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Interview With White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken; U.S. POW Released

Aired June 2, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: hero or deserter? Fellow soldiers bristling at the joyous welcome for former POW Bowe Bergdahl, accusing him of deserting his post. Did his actions cost the lives of some of his comrades?

Emotional celebration. Bergdahl's hometown is overjoyed at news of his release. But what are his friends and neighbors saying about the controversy that's now overshadowing his freedom?

Terror suspects released, five Taliban detainees freed from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl. But was the deal illegal? I will ask the White House deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report: "The Return of Sergeant Bergdahl."

Bitter controversy is casting a shadow over the release of the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He was held captive for almost five years and freed over the weekend in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

Bergdahl is now under the care of U.S. military doctors and specialists in Germany. But amid the celebrations, there are questions about the prisoner swap that freed him and whether Bergdahl is a hero or a deserter whose actions cost the lives of fellow soldiers.

Our correspondents and guests are covering all angles of the story. Our chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper, anchor of "THE LEAD," begins our coverage.

Jake, there are several soldiers, you have spoken with some of them, who are highly critical of Bergdahl.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Our impulse when a POW is freed is to rejoice, to celebrate. We're happy that an American is back with his family, but the truth is after this story broke, I spent the weekend talking to more than a dozen people, soldiers who served with Bergdahl in his squad, in his platoon, in his company and they are very distressed at the hero's welcome he is receiving.



TAPPER (voice-over): Welcome news for Bowe Bergdahl's parents. Their son, America's only known prisoner of war, was released by his Taliban captors and coming home to Idaho.

JANI BERGDAHL, MOTHER OF BOWE BERGDAHL: Five years is a seemingly endless long time, but you have made it.

TAPPER: But new details coming to light about how Bergdahl's freedom was both lost and regained complicate any planned ticker tape parades.

These are the faces of five mid- to high-level prisoners smiling as they are released from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl. Though trading four hostages or prisoners of war is not unprecedented in American history, this latest swap has opponents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have sent a message to every al Qaeda group in the world that says that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn't have before.

TAPPER: The Obama administration defends the deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The United States of America does not leave our men and women in uniform behind, ever.

TAPPER: Bergdahl is currently in Germany, where his physical and mental health are the priorities. One of his first tasks is relearning English.

BOB BERGDAHL, FATHER OF BOWE BERGDAHL: I hope your English is coming back. And I want you to know that I love you. I'm proud of you. I'm so proud of your character.


TAPPER: His parents' joy notwithstanding, more than a dozen soldiers who served with Bergdahl call him a deserter. They tell CNN he purposefully left the observation post. An Afghan child told some of them he saw an American soldier that morning walking by himself.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deferred questions about how Bergdahl came to be in enemy hands.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm not surprised that there are still questions. And until we get the facts, exactly what the condition of Sergeant Bergdahl is, we can't go much further in speculating.

TAPPER: Soldiers on the ground at the time tell CNN that insurgents were able to take advantage of the massive military undertaking to try to rescue Bergdahl, with IEDs placed more effectively and ambushes more calculated.

At least six Americans were killed in that effort over the following weeks, troops on the ground tell CNN. Staff Sergeant Clayton Bowen, Private 1st Class Morris Walker, Staff Sergeant Kurt Curtiss, 2nd Lieutenant Darryn Andrews, Private 1st Class Matthew Martinek; Staff Sergeant Michael Murphrey.

For their parents, this moment will never come.

OBAMA: Bob and Jani, today, families across America share in the joy that I know you feel.

TAPPER: Many soldiers are furious.

The Facebook page "Bowe Bergdahl Is Not a Hero" was started by one of Bergdahl's former squad leaders. It has nearly 6,000 members. A petition to punish Bergdahl for going AWOL was started hours after his release.

People who served with Bergdahl want answers, if not a court-martial for desertion. But defense officials tell CNN that the sergeant will likely not face punishment. Today, he may be promoted to staff sergeant later this month.


TAPPER: Senior administration officials tell CNN that President Obama was aware about the complicated details surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance and the hunt for him, Wolf, but they argue the credo leave no man behind does not come with any caveats -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And he's now -- eventually, after Germany, he will be back here in the United States. Jake, thanks very much for that report.

