Return to Transcripts main page


NFL Commissioner Blames Ray Rice for Misinforming Him about Domestic Violence Episode; Some Fans Show Support for Ray Rice; Gen. McChrystal Advocates for Every American Serve His Country; White House: U.S. "At War" with ISIS; McChrystal: Airstrikes Only Part of Solution; Obama or Bush to Blame for Rise or ISIS?

Aired September 12, 2014 - 19:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, my exclusive interview with four-star General Stanley McChrystal on the ISIS threat, the president's strategy and negotiating these terrorists.

Plus NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's damage control, a new explanation tonight about why he didn't suspend the running back Ray Rice sooner.

And another top NFL player star charged with abuse, this time for hurting a child. Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight, the man who led an international coalition of forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan and headed the Special Forces that killed Bin Laden and Al Zarkawi. My exclusive interview with General Stanley McChrystal in just a moment.

But first new details tonight, the White House says it for the first time, U.S. airstrikes will target ISIS leadership and new details on how the U.S. will train Syrian rebels.

Jim Sciutto is in our Washington Bureau and Jim, you've been reporting today on the United States plans to target ISIS leadership and how specific are they?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They are about this specific. To this point, they have not targeted leadership, but the Pentagon saying this is no longer a defensive operation, it is offensive. It will be more aggressive. It is part of that.

They will target command and control and leaders and Erin, that is something we've seen as the U.S. has done against al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, in Somalia and of course, in Pakistan against Bin Laden with some success.

BURNETT: You also I know, Jim, have some information tonight in your reporting about that huge increase we saw, in terms of, at first they said 10,000 ISIS fighters and now the CIA is saying up to 31,500. What more do you know about that huge search?

SCIUTTO: What we know is that this is basically a product of the ISIS success. It has swept across Syria and into Iraq, it has attracted more fighters from overseas. It has attracted more fighters locally. There have been defections from other militant groups.

And they've also been able as they take over territory to in effect conscript local fighters, some of them forcibly, some of them voluntarily, and that has built up this force and it really shows you, Erin, as the U.S. commits to destroying this force, exactly how big and how daunting that task will be.

BURNETT: Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Joining me now is retired four-star, General Stanley McChrystal. The man who led Special Operations forces in Iraq to the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the killing of one of the most brutal and wanted terrorist Al Muzaba Zarkawi.

McChrystal is credited with transforming U.S. Special Forces into the elite crucial force that they are today. He is also former top commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. General McChrystal, thank you so much for being with us tonight.


BURNETT: So how significant of a threat is ISIS? Is it being -- our people making too big of a deal of ISIS, or perhaps is it an even bigger threat than is being discussed?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think they are a very significant threat on several levels. I think first they are a threat to the existence of the state of Iraq. They are clearly a threat to Syria.

I think they are a threat to the United States because they have the aspiration to be a transnational terrorist movement, established a caliphate from which they can push ideas.

One of the things that is frightening about ISIS now that al Qaeda had not really been able to do is they controlled terrain. Now in one sense that makes them vulnerable because they have something they have to defend --

BURNETT: They have to protect it.

MCCHRYSTAL: On the other hand, when you have terrain, you have the opportunity to provide goods and services to a population to do all of the things of a state. And if you can do that to a level that is accepted by the population, even if it is not loved, they have the opportunity to get legitimacy that they shouldn't have. And over time that legitimacy could make them pretty difficult to root out.

BURNETT: You talk about ISIS as a threat to the United States. What makes you sure and what makes you so concerned about that threat?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, you can never be 100 percent sure. But the number of foreigners typically people of Middle Eastern decent, who have gone from Europe, United States and other places back into Syria or Iraq to join ISIS creates a pool of people likely to go home. So that is one.

That is the most obvious ability to go back into strike America or other parts of the world. I think that is a very real problem. But I think the wider problem is with stability in the region matters to us on many levels.

