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New Images of Bergdahl Handover; White House Defends Decision on Prisoner

Aired June 4, 2014 - 05:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, the breaking news is this. This morning, just about an hour ago, we got dramatic, new video. Taliban cameras capturing the first moments of freedom for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. As we said, this was released by the Taliban. This was the prisoner swap, the beginning of it. We're going to break down this new video, the mysterious details of how Bergdahl was captured in the first place, and the growing backlash over how President Obama handled this controversial deal.

We have live, team coverage on this developing story beginning right now.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christine Romans. It's Wednesday, June 4th. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East.

And really dramatic, new video to begin with for you, posted to the Internet by the Taliban's media arm. This video shows the moment when Bowe Bergdahl was handed off to U.S. Special Forces to begin his trip back home. This is part of a prisoner exchange. In exchange those sent five Taliban fighters back to the Middle East from Guantanamo Bay.

You can see him, the Army sergeant, there he is, he's sitting in the truck. He is being walked to several Americans who just came off this Blackhawk helicopter. They greet him, shake hands quickly with the militants -- look at that.

BERMAN: You see a pat-down? A lot of people who've been watching this video with us this morning have noted that, that Bowe Bergdahl was actually patted down by U.S. Special Forces right there.

ROMANS: Let's watch that again. That's right. Grab him quickly. Yes, you're right, you're right.

BERMAN: Gives you a sense of how little trust there is, even as this exchange is going on.

ROMANS: You can see that members of the Special Forces never fully turn their backs on their Taliban -- the Taliban fighters there and the Taliban, 18 of them are up in the hills with guns watching this all. It all happens in just seconds, really, and it's the first time we've seen his face in months.

Let's get right to senior international correspondent Matthew Chance. He is live for us this morning at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. That's where Bowe Bergdahl is being treated right now.

Matthew, one of the most striking parts of the video is when the Americans apparently ask the men about Bergdahl's condition. Tell us about that.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, apparently, according to the narration of the video, which is in the Pashto language, spoken by an Afghan fighter, it's the first question that the American Special Forces asked when they came into contact with them on the ground at that location in eastern Afghanistan, what's the health like of Sergeant Bergdahl, they asked, and tell us the truth if he's ill.

And they said they thought he was fine and then handed him over to the Special Forces. That contradicts, of course, in some sense, what U.S. medical officials have been saying here at the Landstuhl Regional Medical facility in southern Germany where Sergeant Bergdahl is currently being treated.

We've come inside the compound of the medical facility within the -- since we last spoke to you, you can see, it's in that building right behind me where Sergeant Bergdahl is currently being assessed and his medical needs are being attended to.

His medical needs, they're not going into any great deal detail as to what's the problem is. But they are saying that it requires hospitalization which is one of the reasons he's still here. They're focusing specifically on his dietary and nutritional needs after spending nearly five years in Taliban captivity on his own will would have taken a psychological toll.

And so that's part of the reintegration process that the medical officials here, the U.S. medical officials, are talking about when it comes to rehabilitating Sergeant Bergdahl, and eventually taking him home and reuniting him with his family -- Christine.

ROMANS: Right. Talking about the psychological toll, I mean, just from going a few days ago to sitting in that truck, to now being in Landstuhl where they're taking a look at, you know, all of his vital signs and his -- and nutrition needs. And then also this reintegration they talked about.

You know, Matthew, it will be a long road. There'll be hundreds of specialists in every kind of way, shape and form who'll be looking at how to reintegrate him into his old life.

CHANCE: Yes, it's a huge operation that involves large numbers of people. It's also an operation that takes a lengthy period of time. There's no time scale that's been set for when he's going to return home, for instance, and saying that will be determined by the pace at which Sergeant Bergdahl recovers and heals from his trauma.

You can imagine, though, spending nearly five years as a prisoner of war, basically on your own, not able to talk to other prisoners of war either. We don't know the conditions in which he was kept. We don't know the circumstances, either, of his capture and that's another issue that's going to be the focused of the investigation.

Perhaps here, perhaps when he goes back. What were the conditions? What were the circumstances in which he fell in the first place into Taliban hands?

ROMANS: And Matthew, we should point that this is video that's been released by the Taliban, the media arm of the Taliban. So obviously, it has this -- it has this running commentary along with -- they didn't do it to record history. They did it to record their version of history, of course.

What do we know from what they're saying on this tape about this handoff?

CHANCE: Well, from the Taliban point of view, this is a huge public relations queue of course and they start off in Pashto language, saying something along the lines of, "We congratulate the other Mujahideen, we dedicated this handover in which five Taliban prisoners were exchanged for this sworn U.S. prisoner of war to the Mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan.

