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Obama Defends Bergdahl Prisoner Swap; Fellow Soldiers: Bergdahl a "Deserter"; California Explosives Suspect in Custody; Interview with John McCain

Aired June 3, 2014 - 08:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome once again to NEW DAY. It's Tuesday, June 3rd, 8:00 in the East.

We begin with a growing controversy over the release of Sergeant Bergdahl and actions taken by the Obama administration to free him. Earlier this morning in Poland, President Obama addressed the criticism, saying the United States has a duty to its troops.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But let me just make a very simple point here. And that is, regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity, period, full stop. We don't condition that.


BOLDUAN: A defiant president there, but critics of the prisoner swap charge the president was crossing a line and breaking the law to gain Bergdahl's freedom.

Our coverage begins this hour with Jim Acosta. He's traveling with the president in Warsaw, Poland -- Jim.


You heard the president during that news conference with the Polish president defend the decision to conduct that trade, that secured the release of U.S. POW Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban fighters who are being kept at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo. The president saying there was an opportunity to rescue Bowe Bergdahl and save him from any further harm while he was being held by his Taliban captors. The president is saying that this was a legal trade, despite those questions that are being raised in Washington.

He said he also received assurances from the Qatari government, which helped facilitate this exchange that those Taliban fighters who are being freed from Guantanamo will be kept under travel restrictions.

Here's more of what the president had to say.


OBAMA: The release of the, the Taliban who were being held in Guantanamo was conditioned on the Qataris keeping eyes on them, and creating a structure in which we can monitor their activities. We will be keeping eyes on them.

Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely.


ACOSTA: Now, we've also heard in the last several minutes administration officials trying to bolster's president's case he made here in Warsaw. One senior administration official putting out a statement that had the United States gone ahead and fulfilled its legal duty to notify Congress, the administration notifying Congress might have put Bowe Bergdahl's life in jeopardy. So, that is one reason the administration is saying why they did not notify Congress as it required to under law.

One other very important thing to point out, Kate and Chris, during this news conference, of course, all of this overshadowing the real purpose of the president's trip, and that is to bolster ties with Eastern Europe and reassure nervous Eastern European partners about any type of Russian aggression that we might see.

He did say later on in the week, if he has a chance to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin, that there is a possibility for repairing U.S./Russian relations but he also want to make the point, to President Putin, separatist in Eastern Ukraine, they need to stand down, the president said. He'll be conveying that message to Vladimir Putin if the two get a chance to cross paths, as expected later on this week -- Kate and Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Jim, he certainly has plenty to deal with over there. Appreciate the reporting.

Now, back to the Bergdahl story. The sergeant himself is facing questions surrounding how he came to be America's last prisoner of war in Afghanistan. A military report suggests he left of his own free will as opposed to being taken by force from his post.

And some of his fellow soldiers are accusing him of being a deserter. But no one has heard from Bergdahl. And earlier this morning, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he is innocent until proven guilty.

Barbara Starr joins us live at the Pentagon this morning.

What's the best sense of the reporting here, Barbara, about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, one of the facts is that nobody has ever reported that the Taliban infiltrated Bergdahl's base, that they were crossing the wire and he was kidnapped at the hands of the Taliban while on the base. But still, the bottom line, Pentagon officials say, is they need to hear the facts from Bergdahl himself.


STARR (voice-over): Within hours of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's release, social media lit up. A Facebook page saying, Bowe Bergdahl is not a hero, but a deserter who left his post. Josh Korder served with him.

JOSH KORDER, FORMER U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: As soon as he is able and as soon as he is fit I do believe that he needs to be questioned and basically tried, if necessary. Any of us would have died for him while he was with us. And then for him to just leave us like that, it was a very big betrayal.

STARR: Family and friends of fellow troops saying that these soldiers were killed in attacks searching for Bergdahl.

But the administration's position, the U.S. had a solemn obligation to search for and rescue him.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Let me be clear. The United States of America does not leave our men and women in uniform behind. Ever.

