WASHINGTON — Army investigators questioned Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the first time Wednesday in the Pentagon’s probe of his 2009 disappearance in Afghanistan, subsequent capture and nearly five years in Taliban captivity.
Bergdahl’s May 31 release in exchange for five senior Taliban militants set off a political firestorm in Washington, with mainly Republican lawmakers accusing President Barack Obama of negotiating with terrorists to secure Bergdahl’s freedom.
The nation’s top military commanders backed the deal, saying it fulfilled the commitment never to leave a fallen warrior behind enemy lines. Some former soldiers who served with Bergdahl said he’d walked away from his post in a remote section of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.
Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, head of the probe, and his aides interviewed Bergdahl, who was with his attorney, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
“Conditions on the ground will dictate how long the interview will last,” Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, an Army spokeswoman, told McClatchy. “The investigating officer and his team are prepared to remain as long as Sgt. Bergdahl is talking.”
Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell, a Yale University military law professor, prepared the Idahoan for the interrogation session and went over investigative materials provided by the Army. He expressed confidence that whatever the outcome of the Army investigation, Bergdahl won’t face prison time even if he is found to have gone AWOL or deserted his post.
“I don’t think any reasonable person would want to send someone who’s already been held captive for five years by the Taliban to jail,” Fidell told ABC News before the interview session.
Photographs from the interview session, taken and released by Fidell, show Bergdahl appearing healthy and wearing a khaki-green civilian shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows.
Army officials have said that if found to have deserted, Bergdahl could lose tens of thousands of dollars in back pay held in escrow during his captivity.
The Army did a preliminary investigation in 2009 after Bergdahl went missing from his base, but it suspended it because he could not be interviewed while in captivity. Some soldiers claim that U.S. service members died searching for him, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a contentious June 11 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee that he knew of no such fatalities.
Bergdahl, 28, was released by Taliban fighters to U.S. special forces commandos in Afghanistan during a tense exchange captured in a video clip that went viral when the Islamic insurgents posted it online. After Bergdahl was secure, the U.S. freed five Taliban from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl was flown to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, treated and debriefed there for 12 days, and then flown to Joint Base San Antonio. Following more than a month of treatment and what the Army calls “reintegration” at San Antonio Medical Center, Bergdahl received a new active-duty desk assignment July 14 at U.S. Army North headquarters at the base.