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Bergdahl Controversy; Hillary's New Book; Interview with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio

Aired June 4, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: What does the Taliban stand to gain by releasing this tape of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's handover? Well, maybe the better question is, what does the U.S. stand to lose?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead: the tense moment that lived only in our imaginations until now, a Taliban propaganda video showing the extraordinary handover of Sergeant Bergdahl. But for the third day in a row, one of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers will join THE LEAD and talk about his feelings that Bergdahl was a deserter. This time, it's his squad leader in his first ever TV interview.

The politics lead. Soon, Hillary Clinton will be staring at you in checkout lines everywhere. She's -- quote, unquote -- "opening up" about becoming a grandma, Monica Lewinsky and, say it with me now, whether she will run for president in 2016.

And the money lead, owning a home, providing for a family, upward mobility, most people say they don't expect that all anymore. What happened to that thing in this country? We used to call it -- what did we call it? Oh, yes, the American dream.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin, of course, with the world lead. Everyone has been talking about it for days. Now, as a new video finally gives us a look at the tension-fraught moment when the Taliban handed over Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is coming to Bergdahl's aid.

A senior defense officials says Hagel called Bergdahl's family just a few hours ago and pledged the Pentagon's support as the sergeant recovers and gets back into society. Hagel also defending Bergdahl over accusations that he deserted and cost the lives of at least six fellow soldiers who were there sent to search for him.


CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. soldiers dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl.

It's not in the interest of anyone, and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sergeant Bergdahl's family and to him, to presume anything. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: This all comes just hours after the Taliban released a propaganda video showing Bergdahl's swap in the desert in Afghanistan's Khost province.

Bergdahl is shown in a silver pickup truck, dressed in all white, looking somewhat bleary-eyed. It's the first fresh image in months we have had of the man who was considered the only known American POW in Afghanistan. And then a U.S. Special Forces Black Hawk helicopter comes into view over the hills, Bergdahl's ticket out of there.

The chopper descends. It lands on the ground several feet from the sergeant. Right away, two Taliban militants begin escorting Bergdahl to the helicopter, one of them waving a white flag, which is, we should note, the color of the Taliban flag.

Three U.S. Special Forces commandos approach. They shake hands with the Taliban. They give Bergdahl a quick pat-down. They whisk him away. Within seconds, they're back at the chopper, where the commandos give Bergdahl a more thorough frisk just in case the Taliban stuck explosives on him.

And soon after, the chopper takes off. Oh, but there's more. There was also this message superimposed in English, which says, more or less, "Don't come back to Afghanistan." And the video also shows images of the Taliban combatants that the U.S. traded for Bergdahl happily arriving in Qatar, where they're supposed to stay for a year.

Now, once you get past the shock of seeing this moment that was kept secret from most of the world, this type of prisoner transfer that we usually only see fictionalized in movies and television, there are so many details from that Taliban tape to unpack.

And we're going to do it with the help of Chris Voss. He's the former leader international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and he's now the CEO of the Black Swan Group, a private negotiating group.

Chris, thanks for being here.

So, a senior defense official tells us that two proof of life videos in recent months led to concern at the Pentagon that Bergdahl's health was deteriorating. Does he look sick or impaired to you at all on this video?

CHRIS VOSS, FORMER FBI HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR: No, he doesn't look that bad to me.

And, I mean, that sort of an assertion, if you forgive me, is a little bit of negotiator 101. You expect the hostage takers to make it look like that the hostage is in bad shape, so that they can drive a better bargain, and clearly it looks to me that's what they did here.

TAPPER: They might have staged, made him look -- how would you make somebody look rough in a video like this? VOSS: It would be simple. You make him dirty. That's what they -- they coach hostages in these videos all the time. They coach them to beg. They put a tremendous amount of effort into these videos. They coach them in advance. They shoot them several times. They produce them.

TAPPER: What -- talk about body language here. What can you glean from this video about what might be happening in Sergeant Bergdahl's head and the heads of his captors? Anything?

VOSS: Well, I think sergeant looks like he doesn't believe this is going on.

This is pretty typical. Hostage takers tell hostages quite often they're going to be released, when they're not. So, most of the time, the hostage never really realizes they're free until they have been in the hands of friendlies, if you will, back on our side for a while.

So, it's mostly disbelief, anxiety. He's tremendously afraid that this is actually not happening. That's what I see on his face.

TAPPER: There was one thing in the video that did surprise you, and that's the bag that Bergdahl has. Why?

VOSS: Right. Well, I -- you know, I'm surprised that he got as far as he did without having that bag checked.

There's every reason to believe that the Taliban wanted the swap to go through because it was such a great deal for them, so it's unlikely that they would have given him explosives. And the Special Forces guys did a cursory pat-down when they first got their hands on him, but it doesn't look like they checked the bag until they got to the helicopter.

TAPPER: What's the reason the Taliban might release this video? Obviously, they did so. They thought propaganda would help them. Why?

VOSS: Oh, they love it. This is -- for them, this makes them -- and the people that they want to appeal to in their part of the world, they think this makes them look fantastic. This is publicity that they couldn't otherwise buy.

They send an American away in a lone helicopter that comes into their territory, and they compare that to their people, five of them, getting a hero's welcome. That's great P.R. for them. I think they absolutely love it.

TAPPER: You said this is a great deal for the Taliban. I know you're not a political guy, per se. But you just -- you think that the swap was not necessarily a good one?

VOSS: I would have been embarrassed to make this deal as a hostage negotiator. Five for one at all? I just -- I can't see how this was a good deal for us. And on top of that, from what I understand, they named the people that they wanted, and it's also been reported that they refused to talk if the deal wasn't made. It's -- to me, that's embarrassing.

TAPPER: All right. Chris Voss, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Even with this video of Bergdahl's handover to U.S. Special Forces being released, his critics, including many of his comrades, are not backing down from their belief that he's a deserter and anything but a hero.


TAPPER: And joining me now, former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Justin Gerleve. He was Bowe Bergdahl's squad leader.

Justin, thank you so much for joining us.

What was your impression of Bowe Bergdahl before he disappeared from the observation post that night?

JUSTIN GERLEVE, BERGDAHL'S FORMER SQUAD LEADER: As a soldier, when he first got to us, he was -- well, he was a good soldier. He listened to what we needed to do and he got done what he was asked to do. He was willing to train, and always asked a lot of questions on what needed to help.

TAPPER: We have talked to some of your fellow soldiers who say that they believe that he walked off the base on his own volition. Is that what you think?

GERLEVE: Yes, sir. I believe that he totally deserted, not only his fellow soldiers, but his leadership that wanted the best for him and the best for our country.

TAPPER: Why do you believe that?

GERLEVE: Just from the pre-actions that he had done that was -- come to my attention, as far as mailing off all his personal items that were, as we call, high-dollar items, i.e., computer, just stuff like that.

The way he talked to his fellow soldiers as far as getting lost in the mountains or wanting to walk to India, stuff like that just makes me believe that he didn't want anything to do with us anymore.

TAPPER: As the former squad leader, what was it like having a man walk away from the observation post, in your view, and disappear? That must have been very upsetting.

GERLEVE: Oh, it was very upsetting.

It's one of those things where I take -- I took my job, being in the military, to the fullest. And knowing that one of my soldiers walked off, it was more heartbreaking than anything. And it made me really sit down and think, what's going on here? TAPPER: Other soldiers I have spoken to say that in the days and weeks after he went missing, enemy attacks on the soldiers of the 501st became more accurate.

Do you believe that as well, and do you think that's because information was being shared by Bergdahl, either willingly or perhaps under duress?


As one of the soldiers has stated, the attacks did get more direct, the IEDs did get more pinpoint to our trucks, rather than on the side of the roads and everything like that.

I can't say for sure that the leakage was from Bergdahl, but it's kind of that suspicion that it did happen. Everything that we taught him, I mean, it was coming to as far as direct attacks and indirect attacks.

TAPPER: I spoke with your former colleague, your former battle buddy, retired Army Sergeant Evan Buetow.

He said that in the day or so following Bergdahl's disappearance, you intercepted communications that an American was in a nearby town looking for someone who speaks English, so he could communicate with the Taliban.

Do you know anything about that?


I was standing there with Evan when those communications came across. As far as what exactly was said, I don't want to really say it, quote it. But there was talk that he was running around looking for people to speak English and wanted to seek out the Taliban.

TAPPER: And there's no doubt in your mind that it was Bergdahl that the intercepted chatter was referring to?

GERLEVE: Yes. I mean, there was no -- any other American out there running around or doing what activity, you know, that was reported to us, except for him on that day.

TAPPER: A lot of the soldiers have also said that the six members of the 501st who were killed in the following two or three months after Bergdahl disappeared, that they were killed because they were searching for Bergdahl and they're angry at him for those six deaths.

I don't know if it's proven yet that each one of the men died specifically in a search-and-rescue operation, but what's your take on it? Are you upset about those deaths? Do you hold -- obviously, the Taliban and the insurgents are responsible, but do you, to a degree, blame Bergdahl as well?

GERLEVE: I can't really say I blame Bergdahl to the fullest extent, but if he wouldn't of deserted us, these soldiers very well could have been in a different place at a different time, rather than the place that the time took of their death.

TAPPER: Do you think that Bergdahl should have been rescued, that the U.S. should have gone to the lengths that they went?

GERLEVE: My opinion on that is, yes. No American needs to be left behind. Then again, it goes again to, he needs to be accountable for his actions, accountable for what he did, and he needs to withstand a trial.

TAPPER: A lot of soldiers with whom I have spoken were very upset, because they thought he was getting something like a hero's welcome without the full story being told. How did you feel?

GERLEVE: I feel that the hero's welcome is not right, because he did dessert. And us soldiers that were on the ground with him that morning, days prior, and the soldiers that looked for him countless of hours, countless of days, soldiers that lost their lives are the true heroes.

TAPPER: The national security adviser said that Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. Did he?

GERLEVE: No. And at this point, I don't think so at all, because, like I said, he deserted his fellow soldiers.

TAPPER: I have heard from a number of soldiers that commanders asked soldiers to sign nondisclosure agreements to not discuss Bergdahl's disappearance, to not discuss the search for him. Is that true?

GERLEVE: At the beginning, yes, when everything happened, and while you're in the military, yes.

TAPPER: But now a lot of you are talking. Is that because he is finally out of enemy hands, and you feel that the truth should come out? What's the motivating force?

GERLEVE: For me, it just -- I mean, he's a deserter. America needs to know. He's back and he needs to be accountable for his actions.

TAPPER: Former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Justin Gerleve, thank you so much for your time, for sharing your views. And, of course, thank you for your service, sir.

GERLEVE: Thank you.


TAPPER: By the way, if you're wondering about that thick beard that former Staff Sergeant Justin Gerleve was sporting, he says he had to shave for nine years in the Army, but now he doesn't have to and it just keeps going.

Coming up: The Obama administration says there was not enough time, but even some Democrats aren't buying it. So, how will the White House explain why Congress was not informed before the Bergdahl prisoner swap when it faces the entire Senate body today? Plus, Hillary Clinton also reacting to Bergdahl's release after her reluctance to a similar deal when she was secretary of state.

That's ahead.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In our national lead, it was a sophisticated high stakes mission to rescue the country's only known prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. And amidst all the planning and the preparation for an operation years that was reportedly years in the making, the White House supposedly just plum forgot to mention what they were doing to the United States Congress. That's according to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who told reporters that she actually got a call from the White House which apologized and said it was an oversight.

But Republicans are not exactly satisfied with that explanation.


SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: I hadn't had a conversation with the White House on this issue in a year and a half. If that's keeping us in the loop, then, you know, this administration is more arrogant than I thought they were.


TAPPER: Be that as it may, let's get down to the law here. The National Defense Authorization Act requires that Congress be notified 30 days ahead of releasing any Taliban prisoners from Gitmo, it's a law that the president should be familiar with since it was a defense bill he signed late last year. Now, administration officials are holding a private briefing, an hour from now, from any senators, that want to be more looped in on the details of the rescue.

Let's bring in Senator Rob Portman. Senator Portman, thanks for being here.

You're going to be at the briefing. What's the number one question you want answered?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R-OH), HOMELAND SECURITY & GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS CMTE: Yes, my tough question is about the five detainees. What kind of arrangement have we made with the Qatari government? There's no explanation of that to the Congress and importantly to the American people. I'm think that's the top question to be asked.

Second is, I want to ask the intel folks who are there, what's the likelihood these five are going to get back in the fight? I think it's pretty high, but I want to hear from them.

TAPPER: The administration says that they -- a, didn't think like they had to seek approval of Congress or even loop Congress in and, b, that Bowe Bergdahl, his life was on the line. And because their law didn't have any exemption for -- you know, a circumstance like that, they felt like they could act.

Forgetting the constitutionality of it all, doesn't the fact that his life might have been on the line play some role in how offended you are about this, by Congress not being looped?

PORTMAN: Well, we'll see. The information we have back is that back in December, there was a video showing him in the administration thought made him look like his health was not good, I'm talking December, like five, six months ago.

TAPPER: Right.

PORTMAN: And as a result of that, they thought they needed to act with haste without going by the law, which is clear. It is a constitutional issue, because it's about the separation of powers, and the law having been passed, the president signed. So, we'll ask these questions today.

It doesn't appear to me there was any urgency. They were basing it on information several months old about his health.

TAPPER: One of the things observers wonder about, I'm not specifically talking about you, but a lot of your colleagues in the Senate, a lot of Republicans, you can go back and find a paper trail of them saying, President Obama needs to do everything he can to bring home our last prisoner of war. And then this bizarre thing that happened in the age of twitter, where people like Joni Ernst deleting a tweet, she tweeted once, "U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl freed after reporting five minutes in Afghanistan. Thoughts and prayers go out to Sergeant Bergdahl and his family." Then poof, deletion of the tweet. Of course, you can't really delete a tweet forever.

You didn't do this, so it's perhaps unfair question. But do you understand why some people look at Republican opposition to this and think this is just partisan politics, they don't care about the constitutionality of it, and they're not actually even upset about this deal?

PORTMAN: Some may see politics but that's not what it's about. As I said, what it's about is , who are the five detainees, what are the condition of their release?

If the president had simply notified Congress three days in advance, as he's required to under law, a lot of this could have been solved. I think what would have happened is, members of Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, and not on a political basis would have said, are you kidding? These are really five high-value detainees, two of them are military commanders, one was the vice chair of their intelligence network, is this appropriate?

And certainly, we would have asked about, you know, what are the conditions for the release? Is it going to be continued defense to keep them off the battlefield or not? I think these questions should have been asked. There should have been a back and forth on that. I think the president would have been better served. I think we wouldn't have the problems we're now seeing. And --

TAPPER: Play devil's advocate, Congress leaks like a sieve. I mean, and this is a guy's life in the balance. So, isn't it possible that the White House thought it wasn't worth it?

PORTMAN: Jake, they notify us on all sorts of things. And it doesn't always leak. In fact, are you saying somehow what happened with Osama bin Laden was less important than this?

TAPPER: Well, I said I was playing devil's advocate.

PORTMAN: With bin Laden, they were willing to notify Congress and it never got out.

TAPPER: Right.

PORTMAN: No, I think this was because the president chose to avoid going to Congress because he knew what the answer would be. He knew there would be a lot of skepticism (AUDIO GAP) sides of the aisle, and didn't want to hear it.

TAPPER: So, assuming that the president broke the law, so what? What happens?

PORTMAN: Well, we'll see. I've drafted a resolution, I hope that the United States Senate will pass and talks about the issue and lays it out as to what the president did, why it's wrong, and calls for an investigation. And let's keep this from happening in the future because ultimately this is about, as you said a constitutional issue, separation of powers and ensuring the president does talk to the folks who are representing the American people, you know, try to get some better information and some better input to be able to make a decision of international security interests. That's what 30-day notice was all about.

TAPPER: An investigation to exact pound of flesh or investigation to make sure it doesn't happen again?

PORTMAN: Find out what happened, how we can avoid it in the future.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, thanks so much for being here. I appreciate it.

PORTMAN: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: When we come back, playing politics with a now free soldier's life. Why the Obama administration can't resist patting itself on the back and why the Republicans can't seem to stop the urge to pounce.

Plus, breaking even -- economists expecting good news with the jobs report, even saying the U.S. will finally recover all the jobs lost in the financial crisis. But is this a number to celebrate? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The politics lead, it has been, to say the least, an unusual return for a man called America's only prisoner of the Afghan war. Most Americans probably knew nothing about Bowe Bergdahl who was gone for five years. Their first introduction was probably this momentous Rose Garden event, and the White House story line that came with it.


SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: He's going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction.


TAPPER: Mid to high level Taliban commanders sent to Qatar for a year in exchange for his release.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It depends on the details. These details are terrible.

CHAMBLISS: But what the president did was he certainly violated the law.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think they seized a moment here to get rid of five hardcore guys and their goal is to empty that jail.


TAPPER: Then, of course, the criticisms by Bergdahl's former battle buddies further took the bloom off the rose.

Let's bring in CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, and senior political columnist and editorial director for "National Journal," Ron Fournier.