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New Images of Bergdahl Handover; Bergdahl Decision Hangs over Presidential Trip; Storms Hit Midwest

Aired June 4, 2014 - 04:30   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, the breaking news this morning. Breathtaking new video, we just got our hands on a few minutes ago, showing captured Soldier Bowe Bergdahl the moment he was freed by the Taliban, turned over in this trade for five terror suspects. We're going to bring you these tense moments all caught on camera. Plus, we're going to discuss the new allegations about just how Sergeant Bergdahl was captured in the first place. Was he seeking out the Taliban? And as these images come in, we're going to talk about the controversy of how this exchange played out because it does rage on. We have live, team coverage, all the angles, beginning right now.

So welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, a lot to go through this morning. I'm Christine Romans. It's 32 minutes past the hour.

This morning we are seeing for the very first time the moment when Bowe Bergdahl was handed off to U.S. forces as part of this prisoner exchange with the Taliban. I want you to look at these pictures. These were posted on the Internet by the Taliban's media arm. They show Bergdahl sitting in a truck moments -- there he is -- moments before a chopper lands. So, in the distance, a chopper is coming in. A Black Hawk helicopter. That's the helicopter that would take him back into American hands for the first time in five years. What you are watching right now are the last moments of captivity of Bowe Bergdahl sitting in that truck.

BERMAN: Look at that (INAUDIBLE).

ROMANS: As armed men watched, the people on the chopper then jump out, they greet Bergdahl, then they bring him on board. What's remarkable to me is how quick and efficient American special forces are, a handshake, a quick handshake, go, go, go, arm around his back, pointing to the helicopter, giving the signal. And one of our producers pointed out that if you look at American special forces, as we scrutinize this tape, there's always one of them looking at the Taliban. They never turn their backs fully on the Taliban. There had been assurances that this would be a smooth handoff, there would be no violence, but clearly, tense, tense moments here.

Bergdahl, right now, being treated at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. That's where our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is following the latest on the very beginning of his recovery and then also this breaking news overnight, this video, Matthew, showing, showing this handoff. Remarkable. Eighteen fighters up in the hills with guns, some of them sort of camouflaged in the bushes. This was an elaborate handoff that went very smoothly, Matthew.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and the authenticity of the video is not in doubt, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

It's interesting what you were saying about American special forces there not turning their back on the Taliban. The Paschtu language commentary that overruns this video also says that the Taliban didn't entirely entrust their enemy as well. That's why they say they took their 18 armed Taliban fighters with them because, they say, you cannot entirely trust your enemy. So it was a mutual distrust between the two sides.

But, as I say, the handoff apparently went across without incident and very peacefully. Sergeant Bergdahl looking gaunt, his head shaven. The first question that was asked, according to this Taliban voiceover that runs throughout -- on commentary on this video, is that the special forces asked the Taliban what the condition was, what the health situation was of the American soldier. And they said, tell the truth if he's ill. And the Taliban said, he seems fine. And that's in contradiction to what U.S. officials here at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Facility in southern Germany have been saying about the condition of Sergeant Bergdahl, saying that his medical condition has required hospitalization, particularly a focus on his dietary and nutritional needs after nearly five years in Taliban captivity.

I've spoken to one of the medical officials earlier on, within the past hour or so, and he told me, well, it's a relative concept, you know? There's a situation with, you know, stomach problems, immunization problems that exists on a sort of relative level in Afghanistan. It has to be treated here in hospital. So, he's in a stable condition, is continuing to be treated. There's still psychological issues, of course. It will be a long time in healing, Christine.

ROMANS: Yes. I mean and the reintegration issue is something that officials there have talked about. I mean this is the very beginning of a process for Sergeant Bergdahl. Again,

Matthew, we're looking at these pictures, just remarkable. There you see the handoff right now of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The signal from a member of the American special forces. Three -- it looks like three special forces members walking him into this chopper. We know they're surrounded by 18 fighters in the hills. And as you point out, Matthew, mutual distrust here, but a handoff that went well.

