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At This Hour

Black Hawks Collide, Nine Service Members Killed; Russia Arrests American Journalist, Citing "Espionage"; Interview with Rep. Adam Smith on Potential Russian Missile Tests; Health of Pope Francis "Improving"; Nashville Shooter's Friend Tried to Alert Authorities. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 30, 2023 - 11:00   ET




AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone. AT THIS HOUR, an American journalist is arrested in Russia on suspicion of espionage, the first accusation of its kind since the Cold War.

Families forced to evacuate their homes after a freight train carrying ethanol derails and catches fire in Minnesota.

And a little Disney magic: how the company and an outgoing Florida oversight board quietly stripped away power from governor Ron DeSantis.

This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.


WALKER: Thank you, everyone, for being here. I'm Amara Walker, in for Kate Bolduan.

We begin in Kentucky, where nine U.S. service members are dead after two Black Hawk helicopters crashed overnight. These photos from local radio station WKDZ show the crash site in Trigg County, which is just north of the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

Now in these photos, smoke and flames and what looks like to be a piece of the wreckage can be seen. Officials say the choppers were on a routine, what was supposed to be a routine training mission with night vision goggles when they collided. Let's get straight now to Dianne Gallagher live at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Dianne, what are we learning?

I know officials just held a news conference.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Amara, and, look, they've said that they have a safety team coming in from Fort Rucker right now to help determine exactly what happened.

They said those two HH-60 or Black Hawk medevac helicopters crashed and they were flying at the time of the crash. Of course, nine of those service members on board all died. We're told that, once they arrived on scene, they were dead, they were not transported.

There were five on one helicopter, four on the other helicopter. Again, they said this was a routine training mission, a progression flight. They said that this was something that was basically a, quote, "multiship formation under night vision goggles."

According to the 101st again, it is right now being investigated to determine what did cause this flight, this crash. I asked if there was any sort of signal for help, any sort of alert that something might have been wrong before the crash happened.

They said that that was not something that they had any indication had happened at this point. The governor of Kentucky also here today, trying to offer words of comfort.


GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY): We're going to wrap our arms around these families and we're going to be there with them, not just for the days but the weeks and the months and the years to come. We're going to let them know that they are loved, they are special.

And if they'll allow us to carry some of their grief, we'll do that for as long as we can. My faith teaches me that while the body is mortal, the soul is eternal and we will see them again.


DIANNE GALLAGHER: The crash itself happened in a wooded field area, we are told, in Trigg County, Kentucky, on the other side of the installation here, on the Kentucky side of Fort Campbell.

They said that they began next of kin notifications early this morning but these are military. These are members of the military. Their next of kin isn't necessarily here locally for many of them. They said that they are across the country and, in some cases, they are out of the United States.

This is something they say they're working to make sure that the families are notified and everybody who needs to know is notified before they released the identities of those. They anticipate this investigation will continue throughout the day on scene and then beyond.

WALKER: Such a tragic story, Dianne Gallagher, appreciate you being there. Thank you.

Let's turn now to another developing story. An American journalist has been arrested in Russia and is being accused of espionage.

Evan Gershkovich is a reporter for "The Wall Street Journal." The Russian federal security service claims he was, quote, "spying in the interests of the American government." Now "The Wall Street Journal" has issued a statement about

Gershkovich's arrest, saying it, quote, "vehemently denies" the allegations from the FSB and seeks "the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter, Evan Gershkovich. We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family."

Joining me now is Matthew Chance. He is standing by for us, live there in Moscow.

What are you hearing about the circumstances surrounding this American journalist's arrest?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, details are pretty sketchy, Amara. I mean, there's been a statement from the FSB, which is the federal security service in Russia, the successor organization of the KGB.


CHANCE: And they say they apprehended this American citizen, an accredited journalist with "The Wall Street Journal" in the city of Yekaterinburg, which is about 1,100 miles from Moscow, as he was engaged in trying to get secret information about Russia's military industrial complex.

Now it doesn't go into any further detail. We know Yekaterinburg is a place where there are lots of Russian military installations. But it's not clear what exactly they mean and the details are not being made public.

In fact, within the last hour or so, Evan Gershkovich has appeared at a court in Moscow, where he was taken in a minivan that -- we caught a glimpse of him. He was caught on camera going into the court.

