WASHINGTON (AP) — The tough military charges against Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl have revived the questions and controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s decision to swap five Taliban detainees to secure his release, as well as the wisdom of the White House fanfare that followed.
Bergdahl, who abandoned his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban, was charged Wednesday with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The latter charge as it applies to Bergdahl carries a sentence of life in prison. If convicted on either charge, he could also be dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank and have to forfeit all pay.
Republicans cast the charges as validation of their fierce opposition to Obama’s prisoner swap, which the GOP and some Democrats have long criticized as politically motivated and a flagrant violation of U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists. Lawmakers were also furious that Obama authorized the detainees’ release from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without consulting Congress, despite federal law requiring him to do so.
“Today’s announcement is the exclamation point on the bad deal the Obama administration cut to free five terrorist killers in its rush to empty the prison at Guantanamo Bay,” Rep. Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the charges were sure to “raise doubts in the mind of the average American” about the initial trade for Bergdahl.
Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. He told MSNBC that an upcoming hearing would result in much more information about the sergeant’s situation.
“I think at that hearing people will learn many things that they have not yet been privy to, about Sgt. Bergdahl’s conduct, his motivation, his intentions, as well as the details of his captivity at the hands of the Taliban for nearly five years,” Fidell said.
The White House had no comment on the charges against the 28-year-old from Idaho, announced as a result of an “impartial review” at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The announcement upended speculation that the military might go easy on Bergdahl given his five years in Taliban captivity.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, speaking on FOX news Wednesday, defended the swap.
“I think the president’s been clear that it’s in our national security interest to close Gitmo but this was about bringing home an individual who served his country,” Psaki said.
Bergdahl wandered away from his post on June 30, 2009, after expressing opposition to the war in general and misgivings about his own role in it. The Army sent several search-and-rescue teams after him. His former comrades said Bergdahl should be held responsible for several deaths that occurred during those rescue missions.
The Taliban released Bergdahl last May, five years after being captured and held by members of the affiliated Haqqani network that operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In exchange for his release, Obama swapped five men held at Guantanamo.
The so-called Taliban 5 were sent to Qatar, where they are being monitored by the government and U.S. intelligence agencies. But the terms of the swap only extend for one year, meaning they could be free to return to Afghanistan or elsewhere later this spring.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. will ask the Qataris to extend the agreement to keep the Taliban 5 in Doha, nor is it certain the government in Qatar would agree to such a request. But Qatari officials have indicated they believe a request from the U.S. is possible.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said that he received information that one of the five has been in touch with members of the Haqqani network, sparking fears that the freed detainees could seek to rejoin the fight against the U.S.
The White House was well aware of speculation that Bergdahl had deserted his unit and potentially put fellow service members at risk in missions to find him. Still, the president heralded his release in a jubilant Rose Garden ceremony, with Bergdhal’s parents by his side. National security adviser Susan Rice also credited Bergdahl for serving his country “with honor and distinction,” sparking criticism that the administration was trying to cover up the truth about the sergeant’s capture.
To some of those who served alongside Bergdahl, the hero’s welcome appeared vastly out of step with what they saw as the sergeant’s desertion of his unit in the midst of war.
Cody Full, a 26-year-old who was in Bergdahl’s platoon, said Wednesday that he was still struggling to understand his former roommate’s actions.
“When you turn your back on America, on us, you know you turn your back on your brother in arms,” Full said. “It’s really disheartening. There’s a lot of confusion.”
Obama administration officials have previously defended the swap as necessary to save the life of an American and fulfill the military’s pledge to leave no service member behind in battle. They’ve also acknowledged being caught off guard by the intensity of the furor that followed his release.
Bergdahl’s case now goes to an Article 32 hearing, a procedure that is similar to a grand jury. No date has been set for the hearing, which will be held at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
“President Obama’s ill-conceived decision to release the ‘Taliban 5’ put our men and women in uniform at increased risk,” Graham said Wednesday. “I have no doubt that in the future the ‘Taliban 5’ will return to the fight against the United States.”
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