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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES
Muslim Conspiracy Theory; Mitt Romney's Overseas Trip; Fight for Syrian City of Aleppo
Aired July 30, 2012 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It's 10:00 here on the East Coast.
And we begin tonight "Keeping Them Honest" with new developments concerning the unproven allegations by five Republican members of Congress that the U.S. government, our government, is being infiltrated and subverted by radical jihadists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, we've reported on this numerous times over the last couple weeks. And because we have, I have already had some people and some groups point fingers at me and say I'm, at best, ignorant or naive and, at worst, aiding and abetting Islamic extremists.
Now, for the record, unlike many of those who are making these accusations, I have actually interviewed members of the Muslim Brotherhood. I have seen radical Islamists up close in Afghanistan and Bosnia, Egypt, Somalia, and Iraq and other places.
I have seen the horrible things they have done overseas and in this country as well. In fact, later in the broadcast, we're going to look at the role that foreign jihadists are playing in Syria right now.
I'm not defending radical jihadists, nor am I naive to their intentions or beliefs. But what I am focusing on tonight is sitting members of the United States Congress, people in important positions of power, who are pointing fingers at individuals working in this government, making allegations or spreading innuendoes about them without any direct evidence. They're dragging people's names and reputations through the mud.
These are the five members of Congress who we're talking about. Michele Bachmann, Trent Franks, Louie Gohmert, Thomas Rooney and Lynn Westmoreland. And over, the weekend they got a new and powerful ally, it seems, Newt Gingrich.
In an op-ed written for Politico, he refers to Congresswoman Bachmann and the others as the national security five. He blames American elites for being blinded by political correctness to the threat.
"The level of self-deception necessary to misunderstand the Muslim Brotherhood," Newt Gingrich writes, "verges on psychosis." He goes on, "The national security five are doing their duty in asking difficult questions designed to make America safer." "Asking the difficult questions," he says. Now, remember that phrase. He says that critics of the five represent, in his words, the kind of willful blindness that puts America at risk.
"Keeping Them Honest," though, we think you deserve a look at the people they have been targeting and the tactics they have been using. Now, they have named these two in letters asking federal inspectors general to investigate Muslim Brotherhood infiltration.
On the left is a man named Mohamed Elibiary, a member of President Obama's Homeland Security Advisory Council. On the right is Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Now, we learned late last week that both have received threats since being named. Now, some top Republicans have risen to Miss Abedin's defense.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: These allegations about Huma Abedin and the report from which they are drawn are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American and a loyal public servant.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Now the Bachmann Five cite a Web site that claims to connect Miss Abedin to the Muslim Brotherhood in the following very convoluted way, through an organization her late father started decades ago which allegedly had the support of another guy who had another organization that might have had the support of another organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Web site also makes allegations against her brother and mother.
Now as a top aide to the Secretary of State, Miss Abedin has a security clearance and as such has undergone extensive background checks. Mr. Elibiary was extensively investigated and cleared by Homeland Security Officials when the allegations against him first surfaced months ago.
Now, last fall, the FBI gave Elibiary an award for -- quote -- "his extraordinary contributions to specific cases in support of the FBI's counterterrorism mission." And Homeland Security denies any Muslim Brotherhood penetration of their department.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We have looked into it. The FBI looked into it. We have found no credible evidence that such infiltration is going on.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Again, neither Congresswoman Bachmann nor her four colleagues have actually provided credible evidence, just insinuations. Today, all five again refused to come on this program and back up their allegations. We've asked them five times and each time they have all refused. Instead of evidence what they keep saying is they're not really making allegations at all, just asking questions. Remember, Newt Gingrich also said so in his Politico piece and said so again today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I think all they asked for was an investigation. Who's offering this advice to Secretary Clinton? I think it's totally legitimate to ask that question.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: See, no one is alleging anything, only asking questions. Here's Mitt Romney's adviser, John Bolton.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BOLTON, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: What I think these members of Congress have done is simply raise the question.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Just raising questions. When asked by CBS' Charlie Rose on Friday whether he thought Congresswoman Bachmann was out of line, House majority leader Eric Cantor said no.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: If you read some of the reports that have covered the story, I think that her concern was about the security of the country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: And though none of these so-called National Security Five will talk to us, they all are defending their tactics to interviewers they're perhaps more comfortable with.
Here's Congressman Louie Gohmert talking to comedian Dennis Miller denying he or the other four have made any accusations against anyone.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. LOUIE GOHMERT (R), TEXAS: Now I wish that some of these numb nuts would go out there and read the letter before they make these horrible allegations about the horrible accusations we're making.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: I guess we're part of the numb nut group. And yes, we've read the letters extensively. The letters name names and connect those names to sinister plots. What neither of the letters nor the lawmakers is sending do, however, is supply any direct evidence that justifies putting anyone in the spotlight.
Joining us now is senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash, who's got some late reporting on the story. Also on the phone is John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, founder of Georgetown Center for Muslim Christian Understanding.
Dana, you've got some interesting information about a closed-door meeting in which there appears to be maybe a crack in the solidarity of Congresswoman Bachmann and her four colleagues, these so-called National Security Five. What have -- what have you heard?
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, well, publicly, as you've just said, they're being unapologetic but privately at least one is expressing some regret. I was told that Trent Franks of Arizona stood up in a meeting last week at the Republican Study Committee. That's a group of conservative Republicans. And he told his colleagues that they maybe shouldn't have singled out Huma Abedin in particular by name.
My source, by the way, was a Republican congressman in the room. And it was confirmed by two other Republicans. And what I'm told is that Franks said his regret was mostly in using Huma's name and that it overshadowed the general point that they were trying to make which you just expressed very clearly. That they say their concern is about the Muslim Brotherhood and its influence in the federal government.
I should also tell you that my sources say Franks told his Republican colleagues that he still stands behind that question and what he wants the inspectors general across the government to investigate but using Huma's name was a bad move.
And, you know, you talked about the fact that Republican leaders, at least some of them, have really shunned this letter. It's not just the leadership. It's also some in the rank-and-file scratching their heads. I talked to a pretty conservative congressman today who told me -- quote -- "A lot of us, like -- conservatives like me, are saying are you kidding me, they're idiots for making this mistake. Why go after," in this person's words, "Hillary's body person without having rock solid evidence," which he said they clearly don't.
COOPER: Mr. Esposito, you said this whole thing is a wake-up call. How so?
JOHN ESPOSITO, PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: I think what it really points to is -- and I think that the events from even the issue of the so-called mosque at ground zero, that, you know, we have a kind of deep anti-Islam, anti-Muslim movement here within the United States.
And the irony is that if you look at a lot of major polling, including a -- a recent ABC poll, you find out that a considerable number of people are willing to believe anything about Islam and Muslims. And people like Newt Gingrich, and Bachmann and others play to that for political reasons.
You know, in your comments, what's really interesting to me is that what you kept saying and what most people keep saying in effect is where's the beef? These people make claims all the time. And like most racists and anti-Semites, they -- there's no obligation placed on them to demonstrate what -- my undergraduates say which is any statement you make is an assertion, unless you can provide hard supportive evidence. And I think going after Huma Abedin is the most -- and I think that conservative Republican that was being quoted earlier, it's the most egregious indication of what our problem is.
This is a woman who was born and raised here, educated here, had all kinds of security clearance, worked for the secretary of state, who, from anybody's position, would not be seen as anybody who's particularly soft on terrorism. She's in the right place with regard to -- for many people. I would disagree at times with regard to Israel and Palestine.
Huma Abedin is below the radar. She's -- you know, she is a Muslim. But it's not as if she's anybody who speaks out publicly on Muslim issues, et cetera. So to target her one has to ask the question, why?
COOPER: Well, Professor, also, I mean, it's got -- I mean, I imagine it's got a chilling effect on other -- on just Muslims working at all levels of the U.S. government, who suddenly -- you know, if Abedin is under suspicion I assume by these -- by these Congress people, I assume they are as well.
At a time when we are fighting a war against radical Islamists and we need, you know, Arab speakers and we need people who understand foreign cultures and we need people in the government who are of different faiths.
ESPOSITO: That's right. And the reality of it is if you take a look at the -- for example, the Obama administration, and let me say this ahead of time, I was a strong supporter of President Obama, but the reality of it is with regard to the Obama administration, elections and appointments, where are there Muslims in senior positions in the government? There are not.
That the president has visited mosques overseas. Never visited a mosque in the United States. So there's a tremendous sensitivity to talk about there's some sort of infiltration within the government is really an absurd statement.
