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No Apologies for Bergdahl Deal; Bergdahl's Hometown Reacts; Bergdahl Negotiations; Celebration Called Off; Bergdahl Deal

Aired June 5, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, President Obama doubles down on his decision to trade Afghan prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl's freedom. The president says he's making no apologies for, quote, "making sure we get a young man back to his parents."

Right now, we're getting new details on Bowe Bergdahl's recovery. He's undergoing what's described as a deep compression process, so carefully calculated that it could take weeks, perhaps even months to complete.

And right now, a new chapter of the war of words between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Hillary Clinton. Putin essentially calls Hillary Clinton weak and ungraceful. This, after Clinton called Putin, quote, "a tough guy with a thin skin."

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We're learning new details about the condition of the freed Army sergeant, Bowe Bergdahl. And we have the latest on the political firestorm over the deal that freed him. The Pentagon now saying Bergdahl is showing signs of improvement. He said to be speaking in English and is described as more engaged in his treatment.

Previously, a senior defense official said Bergdahl was having trouble speaking English, the Pentagon spokesman says he has not talked to his parents yet. Bergdahl's is being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, that's where he was taken after his release from captivity. No word when he'll head off to a U.S. military base in San Antonio.

President Obama, meanwhile, is offering an impassioned defense of the deal that freed Bowe Bergdahl. The agreement to release five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in exchange for Bergdahl set off a political firestorm. At a news conference in Brussels today, the president reiterated that he followed a basic principle, leave no soldier behind. He also talked about Bergdahl's parents who are caught up in the backlash.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land, who they hadn't seen in five years and weren't sure whether they'd ever see again. And as command and chief of the United States Armed Forces, I am responsible for those kids. And I got letters from parents who say, if you are, in fact, sending my child into war, make sure that that child is being taken care of. And I write too many letters to folks who unfortunately don't see their children again after fighting a war. I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody's child.


BLITZER: So, will President Obama's comments do anything to calm the furor over the Bergdahl deal? Joining us now to talk about the fallout and what's going on our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto, "Time" magazine, Washington bureau chief, Michael Scherer and CNN's Senior Washington Correspondent Joe Johns.

Jim, what do you think? Did the president make a convincing case?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, he made a firm case, unapologetic, but also an impassioned case, taking it to the heart, in effect, saying these are -- and he said in his words, I'm responsible for those kids. They volunteer to go fight in foreign lands, we have a responsibility to them.

But also taking a military point of view here, saying we don't leave -- we leave no soldier behind, and this is a point that's been repeated in recent days, for instance, by General Stanley McChrystal. He was a commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009 when Bergdahl disappeared. He said the same thing, forces go missing, we rescue them. You settle questions about how they went missing after the fact and that's effectively the president's position.

BLITZER: Michael, you have a very strong cover story in the new issue of "Time" magazine. I'll put the cover up on the screen and our viewers can see it. A headline, very simple headline, was it worth it? There it is right now. And you've got all of your reporters. You've got a lengthy analysis. What's the answer? Was it worth it?

MICHAEL SCHERER, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: We don't know yet. It's clear that a number of people in the country and a number of people in Congress are very skeptical as to whether it was worth it. No one's disagreeing with the principle the president laid out, we don't leave a soldier behind. The question is, was the cost too high, freeing five Taliban prisoners who had been denied release before because of secret and top secret information about the possibility they return to the battlefield. And was the process appropriate, not telling Congress, following the law, using a signing statement of the president 2007 during the campaign said he wasn't going to use as a way of getting this done.

BLITZER: Well, were they surprised, based on all your reporting and "Time" magazine's reporting how this uproar has developed since Saturday night when he was out there in the Rose Garden with the parents of Bowe Bergdahl, making the announcement. Have they been surprised, taken aback by all of this?

