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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Heavyweight Accusations, Lightweight Facts; Romney's Disclosure Dilemma; Assassinations Rock Syrian Capital

Aired July 18, 2012 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: John, thanks very much. Good evening, everyone.

We begin tonight "Keeping Them Honest," trying to get answers from five Republican members of Congress who are alleging massive infiltration of the U.S. government by radical jihadists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now today, one of those lawmakers, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, refused to answer questions about her unproven claim that Muslim extremists have infiltrated the U.S. government. And another lawmaker, Republican Senator John McCain, took an extraordinary step and went on the Senate floor calling Bachmann out on it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and denigrating attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation and we all grow poorer because of it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Now this one has never happened, a sitting member of Congress publicly scolding other sitting members let alone members of his own party. In this case, Senator McCain talking about Congresswoman Bachmann and four of her House Republican colleagues.

As we've been reporting, they want the inspectors general of five security agencies to look into what Bachmann calls the possible deep penetration, her words, of Muslim extremists into the U.S. government. But they're not talking about a general conspiracy, they're actually pointing fingers at a particular person, this woman, Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's deputy chief of staff, implying that she may be somehow working on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and questioning how she even got a security clearance.

Again, Senator McCain today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: To say that the accusations made in both documents are not substantiated by the evidence they offer is to be overly polite and diplomatic about it. It is far better and more accurate to talk straight. These allegations about Huma Abedin, and the report from which they are drawn, are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American and a loyal public servant.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Now, this is the third night we've been reporting this story. And we've gotten some feedback from viewers and tweets, wondering why we're giving Congressman Bachmann and her four colleagues so much coverage. So let me just take a moment before we go on to tell you why.

Because this is a country which is supposed to protect and uphold religious liberty. And when any religious group or group of people is targeted without evidence, targeted by sitting members of Congress, that is not something anybody should remain silent about.

Some people have tweeted me saying these are just allegations made for political reasons by some fringe politicians appealing to their base. That may be true. But these allegations have very real consequences, not just for the individuals who are unfairly put under a microscope of suspicion, but consequences for our foreign policy, for all of us. It has a real world impact.

These allegations are having an impact right now around the world. Affecting American foreign policy on one of the most sensitive regions on earth, the Middle East. And we're going to show you how in just a moment.

But first, I want to show you what Congresswoman Bachmann is basing her suspicion of Huma Abedin on. I want to kind of walk you down the road that she is taking. In a 16-page letter to Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim member of Congress, a Democrat, she says that Huma Abedin's late father, mother and brother are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Here's how she figures it. Let's start with Abedin's father, again, her dead father, a man named Syed Abedin, who is a professor of social science and the founder of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia decades ago, talking decades ago.

Now Bachmann attributes this information to a 2002 "Law Review" article out of Brigham Young University. According to that article, Professor Abedin's institute had the support of another man named Dr. Umar Abdallah Nassif who is a former general secretary of another group called the Muslim World League.

Now Bachmann says that according to the Pew Forum, the Muslim World League has a history of, quote, "being closely aligned and partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood."

So that is how many degrees of separation Congressman Bachmann's claim is based on. Huma Abedin's deceased father started an organization decades ago allegedly had the support of another guy who had another organization that might have had the support of another organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

And because of that Huma Abedin might be some sort of spy or infiltrator or agent of influence and deserves to be investigated.

As for Abedin's mother and brother, Congresswoman Bachmann never gives any evidence of their alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now as I mentioned, all these charges are having an impact on U.S. foreign policy. Here's how. Take a look. These are angry crowds that greeted Secretary Clinton and Huma Abedin in Cairo over the weekend. Now you might be wondering what are they protesting about. Well, they're protesting the election of their new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. Some carrying signs saying, "Stop U.S. funding of the Muslim Brotherhood," and, quote, "Clinton is the supreme god of the Muslim Brotherhood."

So now where would they get an idea like that? Well, it turns out from American blogs and Web sites. That's what a number of Egyptians told reporters. One Egyptian blogger directed the "Wall Street Journal" to the transcript of a conversation between American conservatives who claimed that Huma Abedin was participating in a Muslim Brotherhood plot to penetrate the U.S. government.

And that blogger's source is also Michele Bachmann's source, Frank Gaffney, who runs a group called the Center for Security Policy. Now Mr. Gaffney says the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating every aspects of American life, or trying to, in order to impose Sharia law. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Frank Gaffney, and I quote, "the anti-Muslim movement's most paranoid propagandist."

But before Frank Gaffney was focusing on Huma Abedin, he was casting suspicion on a conservative named Grover Norquist, who's married to a Muslim woman. Now Norquist, you might have heard his name, he's famous for asking Republican candidates to take a pledge not to raise taxes.

But Gaffney has said that -- that Norquist is helping the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrate the conservative movement. Those allegations, by the way, were condemned by a number of conservative groups and got Mr. Gaffney barred from CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The American Conservative union, by the way, investigated his allegations against Grover Norquist and found them, quote, "false and unfounded and resolved." Quote, "Its complete confidence in the loyalty of Suhail Khan," who is a Bush department official who Gaffney also raised questions about, "and Grover Norquist to the United States."

So he's the intellectual inspiration behind the allegations from Bachmann and company. What makes Senator John McCain's statement today show frankly bold is that other Republican members of Congress have been either silent on Bachmann's charges or kind of supportive. One Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence. So let me just repeat that. He is the chairman of the committee. Here's what he said recently on Frank Gaffney's radio show, seeming to buy into the Muslim infiltration theory, in this case, referring to a decision to edit FBI training materials to remove language that critics said was, frankly, anti- Muslim.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Michele Bachmann is kind of taking the lead on this particular issue and going through and trying to figure out what they took out of the training materials and what they left in and why did it get changed?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Now there's restating, Congressman Rogers is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He's a very powerful lawmaker.

As for Congresswoman Bachmann, we spent much of today trying to track her down, get her to answer some questions. She would not. After McCain blasted her she released a statement saying her allegations are being distorted. In her statement, by the way, she made no mention of Huma Abedin, no mention of McCain's statement against the congresswoman. Instead she focused on a new allegation, one that arguably has more substance to it.

A newly elected Egyptian lawmaker named Hani Nour Eddin, was given a visa to come to the United States as part of an Egyptian government delegation that met with national security council officials. Now Hani Nour Eddin belongs to an Islamist group that has been designated a terror group by the United States.

Now a lot of people, reports and others, and politicians, have raised questions about how this guy got a visa and why he was given a visa. The State Department telling "The Washington Post," they're looking into the matter.

Let's talk about it now with senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash who spent a lot of today trying to talk to Michele Bachmann. Also Salon.com's Alex Seitz-Wald.

So, Dana, you've finally tracked down Congressman Bachmann today to try to get some answers. She was -- I understand less than happy to see you. What happened?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, the good news is I can walk pretty fast in heels, the bad news is Michele Bachmann can walk just as fast.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: And she proved to be pretty adept at not only avoiding my questions but talking enough so that I could barely get any questions out. Watch what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Hey, Congresswoman, how are you? REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Sorry, I can't right now. I'm --

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: I just need to ask you about -- Senator McCain was just on the Senate floor and he said that what you're doing --

BACHMANN: I'm sorry, I can't right now.

BASH: -- going after Huma --

BACHMANN: I'll be happy to (INAUDIBLE) you but I can't do it right now.

BASH: Can you do an interview with us later?

BACHMANN: Yes, yes, I've got a to get this --

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: All right. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, Anderson, I've learned over the years trying to get members of Congress to answer questions on the fly, and I've done it many, many times, if they're not going to answer, they're not going to answer but if a lawmaker tells me that they're going to get back to me, that they just don't have time but they -- will do an interview later, I try to take them at their word. She didn't do that. Her office said after several e-mails that she didn't have time on her schedule. She only put out that statement that you referenced which said that her letters are being distorted.

COOPER: It is fascinating to me, Dana, in her statement that she made no mention of Huma Abedin. She seems to have kind of basically trying to take her hands off of that because she's really presented no evidence of that. You actually also ran into Senator McCain after his condemnation which is very rare for somebody to do. What did he say to you?

BASH: Well, I asked Senator McCain what prompted him to take, as you said, such an unusual step like he did go to the Senate floor and condemned members of his own party. He told he did it, first of all, because he knows Huma personally. He likes her and respects her, and feels that she's being unfairly maligned.

But he also revealed to me, Anderson, that Michele Bachmann called him today after he spoke out against her on the Senate floor, and she said -- that she explained she was genuinely worried about Muslim infiltration of the Obama administration. And McCain said, that he told her, look, Huma is not the problem.

But I should tell you that McCain isn't the only one to speak out. He's the most public, the most high profile, but our old friend, Ed Rollins, who also ran Michele Bachmann's campaign for a short while, her campaign for president, he wrote a scathing piece where he called her extreme and dishonest. He noted that Bachmann had difficulty with her facts and in this case he said that she was downright vicious. And he said that what she's doing is akin to McCarthyism.

