Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held captive by the Taliban for five years after leaving his post in Afghanistan, has been charged by the U.S. military with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy—less than a year after a controversial prisoner swap brought him home to the United States.
Daniel King, public affairs chief for the Army Forces Command, appeared Wednesday afternoon in Fort Bragg to announce two charges against Bergdahl: the first, under article 85 of the Uniform Military Code of Justice, is desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duties; the second, under article 99 of the code, is misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit, or place.
Under article 85, the maximum punishment options include dishonorable discharge and confinement of five years. Under article 99, options include confinement for life.
King said that next steps include a preliminary hearing—akin to civilian grand-jury proceedings—designed to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to merit a court-martial. A date for the hearing, to be held in Fort Sam Houston, will be announced later.
Bergdahl's lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said the soldier was informed of the charges Tuesday.
Bergdahl went missing from his base in Afghanistan in June 2009. Starting in 2011, American officials worked for three years on a secret deal to bring the soldier home, using intermediaries like the government of Qatar to speak with the Taliban. In May 2014, the United States released five Taliban militants held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl's return. The prisoners, two of whom had leadership roles in the Taliban, were transferred to Qatar—where, under the terms of the swap, they have to live for one year.
Bergdahl returned to the United States in June 2014, and the Army launched an investigation into Bergdahl's actions before he left his post in 2009. Backlash quickly built, as critics—including American soldiers—questioned whether the exchange was worth it, given that many considered Bergdahl a deserter.
The swap outraged many members of Congress, who were not notified by the president of the transfer at least 30 days before it happened, as required by federal law. President Obama stood by his decision, saying, "We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind." Bergdahl's ill health was cited as a reason for the swap.
"I would not have done this trade for a Medal of Honor winner," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina said after news broke about the charges Wednesday. Graham emphasized that Bergdahl's rescue was questionable regardless of whether or not it is proved that he deserted his unit. "No military member should expect their country to turn over five Taliban commanders to get their release. Nobody should expect that. It is not the nature of his service that drives my thinking; it is just the illogical nature of the swap."
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain didn't have much to say when asked about the news Wednesday. "I don't know the details, so all I can say is that I'm glad the investigation's done and we'll move forward," he said. "But I can't judge it much until we get the details."
Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, also hit on Obama's original decision to make the deal. "[Bergdahl's] still an American," he said Wednesday afternoon, "and we go after Americans, and we do what we can do to be able to establish the freedom of Americans regardless. But to do it in the way that the president did it, ignoring congressional requirements, it becomes even more stark."
Soon after news of the charges emerged, House Speaker John Boehner on Twitter went back to the firestorm around the Bergdahl swap from last summer, citing a Government Accountability Office report that determined Obama violated federal law by keeping Congress in the dark about the swap.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing less than two weeks after the prisoner exchange, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel defended the Obama administration's actions, calling the trade "an extraordinary situation." Responding to security concerns related to the released prisoners, Hagel said members of Congress had been informed about a potential exchange involving those five individuals starting in 2011.
Six weeks after Bergdahl's release, he returned to active duty, working a desk job at Fort Sam Houston. The Army wrapped up its investigation in December, and since then, head of the Army Forces Command, Gen. Mark Milley, has been reviewing the case to determine next steps.
Lauren Fox, Rachel Roubein, and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this article
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