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Militants Battle for Iraq's Biggest Refinery; John Kerry Wrapped Up Talks with Iraqi Government; Kerry Pushing Iraq to Form New Government; House Investigates Lost IRS E-mails; Candidates Bring in Heavy Hitters

Aired June 24, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the power of persuasion. The secretary of state, John Kerry, wrapping up his mission to Iraq, saying words are cheap, as the U.S. waits for concrete action from Iraq's government.

Also right now, a veteran Republican senator is fighting for his political life. It's election day. Senator Thad Cochran facing a tough challenge from Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel. We'll go live to Mississippi for the latest on that race.

And right now, shocking new revelations uncovered by CNN that a V.A. hospital may have changed or altered patient records to hide just how many veterans died simply waiting for care.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We start in Iraq, where the battle in Iraq has now shifted back to the fight over Iraq's oil. Right now, ISIS insurgents are fighting Iraqi forces for control over the -- over the country's largest oil refinery. This is a vital facility, it's just 130 miles from Baghdad. It produces about a third of the country's entire oil output.

Our Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson is joining us from Baghdad. And, Nic, we're hearing conflicting reports on who's actually in control of this hugely important refinery. What do you know?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, without this refinery online, the country is getting short of cooking gas. The prices are going up -- have gone up five fold, we're told, in some cities. Fuel for cars, there are lines three or four hours at some of the gas stations now. People just don't have the gas because this refinery is continually being fought over.

Just last night, we were being told by three independent sources that ISIS had, in fact, taken control of the refinery. This is a large facility. A 35-mile perimeter fence around it. Four different refinery complexes within it. But, today, the government -- the Army spokesman said, once again, that the military was fighting for control of it, indeed had control over parts of it.

We're also hearing the same narrative about Tal Afar, that important air base and town in the north of the country. That, again, not clear who controls it, fighting continuing there. The government also saying, today, that it had taken control of a border-crossing point into Syria and one that goes into Jordan -- links Iraq to Jordan. This, because ISIS militants have posted pictures online, indicating that they have taken control of it.

Again, impossible for us to get to these locations and determine exactly who's in control. It paints a very fluid picture here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A very brutal picture, I must say indeed. And critically important, if Iraq's to continue to export oil as well. It's a major oil exporting country.

As you also know, Nic, there was a statement from the Iraqi military, insisting that all of the towns between Baghdad and Samarra, they are now under control of Iraqi state forces. I guess the question is, A, does the Iraqi military, the public statements they put out, do they have a whole lot of credibility? Are they backed up by the facts? Are you getting a sense, if they are true, that the Iraqi military is beginning to step up and do -- and flex their military muscle?

ROBERTSON: You know, what they've said is they're doing these tactical withdrawals and then retrenching and refocussing on other areas. And that area we're talking about, the Diyala Province just north of Baghdad, Samarra down to Baghdad, about an hour and a half straight to Samarra. This is, essentially, becoming a buffer zone for the military that they want to keep ISIS out of.

The west of the city, it's a little different. The ISIS forces are much closer to Baghdad. But the hard bit, again, is for us to get independent information. We try to drive today to the western limits of Baghdad. It's impossible for us to get there. It's impossible to get out and get that independent confirmation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, be careful over there in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

Let's get to the political side of what's going on in Iraq. The secretary of state, John Kerry, has now wrapped up talks with the Iraqi government. He's trying to cobble together a compromise of sorts. He spoke with our own Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto about the White House's message, the prospects of a new unity government in Iraq.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: In your time here, have you seen any hard evidence of any of the parties involved willing to make compromises? What hard concessions have any of the sides offered to each other to bring about this political compromise that you and the administration say is necessary?

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, to - it's the question and I welcome it because I think what I have found here is, first of all, the significant 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. 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. And so, that's the critical thing now. That's the measurement, Jim, that is so key now. And, you know, I think we have to let that organic process work out a little bit. Words are cheap.


BLITZER: Jim also pressed Secretary Kerry on his comments about strategy and the American response.


