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V.A. Investigators: "Delayed Care is Everywhere"; Edward Snowden: Traitor or Patriot?; Search for Flight 370: Back to Square One?

Aired May 29, 2014 - 04:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight: the secretary of Veterans Affairs on thin ice this morning. A growing chorus of Democrats calling on him to step down. Investigators revealed new evidence of systemic problems at V.A. hospitals, patients waiting more than 100 days to be seen, secret wait lists covering up potential deadly delays.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Edward Snowden, traitor or patriot? Overnight, the NSA leaker on the run and wanted for espionage explains why he believes he was right to expose U.S. security secrets to the world.

ROMANS: Breaking news this morning: The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could be back to square one. Investigators reveal the pings they thought were the plane's black boxes, they may be completely unrelated to the vanished jetliner. We're breaking down the surprising, new turn and what comes next.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. It is Thursday, May 29th. It is 4:00 a.m. in East. It is early, but a lot going on. You'll be happy you're awake.

We begin with breaking news in the scandal at the V.A. This morning, the White House says Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is on, quote, "thin ice." That's the White House saying he's on thin ice.

More lawmakers, including Democrats, are now calling for his resignation. This after the V.A.'s own inquiry substantiated what we first discovered in a CNN investigation, that waiting lists were manipulated at V.A. facilities in Phoenix, delays that CNN found may have led to dozens of deaths. The V.A. now says some 1,700 veterans in Phoenix were never scheduled for appointments, seemingly all in an attempt to make that medical center's wait times look better.

At a late-night hearing, members of Congress from both parties went after top V.A. officials who insisted, if they knew the extent of the problem, they would have acted sooner.


DR. THOMAS LYNCH, ASSISTANT DEPUTY VA UNDERSECRETARY: Knew that the scheduling system was challenged, but we discounted the OIG reports and patient concerns as exceptions, not the rule. We could and should have challenged those assumptions. This was an insidious process. It was not obviously apparent while it was happening.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I believe that this issue has reached a level that requires the Justice Department involvement. These allegations are not just administrative problems. These are criminal problems.


BERMAN: CNN first announced that he is now calling for Eric Shinseki to resign as well. The V.A. has now expanded its investigation. Forty-two medical centers nationwide are now being audited. The results of the probe not expected until later this summer.

ROMANS: Now to the breaking news in the search for Flight 370. More than six weeks after the Bluefin-21 first went into the waters of the Indian Ocean, Australian authorities now say they are certain the jet is simply not where they were looking. The jet is not where they've been looking all these weeks.

The unmanned sub has scoured more than 300 square miles, nothing to show for it. Part of the reason why they put this sub down there was because they heard sounds under water that could have been pings from the black boxes. But now, as Rene Marsh tells us, it seems those noises were not from the plane.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Christine and John, it was the most promising lead, and now we know it is false.

The U.S. Navy tells CNN it has concluded the underwater signals were not from the missing plane's black boxes. If they were, the Navy says the underwater drone Bluefin-21 would have detected them.

MICHAEL DENA, U.S. NAVY: I'd have to say at this point, based on all of the imagery data that we've collected and looked at, if that black box were nearby, we would have picked it up.

MARSH: We're now told the pings could have been from the search ship itself or other electronics, this as Bluefin-21 completed its 28th and final mission on Wednesday.

The search will resume in August when private companies take over. Meantime, we're learning of a potential new lead. CNN has learned underwater microphones detected a sound that could have been the plane crashing. The United Nations nuclear test ban organization has a network of 11 hydrophone stations intended to detect nuclear tests.

Well, scientists are now carefully analyzing data to determine if one of the underwater microphones picked up a signal related to Flight 370. But we should point out -- this is a long-shot, because the data from the signal detected appears to be inconsistent with other data about the position of the plane. Still, though, scientists continue to analyze it, and this just goes to show they are really trying to follow up on every possible lead to find something, to find some sort of wreckage. They do tell us that they are hoping to share their findings in the near future -- John, Christine.


ROMANS: Wow. We should note, others in the navy say it's too soon to know for sure just what those underwater sounds were. A spokesman telling CNN, "Mr. Dean's comments were speculative and premature as we work with our partners to more thoroughly understand the data acquired by the towed ping locator."

