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New Allegation that Phoenix V.A. Covering Up Number of Veterans who Died while on Waiting List; Crisis in Iraq: The Problem of Kurdistan; Verdicts for Phone-Hacking Trial Out Today

Aired June 24, 2014 - 07:00   ET


ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And there's now a new one to add to the mix. The IRS commissioner told the committee last night the treasury inspector general for tax administration has already launched an investigation into the matter of these missing e-mails and he'll be providing an independent review. Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Athena, thank you so very much.

There is another heated hearing last night on Capitol Hill that we have to tell you about, this one over the V.A. CNN has startling new claims into the investigation into that agency. Drew griffin and his team broke this story. Now there's another alleged cover-up at the Phoenix V.A. hospital, this time an attempt to hide just how many veterans may have died while waiting for medical care. A key whistleblower speaking out exclusively to Drew, and Drew Griffin is joining us from the CNN Center in Atlanta with details. I mean, you hear this, Drew, people at home are going to be shaking their heads, saying how could they be more?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I shake my head almost every day. The new allegation, Kate, coming from the actual keeper of the secret list in Phoenix, a scheduling clerk, who says right now at Phoenix in the midst of all these investigations someone is trying to hide the exact number of veterans who died on the waiting list by changing them in the record from being dead to alive.


GRIFFIN: Pauline DeWenter, a scheduling clerk at the Phoenix V.A., is coming forward because she believes she knows something that is frankly unthinkable. She says someone now is trying to hide the number of U.S. veterans who died here waiting for care. In seven cases so far where she has determined a veteran on a waiting list was in fact deceased, she says someone above her has changed the record back, the veteran suddenly listed as alive.

Somebody is going on that electronic wait list, and where people are identified as being dead, somebody is changing that and saying no, they are not dead.


GRIFFIN: To hide the fact that people died on that list?

DEWENTER: That's my belief.

GRIFFIN: What would be any other purpose?

DEWENTER: There wouldn't be any other purpose.

GRIFFIN: Why? DeWenter says the number of dead in this V.A. wait list scandal may be even bigger than first reported, and someone, she says, is trying to cover up the record.

And that has been happening fairly recently?


GRIFFIN: That is a cover-up?


GRIFFIN: Did you feel that the investigators are on to that?


GRIFFIN: Because you told them?

DEWENTER: I have surrendered evidence, yes.

GRIFFIN: If there ever was a doubt there was a secret waiting list at the Phoenix V.A., DeWenter is here to lay those doubts to rest. There simply were not enough doctors, not enough appointments to handle new patients, backlogged patients, and, yes, very sick patients. DeWenter, a scheduling clerk, was making life and death decisions.

DEWENTER: And that really overtook even the wait list because now I have a consult where veterans are very sick so I have to ease up on the -- on the wait list, and it sounds so wrong to say, but -- and work these schedule appointments so at least I felt the sickest of the sick were being treated.

GRIFFIN: And you're making basically those triage decisions?



GRIFFIN: Kate, we did ask the V.A. for a specific response to the allegations Pauline DeWenter is coming forward making. They responded with a rather bland and generic response. You can read it on screen, basically saying that we all need to work together to end some of these systemic problems that are unacceptable, but they would not respond directly to this new allegation that there is a current cover- up at the Phoenix V.A.

BOLDUAN: That's clearly an up acceptable response to what we're hearing from Pauline DeWenter. When you see Pauline there laying out what she was doing, what she was forced to do, what she had to live through really, she not only seems distraught about that, but she also seems scared about her future, Drew. What does her future hold?

GRIFFIN: She is very scared, Kate. I've been talking with this woman for months now. She wanted us to meet her in very specific hiding places. She was scared to death to come forward. She still is very nervous. The reason she is coming forward is because she doesn't want this current investigation to be swept under the rug. She really feels by making this public she is doing something to make the V.A. there in Phoenix and elsewhere accountable.

She's relied mostly on her husband to get through this. He tells me she's cried almost every night. They are finally coming to the end of this, they feel, but right now she feels her career with the V.A. is jeopardy.

