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U.S. Military Charges Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl With Desertion

Mar 25, 2015
Originally published on March 30, 2015 12:17 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Bowe Bergdahl was charged today by the U.S. military. He's the U.S. Army sergeant who was captured in Afghanistan and held by the Taliban for nearly five years. Here's Army Colonel Daniel King announcing the charges.

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COLONEL DANIEL KING: One count of Article 85, desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty, and one count of Article 99, misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.

CORNISH: To talk about this development, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent David Welna. David, welcome to the studio.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So how serious are these charges against Sergeant Bergdahl?

WELNA: They are quite serious. The Army is essentially saying Bergdahl's May 2009 disappearance, as they're calling it, was a crime of desertion. And on top of that, they're saying he endangered his unit by doing so in a war zone. Both charges could result in his being dishonorably discharged and forfeiting all pay and allowances. And that could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars paid over the time while he was in captivity. And on top of that, Bergdahl could also be given a life sentence on the misbehavior before the enemy charge, although not the death penalty, which he could've been charged with for desertion.

CORNISH: And explain just how big a controversy this has been.

WELNA: Well, there are a lot of people, including some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers who say his disappearance led to the deaths of half a dozen soldiers who went looking for him. And they say he should be held accountable for that. But it's not clear that those troops who died did so trying to find Bergdahl. They were killed in a very dangerous war zone where many others also died. The other controversy is over the prisoner swap the Obama administration set up to free Bergdahl, which was done without notifying Congress. The deal involved trading five accused Taliban commanders who were imprisoned at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Those five were transferred to Qatar, and some lawmakers say that at least one of them has since contacted his fellow comrades in arms.

CORNISH: So there are charges now. What happens next in this case?

WELNA: The next step is a preliminary hearing four weeks from now to decide what to do about these charges, and that will take place at Fort Sam Houston outside San Antonio, Texas, where Bergdahl has continued serving in the Army. This military equivalent to a grand jury will likely have witnesses testifying who can be cross examined by the defense. And the Army colonel who will preside over that hearing will then have to decide the next step.

CORNISH: And is that the point where the Army, say, could decide whether to court-martial Bergdahl?

WELNA: That's right. It could dismiss this case, or it could call for a special court-martial in which there would be likely some kind of a plea deal. Bergdahl's lawyer says the nearly five years he spent in captivity should be considered time served, and there's also question of whether the Army would really want a full-blown court-martial. That could raise some very sensitive issues such as reports that the disappearance was not the first instance of odd behavior by Bergdahl. The most drastic option would be a general court-martial, and that would likely only happen if the Army felt it had all the evidence it needed to convict Bergdahl.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent David Welna on the Army's decision to charge Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with desertion. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.