American politicians have often referred to the United States as “exceptional,” spawning frequent efforts of American-style democracy promotion overseas. Unfortunately, for as good as Washington is at inserting its spies, soldiers and agents of freedom into foreign countries, it is often less effective in bringing them back when they are lost or captured by “the other side.”
Modern American history is pockmarked with examples. According to a recent expose by Pro Publica, after $100 million a year in taxpayer resources, the Pentagon office charged with identifying and returning the remains of MIA/POWs from World War II and the Korean War, only managed to bring 60 out of 45,000 recoverable remains home in 2013.
But it’s the headline-grabbing cases today — Alan Gross, Robert Levinson and Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl specifically – that force us to question whether Washington is doing enough to bring its own home, alive. On the contrary, it could be that political considerations, bureaucratic CYA, or just plain indifference are getting in the way. In the case of Levinson and Bergdahl, time may be running out.
“Sadly, the phrase ‘leave no one behind’ in reality does not apply,” points out Peter Van Buren, author and retired foreign service officer for The U.S. State Department.
“The U.S. has a nasty track record of indeed leaving people behind when a war, an operation, or a policy falls out of disfavor or becomes a political liability,” he says in an email to The Unz Review. He continues:
Where once there was occasionally at least some effort to negotiate a happy ending, usually by a quiet exchange of spies, the current administration seems almost callous in its short-attention span and lack of loyalty and duty to those it sends into harm’s way. In the three cases we know of, the pattern is clear: first, disavow a USG connection, either by claiming the American involved is “just a contractor,” as with Gross and Levinson or, in Bowe’s case, hinting he may be somewhere in between a prisoner and a deserter.
Take Gross, 64, who was reportedly working on a USAID contract under the Helms-Burton Act, which directs resources towards democracy-building and human rights organizations, but with the ultimate goal of undermining the Castro regime in Havana. Reportedly, Gross had made several trips to the island, bringing satellite and computer gear so that the Jewish community there could get uncensored Internet access. His family has said the company he built has worked for years to bring technology to developing countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the Cuban government is a bit touchy about the Americans and their Helms- Burton Act, which has also imposed the toughest trade and travel sanctions against the government since the embargos began in 1960. So they charged Gross with “crimes against the state,” sentenced him to 15 years, and tossed him into a tiny dirty cell with two other prisoners. That was five years ago. Since then he has lost 110 pounds and his family says he is in bad health.
The U.S government, which is ultimately responsible for Gross’s predicament, began immediately negotiating for his release. Scaling back whatever discreet (read: secret) democracy-promotion activities had been going on was one of the concessions on the table, according to Fulton Armstrong, a former aide on then-Sen. John Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. He said senior USAID and committee officials were all for the deal because it would clean up shop, suggesting the programs had become too aggressive. “The Cubans were happy too,” Armstrong said to Newsweek.
But when it was clear the USAID rogues on the ground weren’t going to stop their activities, said Fulton, the talks broke down.
It was then that Gross, who more than one White House official called “a dedicated international development worker who has devoted his life to helping people in more than 50 countries,” realized he was alone.
This was more or less confirmed when the ZunZuneo network – a covert social media program developed by USAID through a bunch of off-shore shell companies, supposedly to help anti-Castro Cubans get around the Twitter restrictions — was exposed by the Associated Press. Turns out that the tens of thousands using it believed it was an organic commercial enterprise. While USAID denies it, the agency was accused of keeping congress and its Cuban partners running ZunZuneo in the dark. USAID was also using the program, which ran until 2012, to collect user data, according to the AP.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT., head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, called ZunZuneo “cockamamie” in recent hearings, and acknowledged how badly these revelations hurt Gross’s chances for freedom.
Gross, who maintains he worked openly with Cuban organizations and was never a covert agent, believes this latest twist is a betrayal by the government, and went on a hunger strike this month to protest.
“I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any responsible or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.” Meanwhile, he’s received no response to a letter he wrote to President Barack Obama seeking help. He gave up his hunger strike on Friday April 11, at the behest of his mother.
The State Department says it’s actively working for his release, but really, if certain players in the USAID can’t give up their ideological scheming long enough so that a fellow American can be freed, what chance does he really got?
He wants to come home,” said his attorney Scott Gilbert told reporters. “The only way that will happen is if Obama gets involved, and that hasn’t happened.”
