they told me applies to his case, and to lots of other cases they've worked on. Also, these women didn't want to use their real names because anything Bowe-related is so sensitive, so hot, they worried they might suffer repercussions just personally if the public knew they tried to bring Bowe home.

Anyway, their job didn't stop when the DUSTWUN was called off. They kept going until it was over, five years later. Again, Andrea and Michelle can't talk about the particulars of Bowe's case, but they were pretty candid about what made their job especially tricky. They said there were a bunch of factors.

First of all, at that time, Andrea and then Michelle were kind of it for Afghanistan in terms of personnel recovery. DoD had a good system for recovering downed pilots in Afghanistan, they said. But other than that, there was no solid system in place to track people who went missing. Here's Andrea.

Andrea

They should have had two people or more sitting there in Afghanistan waiting to just support personnel recovery events. But instead, everyone in the theater were dual-hatted or triple-hatted, you know? They had different jobs. And so when an event occurred, they'd you know, they could help, but they certainly weren't experts.

Sarah Koenig

And that differed from, say, operations in Iraq, Andrea? Like, what was the how do you compare, like, sort of what was in place in Afghanistan versus what was in place in Iraq for personnel recovery?

Andrea

Vastly different. So Iraq had a personnel recovery division set up, and they had upwards of 15 people sitting in the same room with the only job, full-time job, of recovering hostages. I mean, it was my only wish that we could have had something like that in Afghanistan.

Michelle

We asked for it many, many times.

Sarah Koenig

That's Michelle.

Michelle

And I can't even begin to describe the pleading of establishing a cell like that over there. That would have helped us immensely.

Sarah Koenig

Many more people had gone missing from Iraq than from Afghanistan, so it made sense Iraq was much better equipped for these events. But still, what that meant is that at a certain point, Michelle and Andrea realized, We can't do this job from Tampa. They started rotating in and out of Afghanistan, usually for months at a time, so they could manage their cases from the ground.

When someone goes missing, the PR team turns on every intelligence asset they can. Those assets might be people—that's called "humint," for human intelligence. Or "signet," signals intelligence—communications you pick up from cellphones or electronic messages. Or "geoint," geospatial intelligence, such as images of the landscape.

And their job, ideally, is to layer all this intel to get the clearest picture they possibly can of where the person is, and then, if you can get that far, hand that information off to the people who can actually do something about it: either militarily (can we send in special forces, for instance? Can we engineer an escape of some kind or a drone strike to set the hostage free?) or

diplomatically (Can we get our ambassador in whatever country to try to negotiate for our hostage?) or a civilian option (remember when Bill Clinton went to North Korea in 2009, and got those reporters out of prison there?). In Bowe's case, all of that work, all of those potential avenues were stymied by the defining fact of his geographical situation. He was in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, DoD—which Andrea and Michelle are part of—DoD owns the battle space, meaning they have control, they have authority to direct operations and use whatever assets they need. That's why the DUSTWUN for Bowe could be as far-reaching and aggressive as it was.

But once you no longer own the battle space, you have to start relying much more on other U.S. government agencies that might be operating in Pakistan. Pretty much any three-letter agency that has a personnel recovery element.

Michelle

NGA, DIA, CIA, FBI, NSA.

Sarah Koenig

It's the CIA that has authority for U.S. operations in Pakistan, though. So you really need the CIA.

Andrea

Now it becomes a more we're doing a lot more asking for help.

Michelle

And it all goes back to the priorities: well, are all the other things that are happening inside of that country less important than this thing that we need right now, or are you trumped?

Sarah Koenig

Trumped, for instance, by current events. That often happens, that current events and politics on the ground in whatever country gets in the way of your PR mission. During Bowe's case, we had some very rough patches in our relations with Pakistan. Take 2011. As one former counterterrorism analyst told us, quote, "You couldn't possibly have a busier backdrop than in Pakistan at that time," unquote.

That year started with the Raymond Davis debacle. Remember that one? It was bizarre. Davis was a CIA contractor who opened fire on two guys riding a motorbike in the middle of a crowded intersection in Lahore. Several people were dead by the end of it. It caused a huge uproar in Pakistan. He was thrown in jail.

Then you had the U.S.-led NATO air strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers. The Haqqanis, based in Pakistan, attacked our embassy in Kabul and NATO headquarters. Sixteen people died. And that same year, the US raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden.

Andrea

You know, you really can't go to the table and start talking about, uh, maybe humanitarian releases on the tail ends of, uh, you know, a unilateral operation into a sovereign nation. It's usually not the best time to ask for help.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe's friends and family were also agitating on their own. And at certain points, their unofficial efforts became intertwined with official search business in curious ways, in ways that actually approach success. Kim, for example—back to Kim.

