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Inside Politics

Russia Arrests American Journalist, Accuses Him Of "Espionage"; New Statement From State Dept. On Arrest Of U.S. Journalist; Nine Killed In Army Black Hawk Helicopter Crash In KY; White House Condemns Arrest Of U.S. Journalist; White House: Americans Should Not Travel To Russia; Protesters At TN Capitol Demand Gun Reform; Nashville School Shooting Reignites Gun Debate. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 30, 2023 - 12:00   ET



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm Abby Phillip in today for John King in Washington. Detained, right now an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal is in Russian custody after Vladimir Putin's government accuses him of spying. Plus, two army Black Hawk helicopters crash in Kentucky, nine service members all of them killed as military training operation goes sideways.


GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY): Their loss today is our loss. And we're going to stand with both those that are here today, and again, we're going to make sure that these families know that they are loved, and they are not alone.


PHILLIP: And gridlock on guns. Tempers flare lawmakers literally shouting at one another over on Capitol Hill over the national shooting.


REP. JAMAAL BOWMAN, (D-NY): You're going to do this, you know, what I am saying. Well, calm down? Children are dying.


PHILLIP: But up first, today's major news, an American journalists arrested in Russia. Evan Gershkovich is being accused of espionage after Russian security services detained him about 1100 miles from Moscow. The FSB says, Gershkovich was trying to obtain a state secret to that Vladimir Putin's military.

And a Putin spokesman claims that the reporter was "caught red handed." The Wall Street Journal issuing a statement saying, "vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter Evan Gershkovich." So, let's get straight to Moscow where CNN's Matthew Chance is. So, Matthew, Moscow, the court already has characterized this as a top- secret case. What do we know now?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They have, and that means that we're not going to get a lot of information about this case, certainly, probably not much until the next appearance is scheduled. And you know, Evan Gershkovich, he has been basically remanded in custody for one month and 29 days. The 29th of May is what the court says, you know, that they're going to keep him in custody for at least. Of course, he's facing these espionage charges, and the prospect of 20 years in prison.

The other thing that emerged from the court here in Moscow today, where he was brought directly from Yekaterinburg where he was arrested 1100 miles or so from Moscow. Is that he has not pleaded guilty to these charges of espionage. He has not admitted his guilt. That's according to Russian state media.

And, of course, that tallies with what the Wall Street Journal is saying that they're standing by their reporter, obviously, and vehemently rejecting the allegations against him and calling for his immediate release. But I mean, in terms of the immediacy of the release that that's clearly not going to happen.

PHILLIP: And Matthew, what can you tell us about where Mr. Gershkovich was arrested?

CHANCE: Well, the exact spot it's not clear, but it was in the city of Yekaterinburg as I mentioned, which is in the Ural Mountains. Again, 1100 miles or so from Moscow. The FSB, which is the successor organization to the KGB, said that this Wall Street Journal reporter is 32 years old, was trying to get secret information about Russia's military industrial complex.

And now, it's not clear what that means. But it's factories, perhaps that produce, you know, kind of weapons or ammunition, it's not clear. But the FSB said, it was highly secretive. And that's why they sort of thwarted this operation, which they sent had been sort of driven from the American side to get that, that kind of information.

And, of course, you know, this reporter, you know, he's been very active in Russia over the course of the past several years, you know, quite prominent actually reporting for The Wall Street Journal, but also other organizations previous as well, including the French news organization and the Moscow Times, which is a local English language newspaper here in Russia.

PHILLIP: All right, Matthew Chance, thank you for all of that reporting. And in Russia today, Gershkovich's lawyer was actually barred from attending a court hearing. And another lawyer for the reporter says, that he worries he won't have any contact with Gershkovich for weeks. The arrest saddles the Biden White House with yet another foreign policy puzzle, as relations with Russia slide backwards toward Cold War laws. [12:05:00]

Joining us now is former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Beth Sanner, and Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. Beth, I want to start with the broader context here, which is unmistakable. This is a low point for U.S.-Russia relations. And also, a moment in which this issue of Russia taking Americans as prisoners in as bargaining chips is front of mind.

