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Rare Access to American Captives in North Korea; Did Militants Have Pool Party at U.S. Embassy?; Interview with New York Congressman Eliot Engel & California Congressman Ed Royce; Americans Held in North Korea Plead for Help; Civil Liberties vs. Security

Aired September 1, 2014 - 16:00   ET


DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Should police in the U.S. be granted sweeping powers to capture suspected jihadists?

I'm Dana Bash, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead: British reigniting the debate over civil liberties vs. security by proposing broad new police powers over citizens suspected of trying to join ISIS. Should the U.S. do the same after weeks of arguments whether police in the States already wield too much power?



MATTHEW MILLER, AMERICAN HELD CAPTIVE IN NORTH KOREA: I have been requesting help for a long time. And there's been no movements from my governments.


BASH: Pleas from three Americans detained by one of America's sworn enemies. CNN goes where others won't dare to bring you their exclusive interviews from North Korea.

And the money lead, a government that will take your property away even if you're not charged with a crime. Sounds like we're still talking about North Korea, right? No, it's happening right here in the United States.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I hope you're having a great Labor Day. I'm Dana Bash, filling in for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with the world lead, the British getting more proactive in their defense measures against the ISIS terror network in Iraq and Syria, but also raising civil liberties issues in the process both there and here in the U.S.

The U.K. wants a stronger net to catch citizens who will travel outside the country and join ISIS. Currently, Britain's home secretary has the power to withhold passports, but the prime minister, David Cameron, says it's time to extend that power to police.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: When police suspect a traveler at the border, they're not currently able to apply for the royal prerogative and so only have limited stop and search powers. So, we will introduce specific and targeted legislation to fill this gap by providing the police with the temporary power to seize a passport at the border, during which time they will be able to investigate the individual concerned.


BASH: The British prime minister also wants to block British citizens suspected of fighting for ISIS from getting back inside the country.

Both the U.K. and the U.S. fear that their own citizens could return and stage attacks here at home. That's what this is all about. And Cameron claims that at least 500 British citizens have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. An estimated 100 Americans are fighting for Islamist groups in Syria, a dozen of them for ISIS.

Now that the British are trying to give more power to their police, the question is whether authorities in the U.S. should get the same. This of course follows the very volatile discussions and debates over whether police in states already have too much force -- and are using have too much force on citizens in scenes like this in Ferguson, Missouri.

Responding to fears about ISIS, the British raised their terror threat level from substantial to severe on Friday, though they say there's no intelligence indicating an attack is imminent. The U.S. has not issued any kind of terror alert here in the U.S. And the president, well, he has taken a shellacking for critics for saying bluntly last week that -- quote -- "We don't have a strategy yet for dealing with ISIS in Syria."

I want to get to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, standing by live.

Jim, the U.S. is obviously worried about ISIS. That goes without saying.


BASH: But that's not the only place where the president is really being criticized on the world stage.

ACOSTA: That's right, Dana.

Keep in mind President Obama authorized an expansion of U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets over this Labor Day weekend. But that has not stopped the second-guessing from both political parties of the president's strategy for dealing with ISIS.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Under growing pressure to escalate the U.S. battle against ISIS, President Obama tried to make a Labor Day pivot to midterm election politics.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Milwaukee brats are delicious, and Republicans in Congress love to say no. Those are just facts, the facts of life.

ACOSTA: But, in Britain, there was yet another plea from Prime Minister David Cameron to get tough on ISIS.

CAMERON: We will in the end defeat this extremism and we will secure our way of life for generations to come.

ACOSTA: Targeting jihadis traveling back and forth from the West to ISIS battlefields, Cameron is seeking new police powers to seize passports of suspected British alternatives and is ramping up airline no-fly restrictions to keep militants out of the skies.

Back in the U.S., some lawmakers worry the ISIS threat will make the jump across the Atlantic.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: I believe strongly that ISIS does plan on attacking the United States.

ACOSTA: Over the weekend, the president ordered an expansion of the U.S. mission in Iraq with new airstrikes aimed at halting another humanitarian crisis, this time, ISIS militants attacking ethnic Turkmen around the city of Amirli.

In a letter to Congress, the president said the new strikes will be limited in their scope and duration. But critics want Mr. Obama to hit ISIS harder. His comments on targeting the group in Syria...

OBAMA: We don't have a strategy yet.

ACOSTA: ... are now dividing Democrats.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I think I have learned one thing about this president. And that is he's very cautious, maybe in this instance too cautious.

REP. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER (D), MARYLAND: It's not just the United States. We can't be sheriff for the whole world.

