U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has a new lawyer to defend him as the Army investigates the circumstances surrounding his kidnapping by the Taliban in 2009. And the former hostage wants President Obama to know that he is grateful the U.S. government traded five Taliban commanders in exchange for his release in May.
“Sergeant Bergdahl is deeply grateful to President Obama for saving his life,” Bergdahl’s new lead counsel, Eugene Fidell, told The Daily Beast in an interview Wednesday, adding that the former Taliban prisoner had personally authorized him to say that.
Fidell met personally with Bergdahl last week at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, where Bergdahl was returned to active duty this week. Bergdahl has been assigned an office job at the headquarters of U.S. Army North, having completed a reintegration and therapy process at the medical facility there.
Fidell declined to characterize Bergdahl’s health or state of mind, saying that was confidential client information. But the lawyer did say that Bergdahl was living in regular Army housing with other soldiers.
“The Army, which has done much more poking and prodding with him over a much larger period of time, concluded he was in a position where he could be put in duty status and that’s where they have him as of Monday,” he said. “My understanding is he is in quarters appropriate to his pay grade along with other personnel in full-duty status.”
The lawyer also declined to discuss Bergdahl’s relationship with his family—including reports that the hostage has yet to speak to his parents.
Major General Kenneth Dahl has been assigned to investigate the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture five years ago. Bergdahl is expected to meet with Dahl soon but has not done so yet, Fidell said. Fidell has spoken with Dahl but not yet met with him in person.
Bergdahl isn’t likely to speak publicly in the near future, Fidell said, and Fidell declined to say what Bergdahl’s story will be regarding accusations by his former fellow soldiers that he deserted his base intentionally in an effort to leave the war.
“Nobody has charged him with anything. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Fidell said.
Fidell estimated the Army’s investigation will take a matter of weeks. If there are to be any official Army disciplinary hearings against Bergdahl, such as a court martial, those proceedings would probably take place at the San Antonio base. Bergdahl will stay at that base until such issues are resolved, he said.
Fidell began representing Bergdahl a little over week ago, the lawyer said, after he was contacted and asked to take on the case. Fidell declined to say who reached out to him, but he is taking the case pro bono and working with Bergdahl’s Army appointed lawyer, a senior officer who works in the Army’s trial defense service.
“I’m his lead counsel concerning whatever issues are going to come up between him and the Army,” Fidell said. “My plan is to give him the kind of professional advice in cooperation with Army defense council that he is entitled to and represent his interests as best as I can.”
Fidell is only representing Bowe Bergdahl, not his parents. Fidell declined to discuss if Bob and Jani Bergdahl, who stood with Obama in the Rose Garden on the day of his release, have retained separate counsel.
Fidell is a well-known figure in the world of military justice. He teaches a course on the subject at Yale Law School and has been a prominent writer and scholar on the issue for decades. He was the co-founder and former president of the National Institute for Military Justice. He has been a vocal advocate for reform of the process that precedes a court martial, known as the Article 32 process, to better protect victims of crimes such as sexual assault.
Fidell has also been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s use of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay to house and process prisoners captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan and other countries since 2001, and a critic of the Obama administration’s continuation of many of those policies.
“I’m a critic of the Guantanamo detentions and the military commissions,” he said. “I think any case that can be tried in a federal district court should be tried in a federal district court. As events have unfolded in the last decade, my judgment in the unwisdom of dusting off the military commissions as an institution has been validated. I think events demonstrated that beyond any doubt.”
Detainees from that facility were ultimately swapped for Bergdahl. But Fidell’s scholarly and legal work related to Guantanamo Bay and war on terror detention policies is not related directly to his current defense of the returned soldier.
“This case is one of a kind, really,” he said.