I did a book recently called "Islamophobia and the Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century." And part of what really demonstrates that the reality of it is that we don't want to face it. That we have a real problem in the U.S. It's not a problem with targeting terrorists. That's exactly what we should be doing.
The problem is, we are brush stroking the vast majority of Muslims and sending a message not only to them but to some politicians that you don't want to point to anybody with that kind of name or look. Even if you don't know whether they practice their faith or not. The fact is, if they are a Muslim, you can wind up with these kinds of allegations. And when people like -- McCain and also members of the Intelligence Committee themselves, some of Bachmann's own, if you will, colleagues, wind up backing away from it, the real question becomes, why isn't the media every day in response to this not just talking about the story but just constantly saying to them, go with some hard evidence.
ESPOSITO: What is your evidence on anything that you are saying?
COOPER: Yes, Dana, I mean, does this play to Congresswoman Bachmann's base and Louie Gohmert's base? I mean, Louie Gohmert has made charges before about, you know, terror babies, about Muslims coming here, pregnant, have babies in American so they're American citizens, and then bringing them back to, you know, countries in the Middle East where they're raised up as terrorists for 20 years, and then come back to the United States to attack us 20 years from now, even though there's no evidence of this.
The FBI says they never heard of this. Even though Congressman Gohmert says he has FBI contacts who says this is happening.
I mean, is this just playing to the base?
BASH: Yes, this is very much playing to the base. There's no question about it. In fact, when I was doing my reporting on this today, I talked to senior Republican lawmaker who just said point blank to me, Anderson, who said that in some circles focusing on the story in the mainstream on media, CNN, by you, Anderson Cooper, is a great gift to these lawmakers in particular, because it really riles up the circle of supporters that they have.
It's a small circle. But it is important to them. That really think that they are doing the right thing here.
BASH: And on that note, I talked to other aides about this as well, people who served with them on Capitol Hill, who said that just on the substance of what they're trying to do, they actually think that they're, like, sort of like canaries in the coal mine. That they're -- that these five are trying to raise an issue that may be four, five, 10 years from now, is going to be an aha moment. In fact, one senior GOP aide said to me, these folks legitimately believe that they're like Winston Churchill talking about a threat that no one else sees.
COOPER: Interesting. Dana Bash, appreciate it.
Professor John Esposito, appreciate it as well.
Let us know what you think. We're on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter right now @AndersonCooper. Let's talk about this on Twitter right now. Up next, "Raw Politics." Mitt Romney's headline-making overseas trip. Will the tough talk help in November? And what does the tone reveal about the kind of foreign policy president he would be?
We'll be right back.
COOPER: Well, Mitt Romney is in Poland tonight, the final stop on a three-country trip that's made headlines, some favorable, others not so much.
His remarks on the Olympics angered some British. He walked them back. His remarks in Israel on why the Palestinians haven't done as well economically as Israelis angered Palestinians. Culture, he said, makes all the difference.
He praised the Israeli health care system, his critics point out, in comparison with Americans. But didn't mention that the Israeli system is government run. Something he's obviously opposed to here at home. He clarified earlier remarks also about Russia to Wolf Blitzer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The last time you and I spoke in an interview, you told me that Russia was America's number one geostrategic foe. Do you still believe that?
MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, there's no question, but that, in terms of geopolitics, I'm talking about votes at the United Nations and the actions of a -- of a geopolitical nature.
Russia is the number one adversary in that regard. That doesn't make them an enemy. It doesn't make them a combatant. They don't represent the number one national security threat. The number one national security threat, of course, to our nation is a nuclear Iran.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Mr. Romney has drawn praise from conservatives for his line on Iran as well as his vocal support for Israel.
And for the trip so far, two questions. First, how will it affect his chance in November if at all? And second, what does it say, if anything, about how he'd run foreign policy if elected?
Let's talk about the "Raw Politics" with the Republican strategist, Ari Fleischer, an unpaid occasional adviser to the Romney campaign, and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Also with us, Cornell Belcher, a pollster for the Obama 2012 campaign.
Ari, do you think Newt -- do you think that Governor Romney did what he needed to do overseas? Do you think it's going to help him long term? ARI FLEISCHER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: In Israel, he certainly did. You know, I do have to say, even though I think it's been ridiculous, seems exaggerated, and it's been going on now for five days, he did a mistake in England and it cost him the opportunity to bask in the glow of the Olympics. But if he was running for prime minister, it might hurt him. He was -- he's running for president.
