'Serial' podcast chat: The Bowe Bergdahl case

Bowe Bergdahl in captivity with members of a militant group affiliated with the Taliban (AFP PHOTO / IntelCenter)
Dec 18, 2015

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been a controversial figure ever since he slipped away from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban. Now, with the 'Serial' podcast covering the case, national security writer Dan Lamothe discusses it, answering questions about the case and the war in Afghanistan.

This chat will start at noon on the East Coast on Friday, Dec. 18.

Hi all. Thanks for joining this chat on Bowe Bergdahl and "Serial." As you may have heard, the Army has set an arraignment date for him on Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C. -- the first step in their general court-martial process against him.

Dan, thanks for discussing the Bergdahl case. Re: The timing of this week's announcement that Bergdahl will face a general court marshal. Was a decision expected around now, or did the timing come as a surprise to you and other observers? Is it possible or likely that Bergdahl's trial will involve his recorded discussions with Mark Boal?

Thanks for the question. I think I had expected they would wait until the new year before proceeding, but I wasn't totally shocked they went ahead now. The preliminary hearing for the case occurred back in September -- this has been brewing for some time.

Quite a few people have wondered whether the Army went ahead in part because of Bergdahl signing off on Boal's recorded conversations being shared with "Serial." I think that's a reasonable question, too, and addressed it some here.

For their part, the officials I spoke with at Fort Bragg, where Bergdahl will face court-martial, say that the release of the new season of "Serial" with his involvement affected neither the kind of court-martial he faces (they went with the most serious kind), nor the timing of the announcement.

Sarah "calls" the Taliban to talk about Bowe and get their side of the story. Is that common/typical? Can people just call the Taliban?

Ah -- I thought this was an interesting wrinkled to the second episode. It's actually not as uncommon as you might think, though. The Taliban has a pretty robust web presence, sends out press releases and is regularly quoted by foreign correspondents covering Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The caveat, of course: They frequently don't have their facts right, and are pushing a pretty strong agenda. For example, it's common that when an armored military vehicle hits a Taliban-emplaced IED, they call it a "tank" in tweets. There's obviously a big difference between a four-wheel Humvee or MRAP and a tank rolling on tracks with a big heavy main gun.

I haven't had a chance to listen, I assume I should come back later to read the transcript for this chat. Is anything in the story 'spoiler worthy'? I certainly know the bones of the situation.

Hi -- thanks for the question. This is a difficult question for me to answer, as one man's plot spoiler is another man's front-page news, especially with this case.

I would say this: If you are coming in cold and don't know much about the Bowe Bergdahl case, it seems to me it's a lot more likely you'll run into spoilers than during season one of "Serial." This isn't an obscure murder case -- it's an ongoing story that has tentacles in Afghanistan, the White House, Congress and numerous military bases across the country. It's on people like me to keep reporting new developments as they are learned. Some of those might come from "Serial."

Hey Dan, We learn in this 'Serial' episode of the frantic search for Bergdahl in the early hours, days and weeks of his disappearance. What do we know of those efforts, years later; specifically the latter years of his captivity leading up to his release? Thanks, Eric Phillips

Hey, Eric. Thanks for coming back for this second chat. The search for Bergdahl could (and no doubt will) fill books. I can speak to the early days of it best, since I sat in on the preliminary hearing in September for this case and have interviewed several soldiers who were in Bergdahl's unit.

To a man, they all describe it as the most miserable time in their lives. They went from running routine presence patrols to running raids for weeks on end, to the point that their T-shirts and socks started rotting on their bodies. I think it got a lot more complicated after that, especially once it became apparent that Bergdahl had been moved over the border into Pakistan, where the U.S. military doesn't have the same ability to move freely.

I'm not familiar with court martial proceedings - can you explain what will happen there? Do you think Serial will impact Bowe negatively (as in, people there will be more harsh since he decided to participate in this?)

Good question. A court-martial is the military version of a criminal trial. They come at several levels, the most serious of which is a general court-martial. It is overseen by a military judge, with a general officer in charge of the whole thing. In Bergdahl's case, that's Gen. Mark Abrams, a four-star general at Fort Bragg.

You can expect a lot of the same things in coming weeks and months that you'd see in a federal case -- perp walks, opening arguments, testimony, etc. The big difference is that the jury will be made up of military service members, who ostensibly have a better understanding of the charges Bergdahl faces and what he was supposed to be doing at the time of his disappearance.

How common are Dustwuns? Have they been used before and were they effective? Why did Bowe think this would work?

Good question. DUSTWUN is actually an acronym, standing for Duty Status - Whereabouts Unknown. It's exceeding uncommon, especially in the modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where service members have typically gone on patrol, and then returned to a base afterward.

A DUSTWUN is declared to mount as many people possible to find the individual who has gone missing. In another example you might heard of, I believe a DUSTWUN was declared when Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was captured in Iraq. Need to check on that, though.

In episode 1, they noted that in a few days the base would be transitioned over to the Afghans. Why didn't Bowe just wait? Wouldn't they all have moved to another base? Maybe he would have had an opportunity to talk at the new location?

This is an excellent question -- a $1 million one, really. It has baffled and infuriated many of the fellow soldiers who had to search for Bergdahl afterward.

Bergdahl absolutely would have had the opportunity to talk to others at the larger base mentioned, Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sharana. It was a pretty big hub, with a brigade commander (a colonel, just below a general in the rank structure) and other senior officers there.

