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The Return of Sergeant Bergdahl

Aired June 4, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, the handover, dramatic new details of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl as the Taliban issues new video of his release. So, what does the Pentagon's initial investigation into his disappearance reveal?

Secret briefing. Top administration officials are meeting with senators right now behind closed doors up on Capitol Hill. Will it satisfy lawmakers angry at being left in the dark?

And prisoner swap uproar, outrage that high-level Taliban officials were released from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl. Does it compromise national security? I will ask a former Bush State Department legal adviser.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report. The Return of Sergeant Bergdahl.

We're following the breaking news, new information about the disappearance of former POW Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, sources now revealing details of the Pentagon's initial investigation and the intelligence that prompted the Obama administration to agree to a prisoner exchange to free him.

There are multiple new angles we're following with our correspondents and our guests.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

What's the latest you're picking up there, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we have now been told that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel telephoned Sergeant Bergdahl's parents in Idaho earlier today to reassure them the Department of Defense would continue to support Bergdahl and his medical recovery.

The question of Sergeant Bergdahl's health is one that keeps swirling around.


STARR (voice-over): The first images of the actual Bowe Bergdahl swap emerging on the Taliban's Web site, Bergdahl dressed all in white. He appears to be nervous, blinking, shaky. And then suddenly like a scene out of the movies, the Special Forces Black Hawk helicopter descends. Two Taliban militants immediately take Bergdahl toward the chopper, waving a white flag.

Three U.S. special operations commandos approach, shaking hands with the Taliban. They pat down Bergdahl's back and immediately begin escorting him to the helicopter. Bergdahl walked to the helicopter on his own, but U.S. officials say it does not tell the whole story.

In recent months, there had been two so-called proof of life videos of Bergdahl that led to worry his health was declining. The videos remain classified. But it was recent classified intelligence, not just the videos, that led to growing alarm about Bergdahl's medical condition and safety, a senior U.S. official tells CNN.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is aware of the details in that classified file.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Let's get the facts, but let's first focus on getting Sergeant Bergdahl well.

STARR: Hagel is saying little else.

HAGEL: The Army will conduct a comprehensive review of all the circumstances regarding Sergeant Bergdahl's disappearance. And I think I would leave it there.

STARR: CNN has learned that an initial fact-finding investigation at the time of Bergdahl's disappearance included statements from other troops that he had left the base on other occasions, according to a U.S. official briefed on the findings.

In that fact-finding report, the official says Bergdahl's commanders called him a good soldier. The report also notes he mailed his computer and other items home, but there's no indication he meant that to be part of a planned disappearance.


STARR: Now, just another example of the rumor, the gossip, the innuendo, and some facts that are out there.

There have been a lot of press reports that Bergdahl might have left a note behind when he disappeared. Some soldiers were reporting that, but the sources I am talking to say in that initial fact-finding report when he first disappeared, there was no discussion of them finding a note left behind -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

Right now, high-level administration officials are giving senators a secret briefing on Bergdahl, trying to placate those lawmakers who are deeply angered that they weren't notified of the prisoner exchange as required by U.S. law and those who call it a bad deal.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is up on Capitol Hill.

So, what do we know about this briefing, Joe? JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the full Senate is invited to this briefing. People started milling in just about a half-an-hour ago.

The expectation is they're going to get more information in this classified briefing about the circumstances surrounding the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. There is not a lot of optimism, I can tell you, being expressed, especially from Republicans who are on their way into the meeting, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina saying he's more likely to get information from reporters about the situation than from the administration, Senator John Cornyn of Texas comparing this to closing the door of the barn after the horse has left.

Privately, some senators have told me they would like to know a lot more about the administration's justification for going forward with this release and prisoner swap without the law, as it stood, 30 days the Congress was supposed to get some type of pre-warning, Wolf.

BLITZER: They didn't get that. And a lot of Republicans are deeply complaining. Even the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, says she deeply regrets that the president did not notify her and the ranking members of the various committees.

All right, Joe, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper.

Joining us, John Bellinger. He's a former State Department and official over at the George W. Bush administration. You were the legal adviser.

John, thanks very much for coming in.

During the Bush administration at the State Department., you caused a little uproar, I guess, a little buzz out there. You're saying this is not necessarily a bad deal.

JOHN BELLINGER, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it seems to me, Wolf, that it's defensible. This is one of those tough national security choices that presidents have to make where all the options are bad. And I've not been involved in this. I've not been briefed by the administration on the details, but it just strikes me that the president has an opportunity here to bring back a soldier who's been held for five years, apparently in failing health, in exchange for some Taliban leaders, who -- here's the key point, we were going to have to return at some point in the next few years and perhaps within the next year, anyway. So seems like a reasonable opportunity.

Now, I think the White House has mishandled this. The reason this has gotten so politicized is the White House started it by announcing this from the Rose Garden. So, you know, they politicized it on their end. It's not surprising that we've got a big political reaction from the Congress on the other side.

BLITZER: The president made the announcement with Bowe Bergdahl's parents in the Rose Garden with him. You worked for President Bush, George W. Bush for, what, eight years, right --

BELLINGER: That's right, I was present at the creation of Guantanamo.

BLITZER: What would he have done if they would have told him, Mr. President, secretary of defense, we can get this American POW out of Afghanistan or Pakistan, wherever he was being held, but we got to release these five Taliban detainees from Gitmo. What do you think President Bush would have done?

BELLINGER: Well, that's hard to say. You know, I don't think eight years ago we would have made this deal. But here we are now with the end of combat operations, potentially the end of the conflict in Afghanistan coming up pretty soon. The Bush administration did return more than 100 Afghan detainees, Taliban, during our time. Admittedly, those were low-level foot soldiers. These are much more senior people, and I don't mean to limit that.

But we're getting to the end of the conflict here. Unlike the al Qaeda detainees in Guantanamo, who I think they're not going anywhere soon, these Taliban leaders, I think, were likely to have to be returned sometime soon.

BLITZER: Because I spoke the last hour with Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican from Florida. He said these five, he has no doubt -- he didn't go into specifics -- these five Taliban detainees have American blood on their hands.

Here's the question, because you were there at the creation of Gitmo when these detainees were brought there, these enemy combatants. Why haven't they been tried in these military tribunals, these five, for example? You said they would have been released. Why couldn't they be tried?

BELLINGER: Well, I don't know enough about their personal backgrounds. But it's not clear they committed out war crimes that could be tried by military commission. Certainly couldn't have been tried in federal court.

This is where, you know, I think the Obama administration is a little bit hypocritical about this thing, oh, Guantanamo could have been avoided, we would have tried all these people in federal court in New York. We were not going to be able to try the leader of the Afghan army in the southern district of New York. And this is really the conundrum for both administrations of Guantanamo. We're holding a lot of people, Taliban and al Qaeda, who indisputably have done bad things but couldn't be prosecuted.

BLITZER: John Bellinger, thanks very much for coming in.

BELLINGER: Nice to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still ahead: classified information about Bergdahl's disappearance. Does it shed new light on whether he deserted or was abducted? And how involved was Hillary Clinton in the Bergdahl prisoner exchange when she was secretary of state? We're learning new details.


BLITZER: This just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.

Retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan when Bowe Bergdahl disappeared, is now commenting on Bergdahl's release. He spoke in an interview with Yahoo! News. Watch this.


GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (RET.), U.S. COMMANDER IN AFGHANISTAN: After Sergeant Bergdahl, then-Private Bergdahl, came up missing, we did a huge number of operations to try to stop the Taliban from being able to move him across the border into Pakistan.

And we made a great effort and put people at risk in doing that. But that's what you should do. That's what soldiers do for each other. So, it wasn't the wrong thing to do. I think we're going to have to wait and talk to Sergeant Bergdahl now and get his side of the story.


BLITZER: Thanks to an unlikely source, we have new details of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance that the Pentagon doesn't want you to know, at least not yet.

WikiLeaks obtained a classified report.

CNN's Brian Todd has been combing through that report.

Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these documents show that the Taliban very early on know they had gotten a gold mine with Bowe Bergdahl and they tried to bargain for him.

The top-secret reports also show just how confusing the situation was on the morning Bergdahl vanished.


TODD (voice-over): A dramatic message in the early morning hours, June 30, 2009. "Soldier is missing." It's apparently the first report of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance.

That report is classified, but we know what it says because it's among thousands of leaked military documents posted by WikiLeaks chronicling the hours and days right after Bergdahl vanished in Afghanistan. The reports offer two contrasting pictures of what might have happened that day.

About 5.5 hours after he disappeared, U.S. soldiers intercept a radio communication presumably by the Taliban. The translation, "An American soldier is talking and is looking for someone who speaks English. Indicates American soldier has camera."

But a day later, another communication from the Taliban indicating they picked up Bergdahl in a latrine. "We were attacking the post. He was sitting taking 'expletive.' He had no gun with him." The Army's initial conclusion is that Bergdahl left of his own free will.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The Taliban knew that they had somebody very valuable. I mean, they kidnapped other Westerners, but haven't kidnapped other Western soldiers.