What happens next for Sergeant Bergdahl? Any sign of when he will be sent from Germany back to the U.S., Matthew?

CHANCE: No, they're not giving us timeframes for that. They're saying there's no predetermined time at which he has to go back to the United States for that next phase of his reintegration. What they're looking at now is, first of all, his medical condition, his psychological condition as well. He's also going to be debriefed. Remember, this is the first time - first opportunity that U.S. officials, U.S. investigators have had to talk to Sergeant Bergdahl, to get his side of the story, to get his account of how exactly he fell into the hands of Afghan militants, of Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, where he was stationed, of course, back in 2009.

There's been an investigation that's indicated he left of his own accord his station in Afghanistan. It's not clear how he managed to be captured and what was going through his mind. So this is an opportunity for that kind of questioning to take place for Sergeant Bergdahl to give his side of the story. While U.S. investigators, perhaps, decide if there's going to be any charges against him for possible desertion. That decision, of course, has not been taken yet, Christine.

ROMANS: Matthew Chance for us in Landstuhl this morning, in Germany.

And you're watching pictures of Bowe Bergdahl's last moments of captivity and his first moments of freedom in five and a half years. And you're watching the American Black Hawk helicopters, the special forces troops - the special forces unit coming in and retrieving him in this handoff.

BERMAN: Look how calm, in a way, it is there. Look how --

ROMANS: Cool professionalism of the American special forces.

BERMAN: Deliberate, but calmly, they are walking back to that Black Hawk helicopter. As we were looking at the pictures of Sergeant Bergdahl just a few minutes ago, you know, whatever circumstances may surround his capture, you do have to wonder, what's going through his head right now as he looks at that Black Hawk, as he looks at these U.S. special forces. The first time he's seen an American face in nearly five years. Look at him gaze up right there, and you're left to wonder just what might be going through his head.

And again, there's the exchange right there, the handshake with the U.S. special forces. I guess we counted some 18 members of the Taliban or those --

ROMANS: Afghan militant fighters.

BERMAN: Militants around there involved in the handoff. Enough to film it, by the way, quite skillfully. This shows you how adept they are at media, and they just released this video, you know --

ROMANS: This is the picture that's remarkable to me, his last moments of captivity, really. And there's a moment here where someone leans in and is explaining something to him and he's just sort of listening and squinting, and you just wonder what words are being exchanged.

BERMAN: We should point out, this is the Taliban releasing this video. The U.S. Defense Department says there's no reason to doubt its authenticity. They're going over it. But they believe at this point, obviously, that it's probably real. But this does have propaganda purposes for the Taliban.


BERMAN: There is a narration under this video that we're showing you right now. It's been translated for us in (INAUDIBLE). Among other things, they say, long live Mullah Omar, long live the Taliban. This is seen, you can tell, by this group right now as something of a great victory for them, this exchange.

ROMANS: In his left hand there's a plastic bag and you wonder what he's leaving -- after five and a half years, what is in the - what is - he's -- it's just remarkable to get a glimpse of these last moments here.

This video, of course, comes as we're hearing from Bergdahl's former team leader in Afghanistan, Sergeant Evan Buetow. He tells Jake Tapper on "The Lead," he considers Bergdahl a deserter, not a hero. And while we don't - we don't know what really happened, Buetow insists Bergdahl just walked away intending to talk with the Taliban.


SGT. EVAN BUETOW (RET.), BERGDAHL'S FORMER TEAM LEADER: The things that he did prior to him leaving at the time weren't alarming. However, when he comes up missing and all of his sensitive items are left behind, it just - it kind of hit us in the head. It was like a light that went on. Man, he just walked away. That's exactly what happened. It's hard to explain. And I've tried to explain it to people. And it's hard for people to understand. But it was just -- we knew that he had left.

I was standing right next to the radio when they heard that there is an American in a village called Yayakale (ph), which was about two miles from where we were at. And it's a village that has a very, very large presence of Taliban. That there's -- the American is in Yayakale. He's looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban.


