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Benghazi Mastermind Captured; Militants Attack Major Refinery; Bowe Bergdahl in Recovery; U.S. Striker's Status Uncertain

Aired June 18, 2014 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Capture and set for days of interrogation. The accused mastermind of the deadly terror attack in Benghazi being held by U.S. Special Forces caught before officials say he could carry out more attacks against the United States.

We're live with the new information we're learning about Ahmed Abu Khattala and what else he may have had planned.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, crisis in Iraq. Violence in the streets escalating this morning as President Obama prepares to meet with congressional leaders on what the U.S. should do next.

We're live with the very latest.

BERMAN: Deadly tornadoes, torrential downpours, devastating floods. This morning, millions on the path of more severe storms. We have Indra Petersons live showing us the areas hardest hit and what is still to come today.

Good morning, everyone. Great to see you this morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. It's Wednesday, June 18th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

Let's begin today with these new developments overnight now that the U.S. has captured the prime suspect in the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound -- diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

CNN has learned that Ahmed Abu Khattala is now being questioned on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean after being picked up in Libya over the weekend. Now sources tell CNN he was lured to a location not far from Benghazi and captured without a fight. Now plans have been put together to bring Abu Khattala to the U.S. to face charges in the death of these men, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.

Let's get right now to Jomana Karadsheh live to Tripoli.

Jomana, what are you learning about how he was captured and what happens next for him.

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine, we're getting very little information. The details of how this capture actually went down. Libyan government here, officials in Tripoli have not said a thing. No official comment yet from the Libyans. But what we do know from the U.S. officials is for days before this operation took place, the U.S. Special Forces, that's the Army's Delta Force, the FBI and intelligence agencies were closely watching Ahmed Abu Khattala. They say also information from locals was helpful in the surveillance.

Now, as you mentioned earlier, he was lured to a location south of Benghazi where he was grabbed. U.S. officials say not a single shot was fired. Now that's something I discussed yesterday with a former senior Libyan intelligence official in Benghazi who said he found it very strange that there was no resistance. That there was no firefight. He said that Ahmed Abu Khattala was a well-guarded man.

Now as you may recall about a year ago, CNN interviewed Ahmed Abu Khattala in Libya. My colleague Arwa Damon sat down with him in a hotel in Benghazi. He also did a number of other print media interviews. He did not seem to be hiding. He seemed to be out there in plain sight. But U.S. officials say since these interviews he has gone into hiding.

Now, Christine, the main concern after the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala here in Libya is whether we will see any sort of backlash by Islamist militant groups, the jihadist groups, that are really very active and powerful in this country.

The last time the United States carried out a raid here, in Tripoli, back in October, and captured a terror suspect Abu Anas al-Libi, suspected of being a member of al Qaeda and responsible for bombings, that targeted the U.S. embassies in the 1990s in Africa, we saw what seemed to be a retaliation within after a couple of days. An Islamist militia here in the capital kidnapped the Libyan prime minister for two days for what they say -- they said seemed to be the Libyan government's cooperation with the U.S. So this is something to keep an eye on here in Libya.

ROMANS: Jomana, many people this morning are asking why this didn't happen over the past year. I mean, if indeed he was sitting down for interviews and he was known in the area, why now?

KARADSHEH: Well, the security situation in Benghazi, Christine, over the past couple of years since that attack on the U.S. consulate, the security situation really deteriorated in Benghazi, bombings, killings, kidnappings have become near daily in the city. Now that violence, the government is really weak, they have been not been able to deal with it. And no group claimed responsibility for the violence.

But many Benghazi residents, also Libyan officials, have blamed this violence on Islamist extremist groups like Anbar al-Sharia that the U.S. said Ahmed Abu Khattala is a senior member of. So we've seen in recent months a real uprising, a move against these jihadist groups in Benghazi. We also saw last month, a retire Libyan army general launched an air and ground offensive against Islamist militias in the city.

This is an ongoing offensive that is taking place, fighting, that really has left these jihadist groups on the defensive in Benghazi.

ROMANS: Right.

KARADSHEH: So one might look at this and see that possibly this has provided a better climate for the U.S. to conduct this operation at this time during this chaotic time in Benghazi and really a tide of public opinion against these groups in the country.

ROMANS: All right. Jomana Karadsheh, thank you so much for that, this morning in Tripoli, in Libya. Thank you.

BERMAN: Great to have her inside Libya for covering a story like only CNN can.

ROMANS: It really is. It really is.

