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Crisis in Iraq; Mass Shootings Rising?; Interview with Congressman Adam Kinzinger & Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; Bergdahl Returning to US

Aired June 12, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It's almost as if we have been ignoring chest pains, hoping that they'd go away, and now Iraq is a full-blown heart attack.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Two-and-a-half years after the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq, the country is in chaos, cities falling to militants so extreme, al Qaeda kicked them out. Will the U.S. get involved in Iraq again?

The politics lead, Hillary Clinton on the hot seat, getting into it with an NPR host who asked if she flip-flopped on gay marriage out of political convenience.

And the national lead, mass shootings this week, last week, the week before that, they are dominating headlines, but are they really on the rise? The numbers may surprise you.

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

We're going to begin today of course with our world lead.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when the last American troops were pulling out of Iraq, President Obama hailed it as a moment of success.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people. This is an extraordinary achievement nearly nine years in the making.


TAPPER: All right. So how are things going with that extraordinary achievement, that sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq, the one the president was talking about?

Not so good, it turns out. Islamic extremists with the group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have taken control of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, and now they are vowing to march on the capital, Baghdad. They're moving quickly and effectively against Iraq's American-trained forces. Those forces are retaliating, carrying out airstrikes on an area where they believe the militants are based. But is it going to be enough to stop them? President Obama today indicated the U.S. is ready to get involved once again, telling reporters that Iraq will need more help and that he's not ruled out any option.

But then a senior administration official attempted to clarify to CNN that the president is not considering boots on the ground.

According to "The New York Times," Iraq's prime minister practically begged the U.S. to carry out airstrikes on extremists last month, but the White House at the time said no.

What is the U.S. responsibility here after war in Iraq for nine years? I seem to remember another president who promised way back in 2003 that the U.S. would leave behind a better Iraq than the one it invaded.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we will stand with the new leaders of Iraq as they establish a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. And then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq.


TAPPER: Isn't it pretty to think so?

Keep in mind, 4,486 American service men and women, not to mention countless innocent Iraqi civilians, died in the war in Iraq.

Now, after all that sacrifice, the country is spiraling out of control. The extremists responsible spell out their goal in their very name. As we mentioned, they are called the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. They have pockets all over both of those countries.

The U.S. has labeled ISIS a terrorist group. At one point, ISIS was affiliated with al Qaeda, but in February of this year, al Qaeda, the brand name in despicable, horrific terrorist attacks, they decided to cut ties, apparently because ISIS was too hardcore.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, why did al Qaeda disavow ISIS back in February?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's partly tactics, but it's also, if you could believe, partly jihadi politics, tactics because ISIS known to carry things like beheadings, public floggings too far, alienate the local population, politics because the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would not play by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri's rules. And so they split.

But, really, for the U.S., the split means nothing. The groups are equally brutal and ISIS in a particular a magnet for foreign fighters who U.S. officials fear will return home, including here to the U.S., to carry out terror attacks well beyond Iraq.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): On the ground and from the air, the Iraqi security forces in a desperate attempt to retake northern cities now under the control of Islamic militants.

But many Iraqi forces are not proving up to the task. In Tikrit, ISIS fighters paraded hundreds of captured Iraqi police through the streets. And in the oil -rich northern city of Kirkuk, Kurdish militants forced to take over military outposts abandoned by the Iraqi army -- nearly three years after he ordered U.S. troops home Obama from Iraq, today, President Obama acknowledged the country needs more American help.

OBAMA: It's going to need help from us and it's going to need more help from the international community.

So my team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them. I don't rule out anything.

TAPPER: What that new assistance will be remains unclear. Iraq has asked for U.S. airstrikes. U.S. officials say they are now focused on developing options other than just training and equipping Iraq security forces.

On Capitol Hill, some Republican lawmakers could barely contain their anger at the administration's response so far.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The president should get rid of his entire national security team, replace it, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, and bring in General Petraeus, General Keane, General Mattis, and others who won the conflict in Iraq, including Ambassador Crocker, and turn this whole situation around.

SCIUTTO: Many Iraqis aren't willing to wait. An estimated 500,000 have fled as the militants moved in, seeking safer ground in Kurdish- controlled areas.

Former commander of U.S. Central Command, Admiral Bill Fallon, says any lasting solution lies with Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al- Maliki, bringing together Iraq Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to fight for their country.

ADM. WILLIAM J. FALLON (RET.) FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: They have got a lot of equipment and they have -- some of their forces are pretty well-trained, I believe, by our folks and the NATO allies before we left. So, I think they have the capabilities to do this. They need to get the political will.


SCIUTTO: Al-Maliki, however, has been a massively divisive Iraqi leader, alienating particularly Sunnis right into the hands of ISIS.

