Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Voice Recorder Retrieved from Alps Crash; 3 Americans on Flight 9525; Search Slowed by Perilous Conditions at Crash Scene. Aired 5:00- 6:00p ET

Aired March 25, 2015 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, impossible recovery. New images emerging of an airliner which disintegrated when it slammed into a French mountainside. Airline officials say the plane was in, quote, "perfect technical condition." So what caused its fatal plunge?

Shattered evidence. As investigators search for one black box, they retrieve crucial audio files from the other. Can they piece together what happened?

Americans on board. Three Americans, including a mother and daughter from Virginia, were among the 150 people killed in the flight, Flight 9525 crash. So what is the family saying?

And charged with desertion. A U.S. soldier held for years by the Taliban before a controversial prisoner swap is formally charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. So what's next for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following two breaking stories this hour. Investigators are gathering new clues into the horrific crash of an airliner that disintegrated when it slammed into the French Alps. They've managed to retrieve a usable audio file from a cockpit voice recorder. The other black boxes still -- still have not been recovered.

Conditions are extraordinarily difficult at the crash site. Recovery teams must be lowered by helicopter. The State Department now says a third American was among the 150 people who perished in the crash. Two of the three Americans identified as a mother and daughter from Virginia.

Also tonight, a dramatic announcement from the United States military. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his base in Afghanistan back in 2009 and was exchanged last year for five Taliban prisoners, has now been charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Our correspondents, our analysts and our guests, they're all standing by with the very latest.

Let's begin with Flight 9525, the investigation. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, he's near the crash scene.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Rescue helicopters are taking off here in Seyne-les-Alpes, France, traveling to the site where Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed.

Recovery officials said some investigators were dropped Wednesday morning from the choppers onto the rugged remote crash site in the French Alps. Investigators are scouring the scene for a second day, searching for clues about what caused the crash that killed 150 people on board.

So far, the cockpit voice recorder, which records sounds and cockpit conversations, has been found. Although the external orange casing is damaged, French aviation investigators assessed the computer chips inside, which contain an audio recording of the cockpit during the entire flight. Investigators didn't reveal when the pilots' voices can be heard during the critical final ten minutes.

After meeting with rescue workers and thanking them for their efforts, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, addressed the media. Alongside the casing of the second black box, the plane's flight data recorder was also located.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): The second black box is being looked for. Its box, its outside frame has been found, but unfortunately, not the black box itself.

ROBERTSON: The so-called black boxes could provide critical clues about why the flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, Germany, crashed midflight.

DAVID GALLO, WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION: We really do need that flight data recorder as well to provide a full view of what happened to that aircraft just before impact.

ROBERTSON: France's interior minister told local TV, BFM-TV, "We cannot completely rule out terrorism." But he said it's not considered the most likely explanation for the wreck.

There was no distress call from the aircraft, but at this press conference, the head of the investigation team said the debris suggests the plane hit the ground and then broke apart, instead of exploding in flight.

Investigators also say radar followed the plane to just over 6,000 feet, which is virtually the point of impact.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: So what we're expecting tomorrow, Wolf, families of the victims are expected to arrive here. They will be accommodated in the little village here in a nearby town. What they will be able to see here is an ongoing effort. We're expecting to see the helicopters again; but so far, none of the victims' bodies have been recovered from the mountainside yet, Wolf. [17:05:14] BLITZER: What a gruesome task all of that is. All

right, Nic, thanks very much. We'll get back to you.

Crash investigators have managed to hear some audio from one of the black boxes. That would be the cockpit voice recorder. But so far, they've only found the outer shell of the flight data recorder.

Let's go to our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh. She's working this part of the story. What are you learning, Rene?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, after an accident, a plane's flight recorders are the priority for investigators. These recorders are the most critical pieces of evidence, essentially capable of unlocking the mystery of what went wrong.

So what you're looking at here is this is what happens when it gets taken to the lab. That board you're looking at there, that is the crucial piece. That is the memory board which will hold all of that critical data, and you can see the material that was just taken off, it is very heavily insulated with thermal insulation. The orange portion of the box that you're -- that you usually see, that is what essentially protects this. This is what investigators are going to be plugging into their computers, they're going to be downloading.

