Ahead of a key hearing this week in his case of alleged desertion, former Taliban prisoner Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's defense team told a military tribunal that he has been "in physical danger" for a year from fellow soldiers who are angry over claims he betrayed his country.
Bergdahl's civilian defense lawyer Eugene Fidell said former military and intelligence officers appearing in conservative news media had vilified Bergdahl and stoked hatred over social media such as Facebook over Bergdahl’s perceived misconduct while in captivity. Fidell provided examples from the "Bergdahl is a Traitor" page.
"In short, it has been 'open season' on SGT Bergdahl," wrote Fidell, a military law veteran and past-president of the National Institute of Military Justice, who is leading the soldier's defense. "His immediate commander believes he is in physical danger, and therefore has required since last year that he be accompanied by NCOs [non-commissioned officers] whenever he leaves Fort Sam Houston."
Fidell added that even within the Texas post, "there is a high risk of confrontation simply by [Bergdahl] visiting Brooke Army Medical Center."
The defense team released a set of documents today that showed they have pleaded with Army authorities for 82 days to permit the public release of two investigative documents in the Army Regulation 15-6 probe of the soldier's five years in the hands of the Taliban after he left a combat outpost in Afghanistan in 2009 under murky circumstances. Bergdahl faces an Article 32 preliminary hearing on Thursday, where officers will weigh court-martialing him for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, which could carry a life sentence if convicted.
The documents are an executive summary of the AR15-6 report by the investigating officer, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl of U.S. Army Forces Command, as well as Dahl's extensive interview transcript of Bergdahl. Fidell has requested the release of the files, which he says are unclassified, in order to push back at public critics.
"There is increasingly strong reason to doubt whether SGT Bergdahl can receive a fair trial given the prolonged barrage of opprobrium that has been heaped on him over the last year," Fidell wrote in a memo to Army officials today.
"I share his frustration that Bergdahl is being tried in the media," Geoffrey Corn, a retired Army judge advocate at South Texas College of Law, told ABC News. "He's not the first person or defense lawyer to deal with a public reaction and perception that vilifies his client."
But the military law expert disagreed with Fidell on a key point.
"If Maj. Nidal Hasan can get a fair trial, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl can get a fair trial," Corn said, comparing Bergdahl to the Army major who gunned down a dozen troops and civilians at Fort Hood in 2009.
ABC News reported last year that even while Berhdahl was still in captivity in early 2012, an Army general who had commanded portions of the ground search for him in Afghanistan told a large gathering of congressional staff and Army officers at a promotion ceremony in the Capitol that, "He left our organization and went over to the other side." Bergdahl himself provided a different story in a Taliban video back in 2009, saying he lagged behind during a patrol and was kidnapped -- an account that was questioned by a soldier in Bergdahl’s old unit.
Bergdahl was swapped for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay in a controversial move by President Obama in June 2014.
Last July Bergdahl was present, but not arrested during a sheriff's raid on a California marijuana farm. During that trip, bodyguards had accompanied him from the San Francisco airport until he was met by his hosts, and a security detail also accompanied him on the return flight to his base in Texas, Fidell confirmed to ABC News.