If Iraq is to face off this threat, it needs a true unity government, and al-Maliki might have to go for that to happen, but any political peacemaking will take time that Iraq doesn't have now.

They need an urgent response or -- and, Jake, I have talked to a number of officials who are seriously concerned -- or this country could be lost.

TAPPER: Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

The city of Mosul collapsed quickly when ISIS radical overran it. Heavily armed militants took over the international airport and police stations, freeing more than 1,000 prisoners from the city jail. Iraq security forces didn't bother to pack. Many ran off without their weapons, uniforms or armored trucks.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is standing by in Northern Iraq the city of Irbil.

Arwa, what is happening on the ground there?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, earlier in the day, Jake, we were at a checkpoint that leads into Iraq Kurdistan, and it's on the main road away from Mosul, a huge line of vehicles, people fleeing the city of Mosul, not necessarily though, interestingly, because they were fleeing ISIS.

They didn't seem to mind ISIS' presence. They were saying that the fighters were there, but they weren't really bothering anybody. They said they were fleeing because -- out of the fear of the government airstrikes.

But what was also interesting was Kurdish fighters that have gone in and tried to prevent ISIS from moving further forward towards Iraq Kurdistan recovering some of those vehicles that the Iraq military had abandoned and left behind, driving them into the Kurdish northern territory.

People also going back, Jake, saying that they actually believed ISIS when it said that they could come back and live in peace, saying that they wouldn't be executing anybody and that they wouldn't be looting or pillaging.

We have been hearing in the reporting that was just taking place there about how this is really, at the very core of it, about sectarian politics that exist here. And one really senses that on the ground, that people do feel like this is a battle between the Sunni and Shia populations.

And even though people don't want to under ISIS, they don't necessarily want to live as part of an Islamic caliphate, they do not want to be subjected to the kind of alienation, at least the Sunni population (INAUDIBLE) to the kind of alienation that they have been feeling from the prime minister and the government.

TAPPER: Arwa Damon, thank you so much and stay safe.

My next guests have the unique and honorable perspective of having actually served in Iraq. And now they are watching the hard-fought gains of the American military begin to unravel.

Let's bring in Congressman Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, a military pilot and major in the Air National Guard. He's flown refueling and reconnaissance missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Joining him, of course, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat of Hawaii who served 12 months in Iraq and currently is a military police captain in the Hawaii National Guard.

Thank you both for being here.


TAPPER: Before we get to the policy, there must be emotions that you both feel watching this, because you have friends who died fighting for Iraq.

What is that like?


I served in a medical unit during that deployment to Iraq in 2005, and was faced on a daily basis with that most harsh cost of war, both of people who I knew and who I served with, who I spoke about recently during Memorial Day, and people who were from all over the country, from all different branches of service.

Now to see what is happening there causes me to remember their service and their sacrifice.

TAPPER: Very painful, I would think.

KINZINGER: It's heartbreaking.

I mean, almost 5,000 people gave their lives to bring Iraq freedom. And I thought, after the surge, we were there. There were a lot of gains that had been had and a lot of hard-fought wins. And to watch it all collapse -- I heard, in fact, the air base I was stationed at, Balad, is being evacuated.

And I spent a lot of time there and it hurts. I mean, this is very sad, very sad for the people of Iraq and for those that sacrificed for them.

TAPPER: Let's turn to policy of this.

Congresswoman, you do not support the airstrikes that the Iraqis are asking for. Do we not have some obligation to help these people after the United States went in there and invaded and took out their government and created this chaos?

GABBARD: Well, I think we have got to really understand what is happening here.

We have got to do a couple of things. We have got to understand what is happening here, and then we have got to take a very clear-eyed look at seeing what impact, if any, can these airstrikes or other involvement actually make on the situation on the ground, the situation being, this is a religious civil war that's occurring between two Muslim fashions, the Sunni and the Shia.

Largely, this is coming about today because of this invasion that we did in Iraq a decade ago, where you have a government that had the opportunity -- Maliki had an opportunity to create a unity government, bringing together the Sunni and Shia parts of the country, and actually bring about peace. That did not occur.

Instead, you have a government that has been oppressing the Sunni Iraqi people and has been discriminating against them and has really brought this about, where you have this continuing battle between the Sunnis and the Shias.

TAPPER: Congressman, I know you support airstrikes. You know there are a lot of people in the Pentagon very skeptical about -- they don't know that that would be effective. There isn't enough presence or potential presence for the U.S. to have on the ground there to be effective.

And it seems like they are afraid of getting dragged down into a civil war that the United States really can't play a constructive role in.

KINZINGER: Well, let's be clear. The full withdrawal from 2011 was a complete mistake.

Had we had a status of forces agreement of 20,000 troops, we would not be facing this situation. Are airstrikes are going to be the panacea? I don't know. But we're seeing what happens when nothing occurs. You're going to have Baghdad, almost the size of the city of Chicago, in flames. You're going to have Iraq in flames.