And that court designated the case top secret. They said that Mr. Gershkovich has not pleaded guilty, has not accepted guilt in these charges of espionage. And he has been basically set -- arraigned in pretrial detention, pretrial detention until May the 29th.

And so it may not be, you know, until then, that we get any further details about what exactly it is that this "The Wall Street Journal" reporter, 32 year old American citizen, has actually been specifically accused of.

WALKER: All right, Matthew Chance. Appreciate that.

Let's talk more about this with CNN contributor and former CNN Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty.

Jill, the timing and the context of Gershkovich's arrest are important, right?

Because we have this war in Ukraine that's raging on. And just last week, the DOJ announced that a Russian spy was arrested; I believe it was in Washington, D.C.

Do you have any doubt that this is a tit-for-that?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don't know that I would necessarily say tit-for-tat, That's entirely possible but the context of the war in Ukraine is definitely part of this.

And what they're talking about these charges are looking at collecting information for the U.S. government about a military industrial complex, institution someplace in Yekaterinburg.

Now I've been talking with U.S. former diplomats and what they are concerned about is it raises the level of concern because there have been laws and we've reported on them. We were affected. CNN was affected by this -- by these laws against spreading disinformation considered about the war.

But this is talking about espionage. It is immediately raised to a top secret level so it will be very difficult to get any information about precisely what is happening. These cases are very hard and they take very long to adjudicate.

They -- it is a complicated situation. And another diplomat that I spoke to also raised a red flag because of the role of the FSB in this. If you look at the statements coming out of the spokesperson for President Putin and the foreign ministry, they're both saying he was caught, Mr. Gershkovich was caught red handed, which could indicate, number one, this is an organized event, no question coming from a high level.

And number two, there might be some type of evidence -- it could be ginned up evidence that could be presented. So I think we're in for a very long time, a very serious time, which really complicates for nations, as if they were not complicated enough.

And don't forget you have two Americans at least who are held. And that would be Paul Whelan, who has been held -- he's charged 16 years condemned to prison also for spying, alleged spying.

And then another American, Marc Fogel. So it's very complicated and very serious.

WALKER: And we should note, I mean, we know Russian authorities have made many baseless claims against foreign journalists before. But interesting to see that, you know, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, saying that you know this journalist was caught red handed, whatever that means.

Just looking at some of his recent reporting, Jill, for "The Wall Street Journal" focusing on, you know, Russia's deteriorating economy because of the war but also reporting from the front lines as in Bakhmut and elsewhere.

Nothing notably critical, I would say. But knowing that "The Wall Street Journal" has been -- has had a presence in Russia for many years, decades, I mean, why might Evan Gershkovich, why may have he been targeted by the FSB? DOUGHERTY: You know this is completely unclear but it sounds like -- he was considered a very good reporter. He spoke Russian. He speaks Russian. He comes from a Russian family, Russian American family.


DOUGHERTY: And people like that, you know, people who know the country, who know Russia, who can go out into the field and talk with people and really get information, that maybe, you know, a Western journalist, who doesn't have the language skills might not be able to get, that could to be threatening, you know, to the Kremlin right now.

Control over the media is absolutely blanket propaganda, 24/7; no independent journalists whatsoever. And foreign journalists now I think are on notice that they're going to be watched and followed very closely. And you know, you never know what the next step will be.

But again, we're in a back, almost back to the Soviet days. As we know the last arrest for an American journalist as a supposed spy was back in -- I think it was 1986. So we're talking about a very long time ago.

WALKER: Yes, you're right. Just shows how things have escalated to this point. And, yes, in March 2022 is when Putin signed that censorship bill, making it very difficult and risky for journalists operating in that country. Jill Dougherty, appreciate you. Thank you.

Let's turn now to congressman Adam Smith of Washington state. He's joining me now. He is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thank you for your time. I just want to get your reaction. And, first off, you know, we did hear from two of your colleagues in the House on the arrest of Evan Gershkovich. Let me first play that for you because they're referring to this kidnapping -- this as a kidnapping or a hostage taking. Listen.

Do we have that sound?


