Return to Transcripts main page


Fight for Iraq; World Cup Heartbreaker; Tie Wakes Americans from World Cup Dream; V.A. Accused of Neglecting Patients

Aired June 23, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: John Kerry warns the fate of Iraq could be decided this week. The question is, will the U.S. be in on this decision?

I'm John Berman. And this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, terrorists rampaging through Iraq claim more territory, as the president and his top diplomat warn that ISIS wants more than just Iraq and Syria.

The politics lead, the battle of the bank accounts. Joe Biden does everything but show off the holes in his socks to show he's more in touch with the middle class than Hillary Clinton. I didn't hear a bell, but did 2016 just begin?

And the sports lead. It's enough to make Lady Liberty face-palm, if she had a free hand. The U.S. gives up a last-minute equalizer in the World Cup to tie Portugal. Tie? Oh, yes, it's soccer, baby.

I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

And we do begin with the world lead. As the new state of Iraq, the one built on the ultimate sacrifices of 4,500 American troops, as it continues to collapse, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in Baghdad today after meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and vowed intense support in the fight against terrorists who now control a huge chunk of that country and some of Syria as well.

But the secretary also warned Iraq's leaders to literally get it together.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It is essential that Iraq's leaders form a genuinely inclusive government as rapidly as possible within their own constitutional framework.

It's also crystal-clear that ISIL's rise puts more than one country at risk. ISIL threatens the stability of the entire region and it is a threat also to the United States.


BERMAN: Meantime, ISIS militants continue their bloody advance toward Baghdad from the west and from the north, taking the city of Tal Afar and a key air base there, also the city of Rutba, which is about an hour's drive to the borders of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Jordanian forces say militants took the only legal border crossing between Jordan and Iraq, after the Iraqi security forces fled. Iraq's military denies suffering huge losses. An army spokesman claims troops have made a strategic withdrawal in some areas.

We're not sure if part of that strategy included leaving their uniforms and American-made hardware behind, which happened when Iraq's second largest city fell.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, has been traveling with the Secretary of State John Kerry, joins us now from Amman in Jordan.

Jim, what can you tell us about this trip today?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, I got to tell you, I have been coming to Iraq for a long time, since the invasion, like you.

And I have to say, I have never seen it more precarious. I was speaking to an American diplomat said to me today who said to me that having ISIS within 40 miles of the capital is the new normal. It's just an alarming prospect, that it's into that cauldron that Secretary Kerry landed in Iraq today.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With alarming momentum, today, ISIS militants captured two more crucial towns on Iraq's Syrian and Jordanian borders, fast becoming the regional threat Secretary Kerry has been warning of throughout his Mideast trip.

As Kerry landed in Iraq to meet with its embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, other leaders, he pledged U.S. diplomatic and military help that would be robust...

KERRY: The support will be intense, sustained.

SCIUTTO: ... and, if necessary, imminent.

KERRY: The president has moved the assets into place and has been gaining each day the assurances he needs with respect to potential targeting. And he has reserved the right to himself, as he should, to make a decision at any point in time if he deems it necessary strategically.

SCIUTTO: A political agreement pulling Iraq's bitterly divided groups into a truly representative government remains the central focus of administration strategy.

But Iraq's Sunnis, Shias and Kurds suffer divisions inside their groups, as well as between each other. And as U.S. and Iraqi officials talk, ISIS fighters are gaining more ground.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SCIUTTO: The atmosphere in Iraq now among Iraqi leaders, say U.S. officials, is one of extreme anxiety. They fear for the very survival of their country. They fear for their lives. Many of these leaders have lost friends and relatives in the fighting in the north. They have lost their homes as the country has lost a big chunk of its territory.

And so you have now three years after the Iraqis essentially bid U.S. forces farewell with eagerness, they are desperate for American help now, diplomatic help, but certainly military help as well.

And Secretary Kerry said as he arrived there that the U.S. is ready to deliver that help as long as Iraq does its part, which is delivering a political compromise, so that all the parties involved feel that this is a government of Iraq, not just of each of those individual sects, that it's something that they can find for and fight behind.

BERMAN: Well, we have big news, I think, from one of those individual sects.

Our Christiane Amanpour had an exclusive interview with the Iraqi Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani. And it sounded an awful lot like he was finished with Iraq. He was ready to break away. This Kurdish leader said, "We cannot remain hostages for the unknown." He said, "The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future, and the decision of the people is what we're going to uphold."

Jim, if the Kurds break away, that has got to be a crushing blow for the cohesion of this very fragile country.