In Israel, I think he knocked it out the ballpark. I think if the issue there is the impact this trip will have on the Jewish community in the United States, calling Jerusalem the capital is what those American Jews who vote on the basis of foreign policy and defense will remember from this trip, and also today, of course Lech Walesa giving him a virtual endorsement.
You know, that's, I think, the power of the trip for him.
COOPER: Cornell, one of your campaign surrogates, former Ambassador Tim Roemer, questioned Romney's ability to be commander in chief, saying -- quote -- "If he can't engage our allies on a simple topic like the international Olympics, how is he going to be tough enough to stand up to our gravest enemies like Iran?"
Romney, though, was pretty tough on Iran in his speech in Israel. In fact, he articulated a policy. It sounded pretty similar to President Obama's. Is that really then a fair criticism?
CORNELL BELCHER, OBAMA CAMPAIGN POLLSTER: Well, here's the problem.
I mean, and you -- and CNN has been covering it for two days now it is gaffe after gaffe. I mean, you leave Israel, you know, with after insulting the Palestinians. And here's the problem, if you're in fact President Romney, the problem is, you've now offended the Palestinians. And they don't see you as a fair arbitrator.
So in fact he -- President Romney would set the peace process back in the Middle East. But to step back from sort of the politics back and forth of it, from a campaign standpoint, I know we want to say that, you know, this one is or that one incident, this gaffe or that gaffe, isn't problematic. But at this point, it's become accumulative. I mean, there is an aggregate problem here, after gaffe after gaffe.
And at some point from just a purely campaign standpoint, I have to pile on with what some Republicans were saying a couple of weeks back, you know, like some of -- the campaign itself is problematic because some of these -- some of these statements that are coming out right now should never been green lighted, like the whole line that -- the cultural line in the Palestinian stuff.
Someone alone the process should have said, there's a way to talk about Israeli exceptionalism without offending its neighbors around them. So that becomes problematic. And no, you're not going to sort of win the presidency on foreign policy. But you can be hurt and undermine by it and this trip has not helped him.
COOPER: Ari, I mean, part of this I guess is making inroads among Jewish-American vote which I guess if you look at polls traditionally has gone toward Obama. But is this -- do you think he won over some Jewish-American voters?
And here's the equation, and, as you said, I'm on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition. And I was just over in Israel registering Americans to vote.
But here's the deal, Anderson. The Jewish vote is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the Republicans are not going to get a majority. The question is, how big inroads can they get? If Barack Obama gets between 25 and 30 percent of the Jewish vote, if he loses 3-1, huge victory for Republicans.
It means Florida goes Republican. Ohio likely goes Republican. And if he breaks 30 percent, those two states are in the bag and Pennsylvania likely goes Republican. That's the margin that this race can come down to especially if it's close.
COOPER: Cornell, do you think he made inroads with Jewish-American voters?
BELCHER: I think it's tough to say he made inroads because I think the major news coming over the last two days have been about gas. And -- you know, most of the press that's been covering right now hasn't -- I don't even know what his statements on Israel is, because everything I read is about the gas.
But what Ari says is spot on, is important. We're increasingly becoming a country of minorities. And I think the Republicans more broadly they have to start competing for more of these minority votes be it Jewish voters or the Hispanic voters, especially in these key battleground states if they're going to be a majority party.
COOPER: Cornell, you got to read more than the "Huffington Post" here.
COOPER: That's where you've been reading about the gas, I think.
BELCHER: Well, they're...
COOPER: Ari can probably give you some tips -- some tips. I don't know, the "Daily Caller" or something.
We got to leave it here. Cornell Belcher, thank you. Ari Fleischer, thanks very much.
The disabled veterans charity that's refused to answer our questions on camera, the DVNF, Disabled Veterans National Foundation, well, they're now bashing our reporting on Twitter and on their Web site.
CNN's Drew Griffin, who has been investigating them for two years, trying to get answers for two years now, responds to their claims ahead on the program.
COOPER: Deadly disease is spreading through one country. Teams are trying to track down anyone who may have come in contact with people infected -- details on that ahead.
COOPER: Hey, welcome back. Tonight, a 360 follow-up.
Now we've been reporting on a group called the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, the DVNF. We were reporting on it for months now. This is the same charity, and I use that word -- well, some questions. It's an alleged charity. It is a charity. They said they're a charity. This is the same charity that sent a shelter for homeless veterans thousands of bag of Coconut M&Ms, the same charity that raised nearly $56 million over the past three years.
