“Serial” didn’t set out at first to tell the Bowe Bergdahl story for its second season. But after obtaining 25 hours of audio recordings with the Hailey native, producers of the popular podcast figured Americans wanted to hear the one voice missing from the conversation.
“I had seen the videos that the Taliban had released when he was released and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, that guy’s got a story to tell,’” said Julie Snyder, the podcast’s co-founder and executive producer. “This was a story I was dying to hear.”
The podcast wove Bergdahl’s statements throughout its 11-part season, giving Americans their first chance to hear directly from the soldier since his return to the U.S.
The series, which ended last week, humanized the war, Snyder said. It’s easy to see decisions being made by huge institutions without appreciating that those institutions are made up of people trying to make decisions on the fly, she said.
“It’s very human in terms of the plans and when things go awry and taking risks and having goals. There’s also hubris at times that we all experience,” Snyder said. “That, for me, is what changed my opinions and impressions that I had, especially about the war.”
Still to come, of course, is Bergdahl’s court-martial. It’s not clear whether his interviews featured on “Serial” will have any repercussions for him at trial. On the flip side, some critics of the show worry that placing Bergdahl’s story in greater context could reduce his eventual punishment if he’s convicted.
“I don’t know what effect this will have in a larger way. I really don’t,” Snyder said. “I feel for us, all we can do is put it out there. We’ll see. We’ll see.”
Was Bergdahl a traitor who left to join the Taliban?
That was the burning question from the time Bergdahl, who turned 30 last week, walked away in June 2009 until well after his release in May 2014. In an early “Serial” episode, he said he left as a way to draw attention to problems within the military. He said he planned to come back and knew that would spark an investigation, allowing him to air his complaints.
A year after Bergdahl disappeared, the Sunday Times of London reported that the soldier had converted to Islam and had trained Taliban fighters in making bombs and ambushing convoys. The newspaper based the assertions on an interview with a deputy district Taliban commander. But intelligence sources told “Serial” that and similar reports were based on bad information.
A longstanding code of conduct says that captured American soldiers should do everything they can to escape. Twice, Bergdahl was able to escape, but was recaptured both times.
The second time, he was being held in a second-floor room in what was described as a mountain fortress. Bergdahl made a makeshift rope out of two chains and bedding and descended 15 feet to the ground. He remained free for nearly nine days.
“To me, more than anything, this moment in the mountain fortress puts all the talk about Bowe being a sympathizer to rest. Bowe did not sympathize with the Taliban,” “Serial” host Sarah Koenig said in the third episode. “He loathed the Taliban, so much so that even when he’s sick, when he doesn’t have any food, when he’s already been punished for escaping the first time — he knows what that’s like — and still, he goes out the window.”
Above: Bergdahl is shown during his captivity in a still taken from a video posted online by the Taliban. One of his captors holds up his Army dog tags to the camera. (Credit: The New York Times.)
Did Bergdahl’s father, Bob, become a Taliban sympathizer?
Some people became convinced of that when Bob Bergdahl began growing a long beard, which he cut off after his son was released. Reaching out to the Taliban in a 2011 video, making controversial statements regarding U.S. treatment of prisoners on Twitter, and greeting his son in Arabic and Pashto during the May 2014 Rose Garden ceremony where President Barack Obama announced Bowe’s release also prompted criticism.
But his actions all appear to be the result of a carefully researched effort to raise attention to his son’s plight and speak directly to Bowe’s captors, sparked by advice from a part-time military intelligence analyst, “Serial” reported. Bob Bergdahl spoke to Washington leaders including someone from the Joint Chiefs, the principal military advisers to the secretary of defense and the president. But he also reached out deliberately to the Taliban and the Pakistani armed forces.
“Bob was no slouch,” “Serial” host Sarah Koenig said in one episode. “He knew how to use his five minutes. He’d studied the conundrum of his son’s circumstances. He began to learn Pashto, pored over Islamic law, read about Pashtun tradition to see if there was some loophole he could find, some argument he could make for Bowe’s release. He understood the history and the politics of the region, and he was already knocking on doors and asking questions.”
Related: The May 2014 Rose Garden ceremony set many in the military on edge, giving the impression that the White House was glossing over the questions about his capture. But the ceremony wasn’t actually part of the original plan and grew out of a series of exuberant and naive oversights, staffers told “Serial.”
Were six American soldiers killed while searching for Bergdahl?
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan when Bergdahl went missing, told Koenig he was sure there were times when soldiers were killed or injured during patrols out looking for Bergdahl. But he couldn’t provide any specific examples.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Ken Wolfe, the top enlisted soldier in Bergdahl’s batallion, disagreed, saying that by 7 to 10 weeks later when several deaths happened, it was clear Bergdahl had crossed the border. “All you’ve got to do is look at a map and look at a timeframe. No one in the Army is ever going to say we stopped looking for you. But, here’s the deal. It’s been 45-plus days. At this point, we know where he’s at: He’s in Pakistan.”
Why the disagreement? Finding Bergdahl may have remained a secondary goal of numerous missions in the weeks and months following his capture, even if their primary purposes were unrelated. Reporting by “Serial” and Newsweek also suggests in some cases, Bergdahl’s name might have been invoked to make it easier for units to pursue other objectives, though “Serial” found the odds of widespread abuse of the system to be small.
