WASHINGTON – The nation’s top military officer said Tuesday the Army could still throw the book at Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the young soldier who walked away from his unit in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and into five years of captivity by the Taliban.
Charges are still a possibility, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press as criticism mounted in Congress about releasing five high-level Taliban detainees in exchange for Bergdahl. The Army might still pursue an investigation, Dempsey said, and those results could conceivably lead to desertion or other charges.
Congress began holding hearings and briefings into the deal that swapped Bergdahl for Taliban officials who had been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and several lawmakers said that President Barack Obama didn’t notify them as a law governing the release of Guantanamo detainees requires. White House staff members called key members of Congress to apologize, but that didn’t resolve the issue.
Since Dempsey issued a statement Saturday welcoming Bergdahl home, troops who served with the soldier have expressed anger and resentment that his freedom – from a captivity that they say he brought upon himself – may have cost comrades’ lives. Troops sat in stony silence at Bagram Air Field when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Bergdahl’s release over the weekend.
“Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl,” Dempsey said on Saturday.
However, Dempsey called the AP on Tuesday to note that charges were still a possibility, and he focused his thanks on the service members who searched fruitlessly for Bergdahl after he walked away, unarmed, on June 30, 2009.
“This was the last, best opportunity to free a United States soldier in captivity,” Dempsey said. “My first instinct was gratitude for those who had searched for so long, and at risk for themselves. ... Done their duty in order to bring back a missing solider. For me, it was about living up to our ethos, which is to leave no soldier behind. And on that basis I was relieved to get Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl back in the ranks, and very happy for the men and women who had sacrificed to do so.”
Dempsey said Bergdahl’s next promotion to staff sergeant, which was to happen soon, is no longer automatic because the soldier is no longer missing in action and job performance is now taken into account.
Dempsey said he does not want to prejudge the outcome of any investigation or influence other commanders’ decisions. But he noted that U.S. military leaders “have been accused of looking away from misconduct” and said no one should assume they would do so in this case.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. John McHugh later said that after Bergdahl recovers physically and is “reintegrated,” the Army would “review the circumstances” of his case.
Some former soldiers who served with him were already passing judgment.
Joshua Cornelison, who was a medic in Bergdahl’s platoon said he believes Bergdahl should be held accountable for walking away.
“After he actually left, the following morning we realized we have Bergdahl’s weapon, we have Bergdahl’s body armor, we have Bergdahl’s sensitive equipment [but] we don’t have Bowe Bergdahl,” Cornelison said from Sacramento, California. At that point, Cornelison said, it occurred to him that Bergdahl was “that one guy that wanted to disappear, and now he’s gotten his wish.”
Evan Buetow, who was a sergeant in Bergdahl’s platoon, said from Maple Valley, Washington, that Bergdahl should face trial for desertion, but he also said it was less clear that he should be blamed for the deaths of all soldiers killed during months of trying to find him. Buetow said he knew of at least one death on an intelligence-directed infantry patrol to a village in search of Bergdahl.
“Those soldiers who died on those missions, they would not have been where they were ... if Bergdahl had never walked away,” he said. “At the same time I do believe it is somewhat unfair for people to say, ‘It is Bergdahl’s fault that these people are dead.’ I think that’s a little harsh.”
The White House took a fourth straight day of heat for not giving Congress the required 30 days notice of a detainee release. Obama had issued a statement when he signed the law containing that requirement giving himself a loophole for certain circumstances under the executive powers clause of the Constitution.
Obama, at a news conference in Poland, defended the decision to move quickly on the exchange, saying without offering details that U.S. officials were concerned about Bergdahl’s health. Bergdahl was reported to be in stable condition at a military hospital in Germany
“We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute an exchange, and we seized that opportunity,” Obama said. He said the process of notifying Congress was “truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window” of opportunity.
Obama also said the five Taliban officials’ release was conditioned on assurances from officials in Qatar, where they will have to stay for one year, that they will track them and allow the U.S. to monitor them. Still, the president acknowledged the risk.
“We will be keeping eyes on them. Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” Obama said. “That’s been true of all the prisoners that were released from Guantanamo.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, expressed reservations.
“I am concerned about what was given in exchange and I am concerned about what precedents we set here for exchanges,” he said. “I don’t want the message to be, ‘You can go ahead and capture Americans and use them to barter for others.’”
Senate Republicans bristled, too, about the lack of notification.
The Obama administration held two interagency briefings for House Speaker John Boehner and key Republican chairmen on Nov. 30, 2011, and Jan. 31, 2012, in which the possibility was raised of exchanging Bergdahl for the five Taliban detainees.
During those sessions, lawmakers raised concerns about ensuring the detainees did not return to the battlefield, the impact on the Afghan war and whether all efforts were being made to rescue Bergdahl. Members of Congress sent letters to the administration, but heard little in the subsequent months except assurances that they would be contacted if the chances of a swap became more credible.
Then word came on Saturday that the swap had occurred.
Boehner welcomed Bergdahl’s release, but warned of a dangerous precedent for the treatment of U.S. troops.
“One of their greatest protections – knowing that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists – has been compromised,” he said.