In the six years between his Taliban capture in 2009 to the time of his arraignment on desertion charges this past Tuesday, there have been plenty of rumors about Bowe Bergdahl that were later debunked as false or clarified by intelligence officials as more complex than they seemed. Given the high-profile nature of Bergdahl's case it's not surprising. During Thursday's third episode of Serial, at least a few of those initial compelling rumors (which still run rampant in the public narrative) were finally put to bed.
Since he first decided to speak with This American Life host Sarah Koenig and filmmaker Mark Boal a few weeks back, Bergdahl has come under fire by those who initially saw the move as unwise — especially given that the Army sergeant was due in court just weeks later. For President Obama, who helped to arrange a tradeoff of five Taliban brass for Bergdahl in 2014, the decision only complicated matters even further.
"The White House has its agenda and its issues which are more along the line of healthcare and gun control ... so the last thing it needs is network news and cable talking heads spending all their time talking about Bergdahl," Boston University professor and political consultant Tobe Berkovitz told The Hill on Thursday. "... There’s not much they can do except hope the public loses interest."
Unfortunately for the White House, Serial's weekly broadcast means a slew of new facts to corroborate publicly, even if those same claims may have already been reviewed in closed quarters. So far, here are some of the most provocative rumors addressed (and potentially debunked) in episode three, most of which will likely cross the Obama administration's radar at some point:
Bergdahl Converted To Islam While In Captivity
One of the biggest rumors flying around the public sphere is that Bergdahl himself converted to Islam while being held captive. Accompanying claims suggest that the sergeant was given free reign to do as he pleased, given that he and his captors now held a common religious ideology. During Thursday's episode, Koenig and Bergdahl both put that claim to rest.
"Intelligence officials call that sort of information 'stray voltage,'" Koenig explained, citing stories which claimed Bergdahl had been allowed to walk the desert region unattended and go rabbit hunting with an old British rifle. Religious sympathy claims only served one side in this equation, said Koenig, and it certainly wasn't Bergdahl. According to Koenig, military officials say false assertions like this are not uncommon in hostage situations. In most cases, falsehoods such as Bergdahl's conversion to Islam are used as propaganda.
Bergdahl Was A Traitor & Never Tried To Escape
Over the years there have been plenty of accusations that Bergdahl stayed with the Taliban out of choice — something he told Koenig and Boal was an outright lie.
"His singleminded purpose was to get out," said Koenig, noting that within the first few weeks of his captivity, Bergdahl had attempted two separate escapes (he later told officials he tried to escape at least 10 additional times in the years that followed). The first time, Bergdahl explained that he didn't get more than 20-30 feet from the house in which he was being held before Taliban fighters tackled him to the ground. The second escape attempt was only slightly more successful.
According to his own account, which he also gave to a military debriefer in 2014, Bergdahl was able to slip his wrists through the chain binding them together one afternoon, at which point he reached through a small crack in the door and attempted to unwind the wire holding it shut. "If anyone had been standing outside, they would have seen me," Bergdahl recounted. But they didn't. Bergdahl claimed he then made a break for three nearby houses and had climbed onto a rooftop to hide before ultimately being discovered. For his punishment, Bergdahl claimed he was beaten with a rubber hose for days.
After his initial attempts, escape became much more difficult, Bergdahl said, as they began chaining him spread-eagle to a bed, although it didn't stop him from trying at least 11 more times over the next five years, including one particular attempt at the end of his first year, which ended unsuccessfully after the Taliban recaptured him nine days later.
Bergdahl Was Friends With His Captors
While some have claimed that Bergdahl seemed a little too chummy with his Taliban captors upon rescue in 2014, the Army sergeant told Koenig that that assertion couldn't be further from the truth. There were two phases of his captivity, according to Bergdahl — isolation and sickness (Bergdahl said he was often served tiny amounts of food and eventually developed diarrhea, which persisted for years).
"Intelligence officials [too] have described his captivity in three stages: Phase one, torture; Phase two, abuse; and Phase three, neglect — the last being the worst, as Bergdahl was often left chained to his bed for weeks at a time, only being allowed to get up and wash every three to four weeks. According to Bergdahl, they ignored him more than they ever pressed him for information.
Bergdahl Gave Up Valuable Intelligence
One of the more common myths surrounding Bergdahl's captivity, as mentioned before, is the assertion that he gave away classified secrets about the U.S. military that could have been detrimental to the safety of others. According to Serial's third episode, that rumor is patently false.
"Yeah," Koenig recalled one Middle Eastern reporter as saying, "Bowe didn't give them any useful intelligence or cooperation [whatsoever]." Bergdahl also claimed that any information he did give them — paltry facts about American culture that flew in the face of the Taliban's assertions (such as the bizarre belief that all American women were "prostitutes") — was dismissed as fake.
"They pretty much assume you're lying," he told Koenig, who noted that the majority of Taliban brass get their most valuable information from Afghan interpreters who have translated for the military at one point or another.
He Hated The Military & His Hostage Videos Proved It
Although there's plenty of evidence that Bergdahl had lost much of his initial zeal for the armed forces and had grown disenchanted with the prospect of American occupation in Afghanistan, much of what was said in his hostage videos was made up by the Taliban itself, Bergdahl said.
"The first time [they] asked me questions [beforehand about what I was supposed to say in the video], they seemed satisfied ... but the moment he turned the camera on, I completely forgot what I was supposed to say," Bergdahl recounted. "After that, they wrote everything down."
Bergdahl also claimed that the sunglasses he was forced to wear in at least one of the videos served to block viewers from seeing that he was reading from a piece of paper. "They may have thought sunglasses were really 'cool'," he added.