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New Day

Bowe Bergdahl Arrives in the U.S.; Radical Islamists Closing in On Baghdad; Interview with Senator John McCain

Aired June 13, 2014 - 08:00   ET


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Instead, it was just as they had carefully rehearsed. This is all going to be done, the Army says, by the book.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): After five years in Taliban captivity, U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is back on American soil. Touching down overnight, Bergdahl arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and was transported to a military medical facility with a room prepped for his arrival, and a support team standing by, along with his family.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: He came out of five years of captivity. We're going to get a chance to find out what was in his head that day when he was taken captive.

SAVIDGE: "The Daily Beast" obtained letters purportedly written by Sergeant Bergdahl to his family when he was in captivity. They may give a glimpse into his disappearance from his base that night in 2009 writing, "Leadership was lacking, if not non-existent. The conditions were bad and looked to be getting worse for the men that were actually the ones risking their lives from attack. The two letters are dated 2012 and 2013".

And two different writing styles, one in cursive. The other in block print. The Bergdahl family purportedly confirmed the authenticity of the letters revealed by sources in contact with the Taliban.

ROY HALLUMS, HELD HOSTAGE IN IRAQ: I'm please asking for help.

SAVIDGE: Held hostage in Iraq for nearly a year, American Roy Hallums can relate.

HALLUMS: When I did mine, they set a piece of paper in front of me and gave me a pen. One person sat on each side of me and told me exactly what words to write. They wanted me to print it and not write it in script because they couldn't read English in script.

SAVIDGE: At times Bergdahl's thoughts seemed to wonder, touching on mathematics, God and the universe. Several portions of the letter blocked out. It's unclear by whom. Words in letters oddly misspelled. In 2013, he wrote, "If this letter makes it to the USA, tell those

involved in the investigation that there are more sides to the situation."


SAVIDGE: One of the key moments, of course, is going to be the reunion of Bowe Bergdahl with his mother and father that will take place. It's going to be carefully handled.

And the first meeting will only last for a few minutes. It isn't like the family will meet and then leave. No, they are an integral part, the Army says, of Bowe Bergdahl's reintegration to freedom and his new life -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: We'll be standing by for that process, no doubt. Martin Savidge, thank you so much.

Now to Iraq where the U.S. is deciding how to respond to bloody chaos, a decision that CNN has learned could come as early as this weekend. Radical Islamists are moving south, They're getting perilously close to Baghdad. And Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric is now calling on Iraqis to volunteers and fight against the militants.

Senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is tracking developments from Erbil, Iraq.

What's happening there, Arwa?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, we're getting even more reports about fighting in Diyala province, just north of the capital Baghdad as ISIS fighters try to gain more territory. The forces seem unable to stop them.


DAMON (voice-over): Leaving no doubt about their reach, video claiming to show the Islamist terrorist group ISIS arriving to cheers in Syria, with an Iraqi military Humvee.

ISIS gaining control, not just over land, but armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition, abandoned by the forces as they fled Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

Parts of Baiji, an oil refining town, an area surrounding the city of Kirkuk also seized by ISIS, prompting British forces to send in their troops after the Iraqi military fled there as well.

And in this video from Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit purporting to show ISIS fighters parading hundreds of captured Iraqi security forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have melted down, unfortunately. I mean, two army divisions in the city and their commanders escaped to the north, and really the government needs to take serious action. DAMON: With ISIS threatening that Baghdad is next, U.S. contractors

were evacuated from an Iraqi military base and chartered out of the country. Still, some U.S. commanders remain optimistic about the Iraqi security forces they left behind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They've got a lot of equipment and they have -- some of the forces are pretty well trained, I believe, by our folks and the NATO allies before we left. So, I think they have the capability to do this.

DAMON: Nearly three years after American boots left Iraqi soil, a terrorist group more powerful than al Qaeda is gaining greater control.


DAMON: And, Chris, those capabilities of the Iraqi security forces at this stage seriously being thrown into question, and whether or not they're going to be able to stop the ISIS advance is going to be key in the coming days. They have requested airstrikes from the U.S. The Americans saying they are considering that option and looking at other options as well. Although boots back on Iraqi soil at this stage is not on the table.

