Ex-US Official on Bowe Bergdahl Charges: Why Are We Vilifying an Ex-POW Tortured by Taliban?

With Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl facing charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the case has revived controversy over how the Obama administration won his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay. On Friday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the White House for documents related to the swap. Others have raised different questions over the Bergdahl case, including whether he is being unfairly targeted while the military and political leaders who mishandled the Afghan war evade scrutiny. We speak with Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy in September 2009.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Hero of War,” Tim McllRath of the band Rise Against. The video has been viewed online more than 25 million times. This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue to look at the case of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was held in Taliban captivity for 5 years after leaving his base in Afghanistan in 2009. He was freed last year in exchange for five Taliban prisoners who’d been held for years at Gauantánamo. Last week, the Army announced it plans to charge sergeant Bergdahl with one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, he faces life in prison. The tough military charges Bergdahl faces have revived controversy over how the Obama administration won his release in exchange for 5 Taliban prisoners. Fox News reports at least three of the 5 have since attempted to reconnect with their former terrorist networks.

On friday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the White House for documents related to the swap. State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki defended the trade during an interview on Fox News.

JEN PSAKI: Was it worth it? Absolutely, we have a commitment to our men and women serving overseas — or serving in our military, defending our national security everyday that we are going to do everything to bring them home if we can. And that’s what we did in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Others have raised different questions as Sergeant Bergdahl faces charges of desertion and the very rare charge of misbehavior before the enemy. Reporter Peter Maass wrote for The Intercept, “What punishment should Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl receive for allegedly deserting his post in Afghanistan? The answer comes by asking another question, what punishment has been handed out to American generals and politicians whose incompetence caused far more bloodshed and grief than anything Bergdahl did?” Well, for more we are joined by Matthew Hoh, a former marine and state department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over U.S. policy in September 2009.

Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, he served in iraq. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Last june he wrote a piece for Politico headlined “Stop Persecuting Bowe Bergdahl, He and his parents have suffered enough–like all of us veterans.” Matthew Hoh now joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome back to Democracy Now! So, Matthew, we haven’t spoken since the Army has charged Bowe Bergdahl with these two counts of desertion and this rare charge that we were just speaking with Eugene Fidell, his attorney, about, desertion before the enemy. Your response?

MATTHEW HOH: Well, good morning Amy, and thank you for having me back on. My response is along the same lines that I have been saying for almost 10 months now. Give this time, no rush to judgment. Why are we vilifying and crucifying a young man who suffered at the hands of the enemy for five years? And even more so, persecuting his family as well. Just to, really, score political points. With regard to the most recent developments with sergeant Bergdahl, the most important aspect of all this is the fact, as Mr. Fidell was just explaining, the Army’s investigation has found that sergeant Bergdahl did not intend to desert permanently. He didn’t intend to quit the war, quit the Army, or join the Taliban or walk to China, but that his intention was to try and get to another base to report some kind of wrongdoing, something disturbing to a senior military officer or to an American general. Something had bothered his conscience. Something had bothered his standards as a soldier that he felt that this was the only option he had, to travel overland, admittedly a pretty crazy option, and obviously one that did not work out so well as everyone knows. But, that is what the Army has found. That this is not a case of classic desertion but of a young man who was disturbed by something, possibly war crimes, some kind of wrongdoing, something immoral, maybe, and that he took it upon himself to report this to his senior officers because he had no faith in the soldiers he was stationed with anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the book “Military Justice: A Guide to the Issues,” by Lawrence Morris, Article 99, misbehavior before the enemy, essentially criminalizes a soldier’s inability to overcome fear to carry out their duty. Do you think Bowe Bergdahl was afraid?

MATTHEW HOH: No. Honestly not, Amy, if he was willing to communicate with his squad leader, his team leader about this before hand. And then actually carry out this action. If we go back to information we know about this already, most of which comes from the Rolling Stone article published by Michael Hastings and Matt Farwell, we see that he actually asked his team leader what would happen to me if I went off base with my weapons and other serialized gear — so, my night vision goggles and other equipment the Army has issued to me. The team leader said you will get in trouble. And so, that is, to me, the reason why he went off base without that equipment. This was a plan he had. He obviously felt that he had no other possibility, no other option. So, for him to do that, to go overland in eastern Afghanistan to try and report this disturbing circumstances as the Army says he was trying to do, required quite a bit of bravery. With regard to this misbehavior before the enemy charge, a lot of us who are in the veteran community have never heard of that before. Obviously it is an actual part of the uniform code of military justice, but it is something that is extremely rare. And if you google it — I invite people to go and google it — you’ll see there are nine sections to this possible charge. And really it’s a catchall. If somebody does not have their boots tied properly while in their fighting position, that could be construed as misbehavior before the enemy. It really is a catchall that can be applied really to any circumstances. So, certainly i would imagine that if you were to say like he left the base, well, he left the base without permission that is misbehavior before the enemy so, I guess that you could say that he is in violation of that.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of Bergdahl’s father, Bob, speaking in a video produced last year by The Guardian.

BOB BERGDAHL: We teach two generations, at least, of children in this country that we had zero tolerance for violence but we can occupy two countries in asia for almost a decade. It’s schizophrenic. No wonder this younger generation is struggling psychologically with the duplicity of this, the use of violence. The purpose of wars is to destroy things. You can’t use it to govern.

AMY GOODMAN: You are friendly with the family, how did you come to know the family, Matthew? And what about what Bob is saying here, Bergdahl’s father?