Bergdahl, from @Serial to serial trouble

ARM-Bowe-Bergdahl-post-rescueI know, I know. I kind of left you on tenterhooks after that November skirmish between Bergdahl’s counsel and the Army. That was shortly after I published my Guernica broadside on the challenges of telling Bergdahl’s story while deciding whether Bergdahl’s name deserved inclusion in my book’s title. (That last decision was easiest, and will be explained below.}

I then spent the rest of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 finishing the newest draft of this book, in time for editors at The New Press to decide what should happen next. My limited energy needed to be expended on those hundreds of pages — even as events in the Bergdahl case accelerated.  The soldier himself was and is on desk duty at Fort Sam, as seen in the Army Times photo above.

Now, we’ve seen 5 episodes of Sarah Koenig’s podcast, including the compelling “Escaping” and the perplexing “5 O Clock Shadow,” all of them filling in much of what I never knew about Bergdahl.   After the podcast’s first episode, though, General Abrams overruled the recommendations of both General Dahl and the hearing officer, and ordered a full court-martial for Bergdahl, on both the desertion charges and the anachronistic “misbehavior before the enemy.”

Since then, most Bergdahl news has constituted legal battles between the Army and Eugene Fidell, mostly over how much of the evidence in the case should be available to him and to the public. My email inboxes sag with Fidell’s motions to the Army  Court of Federal Appeals, though he hasn’t always shared the court’s responses. No one reported that Fidell had finally, last week, won a minor victory when Col. Jeffrey Nance, appointed last month to oversee issues of classified data,  ordered the prosecution to turn over every piece of evidence to the defense, now.  The Army then turned to the Court, and that’s today’s news — that a writ has been granted freezing any such action, effectively delaying all proceedings for now. No wonder the court-martial itself was scheduled for August, giving time for such delays.

Bergdahl’s case is thus, as I’ve long predicted, entering that no-man’s land of the national security state, and like Manning’s will only be partially visible to the rest of us. But the delay also gives us time to reflect on what we’ve learned so far, and whether Sarah  Koenig’s mission is diverging even further from mine.

dustwun-screen-shot-2015-12-10-at-5-56-08-pmThe Army denies that the timing of the charges had anything to do with the episode of Serial that preceded them, DUSTWUN, but it can’t have thrilled prosecutors to hear  Bergdahl’s voice that way, or to learn of the wealth of information to come from 35 hours of conversations between Bergdahl and filmmaker Mark Boal (known for working w/Kathryn Bigelow on ZERO DARK THIRTY).

That first episode was named for the status assigned to any missing soldier, dustwun (short for “duty status-whereabouts unknown”), also shorthand for the kind of tumult that follows someone being declared so. He wanted to “cause a DUSTWUN,” Bergdahl told Boal, so that when he reappeared at a nearby FOB he’d be able to inform higher-ups of “serious issues” with his base’s command. He also told Boal that he was trying to be a hero, and saw himself as being someone “like Jason Bourne” of all those movies.

I’m not  the only person who was nonplused by Bergdahl’s declarations, which at least implied that what he had to say was worth the cost to his peers of throwing his base upside down.  Or by how, when  he got lost, his Bourne plans included getting Taliban intelliigence that still might prove him a hero.

At least one journo colleague of mine soured on Bergdahl entirely, calling him a “douche” — an assessment that didn’t shift much when the show moved on to heart-rending accounts of his capture and torture. Koenig also interviewed many of his platoon-mates as well as people associated with the Taliban, who had their own version of how they captured Bergdahl and turned him over to the Haqqani network (kind of the Sopranos of the Taliban). And adding a lot of value has been accounts from military prisoner-recovery personnel, including some who got Bergdahl’s family involved in fighting to make Bergdahl a priority. The harder they all worked, the more of a mysterious child the soldier himself seems.

And if you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you got a glimpse of Episode 5, billed as “Bowe explains why he did it.”  At first I was intrigued by the “good soldier” with a “philosopher-nerd component.” But then he decries FOB Sharana as too cushy: “I wanted adventure, I wanted action.”  And in the middle of making his case for why he didn’t trust his battalion commander, he calls his unit’s counterinsurgency mission “bullshit” and that rather than communicating with locals, they “should have been out there just killing these people who were trying to kill us.”

The episode also included important discussion of COIN and of different kinds of command discipline, as a way of exploring the behavior that caused Bergdahl to believe that his brigade commander “didn’t have our interests at heart.” Important to try to understand the situation for these units in Afghanistan in 2009: but less and less of a story of dissent,less so even than if it had been a case of simple desertion. Though I do tend to think that 5 years being tortured by the Taliban is adequate punishment for what he did, I’m seeing Bergdahl as less a dissenter than an anomaly.

Which brings me back to why Bergdahl only belongs in this project more for what he represented as for what the still-young man ever believed or did.  He certainly doesn’t belong in the title;  even if Bergdahl proved a stealth conscientious objector, using his name would date the book unnecessarily. Better to go with  the new and final subtitle, “From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.”

