Return to Transcripts main page


Iraq in Crisis; Interview with John Kirby; Can Terrorists in Iraq Be Stopped?; ISIS Fighter Posts Facebook Video

Aired June 16, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: President Obama could decide on an Iraq strategy within the coming hours, as terrorists massacre the Iraqi security forces trained by the U.S.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. You see this man? Moments after this video was shot, he showed up dead, executed, it seems, like hundreds of others, by the Islamist terrorists threatening to overtake Iraq. What is the U.S. prepared to do about it? Airstrikes? Maybe. But is the U.S. also considering a partnership with Iran, a country that the U.S. government officially considers a state sponsor of terrorism?

And the politics lead. Today, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of the legendary "All The President's Men," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Butch and Sundance of investigative journalism, visit THE LEAD to the discuss scandals and presidents past, present and future.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin of course with the world lead. As the Iraq security forces trained by the U.S. are dragged out and executed by the hundreds, President Obama may choose in the next few hours a course of action against the extremists overrunning that country.

A White House official says the president's national security team will present a number of military options to him this evening. According to multiple U.S. officials, those options include more surveillance flights, both manned and unmanned, but not armed. The president could choose to hold off and develop more intelligence, either to use for U.S. purposes or to share with the Iraqis.

If the intelligence is believed to be solid, the president could launch airstrikes. There's been a lot of talk about that. He could also decide to withdraw more Americans from the embassy and other places in Iraq before doing anything else.

When Yahoo! News asked Secretary of State John Kerry about possible airstrikes earlier today, he said they are on the table.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, they're not the whole answer, but they may we will be one of the options. When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.


TAPPER: Today, a U.S. Navy ship with 550 Marines is joining other forces in the Persian Gulf, including an aircraft carrier, a guided missile destroyer and a guided missile cruiser. The U.S. withdrew combat troops from Iraq 2.5 years ago, leaving behind American-trained Iraqi forces charged with securing the country.

Right now, they are pretty much all that is standing in the way of a terrorist militia group called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. ISIS is gaining footholds all over the country, creeping toward Baghdad. It already has control of Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq, and it is taking more. ISIS claims it killed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit alone, though that has not been verified.

What you're looking at here is video posted on a Facebook page by a man claiming to be an ISIS fighter. If you watch, you see five men sitting on the ground, hands secured behind their backs. The man with the gun speaks Arabic, we're told, with a strong Tunisian accent, indicating that he may be a foreign fighter who has come over the border.

He smacks the prisoners, forces them to repeat -- quote -- "The Islamic State is here to stay."

These propaganda videos are also evidence of a possible war crime, because this man in the Iraqi military uniform, this man does not have long to live. Another video was posted, one we're not going to air. It appears to show the man had been executed at point-blank range.

The U.S. has bolstered security at the American Embassy in Baghdad, adding anywhere between 50 and 100 Marines and Army personnel, according to a U.S. official. And in case you are choosing to book your five-day/four-night trip to sunny Baghdad, the State Department strongly warns against all but essential travel there, adding that U.S. citizens in Iraq -- quote -- "remain at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence."

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson is standing by live in Baghdad.

Nic, what is the mood in the capital like with these extremists saying that they are on their way right there?


You have got a lot of anger that -- that there is this sort of sectarian conflict going on. The Facebook video we're talking about just there, it shows -- purports to show the execution of Shia soldiers in the Iraqi army. It's a documentation of a war crime. But, in this city, that amounts to -- because it's a Shia being killed by Sunnis, that amounts to escalating the sectarian tensions. There's anger. There's relief that the government has finally decided

to get rough, get real, go after ISIS. And then there's the feeling that everything isn't quite right, but life can carry on because they're not here yet. There's a few more cars out on the streets. Prices have gone up for food -- for food. People are complaining about that. The government is trying to tamp that anxiety and anger down.

But, overall, this is a city in waiting. It is a little worried. At the moment, it feels like that overrun by ISIS isn't going to happen tomorrow, but people, they are concerned, Jake.

TAPPER: Nic Robertson in Baghdad, thank you and stay safe.

So, with as many as 100 Marines and U.S. Army personal at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and some staffers already moved or moving to other locations, is a large-scale evacuation next? Are Americans at the Baghdad embassy safe?

Joining me now exclusively is Rear Admiral John Kirby, who is the Pentagon's press secretary.

Admiral, thanks for being here.

So, just to run through these options again that we have been told, some of the options for the president to review -- he's meeting with his national security team tonight -- they include manned and unmanned surveillance, but not armed flights, more intelligence gathering, airstrikes if the intelligence is sufficient, and withdrawing more Americans.