BERMAN: As we said, the U.S. Defense Department says it is poring over the video we're showing you right now, trying to determine what might be in it. They say they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

Meanwhile, as the controversy surrounding the exchange and all its implications swirls about, the White House is insisting still that it made the right call, defending the decision to trade five high-ranking Taliban fighters for Bowe Bergdahl. Congress is not one bit happy about it. Some are demanding an investigation into whether the White House broke the law by not notifying Congress about the plan in advance. The law stipulates they're supposed to notify Congress about any prison transfer 30 days in advance. And some question whether the U.S. paid too high a price for who was the only P.O.W. in the war in Afghanistan. The administration, as of now, echoing the president's statement that no American service member should be left behind ever.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The principle can't have caveats and exceptions to it. When you're - when you put on your uniform and fight for your country, if you're taken captive, you should know that your commander in chief and every other person on the national security team and the entire apparatus is going to focus on bringing you home. As commander in chief, the president believed very strongly, and the secretary of defense believed very strongly that it was the right thing to do to move quickly in this case and secure his release.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), RANKING MEMBER, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: These guys are bad guys. One of them is suspected -- two of them, actually, are suspected of being involved in maybe mass murdering thousands of individuals. Two of them had direct ties with Osama bin Laden. Very, very close, personal ties. They will be Mullah Omar's board of directors to carry out additional, long-term terrorist attacks against America and Americans.


BERMAN: All right, this controversy is following the president as he tours Europe. It's a very important trip for the president, trying to build relationships with European countries, especially in the face of Russian aggression in the Ukraine. But, again, the Bowe Bergdahl situation there very much surrounding this trip. The White House apologized to members of Congress yesterday for not informing them at least a little bit sooner.

Let's go now to senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta, live in Warsaw.

Jim, any sense of how the White House will treat this issue today?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think one thing that has already caught them somewhat off guard, John, is this video release from the Taliban of Bowe Bergdahl being set free by his captors, back into the hands of U.S. forces. And we do have a statement from the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, who said -- and you've been talking about this, John, as well, that -- it says, quote, "we are aware of the video allegedly released by the Taliban showing the transfer into U.S. hands of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. We have no reason to doubt the video's authenticity, but we are reviewing it regardless. We know the transfer was peaceful and successful and our focus remains on getting Sergeant Bergdahl the care that he needs."

And that really echoes -- before this video even came out, what I was hearing from a senior administration official yesterday who was talking about the actual exchange, noting the fact that it did go down somewhat peacefully. That there wasn't a shot fired. There was no aggression being showed by either side. But, simply, Bowe Bergdahl was handed over by the Taliban, by those militants, into the hands of U.S. forces. He climbed on the helicopter and then was back in U.S. custody. This administration official saying that this is an example, perhaps a test case, one of the first test cases, that yes, the U.S. and the Taliban, while bitter enemies, and while the Taliban is very dangerous, that these two sides can do business when it comes to the mechanics of winding down the war in Afghanistan. So, one perhaps takeaway from this prisoner exchange that occurred between the United States and the Taliban.

Getting back to the notification issue with Congress. You're right, John, I mean this is a big mess for this White House because there are some inconsistencies that are starting to emerge when it comes to who was told when about -- when all of this occurred. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she was saying yesterday that she regretted that the White House had not formed her. And then she got an apology from somebody inside the administration, saying, you know what, we should have informed you sooner. But at the same time, senior administration officials were putting out statements saying, well, you know, we still defend the way we did this notification, because had we been notifying members of Congress sooner, that might have put the entire transfer of Bowe Bergdahl back into the custody of U.S. hands in jeopardy.

And so, there is a bit of a back-and-forth going on between the U.S., the administration, and Democrats up on Capitol Hill. But, John, keep in mind, Democrats are pointing out, there's some inconsistencies on the other side. They heard John McCain saying yesterday that this was a mistake to trade Bowe Bergdahl's release in exchange for those Taliban fighters. And I talked to a Democratic source last night who said, wait a minute, John McCain was on CNN back in February saying that perhaps something like this should be considered. So, some inconsistencies flying back and forth, and it does have the potential to continue to overshadow this trip here in Europe, John.

