More than a decade ago, Army Lt. Col. Jason Amerine was one of the first U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Now he’s heading into retirement under scrutiny by the Army for raising concerns to Congress about the way the United States negotiates to get back Americans held hostage overseas.
Amerine, a Green Beret officer, is preparing to leave the Army in coming days, according to his social media accounts. But Army Criminal Investigation Command began probing what he disclosed to members of Congress several months ago, and it isn’t clear whether that will affect his future.
The Army’s actions have raised concerns on Capitol Hill, where Reps. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) petitioned Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno in February to stop what they characterized a “retaliatory investigation” against the Special Forces soldier.
“The investigation undermines the right of servicemembers to petition the government, and appears to violate the statutory protections for military whistleblowers,” Hunter and Speier said in a Feb. 11 letter.
That investigation is still underway. For the first time Amerine discussed it himself in a recent Facebook post, saying he has been under criminal investigation for four months “for whistleblowing to Congress over our completely dysfunctional system for recovering hostages.”
Amerine addressed the case after posting a link to a C-SPAN video showing Hunter discussing a congressional amendment focused on hostage recovery. It would require President Obama to appoint a specific existing federal official to oversee hostage tracking and recovery. Hunter credited Amerine with assisting his office in developing the legislation, which has since passed in the House.
“To get something like this done, it takes people within the Department of Defense, within the system, who … actually know what needs to get done,” Hunter said. “Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine has worked with my office now for about two years on this amendment, and he is someone that really cares. He’s been working hostage stuff with about every government agency that there is, and he played a big role in getting this to where it’s at now.”
Amerine, who is involved in Defense Department hostage recovery efforts, said in his Facebook commentary that the FBI “formally complained to the Army about me reporting to Congress about their failed efforts” to recover Warren Weinstein, an aid worker who was accidentally killed in a U.S. drone strike near the Pakistani border earlier this year, and Caitlan Coleman, an American who was traveling in Afghanistan while pregnant when she was kidnapped in 2012.
“This bill helps to resolve the FBI’s impotence to help our hostages overseas as well as our government’s disorganized efforts across all agencies,” Amerine wrote. “The bureaucracy is broken; this is not about party politics and requires both parties to come together to achieve a solution as they are attempting in this bipartisan effort. But the Army somehow thought it made sense to initiate a CID investigation into me executing both my duty and my right to speak to Congress.
“If I learned nothing in my 22 years of service I learned that we never leave people behind,” he concluded. “This Bill makes it past the Senate and gets signed or it doesn’t but I will be damned if we didn’t try.”
Amerine declined an interview request, but his comments on Facebook provide a new wrinkle in his case. CNN reported in April that he was under investigation “over a purported unauthorized disclosure” to Hunter, but the officer had not addressed it himself.
The FBI did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. A spokesman for Criminal Investigation Command disputed that it was investigating Amerine as an act of reprisal.
“We reject any notion that Army CID initiates felony criminal investigations for any other purpose than to fairly and impartially investigate credible criminal allegations that have been discovered or brought forward,” said Chris Grey, the spokesman. “As a matter of policy, we do not confirm the names of individuals who may or may not be under investigation to protect the integrity of a possible ongoing investigation, as well as the privacy rights of all involved.”
The case pits one of the first heroes of the Afghanistan War against the Army. Amerine led a Special Forces team there in 2001, working alongside former Afghan President Hamid Karzai just before he became the interim leader of Kabul’s fledgling government followed the fall of the Taliban. Amerine, then a captain, was wounded by an errant American bomb on Dec. 5, 2001, that killed three other Special Forces soldiers.
Amerine received the Bronze Star with “V” and the Purple Heart for his role in the mission. The Army later labeled him a “Real Hero” in the 2006 version of its popular video game, “America’s Army.”
He also has appeared on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” and other television shows to discuss the 2001 mission 10 years later. It was detailed in the 2011 book “The Only Thing Worth Dying For,” by author Eric Blehm:
The controversy provides new kindling in the debate about how the United States should handle hostage recovery. When U.S. officials announced in April that Weinstein had been killed in U.S. airstrike, Hunter’s office lamented it and said Amerine’s team at the Pentagon was working on a plan that would have exchanged seven Western hostages for one detainee held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Amerine’s team wanted to recover Weinstein along with Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who went missing in 2009 and was recovered last May, and a family of three: Coleman, her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their child, born in captivity. Two other Westerners also would have been included, but they have not been identified for their own security, said a spokesman of Hunter’s, Joe Kasper.
Hunter’s office declined to identify who the detainee involved in the swap would have been, but CNN reported in April that it was Haji Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan drug lord who had links to the Taliban, but also helped U.S. military officials find insurgent weapons caches in Afghanistan. He was lured to the United States in 2005 believing he was a guest of the U.S. government, and eventually convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to life in prison. Two sources with knowledge of Amerine’s plan confirmed for The Washington Post that discussions involving Noorzai occurred.
It is unclear how that would have occurred. Weinstein was held in Pakistan by al-Qaeda, while Bergdahl was held by a group with links to the Taliban. Bergdahl was turned over to a U.S. Special Operations team in Afghanistan on May 31, 2014, in a controversial swap in which five Taliban officials were released.
In November, Obama ordered a review of how it responds when an American is taken hostage overseas following the beheading of three Americans — journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig — by Islamic State militants. Families who have gone through having a loved one held hostage have called for better communication and coordination from the government.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said last month that the hostage recovery review is still ongoing but that it “does make sense” for agencies involved “to find the most effective way to integrate their efforts and their communications with families.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized comments from Chris Grey, the spokesman of Army Criminal Investigation Command.