Kim lived in Idaho when Bowe was a teenager. He spent years hanging around with her family, and they were sort of home base for Bowe for long stretches. He'd stay with them, work at the tea shop they ran.

Kim is the odd adult who actually loves teenagers, and she loved Bowe. She understood him. She worried about him. She'd do anything for him, just as she would for her own kids.

Pretty early on in the search for Bowe, Kim was shut out by the military, but she kept scheming, kept calling people. She studied maps.

Kim Harrison

Like, how can I get into Afghanistan? Or, how can I get into Pakistan? I'm going to get my bags. I had my passport.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, you really thought, like, I'll go.

Kim Harrison

Oh, I'm gonna go. I'm gonna go over there, I'm going to talk to Pakistani police, I'm going to work with peace organizations. I'm going to go over there and try and go on the television. Stupid, naïve. You know, I don't know what I'm thinking at this point. There's got to be something that can be done.

Sarah Koenig

How far did you get with the "I'm going to go to Pakistan" idea?

Kim Harrison

To the point where someone canceled my passport. [LAUGHS] Yes. For my own safety, "I'm canceling your passport."

Sarah Koenig

Who?

Kim Harrison

I can't tell you that.

Sarah Koenig

It wasn't a sinister move by the government or anything like that. It's just someone concerned about her safety. Bowe's parents were also active throughout, trying to figure out what they could do. They decided not to speak to me on tape for this story.

And, an aside here. I read nothing into that decision apart from their best intentions for their own family, and for other hostages still in captivity. They've been completely gracious to me throughout this process, and I'm grateful to them for it. End of aside.

Perhaps things like what I'm about to tell you about Kim were happening to Bowe's parents too. I just don't know for sure.

Anyway, Kim says in November of 2009, she did something.

Kim Harrison

And which I can't talk about, which sort of paid off in one way, in that was it got my name and telephone number to someone very obscure in Afghanistan. And he turned out to be someone that worked with the Taliban.

Sarah Koenig

About six weeks later, Kim is at home in Portland, and her cellphone rings. It's a weird number. She doesn't answer. Rings again. There's a message.

Kim Harrison

But didn't understand a single syllable of it. And—

Sarah Koenig

Wait. It's a message, or you're talking to—

Kim Harrison

It was a message. It was a voicemail on my iPhone, because I wasn't answering the phone. And at first, the first call, he didn't leave a message. The second call, he left a message, and the third call, I picked up. I thought it was some ... weird, sort of, wrong number, you know, direct mail, you know, like, "What? What is...?" It isn't on in my phone, my cellphone. This is weird.

So anyway, I did pick up, and he's speaking in Pashto, which is very obviously not I was not able to understand, except for he said, So blah-blah, Bergdahl, Bergdahl. So that's when I went, Oh crap, you know? This is ... what is going on?

And my roommate was there, and I'm like, This person ... you know, I'm making faces at him as I'm listening to Pashto, like—

Sarah Koenig

Like, what do I do?

Kim Harrison

Like, what the heck, you know? Um, so I told him, you know, I said, "Email, email." And he's going, "Email, email." OK. So he hangs up. I hang up. I go online. I try to find ways of pronouncing, like, phonetically, letters from my email. Like, how will I say K-I-M blah blah blah, um—

Sarah Koenig

Where he'll get that that I isn't an E.

Kim Harrison

Where he'll understand that K is a K, and I is an I, and M is M, P is—

Sarah Koenig

Right.

Kim Harrison

But he called back 10 minutes later, and I'm trying to give him my email address, with an accent. We go over it like three or four times, and it ... it worked! I had no hope that this was gonna work. Hang up, 30 seconds later, bling! I get an email. Unfortunately, it's all in Pashto. It's not a single letter of our letter forms except for "Bergdahl." The rest is in—

Sarah Koenig

Pashto.

Kim Harrison

In Pashto.

Sarah Koenig

So she cuts and pastes the message into one of those online translator sites to decipher it.

Sarah Koenig

And what did it say?

Kim Harrison

Oh, complete gibberish. The translation was like horrible.

Sarah Koenig

Was it like those sweatshirts that say, like, "University happy, happy celebrate victory now"?

Kim Harrison

[LAUGHS] Well, it would be hello, [SPEAKING GIBBERISH] bridge tomorrow Bergdahl.

Sarah Koenig

That's not what it actually said, just a for instance. Kim understood the gist. This guy had information about Bowe, and he wanted something in return.

Kim Harrison

So I just said, "I cannot help you. I will find someone right now. I will make phone calls. I will find someone"—very simple English—"soon."

Sarah Koenig

Kim calls a friend. "What should I do?" Her friend tells her, "You need the FBI." She contacts the FBI, and eventually the FBI translates the message.

Sarah Koenig

He was proposing a deal.

Kim Harrison

Mm-hmm.