The rub, though, is that Bergdahl's mention condition at the time of his disappearance is in question. His lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said in the hearing in September that a panel of mental health professional found that he was suffering from a mental defect at the time he walked away. How this is viewed in court will likely be key going forward.

there are several discrepancies in Bowe's story versus the Taliban story (being taken in a tent versus being taken out in the open). What do the official records say?

Here's what we have right now: Two days of testimony in September from officers involved in the search for Bergdahl and his subsequent investigation.

Here's what we don't have: Virtually every other document in this case. The Army hasn't released them, assumedly due to their sensitivity.

That makes it complicated to tell what happened, which a lot of journalists have alluded to, including Sarah Koenig for "Serial." I had not heard the tent story before yesterday, but there are stories about Bergdahl wandering around looking for the Taliban, including by The Washington Post.

Did Bowe ever get his chance to talk to the leadership, the reason he started this whole journey? Do you know if he spoke with Obama, military leaders, etc?

I seriously doubt Bergdahl has spoken to the president. That strikes me as way too politically sensitive at this point in time.

He did, however, eventually speak to a number of investigators and at least one general officer, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who led the most recent probe into his disappearance. Dahl said he found Bergdahl honest, but seriously mixed up. I wrote about a lot of that here.

Why did Berghdal think that walking away (Dustwun) would improve his situation?

I think it's actually the opposite -- he knew it would hurt his own personal situation, leading to what he referred to at one point as a "hurricane of wrath." He said he felt compelled to do it because things were so bad in his own unit, but virtually every other soldier didn't see what he saw in that regard. That might be the mental defect alluded to, or something else. Hard to tell from here.

The second question is whether Bergdahl really wanted to cause a DUSTWUN, or just made up the story after he walked away for some other reason (running away, joining the Taliban, etc.) and thought it would help his case now. Again, the general found him credible. But we'll see how this plays out.

Did the taliban really treat Bergdahl better than how we treat those at Guantanamo Bay?

Short answer: Not even close.

According to a senior defense official who testified in September, Bergdahl was kept in a cage, whipped with chains, starved, dehydrated and beaten repeatedly. He got so desperate for water that at least at one point, he drank his own urine. I don't think his torture can really be questioned: Medical professionals who have seen him say he will require a lifetime of care for physical injuries.

Guantanamo isn't perfect, and there's a lot of questions about whether the U.S. government handles detainees there as well as it should. But the two situations aren't comparable.

Is Bowe Bergdahl going to be held accountable for abandoning his post and for the deaths caused by the subsequent search for him - which put our soldiers inton harms way as a direct result of his actions?

I think I see half a question here, and more of you pointing out that some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers remain furious with him and play him for the death of others.

Here's where we are: It's indisputable that Bergdahl's purposeful decision led to others being put in harm's way. In the hearing in September, we heard about soldiers getting concussions due to IED blasts on their vehicles. On "Serial" this week, we  heard a Special Forces commander describe his Green Berets running into a compound looking for Bergdahl, and finding the roof rigged with explosives. They survived, but it underscores how serious this whole thing is.

Bergdahl faces up to life in prison. Most people don't think he will get that, but it sure looks like he will be held accountable at this point.

You mentioned that Bowe's lawyer says that Bowe's mental health was in question at the time he walked off. Will that be taken into consideration at court martial? (Like an insanity defense or something?)

Good question -- you could see this being at the heart of the defense, in a way.

Bergdahl's lawyer thus far has conceded that his client went absent without leave (AWOL, which you've probably heard of before). That's a lesser charge than desertion, and a way lesser charge than misbehavior before the enemy, which Bergdahl also faces. Bergdahl's team says that since he was AWOL for less than a day before he was captured by the Taliban, he should only face charges for that day.

Clearly, the prosecution sees things differently.

How will the jury for the court martial be selected? Is it like in a regular case where both lawyers can throw some out? How can they be impartial when likely everyone has heard about this case?

This will be complicated in Bergdahl's case, to be sure. In this regard, it's important to remember that this will not be a federal trial in civilian court, but a military court-martial. That means that the judge, jury and even some of Bergdahl's defense lawyers all will be in uniform.

Here's the manual for military court-martials. It shows that the jury will include other soldiers. Bergdahl, as a enlisted soldier, has the right to request a portion of those to be rank-and-file people like him. But it's unclear if that will really help his case.

Bergdahl's lawyer has raised the fairness question repeatedly. I'm not sure how you really address it 100 percent.

Based on what you know of the story, how accurate was the interview with the Taliban in the second episode of the podcast? Any changes in the story?

OK, last question I can fit in today here. It's a good one: I hadn't previously heard the story about the Taliban dragging Bergdahl west to Ghazni province, rather than straight east to Pakistan. It would provide another good reason that U.S. troops struggled to find him.

With that said, I'm taking it with a grain of salt. It makes sense, but in that podcast other Taliban officials say repeatedly they thought Bergdahl was drunk (it doesn't sound like that was the case) and that they treated him reasonably well (by tying him to a motorcycle after capturing him?).

One of the big reveals on this will be when military documents -- now either classified or kept under lock and key -- are released later. For now, we just don't know. This is one of those stories where there are so many people with vested interests and so much fog of war, it's hard to get to the actual ground truth.

That's it for me today. I will be at the arraignment Tuesday at Fort Bragg, so keep your eyes peeled on Checkpoint for coverage. I don't anticipate there will be a chat next week with the holidays, but my colleagues and I are considering ways we can interact about the case in the new year. Thanks again for stopping by.

In This Chat
Dan Lamothe
Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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