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Interview with Jay Carney Regarding Bergdahl POW Swap; Focus on Mississippi Primary; Noise May Be Clue to MH370; Syrian Election Rejected by the West; Syrian Terror Group Used Twitter for Recruitment

Aired June 3, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

The White House is firing back at critics of the deal that freed the former POW Bowe Bergdahl. Today, President Obama said -- and I'm quoting -- "You don't leave men and women in uniform behind."

For more on the administration's response, we're joined by the White House press secretary, Jay Carney.

Thanks, Jay, for coming in.

I want to give you a chance to clarify a couple questions, detailed questions, about Bowe Bergdahl. For example, there have been some conflicting things apparently said about his health. Listen to what the national security adviser, Susan Rice, said on Sunday on ABC.


SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: He's now in Landstuhl hospital in Germany. He's going through all of the requisite evaluations and care. And he is said to be walking and in good physical condition.


BLITZER: All right, good physical condition. Yet Secretary of Defense Hagel said his health was in jeopardy and that's why the U.S. had to act quickly and didn't provide notification to Congress. Is he doing fine or not so fine?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I think you're making a connection there that doesn't exist. The point that the secretary defense made on behalf of the president is that it was absolutely right thing to do, to seize the opportunity to recover Sergeant Bergdahl, because not doing so could potential he jeopardize his life. And that is obviously also the reason why it was important to act quickly and not to activate the 30-day window of notification to Congress. Because again, allowing for that notification, allowing for the 30 days could, in effect, jeopardize a member of our military's life. So the decision was made to take advantage of this window of opportunity, to recover our last remaining prisoner from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and to make sure he was brought back into U.S. custody and returned to the United States.

BLITZER: Here's another clip of what Susan Rice said about Bergdahl's military service that's generating a lot of buzz, shall we say. Listen to this.


RICE: He's going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction.


BLITZER: Did he serve the United States with honor and distinction? Because, as you know, a lot of his fellow soldiers are suggesting he deserted.

CARNEY: Here's what I'd say about that, Wolf. Sergeant Bergdahl put on the uniform of the United States voluntarily and went to war. For the United States, voluntarily. That takes honor and it is a mark of distinction. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, has addressed the issue of the evaluation that will take place, of the circumstances around his disappearance and his detention by the Taliban as is appropriate. I will quote to you what Chairman Dempsey said: "The questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover any U.S. Servicemember in enemy captivity. This was likely the last best opportunity to free him."

So I think what the principle at stake here -- and this is the highest ranking member of the United States military making this point -- is that the point -- the principle at stake here is, do we, the United States, leave our uniformed members of the military behind when they've been held captive by the enemy, and the answer's no, we don't do that. That's why the commander-in-chief acts as he did.

BLITZER: The other argument being made against the administration's decision is that the U.S. policy has consistently been the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. And the accusation is, in this particular case, through Qatar, you effectively negotiated his relief with terrorists, and that encourages more U.S. soldiers and diplomats being taken prisoner down the road. So what do you say to them?

CARNEY: Look, here's what I would say, Sergeant Bergdahl was held by the enemy in an armed conflict. We don't get to choose who holds him. But we do hold a principle we always uphold, which is we recover every uniformed man and woman who serves the United States military and is being held by an enemy. In this case, Sergeant Bergdahl was the last such member of the military being held in either the Iraq or Afghanistan conflict. It was the right thing to do.

And the fact is, as you know, talks with the Taliban had broken down in 2012 and they have not resumed. We negotiated his relief through a third party, the Qataris, in this case. But the point is, the principle at stake here is do we allow members of the military who are being held captive by the enemy to sit and rot or do we take action to recover them? In this case, we did the right thing.

BLITZER: Even though he was being held by the terrorist organization, you were willing to make that deal?

CARNEY: Wolf, I know -- because you've covered this for years, this war that's been going on now for more than a dozen years -- this is not a typical conflict, but we were engaged in an armed conflict. The Taliban was the enemy. And they were holding Bowe Bergdahl, a member of the United States military --

BLITZER: That's not -- let me interrupt you --


CARNEY: Hold on, Wolf. He was a prisoner, not a hostage. We have a long history, as I know you're aware, of exchanging prisoners at the end of, especially, armed conflicts. We exchanged prisoners with the Germans. We exchanged prisoners with the North Koreans. It was entirely appropriate, given the assurances that the secretary of states was able to receive from the third party here that the threat posed by these five members of the Taliban would be sufficiently mitigated, that we would be able to exchange him and recover Sergeant Bergdahl.