SCHERER: I think so and I think you can see it by the way they framed the initial rollout. I think if they had to do it over, they wouldn't have done it in the same way. One of the big problems the president's had is that they framed that event on Saturday as a very clear-cut we're bringing a hero home, they had national security adviser Rice go out on Sunday, say that basically he was a hero. The facts of his case, which have been known in the White House and around town for years now, we've written about it years ago, are far more complex than that. I mean, this guy -- it's a very complicated case. There's a lot of gray areas here. And by framing it as this cut and dry, you know, let's rally around the hero story, I think they did some damage.

BLITZER: So, Joe, you've been on the Hill getting reaction following what's going on. And there has been a lot of developments up there.

I want to play a clip, this is the President of the United States talking about the failure to go ahead and do what the law stipulated, notified Congress 30 days in advance before anyone is allowed to leave. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had discussed with Congress the possibility that something like this might occur, but because of the nature of the folks that we were dealing with and the fragile nature of these negotiations, we felt it was important to go ahead and do what we did, and we're now explaining to Congress the details of how we move forward.


BLITZER: All right. So, how's that playing on the Hill?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It's not playing real well, Wolf, quite frankly. This issue has kind of been overshadowed by the national security concerns, the five for one swap. But it's still important because of what Michael talked about, the process issue. And there's been a question, of course, whether the law was broken and who got notified and when.

So, we have Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, actually one of the few people who said, he was actually, perhaps, notified beforehand, one day beforehand, which still would not have satisfied the law, but he was asked about that again today and listen to what he said.


SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: We all know that the president had a very short period of time to make a decision. He made a decision to bring him home and I'm glad he did because, in my opinion -- based on nothing that was in the classified briefing, in my opinion, every day he was there was a day closer to his dying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How come it seems you're the only one who got a heads up the day before?

REID: I'm not sure I'm the only one. I mean, it's been made a big deal over nothing. The whole deal is it Friday or Saturday? What difference does it make? (END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Now, it does make a difference because if he was the only person in the loop, that's important. He's a Democrat of the president's party, and there are other leaders, even Republican leaders, who could have been notified as well. Still, it wouldn't have satisfied the legal requirement of 30 days and that's part of the uproar on Capitol Hill -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And you know Republicans, that phrase, what difference does it make, they're going to play that and play that, referring to Hillary Clinton's comment when she was testifying about the Benghazi terror attack when she said, paraphrasing, what difference does it make? They're going to have a field day with that one.

JOHNS: Absolutely. And it's going to ring in the ears both Republicans and Democrats. And remember, the administration initially said that the big issue was health of Bowe Bergdahl, people looked at that classified video and said, well, maybe he was just drugged.

So, that raises a question, too, about the administration's motivation. One of the things you do have to say here, though, is there has been an operational security concern on things like this predating the Obama administration, concerns about going to Capitol Hill, telling them about a negotiation that was going on, and that information leaking out and then killing the negotiation they were trying to have. So, the question is whether their big concern was about letting the secret get out.

BLITZER: Jim, you wanted to say something?

SCIUTTO: Well, just two things. The other, of course, negotiation they didn't speak to the Hill about was with the Iranians over the nuclear program, another one they kept it secret. They felt it would spoil the -- but we talked about how his health situation changed that added urgency. The other thing that changed was the other thing that changed the president's announcement about the withdrawal of troops. You are now drawing down in Afghanistan. You've set a date. The administration knows. The military knows. When you do that, you lose leverage. That added to the urgency as well.

BLITZER: All Right, guys, hold on for a moment because we have more to discuss, stand by, right after the break.

There's also new information about how Bowe Bergdahl was finally freed by the Taliban. It took a year of secret talks to apparently make it happen. We'll have the details coming up.

And later, Bergdahl's hometown reacting to the backlash surrounding his relief. Plus, a big party for his homecoming now gets called off. We'll go to the scene. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Fascinating, new details are emerging today about the release of the U.S. Army captive, Bowe Bergdahl. The short, tense meeting on Saturday between U.S. Special Forces and the Taliban took a year to put together. Even though it went off without a hitch, no one on the ground was sure what would happen. The Americans took off as soon as they had Bergdahl in that military helicopter. Let's bring in our Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott. She's joining our National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto and "Time" magazine's Washington bureau chief, Michael Scherer.