BOLDUAN: And last night we heard Congressman Jeff Miller, the chairman of the key committee there. He said it's impossible to solve these problems by whitewashing them or denying that they exist. That seems obvious, Drew, but it does make me wonder to think that maybe we're to the point -- even to that point yet where they have stopped denying and stop whitewashing the problems of the V.A.

GRIFFIN: I listened to some of these hearings. Last night there was a hearing in which a V.A. official was talking about the good quality health care at the V.A. Perhaps that is true in some cases, but it's, like you said, Kate, you really have to realize this is a huge systemic problem at V.A.'s across the country, and it's going to take more than little surgical operations to fix it, if I could use that metaphor. You really have to sweep through the entire organization and change a culture that's been in existence for years.

BOLDUAN: And on top of your reporting, the special counsel's office has sent a scathing letter to the White House, a report of their own. What's the impact of that report on top of this?

GRIFFIN: That was really stunning to me because the Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistleblowers and also investigates their allegations, came up with this laundry list of huge problems across the country, specific problems where the V.A. has been notified, known about problems, and done nothing to correct them. Let me give you just one example, Kate. There was a veteran with severe mental illness who was checked into a V.A. psychiatric facility in 2003. That veteran was not evaluated by a psychiatrist until 2011, eight years later --

BOLDUAN: Unbelievable.

GRIFFIN: -- before this person was seen by the specialist that he should have seen immediately.

BOLDUAN: Drew, do you think you, since you've been leading the reporting and doing more than really what we've seen some investigators on Capitol Hill even doing, do you think you've got a sense yet of just how far this goes?

GRIFFIN: I real don't because I don't have complete access to all the government records we would like to see. So much of this is hid behind patient rights and HIPAA rules, I don't think I have it. That's why every day we see another report coming out with even more startling allegations.

BOLDUAN: Thanks to the courage and strength of people like Pauline DeWenter and also Dr. Samuel Foote who I know you spoke with earlier who first brought these allegations to you to uncover this. Thanks to their courage that we're at least beginning to hear these stories and hopefully the government can now set this straight. It's going to take a long time. Drew, thank you for your reporting, as always. Great work.

GRIFFIN: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Thanks. Michaela?

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: All right, seven minutes after the hour. Let's give you a look at your headlines. A hearing will be held today for the House Homeland Security committee to discuss children coming to the U.S. without their parents. More than 50,000 children have crossed the border from Mexico alone since October. The U.S. says it doesn't have resources to care for all of those children. Vice president Joe Biden met with leaders in Central America recently to discuss this ongoing issue.

Breaking overnight, two people were killed in a deadly shooting in Miami. Several other people were wounded. Police believe as many as six people were shot at an apartment complex. So far officials say there are no suspects and no motive any of that shooting but that an investigation continues.

Voters heading to the polls today to decide primary races in seven states, including Mississippi where incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran and Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel hope the second time is the charm. Both failed to get 50 percent of the vote earlier this month, triggering today's primary runoff.

The final stockpile of Syria's declared chemical weapons have been handed over to a United Nations task force. It's the first time a country's entire chemical arsenal has been removed from its borders. The most dangerous material is set to be destroyed aboard a U.S. ship at sea. This handover was part of a deal that was reached last fall under threat of U.S. airstrikes, but questions still linger about whether or not Syria is still hiding undeclared poison gasses that are not classified as chemical weapons.

A federal court has released a heavily redacted 41-page government memo outlining the legal justification for a drone strike in 2011 that called Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen. Awlaki was linked to an Al Qaeda affiliate that had mounted a series of terrorist plots against the U.S., including the failed shoe bombing plot on Christmas Day in 2009.

I have to show you these pictures. OK, those are some smoking shoes. What happened? Let me give you the back story. A bolt of lightning literally knocked a guy in Atlanta out of his boots. Sean O'Connor was raking leaves in his backyard when lightning struck his right foot. Seconds later he woke up on the ground, thought he had been hit by a tree. Then he realized he was barefoot and saw his boots next to him smoking, like that. His wife took him to the hospital. I'm sure she had a few things to say to him where he was treated for an irregularity heartbeat. He was kept overnight. But he is alive, he is grateful to be alive, and he did say, some reports are saying that he said he is going to look at the weather a little askance the next time he's outside.

