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U.S. Forces Capture Benghazi Suspect; Interview with Rep. Adam Schiff; The Unraveling of Iraq

Aired June 17, 2014 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington.

We're following the breaking news, the capture by U.S. forces of a key suspect in the Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

CNN has learned the suspect identified as Ahmed Abu Khattala will be brought to the United States within days and will appear in a federal court here in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps no one has more at stake in this than Hillary Clinton right now, assuming she wants to run for president of the United States. She was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi terror attack and Benghazi is certain to come up today when Hillary Clinton appears at a televised town hall meeting that will appear -- that will be aired right here on CNN, 5:00 p.m. Eastern. It will be moderated by our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Let's bring in our senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar. She's joining us now live from the museum in Washington. That's where the town hall even will take place. Also our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

So it takes place at 5:00 p.m. Eastern, a fewer hours from now, Brianna. How might today's arrest, this capture of this terror suspect, affect the dynamics of what's going to take place at the museum where you are?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I definitely think it's going to come up. And I think Hillary Clinton will of course welcome the arrest. But I also think because it increases the chance that whatever she says on Benghazi really makes a whole lot more news, that part might not be very welcome from her.

Right now polls show that Americans view her time at the State Department as very positive. But when you look at the issue of Benghazi, that is a bruise on her resume. And to that -- and to that I think she doesn't want to be talking about it a whole lot. So right now when you look at the polls, in fact, CNN/ORC poll that was just out yesterday, 55 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with how she handled Benghazi, 60 percent dissatisfied with the Obama administration.

But overall, they're pretty pleased with her on all types of domestic and international issues. And so this is really the one for her that kind of stands out as a negative.

BLITZER: And everyone remembers some of the testimony she had when she said those famous words, what difference does it make. She's been getting a lot of criticism for that. And these poll numbers, 55 percent say they're dissatisfied with the way she handled Benghazi, 43 percent say they're satisfied. This is going to be a problem for her.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it's something that's going to dog her and her answers so far to these question. Twofold, one is that she was the CEO effectively. That she was not directly responsible for the security at every embassy. And secondly, she said, look, this is a great country. And we shouldn't be paying small ball. We should be in the major leagues. And let's move on. And that the State Department enacted every change that was recommended by an exhaustive study after Benghazi.

So she wants to kind of pivot off of this. Now with this arrest today, as Brianna points out, I think it will be a little bit more difficult for her to pivot off of it. However, the administration did get the guy, so that does help her.

BLITZER: One of the guys who may have been responsible.

BORGER: One of the guys. And then maybe you'll hear more of the story about why they did what they did.

BLITZER: Yes. I'm sure that -- I'm sure we'll be hearing.

Brianna, you're there at the museum, getting ready for the town hall event. How are -- what's the process for people who may be watching right now to submit possible questions?

KEILAR: Well, this is one of the really cool things about this, Wolf. This is the only network televised town hall meeting. And people can get engaged in this. CNN has partnered with tumblr. If you go to CNN.com/townhall, you can actually submit questions. And I am told that there's still a point in doing that. Some of these questions have been curated but we're still looking at questions.

And also, during the -- during the town hall, if you want to be part of the conversation you can go on Twitter and do that, use the #CNNtownhall. But Hillary Clinton, we expect, will be asked about a lot of things from folks in the audience. As well as from the folks on tumblr and also from Christiane. But there is a team of editorial staff working with Christiane right now. And thye are -- they have a very close hold on the questions that they've got so far.

And Secretary Clinton isn't aware of what they are. So there are going to be a lot of topics. And really nothing is off the table.

BLITZER: The town hall will take place from 5:00 p.m. Eastern, until 6:00 p.m. Eastern. It will be followed by a special "SITUATION ROOM" from the museum. I'll be heading over there myself.

Christiane Amanpour will moderate the town hall. We'll do a one-hour special "SITUATION ROOM" after the town hall. We'll speak to some of the people who actually asked questions of Hillary Clinton among other things.

Once again, as Brianna just said, no questions will be off limits. See you later on that.

Up next, what to do about the crisis in Iraq. A Democratic congressman says the president should be very wary of calling for airstrikes. Representative Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee, standing by to weigh in. He's got deep concerns about the U.S. launching airstrikes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: U.S. forces have captured a key suspect in the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The attack on the U.S. compound killed the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. A U.S. official says a Libyan militia leader charged in the attack was arrested over the weekend.