They also talk about the sort of logistics that took place which is quite interesting actually. The logistics that took place from the Taliban's point of view are making this handoff actually happened. It talked about how there were three choppers in the air, U.S. helicopters. It talked about there were two aircraft -- other aircraft circling in the area. We see one of them on the video as well.

They talk about how they told their fighters in the region not to attack U.S. forces as they arrive. So that the -- so that the exchange could take place but, again, they address this issue of trust as well. You talked about how U.S. Special Forces never turned their back on the Taliban carrying guns, 18 of them stationed in various areas around where the handover took place. Well, equally there's mistrust on the side of the Taliban towards the Americans. They say that's the reason they took their armed guards there in the first place because you can't, in their words, entirely trust your enemy.

ROMANS: All right, Matthew Chance, for us at Landstuhl this morning. Thank you so much for that.

You know, this new video comes at the same time Sergeant Bergdahl's own unit are growing more critical of him, calling him a deserter. You know, we don't know what really led to his capture by the Taliban, but his former team leader, Sgt. Evan Buetow tells Jake Tapper on "THE LEAD," he heard radio transmissions in the days after Bergdahl seemingly walked away from camp.

Radio transmissions about an American walking through a nearby village, trying to find someone to serve as an interpreter.


SGT. EVAN BUETOW (RET.), BERGDAHL'S FORMER TEAM LEADER: The fact is that we knew from radio interceptions that we've got that he was -- before he got in touch with the Taliban, he was looking for someone who spoke English so he could talk to the Taliban. And when we heard that, it told us, OK, he's actively seeking out the Taliban, so at least we know that.

My goal here is not to -- I don't really want to get into the political side of anything. My goal is to show that Bergdahl is a deserter and he's not a hero and that he needs to answer for what he did.


BERMAN: Yes, there are few things more to point out in this video. You can see Bowe Bergdahl blinking repeatedly.


BERMAN: As he sees the helicopter land. Unclear whether that's due to some medical condition. Maybe just dust from the helicopter's landing. He carries a plastic bag with him, and again one wonders what could be in that plastic bag. What he could possibly have him after five years of captivity.

And again, the moment of transfer. Another interesting moment. U.S. Special Forces pat Bowe Bergdahl down, presumably looking for the possibility that perhaps the Taliban fighters, you know, planted some kind of device or explosive on him prior to the transfer just shows you how careful they were being in that case.

ROMANS: Can you imagine the mental checklist if you are in those helicopters and you're going into this -- you're going into this valley with all these fighters and you're trying to do this handoff, you know, you have to make sure that no -- there's no suicide bomb, you have to make sure you're not going to get attacked, you're not going to get ambushed.

The level of trust and the planning that must have gone into that, unbelievable.

BERMAN: You know, no doubt they train for this type of situation but every situation is different and you can't train for every specific moment here.

This as we are waking up to this video is just one more ingredient in this swirling controversy and what really has been in some cases a backlash against the White House that's growing. There are many people who say the release of Bowe Bergdahl came at too high a price. In exchange for five fairly mid to high-ranking members of the Taliban who will return to the Middle East from Guantanamo Bay.

This morning there are new calls for explanations that -- about how these men ended up being set free. And questions --

ROMANS: Yes. Just a couple years ago, they were too dangerous to set free. That is what the testimony was of Clapper, the director of intelligence. You know, they were too dangerous to set free, he testified. And then --

BERMAN: Then there are the big questions also about what obligation the president had to tell Congress about these negotiations. There's a law on the books that says before prisoners are released from Guantanamo, there needs to be 30 days notice to Congress. There was not. The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Saxby Chambliss, tells CNN that both he and Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein were never notified about this decision, even though he says the law and courtesy insists that he should have been.


SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), RANKING MEMBER, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: There's a list down there of a very few of us that do receive these advanced phone calls. And it's hard to me -- for me to believe that both Dianne and I, both of whom had objected vigorously in writing as far back as three years ago, to the president as well as to Secretary Clinton about the release of these prisoners. That we were the two that failed to get the phone call.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You do not have the luxury in a situation like this of opening a window and hoping that in 30 days it's still going to be open. This was touch-and-go and has been touch-and-go for years. And when you have the opportunity to execute this recovery of the last uniformed member of the military held in captivity by the enemy in either of these two long ongoing conflicts, you take that opportunity, and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

That was affirmed by the secretary of defense, affirmed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and affirmed by the commander-in-chief.


BERMAN: The president is in Warsaw this morning, where he is visiting with European leaders, a four-day trip of Europe that was supposed to be largely about Ukraine and the U.S. role in Europe, but this decision, this transfer involving Bowe Bergdahl and now the president's defense of the decision seem to be hanging over nearly every move he makes there.