Bob Levinson, a ghost in the machine
The story of this former FBI-turned-CIA consultant is much more ambiguous, mostly because no one really knows where Levinson is. He disappeared after a secret meeting with an American fugitive on the Iranian island of Kish in 2007. He was never seen in person again. The last “proof of life” his family has received from his captors was in 2011. Officials believe he is in custody of Iranians, but they do not know where (full backgrounder, here), and the Iranians have repeatedly denied having him.
The only two photos/videos delivered to Levinson’s family in 2010 and 2011 were sent from Internet addresses in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and showed an increasingly unhealthy man, who would be 65 today if he is alive.
According to a report by the AP, which broke the full story in December 2013:
The 54-second video showed Levinson sitting in front of a concrete wall, looking haggard but unharmed. He said he was running dangerously low of diabetes medicine, and he pleaded with the government to bring him home.
“Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something,” Levinson said. “Please help me.”
The truth is, authorities lost nearly a year of time looking for him because the FBI initially investigating his disappearance was told, and believed, he was not working for the federal government and had been a “private citizen” doing his own research. The FBI did the minimum. It wasn’t until Levinson’s friends got involved, found proof he’d been paid to gather foreign intelligence for a group of CIA analysts (who have since been fired because they were not authorized to field spies), and brought the evidence to congress, that the CIA was forced into action.
What had he been searching for? Supposedly, he was gathering information on Iranian corruption. Was it worth it? His wife Christine can hardly think so as she struggles to keep Levinson on the radar in Washington. It was bureaucratic politics that kept her husband traipsing around the dark corners of the earth off the CIA grid and with no backup, so she can hardly be confident that politics aren’t playing a role in his recovery. Still, officials have denied the search has been called off.
“The U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man’s life the priority it should be,” the Levinson family said in December. “There are those in the U.S. government who have done their duty in their efforts to find Bob, but there are those who have not.”
Was Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a deserter? Who cares.
As a boy, Bergdahl was adventuresome, idealistic and loved to read. Homeschooled in Calvinist doctrine by earnest parents in the mountains of Idaho, he hadn’t changed much as a young man, but had a strong desire to see the world and make a difference, according to a profile by the late Michael Hastings, in 2012. Bergdahl once tried to join the French Foreign Legion and finally settled on the U.S. Army. It turned out to be the worst decision of his young life.
Bergdahl just turned 28 in March, in captivity. He’s been a Taliban prisoner for five years and the only American POW in Afghanistan. No one has been able to find him. Negotiations with the Taliban for his release have involved exchanging Bergdahl for five high-level Taliban who have been detained at Guantanamo Bay since 2002.
Those talks have collapsed several times. In previous reports, the U.S. had wanted stipulations, like the prisoners released in twos, and later confined to their new home country of Qatar. No one knows why the most recent talks in February, after so much hope, had fallen through.
The Pentagon has insisted they haven’t stopped trying to get Bowe home since the day he was captured, and there is no ostensible reason not to believe what they say. But Bergdahl isn’t your typical POW. He walked away from his base in Afghanistan – no one knows exactly why, or how far he got before he was captured. This has led to charges that he deserted, and is not worth the trouble. There is no way of telling how far up this permeates, but Bowe’s father Robert told Hastings that Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss once insisted, “that America shouldn’t make a prisoner trade for a ‘deserter.’”
The issue has sparked a back and forth on Twitter and military forums like Michael Yon’s popular Facebook page. Furthermore, it’s quite clear from emails that Bergdahl sent home just before his disappearance that he was quite disenchanted with the war and his service. This not only presents a reason why he left base, but some complications for Pentagon public relations if he’s ever found. Bergdahl expressed to his family that he felt deceived about the mission in Afghanistan. He wrote, according to Hastings’ article, “about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists.”
“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He told them about seeing a child run over by an American Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP). “The horror that is America is disgusting,” he said.
One prays that Bergdahl’s feelings toward the war and the Army hasn’t prejudiced the rescue efforts. But we may never know.
The last proof of life video the family has is dated somewhere near January.
One of the many billboards that have been put up in Bergdahl’s name declares, “No One Left Behind.” Let us hope – for Gross, Levinson and Bergdahl – this is more than a wish.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com, a regular contributor to antiwar.com, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine.