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Possible 100 U.S. Special Forces To Iraq; Awaiting Obama's Comments on U.S. Strategy in Iraq

Aired June 19, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Jake Tapper in Washington, D.C. In just a few minutes, President Obama is scheduled to deliver a statement on the growing crisis in Iraq and what the U.S. government plans to do about it. Several U.S. officials tell us that the Pentagon has presented the president with a plan that would send up to 100 U.S. special operations forces into Iraq. They would help advise the Iraqi military, collect intelligence on the Islamic militants of the group ISIS which has seized territory in northern Iraq and is advancing closer to Baghdad.

The special operations teams would likely be made up of green berets, Army rangers and Navy SEALs. President Obama currently is meeting with his national security team right now. His statement, which was previously scheduled to begin a half hour ago, is now set for 1:15 Eastern, in about 15 minutes. CNN, of course, covering this story from all the angles. We begin with Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Oh, Jake, as you said, the president is expected to come into the briefing room in about 15 minutes to lay out his strategy for the next chapter for the United States in Iraq. As you've been saying for the last 15, 20 minutes, this has been a difficult chapter for the United States because of the war that began back in 2003. The president's decision to end that war back in 2011, and now he's coming under heavy criticism from Republicans up on Capitol Hill who are saying, now, that he made a mistake in not getting a forces agreement that would have left a residual force in Iraq.

It'll be interesting, Jake, to hear because he's had -- he's had a whole slew of questions thrown at him all week long as to which questions the president will choose to take. Obviously, he needs to lay out exactly what he wants to do. We expect him to do that coming out of this meeting with his national security team.

But in addition to that, Jake, there's also this question of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki. The White House has a pretty cool relationship. The president has made it pretty clear, he's disappointed in Maliki's leadership in Iraq. He said that, basically, U.S. assistance for Iraq is conditional and conditioned upon the Iraqi government making some changes, making some reforms to be more inclusive with the Shia -- with the Sunni and Kurdish sects in that country. And so, it'll interesting to see how the president responds to that. If he takes questions here in the briefing room, I'm sure that will -- that will be asked of him. Does -- is he demanding that Nuri al Maliki go in exchange for some kind of assistance from the U.S. government? So, lots of questions for this president. Lots of accusations coming from Capitol Hill. You heard John McCain saying, earlier this morning, that the president has been fiddling while Baghdad burns. Make no mistake, Jake, and you know this from being over here at the White House, the president may be chomping at the bit to respond to some of that political criticism.

TAPPER: Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour is in New York. Christiane, we've heard some interesting comments from people who have been involved in Iraq previously, especially former General David Petraeus, cautioning the United States government from necessarily siding with one side in what could end up becoming a civil war. Obviously, the Iraqi government, in this construct, would be the Shiite side against ISIS's Sunni side. What strikes you the most about the criticisms and comments we're hearing from so many people involved in the previous military exercise in Iraq?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, most of the military commentary that I've heard and that I've sought myself, including from commanders who were involved last time around and in the intervening 10 years or so, is that it sums up as follows. We were as irresponsible leaving this war as we were in getting into this war. And by that, these commanders mean that there was a period of time when ISIS, its precursor AQI, were in the throes (ph) of that collapsing that country. You remember, there was a surge. ISIS and Al Qaeda were defeated. And then, eventually, the United States pulled out. And there's been a huge amount of optic to the point that ISIS is in control of an area right now.

Now, it is true that there are many people -- and I think, perhaps, General Petraeus is referring to other Sunni states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, such as the Gulf states, who want not to see a Shiite regime propped up in Baghdad. And, I think, the United States doesn't want to see a Shiite regime propped up in Baghdad. What they want to see is a power-sharing agreement and that is going to be the hard part.

There seems to be three options. Partition, which is very bad for the United States and for the rest of the region. That is what's happening right now, or if there is a real threat to Baghdad and to the other parts of Maliki's government, some people think Iran might come in and then prop up what could be a Shiite government and a Shiite dictatorship, or the other thing that others are positing is that everybody, perhaps all those interested parties whether it's the United States, Iran, the Saudis, the Gulf states and the parties inside Iraq, sit together, make the political compromises, make the political pressures that have to be made right now to keep Iraq a unified state but one that represents the whole of the people. And that's going to be the hardest and that's going to be the one, though, that most people who want to see Iraq not fall into an Al Qaeda state and not collapse into three parts. That's what people would like to see. That's going to be the hardest. TAPPER: Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr has been reporting all

morning on the possible plan that President Obama will pick, sent over by the Pentagon, up to 100 special operations forces sent to Iraq to help the Iraqi government fight off this terrorist group, this militia, ISIS. Barbara, what is the military reality on the ground for the U.S.?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Jake, what are we really talking about here? We are talking, for the first time since the U.S. left Iraq in December 2011, 100 U.S. military families seeing their loved ones sent back into Iraq. There have been a couple of hundred U.S. troops at the embassy doing security work in very secure locations. But these are going to be 100 Special Forces going back into essentially front-line positions at brigade headquarters for the Iraqi military around the country. We will learn the details.