Sarah Koenig

And the deal was—

Kim Harrison

To share ... when he ... when like he ... he had access to where the locations were for where Bowe would go, and where he was at any given time. He had access to that.

Sarah Koenig

So he said, "I can give you information where Bowe's gonna be so that you guys can go get him. In exchange, I want out of the country. I want ..." How many—

Kim Harrison

With my family.

Sarah Koenig

How many—

Kim Harrison

Eight family members.

Sarah Koenig

It sounds too good to be true, right? But, incredibly, this guy checked out. Kim can't say how the guy was connected to Bowe's situation or what proof he provided, but apparently he checked out to the extent that the FBI began exchanging emails with him.

Kim Harrison

They would do ... uh, write some copy, vaguely tell me what it meant—I had to trust them—copy and paste it in my email, and send it from my email address and my computer, and not a different location. Because if they're gonna ... if he's watching my IP, then he would know it was somebody else.

Sarah Koenig

So you were basically ... the FBI at this point is communicating with this guy through you.

Kim Harrison

Through me. Yeah. He ... he's making it very clear that I have to get the emails. If I'm not getting the emails, then he's going to stop. So it forced me ... you know, I was willing to do whatever. This is just the least I can do.

Sarah Koenig

But he knew he was also communicating with the government.

Kim Harrison

Yeah, he had to know.

Sarah Koenig

When she got that first call, Bowe had been a prisoner with the Taliban for about six months. He was going through the worst winter of his whole five years. He was the coldest, the sickest, the hungriest. Of course, Kim didn't know any of that, but she was hopeful. Maybe this could spring him.

Kim Harrison

The best scenario? Yeah. They'll give him a location. They'll fly in and swoop him up and take him home. You know, the fantasy.

Sarah Koenig

And we're done.

Kim Harrison

Yeah, yeah. It's over, whee! And that would have been great.

Sarah Koenig

And then ... so what happened?

Kim doesn't entirely know, because her communication with the FBI was a one-way proposition. Their mantra to her was "need to know," for good reason. All Kim does know is that for two years running she signed releases so that the NSA could monitor her phone, her computer, her TV. They could follow her if they wanted, or hang out in front of her house. And then, after that two years was up, nothing.

Sarah Koenig

So it just fizzled away after a while?

Kim Harrison

From my perspective, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

I found out what happened. The FBI cultivated this source for a while, and then passed him along to the Department of Defense. And it turned out this guy, who called Kim on her cellphone one day because of some secret thing she did on her own to get her number to the Taliban, this turned out to be one of the best leads they ever had in Bowe's case.

One person tasked with finding Bowe told me, quote, "I thought for sure that was the answer," unquote. But they could never quite make it happen. The guy wanted to bring his relatives over. And if you bring nine people to the U.S. under some version of witness protection, a government agency is going to have to take care of them—for their whole lives, maybe.

And, my source told me, none of the agencies raised their hand. Even so, visa papers started to be drawn up, just in case. And then the guy withdrew. He didn't respond when asked for details about his family members for the paperwork. Over the years, when they'd go back to the drawing board at DoD, trying to think up solutions for finding Bowe, someone would always write this guy on the list.

What about him? He was willing once. He's still there, still active. Let's try him again. But no one pursued it.

One intel expert told me, if you have all the tools you need, you can find someone in less than 30 days. That's not to say you can rescue them in 30 days, but you can at least find them. In Bowe's case, DoD did not have all the tools they needed, and was never able to say with 100% certainty where Bowe was.

The U.S. didn't have reliable human intelligence sources on the ground in Waziristan. The Haqqanis have that area locked down so tightly and are so good at propagating misinformation that they either couldn't get intel or couldn't trust what intel they did get. So to figure out Bowe's exact location—which neighborhood—which compound, they needed, for instance, drones. And the drones have to be what's called "unblinking." You can't look away.

But DoD doesn't have drones operating in Pakistan, so you have to ask other agencies to take a look for you, such as the CIA. And occasionally they would. They might give them a few hours here or there. But it wasn't nearly enough. Because unless, say, Bowe happens to get escorted to the latrine on that day at that time, you're not gonna see him. You need to watch and listen solidly for, say, a week to catch who's going in and out, what they're saying. Maybe you follow one of those people.

In other words, the drones give you a much better chance of pinpointing his location. And with a location, you can at least plan a rescue operation. One former DoD employee told me, quote, "It was literally two years of asking for drones," unquote. The CIA declined to talk to us for this story. They referred us to the DoD.

But here's what was going on. The CIA, or the NSA, or other agencies, they have their own bosses, their own priorities. These priorities aren't general and ethereal. They are specific. They are written down. They must be approved by the president. For the CIA, their priorities were things like targeting top al-Qaeda and Haqqani members. And while hostage recovery might have been on the list, on their radar, it certainly wasn't at the top.

