This segment continues our series discussing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's case, including the many personnel and management issues involved, as it's examined in the podcast "Serial."
In Episode 5 of the Serial podcast, "Meanwhile, in Tampa," listeners get a glimpse of what was happening inside the government back at home while Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was held in Taliban captivity. In interviews with intelligence analysts and former officials – and unofficials – working on Bergdahl's case at the time, a chaotic operational picture emerges.
U.S. Central Command – which, based in Tampa, Florida, and is what the episode's title alludes to – was the nerve center for personnel recovery at the time of Bergdahl's disappearance, with intelligence analysts working relentless to find Bergdahl by layering multiple types of intelligence, including human, signals and geospatial to try to pinpoint as closely as possible his location. But according to the analysts interviewed by Serial, they faced an uphill battle in their search.
The Defense Department "had no solid system for finding people who went missing," unless they were downed airmen, according to one source speaking on background in the episode. Resources were sparse for Afghanistan search efforts compared to those for Iraq, where many more people went missing, they said. Analysts were expected to compile intelligence and send it up the chain of command to officials who could act on the information, but that was a struggle in its own regard.
Often that chain of command wasn't clear, or those within it weren't even aware of Bergdahl or his case – or if they were, they viewed him as a traitor undeserving of their assistance. But more often, other priorities trumped the Bergdahl case, and analysts even found themselves advocating for his search, including by getting "wily" and using a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and beef jerky to get in front of a general with more power.
On top of those issues, Bergdahl was being held in Pakistan, which only further complicated issues. Only the CIA had authority to operate in Pakistan, and their help was hard to come by. It was even harder to ask for help during times when the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was strained – particularly in 2011, midway through Bergdahl's captivity, when the U.S. invaded Pakistan to capture Osama bin Laden, among other diplomatic incidents. It wasn't the best time to be asking for favors, as one analyst noted.
As a programming note, Serial has moved to a bi-weekly format and now will go live every other Thursday. We'll be back after each episode to discuss the latest in Serial's investigation of the Bergdahl case.