SCIUTTO: You said sustained and intense would be -- U.S. military action would be sustained and intense if the president decides to go forward. I wonder if you could better define the time frame but also the measure of success of military action. Is it ISIS destroyed, ISIS retreating? Is it --

KERRY: Well, --

SCIUTTO: -- partial retreat?

KERRY: -- that's precisely the strategy that needs to be defined as we go forward. What I said would be -- intense would be the support to the government of Iraq and our efforts to try to help build the -- rebuild the military structure as well as, hopefully, support a new unity government.


BLITZER: We're going to have more of Jim's conversation with Secretary Kerry later this hour. Stand by for that. While the U.S. considers its political options, it's also considering some military options. The White House saying it has not yet made a decision on whether to use air strikes but, so far, the U.S. military says its drones have not been part of any attacks anywhere inside Iraq.

Barbara Starr is our Pentagon Correspondent. She's been following all of these developments. So, what are they saying so far about the possibility of air strikes, that air option going forward?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Still on the table, Wolf, still the president making no decision. And many U.S. military officials saying that air strikes, basically, will not solve the political crisis inside of Iraq. It is not going to destroy ISIS. It's not going to make the Iraqi military any stronger. It's not really going to achieve much.

So, why is it still on the table? Well, there's three basic scenarios that would make air strikes come about, at this point. First and foremost, if those U.S. military advisers going into Iraq came under enemy fire, you can bet warplanes will roll in and protect them until they can be gotten out of that.

The other two strategic issues. If ISIS were to make a run for Baghdad, the U.S. is not going to stand by and let Baghdad fall. And there are questions, no answers yet, about whether the Iraqi military would be strong enough to defend all of Baghdad, if that scenario were to happen.

And then there is the Jordanian border to the west. ISIS within miles of the Jordanian border, a lot of concern that they could try and cross into Jordan. Not likely that the U.S. or even Israel is going to let that happen.

So, you see this scenario building where there could be the potential for air strikes. If that decision was made, right now, today, there are seven U.S. Navy warships in the Persian Gulf, about 1,000 Marines, and also dozens and dozens of warplanes in the region. U.S. officials saying it's not -- no decision to do it but openly acknowledging they are still collecting, of course, that crucial targeting intelligence on ISIS. And they will be ready if this were to come to that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: When you speak with Pentagon planners and you ask the question, what's the downside of launching air strikes, either from jet fighters or from drones, what do they say?

STARR: Well, it's a couple of things. First of all, it's really one of the crucial questions that you're pointing to right now. If the U.S. were to launch air strikes, it may be perceived in the region as being pro-Shia, pro on the side of the Maliki government, and drive the Sunnis even closer into the Isil camp. That's a big concern, that the U.S. would seem to be taking sectarian sides in all of this.

But, also, fundamentally, this is a political dispute, if you will. The violence is brutal but behind all of it is basically the U.S. feeling that the Maliki government simply has not included the Sunnis. They have been driven into essentially the Isil camp already. That's how Isil is making so much progress in taking over territory. Bombs don't solve that. It's never, in the last 13 years, basically brought an end to militant ideology. It is a political issue, not an issue for bombs on target, if you will -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much. Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon.

It's a bitter race that sometimes waded into the Mississippi mud. Now, it's time for voters to decide again. We'll profile the runoff between the Tea Party challenger and a six-term Republican senator.

Plus, an archivist getting grilled up on Capitol Hill, saying the IRS did not follow the law when they didn't come clean about losing thousands of missing e-mails tied to an ongoing investigation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: A top White House lawyer and archivist from the national archives, they were grilled up on Capitol Hill today about those controversial missing IRS e-mails. This marks the second day of heated exchanges from Representative Darrell Issa and his committee. They are demanding answers about how the tax agency could have lost thousands of e-mails tied to an investigation that they had targeted specific groups like the Tea Party. Congressman Tim Walberg from Michigan asked if the IRS broke the law by not reporting the alleged computer crash.


