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Obama Says Battling ISIS Won't Be Easy, Quick; Concern over ISIS in Iraq and Syria Grows; Report Released on V.A. Care Delays; ISIS Proving to be Deadly Enemy

Aired August 26, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

We heard from President Obama last hour where he admitted that battling the ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria won't be easy. He also said it won't be quick. Here's more of what the president said about the threat, the strategy, to defeat what he called barbaric terrorists.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF HE UNITED STATES: American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq. I will not allow the United States to be dragged back into another ground war in Iraq because, ultimately, it is up to the Iraqis to bridge their differences and secure themselves.


OBAMA: The limited strikes we're conducting have been necessary to protect our people and have helped Iraqi forces begin to push back these terrorists. We've also been able to rescue thousands of men and women and children who were trapped on a mountain. And our air drops of food and water and medicine show American leadership at our best. And we salute the brave pilots and crews who are making us proud in the skies of Iraq every single day.


OBAMA: And more broadly, the crisis in Iraq underscores how we have to meet today's evolving terror threat. The answer is not to send in large-scale military deployments that overstretch our military and lead for us occupying countries for a long period of time and end up feeding extremism. Rather, our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader strategy to protect our people and support our partners to take the fight to ISIL. So we're strengthening our partners. More military assistance to government and Kurdish forces in Iraq and moderate opposition in Syria. We're urging Iraqis to forge the kind of inclusive government that can deliver on national unity and strong security forces and good government that are ultimately going be to the antidote against terrorists. And we're urging countries in the region and building an international coalition including our closest allies to support Iraqis as they take the fight to these barbaric terrorists.

Today, our prayers are with the Foley family in New Hampshire as they continue to grieve the brutal murder of their son and brother, Jim. But our message to anyone who harms our people is simple. America does not forget. Our reach is long. We are patient. Justice will be done. We have proved time and time again we will do what's necessary to capture those who harm Americans.


BLITZER: Let's bring in Bobby Ghosh, from New York right now. He's the managing editor of "Quartz." And he knows what's going on in Iraq and Syria.

So what's your takeaway of what the two and a half minute shunt of what the president told the American Legion, because he's pretty specific?

BOBBY GHOSH, MANAGING EDITOR, QUARTZ: Well, he described the enemy in no uncertain terms. This is a barbaric force. He seemed to equivocate over what exactly we must do about this barbaric force. We go after those who killed Jim Foley specifically. But what happens to the larger Islamic State or ISIS? That's not clear. There's not going to be boots on the ground but there will continue to be airstrikes. There will be surveillance to collect intelligence. What is that intelligence being collected for in Syria, if not airstrikes?

BLITZER: Here's the question that came up in my mind, the U.S. about to begin these reconnaissances, these surveillance of flights over Syria. The Syrians say if they do that, they will go after those U.S. warplanes, whether they're reconnaissance spy planes, whatever. How good, based on what you know, Bobby, are Syrian air defense systems in terms of potentially shooting down one of these U.S. aircraft?

GHOSH: I don't think the Syrian air defense systems are all that great. Israel has repeatedly mounted attacks deep into Israeli territory, to Syrian territory, and come back unharmed. We learned last week there was a Special Forces operation to go in and try to rescue Jim Foley and other American captives deep into Syrian territory. So all these missions have come back unscratched. It suggests to me the Syrian air defense system is not particularly great.

And if a lot of the surveillance is taking place in the north, in areas where ISIS holds most of the cards and controls those areas, well, the Syrian air defense system is not even really present in those areas.

BLITZER: A lot of experts have said to me, the president, by authorizing the surveillance flights over Syria, is definitely going to go ahead and launch airstrikes, because why fly over the area just to get a lot of information if you're not going to use that information to deal some crushing blows to ISIS? Is it only a matter of time before the U.S. engages, uses air power against ISIS targets not only in Iraq but in Syria as well? GHOSH: It would seem so. I agree. What is this intelligence

gathering for? What do you do with this intelligence if not act on it? The only intelligence the president has said he's willing to take at this point is airstrikes. I guess you could also be collecting information on ISIS safe houses. And so if a rescue mission needs to be launched for an American hostage, perhaps that intelligence would be useful. It's possible that if we had surveillance over ISIS safe houses that operation to save Jim Foley might have had a different outcome. But the best guess is this intelligence gathering is to lay the groundwork at least for airstrikes.