Above: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly called Bergdahl a “deserter” and a “dirty rotten traitor.” “In the old days, bing, bong,” Trump said as he mimicked firing a rifle. “Serial” used a quote from him as part of its intro music for the first few episodes of Season Two. (Credit: John Locher/AP.)
It turns out Bergdahl has a mental disorder
An Army Sanity Board found that Bergdahl suffered from schizotypal personality disorder at the time of his capture, a detail first confirmed by “Serial.”
Folks with schizotypal personality disorder are often viewed as odd or eccentric, Kyle Davis, a psychologist with St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center, told The Idaho Statesman. They’re often described as “beating to their own drum” and often have odd beliefs about how the world works or how they interact with the world, he said.
They’re often more paranoid than the average person, Davis said. They’re suspicious about the world and see themselves as being persecuted by others or the government or the world, he said.
Above photo credit: Ted Richardson/AP.
Why the prisoner trade for Bergdahl? And why did it upset Congress?
Returning Bergdahl to the U.S. was originally just one piece of what could have been a greater peace deal with the Taliban, carefully negotiated over years. A series of missteps and misunderstandings sank the larger effort; when the Taliban made one last offer for just a prisoner swap, U.S. officials chose to pursue it, worried that it was their last major chance to retrieve the Idaho soldier.
The U.S. has conducted numerous other prisoner swaps over the decades and as recently as this January, when Iran released Boise pastor Saeed Abedini and four others in exchange for clemency for seven Iranians convicted or facing various charges in the U.S. Lopsided exchanges are far from uncommon throughout the last century.
The Bergdahl exchange drew criticism, but the part that upset Congress the most was actually the secrecy of the deal and the loss of trust. “Serial” talked to congressional staffers who essentially asked, if the Department of Defense was willing to lie about its negotiations with the Taliban, what else might it be hiding?
Above: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy pilot who was held captive for more than five years during the Vietnam War, has said Bergdahl is “clearly a deserter.” The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, McCain threatened to hold a congressional hearing on the case if Bergdahl isn’t punished. (Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP.)
What is ‘Serial’?
In its second season, “Serial” is a podcast from the creators of “This American Life.” The Bergdahl series followed Season One’s focus on the murder of a Baltimore woman.
The series won “Serial” a prestigious Peabody Award and was widely viewed as the reason a Maryland court agreed to allow the man convicted in the murder to introduce new evidence, which could lead to a new trial.
The Baltimore series drew 30 million downloads as it aired and another 95 million since it concluded. The Bergdahl saga has so far been downloaded 50 million times, proving it reached an audience in Idaho and far beyond, Snyder said.
“It’s been really heartening, the fact that we’ve had such a great response to the show and that we’ve had so many people listening,” Snyder said. “We’ve had a lot of people who are in the military who are listening. That’s where it feels like we’ve gotten a lot of the response, from people in the military and that’s really heartening.”
Above: A donation bucket for the family of Bowe Bergdahl sits on the counter in Zaney’s Coffee Shop in downtown Hailey in June 2014. Bergdahl had been released a month earlier. (Credit: Brian Skoloff/AP.)
“Speaking of Serial”: What stood out to us
Eight Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio journalists listened to the second season of “Serial” and discussed it on a companion podcast, “Speaking of Serial.” Selected reactions after they finished the season:
Nate Poppino: “Easily the biggest thing that came from this season was the chance to hear from Bergdahl himself. He’s been incredibly private since his return to the U.S. I think the country badly needed to hear him explain himself in his own words.”
Frankie Barnhill: “As a civilian news consumer, the podcast helped me understand the intricacies of the war — not through the institutions leading the efforts but through the people fighting and strategizing around it. ‘Serial’ humanized the war in a way no other reporting I’ve encountered has accomplished.”
Anna Webb: “The format lends itself to a kind of intimacy and old-style anticipation that I can only think approximates what people once felt about radio dramas, FDR’s fireside chats, et al.”
Scott Graf: “Serial provided an avenue for the Boal interviews to reach the public and broke the news of the Bergdahl mental issues. Both are big deals. So while podcasts are still a niche for many, if you were interested in the Bergdahl story, you needed to pay attention to this one.”
Katy Moeller: “The interviews that Sarah (Koenig) got with a plethora of his friends, fellow soldiers, commanding officers, government officials and even a member of the Taliban was a coup — hearing their voices and stories made the experience so vivid. I’m surprised that so many military folks were willing to speak publicly, allowing their names to be used.”
Bergdahl is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
A court-martial trial is scheduled to take place in August. But the case is on hold while an appeals court considers how much classified information the prosecution must turn over to defense attorneys, who have received access to only about 900 pages of 300,000 requested. Army attorneys sought a delay last month, saying the defense’s decision to post online a 373-page transcript of an investigator’s interview with Bergdahl raises questions of how it would handle classified information.
Bergdahl’s attorneys say the release complied with a protective order issued in the case. They haven’t publicly said how they plan to defend the soldier during court-martial.
Above: Bergdahl, left, and defense attorney Eugene Fidell look on as Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl is questioned during a hearing last September. “Serial” joined other media in documenting how an initial Army proposal to treat Bergdahl more gently morphed into harsher charges and a full court-martial. (Credit: Brigitte Woosley/AP.)