CNN’s Jake Tapper broke the story of many of the key aspects of the Gitmo terrorists-for-Sgt.-Bergdohl story yesterday, and was my guest in hour one today. Tapper notes that much of the negotiation concerning Bergdohl happened on Hillary’s watch and will be fair game for her book tour interviews upcoming (as will be all the questions noted here):
HH: I read the story late last night when Jake Tapper of CNN published a story which I’ve just tweeted out again. I don’t know how he had this ready to go, but he joins me now. Jake, welcome, how did you have this story ready to go last night?
JT: I worked all weekend. I had to give up time with my delightful family.
HH: This is pretty remarkably reported. How did you know Matt Vierkant and all these other Bergdahl associates?
JT: Well, I just started working the story. I mean, I started calling and emailing as many troops as possible, and as you know from researching my book, The Outpost, I have gotten fairly adept at figuring out how to do that. And I got through to more than a dozen, and three of them were willing to go on the record. I knew about the story. It’s a footnote in The Outpost, because the hunt for Bergdahl in the summer of 2009 was so intense, it prevented and distracted so many other missions and operations, because so many assets and manpower and helicopters were being reserved for this search. It’s one of the reasons why COP Keating, the closure of it, was so delayed. So I knew about it a little bit, and I’d read the late, great Michael Hastings’ piece on it in 2012. But boy, what, I did not expect the outpouring of resentment that I saw over the weekend online. And it ended up being a very, just a fascinating story.
HH: It is a white hot story at this hour, and I walked in today, and my associate producer, Marlon the Marine, who served a combat tour in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, tells me when they deployed there, they were all shown videos of Sgt. Bergdahl and warned do not expect to go local and be lost in the hills. This will be what happens to you. And the generally received wisdom among the troops is that he deserted. Now is that, now that’s not known by you and by me, but what is the generally held view of the people that you’ve been able to interview thus far?
JT: Every single person that I have spoken with who either served with Bergdahl or was a knowledgeable officer in Afghanistan at the time says that he walked off the observation post on his own volition. He did it on his own. Now why he did it, that’s a subject for another time when we have him explaining why. Some people think he just wanted to go off and explore. Some people think there might have been something more nefarious, and some people think he just wanted to go have an adventure. Who knows? But he had guard duty that night, and then later that morning, June 30th, 2009, at the observation post, he wasn’t on the base, he was an on OP about 10 kilometers away, he was, all of a sudden, he was discovered to have not been there anymore. And having spoken to people in this squad right there, and others who were in the platoon, it seems fairly clear that he left on his own. And that’s what intelligence summaries said at the time as well. And so that’s one of the reasons why there isn’t this ticker tape response to his return outside of Idaho and outside of his family and friends. A lot of troops have a lot of misgivings about his leaving like that, because in the days and weeks that followed, there was such an intense search for him, and other soldiers were killed looking for him. We interviewed a sergeant today on my show, at the top of the show. He has on his back tattoos of three names, three of the at least six soldiers who died during the search for Bowe Bergdahl, and so there’s a lot of resentment.
HH: In fact, I want to play a clip from the Lead today, and I salute you for doing this. I don’t think many other media outlets would have thought to do this. This is from CNN’s The Lead earlier today?
JT: Soldiers on the ground at the time tell CNN that insurgents were able to take advantage of the massive military undertaking to try to rescue Bergdahl with IED’s placed more effectively, and ambushes more calculated. At least six Americans were killed in that effort over the following weeks, troops on the ground tell CNN – Staff Sgt. Clayton Bowen, Private First Class Morris Walker, Staff Sgt. Kirk Curtiss, Second Lt. Darryn Andrews, Private First Class Matthew Martinek, Staff Sgt. Michael Murphrey. For their parents, this moment will never come.
HH: Now Jake Tapper, Bowen, Walker, Andrews, Curtiss, Martinek, Murphrey, these are names that are not going to appear in many of these stories, but that’s the crux of this.
HH: This is the cost of his walkabout.
JT: You know, actually, we tried to do this when, for instance, like the Boston bombing. This is not a direct correlation here I’m making. But during the Boston bombing, people reached out to me on Twitter and email and Facebook and said you know, you really should be mentioning the four victims at least as much as you mention the perpetrators, the alleged perpetrators. And it was a good point. Different case in this situation, but since Bowe Bergdahl is such a household name at this point, some of the soldiers who served with Martinek and Andrews and the others say, said to me while researching this story, please mention their names, because their names, they did not get any attention when they died. I think one of them had died on the same day Michael Jackson died in 2009, and for that reason, got almost zero attention to his death. And his parents were very, very upset about. Please mention their names. So we did not only try to show their pictures and mention their names, but show the tattoos that the sergeant we had on the show, because you know, when you, when the sergeant we had on the show, he said today, you know what? We would have given our lives for Bowe Bergdahl, and what he did that day was, you know, leaving the base for whatever reason he did it, showed completely disregard for ours. And people died as a result. So there is a lot of anger at Bowe Bergdahl, even though obviously, just empirically, it’s an American impulse to rejoice when an American soldier has been returned into his parents’ custody. And obviously, we’re all happy that he’s alive and well, but there’s a lot of grievance out there among his fellow infantrymen.
HH: There’s also a lot of questions. Now there’s something I have learned in the last couple of days called a 15-6.
JT: 15-6, sure.
HH: A 15-6 is a report.
