THE BERGDAHL TRADE
Before I go into detail on my observations on the Bowe Bergdahl hostage situation, I think it prudent to first discuss in the abstract the concept in play, in order that emotion not cloud the ramifications of negotiating with hostage takers. "So how did that work out for you?"
There is a very simple, true, universal and essential principle of civilized society: When people give in to extortion, extortion increases. When people do not give in to extortion, the extortion stops. Few people would dispute this reality. There may be deep and painful costs to standing up against extortion, but ultimately, in the long run the extortion stops, or at least dwindles to near nothing. Enduring the momentary (albeit deep) pain ultimately saves lives. Failing to endure results in long-term calamity. This is a tenet of civilized society which is ingrained in our psyche.
When you give in to terrorists, you don’t just tolerate terrorism, you encourage it. Trading anything to a terrorist in return for a hostage is like fanning a fire. Trading five dangerous terrorists for a single hostage is like pouring gasoline on the fire.
There is a word for this type of negotiation and deal: “Appeasement.” Appeasement will forever be linked with one man, Neville Chamberlain, who went to Germany to try to pacify a dictator named Adolf Hitler. Hitler had engaged in saber-rattling and was threatening war if he was not given the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia. In essence, he was engaging in a diplomatic extortion.
British Prime Minister Chamberlain participated in a conference in Munich in which the European powers bravely ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in exchange for his promise not to invade and cause a war. The Czechs were not invited to the conference, and to this day refer to it as “The Munich Betrayal.”
On September 30, 1938, Chamberlain returned to England, waving a copy of the signed capitulation to the extortion and famously exclaimed, “I have returned from Germany with peace for our time.”
Within one year, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and within the next six, over 60 million people—2.5% of the world’s population—had died as a result of that “peace.” Many believe that had the world stood up to Hitler at that point, WWII could have been averted.
At the time of Chamberlain’s return from Munich, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke presciently and eloquently in Parliament of Chamberlain's agreement:
“He was given the choice between war and dishonor. He chose dishonor and he will have war anyway.”
What the United States did last week was capitulate to a terrorist extortion. You can sugar-coat it with whatever words you like, but the truth remains the same. The Taliban will now be emboldened to take more hostages. And not just the Taliban. Every terrorist group in the world saw what happened. And every terrorist group now knows what they can get from this administration for a single American soldier, even of the lowest rank.
I do not say these things lightly. I have a dear cousin who has spent time in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I myself have spent much time in Pakistan and Indonesia investigating al Qaeda. I understand the ramifications of what I am advocating.
Who then, are the most outspoken critics of this action? The men and women of our armed forces, and they are angry because the administration traded for one of their own! Incongruous? Hardly. Every soldier knows (or at least was told) that America will not negotiate with terrorists and that their repatriation after capture was not guaranteed. But they also understood that this policy reduced the possibility of them being used as hostages. These soldiers know that the decision taken by President Obama has put every overseas American soldier at higher risk. And they resent the release of terrorists that soldiers risked their lives to capture.
Every single American overseas fighting terrorism, every State department employee, every low level clerk at an Embassy is now at a significantly greater risk. I spent years in the FBI traveling overseas investigating terrorism in Indonesia, Pakistan and other garden spots. We knew—because we were told bluntly—that if we were captured by terrorists, no deal would be made to free us. That was okay with us, because we knew the potential hostage takers knew that, too.
Now, Americans going overseas have to deal with the fact that the terrorists know that they can trade an American--any American--for something valuable. And there are still 149 of their friends in Guantanamo Bay. Under the Obama equation, that’s just under 30 Americans.
To be fair, the administration is calling this a POW swap, which at the end of a conflict is certainly appropriate and right. But this wasn’t a POW swap. The group that held Bergdahl is a terrorist group. The prisoners at Guantanamo were not members of any organized army representing any specific nation, and have never been accepted as such. And POW’s are not held at threat of death if demands aren’t met. The administration itself has explained that Bergdahl’s life was in immediate danger. That mitigates against him being POW.