I want to repeat that. They have raised nearly $56 million over three years. But according to tax records and other documents, little of that $56 million raised has gone directly to help disabled veterans.
Instead, they have given nearly $61 million to a company they signed a contract with, a company to boost their mailing list.
That company is called Quadriga Art. One of the world's largest direct mail providers to charities and non-profits, $61 million they have given to Quadriga Art. They have raised $56 million.
Long story short, the Senate Finance Committee is now investigating DVNF to see if it should keep its tax exempt status.
Now, we've repeatedly tried to get DVNF to talk to us on camera but they refused. Off camera, though, they have had plenty to say about our reports.
On their Web site, they wrote -- quote -- "CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, A.C. 360, has run a series of misleading and inaccurate segments which have ranged from unfair to irrational. Despite being provided a multitude of information, A.C. 360 has knowingly withheld information that would have provided a balanced view of DVNF's work and fund- raising program."
Last week, the charity attacked our reporting on Twitter, writing, "Once again, A.C. 360 has done another in accurate report. To see the real facts on DVNF, visit helpingdisabledvets.com."
They also tweeted @AndersonCooper, "DVNF will focus our efforts to help vets. We have given proof and documents to A.C. 360 and will no longer waste our time with CNN."
We obviously stand by our reporting.
Drew Griffin, who spent two years investigating, joins me now. So, Drew, I think, first, we need to point out that all of their responses to our reporting is either on Twitter or on their Web site. For years, you've been try to get them to talk on camera.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: And all we want to know, Anderson, is how this charity got in such a pickle with this fund-raiser.
We're not saying that DVNF and its voluntary board members are taking any money. We can tell all the money is going to this fund-raiser. We'd like to know how.
We went to Washington, Baton Rouge, even Sacramento to try to get an answer from DVNF, but they will simply not meet with us. Instead, they just are claiming that we're lying about them.
They have even gone through two public relation firms, hired and I guess fired. Now they're just resorting to tweeting.
COOPER: And those tweets, even what they posted on their Web site, they insist they've given away as much as $16 million.
GRIFFIN: Yes, but look at what they say on their Web site. In cash and requested items, gifts in kind.
We've got no way to tell what they're talking about in terms of money. No proof that they're giving away any money. We know they're giving away M&Ms. Navy shoes. Basically donated items that have been donated to them that they're re-donating somewhere else.
But, you know, all of actual cash money raised is going to this private fundraising company in New York called "Quadriga Art." And DVNF remains indebted to that fundraising company.
So even as they bring in new money, it's all going to this private company.
COOPER: And again -- I mean, to me, if I'm running a charity and I'm on the up and up and I want people to continue to donate money, I would be completely transparent.
I would want to answer any questions that people had, large or small. Yet this group clearly is not doing that. You found even on the group's Web site the claims are hard to prove.
GRIFFIN: Yes, your first point, Anderson, that's number one, what everybody says about a charity. If a charity's on the up and up, they want to show their books, show what they're doing, et cetera.
Again, we've asked for two years, haven't seen that, but on the Web site, just look at the front page of DVNF's Web site. You'll see a little thing very on the top about some webinar to help you if you're a vet, improve your job skills.
You click on it, we clicked on it, it's not there. You know, there's no link to find out where this webinar's going to take place. Another thing that we've seen pop up, crutches. They have a program to help provide crutches to disabled veterans.
Again, we called the company, Millennial Medical. They're out of Logan, Utah. We have no proof any of the crutches have been given away.
But this is what Millennial Medical told us -- they confirmed, yes, DVNF placed a very small order, 15 pairs of crutches valued at $1,500. That may appear like a major program on the Web site and something they're tweeting about, but as far as we know, we're talking about 15 pairs of $100 crutches. And again, I don't know where they're going.
COOPER: I mean, that was one of tweets I saw about the crutches things that are given away. You're talking about 15 pairs of crutches. Again, this is a company that's raised $56 million over three years and they still won't talk to us. No matter how many times we -- I mean, you'll go anywhere, I'll go anywhere. I'll have them on any night they want.
GRIFFIN: Heck, I've gone everywhere it seems to try to find these people. They just won't talk to us. And as you read in that statement, Anderson, they will simply not deal with us anymore. But they have to deal with the Senate.
