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Russia Arrests American Journalist, Accuses Him Of "Espionage"; Vatican: Pope Diagnosed With Bronchitis; Nine Soldiers Killed In Black Hawk Crash During Training. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 30, 2023 - 14:00   ET




BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, welcome to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Bianna Golodryga.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Great to be with you, Bianna. I'm Boris Sanchez. We're grateful to share an afternoon with you.

And we start with an arrest of historic proportions. It's the first time an American journalist has been detained by Russia since the Cold War in 1986, the year after I was born. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested and is now in custody in Moscow on accusations of espionage. He covers Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union for the paper. In a statement, the Wall Street Journal said it vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter. We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.

GOLODRYGA: Espionage charges in Russia can carry prison sentences of up to 20 years. A court has ordered 31-year-old Gershkovich to be initially detained until May 29. The White House says the State Department has been in direct touch with the Russian government. And any moment now, we expect his attainment to be addressed at the White House press briefing. Of course, we will take you there when it begins. Evan Gershkovich's arrest comes as tensions between the United States and Russia are already at a high, given the war in Ukraine.

CNN's Arlette Saenz joins us live from the White House. And, Arlette, detentions of other Americans in the past have led to lengthy negotiations. What are we expecting to hear from the White House today?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bianna and Boris, President Biden have been briefed on the Russian detention of that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. But so far, we have yet to hear from President Biden directly on the matter. We have heard from top spokespeople here at the White House and the National Security Council as well as secretary -- as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who have all said that they are deeply concerned about the detention of Gerskovich.

Now, the White House has outlined some of the contacts that this administration has been having since his detention. The White House and State Department officials were in touch with his employer, the Wall Street Journal, last night and the administration has also been in touch with Gerskovich's family as well as having officials within the administration speaking with Russian government officials.

I want to read you a bit of a statement from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre who said "the State Department has been in direct touch with the Russian government on this matter, including actively working to secure consular access to Mr. Gerskovich. The targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemned the detention of Mr. Gerskovich in the strongest terms. She added. We also condemned the Russian government's continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press."

Now, one thing that officials say is key in this moment is trying to obtain that consular access to Gerskovich, so officials can determine his conditions at this time as well as be able to relay that to his family members as well. Just a short while ago, the spokesperson over at the State Department said that that would be a matter of days they are expecting before they would have consular access to him due to some of the security and administrative processes on the Russian side. Additionally, one thing that has been said in the statement is they've been referring to this as a -- detention of Gerskovich as oftentimes in the past with other detainees.

You have heard the White House in the State Department say that they have been wrongfully detained. The White House says that that is a process that is currently being evaluated and undergoing over at the State Department to determine whether they can make that designation. But certainly, this just marks the latest flashpoint in the tensions between Russia and the United States, including over that war in Ukraine and also the detention of other Americans like Paul Whelan. So, in just a short while, we'll hear a little bit more from the White House about any further information they might have on this matter.

SANCHEZ: And Paul Whelan's family putting out a statement saying that we're deeply saddened to see this arrest. Arlette Saenz, reporting from the White House, thank you so much.

Let's expand the conversation now with CNN Global Affairs analyst Kim Dozier. She is a senior managing editor at the Military Times. And CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger, who is a correspondent for The New York Times. Kim, I want to start with you and get your reaction to something that Congressman Adam Schiff told our colleague Jim Sciutto this morning on CNN saying that Gershkovich's arrest was essentially the Kremlin taking a hostage. Kim?


KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I apologize. I thought we were going to play some of Mr. Schiff. Here's the problem. Doing your job in Russia right now can get you arrested. There's usually though this thin veneer of protection of being an accredited foreign correspondent, especially a U.S. correspondent. And what the situation that Evan is in now is very scary. I know many foreign correspondents, we've all worried in authoritarian countries, you know, are we pushing the envelope too far? But there are legitimate questions that any reporter on the ground in Russia would like to ask right now.

We hear from U.S. and British officials that the Russian military complex doesn't have the computer chips it needs for guidance systems for missiles. Might not have the equipment it needs to turn out the 1600 tanks that Moscow has vowed to produce in the coming year or so. And so, Evan would have been on the ground in industrial areas trying to ask those kinds of questions. And he ran into what it sounds like to me, this political wall, this decision to take him into custody, AND yes, hold him hostage. And the White House now is over a barrel.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. According to sources, David, he had been working on a story in Yekaterinburg where he had been apprehended. It's a large city. Russia's fourth largest city, which is to the east of Moscow.

And he'd been working on a story. One source of his and a colleague of his had told another publication today that he talked to him about and said that it was just a routine story that he was working on. And it involves the war in Ukraine. It did involve the Wagner group.

And the problem here is that any story at this point can fall under Russia's strict Espionage Act. They really have cracked down on journalists in the past few years. Evan Gerskovich is an accredited Western journalist, and yet still, they've arrested him. Does that tell you that any journalists now in Russia reporting from there is in danger of something similar happening to them?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL & NATIONAL ANALYST: Well, Bianna, this is always the greatest fear for all news organizations that keep reporters in Russia, China, other authoritarian states. You'll remember that a number of news organizations pulled their reporters out of Russia a year ago when a new national security law was passed. That basically made it a crime to refer to the conflict in Ukraine as a war. That you needed to use the term special military operation, that -- the Putin term, not invasion, for example.

We've seen a number of reporters filter back in because the Russians did not appear to be enforcing that against American or European reporters. But this is going to, I suspect, force everybody to sort of reevaluate what the risk levels are. Evan's a very talented reporter. I -- he started his career actually at the -- at The Times. And if you read his economic reporting, it's great down the middle. He wrote -- recently wrote of the condition of the Russian economy under sanctions.

But anything that reporters ask can turn into, you know, a charge that you're snooping around in a place you shouldn't be. And you know, Boris referred to the 1986 case involving Nic Daniloff who was a U.S. News reporter at The Time. And he was actually handed a pile of newspaper clippings that underneath them had some allegedly classified documents. He was clearly set up for this in 1986. We had hoped those days were over, but apparently, they're not. SANCHEZ: Yes. Well, notably, the Reagan administration was able to negotiate for his release back in the late 80s. But, Kim, over to you. You mentioned that the Kremlin has the White House over a barrel on this. A Russian spokesperson essentially said that it's premature to talk about a prisoner swap. But what are the options here for the Biden administration?

DOZIER: Well, Russia doesn't do a prisoner swap until someone has been convicted and sentenced. So, that means going through that whole process for Evan and his family a nightmare that can take months. But the other problem is what they're charging him with, these espionage charges, which of course the Wall Street Journal vehemently denies.

When the White House was trying to negotiate the release of basketball star Brittney Griner together with incarcerated illegally detained American Paul Whelan, Russian officials were telling the White House no way because of his espionage charges. That's what makes me really worried for Evan's case.


GOLODRYGA: David, let me ask you about some of the languages that Dimitry Peskov, the way -- the Kremlin spokesperson used today in describing this arrest. He said that Evan Gershkovich was caught red- handed. The FSB said that they were collecting information constituting a state secret about one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.

Clearly, they had statements ready to go as soon as this was known that he had been apprehended. I can't imagine that this would have been signed off on or approved even the language itself, without Vladimir Putin giving the go-ahead.

SANGER: Hard to know whether or not Putin himself was directly involved, and we may never know that. But the language is worrisome. And did you notice that in the U.S. references, they never talked about the charges, they never mentioned espionage? Because they're trying to keep this from pardoning into an espionage charge, a formal one, just as Kim described and for the reasons that Kim described.

So, instead, they're saying we just want consular access or referring to him as illegally detained, not arrested. They're not addressing the specifics of the charge, which of course, the Journal calls ridiculous. And I'm sure the Journal's right on that.

But the issue here is that you can't go about and conduct ordinary reporting about the status of the Russian military or its military- industrial complex without asking questions that someone in Russia could say is a state secret. And, you know, that's the difficulty of dealing with an authoritarian regime, that this is not done according -- you know, I can ask questions about our military production here.

And I don't have to worry about whether or not that is going to be considered to be imposing -- intruding on state secrets, but not the case in most of the world. And so, I think what you're seeing Secretary Blinken try to do is to keep this from hardening into an espionage case.

GOLODRYGA: Well, I can imagine newsrooms throughout the country are now questioning whether it is safe and worth keeping the reporters on the ground there as important as the work that they're doing is.

SANGER: Absolutely.

GOLODRYGA: He was an accredited reporter who had spent years working there. He had a Soviet background. His parents immigrated from the Soviet Union. It's one thing if it's someone like me, who was banned from the country or has been sanctioned, but he was an accredited reporter. And I'm sure this is sending chills up and down reporters back there, just knowing that they could be followed by the FSB, and the same thing could happen to them.

Of course, we'll continue to keep covering the story. Kim Dozier and David Sanger thank you so much.

Well, the Vatican says Pope Francis is progressively improving after spending the night in the hospital with a respiratory infection.

SANCHEZ: Now, the 86-year-old tweeted out this morning. "I am touched by the many messages received in these hours and I express my gratitude for the closeness and prayer." CNN's Delia Gallagher joins us now live from Rome. Delia, bring us up to speed on the Pope's condition.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: So, Boris, we just received in the last few minutes the evening update from the Vatican in which they say the doctors have diagnosed bronchitis for the Pope and they have through an IV given him antibiotics to which he is responding well. They say there is a clear improvement and should the con -- situation continue to progress, he could be dismissed in the next few days.

That's the latest and that obviously supports what they told us this morning, which is the general situation of the Pope has been improving that he rested well last night. His rooms are just up here behind me. It's a bit dark. I don't know if you can see them, but they're at the top floor. He has about five windows there where he resides. They said he was able to eat breakfast, read a newspaper, and even do some work.

So, obviously, the Vatican also trying to reassure people that the Pope is well certainly these few more details tonight that he has bronchitis. Of course, we know that he had respiratory difficulty in the past few days, which caused him to come here yesterday to the Gemelli hospital. Busy week coming up for Easter week starting this Sunday on Palm Sunday, so we'll have to see how the pope progresses exactly when he will be led out but certainly reassuring news this evening from the Vatican, Boris, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, all those details are indeed reassuring. Delia Gallagher, thank you.

Joining us now is Dr. Saju Mathew. He is a primary care physician in Atlanta. Doctor, good to see you. So, from what we've just now heard from the Vatican in their statements saying that he is progressively improving. The pope actually tweeting himself while the Vatican is saying he's been reading newspapers, he went back to work. Despite the bronchitis diagnosis, would you say that this is encouraging news on his healthcare front?


DR. SAJU MATHEW, PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN: Very encouraging news. In an elderly patient who was recently diagnosed with a respiratory infection, whether it's bronchitis or pneumonia, you look at the clinical picture. The clinical picture is how's the patient interacting with staff around them? Are they alert? Apparently, he was doing some office work and even went to a chapel close by. So, that is really good news.

And you know, Bianna, in the elderly, when you get an infection, you could become disoriented, you can actually be delirious. And they can take a turn for the bat very quickly. The fact that he's on antibiotics, and that he has done so well already in the past 24 hours is good news. But again, he's 86, so we still need to watch him and make sure that he continues to improve.

SANCHEZ: Dr. Mathew, you mentioned the complicating factor of his age. The pope also suffered severe pneumonia when he was a young man and had a part of a lung removed. How might that complicate his treatment?

MATHEW: That could potentially complicate his treatment in moving forward. It's also why we have to be especially careful with the pope anytime he develops a respiratory infection because he doesn't have full lung capacity. We don't exactly know why part of his lung was removed.