Just recently, Brittney Griner was released after being in a Russian prison on drug charges. Trevor Reed was released about a year ago. But there are still two Americans left there. Does this case now join these others?

BETH SANNER, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think absolutely. And I think it joins, especially Paul Whelan, which, you know, we know his case was also a trumped-up issue, but it's completely absurd. The idea that Mr. Gershkovich was spying for the U.S. intelligence community. We actually have a prohibition against using journalists to do that.

And it just has all of the hallmarks of a setup, that this is the kind of thing that the Russians do. And it really harkens back to a case in 1986, when Putin was in the KGB. And it looks just like that, to me, where a journalist was arrested in Moscow, just days after the arrest of a Soviet diplomat.

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, what you're talking about is a, an arrest that was reported actually just yesterday in the Washington Post of a person who was posing as a Brazilian student and was arrested on espionage charges. That is also coming just ahead of this news of the Wall Street Journal reporter being arrested as well.

Masha, I want to get your take on this. Mr. Gershkovich was supposedly reporting in a part of Russia, where there may have been military operations happening. What do we even know about what might have been going on there and why he might have been reporting in that part of Russia?

MASHA GESSEN, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: From what I understand, he visited Nizhny Tagil, which is a city in the Urals, that's home to Uralvagonzavod. I know that's a hard name to receive. But it's a railroad car making factory that also makes military equipment. It's a well-known factory. It's been used very much by the Kremlin itself in his propaganda.

But I think a U.S. journalist, going to report on Uralvagonzavod is a perfect excuse, right? And this is where I want to distinguish between what he was actually doing and what they're saying he was doing, right? It would be perfect excuse to grab a hostage.

Now, Russian law allows the FSB to do this. This is a legalistic regime of lawlessness, in the sense that into - back in 2013, so it's been, you know, it's been 10 years, since Russia reformed its espionage and high treason laws to essentially include any activity as potentially falling under the espionage laws. You do not have to actually be collecting information for Foreign Intelligence Service. You can be accused of espionage, legally in Russia for distributing information publicly. So basically, for engaging in journals.

PHILLIP: Well, and that is a good point. I mean, it seems like Russia is a uniquely dangerous place for journalists, something that I believe, you know, personally, a lot about.

GESSEN: Russia is a uniquely dangerous place for journalists. Up until now, the biggest penalty that we have seen applied to foreign journalists, is just getting there before and getting their media accreditation, revoked and being barred from the country.

So, a journalist, like Evan Gershkovich, who had Minister of Foreign Affairs accreditation, had every reason to believe that he could function safely, professionally, in Russia, even though he knew he was being trapped.

But the biggest penalty he would have expected would be to get kicked out of the country if the Minister of Foreign Affairs felt that he had overstepped. But the reason I say the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is because that's the entity that issues immediate accreditation.

PHILLIP: And Beth, I want to ask you, I mean, this is now a tough problem for the White House to solve. They've already been having quite the time even getting Russia to the table on Paul Whelan. And this is a clear escalation to arrest a journalist on what seemed to be to all the experts' minds trumped up charges. What does the White House do now?


SANNER: It's hard because as Masha was saying, this hasn't accredited journalists have been off limits. So, this is like a huge step up. This is incredibly brazen. And we don't actually have any Russians that I know of that are, are available for exchange. And so, you know, what do we do?

This person we were talking about, Cherkasov (Ph) who's was under this Brazilian cover, we call it illegals. He was under deep cover here in the United States. He's in jail in Brazil. And so, the Justice Department indicted him, but unless we get him back to the United States, we have no one to trade.

PHILLIP: And one of the other pieces of context here is that in the negotiations over Brittney Griner, and for a time Paul Whelan, the Russians wanted someone who was being held in Europe, who the United States basically could not provide.

But hold on for just a second that, we have a new statement just coming in now from the State Department on this. It says, we are deeply concerned over Russia's widely reported detention of a U.S. citizen journalist. We are in contact with the Wall Street Journal on this situation. Whenever a U.S. citizen is detained abroad, we immediately seek consular access and seek to provide all appropriate support in the strongest possible terms.