Specifically, we know in this case, they have the cockpit voice recorder. So what's going to be on that? Well, on these pieces here, and on these little chips here, they are going to be able to listen in for sounds, anything from voices, people who they may hear, sounds of perhaps alerts going off in the cockpit, perhaps other individuals' voices. They're going to be listening to all of that, and they're listening to that within teams. Sometimes teams of six, sometimes a team of eight. If something is not audible, they'll listen to it again.

But I just want you to look at just how protected it is. And although we saw that photo of the cockpit voice recorder, in which essentially it looks smashed from this specific aircraft -- and this is it -- you can see that it looks on the outside like it would be damaged, but when you open it up, most times, the majority of times, investigators say they are able to retrieve information.

It can withstand just the most critical, the most extreme temperatures. We know it can withstand being submerged in water up to 20,000 feet of water. Air France 447, for example, was on the ocean floor for two years, and they were still able to pull data off of that, off of the recorders, Wolf.

BLITZER: Obviously very, very sturdy. Let's hope they find them both. Thanks very much, Rene.

Three Americans were aboard the airliner. Two of those crash victims, a mother and daughter from Nokesville, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Our national correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, is on the scene for us.

Suzanne, very, very sad story there.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Wolf. I mean, this is one of those times when an international story really hitting home in the community here in Nokesville, Virginia. The houses are separate. They're far apart. The neighbors don't know each other very well, but they are still very much impacted by this loss, by this tragedy.

We're able to reach a relative of the family, who released a statement to us saying, and I will read it for you, "Our entire family is deeply saddened by the losses of Yvonne and Emily Selke, two wonderful, caring, amazing people who meant so much to so many. At this difficult time we respectfully ask for privacy and your prayers."

The family members, some of those family members gathered inside of a home to do just that. Wolf, we have gathered information. We've been learning so much about these two, this mother/daughter team, because there have been so many statements from the community, people who want to express what they were like.

We know that Yvonne Selke was an employee at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., for more than 22 years, that she was an excellent employee and that we know her daughter, Emily, an amazing student, very popular, 4.0 grade point average from Woodbridge High School, went on to Drexel University, 2013, graduated with honors. Also a sorority member. She worked, as well, at a Car Workplace in hospitality.

And they released this statement was released about her, saying, "She was dedicated, helpful, always willing to go the extra mile. Her genuine bright smile and quick wit will be missed."

And we should tell you, Wolf, as well, Raymond Selke has actually spoken to CNN, and you can imagine he is very distraught. He does not want to speak publicly, but he has expressed his thanks, his appreciation for support; and he has also asked for privacy, as well.

BLITZER: And we will honor that request, of course. Thanks very much, Suzanne Malveaux on the scene for us outside Washington in northern Virginia.

Joining us now our aviation analyst, the former NTSB managing director, Paul Goelz; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes. He's a former FBI assistant director. Also joining us via Skype, our aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

[17:10:08] Peter Goelz, you've dealt with a lot of the family members in an investigation after a plane crash like this. It's really important to keep them informed about what's going on, right?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: It really is, Wolf. And Lufthansa, I think, has done an outstanding job so far. They really really have seemed to have the -- following the playbook to the letter. And I thought the press conference this afternoon from the two CEOs was particularly effective. I think they're doing a good job. But family members have such a

need to know facts, to know -- and to know it first. That's what -- that's what's critical.

BLITZER: I hope they keep all these family members informed. Tom, you worked at the FBI. We understand three FBI agents are now working with the French, part of this investigation. If you were one of those FBI agents, what's -- what would you be looking for?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Normally, Wolf, the agents wouldn't be right at the crime scene right now. What they would be doing is gathering the flight manifest information, passenger list, crew list, information about the pilot, co-pilot, to run through FBI databases all over the world. And to assist the French, the Spanish and the German authorities and the other countries with nationals on the plane, in notifying them, communicating with them about the passengers that were on that plane.

BLITZER: In other words, you go through all 150 people on the plane. The pilot, the co-pilot, flight attendants, all the passengers, and you have their names and what do you look for? You look to see if there's something suspicious there.

FUENTES: Absolutely. Is there any sign that one of them could have been a terrorist, could have been radicalized, could be suicidal, could be psychotic, mental health. You know, we don't know what happened yet. We haven't heard the results of the analysis of the cockpit voice recorder.

