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Interview with Sen. John McCain on Syria's Use of Sarin Gas; Sen. Lindsey Graham Blames Obama Admin. For Missing Signs; The Mystery of Misha

Aired April 25, 2013 - 12:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go to Dana Bash up on Capitol Hill, our chief congressional correspondent.

Dana, this is going to fuel what Senator McCain and some of his associates, like Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and others, have been calling for for some time, some heightened U.S. military activity if not sending troops on the ground.

I don't think anyone is anxious to see that happen, but at least providing weapons, if you will, to the Syrian rebels.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And you just heard from John McCain. That's exactly what it's doing, and, in fact, he's saying, I told you so. Now let's get on it. Let's figure out a way to stop this.

But one thing I want to tell you that also happened in the hallway just around the time that Senator McCain was talking is former Senator John Kerry, now the Secretary of State, was going through the hallway of the Capitol and we asked him, myself and other reporters, about these reports, and he said there will be a letter coming to answer the senators that will confirm two instances.

Wolf, that's new. That is not in this letter here which is the one that John McCain received. We went through it a couple of times. It does not say anything about two instances.

So we're trying to find out if there's an additional letter coming because this is, of course, another fact, two instances. Where were they? How do they know that? We want to get to the bottom of that because that was certainly news to us.

Back on the whole issue of John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others, John McCain also made the point of saying just as you said, Wolf, that there's no need for boots on the ground. But the need, he said and this is proof, just even this intelligence, even though it's not completely confirmed, that they need to have some kind of, in his words, "operational capability" to secure these chemical weapons, not just, of course, assist those who are trying to overthrow the Assad regime and so forth, that the first and foremost goal of the United States right now needs to be to deal with these chemical weapons.

Of course, as he said, just in case -- to make sure, I should say, that they don't get in the hands of other terrorist groups. BLITZER: Dana, stand by. Senator McCain is joining us on the phone right now.

Senator McCain, thanks very much. When you got this letter from the White House, what was your immediate reaction?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA (via telephone): Well, my immediate reaction was that I was pleased that the president corroborated evidence that the Israelis, the French and the British and others have concluded that Bashar al Assad had used chemical weapons. A little concerned that, quote, this evidence has to be quote, "corroborated." I think it's very clear that they are -- that they have used it.

And more importantly, we need to have operational capability to secure these weapons, chemical and biological weapons caches, because clearly they cannot and we should not allow them fall into the wrong hands.

BLITZER: Do you believe the regime of Bashar al Assad, Senator, has complete control over those chemical weapons stockpiles?

MCCAIN: I think they have control over them at the moment. But some of them are in heavily contested areas and could easily fall into the hands of jihadist extremists.

BLITZER: The president has said in recent weeks and months that if in fact the Syrian regime were to use chemical weapons, that would cross a red line, it would be a gamechanger. So what do you think the U.S. needs to do now?

MCCAIN: I think that we need to do what I have advocated since the beginning, since this situation over the last two years has deteriorated dramatically and threatens the stability of the entire region, and that is to provide a safe area inside Syria for the opposition to govern, to make sure that weapons supply is there, and they fall into the hands of the right people, and do what is necessary to put additional pressures on the Russians.

I don't know how much -- what good it would do with the Iranians, but certainly additional pressures on the Russians to stop their increasing supply of weapons to Bashar al Assad.

BLITZER: I don't know if you heard our Dana Bash, our chief congressional correspondent, she caught up with the former Senator now the Secretary of State John Kerry, a man you know well, who says there are apparently two incidents where he believes -- where the U.S. believes -- the Syrians did in fact use chemical weapons against the rebels. Do you have more information about these two incidents?

MCCAIN: No. We do not have -- I don't have additional information. I had heard reports from people inside Syria and the Israelis and the French and the British that they had evidence that Bashar al Assad had used those weapons.

And it should not surprise us, Wolf. This guy will do whatever is necessary in order to ensure his position of power. And by the way, it is now a stalemate and has been a stalemate, and the prospects of him being overthrown any time soon without taking out his air power and without supplying the right weapons to the right people and coordinating a government from inside Syria, it may remain in stalemate and the massacre goes on.

And finally, the King of Jordan is in town, as you know. They are about to be overwhelmed by refugees. By the end of this summer, they could have a refugee population that is half the population of Jordan. Think of what the United States would look like if we had half of our population in the form of refugees in our country.

