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THE SITUATION ROOM
President Obama Holds Press Conference; Obama, Gulf Leaders Agree to Boost Defense Ties; Drone Scare Prompts White House Lockdown. Aired 18-19:00p ET
Aired May 14, 2015 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: None of our nations have an interested in an open-ended conflict with Iran.
We welcome an Iran that plays a responsible role in the region, one that takes concrete, practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with its neighbors by peaceful means and abides by international rules and norms.
As I have said before, ending the tensions in the region and resolving its devastating conflicts will require a broader dialogue, one that includes Iran and its GCC neighbors. And so a key purpose of bolstering the capacity of our GCC partners is to ensure that our partners can deal with Iran politically, diplomatically from a position of confidence and strength.
And, finally, while this summit was focused on security cooperation, events in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab spring are a reminder that true and lasting security includes governance that serves all citizens and respects universal human rights.
So, in the Middle East, as we do around the world, the United States will continue to speak out on behalf of inclusive governance, representation -- representative institutions, strong civil societies and human rights, and we will work to expand the educational and economic opportunities that allow people, especially young people, to fulfill their potential.
So, again, I want to thank all of our GCC partners for making this summit a success. I believe that the Camp David commitments I have described today can mark the beginning of a new era of cooperation between our countries, a closer, stronger partnership that advances our mutual security for decades to come.
So, with that, I'm going to take some questions, and I will start with Julie Pace, because I promised her in the Oval Office that I would call on her.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: You mentioned in your statement the broad support from the GCC for stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Did you get any specific commitments from the Gulf leaders for the framework that you reached a few months ago, and at least a commitment to not publicly oppose a deal if you're able to reach that?
And on the Gulf's main concern, Iran's destabilizing activity in the region, how can you really assure them that Iran would not continue that activity, if they had an influx of money from sanctions relief, when they're already accused of doing so now with a weaker economy?
OBAMA: We didn't have a document that we presented to them to sign on the bottom line, will you approve of this nuclear framework deal, because the deal is not completed.
And in the same way that I wouldn't ask the United States Senate to -- or the American people to sign off on something before they have actually seen the details of it, and given that I'm not going to sign off on any deal until I have seen the details of it, I wouldn't expect them to either.
What I did hear from our GCC partners was their agreement that if we can get a comprehensive, verifiable deal, that cuts off the pathways to a nuclear weapon, that that would be in their interests and the interests of the region, as well as the world's community.
And so the question is then going to be, is Iran prepared to do what's required for the international community to feel confidence that, in fact, it's not a developing a nuclear weapon, and have we set up the kinds of inspection regimes that allow such confidence to be maintained, not just next year or five years from now, but out into the future?
So, what we did was, we had Secretary Kerry, Secretary Ernie Moniz, who obviously was involved in negotiations as well, to walk through why it was that we were confident that if the framework agreement we have arrived at were to be solidified, that, in fact, we could verify that they did not have a nuclear weapon. And that was important to them, and I think gave them additional confidence.
There was a concern, a concern that I share, that even if we deal effectively with the nuclear issue, that we will still have a problem with some of Iran's destabilizing activities. And a number of them did express the concern that, with additional resources, through the reduction in sanctions, that was it possible that Iran would siphon off a lot of these resources into more destabilizing activity?
Secretary Jack Lew was there to explain that, first of all, there would be no sanctions relief until we could confirm that Iran had actually carried out its obligations under any nuclear deal. Secondly, we gave them our best analysis of the enormous needs that Iran has internally, and the commitment that Iran has made to its people in terms of shoring up its economy and improving economic growth. [18:05:12]
And, as I pointed out, most of the destabilizing activity that Iran engages in is low-tech, low-cost activity. And so part of my emphasis to them was that if we are focusing more effectively on the things we need to do to shore up defenses, improve intelligence, improve the capacity for maritime monitoring of what's taking place in the Gulf, if we are working in concert to address the terrorist activity and countering terrorist messages that are coming, not just from state sponsors like Iran, but, more broadly, from organizations like ISIL, then we're going to be able to fortify ourselves and deal with many of these challenges much more effectively, and we can do so from a position of strength and confidence.
So, it's not to deny the concerns that were there about what happens when sanctions are reduced, but it was to emphasize that what matters more is the things that we can do now to ensure that some of this destabilizing activity is no longer taking place.
And, of course, when you look at a place like Yemen, the issue there is that the state itself was crumbling, and that, you know, if we can do a better job in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya, in building up functioning, political structures, then it's less likely that anybody, including Iran, can exploit some of the divisions that exist there.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.
On Syria, one of the reasons we're here is because many of the nations in the region were upset that, more than two years ago, when Bashar al-Assad deployed chemical weapons, there was no military response, as you appeared to promise, no retaliation on the part of the U.S. part
Now there's a possibility that Assad has once again used chemical weapons, what did you tell these leaders here who were disappointed last time, and will you use military response if it's confirmed that he used chemical weapons again, once again deployed them?
