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Defense Secretary Testifies; Cantor Loses Primary to Tea Party Challenger; Examining Mass Shooters

Aired June 11, 2014 - 12:00   ET


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Bowe Bergdahl is in a very unique, separate medical, psychological situation. He has been locked up as a captive for five years. They are trying to help him get basically back into open society.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you heard the defense secretary clearly express that irritation with that line of questioning, suggesting that there was something improper in the U.S. deciding to keep Bergdahl in this hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, instead of bringing him immediately back to the United States.

We're following these important hearings up on Capitol Hill. The House Armed Services Committee, the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, has been testifying now for a couple of hours on this controversial decision to swap Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees. Here is Hagel earlier defending this decision.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I want to make one fundamental point. I would never sign any document or make any agreement, agree to any decision that I did not feel was in the best interest of this country, nor would the president of the United States, who made the final decision, with the full support of his national security team.


BLITZER: We have extensive coverage. All of our reporters are standing by. Jim Sciutto, Barbara Starr, Jim Acosta, David Gergen, the former presidential adviser, the CNN senior political analyst, Bob Baer, our intelligence analyst, Matthew Hoh, a friend of the Bergdahl family.

Let me get back to David Gergen for a moment because a couple of times you did hear Hagel say at one point, we could have done a better job as far as notifying Congress on this issue. And another point he said, the decision making process on this sensitive issue of congressional notification, the law stipulates the administration has to notify Congress within 30 days of any transfer of detainees from Gitmo. He said, the decision making process, in his word, was "imperfect." What did you make of that - that -- at least acknowledgment that they could have done a better job? DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first off, Wolf, I

thought it was a wise thing to say. The administration so far had been pretty defensive when all these questions have arisen. And for him to say, look, we could have done a better job, I thought was really important. It helps to lower the temperature in the room and the temperature about all of this.

There is a part of this, Wolf, underlying this, one has the sense, without having a lot of facts, one has the sense that Chuck Hagel has been very much a man caught in the middle. He's deeply offended by all these attacks on Bergdahl and questioning of the way this has been done by the administration. He helped to make the decision. He thinks it was the right decision.

I also have a sense that he was not terribly comfortable when the White House made -- turned it into a celebration. I don't think that's what Chuck Hagel would have done. That's not the kind of man he is. We're seeing the kind of approach he has here today, which is different, and I would suggest has been very helpful for the administration, the approach he's taking here in these hearings.

BLITZER: Let me go to our White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, you've been monitoring these hearings. I'm sure officials at the White House are closely monitoring what the secretary of defense is saying and he does have his legal adviser, Stephen Preston, who's with him as well. Are you getting any reaction so far from officials at the White House?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Not yet, Wolf, but I think it's worth pointing out when the defense secretary said we could have done a better job of keeping you informed, it's worth noting that was not in the prepared remarks. And so it's interesting to contrast that with the defenses that Chuck Hagel offered later on in his testimony saying that the administration did the right thing in these extraordinary circumstances, as he called them, to not inform Congress.

He talked about Bowe Bergdahl's declining health. He talked about the potential for the entire mission to retrieve Bowe Bergdahl to go haywire. So Chuck Hagel, you know, really defending this decision not to notify Congress, but at the same time saying, we could have kept you better informed. That will be a question to Josh Earnest, who will be gaggling with reporters on the way to the president's speech he's doing up in Massachusetts later on today. I think it's something you can bank on at this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. And it's interesting that when he used the word imperfect to say the decision making process in the administration was, quote, "imperfect," that was not in his prepared statement either.

Let's go back to the hearing and listen in.

REP. JIM COOPER (D), TENNESSEE: Not be so prosecutorial in its tone. I think it's very important that this not become a political football. I don't know if my friend on the other side of the aisle is already running for majority leader or not, but it sounds like the tone here is way too political.

I think, at least for the audience back home, people need to understand, in case some people have forgotten, that our secretary of defense, a distinguished former United States senator of the Republican Party with a distinguishable record in Vietnam. So, hopefully this committee will not cast aspersions on anyone and certainly not impugn their patriotism.

The chairman tried to narrow the scope of this hearing with his opening statement. And I think he essentially wanted to confine it to the 30-day notice requirement that this Congress perhaps should have received on this prisoner transfer. I think that if the committee hearing were, in fact, narrowed to that point, it would not be the near media circus that it's become. Not only would many members of the press not have shown up, but many members of this committee would not have shown up.

So let's try to deescalate the tensions here. Let's try to focus on the substance. Let's try to be fair to each other and hopefully bipartisan, because as the chairman correctly noted, this committee is noted for its bipartisanship and its fairness. It was a great triumph for the chairman in the Buck McKeon Defense Authorization bill on it to be passed out of this committee unanimously and overwhelmingly on the floor. That's the way our nation should approach its national defense. In unity there is strength. So hopefully my colleagues will focus on what's really important here.

There has been a lot of the discussion about precedent. And no one wants to set a bad precedent for us, the greatest country in the world. But I think that if there is any presidential affect with this decision, it is the vitally important principle that so many of our generals and admirals and others have reiterated, leave no man behind. That's the message of this possibly politically unpopular decision. That's, let's leave no man behind. We can investigate what he did or didn't do once he's safely back in our custody, once he's been presumed innocent and regular course of justice can take its place.

But I'm shocked really that this has become such a political football. And such unfairness, as the secretary of defense quite rightly pointed out, not only toward our men in uniform, but toward his family. You know, I don't know the particulars, but justice will take its course. That's the nature of this country. That's the nature of our constitutional guarantees. And as the secretary of defense also pointed out, not only is this person a U.S. citizen, he's a person who volunteered to wear the uniform. So he should be given the benefit of the doubt. Let justice take its course.

I would like to ask Mr. Preston, in a much less prosecutorial tone than some of the earlier questions, do you think that the 30-day notice requirement for Congress that was in the last NDAA was in fact a constitutional provision? Does the commander in chief, any commander in chief of either party, have the right to take action, you know, when time requires -- BLITZER: All right, so we're continuing to monitor this hearing. We're

going to get back to it momentarily. But Jim Sciutto is listening in watching closely with me.

Let's get back to that point where he acknowledged they could have done a better job. He acknowledged it was imperfect how the administration came up with this decision making process.


BLITZER: Neither one of those phrases was in the advanced text released by the Department of Defense. What do you -- is this going to cause some irritation for the administration?

SCIUTTO: Their - I think he had to say something like that. I - you know, they're making a case here - I mean on the flip side, they also make the case for why they didn't do it. And he was pushing back. He -- the last best opportunity to free him, he said. He said, they received a warning from the Qataris that time was not on our side and that they also received a warning that any leak would end the negotiations. Not just that a leak was risky.

So even as he was saying that, listen, we wish we had kept you better informed, but let me explain why we didn't and that there was real fear here. And I haven't heard that specificity of a warning, that any leak would kill the negotiations, not just risk the negotiations. So even as he's making that apology, continues to make the case for why they had to keep this a close hold.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, at the Pentagon, what did you make of the acknowledgment he basically had in response to some serious questioning that at least four of these five Taliban detainees might, in fact, this according to the U.S. intelligence assessment, might in fact go back to the battlefield?

STARR: Well, you know, there's been maybe like a 30 percent rate, if I recall correctly, of released detainees from Guantanamo Bay, you know, so called going back to the battlefield in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in other places where al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating.

About these detainees, I think Hagel made a real - a unique point that I certainly hadn't heard before, that there was no information that they were involved in directly engaging in any direct attack, directly on the United States, to paraphrase him. He's making the case that they were taken on the battlefield because they were senior to -- mid- level to senior Taliban operatives. It was within the construct of the U.S. military operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan and that they were not part of the so-called war against al Qaeda.

That said, all of the publicly available information about these five men indicates several of them did have al Qaeda connections, that they were mid-level to senior Taliban operatives. People are making the case that the Taliban, that the Haqqani organization never directly attacked the United States, that these guys are quite different than al Qaeda and that with U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan there won't be the targets there for them to attack, that they really can't attack outside their narrow geography.

I think that that is going to remain a very controversial argument for some time to come because of these continuing questions. So we -- they've been released to the Qataris for a year. The Qataris are going to monitor them. Mixed record of how that might go and what happens a year after that. What if they do make contact with al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliates? That is going to be a very controversial matter for some time to come.

BLITZER: I notice the secretary has not yet been asked about one of those five detainees who actually is wanted by the United Nations for war crimes for allegedly authorizing the killing of thousands of Afghan Shiite Muslims in the 1990s when he was involved in the Taliban government, if you will, of Afghanistan.

All right, we'll take another quick break, resume our coverage.

Also, the very latest on a stunning development overnight. Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the House of Representatives, loses in a primary in his district in Virginia. Much more on this, much more on Hagel, all the day's news coming up right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're continuing to monitor important hearings up on Capitol Hill, the house Armed Services Committee questioning the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, about the controversial decision to engage in a swap, a prisoner swap, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban detainees. We'll continue to monitor that hearing.

