Investigative journalist and former Idaho Mountain Express reporter Michael Ames will speak at The Community Library in Ketchum on Thursday, July 25, at 6 p.m. about his book “American Cipher, Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan.”
Ames co-authored the critically acclaimed book with Matt Farwell, a former Army infantryman and combat veteran who fought in the same Afghan province where Bergdahl was captured. Bergdahl is from Blaine County and spent five years in Taliban captivity. Ames spoke with the Mountain Express about details from his research:
How do you feel about coming back to Bowe Berdahl’s hometown and what are the central messages you have for us?
I’m so excited to finally bring the book home. This is where Bowe’s story began and where his community rallied around him and his family during an unimaginable five-year ordeal. It’s important because five years after Bowe’s recovery, Hailey remains a crime scene, a town that was exploited by political operatives, the national media and, we now know, foreign meddling on social media, with the intent of turning Americans against Americans and neighbor against neighbor.
Why were we in the dark for so long about Bergdahl’s motives for leaving his post? Did this ambiguity serve the military, to keep it an open question?
The simple answer is that no one actually knew his motives. He had dropped hints in emails home to friends and family, but he hadn’t articulated his plan to anyone before he walked.
The day that Bergdahl went missing, his brigade commander cut off all communications from soldiers and officers to the outside world via email, phone or social media. Within days, commanding officers began issuing nondisclosure agreements to Bergdahl’s platoon and company, a practice that quickly spread across the region and throughout the ranks. As the searches for Bergdahl dragged on and morphed into what they ultimately became—a justification for commanders to lower the rules of engagement in eastern Afghanistan—the Army had total control over the flow of information.
Those NDAs were effective, but the lid blew off the story in May 2012, when Bob and Jani Bergdahl went public and Rolling Stone published the first investigation, reported by the late Michael Hastings and my co-author, Matt Farwell, who had served as an infantryman in the same province as Bergdahl.
Please speak a bit about The Eclipse Group and others who managed the Bergdahl “story”:
The Eclipse Group was a private intelligence company run by the infamous CIA legend Dwayne “Dewey” Clarridge along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at the time Bergdahl went missing, funded by several U.S. generals, including Michael Flynn. Eclipse had been hired in early 2009 by The New York Times to track down David Rohde, the Times editor and reporter who had been captured by the Haqqani Network and was, prior to Bergdahl, the Taliban’s most valuable hostage. Rohde escaped quite miraculously just nine days before Bergdahl was captured, and Eclipse would go on to falsely claim that they had sprung Rohde and could also find Bergdahl, all in an effort to renew their Pentagon contract. Mike Flynn approved their ongoing work in the region, despite grave concerns from the CIA that Eclipse was a dangerous rogue outfit that endangered the lives of U.S. intelligence officers and assets. Like any intelligence operation, Eclipse generated some information that was false, and some that was accurate.
Wouldn’t the military have been able to surmise early on Bergdahl’s reasons for leaving his base, based on the emails between Bob and Bowe covered in Hastings’ Rolling Stone interview?
The infamous email published in Rolling Stone opened a window into Bergdahl’s state of mind, but it raised more questions than it answered. Upon his recovery, the Army played things by the book and assigned a decorated two-star, Gen. Kenneth Dahl, to lead the investigation. Dahl left no stone unturned, and his official report on the case—known as an Army Regulation 15-6—was and still is the most comprehensive government study. It helped underpin a lot of our reporting. Dahl looked at that email, but it was just one small piece of his investigation.
How was Bob Bergdahl’s personal appeal to Taliban leaders through a YouTube video responded to by the Taliban or by the military?
By the time of that video in May 2011, Bob was a familiar face at CENTCOM in Tampa Bay and several offices in Washington, D.C. He had forged real relationships with contacts in Pentagon intelligence, and with generals at the highest levels of the U.S. military command, including future Secretary of Defense James Mattis and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen. Before he posted it to YouTube, Bob ran the video by Mullen, who was stunned by the sophistication and nuance Bob had brought to bear. His video was an appeal not just to the Haqqanis, Bowe’s direct captors, but to the Pakistani military and intelligence chiefs who had tacit agreements with them to operate in western Pakistan’s tribal areas.
How was the backlash orchestrated against Bowe before his welcome-home party in Hailey was cancelled, including death threats? It seemed to come out of nowhere to us.
Some of it was planned by Republican operatives who knew that the prisoner exchange had been planned and saw Bob Bergdahl’s antiwar protests on social media as an easy target. Some of the backlash began as genuine and spontaneous reactions to the Obama administration’s fumbling announcement. Veterans in Bergdahl’s platoon were outraged that the soldier who they knew as a deserter was being heralded as a hero. As they took their grievances public, Republican operative Richard Grenell recruited them for an orchestrated media tour culminating in a trip to Manhattan paid for by Fox News. That Monday on Fox, Donald Trump was the first public figure to call Bergdahl a traitor. Social media memes against Bergdahl have been traced back to the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia. I could tick off dozens more examples, but ultimately this is a story about one political party exploiting a tortured prisoner of war, his family and his hometown to score points in an election year.
Why does the Bergdahl story still matter?
It matters because leaders in Washington are still agitating for wars fought by other people’s children. It matters because the first man to call Bergdahl a traitor is now, thanks in no small part to help from the Russian government, the president of the United States. It matters because the channels used to spread disinformation—from fake social media accounts to nationalist websites to Fox News—are still used today by political actors to further divide this country. The Bergdahl case was a dry run for all of it, and it proved that misinformation works, and that our government and media are more vulnerable than we like to think.