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VA Scandal; Flight 370 Search Setback; Interview with New York Congressman Steve Israel; Wrong Search Zone for Flight 370?

Aired May 29, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All over Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike asking the question, what does it take to actually get fired from the Obama administration?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. He's on thin ice, according to a White House official, but now even a number of Democrats want VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to fall through that ice. Can the president afford to stick by him?

The world lead. Those pings that raised expectations of finding vanished Flight 370, well, they apparently they did not come from the black boxes at all. Have all of these weeks spent searching been a total waste? And what now? A dead end?

And in national news, back in 2000, measles was thought to have been eradicated. So, why has 2014 already set a record number of cases for this century? We should probably ask the anti-vaccine movement.

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

We will begin with the national lead. Now, it wasn't surprising coming from Republicans, but now a growing number of Democrats are joining the call for the Obama administration's veteran affairs secretary, retired General Eric Shinseki, to step down. At least 19 House Democrats and eight Senate Democrats so far want Shinseki to walk the plank after they got a taste of an internal watchdog report that claims excessive appointment delays and cover-ups to hide those delays, cover-ups and delays that are -- quote -- "systemic" throughout the VA health care system.

It's one of three investigations into this national disgrace going on right now. They all follow the story that CNN first broke about outrageous wait times, even a waiting list at the Phoenix VA hospital.

To hear the White House tell it, Shinseki won't go anywhere until all the findings are in.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president wants to see the results of these reports. And he, as you know, made clear that he believes there ought to be accountability once we establish all the facts. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Many of our lawmakers have already seen enough, apparently. More of them seemingly by the hour are demanding that Shinseki go and go right now.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), MAJORITY WHIP: They defend our freedom. And this is the way they get treated? And then when you get asked the question, you say you're just now finding out about it.

TAPPER (voice-over): White House sources tell CNN that the growing evidence of misconduct within the Department of Veterans Affairs has Secretary Shinseki on thin ice.

REP. JEFF MILLER (R), FLORIDA: You can expect us to be over your shoulder every single day.

TAPPER: A preliminary report by the inspector general at the VA found false waiting times at the Phoenix VA were reported to the national VA, including 1,400 veterans there waiting and waiting and waiting for care. Even worse, 1,700 veterans requested, but were never scheduled to see a doctor, not even a wait list to hope for .

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This is a centipede. A lot more shoes will fall, I'm sorry to say.

TAPPER: So far, 42 VA medical centers are under investigation for similar abuses nationwide.

In a "USA Today" opinion piece this morning, Shinseki called the preliminary report findings reprehensible, writing -- quote -- "We are not waiting to set things straight."

But waiting is not an option anyway. In a hearing Wednesday night, the demands came rapid-fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I first must call for the resignation of Secretary Shinseki.

REP. JACKIE WALORSKI (R), INDIANA: Can you look in the eyes of these families and say, I accept this responsibility?

REP. MIKE COFFMAN (R), COLORADO: The leadership of the VA simply is not there.

TAPPER: This morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi minced no words.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: This is intolerable. The findings of this report are troubling and grave, of course. They are unacceptable, unconscionable and unworthy of the service of our men and women.

TAPPER: But many Democrats are now going father than that. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico is one of the latest in a growing number of House Democrats and Republicans who have called for Shinseki to resign.

To some veterans groups, it's as if Washington, D.C., just woke up to the fact that too many veterans have been experiencing insufferable wait times for care, better late than never, but too late for some.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have saying, he's got a problem. There's issues going on.

TAPPER: His mother describes 26-year-old Isaac Sims as an Iraq veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. Sims was shot and killed by police this week, after using a gun inside the home he shares with his parents.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you see blood, blood, blood, blood.

TAPPER: Sims was receiving medication at this Kansas City VA Hospital, but his parents say he needed additional help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They said, we don't have room for you. We will give him treatment within approximately 30 days if a bed comes available.

TAPPER: In light of the inspector general's report, it seems the line of veterans waiting for care may be much longer than anyone thought and more troubling than many are willing to accept.

REP. JEFF DENHAM (R), CALIFORNIA: How many other VA centers? How many veterans are waiting? And we expect answers.


TAPPER: With the pressure now mounting in the president's own party, will VA Secretary Eric Shinseki keep his position, and if so, for how long?

For the first time, a House Democrat today called for a criminal investigation into the debacle at our VA hospitals. That Democrat is Congressman Steve Israel from New York.

Congressman Israel joins me now.

Thanks so much for being here, Congressman.


