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Muslim Conspiracy?; Romney's Tax Returns

Aired July 18, 2012 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It's 10:00 here on the East Coast.

And we begin tonight "Keeping Them Honest": trying to get answers from five Republican members of Congress who are alleging massive infiltration of the U.S. government by radical Islamic jihadist, members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, today, one of those lawmakers, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, refused to answer questions about her unproven claim that Muslim extremists had infiltrated the government.

And another lawmaker, Republican Senator John McCain, took an extraordinary step, went on the Senate floor calling Bachmann out on it.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.


COOPER: Now, this almost never happens, a sitting member of Congress publicly scolding other sitting members, let alone members of his own party, in this case, Senator McCain talking about Congresswoman Bachmann and four of her House Republican colleagues.

As we have been reporting, they want the inspectors general of five security agencies to look into what Bachmann calls the possible deep penetration, her words, of Muslim extremists into the U.S. government. But they're not just talking about a general conspiracy. They're actually point fingers at a particular person, this woman, Huma Abedin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's deputy chief of staff, implying that she may be somehow work on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and questioning how she even got a security clearance.

Again, Senator McCain today.


MCCAIN: To say that the accusations made in both documents are not substantiated by the evidence they offer is to be overly polite and diplomatic about it.

It is far better and more accurate to talk straight. These allegations about Huma Abedin and the report from which they're drawn are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American and a loyal public servant.


COOPER: Now, this is the third night we have been reporting this story.

And we have gotten some feedback from viewers, some tweets wondering why we're giving Congresswoman Bachmann and her four colleagues so much coverage.

Let me just take a moment before we go on to tell you why. Because this is a country which is supposed to protect and uphold religious liberty. And when any religious group or group of people is targeted without evidence, targeted by sitting members of Congress, that is not something anybody should remain silent about.

Some people have tweeted me saying these are just allegations made by political reasons by some fringe politicians appealing to their base. That may be true, but these allegations have very real consequences, not just for the individuals who are unfairly put under a microscope of suspicion, but consequences for our foreign policy, for all of us. It has a real-world impact.

These allegations are having an impact right now around the world, affecting American foreign policy in one of the most sensitive regions on Earth, the Middle East. We're going to show you how in just a moment.

But first, I want to show you what Congresswoman Bachmann is basing her suspicion of Huma Abedin on. I want to kind of walk you down the road that she is taking. In a 16-page letter to Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim member of Congress, a Democrat, she says that Huma Abedin late father, mother and brother are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Here's how she figures it. Let's start with Abedin's father, again, her dead father, a named Huma Abedin, who is a professor of social science and the founder of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, decades ago, talking decades ago.

Now, Bachmann attributes this information to a 2002 law review article out of Brigham Young University. According to that article, Professor Abedin's institute had the support of another man named Dr. Umar Abdallah Nasif, who is a former general-secretary of another group called the Muslim World League.

Now, Bachmann says that according to the Pew Forum, the Muslim World League has a history of -- quote -- "being closely aligned and partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood."

That's how many degrees of separation Congresswoman Baghdad's claim is based on. Huma Abedin's deceased father started an organization decades ago, allegedly had the support of another guy who had another organization that might have had the support of another organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

And because of that, Huma Abedin might be some sort of spy or infiltrator or agent of influence and deserves to be investigated. As for Abedin's mother and brother, Congresswoman Bachmann never gives any evidence of their alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

As I mentioned, all these charges are having an impact on U.S. foreign policy. Here's how. Take a look. These are angry crowds that greeted Secretary Clinton and Huma Abedin in Cairo over the weekend. You might be wondering, what are they protesting about?

They're protesting the election of their new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, some carrying signs saying stop U.S. funding of the Muslim Brotherhood, and -- quote -- "Clinton is the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood."

So, now, where would they get an idea like that? It turns out from an American blogs and Web sites. That's what a number of Egyptians told reporters. One Egyptian blogger directed "The Wall Street Journal" to the transcript of a conversation between two American conservatives who claim that Huma Abedin was participating in a Muslim Brotherhood plot to penetrate the U.S. government.

And that blogger's source is also Michele Bachmann's source, Frank Gaffney, who runs a group called the Center for Security Policy. Mr. Gaffney says the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating every aspect of American life or trying to in order to impose Sharia law.

The Southern Poverty Law Centers calls Frank Gaffney, and I quote, "the anti-Muslim movement's most paranoid propaganda."

