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Carter Sidesteps Question on Whether Bergdahl Served With Distinction

A video capture of Bowe Bergdahl with his Taliban captors.
A video capture of Bowe Bergdahl with his Taliban captors.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter sidestepped Monday on whether the Obama administration should have said that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl served with "honor and distinction" when allegations were already widespread that he may have been a deserter.

"I really don't want to get into that," Carter said on NBC's Today program in his first comments on the case since charges against Bergdahl of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy were announced last week by the Army.

"I don't think anybody at that time fully knew the circumstances" when Bergdahl was released last May 31 in a controversial exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, Carter said.

However, Carter said that "we do have a principle that we bend over backward in favor of trying to return an American service member."

Shortly after Bergdahl's release, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice went on ABC's "This Week" program to defend the prisoner swap. Rice said that Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction."

When asked about the desertion allegations, Rice said that the administration's primary concern at the time was Bergdahl's health, "and we'll have the opportunity eventually to learn what has transpired in the past years."

She also said that "assurances relating to the movement, the activities, the monitoring of those (five Taliban) detainees give us confidence that they cannot and, in all likelihood, will not pose a significant risk to the United States, and that it is in our national interests that this transfer had been made."

A 2010 Army investigation on Bergdahl's disappearance suggested that he left his post voluntarily, the Associated Press has reported.

Shortly after Bergdahl's release, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said in a statement: "Now that Sgt. Bergdahl is back and under our control, first and foremost we must ensure his health is taken care of and he is properly re-integrated. At the appropriate time, we will conduct a thorough, transparent and complete review of the circumstances surrounding his capture."

Since then, Bergdahl has been assigned to administrative duties at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in Texas. The review Odierno referenced wasn't subsequently conducted by Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl.

The five Taliban detainees were transferred to the Gulf state of Qatar, which agreed to hold them for at least one year.

The Army announced last week that Gen. Mark Milley, commander of the Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., had authorized charges of one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy against Bergdahl, 28, of Hailey, Idaho.

Bergdahl went missing from Combat Outpost Mest-Lalak in Afghanistan's Paktika province in June 2009. He is believed to have been held for nearly five years by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network.

As defense secretary and a member of the Cabinet, Carter was obligated to be cautious in his remarks to avoid the appearance of using "unlawful command influence" in cases that could go to court martial. The Obama administration has been cited previously for exercising influence in courts martial.

In June 2013, a military judge in two separate sexual assault cases in Hawaii ruled that the defendants could not be dishonorably discharged even if convicted because of statements President Obama made on rooting out sexual predators from the military.

At a news conference in May 2013, Obama said "I expect consequences" in military sexual assault cases.

"So I don't just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way," Obama said. "If we find out somebody's engaging in this, they've got to be held accountable -- prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."

Obama's remarks were later cited by the defense in the high-profile case of Navy football players accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman.

In a letter to Milley, Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl's lead defense lawyer, has also warned of the potential for command influence to become a factor should the case proceed to court martial.

Fidell wrote to Milley that he hoped "you will appreciate how the heavy pressures that have been put on the Army in this case are likely to lead to pretrial motions and discovery so that we can be confident that neither the investigation nor the disposition process has been tainted by actual or apparent unlawful command influence."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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