Lawyers in the military desertion case against U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl argued on Tuesday about access to as many as 300,000 pages of classified documents that could be introduced in his court-martial.
Bergdahl, 29, walked off his combat outpost in Afghanistan in June 2009, and then was captured and held by the Taliban for more than five years before his release in 2014 as part of a prisoner exchange that drew substantial criticism.
In March last year, he was charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering U.S. troops, with the latter offense carrying a sentence of up to life in prison.
At a pretrial hearing on Tuesday, Captain Michael Petrusic said prosecutors expected to turn over thousands of classified documents to the defense ahead of the trial, scheduled for August at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The volume of material is a sign of the complexity of the case, he added.
But Bergdahl’s attorney, Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Rosenblatt, said prosecutors had too much authority to decide which documents to provide to the soldier's lawyers, hampering the defense's ability to prepare.
Colonel Jeffery Nance, the presiding judge, said military security officers would review all classified information and prosecutors would get the chance to object before sensitive details were distributed to Bergdahl and his defense team.
"Bottom line, everybody who has access to potentially classified information has to have the proper clearance beforehand," Nance said.
Bergdahl has not entered a plea or said whether he wants his fate decided by a judge or panel of soldiers acting as jurors. The case has drawn wide attention, with some fellow troops resentful of the dangers and military resources involved in searching for Bergdahl and Republicans critical of the Obama administration for the prisoner swap.
Bergdahl's lawyer said the Army should allow him to wear four decorations, including the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal, as part of his uniform for the proceedings. Rosenblatt said Bergdahl had earned the medals, and their absence in pre-trial photographs and video footage of him could prejudice potential jurors.
Nance said the risk of prejudice before trial was minimal. A Fort Bragg spokesman said Bergdahl has not been awarded those military decorations.
"Army human resources officials likely will address this in the future," spokesman Paul Boyce said.
(Reporting by Greg Lacour; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Steve Orlofsky)