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Acting V.A. Secretary Visits North Carolina Facility; President Addresses Iraq Violence

Aired June 12, 2014 - 12:30   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: CNN broke this story, the news of the scandal, a few weeks ago, and now the investigation has proliferated. It has spread to 69 facilities.

The scandal is already pushing lawmakers to action. The Senate has now approved an overhaul at the V.A. The House has given its OK to a similar measure, allowing veterans to avoid those long waiting times and, you know, just head over to the private system and get care there, private doctors.

In the meantime, the acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, Sloan Gibson, is visiting a medical center in Fayetteville, North Carolina today to meet with the center's administration and employees there.

CNN's Chris Frates is live in Fayetteville with the latest on Gibson's visit. So why is Gibson there? Isn't that considered to be one of the worst offenders in this entire scandal?

CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Ashleigh, you're absolutely right. Gibson's here today as a little bit of an apology tour but also to roll up his sleeves and show that he's on the ground, he's fixing these things, and in Fayetteville, there is certainly a lot to fix.

You have 3,500 veterans here on a waiting list three to four months for care. This is also the first public appearance by the acting secretary since that bombshell audit came out earlier this week that showed 57,000 veterans across the nation are waiting for care, waiting for appointments.

The other thing to watch today, Ashleigh, is he is going to have some of the congressmen, the representatives and senators from North Carolina, with him today.

They may be some of the same congress people who called for the resignation of his predecessor, Eric Shinseki. So it will be interesting to see how he gets on with the folks who called for his former boss's head.

BANFIELD: Hey, Chris, while Gibson is there, is the FBI there, too? That's kind of an unusual optic, wouldn't it be?

FRATES: We have no evidence of that, but certainly, the Department of Justice said yesterday that the FBI is going to start looking into these matters. And there's lots to look into, particularly in Phoenix.

If you remember, that where CNN broke the story about secret waiting lists. There's lots of problems there. There's allegations that documents have been shredded, that they were covering up some of the problems to make them look a bit better.

And the reason the FBI is coming in because DOJ hasn't launched a full-scale criminal investigation. They tend to like to want to wait until the inspector general, that's the independent investigator for the Veterans Affairs Administration, has done his investigation, and if there is any sign something criminal was done, the FBI would certainly come in.

BANFIELD: So this is just sort of a "state of the union" down there, effectively.

Our Drew Griffin who broke this story from the beginning has just been so remarkable at digging up the problem there. He often ends his reports by saying, "And I still can't get an interview with the V.A., with anybody in senior leadership."

Clearly the senior leadership has changed, but how are you doing when you ask to speak to people whose words really matter?

Are you being welcomed with open arms or the same old shut door?

FRATES: It's a much different scenario now, Ashleigh. The Veterans Affairs -- the new acting secretary is going to hold a press conference, so there's media here. He's going to talk. He's going to take questions.

He just arrived a few minutes ago, so we're going to go from here, we're going to go hear what he has to say, and we're going to ask some tough questions.

BANFIELD: All right, Chris Frates, thank you, live in Fayetteville. Good luck with your interview requests as well, lucky that it's been getting better. It's been real hard until now.

So one of the things that we've been reporting to you regarding the breaking news out of Iraq as well, the fires are burning and the oil prices are going up and the quandary becomes what do we do about a place we bought, because it was broke, but it wasn't fixed?

Do we as Americans commit yet again any kind of resources to try to fix the problem? The Iraqis are asking the Americans, help out, drones, air strikes, et cetera.

And now the president is addressing these issues. Coming up after the break, we're going to watch for some of these live comments and we'll bring them to you.

Back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BANFIELD: And we are continuing our breaking news coverage. You've probably seen by now. There's been a dramatic turn of events in Iraq as the major cities there, Mosul and Tikrit, have been taken by Islamic insurgents known as ISIS, and ISIS has declared it has its sights set on Baghdad.

The president of the United States has just weighed in on this Islamic onslaught in Iraq, and I want to get you right to the White House where CNN's Jim Acosta is standing by.

This is one messy affair. What is the president saying?


We understand, just a few moments ago, that the president made a few brief remarks on the crisis in Iraq. He was meeting with the prime minister of Australia who is here at the White House for a visit.

The president, according to the pool reporters who were in the room, and we're going to see the video of this in just a few moments, apparently the president said he's watching the situation in Iraq with concern, that he is not ruling anything out when it comes to ramping up assistance, and he said, it's clear that Iraq needs more U.S. help.