BLITZER: There was really a fascinating story in "The Washington Post" this morning, Bobby. I assume you read it. That David Bradley, of the Atlantic Media Group here in Washington, got involved with the Qataris in Doha, Qatar, and they helped arrange the release, the freedom for Peter Theo Curtis, who was just released through the Golan Heights into Israel, of all places. If you read that story, it was pretty intriguing, the role David Bradley played and the role played by the Qataris.

GHOSH: The Qatari role, I think, is the crucial one. The Qataris have had channels open to various groups in Syria and other parts in the world and they've been able to use their leverage, not always, and not uniformly, but from time to time. The one group with whom the Qataris, nobody, seems to have any kind of influence is ISIS, the Islamic State. Other smaller groups, which may be Islamists, one or two of them may have close connections to al Qaeda, the Qataris are able to talk to them.

There's been some criticism about this aimed at the Qataris to say, well be they're talking to these people, they're funding these people. I'm not sure they're funding them. They're certainly talking to them. If you ask the families of all the hostages they've been able to release, it's probably a good thing that someone has some communications, reliable communications with this group.

BLITZER: The question is, do the Qataris, in addition to communications, do they directly or indirectly fund al Nusra, the group that was holding this American, because that goes to a different level, right?

GHOSH: It certainly does. I would be surprised if that were the case. The Qataris are trying to present themselves, as they have been doing for several years now, as a kind of honest broker in the Middle East, a role that many others have tried to perform and have failed. And you cannot present yourself as an honest broker if you're financing one side. That would be -- that would be going beyond it the line. I think the Qataris try to stay very close to the edge without actually going over. If evidence presents itself that they have paid moneys to al Nusra or any other extremist group that would be a huge blow to Qatar's prestige.

BLITZER: Al Nusra split with ISIS because they thought ISIS was too much of a terrorist organization. Al Nusra being an offshoot of al Qaeda itself.

Bobby Ghosh, thanks very much. He's the managing editor of "Quartz."

Coming up, a story that CNN brought you first, our nation's veterans' facing massive delays in receiving health care. Just ahead, we have the findings of a newly released government report. Stand by.


BLITZER: There's growing concern in Iraq that Kirkuk could be the next target for the ISIS terrorists. This comes after three suicide car bombs killed 20 people there over the weekend. ISIS has taken responsibility for the bombings. The city is currently under Kurdish control but its strategic value lies in the massive oil reserves in the area. Despite dozens of airstrikes by the U.S., ISIS fighters have been in a fierce battle for control over the Mosul Dam and they remain not far from Kirkuk. Across the border in Syria, ISIS seized a key air base that had been held by the Assad regime. Taking that base gives ISIS effective control over Raqqa, the province in Syria which has also become the de facto ISIS headquarters.

CNN's Anna Coren is joining us now. She just returned from Kirkuk. She's now back in Erbil.

Talk, Anna, about how important this is. If the ISIS forces were to take over Kirkuk, that would be a huge, huge game changer.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, it would be a massive blow just because of the resources in that city. As you mentioned, those vast oil fields, it is extremely rich. So ISIS would obviously love to get their hands on that.

That's why, Wolf, when Mosul fell, the Iraqi forces defending Kirkuk on the outskirts, they fled, that's when the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, came in to defend those oil fields and also to defend the large Kurdish population in Kirkuk.

The thing about Kirkuk is it is very diverse, made up of Sunni, Shias, Kurds, as well as Turkmen, other minorities. That allows ISIS to blend in, to assimilate and to not stand out. And they're not the only terrorist organization in town but, according to officials, they certainly are the most powerful. They wouldn't give specifics on numbers but they say there have been dozens of arrests of ISIS members in the last two months, including a powerful influential amir and his son from Mosul.

But certainly, Wolf, there is concern, you know, ISIS militants they are within kilometers really from the outskirts of Kirkuk. So, you know, the Peshmerga, they are on high alert, knowing full well of what ISIS can do.

BLITZER: We'll see if the U.S. launches airstrikes around Kirkuk to help those Peshmerga fighters. That would be a significant development if it happens.

All right, Anna, I'm glad you're back safe and sound from Erbil, in Kirkuk, which is obviously a very dangerous place right now. Coming up, CNN first told you about those long delays at V.A.

facilities across the country. The inspector general's report is out. Drew Griffin has been going through it. When we come back, he'll update us on what he has learned.


BLITZER: All right. We've got breaking news coming in to CNN. Only moments ago, the Veterans Affairs Department released the findings of its investigation into patient care delays.

