Army Secretary John McHugh said Tuesday that the controversial case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will be reviewed only after he recovers from his five years in Taliban captivity.
In an effort to respond to growing clamor over whether Bergdahl went AWOL in Afghanistan five years ago before his capture by Taliban insurgents, McHugh said Army commanders want to talk with the Idahoan about his mysterious disappearance, but only after his health is restored.
“Our first priority is ensuring Sgt. Bergdahl’s health and beginning his reintegration process,” McHugh said in a statement. “There is no time-line for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery.”
President Barack Obama defended his decision to release five former senior Taliban officials from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility Saturday in exchange for Bergdahl’s release.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don’t leave our men and women behind,” Obama told reporters in Poland, where he was traveling on the first leg of a Europe trip. “And that dates back to the earliest days of our revolution.”
Obama rebutted Republican lawmakers’ claims that he violated the law by failing to give Congress at least 30 days’ notice before releasing the five Taliban detainees.
“We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl,” Obama said.
The president said he wasn’t able to provide more precise notice because of the need to move quickly to secure Bergdahl’s release amid concerns over his health.
“We saw an opportunity,” Obama said. “We were concerned about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health. We had the cooperation of the Qataris to execute and exchange, and we seized that opportunity. And the process was truncated because we wanted to make sure that we did not miss that window.”
That explanation didn’t satisfy Sen. John McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who himself was a POW in Vietnam.
McCain said the five freed Taliban were “wanted war criminals” who will be free to return to Afghanistan after a year in Qatar under the terms of the prisoner exchange.
While the Arizonian said he was happy that Bergdahl had returned, he said protecting the lives of Americans in combat is a higher priority.
“I think the deal should not have been made,” McCain said.
McHugh said a key part of any subsequent inquiry would be allowing Bergdahl to give his side of a story in which some soldiers have already branded him a deserter.
“As (Joint Chiefs of Staff) Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sgt. Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity,” McHugh said in a statement.
“All other decisions will be made thereafter, and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices,” he said.
The Army’s normal process for probing potential misconduct, called a 15-6 inquiry, covers a broad range of behavior from misuse of equipment to desertion or other gross violations.
Such an inquiry was started after Bergdahl went missing from his base in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, according to senior military officials speaking on background because they were not authorized to discuss his situation.
That inquiry was effectively put on hold over time, the officials said, and it was not clear whether it would be resumed or a new probe would be started after Bergdahl’s health is restored.
Dempsey said in a post on his Facebook page that “the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover any U.S. service member in enemy captivity.”
McHugh echoed earlier statements by Dempsey, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military leaders in expressing thanks for Bergdahl’s return.
“As an Army, we are grateful that an American soldier is back in American hands,” McHugh said. “The Warrior Ethos is more than words, and we should never leave a comrade behind.”
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said that “members of Congress should not be surprised that (Obama) acted as he did in the circumstances that existed.”
-- Renee Schoof of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed