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V.A.'s Shinseki Grilled by Senate; Capitol Hill Hearing on Boko Haram; NYFD's Tom von Essen Shares 9/11 Memories; Interview with Sen. Richard Blumenthal

Aired May 15, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The nation's veterans deserve better, that's the message from Senators about the scandal over veterans, some of whom died while waiting for medical care. A CNN investigation first exposed those problems, especially in Phoenix at the veterans hospital there.

Today, the Veterans Affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, was grilled by a Senate panel. Shinseki says he takes responsibility, but he also says he does not plan to resign.


GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI, VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: This is not a job. I'm here to accomplish a mission that I think they critically deserve and need. And I can tell you over the past five years, we've done a lot to make things better. We're not done yet. And I intend to continue this mission until I have satisfied either that goal or I'm told by the commander-in-chief that my time has been served.


BLITZER: Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. He certainly participated in today's hearing. He's joining us now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

You asked some tough questions. So did your colleagues. Did you get the answers you needed?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D), CONNECTICUT: Not yet, Wolf. I think that we're all awaiting more answers about the details and extent of the wrongdoing here. Clearly there has been misconduct and impropriety. My question to Secretary Shinseki is, don't we need more resources and potential investigation by an agency that has criminal jurisdiction and expertise, which is the FBI and the Department of Justice? And I strongly suggested to him that the FBI should be asked to consider an investigation because we have evidence of false statements, falsification of documents, destruction of those documents, and other obstruction of justice that constitutes a crime. And the inspector general really has no -- lacks sufficient resource to conduct a prompt criminal investigation. BLITZER: What did he say to you?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, he's going to, I think, consider it. I hope he will. And I will call on the attorney general of the United States to take such action if Secretary Shinseki thinks it's inappropriate at this time. But also, there's a need for a new team, a new management team, which a number of us feel is warranted to ensure greater accountability and transparency. I think we're at a turning point for this agency. There have been complaints over years about some of these practices that involve, in effect, lists, cooking the books, falsification of records, and now is the time to break with the past with a new management team that will insist on accountability and transparency. The veterans of America deserve nothing less than the best medical care. And they put themselves at risk. They should not be put at risk by a health care system that's failing.

BLITZER: So does the new management team require a new secretary?

BLUMENTHAL: If General Shinseki undertakes to, in effect, clean house, impose accountability, I would permit him to continue. And as he said, I think he's determined to get to the bottom of all of what's been done wrong. But the jury is still out.

BLITZER: As you know, the president has asked his deputy chief of staff at the White House, Rob Nabors, deal with this crisis. That doesn't sound like a strong vote of confidence by top people over at the White House.

BLUMENTHAL: Whether it's a vote of confidence or not, clearly the issue is more than one person. Although obviously the focus, as typically it is, centers on General Shinseki, and he is the one who's taken responsibility, but the appointment of Rob Nabors is a welcome step but only a first step toward presidential intervention, a new day, an inflection point or turning point for this agency. And obviously, we're learning much more at this point from many of the news media, including most prominently CNN. Thank you for your great work on this issue because I think that the veterans of America have long complained to us, as elected officials. I hear from Connecticut veterans all the time about the wait for medical care, lack of access, lack of timely consults and other kind of treatment. So now we've got to really devote the resource. That's the long-term challenge, the resources, dollars that keep faith with our veterans and make sure that we leave no veteran behind.

BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks very much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: And we're waiting to hear from Secretary Shinseki. He's supposed to be coming to the microphones shortly. Once he does, we'll hear what he has to say to reporters. Presumably, he'll be asked questions at the same time.

Other news we're following, including unease in Syria. The war-torn country slowly trying to get back on its feet. Now a massive explosion shakes a major government military base. Plus, the growing global effort to bring several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls back home. We're going to see how the U.S. is now trying to lend a hand.


BLITZER: It's been exactly one month since the terror group Boko Haram snatched nearly 300 girls from their boarding school. A hearing on Capitol Hill today zoned in on the threat of Boko Haram. The group has a history of attacking churches, schools, killing teachers, anyone who stands in its way.

Our Vladimir Duthiers joins us from the Nigerian capital.

Vlad, this is a heartbreaking situation. It's been a month now. They're seeing these pictures of their daughters on this videotape that was released. How are the families holding up? I know you've had a chance to speak with some of them.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As you can imagine, the families have been in agony over the past couple of weeks, waiting for some proof of life, some sign that their daughters were alive and well. And it came in that video that was released by supposedly the leader of Boko Haram. And in it, Wolf, he makes a really interesting proposition. He offers to trade the girls for what he calls his brothers that are in Nigerian prisons.

Now, today, the U.K. minister for African affairs said to the press that he had spoken to President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and that the president was rejecting the offer but that he was open to dialogue. As you know, Wolf, that's a tough situation for any world leader to be in. You've got 200 children essentially being held by a terrorist group. They're offering to exchange them for other terrorists that are in prisons. What do you do?

We know the United States will be helping out with this. They do have some hostage negotiators not far from where we are here at the United States embassy, but a very, very tough catch-22 for the president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's very tough indeed.

We'll stay on top of the story together with you, Vlad. Thanks very much for your excellent reporting.

For many girls around the world just getting an education is a major challenge. If you'd like to find out more about how you can help, go to You'll have a chance to impact your world.

Coming up after the break, the ladder truck number 3 is now one of the powerful focal points inside the new 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. The former fire commissioner, Tom von Essen, is standing by to join us live to talk about his memories of that day, the firefighters who gave their lives.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- terror can match the strength or the character of our country. Like the great wall and bedrock that embrace us today, nothing can ever break us. Nothing can change who we are as Americans.