But, you know, if you're going to put -- the reality is this. If you're going to put 100 troops on the ground, they don't go by themselves. You have to be able to provide secure transportation, armored vehicles, weapons. You have to be able to have the backup military force if they run into trouble, heaven forbid. Combat search and rescue, medical care, evac for any wounded or casualties. You can bet that ISIS may try and come after these installations where these Americans will be.

Special Forces, we've talked about it all morning, they will tell you, you're in combat -- when somebody's shooting at you, you're in combat. Special Forces are always prepared for that.

So, what you have seen over the last couple of days is helicopters being positioned in the area, security -- other security forces being positioned in the area, ships at sea with helicopters. You really do have a much larger picture evolving here than just 100 Special Forces. It will be all the backup so they stay safe and they can do what they are sent there to do. But this is -- this could be a very sensitive situation.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. We're going to take one quick break. President Obama expected to speak from the briefing room in just a few minutes. Stay with us.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's special coverage of the crisis in Iraq. President Obama expected at any minute to make an announcement about what the U.S. will be doing about the descent of is fighters, terrorist organization coming to Iraq, taking control of part of the country, especially to the north of Baghdad, perhaps even descending upon Baghdad.

In Baghdad right now, we have our own Anderson Cooper who joins us now live. Anderson, what are the Iraqis with whom you're speaking telling us about what they want the United States to be doing when it comes to preventing ISIS from taking any more land, especially the capital of Baghdad? ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": You know, when

you talk to people on the street, there's a lot of pride and a lot of people will tell you, look, we don't need the U.S. We don't need Iran. We don't need other people coming in here. We can defend ourselves. Clearly, that has not been the case, and a lot of these bases, where Iraqi troops have just -- have cut and run. Clearly, the Iraqi government of Nuri al Maliki wants a great level of U.S. involvement. They want more U.S. airstrikes. They want as much help on the battlefield as they can possibly get.

I think, you know, you've raised some really interesting issues in the last hour, and it's important to hone in on some key questions on these Special Forces. What bases are they actually going to be positioned in? I mean, the most forward bases are where they're probably needed most. Those are obviously the most dangerous areas. A lot of those bases have already been overrun. They're not going to be sent there.

And exactly what is their role going to be? Obviously, intelligence gathering on ISIS forces for any future airstrikes to help Iraqi forces. But also just trying to lift the morale and stiffen the spine of some of these Iraqi forces, that may be an important role that they can play and possibly reaching out to some of these Sunni groups, who they've had relationships with in the past, to see if they can be peeled off from supporting ISIS forces which they seem to be, at this point.

TAPPER: Anderson Cooper live in Baghdad. We're going to take this one last break and then we're expecting President Obama to speak from the White House briefing room about the crisis in Iraq and whether or not he will be sending U.S. forces into Iraq after this quick break.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's continuing coverage of the crisis in Iraq. We are expecting President Obama any minute to come to the podium to make his announcement about what he intends to do about the crisis in Iraq, whether or not he will be sending any troops, special operations or otherwise, into Baghdad.

I'm joined here in the studio with Gloria Borger and chief foreign affairs correspondent for "Time" Magazine, Michael Crowley. There is a lot of discomfort, I would imagine, in the White House right now because, Michael, President Obama is where he is, in no small way, because he opposed sending troops to Iraq back in 2003.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": Yes. It's just a terrible irony that must be incredibly personally frustrating for a president whose road to the White House was really built on his opposition to this war and his belief that America should leave quickly, that it was in America's interests and also he argued in Iraq's interests for us to get out, that we were kind of artificially propping up a system that had to learn to function and grow on its own, in effect take off the training wheels.

And you both know so well how many times he's boasted about winding down the wars, and we're out of Iraq. And I think just on a kind of personal emotional level for him, it has to be really hard not to mention that the very serious national security strategic consequences of this crisis.

TAPPER: To this day, he refuses to say he does not believe that the surge was a good thing. The surge and obviously it's more complicated than having -- than President Bush having sent more troops to Iraq. There was the Sunni awakening and a whole bunch of other things that allowed that war to go better after the surge.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure.

