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Bowe Bergdahl Charged; Air Crash Investigation Continues; Cockpit Voice Recorder Could Hold Key to Plane Crash; Sources: FBI Cross-Referencing Passenger List. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 25, 2015 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:26] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Deserter. They brought him home, and now the Army calls Bowe Bergdahl a criminal.

I'm John Berman. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead: The Obama administration traded five Taliban prisoners to bring Bowe Bergdahl back to the United States, but now, after months and months of deliberation, the Army charges him with deserting his unit. We will speak to one of his platoon mates who was in Afghanistan when Bergdahl vanished.

The world lead, still so much wreckage from a crash that killed 150 people, but as recovery teams collect shreds of debris slung across the Alps, investigators now have an audio file from inside the cockpit. What if anything did the pilots say that could help officials decipher just why this plane went down?

And families of the victims still trying to deal with the staggering loss, so many futures cut short, including that of three Americans. So who were they and who did they leave behind?

Welcome to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, in for Jake today.

Major stories breaking this afternoon. We are following new developments on that doomed jet that went down over the French Alps, but we begin today with breaking news in our national lead.

Just minutes ago, the Army announced that Bowe Bergdahl, the Army soldier who spent five years in Taliban captivity, will now face charges of desertion, abandoning his brothers in arms. He could face life in prison here if convicted. Bergdahl disappeared in the middle of a war zone on June 30, 2009, captured by the Taliban. For the next five years, the only time his family saw him was in proof of life videos posted by the Taliban showing Bergdahl bearded, beleaguered.

But then last summer, Bergdahl reappeared, this time being walked over to American troops waiting in Black Hawk helicopters to whisk him home. The price for his return, far from cheap. The Obama administration traded five Taliban commanders that had been held at Guantanamo Bay. But virtually the second the White House announced that Bergdahl was back on American soil and the president walked arm in arm with his parents in the Rose Garden and White House officials said he served with honor and distinction, loud questions came quickly from dozens who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan about the circumstances under which he wound up in the hands of the Taliban.


EVAN BUETOW, FORMER U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: There's a lot more to this story than just a soldier walking away.


BERMAN: Now an internal investigation by the Army seems to agree with those accounts.

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon.

Barbara, explain to us what they have, what this means and what comes next.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's start with what happened today. As you say, John, the Army now saying it is charging Bowe Bergdahl with one count of desertion, one count of what they call misbehavior before the enemy, shamefully, in the words of the Army Code of Justice, shamefully leaving his post.

Now this will move to an Article 32 proceeding. That is the equivalent in our civilian world of a grand jury proceeding. An officer will be appointed to again hear all the evidence, talk to witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, and have to decide if there is sufficient evidence to then be referring all of this to essentially a general courts-martial.

Is there enough evidence for a reasonable chance of conviction? There are several options there. It could go to a general court-martial. It could go to a different type of proceeding, which basically would have lesser penalties. You could do administrative discipline. You could do absolutely nothing.

But the bottom line of what has happened here today is the Army general in charge after months of reviewing this says he wants to send this down the line to the next level of military justice, have that full-blown preliminary hearing, that Article 32, like a grand jury, and have it go through that process and have those people decide, is there enough evidence to move forward?

He certainly saw enough evidence to send it that far. Now it will spend some period of weeks and months going through the rest of the system. I think everyone has the same question. Will Bowe Bergdahl's military and civilian defense counsel now approach the Army and look for a plea bargain, look for a deal to try and either keep Bergdahl out of a military jail or get him as little military jail time as possible, John?

BERMAN: Big questions, major developments.

[16:05:01] Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

I want to speak with a soldier who served in Afghanistan with Bowe Bergdahl. Josh Korder is on the phone with us right now. Josh, thanks so much for joining us.

The breaking news minutes ago that Bowe Bergdahl, whom you served with in Afghanistan, will be charged with desertion, how do you feel about this announcement?

JOSH KORDER, FORMER U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: Well, I feel that it's finally some justice being done. It took a long time to get here from when he returned, but I think it's probably because the military was doing their due diligence.

And I'm glad that they did, because I'm sure at this point they probably have enough evidence to convict him of whatever charges they are putting him up against.