SCIUTTO: No question. The Kurds arguably -- that's the group that the U.S. has the best relationship going back 20 years. The no-fly zone to protect the Kurdish north allowed them to establish something of a state up there.

And now it is effectively functioning at its own state. And you will remember that, in the last several days, the Kurds made a land grab, in effect, taking advantage of the ISIS advantage to take over Kirkuk, which they have long desired.

So it's a real debilitating development, because if you can't get the Kurds on board, just imagine how much harder it is to get the Sunnis who have felt disaffected for years, since the invasion, and certainly not a great relationship with Maliki right now.

I think the U.S. is counting on, you might say, desperation as the best unifying force here, that these various parties feel they need help and they need to be together to save their country, but those comments from Barzani not a good -- not a good sign.

BERMAN: Desperation might be all they have left. Jim Sciutto for us in Amman in Jordan, thanks so much.

I want to talk now more about it this. I want to bring in Tommy Vietor. He was the spokesman for President Obama's National Security Council. He's now the founding partner of Fenway Strategies, a communications firm. Also joining us, William Kristol, who is the founder and editor of "The Weekly Standard."

Tommy, I want to start with you.


BERMAN: In the news, we just heard Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurds, essentially saying he's going to leave it up to the Kurdish people. If they want to break away from the rest of Iraq, he will support that.

The Kurds, the peshmerga, their fighting force have been one of the only groups actually serving effectively against ISIS. If the Kurds split away, isn't the political discussion essentially over? Isn't Iraq for all intents and purposes divided?

VIETOR: I agree with you, John, that it will be complicating, and it could be a problematic development. We will see if Barzani follows through on these threats.

This could be posturing ahead of what will be a number of political developments in the coming days. So, we will have to wait and see, but, yes, it would absolutely be a problem.

BERMAN: We have to wait and see. But if the 300 guys, the military personnel the U.S. is sending there right now, can they turn the tide if this is where it's headed?

VIETOR: I think what we need to remember is, this is going to be a long-term project. This is a region that was destroyed during the Iraq war, has become massively unstable over last couple years during the Arab spring.

You have a porous border over Syria that is allowing fighters to flow freely back and forth. So the president's view on this, I believe, is that this needs to be a long-term project of capacity-building, improving governance, development, and getting Iraq's military to stand up and fight for its own people.

BERMAN: Bill Kristol, does the U.S. have time now for a long-term project?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, the long-term project is what President Bush tried to do and made some mistakes doing and which could have been done, I believe, if we had left troops in Iraq, but especially if we had intervened to stop the Syrian civil war from getting out of control, as it did.

I don't know that, with a Syrian war now metastasizing into Iraq, with a possible independent or semi-independent Kurdistan -- Kurdistan is not a problem, independent, semi-independent, de facto independent. The problem is al Qaeda-istan, the ISIS- or ISIL-, depending on which acronym you like, controlled territory to the north and west of Iraq, and then Iran controls Shia south.

That is really a terrible security situation for the United States, a terrible geopolitical situation for the U.S. and its allies. Obviously, we have to have long-term plans and strategies. But I think there's a short-term -- there's a huge short-term crisis here which needs to be addressed.

BERMAN: You say it needs to be addressed. But it doesn't seem like the American people are terribly anxious to address it in any capacity more than they are right now.

I want to read you the latest results from a "New York Times"/CBS poll, which asks about President Obama's response to the crisis in Iraq. And you can see there, only 29 percent of those polled say they want to see the U.S. do more.

So, Bill, how do you convince the American people that the U.S. should be taking a greater role in Iraq when, clearly, clearly, they don't want it?

KRISTOL: I remember seeing polls like that, John, early in the '90s in the Balkans. No one wanted to get in. Bush and Baker didn't want to get in. Clinton and Christopher didn't want to get in.

We did the right thing finally after too many people died. We got in. We stabilized the situation. It's not going to be easy this time. It wasn't easy in the Balkans. We have let it go so far, and especially the Syrian civil war. We can debate. We should have left troops there is in 2011. I think that was a mistake by the administration.

But once the Syrian civil war got -- has gotten to the -- as out of control as it's gotten, it's harder to stabilize the situation. But letting ISIL dominate huge swathes of Iraq and Syria, letting Iran dominate the rest of -- or much of the rest of Iraq, the implications of that regionally and globally, as Secretary Kerry and others have said -- Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador, said, don't kid yourself. If there's an al Qaeda-istan in northwest and western Iraq, that's a threat to us, not just to the region.

