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Bergdahl Controversy; Bergdahl Speaks to Medical Team; Bergdahl Tried Twice To Escape Taliban; Bergdahl May Have Been on Drugs When Captured

Aired June 6, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It's Friday, June 6th, the 70th anniversary of D-Day. And welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

I want to draw your attention to the picture on your screen. You know, you recognize that as the Statue of Liberty. These are live pictures out of helicopters because the statue, Lady Liberty herself, is about to be showered by 1 million rose petals. Some of them, we are told, have already fallen.

But effectively this is a celebration that's being done by a group called the French Will Never Forget. It is a tribute to show gratitude from the French as part of today's commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which has also been going on all morning on Normandy Beach, in fact. And that statue, as you will well remember, it was a gift from France to the United States to celebrate the first 100 years of this country.

It's hard to really see this, but what's so terrific about these pictures that you're seeing is that as the rose petals fall out of the helicopter, and I'm sure the downdraft of the chopper blades, the rotors, are certainly helping them to disperse throughout that area where there are many people gathered for this. It's a delightful moment as about 130 American and French children will unfurl two giant flags too, right out in front of Lady Liberty. Of course, an American flag and a French flag.

This is all sort of wrapping up a two-hour event that's been going on right out there. You'll know that's right close to Ellis Island as well. And you can take the ferry right from the tip of Manhattan and do that wonderful tour to the area. Oh what a beautiful shot. Look at that. A million rose petals. Do not ask me who counted them, but we are told that is exactly what's falling from those helicopters to the people below.

Just so you remember here, what's terrific about the statue and this particular day that brings these two nations together as they celebrate or at least commemorate over on the beaches of Normandy the 10,000 casualties, about half of them American, from that fateful day that really brought about the ending of World War II, is that the celebration has been here, showing the unification of these two countries, the friendship and the bond. There are the children, the schoolchildren who have unfurled those two flags. And the rose petals should be falling all around them.

If you haven't been to the Statue of Liberty, a couple of things that you might want to take a look at. You can see the rays on the crown of Lady Liberty. There are seven of them. And they're meant to represent the seven seas and the continents of the world. The tablet that she's holding in her left arm, it reads in roman numerals, July 4, 1776.

And that statue arrived in New York Harbor in June of 1885, but it was in about 300 copper pieces, so it took quite some time to assemble it. It was completed in 1886, of course. That was a thank you from the French for the enduring help and partnership of our two countries, but also to commemorate 100 years of the United States of America. Again, all of this to commemorate what's been going on over on the beaches overseas, the 70th anniversary of the storming.

By the way, just a reminder, so that you know, roughly 4,000 or so dead on one day on the beaches of Normandy. And that is close to the number of casualties, deaths, of American soldiers in two of our 13- year wars now, Iraq and Afghanistan. One day on the beaches of Normandy. Just a pretty remarkable statistic if you think about it.

I want to move on because we've got some big news happening. The White House, facing heavy criticism from Congress, is now beefing up its defense of the controversial deal that freed POW Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. The White House is trying to justify its secrecy about the trade until it was done.

The Obama administration now saying that if news of Bergdahl's release had leaked, the Taliban may very well have killed him on the spot and that the special ops forces who rescued him may also have been in grave danger as well. This morning, National Security Adviser Susan Rice spoke with senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta and she defended Bergdahl against the accusations that he may have been a deserter of the U.S. military.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I want to start off with Bowe Bergdahl. Let's just jump right into it. I guess yesterday there were congressional sources telling reporters that had word leaked out about the deal to free Bowe Bergdahl, that he would have been killed. Did the administration explain that to lawmakers? And is that the reason why the administration did not notify Congress before this exchange took place?

SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, Jim, we were very concerned about the well-being of Bowe Bergdahl. He'd been in captivity for five years. We had indications that his health may be fragile. And so there was a real sense of urgency to obtaining his freedom.

The president had the opportunity to do so. And it was an opportunity that could well have been fleeting. And he chose to take it. And he feels very strongly that that was the right decision. All of us on the national security team were unanimous in supporting and recommending that we take this opportunity.