And if I could ask a domestic question as well, sir, and this is about the environment and the drilling that's recently been approved in the Arctic. This nation, the United States, is now a net exporter for the first time in years of fossil fuels, partly due to fracking, something environmentalists have objected to, something that you regard as an all-of-the-above energy strategy.
But the oil company Shell has had a very mixed record of drilling in that region. Many environmentalists look at this and say, is it really worth the risk to drill in such a delicate ecosystem? Thank you.
OBAMA: Well, first of all, Michael, I don't know why you're here, but the reason I'm here is not because of what happened in Syria couple of years ago. The reason I'm here is because we have got extraordinary challenges throughout the region, not just in Syria, but in Iraq, in Yemen, in Libya, and obviously the development of ISIL, and our interests in making sure that we don't have a nuclear weapon in Iran.
With respect to Syria, my commitment was to make sure that Syria was not using chemical weapons, and mobilizing the international community to assure that that would not happen. And, in fact, we positioned ourselves to be willing to take military action. The reason we did not was because Assad gave up his chemical weapons. And that's not speculation on our part. That, in fact, has been confirmed by the organization internationally that is charged with eliminating chemical weapons.
And I don't think that there are a lot of folks in the region who are disappointed that Assad is no longer in possession of one of the biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons of any country on Earth. Those have been eliminated. It is true that we have seen reports about the use of chlorine in bombs that had the effect of chemical weapons.
Chlorine, itself, historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion, can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical. And so we're working with the international community to investigate that.
And, in fact, if we have the kinds of confirmation that we need, we will, once again, work with the international community and the organization charged with monitoring compliance by the Syrian government, and we will reach out to patrons of Assad, like Russia, to put a stop to it.
With respect to the situation in the Arctic, I think it's fair to say that I know a little something about the risks of offshore drilling, given what happened in the Gulf very early in my presidency. And so nobody's more mindful of the risks involved and the dangers.
That's why, despite the fact that Shell had put in an application for exploration in this region several years ago, we delayed it for a very lengthy period of time, until they could provide us with the kinds of assurances that we have not seen before, taking account of the extraordinary challenges if, in fact, there was a leak that far north, and in that kind of an environment, which would be much more difficult to deal with than in the Gulf.
Based on those very high standards, Shell had to go back to the drawing board, revamp its approach, and the exports, at this point, have concluded that they have met those standards. But keep in mind that my approach when it comes to fracking, drilling, U.S. energy production of oil or natural gas has remained consistent throughout.
I believe that we are going to have to transition off of fossil fuels as a planet in order to prevent climate change. I am working internationally to reduce our carbon emissions and to replace, over time, fossil fuels with clean energies. Obviously, we start at home with all the work that we have done
to, for example, double the use of clean energy. But I think that it is important, also, to recognize that that is going to be a transition process. In the meantime, we are going to continue to be using fossil fuels, and when it can be done safely and appropriately, U.S. production of oil and natural gas is important.
I would rather us, with all the safeguards and standards that we have, be producing our oil and gas, rather than importing it, which is bad for our people, but is also potentially purchased from places that have much lower environmental standards than we do.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I would like to ask you about trade.
QUESTION: The Senate moved forward on a bill today to approve your trade legislation, and they also moved forward with a proposal to punish countries like China for what they do in terms of manipulating their currency.
Could you potentially see yourself accepting Senator Schumer's language on currency manipulation, or would you have to veto that? And, secondly, could you also talk about your relationship with Senator Warren? Do you regret the fact that things have become so personal with the back and forth on trade? And, secondly, if I could ask...
OBAMA: I'm going to have to -- wait, that was the second question, wasn't it? So now thirdly is what you're saying?
QUESTION: Really quickly.
You mentioned the issue of a two-state solution with Israel. I was wondering if you would give your reaction to what the pope is moving forward with in terms of recognizing the Palestinian state. Do you think that's a good idea? Do you think it's a mistake, and do you think it might help or hinder the two-state solution that you mentioned earlier?
Well, first of all, I want to congratulate the Senate on moving forward on providing me the authority to not only strike a smart, progressive, growth-promoting trade deal with some of the countries in the Asian Pacific region, and potentially in Europe as well, but also to give me the tooling to enforce those agreements, which haven't always happened in the past.
So I want to thank all the senators who voted to provide that authority, or at least to begin the debate on moving that process forward. Those who didn't vote for it, I want to keep on trying to make the case and provide them the information they need to feel confident that, despite the fact that there have been very genuine problems with some trade deals in the past, the approach that we're taking here, I think, is the right one, not just for big U.S. businesses, but also for small U.S. businesses and medium-sized U.S. businesses, and, most importantly, ultimately, American workers.
I would not be promoting any agreement that I didn't think, you know, at the end of the day, was going to be creating jobs in the United States and giving us more of an opportunity to create ladders of success, higher incomes, and higher wages for the American people, because that's my primary focus. It has been since I came into office.