Australia, who is leading the search, says it is analyzing the recordings.

BERMAN: As for families of those aboard the flight, these developments could be another blow to their hopes that they soon find out the fate of their loved ones. Sarah Bajc's partner, Philip Wood, was the only adult American on board Flight 370.

Sarah joins us now from Beijing.

Good morning, Sarah. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

You know, we know it's been one frustration after another for you and the families onboard Flight 370 -- of those on board Flight 370. I want to get your reaction to this news, the Australians saying, you know, the plane is not where the Bluefin has been searching these last several weeks, and this news that a U.S. Navy official suggesting that maybe those pings weren't really pings to begin with.

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF PHILIP WOOD: It's really more a matter of perspective, because what you call a blow I call a matter to celebrate. You know, if, indeed, those sounds were the pings, which by the way, I haven't believed since the beginning, then it would be a confirmation that the flight is under water.

But you know, as a family member, I mean, I'm still hoping. This is a really sad commentary on the state of our circumstance, but I am desperately hoping that Philip is being held hostage by a hijacker. And you know, only in this situation could I possibly say that.

But you know, the ping frequencies were wrong from the beginning. I'm a serious scuba diver. I know that frequencies don't change under water and they don't change from a deadening battery. They may not go as far when a battery goes down, but they don't change frequencies. I'm astounded that they put as much credence on those as they did.

ROMANS: And so much time, Sarah, and effort following that critical lead. You've been very critical of the investigation so far. What is your assessment now of the investigation and the people running it?

BAJC: My assessment is the same. Since really the first week or week and a half of this search, is that they're not running it like an investigation. The tail is wagging the dog here. They made a determination of where they thought the plane went, and now they force fit all of the information to satisfy that.

There are just too many inconsistencies and too much -- I mean, I call it overt incompetence for it to be accidental. I mean, nobody can be so stupid as to make so many mistakes over and over and over again. So, the only explanation is that this is an orchestrated set of cover- ups to keep us all distracted while something else is going on.

BERMAN: Something else is going on. What might that be, in your mind?

BAJC: I have no idea what it could be. I just know that the plane is not in the ocean where they say it is, right? That was a very convenient choice of locations that would keep everybody distracted for a long time. It's the most remote part of the world.

So, you know, whether the cover-up has to do with people making a lot of mistakes and the plane is, in fact, crashed someplace, or if it's been taken and they just don't know where it is or they might still be in negotiations.

I mean, there's any number of scenarios. There's dozens of scenarios, but the only way I think we're going to figure it out is to go back to the beginning and look at all of the clues and all of the evidence -- granted, it's mostly circumstantial, but we've got to start over.

BERMAN: Just two last questions here. One, you have sent out the data that they have released to your own independent experts. I'm wondering if you've heard back or when you expect to hear back from them?

And finally, we know that the Bluefin-21 is out of the water now. That search is effectively over for the next few months. Does that bother you that they won't be searching any more for the next several months?

BAJC: No, I've actually made my opinion clear that I think it's a waste of resources, particularly for Australia to be searching in the ocean when we really are not certain that that is the location to be searching. I mean, we should be spending our resources trying to identify where the plane is first, and that means going back to March 7th and going through all the sequences of what we might learn about who was involved in this plane, where it went, et cetera.

I mean, we have yet to have any kind of independent review of civil radar, much less the military radar, also even the air traffic control conversations. The only thing they've released so far was edited.

BERMAN: Sarah Bajc, thank you so much for being with us this morning. We know this has been one frustration after another for you, so we do appreciate your time.

ROMANS: Wow, really interesting. Still holding out hope, still with so many different scenarios. Every missed lead, wrong turn just emboldens the different scenarios, especially for people holding out hope that their loved ones could be alive.

BERMAN: You know, and the lack of surprise that she has that they're saying now they were searching in the wrong area. That to me tells the whole story. She feels she's been saying this all along.

ROMANS: All right. A new defense this morning from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked millions of pages of classified documents. He tells NBC News he had to go public with the information because the American people need to know what the government was doing. As for his own role, listen to what he told Brian Williams.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Do you see yourself as a patriot?