ACOSTA: But was that the reason why you didn't notify Congress, because there was this threat on his life if word had leaked out?

RICE: We had reason to be concerned about his life. But we also had reason to be concerned that the 30-day period that would normally be honored was too long. That had we waited that long, we may have well missioned what General Dempsey had called the last best opportunity to bring him back.

We don't leave anybody on the battlefield, regardless of the conditions of their capture. And as a prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl deserved, and we had the obligation, and the commander in chief had the obligation, to do what was necessary to bring him home.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you about some comments you made last Sunday on one of the Sunday talk shows. You said that Bowe Bergdahl served with honor and distinction. It's come out since then that some of his fellow soldiers say he was a deserter, he may have wandered off the post there in Afghanistan. Did you misspeak? Did you get that wrong?

RICE: Jim, I realize there's been a lot of discussion and controversy around this, but what I was referring to is the face that this was a young man who volunteered to serve his country in uniform at a time of war. That is itself a very honorable thing. And --

ACOSTA: But honor and distinction?

RICE: Jim, really, I mean, this is a young man whose circumstances we are still going to learn about. He is, as all Americans, innocent until proven guilty. He's now being tried in the court of public opinion after having gone through an enormously traumatic five years of captivity. His parents, the same.

I think what we need to care most about is his health and well-being and recovery. There will be an opportunity, and the military has committed, to review the circumstances of his capture. If there is a consequence that results from that, that will be -- that will be delivered. But in the meantime, let's remember, this is a young man who volunteered to serve his country. He was taken as a prisoner of war. He suffered in captivity. He's now trying to begin the process of recovery. Let's let that happen and then let's know the facts, including his side of the story, and then we can make a judgment.

ACOSTA: OK. Do you know, based on the latest information, was he a deserter?

RICE: We don't have reason to come to that conclusion yet. Obviously, he needs to be debriefed. His side of the story matters too. Let the military work in the first instance to bring him back to health. We'll have a full and comprehensive review of what happened and then we'll be able to make that judgment.


BANFIELD: Joining me now to talk about Bowe Bergdahl's service is New York State Senator and U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps Reservist Lee Zeldin, along with former Navy SEAL Chris Heben.

And, senator, I want to begin with you if I can. The notion that Susan Rice what use the terms "honor an distinction" and then chastise that anyone who questions this, given what his fellow soldiers are saying, should back off and wait until the investigation is done, some would say she perhaps should wait to use those terms until the investigation is done. Does it make any difference legally going forward for Bowe Bergdahl if he's going to face any kind of prosecution that Susan Rice used "honor and distinction"?

LEE ZELDIN, NEW YORK STATE SENATOR: I think it's more of a moral characterization. I think the only way it could fit its way into a legal realm is if Bowe Bergdahl is court marshaled, convicted and, during sentencing, maybe his attorney would bring that up as mitigation, saying, hey, here we have the president of the United States saying this or Chuck Hagel saying this or Susan Rice saying that. In that case, maybe they can get a lower sentence because --

BANFIELD: So words could matter here?

ZELDIN: It could, but probably not so much in determining whether or not he committed a crime. Maybe down the road in deciding what the appropriate sentence would be.


And, Chris, to you, you know, with regard to your service and what - you know, the time that you spent in Afghanistan, knowing what some of his comrades are saying as well, when you hear the terms "honor and distinction" and then you hear Susan Right suggesting that we all need to wait to find out what the full story is before there's any criticism of those words, how is that, for a fellow soldier to hear that, knowing that there is still another side, before we determine whether there's honor and distinction?

CHRIS HEBEN, FORMER NAVY SEAL: Well, Ashleigh, you know, any time, no matter how thinly you slice something, there's always two sides. That is a boiler plate statement by her. It's just run of the mill. It's just something you put a stamp on and go. She has a duty to say that. And he is innocent until proven guilty. I agree with that 100 percent. But when you hear the words from his comrades, the guys that served to the left and to the right of him, it tells a completely different story. So, you know, that's what -- I would tend to believe those guys that he was in the field with.