You know, the issue with respect to myself and Elizabeth has never been personal. I think it's fun for the press to see if we can poke around at it, when you see two close allies who have a disagreement on a policy issue. But there are a whole bunch of some of my best friends in the Senate, as well as in the House, some of my earliest supporters, who disagree with me on this.
And I understand, because, like me, they came up through the ranks watching plants close, jobs being shipped overseas. Like me, they have concerns about whether labor agreements or environmental agreements with other countries are properly enforced.
Like me, they have concerns about whether, in fact, trade ends up being fair, and not just free. And, like me, they have a deep concern about some of the global trends that we have seen and trends that we have seen in our own countries in terms of increased inequality and what appears to be the effects of automation and globalization in allowing folks at the very top to do really, really well, but creating stagnation in terms of incomes and wages for middle-class families and folks working to get their way into the middle class.
So, these are folks whose values are completely aligned with mine. I noticed that there was sort of a progressive statement of principles about what it means to be a progressive by some of these friends of mine. And I noted that it was basically my agenda, except for trade. That was the one area where there was a significant difference.
And this just comes down to a policy difference and analysis in terms of what we think is best for our people, our constituents. It is my firm belief that, despite the problems of previous trade deals, that we are better off writing high-standard rules with strong enforceable provisions on things like child labor, or deforestation, or environmental degradation, or wildlife trafficking, or intellectual property, we are better off writing those rules for what is going to be the largest, fastest-growing market in the world. And if we don't, China will and other countries will be, and our
businesses will be disadvantaged and our workers will ultimately suffer. And in terms of some of the fears of outsourcing of jobs, it is my belief, based on the analysis, that, at this point, if there was a company in the United States that was looking for low-cost labor, they had no problem outsourcing it under the current regime.
And so what we do have the opportunity to do is to attract back companies to manufacture here in the United States. And we're seeing some of that happen. That's why I went out to Nike. I understand that Nike's been manufacturing shoes with low-cost labor in many of these areas in the Asia Pacific region. And that hurt the American footwear industry in terms of jobs here in the United States.
But that happened over the course of the last 30 years. And now, for Nike to announce that, because of new technologies, they're potentially bringing 10,000 jobs back here, because we have gone up the value chain, we're manufacturing in different ways, that's an opportunity. But we have still got to be able to sell over there to take full advantage of those opportunities, which is why my argument with my progressive friends is, what we really need to be focusing on, to meet the same objectives, the shared objectives, is the kinds of other issues that we all agree on, strong minimum wage, strong job training programs, infrastructure investments that put people back to work, stronger laws to protect collective bargaining and the capability of workers to have a voice, strong enforcement of rules around things like overtime pay, making sure that we have paid sick leave, making sure that we have an honest conversation about, you know, our budgets, and that we're not slashing investments in the future simply to make sure that we're preserving loopholes for corporations that don't provide any economic benefit.
Those are the things that are going to help us address the very problems that they're concerned about. Blocking a trade deal will not, particularly since they're the first ones to acknowledge that the existing trade rules are a bad deal for U.S. workers.
And if they're not working for us now, how does hanging on to what's going on now help American workers? It doesn't make sense. I'm all for enforcement and the provisions that were signed. I have expressed concerns about how the currency language that is in the bill is drafted, but I have talked to Senator Schumer and, you know, Sherrod Brown and others about how we can work on language that does not end up having a blowback effect on our ability to maintain our own monetary policy.
I don't even remember what your other question was.
Well, rather than speak for others, I will just reiterate what I have said previously. I continue to believe that a two-state solution is absolutely vital for not only peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but for the long-term security of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.
And I know that a government has been formed that contains some folks who don't necessarily believe in that premise, but that continues to be my premise. And since we're up here at Camp David, I think it's important to remind ourselves of the degree to which a very hard peace deal that required an incredible vision and courage and tough choices resulted in what's now been a lasting peace between countries that used to be sworn enemies.
And Israel is better off for it. I think the same would be true if we get a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. That prospect seems distant now, but I think it's always important for us to keep in mind what's right and what's possible.
OK. Last question. Scott Horsley.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.
You mentioned at the outset our need for a world-class infrastructure. We're coming up on a deadline for the Highway Trust Fund. With gas prices where they are, why isn't this a good time to consider a hike in the federal gas tax, which might also serve some of the carbon goals you talked about?
QUESTION: And since you mentioned the overtime rules, I know it's been about 14 months since you asked the Labor Department to put those together. They went over to OMB last week. How soon might we see this?
And with respect to transportation, you're absolutely right that now's the time for us to get something done. I'm practical. And in order for us to get a transportation bill done, I have got to get cooperation from a Republican-controlled Congress.
And so I'm in discussions with the majority and minority leaders in both chambers, as well as the relevant committee chairpersons. We want to hear their ideas. We want to find out what's possible. I think that that's going to be something that we need to explore, but this is not an area where either side should be looking for political points.
This did not used to be a partisan issue. Building roads, building bridges, building airports, sewer lines, dams, ports, this is how we grow. This is how America became an economic superpower, was investing in our people, investing in infrastructure, doing it better and faster and bigger than anybody else did. We should be doing the same thing now.