But there's been a political earthquake here in Washington, indeed around the country, overnight as the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, lost in his bid in a primary in his district outside of Richmond, Virginia, for re-election. Lost to a Tea Party favorite, Dave Brat. And now we're beginning to get reaction, the fallout. Dana Bash is our chief congressional correspondent.

Dana, I think it's fair to say no one, including the winner of this primary, certainly not Eric Cantor or any other political geniuses that I know, foresaw this.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not alt all. There still are a lot of people walking around here like zombies, like political zombie, trying to just grasp the idea of what happened last night.

But what's also going on here is that there have been so many hush- hush, rushed, behind-closed-door meetings among members of the House leadership with their staff, with one another, back and forth all morning long.

And so what we know now is that there is a House Republican meeting, all House Republicans, at 4:00 p.m. today, so unclear if that is a signal that that is the time that Eric cantor will make a decision. And that's really what we were looking for here today, whether or not Cantor will continue on as House majority leader, even though he clearly will lose his seat in Congress, or whether he is going to step down now and allow a leadership race to take place.

He's weighing that, I'm told, been doing so all morning with his staff, with his confidants and staff. What I want to play for you, though, what it would mean in terms of how other Republicans are going to take this. One Republican I talked to said it is sending shivers down the spines of most House Republicans.

Listen to what else he said.


BASH: It was very hard to govern here with Democratic president, Democratic Senate and a House Republican conference that has many of them were already scared of their own shadows, for lack of a better way to say it, from the right. It's hard to imagine it worse. But it will be?

REPRESENTATIVE LEE TERRY (R), NEBRASKA: I think it will be worse in the sense that that was one of the specific things used against Eric was not only was he establishment but that he had been part of some of these compromises like what kept the government open. And that was used against him, and so the message to us is negotiation or compromise could get you beat.


BASH: So there's, again, a member of the rank and file saying that the message to him is to be careful, and that is potentially something that is going to resonate big time and make the gridlock even worse.

BLITZER: I take it he's not going to run as a write-in candidate in the general election, so the real decision we're waiting, will he serve out his term as the majority leader or will he vacate that and give it to another Republican?

BASH: Right. Or more importantly, will he vacate and set off a race for that position, likely between his -- the number three now Kevin McCarthy and some others want to be in the race as well?

BLITZER: Let me bring David Gergen in. David, this is, I think, a political bombshell, if you will. What do you make of it?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is a bombshell, Wolf. I think it does mean more gridlock ahead, especially on immigration. Immigration reform is now dead. But what's interesting about this is, in the Senate, we have had a number of oceans, a number of primaries in which so-called establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell have beaten back tea party challengers.

And that was giving the so-called establishment type some sense of relief that things were going to settle down, maybe work could be done. This completely reverses the psychology, especially in the House, of these other primary races, because this is so unexpected, once in a hundred years kind of event. It means that every member of the Congress on the Republican side has to be worried that, if they compromise or they go in there bipartisan, they could get knocked off.

BLITZER: It's certainly going to be a huge, huge, concern for a lot of these Republicans going down the road.

David Gergen, Dana Bash, guys, thanks very much.

I'll be back at the top of the hour. Much more news coming up. We will take a quick break.

When we come back, Ashleigh Banfield picks up our coverage on "LEGAL VIEW."


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to LEGAL VIEW. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

I want to get you up to speed on these meetings on Capitol Hill, the secretary of defense getting a grilling, albeit perhaps not as heated as one might expect given the controversies that have been sort of plaguing not only this administration but also the country with regard to the rescue of Bowe Bergdahl, the release of five Taliban, Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the controversies that ensued since then.

The secretary of defense has been resolute and strident in his answers, and the congressmen only at one time getting pretty fiery about what those five were like and also where Bowe Bergdahl is right now.

We're going to continue to watch the hearing, and as the secretary of defense continues his appearance on Capitol Hill, we'll dip in as warranted.

There's other news going on as well, and some of it has been breaking. You were probably watching yesterday with the breaking news of the Oregon high school shooting. In the end, one student was shot dead. A teacher was injured. Ultimately, the shooter killed.

But now we are learning this could have been so much worse as we get some new details about the lone gunman who opened fire at Reynolds High School yesterday. That gunman, a student, he has yet to be identified. Apparently, he took his own life.

Now a source tells CNN that he was armed, heavily armed, with an AR-15 rifle. He had a brown paper bag he was carrying. It was filled with more than 20, fully loaded magazines. That wasn't it. He also was armed with knives.

Last night, people gathered as they often do -- these pictures repeat themselves over and over -- a candlelight vigil in Troutdale, Oregon, to mourn the death of the young victim of this attack. His name, which is the most important name, the victim, Emilio Hoffman. He is being remembered as a great friend, as a soccer player and, maybe if this sinks in, a 14-year-old freshman.