We used to think about just the flow of oil out the Persian Gulf, but it is much more complex now. We are an interconnected world, where what happens anywhere, essentially matters everywhere.

And so I think the idea that ISIS can grow so fast and be pushing for the establishment of a very extreme caliphate could create instability in a region that has huge effects on the world. So I don't think it's something that anyone in the world, much less United States, could allow.

BURNETT: So this is a significant of a threat is as what you faced while you were in Iraq fighting insurgency?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think so.

BURNETT: Absolutely. So this is that serious.

MCCHRYSTAL: ISIS is a serious threat.

BURNETT: So the United States is conducting more than 150 airstrikes in Iraq. Of course, the president says he is going to start striking in Syria. There are 1,700 U.S. troops in Iraq, but the administration right now seems a bit torn on what word to use to describe all of that.

I want to play for you what Secretary Kerry had to say as well as the spokesperson for the Department of Defense, John Kirby.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Is the United States at war with ISIS. It sure sounds from the president's speech that we are.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I think that is the wrong terminology.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make no mistake. We know we are at war with ISIL.


BURNETT: Is this war?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I mean, you can trip over and argue about whether it's a war for congressional purposes. If you are on the ground and people are getting killed, to a soldier it feels like war and to the population it feels like war. So it's a struggle.

BURNETT: Is the United States willing? As I understand it is to degrade and destroy ISIS.

MCCHRYSTAL: We have identified ISIS as a United States enemy now and so people are asking that question. We no longer have it simply as a threat to Iraq or Syria, we have identified it as a separate enemy and so people are making that calculation.

I think our credibility in the region and the world is probably less than it was in 2001 and that is not unexpected and no one person's fault. So if we start to point fingers, I think that is way over simplified.

BURNETT: In this particular issue, the president has laid out things that he is going to do. He is going to continue with airstrikes. He is going train other troops, build a coalition, start striking in Syria, but he will categorically not put U.S. combat troops on the ground. Is that a promise that can be kept?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, it's obviously a difficult question. If you look back in history, typically when a strategy identifies ends, and you establish ways and means to achieve it.

And what happens if suddenly the ways and means, which you identify don't achieve your ends, then you are in a position where you either change your objective, reduce it or change it, or you have to make the decision to cross the Rubicon and do something else. And leaders in America and around the world have faced that over and over. And President Obama may face that as well.

BURNETT: So I want to play a little bit of his speech to the nation obviously earlier this week. Here is the president.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.


BURNETT: This, of course, is the president who campaigned and won on ending the war on Iraq and has been very proud of the fact that he did so. Has he changed?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think every president changes in office and I think President Obama has established a record of being willing to do a number of counter terrorist operations around the world. I think that what we are now, though, is we are facing a big problem that may not be as easy to solve with what people want to say or very clean surgical operations. It may take more and the nation will have to decide.

BURNETT: So I want to talk about that more. You are the general who created the U.S. counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein caught under your command.

In an op-ed this week, a retired army major general said this, it needs to be won with so-called, quote/unquote, "McChrystal method" on steroids. Special operations forces, a lot more of them. How would you fight this war? If you had all of the tools, what would you do? MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think the first thing is if you think about counter terrorist strike operations targeting, which is what my organization focused primarily on. It is a tool. It is part of what you do. But it doesn't solve the problem.

We did that for years in Iraq, very effectively. But we really didn't get full effect until late 2006 and 2007 when a change in the wider strategy in Iraq changed to counter insurgency.

When the awakening started and the president approved the surge, a number of things happened, which suddenly allowed a holistic approach. So the lesson that I drew from that and I feel very strongly about this.

And I think it's still appropriate now is, if you start to look for the simple, very surgical solution, it is an illusion. It is almost deceptive because it will look and feel like you are solving the problem when in reality the problem is much more fundamental.

BURNETT: And in that sense, the airstrikes and the shock and awe that's been out there, that is just a small step.

