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Interview with Rep. Peter King; The Brutality of ISIS; Middle East Cease-Fire Ends, Military Strikes Begin; U.S. Launches Airstrikes in Iraq.

Aired August 8, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. military unleashes airstrikes in Iraq as Islamist militants continue their reign of terror. Not far away in Gaza, the cease-fire is now over, at least for the time being. Hamas rockets flying into Israel. Today, Israel striking Hamas targets in Gaza. Then there's Russia with its troops seemingly on the brink of escalating their bloody fight in Ukraine.

Let's discuss all of this and more with Congressman Peter King. He's a key member of the House Homeland Security Committee, he's chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. PETER KING, R-NEW YORK: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Here's a basic question I have. The Iraqi military, over 10 years the U.S. trained the military, several hundred thousand Iraqi troops, gave them the best U.S. military hardware, said, you know what, the U.S. is leaving, it's now up to you to protect your country. Why are they M.I.A. in protecting the Christians in Iraq, the Yazidis, the Kurds? What's wrong with the Iraqi military? Why aren't they doing the job that the U.S. hoped they would do?

KING: Wolf, I would say there's several steps leading to that. One, when President Obama went through all our troops from Iraq, in effect, we lost control over the situation. That put Maliki in charge. He put many corrupt colonels and generals. He removed the Sunni leaders. Put in Shiite military leaders. There was real morale problems. There was a lack of training. The army, which had been, I think, a much better army then than it is now, began to deteriorate under Maliki's leadership. It was two pronged, President Obama pulling out argue troops and Maliki corrupting the Iraqi Army by putting in corrupt leaders.

BLITZER: They abandon positions in Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq, warehouses, their bases. The ISIS forces came in, they stole all that U.S. hardware. They have Abrams battle tanks right now. They went into the banks. They stole hundreds of millions of dollars. They're one of the richest, if not the richest, terror organization in the world now. How much of a threat does ISIS represent to the United States? KING: ISIS is more of a threat to the United States now than al Qaeda

was prior to September 11th. Al Qaeda spent only several hundred thousand dollars to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Is now is over $1 billion. That's why -- plus all this hardware you're talking about, military hardware. The reason, Wolf, I am very critical, what the president has done, I support the air strikes. That is important.

Having said that, why he says the U.S. is not going to provide more military help until there's a more diverse government in Iraq. If ISIS is a threat to the U.S., and it is, then we shouldn't let our security depend on the whims of the Iraqi parliament.

Also, when the president says that we're not going to use -- we're not going to go beyond these air strikes, I can't understand why a commander in chief would ever tell the enemy what we're going to do or not do. He can decide himself whether or not he wants to use additional force. Don't let the enemy know what you're going to do. You're showing to me a lack of will, a lack of resolve. You're also telling the enemy how far they can go and not risk retaliation.

BLITZER: Are you ready for what they call boots on the ground? Send in thousands of U.S. forces back into Iraq to deal with ISIS?

KING: What I'm saying is the president should not take any option away and if he does take it away in his own mind, he should not announce it to the enemy. Why he keeps saying over and over he's not going to be dragging into a war it -- first, no commander-in-chief is ever dragged into a war in this type. He will make the decision what to do. He has the options as to what he wants to do. He should not be telling the enemy what that's going to be. The president implies a national security issue. If it's a national security issue, we shouldn't sit back and say it's up to the Iraqi government, up to them to form a diverse government. Yes, we want a unified government, one that reflects the people. Absent that, we can't be waiting until that's all resolved if we believe our national security is at stake.

What's happening in Kurdistan directly affects our national security. Both as far as natural resources, as far as being close to Turkey, and the impact it would have. Right now ISIS, I believe, controls more land mass than the entire country of Great Britain. That's what we're talking about. Not like prior to 9/11 where we're talking about the Taliban and al Qaeda operating in the mountains of Afghanistan. We're talking about a caliphate that's been set up, a state set up, and as if two 500-pound bombs is going to have a real impact, such a false message. He says not being in combat, if you're dropping bombs, you're in combat. We have over 800 troops in Iraq, which is more troops in Iraq than President Eisenhower said in Vietnam. He shouldn't be sending mixed signals. The commander-in-chief has to be much more firmer than he's being.

BLITZER: Here's the bottom-line question. No military planner I've spoken to believe air power is going to destroy is, remove them from that huge territory. The only way that's done is through ground forces. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrillas, they're great fighters but they're lightly armed, they can't do it. The Iraqi military, they're MIA, missing in action. I haven't seen any international NATO partners or anybody else willing to send in troops. If you're going to destroy ISIS in Iraq, you have to send in at least 50,000, maybe 100,000, U.S. ground forces to do the job. Are your constituents on Long Island, Congressman, ready for another major war, ground war, like that in Iraq?