BERMAN: You raise a good point, there are inconsistencies on both sides and there are Republican candidates right now who at first tweeted congratulations and their joy about Bergdahl being released, who have removed those tweets and deleted them, Jim. Jim, we're about to lose you in about 30 seconds right there. Do you expect that the president will face more questions about this today, tomorrow as he tours through Europe?

ACOSTA: Well, his next news conference, as I understand it, John, will be with the prime minister of the U.K., David Cameron, tomorrow. He is right now about to give remarks in Poland to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the solidarity movement's triumph during the fall of the Soviet Union. And then he heads off to the G-7 Summit in Brussels. Note, the G-7 Summit, not the G-8 Summit. Russia, Vladimir Putin, won't be participating. But we'll be watching some of that body language. These two leaders, Putin and President Obama, may be crossing paths in the next 48 to 72 hours, so another bit of drama that will be unfolding during this trip that we'll be watching.

BERMAN: All right, a lot of important events you are following right now in Warsaw. Jim Acosta, thanks so much for being with us, my friend. ROMANS: And we will keep watching this breaking news, these first images of Bowe Bergdahl, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, leaving the hands of the Taliban/Afghan militants and going into the hands of the American special forces.

But first, severe storms slamming the Midwest. Millions waking up this morning to dangerous winds, hail, flooding. We're going to break down the damage and where there's still a threat today. That's next.


BERMAN: All right, this morning, millions in the Midwest are waking up to the damage from severe storms -


BERMAN: That tore through the region. Let me show you the scene right now in big parts of Nebraska. Trees falling to the ground there by winds that were up to 100 miles per hour. There are about a dozen unconfirmed reports of tornadoes there, where trees didn't block the streets, but the water from the thunderstorms did. It was just a mess. This family was among many people who had to be rescued. Rainfall lasting through the night in some areas.

ROMANS: Even before the rain came, there was plenty of noise from Mother Nature. Take a look at this. Huge chunks of hail blanketing the ground from all directions.

BERMAN: Crazy.

ROMANS: It was more of the same on the roads. Hail driving into the windshield with those threatening clouds ahead.

Let's get to meteorologist Karen Maginnis this morning and what we can expect today. It was quite an event last night. Are we going to see more of that today?

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It looks as if this is primarily a wind, thunderstorm, heavy rain event right now. We do have a number of severe thunderstorm watches, but Nebraska especially hit hard, as you reported there, with lots of trees down. We had reports of tornadoes. They'll still be investigated by the local national weather service.

Here are the watches out now, extending all the way from Nebraska and into central sections of Illinois. But here are the severe storm reports, all the way from Montana and into Illinois with the primary report being hail. And we had grapefruit-sized hail reported in some areas. So this morning, if you are traveling both on the ground and in the air, some of the airports could be affected. Maybe Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, with low visibility and very high winds. Some of the winds were gusting around 100 miles an hour. Kansas City, a number of people there lost power. And today the threat shifts to the Ohio River Valley and the northern Great Plains.

Christine, John, back to you.

ROMANS: All right. Stay safe out there. Thank you, Karen Maginnis.

We're continuing to cover the breaking news this morning. A new video - new video release showing Bowe Bergdahl's handover these moments after five years in Taliban captivity.

Also -- also, a dramatic primary day that could cost a veteran senator his job. Details on both of those big stories, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROMANS: All right, we're following breaking news this morning. This -- this dramatic new video showing the moments when Bowe Bergdahl was set free by the Taliban, handed over to U.S. forces in a Black Hawk helicopter with a handshake, a quick handshake. It's the first time we've seen his face in months. At least 18 militants on the hills nearby watching the whole thing. It went through peacefully. The Pentagon saying this morning it has no reason to doubt the video's authenticity, John.

BERMAN: We're going to have more breaking news coverage of Bowe Bergdahl's videotaped release from the Taliban. Also some other news this morning. That's all right after the break.