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Bergdahl Controversy; GM Recalls; Former Leader: "Bergdahl is a Deserter"

Aired June 3, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, what really happened when then Private Bowe Bergdahl disappeared? His former team leader who was there that night is here to tell us.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.


EVAN BUETOW, FORMER U.S. ARMY SERGEANT: He just walked away. That's exactly what happened. We knew that he had left.


TAPPER: The world lead. He was there from the very beginning. Now Bowe Bergdahl's former team leader says the man that the U.S. just traded for five Taliban is no hero, and he suggests suspicious things happened to American soldiers after Bergdahl left the observation post.

The money lead. General Motors only admits that 13 deaths may be linked to a flaw that it took a decade to recall, but now a new report claims that at least five times as many died. So why isn't any of this hurting sales?

And the buried lead. People lost it on flights 8,000 times last year alone. Now there's pressure to come up with a global strategy to keep passengers from turning your flight into cray-cray theater.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. We will begin with the world lead. I'm Jake Tapper.

Do you want answers about the disappearance of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and his subsequent captivity in the hands of the Taliban for five years? Well, so does the Army. It will conduct a -- quote -- "comprehensive review" of the Bergdahl case.

But, for now, Bergdahl has not even been questioned formally yet, according to U.S. defense officials, who also say that the Army is still deciding how the inquiry will go forward.

Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey reminds us that Bergdahl, like anyone in America, is innocent until proven guilty. He also vows that the Army will -- quote -- "not look away from misconduct if it occurred" -- close quote. After five years, the deal to swap Bergdahl for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, well, it happened fast, so fast the White House did not bother giving Congress 30 days' notice, as required by law.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein called that -- quote -- "very disappointing" and the Democrat says that the president's deputy national security adviser called her last night to apologize.

The U.S. traded five mid- to high-level Afghan Taliban combatants for Bergdahl's release. Under the deal, they must stay in the nation of Qatar for a minimum of one year. A source familiar with the deal says the five are allowed to move freely within Qatar.

By the accounts of many fellows soldiers with 2nd Platoon Blackfoot Company 501st Infantry, including Bergdahl's team leader, from whom you will hear in just a few minutes, Bergdahl seems to have simply walked away from his post prior to his capture.

He is a deserter, his fellow soldiers say. He's not a hero. But President Obama is unapologetic, at least in public, about the deal that he cut to get Bergdahl back. Speaking on his trip to Poland, the president said the U.S. owed it to Bergdahl and his family, no matter how the sergeant ended up in the enemy's grasp.

President Obama expressing some concern there. Our tape obviously didn't work.

Our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is in Warsaw, Poland, where the president made those comments.

Michelle, the president is offering no public apologies to anyone, yet his deputy national security adviser is apparently offering apologies in private. What is going on here?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is interesting, what we're hearing publicly vs. what members of Congress are saying happened in private.

I can say we have heard from the national security team several times. They even put out this statement clearly explaining why, in their view, the lack of 30-day notification, which should happen under law, was, in their view, fully legal, saying that there wasn't time because Bergdahl's life was in danger. That falls within the law.

There wasn't time to include Congress. So, now we're hearing from Feinstein and Senator Saxby Chambliss, both on the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying they got calls -- in the case of Feinstein, she says it was Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken -- apologizing.

Well, we just heard again from the national security team and the way that they are framing it, it wasn't an apology for not giving 30 days' notice, because they stand behind the reasoning they spelled out. They say it was simply expressing regrets that these members of Congress whom under normal circumstances would have gotten that notification, were not called on Saturday. So they're saying it was just a time frame issue, that they were not called a little bit earlier, rather than 30 days ahead of time, Jake.

TAPPER: Michelle, stand by for one sec. I just want to play that sound, President Obama talking about the principle that he was operating under when they agreed to do this swap.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity, period, full stop. We don't condition that.


TAPPER: "We don't condition that," strong words from the president, Michelle. But did President Obama or anyone on his team talk about potential punishment for Bergdahl?

KOSINSKI: Yes, I mean, the president said that that's not being discussed right now.

But we are hearing from others, including the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, that, yes, this is going to be looked into, and it's not as if the Army is going to turn a blind eye if there was misconduct on the part of Bergdahl.

The president obviously didn't want to get into that, but all of this kind of explaining and spelling it out is not sitting well with these high-ranking members of Congress, because it's not so much that the White House secured the release of Bergdahl, for the reasons that the president clearly spelled out. It's how it was done and also who was released.

And now these members of Congress are saying that even though -- we heard the president himself say today that Congress has been involved in these discussions for a long time. Well, they say, yes, as long ago as two years ago, there were discussions. But they're saying -- and we're talking about House Speaker John Boehner, Senator McCain, also Dianne Feinstein -- that they didn't know all the details of this and that, back then, there was strong, strong bipartisan opposition to releasing Taliban in exchange for Bergdahl -- Jake.

TAPPER: Michelle Kosinski, traveling with President Obama in Poland, thank you so much.

The Pentagon has never given a full account of how Sergeant Bergdahl was captured. A number of soldiers from his platoon claim that the military forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements about the circumstances, helping to keep it all shrouded in secrecy.

The Army has never classified Bergdahl as a deserter. But now several of his fellow soldiers are coming forward and saying that's exactly what Bergdahl is.


TAPPER: And joining me now is former U.S. Army Sergeant Evan Buetow. He was Sergeant Bergdahl's team leader back when Bergdahl was a private, and he was there the night that Bergdahl vanished.

Evan, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

BUETOW: Yes, thank you for having me.

TAPPER: So the night this happened, you are all at this small observation post. It consists of two bunkers, a perimeter of military trucks. You're in one of the bunkers. Bergdahl is supposed to be by -- in a pup tent by one of the trucks. How did you learn that he was gone?

BUETOW: The first thing that was said to me was -- someone had called up to the bunker, which was called OP2 was just the name we had, was our call sign up there.

And they just said, hey, OP2, is Bergdahl up there? I got on the radio and I said, no, he's not up here. And they got back on the radio and said, hey, anybody here at the O.P., does any -- has anyone seen Bergdahl? Like, I will never forget that line. Has anyone seen Bergdahl?

And it didn't take long, the O.P. being very small. It didn't take long to search the whole O.P. We talked to the Afghan army personnel who were there as well. Bergdahl liked to hang out with them and he spoke with them a lot.

They hadn't seen him. They didn't know where he was at. And it didn't take long before it became pretty clear that he was gone.

TAPPER: And he was supposed to have been on guard duty that night?


He was about to go on guard shift. Someone went to wake him up for his shift, and that's when they found out that he was not there.

TAPPER: What was your immediate thought when you learned and your -- the fellow members of your squad and platoon learned that he was gone?

BUETOW: When I -- when I heard that he was gone and we didn't find him on the O.P. and I went and I talked to my platoon sergeant, and I asked him, I said, is his weapon here? Is his bulletproof vest here? Is his night-vision here? And he said, yes, all his sensitive items are here. I immediately went -- I said, he walked away. He walked away.


BUETOW: I -- it was a gut feeling I had.

As -- it's incredibly hard to explain, having -- if you didn't know who he was and you weren't there. And I know -- I don't think some people are going to understand, but all the events that led up and the things that he said and the things that he did prior to him leaving at the time were alarming.

However, when he comes up missing and all of his sensitive items are left behind, it just -- it kind of hit us in the head. It was like a light that went on. Man, he just walked away.

TAPPER: What had he said prior to his disappearance that, in retrospect, might seem particularly interesting? Had he ever talked about his feelings about the war? Had he ever talked about what would happen if somebody disappeared with their gun, with their night-vision goggles?


He -- he did talk about how he did not agree with the war effort in Afghanistan, or the U.S. Army's -- the way we were handling our war effort in Afghanistan. He didn't like that. He did come to me at one point and asked me -- he said, what if -- what would happen if my sensitive items go missing?

It's -- when you're deployed, if any sensitive item goes missing, it's obviously an incredibly huge ordeal. And there's a lot of backlash. And it's very important that we find that -- that -- those items.

It was -- it was a little odd that he would ask me that question. It's kind of -- any soldier asking that question, it seems pretty rhetorical. You know the answer to that question if you're asking it. But he still asked. I told him. And it was just one of those other things that, once he walked away and we had all those sensitive items left behind, it just kind of made -- made perfect sense.

TAPPER: And, Evan, you were part of the immediate search for Bergdahl. Where did you go? What did you learn?

BUETOW: So, immediately after we looked at the -- we looked at our O.P., we couldn't find him, the -- our platoon sergeant got on the radio -- or our platoon leader got on the radio and updated the command. They are like, hey, we're missing a soldier right now. This is what we're doing. We have done an extensive search of the O.P. We know he's not here.