You know, he -- at that point, it was a pre-antibiotic era. And maybe he had TB. We don't know. But the fact that he doesn't have full lung capacity, it's going to be very important to make sure even moving forward that anytime he develops any type of a lung infection or bronchitis that he has managed very aggressively.

GOLODRYGA: How does his diagnosis, especially given his age impact Palm Sunday and the upcoming Holy Week events?

MATHEW: You know, we'll just have to wait and see. I mean, fortunately, so far, we have a good clinical indication that he has made a rapid improvement. I take care of a good number of elderly patients, Bianna. And a lot of times you have that short window of period to make the right diagnosis.

And even though he's pointing towards a lung infection, and that's been confirmed by the Vatican, you have to think about other infections as well. Worsening heart failure if the pope has a history of heart disease, urinary tract infections, other lung infections. So, while we know for sure it sounds like that this is a respiratory infection if he clinically continues to improve, I think he should be OK moving forward with Palm Sunday and then all ending up with Easter Sunday Celebrations. But with an -- with elderly patients, it's really taking it day to day and you know, hour to hour. SANCHEZ: Yes, we certainly hope for a speedy recovery for the Pope. Dr. Saju Mathew, thank you so much for the time.

MATHEW: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Of course. Up next. We're going to take you live to Kentucky where nine U.S. service members are dead after two Blackhawk helicopters crashed overnight. The very latest details on the investigation when we come back.



SANCHEZ: We want to update you now on the situation in Kentucky in the tragedy that unfolded early this morning at Fort Campbell. Military officials, there are investigating a helicopter crash that killed nine service members. Officials say two Black Hawk choppers crashed over a wooded field during what was supposed to be a routine training mission.

GOLODRYGA: The service members were aboard an HH-60 helicopter and belong to the 101st Airborne Division. CNN national correspondent Dianne Gallagher is at Fort Campbell. Oren Liebermann is at the Pentagon for us. Dianne to you first. So, this is a tragedy for the area, for the country, what our army investigators are saying about how this happened?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Bianna, they are still looking into that. We have investigators from aircraft safety teams attached to Fort Rucker, Alabama that are coming to essentially look at the scene to determine not just what happened but perhaps why this crash happened. According to the deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which all nine of those service members who were killed were a part of it. They say that basically there was one Blackhawk that had four service members in it, one Blackhawk that had five service members in it.

They said that the crews were trading on a flat -- on flying a multi- ship formation with night vision goggles. He also noted that the helicopters were medical evacuation variants of that Blackhawk helicopter. Said that initially there were four aircraft as a part of this training mission and that one had stopped to refuel and that the other aircraft was ahead of the two that crashed.

Now, look. They say they do not know what happened. This is something that happened in air while flying, they say. But there are witnesses on scene who said they heard the crash and saw it fall. Take a listen


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that helicopters came over pretty low. And all of a sudden, it seems it got to an old house, something popped, loud, bang, and everything shut down. It's all of a sudden and so we jump from the truck and came over here. That's what we found, two helicopters. (END AUDIO CLIP)

GALLAGHER: Much like when we have an aeroplane crash, and we talk about the black box giving information to help determine maybe what happened. We are told that these helicopters have something very similar that they're going to look for computer data that can help maybe give them better evidence into what may have been happening right beforehand. I asked the deputy commander of the 101st if there was any sort of signal, was there any sort of alert given or call for help before the crash happened, he said that to their knowledge there was not. At this point, they were still working to identify all of the next of kin.

Look, this is an -- it's an army community. These are soldiers. And while they have notified all of the families of those who have families locally, they point out that many of them, their family, their next of kin is not nearby. They are across the country. And in some cases in this situation, they are in other parts of the world.

And so, they are working on that. And we intend -- we expect to find out the identifications of those nine who were killed about 24 hours after the complete the next of kin notifications. Bianna, Boris.


