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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Flames Erupt on Jet; Crisis in Syria; RNC Targets NBC Over Debate; U.S. Ground Troops Heading to Syria; Intel Chief: Putin is "Winging This" in Syria; Black Lives Matter Protesters Interrupt Clinton Rally. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 30, 2015 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Boots on the ground.

THE LEAD starts right now.

And breaking news, a major reversal, as the U.S. on the verge on sending ground troops into Syria. How close will they be to combat, or will combat find them?

NBC-ya. Republicans, fed up after the CNBC free-for-all, tell the peacock network they are done.

Plus, after flames erupt on a commercial jet, a firsthand report of the terror from inside the plane, raising troubling new questions about what really happened.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with breaking news in the world lead, a monumental shift in policy for the United States, and a major decision that the president who wanted to end two wars by the time he left office certainly did not want to make.

CNN has learned that the Obama administration plans to for the first time officially send special operations forces into Syria to help fight ISIS. Call them what you want, advisers or the elite warriors that they are, but American boots will be on the ground in Syria, something the president has said repeatedly would not happen.

CNN is covering every corner of this major development on the ground in Syria and at high-level diplomatic talks in Vienna.

But we begin today at the White House, where CNN's Jim Acosta had some tough questions for the press secretary today -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jim, today, aides to the president said it again and again. This move into Syria is an intensifying of the U.S. effort to battle ISIS, but the White House denies that this announcement marks any kind of reversal for President Obama, even though he repeatedly assured Americans U.S. forces would not be engaged in combat in the fight against ISIS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's an escalation in the war on ISIS. The White House announced roughly 50 special operations forces will be deployed to Northern Syria as part of what's described as an intensifying strategy, including targeted raids against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, and a new push to retake the crucial city of Ramadi.

But aides to the president stress it's a cautious move.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is an important thing for the American people to understand. These forces do not have a combat mission.

ACOSTA: White House officials maintain this won't be a repeat of the war in Iraq in 2003, but more like the raid U.S. forces joined last week to rescue Iraqi hostages, and the administration is not ruling out future deployments.

(on camera): It's possible that there could be further deployments?

EARNEST: Well, Jim, I don't want to try to predict the future here.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But the White House denies this is a presidential flip-flop on ISIS, despite repeated promises from Mr. Obama that U.S. ground forces won't be engaged in combat against the terror group.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: American boots on the ground in Syria would not only be good for America, but also would be good for Syria.

I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan.

With respect to the situation on the ground in Syria, we will not be placing U.S. ground troops to try to control the areas that are part of the conflict inside of Syria.

ACOSTA: Press Secretary Josh Earnest insists that was when the president was talking about using boots on the ground to topple Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

(on camera): It would be great if we could just have a moment of clarity here and you could acknowledge that, yes, this mission is changing. It's not what it was said it was going to be at the onset of this.

(CROSSTALK)

EARNEST: To say that it's clear, to say that, Jim, would only confuse the situation.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Contrast that with how the Pentagon describes the situation in Iraq, where U.S. forces are already in an advise and assist role. COL. STEVE WARREN, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: Of course it's combat. Our

aviators are conducting combat air patrols. It's the name of the mission, combat air patrol. So, of course it's combat.

ACOSTA: Lawmakers from both parties are asking questions. New House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement, "This commitment of U.S. forces must come with a coherent strategy to defeat ISIL. Otherwise, we are likely to see the same results in the region."

GOP presidential candidates, like Senator Lindsey Graham, aren't being that diplomatic.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a half- assed strategy at best.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: The White House won't say how long these special operations forces will be in Syria or who they will work with, saying that's being kept secret for operational security reasons, but aides to the president agree this push against ISIS is no game-changer in Syria and that the battle against the terror group will last well into the next administration.

Jim, they know that they have an image and message problem on their hands. Earlier today, they just weren't willing to say that they flip-flopped.

SCIUTTO: A lot of parsing of that word combat, God knows. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, at the White House.

One group certainly happy with the news, the Syrian Kurdish fighting force in Northern Syria. Some of these troops have beaten back ISIS while using just rusty old hunting rifles and wearing socks and sandals. They say they can't go it alone, though.

[16:05:11]

And as peace talks play out in Europe at a pretty hotel in Vienna, this is the reality on the ground in Syria. This is, in fact, the reality of the past five years on the ground, carnage, as Bashar al- Assad fires missiles at his own people, once again killing dozens.

Senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is right across the border from Syria in Turkey.

Nick, one victim of this attack yelled it was happening that the people there are being exterminated.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You can understand why they would feel that in Duma, which was a target of an attack that killed over 100 just two months ago.