BOLDUAN: That's an advertisement for those shoes though.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The boots were smoking.

BOLDUAN: Smoking boots.

BERMAN: Gets struck by lightning but will still work.

PEREIRA: Goods advertisement for the boots.

BOLDUAN: Unbelievable, yes.

BERMAN: Next up for us on NEW DAY, Secretary of State John Kerry in Iraq. He says Iraqi unity is necessary to stop ISIS militants, but is that even possible at this point? CNN's interview with the secretary of state in Iraq, that's just ahead.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. ISIS militants march to Baghdad, becoming more of a threat as they battle for control over the nation's keel oil refinery in the north, this as we learn this from the Iraqi government. They claim that 19 militants have been killed by Iraqi airstrikes near that oil complex. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Iraq meeting with government officials, promising help if that country can come together to form a new government. That might be a tall task. CNN's Jim Sciutto spoke with the secretary and asked him about the Kurdish leader who said they are facing a new reality and a new Iraq. He asked what hard evidence Kerry has seen of a willingness to compromise among Iraq's leaders.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think what I have found here is, first of all, the signature fact that 14 million Iraqis went out and voted. A very significant percentage of the population chose democracy. And there is a constitutional process which we in our strategic framework agreement are pledged to be supportive of, and we are.

That constitutional process is actually playing out right now. The fact is that even President Barzani today, who is opposed to the prime minister, made it clear that he wants to participate in the process, that he wants to help choose the next government. And other leaders that I met with were all engaged and energized and ready to go to bat for a new governance.

So while he says there's a new reality, the new reality is they're under attack from ISIL and they've realized that they cannot continue with this sectarian division. So part of the new reality is yet to be fully defined as they form this new government.


BERMAN: Want to bring in Phil Mudd. He's the counterterrorism analyst for CNN and a former deputy director of the CIA counterterrorism center.

Phil, you know, we heard Secretary of State John Kerry there trying to dance around issue of the Kurds in the north. And we toss around a lot of terms here, and it can get complicated. You have the Kurds in the north. You have the Shia who run the government right now. You have the Sunni militants.

But the Kurds in the north right now -- whatever the Secretary of State John Kerry says, they are using language that I've never heard before, saying they're through with this fighting, and they may very well want out. This is hugely significant.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think it is. We keep talking about the Sunnis and the Shia. Let's go to the north of Iraq, the upper, let's say, 20 percent. The Kurds for years have owned that territory. They owned it under Saddam because the U.S. was patrolling the airspace above Kurdistan and keeping Saddam's forces out. So at that time the Kurds create their own political environment, their own economy.

Let's cut to the chase. What's the first thing they do when instability hits Iraq? In an economy, you want some money? Go take over the oil-rich area, which is called Kirkuk. Now they've got politics, economics, oil, and what they are signaling is, game on. We're going to start to increase efforts of autonomy and separation, regardless what have happens in Baghdad.

BERMAN: And they have been a source of stability over the years in Iraq, and if you remove one of the very few forces of stability, it creates even more chaos than if they leave. As you say, they may be leaving with parting gifts, the oil-rich region of Kirkuk.

MUDD: They've created stability, but let's be clear. This has been autonomous for years. I dealt with the Kurds when I was at the White House ten years before Saddam fell. When they walked into my of course, they talked about their ambitions, their goals for Kurdistan. During the Saddam era, they're extremely prosperous, very economically prosperous when the U.S., again, was keeping Iraqi forces out. So this game is on already. The horse is out of the barn.

BERMAN: Horse is out of the barn. They've always said they want out, but for them to seize on this opportunity just complicates things for the United States right now, which is trying to negotiate what is already an almost impossible situation.

MUDD: Well, think about yourself sitting in Baghdad. You've got Kerry, the secretary, pressuring Maliki to bring together a sort of coalition. You've got the tribal elders in places like Anbar aligned with ISIS. They don't want to show up at the table. You've got the Kurds, effectively. It's not signaling. They're as much as telling us that they're moving out of coalition, signaling that they don't want to show up at the table.