Elise, you've got some new information on what was going on. Give us a few of the headlines.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, negotiations started in 2010, 2011. But it was the last year when Qatar got involved being a mediator, a middleman, between the U.S. and the Taliban that these negotiations took off. But they were really long and arduous. This was no shuttle diplomacy going from hotel room to hotel room in the same location. Sometimes the team would -- U.S. team would land on the ground to pass a message and it would be a week or so, sometimes several weeks, before they heard back. It wasn't until that final week when the messages became -- coming fast and furious almost on a daily basis that the U.S. figured that they had a deal that was sealed with the Amir of Qatar and the president.

But, as we said, it wasn't until they -- Special Forces said they had Bowe Bergdahl in hand that they knew that this was really happening, because they didn't have the confidence that those foot soldiers that were holding Bowe Bergdahl were really going implement and execute their Taliban political orders.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Well, stand by, because I want to bring Michael back into this. And the cover story in "Time" magazine, Was It Worth It? That's the cover. Your reporter in Beirut, Aryne Baker, she has an exclusive, this is a major exclusive. She actually spoke with some of those Taliban-Haqqani terrorists, if you will, who were holding Bowe Bergdahl for several -- for five years. Give us the upshot of what these guys told your correspondent.

SCHERER: They said a number of things. The headline coming out of it, though, was that they feel this was enormous success for them. It gave recognition to the Taliban from the U.S. government which they hadn't gotten before, and also that they saw it as sort of a blueprint for what they could do in the future. Asked -- Erin (ph) asked the commander, would you look to kidnap other American soldiers in the future and the answer was, yes. To go after someone like this, you can then bargain with, who has so much value, is much more effective than kidnapping large groups of people who won't have as much value.

BLITZER: We're going to speak with her in "THE SITUATION ROOM" at 5:00 p.m. Eastern later today, Aryne Baker, who spoke with these Haqqani captors, if you will, the people who were holding Bowe Bergdahl.

This is exactly what the administration, as you know, doesn't want to hear. These guys are now saying, big victory, huge victory, and, you know what, we're going to do more of this. We're going it go capture some more American soldiers because we know this administration is going to release more of these Taliban detainees from Gitmo if we do. Those are pretty blunt words from these Taliban/Haqqani guys. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question.

And that's the reason why the U.S. has generally stuck to this rule, we don't negotiate with terrorists. And that has had a real effect because, in my experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, when journalists or others were taken, the groups that take these -- take hostages knew that the Italians, the French and others would negotiate, would pay money. They knew that they would get what they wanted out of that.

Now, the circumstances here, he's the only one. He's the only soldier. You're drawing down forces. And Taliban, it's a terrorist group, but it also happens to be the enemy, right, in a 13-year war, who else do you negotiate with if you want to gain his freedom? It's, you know, it's a tough -- the administration was in a tough place and made a tough decision. And the cost, you know, we're not going to know what the costs are for some time.

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) got good sources who were watching what's going on in Qatar right now. These five freed Taliban I guess detainees, whatever you want to call them -


BLITZER: They've got a pretty good life going on, right, now for the next year. They're not really under house arrest. They can walk around. If they want to go to a restaurant, they want to go to a mall, they want to make a phone call.

LABOTT: Want to go to the beach.

BLITZER: They can do whatever - they can basically do whatever they want.

LABOTT: Well, they're not under house arrest and certainly they're able to roam the country. But I think what's key, the U.S. would say, is the Qataris are restricting their activities. They're not allowed to take part in the Taliban movement. They're not allowed to fundraise. They're not allowed to engage in activities that create incitement. And this is what the U.S. says. Yes, you've got to distinguish between the quality of life, which, you know, living in Doha at the expense of the Qatari government may not be so bad, and the difference that that would make to U.S. forces and the Afghans on the battlefield to help the Taliban and the U.S. says that is really minimal, Wolf.