But before Frank Gaffney was focusing on Huma Abedin, he was casting suspicion on a conservative named Grover Norquist, who is married to a Muslim woman. Now, Norquist, you have heard his name. He's famous for asking Republican candidates to take a pledge not to raise taxes.

But Gaffney has said that Norquist is helping the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrate the conservative movement. Those allegations by the way were condemned by a number conservative groups and got Mr. Gaffney barred from CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The American Conservative Union, by the way, investigated his allegations against Grover Norquist and found them -- quote -- "false and unfounded and resolved. Its complete confidence in the loyalty of Suhail Khan," who was a Bush department official who Gaffney also raised questions about, "and Grover Norquist to the United States."

He's the intellectual inspiration behind the allegations from Bachmann and company. What makes Senator John McCain's statement today so frankly bold is that other Republican members of Congress have been either silent on Bachmann's charges or kind of supportive, one, Michigan Republican Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Let me repeat that. He is the chairman of the committee. Here is what he said recently on Frank Gaffney's radio show, seeming to buy into the Muslim infiltration theory, in this case referring to a decision to edit FBI training materials to remove language that critics said was frankly anti-Muslim.


REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Michele Bachmann is kind of taking the lead of this particular issue and going through and trying to figure out what they took out of the training materials and what they left in and why did it get changed?


COOPER: It bears restating, Congressman Rogers is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He's a very powerful lawmaker.

As for Congresswoman Bachmann, we spent much of today trying to track her down and get her to answer some questions. She would not. After McCain blasted her, she released a statement saying her allegations are being distorted. In her statement, by the way, she made no mention of Huma Abedin, no mention of McCain's statement against the congresswoman.

Instead, she focused on a new allegation, one that arguably has more substance to it. A newly elected Egyptian lawmaker named Hani Nour Eldin was given a visa to come to the United States as part of an Egyptian government delegation that met with National Security Council officials.

Now, Hani Nour Eldin belongs to an Islamist group that's been designated a terror group by the United States. A lot of people, reporters and others and politicians, have raised questions about how this guy got a visa, and why he was given a visa.

The State Department telling "The Washington Post" they're looking into the matter.

Let's talk about it now with senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash, who spent a lot of today trying to talk to Michele Bachmann, also's Alex Seitz-Wald.

Dana, you finally tracked down Congresswoman Bachmann today to try to get some answers. She was I understand less than happy to see you. What happened?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, the good news is I can walk pretty fast in heels. The bad news is Michele Bachmann can walk just as fast. She proved to be pretty adept at not only avoiding my questions, but talking enough so that I could barely get any questions out. Watch what happened.


BASH: Hey, Congresswoman. How are you?


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Sorry. I can't right now.


BASH: Senator McCain was just on the Senate floor and he said that what you're doing, going after Huma...


BACHMANN: I can't right now.


BACHMANN: But I can't do it right now.

BASH: Can you do an interview with us later?

BACHMANN: Yes, I can, but I have got to...

BASH: All right, thank you.


BASH: Anderson, I have learned over the years trying to get members of Congress to answer questions on the fly, and I have done it many, many times, if they're not going to answer it, they're not going to answer it.

But if a lawmaker tells me they will get back to me but they don't have time but they will do an interview later, I try to take them at her word. She didn't do that. Her office said after several e-mails that she didn't have time in her schedule. She only put out that statement you referenced which said her letters were being distorted.

COOPER: It is fascinating to me in her statement that she made no mention of Huma Abedin. She seems to have kind of basically tried taking a hands off on that, because she really presented no evidence of that.

You actually also ran into Senator McCain after his condemnation, which is very rare for somebody to do. What did he say to you?

BASH: I asked Senator McCain to take, as you said, such an unusual step like he did, go to the Senate floor and condemn members of his own party.

He told me he did it first of all, because he knows Huma personally. He likes and respects her and feels she is being unfairly maligned.

But he also revealed to me that Michele Bachmann called him today after he spoke out against her on the Senate floor. And she said that she explained she was genuinely worried about Muslim infiltration of the Obama administration.

And McCain said he told her, look, Huma isn't the problem. But I should tell you that McCain isn't the only one to speak out. He's the most public, the most high-profile, but our old friend here at CNN, Ed Rollins, who also ran Michele Bachmann's campaign for a short while, her campaign for president, he wrote a scathing piece where he called her extreme and dishonest.

He noted that Bachmann had difficulty with her facts. And in this case he said she was downright vicious, and he said what she's doing is akin to McCarthyism. I can tell you that's what is in public. Privately, I have had top Republican congressional sources tell me they think Bachmann is doing this as a fund-raising tool, plain and simple. This is politics.