We immediately pushed out a patrol into the local village. We're kind of running on nothing at this point. We're just trying to find something we can grasp on to, to get a direction or something. Immediately, as we left the base, two small boys walked up to us and they told us that they saw an American crawling through the weeds by himself.

And they pointed in -- I don't recall the direction, but they pointed. They said, he was going that way. They were saying that this was very odd to them. They're like, we never see the Americans walking around by themselves, and he was just by himself. He didn't have a weapon with him. He didn't have any armor with him. He was just crawling through the weeds.

So, at that point, at least we had somewhat of a direction of travel and we did know that, yes, he's walking away.

TAPPER: Obviously, you didn't find him in the ensuing weeks.

Your unit and others scoured the entire province for Bergdahl. Was he the sole object of all the missions that took place in Paktia province over the next several weeks and months, or were there other missions going on as well?

And the reason I ask is because you and other soldiers have said -- have talked about the six men who died, who were killed in the ensuing months. And I'm wondering, were they all specifically, necessarily killed looking for Bergdahl, or were there other missions going on?

BUETOW: From what I remember, it was -- it was 60 days or more. I remember just straight, we didn't -- all we did was look for Bergdahl. All we were doing is going on leads.

I can't say for a fact, and I don't really know if there's anyone who can prove that soldiers died on a directed mission to find Bergdahl. However, every mission, especially in the following two or more months, those were directed missions.

Everything after that, they were still missions that were in search of Bergdahl. We were going to certain villages based on intelligence that we received, whether we were there to actively search for Bergdahl or whether we were there just to talk to the locals to see if they knew anything and do a presence patrol.

I believe the fact of the matter is, when those soldiers were killed, they would not have been where they were at if Bergdahl had not have left. Bergdahl leaving changed the mission.

Those soldiers would be on those patrols in those specific areas when they were killed unless Bergdahl left. And that's -- that is a fact to me.


TAPPER: Stay right there, when we come back, more of Bowe Bergdahl's former team leader, Sergeant Evan Buetow.

Next, I will ask him about the uptick in Taliban attacks after Bergdahl disappeared and whether he thinks the soldier, under duress or voluntarily, was giving valuable intelligence to the enemy.

Plus, a different kind of backlash coming from Republicans -- why they are using Bergdahl's release to go after the White House.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Before the break, I was talking with former Army Sergeant Evan Buetow who was team leader for Bowe Bergdahl. He was there the night Bergdahl mysteriously disappeared in Afghanistan. There are accounts from soldiers, including Sergeant Buetow, that attacks on U.S. troops in Paktika became more accurate following Bergdahl's capture.

I asked Sergeant Buetow was he concerned that Bergdahl voluntarily or under duress was giving information to the enemy.


BUETOW: We were incredibly worried about that. It's impossible to know for a fact that that's what was going on and it could just be coincidental. But the fact is, we knew from radio interceptions that we've got that he was -- before he got in touch with the Taliban, he was looking for someone who spoke English so he could talk to the Taliban. When we heard that, it told us, OK, he's actively seeking out the Taliban, so at least we know that.

And yes, over the next couple months, all the attacks definitely were far more directed where before he left, we'd have IEDs go off, you know, virtually every day but they were going off in front of the trucks. They were blowing up mine rollers, they're blowing up on the side of the road. Following his disappearance, IED started going off directly under the trucks. They are getting perfect hits every time. Their ambushes were very calculated, very methodical, like they knew what we were going to do.

Obviously, there's no way to prove that Bergdahl was feeding them that information. At least I cannot do that. He knew our tactics. He knew exactly how we react to certain things.

So, the fact that attacks definitely were more directed and calculated, it's incredibly suspicious to me, although there's no way to prove that Bergdahl was feeding them information, whether he was tortured or he was giving on his own accord.

TAPPER: Tell me about this -- you said you had gotten intelligence that Bergdahl had been seeking out the Taliban and looking for somebody who spoke English so he could talk to somebody in the Taliban. Where did that information come from?

BUETOW: Yes. As -- obviously in the wake of him leaving, we had almost every asset that you have available to you is in the area searching. There is equipment that they can listen in to radio communications, cell phone communications between people, and there were teams monitoring that chatter.

I was standing right next to the radio when they heard that there is an American in a village called Yayaquil (ph), which was about two miles from where we were at and it's a village that has a very -- very large presence of Taliban, that the American is in Yayaquil, he's looking for someone who speaks English so he can talk to the Taliban. And I heard it straight from the interpreter's lips as he heard it over the radio.

And at that point it was like, this is kind of snowballing out of control a little bit. There's a lot more to this story than just a soldier walking away.

TAPPER: And when was this? The day after? Two days after? BUETOW: This was -- it was either -- it was one or two days after. I can't remember. It was very quick. I mean, and Yayaquil was only 2 miles away.

TAPPER: Do you agree with what President Obama said earlier today that no matter what the circumstances of an American soldier's disappearance or capture, the United States of America, the government has a duty to get him or her back?

BUETOW: My goal here is not to -- I don't want to get into the political side of anything. My goal is to show that Bergdahl is a deserter and he's not a hero, and that he needs to answer for what he did.

I will say that Bergdahl is an American citizen. Whether he wanted to be a soldier or whether -- or not or whether he didn't want to be an American anymore or whatever, the bottom line is, he's an American citizen, and I -- it's great that he's back and that we can have that very small victory, if you can even call it a victory because I believe what we gave up for that -- we gave up a lot for what we got back. That's all I really want to say about that.

TAPPER: Evan Buetow, thank you so much. Thank you for your service as well.

BUETOW: Thank you so much for having me. I'm very happy to do it.


TAPPER: Coming up, leave no man behind. The commander-in-chief defending his decision to swap dangerous prisoners for one American held in Afghanistan. Was the president expecting such a backlash?

And later, a huge month for General Motors as sales skyrocket despite the company recalling millions of its vehicles. Why are so many buyers flocking to G.M.?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The politics lead. This was supposed to be a feel good moment. The president wrapping his arms around the parents of Bowe Bergdahl, and telling the nation that America's only known prisoner of war in Afghanistan was coming home.

But now that the details of the deal with the Taliban are coming to light, the backlash from Bergdahl's fellow soldiers and also from Republicans in Congress, well, it's been unflinching.


REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Yes, I don't like the deal. I think it's a bad deal.

SEN. JOHM MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We were never told that there would be an exchange of Bergdahl for five Taliban.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: For the president to decide that these five hardest of the hardcore should be put in effect released and ultimately going to the battlefield in return for Sergeant Bergdahl at this stage I think was just wrong.


TAPPER: Let's bring in former National Security Council spokesman, Ben Chang, and editor for "The Weekly Standard", William Kristol.

Bill, I want to start with you because Senator McCain in February sounded very different when asked by Anderson Cooper about a deal very much like this. Listen to this.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: So if there was a possibility of some sort of exchange, that's something that you would support?

MCCAIN: I would support -- obviously, I would have to know the details but I would support ways of bringing him home I think it's something that we should seriously consider.


TAPPER: So, there are a lot of quotes like that, not just McCain but Kelly Ayotte and others, people saying we need to bring Bergdahl home, we need to figure out a way to do this. And this was the only way that the Obama administration says that they could get him home and the clock is frankly ticking before the war is over.

BILL KRISTOL, WEEKLY STANDARD: The clock is not ticking that fast. We have 32,000 troops there. We released five Taliban terrorists. We could have bargained, no one was objecting to --

TAPPER: Well, release them to Qatar, into --

KRISTOL: For one year, where they're free apparently to travel, talk on the phone and give direction to their former comrade, incidentally, to really inspire them if you look at what people are saying in the Middle East, it's the terrorists who are inspired. They are saying it's a big win and, unfortunately, our former -- Obama's director to the Counterterrorism Center is saying it's a big win for the Taliban.

So, I think the deal is a bad deal but I think what has really infuriated people, and not Republicans, the American public and especially soldiers, Susan Rice on Sunday saying, we've got to get back someone who has taken in battle and who served with honor and distinction.

Why would she say that? That was just politicizing. If you can release him, the president does not have to have the parents on the Rose Garden, you can put out a statement saying it's very difficult, these decisions are very hard and we hate giving up the terrorists, we're happy he's back, period. You don't see your national security adviser to a Sunday show to boast about it, to say it's a joyous day, to defect, try to hide behind a soldier and make the critics look like they are uncaring about the fate of the soldier.

And Susan Rice owes the American public an apology, I really do believe that. Tony Blinken, her deputy, apologized to Dianne Feinstein, today to Senator Feinstein for not giving her the heads up.

Shouldn't Susan Rice apologize to the American public and to the soldiers, to the families of soldiers who were killed for what she said on Sunday?

TAPPER: Ben, look, obviously I think we all agree with the principle, leave no man behind. That -- and you can argue about the permutations of the deal. It's been pointed out that the Israelis once traded 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.