So you don't know if somebody in the cockpit had a problem, one of the two, the pilot or the co-pilot, or if somebody broke into that, maybe when the door opened when one of them came out to use the restroom. Someone else could have gotten into that cockpit. So that's unknown at this point. We have not heard what conversations took place in that cockpit.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Peter. The French president, Francois Hollande, he said today they're looking at the interior. They're trying to find the interior of the flight data recorder. This is a flight data recorder. The outside, they apparently found the shell of it, but they haven't found the important stuff that's inside. How unusual is that?

GOELZ: It is unusual. These data recorders, as you say, are very well-armored. They're put together to withstand extraordinary destructive forces. I think it's indicative of how hard this plane hit the ground that the outside casing -- it's a quarter of an inch of solid stainless steel plus insulation. If that's been breached, I think there's going to be a challenge to find the recorder, the actual computer chips that have the data on it. But they'll find them.

BLITZER: This is a flight -- something similar to this flight data recorder. They did find the flight -- the cockpit voice recorder, but it was obviously badly mangled, the exterior. But there's useful information on -- they say there's some two hours of conversation, but what's most intriguing is they haven't been willing to say to us whether they hear anything during the final eight to ten minutes of that doomed flight.

GOELZ: That's right. The BEA, the French investigative agency, was specific. They said they heard sounds, voices and alarms. Now, hearing alarms would indicate -- might indicate that they have good tape to the very end of the accident.

But I think we can count on the French on releasing some more information as they go through it. It's a painstaking job, and you've got to have full agreement on what you're listening to before you make it public.

O'BRIEN: Let me go to Miles O'Brien. If, in fact, the last eight or ten minutes of that cockpit voice recorder has no sound from human beings, the pilot or the co-pilot or anyone else for that matter, tell our viewers what that means.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it certainly fits a scenario where you had some sort of decompression event, Wolf. Some event where the pilots were overcome by hypoxia, lack of oxygen. We saw this crash, this type of crash a few years ago over Greece. The Helios air crash, decompression was gradual. The crew eventually lost consciousness, and the plane flew on on autopilot.

However, it didn't go -- descend in an erratic way, which is what we see here. This is not a classic emergency rapid descent, nor is it really just a simple auto pilot descent, unless there was some problem with the over-speeding.

So the other side of this is it could have been some sort of deliberate act of some kind by either the crew or some other individual, and there was no conversation. But you know, it's a little early to go in either direction on this, but I can tell you this. It doesn't fit the typical scenario for an emergency where a call would come out, the descent would begin and the crew would be able to tell air traffic control what was happening.

BLITZER: Yes. It's a real, real mystery right now.

All of you, please stand by. We have a lot more information coming in, including information on the perilous conditions confronting the recovery teams at the crash site. So remote and steep, the only way to get there is by helicopter. We're also getting new insights into important clues experts can find in the photographs of the plane's scattered wreckage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Recovery crews spent today combing through the nearly unrecognizable fragments of an airliner that hit a French mountainside, killing all 150 people on board.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us. He has more on the incredible challenges that await those who are working this investigation -- Brian. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, so many obstacles

facing the recovery teams. Officials are telling us the terrain is steep, rugged, unstable, so unstable that investigators at the site have to be tied to one another. That makes it more difficult to find debris, to find remains, any clues that could tell investigators and the victims' families how this plane went down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, investigators are mapping the debris field in the French Alps where the aircraft is described as obliterated. Recovery teams are struggling to get to the wreckage, spread far apart, starting in an altitude of about 6,000 feet. Their challenge -- navigating vertical slopes and deep ravines -- is enormous.

DAVE GIACOMIN, HIGH-ALTITUDE MOUNTAINEERING EXPERT: They may have little cliff edges that they may have to pick things off of. So as they descend, they may have to stop similar to this, gather things, put them into a bag and keep rappelling down.

TODD: Dave Giacomin, a high-altitude mountaineer, has climbed stark peaks just like those in the Alps.

GIACOMIN: We've got a flag like this.

TODD: We rappelled with him off cliffs into ravines to see what the recovery teams are up against. Giacomin says, depending on where the helicopters can drop those teams, rescuers may have to climb up or rappel down to get to the debris and the remains of passengers. They'll battle dangerous crevices, fatigue and weather that can change in an instant.

