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Motives, Mistakes, Excuses in Bergdahl Deal; Long, Difficult Recovery Ahead for Bergdahl; Putin's Harsh Words about Hillary Clinton Insult Women Worldwide.

Aired June 5, 2014 - 13:30   ET




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.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama speaking at the G-7 Summit in Brussels defending the deal that freed U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban. Mistakes and excuses are both part of the mix five days after Bergdahl was freed. And there's a key question, what were the motives for his release? The White House is getting a lot of backlash over the whole affair and there's a lot of politics involved as well from Republicans and Democrats.

Gloria Borger is here. She writes about this in her latest column on A very excellent column as well.

You're speaking to some former national security advisers to this president.


BLITZER: What do they say?

BORGER: I was told that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was, quote, "very uncomfortable" with the idea of this Guantanamo prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl when it was raised in 2011. This has been a topic of discussion, Wolf, for a couple of years. The fundamental discussion at that time, I'm told, was over the notion of whether you should negotiate with terrorists and hostage takers. And we now know that former CIA Director Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Gates were part of a very powerful triumvirate that rejected this idea at the time. What my source would not confirm is that Gates still opposes it because the secretary doesn't want to go there at this point. But Leon Panetta yesterday gave a speech, and according to the Pittsburgh newspaper, he said, "I don't fault the administration for wanting to get Bergdahl back. I do question whether the conditions are in place to make sure these terrorists don't go back into battle." And that was a key concern that was also raised in 2011, when they were there. How can you ensure they don't go back?

BLITZER: Nearly all of the president's top security advisers were opposed to any such deal.

BORGER: Right. They're gone.

BLITZER: Almost all of them are gone. Clapper is still there, the director of National Intelligence. He was strongly opposed at the time, as well. What the administration says, well, it's changed now because his health, Bowe Bergdahl's health, had deteriorated and they had inside information from whatever source that this guy potentially could have been killed.

BORGER: That's right. His health was in danger. His life was in danger. And Jim Acosta is reporting that, in fact, the Senators were told yesterday when briefed that if word had gotten out that they were threatening to kill Bergdahl and that may have been one of the reasons that they didn't notify or consult with the Congress in the timely fashion, which is what Congress is so upset about.

I think what they need to do at a certain point is start declassifying some of this information about who these prisoners are, about the discussions that were had, what occurred, so that the American public can understand and lift the veil on how these kind of decisions are made and why they're made. The president said, we don't leave anyone behind. I don't think anybody quarrels with that. I think the question is, how do you make this decision, why did you make this decision, and what can we learn from it?

BLITZER: Does it make any difference if, in fact, he had willingly deserted his unit or not, because is that an issue at all in a very difficult, complex decision making process.


BLITZER: There's a line you write in your column: "At least they're consistent. Micromanaging foreign policy from the West Wing has always been a hallmark not that it wins you any friends or political support, I guess it's too late for that now."

A lot of people have complained outside of the White House there's too much coordination coming in from the White House.

BORGER: Well, how about the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who went out and called it outrageous, that she had not been informed. I mean, even, you know, say Sergeant Bergdahl's life had been in danger, she's the chairman of the Senate Intelligent Committee. She's paid to keep secrets. If you can't trust her to keep a secret, I think that's a real problem.

And this notion of micromanaging foreign policy from the West Wing has been a large issue. It seems to me there are two ways the White House manages, either micromanaging from the West Wing or not managing at all, as in the V.A. and delegating that totally. It seems to me there ought to be a middle ground in which you do consult and talk to people outside your bubble and you get input from people who are paid to give you input, it's their job to give you input. And then maybe they can help themselves when they try to explain what happened with sergeant Bergdahl.

BLITZER: If they can't trust Dianne Feinstein or Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee --

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: -- two of the best friends this White House has, there's a real problem.

BORGER: Totally.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Gloria.

If you want to read more of Gloria's column, go to

Just ahead, Bowe Bergdahl's recovery from years of captivity could be a long and painful ordeal. The Pentagon has specific guidelines for how to deal with this trauma. Brian Todd is standing by. He's got specifics.

And later, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, takes a verbal jab at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but his insult has ended up offending a lot of women around the world. We'll tell you what's go on in the verbal battle between Putin and Clinton.