BERMAN: Officials say the maximum sentence he could receive is life in prison. Do you have an opinion on what sentence he should receive if convicted?

KORDER: I don't think that he should get any kind of forgiveness for time served. I heard that at one point. They said that, well, maybe he's going to get forgiveness for five years for time served. In my opinion, that's kind of like his punishment for abandoning us in Afghanistan like he did. If they tell us -- if they say that it's life in prison, then I really hope that he serves the sentence.

BERMAN: It wasn't enough that he was a prisoner of the Taliban for five years, in your mind?

KORDER: No, because his actions put him there.

I kind of feel like the desertion and the rest of these charges are probably on behalf of the families and the members of the services who died and lost a family member because of him.

BERMAN: Your unit looked for him in Afghanistan. I know you feel and others feel like you put your lives on the line to find him when he was being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now that the military has charged him with desertion, does that make you angrier about what you did there for him?

KORDER: I wouldn't necessarily say angrier. I'm no longer in the Army. I served as best I could and then got out and that's the way that it works in the military. This is a very extenuating circumstance, and I just feel like kind of -- I feel in a way relieved.

BERMAN: The White House held a ceremony with his parents when he returned to the United States. National Security Adviser Susan Rice commented that he had served with honor and distinction.

Again, now the Army itself for which he served calls him a deserter. Do you now think that the White House should regret the actions it took to bring him home?

KORDER: I didn't understand them to begin with. I was shocked. Obviously, that's why we all kind of reacted in the way that we did to

try to get the news out there right after that Rose Garden announcement. I'm not necessarily sure if regret is the word. I would probably say that they need to reconsider in the future actions like this, especially look at more of the evidence.

BERMAN: Given that the Army now says he is a deserter, do you think then that the administration shouldn't have done this trade, traded five Taliban officials to get him back?

KORDER: No. I said the same thing when it first happened. I don't think that it's especially worth the life of a deserter to return five high Taliban commanders back to the battlefield. That's just -- that's beyond me to even understand that.

BERMAN: You don't think even it's tantamount to leaving someone behind, no matter what he did?

KORDER: I mean, the same thing could be said about the people who are captured by ISIS, and we didn't do any negotiating to get those people back. He was in the hands of a terrorist organization. Yes, he's in the armed services, but the fact that he deserted should have been part of the equation.

BERMAN: Josh Korder, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for talking to us. Again, I appreciate it. I know you have been watching this and waiting for this day in some ways for a long time. Thank you.

KORDER: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Want to bring in Larry Youngner. He's a former attorney in the JAG Corps.

Thank you so much for being with us.

Help us to understand what these charges were that were issued today and what the likely outcome is. Will this ever come to a full court- martial or is this just some pageantry before ultimately a plea deal is struck?

LARRY YOUNGNER, FORMER AIR FORCE JAG ATTORNEY: John, thank you for allowing me to be here today to talk about this with you.

First of all, as I understand this breaking news, there are two main charges, desertion, which is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 85, and, in particular, it's alleging that Bergdahl quit his unit, organization or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty.

The second is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 99, misbehavior before the enemy.

BERMAN: What is that?

YOUNGNER: Misbehavior before the enemy is quite serious. Any member of the armed forces who before or in the presence of the enemy engages in several types of -- any one of which types of misconduct -- most notably in the Bergdahl matter is running away.

[16:10:11] In addition, one who casts away his arms or ammunition in front of the enemy, or one who otherwise causes danger or hazardous -- causes a hazard to his unit or his command, that can be punished by a court-martial, if it gets to a court-martial, with some of the most serious punishments, which include, frankly, potentially death, life imprisonment, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances and the lowest...


BERMAN: They said the maximum penalty he's likely to face would be life in prison. Will it get to that? In your experience, will it get to that, or do you think that the military and Bergdahl's attorneys will try to find some kind of deal here?

YOUNGNER: here are a lot of factors it will take into account as this proceeds.

The ball is now in Bergdahl's defense counsel's court to decide what to do. Two options immediately are to consider, one, offering a discharge deal in lieu of the court-martial. By accepting that discharge in lieu of court-martial, Army Regulation 635-200 has a Chapter 10, allows this. There's a procedure.