Congressman Adam Schiff of California is one of five Democrats on the Select Committee investigating Benghazi. He's also a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: You bet.

BLITZER: So what do you make of this capture, arrest, he's being brought here to Washington, D.C., Ahmed Abu Khattala. He's being charged with planning the killing of these four Americans. You must have been surprised when you heard it.

SCHIFF: I was surprised, very pleased. I mean, this is someone I think we've had our eyes on for quite some time. But it's a very difficult operating environment. Both in terms of gathering the evidence but also in terms of making the grab that we did --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He's not the only one, though, right? There are a bunch of others the U.S. is looking for who worked allegedly with him.

SCHIFF: Absolutely. But he's one of the key leaders of Ansar al- Sharia which is one of the main militant organizations responsible in that attack. They were a great many players, a great many militant organizations but he's one of the key players in one of the key militant organizations.

BLITZER: Here's what I don't understand. Maybe you can explain this because you've been investigating Benghazi literally from day one. Why has it taken so long? Especially, we had a report earlier, Arwa Damon was in Libya, in May of last year, 2013. She interviewed this guy. She caught up with him. Other journalists have caught up with him at a coffee shop in Benghazi. And it's taken this long for the U.S. to find this guy.

SCHIFF: Well, it's been very frustrating. But I think there were several factors at work. First, we had to make sure that we had the evidence to go after this guy. And it took a long time to sort through the events of that horrendous tragedy and figure out who was responsible, what roles they played, what witnesses we had, what evidence we had. Then we had a very impermissive environment.

And yes, reporters were able to get to him. But it's one thing for a reporter to be able to get to a swaggering culprit who's willing to sit down with them. It's another to get in, to grab someone and get out without getting our people killed. And then finally, you have the potential of really disrupting the Libyan government itself that I think was a concern and I don't think is less of a concern now.

BLITZER: That Libyan government doesn't seem to be much of a government. The place seems to be falling apart. Correct me if I'm wrong.

SCHIFF: No, absolutely, and Libya is in far worse shape now than it was during the time of the Benghazi attack. But I think ultimately we concluded, and I don't think this was the overriding consideration that whatever impact it would have on the Libyan government was just not going to sway us.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit. Because I assume -- hold on, the president of the United States is about to make a statement.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- attack on a consulate office there. I said at the time that my absolute commitment was to make sure that we brought to justice those who have been responsible. And yesterday our special forces showing incredible courage and precision, were able to capture an individual, Abdul Khattala, who was -- who is alleged to have been one of the masterminds of the attack. And he is --

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: He is now being transported back to the United States. I say that, first of all, because we continue to think about and pray for the families of those who were killed during that terrible attack. But more importantly, it's important for us to send a message to the world, that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice. And that's a message that I sent the day after it happened and regardless of how long it takes, we will find you.

And I want to make sure that everybody around the world hears that message very clearly because my first and most solemn duty as president and commander-in-chief is to keep the American people safe. And there are a lot of dangers out there and a lot of challenges. And our diplomats serve with incredible courage and valor in some very difficult situations. They need to know that this country has their back and will always go after anybody who goes after us. Now, with that in mind, let me get to the point of this gathering here

today. I want to thank Mark and Jim for the great work --

BLITZER: All right, so there you heard the president deviating from his earlier comments, scheduled comments, to make a statement, obviously praising the U.S. Special Operations Forces who went into Libya and captured this terror suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala. One of the so-called masterminds of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi back in 2012, on 9/11/2012, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Adam Schiff, the congressman from California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and the Select Committee on the Benghazi investigation, is still with us.

You think when the president authorized this raid capturing this suspect, what he just said is really going to quiet the critics of the president, the secretary of state, on this whole Benghazi terror attack? Because the criticism since it occurred has been very intense.

SCHIFF: No, I don't think so. And the criticism has not only been intense, but it has been populated with conspiracy theories that migrate as each one is debunked on to a new one. So there's really nothing I think the president can do or say that's going to satisfy some of the Benghazi conspiracy theorists. But I do think in terms of the American people, they're going to be very grateful, I think we all are, that one of those that was a mastermind of this has been captured and will be prosecuted and brought to justice. I think it's very positive news in otherwise pretty bleak story.