Now what does all of that mean? As you know, Ashleigh, we've been talking about this almost 24 hours now. It does appear the Iraqis are now open to some kind of U.S. military airstrikes to help them contain this crisis, when it comes to dealing with those ISIS military forces that are wreaking havoc across the northern part of that country. They took the second largest city of Mosul yesterday, as you know, Ashleigh.

But all morning long, the signals we've been getting from administration officials is that this White House is just not ready to pull the trigger on airstrikes. At this point, they're focused more on providing weapons and military assistance to Iraqi forces.

And so it's interesting to hear a release -- get an indication that we're about to hear the president say that he is not ruling out any options, that he is looking at all sorts of military assistance here to help the Iraqis.

Now there is some political pressure, a lot of political pressure, coming down on the president right now from Republicans. Democrats have said it's a distraction, that they're trying to distract from this political implosion up on Capitol Hill with the loss of Eric Cantor/

But you heard the House speaker, John Boehner, say within the last hour that the president has been taking a nap when it comes to Iraq. You heard Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham basically say, I told you so, on the floor of the Senate, criticizing the president for pulling out, a total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2012. McCain and Graham have been adamant in saying that's the wrong strategy. They say the president is pursuing the same strategy in Afghanistan. And so John McCain, just about an hour ago, called on the president to scrap his entire national security team.

So there is a great deal of urgency now, Ashleigh, as we're about to hear from the president on the unfolding situation in Iraq.

BANFIELD: We've got about 30 seconds until we're going to get that access to that. But, just quickly, make no mistake, not ruling anything out is definitely not saying and maybe more boots on the ground, maybe the whole drawdown would be reversed.

Make no mistake, that's not what's being said, correct?

ACOSTA: That's right. I don't think there's any scenario, Ashleigh, where the U.S. would put ground troops in Iraq. I think that is a bridge too far.

But the idea of airstrikes is definitely gaining traction up on Capitol Hill. And we heard from Carl Levin, Senate Democrat, saying within the last hour, that some of these things need to be looked at.

But keep in mind, Ashleigh, there is a great deal of caution on the part of this White House. This is a president who campaigned getting the country out of Iraq.

BANFIELD: Jim, let me get those comments. Let me get those comments to air right away. Let's listen in.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... actions to stop the insurgents in Iraq?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is an area that we have been watching with a lot of concern not just over the last couple days but over the last several months.

And we've been in close consultation with the Iraqi government over the last year. We have been providing them additional assistance to try to address the problems they have in Anbar and the northwestern portions of the country as well as the Iraqi and Syrian border.

That includes in some cases military equipment. It includes intelligence assistance. It includes a whole host of issues.

But what we've seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq's going to need more help. It's going to need more 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 because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.

Part of the challenge, and I've said this directly to Prime Minister Malaki and Vice President Biden has said this in his very frequent interactions with the Iraqi government, is that the politics of Shia and Sunni inside of Iraq as well as the Kurds is either going to be a help in dealing with this jihadist situation or it's going to be a hindrance.

Frankly, over the last several years, we have not seen the kind of trust and cooperation develop between moderate Sunni and Shia leaders inside of Iraq, and that accounts, in part, for some of the weakness of the state, and that then carries over into the military capacity.

So I think it's fair to say that in our consultations with the Iraqis there will be some short term immediate things that need to be done military, and our national security team is looking at all the options, but this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government.

There has to be a political component to this, so that Sunni and Shia who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq, come together and work diligently against the extremists.

And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shia and Sunni that we haven't seen so far.

The last point I'll make, this -- what happened over the last couple of days, I think, underscores the importance of the point I made at my West Point speech, the need for us to have a more robust, regional approach to partnering and training, partner countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

We're not going to be able to be everywhere all the time, but what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security.

That is a long and laborious process, but it's one that we need to get started. That's part of what the counterterrorism partnership fund that I am going to be calling for Congress to help finance is all about, giving up the capacity to extend our reach without sending U.S. troops to play Whack-A-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular

That's going to be more effective. It's going to be more legitimate in the eyes of people in the region, as well as the international community. But it's going to take time for us to build it. In the shorted term, we have to deal with what clearly is an emergency situation in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have, Barack, if I might take one question. David Spears (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, just on the point you made there about the limitations of America (ph) now (INAUDIBLE) the region. Where is the line drawn.