BLITZER: I can only imagine. And I know King Abdullah is raising that issue in all of his meetings up on Capitol Hill over at the White House. The letter the White House sent you was very carefully crafted.


BLITZER: A couple nuances. They said that in the intelligence committee, they've come up with this assessment with varying degrees of confidence. I assume that means that some of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have different assessments on how reliable this evidence is, is that right?

MCCAIN: I don't know how many of these different intelligence agencies who we have have agreed or disagreed, but I think there was that caveat in the letter, which I think is important, and I'm sorry to say may give them an out for not acting in a decisive fashion, because if they all agreed and they concluded it, then the president would have to act because he has repeatedly described it as a red line that cannot be crossed.

BLITZER: And one final question before I let you go, Senator. Do you have any specific information on the details of when they used these chemical weapons -- if in fact they did, as this letter seems to suggest -- the circumstances of the use of the sarin gas?

MCCAIN: Well, the published reports are they used it once in Aleppo and once around Damascus, but I have not had any corroboration of that, that that is indeed factual. But the Israeli intelligence, as you know, has concluded, as well as the British and the French have, that at least twice it's been used.

BLITZER: And on a totally unrelated matter, may be totally unrelated, your good friend and colleague Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, he is now suggesting that the Boston Marathon bombings, that the Obama administration has to accept a certain amount of blame for missing -- you know, missing certain signals, information for example, that the Russians presented.

I'll read to you a sentence he said, Senator. I'll get your quick reaction and then I'll let you go because I know you've to get going.

This is Senator Lindsey Graham, he said, "Boston is becoming a case study in system failure. Just look at it from a 30,000-foot point view. You have Russian intelligence services contacting two agencies without our government responsible for national security, the FBI and the CIA. They tell us, 'We believe you have a radical Islamist in your midst.'

We do interviews; we do some things that I think are pretty responsible, however, this suspected radical Islamist is able to go back to Russia and Dagestan without the FBI or the CIA being made aware of it, even though Homeland Security was."

I wonder if you want to comment on what Senator Lindsey Graham is suggesting. This is a pretty blunt indictment of the Obama administration's handling of these guys, these Tsarnaev brothers in Boston.

MCCAIN: I think Senator Graham raises very legitimate questions that require, in my view, congressional hearings. I have written a letter to Senator Carper, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, asking for hearings on this.

Why is it that he left the country, Tamerlan, and his -- and only the Homeland Security Committee knew about it? He got back in without anybody knowing about it. And why did the Russians feel it necessary to contact two different agencies of government and express their concern? And what were those concerns?

So there's a great deal that needs to be investigated. And remember, Wolf, that when we did the 9/11 Commission and restructured government, one of the major objectives was to make sure stovepiping didn't take place. In other words, agencies not sharing information with each other. In fact, it seems that stovepiping happened in this case, but we really do need to have a thorough investigation. And that's not to take away the courage and dedication of our police and FBI and all those others who did such a great job.

BLITZER: If we don't learn from our mistakes, we're bound to repeat them.

MCCAIN: Exactly.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, Senator McCain, thanks.

MCCAIN: Thanks.

BLITZER: Thank you so much, Senator John McCain joining us.

Let's get back to the huge news potential today. The Obama administration now suggesting for the first time that they do have an intelligence assessment believing that the Syrian regime of president Bashar al Assad did in fact use chemical weapons against the rebels, specifically sarin gas.

Christiane Amanpour is joining us from New York right now. Christiane, the president in the past has said this would be a game- changer, not specifying what the Obama administration or the U.S. military would do, but potentially this is a huge development.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, let's get to some of the reporting that I've been doing on this issue, and, again, mentioning that the White House letter quite clearly calls it a small-scale attack and still says that they need to find more conclusive proof.

But to some of the questions you've just been raising with some of our other reporters, as for what physiological evidence they're talking about -- Barbara Starr was talking about that -- I can tell you what the leader of the Syrian opposition forces told me in an exclusive interview yesterday, that they believe, that they've been told by their own forces inside that chemical weapons were used on at least three occasions, March 19th and that also corroborates what the Israeli brigadier general says.

The chemical weapons, they claim have been used in Homs, in Aleppo inn two different instances, and in Otaiba, which is a suburb very close to Damascus.