BANFIELD: You know, Chris, Susan Rice says, look, I was talking about a guy who volunteered for service and went overseas. And she seems to narrow it to that window. You volunteered for service.


BANFIELD: You went overseas. You've been in both theaters. You've been shot at. And you've returned in a valiant way and now you're being characterized the same way as he is and we don't know the full story. I just wonder, as a fellow soldier, is that sitting well with you? HEBEN: It's not. And, you know, those guys, his fellow soldiers, were

issued gag orders that specifically stated you are not to say anything until he is either confirmed dead or we have him back in U.S. custody. So now that the latter has happened, these guys are willfully coming out left and right. I mean there's - I would tend to believe the men that he served with and the women that he served with, rather than a blanket statement, a boiler plate statement that was issued by Rice.


HEBEN: That's just my personal opinion.

BANFIELD: So, you know what -

HEBEN: But, you know, I also do agree -

BANFIELD: Go ahead.

HEBEN: Let's -- let's let the facts come out. But, you know, I'm also not confident that the facts are going to come out. I mean we still don't even know what happened at Benghazi and now we're adding another log on to that fire. So I'm a little concerned.

BANFIELD: Well, I don't want to start bring Benghazi into this conversation.


BANFIELD: I think it's a legitimate conversation to have, but when it comes to Bowe Bergdahl, so many unanswered questions and so many of them could be answered at Landstuhl actually at the medical center.

So I want to go live there right now because our Matthew Chance is there, he's standing by, not able to speak with Bowe Bergdahl, but certainly we're getting some breaking news and some changes about his condition, his day to day, his sun up to sun down routine and who is seeing him and what they're saying.

Matthew, walk me through it.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Ashleigh, well, actually, the medical teams here at Landstuhl Regional Medical Facility, which is a U.S. military hospital in southern Germany, they're being extremely tight-lipped about the conditions in which Sergeant Bergdahl is being kept and about his physical and mental state as well. We are having periodic sort of press releases from the medical teams inside the hospital.

They're saying essentially he's in a stable condition. He's not in a deteriorating health situation. And the sense you get from them very much is that he's improving on a daily basis, but at no point was his life in jeopardy as far as the medical teams are concerned here. (INAUDIBLE) important of course because it's one of the reasons, and we heard that there from Susan Right, one of the reasons why they acted so quickly at the White House to approve this prisoner swap, because they believed his life was in jeopardy. That intention (ph) to the kind of remarks we're hearing coming out of the medical facility.

In terms of what he's doing on a daily basis, he's not bedridden. He's resting better though, according to the latest statement. He's engaged in physical therapy in terms of his medical needs. They're not going into any great detail about what those medical needs are except to say that part of his treatment involves addressing his dietary and nutritional needs after spending nearly five years in Taliban captivity. But any other medical conditions are not being made public.

Also, there's a psychological aspect to this of course. We don't know the condition in which he was kept. Undoubtedly Sergeant Bergdahl is traumatized. And until that is stabilized or understood, he's not going to be going back to the United States.

BANFIELD: Fascinating stuff. And there's just so many more questions we want answered. And not the least of which, Matthew, I know we don't have the answer to it yet is, why he hasn't seen his parents yet. Word is he can't travel yet, but they certainly can. So it's a curious story that has not a final answer yet. Matthew Chance, live for us at Landstuhl, thank you. Lee Zeldin, Chris Heben, stay with me, if you will.

Tonight, Jake Tapper is going to go behind the political firestorm to find out who is Bowe Bergdahl. It's tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific right here on CNN.

So much focus has been on Sergeant Bergdahl's capture and his release, but what about the five years in between? Next, some new details about how Bergdahl apparently tried to escape, and not just once. That's next.


BANFIELD: Some are calling Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, and others are taking it further, saying that Bergdahl may have wanted to actually join the Taliban.