The Senate Finance Committee is investigating.
I can tell you from inside that investigation, they're not happy with the first round of answers they got from DVNF on where the money is and isn't going. The Senate investigators have asked for more information, more clarification. But there could be a little bit of trouble down the road for this group.
COOPER: You know, they won't answer our questions. I challenge them to go on any network, MSNBC, FOX, anybody they want, submit to actual questions from an actual reporter because I would love to see the answers even if they're not will to talk to us.
I mean, think we all just want answers and they're not giving them. It's incredible.
Drew, again, I appreciate your reporting so much.
And again, the invitation's open, DVNF. The ball's in your court.
Tonight, Syria's biggest city, the commercial hub is a raging battleground. The question is: will the faith of Bashar Al-Assad be decided in the streets of Aleppo?
CNN's Ivan Watson watch a battle play out. I'm going to talk to him about foreign -- the involvement of foreign fighters, Islamists, radical Islamists in the fight now. We'll talk about that, ahead.
COOPER: An African-American couple forced to move their wedding from a church after several members of the congregation complained. The complainers say they aren't racist. The bride and groom do not see it that way. The story when we continue.
COOPER: Hey, welcome back.
Tonight, Syria's biggest city, Aleppo is a bloody battleground. At least 85 people were killed across the country today according to opposition activists.
The dead include 25 people in Aleppo. This video purportedly shows some of the fighting in Aleppo. CNN can't vouch for the authenticity of it.
The images though are consistent with what we're hearing from witnesses on the ground. Street battles raging, attack helicopters, tanks firing in the city -- all of this in Syria's commercial hub.
Now the U.N. says 200,000 people in and around Aleppo have fled the shelling in the last two days. Tonight, there are conflicting reports about who controls one of the city's key neighborhoods.
We do know that the so-called Free Syrian Army scored a victory outside of Aleppo today. Meantime, there are questions growing about the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad.
Here's what the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told our Barbara Starr today in an exclusive interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm sure that deep down Assad knows he's in trouble and it's just a matter of time before he has to go.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: What would you say to him?
PANETTA: I would say if -- if you want to be able to protect yourself and your family, you'd better get the hell out now.
STARR: So did the U.S. government, other government agencies like your former agency, have operations in Syria to help assure the security of the chemical weapons?
PANETTA: Well, again, I'm not going to comment on specific operations. Only to tell you that we are taking every step possible to make sure that those chemical sites are secured.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Those chemical weapons, obviously, a major point of concern, one of many concerns.
Ivan Watson's on the ground inside Syria. He joins me now.
Ivan, intense fighting in and around Aleppo. Both the Assad regime and the opposition are claiming victories. What have you seen? What's the latest?
IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: With our eyewitness vantage point, what we saw was a rebel offensive that started at sunset Sunday night. The rebels attacked the last Syrian army checkpoint before the gates of Aleppo to the north of the city.
It was a firefight that lasted hours. And in the end, the rebels overran this entrenched Syrian army position that had more than a dozen tanks. It had machine guns firing into the night sky in all directions hitting surrounding villages.
In the end, they overran it. And today we saw what they captured, a number of tanks, armored personnel carriers, ammunition, tank rounds.
And this was not only a moral victory for the rebels but a strategic one, because they now control the main exit point to the north between Aleppo, the biggest city in Syria, and the Turkish border. It's a crucial transit route.
COOPER: What is it tell you about the capabilities of the Syrian regime forces? I mean, how dug in were those forces?
WATSON: They were behind earth berms with tanks. The rebels were clearly outgunned. We saw the Syrian government fire just sprang out in all directions. Not only that, they were calling artillery strikes from miles away.
From within Aleppo, we believe, that were pounding indiscriminately surrounding hilltops, which were populated with villages, villages that the rebels have been controlling. What was striking, Anderson, was that the government forces weren't able to bring in any reinforcements to help their surrounded men.
They brought in a helicopter after about three hours that circled overhead, but it clearly wasn't enough to save the day. Meanwhile, the rebels, who are supposed to be gearing up for the mother of all battles inside Aleppo, they felt like they had enough fighters and enough ammunition and weapons to carry out this attack outside of Aleppo. And capture and win the day within a matter of hours. It says something about the balance of power or the shift in it in the north Syria.