EDWARD SNOWDEN, NSA LEAKER: I do. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen from the violations and encroachments of adversaries, and those adversaries don't have to be foreign countries. They can be bad policies, they can be officials who, you know, need a little bit more accountability. They can be mistakes of government and simple overreach and things that should never have been tried or that went wrong.

WILLIAMS: You hear often in the United States, why doesn't he come home and face the music?

SNOWDEN: It's a fair question, you know, why doesn't he, why doesn't he face charges? But it's also uninformed, because what has been laid against me are not normal charges. The Espionage Act provides anyone accused of it of no chance to make a public defense. You are not allowed to argue based on all of the evidence in your favor, because that evidence may be classified, even if it's exculpatory.

So, when people say why don't you go home and face the music, I say, you have to understand that the music is not an open court and a fair trial.


ROMANS: Secretary of State John Kerry says if Snowden was a real patriot, he'd come home and answer the espionage charges in court.

BERMAN: Interesting to hear him speak at length.

In just a few hours, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will be testifying on Capitol Hill and you can be sure he will answer a lot of questions about immigration reform, especially since the White House just announced that it is delaying a review of deportation. Some are calling that a shrewd move by the president, throwing the issue right back to Republicans, who have been reluctant to move forward with immigration reform in the House this cycle. Some people have been pressuring the president to give this window of opportunity for the House to take action.

ROMANS: All right, time for an EARLY START on your money. Here's a look at what stocks are doing around the world. Futures slightly higher after sort of a -- I don't know -- day on Wall Street yesterday. The Dow, S&P and NASDAQ all closing down slightly.

The worst-kept secret is now official, Apple is buying Beats Electronics for $3 trillion. Its biggest deal to date. Beats, the headphone and music streaming company, started by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, those two names are key.

Here's what Apple analyst Gene Munster told me when word of the deal first leaked.


GENE MUNSTER, APPLE ANALYST: Jimmy Iovine, who is the head person. There may be something behind that and his role in this that is kind of driving this deal.


ROMANS: The hope is the well-connected pair will improve Apple's content offers in music and video and make Dr. Dre the first billionaire in hip-hop, at least according to a drunken celebration video posted on Facebook -- remember this? -- earlier this month.

As for Apple, Munster says the purchase could open the door for more deals. Remember, Apple's cash pile is more than $150 billion, just sitting there. They could buy, like, a whole bunch of iconic American companies with the amount of money sitting in the bank.

BERMAN: Ad a lot of coffee this morning. It's why your mother always told you, you should grow up and be a doctor.

ROMANS: Exactly.

BERMAN: That goes to show, that medical degree for the Dre family really paid off well.

Thirteen minutes after the hour.

New information revealed on why police say an NFL star murdered two strangers on the street.

ROMANS: Plus, new bids for the L.A. Clippers rolling in. How much could the team go for if Donald Sterling decides to sell? That's coming up.

BERMAN: And Brad Pitt attacked on the red carpet. Say it ain't so! All the drama right after the break.


ROMANS: New details this morning about what prosecutors say drove a former NFL star to murder. Aaron Hernandez appeared in a Boston court for his arraignment on charges he shot and killed two men near a nightclub. And as Susan Candiotti tells us, authorities think he opened fire because he felt disrespected. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ever bump into a stranger in a crowded bar and accidentally spill a drink? Police say that is what led to this double murder. A young man dancing in a nightclub accidentally spilling his drink on Aaron Hernandez after bumping into him.

Prosecutors say Hernandez got so mad, he followed that young man and his friends out of the bar, tracked them in his SUV and then shot into their vehicle.

PATRICK HAGGAN, SUFFOLK COUNTY ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY: The defendant leaned out of the driver's side window of the SUV with a loaded revolver in his hand extended out and stated, "Yo, what's up now," and then a racial slur.

The defendant immediately fired at least five rounds from a 38-caliber revolver.

CANDIOTTI: Hernandez allegedly ditched the vehicle, later discovered at his cousin's house in Connecticut.