So we can press Maliki all we want, but to try to bring the Sunni tribesmen in who don't trust him because he's a Shia-backed by Iran and the Kurds, say, sorry, we've already got what we want. I think this is a game that's going to be very tough to win

BERMAN: Well, you say the horse is out of barn here. You know, United States, Secretary Kerry talks about keeping this nation together, but is it -- is it over? Is this a done deal, Phil?

MUDD: I don't think it's over yet, but I think the script is a much different place than it was even 30 days ago. And that's largely, not just because what's happening with ISIS militants. They can take geography, but it's very easy with this military force if they ever get a backbone to shift the Iraqi forces against ISIS and take some of that geography back.

What you can't put back together is what we're talking about today, and that's the Kurds saying over the course of 30 days we're further along in autonomy than we were a month ago; we're not going to give it up.

BERMAN: You say it may be easy to take some of this geography back. But what about the Sunni towns that have now fallen to ISIS and perhaps their Iraqi Sunni allies? Why on earth would they ever go back to a Shia-led Iraq?

MUDD: If you look at how these extremists have operated -- I watched them for about 25 years at CI. We have examples in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen. We're trying to cut this in very small slices, day to day. What happened Tuesday? What's happening Wednesday?

You've got to cut this in months or years slices, and here's why. When the government doesn't provide effective security in some of these Sunni towns, what do you say as a Sunni villager when militants move in and say, we'll make the town secure; provide justice.

You might say, we don't like these militants, but they are better than the government was. It's going to take months or years for the militants to start to institute a kind of religious law that the villagers reject. This will take time for the villagers to say we don't like Maliki. We like the initial security ISIS provided. Months, a year down the road, they're gonna start to say, well, maybe not so much.

BERMAN: You're talking about a time frame here that's years, maybe even a decade, and you're talking about the biggest hope for the U.S. and its allies in the region maybe being ISIS, the terrorists, overplaying their hand here over a decade. That's sobering. That's bleak.

MUDD: The issue here -- we've been talking about morale and the Iraqi security forces. I think that is important. When you're on the ISIS side, you're motivated by a belief that you're ordained by God to take territory, when you're on the military side, you're taking a pay check with maybe a grain of Iraqi nationalism.

You tell me who wins that fight, so the real game to me mind is not banking on whether the security forces are going to win. It's banking on the extremists doing the same thing they did in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Algeria, and that is over time, regardless of what they say about being inclusive, them instituting a kind of law where they are cutting people's hands off, beheading people, deciding who is a good Muslim, bad Muslim. Over time that doesn't work.

BERMAN: Are the 300 U.S. troops on the ground going to make a difference one way or the other?

MUDD: I don't think so, but long term they are critically important. Look, I'm not sure if you're in Boston you care a lot about what's going on in Baghdad. I do because I did it for a living.

What you care about is whether that fight metastasizes. It is in Syria, whether it metastasizes to the point where an Iraqi ISIS leader in Mosul starts to say the real target is in London or Paris or New York or Boston. Those 300 folks over time can get a picture of the battlefield, a picture of the militants, so if the battle starts to change, they know where we have to strike.

BERMAN: That happens if they get a chance to take a breath. That's what the U.S. --


BERMAN: Phil Mudd, great to have you here with us.

MUDD: Thank you.

BERMAN: Really appreciate it.


BOLDUAN: Thanks, John.

Coming up next on NEW DAY, former NFL star Aaron Hernandez back in court today just days after he was transported to a Massachusetts hospital. Details on what put him in the hospital and a look inside his life in prison.

And then on inside politics, first lady Michelle Obama talking about the possibility of a woman in the White House. What is she saying about it? That's ahead.


PEREIRA: Welcome back to NEW DAY.

Breaking this morning, the former tabloid editor of "The Sun" and the "News of the World" has been found not guilty of conspiring to hack into the phones of public and private figures. However, her co- defendant, Andy Coulson, has been found guilty. The two were accused of hacking into phones to read private messages of politicians, celebrities and even crime victims. Their trial was one of the longest and the most expensive in British history.