REP. TIM WALBERG (R), MICHIGAN: Is it fair to say the IRS broke the Federal Records Act?

DAVID FERRIERO, ARCHIVIST, U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION: They are required -- any agency is required to notify us when they realize they have a problem that could be destruction or disposal, unauthorized disposal.

WALBERG: But they didn't do that?

FERRIERO: That's right.

WALBERG: Did they break the law?

FERRIERO: I'm not a lawyer.

WALBERG: But you administer -- you administer the Federal Records Act?


WALBERG: If they didn't follow it, can we safely assume they broke the law?

FERRIERO: They did not follow the law.


BLITZER: Strong words. Let's bring in our senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, who's joining us.

That's a pretty powerful statement from that witness testifying on behalf of the National Archives.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. You know, it is a big deal because, you know, Democrats on the committee and in general in Congress I think had made a lot of progress at sort of rebutting the initial charge that Tea Party groups were uniquely targeted by the IRS as opposed to a broader look at groups that were politically active. And now this entire question, response to the information request and what happened to the e-mails has given new life, really put fuel on what had been a flickering fire.

And I think we're now guaranteed that this issue -- the committee has enough grist to keep this issue going, to mix metaphors, to keep this issue going all the way at least through the election.

BLITZER: Yes, because you know you and I have been in Washington for long enough to know that there's oftentimes there's an alleged crime, but then the cover-up could even -- become even worse -


BLITZER: Certainly politically and maybe even criminally. Is that what we're seeing now, the potential of an alleged cover-up that could be a disaster?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Well, we don't - we don't know -- the IRS explanation, of course, is that there was a computer crash and that sort of explains this. We don't have any evidence yet to the contrary. But what we do have is a lot of kind of suspicious questions that, as I said, are going to provide fuel to keep this story in the headlines at a time when it seemed to really have been pushed back and receded. If nothing else, what this is going to do is to provide a lot of kind of energy to mobilize the Republican base through the election and i think that the investigation of the response will increasingly supplant, as you suggest, the investigation of the underlying allegation for the next several months.

BLITZER: And you can see the anger there when they -


BLITZER: When he grill -- like Darrell Issa grilling John Koskinen, the commissioner of the IRS, and basically accusing this guy, who's been around Washington for a long time in all sorts of positions, of lying, that's pretty powerful stuff.

BROWNSTEIN: And, look, this is - well, first of all, Issa has had a very controversial relationship, Representative Issa, with the administration in general. But this is really an indication, Wolf, of why these kinds of investigations are such a wild card for politicians because they often kind of evolve and even mutate very far from the original target. In this case we're talking about now the response rather than the underlying allegation is the center.

We were talking about Governor Christie, where an investigation into bridge closing lanes has now mutated again into something very different. We saw that, of course, most famously with Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky investigation which brought up something completely unrelated. That is the real risk to the politicians is these are wildcards and no one can really be sure where they're going to go or what you are going to eventually find.

BLITZER: Especially if a special counsel -


BLITZER: Is brought in. Because once that door opens -


BLITZER: You never know where it's going to lead.

BROWNSTEIN: That's absolutely right. And, you know, I think that these kind of open-ended investigations were a real kind of part of our politics in the late '90s. The Obama first term largely avoided them. But here we are in the second term, we're seeing this kind of, you know, kind of scandal de jure and the allegation of scandal becoming a systemic weapon.

BLITZER: Very quickly, the second Chris Christie bridge investigation is now going forward.


BLITZER: You read about the "The New York Times" today.


BLITZER: Is it a big deal, little deal? What do you make of it?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think on its own it would not be a big deal. But against the backdrop of the other allegations, it becomes a bigger deal in the sense that their - you know, the question is whether this shows, as did the first charges, of closing lanes, a by any means necessary attitude of kind of, I am going to get what I want no matter what obstacle stands in the way. People like an effective administrator. They don't like necessary someone who is skirting the law. And I think on its own this would be a policy dispute. But again, in the context of what's come before, it is more problematic for him.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, good to have you back here.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you. Good to be here.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

Still to come, we have an exclusive new report that you will see only here on CNN. Our investigation uncovered new allegations that a V.A. hospital may have changed or altered patient records to hide just how many veterans died simply waiting for care.