I’ll still keep listening, and following the case; I’m grateful to Bergdahl’s counsel for keeping me abreast.  It’s an interesting Rosetta Stone, anyway – as Veterans for Peace and others continue with their “Free Bowe Bergdahl” campaigns, just as the GOP presidential contenders compete in calling for his execution.  .

#Bergdahl = Rashomon

It’s now more than two weeks since the Army brought charges against Robert D. Bowdrie Bergdahl, known to most of us as Bowe.. In that time, journalists and commentators have rushed to characterize a young man most of us knew only from last years’ headlines, and photos of a skinny Army private in Arab robes squinting at the sun.

The charges against Bergdahl, who was released in June 2014 after 5 years as a Taliban prisoner, are stark: desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy” for leaving his Afghan post. But the charge sheet differs substantially from Bergdahl’s own account of what happened that week, which was released by his defense attorney Eugene Fidell (co-founder of the National Institute of Military Justice).

 The media blitz has come before the upcoming Article 32 hearing, the military version of a grand-jury process, at which a wide range of evidence can be presented by either side for consideration. While most major outlets try to present a balanced picture, others have rushed to judgment, convicting or acquitting before all the facts are known. The truth likely has elements of each:

  1. Bergdahl’s a traitor (e.g. Fox News, National Journal.) Between his hippie dad (who spoke Arabic in the Rose Garden when Bergdahl was released) and Bergdahl’s own e-mails to that same dad (published by Rolling Stone in 2012) that said he was “ashamed to be an American,” conservative outlets from Fox News to National Journal have long been calling for the harshest punishment possible. This week they zeroed in on photos of Bergdahl seemingly joking with his captors, and interviewed members of Bergdahl’s unit who challenged his account of the week he was captured. Many quote those platoon-mates and others as substantiating the root of one of the “misbehavior” charges:, that lives were lost as his peers were ordered on search missions to find him.

  2. He’s a conscientious objector (e.g. The Nation, Democracy Now). The assertion may A make the most sense to veterans who actually achieved a discharge as objectors – something that happens only after a long process in which a soldier persuades his command that s/he’ sincere, not disturbed, and has gone through a “crystallization” in which military service became incompatible with his/her belief system. As a staffer in the 90’s with the Committee for Conscentious Objectors, I had the honor of helping a handful of such soldiers through that process; I’ve since met others, from more recent wars, who were quoted this week in articles positing that Bergdahl was a true dissenter from the war in Afghanistan. They cite Bergdahl’s statement that he was just trying to report some command misconduct and tag him a whistleblower; Veterans For Peace, some of whom are CO’s, issued a statement calling for “An End to the Persecution of Sgt. Bergdahl.”

  3. Just a screwed-up guy, who should never have been in the military in the first place (Military Times, countless editorial pages).These writers want neither to valorize Bergdahl nor execute him, arguing that “he’s been punished enough.” The case has been made that Bergdahl should never have been recruited after washing out of the Coast Guard,instead of being welcomed in 2008 by recruiting commands under pressure to fill the needs of a metastasizing war. Berg’s initial desire to serve appears to have been strong. What he was signing up for is less clear, given his original desire to join the French Foreign Legion and his father’s observation that a young Bowe thrived on hero narratives, that the young man is now was “[legendary British soldier/adventurer] Bear Grylls in his own mind.” There’s also been a pretty strong case made for dysfunction within Bergdahl’s unit, given the loose, unstable chaos seen in a BBC documentary filmed before his capture. Some writers point out his homeschooling and the poor grammar of his written statements, and speculate about whether he was prepared at all.

  4. Besides, what about… Last but not least are those who are less interested in Bergdahl himself than in using him to make a larger political argument, about the 2009 prisoner swap, what President Obama should or shouldn’t have done – or, like Jesse Ventura, to wonder aloud why Bergdahl is being charged long before military personnel who approved torture at secret prisons overseas.

This is all before anyone has seen the evidence headed for that courtroom. Most military journalists I know have urged me, and by extension all of us, to wait at least until the Article 32 hearings are over before coming to any conclusions. But the truth may be hard to come by, since some relevant evidence — intelligence findings about Bergdahl’s captivity – may be declared “classified” and thus closed to the press.

Nonetheless, I hope that as the case proceeds, a sharper picture of the young man in question will emerge, and that we can all shake off our preconceptions enough to see him.–

Bergdahl court-martial: Did he aim to misbehave?

I swore I wouldn’t write anymore about Bergdahl until I’d talked to his attorney. That may change soon. But for now, I can amplify that attorney’s voice:

That PBS NewsHour was one of the more useful of the reports I saw about Bergdahl being charged with desertion.  Some of others that are helping me think clearly as I consider actually writing about it for real:

IB Times on the basics: What does it mean and how serious is the charge? In the piece, they found numerous others who also walked off post, one of them a Marine aghast at the treatment of detainees.

AJC.com more usefully explains: What does a “misbehavior” charge really mean? (Apologies for the blog title. but the first thing the charge put in my head was the voice of Capt. Reynolds saying “I aim to misbehave.”)

saw about Bergdahl being charged with desertion.  Some of others that are helping me think clearly as I consider actually writing about it for real:

IB Times on the basics: What does it mean and how serious is the charge? In the piece, they found numerous others who also walked off post, one of them a Marine aghast at the treatment of detainees.