A new report has found that crucial missteps but no evidence of political interference in the Jerry Sandusky investigation. It took investigators nearly three years to arrest the former Penn State assistant football coach. He's now serving 30 to 60 years on 45 counts of child sex abuse. The report was ordered by the state attorney general who suggested her predecessor, now Governor Tom Corbett, slowed the probe for political reasons.

You might recall the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. She has been reunited with her family. Mariam Yahia Ibrahim was back -- is back with her husband in a safe house Monday night after she was freed by an appeals court. The 27-year-old gave birth to a daughter in prison last month. Her sentence had drawn condemnation from around the world.

Alaskans are back home after a tsunami warning was issued that. That warning came after a powerful, actually a huge 7.9 earthquake struck the Aleutian Islands Monday. The National Tsunami Warning Center canceled its advisory after a few hours; 150 people on a dock island were temporarily evacuated to a shelter on higher ground for safety. So far, no reports of damage, a few frayed nerves possibly.

Here's a question for you. Does Queen Elizabeth have what it takes to sit on the iron throne? This morning, the queen and Prince Philip dropped by the "Game of Thrones" set in Belfast. The royals were given a brief overview of the hit series and the impact its had on northern Ireland. Before they left, the two were presented with a miniature version of the infamous iron throne, which appears in the series.


PEREIRA: This is not -- this is not telling the tales out of school. My better half has just started to watch "Game of Thrones". He's decided he's gonna answer all my questions.

BOLDUAN: And you'll see him in a year.

PEREIRA: Yeah, exactly. He said he's gonna answer all my questions aye or nay. And I'm like, really?

BOLDUAN: Like he needed more --

PEREIRA: I know. Because he's already quirky.

BERMAN: You know, Queen Elizabeth loves to pillage, though, so she would, I think, fit very nicely in the "Game of Thrones" set.

PEREIRA: But she does it with a lovely hat.


BOLDUAN: Let's go to Washington and John King.

John, do you like "Game of Thrones"?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, I haven't caught up on "Game of Thrones", but I did have the question does her better half do the right thing? You know, does he give the proper bow when they queen --


PEREIRA: Thank you, nicely done.

KING: I just set up a lot of domestic issues there.

Let's get straight to inside politics this morning, a busy morning. With me to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of the "Associated Press", Ron Fournier of "National Journal".

Let's start with two separate hearings late last night on Capitol Hill. Republicans see both an opportunity to expose what they believe as major management and policy weaknesses, and, let's be honest, it's an election year. The Republicans see this as part of their effort to gin up turnout in November.

Let's start with the IRS scandal. Remember, just last week, the administration tells Congress the woman at the center of the question, did the IRS unfairly target the tea party and its tax-exempt status, her e-mails disappeared from a key period.

Now, the White House says the Treasury Department says this was just the computers crashing. The head of the IRS was in the witness chair, and he was asked, "Did you happen to tip off the White House to this before you told Congress the e-mails went poof?"


REP. DARRELL ISSA, R-CA: Did you cause someone to find out at the White House, at Treasury or your I.G.?

JOHN KOSKINEN, IRS COMMISSIONER: I did not. If you have any evidence of that, I'd be happy to see it.

ISSA: I asked a question.

KOSKINEN: And I answered it.

ISSA: You did not cause anyone to find out?

KOSKINEN: I absolutely didn't.


KING: The -- the disdain, the distrust -- look, there's some serious policy questions here. The e-mails just simply disappeared, and then there's the politics of this. Does the administration realize how far back on their heels they are on this one?

JULIE PACE, "THE ASSOCIATE PRESS": It's a bit strange because publicly they are saying the same thing that they have said about the IRS issue from the beginning, that this is nothing more than Republicans playing politics.

But I think to most Americans, they look at this and they say, not only does this e-mail issue seem really strange, but it also seems like the IRS just isn't being very apologetic. They're not -- the tone seems a little bit off if these are e-mails that just simply disappeared. You might imagine that someone might say, hey, we're real sorry about that.

So, I mean, the combination of both the politics and the -- and the policy is gonna cause a lot of questions.

RON FOURNIER, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": I mean, look, just now, with that clip, he said, "I'm innocent."