And I could tell you that's what's in public. Privately I've had top Republican congressional sources tell me that they think Bachmann is doing this as a fundraising tool, plain and simple, it's politics.

COOPER: Alex, despite the condemnation from McCain and Ed Rollins, you actually said this might play well with some in the Republican base?

ALEX SEITZ-WALD, STAFF WRITER, SALON.COM: Yes, well, it's interesting, I mean, Michele Bachmann's letter came out on June 13th. If you go back two years ago on June 6th, it was the first rally against the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Lower Manhattan which of course became a huge election issue, really brought out the Tea Party and sort of the right-wing fringe of the Republican Party.

And so I think that that's exactly what's going on right here, or at least that's what Bachmann was trying to do. I think she may have gotten a little over her skis and this blew up a little bit in her face.

You know I think she was kind of trying to keep this just for the base audience. She didn't tweet about it, she didn't put it on her Facebook page, but she did go on a conservative radio host, kind at her base, trying to gin up, you know, some anti-Muslim fever before the election. And then it kind of blew up a little bit too big with these condemnations from McCain and Ed Rollins.

COOPER: Well, also, I should point, Alex, you' been out in the forefront of reporting on this for a long time. So you really kind of put a lot of focus on this and you should get credit for that.

We've talked about Frank Gaffney, Alex, on this program, who really seems to be kind of the soul source behind Bachmann and her colleagues' claims. It's interesting, though, you know, I remember when he was going after Grover Norquist, and that was roundly condemned by a number of conservatives, I mean, there wasn't much there there, but he was alleging Grover Norquist was basically trying to, you know, kind of get the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating the American conservative movement.

SEITZ-WALD: Yes, absolutely. He's been going after Grover Norquist for almost a decade. And he, you know, doesn't care. He'll go after Republicans, he'll go after Democrats, he went after Bush administration officials. He said David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, the former general or current general, had submitted to Sharia law.

I mean, so he's really shameless and he's been kind of driven out of the elite in the conservative movement in addition to CPAC and the American Conservative Union board which includes John Bolton and the head of the NRA. I mean real staunch conservatives.

He was kicked out of a strategy lunch organized by the former head of the Heritage Foundation that, you know, another big conservative stalwart here. But there's kind of an interesting dynamic of the Tea Party versus the establishment where while he's persona non grata with the establishment, people like Michele Bachmann and Alan West and other congressmen still listen to him and he still has their ear.

And even some senior officials like Jon Kyl, the number two Republican in the Senate, used to sit on Frank Gaffney's board. So he still has a lot of juice in some aspects of the party despite being roundly condemned by other parts of it.

COOPER: I should point out, we've had him -- he's been on the show before, but we really want to focus on -- I mean people can have whatever beliefs they want. We're trying to focus on sitting members of Congress and the allegations that they are making.

Dana, I mean, is it -- it's pretty -- am I wrong, is it pretty rare for sitting members of Congress to make these kind of allegations against individuals without having, I mean, ironclad proof or any real proof other than, you know, her dead father 30 years ago knew a guy who helped his organization who was in league with another organization?

BASH: Sure, it's very rare. And I think just as Alex is saying, I think he's dead on that this was probably not intended for a mainstream audience. That this was intended for her base and as I mentioned before, many Republicans on Capitol Hill have said to me as a fundraising tool. She is very, very good at raising money from these -- I think you can call them fringe elements of the party. Fringe elements of this country.

And she wants to keep that going. And she sends up fundraising letter after fundraising letter not necessarily -- even one today not mentioning this at all, but making clear that she wants to keep raising money and she said that she's got a Democratic opponent who's going to beat her and she needs the conservative base to come to her. So yes, the answer to your question is, it is very rare.

COOPER: It's also interesting, Alex. I'm sure you've gotten these e-mails as well. I've been, you know, inundated by e-mails from people saying I'm now supporting the Muslim Brotherhood because I'm raising questions about her allegations. Where does this go? I mean has -- do we know if the State Department has responded? Do we know if the other Homeland Security has responded to Bachmann?

SEITZ-WALD: We don't yet, but I think they do take these kinds of things very seriously. I mean she is a sitting member of Congress, she's on the Intelligence Committee. And it makes you, you know, wonder that they have to do their job, they have to respond to these things, but is this the best use of, you know, precious resources in the Homeland Security Department? And I really doubt it.

COOPER: Also, I think it bears repeating a couple of things, one, I don't think anybody is saying, you know, extremists would not like to infiltrate the U.S. government. I'm sure, obviously, jihadists would like to infiltrate the U.S. government if they could. I'm sure they may even attempt to. But again, to make these allegations against individuals without any direct evidence.

