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CNN SPOTLIGHT: Bowe Bergdahl

Aired June 6, 2014 - 22:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: How much do we really know about the last American prisoner of war?

In the days following his release, the story of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has become clouded by politics.

Join us tonight as we shine a SPOTLIGHT on the soldier now facing a very different kind of fire.

Hello. I'm Jake Tapper.

It's a homecoming five years in the making, but to what kind of home will Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl return? Will he be warmly welcomed as a man finally freed from enemy hands? Or will he be branded a deserter, the charge coming from a number of the soldiers with whom he served?

The answer may lie in the new details that are starting to form a clearer picture of what really happened.


TAPPER (voice-over): In a desolate patch of Khost province, Afghanistan, with the white flag of the Taliban waving and the wind kicked up by the Black Hawk helicopter, Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl walked free of his captors and into the hands of the U.S. military.

"We have been looking for you for a long time," they told him, as tears filled his eyes. He's gaunt and blinking in the sun, with no way of knowing that his final steps on Afghanistan soil would soon spark a firestorm of controversy just hours after his rescue was announced.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We were never told that there would be an exchange of Sergeant Bergdahl for five Taliban.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Totally not following the law.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: I think it was just wrong.

TAPPER: Before the furor, there was joy.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After nearly five years in captivity, their son Bowe is coming home.

TAPPER: As President Obama announced the news of Bergdahl's newfound freedom flanked by his parents, Jani and Bob Bergdahl.

JANI BERGDAHL, MOTHER OF BOWE BERGDAHL: I just want to say thank you to everyone who has supported Bowe. He's had a wonderful team everywhere. We will continue to stay strong for Bowe while he recovers.

TAPPER: The seemingly happy end to a long, determined search for America's only known prisoner of war in Afghanistan, a search that started five years before.

SGT. BOWE BERGDAHL, U.S. ARMY: Well, I am scared, scared that I won't be able to come home. It is very unnerving to be prisoner.

TAPPER: July 2009, a few short weeks after Bergdahl went missing from his observation post in Afghanistan, a video issued by the Taliban, a proof of life video, showing Bergdahl denouncing the war in Afghanistan.

BOWE BERGDAHL: Since I have been here, I have seen how these people live and function. We have indeed invaded a very independent state and very independent people.

LT. COL. ANTHONY SHAFFER (RET.), FORMER ARMY INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: When they do a video like this, this is also distributed within their own ranks, showing, aren't we great? Aren't we effective?

TAPPER: The then 23-year-old Bergdahl had become a very precious commodity to the Taliban, an American soldier in enemy hands.

SHAFFER: I think they wanted to make it clear that we have got him, but we're going to hold him as a prisoner. And you need to act with us. And this is the key. This became their big bargaining chip. This was a huge chip for them to use.

TAPPER: Halfway around the world, Bowe Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, learned of his disappearance when two uniformed soldiers appeared at their front door in their Hailey, Idaho, home.

WALT FEMLING, BERGDAHL FAMILY FRIEND: It was just so devastating and overwhelming, I think ,for them, for a lot of people.

Family friend Walt Femling remembers those first few days as they absorbed the terrible news.

FEMLING: Both of them hadn't slept for two or three days. It was pretty rough on Jani. They were really just praying a lot that Bowe would be released and come home.

TAPPER: For six months, their prayers were left unanswered, until the Taliban released another video of their son, this time on Christmas Day.

Dressed in his fatigues, he delivered a critique of American foreign policy.

BOWE BERGDAHL: Do we or even should we trust those who send us to be killed in the name of America?

TAPPER: Accompanied by photos of the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The U.S. military called it -- quote -- "a horrible act which exploits a young soldier."

Over the course of the next year, more videos were released, with Bergdahl sounding more and more hopeless.

BOWE BERGDAHL: Just Let me go. Get me to come home. Release me. Every day, I want to go home.

TAPPER: And then saying nothing at all.

The Bergdahl family watching their son change before their eyes grew increasingly frustrated. Bowe's older sister, Sky, posted on her blog -- quote -- "I'm relying on God's time in this, but I'm quite disappointed in my American people, in my American forces and my president in particular."

BOB BERGDAHL, FATHER OF BOWE BERGDAHL: These people here will not leave you on the battlefield. Your country will not leave you on the battlefield. You are not forgotten.

TAPPER: Jani and Bob Bergdahl started speaking out too at rallies and to reporters.

BOB BERGDAHL: I wake up each morning and my first thought is, my son is still prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and I need to do something about that.

TAPPER: Bob Bergdahl retired after his 28 years as a UPS driver, devoted himself full-time to studying the world his son was now living in.