BLITZER: I make the point because he was being held by the Haqqani network. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the Haqqani network in Pakistan, and Afghanistan, for that matter, but mostly in Pakistan, to be a terrorist organization that was placed on the State Department list of terror organizations, like al Qaeda and others. So he wasn't simply being held by the Taliban. He was being held by the Haqqani network, which your administration deemed to be a terrorist organization.

CARNEY: But, Wolf, again, I would note the process here, where previous efforts to recover Sergeant Bergdahl were part of a general effort to see if we could help move along Afghan-led reconciliation talks. Those broke down. And then we dealt through the Qataris in trying to recover Sergeant Bergdahl in this case. In the end, he was recovered by our forces from Afghanistan and returned to our care, and that is entirely appropriate. Again, consistent with the entirety of the United States history when we've had armed conflicts.


CARNEY: And not just our history, by the way, history that predates the birth of the United States and history that includes actions taken by some of our closest allies when it comes to making sure that prisoners that are being held in situations by the enemy that they face, where they have engaged in exchanges.

BLITZER: I just want to get to one other point, but before I do, I just want to make the point, OK now for the United States to negotiate with terrorists?

CARNEY: Wolf, our position is very clear. Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner in an armed conflict. We had a long history in this country in our military of not leaving anyone behind, any member of our military behind. We have been trying to recover Sergeant Bergdahl through any means possible since he disappeared and was detained by the Taliban, and was held captive by the Taliban more than five years. When this window of opportunity presented itself, we seized it, because that's what we in the United States do.

BLITZER: One final question. We are just hearing from Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. She is the chair, as you know, of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She just said this. She said, "It's very disappointing that there was not a level of trust to justify alerting us to that 30-day notification, why the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees weren't formally notified that this deal was in the works." She then said this, "I had a call from the White House last night from deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, apologizing for it." Apologizing for not notifying her, and, I guess, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee at the same time. You want to react to that?

CARNEY: Well, I would say we've made clear to leaders of Congress, including Senator Feinstein, our reasoning behind not deploying the 30-day notification in this case, because this was a unique circumstance that involved recover Sergeant Bergdahl and the view that was held by the secretary of defense, acting on behalf of the president, that moving forward with the 30-day notification would jeopardize his life because the window of opportunity may close and the opportunity to recover him may no longer be present for us, or might not have been present for us. This was the right thing to do. Again, this was a unique circumstance that didn't just have to do with moving detainees out of Guantanamo Bay but had to do with recovering the last prisoner from either armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

BLITZER: So why did Tony Blinken need to apologize?

CARNEY: Well, I wasn't privy to that conversation. My understanding is Tony Blinken and others on the national security team have been communicating with members of the Senate and leaders in Congress about our rationale for proceeding the way we did.

BLITZER: Jay Carney is the outgoing White House press secretary.

Jay, thanks very much for joining us.

CARNEY: Wolf, thank you for having me.

BLITZER: Changing gears now, a midterm election is only five months away but primaries today in eight states will determine who appears on the November of ballots. All you need to know is some simple math. A net gain of six seats in November would put Republicans back in control of the U.S. Senate, which makes today's Republican Senate primary in Mississippi one to watch. Six-term Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi is being challenged by State Senator Chris McDaniel, who's backed by the Tea Party. The latest polls show it's a toss-up now.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is follow what's going on.

This is going to be a squeaker in Mississippi if you believe all the polls.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. It's very tight. It could wind up with a runoff, Wolf.

What you're seeing is a Republican party in the south that's been dominant. What happens when one party has been dominant? And don't forget, Thad Cochran has been around since 1978. What happens when you're dominant? You get factions within your party, the Tea Party, other factions, both ideologically and demographically. So they're challenging Cochran because they can. Because he's been around for a while. The Tea Party says, you know what, he's too old, he's too out of touch, he's too willing to work with Democrats, he's too willing to work with President Obama, let's get him out.

BLITZER: This is a race between an establishment Republican figure like Senator Thad Cochran and a Tea Party challenger?