DANIEL CONLEY, SUFFOLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: It was an entirely senseless killing, and we see this all too often in Suffolk County and in Boston. You know, when insignificant, little events erupt into such gratuitous violence, it's very troubling.

CANDIOTTI: Hernandez pleaded not guilty to all charges, including two counts of first-degree murder.

And then, in an unusual move, his defense lawyers lambasted the court, charging prosecutors with tainting a potential jury.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been subjected to wild and extravagant stories. This is not supposed to be a spectacle.

CANDIOTTI: We should note that after the double murder, Hernandez went on to play football that fall, and the following year, he's now charged with killing another man. Now, juries in two cities will decide whether there is evidence to prove he is guilty of those crimes.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, Boston.


BERMAN: Even as Donald Sterling's owner says the L.A. Clippers owner will fight to the bloody toned keep his team, CNN has learned there are as many as five bidders to buy the Clippers for as much as $2 billion. Wow.

Shelly Sterling is said to be reviewing these offers. She's reportedly trying to fast-track a sale ahead of the June 3rd board of governors meetings where NBA owners could vote to terminate Sterling's ownership rights over his racist remarks. Some people think they're playing good cop-bad cop here, Sterling dragging his feet, Donald, to raise the price and make people have to pay more to get the team.

ROMANS: Really interesting.

Brad Pitt under attack on the red carpet last night, as he and his partner Angelina Jolie were signing autographs at the Los Angeles premiere of her movie, "Maleficent". Police say a 25-year-old man jumped a barricade, struck Pitt in the face before security guards pulled him away and officers arrived. The suspect is said to be Vitalii Sediuk, who is said to be the real-life Borat. He's now in custody facing battery charges.

BERMAN: What's that mean, wears tight shorts or something?

ROMANS: I don't know.

BERMAN: But that's not cool.

ROMANS: I'm actually surprised you can get that close to Brad Pitt. They work the rope line and autograph line, but there's so much security around those things. I'm actually surprised somebody could get that close.

BERMAN: It must be interesting. The guy's got (ph) Brad Pitt. So, hopefully, he got a shot back in there.

All right, promises of more violence and bloodshed in Ukraine. The country's new leader trying to push out pro-Russian militants and take back cities. We're live with what's happening this morning, right after the break.


BERMAN: Twenty-four minutes after the hour.

He says the fight has finally really begun. Ukraine's president- elect, Petro Poroshenko, is insisting the nation will end what he called a separatist rebellion in the east. Days after a bloody battle at the airport in Donetsk left dozens dead.

Let's get the latest right now from Nick Paton Walsh, who is live in Donetsk.

Nick, give us a sense of the situation on the ground right now.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Calm now, John, but certainly fears about what may be coming next, whether this is, as Monday, we saw the heavy onslaught by Ukrainian military against the airport recently seized by separatists, if that is the beginning of a wider operation across the region to move in against separatists, unclear at this point.

Eyes focused, though, on the fate of four OSCE observers, missing since 6:00 on Monday. That's the last time local time they spoke to their headquarters. We now understand that they are, according to the self-declared mayor of Slaviansk, in the custody of separatists. He wouldn't say where. He did say they're not being held as prisoners of war, like he held the last group of OSCE observers that came under their custody and says he hopes they will be released soon, saying they were retained because they did not take his advice to come to that particular area.

But that is, of course, making the OSCE mission very nervous here. They are reviewing their security constantly, they're saying, because of course, another group of their monitors was briefly out of contact yesterday, too. Eleven of them, a larger number, after the rest of this group of four went missing to the east.

So, certainly, this mission, I think, beginning to work out. Whether or not they feel they're targets here, whether or not they can continue their work in the east, and that just adds to the general sense. A military jet did buzz this city yesterday, a couple hour- long period.

I think people in this city really worry about what comes next. Is there a diplomatic way out of this -- John.

BERMAN: Nick Paton Walsh for us in Donetsk this morning -- thanks so much, Nick.

ROMANS: All right. A late-night hearing revealing new evidence of V.A. hospital mistreating patients and covering it up. We're breaking down the very latest in the V.A. scandal after the break.