This Oregon shooting becomes just the latest incident that follows a sadly familiar pattern. We remember Sandy Hook, the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, 20 children, 6- and 7-years-old, six adults, shot dead in that attack.

The word "Columbine" still evokes horror, 12 students, one teacher, losing their lives in that attack. But say Arapaho High School in Colorado or Sparks Middle School in Nevada and the list goes on and on, and I dare say there may not be recognition.

They were also places where students opened fire. They were also places where people were hurt and killed, and yet, there are so many of them they're hard to remember.

I want to explore this with Dave Cullen. He's live with me. He is the author of -- literally, he wrote the book. It is called "Columbine." It examines the high school massacre. He spent a good part of his life, doing the deep dive into not only these killers but the killers' intent in general.

Chris Heben also joins us live from Cleveland, Ohio. He is a former Navy SEAL. And he's COO of SEAL Team Consulting. Also, not just a Navy SEAL, SEAL Team 8.

First, Dave, to you. I get sick and tired of calling you every time this happens. And yet I call you and I ask for your thoughts. And I'm not going to do that this time. I'm going to ask you, what's going on? And why am I reporting this so often? I have a list so long I can't read it to you.

DAVID CULLEN, AUTHOR, "COLUMBINE": I know, and I'm glad too. Because this is the first time I've done a lot of shows and this is the first time I'm just going to come out angry.

Because I actually had -- I participated in an online chat with a group called Mucked Up, a major journalists' group, and an ethics from the Poynter Institute, which is a major ethicist, and basically most of my profession does not want to accept that we have any part of this or any responsibility.

They're -- with some exceptions, noticeably Anderson Cooper and now -- oh, my god, I just forgot her name on Fox News -- Megyn Kelly are actually doing something.

BANFIELD: Refusing to name the shooters.

CULLEN: Yes. Or show them. And now a few Canadian broadcasting companies --

BANFIELD: You ascribe to this?

CULLEN: I do with -- BANFIELD: This is hard, right, because we tell the news. We tell the

facts. It's very hard to say I'm just going to self-edit one little factoid of news because I'm morally -- I find it reprehensible.

CULLEN: Yes. Exactly. And I am definitely in favor of this after we -- as we talk about it and figure out how to do it.

BANFIELD: So it's interesting that we talk about the shooters themselves, the motives they may have.

Chris Heben, you -- look, you have cleared a lot of buildings in your time, and I know you probably had a GoPro on your head, now and again. And we're not privy to a lot of the work that you have done and what it look like from your vantage point.

You have a unique perspective on what you think might help us staunch the flow of these awful, awful news stories of school shootings. Explain to me what it is you think should be done.

CHRIS HEBEN, FORMER NAVY SEAL: First of all, let me begin by saying that these don't kill people. The person holding them does, and what they want is publicity. They want to have their name out there. They're living in perpetuity with this heinous crime.

So I think what needs to be done is, when a SWAT team responds to this event, these guys are loaded to bear with gear, tactical equipment. They have the training. The last thing they should be doing is sitting outside forming a committee on what to do.

Speed is key. We know at Columbine that Harris Klebold shot a student every 3.7 to 4.2 seconds. Speed is key here. Get on scene. Respond. Get inside the building. Deliver rounds on target to that assailant. Have video of it on a GoPro camera. And that's the footage that we want to show, six or seven SWAT cops delivering 15 to 30 rounds in the face of the assailant.

Let's show that footage. That's going to pretty much make sure that no one else is going to want to do that. I don't want to go out like that. That was brutal.

My point being is, these assailants seek fame. They want to be remembered forever, and they always try to one-up the last event. That's what we've seen. That's been the pattern since 1999.

BANFIELD: I know a lot of people will agree with you on some of what you say. I know a lot of people will disagree with you.

HEBEN: Always.

BANFIELD: Is that an AR-15? Is that what you held up?


BANFIELD: I know a lot of people will disagree with that, because that's often the refrain, guns don't kill people, people kill people. But these people are 14-years-old. HEBEN: Ashleigh, how are these kids getting the guns? How are they getting them?

BANFIELD: That's a good point.

HEBEN: That's poor parenting, to begin with. You are having a gun in the house.

BANFIELD: Possibly, if it's legal to start with, and that's another issue the president brought up yesterday, that we've had a tough time in Congress getting anything sort of enacted to keep guns out of hands of dangerous kids.

Let me get Dave to weigh in on this. You just heard what Chris said. If we scared the living daylights out of these kids who may not what it looks like when a tactical team breaks down your school wall and comes at you loaded.