The controversy isn't dimming the celebration in Bergdahl's hometown, where he is considered a hero.

CNN's George Howell is in Hailey, Idaho, watching what's going on.

What is going on, George?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, people here know full well about that controversy. They know that there are many people who question the nature of his capture and the nature of his release.

Also, there are people they know that they say Bergdahl is not a hero. Still, people here, the steadfast -- the support, I should say, is steadfast for this soldier.


HOWELL (voice-over): When you drive into Hailey, Idaho, and see the yellow ribbons, the flags and balloons that have lined these streets for years, residents here say it's all very simple.

JUNE ORNELAS, RESIDENT: It's about bringing a soldier home and doing the right thing.

HOWELL: It's a spirit of homecoming for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. His family, friends, and even a former employer are all anxious to see him safely home after so much uncertainty.

SUE MARTIN, FRIEND OF BOWE BERGDAHL: We're not holding our breath anymore hoping and waiting and just waiting for Bowe to have his freedom.

HOWELL: A close friend of Bergdahl's family, Sue Martin, transformed her coffee shop for a hometown hero, but on some social media and through statements made by some of Bergdahl's former platoon members, his service is viewed in a much more critical manner.

Some call him a deserter. There are claims that he was critical of the war effort and that, when he disappeared from his post, the search to find him cost other soldiers their lives. Martin says people are too quick to make judgment.

MARTIN: We're going to learn about what happened through Bowe, and I don't think anybody else can tell that story. I think that's his story as to what happened and why and all the circumstances surrounding his capture.

HOWELL: For the years Bowe Bergdahl couldn't talk, his father, Bob, has been outspoken online, like in this video recently made with "The Guardian" before his son's release.

BOB BERGDAHL, FATHER OF BOWE BERGDAHL: I know that was Bowe's motivation, to help these people. It's how the war is shaped in the minds of a lot of American, is that we are there as some kind of Peace Corps with guns. And that is just an impossible mission. It's a mission that we're not very good at, I don't believe. I think the last decade proves that.

HOWELL: Bob Bergdahl even learned the language of Pashto in hopes of communicating with his son's captors. He also grew out a beard as a symbolic gesture.

MARTIN: To just have some relativity and to show that we do have things in common, that I'm a father of my son, and you are a father of your sons. And that's where he started his platform of trying to learn their culture and to relate to them, as he hoped that they could relate to he and his family.


HOWELL: So here's the thing. There are many polar opinions about what's happening here. And we got a news release from the city of Hailey basically saying that the city is being inundated, Wolf, inundated with phone calls, people voicing their many opinions.

But in this news release, they ask people simply not to prejudge. They ask that due process play out here to determine all the facts in this case and they hope that happens here in the next couple of days, weeks and months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure we will learn a lot more as these days, weeks and months go on. George, thanks very much. Lots of questions swirling around Bergdahl's release. Did President Obama break the law? Has he set a dangerous precedent? I will ask his deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, who's standing by live at the White House.

Plus, those Taliban detainees who were traded for Bergdahl, some of them were linked to Osama bin Laden. How dangerous are those five men?


BLITZER: Some congressional Republicans are objecting to the prisoner exchange that freed Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl held by the Taliban for almost five years.

Critics say the swap was illegal because the administration failed to give Congress 30 days' notice before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, as required by law.

Tony Blinken is joining us from the White House to talk about that and more. He's the president's deputy national security adviser.

Tony, what do you make of this charge that the president violated the law as part of this deal?

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Wolf, first, let's put this in context.

You put on the uniform of the United States, we make a commitment to bring you home. We will do everything we can to get that done, and that's what we did in the case of Sergeant Bergdahl. Second, with regard to the law, here are the facts. We had an urgent situation. We had deep concerns about Sergeant Bergdahl's health.

We had information that it was deteriorating. We had an opportunity that was very fast-moving to close this deal to bring him back. And based on the law, we have the flexibility do that. The president has made very clear when these pieces of legislation were put forward to try to restrict his ability to use his authority to move quickly that he disagreed with that.

Congress has been generally aware of these efforts. This is something that's been discussed for a couple -- for several years, but we had an urgent matter and we had an opportunity and we seized it.

BLITZER: You know, the chairmen, respective chairmen, not only the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, but the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, she just put out a statement. She told one of our producers up on Capitol Hill that the president should have informed the respective chairs of these two committees.

