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President Obama Goes to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day; Interview with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Aired May 26, 2014 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to the LEAD.

Today, Memorial Day. We honor who were lost their lives to serve their country. President Obama went to Arlington national cemetery earlier today to lay the wreath at the tombs of the unknowns to pay tribute to those men and women. So did Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki, both of whom are, of course, under pressure to respond to the scandal surrounding health care delays at the VA. This may have been a simple reminder from the president.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These Americans have done their duty. They ask nothing more than our country does ours.


TAPPER: Defense secretary Chuck Hagel was also there to pay his respects. Earlier I spoke to him near the D.C. war memorial here in Washington as former VA deputy administrator. I also asked him about his gut reaction when he heard the news of these scandals.


TAPPER: Are you appalled when you hear these stories?

CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: It makes me sick to my stomach because it a clear responsibility we have as a country, as a people to take care of these men and women and their families who have sacrificed so much.

I know systems are imperfect. I get that. But when you've got what we do know and, you're right, we need to get the facts, let's see exactly what happened, why it happened, how it happened, then we've got to fix it. Then we have to fix it.

TAPPER: But ultimately you still back Secretary Shinseki?

HAGEL: Well, I do. Because I think, again, let's get the facts here. Let's see what happened, why it happened, how it happened, who knew about it. But accountability, just as President Obama said, is the key here.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Secretary of defense Hagel was also a veteran. He served in the Vietnam War and earned two purple hearts there. So I also asked him to reflect on the time he served and who he still thinks about on Memorial Day.


TAPPER: You and your brother Tom went in together. You saved each other's lives?

HAGEL: We did, I suppose. Both wounded twice. The first time we were wounded was in March of 1968 and we were hit by an ambush going across the stream. And I got hit, we all got hit with Chinese mines. I still have shrapnel in my chest from that, but blood was coming out of me everywhere. Everybody was dazed. He got hit. And I may have bled to death if he hadn't got right next to me because we used to walk point and put compressors on me. And there was no one else around this. And I mean, you could probably legitimately say he saved my life.

The second time we were wounded, our armored personnel care hit a landmine at night about 2:00 in the morning and blew up our track and I was throwing everybody off the track. My face was burnt, everything was burnt, eardrums blown out. My brother was unconscious. I didn't know he was dead. And I couldn't get him out if, 540 caliber machine gun because I knew that APC would blow up because it was full of ammunition and it did. But I got him out just in time, finally, because he was strapped in (INAUDIBLE) and it probably was ten seconds after I was able to throw him off and get everybody off that that track blew up and they dusted us off in helicopters that night and put us in field hospitals.

TAPPER: There's a lot of talk about today's veterans about posttraumatic stress. It wasn't diagnosed during that time of the Vietnam veterans. Do you have it? Do you still have it?

HAGEL: I never thought about it, Jake. First, I think you recognize that any individual who goes through a war, who goes through combat, who sees things, of people dying in front of them, you're changed. And there's no question every war.

I think it's partly how you handle that. Some can handle it better than others and also I think it depends on where you came from. What was your situation before you went to war? We're all different and we all handle things differently. But sure, I had been affected, and I'd like to think that at least what I tried to do and a lot of veterans and most veterans have done this, take the positive of what you have learned and apply that to what you are doing and help you maybe make -- be a better leader, a better father, a better husband, a better friend.

But sure, you get drug back into moments when you have to rise above it. But unfortunately, it was not diagnosed as a legitimate problem until years afterward. So now I think we're doing a good job with it. It's not perfect but at least we recognized it. At least we're providing help. And I think that helps all of our veterans. TAPPER: For a lot of the country, this weekend is about, you know, vacation, three-day weekend, mattress sale. But for some people it's about remembering people who are no longer here because they fought in wars. You're a Vietnam veteran. What do you think about on memorial weekend?

HAGEL: Well, I think about all of the men and women that I served with, some whose names are on the Vietnam veteran memorial wall.

TAPPER: Anyone in particular?

HAGEL: A couple guys, a guy by the name of summers who was killed when my brother Tom and I were wounded the first time, he was killed in that ambush and a young kid. He had only been out there -- he was 18 and had been there two months. A guy by the name of Tony Palombo. There are others, too. But those two because I think they happened fairly early in the time that I was there. Somehow those stick out.

TAPPER: One of those was his commander, Lieutenant Jerome Johnson.

HAGEL: My brother, Tom, and I have looked for our company commander, a young 21-year-old African-American from Chicago that took over our company after they devastated. Huge racial problems, segregated tents. Couldn't find him. Just talked to him three months ago, found him in Chicago. We're bringing him back to Washington, he and his wife and their grandsons to meet with the president of the United States and to spend the weekend with us. We have not seen him since 1968.

TAPPER: He really made you guys integrated.

HAGEL: He made us integrated. We went into that company. We had huge problems. The army as you knew in 1968, a bad year for everybody. We sent 16,000 dead Americans home in one year. But racial problems here in the United States in the army. He walked into that company as a young African-American lieutenant and said, no. No more. We're all Americans. We're going to take care of each other, we're going to live together and fight together and like each other. No segregated tents. Let's get it done.

My brother and I have never forgot that. But that's one element of what I think about when I think of veterans, leadership, courage, doing what is right. It's not just all about war but it's about the personal.


TAPPER: Coming up on the LEAD, the White House is used to defending itself over leaks to the media, but this time the administration did the leaking itself. How the identity of one high level CIA official was accidentally released coming up next.

Plus, new anguish for the families of flight for 370 passengers as the search could be suspended for months. We'll tell you why, ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: Welcome back to the LEAD.

Some breaking news now on the hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped more than a month ago by the Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Nigeria's chief of defense is now telling state news that he knows where those girls are. So, time to swoop in and bring back those girls, right? Not so fast.

Our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is standing by in Abuja, Nigeria.

Arwa, what do we know?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, these comments by the chief of defense who is Air Chief Marshall Alex Bade is fairly vague in the sense that he was simply saying that at this stage the government, the military know where the girls are, but are not going to be disclosing that information, really urging people to give them some room to continue with whatever military operation they may have in place.

Saying, though, that they would not be using force to try to rescue these girls, that any sort of risk to the girls' lives would not end up being worth it in the end. Here's the challenge, though, Jake, as we've been reporting all along. Does the military, in fact, know exactly where these girls are?

Have those various air surveillance missions that they've been running over various areas of interest in the north eastern part of the country actually been able to lead them to specific locations or were these comments broadly made in the sense that, yes, we know they are in the north eastern part of the country. This is where we believe they are.

We still don't know, for example, if the girls are all being kept together or if it's widely suspected they have been broken down into smaller groups. And then, of course, it's the very critical question of if military use of force is out of the question, what is on the table, then? Some sort of negotiation? And whom exactly do you negotiate with Boko Haram at this stage?

Very much being described as a fractured negotiation. You could be negotiating with one group and trying to secure the girl's release. You could secure the release of those girls, but then not those that are being held by another group. So while these comments made lead to a sense of optimism, not a lot concrete on the ground just yet -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Arwa Damon, thank you so much and you'll to continue to keep us up to date, I know.

In other world news, it was supposed to be a trip shrouded in secrecy, which makes it all the more embarrassing that it ended up causing a CIA official's cover to be compromised. President Barack Obama spent a little more than four hours in Afghanistan yesterday on an unannounced trip to visit with American forces. He thanked the troops for knocking al Qaeda, quote, "on their heels" and he promised again that this year America's longest war would come to an end. That was the headline from the trip, but now it turns out that the White House accidentally leaked the identity of the CIA's chief in Kabul to literally thousands of reporters.

Let's bring in senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, the name of the CIA's Kabul station chief was sent to 6,000 members of the media. How did that happen?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's a real head scratcher, Jake, but it did happen yesterday. The White House and CIA is not commenting on the accidental release of this top operative in Afghanistan. Other news outlets are not reporting the identity of the station chief. But this is how it went down and it's going to sound familiar to you in terms of the process, Jake.

Basically, White House officials inadvertently included the name of the station chief in a list of participants who were involved in the president's trip to Afghanistan yesterday to the print pool reporter. The print reporter, traveling along with the president, who was part of that small pool of reporters who covers the president's movement and that pool reporter included the name in his report, sent it back to the White House press office.

And then on to those 6,000 recipients in the news media people like you and me who get these pool reports and then it was at that point that that print reporter with "The Washington Post" noticed the station chief's name spelled out in this e-mail and went back to White House officials and said, wait a minute, do you really want this name in here?

And the White House said no and they quickly tried to correct it. But Jake, by that point the name was released. It was put in this e-mail and the cat was basically already out of the bag. We should point out at this point that we have not heard from the White House, from CIA officials whether anybody has been fired. What the current state is of that operative, that station chief in Afghanistan. Those are some of the unresolved questions at this point.

But I can tell you privately, Jake, a lot of administration officials are furious about this and worried, quite frankly, about the safety of the station chief. And just to show you the discomfort inside the intelligence community about this Valerie Plane. You'll remember her identity was blown by the Bush administration because of people inside the Bush administration upset with her husband's criticism of the case of the war in Iraq.