It may be too early right now for that to happen. I would assess this would likely go to an Article 32, the military equivalent, if you will, of a grand jury. The difference is Sergeant Bergdahl will have -- or Bergdahl will have an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present his own evidence that would lend to defend him or at least matters in extenuation, mitigation, to include the five years nearly of captivity.

To get to your ultimate question, what could happen, I think it's going to get to an Article 32 investigation and then the general court-martial convening authority is going to have to decide, do we accept a deal that the defense might to proceed to pursue or not?

BERMAN: And we have to see what his strategy is in his own defense. Larry Youngner, thanks so much for being with us. Really appreciate it.

YOUNGNER: Thank you.

BERMAN: In our world lead, investigators are now one step closer to finding out what happened to the doomed passenger plane that crashed in the French Alps. They have started a preliminary analysis of the cockpit voice recorder. The most important detail? What the pilots were saying in those last moments of the flight. That's next.


[16:16:40] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Our world lead, happening now: forensic teams working to digitally decipher an audio file that could be the key to unraveling why Germanwings Flight 9525 and the 150 people onboard slowly descended to their doom. It could be just a matter of hours now before investigators get their first real listen at the pilots' final words.

Today, recovery teams dropped to the crash site from helicopters that were flying overhead. Officials caution now that the process of mapping the debris and piecing together this puzzle is just a huge undertaking.

And now, teams have begun the daunting and heartbreaking task of identifying the victims' bodies. The State Department confirmed just a couple hours ago that three Americans were on the plane when it crashed.

I want to get right to CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

Rene, so many new developments today, including we heard from the company.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Right. Just a short time ago, Lufthansa's CEO says they are struggling to understand how an airplane that was in perfect technical condition with two experienced pilots was involved in such a terrible accident.

Well, tonight, investigators are closer to answering some of the many unanswered questions. Some of those answers are starting to come from the plane's cockpit voice recorder.


MARSH (voice-over): This is the strongest clue investigators have in their hands. The exterior of Germanwings Flight 9525's cockpit voice recorder looks damaged but French authorities revealed today they have had some success.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are very glad that the first flight recorder has been retrieved yesterday and the French authority confirmed just a few hours ago that one of the audio streams is readable.

MARSH: The cockpit voice recorder captured audio up to the moment of impact. It will provide critical information like whether the pilots were talking in the minutes leading up to the crash. What were they saying and what else was happening in the cockpit?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're prepared to work with whatever they've got to get the information. It's more than just voice. They can hear what switches are being thrown and what buttons are being pushed. They can tell a lot about what's going on in the cockpit from that listening device.

MARSH: Flight 9525 took off at 10:01 Tuesday morning from Barcelona bound for Dusseldorf, Germany, with 150 people on board. Investigators say the plane reached a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. It descended for about ten minutes. The plane disappeared from French radar when it was at around 6,000 feet. Investigators say the descent appeared controlled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The curve is compatible with an aircraft controlled by pilots, except for the fact that we can't imagine pilots consciously sending an aircraft into a mountain. But it may also be compatible with an aircraft which is controlled by an automatic pilot.

MARSH: Finding the plane's second black box will be critical to unlock the mystery of what brought down the jet. On the flight data recorder, investigators will get a second by second breakdown of how the plane's systems were functioning. Was everything working or was there mechanical failure. But the status of the search for this critical piece of the plane is unclear.

[16:20:02] Today, France's president said this.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): A second black box is being looked for. Its outside frame has been found but unfortunately not the black box itself. At this very moment, there are men in the field searching.

MARSH: A claim French investigators seem to dispute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Those rumors are not at all confirmed. We have not localized the black box. We have not found any debris of the black box.

MARSH: Even if the plane's flight data recorder is not in one piece, data may still be retrieved. It's located in the tail of the plane, the boxes encased in stainless steel and the memory cards containing the valuable information is wrapped in thermal insulation. They are designed to withstand impacts 3,400 times the force of gravity, can survive flames up to 2,000 degrees for an hour and can withstand extreme cold.


