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Kerry Headed to Middle East for Talks; U.S. Open to Iran's Help on Iraq; CDC Workers Exposed to Anthrax; IRS Chief in Hot Seat; Bergdahl's Transition; V.A. Officials Grilled over Bonuses; IRS Chief Grilled; Bergdahl's Life

Aired June 20, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, ISIS militants launch a worldwide charm offensive with highly produced recruitment videos and a Twitter hash tag for messages of support.

Also right now, new insights into Bowe Bergdahl's daily routine. It includes regularly scheduled meals and leisure time. But so far, Bergdahl is not being questioned about why he left his military post in Afghanistan.

And right now, a pair of potential 2016 presidential candidates apologizing for insensitive remarks they made. The former Montana governor, Brian Schweitzer, says his words were, quote, "stupid." And the Texas governor, Rick Perry, says he, quote, "stepped right in it."

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. Beefing up their forces for the tough fight ahead in Iraq. Both the Islamist militants and the Iraqi army are doing that right now. There's up to 300 U.S. advisers prepared to deploy to that country to help contain the crisis.

And we've just learned, the first of those advisers could arrive in Iraq as early as tomorrow. President Obama is also sending the secretary of state, John Kerry, to the region. He's heading out this weekend for meetings in Europe and the Middle East.

Our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto will be traveling with the secretary this week. There's a lot on stake. The key question is, how far is the U.S. going to go in squeezing the Iraqis to get rid of Nuri al Maliki?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is the thing, they're not going to do it publicly. They're going to do it subtlety, if anything. You heard the president, for instance, yesterday, he didn't say we want him to go. And they don't want their fingers on a political regime change. But he certainly didn't express a vote of confidence in Maliki. And I think that's what's happening. You're hearing that behind the scenes now. And it's happening domestically as well.

The Ayatollah Sistani, the revered leader of Shias in Iraq, saying today that Iraq needs a unifying leader. He didn't mention Maliki's name there so, in effect, Maliki losing that backing as well. And at the same time, you already have people raising their hands, other Shias coming forward who have a better relationship with the Sunnis and Kurds. And one of them, if you can believe it, Ahmad Chalabi, remember the name?


SCIUTTO: In 2003, one of the -- one of the architects, you could say, of the American invasion. So, you already have people who are raising their hands possibly to replace him.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment because Arwa Damon is joining us now. She's in Erbil, Iraq. Arwa, both sides of this conflict, they're trying to boost their numbers right now. Give us a little sense of the strategy that's unfolding.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you talk about trying to boost your numbers. You have ISIS producing that super slick recruitment video. Really impressive when you look at the production value of it. And then, of course, there is the very chilling statements that are being made trying to lure in various other so-called Jihadis from around the world. The language being spoken, Arabic and English as well, trying to really reach out to that ex-pat Jihadi community. One of the people speaking on it, boasting that they have fighters ranging from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Australia, the U.K.

On the ground, Wolf, ISIS also trying to continuing -- to continue in its effort to try to also boost its ranks. But we're hearing, increasingly, that they are turning back to that fear strategy that they have used on so many battlefields that sadly works so well, terrorizing the population into forcing -- to forcibly supporting them. But also, at this stage, given the alliance that they have with the various other Sunni groups, they are emerging as being the more powerful entity. So, therefore, even those other Sunni groups who seem to be fighting alongside them, are losing control to ISIS as well.

BLITZER: Arwa, hold on for a moment because I want Jim to weigh in on this whole question. It's a sensitive diplomatic issue right now. Does the U.S. bring Iran into this diplomacy? Does the U.S. bring in Iran even more forcefully into some sort of military operation against ISIS? It's a sensitive issue for the Obama administration.

SCIUTTO: Well, yes on the first and no on the second. So, no, they don't want to have U.S. -- and they've kind of ruled that out U.S.- Iraqi cooperation on the military front.

BLITZER: U.S.-Iranian?

SCIUTTO: U.S.-Iranian cooperation on the military front. On the diplomatic front, the president laid out, yesterday, that, yes, they're willing to work with Iranians but on the condition that the Iranians are supporting an inclusive Iraq. One that is -- that is -- that Shias, Kurds and Sunnis can all prosper. And that Iran is not, in effect, coming in as a military force on behalf of the Shias. So, that's the condition. And that's really the condition that they're setting for all parties in this, both allies -- American allies, Jordan, the Turks, the Kurds, et cetera. But it's also its adversaries in Iran to get involved.

BLITZER: Arwa, does Nuri al Maliki -- and you've studied this guy for a long time. You've been in Iraq on and off going back to 2003, the U.S. invasion. Does Nuri al Maliki understand that if he's already lost the United States, it's probably over for him, or is he clinging on despite that kind of suffering, the loss of credibility, if you will?