She tweeted out earlier today, astonishing, White House mistakenly identifies CIA chief in Afghanistan. That goes to the feelings sometimes that people at the White House, no matter what administration is in power, which party is in power, doesn't always have the CIA's back. Some of that frustration is being voiced by Valerie Plane in that situation -- Jake.

TAPPER: Yes, who needs Ed Snowden? ACOSTA: That's right.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you so much.

The foreign policy issues are legion at this point in the Obama presidency besides the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, the crisis in Ukraine, hacking allegations against the Chinese and the pressure to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, there's the U.S. reluctance to get further involved in the Syrian crisis and that is where we pick back up on my conversation with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.


TAPPER: There is something I hear from a lot of people on Capitol Hill and foreign policy hands in this town that you must get all the time and I am just wondering how you respond to it, they say in that 45-minute walk that President Obama took with Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, where he decided not to strike Syria, to go to Congress first, to get authorization.

I understand there is still a concern on Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republicans alike, that the decision to walk away from the red line that the president drew on chemical weapons, weakened the United States because now allies and enemies don't believe threats. How do you respond to that when you hear that from Capitol Hill?

CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I don't agree and I'll explain why. I think it's a bit simplistic that somehow the United States has lost our edge. The fact just don't bear that out. We have been able to get more, we, being the United States and our leadership, our technology, our equipment, with our partners, with the Danes, with the Norwegian, the Russians, we've been able to get more than 90 percent of the precursors and the mixers of chemical weapons out of Syria.

We'll get that other 8 percent out. We're making good progress on that. That's a huge achievement. I don't think Assad just gave those chemical weapons up because he thought we were weak. I think the opposite. This is far more complicated than one piece of this. So there's a lot going on here. But to think that a military option is going to fix Syria, it's not. We've got to work this thing in all of the different dimensions and we are.

TAPPER: Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for your time and I hope you have a meaningful Memorial Day. And thank you for your service.

HAGEL: Thanks, Jake. Appreciate it very much.


TAPPER: When we come back, Pope Francis making headlines once again as he travels to the Middle East, but it's a meeting that he set up at the Vatican that could lead to his biggest accomplishment yet, could. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. In World News, the pope is on his way back to the Vatican after a three-day trip to the Middle East, one that might have set the peace deal for the holy land. Not bad for three days' work.

Let's go to CNN's Ivan Watson live in Jerusalem. Ivan, the pope invited the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to visit the Vatican for an interfaith peace. How big of a deal is this?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a big deal in the sense that it's the Vatican now and the pope trying to wade into the very murky, difficult waters of Palestinian/Israeli peace process. That's one. Second, he's gotten both the Israeli and the Palestinian Authority in principle to agree after peace talks basically collapsed last month. So that's another positive step.

But whether or not anything can actually come out of it, that's a big question. And we have to keep in mind, he's invited the president. Shimon Peres is the Israeli president. The reins of power in the hands of President Netanyahu. He's not included in this invitation and also Peres is basically stepping down after about two months. So how much influence he could have, well, that's a big question. And there's a short period of time for him left to influence the peace process here.

TAPPER: And Ivan, tell us about the significance of the pope's stop at the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank.

WATSON: Well, it doesn't appear that it was planned. And I can tell you, I was in Bethlehem when he did that. The Palestinians were delighted. I mean, they were thrilled that the pontiff had taken this moment, had actually laid his hand on that wall next to graffiti that was scrawled on there and the Palestinians, you know, part of it because he was bringing attention to something that they see as a symbol of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, as a symbol of oppression, what many of them call the apartheid wall.

So they were thrilled with that. Today, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the pope that the wall can come down when Israel can feel safe from terrorist attacks from the Palestinian territories.

TAPPER: Ivan Watson in Jerusalem, thank you so much.

It's now been 80 days since Malaysian Flight 370 vanished with 239 people on board and so far the search above and below the surface has turned up nothing. Now it looks like the families will have to go nearly the entire summer at least without answers. Australian officials tell us that the search for Flight 370 may be put on hold until at least August after the Bluefin underwater drone wraps up its mission later this week.

The Bluefin 21 is currently searching the remaining areas of the ocean floor where possible pings from the plane's flight data recorders were detected in April. It's not even clear whether the black boxes were the true source of those pings or if crews are looking in the right place at all. Some families don't think they are.

Tomorrow, finally, they may get a better idea of that after Malaysian officials release raw satellite data that they've been holding back for months. And don't forget, premiering this Thursday on CNN, the decade that changed the world.

Vietnam, free love, the British invasion, all of it chronicled in the new ten-part series of "The Sixties" from executive producer, Tom Hanks that's Thursday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific on CNN. I'll turn you over to Brianna Keilar who is in for Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." I hope you have a meaningful Memorial Day -- Brianna.