You have been talking to these -- through the Qataris, you have been talking to the Taliban for several weeks now. What were you afraid of? Why couldn't you have at least brought them into this inner circle, let them know what was going on? BLINKEN: Wolf, the deal, itself, came together very, very quickly.

But, beyond that, there was a real risk that if we had gone with the 30-day notification period, that, one, the Taliban might have reneged on the agreement during that period, and, two, there was a real risk of a leak. And so when this came together as quickly as it did, we made a decision to go forward.

The Department of Defense consulted with the Justice Department to make sure that they had an assessment that what we were doing met the letter of the law. That was the assessment that came back. And we decided that we had to act in order to make sure that we took the opportunity, and given that this was an urgent matter, that the health of Sergeant Bergdahl was in question, we thought it was important to act.

I mean, had we not done that, imagine what would have happened if the deal had fallen apart in the interim, what that would have meant.

BLITZER: But you know what you're suggesting, Tony -- and Mike Rogers says a lot more sensitive secret information is shared with the respective chairs of the two Intelligence Committees than this.

What you're suggesting is, as far as a leak is concerned, you really don't trust the Intelligence Committee chairs to keep a secret.

BLINKEN: No, it's not -- Wolf, it's not a matter of trust. This was very, very tightly held within the administration.

Very few people knew about it, because we put a premium on trying to get this done, to get it done quickly, to avoid the possibility of leaks. But, in particular, this came together quickly, and we decided that we had to act quickly to do it and to try to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home. That's the commitment we make to all of our soldiers. That's the commitment we made here.

BLITZER: The other argument they make, and we heard it from Mike Rogers -- I assume we will hear it from others who are very angry about this and are accusing the president of actually breaking the law -- is that, in 2011, when you discussed it with committee members, there was bipartisan opposition to any deal to free these detainees from Gitmo, these five detainees, and you didn't want to hear that opposition in this particular case.

What do you say to that charge that you didn't want to consult because you were afraid of what the Democrats and the Republicans would say on the Hill?

BLINKEN: Two things. Back in 2011, the agreement that was under discussion then is different than the one that was finally agreed to now. We will have an opportunity to fully brief Congress on that in the days ahead.

The Taliban made commitments now that it wouldn't make then that I think give us the assurances, and I think will give Congress the assurances, that we can go forward and make sure that our national security was protected, as we did that. And in the days ahead, there will be full briefings of the relevant committees in Congress and indeed of every member who wants it.

BLITZER: Can you share with us what kind of life these five suspected terrorists -- they have been held for 12 or 13 years at Gitmo. What kind of life are they going to do in Doha, Qatar, over the next year before they're then allowed to fly back to Afghanistan or Pakistan and do whatever they want?

BLINKEN: What I can tell you is this, Wolf. There's an agreement with the government of Qatar, as well as personal commitments from the emir of Qatar to the president of the United States on the phone, that these five will be very carefully monitored. There will be restrictions on their travel, on their activities.

And, as a result of that, we believe that any threat they would pose to the United States, to Americans has been sufficiently mitigated. That was the conclusion of the secretary of defense, in consultation with the entire national security team.

BLITZER: Do these five suspected terrorists who were held for so many years at Gitmo have American blood on their hands?

BLINKEN: These five are -- in some cases were senior government officials of the Taliban, in one case, the military commander, in another case, an intelligence commander, in another case, a very low- level operative.

They were apprehended very, very early on after the Taliban fell. They have been in Gitmo now for -- had been in Gitmo for about 13 years.

BLITZER: Listen to what James Clapper said -- this was back in 2012 -- the director of national intelligence, about these five now-freed detainees.


JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: I don't think any harbors any illusions about these five Taliban members and what they might do if they were transferred.


BLITZER: What do you say to that? That's a pretty serious allegation.

BLINKEN: I say to that that as a result of the agreement we reached with the government of Qatar, with the personal assurances of the emir of Qatar, we have the assurances that they will not pose a threat to the United States or to Americans.


BLITZER: But that's only the next year. What about in the years that follow? BLINKEN: Wolf, you know, going forward, this war is ending in Afghanistan. Our combat operations have come to an end. We will be out of that business.

