New questions raised about Bergdahl's capture

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

Credit: WFAA

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released by the Taliban as part of a prisoner swap on May 31, 2014.

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by JIM MICHAELS

USA TODAY

Posted on June 2, 2014 at 8:45 PM

WASHINGTON – Two days after the surprise news that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be released in a prisoner swap with the Taliban after five years in captivity, new criticism surfaced Monday about Bergdahl's conduct that led to his capture.

The Pentagon has not said how Bergdahl was captured, but a defense official has confirmed he walked off his post without authorization before he was captured. The official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the case, would not provide further details about the day he disappeared.

On the Facebook page of his unit, the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, which is based in Alaska, a number of people characterized Bergdahl as a deserter who should be held accountable for his actions.

"Now he can stand trial for deserting his post," wrote Brandon Fall.

Those who served with him are also raising questions. "Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down," Nathan Bradley Bethea, who said he served in Bergdahl's unit, wrote in the Daily Beast.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin addressed President Obama on her Facebook page Monday: "Please use your White House Rose Garden to praise the truly honorable service of our good U.S. troops who were killed in their search for Sgt. Bergdahl." She also noted anti-American statements attributed to Bergdahl.

At the time of his capture, the Pentagon said it was pulling out all stops to search for the soldier, who was the only American servicemen held by the Taliban until he was released over the weekend.

The Pentagon has said it is focusing now on the health of Bergdahl, who was 23 when he was captured, and will later determine the circumstances of his capture.

"Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said over the weekend. "Other circumstances that may develop and questions, those will be dealt with later."

Bergdahl is in Landstuhl, Germany, where he is being assessed by psychologists at a military hospital. His condition is described as stable, but doctors are paying attention to his diet and nutrition needs, the Pentagon said.

The military's focus now is on helping him reintegrate into society, said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Pentagon has described the prisoner swap as an expression of the bedrock principle that no soldier is left behind on the battlefield. They said that negotiators had to act quickly or risk losing him and characterized it as a prisoner of war swap in line with previous wars.

That has led to accusations that the Obama administration has reversed its policy on negotiating with terrorists. The administration has historically characterized Guantanamo detainees as enemy combatants who don't abide by international conventions.

"This fundamental shift in U.S. policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages," Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

The administration has not released details about how the detainees would be monitored but suggested the arrangement was similar to hundreds of detainees who have been released from the facility and transferred to other countries.

The five Taliban detainees were transferred to the custody of Qatar, a Persian Gulf state which served as a conduit for the negotiations that led to the prisoner swap.

The Taliban militants will be banned from travel for a year, but U.S. officials have not said what limitations, if any, they will be under after the travel ban ends.

"The assurances were sufficient enough that the secretary of Defense signed off on the transfer," said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the State Department.

Of the more than 600 detainees that have been released from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, more than 16% returned to terrorist activity, according to a report last year from the Director of National Intelligence. Another 12% are suspected of having returned to terrorism.

Qatar's Embassy in the United States did not respond to questions about the agreement.

Contributing: Oren Dorell

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