KING: What I'm saying is the president has allowed so much time to go by. I believe with effective air strikes, with arming the Kurds, and also letting -- the president said he is willing to take military action once the Iraqi -- once the Iraqi government is in place. I'm saying whatever military action he has planned for that time, don't wait until the government is in place. He has various options. I'm not the commander-in-chief, he is, but he should not be taking anything off the table. By doing what he's done, over and over again, saying he's not going to do this, we're not going to get dragged into a war, he's sending a false signal. He's encouraging the enemy. He's dispiriting our allies and he's just putting off the inevitable.

BLITZER: It's an awful situation what's going on in Iraq right now with no simple solutions.

KING: It is. Horrible.

BLITZER: Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

Peter King, of New York, joining us.

KING: Wolf, thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Coming up, the cease-fire in Gaza, it's over, at least for now. Hamas started firing some rockets, pushing Israel away from the negotiating table. We're going to go live to the region.


BLITZER: They seem to destroy everything in their path, even mosques. They force everyone they conquer to convert to Islam or die and they brazenly document their terror. ISIS militants have been spreading their radical tentacles across Iraq for months and they're now launching a new land grab in the north.

Let's bring in Brian Todd.

Remind us about this group, because they are brutal.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brutal. And a senior official tells me ISIS is now the strongest it has been in years. Why is it so dangerous on the bat battlefield now? According to intelligence, it's the training, tactics and weapons that sets them apart now from traditional terrorist militant forces who have engaged in battle with Iraqi and Western forces. They shoot better than terrorist forces have in the past. They maneuver in disciplined formations on the battlefield, with militant and terrorist forces did not do in the past. The weapons they have seized, very impressive. An official told Ivan Watson today they're firing at them with M-1 Abrams tanks. Those are American tanks stolen from the Iraqi forces. A senior U.S. intelligence official told us they seized anti-aircraft guns.

The training is also something we need to talk about. Experts are telling us that fighters from the Chechen and Bosnian conflicts have been mentors to these ISIS forces. Those are experiences fighters from those conflicts, we're told they are training them, and that makes them better on the battlefield, as did their experience in fighting in Syria. So you've got an experienced, well-equipped force, well commanded, now on the battlefield against the Iraqi, Kurdish, and maybe now the U.S. armed forces.

BLITZER: I've heard various estimates they may have 10,000 or so armed fighters, if you will, some numbers a little higher, some a little lower. Can 10,000 fighters do what they've done? Basically take over huge chunks of Iraq? Because the Iraqi military has a military, what, 300,000 standing army.

TODD: That's the big question, can they hold those areas with just 10,000 forces. Most experts say they probably cannot. You may see a tide turning. What they've been able to do, though, Wolf, when they've moved into those areas, they release these horrible videos showing them executing people and all of that. They're winning the propaganda battle before they get into these towns. And when the Iraqi forces and other resistance forces have seen these videos, a lot of the time they're kind of psyched out before the battle starts and they take off. That's what experts are saying that ISIS has been doing effectively. They win the propaganda war before the battle starts.

BLITZER: Some of the videos they've released are absolutely horrendous.

TODD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Absolute brutality.

Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Brian will have more in "The Situation Room" later today.

Let's turn to the Middle East situation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The Israeli military striking targets right now in Gaza. This, after Hamas began launching rockets in Israel just before the cease- fire, the 72-hour cease-fire, was supposed to end.

CNN's Martin Savidge is in Jerusalem.

What's the latest over there? Any prospect of resuming the peace talks in Cairo, resuming the cease-fire?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's been a rumor circulating here perhaps around 8:00 p.m. tonight there would be some sort of renewal of a cease-fire. To put that apparently to rest, right at about 8:00, there was a barrage of rockets that were outgoing from Gaza, obviously, on the way into the direction of Israel. And that's the way it's been, ever since 8:00 a.m., when the original 72 hours expired. There was a barrage of rockets then. There have been rockets all day long going from Gaza. At the same time, Israel has been responding. They started about three hours after the first rockets and they've been using air strikes. They've been hammering away. These are really loud big explosions that lift large gray crowds up into the air. On top of that, there's artillery and there's also tank fire that is being reported on the eastern and northern boards of Gaza. So it's been like that all day long. Five people have been reported killed. That is on top of what we already had, a staggering death toll. Now approaching nearly 1900 people killed in Gaza -- Wolf?

BLITZER: A lot of those people are civilians. Many of them militants. A lot of them are civilians, women and children. Have you seen any change in the support for Hamas since Hamas decided to break the cease-fire earlier today?