GIACOMIN: It can be sunny and a bluebird day and, you know, an hour later, clouds are coming over a ridge that you didn't see. Next thing you know, it's blowing 20, 30, 40 miles an hour, and snow's coming down on you. Rain's coming down on you. That will negate any kind of helicopter activity.

TODD: Those conditions stand between investigators and their ultimate goal, to examine pieces of this plane and determine what happened to it. Experts say if they can't get enough information from the cockpit voice or flight data recorders, they may have to piece this aircraft back together, like investigators did with TWA Flight 800.

JOHN GOGLIA, FORMER NTSB BOARD MEMBER: Absent any additional information from the recorders, the focus is going to be on the front of the airplane. So any pieces from the cockpit area are going to be of particular concern right now.

TODD: John Goglia, who investigated the TWA 800 crash, says the teams may even have to piece together some of the plane's wiring to find clues. Long, painstaking work, he says, but worth it.

GOGLIA: We could really see where the airplane came apart, the way it came apart; and the metal doesn't lie. When you run the pieces of the metal, the edges of the metal through a microscope, they will actually tell you where the forces came to tear the airplane apart.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: The debris field in the Alps seems to be mostly small pieces instead of large chunks. Experts say that suggests a high- impact crash, and it also means that the recovery teams are going to have a tougher time trying to recover so many pieces from those crevices, those ledges in those mountains -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Once again, Brian, a usable portion of the cockpit voice recorder we're told has been recovered but not the flight data recorder, which is obviously so crucial.

That's right. Investigators have been able to actually listen to some audio from the cockpit voice recorder. As far as that flight data recorder's concerned, French President Francois Hollande said the outside frame of that recorder was found but not the recorder itself. Even though those two pieces of equipment are stored near each other just underneath the tail of the aircraft.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thanks very much.

Once again, we're joined by our aviation analyst Peter Goelz, the former National Transportation Safety Board managing director. The images, the pictures of the debris tell us a lot. They're stunning, aren't they?

GOELZ: They are stunning, and they are just terribly depressing when you see that.

BLITZER: Show us some of them.

GOELZ: Here's one that's been widely distributed. It's a shot of the fuselage. You can see along here where the composite material has been ripped from the mainframe. You see the windows, openings that are there. What it does is, it confirms that this plane hit at tremendous speed.

BLITZER: You also have a picture of a wheel. It shows sort of the differences, the space between the various pieces of debris. Tell us what that means.

GOELZ: Well, what I see here is the wheels are -- and the wheel structures are the most robust part of the plane. Here is -- here is the wheel there.

And what it looks like as though the plane hit further up the mountainside, because you have a debris field right down this crevasse, and the material must have fallen down the mountain into this. This is going to be very difficult to piece together. These pieces are so small that they're -- it's going to be impossible.

BLITZER: There's also part of the wing or the vertical stabilizer... GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: ... as it's called. And we see it, it's not charred. And that has a significance.

GOELZ: Exactly. None of the pieces that we've seen so far have been charred, which means that the plane hit but there had been no fire; there was no fire prior to impact.

What's important here is this is the vertical stabilizer. The flight data recorder and the voice recorder are located near it. And this part of the plane is also robust and tends to survive accidents at a slightly better rate.

BLITZER: And they did recover at least one of those black boxes, but look at how damaged it is. The black boxes, by the way, as we all know are not black; they're really orange.

GOELZ: This is really extraordinary. I've seen many data recorders and voice recorders. This is hardened stainless steel. It is armored to withstand tremendous pressures and to be deformed like this just confirms what a tremendous amount of pressure. But the data material is there.

BLITZER: Is inside.

GOELZ: And that material apparently has survived. The French have said they've gotten sounds, they've gotten voices, they've gotten alarms.

BLITZER: This is what's left of the cockpit voice recorder. They're still looking for the flight data recorder.

Stand by for a moment. Coming up, an experienced pilot's new theory about what could have gone wrong and caused the airliner to start its rapid descent into a mountainside.