MCCHRYSTAL: It is part of a solution. But it is only part, in my view, of what is required.

BURNETT: The president says he is going to be arming the Syrian rebels as part of the fight against ISIS. This is something that's been hotly debated in part because the United States wasn't able to determine what sorts of rebels it wanted to support and ones we didn't.

Some of the rebels they might have supported a year ago had they been involved might have actually been ISIS, which is fighting Bashar Al- Assad. Is arming rebels in Syria right now, is that a smart move for the United States?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think it is a necessary move. If you don't arm the rebels, then you leave them in a position between the extreme groups like ISIS and Al Nushra, and the army of Bashar Al-Assad. And so I think you have to do that.

Now it's always hard. If you set this incredibly high standard that says they almost be college graduates with completely vetted, you know, you can put any number.

The reality is that is not what opposition groups and guerrillas like that are typically made of. So I think we need to be practical. We need to put -- what standards we can, but we need to give them as much help as we can.

BURNETT: Even if the weapons end up in arms of a group that wants to use them against the United States. That is a risk we must take, but that's a risk we must take?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think it is. I think clearly some of those will, but I think you must take that risk. Look at the alternative of not doing that. You leave a vacuum and you leave them in a position where they won't be major players.

BURNETT: In terms of Syria, the U.S. intelligence self-described by the intelligence community is that they have not had any intelligence coming out of Syria. They went earlier this summer, tried to rescue Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the two journalists who were beheaded.

They weren't there when they got there. And James Foley's mother spoke to CNN about what the U.S. government did and here's what she said to my colleague, Anderson.


DIANE FOLEY, JAMES FOLEY'S MOTHER: Jim believed to the end that his country would come to their aid. We were asked to not go to the media, to just trust that it would be taken care of. We were told we could not raise ransom. It was illegal. We might be prosecuted. We were just told to trust that he would be freed somehow, miraculously, and he wasn't, was he?


BURNETT: Should the U.S. have negotiated? Should they have paid ransom or done something more to save the lives of Steven Sotloff and James Foley?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I think a nation should try to save its citizens as much as it can, but it is complex. As we all know, the issue of paying ransom goes to the idea of making a market for more hostages. So it is tragic to lose anyone and I certainly feel for the families. But it is a difficult situation. And so it would be unfair to say they should have done more in this case.

BURNETT: Thanks, General McChrystal. We'll be back in a moment because the question about whether the president was right when he called ISIS a JV team. It's the big question. General McChrystal is going to talk about that with me next.

And the NFL commissioner's new explanation for why he didn't act on Ray Rice sooner.

And another NFL player indicted tonight. This time for a felony charged of injury to a child.


BURNETT: And more of my exclusive interview with four-general Stanley McChrystal, the man who led the coalition that took on Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Much of the debate this week has been over who is to blame for the fact that there are so fewer U.S. troops left in Iraq, which has led to a much less secure country according to some.

Take a listen to the exchange between Senator John McCain and former White House press secretary, Jay Carney, who is now a CNN contributor.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I was there in Syria. We knew them. Come on, it is your boss is the one that, when the entire national security team that wanted to arm and train them, that he turned them down, Mr. Carney --


MCCAIN: So the fact is --

CARNEY: We have to disagree on that.

MCCAIN: No, facts are stubborn things, Mr. Carney. If we had left a residual force, the situation would not be what it is today and there would be a lot more --

CARNEY: Senator, I can pause it with great respect for that I don't disagree with you.

MCCAIN: No, you can't, because you don't have the facts.


BURNETT: I'm curious why you think ISIS is as strong as it is right now. There are some who say, look, if President Obama had negotiated a new status of forces agreement, left a residual forces in Iraq in 2011, this ISIS crisis wouldn't be happening.

People like John McCain make that argument very strenuously. Do you think troops staying would have prevented what we're seeing right now?

