When President Obama agreed last year to trade five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive for five years in Afghanistan by the Taliban and its allies, some critics of the deal said Bergdahl wasn’t worth it because he had left his post before being captured. We expect that complaint will be amplified now that the military has announced that the 28-year-old soldier is being charged with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.”
But the argument that Bergdahl didn’t deserve to be rescued was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Even if Bergdahl were to be convicted of these charges at a court-martial — and he has yet to face even a preliminary hearing — that wouldn’t discredit Obama’s decision to press for his release.
As the president said at the time, “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.” (If the administration is to be faulted, it’s not for negotiating Bergdahl’s release but for an exuberance that seemed to ignore questions about Bergdahl’s conduct. National security adviser Susan Rice gratuitously said that Bergdahl served the United States “with honor and distinction.”)
Like civilian defendants, Bergdahl should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. His lawyer has disputed the allegations and argues that the “naive” Bergdahl had no intention of abandoning the Army and left his post only to bring “disturbing circumstances” in his unit to the attention of a superior officer. That may be true or it may not, but those issues will be sorted out by the military justice system in a process that we hope will be insulated from politics.
Either way, Bergdahl is in a position to offer a response to the charges only because he was rescued and repatriated. In a statement released by his lawyer, Bergdahl offered a harrowing account of his mistreatment.
“After the first year, they put me inside a cage,” Bergdahl recalled. “In there my hands were always handcuffed in front of me, being taken off only on the few times I would wash and change clothes, which came more often than in the first year, when I would go three or four months without washing or changing clothes.” Bergdahl said he attempted to escape 12 times.
Obama has no reason to apologize for delivering Bergdahl from such conditions, whatever the sergeant’s culpability may be. As a Pentagon official pithily put it in an interview with Politico: “This doesn’t change the fact that we should have brought him home. We don’t outsource our justice to the Taliban.”
From an editorial in the Los Angeles Times