Bowe Bergdahl charged with desertion

Mar 25, 2015 1:17 PM by News Staff

The saga of former Taliban prisoner Bowe Bergdahl took a new turn Wednesday, with the Pentagon announcing at a press conference charges claiming the U.S. Army sergeant deserted his post intentionally before winding up in the extremists' hands in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl's attorney, Gene Fidell, told CBS News his client had been informed of the charges earlier Wednesday.

Military officials said Bergdahl will face in a court martial on one count of "desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty," which carries a maximum of five years in prison, as well as one count of "misbehavior before the enemy, endangering the safety of a command, unit or place," which carries a maximum sentence of up to life in prison.

The charges could result in a dishonorable discharge, as well as a rank reduction and benefit removal if convicted. The case now goes to the military equivalent of a grand jury, an Article 32 hearing. If the panel approves of the charges, it will be referred to a court-martial trial.

CBS News correspondent David Martin reports the charges are notable because they do not carry the possibility of the death penalty, which some critics have asked be taken into consideration. Martin said it would be surprising if Bergdahl served any time in prison for the current charges, because of the argument many have given that his five years spent as a Taliban prisoner is punishment enough.

Daniel Conway, a military defense lawyer, told the Associated Press he believed military officials saw the need to prosecute Bergdahl because without a conviction he was entitled to special compensation as a prisoner of war.

"He did spend X number of years as a prisoner of the Taliban - that certainly mitigates the need for him to be locked up," Conway said. "But as a political matter, I don't think we can stomach the possibility that he deserted his post and could receive $300,000 in back pay for it."

Bergdahl's saga gained national attention last year, when in May U.S. officials announced the U.S. Army sergeant had been traded for five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay.

That deal proved to be a large source of tension between Congress and the Obama administration, with some congressmen claiming it was illegal.

During the course of its investigation into Bergdahl's disappearance and capture, military officials had already concluded that on the night of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl neatly stacked up his equipment, and walked off his outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Bergdahl's unit established that he had been captured within 30 minutes of his disappearance.

When he was captured, Bergdahl had less than a year of military service and his official performance record was without blemish. However, investigators discovered that the June 2009 disappearance was at least the second time he had wandered off without permission.

It is believed he was held by members of the Haqqani network, a notorious terrorist group with close ties to the Taliban that operates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Since his release, former fellow servicemen questioned whether Bergdahl was worthy of the effort put into securing his freedom, with some claiming six servicemen had died attempting to bring him back.

Some of Bergdahl's writing was released after the prisoner exchange, and critics seized on it as proof he had deserted because of how much he talked about being disillusioned with America's mission in Afghanistan.

In July of last year, further questions were raised when a photo of Bergdahl emerged, showing him smiling with Badruddin Haqqani, a now-deceased senior commander for the Haqqani network.

CBS News correspondent David Martin reports that one Pentagon official described Bergdahl at the time of his release as "at worst, a deserter. At best, a stupid kid who caused us to expend great energy and resources to bring him home."

A former senior defense official told the Associated Press that in interviews, members of Bergdahl's unit portrayed him as a naive, "delusional" person who thought he could help the Afghan people by leaving his post.

After his release, Bergdahl described often hellish conditions as a prisoner, including extended stretches in solitary confinement, a punishment he claimed he was given for trying to escape. Obama administration officials claimed the swap was made somewhat hastily because they feared for Bergdahl's rapidly declining health.

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