When I asked him what physical proof -- I asked this of General Salim Idris, who is the leader of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army -- he said that his doctors had taken soil samples, had taken blood samples from victims after the Aleppo attack in march and had otherwise inspected and taken care of these victims who came to the hospital.

He said that these have been sent out, and he was not able to tell me exactly where, but he told me yesterday that he's going straight back into Syria and he is there now to seek more of this evidence and to give it to more of the officials in the outside world.

Remember, in the Aleppo attack, if it was indeed chemical weapons as they're claiming, there were some 20 people who were killed and about 100 who were injured.

So that's as to what we're being told by the Syrian opposition. Now we heard over this week by the Israeli brigadier general in charge of military intelligence, Brigadier General Itai Burn who said at that security conference in Israel that he believed that sarin gas had been used and other potentially non-lethal chemical components.

He based his assessment on what he said were, I believe, assessments from the ground and photographs. He talked about foaming at the mouth. He talked about shrunken pupils.

So there is a lot of this evidence and suspicions that have come out. Syrian government itself is denying having used them, but this is what the opposition and the Israelis and the British and French are raising as well.

BLITZER: Yeah, the British and the French several days ago, then the Israelis a bit later and now the U.S., basically all coming down with the same assertion.

AMANPOUR: Right. Now, you know what they're trying to do now. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has gathered a special investigative unit and they are now trying to get into Syria to take some of these tests.

But there are problems with that. That is, as of yet, the Syrian government of Bashar Assad has not permitted that team for perhaps obvious reasons to come into Syria. And there's another problem, and that, according to scientists, is that some of this evidence can be corrupted over time. So it's very important to know what exactly was in the soil samples and in the blood samples that we're told the doctors removed from the victims and from the areas when these attacks apparently happened.

I think it's also important to know that many in the security community, certainly looking from abroad, are very worried about the motives of the Assad regime, saying that it is possible that they could be using these chemical weapons in these small-scale instances to judge and to gauge the reaction from the international community and to see if it is allowed to continue whether they would be able to continue to use it with impunity.

And, again, it's important to realize that, you remember, back in the '80s, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against both his own people and against the Iranians in the Iran/Iraq war and that was not reacted to, by any stretch, at the time.


BLITZER: Good point. All right. Christiane, stand by.

We're following the breaking news, the Obama administration now suggesting the Syrian regime perhaps has crossed this red line and used chemical weapons against the rebels.

We're following the other important news, Senator Lindsey Graham, now basically asserting that the Obama administration took -- had some major missteps, failed to deal with the suspicions that the Russians provided the U.S. about the Boston -- the elder Boston bomber, the alleged Boston bomber. We'll take a quick break. Much more on both of these stories on the other side.


BLITZER: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has issued a major indictment of the way the Obama administration handled information coming from Russia about the suspected bomber at the Boston Marathon. Listen to what Senator Lindsey Graham just said.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Boston is becoming to me a case study in system failure. Between Benghazi and Boston, our systems are failing and we're going backwards. We need to understand that bin Laden may be dead, but the war against radical Islam is very much alive. Radical Islam is on the march and we need to up our game.


BLITZER: Pretty strong words over there from Senator Graham.

Let's bring back our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash. She's up on Capitol Hill. It looks like they're getting stronger and stronger, the comments coming from some of the Obama administration's critics, as far as the way the information leading up to the Boston Marathon bombings are concerned.

BASH: No, there's no question about it they're becoming stronger and stronger and, frankly, the reaction is becoming more and more partisan. I should tell you that I had a conversation with the Senate Intelligence chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, asking about these system failures, and she didn't even let me finish my question. She said, no, she does not believe that there was, quote/unquote, "stove piping" going on, meaning there wasn't a problem with agencies not sharing information, which, of course, was a big problem pre-9/11.

But Lindsey Graham is saying just the opposite. Of course, we should note that he is somebody who has been, as you've said, a very strong critic of the Obama administration. I talked to him after you just heard that for a while in the hallway. And the point that he was trying to make is that he believes -- suggested not so subtly that there was some politics going on because if you think about the timing of all this, it was in and around the presidential election, or right before it, and the reason he made the connection between the Boston bombing and Benghazi is because, as he did around the Benghazi bombing, he is suggesting that the Obama administration was trying to sort of clamp down on any fear that terrorism might still be alive and well when the president was trying to run politically on the idea that he got Osama bin Laden. So that is the political suggestion that he is making.