We also have more on another important breaking story we're following. The United States Army charging Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior. He could go to prison for life.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:31:33] BLITZER: Our breaking news, recovery teams, they're facing impossibly tough conditions right now at the site of the airliner crash in the French Alps that killed 150 people, including three Americans.

Investigators have some new clues, though, to work with. They've managed to retrieve an audio file from the cockpit voice recorder, even though the other black box is still missing.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is near the crash scene. He's joining us now live. This plane was obliterated. How challenging is this operation for the people there -- and there are a lot of them -- trying to recover what's left?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it really can't be sort of overstated too much of how difficult it is. It's a very narrow valley where the crash site is. The helicopters can't land. They literally have to lower people by rope. That means when they lower them in, they -- you know, they're limited with the amount of equipment. You can't land a group of people. They're not able to take a large amount of equipment off quickly. That slows things down.

The hillside very steep and fragile, accident investigators say. The hillside itself is unstable. So when you're looking for this data recorder that has broken free of its larger housing, it's so much harder to find.

What we've learned today is that the focus on the ground has been more for the recovery teams to mark the locations of the bodies that they're finding, which have to be recorded. The locations have to be recorded. Of course, this is a criminal investigation, as well, so all these details are very important. So all that is making the process here very slow. So finding that tiny data recorder in the rock and rubble of the hillside that's been freshly broken apart is very challenging, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is. All right, Nic, we'll get back to you.

I want to dig a little bit deeper right now. Joining us once again, our aviation analyst, the former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, the former FBI assistant director; our safety analyst, David Soucie; he's a former FAA safety inspector and an accident investigator. Robert Mark is also joining us. He's a commercial pilot, publisher of Jetline.com. And via Skype, once again, our aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

BLITZER: Robert, you've been speaking to pilots. They have a theory about what might have happened. Tell us about what you're hearing about an update they recently received.

ROBERT MARK, COMMERCIAL PILOT: Well, I just received something this morning, Wolf, from a pilot of an A-320 from a U.S. airline that said that there could be an erroneous indication from one piece of the electronic gear in the airplane to another set of computers on the A- 320 that could make the airplane believe it's about to stall. And if it's about to stall, the Airbus says, "I'm not going to let you do that. I'm going to push the nose over of the airplane and try and get the nose lower and descend to keep the airplane from stalling."

BLITZER: You think that potentially could have happened. Let me get Peter Goelz to react to that. What do you think of that theory?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: I think we have to consider anything. I think the most troubling part of this accident is, in fact, the eight to ten minutes of silence as the plane was in the dive. We heard nothing that indicates they responded to any of the air traffic control requests that would have taken just three to five seconds to respond.

But I think -- I think every aspect of the plane's performance is going to be examined, and the interaction between the human and the aircraft is going to be a big part of it.

BLITZER: Because Miles, as you know, there was a lot of distress calls from ground control up to the cockpit but no reply, right?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Yes. When you think about ten minutes, Wolf, that is an awful lot of time. When you consider the narrative that Sully Sullenberger was able to issue in that two- minute flight from LaGuardia into the Hudson River, explaining the situation, declaring the mayday, making it very clear what was going on in the cockpit.

If you had a crew troubleshooting a problem with the fly-by-wire system which made it, the plane think it was stalling and not, it's hard to imagine a professional pilot crew not, at some point, pushing the button and saying, "Hey, we got a problem here, air traffic control." So something else is going on.

BLITZER: It certainly is. David, as you know, last November a Lufthansa Airbus, A-321 dropped 4,000 feet in one minute after that autopilot lowered the jet's nose. How closely should investigators be looking at the so-called autopilot system of these Airbus planes?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Very closely than they are, Wolf. It's something that they've looked at since that time. The challenge is going to be, even once they find a fix, is the FAA ready to make what's necessary, to issue a directive and make this mandatory to be happening right now? That's the tough sell, because of the fact that, just because something safety happens like that, and it's an anomalous behavior, to ask the airlines to invest millions of dollars to fix something like that is always a challenge for the FAA.

BLITZER: Do you have an assessment, Captain Mark? What do you think? Why'd it happen here?

MARK: Well, just responding to that, I mean, I think there is certainly an ethical and a moral issue we're going to deal with, as well. When you're talking about whether the FAA will or can or should do it, we're completely eliminating the fact that the people in the back that are paying for the tickets have absolutely no idea what's going on here.