SAVIDGE: Well, it's not like there's scientific polling done but yesterday at a rally there was a great deal of support. It seems people have reached a frustrating point where they say, look, we can't go back. That's not to say they're blatantly supporting Hamas, but it is to say this seems they're OK for now with the way it's been going. I'm not trying to say that they are comfortable with the death toll or the amount of destruction, not at all. But you don't see a cracking point. You don't hear outspoken voices saying what Hamas is doing is completely wrong.

BLITZER: I want to go to Jake in Jerusalem.

Jake, what are you hearing from your sources, Israeli and Palestinians, others? I know you're well connected on this. Is there a chance a new cease-fire can go into effect and, B, the parties can resume the dialogue, if you will, in Cairo, designed to ease some of the restrictions on the Palestinians' lives in Gaza and stop the rockets and missiles coming into Israel?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, THE LEAD: It's certainly possible, Wolf. And what I'm about to tell you is an exercise in very low expectations. Sources who are pushing for the cease-fire say there are two reasons to be encouraged. Again, this is very low expectations. One is the Palestinians are still in Cairo. They have not left. The negotiators are still there, including representatives from Hamas. So the idea that a cease-fire is off the table might make good rhetoric, but behind the scenes, the Palestinians are working together. They're presenting all the different factions. But behind the scenes, they are working with the Egyptians on what could be a proposal to get a cease-fire implemented once again.

The other sign, I'm told, that gives some people pushing for the cease-fire reason for encouragement is that even though there has been death and destruction in the last day on top of all the other death and destruction from the previous month, it has been relative to other periods of this conflict, relatively low intensity. Five individuals in Gaza have been killed, including a 10-year-old child. Two individuals in Israel have been wounded. But compared to some of the other violent outbreaks we've seen in the last month, there is a way of analyzing how much either side is willing to attack the other and it is not at a spiraling out of control point right now. I know that sounds very odd to a lot of listeners, a lot of viewers, that one could be looking at what's going on and think, oh, that's reason for encouragement, but it is for those hoping for a renewal of the cease- fire -- Wolf?

BLITZER: I assume the Israelis would be ready to resend their delegation to Cairo if there was a real opportunity to pursue another cease-fire and get serious negotiations under way.

Jake will have a lot more coming up at 4:00 p.m. eastern on "The Lead." He'll be reporting today from Jerusalem as he has for the last several days.

Martin Savidge, in Gaza, thanks to you as well.

Up next, the decision to strike ISIS militants in Iraq. Was it a choice the president wanted to make? Our own Gloria Borger, she's been doing some digging, she's been looking at what's going on.


BLITZER: Let's go back to our top story. The United States now launching air strikes against targets inside Iraq. They're targeting ISIS, that's the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State. The president warning of the strikes when he spoke on national TV last night.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is with me right now.

The president also saying he's not going to get the United States dragged into another war in Iraq. This is a pivotal point.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. And the president last night, as I was watching him, he sort of darted from side to side reading the prompter. Almost as if he couldn't look directly at the American people and say I'm going to send air strikes into Iraq, because he didn't want to do it. I mean, you could sense that frustration on his part because we know that this president doesn't want to sort of ask for more trouble. He knows that the American public is not for involvement in Iraq. But I would argue that this is a humanitarian case and that he made that case to the American people. But they may want to hear from him a little bit more about when the use of force is necessary and when the use of force is not.

BLITZER: The -- you know, let's say the air strikes continue now for several days --

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: -- and they're pounding ISIS, artillery, ISIS targets, but ISIS is still there.

BORGER: Right. BLITZER: And then you face a dilemma. If the Iraqi army is MIA, if

the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, they can't do it, as courageous as they are, at what point does the United States need to go in there, get the job done?

BORGER: Well, and look, those questions have not been answered. While the administration officials I've spoken with have made the case that this is a very narrowly defined mission, they also acknowledge that the unexpected can always occur, Wolf, and that situations can escalate in ways that you did not anticipate. And so the question you're asking is the question we're all asking is, what happens next if this does escalate? Would the U.S. turn away? How would we make that decision? At what point would we say, yes, we have to commit more air cover or even people on the ground, which is, of course, something the president has said time and time again he will not do. These are these unanswered questions that come with every kind of a commitment.

BLITZER: Gloria, standby.

I want to bring Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, into this conversation.

All right, Michael, the president says the U.S. is not going to get dragged into another war of combat, if you will, boots on the ground in Iraq. But there's no guarantee that the U.S. can stay out, right?

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think you're right. Although the president has a lot of wiggle room in my opinion. I'm a little bit of a contrarian on this in terms of his room for maneuver with the American people. If he presents just how serious this ISIS threat is, and if he also keeps major American brigades and divisions out -- and I'm sure he will, we all agree on that -- he may have some space to do things much more than he's doing. Maybe even with some limited numbers of Special Forces. Maybe even with some drones. Maybe even with more air power as Gloria says. And possibly even with limited numbers of security force assistance teams that would go out in the field with the Iraqi army.