BORGER: It is. It is. And it's one of those races that sort of has taken up a side road because it's got tied up with the seamy side of politics. A picture was taken of Thad Cochran's ailing wife in a nursing home. They blame the competing campaign for it. So it's kind of gotten off course.

But in the end, you have the establishment rallying around Thad Cochran because they believe that if they were to lose him and potentially make that seat vulnerable, then Republicans would have a really uphill battle in taking control of the Senate, which is one thing --


BLITZER: There's another important contest in Iowa tonight.

BORGER: Right. Another. You know, you've got there a retiring Democratic Senator. Tom Harkin has been there for 30 years, Wolf. And you see you've got a large Republican primary there. But what's interesting about this race is the woman in the primary, Joni Ernst, a farmer's daughter, who brags in an ad that she can castrate pigs. Who else can brag about that? Rides a motorcycle. She is backed by -- get this -- who could unite Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin? She is. She's the odds-on favorite. So you've got the establishment and the Tea Party together because they think she can really grab a seat.

Let me say that the president won Iowa in the last election by six points so Democrats believe they can hang on to that seat, but it's an interesting race and the one place we can see where actually Republicans are united behind the can't.

BLITZER: Harkin retiring after 30 years.

BORGER: 30 years.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens to Thad Cochran in Mississippi. A bunch of other races we'll talk about --

BORGER: There could be a runoff there too, you never know. She has to get 35 percent of the vote. That's a pretty big field.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

Gloria, thanks very much.


BLITZER: It could be a startling development in the search for Malaysian flight 370. Why scientists think they may have heard the plane crash.

Also, we'll have a rare look inside a terror group that has operated inside Syria. We'll get an exclusive report on how social media plays a role to recruit new members. That's coming up as well.


BLITZER: Members from both parties are working on plans to try to fix the problems over at the nation's V.A. hospitals. Republican Senators are holding a news conference to unveil their plan that would give veterans more flexibility to see doctors outside the V.A. We're listening in. We're monitoring for details. We'll share them with you. Some Democrats are backing a plan by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman, Bernie Sanders, which would send veterans to outside doctors if they can't get care within 30 days. The bill also gives the V.A. secretary more power to fire senior officials because of poor job performance. It would speed up the hiring of more doctors and nurses. It authorized the V.A. to lease 27 new facilities.

It's being described as a kind of dull thump-type of sound. Australian researchers say it could be the sound of flight 370 hitting the water. Microphones normally used for detecting underwater noise may have actually recorded the plane's impact.

Peter Goelz is joining us. He's a CNN aviation analyst, former managing director at the NTSB.

So what do you make of this? It's being described as a long shot, this thud, if you will. What do you make of it?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, long shot it is, Wolf. We talked about this, you know, some weeks ago, whether there were any listening devices in the South Indian Ocean. After TWA crashed off of Long Island, there were a number of them. We've now got this return from two separate. One, an oceanographic listening device, the second tied into the nuclear monitoring agency from Vienna. The problem is they've narrowed it down to an area the size of Texas. Doesn't help us.

BLITZER: So as we go along more and more information that we assumed had been reliable is now being sort of discounted, those pings, for example, those four pings from the so-called black box. Some people are discounting the handshakes from the Inmarsat satellite. Here's the question: Peter Goelz, are we pretty much back at ground zero right now at this point? GOELZ: Everything that we've done, and are doing now, is based on the analysis of Inmarsat. If that analysis is thrown into question, we are back at square one. But right now, everyone that I've spoken to still has high confidence that the handshakes puts the plane 1,000 miles off of Perth somewhere.

BLITZER: Somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean. We'll see if this thud, this noise that was picked up bears any fruit.

Peter, thanks very much for joining us.

GOELZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: A group so brutal, even al Qaeda is no longer associated with them. We'll see how one terror group uses Twitter to recruit new members.


BLITZER: As a brutal civil war rages, some Syrians are actually going to the polls, but only those who live in pro-Syrian government- controlled areas get a chance to vote for a president. There's no doubt who is going to win the so-called election. Syria's state TV released this video of President Bashar al Assad and his wife actually voting. Russia and Iran, some of the countries sending observers to watch these elections.

Our own Christiane Amanpour interviewed the former U.S. ambassador to Syria describing the situation there as messy, chaotic, with rebels fighting rebels. Bashar al Assad losing some ground. Listen to the former U.S. ambassador to Syria.