And Alex, as you talked about, if you really believe this is happening, is the best way to go about getting action on this, you know, going on conservative radio shows and putting this information out on your Web site, or is it actually in confidence -- in confidentiality, contacting security agencies and asking them to investigate?

SEITZ-WALD: Yes, I think that that right there is the key point and that blows up this whole argument that this is a serious attempt on their part. And they've been doing this for years. I mean I talked to a guy today named Faisal Gill who was a Bush administration official who was in the Department of Homeland Security, and Frank Gaffney went after him and it stuck with him forever. And I think that's the -- that's the ploy. It's almost like a Google problem like Rick Santorum had where now every time Faisal Gill, somebody Googles him, this is what comes up.

BASH: Yes. And I just want to underscore one thing, Anderson, that you pointed out at the top of the show, which is really, really important. That this isn't just about politics, just about one member of Congress going off and another trying to condemn her. This is also about U.S. policy and the way the U.S. is perceived abroad, particularly Egypt, particularly those -- those pictures that you showed of Hillary Clinton with Huma over the weekend with protests.

And I talked to a senior administration official who said that that is a very, very real concern.

COOPER: Yes.

BASH: A very real concern that the U.S. really is confused about how to handle the Muslim Brotherhood. And the whole idea that because of the Internet and because these blogs do get out there, that people there think the U.S. is sort of in bed, so to speak, with the Muslim Brotherhood. And the reality is that there's a little bit of confusion over what to do with them versus the Christians --

COOPER: Well, also --

BASH: Really is hurtful.

COOPER: We need Arab speakers, we need people who understand what's happening --

BASH: Exactly.

COOPER: To work in our intelligence agencies. And this prevents or, you know, who is going to want to work if suddenly you're going to be a suspect because your great uncle knew somebody who knew somebody. I mean I think it raises all sorts of questions. We'll continue to cover it. Alex Seitz-Wald, appreciate your reporting. Dana Bash, as well. I know it's been a long day running around in those heels you were talking about.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Thank you for that.

Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook, follow me on Twitter. Tweet to me about this right now at @Andersoncooper.

Up next, the debate within the Republican Party over whether or not Mitt Romney should put out more tax returns. We'll have that ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: "Raw Politics" tonight, a debate among Republicans, among Republicans over Mitt Romney's tax returns, whether he should make public more than the two years worth. And among Democrats in Congress, a new pressure on the legislative front.

Lawmakers proposing measures that would require presidential candidates to release 10 years of returns and candidates for federal office to disclose all foreign investments.

Mr. Romney, though, as you'll recall, is facing plenty of pressure not from Democrats but fellow Republicans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN: Put out as much information as you can. Even if you don't release 12 years worth of tax returns. At least three, four, five.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: You should be as transparent as you can be with your tax returns.

BRIT HUME, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: They always wonder whether it isn't better just to put them out there.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS CHANNEL ANCHOR: Put them all out now.

HUME: Well, I -- yes. That's kind of what I think.

GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY (R), ALABAMA: I just believe that people should release their tax returns.

WILLIAM KRISTOL, WEEKLY STANDARD: He should release the tax returns tomorrow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, so far no sign of that. The conservative "National Review" which also say Governor Romney should release more returns interviewed him yesterday. During that interview, he said he's not enthusiastic, his words, about releasing any more tax returns for the Obama campaign to, quote, "distort and lie about."

More "Raw Politics" now with two Republicans who disagree, former George W. Bush White House press secretary, Ari Fleisher, and Ana Navarro, former Huntsman 2012 National Hispanic chairwoman and former McCain '08 adviser. Also joining us, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

So, Ana, I know you and a lot of other Republicans think Romney should release more of his tax returns. The Romney campaign basically saying that fairly or unfairly releasing more returns would be like handing ammunition to the Obama campaign. Do you buy that?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I absolutely buy it because I think it will be, you know, picked over and big things will be made, but I don't think we're going to see anything new. I don't think any of the Republicans calling for this think that there is anything wrong that Mitt Romney has done. What we want is the distraction to be over so that we can get to the real issues, the big issues, that the American people are interested in.

This has become really a ridiculous distraction and I do think that it's taking a toll. Again, I tell you, I think there is absolutely nothing illegal or inappropriate that Mitt Romney has done. We're not going to learn anything new. He is a wealthy man who's been very successful. And he should embrace that and we should just get this over with, take the band-aid off, let's move on and, you know, let's start talking about the economy, let's start talking about jobs.

We' been talking about this now for days and days and days.