We condemn the Kremlin's continued attempts to intimidate, repress and punished journalists and civil society voices. The department of state's highest priority is the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad. We reiterate our strong warnings about the danger posed to U.S. citizens inside the Russian Federation. U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart immediately as stated in our travel advisory for Russia.

Masha, I want to just get you to weigh in here. There are other journalists from other news outlets, we at CNN have our own. If you were working there for a western outlet, would you leave? Would you advise editors to pull their reporters out?

GESSEN: Well, you know, I'm a staff writer at The New Yorker. And even though I left Russia nine years ago, I continue traveling back and forth, and reporting for basically until the full-scale invasion. I was there to report on the startup with those-gun invasion.

And a few months ago, I was planning to go again, and my editors advised me not to. And I had to admit this morning that they had been right. The situation for foreign journalists and Russia was that after the full-scale invasion began in February 2022, American journalists left pretty much all - as far as I know, all of them left at least four time at a strongly communicated request from the Kremlin.

And then after a while, a few people returned with accreditation, again, with the understanding that they were there by agreement with the Kremlin doing their work. It was circumscribed in ways that were legible. And they did not perceive themselves to be in danger of anything but being kicked out of the country if they overstepped.

So yes, if I were responsible for people's lives now, if I were an editor, whose journalists were in Russia, I would say get out on the next line.

PHILLIP: And Beth, we only have a couple seconds. But this is a very careful statement from the state department. What do you read into it?

SANNER: Well, it's a chilling effect on all journalists. It's a warning that we actually can't protect Americans in Russia.

PHILLIP: And that's a very terrifying thing to think about at this moment. That's always been true, I think, especially since the invasion of Ukraine. But now to have journalists added to that is the next level step. Beth Sanner, thank you very much. Masha Gessen, thank you as well for joining us on all of that.

And coming up next, nine American servicemembers have died after two Black Hawk helicopters crash. Next, we are live on the ground from Fort Campbell, Kentucky with all the latest.




PHILLIP: And now to a developing story out of Kentucky. Nine American servicemembers are dead after two Black Hawk helicopters crashed during a training exercise. CNN's Dianne Gallagher is joining us now from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with the latest. Dianne, what do we know this hour?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Abby, we expect soon for basically aviation investigators from Fort Rucker to be here a safety team to look into why this crash happened and what happened. According to Brigadier General John Lewis, who spoke here just a few hours ago.

What they know at this point is around 10 pm Central time, so 11 pm Last night Eastern. There were two helicopters. One with five service members on board. The other with four service members on board that crashed over Cadiz, Kentucky, that's Trigg County, while flying with the general described as a multi aircraft formation with night vision goggles. This is a routine training mission, they said.

He also added that these are essentially medivac versions of the Black Hawk or variants of the Black Hawk. At this point, they are trying to determine exactly again what caused this to happen. Witnesses who were there in Trigg County, as described hearing a pop and then the helicopters falling, saying that this is something that they're very familiar with out here.

You know, seeing the helicopters flying over, they do say that they anticipate hoping to get some sort of information from what is, you know, computers on board but equivalent or most of kind of like a black box that we see on airplanes. Abby, once those investigators can get in and start getting the information but again, nine service members dead here in a double, you know, two Black Hawk's crash in Fort Campbell.


PHILLIP: Incredibly a tragic situation. Thank you, Dianne Gallagher. And CNN's Oren Liebermann is joining us now from the Pentagon. So, Oren, is it possible that the use of night vision goggles could have played a role in all of this?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is certainly possible, but for that we'll have to wait until investigators get on the ground and are able to begin looking through the data they can collect, as well as all the other information about the flight itself. As Dianne said, this was a multi ship flight.

We just learned that there were four ships, as part of this one had landed a bit earlier to refuel, one was out ahead. And then the two helicopters that crash, leading to the deaths of nine soldiers. Operations at night obviously carry more risks because it's easy to lose spatial awareness at night in the darkness, that's what night vision goggles are for but that's an added piece of equipment.