STARR: One reason, U.S. officials tell CNN, there was classified intelligence indicating Bergdahl's health is failing. But now that he is back, officials say they need to hear directly from him, did he deliberately leave his post and why.

Some of the confusion -- an initial incident report says Bergdahl was not on guard duty as some suggests at the time of his disappearance in 2009. A classified cable released by WikiLeaks detailing Taliban radio intercepts saying they grabbed an American at a makeshift latrine.

Key: maybe Bergdahl's state of mind.

KORDER: As soon as we gone Afghanistan and things started to turn a little bit harder for all of us, he immediately started separating himself away from us and everyone in the platoon started gravitating more towards the Afghan soldiers.

STARR: But Pentagon officials say if Bergdahl was troubled, did his teammates report it?


STARR: A senior defense official now tells CNN it will now be up to the Army whether to reopen the investigation that began five years ago into Bergdahl's disappearance -- Kate. BOLDUAN: All right. Barbara, thank you, Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon for us.

The controversy aside, Sergeant Bergdahl's struggle will continue when he returns to the United States. Our next guest knows exactly what really he's going to be going through.

Keith Stansell is held hostage for 5 1/2 years by a Colombian militant group along with two other Americans and 12 Colombians. Once Bergdahl returns to the United States, reports say he's expected to continue his treatment at the very same San Antonio facility where Stansell recovered from his traumatic experience in captivity.

And, Keith Stansell is joining us now.

Keith, it's great to see you.

KEITH STANSELL, FORMER FARC HOSTAGE: Good morning, Kate. Nice to be here.

BOLDUAN: Of course. Thank you very much.

So tell me, from different parts of the world, but still you were held for almost the same exact amount of time. What are these first days, what is this initial part, of what they're calling the reintegration process? What is he to expect? What is it like?

STANSELL: It's initially for all of us. It was almost like an emotional overload, or shock. You know? Almost like your system cannot -- you go from zero to 100 miles an hour instantaneously, and it's hard to receive and process information, as you normally do. It's hard to relate to things, because you've been basically on hold, as we were for five and a half years.

The analogy that I've almost used is almost like an old VHS tape. You know, when you hit fast forward, you could hear bits and pieces and see the screen but really couldn't understand. So, it's overwhelming for somebody when they first come back. I mean, you go from, for lack of a better term, the Stone Age to the modern world in about 30 seconds. It's tough.

BOLDUAN: He is just in the beginning days of this. He has not yet been in contact or seen his family. That's part of the process.

What is that initial -- what was that initial meeting or those first interactions like for you?

STANSELL: Well, the interactions were tough. I remember when we got to army south and you have to remember you have a team of people there in San Antonio that are training for years, day in and day out, to handle this process, and it's a three-phase process.

And initially when you first get back it's the medical assessment. How are you physically? They do the initial there. But then they start to get you prepared to make decisions to handle things, to integrate with your family. And I had two 5 1/2-year-old boys I had never seen in my life and I remember when the doc told me, Keith, you've got about 30 minutes with your family the first time, but we don't know if you'll be able to make it.

Well, about 15 minutes into it, sensory overload, almost. There was such an emotional reunion, so traumatic in one sense but, happy on the other. It's just a lot on you.

So, they slowly get you back to doing normal things. And as I say, about 15 minutes first seeing my family, I needed a break. I needed to take a breath. I came back a few hours later, weeks later, we extended that. But it's a lot to take.

BOLDUAN: It's unbelievable. It's just too much to take at least in the initial moments. I've seen that your mother described it, described you in the first couple months or so after your return, that you were just floating around.

What does she mean by that?

STANSELL: She used to always ask me to land. It was kind of a joke in the house, but, you know, there was so much coming at us, and we were not used to dealing with the day to day activities of life.

Think about it. For us, I don't -- I'm not familiar exactly with Sergeant Bergdahl's conditions but at some point, we were chained to trees for days on end. Your day involves maybe a bath if you get one or a bowl of lentils and rice. You go from there to being back into the modern world and you see what we get on a daily basis, in our daily lives here, it was tough to handle that.