BLITZER: President Obama speaking this morning at the dedication ceremony for the new 9/11 museum at ground zero, lower Manhattan.

Tom von Essen was the commissioner of the New York Fire Department on that fateful day. As he toured the exhibit, the smashed remains of ladder truck 3, brought back powerful memories and emotions. In an op-ed in the "New York Post," He writes this: "I immediately thought of ladder 3 Captain Pat Brown who lost all the men on his day-and- night tour that day. What a leader was, Paddy Brown, he was a teacher, a motivator. Men who weren't even scheduled to work that day would follow him into that burning tower. They would follow him -- they would follow him anywhere. Now he and all his men were gone."

Tom von Essen is joining us now from New York.

Commissioner, thanks very much for sharing some thoughts on this gut- wrenching moment for you. Especially how difficult was it for you to visit this memorial and museum?

TOM VON ESSEN, FIRE COMMISSIONER, NEW YORK CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT: Well, I've been through it a couple of times. They asked my input along the way. So I had a sense of how difficult it was going to be. It's just a very emotional place to go when you have such vivid memories of the phenomenal people that gave their lives that day, innocent people, innocent victims, others who sacrificed their life for strangers. They gave it all for people they didn't even know.

BLITZER: Was there one exhibit that particularly struck you?

VON ESSEN: You know, there's so many pieces of the fire department everywhere. Clothing showed. Showed how bunker gear preserved remains better than regular clothing. Made it a little easier to find our guys but still some unidentified. Ladder Company 3 that you mentioned, I think back to some of the criticisms later on saying we lost control, we didn't know who was there, some of the guys who were there were not working. They just jumped on a truck and went there. What kind of men do that when they could easily gone home and not known what would happen? But they jumped on the truck, 11 guys instead of five, so now you don't have enough masks and radios. But you have got a leader who these men would follow anywhere. And that's the kind of guy Pat Brown was and -- I could go name after name after name of tremendous men that were just phenomenal leaders.

BLITZER: 343 firefighters lost their lives that awful day. You remember them, even as we speak right now, vividly.

VON ESSEN: Not a day goes by that I don't walk down the street that I don't see somebody that reminds me of someone, wither it's a firefighter of an officer, all the people that gave so much, and not even for each other but total strangers. People at the museum opening today described how they were running down the stairs trying to get to safety and watching how the firefighters and police officers and the port authority and the NYPD, going up, trying to do what they could, as much as they could, even knowing when the other building had collapsed, knowing they needed to get out of that building as quickly as possible, but still going forward, trying to help those people that really needed it. Because there were an awful lot of injured and trapped people that day. A lot of people we couldn't help, the people above the fire, there was no way of really getting to them and it was too late. But a lot of people below the fire had been in door ways that have been twisted and hurt, injured with debris, flying debris and stuff. So, they really needed help and we were able to get thousands of them out.

BLITZER: As you know there has been some controversy about one of the displays involving the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for this disaster. You think it was important to include that exhibit, that part of this memorial museum, right?

VON ESSEN: I do. They were evil men who perpetrated this horrible crime against innocent civilians. This was not combat. This was not trained military personnel from another country trying to fight for whatever cause. This is innocent mothers and fathers going to work with kids waiting for them at home. This is firefighters, police officers just trying to help others, total strangers. These were innocent people that were killed that day. So I am glad that they singled out the murders. It's not about Islam. It's about extremists. It's about crazy people who, like you described before, just don't want people to be educated, don't want women to have rights like they have all around the world. These are evil people. And I'm glad they made sure everybody knows it.

BLITZER: Well said.

Tom von Essen is the former New York City fire commissioner.

Thanks for joining us on this special day and we'll stay in close touch with you.

VON ESSEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: We will take a quick break and be right back.


BLITZER: A massive explosion rocks a major government military base in Syria.



(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: It came from a bomb planted inside a tunnel into the base of the tunnel that was dug by rebels. CNN has not confirmed the authenticity of this video. But our Fred Pleitgen has toured similar tunnels near the city of Homs, once a battleground. Take a look at this exclusive report.



FRED PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is what the battle for Homs looked like for a very long time. The rebels besieged in the old town with government forces shelling the area.

Now that the fight is over, at least for the time being, and the opposition fighters have left, the Syrian army is discovering their supply routes, an elaborate network of tunnels, the entrances mostly in residential buildings.

"The tunnels were very important for them," this soldier tells me. "This is how they got weapons and ammunition in here."

The Syrian military has begun sweeping the area. The soldiers tell us they were surprised at the amount of tunnels they found.

(on camera): This isn't one of the most sophisticated tunnels around here. It's not high or well constructed but the rebels used many tunnels just like this one in the old town of Homs to get around in end phase of the siege. They would move around in these tunnels and also use them to get resupplied.

(voice-over): The Syrian army showed us what it says is a rebel weapons factory. Next door, the finished products, shells, mortars and grenades of all sizes.

"You see all of these have the word 'ready' written on them," this soldier says. "We found a lot more but most have been taken out of the building."

As the army is busy clearing the old town of Homs of leftover bombs and other weapons, more and more civilians are coming back to the district. But some complain to us that many looters are also here, taking things from abandoned houses.

"So many people came here who are not from this area," This man says. "And they just load their bikes and cars full of stuff and leave. You can see them everywhere."

Syrian soldiers we spoke to off camera also confirmed the reports of looting. They said access to the area should have been restricted to only allow residents in. Now they say it's virtually impossible for them to control all of those walking the streets of this former battleground.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Homs, Syria.


BLITZER: What a story that is.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. eastern in "The Situation Room."

NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.


Here we go. Top of the hour. I'm Brooke Baldwin.