BLITZER: Bowe Bergdahl is currently listed in stable condition at U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Pentagon officials say he's speaking English and showing signs of improvement but, in many ways, he's still a prisoner of the Taliban. Recovery after five years of captivity can often be a very long and difficult ordeal.

Brian Todd is here.

You've more on the psychological hurdles that this soldier is now going to have to deal with and it's going to take a while.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It will, Wolf. This reintegration process is very laborious, very methodical. Bergdahl's only father had a very good analogy for. Take a listen.


ROBERT BERGDAHL, FATHER OF BOWE BERGDAHL: Bowe's been gone so long that it's going to be very difficult to come back. It's like a diver going deep on a dive and has to stage back up through recompression to get the nitrogen bubbles out of his system. If he comes up too fast, it could kill him.


TODD: Now, Army officials have told us this is a three-stage process. Stage one initial recovery, that's emergency medical care, that's early psychological support, maybe some time-sensitive intelligence briefings. That's at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan where he was handed over. That's done. He's finished with that. He's now in phase two of the recovery, which is called decompression, which is more thorough, psychological treatment. This is a lot of medical and psychological debriefing, trying to make sure he's ready for regular and more extensive social contact. This is going on right now for him at the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. Then, he's going to be accompanied by specially trained doctors who are trained in this SERE program, which is Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, the military program. They're going to accompany him to the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas where phase three will go on. That is the family reunion. That's the longest phase of his recovery, of his reintegration.

And what's interesting about that, Wolf, is in that initial meeting with your family, he's not met with them yet, and he's not even spoken to his parents on the phone yet. They give you a few minutes with your immediate family because it's emotionally overwhelming that you can't take much more than that. You've got withdraw.

We talked to a former hostage in Columbia. That's coming up later. He said it was so intense he had to withdraw after a couple of minutes seeing his family. It's very interesting.

BLITZER: You'll be working the story throughout the day. You'll have more in "The Situation Room" later today at 5:00 p.m. eastern.

TODD: Yes.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Coming up, Vladimir Putin delivers a sexist jab at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We'll tell you what he said. That's coming up.

And the world on the brink. The height of the Cold War is the focus of tonight's episode of the CNN series, "The Sixties." You'll hear what author and historian, Evan Thomas, has to say about that amazing era.


BLITZER: On "The Day in History," back in 1968, just minutes past midnight, Robert F. Kennedy was shot three times as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the Democratic presidential primary in California. The assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, later claimed he shot Kennedy because of Kennedy's support of Israel. Bobby Kennedy died from his wounds nearly 26 hours later.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is taking direct aim at Hillary Clinton. He is criticizing the former secretary of state in a new TV interview. But his harsh words are also insulting to a lot of women around the world.

Brianna Keilar working the story for us.

What exactly did the Russian leader say?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: As you know, Wolf, U.S. and Russian relations are strained at this point in time. We've heard a lot of criticism from Hillary Clinton towards Vladimir Putin. But Putin firing back, taking aim not at the substance of her remarks but partially based on her gender.


KEILAR (voice-over): Russian president Vladimir Putin taking a jab at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying, "It's better not to argue with women, but Mrs. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements."

His sexist barbs come after much criticism from Clinton. In March, in a private fundraiser in California, she compared his tactics in Ukraine to the most reviled history in modern history.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Now, if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did in the '30s.

KEILAR: A day later, she walked that comment back a bit but called Putin this --

CLINTON: -- a tough guy with a thin skin.

KEILAR: Then, this memorable description of Putin in early April --

CLINTON: He will even, you know, throw an insult your way. He will look bored and dismissive. He'll do all of that. But I have a lot of experience with people acting like that, so it's not like --


You know, it goes back to elementary school.

KEILAR: And later that month, she dinged Putin as she slammed NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, for fleeing to Russia.

CLINTON: I have a hard time thinking somebody who's a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia.

KEILAR: Putin dismissed Clinton's words Wednesday, saying, "When people push boundaries too far, it's not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."

There's no love lost between these two. Clinton, the face of the failed 2009 reset with Russia, and Putin kicked out of the G-7 and facing further sanctions if Russia doesn't help stabilize Ukraine.