[18:25:18] The first Republican president, a proud native of my home state,
named Mr. Lincoln, even in the midst of Civil War, was looking at how do we join the country together through our railways and our canals? And we shouldn't be thinking smaller today. We need to be thinking bigger in this global economy.
So, my hope is, is that we have a chance to have a serious discussion and look at all potential revenue sources. What is absolutely true is, is that the Highway Trust Fund has consistently gotten smaller and smaller and smaller and inadequate for the needs.
What's also true is patchwork approaches of three months or six months at a time don't make any sense. We need some sort of long-term solution. Nobody foresaw that we could actually get a doc fix done and actually solve a long-term problem there, in terms of how we were managing Medicare payments for doctors.
Who knows. Maybe we might see some intelligent bipartisan outbreaks over the next few months, because I think everybody recognizes this is important.
All right, thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, so there he is, the president of the United States, a rare event, Camp David, Maryland.
He's been meeting with leaders from six Arab Gulf states talking about the Iran -- the proposed Iran nuclear deal, other issues, trying to reassure them that the United States will stand by those Arab countries. They are deeply concerned about the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
Let's discuss what we just heard on several fronts.
Jim Sciutto is our chief national security correspondent.
Jim, tell us your analysis, what we just heard from the president. Obviously, he has a lot of work to do to reassure these Arab leaders.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. He has nervous allies, in some areas, unreassureable, really, on this Iran nuclear deal.
But he offered them a number of sweeteners, consolations perhaps to help allay those fears, for instance, fast-tracking arm sales, he says, to the Arab states, a missile early warning system, ballistic missile, of course, the chief concern coming from Iran, also more military exercises, special forces training, that sort of thing, not exactly a NATO-like agreement in terms of a mutual defense pact, but there was a lot of talk in the statement about security cooperation with these allies to meet common threats, all that to help allay their fears.
But, really, at the end of the day, they are going to be generally nervous with an empowered Iran here that still maintains nuclear capability. You already have the Saudis, for instance, outside of this conference, making comments about the possibility of matching Iran's nuclear capability to keep up.
But I will tell you, one of the answers struck me in particular. And that's when he was asked about, will Iran with more money from sanctions relief be given more freedom, more funding to carry out their destabilizing activities around the region? The president said, well, most of what they do is low-tech. They could do it without money.
But I have to tell you, Wolf, on a day that you had Iranian Revolutionary Guard ships firing on a cargo ship in international waters, and something that we have seen a couple of times in the last couple of weeks, it shows the ability that has to destabilize things. And that is the kind of thing that makes those Gulf allies and will continue to make them very nervous.
BLITZER: Yes. They have told me, several representatives from these Gulf Arab states, that with the tens of billions of dollars that are going to be opened up for Iran right now once those sanctions are eased and eventually lifted, they're really worried what the Iranians might do, not only in Syria, but in Yemen, in Libya, in other countries, including those countries themselves, those six Arab countries represented at the summit in Camp David.
Elise Labott is our global affairs correspondent. She was listening very carefully.
I know, Elise, you're speaking to your sources. What are you hearing?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think the Gulf allies, as Jim said, have reason to be nervous, but they're walking away today I think very happy.
I'm already hearing from some diplomats in the meeting saying that they were very happy, it was a positive meeting, all of the countries walked out with a good mood, a good tone. In the lead-up to this summit in the last week or so, everyone was concerned that there wouldn't be a written agreement. Then you saw the backing out of the Saudi king and some other diplomats, and the whole snub storyline.
At the end of the day, while this isn't a written pact, as Jim said, a NATO-like pact or something that the U.S. has with Japan or South Korea, that's a very strong statement from President Obama.
I just want to read a little bit, promising the U.S. will work with its GCC partners in the event of some kind of aggression to determinedly urge what action may be appropriate, including the use of military force.
So on paper, the U.S. is not committing itself to defend these allies, but you have the president of the United States coming out and saying, "If you are facing aggression, the U.S. will have your back." And if that means military force, the U.S. also committing to work on a lot of these other issues that the Gulf allies were concerned about. That's Syria. That's Yemen. That's Libya.
I think what these countries were looking for was a very firm statement of engagement that they have found lacking from this president in recent years, and diplomats telling me, no, it's not everything we want. They want the beginning of a process. They're hoping the next meeting will be next year in Riyadh, and they're saying, "We want to build on what we got today, to be able to even deepen this relationship as the U.S. goes forward."
BLITZER: All right, Elise. Stand by. I want to bring in Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He's the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Congressman, you were listening very closely to what the president just said. I know you and a delegation just returned from your own trip to the region, including to Saudi Arabia, where you met the crown prince there. What's your reaction to what we heard from the president?
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: Well, we want the president to be engaged and having dialogue, but the problem is when the president talks when what he's going to do in Syria, what he's going to do in Libya, what he's going to do in Yemen, these are all places where we had U.S. ambassadors and we've had to flee our embassy.