HH: And there are evidently a mountain of them on this guy and the effort. Do you, any word, yet, on whether the President was fully briefed about the facts and circumstances surrounding his disappearance?
JT: I asked that question several times, and I was told by a senior administration source that it’s safe to assume that the President knew the complications of this case, yes.
HH: And decided to do Rose Garden anyway? Wow.
JT: He decided, well, with the parents. Yeah, I mean, look, the answer from the White House is leave no man behind, leave no soldier behind doesn’t come with caveats. That’s just the philosophy. Also on the Lead, I interviewed Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to then-Defense Secretary Panetta, and Chris Kolenda, who you might remember the name, Hugh…
JT: …because you were one of the few interviewers who actually read my book.
JT: And Chris Kolenda, a hero of the Outpost, and somebody who had fought against the Taliban and lost soldiers fighting against the Taliban. He also, while working for the State Department and civilians, tried to work on the negotiation to get Bergdahl free, both men, Bash and Kolenda. And I said does it matter to you how he left? And he said we all knew, they both said we knew the circumstances. It didn’t factor in at all. The credo is leave no soldier behind, and we were, our mission was to get him back. That said, it was also interesting, Hugh, is that Panetta rejected the deal in 2011. Jeremy Bash said that the difference was this deal has a travel ban for these five Taliban officials, Taliban soldiers/fighters/terrorists, whatever. This deal has a travel ban for them for one year. That deal didn’t, and that was a difference, maybe the key difference for this deal.
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HH: Now the five Taliban that were released, Jake Tapper, I believe are part of the Haqqani network. And they are not going to stick around Qatar one day longer than they have to, and they’re not going to turn into florists. I mean, they’re still going to be hard core killers. Quite a lot of controversy, putting aside everything about Sgt. Bergdahl, I think we would have done whatever we could to get him back anyway, but five hard core killers. This sends a message. And what is the debate about the message that it sends?
JT: Well, the question is, is there a difference when you’re doing prisoner swaps with a nation state like Iran as when you’re doing it with a terrorist organization like the Taliban. Now Kolenda in the interview pointed out to me that, and I didn’t know this. I thought the Taliban was a State Department recognized terrorist organization, but he said it is not. But that said, even getting over the semantics of it all, he said this is, these are the challenges of asymmetric warfare. And that’s a point for people to debate, I think, which is if the future of warfare is no longer the United States fights Russia, or the United States fights China, but the United States fights al-Shabab, the United States fights AQ-AP. Well, what does that mean if that’s the next 50 years of warfare? Does that mean that for the first time, we don’t do prisoner swaps with our enemies because these are terrorist groups, not nation states? I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. I know there are a lot of people who are concerned that this sets a bad precedent. Kolenda, who has fought in Afghanistan, says you know, capturing U.S. soldiers is always a priority of the enemy. Whether or not this exchange had happened, it was and will remain so.
HH: I had a friend tell me today who was departing abroad that every American is now walking around with a target on them, anywhere they are in the world, because anyone affiliate with this radical brand of Islamist extremism is going to think they can get, they can pry someone out of Gitmo. Have you heard that concern echoed, Jake Tapper?
JT: I haven’t, but you know, I think Americans and Westerners in general have targets on their back traveling the world these days generally, not to say that your friend doesn’t have a point. But certainly, I think that that’s a concern. I think that kidnapping is often the second choice, the first choice just wholesale slaughter when it comes to Islamic terrorists.
HH: Last question. Former Secretary of State Clinton will be out on the book circuit fairly soon.
HH: I don’t know if she’s booked for The Lead, yet. Is she booked for The Lead, yet?
JT: She is not. No, I don’t think I’m going to be getting an interview with her.
HH: Well, she’s sitting down with Bret Baier and Greta Van Susteren, so I think she’ll get a fair shake from The Lead, too. I just wondered, do you think it would be a legitimate question to ask her about this deal, because she obviously had to have been involved in iterations one and two of this, right?
JT: Yeah, definitely. First of all, I think there’s very little that should be off the table when interviewing a former secretary of State who by all accounts wants to be president of the United States, even if she hasn’t acknowledged or admitted or announced such a decision, or made such a decision. But certainly, I think that asking about this deal and the concerns people have about it, and the message it sends, is definitely fair. I’m sure she will be asked about it. A lot of excellent people interviewing here, I think Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts, Cynthia McFadden, Chrstiane Amanpour, Bret Baier, Greta Van Susteren, I’m sure, a lot of tough reporters there. I’m sure she’ll get a lot of tough questions.
HH: And then one of the very inside baseball things I’ve heard is that Qatar is becoming increasingly alienated from its fellow Gulf states, that it’s become more and more Islamist, less and less sort of within the ambit or the orbit of the Kingdom. Have you picked that up in reporting this story, that Qatar is not our friend in the way that it used to be our friend?
JT: No, I have not. If anything, I’ve heard the opposite, that the UAE and Qatar are, whatever they are, they’re among the better Arab countries when it comes to U.S. diplomacy. I have not heard that.
HH: That’s interesting. That’s 180 degrees different from a report I got that the Saudis are just deeply, deeply concerned over the course that Qatar has taken under the new whatever emir or whatever.
JT: Well, good tip. Let me ask around about that. I had not heard that.
HH: Jake Tapper, always a pleasure, superb reporting and a great piece last night. We’ll be watching The Lead for follow ups on this. Thank you, Jake, it’s always great.
End of interview.