TAPPER: I want to say you're not calling for Shinseki's resignation at this time. Can you honestly tell me that if this exact same thing happened during the Bush administration, you wouldn't be calling for the resignation of the VA secretary?

ISRAEL: Jake, if Secretary Shinseki's resignation is what it takes to turn over a new leaf, to reform the VA, and to restore faith by our veterans and their ability to get health care, then he should resign. But it's not resignation alone. That's not going to solve the systemic problems that we have. I am fed up with these problems. I have been pushing the VA since 2008 to develop public-private partnerships, because I told them then that they didn't have the capacity.

And they said, don't worry. We have this.

And that's why we need a criminal investigation. I want to know if anybody, anybody at the VA doctored papers, engaged with a cover-up, withheld health care for veterans. They need to be investigated, they need to be prosecuted, they need to be fired and punished.

TAPPER: The Justice Department has not launched a criminal investigation, Congressman.


TAPPER: Have you called Attorney General Holder and said, you need to launch an investigation? Have you called the FBI director?

ISRAEL: I spoke with -- I contacted the attorney general today, this morning, when I read the I.G.'s report and learned that there are now 42 additional hospitals on the list.

The first thing I did is contacted the attorney general, sent him a letter hand-delivered demanding that there be a criminal investigation, prosecution and punishment. I am fed up with this.

TAPPER: Are you at all concerned that because of the political fallout, the risks of what this might do to President Obama's own personal standing with the American people, that they're not taking this seriously enough, as evidenced by no criminal investigation having been launched, despite ample evidence that criminal activities likely took place?

ISRAEL: Jake, the only real fallout that I'm concerned with at this point is veterans who aren't getting health care.

I secured $7.4 million in back pay for the veterans in my district. They are the ones that we need to be focused on right now. We need to make sure that they are getting taken care of. We need to have a systemic solution to this and put the politics aside.

We can blame each other all day. It's not going to help one single veteran get health care. I want solutions. I want this process solved. I want a criminal investigation. And that's why I called for that today.

TAPPER: Congressman, obviously, you are right. There are systemic problems with the VA that go beyond just the resignation of one man.

But is General Shinseki the right man to change the system that is such a problem?

ISRAEL: Well, as I said before, look, I have tremendous respect for the general for his service to his country, to its four stars.

But if it's going to take resignation to turn over a new leaf at the VA, to bring in badly needed reforms that I have advocated since 2008, then -- yes, then he should resign.

TAPPER: But that -- but you're not calling for his resignation, just to be clear there?

ISRAEL: No, I would -- he should resign, in my view.

But there -- too many of my colleagues are just saying that that resignation is going to solve the problem. It's not going to solve the problem. What is going to solve the problem is a criminal investigation with or without his resignation, and getting to the roots of this to make sure that it's solved and it never happens again.

You can do one, you can do the other, you can do both, but the absence of a criminal investigation and the absence of a process that gets to the root of this problem and holds people accountable for this problem is a disservice to our veterans.

TAPPER: Congressman Steve Israel, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

ISRAEL: Thank you.

TAPPER: Of the problems facing members of the Obama administration, job security tends to not be a big one.

The president resisted calls to dismiss his health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, after she oversaw the exploding cigar that was the rollout in October. He also stuck by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper after Clapper was caught giving what he later characterized as the -- quote -- "least untruthful" answer to Congress about surveillance on Americans. Some people call that lying.

And so far, the president has given Secretary Shinseki the benefit of the doubt. Does President Obama need to be a tougher manager?

Let's bring in Bill Burton. He was the national press secretary for the Obama 2008 campaign. Currently, he is the senior strategist for the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA.

We're also joined by the chief congressional correspondent for CNN, Dana Bash.

Thank you both for being here.

Bill, does President Obama dislike the fire people?

BILL BURTON, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Well, President Obama doesn't just react to media firestorms and members of Congress who are calling on resignations and things like that. He's very dedicated to making sure that he has the personnel to take on the problems that he's facing. As they have said at the White House, they are going through all the facts. They're making sure that they have got a system in place to address what are very serious problems. And I think Congressman Israel's approach of launching a criminal investigation to see if people were forging paperwork, hiding paperwork, doing any of those things is an important step to take.

But I don't think the president is necessarily against firing people, but he's against just reacting to the politics of the moment to try to shut down a controversy.

TAPPER: Dana, most of the Democrats calling for Shinseki to go are up for reelection in November. Not all of them. The two from New Mexico, the two senators from New Mexico are not up for reelection, but and almost all of the senators, six out of the eight, I guess, and obviously all the members of the House.

So, is this just about politics for them? They are just worried about how much this could hurt them in November?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's not just, but there's no question politics is a big part of this.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats who are up for reelection, especially those in tough races, they want to inoculate themselves. And the best way to do that is to say, this guy should go. And there really is some frustration, big-time frustration within the Democratic ranks, even the leadership.

I'm told that members of the House Democratic leadership are really, really sort of at their wit's end with the fact...

TAPPER: You heard Congressman Israel's right seemed at his wit's end.

BASH: He was. And he seemed to be trying to be diplomatic about it.

But what I'm told is they just can't understand why, A, Shinseki is not resigning himself and, B, why the president is not just taking a much more forceful hand on this and making it happen, saying more than -- having more than background quotes out there saying he's on double secret probation or whatever he's -- they're saying.

TAPPER: Right.

Bill, I want to try this again about President Obama's reluctance to fire people, because I know you and I have talked about this before. We have -- back when I covered Obama in 2008. He hates the Washington game. And I'm sure, to a degree, he's watching this all play out like a Washington game.

Scandal, a bunch of Republicans call for somebody's head. Then Democrats who are vulnerable call for somebody's head. Then other people chime in. The media starts -- and I'm sure he sees this to a degree through that lens. But doesn't that also prevent him from looking at this from the perspective of, there is a serious problem here, the problem has been going on for years, and maybe this guy, even if he's the victim of this silly Washington game, maybe this guy isn't the best guy to be heading up this department?

BURTON: I actually think that the president looks at the problem first and just sees that there's some noise around it.

I think that the president is dedicated to fixing what he thinks is a serious problem. He's been talking about this since the days that he was a candidate for the United States Senate, not just since he was running for president and since he became president. He thinks that the problems are serious. Now that we have uncovered these new ones, he wants to have the right folks in place in order to fix it.

And just imagine, Jake, if the president were to just fire Shinseki. It's not like Senate Republicans are going to let you put some new head of the VA in to deal with the problem. They are going to, you know, extract their pound of flesh and they're going to make it as difficult as possible for him.

So, for the president, whether it's this issue, whether it's, where, you know, there were all these calls for Sebelius to resign. But then she helped sign up over eight million people on that Web site.

So, sometimes it's better to keep in place the personnel that you have got, and not just fall victim to what Darrell Issa and some vulnerable Democrats are saying.

And then let me just say on that, maybe the politics are right for them to do this. Maybe the policy is right and they're listening to their constituents. I don't want to just doubt their motivations and just say it's politics. But that doesn't mean that the president has to be guided by that either. He has to be guided by what is the best way to solve this problem.

TAPPER: Bill Burton and Dana Bash, thank you so much.

Coming up: It was the best lead yet, pings said to be from missing Flight 370 coming from deep in the Indian Ocean. Only, now officials say those pings were not from the plane at all. So, where is the plane?

Plus, the first lady taking aim at Republicans, accusing them of letting down the children in this country, and she's using a little of her star power to get her point across once again.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In our world lead, today would be day 83 in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 -- would be. Now, no one is searching, and that's because investigators need to figure out where to search next, and whether or not the last month of searching turns out to be a complete waste. The Bluefin-21, the underwater drone that's been searching for wreckage for weeks, has completed its mission.

And while Australia says they are confident that the plane is somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, they are now making a stunning admission about what was previously called their most promising lead.

CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is here with more.

Rene, there seems to be a consensus now about whether those pings detected by search ships came from Flight 370.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Right. Those pings, so to speak, those are in question. Of course, the headline today is Flight 370 isn't where they thought it was. But also tonight, we have more from our exclusive interview from a Navy official who told us those underwater pings were likely not from the plane's black boxes.

The Navy quickly tried to walk back those comments calling it premature and speculative. Premature perhaps. But this morning, they called it accurate.


MARSH (voice-over): It's now official, Australia telling the world that missing Flight 370 is not in the area where pings were detected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No signs of aircraft debris have been found. The area can now be discounted as the final resting place for MH370.

MARSH: That means it's back to focusing on a larger area, hundreds of miles elsewhere along the Inmarsat arc, when the search resumes months from now. This just one day after Michael Dean, deputy director of the Navy's ocean engineering, told CNN in an exclusive interview, the pings were likely not from Flight 370's black boxes.

MICHAEL DEAN, DEPUTY DIR. FOR SALVAGE & DIVING, U.S. NAVY: Our best theory at this point was it was likely some sound produced by the ship.

