Make No Mistake: The FBI and Army Retaliated Against a Hero

December 17, 2015

When I first met Jason Amerine, it was hard not to be impressed.  He’s got the right stuff.  His resume — flush with the type of things that would make a Hollywood movie producer drool — isn’t too bad either.

In politics, trust is important and often what a person has done says a lot about who they truly are.  In this case, Amerine is a war hero.  It’s a characterization he loathes and will never attribute to himself, but I will.

So of course I was on board to help save American lives when he came to me to talk about the problems with our country’s policy on hostages.  I committed to giving my best effort to change the U.S. government’s approach to recovering Americans — civilian and military — held captive in warzones.

Amerine was first tasked by Gen. John Campbell — who is now leading the ground war in Afghanistan — to develop plans to recover Bowe Bergdahl.  Nobody in their right mind thought the State Department-induced and -led five-for-one prisoner exchange was a good idea.

Amerine quickly determined that not only could he recover Bergdahl, but he could also secure the release of other American captives without firing a shot.  He also spotted inherent dysfunction and conflict within government.  Our response was quick.  I wrote to former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel twice.  He called me to say he agreed that these problems needed to be solved.  He told me what he planned to do and who he would task to do it.

In that same span of time, Jason was getting close to making something happen, but it was the Federal Bureau of Investigation that first took offense to his efforts.  Not the Army.  The FBI argued that hostage recovery — in a warzone or not — was entirely under their purview even if the agents in charge of certain cases never stepped foot in Afghanistan.  And forget that Jason had personal relationships at the highest levels of the Afghan government as well as other close and well-placed friends in the region.  None of it mattered to the FBI.

So what did the FBI do?  They “informally” suggested to the Army that it look at Amerine for sharing classified information.  They needed Amerine back in his lane, and the quickest and easiest way to do that was to sideline him through an investigation.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, honestly, because this type of stuff happens every day in government.  People are always trying to protect their turf at the expense of others.

What I had a problem with is what the Army chose to do once a complaint of sorts was made.  They could have talked to Amerine, who had the full support of his immediate leadership, which in turn had full visibility into what he was doing.  Internally, there was a disagreement on whether to investigate Amerine, but one Army general who has a personal beef with me couldn’t let it go and insisted that an investigation was warranted.  So Army leaders folded.  An investigation started.

I appealed to everyone in the Army that I could and so did other members of Congress.  Former Army Secretary John McHugh wouldn’t even return a phone call.  Soon after, Jason filed a complaint with the Inspector General.  In his complaint, he laid out the entire situation, from our work together, to his work behind the scenes.  The Inspector General’s office, doing as they should, relayed the document for a determination on the classification of its contents.  The Joint Staff determined that nothing in the document was classified.

Even with that determination in hand, the Army refused to budge.  So they began looking anywhere else they could. Soon, investigators were several steps removed from the original allegation.  They wanted to find something.  They had to find something.

Meanwhile, the White House was motivated by the facts to change hostage policy.  And during that time, I successfully led an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, now law, which requires the creation of an interagency hostage coordinator.  This is thanks to Jason Amerine.

The Army didn’t care.  There was also a certain level of gamesmanship that began.  One of Amerine’s lawyers was left in the dark for far too long.  Amerine’s pay was halted.  He was called in for fingerprinting and criminal processing.  Should we pretend the halted payment was a clerical error?  And should we pretend the fingerprinting was necessary?  No way.

Through it all, Amerine came out the way he went in, with his honor and reputation intact.  And a recent report from the House Armed Services Committee provides even more validation of all of Jason’s great work.  With one foot out the door, Jason was even awarded the Legion of Merit, a fitting capstone to a long and distinguished career.

Recently, I read an article on War on the Rocks by a former Army lawyer who tried to tamp down any criticism of the way the Army handled things.  He argued that certain Army leaders are being unfairly demonized.  This left me unswayed. If you want to play politics where politics shouldn’t be played, you’re going to need a thicker skin.  Stand by your judgment to investigate, that’s fine, but don’t try to convince me or the rest of the audience that the investigation into Amerine warranted a year of the Army’s time, attention, and resources — or that the investigation was warranted in the first place. The Army needs to be smarter about investigating the complaints it receives. After digging into this, I can assure you that they should have known from the start that what the FBI sent them about Amerine did not pass the smell test.

There was also intervention by POGO and Senators Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley.  Thank goodness for their collective efforts.  They too saw exactly what I did — a system that was leveraged by an outside force to retaliate against an honorable soldier and war hero.   That same system, instead of protecting Jason, was then mishandled from within.  Whether it was all due to a problem with me or with Amerine, that’s now irrelevant.  This could have been settled with a simple conversation.

Isn’t that what someone like Jason Amerine deserves?  For all his service, for all his sacrifice, an investigation that lasted almost a year was viewed as suitable treatment for someone who did the right thing every step of the way.  So while some officials are worrying about demonizing certain Army leaders, what they should really start thinking about is how not to demonize brave soldiers who are the backbone of our military.

 

Rep. Duncan Hunter represents California’s 50th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He sits on the House Armed Services Committeee. He is a former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.