MARSH: Well, investigators won't say if they heard voices in the cockpit up until the moment of impact. What they're doing right now is analyzing the audio to determine what sounds they hear, who is speaking. As far as the debris field, investigators say the size of the field suggests that the plane broke up on impact and not midair. They can look at the size of the pieces and how wide the field is and make that determination.

BERMAN: Rene Marsh, thanks so much.

We'll have more discussion about the debris field and also the audio coming up, first -- shortly.

But first, the FBI is looking into possible criminal activity related to the crash of Flight 9525. CNN's Pamela Brown has been in touch with her sources.

And, Pamela, you've got breaking news on this front. PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It's still very

much a mystery as to what happened, but I can tell you, FBI agents based in France, Germany and Spain are looking through all sources of intelligence and cross-referencing the passenger manifest to see if there's anyone of interest that the U.S. is aware of who may be on -- who may have been on that flight, Flight 9525. This is according to two law enforcement officials I have been speaking with.

And what we have learned is so far, preliminarily in the process of running these names through data bases, it hasn't turned up anything that stands out or anything linking these passengers to criminal activity. We know that this process is ongoing and officials say the bottom line, there's just not clarity right now as to what caused this crash.

But the FBI wants to make sure that it's nothing other than just a simple accident, especially considering the fact that there were three Americans on board, we know about that, the U.S. has a keen interest finding out exactly what happened here. The FBI we should note has offered full assistance and is still standing by in the event. The French authorities who are leading the investigation formally ask for their help. That has not happened yet, I'm told.

And as one official told me, they are still waiting for the dust to settle. It's still very early on. So, they are trying to figure out now, OK, how do we proceed? Is a criminal investigation warranted? But preliminarily running these names through the data bases, nothing is turning up yet. So, it's just really puzzling.

BERMAN: They check the list, nothing strange yet. Very interesting.

All right. Pamela Brown, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up for us, the hunt for the second black box. It will be so important for investigators who have very little to work with in terms of debris. We are live at the crash site. We're going to get there, next.

Plus, we now know at least three Americans were on Flight 9525, including a mother and daughter from Virginia. We're live in the hometown, next.


[16:27:31] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake today.

Back to our world lead -- the urgent search for the second black box among the wreckage of Flight 9525 in the French Alps.

I want to go straight to CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. He is at the staging ground for the hundreds of recovery personnel charged with sifting through the debris and identifying the human remains.

And, Nic, we heard just a short time ago from officials saying they spotted the president of France said that the frame of a second black box had been spotted, the flight data recorder. Is that in fact the case?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It does seem to be. What we're told that the investigators are doing is that they are actually flying over in helicopters more than they're spending time on the ground. This is what the head of the air accident investigation team here said, because the terrain is very, very difficult. And, you know, we keep saying it's difficult but it really is difficult -- it would be difficult for us to overstate how difficult it is. Excuse me.

I talked to a lady who heard the plane crash, who knows this area well. She said it's a very, very steep sided valley. The man today who's leading the crash search told us the helicopters can't get in to land. They literally have to winch the recovery teams down from the helicopter and back up with their equipment.

So, we can just see from there that it's very difficult to get on the ground. So that's slowing what is going to be a much harder search for this even smaller piece of debris now because the recorder is not in that larger frame, John.

BERMAN: Right. So they found the frame for the box, they actually haven't found the part that holds the data. That's what's holding them back.

Any sense, Nic, of what it looks like for tomorrow?

ROBERTSON: There's a lot going to be happening here. You know, to recap today briefly, the recovery teams have been marking the positions of the bodies of the victims. There may be some of the bodies brought off the mountain tomorrow. That's not clear.

But what is clear that's going to happen, the families of some of the victims are going to be brought up here tomorrow. So it's likely to become very emotional late in the afternoon when that happens. Of course, they will be coming here searching for answers and the recovery teams really will not be able to offer a lot of that on the ground here -- John.

BERMAN: Nic Robertson for us at the staging area for those who are going through the debris at the crash site. Nic, thanks so much for being with us.

I want to bring in CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo.

Mary, so many developments today. I wonder what you think is the most important. Is the cockpit voice recorder now in their hands, they now have an audio file.