Imagine what that is going to do to the Middle East. If there's an opportunity to kill these bad guys that are coming in and taking on the Iraq government -- there's a reason the Iraqis want airstrikes, because they think it will be effective. There's a reason Iraqis are doing airstrikes, because it's killing bad guys.

I think we have an obligation to come in and to help push back this enemy that is creeping in, also, from inaction in Syria. This is where they have been able to plan and organize that. In Syria, they're establishing this caliphate across the Middle East, and we will rue the day if we don't do action.

TAPPER: Congresswoman...


GABBARD: I think -- sorry, but I just want to jump in. You have to define, who are the bad guys?


GABBARD: It's easy to say, let's go in and get the bad guys. But you have a divided country of Sunnis and Shias. The United States

goes and takes action there on behalf of the Iraqi government, Maliki. You have got Iran coming in and saying, well, we're going to stand with Maliki.

So, now we're allying ourselves with Iran, and, essentially, if we do airstrikes, becoming de facto air force for them. Or you have the Sunni Islamic terrorists who are fighting. So, who are you deciding who are the bad guys? And the perception to the Iraqi people would not be that the United States is coming to fight for us, because they are part of this divided country.

KINZINGER: Well, I disagree, because the Iraqi people have asked and the Iraq government has asked for the United States' help.

I mean, what we're saying is, gee, since we don't fully grasp the situation, let the Iraq government fall, because that's what is on the eve of happening. This is not new either. This started in January.

TAPPER: Right.

KINZINGER: And we're just learning about it today because it's exploding.

TAPPER: It is, of course, though -- and I know you're not disputing this -- it's, of course, very complicated.

KINZINGER: Of course.

TAPPER: For instance, ISIS, in addition to being opposed to the Iraq government, is opposed to the Syrian government. And many people wanted strikes against Assad.

Well, guess what? ISIS wanted strikes against Assad, too. Is there not -- if there's ever been a condition for blowback -- and understand I'm not advocating anything -- but if there's ever been a condition for blowback, this would be it. There -- you don't know who root against in a lot of these...

KINZINGER: ISIS was taking advantage of the situation in Syria to help -- whenever you have lawlessness or craziness, they were taking advantage of that to establish their state in Syria.

So, are they opposed to Assad? Sure. But they were more taking the fact of now controlling large swathes of Syrian territory. They don't see national boundaries. Now they are moving into Iraq. They want to take all of Iraq.

Imagine what this is going to do when this falls to flames. So, we can sit back and say, gee, who are the bad guys and everything, or we can step out and say, we're going to stiffen the spin of the Iraq military to take their land back and give an opportunity for more reconciliation.

TAPPER: And, Congresswoman Gabbard, want to give you the final word. One of things that the American intelligence and military communities

are very worried about is ISIS, not just there in Syria and Iraq, but actually coming back to the United States and doing things here in the United States. Is it not better to get them now, there, as opposed to having to deal with it later on?

GABBARD: Once again, you've go to be able to define who we are helping, or who we are fighting against. Whether you're talking about Iraq, you're talking about Syria, you have many different complicated things going on that ultimately result in two civil wars that are happening. If we are -- which I do not advocate for getting involved in either Iraq or Syria. If we're concerned about a direct threat to the United States, or our interests, from ISIS or other terrorist factions anywhere else in the world, we should focus our resources on those direct threats and take them out where they are, not getting mired into other civil wars, that could end up costing many more lives and hundreds of billions more dollars.

TAPPER: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Congressmanman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois -- two people with skin in the game, who actually know what they are talking about, even though they disagree completely on everything.

Thank you so much for coming in, and thanks for your service, as always. Appreciate it.

KINZINGER: Thank you.

GABBARD: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up next, it's a question so many have asked -- since the day he disappeared, why did Private Bowe Bergdahl seemingly walk away from his base that night? Now, new letters obtained by "The Daily Beast" Kim Dozier and reportedly written by the soldier himself explain why he did it.

Plus, Hillary Clinton (AUDIO GAP), why she seems to scold an interviewer today after she refused to back off on asking one question. Our politics lead, coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In other world news, Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is flying back to the United States. A U.S. official has confirmed to CNN that Bergdahl will arrive at the San Antonio Military Medical Center overnight, where he will continue his rehabilitation. It's unclear how long Bergdahl will stay there, whether he will see his family, if he is aware of the controversy spurred by his release.

But letters reportedly written by Bergdahl to his family while he was in captivity, he seems to acknowledge the curious circumstances surrounding his disappearance. "The Daily Beast" has published two letters from Bergdahl, one from 2012 and one from 2013. That were obtained by sources in contact with the Taliban. In the 2013 letter, Bergdahl writes, quote, "If this letter makes it

to the USA, tell those involved in the vision that there are more sides to the situation and original plans never came clear. Please tell D.C. to wait for all evidence to come in," unquote.