BLITZER: It's interesting, they're bringing him to a federal court right here in Washington, D.C. where he will be charged. They're not sending him as an enemy combatant to Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military prison there. Are you surprised by that?

SCHIFF: I'm not surprised because, you know, the last person we picked up in Libya similarly was brought to criminal court. I think the administration wants to move away from using military tribunals. I think there's some legal problems associated with that. And wants to show us, indeed, past prosecutions have, that the criminal courts are capable of handling terrorism cases. And in fact, they've got a much better track record than do the military commissions in Guantanamo.

BLITZER: Before I let you go, very quick, you issued a strong statement. You were here with me last week as well, saying to the president, not so fast as far as authorizing air strikes in Iraq against these ISIS forces. Why are you so concerned about that possibility?

SCHIFF: I think the biggest problem, Wolf, is that the Shiite government has excluded the Sunnis. So that's a political problem. If we jump in firmly on the side of the Shia, in what's becoming an increasingly sectarian war, we're going to be perceived as -- by the Sunnis as just another part of the problem. It's not going to solve the -- the problem on the ground and the reason why ISIS has been able to track these Sunni communities because Maliki and his government has pushed them into the arms of ISIS.

And until that dynamic changes, lobbing bombs from aircraft or drones is not going to make a strategic difference and it may just embitter people on the ground even further against the United States.

BLITZER: They're only 40 miles or so from Baghdad right now.

SCHIFF: That's true, although I think we're already saying the resistance beginning to stiffen as the Shia military, as the Shia militias find that, you know, this is the battleground they have got to defend. So I think ISIS is going to find gaining territory in a more Shia south much more difficult.

The key is to try to break away those Sunni communities from ISIS in the north. And I think we can do that, but we can't do it if Maliki is going to run the government the way he has.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks for joining us.

SCHIFF: You bet.

BLITZER: Up next, I'll ask our Iraq panel of experts if the ISIS threat goes beyond Iraq. Does it actually go all the way to the U.S. homeland?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's hard to believe but in Iraq right now militant ISIS fighters they are less than 40 miles away from the capital of Baghdad. They are moving closer and closer. They are also battling for control of Baqubah, that's 37 miles to the north. They've looted the police station there. The government insists the insurgents are not in control of the town.

Let's get some serious analysis. I'm joined by Joby Warrick of the "Washington Post," Tara Maller of the New America Foundation and CNN's chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, is it really possible? I asked the former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. Is it really possible these guys could take Baghdad?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's not very likely for a few reasons. One, it's the capital. Big concentration of Iraqi forces there. They want to defend it. Two, you've had a call to arms for Shiites, from Shiite clerics who are coming in. There's even a run on Iraqi military uniforms, you hear, because people want to volunteer for the fight and defend themselves against Sunnis.

But three, also because Baghdad is very much a Shiite city. The city population down to 15 some odd percent after clashes going back to 2008 and the ISIS has advantages in the areas where it is a Sunni majority population. And that's been the case so far in the northern part of the country. It's very different when you get to Baghdad. BLITZER: How serious is this fear, Tara? You understand Iraq very

well. That the civil war that we've seen over the past three years in Syria, where more than 150,000 people have been killed, maybe millions have been made homeless, refugees, three million outside the country, four million internally, a similar situation could develop in Iraq?

TARA MALLER, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Well, I don't know that we see it get as bad as we have seen it getting serious over the past, you know, year or so, however, there is a lot of reason to be concerned. You saw in Syria groups taking large swaths of territory where they are getting financial gain through oil fields, they are getting population gain through recruiting fighters and they're getting weaponry.

And you do have the potential for that to develop in parts of Iraq, where insurgents have taken over. But I agree with Jim that I don't think that's likely for Baghdad mostly because of the demographic breakdown of the ISF and the size of the city itself. Almost nine million people. Mosul is only around two million.

BLITZER: Joby, you have been doing some great reporting in "The Washington Post." How good is U.S. intelligence right now? What's going on inside Iraq?

JOBY WARRICK, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Well, the key question we'd like to know right now is how close, you know, the tribal people, the Sunnis that are really the key group in this case, how much are they supporting these ISIS folks. If you remember back in the middle of the last decade, ISIS or its predecessors had trouble with the Sunni tribes. The Sunnis turned away from it, we saw the Anbar awakening and sort of split with ISIS.

