And he spent another 5 years in hell after a Bergdahl-type deal soured. A personal history of how swapping bad guys for American prisoners can go bad.
As soon as my father hears I’m planning to write about Bowe Bergdahl’s release, he gives me a call.
"Keep your head out of this shitstorm, Sulome," he warns. "Or some of it will stick."
The calls started pouring in the moment Sgt. Bergdahl was freed after five years of captivity by a Taliban affiliate in Afghanistan. I’ve received a couple of interview requests, but my dad is bearing the brunt of the deluge. His name is Terry Anderson, and he used to be Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press. He was kidnapped in Beirut, Lebanon, during the spring of 1985 by a Shiite Muslim militia that would eventually join other such groups to become what is now known as Hezbollah. He was taken three months before I was born and released almost seven years later, which is when I met him for the first time.
Twenty-nine years after my father was kidnapped, I’m now also a journalist, and I’ve worked out of Beirut for much of my career thus far. But I’ve been back in the United States for some time now, writing a book that alternates reporting on my father’s kidnapping with my own memoir of what life was like following his release: not fun, in case anyone was wondering. So I think I’m qualified to say that, to some extent, I understand what Bowe Bergdahl’s family is going through at the moment.
But as my father points out, the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s homecoming are very different from his own. Bergdahl hasn’t been heralded as a hero, like my father was; quite the opposite. He’s been called a deserter and a traitor to his country, and the White House has had some serious difficulties navigating the shifting portrayals of his character. His release, which was secured in a controversial exchange for five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo, has become deeply politicized, to such an extent that it’s become almost impossible to judge the prisoner/POW swap on its own merits.
During my investigation into the circumstances of my father’s captivity, I spent months looking into the Iran-Contra affair — an event widely considered to be the blueprint of what not to do when negotiating the release of American hostages. The hotly debated negotiations surrounding Bergdahl’s release call to mind a couple of factors involved in that scandal. No one is suggesting that President Barack Obama’s decision to trade Taliban prisoners for an American soldier came anywhere near the kind of illegality and shortsightedness that defined Iran-Contra. Nonetheless, the media has already noted the parallel. Even Oliver North, the man who engineered the entire thing, has weighed in, blasting the Obama administration for the Bergdahl swap. Oh, the irony.
There are obvious differences between the two scenarios. Beginning in 1985, officials in the Reagan administration made the decision to covertly engage in a series of illegal arms deals with Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Using Israel as an intermediary, North and other officials transferred weapons to the new Islamic Republic, with the expectation that Iran would then instruct the Lebanese Shiite militias it sponsored to free American hostages they were holding, including my father.
That’s not what ended up happening, though. For a number of reasons — including what many consider to be naiveté on the part of U.S. officials involved — Iran did not in fact secure the release of all the U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Three of the men who were held with my father were freed. My dad wasn’t as lucky, and spent another five and a half years in captivity under brutal conditions, much like those reportedly suffered by Bergdahl. What’s more, over the course of the late 1980s, a fresh score of Western hostages were kidnapped by the same group, leading some experts to deduce that giving hostage-takers weapons and money in exchange for their captives might lead them to the conclusion that they would likely profit from taking more hostages.
Asked in a CNN interview if this was a potential outcome that concerned the Obama administration in regards to the Bergdahl swap, National Security Adviser Susan Rice dismissed the likelihood that this deal would encourage future kidnappings. "I think the terrorists are intent on doing what they’re going to do," Rice replied.
The controversial policy of conceding to hostage-takers has defenders on both sides of the partisan aisle. Mitchell Reiss, author of Negotiating with Evil, worked in the State Department under former president George W. Bush and served as national security advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In a phone call, he explained to me the necessity of conducting a dialogue with terrorists and the regimes that sponsor them.
"I try to destigmatize the whole notion of talking to people with blood on their hands," said Reiss. "The reality is, we’ve done it for a very long time. But I also try to emphasize that there are intelligent ways to go about doing this, and there are foolish, shortsighted ways of doing it. We can learn from the past. Part of the problem with Iran-Contra was that after we had started negotiating and some hostages were freed, other hostages were then taken. So by not getting all the hostages out at once, they created a situation where there was not only incentive but opportunity, given the number of Americans who were still in Lebanon."
The Obama administration has maintained that Bergdahl was the only soldier held in Afghanistan, and the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops will prevent the capture of more military personnel. But there are three other U.S. citizens being held there, and what the government plans to do about securing their release remains unclear.
In the case of Iran-Contra, the illegal covert negotiations had a direct impact on my father’s fate. Robert Oakley, director of the State Department’s Office of Combating Terrorism at the time my father was taken, put it like this when I interviewed him:
"You see, we had stopped paying," says Oakley, now well into his eighties. "So he was stuck."
Despite the administration’s assurances, some still worry that releasing prisoners from Guantanamo in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom will encourage terrorists and enemy regimes to kidnap more Americans, thinking they too will receive concessions in return for their captives.
"The question in these situations is … what are the incentives that you’re providing?" said William Quandt, a professor at the University of Virginia and former member of the National Security Council during the Nixon and Carter administrations. "I think Iran-Contra gave all the wrong incentives, because it provided very tangible and significant rewards for a very ambiguous payoff…. People take hostages because they know they can be traded, and every country faces this problem. Some are more open about how they free their hostages; others are less so."
