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The Situation Room

Tea Party Victory?; Interview With Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss

Aired June 03, 2014 - 18:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


We're following the breaking news, severe weather roaring across parts of the Midwest right now, with a tornado now reported on the ground in Nebraska.

We're all getting -- also getting reports of baseball-sized hail and the potential for hurricane-force winds.


BLITZER: We will continue to watch the breaking news, the severe weather, the tornadoes in the Midwest right now, but there's another major story we're also following this evening.

The president of the United States, he's overseas. He's on the defensive, though, as criticism grows of the deal that freed an American POW. Some lawmakers say the White House is now privately apologizing to them for failing to give them legally required notice of the prisoner swap involving five Guantanamo detainees.

But the exchange itself is highly controversial and President Obama is now being forced to defend it.

Senator Saxby Chambliss is standing by. He's the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's got new information.

But, first, I want to go to our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski. She's traveling with the president in Warsaw, Poland, right now.

Michelle, tell us what the president is saying.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he said they had this urgent opportunity, the administration basically framing it as something of a life-or-death situation for Bergdahl and they seized that chance.

Now, though, there's the strong political fallout over this, and that in itself might not sound like a huge surprise, but tonight it's growing stronger and it's bipartisan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KOSINSKI (voice-over): Republicans insist tonight it wasn't a matter of days, but years, since they were consulted about any deal for Bergdahl.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We were at a meeting where they were talking about releasing some Taliban as confidence measures to move negotiations forward as long as two years ago.

KOSINSKI: Despite the president himself today stating Congress was kept in the loop.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility.

KOSINSKI: But the bad feeling among high-ranking members of Congress tonight is bipartisan.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: It comes with some surprise and dismay that the transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following the law.

KOSINSKI: She says Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken even called her last night and apologized for the move, but now the national security team characterizes that not as an apology for moving quickly, which it spelled out it needed to do to save Bergdahl's life, but was simply expressing regrets that these members of Congress weren't called Saturday, when the deal was going down.

Keep in mind, despite McCain's strong words today on the release of those Gitmo five:

MCCAIN: Are Taliban and al Qaeda. Don't you understand that? You might remember that, in 2001, al Qaeda found a haven with the Taliban. That's why we initially invaded Afghanistan. To somehow separate these people from al Qaeda, it's just damn foolishness.

KOSINSKI: Back in February, he told Anderson Cooper he would support a swap.

MCCAIN: I would be inclined to support such a thing, depending on a lot of the details.

KOSINSKI: Those details are what several members of Congress have a big problem with, saying that when those discussions did happen some two years ago, there was some bipartisan opposition to a Taliban trade.

The president, though, today unapologetic.

OBAMA: The United States is always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is, we don't leave our men or women in uniform behind.


KOSINSKI: One of the toughest things for some to accept about this is the lack of clarity about what exactly happens to the released after this year of what's been characterized as monitoring and a travel ban. The administration hasn't been wanting to give away too much detail.

The president said he wouldn't have done the deal if it was a threat to national security, but that's not good enough, Wolf, for some of these members of Congress.

BLITZER: Certainly isn't. Thanks very much, Michelle Kosinski, traveling with the president in Poland.

BLITZER: Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss is among the sharpest critics of the deal that freed Bowe Bergdahl.

Senator Chambliss is joining us now live from Capitol Hill.

Senator, you were just briefed, your Intelligence Committee. You asked for details on these five detainees.

Here's the question -- were any of these five involved in killing Americans?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: Well, there is suspicion that at least two and maybe three of these individuals were at the Qala-i- Jangi Prison, where Johnny Michael Spann was killed back in 2001. They've not been charged for that, but there's been accusations to that effect. And it's now been proven one way or the other.

Here's what we do know, though, Wolf. These individuals were involved at a very high level, a planning level, in both al Qaeda, as well as the -- the Taliban. And we know that they were engaged in the planning for the implementation of IEDs that ultimately killed many Americans, wounded many Americans. We know that they were involved in the financing of operations, maybe even some of the more public terrorist attacks that -- that we know about now.

But these five guys are not low level terrorists, Wolf. They are high level individuals. Two of them had very close ties to Osama bin Laden. The other three have very close ties to Mullah Omar. And there's a lot of celebrating going on in the Mullah Omar household tonight, I assure you of that.

BLITZER: Mullah Mohammed Omar is the leader of the Taliban, who's still on the loose some place.

We know that Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser to the president, called the chair of your committee, Dianne Feinstein, to apologize. That's what she says.

Did he apologize?

Did anyone from the administration apologize to you, as the ranking Republican, the ranking member?

CHAMBLISS: At about the same time Dianne received her call last night, I got a call from a different very high level White House individual that I work closely with on intel matters. And they did issue an apology that they didn't let us know not 30 days in advance, but at the same time that the release was taking place. So, yes, they have apologized.

BLITZER: What was their explanation?

Why didn't -- were they afraid you were...


BLITZER: -- you or somebody on your staff would leak this information?

Was that their concern?

CHAMBLISS: No, the statement was that this individual said that they just were unaware, until yesterday, that I had not been called. And that's just extremely unusual. They're -- there's a list down there of very few of us that do receive these advance phone calls. And it's hard to me -- for me to believe that both Dianne and I, both of whom had objected vigorously in writing as far back as three years ago to the president, as well as to Secretary Clinton, about the release of these prisoners, that we were the two that failed to get the phone call. Kind of interesting.

BLITZER: We're being -- we're being told that for whatever reason, Sergeant Bergdahl left that base in Afghanistan five years ago on his own.

Have you been briefed on the circumstances surrounding his disappearance?

CHAMBLISS: I have. And I've actually reviewed the file and the problem with it is, Wolf, that not many people have had a lot to say about what happened, that up until the last day or two. And the information coming out of the members of his platoon is very interesting. And it's something that is not contained in any of the files relative to the disappearance of Sergeant Bergdahl.

We will have additional briefings on that issue. And I expect the DOD will interrogate Sergeant Bergdahl to the point where they think they've got sufficient information to hopefully figure out exactly what happened and they may or may not pursue it further than that.

But as of right now, I think it -- it's speculation on my part to say that he did anything other than walk off. And I don't know the circumstances under which he walked off.

BLITZER: Have you been told, Senator, that American troops were killed as a result of searching for Sergeant Bergdahl?

CHAMBLISS: Yes. Yes, that's the truly unfortunate part about it. I think that's been -- been pretty well confirmed now, that at least four or maybe six individuals were killed during the process of searching for him.

BLITZER: So if you had been making the decision, what would you have done with him? would you have just left him there or would you have made this trade?

CHAMBLISS: Well, these negotiations have been going on for a long time. And the five individuals, Wolf, that they asked for came directly from the Taliban leadership. That's who the negotiations were with up until the last -- apparently the last few weeks, when, according to the administration -- and I'm just passing on what they have said -- the negotiations were with the government of Qatar, and therefore they weren't negotiating with terrorists.

Well, I don't know how stupid this administration thinks the American people are, but we're not that stupid. They're -- these were negotiations with the Taliban. And the extent of those negotiations had been ongoing for a long time. And there were other options available to exchange for this prisoner.

I agree with the president, I am happy that he is coming home. We should have brought him home.

But there were a lot of other options at Guantanamo outside of these five individuals who the Taliban leadership has been insisting on being released for the whole time that I'm familiar with these negotiations taking place.

BLITZER: So what would you have done?

CHAMBLISS: Well, I would have offered them at least somebody at a lower level, because, Wolf, these guys are bad guys. One of them is suspected -- two of them, actually -- are suspected of being involved and maybe mass murdering thousands of individuals, maybe even some Americans included in that. We don't know for sure.

As I said earlier, two of them had direct ties with Osama bin Laden, very, very close personal ties.

These are not the type of individuals that we need to return to the battle. And I assure you, they will be Mullah Omar's board of directors to carry out additional long-term terrorist attacks against America and Americans.

Those are not the types of individuals that you ought to bargain for.

BLITZER: One final question, Senator.

Did the president break the law?

CHAMBLISS: Well, what the president did was he certainly violated the law. Now, his position is that the 30 day requirement that was contained not just in one law that we passed, but three laws that was passed, the 2012 Intelligence Authorization Bill, the 2012 Defense Authorization Bill and the 2014 Defense Authorization Bill all contained a provision that required -- and it was a very lengthy and detailed provision -- that the president must give Congress 30 days notice before transferring any prisoner. He violated that. There's no question about it.

Secretary Clinton, in her letter responding to Senator Feinstein and I, acknowledged the fact that they had to give us 30 days notice, and yet the president certainly failed to do that and, yes, he violated the law by doing that.

BLITZER: Senator Chambliss, thanks very much for joining us.


Glad to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to continue to follow this story.

And there's other stories we're following, including a major test for the Tea Party tonight after a string of some losses. Could it take down one of the most senior Republicans in the U.S. Senate? Voters are deciding that right now.

Plus, we have new details about the attack against Donald Sterling's former girlfriend, V. Stiviano, as another woman now slaps Sterling with a sexual harassment lawsuit.


BLITZER: Primary elections are being held today in eight states.

But by far, the most closely watched race is in Mississippi, where the Tea Party is facing one of its biggest tests, trying to unseat six- term Republican Senator Thad Cochran. His challenger, state Senator Chris McDaniel, who says Cochran's 36 years in the United States Senate, those 36 years, he says, are enough.

The candidates' arguments boil down to this:


SEN. THAD COCHRAN (R), MISSISSIPPI: With a Republican majority, we will make sure Mississippi has a voice to bring more economic opportunity and growth to our state.


CHRIS MCDANIEL (R), MISSISSIPPI SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Cochran has not been the conservative we have asked him to be. Mississippi is a conservative state, and he just doesn't fit any longer. I say all the time he went there in 1973, Richard Nixon was president. This is a different era, different times, different concerns, different worries.


BLITZER: Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is joining us from Jackson, Mississippi, right now.

How tight is this race right now, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It appears to be incredibly tight. A Cochran campaign source said that going into today, their internal polling had the senator up by three points, but they are just not sure that means anything, because voting -- voter turnout anecdotally has been relatively light. Conventional wisdom here, even Cochran sources admit, says that that's not good for him, because the fervor is with the challenger, Chris McDaniel.

So it's really unclear. The name of the game if Cochran does pull out, if either of them do, is to get above 50 percent, because if neither of them does, there's a third-party challenger that could put a wrinkle in it. Neither of them does, and there will be a runoff.

BLITZER: Remind us why this race has gotten so nasty.

BASH: It's so nasty because the stakes are so high. Wolf, we have been covering the Republican primaries up until this point in Kentucky, in Idaho, in Texas.

In all of them, the Tea Party candidate who wanted to topple the establishment Republican failed to do so. This is the last chance that the Tea Party movement has nationwide to get rid of a longtime senator. You mentioned that Thad Cochran has been there in the Senate for 36 years, more than 40 years in Congress in general, and so that's why the Tea Party movement has poured millions and millions of dollars into this race in ads and otherwise to try to actually, you know, have -- put their hat somewhere, hang their hat somewhere this election year, because if not here, that might be the end of it.

They might have almost a string of losses this campaign year, but it's really fascinating to watch. Thad Cochran is in line to be the top Republican, maybe the chair of the Appropriations Committee. And he's not backing down from the concept of seniority being a plus. He's really pushing it.

And it's working, at least with some, ironically, Democrats, who are crossing over -- we even saw it ourselves anecdotally -- to vote for Thad Cochran. That's another part of the strategy the Cochran campaign has, to pull longtime Democratic supporters, in addition to Republicans. But the polls close in two hours, and it's really nail- biting.

BLITZER: We will stay in close touch with you, get the results. Dana, thanks very much.

Just ahead, Donald Sterling's former girlfriend tries to identify the man who attacked her, and there's new trouble for Sterling. There's a new lawsuit. We have details.


BLITZER: New developments in the drama surrounding Donald Sterling.

Brian Todd is tracking them for us.

What's the latest, Brian? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, new allegations tonight against Sterling. They allege a pattern of harassment, racial insults, bullying behavior by him toward a woman he had a longtime relationship with.

Sterling's side is pushing back hard, saying this is just an opportunistic lawsuit.


TODD (voice-over): Donald Sterling faces yet another set of accusations from yet another alleged former girlfriend.

In a new lawsuit, this woman, Maiko Maya King, says she was suggest to sexual harassment and racial taunts from Sterling. King says she worked for Sterling twice. The first time, she says, she had a romantic relationship with him that lasted for about six years. In the suit, Sterling is quoted talking about King's former husband, who's African-American.

"How could you be married to a black man?" Sterling's accused of saying. "Why would you bring black people into the world? I want to take you out of the black world and put you into the white world."

GLORIA ALLRED, ATTORNEY: When she protested the racial remarks and when she protested the sexual harassment, we allege that that's when she was terminated.

TODD: The lawsuit says, despite those allegations, King came back to work for Sterling's foundation for a second time. She says she at the time believed V. Stiviano, the woman now at the center of the Clippers' controversy, was Sterling's girlfriend. King says, because of that, she felt comfortable he wouldn't pursue another relationship with her.

That's when she says the harassment began, saying Sterling -- quote -- "dangled money only if she would have sex with him and would get angry with her when he could not become aroused."

In an e-mail to CNN, Sterling's attorney denied the allegations, saying: "The claim by Ms. King is baseless and ridiculous. She was never employed by Donald Sterling. Her claim was obviously prompted by opportunistic motives."

DEBRA KATZ, ATTORNEY: He's a guy who demands what he wants and has a way to pressure people to provide exactly what he's looking for, and the suggestion that he would leave her alone because he had somebody else that he was also having sex with, I think a jury would find hard to buy.

TODD: Meantime, tonight, CNN is learning new details about the attack against V. Stiviano.

A New York police official familiar with the investigation tells CNN the incident started Sunday night when a group sitting near Stiviano at a Manhattan restaurant called her a prostitute. When one of them put a cell phone in her face and tried to take a picture, the source says, Stiviano knocked it out of his hands. Sources say the group followed Stiviano out on to the street, with one man punching her in the face, calling her a racial epithet, and another spitting on her.


TODD: Two witnesses nearby broke up the fight, according to our source, who says New York police have one suspect in custody and are looking for a second.

And we have these new pictures just into CNN -- you saw them a moment ago -- V. Stiviano at a New York police station this afternoon. She went there to pick that first suspect out of a lineup -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Finally tonight, a very, very different story, some very exciting news. We want to welcome the newest member of our CNN family. Our good friend and colleague Suzanne Malveaux is a new mom. There she is. That's her with her newly adopted daughter, Salay (ph), who was born one week ago today, weighing in at five pounds, 13 ounces.

We want to wish, wish her only, only the very, very best. What a beautiful baby.

Please be sure to join us again tomorrow, every weekday in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can certainly watch us live. You can DVR the show so you won't miss a moment.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Van Jones and S.E. Cupp.