During his time in Tampa as commander of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. James Mattis said he saw no evidence to confirm that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, released in a prisoner swap last week, collaborated with his captors.
“I have never seen one bit of verified or confirmed evidence of that,” Mattis said in a phone interview with The Tampa Tribune. “Not one bit. You hear things and it was second- and third-hand.”
Other information “specifically discounted” reports that Bergdahl, captured by the Taliban in June 2009 after leaving his outpost in Afghanistan, was working with his captors, he said. Mattis declined to comment on what that information was because it remains classified.
Mattis led the MacDill Air Force Base-headquartered command from August 2010 to March 2013, when he retired after a storied career. Mattis was asked to comment on a report by Fox News that a group run by Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, a former senior operations officer for the CIA, provided situation reports to Centcom showing Bergdahl was working with his captors at points during his five years as a prisoner. Clarridge, who gained notoriety in the 1980s after being indicted for lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, was a civilian contractor at the time.
In the Fox News story, Mattis made similar comments discounting the notion that, according to Fox, “Bergdahl had evolved into an active collaborator with the Haqqani network or the Taliban.”
The Fox News story says information about Bergdahl converting to Islam, fraternizing openly with his captors and declaring himself a “mujahid,” or warrior for Islam, came from a source new to Clarridge's Eclipse Group “whose trustworthiness had not been fully vetted by the group. However, the report stated, the informant “does have plausible access to the information reported.”
Fox News reported that Clarridge told them Eclipse Group “enjoyed a subcontract through the assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict from November 2009 through May 31, 2010, and that after the contract was terminated, he invested some $50,000 of his own money to maintain the elaborate network of informants and handlers that had yielded such detailed accounts of Bergdahl's status.
“Clarridge further told Fox News that by the end of 2010, he had furnished at least 13 of these detailed Sitreps, or situation reports, that his network generated about Bergdahl to Brig. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., who in April 2010 was named director of intelligence, at the J-2 level, at U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, headquartered at MacDill.”
The Pentagon “is not aware of any contract, subcontract or otherwise” between SOLIC and the Eclipse Group, Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, Defense Department spokeswoman, said late Friday afternoon. Clarridge declined comment. Public affairs staff for Ashley, since promoted to major general and now serving as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence & Fort Huachuca, did not respond to a call for comment from the Tribune. Officials from Centcom did not respond to requests for comment and officials from Fox News did not immediately respond to a call and email late Friday afternoon.
Mattis, who took command of Centcom a little more than a year after Bergdahl's disappearance, told the Tribune that Clarridge's reports “were simply one bit of information coming in. You do your normal due diligence. We found nothing to support it.”
The circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance — some of his fellow soldiers telling media outlets that the young man from Idaho deserted — were being examined during his time as commander, Mattis said. “We looked into all the circumstances surrounding his disappearance,” said Mattis, “There are still questions to be answered. We will leave that in capable hands of the U.S. Army.”
Mattis would not go into details.
“I don't want to get into specifics,” he said. “It was looked into at the time, but the whole focus initially was to determine how to get him.”
“The partisan bickering” over the circumstances of Bergdahl's recovery is hard to fathom, said Mattis, one of the Marine Corps' most beloved generals — widely respected for his vision, courage and telling it like it is.
“I don't know what to think,” said Mattis. “It is a bit perplexing to me.”
For Mattis, the decision to bring Bergdahl home was simple.
“Bottom line, we don't leave people behind, that is the beginning and that is the end of what we stand for,” he said. ”We keep faith with the guys who sign on, and that is all there is to it.”