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Negotiator reveals shadowy world of hostage rescue in new book, 'In the Shadows'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Today, a Russian court sentenced a Russian American to three-and-a-half years in prison. He was charged with rehabilitating Nazism and showing disrespect for society.

And he's part of a worrying trend. Over the past decade, there have been an historic number of U.S. nationals detained by foreign governments abroad. One of the leading negotiators for detained Americans who usually works in the shadows has now stepped into the limelight and written a book.

Nick Schifrin has that story.

Nick Schifrin: Nearly 60 Americans are believed to be held overseas, some 90 percent of them labeled wrongfully detained by the State Department.

Their possible release is handled by countless American government officials. But, sometimes, when hostage families want another advocate or the relevant government might not be communicating particularly well with the U.S. government officially, Mickey Bergman, alongside the late Governor Bill Richardson and their team, answered the call in North Korea, Myanmar, Moscow.

Bergman has helped bring Americans home, including Brittney Griner. And now he's written a book, "In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad."

And Mickey Bergman joins me now.

Mickey, thanks very much.

Welcome to the "NewsHour."

Mickey Bergman, Author, "In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad": Thank you for having me.

Nick Schifrin: You call yourself a fringe diplomat. How does a fringe diplomat bring Americans home?

Mickey Bergman: Well, I think, like, French diplomacy is made of two separate types of actions or activities. The first is engagement. The second one is intervention.

And intervention is -- basically ends up in my world being the negotiation, the release of political prisoner or hostage. And intervention is great. It's quick, it's tangible, it's sexy, and you get a special on TV for it.

But the real work, you cannot succeed in intervention unless you spend time and invested in engagement. And the way we do it is that we engage with the local population and the local community and leadership, ask them, what is their priorities, what are their -- what is their vision for their community?

Nick Schifrin: A little empathy.

Mickey Bergman: Yes, and -- yes, exactly right.

Nick Schifrin: I want to go through some of your achievements over the many years you have been doing this, but I first want to ask you about the possible hostage deal that we're talking about in the news right now.

Why do you think President Biden made details of a possible deal between Israel and Hamas public? Why do you think he made that step?

Mickey Bergman: I think President Biden realized that there's a double-talk going on, what people -- what the Israeli prime minister is telling him privately and then what he says publicly.

And at least one time we know last month, that cost us the deal. When everybody was ready to sign -- there's a saying, if you're a negotiator and you want a negotiation to succeed, publicly, you talk about what is common.

Netanyahu publicly is talking about what are the gaps. So that means that he actually was trying to derail the process. And I think, by outing it, President Biden is pushing him into a corner, making sure that, if Hamas -- and we're all waiting to see. If Hamas accepts those terms, then it will be up to Netanyahu.

If he walks back from it, there should be a plan B in which President Biden and the administration is seeking through the mediators to say, can we have a humanitarian indirect channel that will address humanitarian aid and will address the release of the American citizens that are kidnapped?

Nick Schifrin: You have got some history with the Israeli government, multiple Israeli governments.

Mickey Bergman: Yes.

Nick Schifrin: You're also a former Israeli soldier, as you point out in the book.

In 2006, you conducted some of your first back-channel diplomacy.

Mickey Bergman: Yes.

Nick Schifrin: You tried to end the war between Israel and Lebanon back then. You also helped establish the parameters of the deal between Hamas and the Israeli government that would leave to release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011.

Do you think there's something unique about how Israel approaches hostage negotiations?

Mickey Bergman: I think there's a mismatch.

And that's -- my work on the Gilad Shalit negotiations in 2007-2008 taught me a lot about how Hamas thinks. Hamas doesn't negotiate the way Israel does. For Israel, it's about the transaction. What is the actual exchange that takes place? For Hamas, it's about the end picture.

Hamas early on has basically established a certain picture of what it looks like at the end of this deal for them, when all the Israeli hostages are back home, the IDF is outside of Gaza, and they have the Palestinian prisoners released.

Israel is looking at it, oh, OK. Well, let's see. If we apply more pressure and we take more pieces of Gaza or we make some conditions harder, we can definitely make the price lower.

But all you did, you added to the list of demands in order to get to the end picture.

Nick Schifrin: Let's talk about Brittney Griner.

In the months leading up to the hostage deal between Brittney Griner for convicted armed smuggler Viktor Bout, you describe how you, Mickey Bergman, were the first presented the name of a second Russian detainee who would have been swapped for Paul Whelan. And you deliver that name to Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, and he says, why you, Mickey? Why did you get the name?

And so I ask you, why do you get that name?

Mickey Bergman: It is sometimes awkward for people in government to understand why we're able to actually get some of these deals articulated to us. And there's a lot of skepticism.

When it came to Brittney Griner, when the Russians also gave us two options, one for one or two for two, we actually told the Russians, we're not going to deliver the one-for-one option, because we also work on Paul Whelan. So when I delivered that message to Jon in that breakfast, it was a two-for-two message.

Unfortunately -- and I know that he tried really, really hard to get that. Just didn't work.

Nick Schifrin: You describe three occasions where...

Mickey Bergman: Yes.

Nick Schifrin: ... Paul Whelan was left behind.

Mickey Bergman: Was left.

Nick Schifrin: Why do you think Paul Whelan is still behind bars?

Mickey Bergman: First of all, let me say that the person who's holding him behind bars is the president of Russia.

I think there were several miscalculations in the United States. There are two cardinal truths that I know -- I have been doing this for 18 years -- about hostages and political prisoners. The first one is, the deals never get better over time. We always think they might, but they never do.

And the second rule is that time never plays well for the hostages or the prisoners themselves. And so, when we stepped into this, before there was Trevor Reed, before there was Brittney Griner, there was only Paul Whelan, we actually worked with the Russians, a little bit of a tit for tat kind of thing.

If you have Konstantin Yaroshenko released for medical reasons, humanitarian release because of the pandemic, it will be reciprocated. And we passed it to the Trump White House. There was no interest. Then Trevor Reed was taken.

And there's an argument always, oh, when you make those deals, you incentivize the taking of more Americans. I argued that what we have seen in Russia was exactly the opposite. Our refusal to negotiate led to more Americans being taken.

Nick Schifrin: What do you say to the critique that negotiating hostage swaps leads to more hostages being taken?

Mickey Bergman: Yes. I believe it's intellectually lazy and morally bankrupt, intellectually lazy because there's no data that suggests at all that there's a correlation between how we resolve cases and how many Americans are taken after that.

The moral bankruptcy part of it is that it is true that we have to do deterrence as a country. We have to solve this problem. But doing it on the back of the people who are being held is morally bankrupt, because we're strong enough to do what is needed in order to bring them home.

Nick Schifrin: At one point, you admit in the book that your work and your schedule -- quote -- "almost destroyed your family."

Mickey Bergman: Yes.

Nick Schifrin: Why has this work been worth it?

Mickey Bergman: My work doesn't impact millions of people. It doesn't impact hundreds of thousands of people.

But the people that it does impact, when it works, the 10 people around the immediate family that you know -- and it's funny, by the way, Nick. I very rarely know the prisoner, only after they come back. But I know their family. Their family becomes part of my family.

The same empathy that I apply to the captors when I do the negotiations, see, that's my M.O. I apply the same thing with the family. Every time I spend time with them, meeting with them on the phone, I take on that pain for myself, because that's what motivates me. So it's very, very personal work.

Nick Schifrin: Mickey Bergman.

The book is called "In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad."

Thanks very much.

Mickey Bergman: Thank you, Nick.

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