BOB BERGDAHL: I'm trying to learn a little Pashto so I can speak with people. I'm trying to write or read the language. I probably spend four hours a day reading on the region, on the history.

TAPPER: Bob even grew out a beard in solidarity and spoke directly to Bowe's captors.

BOB BERGDAHL: To the people of Afghanistan (SPEAKING ARABIC) may the peace of God and the blessings that come from God be upon you.

TAPPER: He had not given up hope.

BOB BERGDAHL: A father does not leave his son alone on the battlefield.

TAPPER: Apparently, neither had his son.

BOWE BERGDAHL: Physically fit, and, you know, I can do -- they let me do squats.

TAPPER: Sometime in 2011, Bergdahl managed to escape. Reports from Taliban sources say his captors had stopped keeping a close eye on him, and Bergdahl took advantage, making a run for it.

He managed, according to an account in The Daily Beast, to survive for three days on his own, three days of desperate freedom, before the Taliban found him in the woods, nearly naked and hiding in the trench he'd dug with his bare hands.

Upon being discovered, he fought like a boxer, said the source, before succumbing to his captors and being dragged back in shackles.

DAVID ROHDE, FORMER TALIBAN PRISONER: He had no English speakers around him. And I'm not surprised by these reports of an escape. It is not fun being in Taliban captivity. Frankly, you just want this to end. And if you're going to die in the escape, you know, you're going to die.

TAPPER: Unbowed, he tried again, running to a nearby village, looking for help, but finding no friendly faces. The locals returned him to his captors, according to one account. The escape attempts put his captors on high alert, now moving him stealthily through the mountains of Pakistan, hoping to keep their golden goose out of the hands of any would-be rescuers.

But how did Bowe Bergdahl end up here in the first place? Some of his fellow soldiers are not so sure. Some say he had only himself to blame. Some say he walked right into the enemy's hands.

EVAN BUETOW, FORMER U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: "The Americans is in Yahya Khel. He's looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban." And I heard it straight from the interpreter's lips as he heard it over the radio. There's a lot more to the story than just a soldier walking away.

TAPPER: Was Bergdahl really looking for the Taliban? Who or what was he searching for? Those first fateful hours when we come back.



TAPPER: Welcome back to our special CNN SPOTLIGHT on the growing mystery surrounding Bowe Bergdahl.

As Americans debate the circumstances of the prisoner swap that brought him freedom in exchange for five Taliban fighters, a critical question remains. How did Bergdahl disappear in the first place? Was he looking for the Taliban, kidnapped while on patrol? Is he a good soldier? Or is he a deserter? Was he on a misguided mission of peace? Or was he after something more sinister? Or was he searching for something else entirely?


TAPPER (voice-over): For Bowe Bergdahl, the lure of the unknown was powerful. As a child, he had wondered about what lay beyond the mountains of his idyllic hometown of Hailey, Idaho. As a soldier, his wanderlust did not go unnoticed. An internal

investigation by the Army conducted in the months following his disappearance in June 2009 found that Private Bergdahl had wandered off at least twice before. The first time was before he even left for Afghanistan during basic training here at the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.

According to "The New York Times," Bergdahl's fellow soldiers told investigators that he had slipped away to go watch the sunset. The natural world apparently beckoned again in Afghanistan, where Private Bergdahl ventured away for a walk outside the wired perimeter of his outpost, an unauthorized trek that was never reported up the chain of command.

Some of his fellow soldiers say he seemed driven less by duty and more by a desire to explore.

JOSH KORDER, FORMER U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: I think he just wanted to go on an adventure without having anybody to answer to, without having anything to worry about.

He wanted to be able to go out and see Afghanistan for himself without the Army stopping him.

TAPPER: A friend from Bergdahl's pre-Army life in Idaho says he often sought time alone in the mount mountains.

SHERRY HORTON, FRIEND OF BOWE BERGDAHL: When he was here, it wasn't unusual for him to take off and go on a hike and find a pretty vista and sit down in the lotus position and meditate and re-center himself and reevaluate what was going on around him.

TAPPER: Sherry Horton was Bergdahl's roommate for several years.

HORTON: He was very -- always trying to expand his knowledge. He wanted to learn about new and different things, like ballet.

TAPPER: That's right, ballet. Before he was a soldier, Bergdahl was a dancer, and quite a good one by all accounts.

Horton, who was the creative director of the dance studio where Bergdahl studied, said he brought his signature intensity to the dance floor as well.

HORTON: He was a really serious student.

He took -- he started late. So he was really about catching up and getting as much knowledge. So he would take two or three classes, even if it was with the younger children. He was really interested in learning as much as he could.

