Six months after the military began an investigation into the disappearance of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his capture by the Taliban, which held him for five years, the results remain under wraps as senior Army officials determine what to do next.
Bergdahl was recovered in Afghanistan by U.S. troops in a controversial swap for five Taliban officials on May 31. He had disappeared from his small patrol base on June 30, 2009, under a cloud of suspicion and fear as it became clear he been captured by militants.
The Army in June launched a new investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture, amid a raft of accusations from his fellow soldiers that he walked away from his unit on the battlefield and questions about whether the Obama administration handled the prisoner swap legally. But six months later there is silence about the probe from all corners.
Army Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, a spokeswoman at Army headquarters, and Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the Pentagon, both said Monday that they had no updates about the case. Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, declined to comment. Fidell, a military justice expert who teaches at Yale University, was hired in July.
The military has released few updates since this summer. In August, Army officials said the Bergdahl investigation was in its final stages, but warned that a draft report prepared by the investigating officer, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, would undergo a legal review before being presented to top Army officials. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in November that the work on the investigation was complete and it was under review.
The accusations against Bergdahl are serious: Any service member who leaves their unit in a war zone without authorization commonly faces one of two criminal charges in the Army: desertion or going absent without leave (AWOL). Desertion is the more serious one, and usually arises in cases where an individual intends to remain away from the military or to “shirk important duty,” including a combat deployment such as Bergdahl’s.
Desertion can lead to a variety of sentences, include a demotion in rank, forfeiture of pay and a bad-conduct discharge that takes away medical benefits. It also can lead to confinement, as the 2013 sentencing of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer Russell Matthews illustrated. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment on top of 119 days he already had served in a Navy brig for disappearing from his unit and camping in the mountains of Hawaii for three months.
But there also is precedent for President Obama to pardon Bergdahl, while citing his past imprisonment at the hands of the Taliban, should he choose.
In one example, then-Marine Capt. Ernest Brace was found guilty of desertion by the Marine Corps after crashing a government aircraft and disappearing in Maryland in 1961 while trying to avoid gambling debts, according to a recent obituary. He later became a pilot on contract with the CIA, and was captured in Vietnam and taken as a prisoner of war in 1965. He was released in 1974, and President Gerald R. Ford granted him a full pardon for his earlier desertion in recognition of his long captivity.
In November, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) suggested in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, that the United States had tried to pay ransom to get Bergdahl back, but failed after it was taken by an Afghan “intermediary” who disappeared with the cash and didn’t help free the soldier.
Kirby denied that Nov. 20, saying no money was paid and there was no failed attempt to pay ransom.
A spokesman for Hunter, Joe Kasper, said Monday that “the only logical conclusion” at this point is that the release of the investigation is being “slow rolled” by Army Secretary John McHugh.
“Even though the process for investigating permits delays, there’s no reasonable excuse for the amount of time this has taken,” Kasper said. “Secretary McHugh should be motivated to get this done, but at this point he’s shown he’s committed to sitting on the investigation, which will get no complaints from the administration.”
A spokesman for McHugh could not immediately be reached for comment.