COOPER: Ari --

NAVARRO: I'd just like it to be over.

COOPER: Ari, what about that? Because this drip, drip, drip, it's not just among, you know, media types on cable TV talking about it, it's, as you know, Republicans talking about.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: There's so much drip, drip, drip, why does everything keep coming up dry, dry, dry.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: And when you look at the polls, Mitt Romney keeps going high, high, high. You know, it's not a distraction except for the political class who follows every syllable of every sentence of every paragraph. The American people are not there. They're not focused on this issue.

I remember in 1992, I worked for George Bush's father's campaign against Bill Clinton. We tried to come up with every kind of ethical innuendo we could think of against Governor Romney of Arkansas -- Governor Clinton of Arkansas. Nobody in the public paid attention. The issue then is the same as the issue now, the economy. It's not working among the public. The public really is not fixated on this issue. If he was going to do it, Anderson, in the cause of transparency and good government, the time would have been to have done it months and months ago. I think if he does it now it'd be big mistake because it'd be such a -- the press would make too much of it. He's doing fine without it.

COOPER: Ari, as you know, I mean a lot of -- there are a lot of folks who are sayings well, look, when he, you know, was in the running to be McCain's vice president, he gave over many years worth, I think 20 years' worth of tax returns to McCain. So if that level of transparency was important to be considered as a vice presidential candidate, why isn't that level of transparency important to be a presidential candidate?

FLEISCHER: You know, when vice presidential potentials are asked a whole series of questions not just about their taxes. A lot of it is embarrassing, a lot of it is personal, and that doesn't get released. You know I don't think the standard is, what did you privately convey to somebody who may have picked you for a job? Do we want everybody coming to the federal government to answer, have you ever been faithful? Is that part of the litmus test? That's a question that these guys get asked when they try to become the vice presidential nominees.

So no, Anderson, I don't think that's the criteria that he turned it over to McCain. I think the criteria is, is two years enough, is this a relevant issue to determine who's qualified to be the president of the United States or not. And I just don't think this is a cutting issue that should define what this campaign is about.

COOPER: Right.

FLEISCHER: And I think most of the American people are with me on that. The pundit class and many of my fellow Republicans are not.

COOPER: Gloria, do you think this is having an impact?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I do. I think it will eventually because it plays into the whole narrative of the campaign, of the Obama campaign, which says that Mitt Romney is a rich, secretive, outsourcing fellow who has secret, you know, offshore bank accounts. And so I do think it plays into the narrative that even folks that I talk to in the Romney campaign say is affecting his underlying numbers. That is perhaps his likability.

But I talked to somebody who was involved in the vet for Mitt Romney for the McCain campaign. He couldn't recall exactly how many years of tax returns Mitt Romney gave them, but he also said, as McCain has said, you know, they didn't see anything terrible and they -- and that wasn't the reason that McCain didn't choose Mitt Romney.

I do think, and let me just say this, that if he was going to release them, he should have done it right away because now if he releases them, he's got a problem because it looks like he's doing it under pressure, either from Republicans or from the Obama campaign, and we are going to pick over it like a -- like a dead carcass. The time to do it when he should have done it was early on.

But this is about Mitt Romney himself. He's a private person. And he's running for president. And it's very hard to be a private person and run for the presidency of the United States. I think he's figuring that out now.

COOPER: All right. We've got to leave it there. I'm sorry, we've got a lot of stuff tonight. Ana Navarro, appreciate it. Ari Fleischer and Gloria Borger as well.

In Syria, a dramatic day. Bloodshed in Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Three of his top advisers killed today in an attack not far from Assad's home. Conflicting reports about the explosion that reportedly killed them as violence reaches new levels in the capital of Syria itself, Damascus. A Dutch reporter tells us what he saw today from -- live from Damascus.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Government agency caught spending more than $800,000 on a Las Vegas conference. You'd think they'd learned their lesson, right? Well, wait until you see what else they spent their money on. What we found, when we continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight, some are asking if the situation in Syria has turned a new corner. With the violence reaching new levels in the regime's backyard, Damascus now part of the battlefield.

This video purportedly shot in Damascus today. As always, we can't verify its authenticity because we're not there on the ground. At least 102 people were killed across the country today including three top officials of Bashar Al Assad's regime.

This is so extraordinary. One was his brother-in-law, the deputy minister of defense. A fourth minister was wounded in the attack. They were meeting in Damascus, not far from Assad's home.

The government calls it a suicide bombing, the Syrian government. The opposition, the Free Syrian Army said an explosive device was detonated by remote control.