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), MEMBER, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: This is very typical Russia behavior and that is to grab Americans, use them as leverage; in this case, reporter; make spurious allegations against them and detain them, you know, potentially for long periods of time.

REP. JARED MOSKOWITZ (D-FL): But we are in very dangerous territory with him. This is all about leverage. And so now we have a human life in the balance.


WALKER: Do you agree with that characterization, hostage taking, kidnapping?

REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Yes, absolutely. I don't think there's any question that Russia is using this for leverage.

Look, Russia, Russia has become increasingly aggressive and increasingly lawless in the way that they interact on a wide range of issues, pulling -- pulling out of treaties. Obviously the invasion of Ukraine, the way they're conducting that war.

I don't think there's any doubt that they did this as a kidnapping for leverage against the U.S. And it really ramps up the tensions between our two countries in a dangerous way. I don't think there's any doubt about that.

WALKER: Going to be a tricky situation for the Biden administration.

How do you hope that this will be approached?

Especially knowing that the Justice Department, just last week on Friday, announced charges against, you know, an alleged Russian spy named Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, accused him of spying. And it seems like he would be quite a high value spy for Russia, considering he was allegedly, you know, gathering information about American officials, thoughts on policy on the Russian invasion.

SMITH: Yes, well, this key point here, that individual is, in fact, a spy. We have actually produced the evidence of that. He created an entirely fake identity while he was living in Brazil, if the reports I read are correct, over the course of a 10 year period. He pretended to be somebody else.

He is not the person he was claiming to be when he enrolled at Georgetown University and started spying against the U.S. We have 100 percent proof that he is a Russian, who was impersonating a Brazilian in order to spy on the U.S.

The Russians do not have that evidence because "The Wall Street Journal" reporter is just that, a reporter. He's not a spy. So, yes. No, I think we should draw that clear distinction and, again, recognize the lawlessness of how Russia is approaching this in jeopardizing American lives.

And you're right. It is a very tricky situation for the Biden administration to try to negotiate their way through this. But we must be clear on the difference here.

WALKER: I do want to ask you, congressman, about this back and forth between Russia and the U.S. over sharing information about nuclear weapons. You know, the Kremlin is saying this morning that it will give the U.S. advanced notice about missile tests.

That's after saying just yesterday that it would stop all notifications about their nukes and after suspending its participation and the New START nuclear arms treaty.

Where do you see things standing right now on what really is a critical security issue? SMITH: Well, it's a very troubling situation. At the height of the

Cold War, I mean, we negotiated the nuclear test ban treaty back during the Kennedy administration. We consistently negotiated, even with all of the tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and the West.

We understood that having a transparent, open dialogue about the most dangerous weapons the world has ever faced was crucial to everybody. And we maintain that dialogue. Russia's cutting that off now.


SMITH: And by the way, so is China. China is massively increasing the size of their nuclear arsenal. We have reached out to them to have a conversation about arms control and transparency and they have refused those conversations.

We need to work hard to make sure that we have these types of discussions with Russia and China. I mean, we are the three largest nuclear powers in the world by a comfortable margin.

You know, a lack of clarity on intentions and the lack of clarity on what we have is dangerous. And like I said, we have a precedent for handling this in a more responsible way. Russia has a precedent for handling this in a more responsible way. We need to keep working hard to reestablish that.

WALKER: Before we go, congressman, I do want to ask you about this tragic news of the two helicopters in Kentucky of what the 101st Airborne colliding. We have nine U.S. service members who have been killed in that. I just want to give you a chance to respond.

SMITH: Yes, our heart goes out to the family members and everyone at Fort Campbell and it was meetings (ph) our brave young men and women. It's just it is a huge tragedy to have this happen.

And for our part on the Armed Services Committee, we always need to take a careful look and do oversight on the training. We need to find out why this happened, how this happened and what we can do in terms of training maintenance.

Whatever the answer is, what can we do to create a safer environment for our men and women to train in the services?

It's an inherently dangerous thing to do. But we need to work to make sure that it is still safe, even as they're doing that. And clearly there's a lot to be learned about what happened in this accident and a lot we can do to make this situation safer.

So I'm going to get specific information on that and figure out what we can do.

WALKER: It just goes to show you know, again, a reminder that you know our U.S. military members really do sacrifice, risk their lives every day, doing what they do. Congressman Adam Smith, appreciate your time. Thank you so much. SMITH: Thank you.

