(CNN) — The negotiated release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban figures has turned into a whirlwind of controversy — some of it political and some of it from the very soldiers he served with in Afghanistan.
New information on both fronts came to light over the weekend, including new details on Bergdahl himself, the conditions he faced in captivity and how he’s adjusting to his freedom — both physically and mentally.
He was kept in a cage
Bergdahl is recovering at a U.S. military hospital in Germany as details slowly emerge about the conditions endured during five years of captivity.
Citing an American official, The New York Times reported Sunday that Bergdahl told medical staff that the box he was kept in for weeks at a time was pitch black and like a shark cage.
CNN reported Friday that Bergdahl has said he was kept in a small box after trying to escape, according to a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of not being identified. The official also told CNN that Bergdahl suffers from psychological trauma caused by physical abuse.
A Taliban source with knowledge of Bergdahl’s captivity told CNN’s Nic Robertson on Sunday that Bergdahl escaped at one point and was on the run for three days. When he was recaptured after that attempt, according to the Taliban source, he was not punished with a cage or cell, but was taken to a more secure location where he had no chance to escape.
A U.S. official told CNN last week that Bergdahl may have tried to escape his Taliban captors on at least two occasions.
He hasn’t spoken to his parents yet
Doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where Bergdahl was taken after his handover, said Friday that he was in stable condition and continued to improve but wasn’t ready to travel to the United States.
“There is no predetermined timeline for Sgt. Bergdahl’s recovery process,” a hospital statement said. “The duration will continue to be based on the pace of his healing and reintegration process.”
When he is ready, Bergdahl will be flown to the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas, where he may be able to reunite with his parents. Bergdahl has not spoken with them since his release.
He wants to be recognized by his old rank
The Times report added that Bergdahl has taken walks outside his hospital room while wearing his Army uniform, according to the American official. Bergdahl, who was promoted twice on schedule while in captivity, objects to being called sergeant, the Times reported.
Bergdahl said he wants to be recognized by his old rank, a senior U.S. official told CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr on Sunday.
Bergdahl was a private first class when he went missing on June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, where he was deployed with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
“In his mind, he’s a Pfc,” the official told Starr.
His parents have received threats
The FBI is investigating threats against Bergdahl’s parents, who have not been seen publicly since sending their son messages of love through a news conference days after his release.
“We are working jointly with our state and local partners and taking each threat seriously,” FBI Special Agent William Facer told CNN in an e-mail Saturday.
Facer declined to detail the nature and severity of the threats, and a military representative for the Bergdahls declined to comment.
Bergdahl’s father received threats in three messages via e-mail at his home, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the contents of the e-mail. The first threat came on Wednesday, the official said, adding that FBI investigators will be tracing the messages to pinpoint who sent them.
Since Bergdahl’s release, critics, including a former member of his unit, have contended that Bergdahl deserted. The Army concluded in a 2009 report that he left his post deliberately. But the Army has no definitive finding that Bergdahl deserted because that would require knowing his intent — something Army officials can’t learn without talking to the soldier, a U.S. military official told CNN.
The administration minimizes released detainees’ threat
Much of the political fallout from the Bergdahl release centers around the five Taliban figures who also gained their freedom in the exchange.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Sunday that the former detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be taking an “enormous risk” if they return to the battlefield.
“I’m not telling you that they don’t have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting). But they also have an ability to get killed doing that. ” Kerry said in his first public comments on the controversial prisoner exchange.
Kerry defended the swap and told CNN the former detainees will be monitored closely — and not just by officials in Qatar, where they were flown after being released. He wouldn’t say who else will be watching, but he said the United States is confident the conditions of their release will be honored.
“And if they’re violated, then we have the ability to be able to do things,” he said, warning that the United States would do whatever is necessary to protect Americans “if these guys pick a fight with us in the future, or now, or at any time.”
Bergdahl was released May 31 near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Republican critics in Washington have complained that the exchange for Bergdahl gave up hardened terrorists capable of attacking U.S. troops and interests. In addition, legislators from both parties accuse the Obama administration of violating the National Defense Authorization Act by failing to provide 30 days’ advance notice to Congress of a transfer of Guantanamo detainees.
Administration officials have given several reasons for the lack of notification — a need to move quickly due to Bergdahl’s poor health and the overall threat to his safety, and the likelihood that even a small leak of the plan could have led to his death.
Lawmakers are skeptical
Senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees have their doubts.
“We’ll see” was Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s skeptical response to Kerry on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”
“You can’t help but worry about them in Doha,” said the California Democrat, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that after the one-year travel ban expires for the former detainees, he is “absolutely convinced” that at least four of the five Taliban will “join the fight against what Americans are left in Afghanistan.”
Kerry dismissed that concern, saying that the U.S. combat mission is coming to an end and pronouncements by the Taliban vowing to rejoin the fight are nothing but “propaganda.”
But Rogers said that “hostilities haven’t stopped.”
“This was the wrong message at the wrong time, and we are going to pay for this decision for years,” the Alabama Republican said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Several briefings are planned this week
Following a classified briefing for senators last week, all House members will receive a closed-door briefing from White House, Pentagon and State Department officials on Monday.
On Tuesday, administration officials will hold another session with the upper chamber, briefing members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The real fireworks are expected to come Wednesday when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee, where he’ll likely face questions of the administration’s failure to seek congressional input on the deal that secured Bergdahl’s release.
Some platoonmates blame Bergdahl for soldiers’ deaths
Much attention has been given to the claim made by the former platoonmates of Bergdahl that he is partly to blame for the deaths of six soldiers who were killed in the months after Bergdahl disappeared.
Some soldiers have gone so far as to say the six died while searching for Bergdahl. Others say he is indirectly to blame — after Bergdahl vanished, essentially every operation became a mission to find their lost colleague in one way or another, they say.
Critics accuse the soldiers of smearing Bergdahl and exaggerating the role his disappearance played in the deaths of the six men, who were often in harm’s way while on patrol
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he didn’t “know of circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sgt. Bergdahl.”
A U.S. official told CNN last week that Pentagon and Army officials have looked at the claims, and “right now there is no evidence to back that up.”
The six men killed were in the 501st Infantry. All of them were killed in Pakitika Province between August 18 and September 6, 2009, after the intense initial search for Bergdahl concluded but within the two- to three-month period when, by accounts from more than 20 members of the 501st, essentially every mission in the province had a PR, or personnel recovery component to it. One of those killed was from Comanche Company, two of those killed were in Bergdahl’s Blackfoot Company, three were from Headquarters Company.