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President Obama Speaks Out on VA Scandal; Interview with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on Drone Policy; Tornado Warning in Denver Area

Aired May 21, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Some breaking news: the U.S. deploying 80 troops in Africa to -- quote -- "bring back our girls."

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

A pair of car blasts killing more than 100 people in Nigeria, the suspects, the same terrorists who kidnapped 276 schoolgirls, but now dozens of U.S. troops are actively engaging in the frantic hunt.

The national lead, the president vowing accountability at some point down the line for the excessive, even possibly deadly wait times at our VA hospitals. Was he forceful enough about this national disgrace?

And the money lead, not one, not two, but three rounds of recalls in less than a week -- why so many in such a short time span?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We have some breaking world news now. CNN has just learned that about 80 U.S. troops are deploying to the African country of Chad to help find the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria more than a month ago by the radical Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

President Obama wrote a letter to the House speaker and the Senate president, saying -- quote -- "These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area. The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required."

Joining me by phone is Rear Admiral John Kirby. He's the Pentagon press secretary.

Admiral Kirby thanks for joining us.

Explain exactly what these forces will be doing. How will this work?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NAVY: Well, Jake, thanks for having me.

These folks will be mainly deployed in trying to support the aircraft that will be flying out of Chad that will be conducting these reconnaissance flights over Nigeria and surrounding areas. So, that's -- thank are folks that will help maintain the aircraft, folks that will help analyze the data that comes and imagery that comes off the aircraft.

So, there's support personnel largely. But because they have to be armed for their own security, that necessitated the president's letter to Congress.

TAPPER: Admiral Kirby, why Chad? Why not in Nigeria? Why not in Cameroon?

KIRBY: Well, we have a great relationship with Chad in this regard. And it -- Chad is a great location in terms of the area in which we're going to be looking in. And it's roughly about the area of West Virginia.

And it doesn't just include Nigeria, but other countries. And so, just geographically, Chad is a great location to do this from.

TAPPER: How long do we expect these forces to stay and help in the search? And do we have any idea when this is going to start, this mission?

KIRBY: They have already started deploying to Chad. They are already there. And...


TAPPER: All 80 are there, sir?

KIRBY: Well, I don't know about all 80. You know, we're just working our way through this, Jake, so I will have to back get to you on the exact numbers that are already there. But it is about 80 total.

And they will be there until they are no longer required. The president has made this a priority. He has made it clear that we're going to do all we can, and this is consistent with that direction.

TAPPER: Do -- does the Pentagon have any better idea of where these girls were? Last time you and I spoke, the Pentagon had no idea where they were.

KIRBY: Well, Jake, I wish I could tell you -- I wish I had better news, but the truth is, we don't know exactly where they are.

We still believe that they have been broken up into small groups and dispersed. And it's likely that they have moved, some of them have moved even since then. So, unfortunately, we just don't have a better sense right now.

And that is again another reason why we're putting these extra personnel in Chad and we're going to continue to fly these flights.

TAPPER: I want to play some sound from what your counterpart at the State Department, Jen Psaki, said just a short time ago.


JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: The search for the kidnapped girls is ongoing. The Nigerians are in the lead. We're continuing to lend our unique assets and capabilities to assist in the search.


TAPPER: She said this before the announcement from President Obama to Congress that these troops had been deployed.

Is she referring to this aid, these individuals helping with the drones, or is she referring to even more beyond that?

KIRBY: Well, I think right now, you know, I won't speak for Jen, but I think we're talking about these 80.

We're talking about the dozen or so that we did deploy as part of an interagency team down to the embassy there in Abuja. And that is really the scope of what we're talking about right now, just those folks, and no more that I'm aware of now.

TAPPER: As always, with any mission like this, there's always the fear of mission creep. You send in troops just to deploy some drones and some troops to protect them, and then two years later, you have five Army bases and 100,000 soldiers deployed. How is the Pentagon guarding against something like that from happening?

KIRBY: Well, it is not about guarding against that from happening.

We are -- we follow orders. We execute the decisions that are made by the leaders that we report to. And the mission right now is really centered on two things, Jake. One is doing a gap analysis, what we call in the Pentagon a gap analysis, helping the Nigerians figure out what requirements they might need.

And that is what the small team that is working in the embassy, which is part of an interagency team led by the State Department, is all about. The second track, the second focus is ISR. It's surveillance and reconnaissance flights to try to see if we can help the Nigerians find these girls.

And that is the track that is supportive of these 80 folks that are going into Chad. And I would also add -- you talked about mission creep. Just to remind your viewers, these 80 folks that are going to Chad, they are maintenance personnel. They operate the actual aircraft itself and help keep it flying. They're security personnel that help protect the aircraft and protect the people that we put there and support -- and other personnel.

This is not -- these are not combat infantry troops that we put into Chad. These are folks that are there to support the reconnaissance mission.