That's a terror base. So, I don't think we can -- the public is ambivalent, as they always are. But I think we need some strong leadership here from the president.

BERMAN: The president has said, Tommy, that that is a threat to U.S. interests if ISIS does set up, which they have already, frankly, in Syria and western Iraq. It does and can and will threaten U.S. interests.

So, again, it just does beg the question, if it is a threat to U.S. interests, how can you change the situation there on the ground? Because, frankly, I don't see al-Qaim or Rutba or any of these Sunni cities that have fallen to these ISIS militants deciding they want to kick the Sunni militants out in favor of a Shiite government.

VIETOR: Yes, look, I agree with you and I agree with what Bill said.

I think you cannot allow an al Qaeda safe haven, because we saw on 9/11 what happens when you do so. That said, I don't believe that the American people support another U.S. troop presence in Iraq, even at a level like 10,000, which is what was discussed with respect to a residual force.

So, the answer is going to take some time. We all need to be a little bit patient here. It's going to require building up the Iraqi capacity to fight for themselves. Now, the president was clear he's moving assets into the region, carriers and such, and he left open the possibility of targeted airstrikes.

But it's not as easy to take an airstrike as just deciding to do so. You need great intelligence about where the ISIS leadership is, what their command-and-control sites look like, and you need to make sure you're minimizing any civilian casualties to make sure you don't turn that population against you.

BERMAN: Tommy Vietor, Bill Kristol, I appreciate you both being with us, a very complicating situation, not a lot of good decisions seeming possible right now.

Thanks, guys.


VIETOR: Thank you.

BERMAN: Coming up for us on THE LEAD, we're sure the commander in chief could debate the merits of Chipotle's guac for hours, though today's lunch run came with a side of serious talk, but about what?

And Cristiano Ronaldo, his perfect hair, his perfect abs and more perfect right cross giving Americans all the more reason to hate him last night. But fear not, friends. The deadlock is not a death blow for the U.S. side. Learn to embrace the tie. That's ahead.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can they do something here? It's Cristiano Ronaldo. Oh, it's a great cross. And it is an equalizer from Varela.


BERMAN: That hurt so much still.

Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper.

In the Sports Lead now, if not for Ronaldo's right foot and some other guy who wasn't Ronaldo's head, the U.S. men's soccer team would be through to the next round of the World Cup.

And as a sign of the times, it may be a few points in soccer's constant battle for U.S. popularity. The match did huge numbers, 18.2 million people tuned in to watch the U.S. battle with Portugal for a 2-2 draw. That was just in English. Even more watched if you count those who watched on Univision, too. This made the most watched soccer game ever on American television. Still, there was groaning and unhappiness and angst about the result.

A whole lot of angst that they didn't win. But they didn't lose either. So, buck up, little campers. Playing to a standstill can be a beautiful thing.



BERMAN (voice-over): Everyone always likes winning. Winning gets all the attention.


BERMAN: All the cheers, all the glory. And ties, well, ties get this.

But fear not, fans. Do not disrespect the draw. It has a rich tradition.

Just ask Adrian. Sylvester Stallone didn't beat Apollo in the original "Rocky." It was a tie. And he still married Adrian, made five more "Rocky" films and "Rhinestone".


BERMAN: Seriously, what's create with tying? There's a lot of tying in "50 Shades of Grey" and that book sold like crazy. You know what they say. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you tie the game or how about go out there and tie one for the Gipper, or my favorite, "Winning isn't everything" because you know, you can tie.

Who didn't love the recount after the sort of tie in the 2000 election?

AL GORE (D), THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As for what I'll do next, I don't know the answer to that one yet.

BERMAN: Well, OK, not everyone loves ties quite as much, but it's not an awful thing either. After all the pain last night, you know one way the U.S. can move on in the World Cup? Tie Germany. If it's so awful, why would we want to do it again?

Pay no attention to the headlines that say a tie is like kissing your sister. Remember, Luke and Leia kissed in "Empire Strikes Back" and the rebels still blew up the Death Star. And it had nothing to do with goal differential.


BERMAN: So what does the U.S. need to do on Thursday against Germany to live to play another day?

In Rio, hopefully you recovered from last night's game, I want to bring my friend and the co-host of CNN's "NEW DAY", Chris Cuomo. And, Chris, you know, I have watched a lot of soccer over the years

and I have to say, that was the single best game I have ever seen the U.S. national team play. And I think it's important to note for fans out there despondent over the fact there was an awful last second goal, the U.S. team, things are still looking good for them.