BLITZER: One final question before we move on, because we have a lot more to discuss. A preliminary check by U.S. law enforcement agencies of the manifest of this plane, they found no criminal links. Investigators, though, haven't ruled out anything, potentially, including criminal activity or terrorism.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I'm not too sure about the reports that they haven't found any links. I don't think they would tell us if they did find links right now. It's a preliminary investigation. It's very early. They're not going to tell you one way or the other at this point. BLITZER: Anything is out there. They have to look at

everything, obviously, about all 150 people who were on board that plane, see if there's anything suspicious at all. We don't know if there is. It could be a huge catastrophic failure, mechanical failure or there could be some human involvement as well. We're continuing to watch what's going on. Everyone stand by.

Coming up, we'll have much more on what investigators could learn from that damaged cockpit voice recorder. Officials announced today they have been able to recover what they call usable information.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're going to have much more on the investigation into what caused the airliner crash that killed 150 people. Stand by for that. But we're also following breaking news here in the United States.

The United States Army just announced charges against Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured and held in Afghanistan for five years. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's got the latest.

Barbara, tell us what we know.

BARBARA STARR. CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, some are already speculating that Bergdahl and his attorneys may try and go for a plea deal with the Army.

But today, by filing charges against this soldier, the Army made it clear it is turning this over to the military justice system to decide how to hold him accountable.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, released by the Taliban after being held captive for five years, could face imprisonment at home. The Army now charging him with desertion and, quote, "misbehavior" before the enemy, engaging in, quote, shamefully abandoning his unit. Two of the most serious counts in the military justice system.

Bergdahl will now face a so-called Article 32 proceeding, the military equivalent of a grand jury. The next step could be a full trial.

COL. DANIEL KING, U.S. ARMY: And possible confinement for life.

STARR: But securing a desertion conviction could be tough. Desertion requires evidence he never intended to return.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: Desertion would imply that he would actually be working with the enemy and that he had a preconceived plan to go and join enemy forces. So that's going to be a lot more difficult to prove. STARR: Especially difficult given what national security advisor

Susan Rice said after Bergdahl was traded for five senior Taliban prisoners who were held at Guantanamo bay.

SUSAN RICE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: He served the United States with honor and distinction and will have the opportunity eventually to learn what has transpired.

SGT. EVAN BUETOW (RET.), BERGDAHL'S TEAM LEADER: I miss them, and I'm afraid that I might never see them again.

STARR: Just hours after U.S. commandos got Bergdahl back in exchange for the so-called Taliban Five, President Obama appeared in the Rose Garden with Bergdahl's parents. The commander in chief welcoming a soldier home.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He wasn't forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.

STARR: But Bergdahl's former team leader saw a very different soldier.

BUETOW: He did talk about how he did not agree with the war effort in Afghanistan.

STARR: Some of his former teammates could be called to testify at a trial. Some believe several soldiers lost their lives looking for Bergdahl.

BUETOW: I believe the fact of the matter is when those soldiers were killed, they would not have been where they were at if Bergdahl had not have left.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now there's an awful lot of wrinkles to this whole story, Wolf. As a matter of standard procedure, Bergdahl accumulated his back pay during the five years he was gone but now, if he is convicted, if he faces other disciplinary action, he likely will have to forfeit it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thanks very much.

I want to get some more insight now from Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. He is a key member of the Armed Services Committee. He also served for many years in the United States Air Force as a lawyer.

Senator Graham, we have a lot to discuss about this and more. I want to take a quick break, get to you right after this.

Stand by. Our conversation with Lindsey Graham right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:50:23] BLITZER: We're going to have much more on the

investigation and what caused that airliner crash -- an airliner crash that killed 150 people. But we're also following the other breaking news.

Today the United States Army charging Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior. Bergdahl could face life in prison if convicted even though he was captured in Afghanistan, held there for five years.

We're back with Senator Lindsey Graham. He's a U.S. Air Force lawyer, as well as served in the Air Force for, what, 30 years in the Reserves. He's the United States senator.