And Bergdahl specifically wasn't on anybody's list. So it's understandable that the CIA can't just turn over their resources and manpower to a PR mission that isn't their own. In some instances, these other agencies were doing the best they could under the circumstances. This tension is shot through all of these hostage cases, not just Bowe's. Are we doing enough?

The answer to that depends in part on where you're sitting. If you're Andrea and Michelle, this is all you think about all day, is getting your hostages home. What else can we do? They said they had to fight complacency, malaise, because their priority wasn't everyone's priority, even if on paper it was supposed to be.

Michelle said they'd have to get wily sometimes just to get the meetings they needed.

Michelle

I needed time with this specific general. And his exec and I had been talking back and forth, and he's like, "I just don't know if I can get that done." And one of our counterparts was really good friends with that exec at the time, and she worked with DIA and kind of put the bug in his ear:

"Hey, we ... we have our analyst out there, and she needs time with this general, and can you make that happen, and ...?" So she calls me, and she's like, "I think I can get that done for you, but he really likes Johnny Walker Black Label. If you can facilitate maybe putting that on his desk, and maybe throw in some beef jerky, I think we can make that happen." So I did, and I got the time I needed. So it's just things like that, you're like, Unbelievable. Just to get in front of someone to talk about significant personnel recovery events, you know, you have to...

And I'm sure. I'm sure Andrea has many stories very similar to what I just told you.

Andrea

Mm-hmm.

Sarah Koenig

They'd do the most basic things just to remind people that, yes, there are American hostages in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan. They'd put up posters, make those rubber bracelets. Here's Michelle.

Michelle

Andrea and I had gone to a, uh ... oh, I can't remember if it was Veteran's Day or a POW-MIA Day, but we'd ... she'd made shirts for us. And we went to this event, and we came back to the building that day, we're walking in, and a colonel stopped us. And he's like, "What ... who is that on your shirt?" [LAUGHS]

I'm like, "This is Bergdahl, and he's been missing for x number of ... "Whatt? I had no idea about that. Really?" You know, and it's just—

Sarah Koenig

Are you kidding?

Michelle

—education bulletin.

Sarah Koenig

I can't believe that story. That is crazy.

Michelle

I know, right?

Andrea

It's insane, and it's... You know, the one that breaks my heart is Coleman. She gave birth in captivity. Why are we not talking about that?

Sarah Koenig

That's Andrea. Caitlin Coleman and her husband, Joshua Boyle, disappeared, in Afghanistan in 2012. Caitlin was pregnant at the time.

Andrea

Like, it just makes ... it makes my heart hurt. And you ask the average American on the street who she is, no one will know.

Sarah Koenig

I just want to talk for a second about this very human thing that overlays, again, not just Bowe's case, but all these hostage cases. Take Colin Rutherford. He's a young guy, a Canadian. He was freed from the Taliban last week after more than five years. He'd been traveling in Afghanistan when he went missing. And the day he was released, the Canadian press covered it, not the details of how and why, just the fact of his return.

And the online comments immediately were things like this: "Who goes on vacation to Afghanistan? Bonehead." Or this: "Headline should read, 'Idiot Rescued.' Who cares about the details?" And while I'm tempted to be all sanctimonious and say, That's awful. How can people be so awful? The truth is, I've thought things like this. I mean, it's great they're home, but also, it's their own damn fault. I admit it.

And I'll wager we've all thought things like this, right? It's not unconflicted. Which makes us no different than a lot of the people charged with finding, say, Caitlin Coleman, or Colin Rutherford, or Bowe Bergdahl. The only difference is, those people are not supposed to think like that. Circumstances of capture are not supposed to come into play.

Andrea and Michelle told me repeatedly they really do not care about circumstances of capture. First, you get the person back, and then come consequences, judgment, punishment—not the other way around. Because there isn't a hostage situation out there that doesn't involve some aspect of wrong place, wrong time, some element of human error.

The surprise of their job was their colleagues didn't always feel the same way.

Andrea

I think the biggest shock for me was the salesmanship. I didn't realize that I was gonna have to convince them that supporting my mission was something that they should do. I just ... I didn't think that that would be an issue, and it was.

When you're standing before your peers and addressing the meeting, and first and foremost, you have to get over the misconceptions of circumstances of capture. And this rings true to a lot of cases. You'll hear the comment "Oh, well, he's just a journalist. He shouldn't have been there anyways. Why should we help him?"

Or "Oh, they were just hiking. Why would they be hiking there? They could hike in Colorado." "Oh, isn't that the kid that walked off base?"