COOPER: Alex, despite the combination from McCain and Ed Rollins, you actually said this might play well with some in the Republican base.

ALEX SEITZ-WALD, SALON.COM: It's interesting.

Michele Bachmann's letter came out on June 13. If you go back two years ago on June 6, it was the first rally against the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Lower Manhattan, which of course became a huge election issue, really brought out the Tea Party and sort of right- wing fringe of the Republican Party.

I think that that is exactly what's going on right here. Or at least that's what Bachmann was trying to do. I think she may have gotten a little over her skis and this blew up a little bit in her face. I think she was kind of trying to keep this just for the base audience. She didn't tweet about it and she didn't put it on her Facebook page, but she did go on a conservative radio host, kind of an obscure conservative radio show.

So I think this was a message that was aimed at her base trying to gin up anti-Muslim fever before the election. And then it kind of blew up a little bit too big with these condemnations from McCain and Ed Rollins.

COOPER: Also, I should point out, Alex, you have been out in the forefront of reporting on this for a long time so you have really kind of put a lot of focus on this. You should get credit for that.

We talked about Frank Gaffney, Alex, on this program, who really seems to be the sole source behind Bachmann and her colleagues' claims. It's interesting, though -- I remember when he was going after Grover Norquist. And that was roundly condemned by a number of conservatives. There wasn't much there there, but he was alleging Grover Norquist was basically trying to kind of get the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating the American conservative movement.

SEITZ-WALD: Yes, absolutely. He's been going after Grover Norquist for almost a decade.

He doesn't care. He will go after Republicans, he will go after Democrats. He went after Bush administration officials. He said David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, the former general -- or current general -- had submitted to Sharia law.

So he is really shameless and he's been driven out of the elite in the conservative movement, in addition to CPAC and the American Conservative Union board, which includes John Bolton and the head of the NRA, real staunch conservatives. He was kicked out of a strategy lunch organized by the former head of the Heritage Foundation, another big conservative stalwart here.

But there's kind of an interesting dynamic of the Tea Party vs. the establishment, where while he's persona non grata with the establishment, people like Michele Bachmann and Allen West and other congressmen still listen to him. And he still has their ear. Even some senior officials like Jon Kyl, the number two Republican in the Senate, used to sit on Frank Gaffney's board.

So he still has a lot of juice in some aspects of the party, despite being roundly condemned by other parts of it.

COOPER: I should point out, we have had him -- he's been on the show before, but we really want to focus on -- I mean, people can have whatever beliefs they want. We're trying to focus on sitting members of Congress and the allegations they are making.

Dana, is it -- it's pretty -- am I wrong? Is it pretty rare for sitting members of Congress to make these kind of allegations against individuals without having ironclad proof or any real proof, other than, you know, her dead father 30 years ago knew a guy who helped his organization who was in league with another organization?

BASH: Sure, it's very rare.

And I think, just as Alex was saying, I think he's dead on, that this was probably not intended for a mainstream audience, that this was intended for her base. And, as I mentioned before, many Republicans on Capitol Hill have said to me, as a fund-raising tool, she is very, very good at raising money from these -- I think you can call them fringe elements of the party, fringe elements of this country.

And she wants to keep that going. And she sends out fund-raising letter after fund-raising letter, not necessarily -- even one today not mentioning this at all, but making clear she wants to keep raising money, and she says she's got a Democratic opponent who's going to beat her and she needs the conservative base to come to her. So, yes, the answer to your question is, it is very rare.

COOPER: It's also interesting, Alex. I'm sure you have gotten these e-mails as well. I have been inundated by e-mails from people saying I'm now supporting the Muslim Brotherhood because I'm raising questions about her allegations.

Where does this go? Do we know if the State Department has responded? Do we know if Homeland Security has responded to Bachmann? SEITZ-WALD: We don't yet, but I think they do take these kinds of things very seriously. She's a sitting member of Congress. She's on the Intelligence Committee and it makes you wonder that they have to do their job and they have to respond to these things, but is this the best use of precious resources in the Homeland Security Department? And I really doubt it.

COOPER: Also, I think it bears repeating a couple things. One, I don't think anybody is saying extremists would not like to infiltrate the U.S. government.

I'm sure, obviously, jihadists would like to infiltrate the U.S. government if they could, and I'm sure they may even attempt to. But, again, to make these allegations against individuals without any direct evidence -- and Alex, as you talked about, if you really believe this is happening, is the best way to go about getting action on this, you know, going on conservative radio shows and putting this information out on your Web site?

Or is it actually in confidence, in confidentiality contacting security agencies and asking them to investigate?

SEITZ-WALD: Yes, I think that that right there is the key point and that blows up this whole argument that this is a serious attempt on their part.

And they have been doing this for years. I talked to a guy today named Faisal Gill, who was a Bush administration official. He was in the Department of Homeland Security. And Frank Gaffney went after him and it stuck with him forever. And I that is the ploy. It's almost a Google problem like Rick Santorum had, where now every time Faisal Gill, somebody Googles him, this is what comes up.

BASH: Yes.

And I just want to underscore one thing, Anderson, that you pointed out at the top of the show, which is really, really important, that this isn't just about politics, just about one member of Congress and going off and another trying to condemn her.

This is also about U.S. policy and the way the U.S. is perceived abroad, particularly in Egypt, particularly those pictures that you showed of Hillary Clinton with Huma over the weekend with protests.

And I talked to a senior administration official who said that that's a very, very real concern, a very real concern that the U.S. really is confused how to handle the Muslim Brotherhood and the whole idea that because of the Internet and because these blogs do get out there, that people there think the U.S. is sort of in bed, so to speak, with the Muslim Brotherhood. And the reality is that there's a little bit of confusion over what to do with them vs. the Christians. Really, it's hurtful.


COOPER: Also, we need Arab speakers. We need people who understand what's happening in other parts -- to work in our intelligence agencies.

And this prevents -- who is going to want to work if suddenly you're going to be a suspect because your great uncle knew somebody who knew somebody? I think it raises all sorts of questions. We will continue to cover it.

Alex Seitz-Wald, appreciate your reporting. Dana Bash, as well. I know it's been a long day running around in those heels you were talking about. Thank you for that.

Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter. Tweet to me about this right now @AndersonCooper.

Up next: the debate within the Republican Party over whether or not Mitt Romney should put out more tax returns. We will have that ahead.


COOPER: "Raw Politics" tonight": a debate among Republicans over Mitt Romney's tax returns, whether he should make public more than the two years' worth that he has or said he's going to.

Among Democrats in Congress, new pressure on the legislative front, lawmakers proposing members that would require presidential candidates to release 10 years of returns and candidates for federal office to disclose all foreign investments.

Mr. Romney though as you will recall is facing plenty of pressure, not just from Democrats but from fellow Republicans. Watch.


MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Put out as much information as you can. Even if you don't release 12 years' worth of tax returns, at least three, four, five.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: You should be as transparent as you should be with your tax returns.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS WASHINGTON MANAGING EDITOR: They always wonder whether it isn't better just to put it out there.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Put them all out now.

HUME: Well, that's kind of what I think.

GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY (R), ALABAMA: I just believe that people should release their tax returns.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": He should release the tax returns tomorrow.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Well, so far no sign of that. The conservative "National Review," which also says Governor Romney should release more returns, interviewed him yesterday.

During that interview he says he's not enthusiastic, his words, about releasing any more tax returns for the Obama campaign to "distort and lie about."

More "Raw Politics" now with two Republicans who disagree, former George W. Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, and Ana Navarro, former Huntsman 2012 national Hispanic chairwoman and former McCain '08 adviser. Also joining us, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

So, Ana, I know you and a lot of other Republicans think Romney should release more of his tax returns. The Romney campaign basically saying fairly or unfairly, releasing more returns would be like handing ammunition to the Obama campaign. Do you buy that?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I absolutely buy it, because I think it will picked over and big things will be made. I don't think we're going to see anything new. I don't think any of the Republicans calling for this think there is anything wrong that Mitt Romney has done.

What we want is the distraction to be over so that we can get to the real issues, the big issues that the American people are interested in. This has become really a ridiculous distraction, and I do think that it's taking a toll.

Again, I tell you I think there is absolutely nothing illegal or inappropriate that Mitt Romney has done. We're not going to learn anything new. He is a wealthy man who has been very successful. And he should embrace that.

And we should just get this over with, take the Band-Aid off, let's move on. And let's start talking about the economy. Let's start talking about jobs. We have been talking about this now for days and days and days. I would just like it to be over.

COOPER: Ari, what about that? Because this drip, drip, drip, it's not just among media types on cable TV talking about it. It's, as you know, Republicans talking about it.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: If there's so much drip, drip, drip, why does it coming up dry, dry, dry?

When you look at the polls, Romney keeps going high, high, high. It's not a distraction except for the political class who follows every syllable of every sentence of every paragraph. The American people are not there. They're not focused on this issue.

