Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who slipped away from his patrol base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was held in captivity for five years, has been charged with desertion and misbehaving before the enemy, Army officials said Wednesday, setting the stage for emotionally charged court proceedings in coming months.
The charges were announced by the service at Fort Bragg, N.C., hours after the 28-year-old was handed a charge sheet, according to one of his attorneys. Bergdahl will next face a preliminary Article 32 hearing, which is frequently compared to a grand jury proceeding in civilian court.
If convicted, he faces the possibility of life in prison.
The Army’s decision comes after nearly 10 months of debate about whether Bergdahl should face charges and about the circumstances of his recovery. Critics — and an independent review by the Government Accountability Office — said President Obama broke the law in authorizing the release of five Taliban detainees held by the United States in exchange for Bergdahl without consulting Congress. Others have insisted that Washington had a responsibility to bring Bergdahl home by any means necessary.
Army officials declined Wednesday to elaborate on the decisions they made, citing the ongoing investigation. The charges were authorized by Gen. Mark A. Milley, the commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command.
Members of Bergdahl’s defense team said Wednesday that they still have not been granted access to the contents of an Army investigation launched last year to look into his disappearance, and the lawyers disputed reports that they had been engaged in plea negotiations.
“We ask that all Americans continue to withhold judgment until the facts of the case emerge,” the lawyers said in a statement. “We also ask that government officials refrain from leaking information or engaging in other conduct that endangers our client’s right to a fair trial.”
Bergdahl’s attorneys released a lengthy March 2 letter they wrote to Milley urging leniency in light of his time in captivity. They also released a statement to Milley from Bergdahl in which he described being chained to a bed, spread-eagle and blindfolded while being held by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group allied with the Taliban. He said he tried to escape about 12 times over the course of his captivity.
“I was kept in constant isolation during the entire 5 years, with little to no understanding of time, through constant periods of constant darkness, periods of constant light, and periods of completely random flickering of light,” Bergdahl wrote at one point. He added that he had “absolutely no understanding of anything that was happening beyond the door I was held behind.”
Bergdahl’s defense team said in the letter to Milley that a trial would add to his stress and decried the politicization of his case.
“SGT Bergdahl has been vilified as a coward in the absence of a shred of evidence to support that description,” the lawyers said.
The court proceedings will be held at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where Bergdahl has served since shortly after a U.S. Special Operations team whisked him away from his captors on a helicopter in Afghanistan on May 31 as part of the prisoner swap. Previously discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons, he is widely believed to have struggled with his mission in Afghanistan and to have walked away under cover of darkness on June 30, 2009.
The investigation of Bergdahl’s disappearance was launched last June, with Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl interviewing the sergeant in Texas in August. It is believed that Dahl’s findings, not yet released, will play a prominent role and serve as evidence in Bergdahl’s court case.
Thousands of U.S. service members are believed to have deserted their units during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Bergdahl’s case is uncommon because he allegedly did so while on the battlefield. Some have escaped while in the United States and remain beyond the reach of the military in Canada, parts of Europe and other locations.
U.S. troops and veterans have long expressed frustration about Bergdahl’s disappearance, accusing him of deserting his unit on the battlefield and prompting a search that put lives in danger.
Many of those in his unit have been waiting years to see the Army acknowledge potential wrongdoing by Bergdahl, said Nathan B. Bethea, 30, a former Army captain in New York who was deployed with Bergdahl’s battalion when he went missing.
“I think they’re pleased because this comes as a surprise,” Bethea said of the overall reaction. “I think that, given how long this has taken, it comes as a shock. The Army never made a statement on what happened. There was always just obfuscation and smoke and mirrors.”
The desertion charge carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison, along with a possible reduction in rank and loss of pay and allowances. But the charge of misbehavior before the enemy carries a maximum punishment of confinement for life, a dishonorable discharge, a reduction to private and total forfeiture of pay and allowances since the time of his disappearance, Army officials said.
Critics of the exchange that freed the five Taliban officials in exchange for Bergdahl fear that the former Guantanamo detainees will return to hostilities.
In February, the new director of the military’s Defense Intelligence Agency left open the possibility that at least one of them could return to the battlefield, on the basis of recidivism statistics for former detainees.
“So if those numbers translate, of the five who were transferred, probably one in five could be expected to go back into the business,” said Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the agency director.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the case. He said Wednesday that the Army’s decision is an important step in determining the accountability of Bergdahl.
“I am confident that the Department of the Army will continue to ensure this process is conducted with the utmost integrity under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” said McCain, a former prisoner of war.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said that “we all wanted to bring” Bergdahl home but criticized Obama for not securing guarantees that the released Taliban officials will not return to the battlefield.
“I believe it made Americans less safe,” Boehner said. “Knowing that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists is one of our greatest protections, and now it is compromised.”
Bergdahl’s case has prompted questions over whether the Obama administration handled the prisoner swap legally. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, also provoked criticism when she said after Bergdahl’s recovery that he had served “with honor and distinction.” She later acknowledged the remark was controversial and said she was referring to the soldier’s decision to enlist in the first place.
“That, in and of itself, is a very honorable thing,” she said.
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Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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