Over the last few days, fighting in the heart of Damascus has escalated with reports of shelling by government forces. Here are some of the images we've seen of the damage in the capital.

Again, we cannot independently verify them. A Dutch journalist named Sander Van Hoorn was in Damascus when the Syrian officials were attacked today. We spoke earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Sander, there are conflicting reports out of Syria today about the exact cause of this bombing. Syrian media said it was a suicide bomber. Opposition says it was a bomb that was planted. What's the latest that you're hearing?

SANDER VAN HOORN, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT, NCS TV (via telephone): A lot of gossip. News is sometimes hard to come by in Syria. That's also a very interesting point today, the news that we got through Syrian State TV.

Normally, Syrian State TV is the last place you're going to look for news because if something happens, they will have a nice program on flowers for example.

So why did they broadcast almost live about what happened? Why were the names of the people killed mentioned through them? It's something that may not mean anything, but it's something out of the ordinary indeed.

COOPER: What is the regime's explanation of how this happened? Because whatever type of bomb it was, it would be a major security breach. How did they explain that their inner circle was able to be penetrated?

VAN HOORN: Well, they explained it as a terrorist attack. But basically that's the way they addressed the opposition as foreign- backed terrorists.

They used this within the hour the minister of information was live on the radio and television, addressing the nation. Basically saying this will only strengthen our resolve.

We have been hit at the heart. There are martyrs to be mourned today, but we will only get stronger, we will fight back and we will crush these terrorist cells that are operating in Syria today. That's basically what he said right after the attack.

COOPER: I know you rushed toward the side bombing after it occurred. What was the scene like there?

VAN HOORN: The scene was something I have never seen before. You expect chaos. You expect tense policemen and military, nothing of the kind. We were kindly requested to not enter the street, only people who lived there could go there.

So we were driving around a bit, and people living like 40 meters away from the blast site, they were going about their business as usual. Shops were open, cars were driving.

People were chatting to each other. Now, of course, on a normal situation, you go out of the car with your camera and ask people, did you hear anything? What did you hear? What did you see? Now that's something which is not allowed in Syria.

COOPER: It's really strange. We obviously know fighting has escalated in Damascus, around Damascus in recent days, what are you seeing and hearing in terms of activity among the regime, among the opposition in Damascus?

VAN HOORN: Well, right now it's kind of quiet. I went out just before we started talking and you could hear artillery fire and sometimes a little bit more close by military fire.

But the scene has been bizarre throughout the day. Black pillars of smoke rising in almost any direction, explosions quite close to downtown.

Now this morning, I visited two suburbs in the northern part of the city, so parts which has been quiet for the last couple of days. We saw streams, hundreds upon hundreds of people leaving for the violence that already started.

But we saw as we drove further towards downtown, military vehicles waiting to enter. That was one of the scenes that we witnessed later, black smoke rising from that area. That's any suburb you look at right now.

COOPER: The Assad regime was quick to appoint a new minister of defense. It's clear they're trying to project an image of stability. Do you think people buy that?

VAN HOORN: I think if you bought it before, you will buy it now. If you doubted it before, you'll seriously doubt it now. Whatever happens today, the opposition will feel emboldened by this, and you can see that happening in a lot of areas where the Free Syrian Armies are taking up arms.

We know they are better organized by now. They have better means of communications and better weapons even. We don't know what they're capable of. But they feel emboldened right now and where that may lead to nobody knows.

COOPER: Sander Van Hoorn, please be careful. Thank you for your reporting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, tonight, new questions about how one government agency is spending your tax dollars. You remember the videos that went viral from the General Services Administration Las Vegas conference, the one that cost $800,000, led to investigations, resignations, firings?

Wait until you see and wait until you hear what else the GSA has spent your money on in another city. We're keeping them honest, ahead.

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COOPER: A bus bomb in Bulgaria kills at least seven Israeli tourists. Israeli defense minister says it is clearly a terrorists attack. We'll have latest on that ahead.

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COOPER: Another "Keeping Them Honest" report. Now more questions tonight about how the General Services Administration or GSA, has spent your tax dollars. You'll probably recall this is the agency whose mission is actually oversight of other federal agencies to control spending. Well, first came the extravagant Las Vegas conference two years ago. Cost more than $800,000 of your tax money. They made these silly videos during that conference.

It looked more like a Vegas show than a serious government gathering. These employee videos produced for the conference, some of them making light of GSA spending. They went viral. Congress certainly was not amused.