And there are prisoners in Afghan prisons who have been turned over to the Afghan government. Many of them will inevitably be released by the Afghans. What happens at the end of a war -- and this goes back from the very start of our republic to George Washington -- and it happened with the Germans, with the Japanese, with the North Koreans -- is prisoners get exchanged.

And in this case, we made good on a commitment we have had since the first days of our republic. When we have someone in uniform who has been detained on the field of battle and we have a chance to get them back, we do. We bring him home. That's what we did.

BLITZER: One final question. Was he a deserter?

BLINKEN: Look, Sergeant Bergdahl, because we're bringing him home, is going to have a chance to tell his story.

And right now, our focus is on bringing him back home to the United States from Germany, making sure he's fully recovered, and he will have a chance to tell his story.

BLITZER: Tony Blinken, the president's deputy national security adviser, thanks very much for joining us.

BLINKEN: Thanks.

BLITZER: Just ahead: So, who are the five suspected terrorists traded by the U.S. in exchange for Bergdahl? We are going to learn more about these five men. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Five Taliban terror detainees traded for the release of U.S. prisoner of war Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Let's dig deeper now with senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. He's in Landstuhl, Germany, where Bergdahl right now is hospitalized. And reporter Carol Rosenberg of "The Miami Herald," she's been to Guantanamo multiple times, probably more than any other journalist there.

Carol, you have been tracking these five for a long time. How dangerous, potentially, are they? They have been prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for 12 or 13 years.

CAROL ROSENBERG, "THE MIAMI HERALD": Well, you know, three of them came on that very first flight, if you remember the picture of 20 men on their knees in orange jumpsuits who were described as the worst of the worst. They were among them.

But I can tell you that, from my reporting at Guantanamo, they were cooperative, collaborative, communal captives, meaning they lived in, you know, medium security, were able to pray with other detainees, eat with other detainees. And what I understood is that they were not -- neither troublemakers nor hunger strikers and that they had -- they were not considered dangerous to the guards at Gitmo.

But, as we know, you know, the president and Senator McCain and the others get to see the classified files. And so we know that they come from the defense and intelligence and political and military parts of the Taliban, which bleed over into each other.

And the question is, you know, when they go back to their lives, how much are they going to, I suppose, resent their detention at Gitmo and continue to see us as the enemy? We held them as the enemy. The other thing is, remember, three of them were brought there on that first day when we were searching for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and they were seen as potential intelligence assets.

And to that degree, that war has moved on. So the question becomes, after a year in Qatar, if they're released back to their country and we're still there, what will the relationship be, I suppose?

BLITZER: That's a good question.

Nic, you're there in Landstuhl. That's where Bowe Bergdahl is being hospitalized right now. What can you tell us about his condition? What's the very latest? And, also, do you know if he's had a chance to speak on the phone with his parents in Idaho?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if he's had that opportunity to speak to his parents, we haven't been told about it.

We're getting a few details, not a lot, but it's just enough to give us an idea of what's happening to him. We're told that he's in a stable condition, that he is getting treatment for conditions, medical conditions that require hospitalization, with special focus on his diet and nutrition.

And this is because of the condition that he's been living in, the dire that he's had while he's been in captivity. So that's what we're learning about him. For the sort of psychological help that he's getting, all the other sorts of things, we have no details about that at the moment, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's still premature to see when he's going to be flying from Germany to Texas to continue that effort to reunite with his family at some point down the road.

Carol, finally, the -- just a notion about the remaining 140 or so detainees at Gitmo. You have covered all of them over these many years. How dangerous, potentially, are they?

ROSENBERG: Well, you know, these five men jumped the queue. They were held as indefinite detainees, forever prisoners who were not eligible for release through the various parole board and review procedures that the Obama administration had instituted down there. So there are 78 men among the 149 down there who this administration through its intelligence and political analysis has decided should not be there and could go back to Yemen, or, for example, some might be going to Uruguay soon under these resettlement and repatriations deals that they're trying to arrange.


ROSENBERG: In terms of dangerousness, there are some men who are in maximum security lockdown there. And they have been held for 10, 12 years, and they do not get along with their captors.

BLITZER: Carol Rosenberg, thanks very much. Nic Robertson, of course, thanks to you as well.

That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Van Jones and S.E. Cupp.