This week’s episode of Serial comes one day after Bowe Bergdahl’s defense team decided to release documents revealing that the soldier was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder after he deserted his post in .
The documents support what has already stated – that Bergdahl suffered from schizotypal personality disorder. Now listeners know that in July 2015 an army sanity board evaluation reached the same conclusion.
The documents released by Bergdahl’s attorney Eugene Fidell seem to support the narrative laid out in Serial, namely that Bergdahl walked off base to draw attention to his concerns about military management.
The documents also reveal that the army was initially more lenient to Bergdahl. Perhaps this was due to his psychological profile as well as the fact that he had already been punished at the hands of the during his captivity.
Initially, the military did not propose charging Bergdahl with endangering the troops, a charge he now faces that could send him to prison for life. According to the New York Times, this makes his defense team wonder if the charge “reflected improper influence from higher levels of the military or political considerations”.
Against this backdrop, the 10th episode of Serial was unveiled. It explores the titular thorny politics surrounding Bergdahl’s case.
‘Honor and distinction’
After Bergdahl’s release, the White House held an event in the Rose Garden. Then national security advisor Susan Rice hit the Sunday morning talk show circuit and said Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction”.
To military personnel, especially those who searched for Bergdahl, those words, according to Serial host Sarah Koenig, were like “giving them the finger”. The military, including members of Bergdahl’s platoon, started “screaming into the internet” that Bergdahl was no hero and was, in fact, a deserter. Eventually they hit the talk shows too.
Koenig believes Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers were frustrated but had no desire to politicize the issue, even refusing to answer questions at congressional hearings that could be used against Barack Obama, the commander-in-chief of the military. Koenig notes that the rightwing of US politics and Fox News were all over the story. Fox even reported that Bergdahl had become a Muslim and declared himself a “warrior for Islam” – a report that relied on a source that has now been discredited.
Koenig interviewed a former Green Beret who searched for Bergdahl. He believed the administration’s response was “tone deaf”, especially as it never mentioned a full investigation of Bergdahl’s actions. That ticked off a lot of people, resulting in the media firestorm.
Koenig then digs into why the Rose Garden event took place in the first place. Originally a smaller, low-key event was planned, maybe even just a written statement from the president.
Bergdahl’s release was both top secret and touch and go, making it hard to plan. The Obama administration also knew that the news of securing Bergdahl’s release by trading five members of the Taliban would be “lumpy”. Then the administration realized that Bergdahl’s parents were in town, so they decided to have a photo op with the president, and that evolved into a Rose Garden ceremony.
No one seemed to realize this would frustrate the military or even that it seemed to imply Bergdahl was a hero come home. Off-the-record sources within the administration admitted that they didn’t think it through, because they were all so excited that the deal had actually worked.
‘The Taliban Five’
The military was annoyed and so was Congress. The administration had never told Congress, because they knew many members didn’t like the plan to trade Bergdahl for Taliban prisoners. It was a tough spot for the administration in that if they told Congress about the trade, it was likely to be torpedoed either by members of Congress or by reports in the media. Don’t forget that the Qataris had made the trade on the condition that there was no mention of it in the press until it was done. So despite the fact that Congress was supposed to have 30-day notice of any prisoner release from , the administration didn’t tell Congress, even going so far as to mislead them at congressional hearings.
Most members of Congress didn’t find out about the trade until they saw it on the news. That’s when Congress, the political parties and the administration started to accuse each other of using the trade to advance political agendas. The complaint that rose to the top of the political squabbling was that people wanted to know more about the prisoners who had been released from Guantánamo Bay. Who were these so-called Taliban Five? And would they rejoin the fight, making it harder for the military still in Afghanistan to do their jobs safely?
‘At least we made use of them’
The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg said the prisoners had not been even reviewed for release, perhaps by design, and were for the most part considered “forever prisoners”. But according to Koenig’s military analyst source, who she introduced as , the Taliban Five were fine to be released because they were being monitored so closely.
“They would have left Gitmo anyway, at least we made use of them,” Nathan said, saying the release was more personal for a lot of the military who saw it as a moral issue.
Due to the administration’s use of executive power to release the Taliban Five without notifying Congress, according to Koenig, Congress has now set a higher standard for prisoner release.
‘A model returnee’
Koenig also notes that the outrage over the trade spilled over to Bergdahl. After he was released, Bergdahl was taken to a German hospital and “reintegrated”. The process of reintegrating into society from life as POW took a while and the longer Bergdahl stayed in the hospital, the more suspicious some people became thinking the military was hiding something potentially embarrassing, like he had become a member of the Taliban. What was really happening was Bergdahl trying to return to normalcy after years of captivity. He couldn’t even sleep in a bed because it was too “out in the open”.
Bergdahl was doing his best to be “a model returnee”, offering up whatever intelligence he had and asking to help in whatever way possible. Progress was slow, much to the frustration of those back in the US eager for his return. Those working with Bergdahl had to prepare him for dealing with the “shit storm” that awaited him.
The other question that has been woven throughout the reporting on Bergdahl is simple: did anyone die searching for Bergdahl? The army says no, but it may not actually have done an investigation. That’s next time on Serial.
- Koenig notes that the Rose Garden event may have actually put a target on Bergdahl’s back
- Businessman-turned-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been making speeches about Bergdahl on the campaign trail, saying in the old days deserters were shot. .