DAMON: Well, he has been acting like a man who still believes that he has the support of the population, at least if one looks at his public statements saying that, you know, he has built a government of national unity. That's what he believes he's done. And he's calling on Iraqis to unify. And he's continuously publicly called for a unified Iraq. The problem is his policies, most certainly, have proven to be the exact opposite. And he does not have much, if any, credibility amongst the Sunni population.

The Kurds also wants his allies. They're trying to distance themselves from him. Very little credibility with them as well. Bearing in mind that this is a man also who made all sorts of promises to the Iraqi population, to various other politicians, even to the United States. And they were promises that he never lived up to. This is a man who has continuously failed all those whom he has pledged to support.

So, it's going to be very difficult to see how he handles the situation moving forward. But one must also remember that Iraq just had parliamentary elections. So, at some point in time, there is going to be a clock that's going to start ticking for the natural formation of a new government -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon in Erbil. Arwa, be careful over there. Jim Sciutto, thanks to you as well. He'll be traveling with the secretary of state on a very important mission, coming up this week.

The number of people potentially exposed to anthrax at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta is now climbing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says as many as 86 employees may have come into contact with the live bacteria. Anthrax is the same potentially deadly toxin that turned up in the mailboxes of some prominent politicians right after 911.

Our Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is joining us now live from outside the CDC headquarters in Atlanta. Sanjay, so, for those viewers who don't know, how could this possibly happen?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is -- how do I put it delicately, Wolf. This is a mess up. I mean, either a person or a group of people didn't follow exact protocols here. And the CDC is being quite candid about specifically what happened.

There are different bio safety labs, Wolf. There are higher bio safety labs. There are lower bio safety labs. What happened in this particular case is they had this anthrax. They were supposed to deactivate it, wait 48 hours, make sure it had been deactivated, and then take it to the lower bio safety lab. The first two things didn't happen. It wasn't deactivated properly. And then, the -- they didn't wait long enough to make sure the process had actually worked. So, the end product, Wolf, is you took live bacteria and you put it into a laboratory that just wasn't designed to be able to handle it and that's where the concern for exposure comes from.

BLITZER: The number went up today. Why did that number go up? What is it now, 87 from 75?

GUPTA: Yes, you know, it's interesting, Wolf. I was talking to some of the officials here about that. It's been quite a process to try and identify who may have been affected, that people have these I.D. badges. They have to swipe their I.D. badges, walk through certain hallways, walk in the laboratories. All that data is stored so they can tell who was where when and how long they stayed in a particular location. So, it was based on that, initially, that they got this sort of 75 number. But other people have subsequently come forward and say they were in the same area for something unrelated or they may have been exposed in some way. So, some of this is sort of self- reporting, in terms of why the numbers may go up. And they may go up even more, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're saying, I should correct it, at least 86 -- as many as 86 people potentially affected. Are any of them showing signs or symptoms or anything worrisome right now?

GUPTA: No. And I've asked that question very clearly. Any signs or symptoms means obviously any cough or flu-like symptoms. But, also, even mild fever would be something that they would be concerned about. A mild fever, could that be the initial signs of an anthrax infection? In fact, over the next two months, these people are going to be screened, get regular temperature checks, I'm told, just because a slight fever that they themselves might not even notice could be one of the first signs of an infection that's taking hold.

BLITZER: As a preemptive measure, Sanjay, do they give them, you know, some sort of antibiotics? Some sort of Cipro? Remember in nine -- after the anthrax attacks, back in -- after 911, a lot of people who think they may have been exposed started taking Ciprofloxacin. Now, do they do that to these 86 folks who may have been impacted?

GUPTA: Yes. You know, this is really interesting, Wolf. So, so far, out of the 86, 54 people have been seen, offered the various medications. What is interesting is that even among an infectious disease community, not everyone agrees on what the best thing to do here. So, out of the 54, for example, 32 of them have decided to take Ciprofloxacin, 20 have decided to take another antibiotic known as doxycycline. And two have said, I'm not going to take any antibiotics whatsoever. So, you know, same information, same concern about exposure, very different responses. They're also offered the anthrax vaccine, Wolf. And exactly half said they would take it and half said, no. You're, again, you know, you're getting very different sort of approaches to how to handle this, even within this community.

BLITZER: And what is the possibility that one of these 86, if, in fact, and we hope none of them come down with anthrax, could spread it to others they come into contact with? What are the concerns about that, if any?