The administration is careful to refer to Bergdahl as a ‘prisoner,’ not a ‘hostage,’ much like they referred to the attacks at Benghazi as ‘demonstrations,’ and not ‘terrorism.’ The problem now is not simply with the administration’s foreign policy decisions, it’s the fact that Americans are having increasing trouble believing what they say about the decisions.
Call it what you want, but if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck—it’s a duck.
Maybe the President was trying to fulfill a campaign promise and empty Gitmo. I get that. He was elected. He gets to do what he had promised to do. But please do it without it seeming like a prisoner swap. At least the terrorists you let back out won’t be as inclined to take hostages.
Most troubling to me, however, is the fact that the administration failed to comply with the law that requires the President to give congress 30 days advance notice before negotiating an exchange of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
Not simply “within 30 days,” but specifically “30 days in advance.” I am deeply concerned because of the appearance that the administration might have intentionally ignored this law.
The administration says that they had to act quickly because Bergdahl's life was in danger. The point becomes then, how did you know his life was in danger unless you were already negotiating? That would indicate that they were negotiating prior to their reason for not notifying congress. If the peril to Bergdahl was found through other means, how was contact with the terrorists so immediately established?
Problematically, the administration can't get their story straight as to why they didn't advise congress as required by law. First, they said that they didn't have time because Bergdahl's life was in danger. Next, however, they claimed they just forgot.
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told Senator Diane Feinstein that the failure to notify congress in advance “…was an oversight.” This, to say the least, stretches credibility. Even if it was true, it evinces a frightening level of incompetence and/or negligence. They forgot? It is difficult to believe that compliance with that particular law was “forgotten,” specifically because of the Obama administration's strong objection to the law when it was passed. At the time it was passed, they criticized the notification required by the law because, “It might tie the president’s hands in a prisoner exchange where time was of the essence.” Yes, it would. And that was the purpose of the law.
No administration can simply disregard laws they disagree with. Period.
THE HOSTAGE AND THE RANSOM
Many claim that Bergdahl is a deserter and some claim that he is a traitor. I do not have enough reliable information yet on which to base a decision. However, even with what has been reported, there is possible mitigation to his actions, even if he left the camp willingly.
Some people do not cope with battle well at all. Some collapse mentally. This is not unusual. It is possible that Bergdahl could not deal with war and his actions are a result of that. If that is true, then he is a casualty in a way. There is, however, not enough information available at this time to determine whether or not that is true.
It is also said that he is having trouble remembering English. I do not know if this is true, but if it is, I am puzzled. I know one American held in a foreign prison for four years, and while they occasionally forgot to speak English upon their release, their English had not degraded at all, though they were fluent in the language of their captor. Another person with whom I worked was an American imprisoned in Bolivia for two years. Not only was his English not impacted, he learned comparatively little Spanish. The fact that Bergdahl allegedly has forgotten English and speaks only Pashtu is troubling regardless of the reason.
According to USA Today, Bergdahl left a note behind when he left the camp saying that he wanted to “start over.” He left behind his rifle and body armor, but took a compass, knife, water, camera and a diary. He wasn’t going out looking for women or booze.
Former Army Sgt. Evan Buetow, search team leader the night of Bergdahl’s disappearance, told USA Today that the team intercepted radio and cellphone communications from a nearby village which described an American soldier who wanted to talk to the Taliban. Again, this will have to be investigated. Nothing is certain.
Significantly, soldiers from Bergdahl’s camp believed he was giving the Taliban information on military routes and times, because bombings and attacks on troops became more frequent and more accurate after his disappearance.
The Washington Post identified the terrorists released from Guantanamo Bay as:
“Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47. Once, the Taliban’s Interior minister, hard liner. Close ties to Osama bin Laden”
“Mullah Mohammad Fazl, 47. Senior commander Taliban Army, later Chief of Staff. Personally supervised the killing of thousands of Shiite Muslims near Kabul 1998-2001. Present at a 2001 prison riot which killed CIA operative Johnny Spann. His military file states, ‘If released, would rejoin and participate in hostilities’”
“Mullah Norullah Noori, 47. Also present during Spann’s death. May have been involved in Shiite massacre. Military file: ‘Continues to be a significant figure encouraging acts of aggression.’”