And when you meet with the senior leadership there in Saudi Arabia, as I met with the new crown prince, the foreign minister who used to be the ambassador to the United States, they're very definitive, in that they do not believe the United States has their back. They are mystified as to why we are negotiating with Iran when they are there in the Arabian Sea with great proximity to Saudi Arabia, doing things to destabilize the region.
So if you look at the Houthis and the problems that we're having down there, it clearly has a line back to Iran. So why negotiate with somebody who on a daily basis is causing problems and destabilizing the region, making it more different for the United States and the region in general?
BLITZER: Let's go through some other issues while I have you, Congressman. The Secret Service, as you know, right outside the White House detained a man today who apparently was trying to fly a drone over the White House fence. Have you been briefed on this incident?
CHAFFETZ: Elijah Cummings and I did get a briefing from Director Clancy just within the last two hours. You did have a Secret Service agent who witnessed a person who was trying to get a drone up into the air. They evidently, according to the briefing, detained him very quickly. The drone landed. Park police took him into custody. And he's being questioned as we speak now.
The person evidently initially said that he was -- he bought this drone in the last day or two, wanted to take some aerial photos of the White House, was his excuse, but they'll have to explore that further. BLITZER: Because it does follow a series of security breaches at
the White House, as you well know. I guess the bottom line question, are you confident the president, the first family, they are secure over there?
CHAFFETZ: I really do worry about this, Wolf. In this case, you know, a Secret Service agent or officer -- I'm not sure which one it was -- took this person and did -- dealt with it immediately, but I do think we have ongoing security concerns.
We met with the inspector general today and had a hearing, talked about four very senior people at the Secret Service from that March 4 incident who, in their best estimations, they were intoxicated, went into a crime scene. There were so many things that went wrong with that.
And it's really a challenge for Director Clancy right now to change the culture at the Secret Service. It's just still a good old boys network. These guys were drinking for five hours and then went back to the White House. They've got guns, interrupted a crime scene, lied to people that were there on the ground, and yet the Secret Service has still not taken disciplinary action against these officers -- I mean, these agents.
BLITZER: Is there, in your sense, some sort of way to detect a drone flying over the White House at a low level? For example, below radar, if you will. Is there any way? Because we know the U.S. uses drones in the Middle East and North Africa to go after individuals with Hellfire missiles.
And the worry that I'm heard from some U.S. national security personnel is these kinds of incidents, even if this guy wanted to fly a drone today over the White House, sort of just being stupid, if you will, it does give terrorists ideas.
CHAFFETZ: Whatever you shoot is going to come down, not only the projectile that you shoot, but the drone or the gyrocopter itself. But what's happened, with the fence jumping incident, the gyrocopter, the drones, those types of things, is that aura of inevitability that the Secret Service or Capitol Hill police will prevail, I'm afraid, has dwindled if not disappeared. And it gives crazy people and terrorists other ideas.
[18:35:04] Now, I think you will see them being much more aggressive. There are tools in which they can take these down, but the detection itself is very difficult.
And I worry that these frontline officers and agents who've got to make split-second decisions, you know, what are the rules of engagement? I want them to see -- take a much more aggressive stance and take things down and take them down hard. I think that's the message we need to send.
BLITZER: Jason Chaffetz, the congressman from Utah, thanks very much for joining us.
CHAFFETZ: Thanks, Wolf
BLITZER: All right. We're following several breaking news developments right now. We'll take a quick break. Much more right after this.
[18:40:09] BLITZER: The breaking news, the leader of ISIS apparently alive and well in control of his terrorist forces and making a threatening new appeal to an audio message that has just been released. Let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's working the story for us.
What are you finding out, Jim?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I've spoken to U.S. officials. They say there is no reason to doubt that this is indeed the voice of the ISIS leader.
And the key thing here, though, is this message, this warning, encouraging ISIS supporters around the world, wherever they are, including here in the U.S., to take up arms and carry out acts of terror.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): In a new audio message, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi makes a threatening new appeal, calling on new recruits to join the group or fight, quote, "in his hand or wherever they may be."
Heard for the first time in six months, Baghdadi references the Saudi air campaign in Yemen that began on March 26, a sign he survived an airstrike Iraqi officials say he was wounded in in February.
Airstrike after devastating airstrike. American officials say the U.S.-led air campaign is having a punishing effect on ISIS, its fighters and, the U.S. says, its leaders.
JEFF RATHKE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: I think if you look at the extent of ISIL's reach about a year ago and look at where it is now, you see that it has -- it has been pushed back in many, many places.
SCIUTTO: Now the Iraqi military says a coalition strike killed the second in command of the terror group, Abu Alaa al-Afri, whose roots in ISIS date back more than a decade. He's been a key U.S. target, with a $7 million bounty on his head. The Pentagon tells CNN it has no hard evidence that al-Afri is dead.
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There have been people burned in the past when they said they struck and destroyed a target or killed an individual, and suddenly, that individual pops back up somewhere else.