Today, 7:30 in the morning, busy shopping time in a market on a Friday, missiles slammed in, 55 dead at least, 200 injured, and those injuries massively complicated, because in the last 24 hours two missiles landed near the hospital that services that particular area, closing it, meaning everyone has to basically try and fend for themselves and these gruesome injuries you're seeing without proper medical care.

And in fact some of the amateur video shows how a shell landed near an ambulance as it was trying to collect people from that very area, absolute carnage there, contrasting, frankly, with the scenes in that five-star Viennese hotel. No Syrian opposition or regime, frankly, people invited to that meeting to talk peace. And even if they were, frankly, the exiled Syrian opposition is distant from the fighters doing the fighting who are, frankly, distant from the people being bombed in those images there.

Those Viennese showed some kind of progress, but so far away from what daily life for people still left in Syria actually is, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Nick, you have been on the ground in Syria a number of times. You're aware, I have certainly heard it, too, frustration from the Kurdish rebels, from other rebels fighting Assad and fighting ISIS about the lack of substantive U.S. support.

So, 50 U.S. special forces, in their view, is that going to make a difference on the ground there?

WALSH: Certainly you're right. Even Kobani, we saw Kurds there fighting with old weapons.

But these new advisers aren't really going to help the Kurds. The U.S. at pains to point out they're going to help something called the Syrian Arab coalition. Now, these guys are by far from a major force inside Syria. They have worked alongside the Kurds, particularly in Kobani as well.

They have been basically focused on trying to push down towards Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold, but that offensive is very far off. They simply don't have the numbers. They simply don't have firepower to try and even achieve that.

Presumably, these advisers, 50, albeit a small number, may try and bring weapons, airpower in to assist that, maybe get some traction. But, really, Jim, what you're looking at, at the end of the day here is a bid to try and rejuvenate what failed earlier, the new Syria force, as it was called.

The Pentagon's train and equip program, that only managed to get 54 people through its graduation class and then it fell apart. This seems to be a little vetted, perhaps you might even say a little hurried notion. Let's get some Syrian rebels we can work with and try and put that together and try and move toward Raqqa, a policy on the hoof, not quite -- this seem to have a month preparation, but it's certainly not a sweeping game-changer, as the White House themselves admitted today -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, symbolic or substantive, we will only know over time. Nick Paton Walsh, stay safe. And thank you, as always. As we briefly mentioned a moment ago, all of this is happening during critical talks to in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry try and "chart the course out of hell" in Syria.

But just as the United States invited Iran to the table, Iran says, thank you, by throwing another American in jail there. According to reports, American businessman Siamak Namazi was taken into custody while visiting his family in Tehran, and he's reportedly being held in the very same prison as American journalist Jason Rezaian.

CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is live for us in Vienna where those peace talks are playing out.

Iran actually proposing now a solution to end the war in Syria, but interestingly enough many calling it perhaps a trick, a ploy to keep President Assad in power there, Fred. Is that what you're hearing?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, you're absolutely right.

One of the things that the Iranians did propose was to have elections in Syria. To many people, that seems like something that is quite odd because obviously the whole country is in a state of war at this point. Large parts of the country are indeed in the hands of ISIS. So it would seem very difficult to see how any sort of elections or any sort of political process could take place.

But it's interesting when you read the communique about the meeting that took place, then you won't at any point in that communique see any sort of reference towards Assad relinquishing power. That was something that was pointed out in that press conference that took place after the meeting with Sergei Lavrov on hand, with Secretary of State John Kerry on hand as well, where both of them spoke about a transitional process.

They spoke about a nationwide cease-fire. They spoke about a constitutional process and elections at the end of it, but at no point did they say, or did at least the Russians say that Assad needs to step down.

[16:10:05]

This is one of the reasons why Secretary of State Kerry said, look, this is something that we agreed to disagree on. You could really feel here how especially the U.N. envoy was trying to take that whole aspect of Bashar al-Assad and his future, which is the dividing factor between the U.S. and its allies and Russia and Iran, to try and take that out of the equation for now at least, in order to try to move this process forward, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Fred, some of us noticed the interesting timing of this U.S. move to send troops there. It comes just a couple weeks after Russia making a larger military move there, hundreds of troops, tanks, of course, the start of their own air campaign. How much of this is perceived as a reaction by the U.S. to steal some of the initiative back from Russia? PLEITGEN: Well, I think that's a big factor in all of it.

It was interesting, because at the press conference after the meeting today, Secretary of State Kerry was actually asked by a Russian journalist whether or not it was intentional for the U.S. to announce today it was putting these ground forces there into Syria, and he said quite frankly that that's not the case, it had nothing to do with it. This was something that had been in works for a while, this new shift in policy and, therefore, it was complete coincidence.

But, of course, it is something that does make a statement, especially after the past couple of weeks when you have not only seen the Russians up the ante by starting this bombing campaign and also by in part going into places with their jets that the U.S. would normally fly in, but you have also seen Iranians up the ante as well, putting in additional ground forces as well into Syria.