“Abdul Haq Wasiq, 43. Deputy Chief of Intelligence for the Taliban. Used his office to support al Qaeda. Central to the Taliban’s effort to form alliances with other Islamic Fundamentalist groups.”
“Mohammad Nabi Omari, 46. Member of joint al Qaeda Taliban cell in eastern Khost province. ‘One of the most significant Taliban leaders detained at Gitmo’”
Back to Winston Churchill;
"An appeaser is one who feeds the alligator, hoping it will eat him last."
America has fed the alligator, and he is still hungry.
NOT SO SECRET SERVICES
“What goes on in Cartagena stays in Cartagena.” At least that was the ops plan.
This week the Secret Service revoked the security clearances of the eleven agents involved in the Colombian prostitution scandal. Employment (and significantly, continued employment) as a Secret Service agent requires several things, and arguably the most important is a Top Secret clearance. When agents’ conduct falls short of expectations, even if their behavior is legal, clearances can and are revoked. Without a clearance, an agent is no longer employable.
Special Agents, whether FBI, Secret Service or any of the myriad of other federal law enforcement agencies, know going in that they will be held to higher standards than the average citizen. For example, they are prohibited from engaging in many legal activities, such as campaigning for a political candidate, taking a second job or writing books without authorization. They are on call 24/7/365, and know that certain behaviors which would be no more than personal speed-bumps in other people’s lives and careers would be career-enders in the Bureau. A DUI, a bankruptcy, marrying the “wrong” person or even a bad credit rating could jeopardize their clearances and therefore their jobs. I’ve seen an FBI agent fired for arguing loudly with his wife in public.
The truth of these special expectations is obvious when you realize that approximately 21 U.S. government personnel have been sent home from Colombia under investigation. 11 were Secret Service, and the rest were U.S. military. Have you seen many headlines on the military involvement? America has certain expectations of Secret Service agents.
Though the agents in Colombia were apparently not breaking any Colombian or American law, they embarrassed the United States. If you wonder if that’s true, check out what Al Jazeera is doing with the story. Every agent is aware that sex (and/or blackmail following sex) can and is used by foreign governments to elicit information from their targets. Whether it is legal prostitution or a girl (or guy) targeting an agent at a bar, blackmail is always a possibility, especially when the agent is married. Additionally, a common form of robbery in some parts of the world is picking up and drugging a “John” in order to rob him. Some men who pick up hookers wake up in the morning finding nothing left in their room but the underwear they never got a chance to take off. Agents overseas who do not believe that they are being watched and evaluated for exploitation by intelligence agencies of even some “friendly” governments, are naïve.
Secret Service agents know as much or more than other agents about the potential implications of “risky” behavior because they’re in the business of personnel protection. These agents had no excuse. Likely, however, if only one agent had been involved, this would never have made the news. If the problem was discovered by the Secret Service, it never would have made the news. Instead, the State Department was involved when Colombian police complained to the Embassy. The size and scope of this particular incident was epic and the lack of discretion Biblical. A drunken party at the official hotel with a dozen hookers, loud enough to cause noise complaints? Then you argue with a hooker about price? I think clearances might be in jeopardy just for lack of judgment while displaying lack of judgment.
The Secret Service, like the FBI, has within its structure an organization known as the Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR. OPR, as the name might suggest, does not simply investigate agents engaging in illegal activities, but legal activities prohibited by their special employment. The Justice Department (parent organization of the FBI) and Homeland Security (parent organization of the Secret Service) have their own Offices of Professional Responsibility. Secret Service and the FBI have fought for years to maintain the autonomy of conducting their own internal investigations. They have done that by having tough, unforgiving OPR investigations and punishments.