TAPPER: But President Obama, to this day, does not say it was a good idea to do that.

BORGER: No, he has not, and that's why there is such agony here, clearly. And also don't forget, you have a president now who has to come out and tell the American people that he is sending these special operations force there. And he has to make the case to the American people why this is a matter of national security interest to us in this country when, in fact, he has been making the opposite case all along, and it was, you know, the basis for his initial run for the presidency.

So it's -- it's a very -- it's an internal drama here and also something that, clearly, given the fact that the statement is delayed and delayed, it's clearly been a subject of a lot of discussion inside, you know, inside the White House because -- because they're struggling with two-thirds of the American public opposes -- said that Iraq wasn't worth it. 37 percent of the American public thinks the president's done a good job on foreign policy. Only 37 percent.

He's in a very, very difficult situation right now with this.

TAPPER: I want to go to Capitol Hill, chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. Dana, obviously President Obama surrounded by advisers from the intelligence community, the military community, telling him that ISIS cannot be allowed to continue to have this safe haven in Syria, in Iraq, that allowing them to do so poses an existential threat to the United States. Many in the military and intelligence communities concerned about the American fighters and other westerners fighting alongside ISIS.

And yet even with that, I suspect there are a lot of Republicans, along with Democrats on Capitol Hill, that are very reluctant to send any more troops into that country.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are, because, you know, in fact, we were talking sort of amongst ourselves, those of us who cover Capitol Hill for CNN this morning that even the House Republicans, the only part of the government right now that's run by Republicans, even those rank and file are very different from those who were here back when the Iraq war started.

They're not as hawkish. They're not as -- the idea of spending more money, never mind sending more troops in any way, shape or form is much more foreign to them. They're much more focused on the home front, much more -- much less interventionist than, you know, the George Bush/Dick Cheney Republicans that were not just in the White House at the time but here on Capitol Hill.

So certainly that speaks to the Republican Party. Having said that, you also are still seeing some of the real -- the partisan divide that is not unexpected with any president, but particularly at this point in the Obama presidency.

Even again today, Jake, John Boehner, who has been very forceful saying that President Obama -- last week, he said he was taking a nap. Today, he said that that the wheels have come off. Really strong language saying that the United States and Americans are exponentially less safe under this president because of the regional issues, because the region, not just Iraq, but the region has exploded with terrorism.

So you certainly have the push and the pull among Republicans with their constituents, but then the desire to be more robust and hit the president on what they fundamentally believe has been a foreign policy failure with pulling troops out of Iraq.

TAPPER: Members of the House and Senate eagerly awaiting word from President Obama about his decision, what he will do when it comes to sending troops to Iraq, special operations forces or otherwise.

We're going to take a quick break. President Obama expected in the press briefing room at any moment. Back after this.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's continuing coverage of the crisis in Iraq. We're expecting a statement from President Obama any minute now about his decision on whether or not to send troops of any form, special operations or otherwise, into Iraq.

There is a lot of discussion about a plan being floated by the Pentagon to send up to 100 special operations forces. That's Delta Force, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, into Baghdad to assist the Iraqi government in repelling the terrorists, the militia, ISIS.

I want to go to Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, he's a military analyst who served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer during the Persian Gulf War and also served in northern Iraq in '95 and '96 with the CIA.

Rick, when you think about the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it is a complicated history. What can President Obama learn from the nine years troops were there that he should keep in mind when engaging in whatever this decision is? What lessons did we learn?

LT. COL RICK FRANCONIA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think the biggest one is that we're not going to change Iraq from the outside. The Iraqis have to do this. We can give them the opportunity to do that. But right now he's got a pressing situation he has to fix before we can get there. And that's we've got to deal with this ISI problem immediately. That's the immediate problem. Then down the road we've got to give the Iraqis the opportunity to reform the country. And, unfortunately, I don't think Prime Minister Maliki is going to be receptive to that. So we've got to create a situation -- I don't know how we do that -- where the Iraqis can build some sort of system where they can all work together. But right now that looks very difficult.

TAPPER: You heard Dana Bash, our chief congressional correspondent, relaying the concerns of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The concern obviously in the history of this country and the U.S. involvement in military adventures abroad. Often 100 special operations forces will be sent into a country, 100 advisers will be sent in, and before you know it, there are thousands and thousands of American ground troops in that country.

That, of course, a concern among politicians on Capitol Hill. There also has to be a concern among members of the U.S. military, I would think.