On this point of withdrawing Americans, we know we have this amphibious assault vehicle with over 500 Marines on board that could assist with any sort of emergency, embassy evacuation. What are the odds right now, does the Pentagon think, of such an evacuation, and how safe are the people at the U.S. Embassy?


First, the embassy is a very safe compound. You have probably been there yourself, Jake. It's big. It's well-protected. There is no request by the State Department for any kind of evacuation. The embassy is still up and running, still operational. It's true that they relocated some of the personnel over the weekend, but, again, the embassy's open, open for business.

And, look, I mean, this is always a tough call, how you make these kinds of decisions about whether to move or not to move. We are postured and ready should the State Department require that. But there has been no request, none at all. The embassy's still open.

TAPPER: Was this an intelligence failure? Did the U.S. government not know that ISIS was gaining strength and was going to be heading towards Baghdad? KIRBY: We have been watching ISIL, ISIS, however you want to refer to

it. We have been watching their growth and development for some time now.

Absolutely not an intelligence failure, none at all. And we have been constantly monitoring the situation in Iraq and we have been staying in touch with Iraqi government officials throughout. Don't forget you still have and have had since 2011 a small number of U.S. troops working out of the embassy there, as well as a pretty robust country team from the State Department there.

So, this is something we have been watching for a long time. Yes, they moved pretty quick. And, yes, as I said Friday, we were surprised and disappointed at how some of the Iraqi security forces failed to meet those threats up in the north. But it's not something we haven't been watching.

TAPPER: The Associated Press, I'm told, is reporting right now that the U.S. government is considering a small -- sending a small special operations team to Iraq, to Baghdad, to assist in some manner there to assist the Iraqi government. Is there anything you can tell me about that?

KIRBY: No, Jake, actually, I'm not going to get ahead of options that the president may or may not use.

And I certainly don't want to get ahead of decisions that he hasn't made yet. As I said before, our job at the Pentagon is to plan and to prepare and to tee him up options that are as robust as he wants to consider.

TAPPER: But that would be one of many options that would be on the table?

KIRBY: Well, again, I don't want to prejudge options here.

TAPPER: I want you to listen to what Secretary of State John Kerry had to say to Yahoo! earlier today, when asked if ISIS could take Baghdad.


KERRY: I don't believe that they will in the near term, certainly, and I don't believe they necessarily can at all. But that remains to be determined.


TAPPER: Does ISIS have the capability of taking Baghdad?

KIRBY: Look, they certainly have proven capable of grabbing ground. There's no question about that. Baghdad's a different matter.

And every indication that we have right now is that the Iraqi security forces are going to fight very, very hard to defend Baghdad. And I think that's what Secretary Kerry was referring to. If -- should they want to do it -- and I don't know what their intentions are -- it's going to be difficult.

Baghdad is a different beast altogether from -- from the other smaller places that they have taken. But, look, larger, we're all aware of this threat inside Iraq. And there's a shared sense of urgency here. And I think that's why the president is making -- making it very important to spend time talking to his advisers, having meetings and working through this decision-making process.

TAPPER: On the question of whether or not the U.S. should talk to Iran about trying to help with the situation, in some ways, it almost seems like a moot point. Maliki is Shiite. Iran is Shiite. They are very closely allied. Reportedly, there are Iranian forces in Iraq right now. There certainly are advisers.

If the United States moves to help Iraq, aren't we de facto working with Iran, since they are so much a part of advising Maliki?

KIRBY: Our discussions are with the Iraqi government. And from a military perspective, it's with Iraqi security forces.

And, again, I would remind you we have been working with them since 2011, since -- since the end of the combat mission in Iraq. There are no plans to consult with Iran about military activities inside Iraq.

And our message to Iran is the same as it is to all the neighbors out there. We want a constructive role here. We want you to respect Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.

TAPPER: But the U.S. has also said they want to work with all the players in the region. So if the U.S. went and were to meet with Maliki and there were other players from the region in the room, that's not something that the U.S. would discount, right?

KIRBY: Well, we have said we want to work with neighbors and partners. I wouldn't get into that particular hypothetical.

And, look, you know, there's talks going on in Vienna right now, P5- plus-one.

TAPPER: Right.

KIRBY: I think it's certainly reasonable to expect that there could be on sidelines of those discussions some informal discussions with Iranian leaders about what's going on in Iraq.

But there's no plans to consult with them about military activity, certainly not military activities we are -- potentially could conduct inside Iran.

TAPPER: Just for the people at home, should the American people be prepared for the United States to go to war again in Iraq?

KIRBY: I think the president's been very clear that he does not foresee a return to troops on the ground on a combat mission in Iraq.