Hearings were held, investigations were launched, heads rolled at the GSA. The top administrator resigned. Turns out though Las Vegas isn't the only place where the GSA has been spending your money in ways you might never imagine. Drew Griffin with a CNN investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It happened here at the culinary center of Kansas City, on a quaint street in Overland Park, Kansas where GSA employees did not just get a free lunch. They got to spend most of the day making it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Cooking is not a mystery. Everybody can learn it.

GRIFFIN: It's all about what the culinary center's own video called team building. Teams make entrees, make desserts. What did the GSA employees get out of this? This is one of those employees who says he's afraid to show his face because his boss will be mad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was lunch. We had 25 minutes to get a recipe together, cook for 30. I think there were roughly 25 or 30 people there, and then we were critiqued along the way by the chefs at the institute on what we could do better.

GRIFFIN: And those GSA employees got the whole day off real work to do it.

(on camera): So this was the day's activity, learning how to cook.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

GRIFFIN: And it didn't just happen once. Since 2007, GSA employees came to the culinary center of Kansas City nine times for these team building exercises. They cooked lunch. It cost you more than $20,000.

(voice-over): That's the total amount for all those cooking classes. Granted, in the world of trillion dollar government budget, that's not a lot of money.

But our insider says it is part of the free spending culture that has gone on for years at the Kansas City Regional Headquarters. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a lot of what I would look at as juvenile behavior when it comes to caring about what the taxpayers' money is used for.

GRIFFIN: Our investigation into spending at the Kansas City office found not only did workers learn how to cook lunch, the GSA hired an etiquette instructor to teach workers how to eat it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How to hold your napkin, how to use your fork, knife.

GRIFFIN: He's not making it up. The etiquette instructor who billed the federal government nearly $1,000 confirmed she taught GSA employees about the plate settings, the different courses, how they're going to be served, how to eat soup and salad, what to do with your napkin, how to butter your roll.

To top it all off, we also found out the GSA's Kansas City office awarded its workers with a $3,000 awards lunch, possibly to show off that newly learned etiquette. When we began asking about this, we were directed to Washington, D.C. to the headquarters of the GSA.

Where we were told we could get answers in writing, but no one would be able to answer our questions on camera. So we showed up at this public ceremony back at the GSA Regional Headquarters in Kansas City to meet this man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good morning.

GRIFFIN: Jason Klumb is the politically appointed regional administrator of the GSA heartland division, which covers four states.

He's been in charge since February 2010. In charge for three of the cooking classes, the etiquette speaker and that $3,000 awards lunch.

(on camera): This is outrageous to people when they hear things like government workers going to cooking classes and not just one but many, many cooking classes over several years. Why was that allowed to go on?

JASON KLUMB, GSA REGIONAL ADMINISTRATOR: It was a culture. I think it was the old culture at GSA. You saw it in all the news that was generated out of the western regions conference. It was the old culture.

GRIFFIN: Why weren't you able to put a stop to it when you came into office?

KLUMB: I think we've seen new leadership at the agency and that will affect my ability to put a stop to those kinds of things. You're right, it's unacceptable.

GRIFFIN: Do you as the administrator have the power to stop that kind of stuff? KLUMB: I think when we see new policies come into place, there's more authority that's going to be given to regional administrators to stop things like that.

GRIFFIN: Do you not have the power now?

KLUMB: Don't have it now and haven't had it, yes.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): There's one more thing Jason Klumb apparently didn't have the power to stop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the ghost of GSA present. Let's take a look at you in action.

GRIFFIN: Last year's holiday video contest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am the ghost of GSA past.

GRIFFIN: It's another team building exercise. The team that came up with the most creative video about, get this, efficiencies in the GSA, would win an ice cream social. All of what you are seeing was written, produced, acted, taped and edited on federal government time.

(on camera): Were these videos that would make people better employees? Improve the systems? Improve the efficiencies in the office?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, they were just to see how cute they could be in my estimation.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): GSA employees used to be able to watch the videos online. But when the news broke about that spending scandal in Las Vegas, that's when the holiday videos disappeared.

Klumb who said he didn't know about the cooking classes couldn't exactly use the same excuse when it came to the holiday videos.

KLUMB: I was one of the judges. Again, that was part of the culture common throughout GSA and absolutely something that is changing. I think you see a new day at GSA.

GRIFFIN: GSA headquarters tell CNN in a statement, these events indicate a pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations.

The agency spokesperson went on to say under the new GSA leadership, these events would not have been approved and only light refreshments like water and pretzels would be allowed inside a federal facility at future team building exercises.

KLUMB: I think we see a new day at GSA. I think you see a culture shift and you see a new day. I'm very optimistic about that.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: Drew, how can there be any changes if the people in charge, like this regional administrator don't even have the power to stop the waste?