Michelle

Yeah, I can't even begin to tell you the amount of times that we heard "Well, why should I care? He did that to himself," or "She did this," or... It's almost unbelievable in certain cases with the level of leadership and the backgrounds of these individuals. You just can't believe that they just said that, but—

Sarah Koenig

In Bowe's case, of course, the "why should I care" attitude was doubled, maybe even cubed, by the information that he'd walked off on his own, by the hardship he'd put other soldiers through, by the rumors of treachery. Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine, now retired, also worked on Bowe's case.

Jason Amerine

You know, if you asked people about Bergdahl, if they were completely uninformed, it was, "Oh, that's the traitor." If they were somewhat informed, it would be, "Oh, that guy. Yeah, I heard he was a traitor." And if they're a little better informed, it would be, "Well, people say this, but I hear he was a traitor."

I mean, the refrain was almost always that they guy was a traitor even though there actually wasn't any evidence he was a traitor. And so that attitude was everywhere up and down the chain of command.

Sarah Koenig

Jason said he was once in a meeting with a general, and they had to cut it short because the general got so worked up about the fact that Bowe had walked off. The general was emotional about it, Jason said. It's not that people refused to help or refused to do their jobs. Everyone I talked who was involved in Bowe's case said so many people tried so hard on this one.

It's just that you start to wonder. If this attitude is lurking all the way to the top, then what ideas are not getting through? What's not even getting proposed, because someone low down fears saying something unpopular? Several people told me that for quite a while Bowe's case languished, because no one working on it was influential enough to make big decisions.

Sarah Koenig

[LAUGHING] Who are you? Who are you?

Nathan

[LAUGHING] Well, I—

Sarah Koenig

How can we describe who you are? Yeah.

Nathan

I am an intelligence analyst. I have been since like 1999, I would say.

Sarah Koenig

This is a person I'm going to call Nathan. That is not his real name. He doesn't want to use his real name, because although he's no longer in the military, he's still working for the military sometimes. And what he did in Bowe's case was so out of school, so not done, that he worries about the consequences for his current job.

Nathan did not work directly on Bowe's case, not officially, but he was very close to it, watching from the sidelines, watching all these people not be able to accomplish much of anything.

Nathan

There were times along the way where there were various plans, options to get him freed, but nobody could make that decision, or at least if they could, they didn't want to.

Sarah Koenig

Again, we're not talking about why Nathan got so personally frustrated, but know that he did, especially when it came to what officials were saying to Bowe's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl.

Nathan

This whole telling them every day, or once a week, or once a month, "We're doing everything that we can," that's not enough. You need to do more. You need to be doing what it is you can't.

Sarah Koenig

The only way to make that happen, in Nathan's estimation, was to push the topic up higher than the captains and majors who were working on Bowe's case. It needed to go as high as it could go until it reached someone who could afford to expend political capital on Bowe—meaning, ultimately, the president himself had to get involved.

So Nathan started thinking about this. How do you catch the president's attention? He did what an intel analyst does. He thought, What assets haven't we tapped? And it came to him: the Bergdahls. He thought if you could get Bowe's parents to push some buttons, maybe Bowe's case could get unstuck.

About a year and a half into the case, Nathan sent a message to the Bergdahls on Facebook. He said to them the things that nobody else seemed to want to say.

Sarah Koenig

Like, what were the blunt things you could say that wouldn't get said in a briefing?

Nathan

That shit's bad, you know? That ... listen, it's not as ... it's difficult, and here's why it's difficult. Nobody wanted to ... they wanted to tiptoe around them.

Sarah Koenig

Nathan said contacting them was the scariest thing he'd maybe ever done. Because he wasn't a high up guy. It wasn't even his job to look for Bowe. And while it wasn't illegal—he wasn't telling them anything classified—contacting them was so unprofessional in the world he comes from.

Nathan

You don't want to get personally involved. Typically, with an analyst, you definitely want to keep your personal feelings out of it. You start injecting bias in there, it starts becoming a problem—in most cases. This was definitely a case, though, that you needed to be personal. There needed to be a face on this.

Sarah Koenig

The Bergdahl's were the sad, scared, fierce, determined parents of a POW. Nathan says he made it plain to them: You have more power than you know. People will take meetings with you. People will return your calls. They're going to at least give you five minutes.

And Bob was no slouch. He knew how to use his five minutes. He'd studied the conundrum of his son's circumstances. He began to learn Pashto, pored over Islamic law, read about Pashtun tradition to see if there was some loophole he could find, some argument he could make for Bowe's release. He understood the history and the politics of the region, and he was already knocking on doors and asking questions.

Nathan tried to leverage that.

Nathan

"Why don't you go talk to somebody in the Joint Chiefs? You know, I mean, what are they going to tell you, no?" I mean ... so, he would. And he took it upon—

Sarah Koenig

And that was your suggestion?

Nathan

Well, eventually. Eventually. I mean, it had to be.

