“Serial” Episode 5 – Back in the States

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There’s so much going on in the Bowe Bergdahl case that the journalists behind Serial have shifted the podcast to an every-other-week. The explanation posted online hinted that new people were coming forward and they needed more time to digest that information and fit it into the story they’re trying to tell. The most recent episode 5 (titled “Meanwhile in Tampa”) came out last Thursday and we won’t get another show until February 4th.

This week’s episode explores efforts by folks back home to rescue Bergdahl. Bowe’s parents declined to participate in or be interviewed for the series and host Sarah Koenig is emphatic that she believes they declined because they think that’s the best choice for their son and their family considering the difficult situation the former hostage/deserter still faces with his upcoming court martial.

The episode opens with the efforts of Berghdahl’s friend Kim Harrison to free the solider. She had an acquaintance in Interpol and somehow managed to convince the Portland, Oregon police department to take the missing persons report required for the international police agency to get involved in the case. She provided Bowe’s DNA in the form of a Cheshire Cat mask that he’d worn to a Halloween party. The Department of Defense declined to give permission for Interpol to investigate, so Harrison’s efforts hit a wall.

Things get mysterious: Harrison next did something (she won’t say exactly what) that put her telephone number in the hands of people connected to Bergdahl’s captors and someone in Afghanistan contacted her and offered to trade Bowe’s location in exchange for safe passage out for eight members of his family. The FBI negotiated with the man but the trade fell apart and he disappeared.

The heart of this episode are Koenig’s interviews with two operatives in the Personnel Recovery (PR) department at the US military’s Central Command headquarters in Tampa. The two CENTCOM operatives (who protect their identities by calling themselves “Andrea” and “Robin” on the program) were apparently the only two assigned to PR duties for Afghanistan (personnel captured in Iraq had a much larger support team). They describe their efforts to focus the military on recovering Bergdahl and the difficulties they faced as time passed and the urgency faded.

Koenig also interviews a former intelligence operative who calls himself “Nathan.” “Nathan” had no direct responsibility for Bergdahl’s recovery but describes himself as being frustrated by the military’s lack of focus. He admits to contacting Bergdahl’s family via Facebook and coaching them on how to approach the kind of high-level officers who could bring pressure to intensify efforts to bring Bergdahl home.

A recent article from Stars and Stripes that ran here on Military.com describes the efforts as “disorganized” but the show’s host takes a more nuanced view: Koenig seems to agree with the notion that of course there’s going to be resistance in the ranks to devoting too many resources to locating a soldier who abandoned his post. She also mentions a couple of other hostages who had been captured while on a hiking vacation in Afghanistan: seriously, who goes hiking in a war zone?

Koenig has real sympathy for the military’s confliciting goals and understands that diplomacy is long game. Should we have put the screws to Pakistan and endangered critical supply lines through a country that has nuclear bombs and risk future intelligence assistance in a country that’s been crucial to our anti-terror efforts in the region?

The episode ends with retired Army Capt. Jason Amerine, who did look into our hostage recovery procedures and made several recommendations that President Obama implemented in 2013. Amerine survived an investigation that accused him of leaking classified information to former Marine and current Congressman Duncan Hunter and was allowed to retire with his full security clearance.

Next time, Serial promises to examine whether Bergdahl would’ve had more support if his fellow troops knew his reasons for leaving his post.