Michael Ames is an investigative reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. After a decade working as a reporter and editor in southern Idaho, Ames moved east and shifted to national issues. For Harper’s, he published features on Ron Paul’s insurgent presidential campaign and the conservative case for criminal justice reform. For Newsweek, Ames reported on the collusion between the environmental lobby and the National Park Service during the decade-long battle over the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm in Point Reyes, California. Following Bergdahl’s 2014 recovery, Ames published two cover stories for Newsweek relying on exclusive military sources and dispelling commonly held myths associated with Bergdahl’s case. In late 2015, Ames joined with former Army infantryman Matt Farwell to continue reporting for Penguin Press. American Cipher is his first book.
SCOTT BURTON: You and your co-author, Matt Farwell, put in a combined 15 years of research to produce American Cipher. What surprised you most in the course of this research?
MICHAEL AMES: I’ve been covering politics long enough to be jaded. But one lesson that never stopped surprising me was the disparity between the basic facts of the war in Afghanistan and what we were sold at home. The more I learned, the wider that gulf grew. The Pentagon’s rosy scenarios weren’t intended just for the media and civilians; strategic false narratives were delivered to Congress as well. I was stunned to learn what happened when Bob Bergdahl (Bowe's father), who educated himself through open-source reading, tried discussing the war with lawmakers and officials in Washington. The reporting process here shocked me, and what we learned about government dysfunction should worry everyone in this country.
Criticism of Bergdahl was pervasive following his recovery. Motivation for his disappearance from his base in Afghanistan remained a mystery throughout his nearly five-year captivity. Stories of why he did what he did were at odds with one another. There were some who claimed (without evidence) that he had left with the intention of joining the Taliban and subsequently had converted to Islam. Many within the military claimed that Bergdahl’s desertion led to the deaths of soldiers sent to rescue him. Your book alleges that various factions within the US military knew Bergdahl had been taken over the border into Pakistan shortly after his capture. Despite this knowledge, forces continued to search within Afghanistan. Why was this allowed to happen?
The complex answer is a massive constellation of events, circumstances, and decisions made in a high-tempo, kinetic war zone that turned Bergdahl’s crisis into a strategic opportunity — or, more accurately, hundreds of strategic opportunities for combat officers all over eastern Afghanistan.
But the simpler answer is timing.
When Bergdahl disappeared on June 30, 2009, the Obama administration was mid-pivot, shifting resources from Baghdad to Kabul. Obama had just announced a massive troop surge, the largest of the war. Bergdahl’s province, and the surrounding P2K, was home to key Taliban strongholds along the Pakistani border.
General Stanley McChrystal was in his first weeks of his second war in three years, and his command structure hadn’t been fully implemented. Specifically, there was no designated Personnel Recovery cell, as there had been in Iraq, where it had managed missing service members like Private First Class Jessica Lynch. In the absence of that infrastructure, Bergdahl’s disappearance was fed into a chain of command already looking for ways to fight the war more aggressively.
In the weeks that followed, Army commanders turned the missing-soldier crisis into an opportunity and sent soldiers on dangerous “search” missions, which, by mid-July 2009, were based on a false pretense. Intelligence regarding Bergdahl’s location in Pakistan was suppressed for months. Soldiers and officers involved in the endless, alleged searches were issued non-disclosure agreements (NDAs); some men were told they would not fly home before signing.
Decisions at high echelons fostered these practices, and while mid-level career officers explained them to us, we never found a general willing to take responsibility. It’s worth noting that the only former officers who turned down requests for interviews were Mike Flynn, David Petraeus, and McChrystal, all of whom sat atop the chain of command at the time.
Washington’s complex relationship with Pakistan is partly to blame for the long duration of Bergdahl’s captivity. What other factors contributed to his lengthy imprisonment at the hands of the Taliban, knowing what we know now that the Taliban sought a prisoner exchange shortly after his capture?
Pakistan is the crux of the story and of the entire war. The intractability of the conflict is a direct reflection of Washington and Pakistan’s own dysfunctional codependency. Ostensibly our chief ally in the war, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) nevertheless works with several terror proxy groups operating from the country’s semi-autonomous western provinces. The 2008 Mumbai attacks were carried out by one such group, Lashkar-i-Taiba. Bergdahl was held by another, the Haqqani Network, which the State Department designated a terror organization in 2012. With that seal of disapproval, it was even more difficult for US officials to communicate with the Taliban, much less negotiate over Bergdahl.
When the war began in the fall of 2001, the Bush administration’s policy was all about force. “When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations,” Bush famously said on the White House lawn at the time.
But in late 2001, that policy extended beyond al-Qaeda to include every foot soldier and official of the Afghan Taliban, some of whom tried working with us to save themselves. But even after several Taliban surrendered, cooperated with the CIA, attempted to join the US-backed regime in Kabul, and received assurances of amnesty, these men were flown to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they remained imprisoned without trial for more than 12 years, essentially frozen in time.
What conditions allowed for Bergdahl’s eventual release?
Not very many. And there were far more factors working against him, including domestic politics in both Washington and Pakistan. When moderate Taliban leaders tried reaching out to European diplomats, the ISI quickly foiled their plans and imprisoned them for trying. In Washington, when Republicans in Congress heard rumblings about a potential Guantanamo prisoner swap, they changed US law to make such an exchange nearly impossible to execute.
Ultimately, President Obama made the decision with support from senior members of his cabinet, starting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, one of multiple cabinet-level sources who spoke on the record for this book. One of the most instrumental factors that hasn’t been discussed enough, but which Obama, Hagel, and Bergdahl’s parents all stressed, was the elite team of US soldiers who recovered Bergdahl on the Pakistani border and brought him to Germany. They deserve credit, as do the political leaders in Qatar that committed to getting the deal done.
You describe Bergdahl being used as a political football domestically. “Fake news” is a topic that arises in your book. Can you speak to the misinformation that was spread? At times, news outlets used the Taliban’s tactical lies to promote their own narratives.
Tracking the origin of fake Bergdahl news is like finding the headwaters of a major river. What Bowe did was insane; no one could fathom that any American would willingly walk unarmed into Taliban territory. No one knew any facts about what he had done, and into that vacuum rushed all kinds of gossip, rumor, and misinformation. Stories were planted by the Taliban and also by local Afghans paid cash for any tale they could tell about the missing American. They were incentivized to lie.
Following his recovery on May 31, 2014, it becomes much easier to analyze the fake news flow. Two days later on Fox News, Republican operative Richard Grenell, who Trump associate Roger Stone once called “too shady” to work with, and who nevertheless is currently serving as Trump’s ambassador to Germany, claimed, without evidence, that Bergdahl “went to the Taliban.” The clip speaks for itself, and the seeds of disinformation he sowed grew into dozens of death threats in Bergdahl’s hometown. Fake news has real consequences.
American Cipher provides the reader with a fascinating look into the inner machinery of the US military, intelligence services, and military justice system. What information concerning these institutions was most revelatory to you in the course of your work on the book?
I was always impressed by the professionalism and integrity of the vast majority of people working in the military and government. At the same time, the institutions they work for function by and for their own needs. The Army does what’s good for the Army. And while that might not seem like a profound insight, it was remarkable to watch Big Army make decisions that professionals within the organization saw as nonsensical or purely political. It was particularly evident during Bergdahl’s court-martial, which carried on longer and consumed more resources than anyone we spoke to in the military thought it should.
The characters in your book make for compelling reading. Bowe and his father, Bob, are multifaceted and, at times, enigmatic. What was it like delving into the lives of these and other personalities?
It is humbling, and sometimes nerve-wracking, to be trusted with other people’s stories. Some risked careers and spoke out under pseudonyms. One former Army officer shared his because he was tired of the media spectacle and offended that grieving families were used as props in the political theater. As a reporter, you ask as many questions as you can, take in as much information as possible, and when it’s time to write, present their stories through as clear a window as possible.
Bob and Jani Bergdahl lived through a traumatic ordeal that most of us will never fully understand. For them to open up and go on the record with emotions still raw after years of silence was an act of courage. We do our best to bring a commensurate balance of compassion and objectivity.
I read your book as an indictment of the now 17-plus-year war in Afghanistan. In your view, how will history judge this war?
A quick military and political victory followed by a profound waste of life and treasure. Hubris is to blame for a lot of it.
The idea that Washington would succeed where the Soviets and the British had failed was quintessential Americana. Why do we think that we are so different? I admire the idealism behind the NATO nations working together to rebuild a broken country. But I question the incentives that kept the conflict grinding on for so many years even after the stalemate was obvious.
What questions still remain unanswered about the Bergdahl affair?
We don’t know the decision-making process at the highest echelons of military command in the days following Bergdahl’s disappearance. Maybe we never will. It’s up to the retired generals. We don’t know the specific parties who choreographed the media campaign that framed Bergdahl as a traitor in June 2014. We know that the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, played a role, but not how large. Digital disinformation campaigns are murky by design.
There are also lingering questions about Bergdahl’s military paperwork. At one point, Bergdahl’s Army contract was extended by 11 years somewhat mysteriously and without authorization. Despite motions by his attorneys to protest, the Army never explained it. Maybe it was secret punishment, or maybe it was a clerical error. We don’t know. By the time he was discharged, the point was moot.
Lastly, we don’t know how Pakistan works, who speaks for the Taliban, or what peace in Afghanistan looks like. The year ahead will tell us a lot.
It has recently been reported that the five Taliban members swapped for Bergdahl are now central to the current Afghan peace talks taking place in Doha. What should we make of these developments?
It sounds shocking at first, and the irony is rich. The fact that the Trump administration would feel so desperate that it must negotiate with those five men — who Trump earlier called bloodthirsty terrorists — is mind-blowing. Equally bizarre is the silence on the matter from Republicans in Congress.
As we explain in the book, the Taliban was never going to move forward with peace talks until those men were released from Guantanamo. US officials knew this as early as the spring of 2009, months before Bergdahl walked off post. The argument can be made that Bergdahl — indirectly and probably accidentally — did more to bring about negotiations in Afghanistan than any other figure of the war.
Scott Burton is a literary curator and interviewer based in San Diego.