Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has told his doctors and debriefers that he was repeatedly tortured by his Taliban captors and was kept in a cage for extended periods after twice trying to escape, according to U.S. officials familiar with initial reports on Bergdahl’s condition.
The officials cautioned that no conclusions have been reached about how Bergdahl was treated during nearly five years of captivity, and they said a definitive assessment of accounts from a young man whose psychological condition is fragile may never be possible.
What does seem clear, from intelligence reports over the years and accounts in addition to Bergdahl’s own, is that he was frequently moved while in captivity and was traded among various groups of militants, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the closely held reports.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said in a statement that the Defense Department would “not comment on discussions that Sgt. Bergdahl is having with the professionals who are providing him medial and reintegration care” and that it would “conduct a comprehensive review to learn the circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance and captivity. . . . Our focus remains on providing him with the care he needs.”
Bergdahl, who was exchanged May 31 for five Taliban detainees being held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains at a U.S. military medical center in Germany. He will eventually be transferred to a medical center in San Antonio, where he will gradually be reunited with his family.
Officials believe that for most of his captivity, he was held by members of the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied group of Afghans based in Pakistan’s western tribal region.
“I think there are going to be a lot of things that Bergdahl tells the Army and the medical folks that he’s talking to now that is going to be very difficult to validate,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“That’s not to say they’re not absolutely true, but we weren’t there,” said Chambliss, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “We have nobody who was on the inside. So we don’t know exactly what happened in his life over the last several years, except we do know he was captured and he’s been in the Taliban’s hands.”
Bergdahl’s account of torture and being held in a cage was first reported Saturday by the New York Times.
Chambliss and others also raised the Obama administration’s changing rationale for the urgency surrounding the Bergdahl exchange.
The administration initially said the exchange was urgent because they believed that Bergdahl’s health had deteriorated so much that his death could have been imminent. Officials have since said their greatest fear was that his value to his captors was rapidly diminishing after three years of sporadic and unsuccessful negotiations and as the U.S. combat withdrawal from Afghanistan drew near.
“When Bergdahl was let go, what we were told was . . . he was in poor health, and they were concerned that if they did not make this exchange that his life would be in danger as a result of bad health,” Chambliss said. “Well, no intelligence supported that.
“And now they come back, and because he is in decent health, considering where he’s been, they’ve changed their story.”
Both Chambliss and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who appeared on the same program, questioned the administration’s decision not to inform select members of Congress before the exchange, which took place in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.
U.S. officials have said the possibility that the information would have become public, and that Bergdahl would have been killed, was too great a risk.
Feinstein said she and Chambliss have been briefed many times on classified operations and were sworn to secrecy. “We have never violated that,” she said. “But at least you have some knowledge and you can make some comment. That’s never been the case with this particular situation. So it hits us as a real surprise.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” appeared to support both Bergdahl’s account of torture and the administration’s belief that he was in danger of execution. “It would have been offensive and incomprehensible to consciously leave an American behind, no matter what, to leave an American behind in the hands of people who had tortured him,” Kerry said.
He also defended the administration against charges that the released Taliban members posed too great a risk of returning to the battlefield and endangering Americans in the future.
“It seems to me we have an ability — we know we have the ability — to be able to deal with people who want to threaten Americans, who threaten the United States,” Kerry said. “And if that’s what they go back on their word to do, or if the Qataris don’t enforce what they’ve done, we have any number of avenues available to us to be able to deal with that.”
The five detainees were sent to Qatar, which provided written assurances that they would remain in that country for the next year and would be kept from participating in terrorist activities.
Kerry branded as “propaganda” reports that at least one of the former Guantanamo detainees has already said he plans to return to the fight and that the Haqqani network has threatened to kidnap more Americans.
He declined to discuss accounts by members of Bergdahl’s unit in Afghanistan that he was a deserter and that several service members had been killed searching for him after he walked off an Army post in eastern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009.
“There’s plenty of time for people to sort through what happened, what didn’t happen,” Kerry said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who signed off on the exchange after it was approved by President Obama, is expected to respond to these and other questions in testimony Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee.