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Senators Unswayed by Video; White Boss Threatens Black Worker; Racism at Tennessee Cotton Gin; Heads Roll at General Motors

Aired June 5, 2014 - 12:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: "LEGAL VIEW" with Ashleigh Banfield starts right now.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Dead silence. That was the reaction behind closed doors to the video that helped launch the rescue of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. One senator telling CNN, the POW looked thin, couldn't focus his eyes, could barely speak. But the secret tape has not silenced the critics.

Also, Jim Crow alive and well in Memphis, it seems. A white supervisor threatens to hang his African-American employee for drinking from, quote, "white people only water fountain." This wasn't 1954, this was 2014. Hear the actual tape coming up this hour on CNN.

And President Obama pumping iron in Poland. How would you like it if someone was just secretly videotaping you in your private moments at the gym? You may be in the zone, but you're probably not working out in private. A couple more issues with the privacy coming up in just a moment.

Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's Thursday, June the 5th and welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

Hours after a top secret screening that the White House hoped would help to justify its decision to swap five Taliban prisons for a captured American soldier, there are two new questions, big ones. Were all those senators watching the same video and why can't everyone see it? Everyone. Like you and me. It is the so-called proof of life video, two of them actually, that were give to U.S. officials late last year. They were intended to prove to senators that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was actually, after four plus years in captivity, near death and needing to be rescued. But not all of the senators were convinced, and we'll hear from several of them in just a moment.

The Pentagon says that getting Bergdahl healthy is the top priority. And we have some brand-new detail on that very issue. A spokesman is saying just within the last hour that Bergdahl is showing signs of improvement, he is conversing apparently in English, and we're told he's becoming more engaged in his treatment. He still has not had a chance to speak with his parents, and also curious topic which we will talk about in a moment.

And his little hometown of Hailey, Idaho, it's not quite ready to celebrate his freedom after all. Hailey has a population of 8,000, but it's canceling its "Bowe is Back" event, which was scheduled for later this month, fearing that a firestorm might happen. One that it's just not equipped to actually contain.

And weighing in this morning from Belgium, President Obama has denied that his team was caught off guard by the ferocity of the Bergdahl backlash. And he's defending, once again, the decision to bring Bowe home.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington, all right? That's -- that's par for the course. But I'll repeat what I said two days ago. We have a basic principle. We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind. We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about. And we saw an opportunity and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that.


BANFIELD: But it is the swap of those five Taliban captives that is still really not sitting well with so many back on Capitol Hill. In fact, there are a lot of senators who are split, to say the least, over that video, as well, that the president found so pervasive. Have a listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I learned nothing in this briefing, nor did I expect to learn anything in this briefing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I'm just saying, he looked pretty bad.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I remain as deeply skeptical today about this as I did before this conversation that we just had with the administration. For two days now we've asked questions, many of which have not yet been fully answered.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That did not sell me at all. The proof of life was based five months ago December. At that time he was impaired.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: It appeared that he was drugged.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: They had intelligence that had the -- even the fact of these discussions leaked out, there was a reasonable chance Bowe Bergdahl would have been killed. And that was one of the pieces of information that we learned yesterday that gave it some credence in terms of why it had to be kept quiet so long.


BANFIELD: Well, that debate is continuing. And in the meantime, some other voices now. CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is live for us in Washington, D.C., and joining me live here in New York is CNN national security analyst and former CIA operative Bob Baer.

Jim, first to you. We have been watching over these last five years as videos have sort of been dripped and drabbed out showing Bowe Bergdahl eating food, with his head shaved, growing a beard, pleading to be brought home and yet these last two have been kept secret. Any idea why?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They won't - they won't say why, but this is one thing I do know. When I reported on the existence of one of these proof of life videos in January this year, this is the one that was released in December, I was told by officials that they obtained this video in an unusual way, a way that they did not want to be out there, through a channel that was classified, and they were concerned that if the tape was seen that that channel might be revealed. So it could be the way the tape was revealed because there would be identifying marks, whichever group recorded it, you know, or produced it, this kind of thing. So that's a possibility.

And, of course, there were also sensitivities, I would imagine, if he does indeed look frail, that, you know, it might be a disturbing tape. Would it be upsetting to the family, you know, other concerns? But the one thing I do know is that it was obtained through a channel that they did not want out there. They wanted to keep classified.

BANFIELD: Bob, if you could weigh in on just the idea. I'm trying to envision these senators in a secret room last night watching what's a secret video that you and I have not been privy to. If you were able to watch it with your background, what is it you'd be looking for? What tell-tale signs come out in a proof of life video that might lead you to make a decision like this?

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, you can tell from the eyes if he's suffering from some fatal disease, one that could become quickly fatal. We've got doctors who will look at a picture and tell you how close somebody is to death or what sort of disease they're suffering from. And I think it's clear that the president was worried that he would die in captivity. And this can be seen from these videos. It really can. I've watched enough of them, I assure you of that.

BANFIELD: And there is a lot that we don't know in terms of what signs you're seeing, not just the medical signs, but maybe other things as well, the stress signs, et cetera, that you would be taught.

BAER: You would see the stress, whether he was drugged or not, speaking slowly, speech patterns. You can tell if he's suffering from other problems. And the doctors are very good at it. This is what they specialize in.

BANFIELD: Are there - are there any kinds of things that the run of the mill soldier is taught, secret signals, that they might be able to give, eye patterns, anything that they can do to communicate that an enemy wouldn't know?

BAER: Oh, I think he was beyond this, you know, sending a signal. I think - I think he really was sort of his end.

BANFIELD: Might any of those that have come out in the last series of videos over the five years, anything like that?

BAER: Not normally, not soldiers. There's no way to communicate. It's universally recognized. What would he say? I mean we know everything there is to know about him. He was held by the Haqqani network.


BAER: He walked off his post. It was just the matter of getting him back. You know, you have to keep in mind that this guy, when he walked away from the post, it was a --

BANFIELD: If that's what he -- if that's what he did. If that's what he did.

BAER: If that's what happened, that was a suicidal act. He was not in his right mind. You don't walk into the arms of the Taliban and expect to survive.

BANFIELD: Jim, just quickly to you. Why is it that we're seeing senators, both Republican and Democrat, on both sides of this issue? It feels like what I just said, they might have been watching different tapes, some of them suggesting I can completely see why the president felt stressed and pressured that they had to get this man home, and others who said, he looked drugged but this wasn't convincing to me.

SCIUTTO: Well, you know, there's some politics involved, and you can imagine that -- you know, this is Washington, you can imagine the scenario where if he was not released and he died in captivity, that the president, the administration, would have come under criticism. And, in fact, you had - you had a number of lawmakers who tweeted or released statements cheering Bergdahl's release as it first came out on Saturday, and then later retracted those statements or amended them or deleted the tweets, you know, as the story took another turn.

I mean, it's a difficult one. I think the president spoke to that today when he made an impassioned plea to say, listen, you know, I feel responsible, his words, for these kids. We don't leave Americans in uniform abroad in captivity. He said that he went -- the pain he described of writing to parents who lost their sons and daughters on the battlefield and, you know, tried to make an emotional case for why this was necessary. And I think that's what you're going to be hearing more of now going forward.

BANFIELD: Jim, five seconds. Any chance we're going to see this video? Any chance the media will get it?

SCIUTTO: I think it's possible. I think it's possible. There will be a lot of political pressure, so I think it is possible if they have - if they feel that they have to convince people here's why we did it.

BANFIELD: Jim Sciutto live for us in D.C., thank you for that. And Bob Baer, live in New York City, appreciate both your perspectives on this. Thank you.

Another story that we're following, some remarkable remarks, very racist. As if you couldn't imagine them being worse, jaw-dropping, in fact. An African-American employee at a cotton warehouse saying a supervisor threatened to hang him if he drank from a white person's water fountain. It's caught on tape. We're digging into the story. The details are just ahead.


BANFIELD: It is alarming indeed that in 2014 something like this can happen. A white supervisor threatening to hang an African-American employee for drinking water from a, quote, "white people fountain." It sounds like something out of the Jim Crow days, but two employees that Atkinson Cotton Warehouse in Memphis say that comment and other racist remarks were made to them between August of last year and January. Untonia Harris used his phone to record his supervisor after what he described as months of discrimination. And here is just a small sampling of what he recorded.




SUPERVISOR: I need to put a sign here that says "white people only."

HARRIS: I need to use the microwave.

SUPERVISOR: No, hell, no.

HARRIS: Why can't I use the microwave, man?

SUPERVISOR: No, you're not white.

HARRIS: For real?

SUPERVISOR: Back then, nobody thought anything about it. Now everybody is made to where to think it's bad.

HARRIS: Put your sign on the wall then, because I am going to drink it.

What they do when they catch me drinking your water?

SUPERVISOR: That's when we hang you.


BANFIELD: I want to bring in Victor Blackwell in Memphis, Tennessee, right now. CNN commentator and legal analyst Mel Robbins is also with us. And criminal defense attorney Carl Douglas, who defended O.J. Simpson, is also the attorney for Elgin Baylor in a discrimination suit against L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

And, Victor, I want to start with you. It's hard to even listen to that. I want to -- in my mind, I want to keep thinking this was all a joke and that it was misconstrued, but it's not. How bad did this get? VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It isn't. And there is more,

according to these two employees, that has not been recorded. They say that their white supervisor referred to black employees as "monkeys" and if they were to interrupt his conversation, he would tell them to shut up, don't you hear a white man is talking? I mean beyond the headline and this allegation of white Tennessee cotton boss threatens to hang black cotton factory employees if they drink from the white water fountain or if they use the microwave for white men, these two workers Untonia Harris and Marrio Mangrum say this happened every day.

Now, it's important to point out here that these two men worked for Atkinson Cotton Warehouse. However, this supervisor worked for a third party company that was brought in to run the place, Federal Compress. But they say that this happened every day and at some point it became physical. Listen.


UNTONIA HARRIS, FORMER ATKINSON EMPLOYEE: He just come up behind me. Marrio's standing behind me. I don't know how Marrio get on the side, and he come right behind me and kicked me in my behind.

And I turned around, with anger and fear in me so much, but I knew I had to feed my family. You know what I'm saying? That was the last straw. I mean, that was it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How does it make you feel you had to just listen to it and deal with it?

MARRIO MANGRUM, FORMER ATKINSON EMPLOYEE: Man, depressing, emotionally drained, mentally scarred.

You know, because that was my first encounter dealing with something like this there, and all I see was my granddaddy -- you know -- and going through the things he had to do, and that was a struggle what they went through, you know? And I can imagine -- now I imagine what they was going through.


BLACKWELL: Mangrum says that his grandparents were sharecroppers, so the question is, why did they stay from the fall of 2013 to the early portion of this year? We heard a portion of it there. Mangrum says that he's a single father, and he's got to put food on the table for his son. He's the only person who can do it.

Harris says that he has kids, too, and there aren't many jobs in this area available for them, so they stayed as long as they could until one point, you heard that Harris said he was fed up.

He went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, filed a complaint, and that was in January, and after so many months of not having a resolution, that's when they decided to go public with their story, Ashleigh.

We also had a conversation with a man named E.W. Atkinson. He owned Atkinson Cotton Warehouse. He says that he was never made aware of these allegations or any statements. Had he been told, he would have asked for him to be removed. But Harris and Mangrum both say that E.W. Atkinson knew. They had a meeting. Atkinson denies that.

BANFIELD: And is there anything they are putting out in terms of a formal statement about this? Clearly these companies have to respond to this.

BLACKWELL: Well, there is a formal statement from this staffing company, Federal Compress. We reached out to them, and here's part of their statement.

They write that "Federal Compress very much regrets that the allegations were not reported to it when the first incident is claimed to have occurred." That's a portion of the statement. They also tell me that the employee, the supervisor, no longer works for the company, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Well, that's a no-brainer right there, to be honest with you. I'd be shocked if he still were there.

I want to bring in Carl Douglas, if I can. Carl, we talked just in the last few weeks about this, the L.A. Clipper story and the audiotape with "don't bring black people to my games" and "I can't believe we have a black president" and it's 2014. Just when I think it can't get worse, there's a story like this that hits the headlines.

CARL DOUGLAS, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, Ashleigh, the irony is, one, that it happened at a cotton gin location.


DOUGLAS: One of the vestiges of racism, years and years ago in our history.

It's also ironic that these overt acts of racism are universally condemned. But there's still far more subtle acts of racism that go on every day in employment areas in our country, still, even with an African-American president in his second term of office.

So what this says is now racism overtly can be condemned, but people now are carrying their sheets under arms or in briefcases, and there's a lot of work to do as a society to overcome some of the vestiges.

BANFIELD: Mel, look, there are mechanisms that exist within our American jurisprudence to deal with this. What would the first steps be, knowing full well these two men already filed with the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? What happens next? What's their recourse?

MEL ROBBINS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, what their recourse is, is that the EEOC, Ashleigh, will examine the case, and they'll issue a letter that says they have the right to sue for a civil rights action. It's a civil case. It's for harassment and discrimination, and that's exactly what should happen. And I want to point out to everybody that's listening that, even though the owner of both the cotton gin and the outsourcing company that provide the supervisor, are liable if they should have known.

