The Obama administration gave the parents of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl extraordinary insider access to the military’s hunt for their son by having them take part in a series of secure video conferences with senior commanders as well as White House and State Department officials.
A former government official involved in American hostage issues said he had never heard of giving a family such access and questioned whether sensitive information could have been conveyed to Robert and Jani Bergdahl and somehow leaked out. A family spokesman said he knows of no such breach.
Soon after Sgt. Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan in June 2009, the Obama administration approved an outreach program that involved the Bergdahls traveling from their home in Hailey, Idaho, to the state’s National Guard headquarters in Boise.
There they were hooked into secure video conferences that included representatives of U.S. Central Command, which runs the war in Afghanistan, as well as with White House, State Department and intelligence officials.
Robert Bergdahl has expressed concern for prisoners at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. From that prison, the U.S. released five senior Taliban commanders May 31 in exchange for the 28-year-old Sgt. Bergdahl, who was held five years by the violent Haqqani Network, a Taliban ally.
Air Force Col. Timothy Marsano, Idaho’s National Guard spokesman, said the Bergdahls participated in video conferences quarterly — or perhaps as many as 20 — over the five years.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl were regularly informed about what was happening throughout the duration using video teleconferencing [with] various military and other government agencies,” Col. Marsano said. “There was a great effort to keep Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl updated on developments.”
There is no Army post in Idaho. The Guard offered to help the Bergdahls with media relations, and they accepted, said Col. Marsano, who has served as the family’s spokesman.
Asked about the video conferences, Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said: “While I don’t have specific details to provide, I can tell you that we actively communicated with the Bergdahl family on a regular basis through a variety of means to keep them informed on the efforts to recover Sgt. Bergdahl and to highlight the close coordination and teamwork between U.S. Central Command, the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies.”
Robert Bergdahl has expressed sympathy for the al Qaeda and Taliban captives at Guantanamo, as he has for other prisoners, both Christian and Muslim, around the world.
Shortly before his son’s release, he tweeted: “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen!” That message on Twitter was later deleted.
In 2011, he issued a personal video urging the Pakistani military to secure his son’s release.
“Strangely to some, we must also thank those who have cared for our son for almost two years,” Mr. Bergdahl said. Addressing the Haqqanis, he said, “We know our son is a prisoner and, at the same time, a guest in your home.”
He also said, “We have been quiet in public, but we haven’t been quiet behind the scenes,” and “no family understands the detainee issue like ours.”
Larry Johnson, who worked on the issue of the American hostages in Lebanon while at the State Department in the 1980s, said he had never heard of bringing families into top-level discussions about efforts to free their relatives.
“It’s wrong,” Mr. Johnson said. “The Bergdahls shouldn’t have been part of that for no other reason than on the off chance they may inadvertently divulge some tactic.
“I mean, it’s one thing for government officials to interview the family, get insights from the family about what’s going on,” he said. “But to put them in the middle of what is essentially a classified secure video conference is ridiculous.”
Asked whether the Bergdahls exposed any sensitive information, Col. Marsano said, “I certainly don’t know of anything like that happening.”
He declined to discuss whether classified matters arose or whether the couple had a security clearance.
“It was very clear to me that the agencies involved, to include the Department of Defense, had a strong interest in ensuring this family had up-to-date information and did not leave them in the dark,” Col. Marsano said.
Sgt. Bergdahl now is undergoing the military’s reintegration process, which at some point includes debriefings on his captivity.
Former Army colleagues accuse Sgt. Bergdahl of desertion, saying he walked off their forward operating base in Paktia province and into the hands of the enemy.