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EARLY START

New Images of Bergdahl Handover; White House Defends Decision on Prisoner Swap; Republican Showdown in Mississippi

Aired June 4, 2014 - 05:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning. A remarkable, new video that shows captured soldier Bowe Bergdahl the moments he is freed by the Taliban. This is part of a trade for terrorists.

We're bringing you the tense moments all caught on camera, plus, 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, the controversy of how this exchange played out rages on in Washington.

Live, team coverage on all the angles, beginning right now.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. It's 31 minutes after the hour right now. And this morning we're just poring over this dramatic, new video. We're seeing it for the first time, the moment when Bowe Bergdahl was handed off to U.S. Special Forces. You see it right there, a handshake. He walks back toward the U.S. Blackhawk helicopter right there.

These pictures were posted to the Internet by the Taliban's media arm. They filmed this whole thing. It's got obvious propaganda value to them. It shows also how organized they were. There were some 18 members of the Taliban in and around this area as it was going on. You see Bowe Bergdahl right there sitting in the truck moments before the U.S. chopper lands.

You can only imagine what's going through his head as he looks at that chopper that will take him back into American hands for the first time in five years. He simply watches there. You see him there patted down by U.S. Special Forces as the exchange is made. Obviously, still a certain amount of wariness between the two sides, between the U.S. and the Taliban. All safety precautions being taken. Then he walks towards that Blackhawk helicopter with a plastic bag in his hand, all he has after five years in captivity.

Remarkable to see this, simply remarkable.

Bergdahl right now is being treated at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. That's where senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is following the latest. Matthew, you've had a chance to look at this video also. What do you make of it?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, really fascinating stuff. It's the first time, of course, that we've seen Sergeant Bergdahl since he was handed over to U.S. Special Forces there at that location at 10:30 Eastern Time on Saturday morning at the weekend in eastern Afghanistan. He clearly looks very gaunt, his head shaven, he's dressed in white. And it's revealing the sort of logistical operation that goes into these kinds of prisoner swaps that mark the end of a sort of conflict that we're witnessing under way at the moment in Afghanistan.

The Taliban voiceover in Pashto language saying something along the lines of, you know, we called off all our fighters in the region to make sure that the American special forces when they arrived were not attacked, indicating the high degree of coordination between the two sides on this issue.

Also, the mutual trust. It's been mentioned I think by you and Christine earlier, the Special Forces never once turned their back, according to this video, on the Taliban fighters themselves. There's a great deal of mistrust between them and the Taliban, 18 of whom are armed standing around them.

In the commentary, the Taliban commentator says, you know, look, we don't trust the Americans, either. Essentially they took those 18 military personnel, those Taliban fighters, with them because you can't, in their words, entirely trust your enemy. And so that was something interesting coming out of this.

Another I think highlight was the fact that according to this Pashto commentary, the first question that was asked by the U.S. Special Forces when they came into contact with the Taliban in this handoff was what's the health of the -- of the American soldier, and tell us the truth, the Taliban narrator says, if he's ill. They said he's fine. That's in sort of slight tension to what we're seeing here at the Landstuhl Medical facility, what we're hearing here, rather.

They're saying that there are medical issues that needs to be addressed, that require hospitalization. That's why Sergeant Bergdahl -- one of the reasons he's in there at the moment, particularly due to his nutritional and dietary needs after nearly five years in Taliban captivity. But I think at the same time, health is a relative issue when it comes to dealing with people who have been in captivity in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border for the last five years, and so he's essentially in a stable condition, he's going to be psychologically assessed, he's in that process now before he's eventually returned to the United States.

BERMAN: As you say, health is certainly a relative issue, but at issue in this case because there were some suggestions by the White House and the administration that the reason this deal needed to be made so quickly, in a sense, going around the backs of Congress, not issuing the 30 days warning before releasing prisoners from Guantanamo, one of the reasons it had to be done so quickly was the deteriorating health of Bowe Bergdahl.

And at least by listening to the audio on this, the Taliban gave no indication that his health was deteriorating rapidly. However, certainly, their assessment not really at issue here.

Matthew, give us a sense of what will happen with Bowe Bergdahl over the coming days and weeks. He's in Germany right now. Any sense how long he will stay there?

CHANCE: There's been no time frame given as to how long this phase of his reintegration is going to take. It's what they're calling a deliberate and slow process. It's going to involve a degree of psychological counseling, a lot of professionals, health care professionals and others are going to be involved, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, doctors, other medical teams, even his family members are going to be getting involved at some point to bring him back into the fold, back into society, back towards being reunited with his family.

That pace at which that happens will be determined, according to medical officials here, by the pace of his healing and the pace of his reintegration, the pace of his recovery. And so there's no time frame been set. It could be days, it could be a bit longer than that, but ultimately, the objective is to get him on a plane back to the U.S.

BERMAN: All right, thank you so much, Matthew Chance for us in Landstuhl.

