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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; Syria Threat?

Aired February 26, 2014 - 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: Happening now: grave danger, the story behind a disturbing new image from Syria, and a new warning that the country is a terrorist training ground posing a direct threat to the security of the United States.

Plus, is America ready for a woman to become president? As Hillary Clinton takes center stage, I will ask a former presidential candidate, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, to explain her controversial remarks suggesting voters aren't clamoring for a woman in the Oval Office.

And star witness, the actor Ben Affleck, he is here in Washington. We will hear what he's telling the nation's power players and whether he's making a difference.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

An extraordinary image, powerful and heartbreaking, sent out by the United Nations today, it shows countless residents of a devastated Syrian city gathered as far as the eye can see waiting for food handouts.

Now, as Syria sinks deeper into chaos, there are growing concerns that terror groups there will export their violence and send their foreign fighters back home to attack the United States and other countries.

CNN's chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, has been looking into this for us.

He's got the latest -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is really the starkest warning we have heard from U.S. officials on Syria.

And it's part of a broader narrative about the evolving terror threat to the U.S. The bottom line, that threat is becoming more diffuse. You have offshoots of al Qaeda. You have homegrown terrorists in the U.S., and now with Syria, veterans of that war, some of them Americans, returning home to carry out attacks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEH JOHNSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Thank you for the opportunity to be here. SCIUTTO: Today, America's top homeland security official told Congress that Syria may now be the most serious terror threat to the U.S. homeland.

JOHNSON: I would say that for us in national security and homeland security, in this government, this particular issue is the top of list or near the top of the list for us. We talk about it all the time. And we're carefully monitoring the situation.

SCIUTTO: Syria's brutal civil war has provided al Qaeda-tied terrorist groups the perfect combination of violence and lawlessness to train and plan attacks targeting American interests at home and abroad.

And, crucially, the war has been a magnet for thousands of foreign fighters. U.S. officials believe many are now being recruited and trained to carry out attacks when they return home. More than 50 of them are believed to be Americans.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: As we see more and more jihadists pouring into Syria for the fight in the rebel forces, who have been now infiltrated by al Qaeda affiliates, it's becoming one of the largest training grounds now in the world.

SCIUTTO: The looming threat from returning foreign fighters was highlighted this week when Moazzam Begg, a Briton and former detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was arrested in Britain on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp in Syria. Following his release from Gitmo in 2005, Begg had been the leader of a vocal campaign for the rights of terror suspects, many of whom, himself included, he said, have been wrongfully imprisoned.

MOAZZAM BEGG, FORMER GUANTANAMO DETAINEE: When I go around the world and campaign and fight for the rights of the prisoners, people say, oh, isn't that place closed? Obama said it was going to be closed. And I say, no, of course, it's not.

SCIUTTO: Begg is now back in prison as police investigate whether he could be one of an alarming number of Syrian veterans believed to be taking aim at the West.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Now, Begg's advocacy group is vehemently protesting the arrest, calling it politically motivated, saying -- quote -- "We're disgusted that Begg is being retraumatized with the same guilt-by- association accusations that resulted in his unlawful incarceration in Guantanamo Bay."

They say he was there for humanitarian work. But there was one more warning today from Jeh Johnson that the Boston bombings last year may be a sign of the future, a real fear now not just of fighters returning from Syria, but so-called lone wolf attacks here at home, Wolf. And that's really the issue. It's a diffuse threat coming from so many directions, creates new challenges for our homeland security officials.

BLITZER: Yes, it's all very, very frightening.

Jim Sciutto reporting, thank you.

A giant international bank is now apologizing for helping wealthy American clients dodge billions of dollars in taxes. Congressional investigators say bankers at Credit Suisse used cloak and dagger tactics that sound like something out of a spy thriller.

Brian Todd is up on Capitol Hill with the details -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, top officials at this Swiss bank had a lot of tough questions to answer. A Senate report says they helped thousands of rich Americans skip out on their taxes to the IRS.

And, as you mentioned, they used some pretty creative cloak and dagger to do that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): An elevator with no buttons operated by remote control whisking clients to secret banking rooms, a wealthy customer hiding a quarter million dollars in pantyhose wrapped around her body on airplane flights. This isn't a white-collar crime thriller. This what a Senate report says Switzerland's second largest bank was doing to help rich Americans hide their accounts from the IRS.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: You don't want to be in the dirty business any longer of helping U.S. clients cheat on their taxes.