TODD: July 1, a day after Bergdahl's capture, according to a U.S. radio intercept, one Taliban fighter says: "I think he is big shot. That's why they are looking for him." Another says: "Can you guys make a video of him and announce it all over Afghanistan that we have one of the Americans?"

The documents leaked to WikiLeaks show that early on, the Taliban wanted to trade Bergdahl for 15 Taliban fighters in U.S. custody and some money. At the same time, U.S. forces were using drones, surveillance aircraft, every asset they could deploy in a furious search for Bergdahl.

LT. COL. ANTHONY SHAFFER (RET.), FORMER ARMY INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: During the seven to nine days, probably no one slept at any headquarters. This was the constant focus. And so, at the end of those days, you were just physically and mentally exhausted.

TODD: Ironically, WikiLeaks is also a key source of classified information on the other side of this case, top-secret dossiers of all five Guantanamo detainees who Bergdahl was traded for. They say the five men are all senior Taliban commanders. One had close ties to Osama bin Laden. Two were wanted for the murders of thousands of Shiite Muslims, all of which has complicated the story of Bergdahl's capture and muddled the administration's contention that the detainees were safe to release.


TODD: We cannot independently verify the authenticity of those WikiLeaks documented. Contacted by CNN, the U.S. Army would give no comment on what the documents say about Bowe Bergdahl's disappearance -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much.

Let's get some more.

Josh Rogin is here. He's the senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast, also our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, what do you make of these WikiLeaks -- a lot of this information about Bergdahl, we wouldn't know if it weren't for these classified documents released by WikiLeaks. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's true.

And WikiLeaks is the source of the story surrounding Bergdahl even before his release. There was talk about him having walked off the base. Many of these things, they weren't spoken about publicly because the military is sensitive to it and they didn't want this out there as they were trying to get this guy home.

And now, though, you have compounding those stories his fellow soldiers who are giving even more detail about his behavior while he was at that outpost and more accounts of him having walked off the base, in fact, having talked about walking off the base. So, WikiLeaks was the first hint and now we have many more accounts to buttress that claim.

BLITZER: You have been doing some reporting, Josh, on Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, before she left the State Department, and her involvement in earlier efforts to get Bowe Bergdahl back to the United States. And there were -- talk of releasing Taliban detainees.

JOSH ROGIN, "NEWSWEEK"/DAILY BEAST: In 2011 and 2012, the State Department led an extensive effort and negotiated directly with the Taliban in a series of meetings that happened in Germany and in Doha.

BLITZER: You say directly, without the Qataris involved?

ROGIN: The Qataris were not in the room. The Qataris had a lesser role in the process. But we were meeting -- the American officials were meeting directly with the Taliban officials.

BLITZER: And so what was her role, Hillary? What was her position?

ROGIN: She was personally -- she was very intimately involved in this. She was extremely skeptical of the deal. She didn't trust the Taliban. She didn't trust the Haqqanis.

And she wasn't sure if she could trust the Qataris, for that matter. She had a lot of reservations about the deal. And her vision of the deal was very different from the vision that was struck by President Obama last week in two major ways. She saw it as only being relevant in the context of a larger push to make peace with the Taliban.

So, Hillary Clinton wanted to offer the Taliban a road towards reentering Afghan politics society. She saw this as a confidence- building measure in that context. Of course now we can say that the Taliban -- Afghan war is probably going to end, anyway. So, maybe that's not relevant.

The other thing is that she had a lot of strict assurances from the Qataris that they would keep these guys under wraps until that peace was achieved. Now we don't know exactly what the assurances are, but we know that there's only a one-year travel ban. So, it seems that Hillary's deal was much stricter than the deal that Obama was able to negotiate.


BLITZER: Because we also know, and you remember covering this, Panetta, Leon Panetta, defense secretary, former CIA director, he didn't like this. General Clapper, the head of intelligence, he didn't like this deal. Hillary Clinton wasn't the only one who didn't like it.

But now everyone in the administration, the new secretary of defense, the new CIA director, they all seem to have come on board.

SCIUTTO: They did.

And like Josh made the point, David Ignatius made the point earlier, that originally this was part of a bigger negotiation. There was talk -- and I remember being in Afghanistan during this time -- two, three years ago about reconciliation. How could you get the Taliban to the table, not just to get Bergdahl back, but to end the fighting, right? And Bergdahl was going to be a sign of trust, as opposed to the end result.

