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Obama Asks Congress for War Powers; Interview with Representative Adam Schiff; U.S. Efforts to Rescue American Hostage; NBC Suspends Brian Williams for Six Months; New Details on Obama's War Powers Request

Aired February 11, 2015 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Thanks so much.

NEWSROOM starts now.

And good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me.

We begin this morning with the changing face of terrorism and Washington's desperate scramble to contain it. Just seconds ago President Obama formally asked Congress to grant him sweeping military powers to fight ISIS and its growing threat to the U.S. and its allies.

The danger hits home. ISIS confirming the death of American hostage Kayla Mueller and the White House confirms at least one other American is being held captive in Syria.

And the army of ISIS fighters grows bigger and more ominous. Terrorism experts now say 20,000 militants are ready to die for the cause. Among them a growing number of Americans deploying to the battlefield.

But let's begin with President Obama seeking official war authority to better mobilize the fight against ISIS.

I want to take you right to the White House and Michelle Kosinski. She has breaking news on this.

Good morning.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Carol. Right. This has been a long time in coming. We've heard the White House talk about the need for a specifically tailored authorization for the use of military force to ISIS.

The president sent this language, it's a proposal, legislative language to Congress but Congress is the one who's going to approve this to ask for that authorization, authorizing the president to use specific force against ISIS.

So it's been this balancing act tailoring it, making sure that the power isn't too broad as the White House believes it is now, because, remember, to fight ISIS the White House has been using two authorizations from 2001 and 2002. They pertain to al Qaeda and Iraq. The White House says that that gives it all the power it needs to wage war against ISIS, but fundamentally believes it's been too broad.

The other side of the balance, though, is making sure that it is broad enough as the situation changes. And that's where you get some push back from Republicans and Democrats on certain points of this.

We don't have the specific language yet from the White House. We are expecting that this morning, to hear more from there and from the hill. But we know that it's going to include limits on combat troops, on the possibility of using combat troops. Republicans aren't so happy about that. They believe that that curtails the power of the commander-in-chief and that -- because this would be a three-year plan it could limit the power of the next president.

Democrats aren't happy about, though, the possibility of leaving the first authorization from 2001 in place. That's the one that pertains to al Qaeda. Some believe that that should be repealed and the White House has been talking about repealing that, but it doesn't look like that's included in this request for authorization.

So we're going to wait and see what exactly the language is, but you see kind of what's taking shape here. Something that is tailored to fit ISIS but has to leave some flexibility, and that's been the argument -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right, Michelle Kosinski, I'm sure you'll continue to dig. Thanks so much.

Michelle Kosinski reporting live from the White House this morning.

Let's talk more about this with Congressman Adam Schiff. He's the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Welcome, sir. Thank you for joining me.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Thanks, Carol.

COSTELLO: The president is waging this mission based on a 2002 authorization. Is this a vote you want and think we need?

SCHIFF: Absolutely, and it's really long overdue. We've been at war with ISIS for six months now and Congress has yet to debate this, yet to take up an authorization. The White House has been relying on these old authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002 which really don't describe the conflict we're in now. So yes, it's about time that we're having this debate.

COSTELLO: You voted for the Iraq war in 2002, is that correct?

SCHIFF: Yes, I did.

COSTELLO: Do you regret that vote? SCHIFF: Absolutely. Unfortunately, our intelligence was dead wrong

on that, on Saddam at that time. We thought the weapons of mass destruction -- and that has set in motion a cascading series of events which have disastrous consequences.

So yes, absolutely. I wish I had that to do all over again.

COSTELLO: So I think the American people are thinking, will this be just like the Iraq war of 2002, a terrible mistake? How can you assure Americans that this -- I don't even know what to call it. How will this be different?

SCHIFF: Well, that's one of the reasons why I think it's so important that this authorization not be written so broadly that either this or a future president could use it to embark on another massive occupation of either Iraq or Syria. There are some that are arguing right now that we should have American boots on the ground doing combat in Syria, that we should be doing combat in Iraq instead of letting the Iraqis take up this fight.

I think that would be a colossal mistake. And I think in many respects as you point out it would indicate we haven't learned the lessons from Iraq, either -- or Afghanistan for that matter. This is a fight ultimately that's fought along ideological fault lines but is also a military fight but not one where American ground forces ought to be carrying the laboring ore. And that's why I think that part of this proposal really has to be narrowed.

COSTELLO: How narrow should it be?