TAPPER: Lastly, Admiral Kirby, given that drone operators work out of New Mexico and places like that in the United States operating drones on the other side of the world, why is it necessary to deploy 40 U.S. troops and 40 support personnel to Chad? Why can't this be done remotely?

KIRBY: Well, because the aircraft -- yes, you're right. These things are often remotely piloted from as far away as back in the United States. That is absolutely true, the actual operators of the aircraft.

But the aircraft itself, these are -- this is expensive gear. It's expensive equipment. And we want to make sure that we protect it, that we're there to maintain it. It still needs it is still a piece of machinery that is going to need support.

TAPPER: Rear Admiral John Kirby, thank you so much for coming on. We appreciate it.

KIRBY: My pleasure, Jake. Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: CNN's Vladimir Duthiers is live on the ground in Nigeria.

Vlad, what kind of enemy is the U.S. facing here and the Nigerian people? Tell us more about Boko Haram.


Boko Haram is a terrorist agency that really became militant in 2009, when their leader, Yusuf Mohammed, was killed by the Nigerian police whilst in police custody. They have been active for the last several years. They have killed thousands of people across Nigeria, Jake, mostly in the northeast, but they have struck here in the capital, Abuja.

And, as you know, they struck in central Nigeria in the town of Jos just yesterday, killing some 118 people. They have hacked people to death. They have burned people alive in their homes. This group has attacked mosques, churches, police barracks, marketplaces. There is no rhyme or reason to what they have done. And just this year alone, Jake, in the first three months of 2014, they're responsible for 1,500 deaths across northeastern Nigeria, Jake.

TAPPER: yesterday, those twin blasts in the Nigerian market leaving at least 118 people dead, as you mentioned, that sent a fresh shockwave of fear throughout the country and the attack bears the hallmarks of Boko Haram, how are the people on the ground dealing with this crisis?

DUTHIERS: Well, this attack just sort of highlights the reign of terror that people in Nigeria have been living under since 2009 and the inability of the Nigerian military and the Nigerian government to stop the flow of violence.

This is the reality in Nigeria. We report on these attacks nearly every week, bombings, firebombs of people's homes, schools attacked, and, as you know, Jake, this just horrific attack where on April 14, Boko Haram members stormed a girls dormitory, kidnapping some 276 girls. And six weeks later, we're still unable to find these girls, which is why I think you're seeing the United States starting to step in, along with other countries, France, China, all part of an interagency operation and a regional plan to try to bring these girls home, Jake.

TAPPER: Vladimir Duthiers in Abuja, thank you so much. Stay safe, my friend.

Coming up, the president promising accountability if allegations of misconduct at Veterans Administration hospitals are proven to be true, but will he continue to stand by his Cabinet secretary?

Plus, he is against the killing of U.S. citizens overseas, even if they are terrorists plotting to kill other Americans. Next, I will ask Senator Rand Paul why he is fighting against the president's use of lethal force under these circumstances.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The world lead. It was a shorter filibuster than we're used to hearing from Senator Rand Paul. But it was no less passionate.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I rise today in opposition to the killing of American citizens without trials.

I rise today to oppose the nomination of anyone who would argue that the president has the power to kill an American citizen not involved in combat and without a trial.

I rise today to say that there is no legal precedent for killing American citizens not involved in combat and that any nominee who rubber-stamps and grants such power to a president is not worthy of being placed one step away from the Supreme Court.


TAPPER: Now, Senator Paul's stance demands some context.

In late September 2011, a handful of American drones maneuvered by pilots sitting thousands of miles away crossed the border into Yemen, hovered over a group of trucks and fired. One of the people killed in that raid was Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic preacher and an al Qaeda operative who had helped guide the failed attempt of the would- be underwear bomber to blow up an airliner on its way to Detroit in 2009.

But al-Awlaki was also an American citizen. He was born in New Mexico. And his death at the hands of the U.S. government without permission from a judge or Congress has been deeply controversial ever since.

Senator Rand Paul joins me now. Senator Paul, thanks for joining us.

You stood today specifically against the appointment of David Barron to the U.S. Court of Appeals because of his authorship of a memo analyzing the use of drones against overseas terrorists. The Democrats, generally, with a few Republicans, broke the filibuster. But answer me this, how was Anwar al-Awlaki anything but an enemy of the United States? SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I'm not arguing that he wasn't an enemy. I am arguing, though, that there was a difference between an accusation and a conviction. And in our country, even if you are a terrible person, if you're a murderer or a rapist, you are accused, but then you are given a chance to confront your accusers.

The burden is on the government. There has to be a burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt. These are very important parts of due process, you get a lawyer, you get your day in court. These are the most back fundamental things that we grant even to the most despicable of people and even to the most despicable of crimes.

So, I think it's a dangerous and slippery slope to allow American s overseas not to have a trial, just an accusation.