But up next, a six-term U.S. senator facing a tough Tea Party challenge today. We'll take a closer look at the Republican runoff in Mississippi. We'll highlight some other races you need to watch today.


BLITZER: Two political veterans are fighting for survival on a busy primary day here in America. We're highlighting some of the marquee matchups that you should be watching. Taking a closer look at what they mean for November, the midterms and, indeed, beyond.

In Mississippi, the six-term Republican Senator Thad Cochran facing a tough Tea Party challenge. Senate Senator Chris McDaniel edged out Cochran in the primary three weeks ago, but neither got the necessary 50 percent of the vote. That means the race has been bitter. They've got a runoff. It's nasty. It's expensive. Tons of cash coming into Mississippi from outside groups.

The other political veteran in the fight for his political life today is Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel of New York. Win or lose, Rangel says this will be his last campaign. He's facing State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who came within 1,100 votes of defeating Rangel two years ago.

Other races we're watching. The Republican Senate primary in Oklahoma. If the former State House Speaker T.W. Shannon wins, he would be poised to become the second African-American Republican senator. Shannon and Representative James Lankford lead a field of seven candidates. Voters are also going to the polls in Utah, Colorado, Maryland and South Carolina.

Let's take a closer look right now at the runoff in Mississippi. After the mudslinging and the flood of campaign cash, it's time for voters to have their say. Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash reports from Jackson, Mississippi, on the final push by the candidates.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Thirty- six-year Senate veteran Thad Cochran is so embracing his Senate seniority, he flew in a famous establishment Republican, John McCain, to help close the deal with Mississippi voters.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: To send Thad Cochran, a good and decent and honorable servant, back to the United States Senate.

BASH: Cochran's conservative opponent, Chris McDaniel, got more votes in the June 3rd GOP primary, but not the 50 percent needed to win, sparking a three week runoff. Tea Party groups already invested in McDaniel as their best hope of defeating a Senate GOOP incumbent redoubled efforts.

CHRIS MCDANIEL (R), MISSISSIPPI U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE: The conservative resurgence for this country starts right here in Mississippi.

BASH: Nervous traditional Republicans from around the country, trying to beat back the Tea Party, are here too. The Chamber of Commerce airing a hail mary TV ad with former star quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre.

BRETT FAVRE, FORMER NFL PLAYER: Thad Cochran always delivers, just like he did during Katrina.

BASH: And a super PAC supporting Cochran is spending money courting Democrats allowed to vote in the GOP runoff.

BASH (on camera): You're not a Republican, are you?


BASH (voice-over): Especially African-Americans, who want to help a Republican helping them for years. Jackie Brand passed out 5,000 Cochran flyers.

BRAND: Traditionally, African-Americans vote a certain party. And we --

BASH (on camera): Democrat?

BRAND: Democrat, right. And we wanted to raise the awareness to African-Americans that we do have a stake in this runoff election.

BASH (voice-over): McDaniel argues Cochran reaching out to Democrats will fire up conservatives against him even more.

MCDANIEL: If Senator Cochran is going to court liberal Democrats to save his seat, it is a clear indication that he has abandoned conservatives in the state of Mississippi.

BASH (on camera): I just talked to Chris McDaniel who said that the fact that you're courting African-American Democrats, or Democrats in general, is proof that you're a liberal, you're not a conservative.

SEN. THAD COCHRAN (R), MISSISSIPPI: Is that right? Well, you know, my responsibility as a United States senator has been to represent the people of the state of Mississippi, not just one party or one race.


BLITZER: Dana's joining us from Jackson, Mississippi. Also joining us, Mark Preston, CNN executive editor of politics.