COOPER: There was a disturbing article in "The New York Times" today about the growing presence of al Qaeda fighters or al Qaeda inspired groups, foreign jihadists, fighting on the side of the opposition inside Syria against the Assad regime.
What have you -- I'm about to talk to a foreign reporter who was actually held hostage by a group of foreign jihadists. What have you seen? Who are these fighters? What is the makeup of the fighters you've seen?
WATSON: I haven't seen the fighters who took the two foreign -- the British and Dutch journalists hostage. But I met their Syrian guide, a terrified young man who said that they talked like al Qaeda. They threatened to kill him because he didn't have the proper beard and because he had brought infidels in to Syria.
Now, when we got in touch with Syrian rebels, the Free Syrian Army on the ground to ask them about this case and try to help the journalist, they were appalled at this news.
They seemed to know who these guys were up in the hills. One commander told us, listen, in an hour, I could take these guys out with my men.
There is a broad spectrum of different rebel groups on the ground here, Anderson. There are hundreds of rebel bands.
And some of them tend to be kind of secular. Others seem to be Islamist inspired. Some of them do have foreign volunteers. I've met three Libyan volunteer fighters who have crossed the border from Turkey over the course of the past week joining larger groups of fighters.
And some of the Syrians have misgivings about them being here. They don't want foreigners, certainly jihadists, fighting their battle. Others say, you know what, nobody has come to our rescue, nobody else is helping us, so we'll take any help we can get to bring down the Assad regime.
COOPER: Interesting. Ivan, dangerous times. Stay safe. Thank you.
With us now is Dutch freelance photographer, Jeroen Oerlemans, who was one of two foreign journalists held captive for a week until Syrian opposition fighters rescued them.
Jeroen, you were basically captured right after you crossed into Syria on July 19th. What happened?
JEROEN OERLEMANS, CAPTURED IN SYRIA: We were brought into the country by a smugglers ring and we were following a well-known smugglers route and -- well, after being into Syria for an hour, we kind of were handed into a Jihadist movement who were camping at the very border.
COOPER: So the people who were smuggling you into Syria accidentally brought you to this camp of jihadists. Who were the jihadists? Were they actually any Syrians?
OERLEMANS: The majority of them were foreign.
COOPER: Where were they from?
OERLEMANS: They were from Africa, from Pakistan, Bangladesh, some guys from the U.K.
COOPER: Did you instantly know you were in the wrong place, that these guys were jihadists.
OERLEMANS: Yes, we immediately knew we were in the wrong place. We saw the men. They look really jihadist as well, wearing long beards, immediately talk religious. They were jihadists.
COOPER: And what did they -- did they think you were spies?
OERLEMANS: They immediately started accusing us of being CIA. Well, we said we were journalists and they were suspicious looking that we looked military in their eyes.
COOPER: At some point, you tried to escape. Did you just think you had to get out of there?
OERLEMANS: Yes. In very early stage of our imprisonment, we tried to escape because things were spiraling down. We thought that they weren't treating us as nice. We knew -- they knew we were journalists and still they were keeping us.
So we thought -- the ransom option was coming into perspective. Also with were afraid that they might hand us off to another Islamic group. So we felt like we'd better take our fault into our own hands. In the second day of our captivity, we made a run for it.
COOPER: I understand you got a mile away, but they caught you and they shot you.
OERLEMANS: Yes, yes, I mean, we thought it was -- the camp was quite desolate at the time we did it. We haven't seen a couple of guys unload trucks and they saw us.
And then immediately we got caught in the cross fire and they chased us down the valley and after one-half mile they succeeded in shooting me. And five minutes later, they got a hold of John. They shot him as well.
COOPER: Where were you shot?
OERLEMANS: I was shot in the thigh and John was shot in his arm, miraculously, only in the arm because they must have -- at least 20, 30 bullets every single one of us.
COOPER: You could have easily been killed.
OERLEMANS: Yes, at that point, I thought I would be killed, yes, definitely.
COOPER: Were they al Qaeda?
OERLEMANS: We actually discussed it with them. We said like, well, what section are you guys? They said, well, can't say too much about it, but we're not al Qaeda although we know they're down the road.
COOPER: They said that al Qaeda is down the road because there are increasing reports about al Qaeda growing influence or growing presence or jihadists, certainly, foreign fighter presence among the opposition.
You were finally freed, though, by people in soldier's uniforms or outfits. Who freed you?