ACOSTA: Republicans, including some who are looking ahead to 2016, accuse the president of showing weakness.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: ISIS says they want to go back and reject modernity? Well, I think we should help them. We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age.



ACOSTA: And President Obama is heading to a NATO summit later on this week that was supposed to be almost all about Ukraine and Russia. But that is changing fast as the president is looking for allies for what the White House considers to be a long, long threat posed by ISIS -- Dana.

BASH: I'm sure. Jim Acosta, thanks.

ACOSTA: You bet.


BASH: Joining me now from Jerusalem, Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California. He's the House Foreign Affairs Chairman. And Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel from New York, he's the top Democrat on that same committee, House Foreign Affairs.

Congressman Engel, let me start with you. You're now in Israel, but you were in Great Britain. And there, David Cameron, the prime minister, announced plans to seize passports at the border and then investigate individuals carrying them.

And this is all about trying to prevent an attack on their homeland by people who were radicalized perhaps in Syria or elsewhere. Do you think that this is a good idea, or does it infringe on civil liberties?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), NEW YORK: Well, I think it's a necessary idea.

You always have to balance the civil liberties with security. And I think that the prime minister is trying to find a happy medium. It's clear that there are many people who have left the U.K. and have gone to practice jihad and come back.

And there's a big fear in Britain that there might be an imminent terrorist attack. So, I think that they're balancing it. I think we're going to have to balance it. We have to do something to try to prevent these potential attacks.

BASH: Chairman Royce, what do you think? Do you believe that the U.S. should follow suit? Because, certainly, there are 500 radicalized British citizens, but there's a problem with U.S. citizens as well.

REP. ED ROYCE (R), CALIFORNIA: There are, and this is why we need a -- we need consultation and sort of a uniform strategy here with Europe.

There are 5,000 foreign fighters, 100 of them approximately we know of from the United States, 150 from Australia. So it's a worldwide phenomenon caused in part by this virtual caliphate on the Internet for recruiting.

And, so, with our allies, we should be working in tandem on a strategy so that we protect the homeland. Once you have a European passport, you also have access into the United States, right? So this needs to be done in consultation.

BASH: Well, let's talk about another part of the strategy, airstrikes. Do you believe, Chairman Royce, that there should be airstrikes right

now going on in a more robust way against ISIS? You remember, last year, when it was about Assad, the president came to Congress, and Congress, there simply weren't enough votes to authorize airstrikes. Should there be an authorization now and should it be more robust?

ROYCE: Actually, we were notified today by the president, under the War Powers Act, about his intent to continue airstrikes.

These particular airstrikes against ISIS that are coming up are in order to defend the civilian population of Turkmen, who are about to be or were about to be overrun by ISIS. And so we are in consultation with the executive branch.

When we go back, we're going to be convening the committee, as you can imagine, having a hearing on this subject. And in this particular instance, it is important, for humanitarian reasons, as well as protection of our consulate, that we support the commander in chief on these actions.

BASH: Congressman Engel, a year ago, you were calling for U.S. military action against Assad in Syria. Many believe that inaction in Syria really created an environment for ISIS to thrive as it is now.

On Sunday, Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said that the president has been maybe too cautious in his response to ISIS. Do you agree with her?

ENGEL: Well, two years ago, I said that we should be helping the Free Syria Army when the civil war started in Syria. It started with all good intentions.

There are people from the Free Syria Army and others who wanted to bring democracy to Syria. They begged us for some help. And, unfortunately, I think we made a mistake in not helping them. So ISIS filled the void.

I still it's not too late. I still think we should help the Free Syria Army. But I wish we had done it a couple of years ago.

BASH: Is the president now being too cautious, as Dianne Feinstein says?

ENGEL: Well, I hope not.

He has now called for helping the Free Syria Army. And I hope that he will do that. Again, I wish it had been done a couple of years ago. But we're where we are now. And I think that we don't support ISIS for sure in Syria. We don't support Assad. He's murdered his own people and he's a horror.

And so I think the Free Syria Army is what we have left. And we really need to try to help them. They are the true people who want democracy in Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BASH: And Chairman Royce also told me that those hearings he mentioned on the administration's ISIS strategy will likely take place with the secretary of state, John Kerry, when Congress comes back to town.

Coming up: rare access to three Americans detained in North Korea. Hear their pleas to the U.S. government.

And could those be militants holding a pool party at a diplomatic compound abandoned by the U.S.?


BASH: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In other world news, it is a government cloaked in secrecy, which made North Korea's decision to grant a CNN crew rare access to three American captives all the more stunning. Kenneth Bae, Matthew Miller, and Jeffrey Fowle were each presented for five-minute interviews with CNN's Will Ripley.