BERMAN: Meanwhile, President Obama called the capture of Abu Khattala a testament to the courage and professionalism of the military, law enforcement and intelligence officers. It was a joint operation. This even as some Republicans wondered if giving the alleged terrorist a criminal trial was the right thing to do.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible, and we will bring them to justice.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MINORITY LEADER: The most valuable thing we can get from this terrorist is information about who else was involved in it. We'll be watching closely to see how much information they glean from him and how they're handling it.


ROMANS: Hillary Clinton was secretary of state when the embassy was attacked and has faced blistering criticism over why security forces weren't able to protect that facility in Benghazi or protect the people inside. She told a CNN town hall there are still many questions about how this happened, but she doesn't expect answers to come quickly.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Now that we have Khattala in custody, hopefully, we will learn more, at least from his perspective. The reason it takes long is to put together cases, which is what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were doing. They have to piece it together just as we started piecing it together on the night of the attack.

We want to know who was behind it. What the motivation of the leaders. And the attackers happen to be. There are still some unanswered questions. It was, after all, the fog of war. But I'm absolutely convinced that the United States and all of our various agencies with all of our professionals, including the Congress, is, you know, piecing together the best information we can find.


ROMANS: A House Select Committee is currently investigating the Benghazi attacks and the allegations the administration tried to cover up what really happened there.

BERMAN: Now to in Iraq, where this morning militants are continuing their push to reach Baghdad. Right now they are on the outskirts of Baqubah, that's less than 40 miles north of the capital. Fierce gun battles are raging. They are leaving dozens dead but Iraqi forces at least for now are said to be in control of that city.

This as the administration debates how it wants to get involved. There are conflicting reports over whether the U.S. has ruled in or out airstrikes right now. But an aircraft carrier and other ships are in the Persian Gulf and hundreds of troops are on standby.

Today the president will discuss his options with congressional leaders. A high-stakes meeting at the White House at 3:00 p.m.

Right now we're going to go to senior international correspondent Nic Robertson live in Baghdad this morning.

Nic, we understand there's been a lot of fighting in and around Baqubah of this very, very sectarian nature.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There has indeed 44 inmates in the prison there were killed reportedly by their guards. The Shia police officers killing the Sunni inmates at the prison because the ISIS rebels were trying to get to the prison to free them as they have done in other places.

That battle, as far as we understand, is continuing. The government has initially said that it was ISIS that killed these prisoners. Getting accurate and timely information from Baqubah is very difficult. The government on each channel here tends to put out a very pro and distorted -- a pro-government and distorted message. We find at the end of the day when the facts settled a little bit it's distorted. But this -- the fighting there, the contest over Baqubah is still underway.

We're learning today that there is fighting around Baiji. We knew that the ISIS and the tribes, they're fighting with to take control of most of the town in a ring of very important oil refinery. Now they seem to be going back on a mopping exercise and they try to breach the security of the oil refinery.

This refinery is very important for Iraq. It provides 40 of the gas used by cars in this country. So I think that falls into rebel hands and falls away from the government is going to put a lot of pressure on them to retake it. I think all this -- we've just heard from the Iranian president saying that he will stop at nothing to protect the Shia religious shrines in this country which are in Baghdad, south of Baghdad, north of Baghdad. Remember, hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit these very

important religious shrines. These are very important shrines for them. But really most people are reading this as essentially a very strong-coated message that Iran will contribute military boots on the ground here -- John.

BERMAN: You have the sense of just what Iran plans to do with its forces if they do enter Iraq.

Nic Robertson, for us in Baghdad this morning, thanks very much. Great to have you there.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra heads to Capitol Hill today -- back to Capitol Hill, in fact -- testifying in a House investigation of the company's handling of an ignition switch defect now linked to at least 13 deaths. GM knew of the problem for over a decade before issuing a recall in February.

Barra's testimony will focus on an internal GM report which found a corporate culture that discouraged the flow of bad news and treated the problem with no sense of urgency. GM has already recalled 20 million vehicles so far this year.

ROMANS: Yes, it will be interesting to see what Mary Barra can say today if she hasn't already said about moving this company forward.

All right. time for an early start on YOUR MONEY this morning this morning. European stocks up this morning, Asian stocks ended the day mixed. Future also higher right now. Stocks rose for the third day in a row yesterday on higher inflation data. That news comes ahead of today's announcement from the Federal Reserve. Fed officials previously expressed concern that inflation was too low.

The Central Bank is expected to continue tapering its monthly bond buying program. That will likely mean $35 billion in stimulus starting next month. Ten percent or $10 billion reduction rather. The Fed is not expected to raise rates until sometime next year as the economy continues to strengthen.

BERMAN: So mark your calendars.

