Warren Weinstein’s death could and should have been prevented. Long before he was killed accidentally by a U.S. drone strike, he was a casualty of a broken system for bringing American hostages home. And now a whistleblower who came to Congress with concerns about this system is the target of illegal retaliation.
Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine, a decorated combat veteran, led a Pentagon team trying to negotiate the rescue of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and American civilians held by the Taliban, including Weinstein, Caitlin Coleman, her husband Joshua Boyle, and their son, who was born in captivity in Afghanistan—the last three still believed to be alive. Amerine and his team developed a plan they believed could bring everyone home safely in exchange for a former Afghan warlord serving a life sentence in the United States.
Before developing his plan, Amerine and his team reviewed previous recovery efforts to try to understand what went wrong. One of the most significant challenges they discovered was coordinating the actions of the White House, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, FBI, Department of Defense, and military services without any lead official in place. In some cases, the efforts of one agency undermined the objectives of another. Without anyone in charge, it was difficult if not impossible to appropriately coordinate the myriad agencies involved in hostage rescue.
Amerine presented his plan to trade American civilians for the former Afghan warlord to senior State Department officials, but it was rejected before it could be considered by top Department of Defense officials or anyone at the White House. Instead they ultimately pursued a plan that would only bring Sgt. Bergdahl home, leaving the recovery of the civilians largely to the FBI, the agency usually tasked with leading such efforts. Amerine worried that bureaucratic in-fighting between the Army and the FBI in particular, and overall mismanagement, would result in a failed mission that would leave most if not all of the civilians behind.
The families of the civilians were also doubting that the FBI would be able to bring their loved ones home. In the case of Warren Weinstein’s family, they decided to pursue a ransom payment. The FBI helped facilitate a ransom payment but it failed to secure Weinstein’s release, and subsequent efforts failed to bring him home before he was accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike. With even more doubts about the government’s ability to bring the civilians home safely, Amerine turned to Congress. He made a series of unclassified protected disclosures to House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) explaining why he believed the plans in place would fail to bring the American hostages home. Hunter in turn brought concerns about disorganization in the Pentagon’s recovery efforts to the attention of then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a series of letters. Hunter questioned whether the FBI was the appropriate agency to lead hostage recovery for American citizens taken abroad, particularly since other agencies have more of a presence abroad to support successful recoveries Hagel responded by making Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michael Lumpkin the point person for recovering Bergdahl, but efforts between the agencies remained disjointed and continued to exclude options for recovering the other American hostages.
Amidst the hotly contested debate about closing Guantanamo, the decision to trade Sgt. Bergdahl for five members of the Taliban detained by the United States was always going to be controversial. Amerine’s disclosures that the United States had other viable options to bring him home, as well as the American civilian hostages, increased Congress’s skepticism that the exchange had been the only option, and directly contradicted testimony Hagel provided to Congress that there were no other non-military options available.
Unable to retaliate against a committee or a Member of Congress for this embarrassing revelation, the FBI and the Army exacted revenge against Amerine by revoking his security clearance and launching a retaliatory investigation. At this point, all Amerine wants is to be able to retire, but this has been held up as the Army slow-walks its illegal investigation.
Service members have a constitutional right to disclose concerns about wrongdoing to Members of Congress. Unfortunately Amerine discovered that he was walking into a severely flawed system for protecting military whistleblowers. Despite pushback from Congress that the Army is interfering with their constitutional oversight duties, Amerine is stuck in a purgatory of preliminary investigations that have dragged on for months. This slow, long wait for clarity and protections for those who disclose wrongdoing is unfortunately typical for military whistleblowers. A recent report from Congress’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, found that the average investigation into illegal retaliation against a whistleblower took 526 days—nearly three times the 180-day statutory requirement.
While bureaucrats may have ignored Amerine’s concerns, Congress is taking them seriously and resisting efforts to silence him. The House Armed Services Committee has incorporated Amerine’s testimony into an ongoing investigation of the “Bergdahl swap.” And Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, joined Rep. Hunter in a bipartisan letter to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno urging him to cease interfering with Congress’s constitutional oversight duties by stopping the retaliatory investigation into Amerine immediately. The Army has largely ignored these concerns to date, but the House’s defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, includes a provision to withhold $500 million from the Pentagon if they do not cooperate with the committee’s investigation. While the language in the bill is only tied to correspondence, the committee should similarly hold the Department accountable if the Army fails to cease its retaliation of one its key witnesses.
This treatment of military whistleblowers is completely unacceptable. Whistleblowers are pivotal to Congress’s ability to conduct its constitutional oversight duties and to the effective operations of our government. Investigations into allegations of retaliation must be fair but also expedient to provide real protections to whistleblowers. Both the Defense Department and Congress must step up to hold accountable officials who illegally retaliate against whistleblowers. One step in the right direction would be for the Department of Defense to cease its illegal retaliatory investigation of Amerine.
The Department of Defense should be thanking Amerine for bringing these issues to light, not retaliating against him, and should focus its attention on ensuring there is an effective, well-coordinated system for rescuing American hostages. Rep. Hunter added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to this end, creating an Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator. But the failures of the system will not be solved until those who come to Congress with their concerns about the safety of American citizens are protected.