OERLEMANS: I think it must have been the Free Syrian Army, a group like four or five of those guys. They came into the camp, demand to see us when they actually saw us.
They were outraged, and took one of our guards, threatened him at gun point, took him along and took us along blindfolded and handcuffed and directed us into their car.
And we head off shooting in the air and leaving those jihadists behind, very brazen action, I have to say.
COOPER: I'm glad you and your colleague were able to get out safely. Jeroen Oerlemans, thank you so much for talking to us.
OERLEMANS: Thank you, Anderson.
COOPER: Very lucky to be alive.
Another story now, a pastor in Mississippi asked a couple to change their wedding venue at the last minute because some members of the church didn't want to see the couple get married there because they are African American. It's pretty outrageous story. Now some of the other church members are apologizing. Details next.
ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi. I'm Isha Sesay, with a 360 news and business bulletin.
The suspected Colorado theater gunman was charged today with 142 counts, including 24 counts of first degree murder. That's two counts for each of the 12 people killed 10 days ago. The suspect also faces 116 counts of attempted murder and other charges.
The pastor of a Mississippi church asked a black couple to change the venue for their wedding two days before the big day because some members of the congregation didn't want to see the couple married there. Church leaders addressed the controversy during the services yesterday, saying many ministries are open to everyone. The couple disagrees.
Uganda's president is warning against handshaking and physical contact as the East African nation battles a highly contagious Ebola virus. Fourteen people have died, at least six others are infected.
A grid failure knocked out failure to about 350 million people in northern India today. The outage made for a travel nightmare, with thousands transcend when at least 300 trains were delayed. And traffic gridlock for those in the capital of New Delhi -- Anderson.
COOPER: It's time for the shot tonight. Two guys cutting open a watermelon. I know this isn't sound like much, but check this out.
Instead of using a knife, they actually split it open by putting a whole bunch of rubber bands around the middle of the watermelon. I didn't know this could work. Let's take a look.
Who knew? I've never seen that done. I wonder how many rubber bands it takes. Let's take a look at the slow motion. SESAY: Let's see this again.
COOPER: It's so slow we can't even see it. Here we go. Wow, look at that.
SESAY: That is your homework for tonight, Mr. Cooper. Go find out how many rubber bands it took.
COOPER: I'm going to. Isha, thanks very much.
Coming up, you got to see this. I'm just telling you, you have to see this. If you like the shake weight, if you like the thigh master, you're going to love this new exercise machine that we found in the infomercial. It's from Korea and it's on "The Ridiculist." That's next.
COOPER: Time now for the "Ridiculist." Tonight, we're adding whatever this thing is. It's a piece of exercise equipment from what appears to be a Korean infomercial. Let's just say that it follows very closely in the, shall we say, suggestive footsteps of such devices as the thigh master and the shake weight.
Let's take a look, shall we?
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
COOPER: Hey, now -- wow. That's not just suggestive.
Now, there's a language barrier of course. From what we can gather, this piece of exercise equipment finally addresses a very common problem. That problem being when you desperately want to ride a horse in your living room, but when you try to mimic the motion without any equipment, you're very likely to fall down.
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
COOPER: See? Problem solved. Finally, a way to pelvic thrust your way to fitness without falling on the floor, which always happens to me. To think all we have in this country is the shake weight, which looks downright demure by comparison.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to kick your butt.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You just shake it back and forth.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Actually forget the whole demure by comparison, thanks. Still looks like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Introducing the shake weight commercial DVD. It's a DVD featuring the shake weight commercial three times on a loop, then some static, and then nothing else.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This DVD's great. First of all, you can show your friends that it's an actual commercial. That's kind of cool.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Sorry, but all I can think of anymore when I see the shake weight is that time I was playing a game on Andy Cohen's "Watch What Happens Live."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anderson Cooper, show me how to use this shake weight and you get the point. He gets the point.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: I think I lost the game, but I like to believe I won a small victory for dignity that day. I suppose I should just be thankful he didn't get me to demonstrate the Korean horse riding machine on live television.
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
COOPER: The Olympics are going on. People want to get in shape. We're just doing a public service here. Letting you know you do not necessarily have to join a gym or buy a horse as the case may be. You just have to get your hands on the finest piece of exercise equipment ever being thrust on to the fit scene and on to the "Ridiculist."
Hey, that does it for us. Thanks very much for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts now.