ROMANS: Mark your calendars. That's right.

BERMAN: All right, 11 minutes after the hour. We have new information this morning about Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's recovery. What he is now learning and what he is now asking for.

ROMANS: Plus, dangerous storms tearing through the Midwest. We are live with the devastation it left behind. And what's still to come, next.


ROMANS: The Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange gets another hearing on Capitol Hill today. House lawmakers will hear from a retired army soldier who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan. Meantime, we're learning more about his recovery at a military hospital in Texas. That recovery beginning after five years as a prisoner of war. And Bergdahl is getting a first glimpse of the controversy surrounding his capture and the Taliban prisoner swap that secured his release.

Our Ed Lavandera has more.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and John, officials at the Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, Fort Sam Houston, who are a part of the reintegration team for Bowe Bergdahl saying that the army sergeant is sleeping and eating on a routine schedule.

But most interestingly of all is that they're saying that Bowe Bergdahl is now gradually being told about the media coverage not only surrounding his capture five years ago, but more importantly the details and the media coverage of his release which is very controversial in many circles around the United States. Specifically the criticism that came from his fellow soldiers that served with him in Afghanistan.

Some of those soldiers have come out and called Bowe Bergdahl a deserter. That he deliberately left his post there in Afghanistan before he was captured. And these medical experts at this medical center say that these are the types of details that must be gradually introduced to help Bowe Bergdahl re-acclimate and work his way back into normal society. But many more details than that are not being released at this point.

As far as we know, Bowe Bergdahl still has not either spoken by phone with his parents or seen them. And they say that is a decision that Bowe Bergdahl can make on his own but until now we have not heard of any details or any plans for a reunion between Bowe Bergdahl and his parents -- Christine and John.

ROMANS: All right. Ed Lavandera, thanks for that.

I think so many people look at this and say, the first thing you'd want to do is, like, rush to their child, you know. But --

BERMAN: You got to be so careful.

ROMANS: It's a different kind of situation and the military completely in control of sort of --controlling that situation. Interesting.

All right. Dangerous weather hitting Nebraska again over night, a day after twin tornadoes devastated the northeastern part of the state. This twister was spotted on the ground in North Central, Nebraska. And this one damaged cars. Look at those. Cars and homes in Coleridge just a few miles north -- few dozen miles north of the town of Pilger. Pilger has been all but flattened.

At least two people died there including a 5-year-old and 16 others left critically injured by this twin tornadoes that roared through. Those pictures are just astonishing. Residents this morning now picking through the rubble and taking solace in the little things.


JOSH HERSCHEID, STORM SURVIVOR: I was digging through there and I ended up seeing a found an American flag in there. So I pulled some stuff off of it. Then we ended up climbing that post has been sticking perfectly up. So we climbed up there, tied it up there, just kind of a symbolism behind, I don't know, what you do. You pick up the pieces and going to go from there. Everybody comes together and just go from there.


BERMAN: We're getting a better sense this morning in the damage in Platteville, Wisconsin. Two tornadoes slammed through that city. Flattening buildings, turning the roofs off of homes. Check out these pictures, there was major damage at the University of Wisconsin campus. They had to cancel classes yesterday.

ROMANS: Yes. And a state of emergency now in eastern South Dakota. That same storm system bringing flooding rains, nearly eight inches at some areas since Saturday that's burying cars and filling homes.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We tried to get things as high as we could, but when the water came it came fast, too. It was -- you know, first we had an inch, and then all of a sudden we had a foot and then it was waist deep.


BERMAN: Want you to look at these pictures now from International Falls, Minnesota. That looks like a river, right? It's not. That's actually someone's backyard. Sandbags out as residents -- wow, look at that, they're trying to protect their homes.

I just don't know how that water doesn't get pass there.

ROMANS: I know. When you see those lines of sandbags, that's so much work filling and laying out those sandbags knowing it's coming when the water comes fast, sometimes there's just not enough time.

And there were new storms hitting overnight. Indra Petersons, she's joining us this morning from Stanton, Nebraska.

Indra, what can we expect today?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, unfortunately, we're still going to be talking about a lot more severe weather in the forecast today. This morning, I'm standing here in Stanton, Nebraska. This is where that first tornado came through about 3:45, the one that actually preceded the twin tornadoes that went through Pilger. And now the National Weather Service has surveyed some of the damage as you see here behind me. As the preliminary results are that this was an EF-3 tornado. Very easy to see.

I know it's dark for you guys but we can see some of these trees, with all the bark missing, completely snapped in half. We have some farm equipment here flipped over. And even it looks like in the distance, a tractor in the tree. So definitely a difficult day, and of course nearby Pilger, the governor toured the region yesterday and said residents are still in shock. It's going to take several days for them to really process everything that hit this region.