I remember in 1992, I worked for George Bush's father's campaign against Bill Clinton and we tried to come up with every kind of ethical innuendo we could think of against Governor Romney of Arkansas -- Governor Clinton of Arkansas. Nobody in the public paid attention. The issue then is the same as the issue now, the economy. It's not working among the public. The public really is not fixated on this issue. If he was going to do it, Anderson, in the cause of transparency and good government, the time would have been to have done it months and months ago. I think if he does it now, it would with be a big mistake, because it would be such a -- the press would with make too much of it. He's doing fine without...


COOPER: Ari, as you know, there are lot of folks who are saying, well, look, when he was in the running to be McCain's vice president, he gave many years' worth, I think 20 years' worth of tax returns to McCain.

So if that level of transparency was important to be considered as a vice presidential candidate, why isn't that level of transparency important to be a presidential candidate?

FLEISCHER: When vice presidential potentials are asked a whole series of taxes, not just about their taxes, a lot of is it embarrassing a lot of it is personal and that doesn't get released.

I don't think the standard is, what did you privately convey to somebody who may have picked you for a job? Do we want everybody coming into the federal government to answer have you ever been faithful? Is that part of the litmus test? That's a question that these guys get asked when they try to become vice presidential nominees.

So no, Anderson, I don't think that's the criteria, that he turned it over to McCain. I think the criteria is, is two years enough? Is this a relevant issue to determine who's qualified to be the president of the United States or not? And I just don't think this is a cutting issue that should define what this campaign is about. I think most of the American people are with me on that. The pundit class and many of my fellow Republicans are not.

COOPER: Gloria, do you think this is having an impact?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I do. I think it will eventually because it plays into the whole narrative of the campaign, of the Obama campaign, which says that Mitt Romney is a rich, secretive, outsourcing fellow who has secret, you know, offshore bank accounts.

So I do think it plays into the narrative that even folks that I talked to in the Romney campaign say is affecting his underlying numbers, that is perhaps his likability.

But I talked to somebody who was involved in the vet for Mitt Romney for the McCain campaign. He couldn't recall exactly how many years of tax returns Mitt Romney gave them, but he also said, as McCain has said, they didn't see anything terrible and that wasn't the reason that McCain didn't choose Mitt Romney. I do think, and let me just say this, that if he was going to release them, he should have done it right away, because now if he releases them, he's got a problem, because it looks like he's doing it under pressure, either from Republicans or from the Obama campaign. And we are going to pick over it like a dead carcass.

The time to do it, when he should have done it, was early on. But this is about Mitt Romney himself. He's a private person and he's running for president. And it's very hard to be a private person and run for the presidency of the United States. I think he's figuring that out now.

COOPER: We have got to leave it there.


COOPER: I'm sorry. We have got a lot stuff tonight.

Ana Navarro, appreciate it, Ari Fleischer and Gloria Borger as well.

In Syria, a dramatic day, bloodshed in Bashar Assad's inner circle -- three of his top advisers killed today in an attack not far from Assad's home, conflicting reports about the explosion that reportedly killed them.

As violence reaches new levels in the capital of Syria itself, Damascus, a Dutch reporter tells us what he saw today from Damascus.


COOPER: Tonight some are asking if the situation in Syria has turned a new corner, with the violence reaching new levels and the regime's backyard, Damascus, now part of the battlefield.

This video purportedly shot in Damascus today. As always, we can't vouch for its authenticity, because we're not there on the ground. At least 102 people were killed across the country today, including three top officials of Bashar al-Assad's regime. This is extraordinary.

One was his brother-in-law, the deputy minister of defense. A fourth minister was wounded in the attack. They were meeting in Damascus not far from Assad's home.

The government calls it a suicide bombing, the Syrian government. The opposition, the Free Syrian Army, says an explosive device was detonated by remote control.

Over the last few days, fighting in the heart of Damascus has escalated, with reports of shelling by government forces. These are some of the images we've seen of the damage in the capital. Again, we cannot independently verify them.

A Dutch journalist named Sander Van Hoorn was in Damascus when the Syrian officials were attacked today. We spoke earlier. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Sander, there are conflicting report today about the exact cause of this bombing. Syria media says it was a suicide bomb. The opposition says it was a bomb that was planted. What's the latest that you're hearing?

SANDER VAN HOORN, DUTCH JOURNALIST (VIA PHONE): A lot of gossip. News is something which is sometimes hard to come by in Syria. And that's also a very interesting point today. The news we got through Syrian state TV, normally Syrian state TV is the last place you're going to look for news, because if something happens, they will have a nice program on flowers, for example.