We're joined now by senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

Jim, this video, this dramatic video released just a short time ago just the latest ingredient in this controversy that I'm not so sure that the White House expected, frankly.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They didn't, John. I mean, they did expect that this release would spark a discussion, spark a discussion about how to wind down the war in Afghanistan, how to close the prison at Guantanamo, and the president wants to have those discussions, and the senior administration official that I spoke with said, now, they didn't go and complete this exchange for the expressed purpose of having this debate, but they knew it was coming.

But one thing that we should point out, John, is that the Department of Defense has already responded to this release of Bowe Bergdahl that you see on video that was put out by the Taliban earlier this morning, as you've been mentioning. The Pentagon is not questioning the authenticity of it, but let me just read to you that statement, this is from the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

It says, "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. And regardless, we know the transfer was peaceful and successful, and our focus remains on getting Sergeant Bergdahl the care that he needs."

Interesting to note in that statement there that they described this transfer as peaceful and successful. I was talking to a senior administration official who really was not commenting on the video but, really, the exchange itself, who said that, look, you know, this was in some ways a test case, a first test case to determine whether or not the U.S. and the Taliban can do business.

Yes, the Taliban, they are dangerous, yes, they are the enemy of the United States. They have killed many American lives. But at some point, as you wind down a war, both sides, the adversaries are going to have to deal with each other, and that this prisoner exchange is an example that, perhaps, as they get into the mechanics of winding down this war over the next couple of years, that they can deal with the Taliban and expect peaceful results when they do try to do business with the Taliban.

So there is that. One other thing I should mention, because you were talking about some of Sergeant Bergdahl's fellow soldiers and what they've been saying about him, that one soldier describing him as a deserter. I talked to a senior administration official who said, you know, hang on just a second. We don't have all of the facts when it comes to Sergeant Bergdahl's capture, the events that led to his capture. Those facts have not all come in, so let's wait for an investigation.

As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, said yesterday, he is innocent until proven guilty, just like any other American.

But on the other hand, John, you have this whole mess that has been created by the way the White House did not notify members of Congress, key members of Congress about this prisoner exchange. You have Dianne Feinstein saying up on Capitol Hill, very supportive Democrat of the president, saying that she regrets that the White House did not inform her and other key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That drew an apology from a senior administration official who called Dianne Feinstein and said we should have let you know sooner.

But then the administration was putting out statements late last night, John, saying, well, you know, we still defend this decision to go ahead and not do this notification beforehand, because that might have put Sergeant Bergdahl in jeopardy. And on the other side of things, you have Democrats supporting the president, pointing out that Republicans have been somewhat inconsistent on this.

John McCain saying yesterday that it was a mistake, but several months ago in February, he was on CNN saying, well, maybe some sort of prisoner exchange that could free Bowe Bergdahl might be something that he could accept. And so these charges of inconsistencies are flying back and forth.

And you said it, John, it really is hanging over this trip, but we've seen this before. The president goes out on a foreign trip and there are questions about his foreign policy. It happened the last two foreign trips that he's had. It's happening on this one as well -- John.

BERMAN: There are clearly politics at play now as well, while there are legitimate questions. You had some Republicans who tweeted when Bowe Bergdahl was released their joy at him being released, and those tweets have since been removed by some of these politicians. So you get a sense of the atmosphere swirling around this right now.

However, as we say, there are legitimate legal questions. There are laws. There is a law on the books saying that Congress needed to be -- notified 30 days before prisoners were released from Guantanamo.

Jim, as you say, the president, or the White House, rather, has called to apologize to some lawmakers.


BERMAN: Is there more that they need to do, that they plan to do, in the coming days to try to mollify these members of Congress?

ACOSTA: Well, you know, what administration officials have said, John, is that the president, when he signed into law that requirement that he notify Congress 30 days before such a release of detainees from Guantanamo, there was a signing statement saying, well, as commander in chief, if circumstances dictate, he can basically circumvent that part of the law.

You know, now we're going back to the days of the Bush administration, when Democrats had trouble with signing statements coming from President George W. Bush. And so there is that debate also taking place, whether those signing statements are legitimate. But on another front, yes, the president may be talking more about this. He has a press conference with Prime Minister Cameron from the UK tomorrow, and I would rest assured that these questions will be coming up once again as to what the president thinks should have happened when it comes to that notification and the circumstances that led to Bowe Bergdahl's release.

At the same time, the president just met with the president-elect of the Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, earlier this morning. This is the message that the president wanted to get out, that the U.S. is standing with Ukraine, it is keeping a wary eye on Russia, that -- but also at the same time sending the message to the Russians that perhaps there's a chance to repair relations if they can pull back from the Ukrainian border and control those separatists in eastern Ukraine.