Residents in fact are going to be allowed to come back in today. And today is the day they're going to be paired up with volunteers. They're going to go back into their homes and try and salvage anything that they can. They're also going to be bringing in a lot of big equipment. Today we're already seeing that difference. Even yesterday talk about what's going on, resilience in a small neighborhood.

We're talking about those light poles already being put up as early as yesterday. You did mention, though, severe weather still in the forecast. Hard to believe day after day. You can already tell today we're talking about a good 65 million people all up and down Tornado Alley again talking about the severe weather threat. And stretching all the way even in through Pennsylvania. That's the concern so many of us under the gun again today. In fact tornado watches already out for about an hour or so around Sioux City, Iowa. So just north of us.

Look at all of these lighting. We're talking about places like Chicago. And really the upper Midwest. Look at all that lightning. That's the instability that's only expected to worsen. I can tell you just standing out here, it is so muggy. Temperatures today expected to climb into the 90s. Not only into the south but into the northeast, you combine a system with that, and that's the reason we're still going to be talking about severe weather really for the next several days. So hard to believe that people are just trying to pick up the pieces. The last thing they want to here.


BERMAN: It doesn't make it any easier.

Indra Petersons in Nebraska for us, thanks so much.

ROMANS: Thanks, Indra.

BERMAN: Twenty-one minutes after the hour right now, Team USA still riding high after their dramatic win at the World Cup. However, they may have to head into the next game without a crucial player.

Joe Carter with the details in the "Bleacher Report" next.



The USA -- the U.S. men's national team might be without one of their key players when they face Portugal on Sunday.

BERMAN: Yes, Joe Carter has more on the status of Jozy Altidore. You know, it just didn't look good when he went down, Joe. JOE CARTER, THE BLEACHER REPORT: Yes, you know, I think that the

feeling here is that we hope he plays. If he doesn't play, some likely scenarios, there are fill-ins for him. One would be Aron Johannsson. They call him the Iceman. He's the guy who subbed for him against Ghana. Chris Wondolowski, he's a top score in the MLS. Or if Jurgen Klinsmann wants to get really cheeky on this, he could put in Julian Green which is the 19-year-old who many believe took Landon Donovan's roster spot.

But it will be interesting to see how Jurgen Klinsmann handles this. He's been known to keep his cards close to his vest. Of course, yesterday, Altidore had the left MRI on the left hamstring which he strained against Ghana. The results of the MRI were not made available which doesn't really surprise me. I fully expect that Klinsmann and the team will pull the Bill Belichick card here and keep his injury status a secret from the opponent as long as possible.


JURGEN KLINSMANN, U.S. MEN'S SOCCER COACH: With Jozy, we got to see how he now reacts the next couple of days with his hamstring. And we are full of hope that he comes back still in this tournament. And that's what we kind of work on, you know, every day.


CARTER: Now the team's capital, Clint Dempsey, who broke his nose in the Ghana game, is a go for Sunday but he may be sporting a LeBron- esque face mask. And I'm seeing the Captain America means already. Sunday, guys, you can't say it enough, but it's huge. Huge for the U.S. men. A win assures that we'll not -- we'll advance to that knockout round. But we can still tie it or draw, which would keep us in good position to advance to that knockout round.

Well, ever since the Miami Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals on Sunday night, LeBron and the big three have been pressed on whether or not they're going to stay in Miami or leave for a new team. The big three all have contract options that they could walk away from this summer. LeBron said yesterday that he's planning to take a vacation with his family. And during that time, he's going to think things over.

The big three, guys, are set to make $20 million each. If you add up their contracts plus the other three players that are contracted for next year, they're already over the soft cap. So if the big three want to stay in Miami, they want to stay together, and they want to add another player, each one of those guys are going to have to take a pay cut.

ROMANS: So is LeBron going to have like an hour-long prime time specials to announce his decision after his --

CARTER: I hope not.


CARTER: I hope not.

ROMANS: Does that mean --

CARTER: I don't think so.

BERMAN: I think he acknowledges that that was not handled as well as he could.


BERMAN: I don't think you'll see that again. He's got a big decision to make. Lower case to you this time.

Joe Carter, great to see you this morning. Thanks so much.

CARTER: Thank you, guys.

BERMAN: Twenty-seven minutes after the hour, terror takedown. The U.S. capturing the man they say is the mastermind behind the deadly attack on Benghazi. We are live with who he is and what else he may have been planning. That's next.