SCIUTTO: It is not clear, however, how seriously the death of a senior leader would change the equation on the battlefield. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of ISIS's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in 2006, the group he led survived, grew, and to this day controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Still, with ISIS, as with all terror groups, leadership does matter.
HERTLING: They control the operational tempo and the kind of design of the operation, especially in this organization, which has key leaders from both terrorist background, but also from military background.
SCIUTTO: U.S. officials I've spoken with have always doubted the story that he was incapacitated, injured in this strike in February. And now we see, Wolf, today evidence that he is alive and he appears to be very much in control of this group.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
Let's dig deeper right now with the former CIA deputy director, Michael Morrell. He's got a brand-new book out, entitled "The Great War of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism from al Qaeda to ISIS."
Mr. Morrell, thanks very much for joining us. How important is it to take out these high-profile terrorist leaders? The U.S. has been trying to do so for a long time, but they seem, once they're taken out, others come back up.
MICHAEL MORRELL, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Yes, Wolf, it is very important to take out the senior leadership of these terrorist groups. One of the things we learned is, if you can keep these guys on their back heels, if you can keep them worrying about their own security, if you keep on having to replace them, you weaken the groups. You make it -- you make it much more difficult for them to plan and to conduct attacks.
BLITZER: In this new audio message, this ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he calls for new recruits to join the fight, to -- wherever they may be. How big of a threat does ISIS really pose to the U.S. homeland?
MORRELL: So right now -- right now not a direct threat. The threat they pose, Wolf, is an indirect threat in terms of radicalizing young American men and women to conduct attacks on their behalf.
But the longer they have safe haven in Iraq and Syria, Wolf, they will become a greater threat, and if they have it long enough, they will be able to pose a 9/11-style threat, which is one of the reasons I wrote this book. And I wanted people to know that.
BLITZER: Where is the U.S. most vulnerable?
MORRELL: I think we're still most vulnerable in airlines. Because there's three al Qaeda groups out there, Wolf: al Qaeda in Yemen, al Qaeda still in Pakistan, and this Khorasan group, which is associated with al-Nusra in Syria. All three of those groups can conduct attacks in western Europe in the homeland, and they're still focused on airlines.
I am worried about ISIS in terms of self-radicalizing folks here, and having some of those folks walk into malls with automatic weapons could do a tremendous amount of damage. So I worry about both of those things.
BLITZER: So what do -- what does the U.S. need to do to minimize these threats? Because my own sense is this war against terror is going to go on like the war against crime in the United States, probably never really going to end.
MIKE MORELL, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Wolf, one of the things I say in my book is my grandchildren's generation and my children's generation will still be fighting this fight.
The big lesson learned in counter-terrorism, you have to keep the pressure on them. If you keep the pressure on them, you have them worrying about their own security, you have them on their back foot, it makes it more difficult. But as soon as you take the pressure off, Wolf, they come back at you. That's the big lesson.
BLITZER: How good is the intelligence community telling the president and other leaders in Congress, elsewhere what's going on, because we've seen -- I mean, and you know this, you write about it, some significant blunders over the years. Not just the Iraq weapons of mass destruction stockpiles, but since then there have been major blunders.
MORELL: Wolf, one of the reasons I wrote the book is because there's a lot of myths out there about the CIA. And one myth is that we're James bond, we can -- we can do anything, we can steal any secret, we can stop any plot. That's nonsense.
You know, I think the other myth is we are Maxwell Smart, right? And we get everything wrong, everything we touch.
The other myth is we're Jason Bourne and we're rouge, with no oversight from the president, no oversight from Congress. That's wrong, too. The reality is that this is a group of really hard- working, dedicated people trying to protect the country who gets most things right, but do get some things wrong, Wolf, like any organization does.
BLITZER: So, with the president of the United States, Mr. Morell, goes out and says the counter-terrorism war in Yemen, in Somalia, is a success, and a few months later, the U.S. has to evacuate the embassy, for example. In Sana'a, Yemen, the embassy hasn't been reopened, in Somalia in a long time.
Is that based on bad intelligence he is getting?
MORELL: Wolf, I can only tell you what we've been telling this administration and this Congress for a long time, which is that essentially there's been essentially two great victories in this war against al Qaeda since 9/11. One great victory is that we have protected the homeland. There's been no attacks by outside groups here, and we have degraded and decimated the al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan.
Their great victory has been the spread of their ideology, Wolf, across a huge geographic area. That's the real story of Benghazi, the story of Libya, that's the story of now of Iraq. We've been telling that story for a long, long time.
BLITZER: So when the president says ISIS, did this a year or so ago, is the jayvee team, for example, is that based on an intelligence failure as well? Because we clearly now know, ISIS in control of huge chunks of Syria and Iraq for that matter, and control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq right now. Clearly not the jayvee team.
MORELL: Wolf, we got most of the ISIS story right. We monitored al Qaeda in Iraq, which as you know is the predecessor to ISIS. We monitored them as soon as the U.S. forces left in 2011, they started gaining strength, we told that story, and when they moved into Syria and got even stronger because they got their hands on weapons, they got their hands on money, they got their hands on more fighters, we told that story.