OBAMA: Well, I gave a very long speech about all this, so I probably would refer you to that as opposed to repeating it. But the basic principle obviously is, is that we, like all nations, are prepared to take military action whenever our national security is threatened.

Where the issues have to with the broader international order, humanitarian concerns, concerns around rights to navigation, concerns around, you know, our ability to deal with instability or fragile states or failed states and the consequences for the populations there and refugee flows, those sorts of international issues, wherever we can, our preference should be to partner with other countries. We're going to be more effective if we can work with other nations.


OBAMA: And that's why - well, that's partly of where Australia's so important to us. You know, there are - there are a handful of countries in the world that we always know we can count on, not just because they share our values, but we know we can count on them because they've got real capacity. Australia's one of those countries. We share foundational values about liberal democracies and human rights and a world view that's governed by international law and norms. And Aussies know how to fight. And I like having them in a foxhole if we're in trouble. So I can't think of a better partner.

Part of our task now in a world where it's less likely that any particular nation attacks us or our treaty allies directly, but rather more typically that you have disorder, asymmetric threats, terrorist organizations, all of which can be extraordinarily disruptive and damaging but aren't the traditional types of war that so often we've been equipped to fight.

It becomes that much more important for us to start building new partners who aren't going to be as capable as the Australians right away, aren't going to be as capable as our own troops. And that's going to take some time, it's going to take some resources, but we need to start now. We've learned some lessons over the last decade and we need to start applying them. All right.


OBAMA: Thank you, everybody.

BANFIELD: As insurgents gain ground inside Iraq, taking two of the major cities, Tikrit and Mosul, the president of the United States saying that nothing is being ruled out when it comes to responding to this issue.

Jim Acosta, our senior White House correspondent, is still standing by live.

I heard something very significant in that, Jim, that he's been in close consultation with the Iraqi government over the last year regarding their requests. But the reality behind that is, they've been requesting help, they've been requesting backup and drone strikes and air strikes and we have said no. Why?

ACOSTA: That's right. Well, you know, one thing that they've also been requesting is military equipment and hardware. And I can tell you, just last week, the Iraqi government accepted a whole batch of F-16s that are going to be delivered to Baghdad in a couple of months. Obviously looking at what's happening on the ground right now, Ashleigh, they probably can't wait a couple of months. I think the president, because he's been on this footing of trying to really get the U.S. out of the Middle East militarily on a variety of fronts, that he just does not want to do air strikes unless he absolutely has to in Iraq.

Now, what you heard the president there say I think was an indication of a lot of movement when it comes to that option, Ashleigh, when he said that there might be some short term immediate things that need to be done military, that he's not ruling anything out, but he went on to say that he needs some help from the Iraqi government when it comes to dealing with its internal political strife. Ashleigh, I was there 10 years ago. And at that point it was, you know, it was the Sunni people who were in charge, dealing with Shiite uprising. And now you have more of a Shiite led government dealing with this Sunni uprising in the north.

BANFIELD: So - I'm sorry, I just get very -

ACOSTA: And so (INAUDIBLE) upside down.

BANFIELD: I get very confused by this.


BANFIELD: I don't know the administration's thinking from Adam here, but what I do know is this -


BANFIELD: Many have said that the administration is not that comfortable with the Iraqi government, with its control on things, to have forged these kinds of agreements up until now, what has become a disaster. Does that mean we're comfortable now because there's no other option?

ACOSTA: You know, that -- that may be where this is headed, but we just don't know at this point. The press briefing is going to get started here in just a few moments. The outgoing White House press secretary, Jay Carney, he's going to be in for a grilling because as you notice there, the president did not say where this is headed and he's getting a lot of political pressure up on Capitol Hill. Everybody is watching these pictures unfold. And, you know, it just does not look good. If, you know, ISIS is on the verge of moving into the capital city of Baghdad, they've already, you know, taken the second largest city in Iraq of Mosul -


ACOSTA: That -- those are not good signs. BANFIELD: So you know how this works.

ACOSTA: And so it really has - it really has ratcheted up the pressure over here and administration officials are very, very concerned about what's unfolding right now.

BANFIELD: Since you mentioned the word pressure, cue the critics because the House speaker decided, as we expected, this would be a good time to say something real bad. So, have a look.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I think what we should do is to provide the equipment and technical assistance that the Iraqis have been asking for. I don't know enough of the details about - about the air strikes to comment whether we should or we shouldn't, but it's not like we haven't seen this problem coming for over a year. And it hasn't -- it's not like we haven't seen, over the last five or six months, these terrorists moving in, taking control of western Iraq. Now they've taken control of Mosul. They're 100 miles from Baghdad. And what's the president doing? Taking a nap.


