The Complex

Taliban Releases POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Trade for Five Detainees

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the prisoner of war held by the Taliban  for nearly five years, has been released as part of a swap in which the U.S. will be sending five mid-level Taliban detainees held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.

Bergdahl, captured by militants near his U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009, was picked up Saturday by U.S. Special Forces there and flown to an undisclosed U.S. military base nearby. Bergdahl is expected to be transferred out of the country and brought to the large U.S. military medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany in the next day or so before being sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. By Saturday afternoon, the five detainees identified for transfer from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay had boarded an Air Force C-17 cargo jet bound for Qatar.

Obama celebrated Bergdahl's release, a rare bit of good news from Afghanistan, as a good omen of the potential for broader reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

"While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl's recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground," Obama said in a statement.

Discussions over a prisoner swap have been considered for months, if not years. After the euphoria of Bergdahl's return subsides, there will be questions about why the administration waited this long to make the transfer, and why the U.S. in effect gave up five detainees for one American prisoner. Other options for his rescue had been on the table for some time - including a "kinetic option" in which the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, would execute a potentially highly risky rescue of Bergdahl. But options in which military force would not be used were always more likely, and a prisoner swap was considered to be the one with the best chance for success.

The on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban had accelerated sharply in recent weeks. The militants signaled through the Qataris, who acted as intermediaries, that they had an interest in resuming discussions of a swap: Bergdahl for a small group of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. On Tuesday, Obama called the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani,  and received assurances that U.S. national security "would not be compromised" if the swap went through, according to an administration official.  Obama then agreed to the swap of the five detainees, who include two senior Taliban commanders that have been implicated in the murders of thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan.

"We have viewed Sgt. Bergdahl's release through diplomatic means as a vital goal in its own right because of our historic commitment to leave no soldier behind on the battlefield," said a senior administration official.

Bergdahl was picked up in eastern Afghanistan by about three dozen Special Forces troops, who landed in helicopters and were met by about 18 armed Taliban forces as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, provided the military with reconnaissance support overhead. Bergdahl was able to walk on his own to the helicopters and speak with the Special Forces units in what amounted to a significant but otherwise uneventful transfer, a defense official said.

According to reports, amid all the noise at the meeting site, Bergdahl wrote "SF?" on a paper plate, in effect asking if his rescuers were from Special Forces units. When he was told that they were, and that they had been looking for him for a long time, Bergdahl apparently broke down and cried.

"We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home," Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, who live in Idaho, said in a statement. "We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son," adding: "today, we are ecstatic."

Not everyone within the military will be sharing their joy. Senior commanders will instead have to ask hard questions about what will become of Bergdahl, who is thought to have wandered off his U.S. military base in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan voluntarily before being taken by the Taliban. He was thought to have been held by the militant group known as the Haqqani network in Pakistan. Now that he has been released, the military will conduct a more thorough investigation into what led to his capture in the first place.

A "proof of life" video released earlier this year had provided evidence that Bergdahl was alive and reasonably healthy at about the same time the U.S., Qatar and the Taliban reopened discussions about his release. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had appointed Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, as the Pentagon's point man during the talks.

People familiar with the matter said Hagel's appointment of Lumpkin helped to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of securing Bergdahl's release, which had been slowed by tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who opposed the talks because he believes his government should be the only entity involved in direct negotiations with the Taliban. But as Karzai prepares to leave office and a runoff election will determine his successor in June, it's possible an opportunity, coupled with security assurances from the Qataris, presented itself to the administration.

"Sgt. Bergdahl's return is a powerful reminder of the enduring, sacred commitment our nation makes to all those who serve in uniform," Hagel, traveling in Asia, said in a statement. "The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back."

U.S. Army

National Security

Spies Say They're Confused and Outraged by Restrictions on Talking to Journalists

A controversial and, by many accounts, baffling government policy meant to prevent disclosure of classified information has some current and former intelligence agency employees utterly confused and crying foul. Contrary to official statements that the policy is neither new nor overly restrictive, many spooks interpret it as a blanket prohibition meant to keep them from talking to journalists or speaking publicly about national security issues and controversies.

At issue is an instruction released earlier this month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) about the so-called pre-publication review process. Current and former intelligence agency employees must submit any materials they intend to publish for vetting to prevent the release of classified information. Confusion over the policy was widespread enough that the ODNI had to issue a clarification, which, based on interviews with seven current and former intelligence officials, clarified little.

Those affected by the policy say that they're confused about what kinds of public statements need to be cleared. Are short blog posts or Tweets considered as sensitive as long op-eds and articles, for example? And they're unsure whether any interaction with journalists is now forbidden.

One former intelligence official who now works in the private sector said he declined five recent requests to discuss national security issues on television news shows because he was afraid of having his security clearance revoked or being fined for breaking the rules. Ironically, the former official said, he only learned about new restrictions on talking to the press from Gen. Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, when he discussed it with comedian John Oliver for his new HBO talk show.