So why did they broadcast almost live about what happened? Why were the names of the people killed mentioned through them? It's something that may not mean anything, but it's something out of the ordinary indeed.

COOPER: What is the regime's explanation of how this happened? Because whatever type of bomb it was, it would be a major security breach? How did they explain that their inner circle was able to be penetrated?

VAN HOORN: Well, they explained it as a terrorist attack, but basically that's the way they address the opposition, as foreign- backed terrorists.

And they used it within the hour, the ministry of information was on the air live on radio and television, addressing the nation, basically saying, "This will only strengthen our resolve. We have been hit at the heart. There are martyrs to be mourned today. But we will only get stronger. We will fight back, and we will crush these terrorist cells that are operating in Syria today." That's basically what he said right after the attack.

COOPER: I know you rushed toward the site of the bombing after it occurred. What was the scene like there?

VAN HOORN: The scene was something I have never seen before. You expect chaos. You expect tense policemen and military. Nothing of the kind.

We were kindly requested to not enter the street. Only people that lived there could go there. So we were driving around a bit. And people living like 40 meters away from the blast site, they were going about their business as usual. Shops were open, cars were driving. People were chatting to each other.

Now, of course, in a normal situation, you go out of the car with your camera and ask people, "Did you hear anything? What did you hear? What did you see?" Now, that's something which is not allowed in Syria.

COOPER: It's really strange. We obviously know fighting has escalated in Damascus, around Damascus, in recent days. What are you seeing and hearing in terms of activity among the regime, among the opposition in Damascus?

VAN HOORN: Well, right now it's kind of quiet. I went out just before we started talking, and you could hear distant artillery fire and sometimes a little more close-by military fire of Kalashnikovs.

But the scene has been bizarre throughout the day. Black pillars of smoke rising, almost in any direction; explosions quite close to downtown.

Now, this morning I visited two suburbs in the northern part of the city, so the parts which have been quiet for the last couple of days. We saw streams, hundreds upon hundreds of people leaving; leaving for the violence, which already started at that time.

But we saw, as we drove further towards downtown, military vehicles waiting to enter. So that was one of the scenes we witnessed later that day. Black smoke rising from that area. And that's in any suburb you look at right now.

COOPER: The Assad regime was quick to appoint a new minister of defense. It would appear as if they're trying to project an image of stability. Do you think people buy that?

VAN HOORN: I think if you bought it before, you will buy it now. I think if you doubted it before, you will seriously doubt it now. Because whatever happened today, the opposition will feel emboldened by this. And you can see that happening in a lot of areas where the Free Syrian Army is actually taking up arms.

We know they are better organized by now. They have better means of communication, better weapons, maybe, even. We don't know what they are capable of. But they feel emboldened right now. And where that may lead to, nobody knows.

COOPER: Sander Van Hoorn, please be careful. Thank you for your reporting.


COOPER: Well, tonight new questions about how one government agency is spending your tax dollars. Do you remember the videos that went viral from the General Services Administration Las Vegas conference, the one that cost $800,000, led to investigations, resignations, firings? Well, wait until you see, wait until you hear what else the GSA has spent your money on in another city. We're "Keeping Them Honest" ahead.


COOPER: A bus bomb in Bulgaria kills at least seven Israeli tourists. Israeli defense minister says it is clearly a terrorist attack. We'll have the latest on that ahead.


COOPER: Another "Keeping Them Honest" report now. More questions tonight about how the General Services Administration or GSA has spent your tax dollars.

You'll probably recall, this is the agency whose mission is actually oversight of other federal agencies to control spending.

Well, first came the extravagant Las Vegas conference two years ago. Cost more than $800,000 of your tax money. They made these kind of silly videos during that conference. It looked more like a Vegas show than a serious government gathering. That's right; Elvis was there.

These employee videos produced for the conference, some of them making light of GSA spending. They went viral. Congress certainly was not amused. Hearings were held, investigations were launched, heads rolled at the GSA, the top administrator resigned.

Turns out, though, Las Vegas isn't the only place where the GSA has been spending your money in ways that you might never have imagined. Drew Griffin with the CNN investigation.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It happened here at the Culinary Center of Kansas City on a quaint street in Overland Park, Kansas, where GSA employees did not just get a free lunch; they got to spend most of the day making it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Cooking is not a mystery. Everybody can learn it.

