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THE SITUATION ROOM
Iran Nuke Talks; Terrorism Concerns; Interview With Congressman Peter King
Aired September 26, 2013 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, the highest-level meeting between the United States and Iran in 34 years. We have details of nuclear talks between the secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
A terror attack on so-called soft targets, it's long been a concern here in the United States, and now there's growing fear that the attack on that mall in Nairobi Kenya that left 67 people dead may foreshadow a similar attack on American soil, the U.S. now taking an active part in the investigation, looking for clues that potentially could help prevent that kind of carnage, that kind of massacre at an American mall.
CNN crime and justice correspondent Joe Johns is working the story for us.
What's the latest?
JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, security at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi is being beefed up again with extra U.S. Marines.
As CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reports today, authorities say there is no credible threat at this time, but they did this out of an abundance of caution and they're well aware of the concerns about a second wave of attacks, and there's simply no telling who could be the potential targets.
BLITZER: The U.S. is beefing up security at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi for good reason, but if there's no credible threat right now, what's the point?
JOHNS: Look, assets are on the ground in Kenya, heavily involved in this investigation. Typically, they can go when Americans are killed overseas, but in this case we still don't know if Americans were killed. Not all of the dead have been identified. There may be bodies under the rubble, nationality unknown.
The Kenyans have also asked for the bureau's help, but the truth is that the U.S. authorities are just extremely interested in this for a number of reason, including concern about history repeating itself. Al Qaeda cut its teeth in Kenya with the embassy attacks in 1998. And in hindsight, that appears to have been an early warning that September 2001 was on the way.
So, now the question is whether Al-Shabab could be following in al Qaeda's footsteps with the Kenya mall attack.
The attorney general touched on that today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We're dealing now with a different threat environment. I wouldn't say that we have any specific, credible evidence that Al-Shabab is planning to do anything in the United States. I'm not sure if they have the capacity to do anything in the United States.
It doesn't mean, however, we are not taking the threat they pose -- we are taking that as a serious one.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You just heard what Eric Holder said. It looks like the FBI, correct me if I'm wrong there, they're really seriously concerned about this potential threat?
JOHNS: Clearly they're seriously concerned. Many in Congress and in the intelligence community say the threat to the U.S. is plausible and should be taken very seriously. Members of Congress have been cold that a number of Somali-Americans have been recruited by Al-Shabab and 20 or more are believed to be alive today and trained as terrorists, and what's to stop them from coming back home?
Senator Dianne Feinstein of the intelligence community talked about that. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: The death and destruction we saw at the mall could have been at a mall in the United States. We know that Al-Shabab, the terrorist group that's claimed credit for the attack, has successfully recruited young men from the United States to come to Somalia to train in their jihadist camps, and the group formally merged with al Qaeda in February of 2012.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: Frankly, it's just hard to tell who is who over there. One of the Westgate Mall suspects now being held in custody by Kenyan officials is believed to have tried to flee after the attack, according to a Kenyan counterterrorism source. CNN's Nima Elbagir reports this is a Kenyan national who was being evacuated among the injured when a machine gun magazine fell out of his pocket. He's being held at a hospital military air base.
BLITZER: Pretty tough stuff. Thanks very much, Joe Johns. By the way, later this hour, I will speak with Congressman Peter King. He's the chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. Stand by for that. In Syria, meanwhile, a civil war within the civil war. Some of the country's biggest rebel groups are now turning away from the moderate opposition, and they're vowing a more radical path. It's a very, very troubling development for the Obama administration and U.S. officials.
Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's following it. What are you seeing, Barbara? What are you hearing?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you know, in New York, the United Nations is trying to get an agreement together on Syria giving up its chemical weapons. Just as that is happening, the opposition has taken the step making the civil war much more complicated.
STARR (voice-over): In Syria, 30 miles northeast of Damascus, jihadist fighters known as the Al-Nusra Front shoot their way into this Christian enclave. The fighters linked to al Qaeda along with a dozen other militant opposition groups representing thousands of fighters have just strengthened their hand, joining forces and rejecting any alliance with Western-backed opposition.