WALKER: Pope Francis expressing gratitude for the influx of well wishes after he was hospitalized for a respiratory infection. More on his condition is next.





WALKER: This morning, Pope Francis thanked his followers for the well wishes after he was hospitalized for a respiratory infection. The Vatican said the 86 year old is improving and he is working from the hospital. CNN's Delia Gallagher is live outside the hospital in Rome.

Delia, sounds pretty positive if he's working from his hospital room.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. Reassuring news from the Vatican today. They said he slept well overnight. His clinical picture is improving. That's the main thing that we wanted to know.

And that he will continue with his medical therapy, which they told us yesterday is going to take a few days. To give you an idea, Amara, his rooms, he's got five windows up there on the top floor with the white shutters pulled down. That's where the pope stays when he's at the Gemelli Hospital.

They said he had breakfast this morning. As you mentioned, he was able to read the newspapers and even do a little bit of work. So certainly reassuring. He was also able to send out a tweet on his @Pontifex tweet site. Let me just read that to you.

He said, "I'm touched by the many messages received in these hours and I express my gratitude for the closeness and prayer."

So if you keep in mind, we're talking about an 86 year old pontiff, who has a history of respiratory illness because, when he was 21, he had part of his lung removed for that very problem. Certainly good news today from the Vatican and from the Gemelli Hospital.

WALKER: I'm sure the faithful are quite -- feeling that they're feeling optimistic and uplifted by his messages on Twitter. Delia Gallagher, thank you so much, in Rome for us.

A somber vigil in Nashville last night.


WALKER (voice-over): Sheryl Crow there, singing at the vigil, as mourners gathered to remember the six victims of The Covenant School mass shooting, a feature that live musical performance from Sheryl Crow. And as you just saw there, first lady Jill Biden, also in attendance.

Before the vigil, she left flowers at a nearby memorial.


WALKER: CNN's Carlos Suarez is in Nashville.

And Carlos, new audio revealing a concerned friend of shooter Audrey Hale called authorities less than 20 minutes before the shooting.

What do we hear in that audio?

CARLOS SUAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. We know that Averianna Patton made this phone call a little bit before 10 o'clock in the morning on Monday, right before that shooting happened.

She makes this call after receiving a pretty disturbing message on Instagram from the 28 year old shooter that reads, in part, quote, "Something bad is going to happen."

Patton calls essentially a suicide prevention hotline to tell them about that message and, according to the call, she's told, look, you really should be calling the sheriff's department.

So she calls the sheriff's department and then the sheriff's department tells her, look, you should call a nonemergency phone number.

By the time she finally gets a hold of someone, it is now 10:21 in the morning and the shooting is already underway. Now it's unclear at this hour just why Patton kept being passed --


SUAREZ: -- from one department to another. It's possible that she just did not have a whole lot of information to pass along. We know that Patton did not know the shooter's name or where the shooter lived. Here now is a part of that call.


AVERIANNA PATTON, AUDREY HALE'S FRIEND: I'm so sorry. I've been on hold for so long. I was calling -- I received a very, very weird message from a friend on Instagram. I think it was like a suicidal thing.

I called the suicide hotline and they told me to call the sheriff's department. The sheriff's department told me to call you guys so I'm just trying to see can anybody -- I just don't want it on my conscience, if somebody can go check on her."


SUAREZ: And some new video in to CNN showing a large crowd of protesters that have gathered at the Tennessee state capital here in Nashville. The group is calling for stricter gun legislation following the shooting here on Monday.

Protesters could be heard chanting, quote, "Do your job. Gun control now," and "We want change."

Coming back out here to the entrance of the school, we are learning that two funerals are scheduled to take place on Friday and Saturday for two of the six victims: 9 year old Evelyn Dieckhaus is going to be buried tomorrow. And we're told that 9 year old Hallie Scruggs, a funeral service for her is going to be held on Saturday.

WALKER: All right, Carlos Suarez. Thank you for that update and all your hard work there on the ground in Nashville for us. Thank you.

Another train carrying hazardous materials has gone off the tracks, this time in Minnesota. There's been a fire and nearby residents have fled their homes. The latest is ahead.