CHRIS CUOMO, CO-HOST, CNN'S "NEW DAY": Absolutely. You're dead on. You killed me, J.B., with it was about the goal differential in that piece you just did. That was hilarious.

So, look, you're right. I got yelled at by football fanatics down there. They say you call it a tie during the course of the match and a draw if the outcome is the same score.

So, they played to a draw last night. A draw is OK because of the way the World Cup works. And simply stated, if they tie Germany as you said, they move on. If they win -- if they beat Germany, obviously, they do.

Now, if they lose, it becomes complicated. It's about what happens between Ghana and Portugal, and it could come down according to the rules to a coin flip by a FIFA official. But really, the goal of last night, excuse the pun, for the players was to feel that they have the confidence to take on the best. And that's what they say Ronaldo is, the best in the world. They went down early, looked terrible and they found a way to come back.

And they believe that in the interviews they did after the match they were OK with the draw and know where they are and it was a mistake but they're OK with it and so were the fans. Take a listen in the aftermath once all the bleeps stopped how fans felt about last night.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're ready for sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're still OK. Group of death, we survive.

CUOMO: Even after that goal in the last seconds, do you believe that you can win?

CROWD: We believe that we can win. We believe that we will win. We believe that we will win. We believe that we will win. We believe that we will win. USA! USA!


CUOMO: I'm still hopping, J.B. It was infectious. It's like when you sing on the set in the mornings. You know, you say you think it was the best game you've ever seen the U.S. play. I've heard that from a lot of people who know the sport much better than I do, you among them. But you do have to remember, in the very first World Cup ever, 1930, they finished third. In 2002, they made it to the quarters. They finished eighth.

So, they have a little way to go to make the best finish. And imagine this. Imagine if they get past Germany and they get out of this death group, the next match could be against Russia. Imagine the metaphorical value, with everything going on in the world, if they wind up playing Russia.

BERMAN: And that's the thing, Chris. You know, we saw jumping up and down in that piece of tape. You know, you love all sports, but I don't think you're the biggest soccer fan. From what it looks like to me, you have caught a bad case, or good case of soccer fever. And that's because the World Cup is truly an amazing wonderful event that brings nations together.

CUOMO: You are spot on. You told me that when I was coming down here, kind of get me ready for what the word cup is like. For me that's all that matters at this point and what's going on around us, to see countless countries down here supporting one another, the camaraderie is good, the competition is sport and nothing more. There's a collaborative play. So many U.S. young people other than Brazil, the U.S. was the next highest ticket total sold for the World Cup, so many Americans mixing with other countries.

It's really a hopeful environment. Of course, Brazil has its problems, the protests, this infrastructure here is a real problem. But you got to look at the good and bad, and there's a lot of good going on down here.

BERMAN: That's right. It brings people together. So, let's go out and beat the stuffing out of Germany.

Chris Cuomo in Rio, great to see you. Thank you so much.

Coming up for us on THE LEAD, veterans needing medical help being treated in hospitals with missing or unsterile equipment, oh, and bacteria infested water, as well. Drew Griffin, so far out in front of the story, brings us the details of a shocking new V.A. report.

And Joe Biden bragging about the lack of zeros at the end of his bank balance? Is that a dig at someone else who might be sort of maybe thinking about running in 2016? That's our politics lead, coming up.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

In the national lead, unsterilized medical equipment, chronic staffing shortages, bacteria in the drinking water. That's just a sampling of what it's like inside some of our V.A. hospitals. That's according to a new report based on the stories of dozen of whistleblowers working inside these very facilities.

Our senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin has been bringing national attention to the scandal for months now. He joins me from Atlanta.

Drew, this is all according to a letter from the Office of the Special Counsel to the White House. Some of the allegations here are shocking. What have you learned from this report?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: This is the group of prosecutors that work for the government protecting whistleblowers and investigating their complaints. What the Office of Special Counsel is saying to the president is, look, the V.A. has been ignoring these complaints for years. And, John, the OSC is saying to the White House, do something.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): Among the worst documented of the V.A. horror stories comes from Brockton, Massachusetts, where two veterans languished inside a psychiatric facility for years without treatment. One of them was there for eight years after he was admitted before he got his first psychiatric evaluation. Citing a troubling pattern, the letter from the Office of Special Counsel to President Obama says, "Veterans' health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk" because the V.A. refuses to admit that problems reported by whistleblowers could impact the health of patients.