Bae pleaded for help from the U.S. government, Miller described the situation as urgent and Fowle acknowledged he was desperate to get back to his family.

The men all say that they were speaking freely, but that notion is being met with heavy skepticism and with good reason. North Korea has long used its detainees as pawns in a bizarre chess match with U.S. officials.

CNN's Will Ripley has more on the American captives and their message to the world.



(voice-over): This is a moment we never expected. During a CNN trip to North Korea, officials take us to a secret location for a surprise interview with Kenneth Bae, the American missionary is serving 15 years hard labor for what are North Korea calls a Christian plot to the undermine the government.

(on camera): Can you tell me about the conditions at the labor camp?

KENNETH BAE, AMERICAN HELD IN NORTH KOREA: Condition in labor camp is I'm working eight hours a day, six days a week, and working agriculture work to other hard labor that is required to do every day.

RIPLEY: Would you say you're being treated humanely?

BAE: Yes.

RIPLEY: And your message to your family?

BAE: Well, I'm sure they're very worried about my health at this time, and even though right now, last month and a half, my heart's been -- or so, not -- it's been failing so right now, what I can say to my family and friends is to continue to pray for me and also ask them to continue the effort on getting me released here.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Bae's been in North Korea for almost two years. Two other Americans were arrested separately in April.

(on camera): We were pull off our regular schedule and brought here to a building in Pyongyang where we were told we had precisely five minutes with each of the detainees.

(voice-over): They're held in separate rooms and have no contact with each other.

American Matthew Miller admitted to tearing up his asylum and seeking asylum in North Korea. Now, he wants out.

(on camera): What's the bottom line about your situation here and your message that you want to put out?

MATTHEW MILLER, AMERICA HELD IN NORTH KOREA: That my situation is very urgent. That very soon I'm going to trial and I would directly be sent to prison. I think this interview is my final chance to push the American government into helping me.

JEFFREY FOWLE, AMERICAN HELD IN NORTH KOREA: I'd like to thank you guys for being here.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Jeffrey Fowle, a father from Ohio, confessed to leaving a bible behind during a tourist trip, considered a covert act by the North Korea government. He was arrested on his daughter's birthday.

(on camera): And your message to your family?

FOWLE: Message is I'll come home as soon as I can. My family is the biggest thing on my mind right now. I got the wife and three school aged school kids that depend on me for support. My mother-in-law is staying with us, too. So, there's six of us in our household. And when I'm gone --

RIPLEY (voice-over): Right now, Fowle's in a hotel, but that could quickly change if he's found guilty later this month.

FOWLE: I'm good for the time being. I need to let people know I'm getting desperate. I'm getting desperate for help.

RIPLEY: Each man says they're getting humane treatment. They're pleading for the United States to send a special envoy to secure their release. Three Americans held in North Korea, waiting and hoping that some day, they'll go home.


BASH: That was CNN's Will Ripley with that remarkable report. So, just what exactly does North Korea's government hope to gain by

granting these interviews? And how should the Obama administration react?

Joining me now is Philip Yun. He's the former advisor to Secretary of State William Perry and executive director of Ploughshares in San Francisco.

Now, Philip, you have actually been to North Korea four times, which is a lot for anybody outside, particularly for a U.S. citizen. Knowing the North Koreans as you do, but what do you think their message was? What do you think they were trying to do through these interviews?

PHILIP YUN, FORMER SR. ADVISER, DEFENSE SECRETARY WILLIAM PERRY: This is a cynical ploy, in many respects, tugging at heartstrings. It's a deplorable situation. Obviously, these individuals are in great distress. So, this is a way for the North Koreans, as to ratchet up the pressure.

There's another calculated thing they're doing. The timing of the interview being Labor Day, there's a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, and this is a way independent dramatic fashion through interviews and in this way to cut through what the North Koreans see is the news clutter, all that's going on with ISIS, what's going on in Ukraine. And this is a way to hopefully for them to put pressure to let the U.S. government know that North Korea still has these people and that they want the U.S. to do something about it.

BASH: Now, as somebody who was inside the administration trying to game out and figure out the North Koreans, which is not easy to do, put yourself in the State Department right now analyzing these interviews. What information do you think can be gained by reviewing these tapes?

YUN: Well, as you said, no one really knows what's going on in terms of what the leadership is thinking. But there could be -- you know, three or four possibilities. One is that this is just again a cynical ploy for them to get some kind of benefit. That's a possibility I think a lot of people would probably very easily say that. That's an easy way to talk about it.