But it also seems that he was eager to get away from them. A U.S. official is telling CNN the POW tried to escape from captivity two different times.

Meanwhile, we have new information about how the Taliban may have captured Bergdahl. An Afghan security official tells CNN when local villagers spotted him in 2009, they tried to get him to leave the village, telling him the area was dangerous. The official says that Bergdahl appeared to be under the influence of an hallucinogenic substantiate.

Joining me now is Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, along with New York State Senator and Army JAG reservist Lee Zeldin, and former Navy SEAL, SEAL Team 8, Chris Heben. He's in Cleveland.

First to you, Barbara, really remarkable reporting, this information that Sergeant Bergdahl may have attempted in his five years to get away twice. I suppose not surprising but remarkable that we're learning about it. What else do we know about it? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We know very little,

Ashleigh, and I think it's extremely important to keep saying until the facts can be made public, until Sergeant Bergdahl can speak for himself, there is little that we do know.

A U.S. official tells me there is intelligence suggesting that he did try and escape. They need to talk to him to find out exactly what happened.

This other reporting from Taliban sources, hallucinogenic drugs, being seen in a village, that is what local Afghans, especially a security official who was on duty in the area the night he disappeared, that they are saying. That is something that CNN has not been able to independently verify.

And I want to throw one more thing into all of this, about Sergeant Bergdahl's health, people are now talking about was his health in imminent danger, was he in imminent danger? Why did they feel they had to rescue him so quickly?

What U.S. officials have continued to say, they thought his health was in decline and that his health and safety were at risk. There was apparently a good deal of concern, we are told, that they felt the Taliban would have little use for him after U.S. troops pulled out in the next several months and that added into the decision-making mix.

BANFIELD: And it's fascinating, and hearing the dribs and drabs of information from so many different sources. And there's one senator at least who's now going into far greater detail about that tape that he saw in the secret briefing, the Senate briefing the other day.

And a little later in the show, Barbara, we're going to actually describe a lot more of what that was on the tape, what Sergeant Bergdahl was doing in that tape where they suggested he seemed drugged and exhausted and in failing health. You're going to hear those details in a moment.

But Senator Zeldin, to you, what Barbara just reported about the notion he may have attempted to escape twice during activity, is that something that works into this bigger story of who he was, why he was actually captured, what led to the -- what were the circumstances that led to his capture. Does this mitigate anything or is this just par for the course, a POW just tries to escape?

LEE ZELDIN, NEW YORK STATE SENATOR: Yeah, I mean, you can't blame him. It's really part of training for a POW. And I'm sure Chris, as a former Navy SEAL, knows a lot about this.

If you see an opportunity to leave, you try to take advantage of it.

BANFIELD: But it certainly does put a rest a lot of rumors that he was working with the enemy, for crying out loud.

ZELDIN: If true, that can certainly help provide some important substantiate. I think as far as deciding whether or not to court-martial him, whether or not he was AWOL, whether of not he should be court- martialed for desertion, I don't think that the elements of that particular offense, or those offenses, change just because he tried to leave.

BANFIELD: Yeah, that's all still part of the notion whether this is even going to happen, any kind of prosecution against him. There's nothing on the table at this point. Certainly the Pentagon's not suggesting there's any documentation to prove there needs to be.

Chris, to this end, I also want to ask you a little bit about the reporting about the exigent circumstances that the administration is quoting at this point for this deal to trade the five soldiers.

They're saying that, if any kind of leak of this operation had happened, this could have resulted in the instant death of Bergdahl, and there is some reporting to suggest the Taliban officers and those in command didn't have as strong a hold over their foot soldiers who actually had him in their grasps, that if those foot soldiers decided things weren't going their way, they could have slit his throat in a heartbeat.

From your knowledge of being in theater and on the ground and the studies that we've done of those foot soldiers, does that sound legitimate, that there's this big disconnect between the management and the operations within the Taliban?

CHRIS HEBEN, FORMER NAVY SEAL: I would say that's a fair and accurate statement. The command structure in the Taliban is not like the command structure in U.S. and NATO forces. Let's just get that out there right now.