TODD: Bigwigs of Credit Suisse were grilled before a Senate subcommittee. The report found that between 2001 and 2008, Credit Suisse held more than 22,000 accounts for rich American customers totaling up to $12 billion. Nearly all the accounts never reported for tax purposes.

BRYAN SKARLATOS, TAX ATTORNEY, KOSTELANETZ & FINK: You can have a bank account. It just can't be a secret bank account. You have to disclose it on your income tax return.

TODD: But secrecy was an obsession. There was the Swiss banker who, according to the report, traveled to the U.S., had a discreet breakfast meeting with a client at a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where he handed the client bank statements hidden inside a "Sports Illustrated" magazine.

To entice rich Americans to do their banking in Switzerland, the report says, Credit Suisse set up a special office at the Zurich Airport. Clients could fly in, service their undeclared bank accounts, then fly out or hit the ski slopes.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: So it really didn't mean much that you had an office right there in the Zurich Airport?

BRADY DOUGAN, CEO, CREDIT SUISSE GROUP: It was really an office, where, as you say, it was an office of convenience for clients...

MCCAIN: It certainly was.

DOUGAN: ... who would come in, but basically they held relatively small amounts of money. And there was no active management.

TODD: "Small amounts" most of us couldn't dream of, between $30,000 and $75,000 per account. Credit Suisse officials say this was all done by a small group of bad bankers. They say they will get to the bottom of it. But so far, the bank has handed over about 230 names of American clients out of those 22,000 accounts. Why?

LEVIN: Is the Swiss government going to prosecute you if you comply with our laws and turn over those names? Are you going to be prosecuted? Is that your fear?

ROMEO CERUTTI, GENERAL COUNSEL, CREDIT SUISSE GROUP: Yes.

LEVIN: That's your fear, that the Swiss government...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now to all the finger-pointing at the Swiss government for its secrecy laws, a Swiss official tells CNN, hey, don't look at us. She says there's an amendment to a Swiss/American treaty calling for the two countries to share more information about bank clients who evade taxes. She says that amendment is now held up, blocked in the U.S. Senate where all those tough questions were asked today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd up on Capitol Hill. A powerful story indeed. Thank you.

Still ahead, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, she is here. She is live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. The former White House hopeful has suggested a lot of Americans may not be ready for a woman president. I will ask her about that and more.

And "Argo" star, the director Ben Affleck, he goes inside the real- life halls of power here in Washington.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama went to a train depot in Minnesota today to talk about investing in transportation and infrastructure and how that would create a lot, a lot of jobs. He had some tough words for Republicans in Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There have been some Republicans in Congress who refuse to act on commonsense proposals that will create jobs and grow our economy.

Partly, it's not that they're, I guess, they don't like roads. They just don't want to pay for them. And, you know, it doesn't work that way. You got to come up with a way to get these projects going. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in a Republican from Minnesota. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in.

So why won't you do what the president wants you to do, help pay for those new roads, infrastructure and get the job done, create a lot of jobs?

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: Like so many things the president says, it's just not true. We are paying for roads and bridges. And I'm very proud, probably the two greatest accomplishments during my time in Congress is we built the longest unfinished bridge project in the history of the United States, and we're expanding the interstate highway 94. I'm extremely proud of that --

BLITZER: In Minnesota.

BACHMANN: In Minnesota, I'm extremely proud of getting that done.

BLITZER: But there's a lot more infrastructure that needs --

BACHMANN: Oh sure, and we need it.

BLITZER: -- schools, hospitals. So many people e-mail me, they tweet me, they say, you know what? Why are we spending so much money on infrastructure development, for example, in Afghanistan, when we should be spending that money in the United States?

BACHMANN: And that's exactly what we need to do. We've spent about a trillion dollars in Afghanistan, nearly that much in Iraq. We need to put that money into roads and bridges here. You won't get any qualms from me.

BLITZER: Those two wars were a blunder, you think? The two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a U.S. blunder?

BACHMANN: That requires more than just a yes or no answer, and let's have that conversation some day. For now, we do need to build roads. We do need to build bridges, and I'm all for it.

BLITZER: Remember that bridge that collapsed in Mississippi -- excuse me, Minnesota.

BACHMANN: I-95 -- I-35, yes.

BLITZER: That bridge was rebuilt?

BACHMANN: Yes, so the good news is it was rebuilt in one year's time. The reason it why it got up so fast and under budget is because we waived all the regulatory burden, and we just got the thing built. Republicans and Democrats came together, and I say let's do that with every road and bridge project out there. Let's just get them built.