ROBERT FORD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: This is not a surprise. We were warning years ago that as Bashar al Assad's regime lost control of large segments of the country -- and that has happened -- this election -- notwithstanding, he physically does not control about two-thirds of Syria. And we warned even as long as two years ago, that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum, as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali. This is not rocket science.


BLITZER: Our Nick Peton Walsh is on Syria's border with Turkey right now.

The Syrian election, as it's called, is effectively rejected by almost everyone on the outside, except Iranians, maybe some Russians. But some say there is a little bit of importance to it, even though it's widely seen, of course, as a sham, with no doubt that Bashar al Assad will get reelected.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, because, for the first time in Syria's recent history, there have been other candidates on the ballot paper against him. Some critics say mocking the Democratic reform request. I think many observers see the fact that elections held as sort of a statement of defiance by Damascus. Militarily, on the ground, they're doing a lot better now, beginning to encircle parts of the main commercial hub in the north that used to be a rebel strong point, the city of Aleppo. I think you could cast your mind back to a year ago, Western officials were thinking we never even get to the point where this election could happen. It will give Bashar al Assad another term as president of the part of Syria that he actually controls. Perhaps hoping a peace process will put in a transitional government. But things have changed so far on the ground, Wolf. The rebels are so fractured, and Assad is so much in the military in the areas with the backing of Hezbollah on the ground, some Iraqi Shia militant groups as well. But I think are calling this vote fraudulent in many ways because there's been no competition ahead of it. It's Damascus' way of saying, we're still here and we're not going anywhere, and look how messy the rebels are at this point -- Wolf?

BLITZER: It does look like a total sham.

Nick, you've got incredible access to a brutal terror group that's on the streets in Syria. How are they using social media now to recruit potential new terrorist members?

PATON WALSH: Well, it's remarkable testimony from a man who used to be involved in the acts of recruiting, informing, and beginning to filter out people from the West, to fallen countries who were willing to come to parts of northern Syria held by al Qaeda-linked groups. You heard the former U.S. ambassador referring to them. And they used Twitter initially to begin those contacts, and eventually bring them to Syria.


PATON WALSH (voice-over): If you want to be one of these, an al Qaeda fighter, filmed secretly here in the stronghold in the Syrian city of Raka, it can be a long and complex road. But if you're a Westerner, the journey to this radical utopia, where women must dress like this, can start here on Twitter.

This man is now in hiding. He told us he helps recruit Westerners using direct messaging on the Twitter accounts of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.


PATON WALSH: "There was special treatment for the Europeans," he says. "One British guy said he was called Ibrahim and told me he was from Manchester. One asked my boss if he should fight in his own country or come to Syria. He was told, if God doesn't give you martyrdom in Syria, then he could wage war in his own country."


PATON WALSH: Syria now has a new horror. Will Western recruits take their jihad back to their home countries? Some won't. (SHOUTING)

PATON WALSH: Like Abul Salha (ph), the first American to die in this blast as a suicide bomber in Syria.



PATON WALSH: He was well known in the area, adding their foreign recruits were first vetted carefully in their home countries.

Part of an offense that ran a welcome online chat about life under ISIS to reach for future recruits, though with very strict rules.


PATON WALSH: "There's some questions I am allowed to answer," he says, "and things I must ask my supervisor about, specific questions about religion. I have to get their permission to message anyone. I can't talk on Skype. Everything is written down, so they can monitor everything."

He fled this city when ISIS murdered two relatives, was jailed when he spoke out of turn, and was rarely allowed to meet the recruits.

Chats could last hours. But some of the questions were strange.

"I remember one guy asked me for a video of a public execution," he says, "but one that hadn't been put online before. Strange ones, too, about marrying Syrian girls. I got mad once when I was asked if someone could marry three or four girls."

The motives often selfish, the goal violent, and its most radical offspring turning their sights on the West.


PATON WALSH: You know, Wolf, many have criticized the White House is not having much of an effect in Syria policy. Terror being the focus and the thing we'll see in the months ahead as these radicals come back to Europe and possibly the U.S., the real focus of the Syrian conflict here changing -- Wolf?

BLITZER: It's a dangerous situation, indeed.

Nick, thanks very much.

That's it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

CNN NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Wolf, thank you so much.

Great to be with you here on this Tuesday. I'm Brooke Baldwin.