GUPTA: This doesn't behave that way. When we talk about things that spread easily from person to person, flu virus, for example. This doesn't seem to behave that way. So, the idea of someone having an infection, and having it reside in their lungs and then going and spreading it to other people in the community or in their home, that seems really low. And I should point out, even for the people who are in the laboratory, the likelihood that they'll get an infection is pretty low. The concern is that it's such a dramatic, serious infection, that they do get sick, the mortality rate is around 75 or 80 percent. So, that's why there's just this heightened level of gravity around this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta helping us appreciate what's going on. A very worrisome situation down in Atlanta at the CDC headquarters. Sanjay, thanks very, very much.

Coming up next, the head of the IRS in the hot seat here in Washington up on Capitol Hill. His explanation for why thousands of critical e- mails, they are missing, and his explanation did not go over well. Our Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash standing by with all the details. Lots of fireworks.

And Bowe Bergdahl slowly making his transition from being a POW. We'll take you inside what a day in his life is like right now.


BLITZER: Lots of drama today up on Capitol Hill. In the hot seat were senior officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The House Veterans Affairs Committee wanted to know why senior executives at the agency were awarded bonuses while thousands of veterans were kept waiting for months simply to see a doctor. Some of those vets eventually died as they waited. The most recent audit for the VA shows at least - at least, get this, 43,000 veterans waited more than 120 days. That's three times more than previously disclosed.

Another highly contentious hearing also took place today up on Capitol Hill. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who's only been on the job since the beginning of the year, he appeared for several hours before the House Ways and Means Committee to explain why thousands of critical agency e-mails were missing. At issue, whether IRS officials improperly targeted conservative groups applying for tax exempt status. The committee was shocked when Koskinen revealed that the e- mails they want to see might never be recovered.


JOHN KOSKINEN, IRS COMMISSIONER: It was determined that it was dysfunctional and that - with experts -- no e-mails could be retrieved, was recycled and destroyed in the normal process. This was --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So was it physically destroyed? KOSKINEN: That's my understanding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So was it melted down, do you know?

KOSKINEN: I have no idea what the recycler does with it. This was three years ago.


BLITZER: Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is joining us from Capitol Hill.

Dana, you have to wonder if John Koskinen regrets coming out of retirement to take over the IRS. Who are these missing e-mails from? Are they really gone for good? Did we learn answers to those questions?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't know who the e-mails are from and that is really the heart of why this has become so contentious. It's over a two-year period that Lois Lerner's hard drive just has crashed and it's that exact two-year period that the IRS and her tax exempt -- part of the IRS allegedly targeted tax -- Tea Party groups inappropriately. So that's at the heart of this that you just heard his answer. The IRS commissioner saying that they don't think it's recoverable. He said that they even had the IRS criminal forensics team trying to figure out if they could get to the hard drive. They couldn't do it. But Congress is not pleased that then they simply destroyed it so there's no way for Congress to check that.

This was incredibly, incredibly intense, this hearing. Republicans of all stripes really went after the IRS commissioner and one of them even accused him of lying under oath. Listen to this.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: This is being misleading again. This is a pattern of abuse, a pattern of behavior, that is not giving us any confidence that this agency is being impartial. I don't - I don't believe you. This is incredible.

JOHN KOSKINEN, IRS COMMISSIONER: I had a long career. That's the first time anybody has said they do not believe me. I'm actually --

RYAN: I don't believe you.

KOSKINEN: That's fine. We can have a disagreement. I'm willing to stand on our record.


BASH: And what Paul Ryan is saying that he doesn't believe the IRS commissioner on his, number one, that these e-mails that Republicans think might shed more light on the whole idea of targeting Tea Party groups, but also about the fact that the IRS didn't tell Congress that they found out about this hard drive being destroyed in a timely fashion, which is feeding Republican accusations of a cover-up. But unlike in the past, at least when this first started, Wolf, you remember, there was some bipartisan outrage directed at the IRS. That's not happening anymore. This is incredibly partisan. And Democrats were come to the defense of the IRS commissioner, even mocking Republicans for coming up with conspiracies. Listen to this exchange.


REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D), TEXAS: Let me ask you as to the seriousness of this investigation, sir, have you ever been in Benghazi?


DOGGETT: Do you know if you or Ms. Learner have ever had any responsibility for anything having to do with Benghazi and our embassy there?


DOGGETT: How about Area 51 out in Roswell, New Mexico, where all those space aliens allegedly came? Have you ever had any responsibility for that?


DOGGETT: Have you ever had custody of the president's birth certificate?


DOGGETT: Well, commissioner, I believe one of the mistakes that you've made in dealing with the committee today is that you did assume professionally that this was a serious inquiry. I believe it is an endless conspiracy theory that's involved here that is being exploited solely for political purposes.


BASH: You could see the sarcasm dripping off of that Democrat, Lloyd Doggett's tongue. Another Democrat said it was an inquisition. Lots of back and forth over whether he was being treated fairly. But, Wolf, the IRS commissioner tried to give back to Republicans as good as he got. Any idea, any thought that this IRS scandal had died down, it's now erupted right back in front - front and center politically five months before the election.