BLITZER: So on this issue you agree with the president?

BACHMANN: Oh, absolutely we need to get them built. But again, remember, I'm not just for spending money for the sake of spending money. Let's put it into bridges and roads that are actually going to move products, move people and that'll help everyone.

BLITZER: Don't build any bridges to nowhere.

BACHMANN: That's right.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about some controversial comments you told Cal Thomas the other day when you suggested a lot of Americans aren't ready for a female president, saying this. And I'll put it up on the screen. "I think there was a cachet about having an African- American president because of guilt. People don't hold guilt for a woman. I don't think there's a pent-up desire for a woman president."

I want you to-- give you a chance to explain because it caused a little bit of a buzz.

BACHMANN: No, I'm thankful for that, because I had the experience -- obviously, I believe a woman can be president. I ran for president of the United States. But I lived through the experience. There are some Americans who just aren't ready for a president. It's a small distinct minority, but there are some people --

BLITZER: Democrats and Republicans?

BACHMANN: Democrats and Republicans. There are some people who just don't think --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: How did you -- because at one point going into the Iowa caucuses you were atop the field with cover stories in "Newsweek" and "New York Times" Sunday...

BACHMANN: Well, I won the Iowa straw poll. I'm the first Republican and only Republican woman ever to win a presidential contest; I'm very proud of that. It shows that a woman can win. And the overwhelming number of Americans have no problem with electing a woman.

But the fact remains there are some, but the main thing is people will be willing to elect a woman for president. I don't think it will be Hillary Clinton who will be our first woman president, but I do believe there will be a woman president.

BLITZER: When?

BACHMANN: Oh, I think it could be in 2016 if we have a conservative that will run.

BLITZER: Why don't you think it will be Hillary?

BACHMANN: I don't think it will be because she has some very serious challenges that she has to overcome. Number one, she has to answer the question of being fit to be commander in chief. Now, does she have experience? Absolutely she has experience. And she has the qualifications.

But she has a very serious hurdle because when the time came for her to demonstrate ability as a commander in chief, she failed that test. She didn't see the run-up to what happened in Benghazi, despite given warnings over and over throughout that year in 2012. During the event, our understanding is that she didn't request that the Defense Department would come and relieve the suffering that the individuals were under. And afterwards, she was continuing the false narrative that it was a video that caused the problem.

BLITZER: So, if she runs, you think Benghazi will be a huge issue...

BACHMANN: It will be a huge issue...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But also Obamacare will be an issue. Remember, she's the godmother of Obamacare --

BLITZER: During the Bill Clinton administration, it was a different health care but.

BACHMANN: That's right.

BLITZER: But let's talk about a Republican woman.

BACHMANN: She'll be the third term of Barack Obama, and that could be trouble.

BLITZER: You say there could be a Republican woman president elected in 2016? Who?

BACHMANN: If there's a Republican woman that decides to run.

BLITZER: Who's out there?

BACHMANN: Who right now -- we don't have anyone who is making the moves, you might say, to say that they want to run. We don't have that right now.

And it's very early. I hope we don't spend the next two years doing nothing but focusing on who the nominee would be, because then the country would be better if we have a conversation and a narrative about what we can do to fix our problems as a country.

BLITZER: Do you want one of the Republican governors who happens to be a women -- a woman to run for the president of the United States? Susana Martinez, for example?

BACHMANN: Oh, we have excellent Republican governors. We have Mary Fallin who's the governor in Oklahoma, Susana Martinez that you mentioned that you mentioned, who's a governor. We do have candidates out there, including Republican women who are members of Congress and the U.S. Senate and women who are prominent in business. We have a number of candidates, any of whom would serve us very well.

BLITZER: What do you think the Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, should do with this legislation passed by the state legislature that the supporters say is a religious freedom piece of legislation, the critics say it gives an opportunity to discriminate against gays and lesbians?

BACHMANN: I think what we need to do is respect both sides. We need to respect both opinions. And just like we need to observe tolerance for the gay and lesbian community, we need to have tolerance for the community of people who hold sincerely held religious belief.

BLITZER: But should she veto that legislation?

BACHMANN: No, I don't think that she should. In my opinion --

BLITZER: Won't that open the door for less tolerance for gays?

BACHMANN: Oh in fact, it's just the opposite. This is a decided level of intolerance -- it's effectively eviscerating the rights of freedom of speech, expression and religious expression for the people of Arizona, and it sets a terrible precedence.