TAPPER: Well, what the government would say, to play devil's advocate, is that a police officer has to right to shoot, to kill, to protect the innocent and Awlaki in taking up arms, joining an organization that has its sworn purpose, killing innocent people, including those in the United States --

PAUL: Right. This would be --

TAPPER: -- is basically doing the same thing.

PAUL: And this would be true if he were holding arms and shooting at our soldiers. He would get no due process, and I have no problems with anybody killing him in a field of battle. But that's really not the circumstances. He wasn't holding weapons. He wasn't engaged in weapons. He may have been a plotter, probably in all likelihood, was a plotter.

But I would do for people who commit treason, is I would try them for treason. If they don't return home, I would provide them with a lawyer. And I think we would have much better justification and a much better ability to say this is part of the American tradition if we have a trial, a lawyer and a judgment from a jury, and not so much a secret judgment by one branch of government.

Due process involves having a lawyer. It involves a trial. And you can't really say that you have given due process or that you're really you know, giving due deference to a lot of the things that really are what America stands for.

TAPPER: Do you have any doubt that al-Awlaki was part of the team that set Abdulmutallab, the would-be underwear bomber on that flight to kill as many Americans as possible?

PAUL: I think the evidence looks pretty convincing. And so, I'm not holding Awlaki up as some great paragon. But what I would say is that in a trial, what would happen is you would be able to contest your accusers. Confront your accusers.

This is a fundamental tradition that came out of maybe a thousand years of jurisprudence, to have a lawyer, to have your day in court. So I think when we decide in secret by one branch of government, the guilt of someone based on an accusation, that that really is not consistent with American jurisprudence. It's not consistent with the Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment says that you have to have presentment of a grand jury indictment and you do get your day in court, you do get due process. No one shall have their life, liberty or freedom taken away from them without a trial.

And so, this does go against our tradition. And we should be careful because of our fear and our hatred, often for justifiably bad people, that we don't give up what we're actually fighting for. What our soldiers are fighting and sacrifice so much for is for the Bill of Rights. If we give up the Bill of Rights in our pursuit of terrorists, I think really we will have mistaken what we were fighting for.

Senator Rand Paul, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

PAUL: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up, tornado sirens sound in Denver as a very strong storm heads towards the Denver International Airport. We'll get the latest on the tornado warning there, coming up right next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Some breaking news now on our national lead -- skies looking very ominous over the Denver area right now, where tornado sirens are sounding.

Let's get right to our meteorologist Chad Myers. He's in the severe weather center -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: A very severe-looking storm heading right to the Denver international area. We call it a hook echo for a reason, because it looks like a hook. There's your hook right through here, moving on up, the Denver International Airport is right there, right there in the middle of my screen.

Let me get rid of this graphic for you here, I will get rid of this. You can see the rotation of the cell right here. It's called a tornado vortex signature, and there's our airport. There's our runways right through here, and is moving just to the south of the airport. But I'm sure people are taking cover in the DIA Airport, Denver International, and then another area right through here, where there's three inch hail, moving just to the north of the airport. So, a very severe night for the people there in Denver.

Now, for Denver proper, it has moved by, it has moved by Denver, and all the way towards Glendale. It is moving up northeast and away from the city, but that doesn't mean there will not be more storms develop to the South and Southwest.

There is the cell we're most concerned about right there. And that right there is a brand-new tornado warning just popped up on my screen for that rotation there. It moved just to the east of Commerce City, is now east of Denver. But that spot right there, that is the airport. People taking cover now, Jake.

TAPPER: And we hear, anecdotally, Chad, that individuals are taking cover within the Denver International Airport.

MYERS: Absolutely.

TAPPER: We're going to keep a close eye on this. We'll come back to you as news warrants. Chad Myers, thank you so much.

Coming up, the president outraged over the allegations of misconduct at V.A. hospitals, but still defending the V.A. secretary as the calls for his resignation mount. So, will this accountability include criminal charges for any involved? That's next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In national news, heads will roll, eventually. President Obama promises to hold accountable anyone who has manipulated or falsified records at veterans hospitals once the various investigations and reviews have run their course. CNN has been at the forefront of this story at our nation's V.A. hospitals. We were the first to report that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments through the Phoenix V.A. system. Many of whom were allegedly placed on a secret waiting list. President Obama is sending his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to phoenix this evening to visit that V.A. facility, and interview the interim director, the actual director of that hospital.

Sharon Helman was placed on leave after CNN's reporting. CNN has learned that just last month, she got a bonus, $8,500, just as the scandal was breaking. Yes, heck of a job.

But just moments ago, we learned that the Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki personally rescinded that bonus. Of course, Shinseki likely approved the bonus in the first place for V.A. policy, though a V.A. spokesman called it a, quote, "administrative error".

But, of course, this is much bigger than just one person's bonus. The president called Shinseki and Nabors to the White House before making his remarks. But anyone who is waiting for Shinseki to get the boot -- well, like our wounded veterans, have to keep waiting.