So, I would kind of go from one thing to another. I never could slow down and focus. That takes time to adjust back into that. It's just a process. We can call it reintegration, but the people there in San Antonio know what they're doing and I think they're key to his health when he gets back.

BOLDUAN: What was the key for you? When did that change? When did you feel more grounded, if you will? What was the key?

STANSELL: Well, you know, I was talking to Tom House, who was with me just a few days ago. The both of us related back and forth maybe 2, 2 1/2 years into my freedom, did I feel like I started really to stabilize. It was a long time.

But initially, for a few months we were just, as I say, kind of floating in the sense that, you know, we were overwhelmed. We were very fortunate, because what happened at army south and what happened with our families, and we had a tremendous support network.

And not only us, people have to remember, Sergeant Bergdahl's family themselves have been prisoners. So, he's not the only one that is going to need help. Everybody will be in this reintegration. So, it's the support network around you that's very important. We were very fortunate to have that.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. The controversy surrounding his rescue has nothing to do with this reintegration process, but do you think that when he finds out about it, if he's even aware of the controversy, will impact that process?

STANSELL: You know, I don't know. It's just my opinion. You know, I think how he deals with the process, it may impact that, but I can tell you this, the people at the recovery center, to a man or a woman there, my experience with them is, they're not thinking about that. They're thinking about a job that they have to do, and that they have to train to do and it's to get this soldier back and to get them healthy.

What happens outside of that or what's on the peripheral, I don't think that comes into the decision-making.

BOLDUAN: Does it even enter into his world right now? You would assume even if he hasn't seen his parents yet, he surely isn't hearing of all of the news reports about his rescue yet?

STANSELL: Well, you know, I don't know. And I can give you a quick example. When we got off the helicopter there in the hospital, they took the three of us together into what was an emergency room of the hospital. They had put three beds, and the doctors there knew we had been stuck together 5 1/2 years.

So, they did not want to separate us the first night, and they turned on the news, on the televisions but kept the volume off.

That was one small step to let us kind of reintegrate and get back into, you know, society and the world, and see what was going on around us, but we couldn't hear the news because they didn't want to overwhelm us or shock us. So, I'm assuming, I don't have direct knowledge, that they're doings same with him there.

BOLDUAN: That is very interesting part of the process -- all very calculated and controlled in order to help that process be as easy as possible. I mean, I know you went to that facility, but you could be a really good help in that integration process, if they would reach out to you, because your experience could really help in how, for the entire family, and how he can get back to a, quote/unquote, "normal life."

Keith Stansell, it's great to see you. Thanks so much.

STANSELL: Kate, thanks. Have a great day. Appreciate it.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.


MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Let's take a look at -- pardon me -- more of your headlines.

A business owner from Yemen who's been living in Upstate New York is facing charges this morning after police say he plotted to kill U.S. military members, as vengeance for American actions overseas. Officials say (INAUDIBLE) had been charged with two counts of receiving and possessing and unregistered firearm silencer. The FBI has been investigating him for over a year now.

Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino is among 15 former NFL players suing the league over concussions. Nearly 5,000 other players have previously filed suit. The new civil claim alleges that NFL knew about a link between concussions and long-term health problems yet they concealed it. In court documents, the players claim they're suffering symptoms consistent with brain injuries.

The NFL did not respond to CNN's request for comment. We're going to speak to former players later in the hour about this.

Maybe the Tea Party's last best chance to unseat a Republican senator this year. The Mississippi primary race between incumbent Thad Cochran and conservative challenger Chris McDaniel going down to the wire. Cochran is seeking a seventh term in the Senate.

Voters are going to the polls in seven other states today as well. California, South Dakota, New Mexico, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey and Alabama. We'll be watching it all.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Thanks.

Coming up next on NEW DAY, the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has many concerned about the Taliban fighters freed in the prisoner swap. One of those concerned is Senator John McCain, a former POW himself. We're going to speak with him live, ahead.

CUOMO: And then a dramatic finish to a massive manhunt in San Francisco after police uncover an explosive stockpile in a California man's apartment. What was he planning? Ahead.