BLITZER: But if gays and lesbians won't be able to get services like all other Americans, that's discriminatory against them.

BACHMANN: It -- we need -- again, we need to respect the gay and lesbian community, and they need to have access to services --

BLITZER: But if they're treated differently than other Americans, that certainly isn't respectful.

BACHMANN: But remember, we're treating people who hold sincerely held religious beliefs differently than other Americans, either. This isn't one side or another. What we're talking about is tolerance on both sides. And it is not tolerant to force people to violate their religious beliefs. That's not tolerance.

BLITZER: I think you're going to be disappointed because I think -- I think she's going to veto.

BACHMANN: It looks like she may veto it, but I think that will prove to serve us not very well in terms of tolerance in the United States.

BLITZER: There's a lot of tolerance. Americans are very tolerant people. And there is religious freedom.

BACHMANN: Well, his is not tolerating people's religious beliefs. And we need to do that.

BLITZER: On this one, I disagree. Michele Bachmann, thanks for coming in.

BACHMANN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, it's celebrity day up on Capitol Hill. You will find out what the actor Seth Rogen was promoting to members of Congress.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Two A-list Hollywood actors brought their star power to Capitol Hill today. Ben Affleck and Seth Rogen, they testified about causes they care deeply about, the crisis in the Congo for Affleck, Alzheimer's for Rogen.

So, what do these celebrities and other celebrities like these bring to the witness table?

CNN anchor Jake Tapper takes a closer look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They may wear suits just like everyone else who approaches those tables, papers in hand and a cause for which to advocate. But let's be clear. Folks like these are not giving your average congressional testimonies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: That's wonderful.

TODD: From the ridiculous to the impassioned.

RICHARD SIMMONS, FOUNDER, RICHARD SIMMONS INC.: I just may run for office.

TAPPER: To the downright distracting.

NICOLE KIDMAN, ACTRESS: I became UNIFEM's goodwill ambassador.

TAPPER: When celebrities come to Washington, the media and the politicians take notice. But does the spectacle of the star outshine or shed light on the cause they have come to promote?

EMILY HEIL, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Often, hearings in Congress are not about members of Congress learning something that they don't already know. It's performance art. If they wanted to really learn about issues, they could get it from a briefing book.

TAPPER: Today, Oscar winner Ben Affleck arrived in Washington to speak about the crisis in the Congo.

BEN AFFLECK, ACTOR/DIRECTOR: Finally, it just a pleasure to be back here in the State Department after -- the real State Department, because I had to fake it for "Argo." I get to see the real thing here.

TAPPER: The "Argo" director has brought his cause to the table time and time again.

AFFLECK: My name is Ben Affleck. It was fought on Congolese soil. I'm working with and for the people of Eastern Congo.

TAPPER: And today, just a few marble pillars away, actor Seth Rogen testified about the effects of Alzheimer's, which his mother-in-law suffers from.

Now, sure, these appearances bring some buzz, but ultimately does anyone remember why Stephen Colbert testified before Congress or Bob Barker or Elton John? Or do they just remember that they did, with the cause lost in the flash of camera lights?

Truth is, that's up to the celebrity's commitment to the cause and the journalists covering them. To be completely candid, Congo and Alzheimer's would not be mentioned on my show today without Affleck and Rogen. Telling some stories without obvious news events is tough to do. Water shortages in developing nations got our attention last year in part because of Matt Damon's involvement.

(on camera): You attaching yourself to this means I will be sitting here interviewing you, talking about an issue I probably wouldn't, and people at home, viewers, will be paying attention to an issue that they wouldn't otherwise pay attention to.

MATT DAMON, ACTOR: Yes, that's the hope.

TAPPER: Affleck's co-friend co-founded Water.org. And their pal George Clooney is a longtime advocate for peace in Sudan, even getting arrested outside the embassy in 2012.

DAMON: I think we all individually felt that if cameras were going to follow us around, why not -- why not make something good out of that?

HEIL: Celebrities the bring attention to an issue, and especially if that issue is not the sexiest issue, you get Ben Affleck involved, all of a sudden, it's a little more interesting.

TAPPER: That's something most politicians have known for a while.

Jake Tapper, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: I want to thank these celebrities for doing what they're doing, because almost all of these causes are extremely important.

That's it for me. Remember, you can always follow what's going on, on Twitter. Tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.

Thanks very much for watching.