FRANCONIA: This is a very common problem, Jake, and we see it over and over again. You start off doing one thing, and then you add one more thing to it, and you add one more thing to it, you bring in more people to do those things. And we call this mission creep. And your mission now starts out as advisory, and then you become participants, and then you need to beef up that presence. So that's something we have to guard about. And I'm sure that the planners at the Pentagon are making the president aware of that concern.

TAPPER: I want to go to senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, the president has been discussing whether or not to take any sort of action, whether it's airstrikes or sending special operations forces, or more or less, in Iraq for the better part of a week.

How much does President Obama believe ISIS, this terrorist militia that is seizing parts of Iraq, how much does he believe it is an existential threat not to U.S. interests, not just to U.S. allies, but to the United States itself?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think that's a key question in all of this, Jake. And I think it's important to report -- and I know you have talked about this as well -- is that caution is really sort of the norths tar for this president. We saw him get very close to the precipice of launching airstrikes in the civil war in Syria, and he pulled back from that. He decided against that at the last minute. And it feels eerily similar to that situation and what we're seeing right now. And we're going to hear the president come out in a few minutes and talk about what he's discussed with his national security advisers back in the situation room.

But Jake, about this ISIS threat, he said last week, you know, it was with the Australian prime minister here at the White House one week ago where he said that, you know, he might need to authorize a short- term immediate action of some sort to respond to this threat by ISIS. It now seems as if that threat has abated, or at least that urgency has abated over here at the White House. And there might be a couple of reasons why. I've talked to a senior

intelligence official this week who said that they feel that the Iraqi security forces in Baghdad are very different than the ISF soldiers that you saw in the northern part of the country just melt away. They feel because of the makeup of the ISF soldiers in Baghdad, the fact that they're going to be more Shia, the fact that they're going to be more prone to not lay down their arms in the capital city, that really reduced the threat in their minds that Baghdad would fall.

And so that took that urgency away for this president. And I think it gave the president and his national security team some room to breathe and really go through these options, gave him time to consult with Congress.

You heard Dana Bash a few moments ago say, you know, John Boehner earlier this morning said that the president's White House -- the wheels are coming off his presidency. One thing that we did hear from the speaker's office earlier this week is that they feel, and a lot of Republicans feel up on Capitol Hill ,that the president, his national security team, his chief of staff, have been in greater contact with members of Congress, that the consultations with Congress have been more robust, you might say, as opposed to what happened during the Bergdahl case where there was very little to no consultations with Congress.

And so that ISIS threat that seemed very, very urgent late last week when you saw the president make that statement on the south lawn before getting on Marine One and leaving for California, I get the sense from this White House, from talking to officials here that they're just not in the same situation that they were a week ago. Baghdad did not fall. The Shias are starting to rise up and take the fight to ISIS, and that has created room for the president to perhaps put together a more comprehensive strategy.

And I think that's what we'll be hearing in just a few moments, that we're not going to be talking about military strikes. We may be talking about advisers or special operation forces going to Iraq, perhaps in lesser numbers than the people in this briefing room right now, we should point out. But it appears that the strategy the president is going to lay out is going to be more comprehensive than airstrikes or no airstrikes.

And, again, as people say, Jake, this presidency -- and we've heard this and you've heard this as well -- this presidency has been about ending wars, not starting them. And I think that's why you may hear more caution from the president as opposed to what we heard last week, Jake.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta at the White House. We're going to take a quick break. We're expecting President Obama to come out any minute. Stay with us.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's continuing coverage of the crisis in Iraq. For more than an hour now, we have been waiting for President Obama to come out to the briefing room to announce what exactly he intends to do, if anything, about the encroachment of the terrorist militia ISIS coming to Baghdad, which appeared to be the plan of ISIS several weeks ago, several days ago.

We have two minutes until President Obama comes out. I want to go quickly to chief international affairs correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, President Obama's, a man whose political success has been defined by taking troops out of Iraq, opposing the war in Iraq. An interesting dilemma for him.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: A dilemma, yes and no. If the actual main priority of the United States, which he delineated in his own speech last week, is fighting terrorism, well, then this is it. Things change. Yes, he's ended the war, but things change. And is the better course of wisdom to allow a group of terrorists to take over a country, or is the better course of wisdom to stop that?

My sources have told me last week that they did not believe that ISIS could take Baghdad. Nonetheless, what ISIS has taken is a part of Iraq that has joined up with a part of Syria, and that is a massive, massive problem. And all the military and political sources I've spoken to says that provides a massive threat to all the region and to America itself as well as its allies.

TAPPER: Michael Crowley, "Time" Magazine's chief foreign affairs correspondent, President Obama said he doesn't oppose all wars.

Here's President Obama right now. Let's listen.

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