The critical issue, of course, in all of this is this is not a crisis that is going to be averted by military force alone. There has to be real political reconciliation for Iraq's Sunni and Shia populations to be able to come together -- Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Arwa, thank you very much for the reporting on the ground.

Let's bring in Republican Senator John McCain. He says he predicted all of this three years ago and has called for the president's entire national security team to be fired.

Senator, I know you have good reasons for that position. We'll get into that.

First, I want to give you one chance to clear the record on the stories surrounding Bowe Bergdahl. Did you in the past back the five- for-one deal for Bergdahl in exchange for the five Taliban men? Did you ever support that deal?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you for asking. I have said and I stated that I was in favor of a prisoner swap, but I would have to know the details, just like I'm for a deal with the Iranians over their nuclear efforts, but I have to know the details. That is the key to it.

And obviously that detail -- those details were -- and I said it twice when I was asked -- are such that I could not support such an action, and to portray it as any other way is absolutely false. Thanks for asking.

Could I mention one other thing about Bergdahl and the letters that were sent?

CUOMO: Please.

MCCAIN: I would discount anything that -- I have not weighed in on Sergeant Bergdahl's guilt or innocence. I don't think that I'm in any way qualified to comment on it. I am qualified to comment, I would discount anything that he wrote from prison.

In that situation, it's clearly -- his captors had the ability to force him to write whatever they wanted him to do.

CUOMO: An important perspective. We know it comes from the depth of your personal history as well. We'll take it under advisement. But we certainly have to know from Bowe himself what happened, because whether he deserted or not is fundamental to how that kid lives his life going forward.

Now to another urgent circumstance at hand.


CUOMO: What's going on in Iraq is no surprise to you, and many others to be frank. You believe this is the price that is to be paid when Americans left their completely. Fair?

MCCAIN: I think that's fair, Chris, and I think it's important for us to note that in other wars and other conflicts we have left residual forces behind, not in a combat role was a stabilizing role, whether it be Korea, or Japan, Germany. We still have forces in Bosnia from that conflict. And what most of us wanted after we had won -- believe me, we had won thanks to David Petraeus.

By the way, I had called for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld because of our failure prior to the surge and advocated the surge. This isn't the first time I've asked for a national security people to be fired. And we had it won, and we needed to have a residual force. We had literally no casualties there in Iraq during the last period after the surge was over. And by leaving a vacuum, then that was obviously filled.

Maliki has --

CUOMO: Do you trust Maliki?


MCCAIN: -- worse ambition.

No, I do not. The first thing, as was just mentioned in the report, he's got to have an inclusive government. He has got to reconcile. And if he can't do that, then I think he should be replaced by somebody that can. If he's already poisoned relations so badly with the Sunni that he can't reconcile, he should leave and somebody else who can. Reconciliation is a vital part of this.

Now, what should the United States do? Chris, I think that airstrikes are certainly something that should be considered, but I would point out that airstrikes are not easy. You just don't say, hey, let's go hit something. It requires coordination. It requires intelligence. It requires a whole lot of things.

It would have to be part of an overall strategy. That's why I think I would call in David Petraeus, General Keane, Ryan Crocker, all those people that won in Iraq and say, OK, give us a strategy and then we'll implement it with action. You see my point?

CUOMO: Absolutely I see it. If you look at the facts of the situation, the Iraqis rejected our troop retention plan. They didn't want to sign it. The American people wanted us out of there. The president won the election in large part by promising to end the war. Weren't those all circumstances that demanded we get out of there? It's not our fight.

MCCAIN: Well, you know, it's interesting, that narrative. But the fact is that we could have negotiated a residual force just as we could have in Afghanistan.

By the way, you'll see the same thing happen in Afghanistan that's happening in Iraq, if the president goes through with total withdrawal.

Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman and I were in Baghdad and Erbil. They were ready to accept a residual force of Americans. The president wanted out. We came back and said, look, we've got a deal there and it was rejected by Mr. Donilon and the White House.