Get him on a plane, get him back to the U.S., where this morning there are still swirling questions about, really, this whole case from its very beginning. How and why did Bowe Bergdahl end up in Taliban hands?

We're seeing this new video as we're hearing from Bergdahl's former team leader in Afghanistan, Sergeant Evan Buetow, who tells Jake Tapper on "THE LEAD" that he considers Bergdahl to be a deserter, not a hero. And while we should say, we do not know at this point what really happened, we do not know why or how he walked off that base, Buetow insisted Bergdahl just walked away intending to talk with the Taliban.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SGT. EVAN BUETOW (RET.), BERGDAHL'S FORMER TEAM LEADER: The things that he did prior to 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 Yahya Khel which is 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 Yahya Khel, he's looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Of course, five years has passed since then, and we don't know what happened on the night he disappeared and we don't know what happened in every one of those days since then.

Meanwhile the White House is insisting it made the right call, defending its decision to trade five high-ranking Taliban fighters for Bowe Bergdahl. Congress is not happy about it. Some are demanding an investigation into whether the White House broke the law by not notifying them about the plan in advance. And others question whether the U.S. paid too high a price for the only American POW from the war in Afghanistan.

The administration, though, echoing the president's statement that no American service member should ever be left behind.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The principle can't have caveats and exceptions to it. 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, and two of them, actually, 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Mullah Omar's board of directors. For President Obama, the controversy at home is more than a distraction as he travels to Europe, trying to assure allies the U.S. won't abandon its role there.

All anyone wants to talk about is Bergdahl, and now this video, these images this morning are top of the news.

Senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta live in Warsaw.

Jim, do we expect the president to talk about the video this morning? Clearly, everyone is poring over every sort of frame of this exchange.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

ROMANS: This is the story. ACOSTA: It absolutely is, Christine. I think the first chance that we'll hear from the president on this video that was released by the Taliban, if he's even asked about it, but the first opportunity for that will be tomorrow at a news conference with the British prime minister, David Cameron.

President Obama right now is in Warsaw. He's about to give a speech at the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity Movement's triumph during the fall of the Soviet Union. That's happening in Warsaw right now. But those remarks will be really geared towards paying tribute to Poland's triumph at that time and the strides that they've made. This is really an amazing turnaround since the days of the fall of communism in terms of how Poland has come back economically and democratically.

And the president will make the case that there's a lesson there for Ukraine and what's happening right now and the crisis in Ukraine. But getting back to this video that was released by the Taliban, I can tell you that the Pentagon has already weighed in. They have looked at this video. They're responding to it. Here's a statement from the Rear Admiral John Kirby who was also the press secretary at the Pentagon.

"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."

I think the two words there, peaceful and successful stand out, Christine, because when I've been talking to senior administration officials about this exchange, one thing that they do point out is that this might have been sort of a first test case as to whether or not the U.S. and the Taliban can do business when it comes to winding down the war in Afghanistan.

Yes, the Taliban has been the enemy of the United States during those very long war. They've killed countless Americans. They have also been, as Saxby Chambliss said, connected to al Qaeda, connected to Osama bin Laden. But as the senior administration official said to me, you know, you have to negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends. And so they feel like they have to at least see whether or not things like this can occur, this transfer of prisoners, the exchange of those detainees from Guantanamo for the release of Bowe Bergdahl.

Can something like that happen peacefully and successfully, and what could that potentially lead to down the road? Does that mean that, perhaps, these two sides can do business with each other down the road when it comes to winding down the war in Afghanistan? And of course, you also, Christine, have this political mess that really has been created by the notification issue back in Washington.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a loyal Democrat, but also the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying that she regrets that the White House did not inform her before this prisoner swap took place. And then it sort of got messy after that because there was a senior administration official who apologized to Dianne Feinstein and said, well, we're sorry that we didn't notify you sooner, but then at the same time, the administration officials were putting out statements saying, well, we still defend the fact that we did not notify Congress because that might have put Bowe Bergdahl's life in jeopardy.

And so a lot of back-and-forth, and Democrats of course are pointing out some inconsistencies on the Republican side. John McCain saying yesterday that it was a mistake to have this prisoner exchange, five Taliban for Bowe Bergdahl. And yet, back in April -- excuse me, earlier this year, in February, he was on CNN, according to the transcript, basically saying that, you know, maybe a prisoner exchange of this -- of this kind might be appropriate, if it returns Bowe Bergdahl back into U.S. custody.

So a lot of this flying back and forth, and all of it really overshadowing this president's trip here in Europe, which is really supposed to be about reassuring Eastern European and Central European allies that the U.S. will have their back when it comes to standing up to Russian aggression. So a lot on the president's plate this week -- Christine.