GRIFFIN: It's all about what the Culinary Center's own video calls team building. Teams make entrees, make desserts. What did the GSA employees get out of this? This is one of those employees who says he's afraid to show his face because his boss will be mad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was lunch. We had 25 minutes to get a recipe together, cook for 30. I think there were roughly 25 or 30 people there, and then we were critiqued along the way by the chefs at the institute on what we could do better.

GRIFFIN: And those GSA employees got the whole day off real work to do it.

(on camera) So this was the day's activity, learning how to cook?


GRIFFIN: And it didn't just happen once. Since 2007, GSA employees came to the Culinary Center of Kansas City nine times for these team-building exercises. They cooked lunch. It cost you more than $20,000.

(voice-over) That's the total amount for all of those cooking classes. Granted, in the world of trillion-dollar government budgets it's not a lot of money, but our insider says it is part of the free- spending culture that's gone on for years at the Kansas City regional headquarters. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a lot of what I would look at as juvenile behavior when it comes to caring about what the taxpayers' money is used for.

GRIFFIN: Our investigation into spending at the Kansas City office found not only did workers learn how to cook lunch, the GSA hired an etiquette instructor to teach workers how to eat it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How to hold your napkin, how to use your fork, knife.

GRIFFIN: He's not making it up. The etiquette instructor who billed the federal government nearly $1,000 confirms she taught GSA employees about the place settings and the different courses, how they're going to be served, how to eat soup and salad, what to do with your napkin, how to butter your roll.

To top it all off, we also found that GSA's Kansas City office awarded its workers with a $3,000 awards lunch, possibly to show off that newly-learned etiquette.

When we began asking about this, we were directed to Washington, D.C., to the headquarters of the GSA, where we were told we could get answers in writing, but no one would be able to answer our questions on camera.

So we showed up at this public ceremony back at the GSA regional headquarters in Kansas City to meet this man. Jason Klumb is the politically-appointed regional administrator of the GSA's heartland division, which covers four states. He's been in charge since February 2010. In charge for three of the cooking classes, the etiquette speaker and that $3,000 awards lunch.

(on camera) This outrages people when they hear things like government workers going to cooking classes and not just one, but many, many cooking classes over several years. Why was that allowed to go on?

JASON KLUMB, REGIONAL ADMINISTRATOR, GSA'S HEARTLAND DIVISION: It was the culture. I think it was the old culture of GSA, and you saw it in all the news that was generated out of the western region's conferences. The old culture.

GRIFFIN: Why weren't you able to put a stop to it when you came into office?

KLUMB: I think we've seen new leadership at the agency, and that will affect my ability to put a stop to those kinds of things. But you're absolutely right; it's unacceptable.

GRIFFIN: Do you, as the administrator, have the power to stop that kind of stuff?

KLUMB: I think when we see new policies come into place, there's more authority that's going to be given to regional administrators to stop things like that. GRIFFIN: Do you not have the power now?

KLUMB: Don't have it now and haven't had it.

GRIFFIN: Really?


GRIFFIN (voice-over): There's one more thing Jason Klumb apparently didn't have the power to stop.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stacy Torrey (ph), this is the ghost of GSA present. Let's take a look at you in action.

GRIFFIN: Last year's holiday video contest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am the ghost of GSA past.


GRIFFIN: It's another team-building exercise. The team that came up with the most creative video about -- get this -- efficiency in the GSA would win an ice-cream social. All of what you are seeing was written produced, acted, taped and edited on federal government time.

(on camera) Were these videos that would make people better employees? Improve the systems, improve the efficiencies of the office?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, they were just for -- to see how cute they could be, would be my estimation.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): GSA employees used to be able to watch the videos online, but when the news broke about that spending scandal in Las Vegas, that's when the holiday videos disappeared.

Klumb, who says he didn't know about the cooking classes, couldn't exactly use the same excuse when it came to the holiday videos.

KLUMB: I was one of the judges. Again, that was part of a culture, and it was pretty common throughout GSA and absolutely something that is changing. I think you see a new day at GSA.

GRIFFIN: GSA headquarters tells CNN in a statement, "These events indicate a pattern of misjudgment which spans several years and administrations." The agency spokesperson went on to say that under the new GSA leadership, these events would not have been approved and only light refreshments like water and pretzels would be allowed inside a federal facility at future team-building exercises.

KLUMB: I think we see a new day at GSA. We see a culture shift, and I think you do see a new day. I'm very optimistic about that.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: Drew, how can there be any changes if the people in charge, like this regional administrator, don't even have the power to stop the waste?