So a lot on his plate. But no question about it, this release of Bowe Bergdahl, which the White House thought was going to be really celebrated and welcomed with open arms by a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle, just has not turned out that way -- John.

BERMAN: No, not the reaction I think that they expected, to be sure.

Jim Acosta, a lot of important business happening overseas in Warsaw right now.

ACOSTA: Right.

BERMAN: Thanks so much for being with us.

ROMANS: There is also breaking news on the weather happening right now. Millions waking up to severe storm damage, tornadoes, baseball- sized hail, flooding so deep, there had to be rescues from the water. And the threat is not over this morning. We're live with what's on tap for you today. That's right after the break.


BERMAN: Breaking news overnight with severe storms wreaking havoc in states from the Midwest all the way up here to the northeast.

Look at this video from Nebraska. Look at that. Looks like you're in the middle of a driving range right there. Obviously, it's hail.

ROMANS: I hope they put the car in the garage. That's not good on the car.

BERMAN: Not good at all. Some of that hail actually about the size of baseballs right now. More of the same on the road, hail clattering into windshields right there. So much damage. You can see the huge, ominous clouds up ahead and where the skies open up, just epic rainfall.

ROMANS: Yes, thunderbolts could be seen for miles as the storm moved in. And on the ground, trees were toppled by winds blowing at more than 100 miles an hour, leaving drivers to navigate some pretty dangerous streets.

And where there weren't trees down, there was water, lots of water. Some people, including this family, had to be rescued. Rainfall lasting through the night in some areas with tornado threats in other areas.

BERMAN: So let's get a sense of what's in store for today.

Karen Maginnis in the weather center -- Karen.

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: John and Christine, this morning we wake up with a one-two punch. We've got thunderstorms moving across the Ohio River Valley as we go into the next 12 to 24 hours, but it is lots of lightning and wind, but it is going to be the three to six inches of rainfall, especially across north-central sections of Missouri, that will be the big problem for the day.

We have seen some of these severe thunderstorm watches get dropped off in the last hour or so, but that doesn't mean the threat is over. As we see the regeneration of these thunderstorms with the afternoon heat, once again, we're under the gun as far as the very heavy downpours, the high winds and lots of hail. But rainfall is going to fill those rivers and streams up quite nicely over the next 24 to 48 hours. Could produce some localized flooding. Well here's that system that's making its way towards the east.

And John and Christine, as we go into Thursday, looks like even New York City and Washington, D.C., expecting thunderstorms. Could be strong to severe at times. But by Thursday afternoon, it moves nicely off the eastern seaboard. That's the good news.

BERMAN: Where it belongs, far, far away from us.


Karen Maginnis, thanks so much.

ROMANS: All right, we're covering breaking news this morning. A new video, this new video showing Bowe Bergdahl's handover after five years in Taliban captivity. Amazing.

BERMAN: Also, a dramatic primary day that could cost a veteran senator his job. We will have the details next.


BERMAN: We're following breaking news this morning. This dramatic, new video showing the moments when Bowe Bergdahl was set free by the Taliban, handed over to U.S. Special Forces. There's the Blackhawk helicopter right there. You see a handshake. You see Sergeant Bergdahl being patted down by U.S. Special Forces, as a precaution, no doubt, to make sure there were no explosives or anything dangerous planted on his body.

This is the first time we've seen his face, Sergeant Bergdahl's, in months. There were at least 18 militants on the hills nearby watching the whole thing, obviously filming the whole thing, obvious propaganda value for them. It all did go through peacefully. The Pentagon this morning says it has no reason to doubt the authenticity of this video. We will continue to watch this, analyze the video, throughout the morning.

ROMANS: Amazing.

BERMAN: There you see him sitting in the truck, just waiting.

ROMANS: And then when he walks to the helicopter, to the Blackhawk helicopter, he's got a plastic bag in his left hand. You just wonder, you know, five years, five years after captivity, starting the next chapter, which is now Landstuhl in Germany.

Breaking overnight, a closely watched Republican Senate primary in Mississippi, too close to call this morning. The race between six- term incumbent Thad Cochran and Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel likely headed for a runoff, with most of the votes counted. McDaniel holds a slim lead, but he doesn't have the 50 percent he needs to declare victory. The winner will face Travis Childers, who won the Democratic primary.

Now in Iowa, an easy win for State Senator Joni Ernst in the GOP Senate primary. She had support from the Tea Party and establishment Republicans. Ernst faces Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley in the fall. The GOP trying to flip the seat following the retirement of longtime Senator Tom Harkin.

Other races in Alabama, California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota went largely as expected.

BERMAN: All right, we're going to have the latest on the new video, break it all down for you right after the break. We will have live team coverage ahead.