In a video statement, one of the rebel leaders made clear they are going for a new hard line.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The fighting groups and factions call on all military and civilian organizations to unify through a clear Islamic framework.
SETH JONES, SENIOR POLITICAL SCIENTIST, RAND CORPORATION: What is concerning to me is that the statement indicates that the insurgency in Syria has taken a turn toward much more significant Islamic radicalization.
STARR: The problem, the U.S. has been trying to support select opposition groups.
JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There is a real moderate opposition that exists.
STARR: Now there may be fewer moderates inside Syria to get that support through a covert CIA program to supply them with weapons.
Is it too late for the U.S. strategy to work?
JONES: I think there's no question at this point that the U.S. should have probably gotten involved earlier. The extremist elements, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in Pakistan, they're very well-armed, they're very well-organized, they're very well-financed, and it's late in the game.
STARR: Defense Department officials openly acknowledge it will be tough to keep finding the moderates to work with, but at the same time here at the Pentagon, they're looking at a plan to actually use U.S. troops to train and equip moderates somewhere in the Middle East, not inside Syria, but in a nearby country and then send them back into Syria -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara, thank you, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
Up next, the highest-level meeting between the United States and Iran in decades. We have details of nuclear talks with between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's foreign minister.
Plus, Hillary Clinton's direct warning about elephant ivory and terrorism.
BLITZER: All right, there's breaking news.
History has been made. There has now been a formal meeting, a formal meeting for the first time in decades between the secretary of state and Iran's foreign minister.
Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is here.
There you see some of the pictures, and there you see the Iranian foreign minister, the secretary of state and they did have a separate meeting.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They did, we understand.
The meeting as a whole was the P-5 plus one, the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, plus Iran joining. But as part that meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry, who we saw there, and his Iranian counterpart, did have a separate bilateral where they spoke just the two of them. And we got a readout from that bilateral from Secretary Kerry. He just spoke to reporters saying one meeting and a change of tone is not enough. There's a lot of work to be done, he said, but he said the former minister of Iran put some possibilities on the table, and now the hard work is to be done to look at what those possibilities are going forward.
But without that meeting between the presidents earlier in the week, this is still historic, the most senior level, substantive meeting between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979 revolution.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): The last time the top American and Iranian diplomats met, Jimmy Carter was president and the shah ruled Iran. Today, 34 years later, that changed. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif in the same room engaged in direct talks on Iran's nuclear program.
Highlighting the meeting's significance, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told reporters he could see a nuclear deal within three to six months, though the White House expressed caution.
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not expecting any breakthrough in this initial meeting, but I think this is part of us testing the seriousness of the Iranians.
SCIUTTO: The biggest obstacle to resolution could be Iran's domestic politics, where hard-liners oppose any outreach to the U.S. President Rouhani may have been placating those hard-liners today when he singled out Israel's nuclear weapons as a prime threat to peace in the region.
HASSAN ROUHANI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT-ELECT (through translator): Israel, the only nonparty to the Non-proliferation Treaty in this region, should join there, too, without any further delay.
SCIUTTO: Four years ago, the U.S. and Iran were discussing a deal with many of the same elements on the table today, including shipping Iran's enriched uranium out of the country to be converted into a form usable only for research and not for a nuclear weapon.
(on camera): In 2009, four years ago, you had major players there in Geneva sitting in a room talking about many of the same components to deal that we're talking about now. What blew it up then?
TOMMY VIETOR, FORMER WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY SPOKESMAN: Yes, I think what blew it up then was politics back in Iran. There was an agreement in the room. When everyone went back to their capitals, leadership there said no.
SCIUTTO: So progress on Iran, but also today progress on Syria. Just two weeks after Secretary Kerry floated the idea, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has confirmed via Twitter that the U.S. and Russia have reached agreement on a U.N. resolution backing the complete elimination of all of Syria's chemical weapons.