BLITZER: Yes, when Paul Ryan, who's obviously a top Republican in the House of Representatives, effectively accusing the IRS commissioner of lying to Congress, that's a - that's incredibly, incredibly serious. That's something that's not going to go away.

BASH: That's right. He's - exactly and you know this, Wolf, he's really more of a policy wonk up here than a political attack dog, which is why that was so striking.

BLITZER: That was so striking indeed to hear from Paul Ryan. Others, I wouldn't be that shocked -

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: But for Paul Ryan, that was obviously a serious - and just very quickly, Dana, is it just Lois Learner's e-mails that disappeared, that went awry, or other officials from the IRS, they lost their hard drives, they lost all their e-mails as well?

BASH: That's another reason why Congress, Republicans are so upset because apparently six others also had their hard drives lost or their information lost because their hard drives crashed. It's not just that that happened, but, again, Congress -- Republicans are upset that they found out about Learner's hard drive, but then at the same time the IRS didn't tell them about the other six. So it's sort of the drip- drip-drip of information that's fueling Republican charges of cover- up.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, I know you'll work this story for us. Thanks very, very much.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is back in the United States, as all of you know. He's slowly being integrated back into civilian life. We're going to take you inside one of his days. What is it like for Sergeant Bergdahl right now?


BLITZER: It's been a week now since Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl arrived in San Antonio, Texas, and began the process of reintegrating into life after nearly five years in Taliban captivity. A team at the Brooke Army Medical Center has been gradually introducing Bergdahl to the media firestorm that erupted over his release in return for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Our Martin Savidge has been following Bergdahl's progress, what daily life is like for the former P.O.W.

Martin, what have you learned about how Bergdahl is spending his days.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, first I should point out that the military is not going to tell us anything that is absolutely private to Sergeant Bergdahl, but they will point out things that they say can be told. And one of them is that most of us don't like to say we have a routine life, but that's exactly what they are trying to reinstill into Sergeant Bergdahl at this time.

They're getting him up at a normal time. He's eating meals at a normal time. He goes to bed at a time that most of us accept. So in other words, they want to get him into a standard regiment.

Then, on top of that, he's got a typical hospital room at the Brooke Army Medical Center. Nothing fancy. Nothing extreme. He's on a floor with other patients. But despite the hundreds of people that are also in that hospital, he actually only daily interacts with less than a dozen people.

And then there is the storytelling. And I'm not talking about the "once upon a time" kind. I'm talking about how he gets to retell his story of captivity. Not a 30-second synopsis, but a day-by-day accounting. And he tells it to a small group which includes his SERE (ph) psychologist. It's a military psychologist. He's got his medical team. And then on top of that he's got Army debriefers. They want to hear every detail and most especially his account of things, Wolf.

BLITZER: The investigation into his disappearance, what prompted him apparently to walk away from that base in Afghanistan in 2009, is he participating with the investigators on those sensitive questions yet?

SAVIDGE: Yes, I asked that very question and the answer was, you're going to have to talk to the Pentagon on that particular issue. However, it was then immediately followed up with, the investigation is not part of reintegration. So it applies that, no, the investigative part has not happened.

And the reason there's sensitivity over that is, of course, that this sergeant is now divulging everything about his experience and you wonder whether at some point someone says, well, you know what, anything you say can and will be held against you in potentially a military court of law. That has not happened. The key right now is getting him well, getting him back into doing normal things, like teaching him how to take care of himself physically. How to interact with people. How to make the decisions we all take for granted. For a returnee who's been in captivity, that's extremely difficult. He's only just now starting.

BLITZER: And, obviously, another very, very sensitive question, perplexing one, when do we expect he will reunite with his parents?

SAVIDGE: Yes, you know, this is - this is an issue of great sensitive for the military because, you know, there are personal matters involved. A week ago they said that this decision rests with Bowe Bergdahl himself and that he has said at that time he wasn't ready. There has not been a reunion in between that time and there has not been contact, I am told, by the family with him.

The thing I can't quite discern is whether this is all Bowe Bergdahl making this decision or if it is also convenient for the military itself that he remains in isolation. The reason I can't answer that specifically is because I can't talk to Bowe Bergdahl. And until I do, right now I have to go with what the military says, which says, Bowe doesn't want to talk to his parents just yet.

BLITZER: All right, that's obviously a very, very sensitive issue right now. Martin, thanks very much.

U.S. military advisers, they are heading to Iraq to help Iraqi troops get some critical information in their fight against Islamic militants. We're going to take a closer look at the impact that the United States potentially could make.