What we got wrong, Wolf, on ISIS was not ISIS, but what we got wrong was how quickly the Iraqi security forces evaporated in the face of the ISIS blitzkrieg over a year and a half ago now.
BLITZER: Are you with the president in trying to get this deal with Iran? Do you think Iran is really going to end it's nuclear -- military capability.
MORELL: Wolf, I come at this as the way of an intelligence officer does, which is here's what I would be advising the president -- I'd be advising him on what aspects of the deal that I could successfully monitor for him in which parts I couldn't. The other thing I'd be doing is trying to put this in a broader context for the president.
The nuclear program is not the only thing that the Iranians are doing that we are worried about. They practice terrorism. They support international terrorist groups. They support insurgents in the Middle East.
They want to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. So, I try to put that in a bigger context for him. And, by the way, that's where our Arab Sunni allies are coming from as they look at Iran and as they look at this nuclear deal.
BLITZER: Mike Morell has written an important book entitled, "The Great War of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Again Terrorism" from al Qaeda to ISIS. Mr. Morrell, thanks for your service. Thanks very much for writing this book.
MORELL: Great to be with you, Wolf. Thank you. BLITZER: Thank you.
There's another major story we're following right now. Likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush trying to end many uproar that's been dogging him all week long -- the fumble of repeated questions about whether he supports his brother's decision to launch that U.S. invasion.
Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is here with more.
What's the latest on this front, Dana?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, I'm actually told by sources close to Jeb Bush that it's been abundantly clear to his presidential campaign in waiting that they had to put his rhetorical stumble on Iraq to rest.
[18:50:09] And there had been active internal debates into how to do that all week long. Today, he gave it another try.
JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: All right.
BASH (voice-over): Day four and a fourth attempt at answering the question, knowing what we know today, would he have invaded Iraq.
BUSH: We're all supposed to answer hypothetical questions knowing what we know now, what would you have done. I would have not engaged, I would not have gone into Iraq.
BASH: Jeb Bush offered that clarification without even being asked.
Days of mixed messages about his Iraq position, such a problem, it was actually being discussed on "The View", on the television right above him as he spoke in Arizona today.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's between Iraq and a hard place.
BASH: The confusion stems from this on FOX Monday.
BUSH: I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody.
BASH: This on Tuesday.
BUSH: I don't know what that decision would have been. That's a hypothetical.
BASH: And this on Wednesday.
BUSH: Given the power of looking back and having that, of course anybody would have made different decisions. BASH: Even Bush supporters scratch their heads, baffled that
someone named Bush whose brother's legacy was marred by invading Iraq based on faulty intelligence was not better prepared to give his position. Sources close to Jeb say it's hard for him to throw his brother under the bus, which even he admitted.
BUSH: I don't go out of my way to disagree with my brother. I am loyal to him. I don't think it's necessary to go through every place where I disagree with him.
BASH: Jeb Bush's opponents, free of his family ties, are eager to show they can finesse it, especially Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush's protege.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do not believe that if the intelligence had said Iraq does not have a weapon of mass destruction capability, I don't believe President Bush would have authorized to move forward.
BASH: More proof of how hard it will be to run for president as a Bush, this confrontation with a Democratic activist.
IVY ZIEDRICH, DEMOCRATIC ACTIVIST: Your brother created ISIS!
BUSH: All right. Is that a question? Is that a question?
ZIEDRICH: You don't need to be pedantic to me sir. You could just answer my question.
BUSH: What is your question?
ZIEDRICH: My question is why are you saying that ISS is created by us not having a presence in the Middle East --
BUSH: Because by the time we left --
ZIEDRICH: -- when it's pointless wars where we send young American men to die for the idea of American exceptionalism. Why are you spouting nationalist rhetoric to get us involved in more wars?
BUSH: We respectfully disagree. We have a disagreement.
BASH: There's still that key question, Wolf, about why Jeb Bush wasn't prepared to answer predictable questions about Iraq. A Bush adviser insists to me they did go over it, he was prepared but it got tripped up when he in his words misheard the question, knowing what you know now -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Dana, I want you to stand by. I want to bring in our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, our CNN political reporter, Sara Murray.
Gloria, is it too little too late for Jeb Bush? Has the damage been done throughout this week, all these clarifications? GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think what
he's exhibited is unsteadiness. Of course, it's not too late for anything. He made a mistake. It took four tries.
What this shows you is this is a candidate who -- candidate to- be, I should say, who is rusty, who is unsteady, who was torn by family loyalty, by advisers and by his own instinct. And it shows you that he's got to get his act together before he gets into the main game here. Because a lot of people are kind of scratching their heads saying, how could this happen. This is a priority question that he knew he was going to be asked and he didn't have an answer for it right out of the box.
BLITZER: Sara, what's your analysis?
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: I do think they're right. I think people expected Jeb Bush's political skills to be sharper than they are.