CUOMO: Breaking overnight, a San Francisco man on the run for days after police say they recovered explosives at his apartment is in custody this morning. Ryan Chamberlain was arrested overnight at a park near the Golden Gate Bridge. Now, authorities are looking into a troubling online post reportedly sent by Chamberlain just hours earlier.

For the latest, we have CNN's Dan Simon in San Francisco.

Dan, what do we know?


The arrest took place here at Crissy Field, which is a popular place for tourists and locals alike. Why Chamberlain came sheer not clear. It's also not known why he was allegedly possessing those explosives. But there is growing evidence he was intent on taking his own life.



SIMON (voice-over): A three-day manhunt over. Fugitive Ryan Chamberlain captured near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. After being spotted in a local bar earlier Monday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He put up a little bit of resistance it looked like but there were so many officers he didn't really stand a chance. He was going down. I didn't see he was armed with guns or explosives or nothing like that.

SIMON: The 42-year-old arrested for allegedly possessing explosive materials in his home. The bomb squad using a robot to search his car before going in.

Chamberlain, a media consultant well-known in San Francisco political circles, even working for then mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom in 2003. Those who worked with the political operative are in disbelief.

ALEX TURK, FORMER COLLEAGUE: Flabbergasted. Out of character for anything I know about Ryan.

SIMON: But now, a note titled good-bye posted on Chamberlain's Facebook page may offer an explanation. In it, he writes about his lifetime battle with depression, the loss Project Sport, a marketing company he says was sold for over $1 million but he saw none of it.

And a struggle with relationships, including this passage, I met the one. Everything was perfect, then she just stopped. The three-page letter ending simply, thank you, I'm sorry, I love you.

On Monday, prior to his arrest, Chamberlain's alleged latest tweet denies all charges. "A panicked update to my letter that should have posted by now," he allegedly wrote, "nothing in the reporting is true, no stashes, not armed."


SIMON: A U.S. law enforcement official says investigators can now definitively say the posting was made by Chamberlain.


SIMON: So, the question still remains, was this a possible suicide attempt or was there something more sinister at play? We hope to know more from a press conference later this morning.

Chris and Kate, back to you.

CUOMO: All right. Thanks, Dan.

BOLDUAN: A lot of questions still remaining around that. Thank you.

Coming up next on NEW DAY, the uproar continues over the prisoner swap that freed a captured American soldier. This morning, President Obama is defending that exchange that released five Taliban leaders, but did he convince his critics?

Senator John McCain is joining us to weigh in on this controversial decision.


CUOMO: Welcome back to NEW DAY.

We're following the growing controversy over the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Now, earlier this morning, President Obama defended the decision to trade Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners saying, "We don't leave our men and women in uniform behind."

Critics of that decision, like our next guest, worry that this trade could put the lives of American servicemen and women at risk in the future.

Joining us now is Senator John McCain.

Senator, people may not know and if they do know, I will remind them, you know all too well what it is to be a POW. You were one yourself for over five years. And as we always have, we thank you for your service and commitment to this country, before we even begin the discussion.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: Now, specifically, to the current situation. I noticed that you tweeted, or retweeted Jake Tapper's article about the speculation of circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's departure that maybe he left of his own free will.

Do you believe he deserted? And even if he deserted, does that matter in terms of efforts to save him?

MCCAIN: Those are both excellent questions, Chris. There's overwhelming evidence and testimony coming forward that Sergeant Bergdahl left of his own free will, and that will be the subject of investigation. That does not mean he shouldn't have been brought home.

The problem that I have, and many others have, is what we paid for that release, and that is, releasing five of the most hardened, anti- American killers, brutal killers, who are, by the way, also wanted by, by the international criminal court for their incredible brutality, and the fact that within a very short time, if the past proves true, they'll be back in the battlefield putting the lives of Americans in danger in the future.

And that's what most of us find incomprehensible, that the Taliban should be allowed to pick the dream team, as my friend Lindsey Graham called it, and send them to Qatar, and obviously, they will be back in the fight. Thirty percent of those who have already been released from Guantanamo have reentered the fight, and this is the top. These are the people that have blood of thousands on their hands, at least in one case.