I'll tell you one other thing that he told me and a few other reporters in terms of the substance of what he learned in this briefing that all senators had this morning. He says that what he was told by the FBI official there is that the Department of Homeland Security database got what he called pinged when the older brother left the U.S., went to Russia and came back into the U.S. Of course he took that trip about six months ago or so. The understanding was that -- or it was unclear whether or not the U.S. government even knew that he left. But he said that they were told, these senators were told, that it did set off an alert in the Department of Homeland Security database. But the problem is, that that did not get shared with the FBI and the CIA.

So that is part of what is feeding his accusation that the government is not sharing enough, that the government is not doing the job that it is supposed to be doing, learning the lessons from pre-9/11 and not sharing this information in order to make sure that any suspect really is, you know, investigated and gone after and followed to make sure that something like what happened in Boston does not happen.

BLITZER: Dana, standby. Lots of news happening up on Capitol Hill, over at the White House and in the Boston investigation, especially this mysterious figure named Misha. What was his role, if any, in the Boston Marathon bombings? How much influence did this character Misha supposedly have on the elder suspect who is now dead, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

We've got new information coming in. We'll share it with you right after this.


BLITZER: Tamerlan Tsarnaev's uncle says a friend from Cambridge may have brainwashed his nephew, a man known only by the name Misha. An Armenian, supposedly, who converted to Islam. But what role, if any, did he play in possibly radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev? CNN's Brian Todd takes a closer look.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Family members now describe a mysterious man who they say had a mesmerizing influence on Tamerlan Tsarnaev. They only know him as Misha. They say they don't know his full name. Here's how the suspect's uncle described the man and his influence on the other brother in an interview with CNN.

RUSLAN TSARNI, BOMBING SUSPECTS' UNCLE: There's a person, sort of some new convert, you know, to Islam of some Armenian descent. I said this person just - he took his brain. Just brainwashed him completely. Tamerlan is off now. There's no obedience and respect to his own father. That concerned me big time. Unbelievably.

TODD: More pieces fit together in a telephone interview Wolf Blitzer did with the ex-brother-in-law of the two suspects. Elmirza Khozhgov said he'd met Misha twice, been introduced to him by Tamerlan. Khozhgov said he didn't witness Misha actually turning Tamerlan into a radical Islamist, but --

ELMIRZA KHOZHGOV, BOMBING SUSPECTS' FORMER BROTHER-IN-LAW (voice- over): But he surely did have influence and did teach him things that would make Tamerlan, you know, go away from the people and go more into the religion. And maybe - maybe that's possible that he suggested to him some radical ideas.

TODD: Khozhgov said Tamerlan Tsarnaev had told him he'd quit boxing and listening to mainstream music because Misha taught him that in Islam it's not good to do those things. Asked if he suspected that Misha was connected to any terrorist groups --

KHOZHGOV: I didn't suspect either him or Tamerlan being connected to terror groups or terror -- having terrorist ideas. But I know that they had a lot of conversations about just, you know, Islam and how Islam is being attacked from the outside -- you know, from the western countries and how Islam is under pressure.

TODD: Asked when Tamerlan became a more devout Muslim, the ex-brother- in-law and the uncle both say they noticed it about four years ago. We searched for Misha using the Internet, a search database and social media, cross referencing his name with descriptions of him. One name did come up. We scoured matching addresses in the Boston area, phone numbers and e-mails. We couldn't find him, so we're not mentioning his name.

Has Misha ever been connected with the Islamic Society of Boston, a mosque the two suspects attended? I put that question to mosque spokesman Yusufi Vali.

TODD (on camera): Is there such a person in this congregation? And do you think that could -- there could be anything to that?

YUSUFI VALI, ISLAMIC SOCIETY OF BOSTON: Not to our knowledge. Not to our knowledge, no.

TODD: And another mosque official told me, quote, "we are looking for him too." They say they want to find Misha as much as anyone else right now.

Brian Todd, CNN, Boston.


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, for a special CNN "Situation Room." Our coverage here in the CNN NEWSROOM continues with Anderson Cooper right after a quick break.