We could have negotiated a deal because Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and I were on the ground and got the commitment from Maliki, Arsani (ph) and Alawi (ph) to do it. And that's just a matter of record.

CUOMO: Now, you matter tremendously in these situations because of your expertise. You've become a little bit of a Cassandra. And by that I mean you predict doom in all these situations.

Is it incumbent upon you, especially because of who you are, to be offering solutions and not doing what some are suggesting is a victory dance that things have gone wrong?

MCCAIN: Well, thank you for that comment, Chris. But in 2006 when I called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld because we were losing in Iraq, then I was the brave maverick standing up against my own president. Now, saying what I think is the right thing in this situation, I'm now, as you said, the Cassandra.

I know the formula for victory. I know how war affairs are conducted. I trust people like General Keane and General Petraeus and others who are seasoned warriors. And, frankly, they shared exactly my viewpoint.

It wasn't that I'm out there as a Lone Ranger. We could have won this. We sacrificed over 4,000 people. If I sound angry about it, I'm sorry, but I know too many of these people. I've met too many at Walter Reed that have been wounded. We could have solved this conflict.

We had it won, thanks to the surge and we blew it all and that's a tragedy.

CUOMO: You think you're going to have to put boots back on the ground, you think we're going to have to keep boots in Afghanistan?

MCCAIN: I don't. In the short term -- I think we're -- the same kind of residual force that we have now in Bosnia, Germany, Japan. That doesn't mean we're in combat. It means we are there as a stabilizing force. But I think that this new situation is now an existential threat to the United States of America.

They are the richest and most powerful radical extremist force in history and they are dedicated to attacking the United States of America. That's the view of the director of national intelligence, General Clapper. And our failure to help the resistance in Syria, which I have been begging for is also one of the causative factors.

As you notice, they're now going back and forth between Iraq and Syria. This is an existential threat to the United States of America.

CUOMO: And because of that, can we suggest you will start working with the White House to come up with a plan of how to combat the situation in Iraq and hopefully do better in Afghanistan going forward? Because that's what we need, right? We need the solutions. We need our best to do their best right now.

The blame game really isn't going to get us anywhere.

MCCAIN: That's true, but we can't ignore the lessons of history, nor can we distort history. Many people are saying now, well, this was inevitable, we never should have gone in, in the first place and maybe we shouldn't. But that ignores the fact that thanks to the surge and the sacrifice of so many Americans, we had this conflict won in Iraq.

And then by taking the action the president did, it caused us to lose and that's what I said was going to happen back in 2011 when I begged them to stay with a residual force.

CUOMO: You were right about that. Hopefully you'll be right about figuring out how to stem the tide of violence and help us have a better outcome in Afghanistan, because certainly, the American people and our fighting men and women have had a lot of fatigue on these issues.

Senator McCain, thank you for coming on "new day" as always. Good luck finding a strategy to get us out of it.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: All right. A lot of news this morning we're following as you begin your NEW DAY.

Let's get to it with Mr. John Berman, in for Michaela -- John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks so much, Chris. And what an interesting discussion that was.

Ukraine says Russian tanks and several armored personnel carriers have now entered their country. That's the word today from the country's interior minister. He said the vehicles were spotted going through a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian separatists. Russia's top diplomat denied these charges, claiming Kremlin is ready for a pause in this conflict.

Texas Congressman Pete Sessions have bowed out to replace Eric Cantor as House majority leader. The Republican said he worried running would create division within the Republican Party. Sessions announcement will likely pave for the way for Kevin McCarthy to clinch the second most powerful house post.

New this morning, Donald Sterling now on offense. Multiple media reports say attorneys for the L.A. Clippers owner have hired four private investigation firms to look into former and current NBA commissioners and other team owners. Sources say the primary targets are former commissioner David Stern and current NBA chief Adam Silver who hit Sterling with a lifetime ban and a $2.5 million fine for Sterling's racist comments.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie letting his hair down and flat out getting down on "The Tonight Show" dancing with Jimmy Fallon in celebration of Father's Day. Didn't need a reason to dance, really. Governor Christie, of course, seen as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. So, Fallon had to ask him about a potential opponent.