But this bombast serves a political purpose for both. Putin playing to a home audience with a nationalist pitch. But Clinton, too, is looking for support, a possible presidential contender, seen as distancing herself from an unpopular president by highlighting her harder line on Russia.


KEILAR: Now Putin clearly wanted Clinton to know that he had said this, Wolf, because, again, these are -- it's an English transcript of his remarks on the Kremlin's website. It was purposeful that he put it out there.

BLITZER: But politically speaking, and assuming she's going to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, being criticized like this by Putin is not necessarily, from the American political perspective, a negative.

KEILAR: No, I don't think so. I think in a way -- especially, you've seen her try to distance herself a little bit from President Obama, be a little harsh on Putin. That's somewhat helpful and getting under his skin. It just reinforces that.

But I would say, even more than that, women are going to be so important to her if she does choose to run. And I think this is something that will aggravate a lot of women. One of the things I will also say, a reporter said at the end of his remarks something to the effect of, "But women should be respected," giving him a chance to kind of clean it up, and he didn't really respond. So I think this will work to her benefit.

BLITZER: He's Vladimir Putin.

KEILAR: Yeah, he is.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brianna Keilar.

Tensions between the United States and Russia are nothing new. Just ahead, the Cold War, the focus of tonight's CNN original series "The Sixties." We'll speak live with author and historian, Evan Thomas.

But first, take a look at part of tonight's episode.


JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A supreme national effort will be needed to move this country safely through the 1960s.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: Seven minutes past 1:00, a man went around the world. The spaceship was built in Russia.

TIMOTHY NAFTALI, HISTORIAN: If you could put a man into space, you can put nuclear warheads into space.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: The temper of the world is crisis.

ROBERT DALLEK, HISTORIAN: There was palpable fear in the United States and in the Soviet Union the two sides were going to get into a nuclear war.

KENNEDY: I do not shrink from this responsibility.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: 25 Russian ships are en route to Cuba on a collision course. The next 48 hours will be decisive.

DALLEK: Should we bomb? Should we invade? Back and forth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think unless something is done that humanity will destroy itself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who is going blink first?

ANNOUNCER: "The Sixties," Thursday at 9:00 on CNN.




MARY BARRA, CEO, GENERAL MOTORS: This should have never happened. It is unacceptable. Our customers need to know that they can count on our cars, trucks, actions and, most importantly, our word. Because of the actions of a few people and the willingness of others to condone bureaucratic processes that avoided accountability, we let these customers down.


BLITZER: The General Motors CEO Mary Barra in a sobering talk to employees this morning about why it took years for a company to fix a faulty ignition switch blamed for at least 13 deaths. After revealing the blistering findings in a three months investigation, Barra announced that 15 GM workers had been fired. Five others face disciplinary actions. Even so, Barra says the internal report found no evidence of a company wide cover up. She had that GM will set up a compensation fund for the victims and their families beginning August 1st.

Wall Street initially reacted favorably to Barra's comments. GM stock right now, trading at around $36 a square. Unmoved.

Let's check Wall Street right now. Take a look. It's up about 85 points, 16,800-plus, right now, the Dow Jones Industrials.

Nuclear bomb shelters, duck-and-cover drills, the Cuban Missile Crisis, they were all part of "The Sixties," a decade of danger and fear around the world. It was the height of the Cold War. That's the focus of tonight's episode of the new CNN original series, "The Sixties. Here's a closer look.


(BELL TOLLING) DALLEK: Early on in the sixties, you had this backdrop of tension. You have Capitalism versus Communism. There was palpable fear in the United States and in the Soviet Union that the two sides were going to get into a nuclear war.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: The temper of the world is crisis. Architect of the crisis?


NAFTALI: As the head of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev was very ideological. He believed that the future belonged to Communism. He said, "America needs to be contained, and the only way to do it is to create crises all around the American empire."


BLITZER: The author and historian, Evan Thomas, is here with me right now.

How dangerous, looking back on the 60s, was that Cold War era?

EVAN THOMAS, AUTHOR & HISTORIAN: Dangerous enough. The Cuban Missile Crisis, we actually came pretty close. It wasn't -- neither side wanted to go to war but the chance of miscalculations, that we would get too close to the edge and tip over it, we came pretty close in 1962.