BANFIELD: Oh, you missed the best part. He threw the mike down, like a rapper, done. Done with the song.

Jim Acosta, I say this because when you say something real bad, it means bad for the administration, it means taking a potshot when the fires are actually burning and the optics support that. How is the president going to fend off this kind of criticism?

ACOSTA: Well, I think right now he's going to have to take it. And this is only the -- one of several fronts where he has been taking heat on his foreign policies. Syria, Ukraine, you name it, this president has been accused by his Republican critics and there have been some Democrats who have been uncomfortable with this who just feel the president's approach has maybe been just a little too soft in taking on these challenges, a little too reluctant to involve the U.S. military. The red line was crossed by Bashar al Assad in Syria. The president said there would be consequences if that red line was crossed. There weren't any major consequences. And so, you know, his critics say that has opened up the floodgates to turmoil and problems, you know, around the Middle East and in other hotspots around the world.

But, you know, having said all of that, Ashleigh, keep in mind, this is a president who campaigned for president, won re-election with the platform that he is getting this country out of Iraq, getting this country out of Afghanistan. If you look at the polls, the country doesn't want to go back into Iraq. The country wants to get out of Afghanistan. So, to a certain extent, the president has some polling on his side.

But you also look at where the public is. They're uncomfortable with where this foreign policy is right now. And I think the question has become, has this president sort of overcorrected after the lessons of the Bush administration? Bush administration critics say too unilateral, too confrontational around the world, did not take a multi-unilateral approach.

Is the president overcorrecting and seeking too many multilateral agreements, being a little too cautious about using the U.S. military where it's needed, and I think that is where the conversation is headed. And perhaps we're going to see maybe a course correction here when it comes to Iraq because you heard the president there say that he just does not see it in the interest of the United States to allow these militants to regain a foothold.

BANFIELD: Yes. A foothold, yes.

ACOSTA: Even saying with the Australian prime minister next to him, remember, Australia one of the coalition of the willing in the Iraq War. He said, Aussies know how to fight. I like to have them in a foxhole. So the president, you know, at least from a rhetorical standpoint, getting on a much more muscular footing there I think, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: But awesome American allies like Canada turned their noses up at Iraq. There were plenty of people who weren't so interested in the coalition -

ACOSTA: That's right.

BANFIELD: Of the pip-squeak willing, as some call them. So, whether he can put together any kind of coalition now to get what the Iraqis need.

The story's not going away, Jim. Keep an eye on things.

ACOSTA: A lot of tough question -

BANFIELD: Yes, I expect that there will be some more words from the White House and you're going to give them to us hopefully when you get them. Thank you, Jim Acosta.

ACOSTA: You bet.

BANFIELD: Good to see you, sir. Thank you.

ACOSTA: Good to see you.

BANFIELD: There's a lot of other stories on our menu today, too. A lot of breaking news today. Right after the break, we'll get you caught up.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BANFIELD: We've got some sad breaking news to bring your way. This just into CNN, word that legendary actress Ruby Dee has died. We are told that she died peacefully in her home yesterday in New Rochelle, New York. Ruby Dee, you might remember, she started in Broadway plays and movies, notably opposite Sidney Poitier in "A Raisin In The Sun." She was also active in the American civil rights movement. She also starred opposite her husband, Ossie Davis. He died back in 2005. Ruby Dee was 91 years old.

And take a look at your screens. The man that you are seeing falling gently to earth is none other than the 41st president of the United States of America. And today George H.W. Bush is turning 90. He's celebrating with a tandem skydive. Did I just say he's turning 90? That was not a mistake. It is the same way he celebrated his 80th birthday and his 85th birthday. And the former president's spokesperson says he just loves the thrill and the adrenaline jolt. Not sure about the landing. I would be terrified. But here's the best part of the story. The former first lady, Barbara, apparently she is just fine. She's just fine with all of that. How about it, folks? Take a look at that. You want inspiration, you've got inspiration. Ninety years old today.

By the way, just cause this Sunday is Father's Day, and we are going to be airing something very special, 41 American notables are coming together to bring you a very unique portrait of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. Stories you won't forget. "41 on 41" Sunday night, 9:00, CNN.

Thanks for being with us, folks. Wolf starts now.