JIMMY FALLON, COMEDIAN: Hypothetically, you run for president.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW YORK: OK, hypothetically.

FALLON: Hypothetically, Hillary Clinton runs for president.

CHRISTIE: Hypothetically.

FALLON: Hypothetically, do you think you could beat her?

CHRISTIE: Hypothetically? You bet.


FALLON: In a dance-off?

CHRISTIE: That's what I was talking about. What were you talking about?

FALLON: There you go.


BERMAN: You got to give it to him, he's got comic timing. Dance, boy, did he ever. You just cannot stop watching this. The governor showing off his moves, even enduring Fallon's comments about wise cracks about weight and the George Washington Bridge scandal that rocked his administration last year.

You'll notice that Governor Christie lost a lot of weight in the last year.

CUOMO: Yes. And he passes the seminal test of male dancing which is lower body and upper body movement in coordination.

BERMAN: At the same time.

CUOMO: Not to name names, there are men known for just the bite on the lip and a little bit of hand jive.

BERMAN: Look in the mirror, Mr. Cuomo.

CUOMO: Hey, I don't judge. I don't judge, fancy feet.

KEILAR: I'm a bad dancer myself, like really bad. Like Elaine on "Seinfeld" bad.

BERMAN: She's trying to make us feel better and I appreciate that. So, thank you.

CUOMO: We'll take it.

KEILAR: I have self-awareness.

CUOMO: We'll take someone else's failure as our success.


KEILAR: I'm sure you will.

Now, next up on NEW DAY, we're following a lot of news. Bowe Bergdahl back on American soil. We've got new letters shedding light on the 28-year-old's time in captivity. What's next for him?


CUOMO: Welcome back to NEW DAY.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is back in the U.S. this morning after two weeks of being treated in Germany. Now, we're getting another glimpse into his mind. You know what the main question is, did he dessert?

So, there are new details that shed light on what the soldier may have been thinking when he walked off the post in Afghanistan in 2009.

Joining us is Philip Mudd. He's a former CIA counterterrorism official and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Mr. Mudd, good to have you. If you were listening, I say may have been thinking because the first question about these letters is, do we trust their authenticity, not just that they were written by Bowe Bergdahl, but that they are a legitimate reflection of his ideas? What do you think?

PHILIP MUDD, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: I don't trust their authenticity. I don't see why it makes so much difference.

First, we have access to this guy now, so we can talk with psychologists and other specialists to him about what he thought. Second, we're suffering from what I used to call in the business hindsight bias. We're trying to look at a decision the president made a month ago and take information we learned later and apply it to that decision.

I don't get that. We have a decision a month ago. We have information acquired afterwards. The two don't mix.

CUOMO: All right. So, let me help you with that, because the supposition of criticism is this. You knew when you made the deal that these were really bad dudes you were giving back who may get on the field of battle and try to kill people like you, so you shouldn't have done it. That's where that basis of criticism comes from.

On Bergdahl, it's, if he deserted, it makes people feel differently about whether a deal should have been made. Does that make sense?

MUDD: No. My answer is so what? Two facts we know. An American went missing on a battlefield and he's a soldier. He doesn't have a name and he doesn't have a face, but he has a uniform. He's an American citizen. Those are facts.

The rest of this is underbrush, it's speculation. I don't want an American committee if I were in the field deciding whether it's appropriate to capture me or recapture me because of speculation of what was going on in my mind -- irrelevant.

On the Taliban issue, let's cut to the chase, dude. We go into the casino and we're surprised the guys that own the casino, the Taliban, set the rules and we don't like the rules.

Well, this is the real world. They own the turf. They make the rules. If we wanted to get the guy home, the deal wasn't going to be easy. They're casino house rules.

CUOMO: Now, do you think that the administration caused some of their own trouble in terms of how the deal is perceived by playing with whether they were negotiating with terrorists, playing with guarantees of how it's going to be monitored, these guys by Qatar? Do you think those were mistakes in terms of message?