But it's a different time now. The president has announced that forces are going to be out in a couple of years' time and that added to the urgency of this administration saying that, you know, as our troops pull out, we have less leverage. Plus, his value drops, right, for the Taliban, which increases the risk to his life.

BLITZER: You think the Qataris are really going to deliver on all these assurances that the emir of Qatar has given the president of the United States that these individuals over the next year, one year, will be watched, they won't be able to cause any damage to U.S. national security?

ROGIN: We will have to wait and see, but the early evidence is that these guys are roaming around Doha with little to no supervision.

We don't know what intelligence assets are following them. But what we can see is that their movement is not restricted. That was one of the key details of the deal that Hillary Clinton was negotiating two years ago. As for the rest of the conditions, if we don't know what they are, we can't know if they're being enforced.

So, there will be continued calls for this administration to be more transparent about what those conditions are, so that we can reliably check to see if the Qataris are filling their end of the deal.

BLITZER: I'm sure U.S. intelligence is monitoring what's going on as best as they can in and around Doha, Qatar, itself.

Do you think the White House sort of was taken by surprise as a result of this uproar that has developed over the past few days? Because, on Saturday, when the president was in the Rose Garden with the parents of Bowe Bergdahl, it looked like one of those great moments, an American soldier after five years of captivity is finally coming home.

SCIUTTO: I mean, they do look like they were surprised because the depth of criticism that you have heard, particularly from his fellow soldiers.

You know, you should have known that really because you -- if the stories are true that they were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements, you knew that these troops had given accounts where they had said that he did this voluntarily, so you should have predicted that this was going to happen.

You know, on the other hand, it is good news. And there is politics involved. You know, there are politicians who when this first happened, they were tweeting congratulations and this is great. And now they're removing those tweets as it became a political issue and as a way to stick it to the administration. So, you know, both sides are playing something of a political game here, wouldn't...

ROGIN: I would agree with everything that Jim said. I would just add one thing.

In 2012, when I spoke to Senator Dianne Feinstein, she was vehemently against this deal. She actually confirmed a lot of the details of what were then classified negotiations. The administrations was very angry at her, both for revealing details and for being so publicly against the deal. So, this time around, it's not surprising that they might not wanted to have clued her in, in advance.

BLITZER: Senator Feinstein was against it, Hillary Clinton was against it, Panetta was against it. They were all against it at the time. But times change, I guess.

All right, Jim Sciutto and Josh Rogin, guys, thanks very much.

SCIUTTO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, a celebration in Bergdahl's hometown suddenly canceled, but why? New information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.


BLITZER: We're learning that a celebration in Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's hometown marking his release has now been canceled.

CNN's George Howell is joining us from Hailey, Idaho.

George, what are folks saying out there?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it was to be called the Bowe is Back event.

And you could tell there was a lot of excitement about it. You have got ribbons and balloons on many of the streets here in Hailey, Idaho. But now we know that the city has canceled that event, the city of some 8,000 people basically saying this town is not big enough to deal with the number of people that could be coming to town given all the national media attention on this case.

Basically, they don't have the infrastructure to support it. And, as a matter of public safety, they have canceled that event. We know that the Bergdahl family, they are not talking about this point. They're not speaking out about what's happening. We did go through that neighborhood. But, at this point, they're not commenting.

They did get that call, though, from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a 10-minute call, basically reassuring them Bergdahl will receive the support of the military when it comes to his reintegration and when it comes to his health.

So they're not talking, Wolf, but, you know, the community is. And I want to read these headlines from the town newspaper. The first headline, it's an op-ed here, it says, "Bring Our Soldier Home and Let Him Heal." Another says, "It's Time to Focus on a Soldier's Freedom."

Those really are the headlines coming out of Hailey, Idaho, this community staying out of the politics, just ready to welcome home a son, a hometown son.

BLITZER: Is there anger that he's now being depicted by some, someone who deserted his own base?

HOWELL: You know, people know about the questions that are out there. People know that there's a lot of animosity and that there are members of his platoon who are saying that he was a deserter. But they're staying away from that. They're simply focusing on the person that they know.

And, Wolf, it's really very personal here. People who knew Bowe Bergdahl, they're basically saying they want him to come back home. They want to hear what he has to say about it.

BLITZER: All right, George. We will stay in close touch with you. We will see what happens in Hailey, Idaho, not very far away from (AUDIO GAP)

Be sure to join us tomorrow here in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Certainly watch us live or DVR the show so you won't miss a moment. That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Stephanie Cutter and Newt Gingrich.