What he has said is, he's willing to look at a range of options, not all of them military, a range of options, to try to break the momentum of ISIL in there. And he's also been very clear that, should he elect a military option, it would be limited in scope -- in both scope and duration.

TAPPER: Just to clarify, combat operations not the same thing as special forces, special operations.

KIRBY: Well, again, I'm -- I think I'm going to...


TAPPER: I just want -- OK.


TAPPER: Admiral Kirby, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

KIRBY: You bet.

TAPPER: Coming up next: As these terrorists continue to threaten Baghdad, is a USS military option the only way to stop them? We will ask General Wesley Clark what he would tell the president to do were he advising President Obama.

Plus, 'I will see you guys in New York," those words from the leader of ISIS to a U.S. Army colonel in Iraq five years ago. Was he threatening an attack on U.S. soil or something more benign?


TAPPER: Continuing with your world lead. As the situation in Iraq continues to unravel, President Obama will meet tonight with his national security team who will lay out the commander in chief's military options moving forward.

Joining me to break down these choices is retired General Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander and four-star general, is in Little Rock.

General Clark, thank you so much for being with us. Appreciate it.


TAPPER: So, General Clark, let's go straight into tonight's briefing. The president will have some clear options presented to him ranging from air strikes to pulling out more American personnel for their safety. If you were in that national security meeting tonight, and I recognize you don't have all the latest intelligence, but if you know -- knowing what you know, what would you advise the president to do? What should be our objectives in Iraq right now?

CLARK: Well, Ii think that it's both a time of some urgency on the part of the Iraqi government and if you'll permit me to say this, it's a time of some opportunity for the United States. And the reason I say that is because there's been some questions in the region about whether the United States is still committed and still working and willing to assert its power. I think some in Iran may even think they're the biggest dog on the block since we haven't taken strong action in Syria.

So I think this is a moment that's a very decisive moment. I think this is a time when a small amount of force appropriately delivered packs a tremendous leverage diplomatically.

So, I would hope that we get some senior diplomats in there along with the ambassador. We would extract the right kind of pledges with some guarantees from Prime Minister Maliki that he will do a better job of bringing the Sunnis into the government. He'll make the right announcements. And then, we'll have some capability to target and actually deliver ordnance on the most threatening of the ISIS columns, as they're moving in or maybe their forward headquarters.

A lot of it depends on real-time intelligence and how much you have. There probably is a special need of a Special Forces team of some size to be there on the ground to de-conflict, to provide the up-to-date targeting information. Some of this can be done electronically. And without being on the inside, it's tough to say.

But I think this is a time for the United States to act.

TAPPER: So, just to be clear, you're saying we should have airstrikes? That is specifically what you're talking about, hitting ISIS as they make their way to Iraq, to Baghdad, rather?

CLARK: That's right, that's right.

TAPPER: And part of the reason --

CLARK: It's a terrorist organization.

TAPPER: Yes, go ahead.

CLARK: It's a terrorist organization. The Iraqi government has asked for help. It's in the United States' interests not to permit a terrorist organization like this to move forward as John Kerry said. It's sheer terrorism. You can't permit murder and mayhem.

As the Clinton administration learned to our sorrow in the 1990s, we did not take action in Rwanda when we could have. And there was a huge mess. This would be a huge mess and the time to stop it is sooner rather than later.

TAPPER: And just to also clarify, one of the reasons you think we should be doing this is not just to stop this mayhem but also as a projection of U.S. power that you think is necessary. Explain what you mean by that.

CLARK: I think this is a time where people all over the world will be asking, will the United States lead and use our power at the right time. We've said we're against terrorism. Will we take action now?

And so, I think this action, if it's taken, will have some very strong and beneficial consequences on lots of people who are watching the United States from all around the world.

TAPPER: Lastly, sir, when you talk to veterans who served in Iraq, when you talk to their families, people who lost loved ones in Iraq, what do you say to them when they wonder if the sacrifice in that country was worth it, given the images we're seeing on our televisions?

CLARK: Look, you can't get into a discussion like that because what's going to happen in Iraq is going to changing from day by day, week by week, year by year. Was it worth it for men and women to volunteer to serve their country to go abroad, to live in danger to sacrifice their lives and limbs and health for this country?

If we believe in the United States of America and what we stand for, yes, it's worth it. Got to put the right people in office to make the right decisions. That's not the responsibility of the men and women in uniform. They trusted the leadership of the United States. And if we believe in this country, we'll both do our duty to serve and we'll do our duty to vote.

TAPPER: General Wesley Clark, thank you for your thoughts. And always, thank you for your service, sir.

CLARK: Thank you.