So, amazing progress there, when you think about it, and they're expecting a vote on this in the U.N. Security Council before the weekend. I was thinking, Wolf, a couple months ago if we were talking about a day like this on Iran and Syria, America's most intractable problems in the region, we couldn't have predicted it, incredible events there.
BLITZER: Good thing there's progress in New York at the U.N., not much progress here in Washington on a whole range of other issues. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
With the government shutdown looming here in Washington, some federal workers will actually begin to get verbal furlough notices in the next 24 to 36 hours. There's another crisis just beyond.
Let's bring in our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She filed this report.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It would be one thing for the government to shut down. National parks would close, medical research interrupted. That would be bad, but then 17 days later, the U.S. could default on its loans if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling. That would be catastrophic.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: On the debt limit, we're going to introduce a plan.
BASH: House Republicans say they want to raise a debt ceiling, but with a catch, along with it, a lengthy list of GOP priorities, from the Keystone pipeline, to tax reform, to delaying Obamacare for a year. It's a direct challenge to the president.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will not negotiate on anything when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States of America.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BOEHNER: Now, the president says I'm not going to negotiate. Well, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work that way.
BASH: The reality is Republican leaders are also doing this as a negotiating tactic with their own restive conservatives. Senior GOP sources admit to CNN that they have learned the hard way. To manage unpredictable hard-liners, GOP leaders have to first show they're trying to stay true to principle.
(on camera): And based on what you heard, is it something you could support?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure.
BASH (voice-over): And even this debt ceiling plan Democrats dismiss as GOP fantasy doesn't satisfy some Republicans.
REP. MO BROOKS (R), ALABAMA: The plan right now does not address the spending.
BASH: That brings us to the more imminent October 1 deadline over funding the government.
BOEHNER: We have no interest in seeing a government shutdown.
BASH: That may be true, but time is running out. Once the Senate finally passes a bill funding the government, House Republicans plan to change it and send it back.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Everything is a big, big stall.
BASH: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to move Senate votes up to today, but Ted Cruz objected and fellow Republican Bob Corker came to the floor to chastise him. SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: That my two colleagues, who I respect, have sent out e-mails around the world and turned this into a show, and that is taking priority over getting legislation back to the House so they can take action.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Why is Majority Leader Harry Reid going to vote the same way you are proposing to vote? Why is every Democrat in this chamber going to vote the way you're proposing to vote?
BASH: Cruz never directly responded to the allegation that he wants to delay this because this is all for show, but his spokesman said he simply wants to have these votes in the light of day. Wolf, he got his wish. We now know a series of very critical votes will happen at 12:30 tomorrow. Then, after those are passed, we expect this to go to the House, and, of course, the government shutdown hot potato will be in their lap with just two-and-a-half days to go to the deadline.
BLITZER: The clock is ticking until midnight Monday night. Thanks very much, Dana Bash.
He called Senator Cruz of Texas a fraud. Now the Republican Congressman Peter King of New York says he's getting threatening phone calls from Cruz supporters. We will discuss with Congressman King. That's coming up.
BLITZER: The FBI now taking an active role in the investigation into that terror attack on a Nairobi mall that left at least 67 people dead.
Were any Americans involved in that brutal strike?
Let's get some more now from Republican Congressman Peter King of New York. He sits on both the House Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees.
Do you have the answer to that question, Congressman?
REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Not yet, Wolf.
But when I was chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, we held the Islamic radicalization hearings and we focused on Al-Shabab and the fact that it heard recruited between at that stage -- that was a year-and-a-half -- actually, two-and-a-half years ago -- they had recruited between 40 and 50 Americans, mainly from the Minneapolis- Saint Paul area.
These were Somali-Americans. Approximately 15 of them have been killed that we know of, so there's at least 25 Somali-Americans we know of who are actively involved with Al-Shabab. There could well be more. And so it's very likely that there could have been Americans involved in that attack, absolutely.
