Report

Army Is Charging Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl With Desertion

The verdict will be a PR nightmare for the White House against criticism it gave up too much for a soldier suspected to have walked away from his post.

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This story has been updated.

When the White House made a controversial deal last spring to bring back missing Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, it said five Taliban prisoners who were released as part of the deal were a high but necessary price to rescue an American soldier who had been captured by the enemy. President Barack Obama welcomed Bergdahl’s parents to the Rose Garden. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said the soldier, missing for five years, had served with “honor and distinction.”

On Wednesday, March 25, the Army formally charged Bergdahl with desertion and put the White House in the uncomfortable position of once again defending a deal that has been criticized from the start by many within the military and on Capitol Hill.

The White House had no immediate comment.

House Speaker John Boehner said there are “no guarantees” that the five Taliban commanders who were released from the Guantánamo Bay prison for Bergdahl’s freedom won’t return to the battlefield. They were sent to Qatar, which committed to closely tracking their whereabouts.

The new charges against Bergdahl are “the exclamation point on the bad deal the Obama administration cut to free five terrorist killers in its rush to empty the prison,” said House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce.

Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell, confirmed the charges in an email to Foreign Policy. Bergdahl also faces an Army charge of misbehavior before an enemy, a far more serious accusation. He disappeared in June 2009 from a military base in eastern Afghanistan and wound up in the hands of the Haqqani network, a feared group of militants. It wasn’t clear how he was captured by their fighters and whether he walked off the base willingly.

Some of his fellow soldiers believe he did and that his disappearance led to the deaths of troops who were killed in Afghanistan looking for him. The Defense Department has not confirmed those accusations.

Bergdahl faces up to a lifetime behind bars, in addition to years of pay and future benefits at risk if he’s proven guilty. He has told his doctors and the officials who debriefed him that his captors repeatedly tortured him and that he was kept in a cage after trying to escape.

He has not been seen by the public since May, with the exception of a video of his release. He has remained on active duty while the Army completed its investigation into his disappearance.

The Army will now refer its charges to a preliminary hearing at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where it will be determined whether there is sufficient evidence to merit a court-martial. Geoffrey Corn, a former military attorney, said both of the charges against Bergdahl are very rare.

The misbehavior charge, in particular, signals an alleged violation “that put people in danger,” said Corn, now a professor at South Texas College of Law. Additionally, Chris Jenks, an assistant professor of law at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, said the misbehavior allegation is “one of the most socially stigmatizing charges” under the U.S. military legal system.

“Both charges have specific intent elements that are normally tough to prove, so the Army must feel they have strong admissible evidence,” Jenks said.

The charges stand in sharp contrast to the welcoming Bergdahl’s parents received last May at the White House — upon which critics immediately pounced after Rice praised the soldier’s service.

The White House later defended her comment by saying that by voluntarily signing up for military service in the first place, Bergdahl had demonstrated honorable behavior. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also defended the effort it took to bring Bergdahl home.

“[T]he questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity. This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him,” he said in a Facebook post in June.

Bergdahl was a private first class when he disappeared in 2009 and was promoted twice during his captivity.

Now, seemingly, he will either face trial or, to avoid prison time, strike a plea deal that would strip him of most of his veterans benefits. It would also dismiss him from the Army — and render his discharge status as other than honorable.

Photo credit: U.S. Army

Correction, March 25, 2015: Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and was held captive by the Haqqani network. An earlier version of this article said he was held by the Taliban.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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