MUDD: I think the messaging is a bit off. I suspect behind the scenes, the White House is saying maybe getting with the family wasn't a great idea. Let's not mix up the decision that was made and the optics of the decision afterward. I think if I were sitting in the Situation Room of the White House, and I've been there many times, this is a 30-second decision. Are we going to bring him home or not? What we're not considering is what might have happened had we chosen to withdraw from the negotiations.

CUOMO: Like what?

MUDD: Let's have the CNN conversation -- let's have a CNN conversation about a beheading video. You want to do that one?

So, we're focused on one decision, one optic. The optics on some of the other decisions, for example, if we had drawn out and they killed him or we left a soldier on the battlefield. You want that debate?

Let's not focus solely on the decision that was made. Let's focus on bad options and choosing the best of bad options.

CUOMO: How do we know those other things were in the air in terms of what might happen? They kept him for five years, he was still alive.

MUDD: Sure. We know one thing, the president said we're getting at. Once we get out, our negotiating leverage is minimal.

So, as I've said in the past, you've got to strap your big boy pants on because there ain't no good decisions. And when you go in front of the cameras and announce the decision, nobody is going to like it. That's why you get paid in Washington, D.C. It's a dogfight.

CUOMO: So, what do you say to the politicians who say we don't like this deal, you shouldn't have made this deal? Are they being naive or is that legitimate co-criticism and you have to suck it up and take it?

MUDD: Suck it up. That's why you live inside that Beltway. It's a tough environment.

Here's a question I have for them is, give me a better option. And if their option is, well, we sort of don't like giving up five bad guys. I'd say, OK, so let's go back to the Taliban and say, no, and they kill him. That's on your head, dude.

CUOMO: And there was a lot of pressure on getting Bowe Bergdahl. Some of that is forgotten and seeing all the criticism that followed. Is that your recollection as well, a lot of the lawmakers shaking their head before are saying you better get him, he's a hero?

MUDD: I think that's true. Again, I think you're dealing with what in intelligence we call hindsight bias. You're looking back at a whole wealth of information. And people are forgetting what information we had before the decision, what information we had at the time of the decision and what information we've acquired afterwards.

This is going to continue when some psychologist comes out in six month, for example, and says this guy left of his own accord and we reopen the debate. I go back to a simple proposition. In difficult decision-making moments, you better capture the decision in one sentence. Regardless of his mental state, regardless of whether he left willingly, do you want to bring the boy home or not? That's it.

CUOMO: And it doesn't matter those conditions. When you look at the facts as they're developing about Bowe Bergdahl and his disappearance, does it look to you as if this was a planned desertion or even a defection or does it look like someone who did something stupid and paid a dear price for it?

MUDD: I'm not sure. I'm not really qualified.

And I could say, if I were in the decision-making room and someone raised that, I would say I'm not sure why that's entirely relevant because it's speculative. You know, we're looking inside someone's head. We don't know.

So, why are we making decisions on something that is inherently unknowable? I don't get it.

CUOMO: And important to note, the letters don't matter to you, one, because we don't know how manipulated they were. And two, they have Bergdahl, so we'll get the straight story from him.

MUDD: Correct.

CUOMO: A lot of people don't see it the way you do in terms of making the decision and putting on your big boy pants. A lot of them sounding now like they could have caught a better deal. Just, you know?

MUDD: So, tell me what that deal is. The Taliban -- remember, in these negotiations, the Taliban knew the president said we're leaving. They know they hold the cards. Let's go into that room with the Taliban and say we don't like the five -- we'll give you five chumps out of Guantanamo. What do you think they'd say then?

I want to know what the better deal was when we don't hold any cards. The cards we have are guys in Guantanamo who might be released anyway because somebody after we leave Afghanistan is going to say why are we holding Taliban guys? We're not fighting the Taliban anymore. These aren't al Qaeda guys. I want to know what the better deal was.

CUOMO: Philip Mudd, you raised some provocative questions and you give us good insight to understanding the situation, as always. Appreciate you being on NEW DAY.

MUDD: Thanks. Take care.

CUOMO: Brianna?

KEILAR: Thanks, Chris.

Next up on NEW DAY, chaos in Iraq. The White House is debating what to do as radical Islamists move closer to Baghdad. We'll walk through the options with two former White House insiders.