Sarah Koenig

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the principal military advisor to the secretary of defense and to the president. Bowe didn't have 25 media companies writing an open letter urging action by the secretary of state, as sometimes happens for foreign correspondents. He didn't have ransom insurance, as employees of private companies sometimes do.

His parents weren't swish DC players. They were people who lived in rural Idaho. Bowe's case wasn't going anywhere. They needed someone heavy to think Bowe was worth thinking about. And then they needed that person to give it a push.

So that was the plan—apply pressure in myriad ways. Make it so that people with influence just happen to start hearing about Bowe Bergdahl from various sources. Get them to perk up, take an interest, and in that way, inch closer and closer to the president.

Nathan began talking to the Bergdahls regularly, maybe monthly, maybe weekly, depending on what was going on. He started guiding them. "You know that person, or that group, or that commander who says he's doing everything he can? Well, he could be doing this."

Sarah Koenig

And were they then going back to that commander and saying, "What if you tried x? Have you done that?"

Nathan

Yes, yes.

Sarah Koenig

I see.

Nathan

There was a manipulation game going on, and that's what makes this very difficult to speak about.

Sarah Koenig

Were you telling them, "Here's what you need to ask"?

Nathan

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

[LAUGHS] Your face looks worried when you say that.

Nathan

Yeah. I am quite worried.

Sarah Koenig

You are? Why? Because what could happen?

Nathan

[LAUGHS] Well, it's just messy. It's just messy.

Sarah Koenig

A question might be, if the United States could pay blood money to get the CIA contractor Raymond Davis out of a Pakistani jail, could they maybe do something similar for Bowe? Some sort of ransom-ish payment that isn't ransom? I'm making that up, but that seems like a good question, right?

Sarah Koenig

So did it feel like you were running this—I don't know—scrappy, second ... secret second mission, almost?

Nathan

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

That's like a ... was like the shadow of the thing that's happening at the office.

Nathan

Yes. Yes. We were running support. We were running support.

Sarah Koenig

Right. But totally unofficially.

Nathan

Totally unofficially.

Sarah Koenig

Nathan said it worked. He can't be specific about how it worked, but he says it worked. Bob's Rolodex filled up with people at the Pentagon, and also the White House, and the State Department. And Nathan believes the continued pressure created a sense of urgency about Bowe's case and got it on the desks of the people they were aiming for.

There was another part of the strategy too—to make noise, sometimes publicly, in a way they hoped would keep Bowe safe.

Nathan

When the UBL raid, the Osama bin Laden raid, happened, that threw everything up in the air. You know, what's going to happen? Is they're going to be retaliatory hits on Sergeant Bergdahl? Are they going to take him out on the street and say, look, well, you want to do that? Then, here's this.

Nobody knew what was going to happen. That was about the time that Bob put out that video.

Bob Bergdahl

I'm the father of captured U.S. soldier Bowe Robert Bergdahl. These are my thoughts. I can remain silent no longer. Strangely to some—

Sarah Koenig

In May of 2011, just a few days after the Bin Laden raid, Bob released a video on YouTube. He addressed Mullah Sangeen and the Haqqanis, but his main message was straight to the Pakistani government.

Bob Bergdahl

I address the Pakistani armed forces. I personally appeal to General Kayani and General Pasha. Our family is counting on your professional integrity and honor to secure the safe return of our son.

Sarah Koenig

Pasha was commander of Pakistan's intelligence service, or ISI. Kayani was the Pakistan army's chief of staff.

Bob Bergdahl

We ask that your nation diligently help our son be freed from his captivity.

Sarah Koenig

There's another striking thing about this video, and that is Bob is asking something of Pakistan so directly that American officials would not. Our soldier is there. We know they know he's there, somewhere in what's called the FATA, Federally Administered Tribal Areas. And all this time, the U.S. is setting aside billions of dollars in aid and military support to Pakistan.

According to a recent congressional report, between 2002 and 2014, we gave them roughly $30 billion all told. It's big money, yet we don't seem to be able to say, hey, Pakistan, give him back. Why is that? Well, again, lots of experts later, now I see why. Diplomacy isn't a snap-your-fingers kind of business. It's a long game. And in the long run, we'd like to stay on decent terms with Pakistan for some important reasons.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons, which we'd really like them to keep a lid on. We'd also like to keep our air and ground supply lines open in Pakistan. That's how we get stuff to our people in Afghanistan. Pakistan helped us track down important al-Qaeda leaders and some Taliban, and we'd like that to continue.

Many influential people in our government would also like our drones to keep flying, and sometimes killing people, inside Pakistan as well. And we've got long term development goals there too. We'd like to keep helping Pakistanis with education and clean water, maybe because we're just nice like that, but more likely because we want to keep them on our side.