Was the right call, Senator, made on Bowe Bergdahl today?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), FORMER U.S. AIR FORCE LAWYER: Well -- they've got to have probable cause to believe that he's guilty of desertion and misbehavior in the face of the enemy. They are very serious charges in military law. An Article 32 officer will look at these charges, determine if there's probable cause to prosecute further. And the commanding general will make a decision as to whether or not to go to trial. But they have to have something pretty serious to go down this road.

BLITZER: How difficult will it be to convict him?

GRAHAM: Well, desertion -- there's two elements to desertion, leaving your post with no intent to return, leaving your post, abandoning or shirking your duties. So if he left his post and he was supposed to be on guard duty the next day with no intent to return, he could be charged under that section.

But desertion requires leaving your post, shirking your duties are -- with the intent not to return, it's not required you collaborate with enemy, they have to prove -- the government has to prove that he left his post with no intent to return or that he shirked his duties by leaving his post.

BLITZER: He's also charged with what they call misbehavior before the enemy.

GRAHAM: Yes.

BLITZER: What does that mean?

GRAHAM: Well, there's nine different things under Article 99 that would allow you to be charged with misbehavior before the enemy. Cowardly conduct, not assisting your own troops, not engaging the enemy when you should, or again abandoning your post. So misbehaving before the enemy and desertion kind of go together here.

If you left your post and you had a -- say, a guard duty coming up the next day, you abandon your post, then you deserted your unit as well as you misbehaved before the enemy putting your own people at risk. BLITZER: Some of his platoon members say he is responsible, he's

to blame for six deaths of fellow troops who were out there looking for him. What do you say to that?

GRAHAM: This man deserves a fair trial. He's presumed innocent. He will be given a vigorous defense. I don't want to -- I don't want to try him on television. The charges are serious. We'll see where this thing goes. But let's not try this young man by antidote. Let's make sure the government has to prove their case as required under military law beyond a reasonable doubt and he's presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.

So I don't want to speculate. I have been doing this for 33 years now as a military judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. I'm very proud of the military justice system. Give the guy a fair trial.

BLITZER: You opposed the swap, if you will, those five detainees over at Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl from day one.

GRAHAM: Yes.

BLITZER: We're showing a picture of those five detainees.

GRAHAM: Yes.

BLITZER: They're now, what, in Qatar.

GRAHAM: Yes.

BLITZER: One of whom at least has tried to establish some contact with the Taliban. You hated this deal to begin with, right?

GRAHAM: I have nothing but disgust for this deal. If Bergdahl had been a Medal of Honor winner, it would not have mattered to me. I'm not worried about the service of Sergeant Bergdahl, whether he's acquitted or convicted.

Letting these five terrorist leaders go undermined the war effort, put our nation at risk. The war is not over. They are still fighting in Afghanistan. I thought it was disproportionate. There's a military code of conduct to bring everybody home if you can. But no military member should expect us to release five terrorist leaders to get them back regardless of the quality of Bergdahl's service.

This undermined the war effort. These people are going to go back to the fight. And what do you tell a family member that may be killed by one of these guys down the road?

BLITZER: Very quickly because we're almost out of time. What are you hearing about the Saudi troops that we're hearing are massing along the northern border with Yemen right now?

GRAHAM: This is a -- going to be the first of many events where the Sunni Arabs push back against Iranian influence around their borders. I think Saudi Arabia will go in and take on the Houthis because you are giving Iran Yemen. Iran now has influence in Iraq. Assad is a puppet of Iran.

Without our leadership, the Sunni Arabs are going to take matters into their own hands. Take on Iran in four or five different countries and you're going to have a Sunni-Shia war with -- bloodletting like you haven't seen in 1,000 years. And all this is a result of us allowing this vacuum to be filled by Iran.

[17:55:03] BLITZER: Lindsey Graham, thanks very much for joining us.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, investigators may have a clue as to what happened to that plane. A usable cockpit audio file from one of the plane's black boxes. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, first clues. Investigators get usable data from a damaged black boxes as searchers hunt for the other recorder at the remote plane crash site. CNN is live near the wreckage.

America's loss. A Virginia woman and her mother were on board the jet when it plunged from the sky along with another U.S. citizen. We're at their home getting new information.

Court-martial. The U.S. soldier who was freed in a prisoner swap with the Taliban now is charged with desertion, may face a military trial. Will Bowe Bergdahl wind up as a prisoner again?