GRIFFIN: Well, that was one of our first questions, and the answers is he does have the power, Anderson. He just didn't know it at the time or misspoke. And that is a problem for the newly- appointed acting administrator of the GSA, Dan Tangherlini, who by the way, finally agreed to talk to me just this afternoon.


GRIFFIN: Were you surprised to learn that your regional administrator in Kansas City didn't think he had the power to stop this kind of spending?

DAN TANGHERLINI, ACTING ADMINISTRATOR, GSA: Yes, I'm surprised that he felt that way, and in subsequent conversations with him he's said he's misspoke, but I wanted to make that clear.

And actually, it was a good opportunity for me to get all the regional administrators on the phone and ask them if they felt like they've been given enough authority to stop that kind of spending.

We need to get a message across that this isn't what GSA is about. People aren't coming to work for cooking classes. They're not coming to work for awards or prizes. They're coming to work for an important mission that's critical to serving our agencies that serve the American people.

And so that's the trick for us, is to really build a better sense of expectation on what it is that we're going to do every day when we do our jobs.


GRIFFIN: Anderson, that's the new acting director, Tangherlini. He has frozen hiring. He's stopped bonus payments. And he canceled an upcoming conference at the GSA. And we'll see if he can actually change the culture there.

COOPER: Yes. Well, we'll be watching. Drew, appreciate it. Thanks very much.

A relative of the two missing girls in Iowa think they may have been kidnapped. A special FBI team is about to join the search. We'll have details on that ahead.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Deborah Feyerick with a "360 Bulletin."

At least seven Israeli tourists were killed in a bus bombing in Bulgaria. Israel's defense minister blames unidentified terrorists for the attack. About 30 other people were injured in the explosion outside the airport.

In his first TV interview, George Zimmerman apologized to the family of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old he killed, he says, in self- defense. Zimmerman spoke with Sean Hannity on FOX News.


GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, CHARGED WITH FATAL SHOOTING: I do wish that there was something, anything I could have done that wouldn't have put me in the position where I had to take his life. And I do want to tell everyone -- my wife and my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America -- that I'm sorry that this happened.


FEYERICK: And still no sign of two Iowa girls missing for five days. Now the mother of 10-year-old Lyric Cook says she thinks Lyric and her 8-year-old cousin, Elizabeth Collins, may have been abducted. Authorities continued draining the lake where the girls' bikes were found. An FBI team standing by with sonar equipment to search for the children once lake levels are low enough.

Anderson will be right back after the break.


COOPER: Time for "The RidicuList," and tonight we begin with a pretty important question: when you think of David Hasselhoff, what immediately springs to mind? Perhaps you think of one of his television shows, "Knight Rider" or "Baywatch" or "America's Got Talent." Maybe you think of his legendary popularity in Germany, or if you're like us, he's forever first and foremost a singer.


COOPER: Fabulous '80s song stylings aside, I think we can all agree that when it gets right down to it, the name David Hasselhoff is synonymous with one thing and one thing only: iced coffee.

That's right, at Cumberland Farms convenience stores throughout New England, a veritable army of very lifelike cutouts of David Hasselhoff now dares you to resist the lure of the store-brand iced coffee. Why they missed an opportunity to call it "iced hoffee" is beyond me. But still, brilliant marketing.

But there's just one problem" the ads are such a hot item, they're disappearing faster than a "Baywatch" plotline dissolved into a gratuitous slow-motion running montage. Proving my theory, people love them some David Hasselhoff cutouts.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's crazy. We keep offering -- like they come in, we probably get customers calling every night, asking to buy the Hasselhoff poster. (END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: People are not only asking to buy the Hasselhoff poster. Some are just brazenly stealing them, at apparently such a rate of frequency that convenience-store clerks have seemingly come to expect it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He ain't going to last by the night. But it's still here.


COOPER: The company even gave a statement about this to our affiliate, WHDH.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cumberland Farms says, "Although we are flattered our customers have become attached to our iced coffee ads, we do not encourage theft. The Hoff is there for all to enjoy."


COOPER: That's right, people. Hands off the Hoff. He's there for all to enjoy, not unlike the sun, like the stars and the gentle spring breeze. The point is, would you steal a rainbow? No, you wouldn't.

Well, maybe if you were in college and your friend's name was Rainbow. Then you'd have no choice, really.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One of my friends whose nickname at school was Hasselhoff, so we saw this sign and my roommate took it for him.


COOPER: OK. Not to condone theft, but you have to kind of admit a life-sized cutout of David Hasselhoff holding an iced coffee, that is one sweet decoration for a dorm room or for "The RidicuList."

Hey, that's it for us. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.