"It's very confusing; and I feel like this is punishing people who served honorably in government," said the former official, who, like everyone interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity to avoid possibly running afoul of the policy. "I would ask permission from my former agency if I planned to write something publicly because that's the agreement I signed. But I didn't sign an agreement not to have lunch with a reporter or talk to him."

Although the ODNI stressed that it was merely reiterating years-old policy, several sources said the reminder was a direct response to the Edward Snowden scandal intended to block others from discussing even benign or unclassified matters with reporters.

"Clearly we're reacting here to the Snowden leaks," one former intelligence official said. "Some people believe this is an overreaction and it was very badly drawn."

"Outrageous," is how another former intelligence official put it. "Everybody's upset at Snowden, I get that. But this isn't going to stop the next Snowden."

The policy could actually boomerang on the intelligence agencies and ultimately be more harmful than helpful. Some former officials said that they're now less likely to let journalists quote them by name, even for articles that might afford an opportunity to defend controversial government policies and stand up for their former employers. In a year when the NSA, in particular, has taken fire from even some of its stalwart allies on Capitol Hill, the intelligence agencies need all the public bolstering they can get, former officials said.

The sources believe they are being punished for Snowden's massive, unauthorized leak of classified information -- something they all consider a crime. As long as no classified information is revealed, it's their right to speak publicly about intelligence issues on panels, in the media, or before a classroom, they argue. And many of them make their living doing so.

"There's a large intelligence-industrial complex out there," said another former intelligence official. "If you're going to restrict their constitutional rights and hurt their business, you'd better be prepared for a lawsuit. What are you going to do, shut down Raytheon or Lockheed Martin?"

Furthermore, the "new" policy may be old, they said, but it's an admonition to keep quiet about every aspect of their former lives.

"It's meant to silence us," one former official said.

None objected to submitting op-eds, articles, speeches and books for a pre-publication review. But in the daily news cycle, there's no time for permission slips, they said.

"The issue that the ODNI doesn't understand is, if a reporter calls me for a comment, he doesn't have three days to wait for me to get permission to talk to him," one former official said. Historically, ex-spooks asked to speak extemporaneously on TV or for a quick comment to a news reporter were obliged to use their judgment and not disclose classified information.

The ODNI's clarification notes that it's "understood" there are times when some former employees might have to respond quickly to a media request without getting prior approval, but it doesn't make clear what they should do in such a case -- file a report afterward or call the ODNI on the way to an interview? In any case, the message seems not to be getting across.

The ODNI defends its instruction and has made several attempts to clarify it.

"This internal instruction imposes no requirements beyond those that the Non-Disclosure Agreement imposes on ODNI employees," spokesman Jeffrey Anchukaitis said, referring to a standard agreement not to reveal classified information. "It does state pre-pub[lication] guidance that was, while previously covered by the policy, not included explicitly in the instructions. It is not, however, a new policy."

Several sources said such clarifications only further muddled the message. Many also wonder which rules apply to ODNI employees versus other employees-- past and present-- in the much larger intelligence community.

Former officials say they're particularly aggrieved because after a career in the spy business, they know what they can and can't discuss with people lacking security clearances. Some said they were particularly put out because the order came from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a man many of them have known and worked with for years and who himself had a brief career as an ex-official, from 2006 to 2007, when he worked as a government contractor.

Current officials are equally confused and frustrated. One, who works on energy issues, said he doesn't know if he can discuss even unclassified information with colleagues who have lower or even no security clearance.

The question of who exactly is a journalist these days complicates matters even more, many said. Several former officials are blogging, for example, on sites such as Lawfare and Just Security, two respected forums for debating and analyzing national security issues that are widely read by intelligence professionals inside and outside the government. Does that, or writing columns regularly, make them journalists?

Several sources cited Michael Hayden, the former director of the NSA and the CIA, as a prime example. Hayden writes a regular column for the Washington Times. Does that mean Hayden is now a journalist, some former officials asked? If so, are they prohibited from talking to him, too?

"I can tell you that General Hayden clears all written material through a review process, similar to other former directors," said a spokesperson for Hayden. Hayden is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a consulting firm run by ex-federal judge and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and largely staffed by former government officials.

For all the grousing by retired spooks, though, it doesn't appear that they're altering their behavior much. Since issuing the policy, "We have seen no change in the amount of pre-publication requests, which is not surprising given that the policy didn't change," the ODNI's Anchukaitis said. "A few former ODNI employees have contacted us -- having heard erroneously of a new policy -- to inquire about their responsibilities. We'd ask any other formers with questions or concerns to do likewise."

It's doubtful that many will. The former intelligence official who said he first learned of the policy by watching HBO said he's reluctant to call Clapper's office because he thinks it'll only invite more scrutiny. Another said that until he hears otherwise, he will continue to clear articles through his former agency, not the ODNI. And, he predicted, his colleagues will do the same.

"They're not going to confront Clapper about this, they're just going to ignore him," the former official said.

Alex Wong / Getty Images News