So, all of this will have to be factored into the investigation when that investigation team from Fort Rucker gets on the ground there and begins to look at this. Here we have a look at recent crashes with Black Hawk helicopters from the U.S. Army combat readiness sentry.

So, you can see these helicopters have had mishaps, accidents, crashes that have led to the deaths of service members in the past. These numbers were over the course of the past three and a half years or so. Now, this doesn't tell us anything about the cause of this specific crash. Again, it's just a pattern we've seen here with Black Hawk helicopters over the course of the past three and a half years. Abby, that investigational have to get to the bottom of what happened.

PHILLIP: Absolutely. And this is, as you can see there from that graphic, one of the deadliest ones in recent years. Oren Liebermann, thank you very much. And just in to CNN, the White House is condemning the arrest of an American journalist inside of Russia. We will go live to the White House right after a quick break.




PHILLIP: Just moments ago, the White House issued its first response to the arrest of an American journalist in Russia. CNN's Phil Mattingly is at the White House for us. So, Phil, the State Department just issued a statement and now a strongly worded one from the White House.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right. We've been waiting for the U.S. government to weigh in. We do know that they were aware of this. Last night, we're told about it by the Wall Street Journal, and had been trying to figure out exactly what's going on.

We now have a statement from White House press secretary Karine Jean- Pierre, which is very sharp, and its condemnation, saying, "the targeting of American citizens by the Russian government is unacceptable. We condemn the detention of Mr. Gershkovich in the strongest terms." We also condemn the Russian government's continued targeting and repression of journalists and freedom of the press.

Jumpier goes on to reiterate that Americans should heed the U.S. government's warning to not travel to Russia. U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Russia should depart immediately as the state department continues to advise. And that part is not new, but it is certainly underscored by the moment. The U.S. finds itself and right now and has really over the course of the last year.

Now, in the statement as well, Karine Jean-Pierre points out that the state department has been in touch or has reached out to their Russian counterparts. They're working through the process of trying to get the journalist counselor access. But there is still, I think, a very clear sense that there's a lot to learn here. There's not been a lot of detail in terms of what exactly happened beyond what the Russian officials have said up to this point. And there's no question about it.

This is a scenario that White House officials have been very concerned about the possibility of over the course of the last year, given how Russian officials and how President Vladimir Putin has targeted the press, the new laws that they've put in place as well. Certainly, been cognizant of this as a possibility. And now, that potential nightmare scenario has come true. And they're grappling with the realities of that and how to move forward. Abby?

PHILLIP: Yes. Very much a tense situation since the invasion of Ukraine, but now it is definitely escalating. Phil Mattingly, thank you very much for all of that reporting. And now on to another sad, but very important story. Tomorrow in Nashville, the first funeral for the victims of the school shooting.

Nine-year-old Evelyn Dickhaus will be buried tomorrow. And Saturday, a funeral service for nine-year-old Haley Scruggs will be held at Covenant Presbyterian Church. Her father is the senior pastor there. It is also the church connected to the covenant school, where six victims were shot and killed on Monday.

Now, take a look at this. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside of Tennessee Capitol building. Today demanding change. And there's a lot of raw emotion over on Capitol Hill. Just listen to this.


REP. JARED MOSKOWITZ, (D-FL): We want to talk about crime and murder. Let's have a hearing on murder in schools. It's murder. Is there any question? I'll yield to anyone on this committee who disagrees that murder in schools is not murder. I yield that.


MOSKOWITZ: Oh, I'll yield. Yes, please.

TAYLOR GREENE: If you want to have a good talk about schools and protecting children, we need to talk about protecting our children, the same way we protect our president.

MOSKOWITZ: There are six people that are dead in that school including, three children because you guys got rid of the assault weapons ban. You guys are worried about banning books, dead kids can't read.


PHILLIP: Joining me now CNN's Jeremy diamond, Asma Khalid of NPR, and Tia Mitchell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is no surprise that this is bringing up raw emotions. How could it not? More kids killed in an elementary school. I want you to also listen to this exchange that happened basically in the halls of the Capitol between Congressman Jamaal Bowman and a Republican Congressman.