SCHIFF: Listen, I would like to see it narrowed so that American troops can be used to train, for intelligence purposes, for search and rescue, for a downed pilot, for example, but I don't want to see this open the door to another massive occupation or have American troops relieve the burden of these Arab nations to fight their own fight. We should be there to support the Peshmerga, to support the Iraqi Special Forces.

But we should not become either a substitute for these nations taking it on themselves or working in league with the Iran-backed Shia militias if they're going to turn this into a sectarian fight. That's not something that we want to be in the middle of.

COSTELLO: Should the president also be allowed to send in these specialized troops beyond Iraq and beyond Syria to perhaps other places?

SCHIFF: Well, that's a good question. I don't think that's something that we ought to authorize in this bill. The president isn't asking to do that now. And should the president decide, hey, we have to go into Libya because ISIS has grown there or we have to go after Boko Haram because they're wreaking havoc in Africa, let him come back to Congress. This is not as if it is permanently set in stone and the president can't come back to Congress.

So I think we ought to write an authorization that's narrowly tailored to give the president the power he needs now. And if he needs to come back, he can come back to Congress.

COSTELLO: As you well know, Republicans and Democrats think very differently on this. Do you think that there will be a compromise and lawmakers will vote on something?

SCHIFF: I think there will be a compromise and I think there will be a bill. The question is, will it look more like what Senator McCain is urging, and that is a -- effectively a carte blanche for the president and for the next president. Or will it be something that's very narrowly tailored to do what the president says is the current mission, which many of us are going to be arguing for?

Undoubtedly it will be something in the middle but the question is, will it look more like an open-ended invitation to the president to make war or something that is very narrowly confined?

COSTELLO: All right. Congressman Adam Schiff, thank you so much for being with me. I appreciate it.

SCHIFF: Thank you, Carol.

COSTELLO: Another tactic to weaken ISIS is choking off its funding. That includes ransoms for hostages and seizing oil fields. And second to that oil revenue, according to "The Wall Street Journal" is the plundering of ancient sites.

Take a look at these before-and-after pictures from Raqqa, the Syrian city that's become the nerve center for ISIS. This is an 8th Century Shiite shrine, that militants bombed and bulldozed. Now Syria has formed its own "Monuments Men." Academics who retrieve priceless artifacts like those stolen from here and safeguard others that ISIS could target and then sell.

Continued heartbreak over Kayla Mueller's death and this morning questions about whether the United States did enough to try to save her. Should it have paid ransom to ISIS?

President Obama told BuzzFeed no, but he added he did everything else he could to rescue Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, I deployed -- an entire operation at significant risk to rescue not only her but the other individuals that have been held and probably missed them by a day or two, precisely because we had that commitment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: CNN's Will Ripley joins us from New York to discuss efforts to rescue Mueller.

Do the Muellers think the U.S. government did everything they could to rescue their daughter?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they'll have to -- they'll have to say for themselves how they feel about that when they -- when they decide to speak publicly, but there was certainly frustration over Kayla Mueller's 18 months in captivity. Her family made some requests to the U.S. government that were not fulfilled, and not just for ransom demands, but there was a lot happening that we're learning about.

And we're just now learning about it now, Carol, because of course when Kayla was still in captivity they didn't want to release any information about her including her name in hopes that she was still alive and would be able to make it home.

But what we learned, one thing detailed of course the president mentioned that raid on a military compound. You see there, Kayla's family was seeking a prisoner swap at one point. The U.S. government has it in the past denied, refused to do prisoner swaps in the case of other ISIS hostages, but then this is interesting.

An Arizona congressman, Paul Gosar, spoke to the "Arizona Republic" saying that a man was sent to pose as Kayla's husband and plead for her release. She was not, of course, in on this. And so when they asked her if she was married, she said, no, I'm not married. That plan fell apart.

Senator McCain working his sources in the Middle East including enlisting the Syrian opposition for help. And then of course the president talking about that U.S. military raid on that compound, Carol, where perhaps they think because of some faulty intelligence they missed Kayla and some of the other hostages by anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. They were that close. At least two times apparently and yet, of course, she didn't make it out. Just heartbreaking for her family.

COSTELLO: All right. Will Ripley reporting live for us this morning. Thanks so much.

I'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": I'm proud to hail from the great state of New Jersey. Number seven, have you met my sisters Venus and Serena Williams? Four, I invented nachos. Number three, my temporary replacement Lester Holt once killed a guy with his bare hands. The number one thing Brian Williams has said to me that may or may not be true, it's a thrill to be on your show, Dave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: I thought they were good friends, right? Well, I suppose all in good humor.