AJC.com more usefully explains: What does a “misbehavior” charge really mean? (Apologies for the blog title. but the first thing the charge put in my head was the voice of Capt. Reynolds saying “I aim to misbehave.“)

Today’s news is about Bergdahl’s account of his torture by the Taliban, but just as informative are his letters home from prison.

More later, undoubtedly.

Ellsberg on Manning

Image:  ReutersListening now to the audio (available here): the voice of a young techie like so many I know, more comfortable describing the software he used as an intelligence analyst than his thoughts and emotions around the war crimes he wanted to expose.

But when he describes the Collateral Murder video, the anger comes out scorn for “what sounded like bloodlust.” Riveting.

Before talk about it any more, here’s the best authority on what Manning has done: Daniel Ellsberg, whose similarly groundbreaking leak occurred in what now feels was a gentler time. (And yes, I know we’re talking about the Nixon era.) Many thanks to Democracy Now for a terrific interview..

these might be giants: report from Fort Meade

I went back to Fort Meade this week, more than two years after  Manning was first brought to court. Now in dispute during these last pre-trial motions before the court martial, now scheduled for June 3: those two-plus years.

If there’s not another delay, that means that Bradley Manning’s court-martial will begin almost exactly three years after he was first detained in Kuwait, on May 26, 2010. Please excuse the bold/italics: that’s  three years which already have felt plenty long in actual life — without imagining I’d spent them in military detention, much of it in a single cell without all my clothes.

All of this despite the fact that the Uniform Code of Military Justice includes a guarantee of “speedy trial” that must begin within 120 days of arrest. And much of last week’s proceedings were about that — whether all the delays were due to inevitable national-security issues, and whether the government is obligated to cooperate with the defense and share what it found in its long investigation. There were also some interesting rulings — including how much the trial will cover Manning’s motivations for his actions, something important when someone is  charged with “aiding the enemy.”

But I won’t write much about the hard news here: I’ve been hired by Boston Review to do that (yay!) so you’ll have to wait. In the meantime, check out summaries from Ed Pilkington at the Guardian, Julie Tate at the Washington Post, and Hari Sreenivasan of PBS’s Newshour  (who delivers his report in that worried middle-of-the-road tone we all know so well).

David-Coombs-attorney-for-0071You should definitely check out Scott Shane’s profile of David Coombs, seen at right exiting the Fort Meade courthouse.

When I decided what to title this post, Lt. Col. Coombs is one of the two people I meant. I never got a chance to see William Kunstler or Clarence Darrow at work, but I now feel I kind of know how that feels.

Shane’s coverage of the case itself is predictably bland. But he manages, if you look at it closely, to convey some of the slyness of the veteran advocate:

Mr. Coombs, 43, is deep into one of the most high-profile American military cases in recent years, leading an aggressive, if unorthodox, defense. In weeks of pretrial hearings, the tall, crew-cut lawyer, flanked by uniformed military lawyers who make up the rest of the defense team, has attacked the government’s case on every conceivable ground, even as he conceded that Private Manning was the WikiLeaks source.

Coombs, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, served 12 years in the Army before leaving active duty and opening a military-oriented defense practice in 2009 in Providence, R.I. He has worked, both in court and in a public speech last month, to frame Private Manning’s disclosure of documents not as a reckless act of national security vandalism but as a deed of conscience, intended to expose government misdeeds and defend the public’s right to know.

It was an honor to watch Coombs deliver his speedy-trial brief, in which he countered the government’s catalog of everything they’d been doing by enumerating the ways in which it could have acted with more alacrity, adding on every single week in which he saw government inaction “while Pfc. Manning remained in pre-trial detention.”

Each individual omission added up like layers of paint on a canvas, until Coombs closed by citing the Rule of Court-Martial 707(d):”The accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial have been violated. And the sole remedy for such a speedy trial violation is dismissal [of the affected charges] with prejudice.”

The whole presentation led to a super-caffeinated rebuttal by the prosecutor, which told me that it was as brilliant as it had looked.

The other giant I met this week was someone I knew only from her posts at Firedoglake, without realizing who she was: Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who gives her take on the trial below.

jesselyn_radackWith all my attention around soldiers who dissent, I find I’m sorely ignorant of much of the history of civilian whistleblowing, and had forgotten about Radack in specific. And I’m not sure I ever knew her full story, as one of the few employees in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department who actively questioned its behavior in the aftermath of 9/11.  The photo is from the Brown alumni magazine around that time, when she refused to help interrogators corners in the questioning of John Walker Lindh.

Radack has been offering legal and logistical support to Manning’s defense, adding him to the Government Accountability Project’s Whistleblowers honor roll. I hope I can go to DC to meet with her and the rest of GAP, to explore what whistleblowing really means in the 21st century. (And maybe ask how she’s kept her  multiple sclerosis at bay, since with her it’s still the invisible kind).

One of the most fun, and humbling, things about this project is how often I come into contact with such giants. Though it has me listening to this band, so much that I had to include the video below. Tell me the lyrics to the song don’t get you hoping for a whistleblower of your own.