Then when you do have things like hallucinogenic drugs being used, or opiates, heroin, you name it, I mean, the potential for a catastrophic event is pretty clear. So, you know, I get that they wanted to keep a tight lock on everything. I can completely see that.

But then it kind of asks another question, jeez, if we can't share military operations or government operations with our own Congress and Senate, I mean, what -- that's kind of disturbing to me. I get it, but --

BANFIELD: If you're dealing with complete lunatics, which many have classified the Taliban from the get-go, but certainly hearing that kind of report, they don't sound like the brightest military in the bunch, just in terms of operations, notwithstanding their prowess.

I'm not going to suggest that they haven't beaten a lot of forces in the last several hundred years.

HEBEN: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: Let me bring in CNN's national security analyst, at the point, and former CIA operative Bob Baer, because a Taliban commander, Bob, has told "Time" magazine -- and I want to quote, specifically, what he said.

"It is better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people. It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird." I'm using the Taliban's word there, "bird."

This flies in the face of the conversation you and I had yesterday, that this action by the Obama administration has emboldened the Taliban to take more prisoners, because it works, the Americans will play ball.

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Ashleigh, that's nonsense. That's pure propaganda on the part of the Taliban. They always have wanted to take our soldiers.

It's the discipline of our military that has stopped it. The military is aware of it. They don't let people wander off. They don't wander out of base, and the rest of it. And, yes, they've always wanted to capture people, but this isn't some sort of revelation to them, that they traded five for one.

BANFIELD: It is a revelation that we did it, though.

BAER: It's a revelation we did it, though, but this is -- I don't think it's going to put U.S. troops in any more --

BANFIELD: You don't think U.S. troops today are in any more harm if they're serving in that theater than they were before this transfer?

BAER: Haqqani Network, since 9/11, since we moved into Afghanistan, has always wanted to take American prisoners, either kill them or capture them. They prefer to capture them. They've never stopped doing.

BANFIELD: And you don't think they'll step it up because, lo and behold --

BAER: Ashleigh, we're out of there. We are out of Afghanistan. They want to come to some sort of settlement. You saw it at the exchange. Those guys wanted to talk.

You know, they wanted to shake hands with the American soldiers. They're saying, look, it's a new war now, Americans are leaving, we want some sort of reconciliation. Again, the Haqqani Network did not attack us on 9/11. They fought us. They are -- we could describe them as terrorists, yes. They are vicious. They killed a lot of Americans. The war's over.

BANFIELD: I like to make the chain between the Haqqani Network and those who ran the country that gave safe harbor to Osama bin Laden to kill 3,000 of my friends and fellows citizens.

BAER: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: And the Haqqani Network in my opinion has a spoke-like conspiracy -- BAER: Yes, they're not at the same level as al Qaeda.

BANFIELD: I hear you.

Bob Baer, always good to see you. Thank you for that. Senator Zeldin, thank you, as well, for your insight. And, also, Chris Heben and Barbara Starr, great to have you both.

Thank you very much to all of -- everybody who's adding to this incredibly remarkable and breaking story. Thank you, have a great weekend to all of you. He is American, and he has served his country as a Marine, but now he's behind bars in a Mexican jail.

And his story, straight from him, about why this lockup is a big mistake is coming up next. You're going to hear his words.


BANFIELD: An American war veteran, a U.S. Marine Corps reservist, remains in jail in Mexico right now, and today he spoke with CNN from behind bars. It's been almost 10 weeks since Andrew Tahmooressi was arrested and locked up on weapons charges near Tijuana.

He says it was all just a big mistake, crossing the border with several guns and lots of ammunition in his truck. Didn't mean to, it just happened. Mexican law is very clear, no guns without permission, period.

Andrew Tahmooressi spoke with CNN's Chris Cuomo this morning by telephone, and he says his treatment in jail has gotten better since the American public started paying attention to his case. But at the same time, he's very worried that Mexican officials aren't telling the truth.