BLITZER: What do you make of this new heightened security at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi right now?
KING: I think it's something that has to be done, Wolf.
It's probably true that there is no specific threat. But when the fact is when you have Al-Shabab, when we know that al Qaeda has carried out attacks against American embassies in Africa, in Kenya especially, that -- to me it makes tremendous sense to have the extra security, to do what we can to make sure there's no follow-up attacks.
So, this is part of the dangerous world in which we live and which so many people want to make believe is not out there. This is an ongoing threat. Like, everyone is now concerned about attacks on malls. Malls have been susceptible to attacks for the last 11 years.
And that's why we need the intelligence to stop the attacks. People are concerned about Al-Shabab having Americans involved. The fact is we have known this for several years, but too many people wanted to ignore it. So, if anything, if anything positive -- and I hate to even say that -- can come out of the attack on the mall, it's to wake Americans up and make them realize how serious this threat is and continues to be.
BLITZER: Very quickly on Syria, because I know you have been passionate on this subject, now these reports that some of the rebels who were once aligned with the U.S. and others, they're losing heart and moving toward Al-Nusra, a terrorist organization, and other militants, how concerned are you about this?
KING: Wolf, we have to be concerned.
And this is part of the -- this is a partial result of the fact that our government has not taken action for the last two years. If they had taken action two years ago, we would not be in this position now. I still believe, however, from, again, the meetings I have been involved in, the briefings I have received, that the predominant number of rebels, rebel force are still individuals that we can work with, groups that we can work with, and that we can still be in a position to minimize the impact of Al-Nusra as far as negotiations, and as far as any aftermath of Assad being removed or any change in the Syrian government.
Having said that, the situation does get more concerning and more dangerous. And either we're going to have to take action as far as training and arming them soon or there is going to be again real consequences.
BLITZER: Let's talk about the government shutdown potentially Monday night at midnight, raising the debt ceiling. What good is coming from this huge debate that is under way right now between Republicans and the president and Democrats?
KING: Well, some good that can come from it is, I think -- especially on the debt ceiling, I think the president does have an obligation to negotiate with Republicans. This is an opportunity that's been taken advantage of in the past.
BLITZER: But you know he's not going to give up on Obamacare. That's a nonstarter, right?
KING: Yes, as far as defunding Obamacare, absolutely not.
And that's why I'm so critical of Ted Cruz. He's a false leader. He's led people down a false path there. And he's been putting pressure on conservative Republicans, basically saying that if they voted to defund Obamacare, he would take care of it when he goes to the Senate.
The fact is, he can't, and it's a false bill of goods he's been telling people. It's really been fraudulent advertising on his part. And now the government and the Congress are tied up in knots because of the -- really the phony tactics that he's been following. Hopefully, in the next four days, we can begin to get this resolved.
BLITZER: You have suggested he's engaged in a policy of what you call governmental terrorism. And you are getting very, very ugly phone calls from some of his supporters. Tell us about that.
KING: Yes, listen, you can't always blame a person if his followers act in a terrible way.
But, I mean, the type of vile, obscene phone calls that are coming in from people who claim to be his supporters -- and I have young women, women interns and full-timers in their early -- late teens, early 20s, and they get these phone calls, again, the most gross, vile, obscene type of comments being made.
And, again, I'm not saying that's his fault, but I think he's tapping into something out there which is mean and ugly. And we have an obligation to again not go down this path and not somehow give people this idea that I could just vote tomorrow to defund Obamacare and that's going to repeal the president's health care bill.
The fact is it passed both houses of Congress. It was signed by the president. It was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. A presidential election was fought on it, and the president won. If we want to repeal it -- and we should. I want to repeal it as strongly as possible.
We have to do it through the ordinary legislative process. And that's to repeal it in both houses. To do that, we need more Republicans in the House and Senate. And then we have to have it signed by a Republican president.
BLITZER: Peter King, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.
KING: Wolf, thank you.
BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "CROSSFIRE" begins right now.