But now it's the other way. The Sunnis are liking, they are supporting ISIS and they're helping them actually move forward and take over cities. So the question I think intelligence wants to know is how good are these ties and how important are they actually getting.

BLITZER: And the fact that Nuri al Maliki's government is now accusing Saudi Arabia of basically fomenting this kind of terror attack on Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, what do you make of that?

WARRICK: It's kind of a loose charge. I think all along, some of the folks on the Shiite side have been saying that the Gulf Arabs have been sending money and weapons in support. I think early on they did support some of the radical groups. They've curtailed that particularly the Saudis who are trying to really control what goes into the groups in Syria. I think it's a bit of a loaded charge at the moment.

BLITZER: Jim, there's a lot of concern, a lot of Americans worry about getting dragged in once again into Iraq given the experience that started back in 2003. This president really doesn't want that to happen.

SCIUTTO: No. And he's made that clear, one, by saying he's not going to put boots on the ground but two, I think you can say based on the pace of the response so far, this has been several days now where the administration has been considering options, having late-night meetings, looking at the pluses and minuses. They are not -- clearly not in any rush to act, particularly when you're talking about more kinetic things like airstrikes, et cetera. Clearly they're going to do something, intelligence sharing, this kind of thing. But in terms of, you know, kinetic military action, they have no rush. They are in no rush.

BLITZER: You agree?

MALLER: Well, I agree, but I also think that the administration is actually losing time to do whatever it is they're going to do. I don't know that anything that's going to develop in the next 24 or 48 hours will be changing that calculus. If behind the scenes they are putting stronger demands on Maliki, do act and then we'll do (INAUDIBLE) to help you, maybe we're not seeing that. But we haven't heard the administration come out with specifics as to what they're actually asking Maliki to do and in exchange for what type of action --

BLITZER: All right. Hold on for a moment, guys. I want to continue this conversation right after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Once again, we're joined by Joby Warrick of the "Washington Post," Tara Maller of the New America Foundation, and our own Jim Sciutto.

This whole notion, Joby, of these terrorists in Iraq and Syria, ISIS terrorists, developing I guess agents or terrorists who could come not only to Europe but actually to the United States and plot terror attacks here, how realistic is that?

WARRICK: Well, you know, when Baghdadi, the current leader, was released from prison in 2009, he'd been held by our forces for several years, one of his parting words to the American forces was see you in New York.

BLITZER: I believe the exact quote was, "I'll see you guys in New York."

WARRICK: Exactly. So for the time being, and this goes back from the early days in Iraq, they were very focused on local issues. They like to get Assad out of Syria. They've got other plans locally. But eventually, they have broader ambitions. There's no question about it.

BLITZER: And there are a lot of foreigners who are working with them, including Americans, who actually go there and train and potentially could come back.

MALLER: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, both in Syria and Iraq, one of the main concerns from the U.S. perspective is that areas can be used as terrorist safe havens and that groups can use those areas as training grounds to recruit terrorists. I mean, it only takes a few individuals to carry out attacks overseas by a well-funded group.

BLITZER: Which raises the question, if the U.S. is going to launch air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq, why not launch air strikes against ISIS targets also in Syria?

SCIUTTO: Several officials have made that case. We know there's been disagreement. Some of them former, some of them current. Kerry and others who have been pushing for that kind of action. And I have both been told by intelligence officials it is not just some distant thought from ISIS militants about attacking the U.S., but that there is training, there is aspiration, there is coordination with al Qaeda core leadership about picking out targets, encouraging them to pick out targets not only in Europe but also on the U.S. homeland. This is a real concern.

BLITZER: What are you hearing, Joby? You think that's going to happen?

WARRICK: Absolutely. If you look at social media --

BLITZER: Absolutely what?

WARRICK: There is planning and talking, discussing.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You haven't heard it's going to happen?

WARRICK: Not heard it's going to happen. But you do see constantly on social media discussion about what can we do, what are the targets that would be ripe for plucking right now. And so they do talk about that.

BLITZER: Joby, Tara, Jim, guys, thanks very much.

This important programming note to our viewers out there. Please be sure to tune in 5:00 p.m. Eastern for a CNN exclusive town hall event with Hillary Clinton moderated by our own Christiane Amanpour. It will be followed by a special "SITUATION ROOM." I'll be over at the museum. We'll assess what has just happened. That's coming up later today.

Thanks very much for watching. "NEWSROOM" with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.