SCIUTTO: And to be fair, 600 other Guantanamo detainees have been released since the prison was open. And recidivism is a problem. It's had to be dealt with. And, generally, about one to six - one in six return to terrorism. Another 10 percent suspected. So this is an issue that's been faced before as you empty out Guantanamo Bay.

BLITZER: We'll leave it on that note, but we're going to have a lot more coming up. Jim, of course, you'll be with us throughout the day, as will Elise. Michael Scherer of "Time" magazine, thanks for your good reporting.

SCHERER: Well, thank you. BLITZER: Concerns over public safety, that's the reason given for calling off a big welcome home celebration for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The organizers' worries and the community's reaction to the backlash against Bergdahl's release. That's coming up next.


BLITZER: A big hometown celebration for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl won't be happening after all. Organizers now say too many people were planning to attend the event in the small town of Hailey, Idaho, both Bergdahl supporters and detractors. Because of the anticipated huge crowd, official says they couldn't guarantee the public's safety. Our George Howell is joining us now live from Hailey, Idaho.

George, this was supposed to be a big, festive, warm event welcoming him home. So what happened?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you're right, there was a lot of excitement about this event here in Hailey, Idaho, to see Bowe Bergdahl return here. But as you mentioned, it did come down to a matter of public safety, first by the organizers. These organizers who would have to foot the bill basically, you know, to cover the extra security, to watch over, to keep order with all of the people that could come to town.

And that was also the city's concern. You know, this is a city of about 8,000 people and, you know, the police chief told me just an hour ago that he was worried. He heard word that some 2,000 to 3,000 protesters from Texas, from California, could be part of the mix here. And there could be many, many more. Protesters and supports, just too big for this city. They don't have the infrastructure to support it.

You know, I spoke with the police chief earlier, also spoke with the Blaine County commissioner about what happens when Bowe Bergdahl does return here to Hailey. Take a listen to this.


CHIEF JEFF GUNTER, HAILEY, IDAHO, POLICE: Well, you know, we're going to put together a plan that we need to put together. Right now we've got plenty of time. You know, they're going to take their time with Bowe's recovery and, you know, right now, until we have a date certain, we've got a lot of time to work on that plan. And, you know, as time goes on, we'll know more about what type of plan we have to put together.

LARRY SCHOEN, BLAINE COUNTY, IDAHO, COMMISSIONER: Our people, they live here, and we need to stand by them. There's been a lot of controversy about Sergeant Bergdahl's release for many different reasons. But the most important thing for us here in Blaine County is to stand by the Bergdahls.


HOWELL: So back-to-back there you hear these two officials. The police chief even telling me he's known the Bergdahls for many, many years. He supports that family. You also hear from the county commissioner saying, look, this community, this city, Bowe Bergdahl's hometown, they stand by him, though there are many opinions, many people talking about this case and officials here worry that, you know, there could be a lot of people come to town had they had that big celebration.

BLITZER: And how are they reacting to all the criticism from some of his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan that he actually was a deserter?

HOWELL: You know, you talk to people day by day as the new elements come out about, you know, this case around Bowe Bergdahl. But people here seem to just stay out of it. You know, they read those headlines that are coming out but they want to hear it directly from Bowe Bergdahl. They're waiting for him to return here to Hailey to hear the story from him directly. So they're staying out of the politics for this - for the time being, Wolf, just waiting for this hometown son to return here to Hailey.

BLITZER: So no big hometown celebration for this returning American soldier.

All right, George, thanks very much.

Coming up, motives, mistakes and excuses in the deal that freed the Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Our own Gloria Borger standing by to discuss.

And later, Bergdahl may be out of Afghanistan, but he's still a long way from home. Our own Brian Todd, he's standing by as well. He's got a closer look at the psychological hurdles Bergdahl is likely to have to overcome.