As for NBC, they are certainly not laughing. The truth isn't setting Brian Williams free, it's giving him some free time. NBC announcing they're taking Williams off the air for the next six months.

The network statement reads, quote, "While on 'Nightly News' on Friday, January 30th, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq war in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian's position."

For more than a decade Williams shared various versions about his time in Iraq. He was called out last week admitting he got it wrong. He then apologized. The "Today" show addressing Williams' break this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, ANCHOR, "THE TODAY SHOW": This is a very difficult story for us to report on because it is so, so personal in so many ways. Most importantly, Brian is not only a colleague of ours here but he's a really good friend.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, CO-ANCHOR, "THE TODAY SHOW": We all care a lot about Brian, that's what makes this so hard. We also care a lot about this place.

LAUER: Right.

GUTHRIE: The standards of NBC News and that's what NBC is trying to balance here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: "The Stars and Stripes" reporter who exposed the fib also reacting posting, quote, "Like the vets I spoke with, I just wanted to correct the record on what happened that day."

And if this all wasn't enough, oddly hours earlier, Jon Stewart dropped his own bombshell. He's leaving "The Daily Show." The rumor mills already spinning. Could Stewart be stealing Williams' seat while it's still warm?

Let's talk about all of this. I'm joined by Frank Sesno. He's the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, and media critic for "The Washington Post", Erik Wemple, also joins us.

Welcome to you both.

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Thanks.

COSTELLO: So, Erik, I'll start with you. You know, I'm reeling from this. It's just a spectacular fall. It's hard to believe that Brian Williams will ever be back in the anchor chair.

ERIK WEMPLE, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I mean, six months is a long time to spend just sort of kicking back or, you know, in Brian Williams' case, I imagine he will be spending a lot of -- many months of agony. I don't think his suspension does any good for Brian Williams or any good for NBC News.

COSTELLO: So, Frank, why didn't NBC go all the way then? They have to know if he's absent from the anchor desk for six months, it's going to be awfully hard for him to come back?

SESNO: Well, the people I talked to inside NBC say they're not sure that that call was an NBC call, that that call might or might not have come from Comcast, the corporate parent, and putting Brian Williams off provided a fig leaf for him, for them, for the news division.

But in point of fact, according to a lot of people who are reeling from this as you said today, it doesn't provide breathing room. It provides more agony because it allows conversations like this to go on. It allows the investigation to go on. It allows second, third, fourth shoes to maybe drop. So, it's a real problem.

It's a real question to me as to why they didn't fire him, as painful as that would be. I should say that I've admired Brian Williams for a very long time, certainly his journalism. This is something that sort of seems to split the difference, and I'm not sure it really satisfies anybody.

WEMPLE: Well, I think that in a situation like this, I mean, part of the statement is that they are committed to helping Brian rehabilitate himself and regain the trust of the public, and I think that, you know, indeed a lot of speculation surrounded by it, I think we should take NBC News at its word and consider, OK, you want to rehabilitate this guy. How do you do that over six months? And how do you do that in not giving this person a platform to come and give a fuller accounting, a fuller apology, a fuller sort of -- you know, sort of attempt to throw himself before the mercy of his viewers?

I think that's what Brian Williams needs. And I think that's what NBC News needs, more than just punting this into the future.

COSTELLO: Frank, maybe NBC is thinking people will forget. We have short memories, short attention spans. By the time he comes back nobody will remember anyway.

SESNO: I don't -- I don't know-- I don't think so. I think in this wild and crazy media world we live in where people feed off of this kind of stuff and rumor and gossip and scandal, this is the kind of thing that doesn't go away. You know, a politician once said, where do I go to get my reputation back? Once something gets dragged out it's pretty hard to reel it back in.

I agree with Erik. I mean, what is the strategy in six months? What does Brian say or do? What does the network say or do? What does Comcast say or do to reel in the person that if, in fact, this offense, as egregious as NBC has said, is at least a serial exaggerator.

And when -- you know, if you're a politician being a serial exaggerator is part of the job description. People expect you to could do that.

If you're a news person, that's not only not part of the job description, that's a fireable offense.

COSTELLO: Absolutely.

And not only that, Eric, you would expect that people within NBC are already like lobbying for Brian Williams' job. I mean, something -- some rumor came up yesterday already that Savannah Guthrie was next in line. I don't know if that's true or not, but you have to believe that there are people within NBC who are aiming for his job already.

