US Joint Chiefs Chairman: Army May Still Pursue Desertion Charges Against Bergdahl

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In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag. (credit: U.S. Army via Getty Images)

In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag. (credit: U.S. Army via Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey says the Army may still pursue desertion charges against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Dempsey said that U.S. military leaders “have been accused of looking away from misconduct” and added “it’s premature” to assume they will do the same in Bergdahl’s case.

Dempsey added that Bergdahl’s next scheduled promotion is not automatic because he is no longer missing in action.

Bergdahl disappeared on June 30, 2009. A Pentagon investigation concluded in 2010 that the evidence was “incontrovertible” that he walked away from his unit, said a former Pentagon official who has read it.

A Pentagon official told CBS News that Bergdahl was “at worst, a deserter. At best, a stupid kid who caused us to expend great energy and resources to bring him home.”

The military investigation was broader than a criminal inquiry, this official said, and it didn’t formally accuse Bergdahl of desertion. In interviews as part of the probe, members of his unit portrayed him as a naive, “delusional” person who thought he could help the Afghan people by leaving his Army post, said the official, who was present for the interviews.

Bergdahl was in stable condition Monday at a U.S. military hospital in Germany following Saturday’s swap along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but questions mounted at home over the way his freedom was secured: Five high-level members of the Taliban were released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and sent to Qatar. The five, who will have to stay in Qatar for a year before going back to Afghanistan, include former ministers in the Taliban government, commanders and one man who had direct ties to the late al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

A U.S. defense official familiar with efforts to free Bergdahl said the U.S. government had been working in recent months to split the Taliban network. Different U.S. agencies had floated several offers to the militants, and the Taliban leadership feared that underlings might cut a quick deal while they were working to free the five detainees at Guantanamo, said the official and a congressional aide, both of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about efforts to release Bergdahl.

One current and one former U.S. official said Obama had signed off on a possible prisoner swap. The president spoke to the Qatari emir last Tuesday, and they gave each other assurances about the proposed transfers, said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to discuss the deliberations in public.

One official briefed on the intelligence said the Taliban also may have been worried about Bergdahl’s health, having been warned that the U.S. would react fiercely if he died in captivity. The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, which is caring for Bergdahl, said he was suffering from nutritional issues.

Nabi Jan Mhullhakhil, the provincial police chief of Paktika province in Afghanistan, where Bergdahl was stationed with his unit, said elders in the area told him that Bergdahl “came out from the U.S. base … without a gun and was outside the base when he was arrested by the Taliban.”

After weeks of intensive searching, the military decided against making an extraordinary effort to rescue him, especially after it became clear he was being held in Pakistan under the supervision of the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally with links to Pakistani’s intelligence service.

Nonetheless, individual units pursued leads as they came in. The Pentagon official familiar with the talks said, “I know for a fact that we lost soldiers looking for him.”

But the Pentagon maintained the circumstances of his capture were irrelevant.

“He is an American soldier,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said. “It doesn’t matter how he was taken captive. It doesn’t matter under what circumstances he left. … We have an obligation to recover all of those who are missing in action.”

The prisoner swap idea had evolved since early 2011, according to a former senior administration official familiar with the details. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the negotiations, said an exchange was one of three confidence-building measures designed to facilitate direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

In the end, though, the Afghan government was kept in the dark about the deal engineered by the emir of Qatar. In Kabul Monday, the Afghan Foreign Ministry criticized the swap, saying, “No state can transfer another country’s citizen to a third country and put restriction on their freedom.”

Congress was consulted in December 2011 and early 2012, one official said. Several members of Congress opposed any release, and lawmakers erected several legal hurdles.

Recently, though, Congress eased the restrictions on releasing Guantanamo detainees, including the toughest one: requiring the secretary of defense to personally certify that there would be no return to terrorism for any detainee he certified.

The Taliban demanded the release of these specific commanders, the former official said. Initially, the U.S. wanted to release them in batches, to ensure that Qatar could hold up its end of the bargain. But that didn’t happen: The U.S. freed the five all at once.

The release coincided with a visit to Washington by Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl.

Col. Tim Marsano, a family spokesman, said the parents traveled to Washington for long-scheduled briefings with the State and Defense department about their son’s case. He said it was “completely coincidental” that they were in Washington when their son was freed.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said Monday that Bergdahl had not yet spoken to any member of his family and it was not clear when that would happen.

“He will speak with his family when both he and” the military psychologists “who are overseeing his reintegration are certain that the time is right,” Warren said, adding that a military psychologist also is working with Bergdahl’s family members in the U.S.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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