Peter Bergen says the sentence will not satisfy many in the military and it's been attacked by President Trump
But given the mitigating factors that the judge had to consider, his decision was right, Bergen says
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and chairman of the Global Special Operations Foundation. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
The case of Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his US military outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 and was then captured by the Taliban, stirs strong emotions.
For many in the military, the fact that Bergdahl deserted and subsequently endangered the lives and the limbs of a number of soldiers who went hunting for him meant that he should have faced a lengthy prison sentence.
At Berghdahl’s trial, prosecution witness Shannon Allen said her husband Mark was severely wounded on a mission to find Bergdahl and is today largely paralyzed and unable to care for himself.
The intensity of the anger directed at Bergdahl by some in the military is amplified by the fact that his freedom was gained by a 2014 prisoner swap for five mid- and high-level Taliban leaders who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo.
The prosecution in the case asked the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, for 14 years of imprisonment. Nance opted for no prison time and a dishonorable discharge for Bergdahl.
Why? Col. Nance had to weigh a number of mitigating factors as he determined Bergdahl’s sentence. (Note: I have met with members of Bergdahl’s family.)
The first factor, of course, is the five years Bergdahl spent as a prisoner of the Taliban.
Bergdahl mounted a number of escape attempts after which he spent years confined in a cage suitable for an animal.
He was also tortured, beaten with thick rubber hoses and copper wire.
The second, is Bergdahl’s diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “People with schizotypal personality disorder are often described as odd or eccentric… the person with schizotypal personality disorder responds inappropriately to social cues and holds peculiar beliefs.”
Given this diagnosis, it’s not clear why Bergdahl was allowed into the military in the first place. Some evidence for Bergdahl’s strange mindset is provided by his observation to the podcast “Serial” after he was released by the Taliban that when he had left his base in Afghanistan he believed he was embarking on some kind of “Jason Bourne” mission. Moving around alone in Taliban areas in Afghanistan, Bergdahl proved an easy target for Taliban foot soldiers, not some kind of action hero.
A third factor that the judge likely weighed in his decision was that Bergdahl provided useful information about the Taliban to US intelligence agencies when he was debriefed.
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Finally, the judge said he would also weigh prejudicial statements made by President Trump about the case as a mitigating factor. The military is very sensitive to the issue of undue “command influence” in the military justice system.
When he was a candidate, Trump often called Bergdahl a traitor who should be executed, and just last month when he was asked about Bergdahl, the commander in chief said, “I think people have heard my comments in the past.”
Even though his own comments proved to be a factor in the judge giving Bergdahl leniency, Trump didn’t hold back in criticizing the decision Friday. On Twitter, Trump said the judge’s decision is “a complete disgrace to our Country and to our Military.”
Of course the sentence will not satisfy many in the military (as it hasn’t the commander in chief who is supposed to uphold the military justice system), but given the mitigating factors that the judge had to consider in the case, justice was served.