WEMPLE: Absolutely. That's the way these places run. You know, NBC is -- news is a Hive of ambition and there are people out there outside of NBC News, too, who are capable of doing this job.

The problem really is that NBC News wanted to close -- make a closed case here. There's a clear hope and ambition to get this thing closed out, but there's still too many unanswered questions. The public and other news outlets are going to decide when this story is over. NBC News is not going to decide when this story is over.

SESNO: Carol, could I say one thing, too? I mean, when we talk about what's going on inside NBC -- I think it's very important for your viewers to understand that most people in the news business, despite all the screaming and yelling out there, take their jobs very, very seriously, especially at a place like NBC.

That reputation matters. This business about trust and credibility, it ends up in promos and ads. But it's actually what people bring to work every day. That they are the story tellers that people believe. Something like this is devastating to people and really hits them in the morale solar plexes and in the professional solar plexes. And so, that's -- there's a lot of hurt over there around this.

COSTELLO: And I totally agree with you there. Frank Sesno, Erik Wemple, thanks to both of you. I appreciate it.

SESNO: Thanks.

COSTELLO: I was just handed this letter that President Obama sent to Congress seeking official war authority.

Michelle Kosinski first made us aware of this. She joins us now, along with our congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

So, Michelle, you've been looking at this letter. It's two pages long. What have you found?

KOSINSKI: Yes. So, we're getting a look at this. This is legislative language that the president proposes to Congress in seeking that authorization to use military force against ISIS. Of course, people ask, well, we're already fighting ISIS, right? Well, the thing is we've been using authorizations that are very old pertaining to al Qaeda and the war in Iraq back from 2001, 2002.

The White House has long believed that even though that gives them all the authorization they say they need, it's not really proper to not have something that is narrowly tailored. But in looking what was sent, there is some narrow tailoring to it,

but there's also some breadth. In the breadth it applies to associated persons or forces of ISIS. That means other groups fighting alongside them, so that's potentially groups like the al Nusra front. And also, it doesn't limit where. No specifications because remember when we first started talking about this way back when ISIS really became, you know, something big on their radar screen, there were questions about this AUMF and would it also include Syria? Remember, that was before airstrikes started in Syria.

Well, now, it's not just Iraq and Syria, it seems to be because there are no limits anywhere that ISIS is. Now, in the narrowing of this there is a limitation as expected on ground troops. The language of the request says that it does not authorize the president to use forces in what they call enduring offensive ground combat operations. Enduring offensive ground combat operations.

But that also opens the window -- well, maybe short term ground offensive combat offensive operations.

COSTELLO: Wow.

KOSINSKI: Could it be something shorter? Remember, we do have boots on the ground in other capacities like Special Forces, search and rescue, and advisory role, Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. So, Dana, how will Congress take this letter? I mean, Republicans -- some Republicans want the president to do what he wants, right? Democrats want a more controlled kind of war. So, when they read this letter, will both sides be satisfied?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is kind of ironic. First of all, the answer is, no, not satisfied. We know that because up on Capitol Hill yesterday, I talked to many senators who had come from a briefing from the White House about this language, and it is ironic that Republicans want to give the president more latitude and Democrats want to give the Democratic president less latitude. But it's more about the position and the constitutional issues than who's in the building.

Let me just show you, Michelle was talking about a letter. Let me show you what went up to Capitol Hill. There was a letter and also legislative language, which actually is not that usual for the White House to send up legislative language on something that they want, but in this particular situation, they were very specific.

And Michelle just laid out the very important line that everybody is debating and that does divide particularly Democrats -- the issue of enduring offensive ground combat operations. It might be worth putting it back on the screen for our viewers, because this is what's making a lot of Democrats, even some of the president's most ardent supporters, uncomfortable, because they are saying and they asked -- I'm told -- in private meetings yesterday of the White House counsel and others, what exactly does that mean? That is something that is a little bit too murky for a lot of Democrats and a little bit too open ended. What they were told is that it won't be a buildup of forces, rather,

will be more of a rotation of forces going in and that's what that means. But I think you're going to see -- I know you're going to see a lot of debate about how to maybe change that language to make some Democrats feel more comfortable.

On the flip side, you have the John McCain's of the world that say this is too restrictive and there aren't 535 commanders in chief and it should be up to the president to decide because he is commander in chief what exactly the operations look like.

COSTELLO: All right. Dana Bash, Michelle Kosinski, thanks to both of you.

I just heard that President Obama will deliver a statement on this very matter, 3:30 Eastern Time. Of course, CNN will carry that live.

I'll be right back.

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