But I also think he expected his campaign to respond better than that. They're looking at this campaign operation that has set ambitious goals and they're saying, look, is the only thing this campaign can do well is raise money? Why aren't they on message? Why aren't they prepared for these kinds of questions?
That's what you worry about especially when you have donors who are asking that question, donors who have raised $1 million or more for your campaign, especially in a place like Florida when Marco Rubio could start to look more appetizing.
BLITZER: Dana, this question was totally predictable. Is he just rusty right now? What's going on?
BASH: You know, I actually am in the camp that doesn't necessarily think it's a rusty issue. But I think it is maybe an issue where the infrastructure is just not there.
You know, one of the things that Bush advisers argue when we question why is he waiting so long to run, aside from the obvious that he's trying to raise a lot of money, unlike almost everybody else running, he didn't have a structure around him, both a political structure and a policy structure.
[18:55:01] He's been out of office for nearly ten years. Sitting senators, they have their Senate offices. They have to be careful but they've still been honing their ideas currently. Same with the governors and even people who have left office. Not so for Jeb Bush, and I think this is a symptom of that and I think we're seeing that pretty clearly.
I think there are also some quirks in personality issues that make this a particular issue given the fact that, you know, as we've been talking about, Jeb Bush is unique to everybody else, nobody else is related to Jeb Bush -- to George W. Bush.
BORGER: Yes. I think, Wolf, one of the interesting things here is the role that the family plays. Jeb Bush clearly doesn't want to insult his brother. And you know, he says he's running as his own man but then on the other hand he said w is my chief adviser on Mideast policy.
He says he loves his brother and he doesn't want to insult his brother which is an admirable trait. But it doesn't do him much good as a candidate. He doesn't do him much good as a candidate if he makes it to the general, you know? And it's kind of hurting him right now.
He's going to have to work his way through this family loyalty issue as he progresses, because most Republicans believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake.
BLITZER: But, Sara, of any question out there, this is the one question he certainly should have been better prepared to answer, right?
MURRAY: You absolutely should be prepared to answer this question if your name is Jeb Bush. That is what everyone is telling me.
The other thing they're saying is they don't necessarily know if this kind of problem gets better once he announces that he's actual candidate. If you look at the way Jeb Bush is kind of setting up his operation, he's going to have his super PAC, which he can't coordinate with once he announces. He's going to have a campaign and he's going to have a separate policy shop that's structured as a C4.
The idea that they're having a problem getting on the same page with messaging right now before he announces is kind of a warning sign to some people that's only going to get more difficult with this structure when he does announce that he's running for president.
BLITZER: Gloria, striking, a bit of a contrast this week -- Marco Rubio, the other senator from Florida and a friend of Jeb Bush obviously gave a major address on foreign policy at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and it was widely seen as pretty successful. Jeb Bush, Rubio's mentor. But has the student now, at least on certain foreign policy matters become the teacher?
BORGER: Well, it's interesting. It's almost Shakespearean, right? The protege here, challenging the man who took his under his wing and taught him everything. And I think Jeb Bush would say that he's the person in the field that you should look at when it comes to foreign policy.
But I think what Rubio has done is really smart. Marco Rubio has studied assiduously, had taken the last couple of years and used his stature as a senator to get briefed, to deal with foreign leaders one on one, to travel, to explore and to come up with kind of a foreign policy agenda. He blew it a little bit on immigration when he signed on to a compromise that some Republicans object to.
But I think Rubio, to use your metaphor, Rubio has been a very good student here. And the teacher might take some lessons from him, Wolf.
BLITZER: So, Dana, is this whole incident going to force some big-time Republican donor to maybe walk away from Jeb Bush and walk towards Marco Rubio?
BASH: Walk away, unclear. I know Sara has been doing some reporting and talked to some donors who are not very pleased with this. But truthfully at this stage of the game for Jeb Bush, it's not so much about the donors. It's about the grassroots.
And, you know, this is just the latest example of, you know, making the grassroots feel comfortable that he is going to be an agent of change, a candidate for the future. Because that's what people out there are really going for. And he has been really out there all across the country saying, look, I know my name -- effectively, I know my name is Bush but I'm a different kind of guy. I am my own guy and here are the reasons why I can be different.
This just kind of backs that up a little bit. It makes it a lot harder for him to do.
BLITZER: Sara --
BASH: I also talked to Republicans, just quickly, who say this is the least of his worries when you talk about the Republican primary.
BASH: It's immigration. It's Common Core. Those are the things that are going to trip him up with the primary voters. Never mind the general electorate.
BLITZER: We're almost out of time, Sara. But very quickly, what's going to be the impact?
MURRAY: I think a lot of donors are shaking their heads saying he should have been better prepared. They're just happy to see is this happening with many months to go before the Iowa caucuses. He has a lot of time to repair this damage but he's going to have to bring his A game.
BLITZER: He's going to -- absolutely right. Sara Murray, thanks very much, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger. We'll continue to stay on top of this major political story.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.