SANCHEZ: Dianne, thank you for that update. Let's go to the pentagon now with Oren Liebermann. Oren, what are officials they're saying about the incident?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: At this point, the Pentagon's primary job is to support the army as it waits on that investigation team to arrive from Fort Rucker. That's expected to happen later on today. So, there won't be a separate team coming from the Pentagon. It'll be the army investigating what happened here.

Just at the top of the press conference, we had a short time ago from the Pentagon and press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder, there was a statement from defense secretary Lloyd Austin, I'll read just a short part of this. It says. My heart goes out to the families of these service members into the members of the 101st Airborne Division, who bravely and proudly serve our country each and every day."

In terms of how this played out from here, Ryder was asked if there might be a larger grounding of the Blackhawk force. He said that depends largely on what the investigation finds. And part of that is up to the commanders to make that decision. But all of it crucially depends on what this investigation finds worth listening to what he said here.


BRIG. GEN. PATRICK RYDER, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: In terms of any type of stand down for aircraft, none that I'm tracking at this point, of course, that's certainly, you know, the prerogative of the army and as it manages its aircraft.


LIEBERMANN: So, a lot of this depends right now on where the investigation leads both the army, the Pentagon, and the 101st Airborne Division. We've given -- got no indication of what might have caused this. Whether, it might have been some sort of mid0air collision, or something involving operations and exercises at night. Again, that's all part of the investigation as we wait to find out more on what led to this horrible crash overnight in Kentucky.

SANCHEZ: Yes. I'm sure those families will be looking forward to the results of that investigation. Oren Liebermann from the Pentagon, thank you so much.

Let's get some expert analysis here from CNN military analyst. Retired U.S. Air Force, Colonel Cedric Leighton joins us now. Colonel, thank you so much for being with us. Talk to us about these assault helicopters and the kind of routine training that likely was underway at Fort Campbell when the crash took place.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Boris, good with you. (INAUDIBLE) -- but these are very tragic circumstances, of course. So, this kind of training happens all the time. It's very routine for Blackhawk helicopters at Fort Campbell and other installations to be engaged in all kinds of training missions. They operate both in day time and at night. In this particular case, they were, of course, operating at night using night vision goggles. And those night vision goggles, they really your peripheral vision, because they're really focused on the straight ahead. And that becomes a bit of a difficult situation for the pilots to control. There are two pilots on board each of these aircraft, and then usually two loadmasters who are mining each of the doors.

So, this aircraft -- this helicopter has been a mainstay of the army for many years since 1979. It was first introduced into service and they have, you know, a pretty good track record. But the last accident that they had at Fort Campbell, I'm aware of was in 2018 that involve two fatalities at that time. But this one, of course, is far more tragic with nine fatalities.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, it is horrific, Colonel. And I don't want to speculate because the investigation is just underway. But knowing what you know about these helicopters and knowing the circumstances they were using night vision goggles The weather was pretty clear, though. So, it doesn't appear that this was a weather-related issue, at least as of yet. So, does that lead you to believe that perhaps this was a mechanical error or pilot error?

LEIGHTON: Well, it's hard to say, Bianna. A -- you know, there's certainly a possibility that something could have happened. One of the reports that I heard was that there was an aerial refueling operation going on at about the time of the crash.

If that is true, there could be something that you were related to that, that might be an issue in this. But it's really hard to say. You know, the pilots are very well trained. But you know, pilots are also human and mistakes can happen. Whether or like you said, was very clear at that point in time. So, there is a - you know, it's highly unlikely that something meteorological caused this. And mechanical is also very much a possibility.

The crews at Fort Campbell, of course, maintain these aircrafts day in and day out, and they're very familiar with them. So, this is something where we'll definitely have to wait for the folks at Fort Rucker to determine exactly what they think happened in this particular case. And that could then result in changes in the flight profiles for this type of aircraft.

SANCHEZ: Colonel, you mentioned a previous accident at Fort Campbell involving this kind of helicopter.