By: LAWRENCE SELLIN, PHD
Security Family Matters
On the night of June 30, 2009, then Army Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl went missing. On July 2, 2009, the Pentagon said that Bergdahl had walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan with three Afghan counterparts and was believed to have been taken prisoner. Bergdahl’s commanding officers said that a vigorous, but unsuccessful 45-day search for Bergdahl put soldiers in danger. During his nearly five years as a captive of the Taliban, the Army twice promoted Bergdahl, first to the rank of specialist in June 2010, then to the rank of sergeant in June 2011. On May 31, 2014, Bergdahl was released from captivity in exchange for five senior Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay in a controversial deal negotiated by the Obama Administration.
In June 2014, Major General Kenneth Dahl was assigned to lead the Army’s investigation into the 2009 disappearance and capture of Bergdahl. In August 2014, Dahl interviewed Bergdahl. In December 2014, after a comprehensive legal review, the Dahl investigation was forwarded to a General Courts Martial Convening Authority, Gen. Mark Milley, commanding general of Forces Command.
On March 25, 2015, the Army announced, based on Gen. Milley’s recommendation, that it was charging Bergdahl with misbehavior before the enemy and desertion, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
On May 13, 2015, Gen. Mark Milley was nominated to be the next Army chief of staff.
In April 2015, an Article 32 hearing of the Bergdahl evidence was scheduled for July 8. 2015. An Article 32 hearing is similar to the civilian evidentiary or probable cause hearing to determine, after a criminal complaint has been filed, whether there is enough evidence to require a trial. In June 2015, at the request of the defense, the Article 32 hearing was postponed until September 17, 2015.
According to one report of the September 17th Article 32 hearing, Army prosecutors presented a very weak case in support of the charges against Bergdahl. They chose not to call any of Bergdahl’s enlisted comrades who had a very different impression of his behavior than the one Bergdahl gave to investigators. Prosecutors also did not call any witnesses to support the argument that the Army lost men trying to recover Bergdahl.
Remarkably, or perhaps not so, the Army has allegedly buried recordings of signals surveillance in Afghanistan from July 1-2, 2009, days after his disappearance, where Taliban are talking on Bergdahl’s own phone saying he wanted to join them and other recordings where the Taliban, on their phones, are talking about Bergdahl trying to join them.
In an even more bizarre twist of events, the investigating officer, Major General Kenneth Dahl, appeared as a defense witness, where he provided exculpatory “psychological” evidence, describing Bergdahl as a confused, poorly adjusted idealist who doesn’t deserve further punishment.
Not surprisingly, the presiding officer of the Article 32 hearing, Lt. Col. Mark Visger has reportedly recommended a special court-martial for Bergdahl, rather than a general court-martial, the former being essentially a military version of a misdemeanor court. The special court martial carries with it a maximum penalty of 12 months of confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds of a service member’s pay for a year, reduction in rank to private and a bad-conduct discharge.
According to Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell, Lt. Col. Visger called for even lighter penalties than that, recommending against both a bad-conduct discharge and confinement, potentially allowing Bergdahl to receive some military benefits after he leaves the Army.
All of this raises some interesting questions.
If Maj. Gen. Dahl did not feel that Bergdahl deserved further punishment, why did Gen. Milley approve such serious charges as desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, instead of recommending leniency? Or, like Obama’s Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl’s parents, was that “bad optics” for Gen. Milley, who would soon appear before the Senate for Chief of Staff confirmation hearings? Did he go with the more serious charges deliberately, with the administration’s subtle blessing, confident that, in the end, the Article 32 would go nowhere?
Some final questions.
Will Bergdahl get less than a slap on the wrist? Will Maj. Gen. Dahl soon get his third star and will Lt. Col. Visger, as quickly, get promoted to full colonel?
Given the disturbing “optics” of the Bergdahl case and the allegations against CENTCOM concerning the manipulation of intelligence, should we now consider the military as nothing more than political operatives of the Obama Administration?
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of “Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution “. He receives email at [email protected].