And I think anybody with a brain knows that if you own a company and you have somebody in your employ and they are working for you for over a year and they're engaging this behavior openly, that you should have known.

Secondly, in Tennessee, it's a one-party state for taping, so the fact that the guys involved in the conversation were taping it, it makes the tape legal, and makes it admissible in court.

I think we have something here called the "Sterling effect." People now know that, hey, if I didn't think in the past that somebody would believe me, I'm just going to pull out my iPhone, because the truth is, if you're a single dad, the worst thing that could happen to you, other than the discrimination, is losing your job.

BANFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, and just quickly, Mel, when you said they should have known, these companies say they did not know, and I'm not entirely clear that these employees made it clear to those companies as opposed to going straight to the EEOC. Does that change -- 10 seconds left, does that change the dynamic in any way?

ROBBINS: No, it doesn't change the dynamic, because it shouldn't be up to the employee to report it. It should be up to person that owns the company to know what the heck is going on under the roof of the business he owns, exactly.

BANFIELD: Mel Robbins, thank you. Stick around if you will, Mel. Also, Victor Blackwell, and my thanks again to Carl Douglas. I appreciate you with your comments. And I hope we don't have to continue calling you about these stories, Carl, because it's really getting exhausting.

DOUGLAS: My pleasure being here.

BANFIELD: Nice to have you into.

Another big story that we're following today, a new report out from automaker G.M., the company has come under a lot of criticism for delaying its reporting of a deadly problem with car ignition switches. We're going to have details on what that report revealed and why more than a dozen G.M. employees out of a job today. That's next.


BANFIELD: Heads are rolling at General Motors over a faulty piece of equipment blamed for the deaths of least 13 people.

That is the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra. She stood today at her company's Michigan headquarters and she talked about, in her words, quote, "a pattern of incompetence and neglect over more than a decade." Barra said she dismissed 15 people and disciplined five others for not taking responsibility and for not treating with urgency a known problem that caused people to die.

Poppy Harlow is in Warren, Michigan. Poppy, we just talked about 13 people, but yesterday, you and I spoke about this impending report, and we were dying to know if that 13 could at all go higher, or if G.M. would acknowledge the fact other people might have died because of this problem, as well.

Did it say anything?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does not, at this point. This is a 315-page report that we just got in the last 20 minutes and we're poring through. But, no, in all of her announcements to staff and the media this morning, Mary Barra said the number still remains at 13.

However, I had a long exchange back and forth with the president of G.M., Dan Ammann, sitting right next to Mary Barra today, about that, because the big question here is, G.M. is only counting those frontal impact crashes where air bags did not deploy

They're only counting those deaths, not people that were hit from the side and died, not people that were sitting in the backseat and died.

And we have been wanting to know, why is that? Listen.


HARLOW: Why is General Motors only counting frontal crashes where air bags did not deploy for its list of those 13 deaths? Why are people that are sitting in the backseat of a car not counted even if they died, and the person sitting in front seat is?

DAN AMMANN, PRESIDENT, GENERAL MOTORS: So what we've done is we've analyzed all of the information we have available to us.

Based on one specific definition, as you described --

HARLOW: Right.

AMMANN: -- we've counted 13 people.

What's more important than the specific definition and relation to the number is what we're doing about it, and what we're doing is we're going out to do the right thing, with respect to establishing this compensation program.

And we want to go out and find all of the people that suffered the loss of loved ones or serious injuries as a result of this defect and do the right thing by those people.

HARLOW: Is that doing the right thing, to not count someone sit in backseat or someone where there's a side impact crash? Or are you saying that that number may go up if you determine that those people died as a result of the ignition switch? AMMANN: The rules and the eligibility of the criteria of the compensation program are being determined and set independently by Ken Feinberg. It will be his determination what the rules are, what the eligibility criteria are.

He hasn't concluded that yet. We expect that to happen in the next few weeks.


HARLOW: Bottom line, Ashleigh, we will see. They're sticking with 13, but there are indications that that number could go higher. The question is, how much higher?

BANFIELD: How much higher, and when might that be acknowledged?

Poppy Harlow, thank you for that, Poppy reporting live for us from Michigan.

And back to our top story, the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He is whisked away from the Taliban on a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter. But what do you suppose happened inside those doors on that chopper? What did those special forces do the moment they encountered him, and what were their first conversations?

You might be surprised at exactly what they are trained to do in a circumstance just like this. We'll talk with a former Navy SEAL just ahead.