ROMANS: And it's so -- and it's so remarkable to be talking about the back-and-forth and the -- you know, sort of the fighting in Washington when we're seeing the actual picture of that handover. You know, we can see Bowe Bergdahl sitting in the truck, we can see the last moments of captivity for 5 1/2 years, and then we can see the handover there, this first sort of, I mean, just remarkable, the quick action from the Special Forces.

You can see them patting him down and never really turning fully their backs on Taliban, even as those Taliban fighters are on the hill with guns and it's peaceful and success transfer.

Jim Acosta, thank you so much for that. Just remarkable.

BERMAN: Yes.

ROMANS: Remarkable the video.

BERMAN: Stay with us, obviously, for the latest on this breaking news, this video that we are analyzing this morning.

But first some more breaking news overnight. Too close to call, a big race for the Senate ends with the candidates of really at this point divided by a razor thin margin. Too close to call at 5:45 in the morning, the morning after could be a big victory for a Tea Party- backed challenger.

We'll break down what you need to know on this race, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right. Think political news. At 5:48 Eastern Time a nasty primary battle in Mississippi still has no victor. Incumbent Thad Cochran and Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel appear at this point headed to a runoff, neither as of now, as we (INAUDIBLE) for that threshold to avoid another vote, the ballots are still being counted. McDaniel missed out on a win really by a razor thin margin. McDaniel is the Tea Party-backed candidate.

What does this mean? CNN political director Mark Preston joins us with more about what it means now and what it means going forward -- Mark.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, certainly, John, what we've seen is Republican infighting that has taken their eye off the ball. Republicans are fighting against each other, spending millions of dollars down in Mississippi, no clear victor, at a time when Republicans are trying to take back the United States Senate. Money that could have been used in states such as Arkansas or North Carolina, Alaska, all states that Republicans need to win in order to take back the Senate majority.

And at this time, no clear victor. It looks like we're heading to this runoff on June 24th. Millions of dollars is going to continue to pour into Mississippi. You'll see establishment groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, going up against the likes of Sarah Palin.

So that's what we have in Mississippi, uncertainty not only here in Washington, but certainly, down in Jacksonville.

ROMANS: And I'll tell you, Mark, plenty of certainty in Iowa. No problem, no problem for the state senator, Joni Ernst.

PRESTON: Yes. You know, a big win for the Republican Party where we saw the establishment Republicans come together with the Tea Party groups to get behind Joni Ernst. She came on in the end. A state senator who really made her name certainly nationally and was able to take the lead in Iowa to emerge from a very crowded field by running an ad talking about castrating pigs. She grew up on a farm.

She said if she is elected, she'll come to Washington, she will do the same. She's going to match up against Congressman Bruce Braley. Again, millions of dollars will pour into that race heading into November. Just goes to show you that politics is front and center right now.

ROMANS: Yes.

PRESTON: A lot's on the line.

ROMANS: She had less money, but some clever ads. And also, she'll take -- she'll be taking on a guy who got into a little bit of trouble for some derogatory comments about farmers, so there you go.

Thank you, Mark.

BERMAN: Mark Preston, great to see you this morning. Thanks so much.

ROMANS: All right. Our top story, this new dramatic new video showing Bowe Bergdahl being handed over to U.S. forces by the Taliban. There it is right there. This video we're all talking about this morning.

BERMAN: Plus, some severe storms slamming the Midwest. We'll break down the damage and where these storms are headed today. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: A nasty weather nightmare in a big part of the country. Look at this. It could be bad again today.

Meteorologist Karen Maginnis watching the forecast tomorrow us -- Karen.

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, and this morning we've got some big thunderstorms rumbling through their way across the central Mississippi River Valley and Ohio River Valley. Right now from St. Louis to Rolla on Interstate 44, watch out, lightning, heavy downpours and high winds expected there. And knocking on your door in Indianapolis. We'll expect the rainfall to continue across the central Mississippi River Valley. Some of the rainfall's been quite heavy.

In Omaha, John and Christine, they set a record of more than five inches that went back to 1875.

BERMAN: Wow.

ROMANS: All right, thanks, Karen.

Up next, another big look at the top story this morning, this big, dramatic story, the moment Bowe Bergdahl knew he was headed home. This is video from the Taliban posted online this morning showing that transfer. Everything you need to know, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right. We're going to follow the dramatic video release overnight of the exchange of Bowe Bergdahl into U.S. hands. "NEW DAY" picks up the coverage right now.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news, here is the moment Bowe Bergdahl gets handed back to the Americans. An operation almost never seen on tape. Our first look at the sergeant in years. What video says about his condition?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And the battle over the prisoner swap is still raging here at home. Was it a good deal for the U.S.? This as a new investigation into whether Bergdahl deserted his platoon. We have the very latest.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight, too close to call. Key primaries across the United States. Now a veteran Republican senator on the ropes. Did a Tea Party candidate knock him off? The situation's still unclear at this hour. We're following it all.

CUOMO: Your NEW DAY starts right now.