Our senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin, wrote the story about the problems in medical care in America's V.A. hospitals. He's joining us from the American Legion convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

So what are some of the conclusions, Drew, of this new report?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this report is a damning report. They did find that 40 veterans on wait lists have died. It's a question of how they died and if those delays actually caused their deaths that is at issue here. This OIG report is a scathing review. As for the numbers, Wolf, they went and looked at a much broader sampling of patients. 34, 3500 patients who were not any list at all waiting for care. What they came up with was 28 instances of significant delays in care. Of those, six veterans are deceased. Another 17 cases where there were severe care deficiencies. Of those, 14 are deceased. What's not clear is the linkage. And this is the report used. Poor quality of care. We are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans. The report goes on to talk about the dozens of employees involved in cooking the books, hiding appointment wait times, actually denying care to veterans and it is truly a damning report which I'm sure is going to lead to a big shakeup at the Phoenix V.A., which has already begun -- Wolf?

BLITZER: As far as the 40 veterans who died while waiting for treatment, I'm confused. What do they say? They have no hard evidence to conclude that they died because they weren't getting the treatment or they would have died under any circumstances? Is it clear from what you've read in this new report what exactly they are suggesting happened to those 40 vets?

GRIFFIN: That is the summary. I haven't gone through the case studies of each of those individuals. What they are saying is they can't conclusively come to a medical determination that while waiting for care, these veterans died because of that specific wait that caused their death. Some may have been gravely ill already or some may have died for other reasons. What they are saying is they cannot say that there was a link in the delay of care and their deaths. But there have been deaths and there has been significant trouble with care delivered and that several of those veterans are dead. It's by no way a report that clears anybody at the Phoenix V.A. of the care that's been delivered there.

Quite frankly, I'm a little stunned at some of the leaks we got earlier from the actual V.A. about how good this report might look. It looks pretty bad from my end.

BLITZER: Yeah, we know the former V.A. secretary, Eric Shinseki, he's gone. There's a new secretary of veterans affairs. And the president praised him, promising that this wouldn't happen again. He said what he has learned about what happened over the past several years at the V.A. is outrageous and must be, must be fixed.

Drew, thanks very much for that report.

Still to come, they may be the most significant terrorist organization that the United States has faced in a long time. The numbers are growing. The threat of ISIS, that's coming up.


BLITZER: Their tactics are brutal. Their forces are growing. Their influence clearly spreading. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is proving to be a very, very deadly enemy.

Brian Todd is here and he's been taking a closer look at these militants.

They are moving. And despite the U.S. airstrikes, you just heard Anna Coren say that they are endangering, threatening Kirkuk, the oil-rich province in northern Iraq. How do they do it?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're getting pictures that ISIS is launching complex assaults in some places and engaging in maneuver and tactics that reminds some military officials and experts here of military division and even, in some cases, Special Operations forces. One defense official told us that ISIS does not take on missions or assaults that it believes it can't win on the battlefield. They are very strategic thinking on the battlefield. That when they do hold an area, they distribute their resources in a manner, and the fuel, very well, very equitably so they can control a place that they already hold. One expert, a former national security council official, who we've been speaking to about ISIS military tactics, says he's noticed they conduct a kind of military maneuver that reminds him of infantry or Special Ops maneuvers. They will send three fighters up to a battle point across from fighters than outnumber them and draw fire on the three or four fighters and then other fighters flank them from another side. A complex and disciplined military maneuver that he's noticed ISIS fighters doing to great effect.

So these guys have clearly learned from conventional forces. They are studying them. They are incorporating their tactics. And we're getting a picture that they are becoming a much more disciplined and effective fighting force on the field than maybe we thought going into this.

BLITZER: We're showing some of these fighters going in with their flags that are becoming pretty important, too, for propaganda purposes.

TODD: Absolutely. A flag -- we're digging into what it means. One expert on Islam tells us that the black background stands for conquest in the ancient Islamic history. And the lettering on the flag is -- at least part of the lettering are the first few verses of the Koran. That's what we're getting as far as the symbolism of their flag. But the effect of the flag is also very keen. It's almost their brand. They put it up wherever they go, whenever they take a piece of territory. They put it up around the Mosul Dam while they were holding that. It's an incredibly important piece of symbolism. It lets others know, hey, they're there, avoid them if you can. They're a fearsome force. So when they put that flag up, it has great effect.

BLITZER: They basically humiliated the Iraqi military, which was armed, trained, financed, by the United States. And they are intimidating the Peshmerga fighters, which are experienced fighters in Kurdistan as well.

I know you'll have more on this in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. eastern, another two-hour edition of the "The Situation Room."

NEWSROOM with Ana Cabrera starts right now.