BLITZER: How did President Kennedy handle the Cuban Missile Crisis? Looking back, we are obviously all a lot smarter with hindsight.

THOMAS: It was his finest hour. He was a rooky coming in. Khrushchev was a bully in 1961. By 1962, he rose to it. He cooked up a deal. He did a face-saving deal that got us out of the crisis. It took some cool. He was the cool hand on that. You can listen to the tapes of those meetings. Kennedy was cool and got us out of a real jam.

BLITZER: But he was surrounded by real people. Maybe not necessarily when it came to the Vietnam War later. But on this particular issue, he had some of the best and the brightest, as they used to say.

THOMAS: He did. He did. He put together a group called the (INAUDIBLE). But some of those smart guys wanted to invade and bomb. That would have been a huge mistake. The Soviets had put short-range nuclear missiles on the beach. If we tried to invade Cuba, that could have started a nuclear war.

BLITZER: Looking back on the whole Cold War era, a lot of historians now say the U.S. over emphasized, exaggerated the actually Soviet threat to the United States. What do you think?

THOMAS: We certainly exaggerated the Soviet missile strength. The so-called missile gap was phony. It was a political thing. Kennedy played on that and he shouldn't have. But there were real risks. Maybe the Soviets weren't as strong as we said they were but they still had nuclear weapons. Khrushchev was not the most stable guy in the world. I think the risk was real. Maybe we exaggerated the threat but the risk was real.

BLITZER: What do you think the Soviets really wanted, Khrushchev, by deploying those missiles in Cuba?

THOMAS: I think he wanted -- well, at heart, he wanted respect. He wanted the Soviet Union to be -- he was a bully who wanted to be respected. The Soviet Union was economically weak. They always felt surrounded by their enemies. They wanted the world to look at them and fear. And he succeeded. You have to say he succeeded with that.

BLITZER: I was in Moscow in 1991 to 1992 at the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union. But right now, we're seeing echoes of the world war coming back right now. You think back to then and you see what's going on now in the U.S./Russian relation, you say?

THOMAS: It's uncomfortable making. It is. Putin is doing this bullying, bombastic thing like Khrushchev. Not as bad as Khrushchev. I think Putin is smarter. And it's a mistake to say history repeats itself because it doesn't. But there are echoes and rhymes. And the nationalistic bombastic railing against America, that's dangerous. We're not in nuclear alert. It's not the Cold War. But it's not safe.

BLITZER: When Hillary Clinton makes a comment that what Putin is doing in the Ukraine is reminiscent of what Hitler did in the '30s, it sort of -- she sort of finessed that back a little bit, but those are tough words.

THOMAS: I don't think that is all that hopeful. I think what got us into trouble was too much hot rhetoric. Khrushchev said, "We will bury you." And the American rhetoric wasn't like that, but it was pretty touch. You can get yourself in trouble with talk. When you have nuclear weapons and you can destroy the world in less than 30 minutes, it's a dangerous game to play.

BLITZER: You're one of the best historians ever. You teach at Princeton. You're working on a new biography of Nixon. You see the Bergdahl controversy that has erupted this week. Give us a little historic perspective.

THOMAS: Well, you know, this -- we leave nobody behind is a great tradition. But war is complicated. It's messy. They are deserters. People run. It's just it underscores the essential tragedy of these fights. There is nothing clean about this. It's all messy. The Taliban are terrible. I feel sorry for this guy. But it looks like he possibly was a deserter. It reminds us why we don't want to get into wars, how messy they are.

BLITZER: It reminds a lot of us who lived through that era of the pain and torment of the Vietnam War and all the pain that those soldiers suffered at that time, coming home, and even when they were in Vietnam.

THOMAS: We should never forget. BLITZER: Evan, thanks very much for joining us.

THOMAS: Thank you.

BLITZER: I want you to watch tonight, 9:00 p.m. eastern, part two.

Last week, I don't know if you saw it but it was excellent on the music of the '60s. Tonight, the Cold War, check it out. If you didn't see it, you should watch last week's. If you can't watch it tonight, DVR it. You will learn something. This is excellent TV.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. eastern in "The Situation Room." The president's deputy national security advisor, Tony Blinken, he will joins us to discuss the Bergdahl swap.

NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.