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Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Pleads Guilty To Desertion And Other Charges

Bowe Bergdahl

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held as a prisoner of the Taliban for five years before being released as part of a deal that quickly became a point of political and legal controversy, has pled guilty to desertion and other charges in relation to his abandonment of his post in Afghanistan and subsequent capture by Taliban forces:

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, setting off a huge military manhunt and a political furor, pleaded guilty on Monday to desertion and to endangering the American troops sent to search for him.

The guilty pleas by Sergeant Bergdahl, a 31-year-old Idaho native now stationed at an Army base in San Antonio, Tex., were not part of any deal with prosecutors.

It will now be up to an Army judge here at Fort Bragg to decide the sergeant’s punishment, following testimony at a hearing that is expected to begin as soon as next week. The desertion charge carries a potential five-year sentence, and the charge of endangering troops — formally known as misbehavior before the enemy — carries a potential life sentence.

In a military courtroom here on Monday morning, Sergeant Bergdahl stood before the judge, Col. Jeffery A. Nance, and described his actions as inexcusable.

“You just walked away?” Colonel Nance asked him.

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Bergdahl replied. “Unfortunately, I got lost in my first 20 minutes.”

Sergeant Bergdahl has previously said that he had intended to walk from his unit’s outpost to a larger base about 18 miles away, in order to report what he felt were leadership problems in his unit. He said he wanted to cause a major stir, to ensure that he received an audience with a high-ranking officer.

But he told Judge Nance on Monday that he never meant to set off the huge manhunt that followed his disappearance.

“At the time, I had no intention of causing search and recovery operations,” said Sergeant Bergdahl, who was a private first class when he disappeared. “I didn’t think they would have any reason to search for one private.”

His decision to plead guilty appeared to reflect the impact of a string of victories by Army prosecutors in motions and hearings over the past year. They include rulings by Colonel Nance to allow the case to go forward despite inflammatory statements on the campaign trail by President Trump, and to allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of grievous injuries suffered by service members who, the judge ruled, were searching for the sergeant at the time.

Sergeant Bergdahl was captured by Taliban militants within hours of disappearing from his remote outpost, and was held captive for five years.

He endured torture, including beatings with rubber hoses and copper cables, that his military debriefer later characterized as the most profound abuse sustained by any American service member since the Vietnam War. He was released in May 2014, when the Obama administration freed five detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for him.

His case soon turned into a politically charged referendum in Washington on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. After he was freed, President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said Sergeant Bergdahl, who was promoted while in captivity, had served with “honor and distinction,” and Mr. Obama appeared with his parents at the White House.

But Republicans attacked the trade that led to his release, and some critics asserted that he had deserted to the Taliban or that some troops had died searching for him. During the presidential race last year, Mr. Trump also described the sergeant a “dirty rotten traitor” and called for him to be executed, pantomiming a firing squad.

At a preliminary hearing, the Army’s chief investigator, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, testified that he had found no evidence that any soldiers had been killed while specifically searching for Sergeant Bergdahl. Neither was there evidence that the sergeant intended to desert and join the Taliban, he said.

General Dahl — now a lieutenant general — also testified that he found Sergeant Bergdahl to be truthful, albeit naïve and delusional, and that jailing the sergeant would be “inappropriate.”

Sergeant Bergdahl’s defense team later argued that Mr. Trump’s comments made a fair trial impossible, since everyone who could play a role in deciding his fate — including prosecutors, the judge and the general who controls the case — now ultimately reports to Mr. Trump as commander-in-chief. But Colonel Nance concluded that while Mr. Trump’s comments were “disturbing,” there was no reason to dismiss the charges.

Though the guilty pleas entered on Monday are of enormous legal significance, few significant facts were in dispute about what Sergeant Bergdahl did or why he did it. Several months after he was freed, he spent a day and a half answering every question put to him by General Dahl, filling a nearly 400-page transcript.

It does not appear that the guilty plea came about as a result of a deal between Bergdahl and the military prosecutors in charge of prosecuting him, nor does it appear that there was any agreement regarding a potential sentence. Because of that, it will be entirely up to the Judge presiding over his trial to determine what his sentence should be, although that sentence could be revisited by a higher authority. Additionally, it’s possible that the underlying charges themselves or the sentence could be overturned on appeal if Bergdahl chose to exercise those appeals. If he did, the most likely avenue of appeal would seem to be the military court’s previous denial of Berghdahl’s motion to have the charges against him dismissed due to the comments made about his case made by President Trump while he was still a candidate for the Presidency. Those comments included several occasions in which Trump referred to Bergdahl at various points as a “dirty, rotten traitor,” as a “traitor” who should be executed for his crimes, although Bergdahl does not face the death penalty in the instant case against him, Trump repeated this mantra at many points during the campaign, although he has not repeated them since becoming President last January. During the hearing on Berghdahl’s motion, the Judge hearing the case called Trump’s comments “disturbing,” but as I said ultimately ruled that they were not sufficient to constitute the kind of undue Command influence that could lead to dismissal of the charges.