GRIFFIN: Well, that was one of our first questions, and the answer is he does have the power, Anderson, he just didn't know it at the time or misspoke.

And that is a problem for the newly appointed acting administrator for the GSA. Dan Tangerlini who, by the way, finally agreed to talk to me just this afternoon.

COOPER: We're going to have that in a minute, I think.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: Were you surprised to learn that your regional administrator in Kansas City didn't think he had the power to stop this kind of spending?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I'm surprised he felt that way. And in subsequent conversations with him, he said he's misspoke, but I wanted to make that clear.

Actually it was a good opportunity for me to get all regional administrators on the phone and ask if they felt they've been given enough authority to stop that kind of spending.

We need to get the message across that this isn't what the GSA is about. People aren't coming to work for cooking classes or coming to work on prizes.

They're coming to work for an important mission that's critical to serving our agencies that serve the American people. so that's the trick for us to really build a better sense of expectation on what it is that we're going to do every day when we do our jobs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRIFFIN: Anderson, that's the new acting director. Tangerlini has froze hiring. He stopped bonus payment, and he canceled an upcoming conference at the GSA. We'll see if he can actually change the culture there.

COOPER: Drew, appreciate it. Thanks very much.

The relatives of two missing girls in Iowa think they may have been kidnapped. A special FBI team is about to join the search. We have details on that ahead.

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COOPER: Welcome back. A lot happening around the country and world tonight. Deb Feyerick has a "360 Bulletin" -- Deb.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Anderson. Israel's defense minister says a bus bombing that killed at least seven Israeli tourists in Bulgaria is clearly a terror attack. About 30 other people were injured in the explosion in a parking lot outside the airport.

Still no sign of two Iowa girls missing for five days. Now the mother of the 10-year-old Lyric Cook says she thinks maybe Lyric and her 8-year-old cousin Elizabeth Collins were abducted.

Authorities are draining the lake where the girls' bikes were found and an FBI dive team is standing by with sonar equipment to search for the children once lake levels are low enough.

And it is Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday, July 18th, the day the United Nations has designated as Mandela Day. In South Africa and elsewhere, people honored the statesman by doing good deeds and public service. A lot better than presents -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, I was there the day he was elected president. It was remarkable time. I wish him happy birthday. Deb, thanks very much.

Coming up, why posters featuring David Hasselhoff riding into night on the shoulders of bandits. "The Ridiculist" is next.

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COOPER: Time for "The Ridiculist." Tonight, we begin with very important question. When you think of David Hasselhoff, what immediately springs to mind?

Perhaps you think of one of his television shows "Knight Rider," "Baywatch" or "America's Got Talent." Maybe you think of his legendary popularity in Germany or if you're like us he's forever and foremost, a singer.

Fabulous '80 song styling aside, in think we can all agree that when it gets right down to the name David Hasselhoff is synonymous with one thing and one thing only, ice coffee.

That's right in convenient stores throughout New England with very life like cut outs, David Hasselhoff now dares you to resist the lure of the store brand iced coffee.

Why they missed an opportunity to call I had iced hoffee is beyond me, but still brilliant marketing. But there's just one problem, the ads are such a hot item, they're disappearing faster than a "Bay Watch" hotline dissolves into slow motion running montage. Proving my theory, people love them some David Hasselhoff cut outs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's crazy. They keep offering, like -- we get customers every night asking to buy the Hasselhoff poster.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: People are not only asking to buy the Hasselhoff poster, some are brazenly stealing them. Apparently such a rate of frequency the convenient store clerks have seemingly come to expect it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It ain't going to last by the night, but it's still there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: The company even gave a statement about this to our affiliate, WHDH.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cumberland Farms says although we're flattered the customers have become attached to our iced coffee ads, we do not encourage theft. The Hoff is there for all to enjoy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That's right, people. Hands off of the Hoff. He's there for all to enjoy like the sun, the stars, and the gentle spring breeze. The point is, would you steal a rainbow? No, you wouldn't. Well, maybe if you were in college and your roommate was named Rainbow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One of my friends who's nickname at school is Hasselhoff so he took one for him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: OK, not to condone theft, but you have to kind of admit a life size cut out of David Hasselholf holding an ice coffee that's one sweet decoration for a dorm room or for "The Ridiculist."

That does it for us. We'll see you one hour from now another edition of 360 with the latest on allegations being made by Michelle Bachmann and why she won't answer our questions about her allegations about Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the highest levels of U.S. government. John McCain taking a strong stand on it today. We'll have all the latest on that. "Keeping Them Honest."

"PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT" starts right now.