MARSH: But some say it's too soon to abandon the area where signals were detected.

Anish Patal (ph), who's company made the pingers, tells CNN he believes the first and longest ping should be looked out closely until every inch of the ocean floor around it is searched and mapped. A portion of that area was too deep for Bluefin-21 to scan for wreckage.

DEAN: The areas north of that ping were too deep for the Bluefin. Sure. Could it be north? Absolutely. It could be north.

MARSH: What's next? Reviewing all existing data including Inmarsat and satellite data. From there, defining a search area that could be about 23,000 square miles along the arc in the south Indian Ocean. A ship will map the ocean floor in that area, preparing for the day private companies are hired to continue the underwater search. (END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: So for some perspective, Bluefin searched some 329 square smiles. The search area will now expand to up to 23,000 square miles. It's going to take about three months for the mapping of the ocean floor in that area and we do know that the next phase of searching, when it begins, just a reminder, it will be a long haul. They are estimating it could take about a year or longer.

TAPPER: Incredible.

Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

Joining me now to talk about the latest setback in the search for Flight 370 is Captain Tim Taylor, a sea operations and submersible expert, and president of Tiburon Subsea Services.

Tim, it's good to see you. Thanks for coming in.

It's hard to listen to Rene's piece and not think that the searchers have basically wasted a month searching the area for these pings. Do you think it was a waste?

TIM TAYLOR, SEA OPERATINS SPECIALIST: It's never a waste. They know where it is not. I mean, that's part of what you're trying to do, is eliminate where you should be looking. So I would believe a lot of the knowledge that they have now comes from the fact that they did go to the bottom and look.

They're not just saying that pingers re inaccurate. They went and they looked and they found that it may be in error and we're going to have to look at this again.

TAPPER: To be perfectly frank, those of us covering this and those of us following along like you, we were not -- we were used to the incompetence and the mistakes by the Malaysian government. But these pingers were detected using U.S. Navy equipment.

TAYLOR: Right.

TAPPER: The towed pinger locator. How could this happen?

TAYLOR: I mean, it's a big ocean. And finding data on the ocean is not as simple as one would think. It's a whole protocol has to be built around, putting these things in the water and towing and pretty much a rush to get out there.

The Chinese were out there. Every boat was out there. You had the world looking at these people demanding that they get in the water fast and the clock was ticking.

So, they put the machines in the water and they got a signal. Now, did they follow every check and balance and screen every piece of gear out there? Apparently, they think they didn't after looking at it.

But, you know, keep in mind, back then these things were going to run out in two days. So getting the machine in the water and getting as much data as they could was the priority and sorting it out afterwards was probably the protocol.

TAPPER: What could these pings have been? What were they hearing?

TAYLOR: As the Navy said, it could have been some of their equipment. It could have been some of the other boats that were testing their equipment or testing pingers. I find it hard to believe that for two hours that they weren't picking up something. It could have been fishing gear that have pingers on board that drift through the area.

So, there are a lot of other reasons to use pingers in the ocean. At the time, they didn't think that this would -- there would be a lot of them in this area because it's so remote, but it could be a coincidence.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the next phase of the search. They're going to widen the search, bringing equipment to map the ocean floor because they still don't know a lot about that area of the southern Indian Ocean they're searching. And they are going to bring in private contractors.

What kind of equipment from private contractors do you think they need?

TAYLOR: Well, it's all of the same equipment that has been discussed for the last 80 days. Either some kind of sonar to look at the bottom and right now, the sonar of choice was autonomous underwater vehicle. If they bring towed (INAUDIBLE) they may be able to bring in a synthetic aperture sonar, which essentially gives them a little bit broader swath.

Meaning, they cover more ground so they can do more in a day. It's still not as broad as you think. It may double their area of looking for a plane, but it does give them a little more chunk at that data daily, which is important when you're looking at 23,000 square miles and you're doing 20 square miles a day.

It's a thousand a day. You probably need to put multiple assets out there. You also probably also want to put multiple technology. So, whatever they can bring to task, but then you have costs. And you have -- you know, how much you're going to spend on this and how much you're going to dedicate to find this.

TAPPER: All right. Tim Taylor, thank you so much.

TAYLOR: Thanks.

TAPPER: Coming up next, she usually leaves the political crap (ph) into her husband. But now, the first lady is taking on Republicans who are taking aim at a policy near and dear to her.

Plus, a wake-up call -- measles making a major comeback after the disease was thought to have been eradicated in the U.S. more than a decade ago. And it's not just children who are at risk.