Because if Pakistan goes the way of, say, Iran, becomes our enemy, plus those nuclear weapons, that's a scenario we'd very much like to avoid. So while we might risk our relationship with Pakistan in order to take out Osama bin Laden, we are not going to jeopardize it, not to that degree, for one U.S. serviceman. We are not gonna come out publicly and boss Pakistan around, even if we could do that, or call their leaders a bunch of liars.

Ambassador Marc Grossman, who was the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told us he did bring Bowe up in meetings with high level Pakistani government officials, but he didn't expect them to do much. He said expectations are low, but you do it because it's right, and you never know what's gonna happen. And he said, if you say to the Bergdahls and to the public, we're doing everything we can, then you'd better be doing everything you can.

In 2012, 2013, a couple of army generals decided to do something separately. One of the generals realized the PR team at CENTCOM was woefully understaffed and wasn't getting anywhere. He assigned an elite unit to the task, a Delta Force team—a big deal. The CIA was roped in more, which helped, but even so, the PR team never got the intel it hoped for.

And then another general, a soon-to-be-four-star, also got involved—a general Bob Bergdahl also met with, incidentally.

Jason Amerine

Around January of 2013, we're briefing General Campbell on our different projects. And at the end of the brief, General Campbell said, you know, "Hey, this is all great. I want you to know that my top priority is getting Sergeant Bergdahl home, so if there's anything you guys can do to help out, I'd appreciate it." And that ended the meeting.

Sarah Koenig

That's Jason Amerine again. He recently retired from the army after 27 years. Jason is one of the most celebrated soldiers of the Afghanistan war. He was there in 2001, commanding a Special Forces team that fought alongside Hamid Karzai in southern Afghanistan. The army even made an action figure out of him. Jason is as close as you could get to putting G.I. Joe on the Bergdahl case.

His stellar career nearly unraveled last year in connection with his work on hostage recovery, which maybe you heard about. Last year, he testified before Congress about, among other things, the dysfunction in U.S. hostage policy.

Back in January of 2013, Jason was leading a team of strategists at the Pentagon that were supposed to find solutions to some of the army's biggest problems. This group worked for General John Campbell, who was in charge of operations and plans for the Army. My producer Dana Chivvis interviewed Jason.

Jason Amerine

General Campbell just seemed almost haunted by the fact that we hadn't gotten Bergdahl home. It was just the way he said it to us, that this wasn't just idle banter, it was really, "If there's anything you could do, I'd appreciate it."

Dana Chivvis

It was more emotional than a tactical sort of directive.

Jason Amerine

Yeah, absolutely. And with General Campbell, it was a heartfelt, you know, "How do we get him home?" And that struck me. Uh, and after the meeting, I grabbed a couple of my planners, and, yeah, I said to them, it seems like something is really fucked up here. I mean, that was just the feeling that I had.

Sarah Koenig

Jason and his team decided to do an audit of Bowe's case: Who was doing what all those years? Why hadn't it worked? What they found is that the effort seemed to be moving along two tracks. SOCOM was trying to put together plans. (SOCOM is Special Operations Command, which runs elite units. Think Delta Force or Navy SEALS.)

And then Jason said they could see that the State Department was on it, trying to work with Qatar, trying to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. In meetings he had had with the FBI and others, Jason learned Bowe wasn't the only one being held hostage by the Haqqanis. There was Caitlin Coleman, and Josh Boyle, and their child. And there were others also nearby.

Warren Weinstein was being held by al-Qaeda. He was subsequently killed in a drone strike. Knowing about all these others shook Jason pretty hard.

Jason Amerine

I mean, I was in uniform for 27 years. You know, for me, the notion of not leaving a soldier behind, you know that, you internalize that. And for me, it was just always a false assumption that America doesn't leave Americans behind. I ... I'd never been put in such a ridiculous position before of, wait, there are these Americans that nobody gives a fuck about. Nobody is doing anything to get them home.

Our greater bureaucracy is treating their families horribly while telling the families to just shut up and wait. I mean, to me, it was bordering on criminal how we were treating our common citizens.

Sarah Koenig

Jason's mission had been to try to figure out how to get Bowe back. Now, he added another mission. Why not try for more hostages? Maybe all the hostages? So Jason's team comes up with a couple of alternatives. He starts shopping around one idea in particular, and he gets pretty far with it. But then he can't tell who exactly is in charge.

Jason Amerine

I mean, you had CENTCOM that assumed SOCOM had it. You had SOCOM that assumed the State Department had it. And months later, after a lot of meetings, I'd finally figure out that the State Department assumed that the military had it.

Dana Chivvis

Wow.

Jason Amerine

So it was this big loop with CENTCOM deferring to SOCOM, SOCOM deferring to the State Department, and the State Department really just deferring to DoD. But there wasn't anybody there asking the questions to even figure out that it was that big of a mess.

