The Complex

Congressman Asks Pentagon to Probe Whether U.S. Paid for Bergdahl Release

A California Republican claims he has enough evidence suggesting that the U.S. government may have paid a ransom to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to warrant investigation by the Defense Department's Inspector General.

Conspiracy theories about the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's May 31 release from being held in captivity by the Haqqani network are rampant and many lawmakers and Americans wonder why the administration traded five Taliban warriors for one American soldier.

One particular question lingers: Did anyone in the government pay ransom, attempt to pay ransom, or use a third party to pay ransom, to win Bergdahl's release? The Obama administration flatly says "no" -- and that it was never even contemplated.

But the lawmaker, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., a former Marine, says he has enough information to make him think the government may have shelled out as much as $1.5 million for Bergdahl. The soldier was rescued by U.S. special operators in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan after being held prisoner for nearly five years. Bergdahl apparently wandered off his small combat outpost in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan in June 2009. An investigation into whether he deserted his unit is underway. He is in a "reintegration phase" at an Army medical facility in Texas where he has begun to return to a normal life, even going so far as to eat out. He has made no public statements.

Hunter sent a letter to Defense Department Inspector General Jon Rymer this week demanding that he investigate the alleged ransom.

Acknowledging the White House's repeated denials, Hunter wrote: "Due to information I have received, I believe it is necessary for the Inspector General to review and determine if a payment was either attempted or made and whether Congress and the public were misled."

The letter, dated July 7, was provided to Foreign Policy.

"We did not pay cash for Sgt. Bergdahl's recovery, we have no information that anyone else did, and we did not consider paying for recovery as a part of these negotiations," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told FP via email.

The Haqqani network, which originated in Pakistan and has ties to Pakistan's intelligence service -- not the Taliban -- was Bergdahl's captor. But the administration released five Taliban members who had been held in Guantánamo Bay to Qatar, giving rise to the conspiracy theories, because, although the Taliban and Haqqani network have an operational and financial relationship, they are distinctly different groups. So what the Haqqanis got out of the deal is the subject of much speculation.

Joe Kasper, Hunter's deputy chief of staff and spokesman, told FP that the congressman received information outlining different options under Pentagon consideration to free Bergdahl. These "lines of effort" included a "kinetic option" in which special operators would rescue Bergdahl, and paying ransom. As much as $1.5 million was paid in February but didn't necessarily win Bergdahl's release, Kasper said. But it may have led to the Taliban-Bergdahl swap three months later, he said.

"There's good reason to believe that a ransom was either attempted or made in February 2014," Kasper said.

Hunter has proof of who within the Defense Department was aware of the "other lines of effort," who briefed higher-ups, and where the information originated.

"We have names and entities and all that stuff," Kasper said.

Hunter is not sharing the proof, he said, because it could jeopardize the IG investigation he seeks. In the letter to Rymer, Hunter said he could provide those investigators with a timeline and more detailed information, if desired.

A spokesperson for the Defense Department's Inspector General's office said Hunter's letter had arrived earlier this week and the request was under review.

Buzzfeed reported in June that Bergdahl's family had opened up a separate channel with Taliban representatives to buy his freedom with $10 million cash that was to be paid by private sources. Those talks reportedly started in 2012 and continued until Bergdahl's release.

U.S. Army via Getty Images

The Complex

Pentagon: Iraqi Forces Can't Conquer Lost Territory On Their Own

The Pentagon is weighing airstrikes in Iraq because of a growing belief that Iraqi security forces will be unable to take back territory seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham on their own, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday. 

"Assessing and advising and enabling are very different words than attacking, defeating, and disrupting," Dempsey said about the current U.S. role in Iraq. "We may get to that point if our national interests drive us there, if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that the president of the United States with our advice decides that we have to take direct action." 

His comments come as Saudi Arabia stepped up its own involvement, deploying 30,000 of its troops to the Iraqi border to prevent the ISIS fighters who have conquered broad swaths of Syria and Iraq -- and renamed that territory the Islamic State -- from expanding into the kingdom as well. U.S. officials fear that ISIS may eventually try to hit both Saudi Arabia and Jordan, a vital American ally. An attack on Jordan, which has a special relationship with both the United States and Israel, could prompt a much more intensive American military intervention.

In the meantime, the U.S. military continues to expand its operations in Iraq, setting up a second joint operations center in Erbil, the capital of semi-independent Kurdistan, to complement the one already up and running in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced. 

The United States has a much better intelligence picture than it did two weeks ago, Dempsey said, but the intermingling of Sunnis who oppose the current Shiite-dominated government and full-blown ISIS extremists would pose a difficult challenge should the United States decide to conduct airstrikes. 

A total of six U.S. assessment teams are now on the ground to develop a clearer picture of the state of the Iraqi security forces and the strength of the ISIS extremists, but Dempsey said the initial reports are not encouraging. Iraqi security forces are "stiffening" and appear able to defend Baghdad, but he said they will likely be unable to retake the territory seized by the Islamic State militants. This includes large swaths of land in the northwest and the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul. 

"Will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they've lost?... Probably not by themselves," Dempsey said. 

That does not necessarily mean the United States would contribute direct military support to help them out, but it's not an option the Pentagon is willing to rule out yet, Dempsey said. 

The roughly 800 American troops that are there now advising the Iraqi security forces and assessing the security situation on the ground are not performing any combat missions against the Islamic insurgents, Dempsey and Hagel said. 

Dempsey described the threat posed by ISIS today as a regional one, but said it could become transregional or global over time.  

But today, the group is "stretched," in Iraq, in terms of its logistics and maintaining control of the territory they've gained, Dempsey said. 

If they were to be taken on offensively, Iraqi forces would ideally hit the militants from multiple directions, he said. "You'd like to squeeze them from the south and west, you'd like to squeeze them from the north, and you'd like to squeeze them from Baghdad."

But before any such plan is developed and before the United States determines what role, if any, it would play in that type of offensive, Washington would first need to know whether the Iraqi government would be a reliable U.S. partner with buy-in from the country's embittered Sunni and Kurdish minorities. The White House is considering airstrikes against ISIS targets, but has said it first wants to see the creation of a unity government. 

"If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak," Dempsey said. 

Alex Wong/Getty Images