As noted, the sentence that Bergdahl faces could end up being quite serious, although it’s possible that his willingness to accept responsibility for the charges against him will work in his favor. The maximum penalty that could be imposed would be life in prison, but at first glance it seems unlikely that this will happen given his willingness to plead guilty. At the very least, though, he will likely face at least some time in prison as well as a reduction in rank, a loss of rank, and an eventual dishonorable discharge that will follow him for the rest of his life. All in all, that seems like a fitting punishment for what was a wholly irresponsible action on his part, even if one accepts his explanation for what motivated him to abandon his post.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Hal_10000 says:

    Sad end to a disgraceful story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. gVOR08 says:

    I expect this will produce another round of “should have left him there”. But we did the right thing. Get our soldier back, then let the military justice system follow its course. Part of the respect for the troops we hear so much about these days.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  3. michilines says:

    All in all, that seems like a fitting punishment for what was a wholly irresponsible action on his part, even if one accepts his explanation for what motivated him to abandon his post.

    He spent 5 years as a prisoner of the enemy.

    How do you square this with so many others in a position of authority and much more experienced with the world and having much more power to do right who have gotten away with murder in some situations and abuse of power in so many others?

    We seem to excuse killing civilians in times of war and just brush it off but one kid makes one irresponsible decision and he should spend even more time in jail — in his own country?

    This young man has handled himself and his circumstances in a much more dignified manner than have his detractors, yet he will always be worse than someone who was too cowardly to even try to serve?

    We support the troops until we don’t. It’s been the sorry legacy of the U.S. for a very long time. Much like the NFL loves them some government money via flyovers and such and Cheney made money off of outsourcing food services, it’s never about the people who serve — it’s about who gets the money.

    I hope he doesn’t have to serve a single day. And Doug, I hope you never have to spend a single day in a cage. And I hope there are enough people of good will that rather than this “following him for the rest of his life,” he will actually be able to finally have a life.

    And Hal_1000 — I just can’t. Disgrace is such a pejorative — walk in a man’s shoes all that. I doubt you would have done much better.

    Makes my blood boil.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

  4. Guarneri says:

    @michilines:

    Nice emotional rant, glossing over the endangerment he created for his fellow soldiers and the corruption of organizational behavior if excused.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 6

  5. Tony W says:

    @Guarneri: Bush/Cheney apologists have glossed over the endangerment of thousands of people by going to war to avenge/redeem his Daddy.

    @michilines is correct. If this Trump nonsense has taught us anything it’s that we need to adjust and hold everyone to the same standard of behavior.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  6. KM says:

    @gVOR08:

    Correct. He’s OUR solider, OUR citizen. We bring back our own, even if it’s to bury or to punish. We don’t leave Americans in the hands of the enemy if we can avoid it. I don’t give a damn if he’s the most cowardly coward to ever coward and needs to be shot on sight – it’s the honor, duty and privilege of the US military to administer justice in that case, not the freaking Taliban.

    I’m not take a stance on his guilt but respecting the troops means bringing them all back. ALL of them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri: Bergdahl’s problems were apparent long before he walked off. If we were properly supporting our troops, we would have gotten him out of there before this happened and before the need to rescue him endangered more of our troops.

    Bergdahl has a responsibility for his actions — I think he’s paid a heavy price for them already, and don’t see that it particularly helps to make him pay more, but I don’t particularly mind him paying a slightly larger price. I don’t think he should be hung as a traitor, or spend the rest of his life in jail, or whatever the people on the far right want to extract vengeance and be tough about, but a year or so in jail would be fine, show order, whatever. Justice may have already be served, but process hasn’t, so go for it.

    At the same time though, we — America, the citizens and the government — have a responsibility to all our troops, and having someone as unfit as Bergdahl out there is a danger to the rest of our troops. We failed our troops by leaving him in Afghanistan until he broke.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  8. James in Bremerton says:

    ““I didn’t think they would have any reason to search for one private.”

    How did he come to believe this? It lies at the heart of what happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Tony W says:

    @James in Bremerton: How did he come to believe this? Likely poor leadership at the unit level.

    Anybody in a mind-numbing corporate job can relate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. John430 says:

    “desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.”
    A life sentence is too lenient for this creep. In another lifetime he would be a “Benedict Arnold”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3