Sarah Koenig

Jason took the problem to a congressman, which rather surprisingly led to Jason being investigated by the army. Eventually that was all dropped. The congressman, Representative Duncan Hunter, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, proposed legislation to try to fix hostage policy.

Other people I've spoken to in government say Jason's assessment, at least in Bowe's case, wasn't quite accurate, that the various agencies were more aware of each other's plans than Jason gave them credit for. But still, everyone I talked to agreed with Jason that our system for dealing with hostages wasn't great.

Cooperation between agencies was shaggy. Policies were sometimes inconsistent. People weren't on the same page. That was especially clear after reporter James Foley was killed, gruesomely and publicly, in Syria a couple of months after Bowe came home.

In December of 2014, President Obama ordered a review of how the U.S. deals with these cases. And six months later, he announced an update in hostage policy, saying that he'd met with the families. Quote, "I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly: that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down. I promised them that we can do better," unquote.

When I first started looking into this question of what did we do to get Bowe back, frankly, I didn't think it would be all that difficult to answer. Which, silly me, maybe, but still, at least I thought the answer would be linear, that a chain of events would reveal itself, one link leading to another, attached to another. Instead, I found a bunch of people whose stories were all pretty different, but whose central theme was the same; frustration. Why aren't we doing more? Who's blocking this effort? Why?

They described struggling against a tangle of competing interests they couldn't control, and sometimes couldn't even see. It sounded as if there was a scandal to uncover. And maybe there was dishonesty, and even malevolence in some corners, but mostly, I think it's because the truth is, there's a limit. There have to be limits on how much we risk, how much we give up to get one person back.

And for a long time, Bowe loomed small. To put it coarsely, he wasn't worth it. He was tucked in among so many other crises, a small fire smoldering among all these giant fires that also need to be put out. The time to deal with him is when he becomes something else, something useful, a way to put out a bigger fire.

Bob Bergdahl told me the family was always against a rescue attempt. He said he studied the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in minute detail on Google Earth for two weeks after Bowe went missing. Based on where he figured Bowe was, he thought a rescue in a place like Miram Shah, even for an elite special operations unit, wouldn't be viable. It was just too dangerous.

Quote, "We thought it unethical to risk the lives of numerous individuals, especially when we knew back-channel communication was possible or even actually happening. We believed Bowe would agree with that ethic," unquote. Mark and Bowe talked about not exactly this, but they talked about how much should have been sacrificed to find him in that initial DUSTWUN period.

And Bowe said, in an ideal world, which he gets isn't the one the military lives in, but if he could have directed the initial search, he would have made it voluntary. And he would have been OK with soldiers who hadn't volunteered, because he gets that they didn't understand his true motives.

Bowe Bergdahl

If in their mind, they're like, "Well, this guy deserted. I'm not gonna go look for him"—

Mark Boal

Right.

Bowe Bergdahl

—you know, I would be like, all right, fine, understood. Because, yeah, they have every right to resent what happened. Because from what they're looking at, they're going, Well, this guy screwed us over. Why should we then sacrifice ourselves? Why should we then sweat and bleed for this guy if he, you know, screwed us over?

Sarah Koenig

But what if they had known exactly why he walked? What specifically Bowe was seeing? Would it make any difference? 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 adviser. Editing help this week from Joel Lovell. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research by Kevin Garnett. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Copyediting by Anaheed Alani.

Our music is composed by Nick Thorburn, Fritz Myers, and Mark Phillips. The show is mixed by Kate Bilinksi. Kristen Taylor's our community editor. Other Serial staff: Seth Lind, Emily Condon, Elise Bergerson, and Kimberly Henderson.

Special thanks this week to Viva Hardigg, Ari Shapiro, Theo Padnos, Jessica Goldstein, Jeff Eggers, Caitlin Hayden, and Dan Markey. Our website is serialpodcast.org. This week, we've posted the video of Bob Bergdahl appealing to the Pakistani government, and we'll put more stuff up there next week too, so keep checking. 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 4

You see guys with helmets on?

Sarah Koenig

Nobody has a helmet on.

Man 4

No. You see a bunch of guys waiting to get fucking killed.

Sarah Koenig

Oh boy.

Man 4

That's what you see.

Man 5

I remember thinking that ... I thought that I was going to die that day.

Man 6

It's a war. It's what we all signed up to do.

Man 7

And they were out there handing out, you know, watercolor maps of Afghanistan wondering, how is this gonna work?

Man 6

You know, I figured there'd be a little bit more shooting involved.

Bowe Bergdahl

It was a bad situation.

Man 9

Because we all had weird thoughts while we're over there, isolated from anybody.

Man 10

The things that he starts saying about the army—shit.

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, so some young mind decided to come up with an extreme solution.

Follow Serial