TAPPER: That's a characterization you hear over and over again when talking to friends of Bergdahl in Idaho's Sun Valley, where yellow ribbons are everywhere, some faded from five long years in the sun. The rest of the country may be divided over Bergdahl's release, but, here, there is palpable relief. FEMLING: He will get a great welcome, I'm pretty sure of it.

TAPPER: Walt Femling is a local police chief and friend of the Bergdahl family. He says Bergdahl was a seeker.

FEMLING: Bowe was a 20-year-old that lived in a remote area of our county. He was homeschooled. So he really didn't have a lot of life experience. And he was adventurous.

He really was looking for adventure. And he talked to me about going to Alaska. I encouraged him to go and, you know, seek out those adventures.

TAPPER: And Bergdahl did seek them out, touring Europe and venturing to Alaska to work on a fishing boat.

Dylan Fullmer hauled salmon alongside him.

DYLAN FULLMER, FRIEND OF BOWE BERGDAHL: When we weren't on the boat, we'd just go off walking through the little swamplands and we would just go off on little adventures for half-days and then come back. And we just good little -- good little talks.

TAPPER: Between his travels, Bergdahl would come back to Hailey. He did a stint working the range at the local gun club, before moving on to Zaney's coffee shop, where messages from well-wishers now cover the walls. But soon he was off on his next adventure, joining the Army's fight in Afghanistan.

By May 2009, Bergdahl and the rest of Blackfoot Company were in rural Paktika province, where they manned a small outpost known as Mest Malak.

KORDER: Pretty much, as soon as we had gone to Afghanistan and things started to turn a little bit harder for all of us, he immediately started separating himself away from us and everyone in the platoon and started gravitating more towards the Afghan soldiers.

GERALD SUTTON, FORMER U.S. ARMY SPECIALIST: Personally, I just thought he took an interest in the culture. And I didn't see any problem with it.

TAPPER: One of Bergdahl's closest friends in the Army was former Specialist Gerald Sutton.

SUTTON: Every day, we would always eat together and we would always go outside, and he would smoke his pipe, and sometimes I would smoke with him, too. And we would just relax after work or after we were done with maintenance trucks. He wasn't a loner.

TAPPER: Sutton says Bergdahl was a good soldier and they often talked about what they wanted to do with their lives after the Army. Bergdahl presented a strange plan.

SUTTON: Three days before he actually left, he asked me what it would be like to get lost in the mountains, or do you think he could make it to India or China or something on foot? And I just brushed it off as kind of a joke.

TAPPER: At the same time, letters Bergdahl wrote to his parents obtained by "Rolling Stone" magazine, but not independently verified by CNN, describe mounting frustration with the mission and his superiors.

BUETOW: He did talk about how he did not agree with the war effort in Afghanistan, or the U.S. Army -- the way we were handling our war effort in Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Former Sergeant Evan Buetow was Bergdahl's team leader. The private, he says, came to him one day with a curious question.

BUETOW: He did come to me at one point and asked me -- he said, what if -- what would happen if my sensitive items go missing?

TAPPER: Sensitive items like Bergdahl's gun.

BUETOW: It's obviously an incredibly huge ordeal. And there's a lot of backlash. And it's very important that we find that -- that -- those items.

It was -- it was a little odd that he would ask me that question.

TAPPER: Soon after, Buetow found Bergdahl's weapon and his other sensitive items, like his night-vision goggles, but the young soldier, the man himself, was gone.

The final clues to where Bowe Bergdahl went -- when we come back.



TAPPER: Welcome back to our special CNN SPOTLIGHT: "Bowe Bergdahl."

And this past half-hour, we have heard from friends and from fellow soldiers who have said Bowe Bergdahl was a guy who was looking to the horizon and then one day disappeared into it. They had Bergdahl's weapon and his body armor, but he, he was gone. And it was that instant, according to the soldiers with whom he served, that their mission became all about Bowe Bergdahl.


TAPPER (voice-over): For the soldiers of Blackfoot Company, life in Afghanistan was hot and dusty, their mission always dangerous, and at times, frustrating.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Oh, God. Look at these cruel people. Oh, God, you people leave us alone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These people are so fickle, man.

TAPPER: And, to some, futile. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These people just want to be left alone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They got dicked with from the Russians for 17 years, and now we're here.

TAPPER: For Private Bowe Bergdahl, the war had left him deeply disillusioned. In an e-mail to his parents obtained by "Rolling Stone" magazine, but not independently verified by CNN, Bergdahl wrote of the horrors of war.

"I am sorry for everything here," Bowe told his parents. "These people need help. Yet what they get is the most conceded country in the world telling them that they are nothing, and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live."

It read like a parting shot. "The horror that is America is disgusting," he wrote. And two days later, Bowe Bergdahl disappeared.