Dana, politics may make strange bedfellows. How unusual is it for some of these Democrats to actually be out there campaigning for this longtime Republican senator?

BASH: Very unusual. I mean, look, this is -- Mississippi is a red state, but it's also full of Democrats who are much more conservative than Democrats in other parts of the country.

But let me just give you a little anecdotal update on what's going on right now with that effort. Where I am right now, this is a polling station in a predominantly African-American community in Jackson, Mississippi. Last time around, on the actual primary day, June 3rd, 72 people voted here. Already, we're only five hours in, and they're saying that they've had upwards of 80 people coming in to vote. We talked to a lot of them. They're all coming out to say that they're voting for Thad Cochran because, two reasons, one is they think he's done a good job in Mississippi and, two, they simply are very nervous about the alternative, and that is Chris McDaniel.

BLITZER: It's clearly, Mark, a race pitting a Tea Party challenger and a Republican establishment six-term senator right now. So what's at stake for both sides?

MARK PRESTON, CNN EXECUTIVE EDITOR, POLITICS: Well, probably the future of the Republican Party, certainly in the short term. Look, if we had gone back about two months ago, Wolf, the Tea Party seemed to be against the ropes. They weren't winning any of these primaries. They came up very lucky a few weeks ago when we saw Eric Cantor lose down in Richmond, the House majority leader, in a race that none of the national Tea Party groups had anything to do with. They were pinning all their hopes on winning tonight with Chris McDaniel. And you have to say that the current is certainly going in his direction, especially after what happened to Eric Cantor just a few weeks ago. The Tea Party has seen a little bit of a resurgence. They're looking for a little more life. They can see that there.

BLITZER: Yes, that gave them a lot of momentum, if you will.

Dana, a lot of money coming in from outside groups. How expensive has this contest been?

BASH: Well, we're not going to know that until, you know, that all of the books are closed, so to speak, but tens of millions of dollars easily. What I'm interested in is going to be how much money those Republicans, the national Republicans, establishment Republicans, are spending to get out the Democratic vote. They are doing so in a really overt way, spending money in Democratic communities to get out Democratic voters.

One thing that is really interesting, when you talk about sort of the national implications here, Mark is absolutely right, just from on the ground here, they're clearly trying to expand the electorate, to try to get Thad Cochran to win on the Cochran side, but they're also really nervous about the fact that the anti-establishment wave is really strong. But, I'll give you one but, Wolf, if somehow the Cochran people are successful at keeping him in his seat by expanding the base, on the national level, they're hoping that this might be a model, might be a model for how to do that on a national level because, as you know, Republicans in Washington understand that this can't just be a party of white men. They've got to expand the party and maybe this is a way to try to do it.

BLITZER: Quickly, on Charlie Rangel, and the long-term Democratic congressman from New York City, from Harlem, he's facing the political challenge of his life today.

PRESTON: He is. But, you know, look, just a few years ago, he was censured (ph) by the House, which is terrible for somebody to go through, you know, for misusing his office. Look, the bottom line for Charlie Rangel right now is that he barely won in 2012, less than 1,100 votes. He's facing that state senator, you know, as we speak right now. Polls close at 9:00 in New York. I don't think this is a race that will be called very quickly. But what's interesting is, who got behind Rangel, Governor Cuomo. Who did not get behind anybody, President Barack Obama.

BLITZER: Adriano Espaillat, we'll see if he can beat Charlie Rangel today. We're going to have extensive live coverage tonight here on CNN on all these key races. I'll be working late tonight, you'll be working, Dana will be working, Gloria Borger will be. So stay with CNN throughout the night for extensive coverage of all of these races. You'll learn about these results when we learn about the results.

Coming up, how to stem the tide of tens of thousands of young kids crossing the border into the United States alone. That's the question on Capitol Hill today.

And stay right here for a CNN exclusive. A whistleblower tells CNN that in an effort to make their statistics look better the V.A. has been covering up just how many veterans die while they're waiting for care.