Quandt still registers his approval of the Bergdahl negotiations, and was quoted in the press after Iran-Contra broke, saying it wasn’t helpful to take a rigid moral stance on negotiating with terrorists, like the Reagan administration did and was caught deviating from.
Faced with the same question, Reiss has a similar answer.
"Do you at all put stock in the argument that trading any type of incentive to kidnappers in exchange for their captives endangers other Americans in conflict zones?" I ask him.
"The answer is, of course it does," he replies. "But it’s not the final word. There are lots of factors that need to be considered, including the release of people we care about … and there are crosscutting interests. That’s what makes this so difficult for politicians to address. It’s very easy to demagogue on this issue and make it black-and-white, and we’re seeing some of that now with Bowe Bergdahl."
Michael O’Hanlon, an AfPak expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has a different calculation. He noted that the real concern in the Bergdahl exchange isn’t whether it will encourage kidnappers to up the ante, but whether the exchange of Taliban leaders who may return to fight Americans is worth the freedom of one man.
"For the most part … the incentives for this kind of thing are created by the natural, inevitable force[s] of combat," said O’Hanlon. "But the question is whether saving this one American’s life … was worth the potential loss of life that could result from freeing these five Taliban prisoners. I can’t be sure of that, and I’m just glad I wasn’t part of making that decision."
There’s another aspect to the Obama administration’s last-minute decision that seems to distantly echo a disturbing feature of Iran-Contra. A concern shared by Republicans and some Democrat members of Congress is that they were not notified of the prisoner exchange until after it occurred, which turned out to be a serious problem in the case of Iran-Contra. All the arms deals with Iran, as well as U.S. officials’ decision to divert their proceeds to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua, were conducted without the notification of Congress. That’s what made Iran-Contra so overtly illegal — not only had Congress expressly outlawed the Reagan administration’s attempts to support the Contras; by law, Congress had to be notified of all covert actions in "a timely fashion."
The White House’s choice to proceed with the Bergdahl prisoner exchange also occurred without the awareness of Congress. Legally, the president is required to notify Congress 30 days before making a decision to release prisoners from Guantanamo. And even Obama’s erstwhile allies are angry. As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: "It’s very disappointing that there was not a level of trust sufficient to justify alerting us… The White House is pretty unilateral about what they want to do [and] when they want to do it… I think the notification to us is important."
In recent days, the administration has painfully tried to make the argument that exigencies — whether sickness or imminent threat — regarding Bergdahl’s imprisonment required immediate action, and that officials didn’t have time to notify Congress. But, as the New York Times has reported, a "secret memorandum" was signed in mid-May between Qatar and the United States regarding the security provisions for the swapped Taliban detainees — which seems to indicate there was time to tell key members of Congress about the plan.
Responding to these concerns, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a statement on his Facebook page: "In response to those of you interested in my personal judgments about the recovery of SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity. This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him."
Yes, sometimes the price of failing to act is dear. Eight hostages died in captivity during the Lebanese hostage crisis that claimed seven years of my father’s life, including the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley. His loss was a huge blow to the agency, and I know it expended an enormous amount of resources trying to find him. My father was held with him towards the end, and actually heard the man die next to him, essentially destroyed by the torture he had endured.
So why did the United States act so suddenly to save Bergdahl? Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, says Bergdahl’s deteriorating health as well as the shifting nature of negotiations between the United States and the Taliban meant the White House had to do something fast.
"I think given the nature of the decision that’s been made regarding Afghanistan policy, the window was closing on any meaningful opportunity to negotiate Bergdahl’s release," says Hoffman. "The worst thing is to see someone being beheaded or, as in the case of William Higgins — who was kidnapped by Hezbollah before your father — [being] lynched…. I think when someone, your dad being a prime example, is being held in horrible conditions and wantonly mistreated, to me, rescuing them is the mark of a government that looks after its citizens…. I think that was largely the motivation behind Iran-Contra. How they went about it is a different story, and they didn’t succeed, but had they, we’d be having a very different discussion."
I can’t help thinking about the three other hostages in Afghanistan, who also seem to be having their share of bad luck. No one is happier than I am that Bergdahl was able to come home to his family. Five years is a long time to wait for your son. But what about the ones left behind? I have close friends who routinely work in Syria, and I’ve known some who have been kidnapped. What if their captors had turned on the news and seen what the Taliban got for their hostage? What would stop them from thinking, "Let’s up the stakes with ours?" That’s almost exactly what happened to my dad.
"I think Reagan and Ollie North did what they did to get me out," my father told me. "They just did it badly. Every time one of us was released, they’d take two more. It became an industry."
"In these situations, there is logic, and there is reality," he continued. "When I was in that predicament, I would have given anything to see Delta Force come crashing in. I didn’t give a shit about what was moral; I just wanted to get out of there. After you do get out, though, even when everybody tells you you’re a great guy, even when they say you’re a hero, they’re eating you up. I can’t imagine what it must be like when they’re all calling you an asshole."