TAPPER: When we come back, we're starting to see the horror the extremists overrunning Iraq are capable of. Are they now the world's biggest terrorist threat?

And it's an excuse the average college professor gets every single semester. My computer crashed. Do you buy the same excuse from the IRS?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with our world lead on the crisis in Iraq. This shocking ISIS propaganda video posted on Facebook which we'll talk about more in a moment only emphasizes the terror that can be incited locally and around the world by these jihadist groups.

A new study by the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center shows the number of jihadist groups worldwide is up nearly 60 percent in just three years. Is ISIS leading the pack?

And joining me now is Seth Jones, acting director from the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center.

Seth, thanks for being here.

I want to start with these propaganda videos on Facebook posted by an ISIS fighter, chose the interrogation of five captured men in Iraq, in the aftermath in the execution of one of them. By the accent of the man it seems it's likely he's a foreign fighter, maybe Tunisian. What sort of message are ISIS fighters trying to send, what can we take away from the videos or is it only intended for an Iraqi audience?

SETH JONES, INTL. SECURITY AND DEFENSE POLICY CENTER, RAND: No, I think they've been doing this for some time for multiple audiences. There's an international audience. ISIS is increasingly getting a number of foreign firefighters.

So, by putting this on a Facebook, they have Twitter accounts, they have Internet sites that they use. It's partly means of attracting individuals to come fight the good war, the good jihad in Iraq and Syria for that matter.

The other is an internal audience within Iraq, to demonstrate almost a domino sense that they've take cities like Mosul and they're on their way to Baghdad.

TAPPER: You have studied the rise of jihadist fighters and you point in your study that 2013, when ISIS was still affiliated with al Qaeda, it led all of these al Qaeda affiliated groups in attacks, more than al Shabaab, al Nusra Front, more than AQIP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

How did ISIS become such a threat?

JONES: Well, one of the things that ISIS has done better than most of these jihadist groups is it opened up battlefields in multiple countries. So, it's played a very, very important role in the Syrian context. It's played an increasingly important role in the Iraq context and it used these countries as leverage to bring fighters, weapons, resources, including money from front to front, depending on where they see an initiative.

TAPPER: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, you've studied him. He and his group ISIS broke from al Qaeda or perhaps the other way around, earlier this year. What was the reason behind that?

JONES: Well, there were several reasons. One is the core al Qaeda group in Pakistan led by Ayman al Zawahiri was increasingly upset at some of the barbarism that ISIS is was involved in. Attacking Shia, some of the -- not just kidnappings but killings in both Syria and Iraq. But probably the most fundamental reason was ISIS' unwillingness to let go of the Syrian front.

The core in Pakistan wanted to give that to Jabhat al Nusra and to leave ISIS to Iraq. They refused to aside by that ruling from Pakistan. Therefore, they were kicked out.

TAPPER: So, they disagreed on strategy and tactics, not necessarily on jihad or a larger Islamic vision?

JONES: Well, this is the organization if we go back a few years when Abu Musab al Zarqawi, before he was killed by American forces, was chastised multiple times for being too gruesome, isolating the local population with his brutal assassinations. So, there has been some pushback from the core in Pakistan on ideology. Too much Shia killing and too much killing in general.

TAPPER: Al Baghdadi reportedly was in United States custody for about four or five years, at Camp Bucca in Iraq before that camp closed. And reportedly said before he left the camp, "I will see you in New York." I don't know how nefarious that was when he said it.

What do you make of al Baghdadi and the threat that he and ISIS pose to not only U.S. interests abroad but to the homeland itself?

JONES: Well, first of all, it's not uncommon for most of these jihadist leaders wherever they are, North Africa, Levant, Iraq, Pakistan, to make these comments about the United States. The U.S., for many of these groups, is the Great Satan.

The question, though, becomes, how many evidence do we see plotting by Baghdadi and others in Iraq and Syria against the U.S.? And the concern there is that we have seen a growing use of networks for fundraising and recruitment into Europe. There was an assassination recently in Brussels by someone who had been trained by ISIS in Syria.

So, there are growing concerns about the external operations capability of Baghdadi and his organization.

TAPPER: How many American fighters do we think there are right now fighting with ISIS?

JONES: Well, I would say we don't have great numbers right now. Estimates have put this at maybe over 100 Americans. But that's in Syria more broadly and that's fighting for a number of different organizations. Probably in the dozens, at most, though.

TAPPER: All right. Seth Jones, thank you so much.

JONES: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up next, he knows the complexities of Iraq because he lived in the middle of it for several long years during some of the deadliest fighting. And now, he's saying the U.S. only has itself to blame for what's happening now.

Plus, it was how they got their scoop. Clandestine meetings in a dark parking lot.