MCCHRYSTAL: I think that additional U.S. -- or some U.S. forces staying in Iraq probably could have had a better effect in terms of keeping Iraq from going sectarian in its military and its polices as ultimately happened, which weaken the Iraqi state.

I don't think that created ISIS. I think ISIS was created from a number of factors, the weakness inside Syria, the fact that the opposition groups were unable to get as much traction, which tends to reward more extreme, more committed elements.

BURNETT: The blame game is ugly and it's simplistic, but it is going on in full force as you know. The status of forces agreement, there are those that say President Obama, he didn't really want to renegotiate and if he had he could have kept troops in.

And then there are those who point out rightly that it was President Bush who signed that status of forces agreement, which committed to troop withdraws under the terms under which they were withdrawn.

And he was the one that signed that agreement. Is one side or the other more to blame, or is this plenty to go around?

MCCHRYSTAL: Yes, I remember when Joe Namath said years ago. You never get blitzed in the press box. And in reality unless you've been in the position where President Bush or President Obama has been, it is really difficult to understand all of the context of a decision.

I think there is plenty of blame for everybody, but I think we spend way too much time thinking about blame. If you think about our strategy now against ISIS, the one thing we absolutely need is cohesion in the United States in support of the president's strategy.

Is it a perfect strategy? No. I've never seen a perfect strategy. But I can guarantee it is a weaker strategy if we don't fall behind it.

BURNETT: He said earlier this year that ISIS was a JV team, now infamously. This week he told the nation they are, quote/unquote, "unique in their brutality." You think ISIS is a big threat. You said it is a significant threat and a significant threat to the United States.

How though did it happen so quickly, that a few months ago it was a JV team, and now the president is giving a prime time address and the nation is at war, for all intents and purposes?

MCCHRYSTAL: I don't know how strong it was before. But insurgencies tend to build an infrastructure and they tend to build a structure that is hard-core committed people. Once that gets going, the momentum of getting additional fighters, which adds to your numbers is pretty easy once you've done the structure and the underlying foundation. My guess is that is what ISIS did.

BURNETT: So you think it is possible that the president was right when he called it a JV team. People are pointing out they didn't know what was happening, but you're saying that they may have and it may happened very quickly.

MCCHRYSTAL: No, I'm saying that ISIS may have been very much a varsity element but not as big. Because the effectiveness of the group is not its numbers, it is how effectively it is connected. ISIS has proven to be great at organization and great at propaganda and great at money.

And so they've proven to be very professional internally, at least it seems to be. So growing was not the hardest part, once you have that built. So my guess is we didn't see that as well as we might have. And that is of course always a danger with a group like that.

BURNETT: So you are part of the organization that killed Osama Bin Laden and Zarkawi to the most wanted terrorist in the world, and that was because of your leadership. The question I have for you, given that ISIS is now around and other al Qaeda linked groups through the Middle East and Africa, does killing the individual matter as much as you thought?

MCCHRYSTAL: No. Killing the individual almost never solves the problem. You say we started the war on terror, thinking if we decapitated al Qaeda that they would collapse. I used to tell a joke. We have the strategy of going at the top two plus seven or top nine.

There was even an operation ordered to do that. And I said if we took out the top nine people in the Pentagon, would the Pentagon collapse? But the reality is no. It's a part of what you have to do, getting Abu Zawahiri.

He was necessary, but insufficient to solve the problem. Getting Osama Bin Laden was necessary. He'd become an iconic symbol, a rallying point, but I think most people who are in this understand that really you've got to attack two thing.

You got to attack the structure of the organization, the people who really get stuff done. You come here at CNN and you don't go after the broadcasters, you go after the production people and the technical people because then it would stop.

And you go after the idea that makes people want to be part of it and the second obviously is much harder. But that is the strategy.

BURNETT: So a strategy of trying to get Al Baghdadi from ISIS right now, that is not going to stop ISIS?

MCCHRYSTAL: No. I think it's something that causes ISIS problems, but it is not cutting the head off a snake and expecting the snake to die.

