Over the next few months, Bowe's unit would be consumed with trying to find him. When Fancey, Bowe's former platoon leader, heard the news at the base where he had been reassigned, he couldn't believe what had happened to his former private. "I was like, 'What? You're joking, right?' The next few weeks, it was like we were in a movie. It was like, this shouldn't be real."
Back in Idaho, on the afternoon of June 30th, Bowe's mother, Jani, heard her dog Rufus barking. The gate to the driveway was closed. On the other side stood a pickup truck flanked by three men in Army uniforms. They were from the Idaho National Guard, and they'd driven down from Boise.
"Oh," she thought. "Why are they standing there?" Then the panic struck. "No, no, no," she thought. "He just got there."
Jani approached the men. "What do you want?" she asked.
"Is your husband home?" they replied. "Do you have anybody home with you?"
She asked what they wanted.
"We can't tell you," they said.
She told them her husband didn't have a cellphone, so she called UPS, where Bob has worked for 28 years. Then UPS texted him on their internal message system. Bob met Jani and the three officers in the parking lot of the UPS depot, about 10 miles from the Bergdahls' home.
"It's not the worst news," an officer told the couple. "As of this morning, they told me your son has been listed as DUSTWUN. There was a 100 percent accountability muster this morning. Your son is off post. He's missing." Bob got back in his truck and finished his UPS route. It was only another couple of hours, he said, and there was no one around to replace him.
During the first week of Bowe's capture, his parents believed he would be rescued. "We thought they'd get him quickly," Jani recalls. His name hadn't been released publicly, and the couple had only told their close family about his disappearance. At their daughter's Fourth of July party a few days later, they told their friends that Bowe was missing and that it was about to come out in the media. On July 7th, after Bowe's name was officially released, the national press descended on Hailey, gathering at Zaney's, the coffee shop where Bowe had worked.
It wasn't long, though, before his parents began to grow frustrated by how the government was treating them in the midst of the ordeal. The Army, they felt, was subtly pressuring them not to speak to the press, and they were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement with the National Security Agency in order to view classified and top-secret material. In addition, Bob believes the military began monitoring their phones in case the kidnappers called – standard procedure in a hostage situation, but one that also enabled the U.S. military to keep tabs on the family.
Things soon got worse. Ralph Peters, an action-thriller writer who serves as a "strategic analyst" for Fox News, took to the air to condemn Bowe as an "apparent deserter." The Taliban, he declared, could save the United States on "legal bills" by executing him. Horrified by such comments, Bob and Jani told their military liaison that they didn't want the Army to mount an operation to rescue Bowe, fearful that he'd be killed – either by accident, or even on purpose, by an aggrieved soldier or the U.S. military itself. There have certainly been soldiers who have joined the drumbeat of hatred against Bowe: A recent Facebook post from one soldier in his unit called for his execution. Worried that any further public attention might put Bowe at greater risk, his parents decided to remain silent, releasing a statement to their local newspaper asking the press to respect their privacy.
In what appears to be an unprecedented move, the Pentagon also scrambled to shut down any public discussion of Bowe. Members of Bowe's brigade were required to sign nondisclosure agreements as part of their paperwork to leave Afghanistan. The agreement, according to Capt. Fancey, forbids them to discuss any "personnel recovery" efforts – an obvious reference to Bowe. According to administration sources, both the Pentagon and the White House also pressured major news outlets like The New York Times and the AP to steer clear of mentioning Bowe's name to avoid putting him at further risk. (The White House was afraid hard-line elements could execute him to scuttle peace talks, officials involved in the press negotiations say.) Faced with the wall of official silence, Bob and Jani began to worry that the Pentagon wasn't doing all that it could to get their son back. As Bowe's sister, Sky, wrote in a private e-mail: "I am afraid our government here in D.C. would like nothing better but to sweep PFC Bergdahl under the rug and wash their hands of him."
The first propaganda video of Bowe surfaced in July 2009. It was eventually followed by three others – the most recent from May of last year. Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, released a statement in September 2010 claiming Bowe as a prisoner – an example, he said, of America's "humiliation and disgrace."
The videos show a steep decline in Bowe's appearance and mental health. In the first two videos he displays a measured calm, a kind of doped-out serenity that is missing from the most recent installments. Each is typical jihadist propaganda, using Bowe to recite lines criticizing American foreign policy. Intelligence reports suggest that Bowe was moved into Pakistan sometime in late 2009 or 2010, where he is being held by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group with links to Al Qaeda that has joined the Taliban in fighting the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. It's also a group that, before the attacks of September 11th, was funded by the CIA. The network, which now has ties to the Pakistani government, is likely living under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence service, as Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda leaders did for years.
Bowe's parents believe that he has been moved repeatedly to avoid the constant drone strikes along the Pakistan border, and is possibly being kept close to high-level leaders of the Haqqani network. For his part, Bowe does not appear to be a willing hostage. Last year, in August or September, he reportedly managed to escape. When he was recaptured, he put up such a struggle that it took five militants to overpower him. "He fought like a boxer," a Taliban fighter who had seen Bowe told Sami Yousafzai, a Newsweek reporter with legendary contacts among the Taliban. According to Yousafzai, sources among the militants say that Bowe is now "kept shackled at night" and is being moved back and forth across the border to keep his position from being discovered.
The Pentagon insists that it is "doing everything possible" to get Bowe home, and a large photo of the captive soldier hangs in CENTCOM headquarters, a daily reminder to those working to free him. Last year, according to officials close to the negotiations, Bowe's name took center stage during peace talks with the Taliban. The negotiations are being handled by an interagency team comprised of representatives from the State Department, the Defense Department and the White House, who have traveled to Germany and Qatar to meet with the Taliban. (One of Obama's top advisers on national security, Denis McDonough, has been intimately involved in the talks.) In return for Bowe, U.S. officials have offered to swap five of the 3,000 Afghan prisoners being held by American forces. At least one of those prisoners, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the talks, is more or less a moderate. "I've seen the files, and it's slim," says the official. "Things like, he used to meet with Iranian officials when he worked in the government of Herat. That's nothing."
Officially, Bowe remains a soldier in good standing in the United States Army. He has continued to receive promotions over the past three years, based on his time in uniform, and he now holds the rank of sergeant. Unofficially, however, his status within the military is sharply contested. According to officials familiar with the internal debate, there are those in both Congress and the Pentagon who view Bowe as a deserter, and perhaps even a traitor. As with everything in Washington these days, the sharp political discord has complicated efforts to secure his release.
"The Hill is giving State and the White House shit," says one senior administration source. "The political consequences are being used as leverage in the policy debate." According to White House sources, Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given a direct warning by the president's opponents in Congress about trading Bowe for five Taliban prisoners during an election year. "They keep telling me it's going to be Obama's Willie Horton moment," Grossman warned the White House. The threat was as ugly as it was clear: The president's political enemies were prepared to use the release of violent prisoners to paint Obama as a Dukakis-like appeaser, just as Republicans did to the former Massachusetts governor during the 1988 campaign. In response, a White House official advised Grossman that he should ignore the politics of the swap and concentrate solely on the policy.
"Frankly, we don't give a shit why he left," says one White House official. "He's an American soldier. We want to bring him home."
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