BUETOW: He was about to go on guard shift. Someone went to wake him up for his shift, and that's when they found out that he was not there.

TAPPER: Bergdahl's gun, his bulletproof vest, his night-vision goggles asker all accounted for. But the soldier himself vanished.

BUETOW: And they just said, hey, OP2, is Bergdahl up there? I got on the radio and I said, no, he's not up here. And they got back on the radio and said, hey, hey, has anyone seen Bergdahl? Like, I will never forget that line. Has anyone seen Bergdahl?

TAPPER: On July 1, 2009, private Bowe Bergdahl was officially classified as duty status whereabouts unknown.

BUETOW: It didn't take long to search the whole O.P. We talked to the Afghan army personnel who were there as well. Bergdahl liked to hang out with them and he spoke with them a lot.

They hadn't seen him. They didn't know where he was at. And it didn't take long before it became pretty clear that he was gone.

JUSTIN GERLEVE, BERGDAHL'S FORMER SQUAD LEADER: Once we found out that he was nowhere around, it just immediately went into a 100 percent hands-on-deck search for him to try to get him back.

TAPPER: Troops fanned out across Paktika province in Southern Afghanistan looking for one of their own, one of their brothers. Planes, surveillance, other assets were diverted from other parts of Afghanistan to help with the search.

ROBERT GATES, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Our commanders are sparing no effort to find this young soldier.

TAPPER: Handing out these flyers to locals. One warning: "If you do not release the U.S. soldier, you will be hunted."

BUETOW: We immediately pushed out a patrol into the local village.

As we left the base, two small boys walked up to us and they told us that they saw an American crawling through the weeds by himself.

They were saying that this was very odd to them. They're like, we never see the Americans walking around by themselves, and he was just by himself. He didn't have a weapon with him. He didn't have any armor with him. He was just crawling through the weeds.

TAPPER: And then, another lead, this one shocking.

BUETOW: I was standing right next to the radio when they heard that there's an American in a village called Yahya Khel, which was about two miles from where we were at. It's a village that has a very large presence of Taliban.

He's looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban. I heard it straight from the interpreter's lips, as he heard it over the radio. And, at that point, it was like, this is -- this is kind of snowballing out of control.

TAPPER: One former government official expert in the case says this detail, if true, may not necessarily be as nefarious as it sounds, citing indicators that Bergdahl may have been on something of a messianic mission to try and broker a peace with the Taliban.

Around that same time, a CNN source describes a dramatic scene, Bergdahl appearing in a local village, seemingly under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Local villagers came up to him immediately and said, go back. It's dangerous. But Bergdahl didn't speak Pashto, the local language. They didn't speak English. So there was no meeting of the minds there.

And he says that local Taliban commanders heard that he was there. They tried to forcibly take Bergdahl away. Bergdahl resisted. They beat him. They took off his military uniform, put on local clothes, even a local turban, and then took him away.

TAPPER: The military, which had launched an internal investigation, discovered another startling clue. Before his disappearance, Bergdahl had mailed his computer and some books back home to his family.

And in a sign of how sensitive the situation was becoming, the Army told Bergdahl's fellow soldiers to sign nondisclosure agreements, making them promise not to talk about the circumstances of his disappearance.

Until and unless we hear from Bowe Bergdahl himself, we may never know how he ended up in the Taliban's hands.

BOWE BERGDAHL: I was lagging behind the patrol when I was captured. TAPPER: With Bergdahl officially a Taliban hostage, the hunt for

him intensified.

BUETOW: It was 60 days or more. I remember just straight, we didn't -- all we did was look for Bergdahl. All we were doing is going on leads.

We would get intel that he was in a specific village or he was being moved from a village to another location, and we would act on that intelligence, essentially chasing a ghost, because we never came up with anything.

TAPPER: In the months that followed, the 501st Infantry Division lost six soldiers. It's a matter of some debate whether they were all killed while solely in the service of searching for Bergdahl, but many of his comrades feel the events are directly tied to each other.

BUETOW: Bergdahl leaving changed the mission.

GERLEVE: If he wouldn't have deserted us, these soldiers very well could have been in a different place at a different time.

KORDER: It was a very big betrayal.

TAPPER: The military has promised a comprehensive review.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Let's get the facts, but let's first focus on getting Sergeant Bergdahl well.

TAPPER: Until then, the mystery surrounding Bowe Bergdahl and what happened to him that fateful night remain.


TAPPER: Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, has decided to cancel the celebration it had planned for him later this month over concerns that outsiders will flood the streets of their small town. It's a homecoming on hold.

I'm Jake Tapper.

For continuing coverage of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's long journey back, stay tuned to CNN.