BURNETT: We'll have more of our exclusive conversation with General Stanley McChrystal later in the program.

OUTFRONT tonight now, our senior political analyst, David Gergen. And David, the general obviously has not come out and spoken about ISIS and what is happening? What is your reaction to what you just heard him say?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought he was remarkably fair minded and indeed supportive of the president especially remarkable because this was a president who cashiered him, who asked for his resignation after a long, honorable and courageous career.

And a return to his career and when people are making judgments about President Obama's plan and to support it the way he did was I thought the act of a gentleman.

MCCHRYSTAL: He was very gentlemanly on it even though, of course, David, he agreed with the armed rebels, which the president is doing, which the president is taking so much criticism for and even saying, yes, weapons will get in the hands of people who want to kill America but still go ahead and do it.

One thing though that he was a bit more measured on is that he seemed to think that to achieve the goal of destroying ISIS, the president may need to change the means and in that we're talking particularly about troops on the ground?

GERGEN: I thought that is exactly right, Erin. I thought that was the one place that subtly and departed from the administration when he said, look when we had the success in Iraq before, we had a strategy much like what is being talked about here. But we had to change strategy and had the surge and the awakening and that worked but that meant we had to put more troops on the ground and that is what worked. And I thought he gently, but firmly said this may not work without more support and I'm glad you saw that.

I thought the other thing he was straightforward about were his views about keeping more Americans in Iraq at the end of the war. And this is a very contentious issue that John McCain and Jay Carney were talking about the other night in the clip you just showed.

McChrystal is in the camp and I talked to him and said it elsewhere. I believe we would have been better served if we left a contingent of 8,000 or 10,000 there for a force. But we had more influence with the Maliki government when we had a top-flight four-star general there.

It made a big difference that Maliki would do things that were more congenially. He might not have alienated the Sunnis, which has helped ISIS gain control of so much territory in Iraq.

BURNETT: And he also departed way in this interview a little bit from General Petraeus was speaking at a 9/11 event in Denver last night and he said ISIS should not be overestimated.

It doesn't have the root and numbers and the structure that al Qaeda had when we launched the scourge sort of downplaying the ISIS threat. Obviously you just heard General McChrystal say this is as significant as any threat he faced in Iraq during the insurgency.

I thought it was interesting that you are looking at in just 24 hours the two men who were perhaps most responsible for that fight and for strategies not really agreeing on ISIS.

GERGEN: I agree on that. And these are two men who are friends and have great respect for each other. I've been in private events with just the two of them and I can tell you there is enormous amount of mutual respect.

I think they are just telling their minds as they see it. I think they are very measured. They haven't been gauged one way or the other. And when you reported tonight, there are more ISIS troops there than we first thought.

I thought 48 hours after the president's speech, this looks like a more complicated mission than we thought two nights ago. There are more troops than we thought. When the "New York Times," which has been very supportive of President Obama, said there is mixed opinion in the Arab world at the request for help.

That is significant. It means that this is -- it's hard putting together this coalition. When Germany says we'll get some weapons to the Kurds, but we are not going to any bombing in Syria.

And Britain as a foreign minister said we won't bomb in Syria and then Cameron, the prime minister said we haven't made that decision yet. This is not a fully put together situation yet and it's very clear complicated. BURNETT: And when the president makes a case, this is threat to the

United States and then you are left alone.

GERGEN: He will have to keep pushing on it and he made the point it will take a long time and it could. Normally you make that kind of statement. The day after you make that kind of speech, you hit them. We are still gathering the coalition.

BURNETT: All right, thanks very much to you, David, as always.

GERGEN: OK, Erin, thanks.

BURNETT: OUTFRONT next, a tangled web, Ray Rice says he told NFL Chief Roger Goodell that he punched his now wife and now Goodell is telling the player's association that is not so. Who is telling the truth?

Plus women who support Ray Rice. Why they are still wearing his jersey?