Sergeant Bergdahl has filed another petition for extraordinary relief – this time seeking a writ of mandamus that would permit the public release of the AR 15-6 investigation conducted by Major General Dahl into the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture.
A copy of the petition is available here.
According to the petition, during last week’s public Article 32 preliminary hearing, the investigative report and a transcript of MG Dahl’s interview of Bergdahl were submitted to the preliminary hearing officer. Sergeant Bergdahl wants to make these materials available to the public. However, Sergeant Bergdahl and his counsel are all subject to a protective order prohibiting them from releasing the materials (a copy of the order is attached to the petition; pages 89-90 of the PDF).
The petition also reveals that Sergeant Bergdahl’s counsel sought a advisory opinion from the Army’s Professional Responsibility Council regarding the ethics of releasing these materials in violation of the protective order. The request for the opinion is provided as an attachment to the petition and states that:
The defense is asking the convening authority to clarify or modify the protective order to permit the defense to disseminate unclassified case documents such as the transcript of SGT Bergdahl’s interrogation and MG Dahl’s executive summary. The defense wishes to be able to disseminate both of those documents at such time as they are marked in evidence by the preliminary hearing officer. This is important as a matter of affording SGT Bergdahl a fair hearing in the court of public opinion, since the government’s live witnesses’ testimony will be heard by the numerous news media representatives who are expected to attend the preliminary hearing, whereas mere documentary evidence will not be accessible by them or other new media in real time. In effect, the public will have only the government’s side of the story, but not the defense’s, as part of the critical news cycle.
Pet. Ex. 6 at 5 (page 47 of the pdf). Astonishingly, the Professional Conduct Council refused to issue any advisory opinion on the matter.
While concern about the “court of public opinion” is a debatable (perhaps dubious) basis for relief from a protective order, the writ petition presents the issue in a more fundamental context:
ONCE AN UNCLASSIFIED DOCUMENT HAS BEEN ACCEPTED IN EVIDENCE IN A PRELIMINARY HEARING OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, MUST THE CONVENING AUTHORITY RELEASE IT AND PERMIT THE ACCUSED TO DO SO?
There is strong precedent that an Article 32 must be open to the public and the press unless “compelling circumstances dictated a different result.” ABC, Inc. v. Powell, 47 M.J. 363, 366 (C.A.A.F. 1997). However, “every case that involves limiting access to the public must be decided on its own merits. Furthermore, the scope of closure must be tailored to achieve the stated purposes and should also be reasoned, not reflexive.” Id. at 365 (marks and citation omitted). The protective order in the Bergdahl case is very broad and seems to run afoul of this requirement.
Notably, neither the protective order nor the petition reference Mil. R. Evid. 506: The privilege for Government information other than classified information (one of the few privileges that I believe the Government should be able to assert under the UCMJ). That privilege applies at Article 32 preliminary hearings (in accordance with the new R.C.M. 405(h)). Yet it appears that the Government has not (yet) claimed that specific privilege.
The Government may well have the right to deny the public access to some of the materials that Sergeant Bergdahl wants to release, however I think there’s a very strong argument to be made that it has failed to narrowly tailor the restriction to meet only legitimate protective needs.