These letters were sent to his family through the Red Cross. And "The Daily Beast" says the authenticity has been verified by U.S. and Western officials.

The letters have several grammatical errors and the handwriting is different from one letter to the other but, if true, these letters provide more insight into Bergdahl's thinking while being held captive.

Let's bring in David Rohde. He was kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban while doing research for a book, and was held for seven months before he bravely escaped. He's now an investigator reporter for "Reuters".

David, good to see you again.

I just want to get your gut reaction here. What do you make of these letters? Do you relate to them at all?

DAVID ROHDE, HELD BY TALIBAN FOR 7 MONTHS: I think they are letters that he wrote. "The Daily Beast" essentially got these from the Taliban. So, I think, you know, this is what Bergdahl tried to write to his parents.

I wrote a letter to my family that got out. The key thing here is that Bergdahl is writing this letter under duress. The Taliban are watching right now if they are making copies of the letter.

You're not going to be able to speak freely in the letter. I wasn't able to speak freely. I don't think he was able to speak freely here. So, this is a clue why he left the base but it's not definitive. Again, he's speaking, he's writing under duress.

TAPPER: When you were writing that letter to your wife, what kind of thing did you leave out because you were being watched?

ROHDE: I didn't want to say anything that would endanger anyone. The Taliban was convinced I was a spy. So, I didn't -- you know, I couldn't explain like, for instance, why I went to this interview with this Taliban commander and give more background. He essentially lied to me, you know, had done two interviews before and abducted me when I came to meet with himself. I wasn't going to go into that.

So, again, I think it's very clear Bergdahl wrote these letters. They were letters that Bergdahl's family wrote to him that the Taliban made copies of and gave to "The Daily Beast". Again, these being very careful about what he says here.

TAPPER: Let me read another part of one of these letters. "There are some risks that are forced to be taken. However, it was made clear more than once that clear-minded understanding from leadership was lacking, if not nonexistent. The conditions were bad and looked to be getting worse for the men that were actually the ones risking their lives from attack as well as Afghan elements," unquote.

Now, he's not naming anyone there, but is willing to accuse the U.S. military leadership as lacking. Does that surprise you at all?

ROHDE: Again, it's hard to know what that actually means in full context or whatever. He seems to be saying that he was upset with the leadership in his unit. You know, it's just -- I know this isn't a great headline but it's just too early to say whether that's the full story and that's even a full story he's trying to convey.

Look, to be honest, when I was writing these letters, I wasn't sure if I was ever going to come home and he wasn't either. And he might have been trying to sort of explain things to his parents in a sense and give them this letter as a way if he didn't survive, that they could try to understand, you know, why this happened. That's what I tried to do in my letters also, because you're in this crazy situation and you never know if you're going to make it home or not.

TAPPER: And, of course, David, you weren't released. You escaped. CNN's learned that Bergdahl escaped, too, possibly more than once but he was recaptured. Thankfully, that didn't happen to you.

Do you think if he wasn't a member of the military they might have killed him by now?

ROHDE: I think that as U.S. troops withdrew or withdraw from Afghanistan, there would be an impatience among the Taliban to make this deal for the five prisoners for Bergdahl or not, and if it became very clear, if there wasn't a deal, they might have killed him.

It's very labor intensive having guards to, you know, safeguard him, to feed him. They complained after seven months with me, that they held me all this time but couldn't get this huge ransom in prisoners they wanted from me. So, I do think there was a time limit in terms of how long they would tell them if the U.S. was leaving Afghanistan and there was no deal in sight.

TAPPER: Obviously, David, you and Bowe Bergdahl, very different circumstances, very different people. But what does he have ahead of him now that he's coming back to the United States and is going to try to emerge in society? It must be unbelievably difficult.

ROHDE: You know, it's very challenging. To be honest, Jake, you've done stories about this. I understand the anger of the soldiers in his unit and it's a credo, you don't leave your post, you don't put other soldiers in danger. And he has to answer the questions about why he did that.

But I guarantee you, whatever caused him to leave that day, he's regretted it every day for the last five years and he'll regret it for the rest of his life. I still regret going to this interview that got me kidnapped and I always will and so it is going to be an enormously difficult transition and a very, very slow and sad return for him in many ways. TAPPER: Well, we're glad that you are fine and say hello to your wife

for me. David Rohde, thank you so much.

ROHDE: Thank you.

TAPPER: When we come back, a humanitarian crisis right here in the United States. Tens and thousands of children held on the border. How did these kids, some of them barely older than toddlers, get here on their own? Our own Martin Savidge, rode along with border patrol agents to find out.