However, in this case, it is clear that the public will not accept an internal investigation as legitimate. Homeland Security will indeed swoop in and conduct the investigation. Likely congress will also conduct hearings. It is crucial that the investigation be open and comprehensive. This behavior did not begin in Colombia. A complete investigation of the activities of Secret Service agents on foreign travel for years in the past will likely follow. Regardless of the outcome, the Secret Service will be less autonomous now than it was before the Colombia scandal.
The U.S. government has some soul-searching to do in this case, however. Throughout the history of the U.S. military, it has been a given that a significant number of soldiers, sailors and airmen, when on leave soon find two things very quickly; alcohol and prostitutes. This has never been a secret from the American public. Towns like Olongopo, just outside the sprawling U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines were at one time little more than support communities for the brothels on Magsaysay street. Navy Shore Patrol (police) patrolled Olongopo not to curtail prostitution, but simply to keep order. Anywhere in the world where a U.S. military base sprang up, so did brothels. The military will have a hard time defining the location of the line crossed, given the tolerance it has displayed in the past.
It is a mistake to believe that non-military Americans are altogether different than military Americans. Agents involved in U.S. government business, whether State Department, Justice Department or Homeland Security are not taking advantage of lax local laws and women when overseas. It is also a mistake to believe that the U.S. government has until now done anything to discourage this behavior beyond hanging posters about sexually transmitted diseases. When I was first deployed on an overseas assignment with a group of agents, we were not warned to avoid prostitutes, but of the AIDS percentage among prostitutes in the area into which we were deploying. We were then briefed on precautions against STD’s. Don’t think that anybody in the U.S. government didn’t know that this type of behavior was going on.
The only time that this type of activity becomes an issue for the U.S. government is when the discretion is absent among the participants. As a supervisor of overseas personnel, I have had to travel thousands of miles to deal with an agent who transgressed FBI regulations without breaking a single local or U.S. law, but whose behavior created an incident.
Alcohol is cheap and prostitution legal in many South American cities, including the now infamous Cartagena, Colombia. I overflew Cartagena last week on my way back from a case in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Prostitution is also legal and plentiful in Santa Cruz, also. Brothels on the main streets combine with strip clubs where customers can bring girls home for a fee. Like Las Vegas, many Americans for one reason or another are tempted to engage in activities when away from home that they would never consider when near home. Perhaps a psychologist would be a better person to speculate on why that is. But the seeming lack of accountability, pennies-on-the-dollar prices, and incredible availability are factors. To many men, it’s like an outlet mall for sex. The type of person drawn to military and law enforcement special teams are frequently the types of people drawn to adventure of other types. Some of the participants in the party which got out of hand in the president’s hotel were allegedly members of the Secret Service’s Counter Assault Team (CAT). When on SWAT, I worked with CAT teams during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000. They are no different than many other special teams “operators;” seeking action on and off duty, and easily bored.
I know people party and release tension when traveling on business. It is true that overseas deployments are some of the more stressful assignments. Like Hillary Clinton last week, I too have blown off some steam in overseas establishments which serve alcohol (but not women). There are limits, however to the license one may take. In the FBI you are never officially off-duty. One would have to assume that when the president is in-country, Secret Service agents must be ready to be on duty at any second. Judging from the cases they carried, they were armed. Could they have responded to a presidential threat? Would they have been functional or even sober? These are questions that must be answered.
Most troubling to me though is that this behavior was tolerated, enabled, condoned and/or facilitated by the supervisor(s) of the agents. Misbehavior on such a scale could not have occurred without supervisor knowledge. Or in this case, participation. When the boss is at the party, there’s reason to believe it’s sanctioned, or at least that the higher-ups are looking the other way. Or they were until the police and the Embassy got involved. I’m reminded of the scene in Casablanca when Vichy French Captain Louis Renault is told by the Gestapo to close down Rick’s Café Americain. As he is being handed his roulette winnings for the night he exclaims,
“I’m shocked! Shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here!”
No, this was officially condoned behavior at least at some level and likely not an isolated incident. This activity received de facto authorization by at least the supervisor and likely his superior. The trick will be finding where the buck should truly stop.