Another possibility is they actually want a high level envoy to come. You recall President Clinton did that a couple years ago. That was with Kim Jong-il, the father. So, there's a prestige factor involved if a high level envoy of some kind can meet Kim Jong-un.

The third possibility is that this in a way is a way an opening to send a message to the United States. There's pressure, my understanding from the Chinese on the North Koreans to start moving to try to get some -- to be less unreasonable, and this is an opportunity to send a message and to get some kind of negotiation and talk and discussion between the United States. And finally, some people can say knowing that the Obama administration probably will not respond to this or it's very difficult in this circumstance, they're going to say no. So, this could be an excuse for North Korea continuing belligerent

behavior which I think ultimately may end up in another nuclear test at some point in the future.

BASH: And you say that the Obama administration will likely say no. To a layman looking at this, they see these U.S. prisoners in North Korea. And you say -- which is probably the case -- that the North Koreans especially the newer leader, Kim Jung-un, wants a high level U.S. official to come there. It seems kind of simple, right? I mean, why not just send somebody if you can get these Americans back? But it isn't that simple when you're talking about this very delicate diplomatic dance with North Korea, is it?

YUN: Exactly. I mean, one, if you're talking about somebody at President Clinton's level, that's one thing.

But the other question is when does it stop? I mean, this is something the North Koreans have steadily been using. We have more Americans that are going into North Korea. These kinds of things are going to be constantly repeated.

And so, the question is, are we going to continually be in the situation where we're going to have to send someone to somehow get them out.

There's another factor involved is that we did, my understanding, offer a high level envoy, Ambassador Bob King I think was scheduled to go. He's the individual in charge of human rights, the special envoy. And he was all set to go with respect to Kenneth Bae and the North Koreans suddenly turned it down.

So, it's really unclear what the North Koreans are looking for. And, you know, we're in a situation where we're giving them a rock and North Koreans are saying yes or no, and that from our standpoint, a policy standpoint is not the place to be in.

BASH: Fascinating insight about a very opaque society. Philip Yun, thank you so much for your time.

And, coming up, look at this -- this is no Labor Day pool party. These may be Islamic militants splashing around the U.S. embassy compound in Libya.

And a family headed to Spain with their sick son in search of a cure. It was a trip that landed them in prison.

That's all ahead on THE LEAD.


BASH: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Labor Day weekend -- for many, it's one last chance to take a dip in the pool before the first day of school. That may go for these guys, too. A YouTube video has emerged showing alleged Islamist militants in Libya partying at a pool at an abandoned U.S. annex in Libya. Now, CNN hasn't been able to confirm the authenticity but it is a potentially embarrassing scene and it's certainly could be a metaphor for how visibly absent the U.S. has been since the bombing of Gadhafi and forcing him out of power three years ago, leaving militias and terror factions in a largely lawless country over there.

Now, our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is live in London with the latest.

And, Nic, the scenes are really shock. But what do we really know who these guys are and when this video actually was shot?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's an understanding that if they weren't in fact the guards who were left to guard the embassy after the pullout of embassy staff at the end of July, they certainly allowed those same guards allowed these people to come in.

The militia that pretty much control Tripoli right now and has been fighting for it and took control of the international airport over the past few weeks is an Islamist militia, the Dawn of Libya. They comprise of a group known as the central Libya shield. There are fighters from Misrata, that is along sort of halfway along the 800- mile long Libyan coast.

That really doesn't tell us a lot about them. Fundamentally, what we know is they're Islamist fighters. They've let people into the pool and abused the embassy. We're told that windows are broken.

However, U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones tweeted these guys are not in the main embassy building, they're not in the chancery, that they haven't ransacked it. A government official has said this isn't an attack, there isn't ransacking.

But you look at some of the other photographs. There are photographs from a gymnasium, from a living area, from a bedroom. So, it's clear these people aren't just jumping in the pool. They're having relatively free access around these particular buildings.

And one person I talked to who is familiar with the compound there said these aren't just living quarters. People actually work from there, as well. So, this raises a lot of serious questions.

BASH: It sure does.

Nic Robertson, thanks for that reporting on what exactly was going on there besides a few cannonballs from the second story. Thank you very much, Nic.

And it is a working holiday for politicians all across the country, as the sprint towards the midterms begins. We'll look at who has the momentum going into a race that could decide -- really will decide who gets control of Capitol Hill.

Our political panel, there they are. They're not in a pool. They're not at a barbecue. They're right here to talk to us, they are in our green room. They're coming up next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)