Now, I know the White House doesn't like that kind of talk, doesn't want that, but if it comes to the issue of, we have no other way of getting rid of ISIS, and this is a group more dangerous than al Qaeda was in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, down the road, if the Iraqis form a national government that allows us to work with them more systematically, we may have to contemplate these kinds of options. I think that's less than the classic boots-on-the-ground kind of mission the president is so averse to.

BORGER: You know, Michael, I think you're right, and I think that could occur. But in that case, wouldn't the president then just have to go to the American people again and explain just why he is doing what he is doing? After we heard him for so long. We know how reluctant he is to get into trouble, if you will, or put boots on the ground or do more than he's doing. I mean, it would -- it would symbolize kind of a U-turn for him in a funny way, wouldn't it? O'HANLON: To an extent. But I also feel there are a couple of things

that are mitigating here. For one thing, I think he can say, listen, Iraq has been a very divisive issue in our country. We all have our positions on what we should've done back in '03 and so forth. We have to go into the future based on future requirements and conditions. And respond to the situation before us. There are going to be far fewer people in Iraq, even if he increases the way I'm proposing, far fewer than when he came into the White House. And so we're not talking about tens of thousands of Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan under any imaginable scenario. I still think he has some room for maneuver with the American people. If he explains the mission and explains the threat.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Let me ask both of you about an awkward moment.

The U.S. is effectively engaged in combat operations, air strikes in Iraq, Gloria. The president's supposed to go on vacation to Martha's Vineyard tomorrow. Is that awkward?

BORGER: Yeah. I think it is awkward. You know, this is a White House that has always said, Wolf, and you know this, that the president is not going to be overtaken by events. That he's going to continue to do his job. And, and govern the affairs he needs to govern. However, this is vacation. He is coming back in the middle of this vacation. But you could argue that the optics of it do not look great. I personally believe presidents deserve vacations. Although, this is an inopportune moment for him to leave, and perhaps he ought to put it off a couple of days.

BLITZER: Other presidents have faced a similar awkward moment, Michael. You remember George W. Bush. He was ready to tee off on the golf course. He made a major statement about what was going on in Iraq. And then he went off and played a round of golf. That was an awkward moment, too.

O'HANLON: Very good point, Wolf. And I think I share Gloria's perspective that this is evolving fast enough that it's a little bit delicate to try to get out of town at this precise moment. Something like Gaza and Israel, which you've been covering so well, with that kind of crisis, even though it's still tragic, still dangerous, we're well enough into it that a lot of our basic options have been developed and we don't necessarily need to hold the president back from the vacation for that. But this is breaking quickly enough. That whole new possibilities are emerging, new requirements are emerging. I think he has to be cognizant of that.

BLITZER: Here are some things to worry about. Some Middle East scholars have said what the United States is doing, bombing ISIS positions inside Iraq, that's going to have the unintended consequences of actually strengthening ISIS among a lot of folks over there because the crusaders have now come back to the region and want to kill these Sunni Muslims.

O'HANLON: You know, I haven't seen Iraqis really behave that way. That's an argument you hear at a very theoretical level on television and sometimes from academics or policy, you know, analysts or politicians. Iraqis on the ground tend to make calculations about their own personal security. And that's part of why ISIL has been so successful. Maliki, the prime minister, as you know, drove away so many Sunnis, made them feel insecure. Made them feel that the government of Baghdad had become a Shia version of Saddam Hussein. And they were willing to alight with this extremist group because maybe it was no worse than what they were doing from Baghdad. So I'm not worried about the theoretical argument about the crusaders. I'm worried about if Kurdistan is under direct and dire threat. And that's something we have to respond to now.

BLITZER: I think they will be because ISIS is pretty strong.

The president's got a lot going on right now, Gloria.

BORGER: He does.

BLITZER: He's got Israel and Gaza. He's got Ukraine, Libya and Syria. The world, a lot of people have said this, is really on fire right now.

BORGER: The world is on fire. And back to your point about going on vacation, now the White House always says when you ask these questions. You know, the White House is movable. Wherever the president goes, we take the national security apparatus with him and we move it. I don't think, in this particular case, given what Michael says and what we all know about this situation is moving so quickly, that he can really do that.

BLITZER: It's a real mess.

Gloria Borger, thanks so much.

Michael O'Hanlon, at Brookings, thanks to you.

That's it for me. We'll have much more coming up, a special two-hour edition of "The Situation Room," 5:00 p.m. eastern. We've got major news on both of the breaking news stories. Stay with us for that.

For our international viewers, "News Center" begins in a moment. Here in the United States, NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.