And so, therefore, it seems as though it was quite important for the U.S. at this point in time to make the statement, to say, we are very serious about fighting ISIS and are going to put the muscle behind that that's been asked for, for such a very long time.

So, it certainly to many people who observed this meeting today felt like it was not a coincidence, that this move was announced today and it certainly is something that gave the U.S. and Secretary Kerry a lot more leverage at the bargaining table at this conference was going on today, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Fred Pleitgen, live in Vienna, thank you.

He's America's top spy tasked with everything from keeping ISIS out of America and Americans from joining ISIS to figuring out what Vladimir Putin is really up to in Syria. A rare interview, an exclusive one with the director of national intelligence is right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:40] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We are following breaking news today: President Obama now deciding to send special operations forces to help fight ISIS inside Syria. And when those troops hit the ground, though, they will not be the first foreign troops to enter the civil war there. Not even in the last month. Russia got the jump on the U.S. deploying hundreds of soldiers, as well as tanks and bomber aircraft. That move sparked criticism that Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again getting the best of President Obama.

But America's top spy, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, sees it differently. He told me that Putin is, and I'm quoting him here, "winging this" in Syria with no long-term plan, no hard objectives other than, quoting him again, "poking the U.S. in the eye."

I sat down with Director Clapper for an exclusive interview, and Syria was a major topic. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: We are expected to know that a decision has been made by a foreign head of state before he makes it. Putin is case in point. I think he's very impulsive, very opportunistic. It is a debate, but I personally question whether he has a long-term strategy. And I think his intervention is -- into Syria is another manifestation of that.

Those things are hard to predict when there is a very, very -- in his case a very, very small cloister of people around him. Unlike our president, he is not subjected to a steady stream of bad news. That is not a good thing for his intelligence services to do.

So, he's very much I think in a sort of a decisional bubble. And he makes these decisions on -- pretty much on his own.

SCIUTTO: Do you think he has a plan for Syria?

CLAPPER: What his long-term plan is? I'm not sure he has one. I think he's kind of winging this day to day.

SCIUTTO: Did the president ever express to you disappointment? Did he ever say he gauss blindsided or felt blindsided, for instance, by Russian military action in Syria?

CLAPPER: Well, actually, in that case he wasn't. We'd done pretty well with his recent evolution with Russian intervention into Syria. We had that down pretty well. Knew when the operations were going to start well before they did.

SCIUTTO: How does that work in layman's terms with tracking is movement today in Syria?

CLAPPER: Well, that's a tough problem.

SCIUTTO: Different today as opposed to five years ago?

CLAPPER: It's a tough problem now. Much more so than it was five years ago, because we don't have a presence --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

CLAPPER: -- physically in Syria. And wherever that's the case, whether it's Syria or North Korea, or any denied area, that makes our problem tougher. And so that's why I've always felt strongly about maintaining a robust set of capabilities, so that if we're thwarted in one area, for an example, doing human in Syria is a dangerous play for a human asset. ISIS has a very low threshold when they find people, threshold of punishment. They suspect anyone is a spy and they kill a lot of people that aren't spies whom they think are.

So, we try to compensate with other capabilities, whether ISR or overhead capabilities.

[16:20:02] As I say, when you're thwarted in one direction, with one particular discipline, you try to compensate for it in other ways.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: U.S. forces entering a very dangerous place in Syria.

Coming up, just moments ago, Hillary Clinton cut off by Black Lives Matter protestors at a campaign event. We will show you that new video, next.

Plus, what does it feel like having two drunk men carve a tattoo into your chest? Our own Anthony Bourdain, he knows the answer, he's going to tell us, and that's coming right up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:01] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

And now, our politics lead: I want you to watch this new video from a Hillary Clinton event in Atlanta that happened a little over an hour ago. Listen to these chants.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: -- violence using the power --

BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTESTERS: Black lives matter!

CLINTON: -- the feelings that come forward, and, yes, they do. Yes, they do!

BLACK LIVES MATTER PROSTERS: Black lives matter.

CLINTON: Yes, they do, and I'm going to talk a lot about that, in a minute.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: That was about a dozen protestors from the Black Lives Matter movement chanting, "black lives matter", cutting off Clinton just after she started speaking there.

Now, the Democratic front-runner had to shout over the protestors as you heard her and even a civil rights icon, a congressman who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. had to stand up and get between the candidate and the crowd interrupting her.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux, she was right there watching it all go down.

Suzanne, tell us what happened.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, this was an extraordinary moment I have never seen anything like this. I mean it was actually really shocking, because this was a program, African-Americans for Hillary Clinton. It was very organized. There were a lot of high-profile African-Americans. You had an NBA

star, Grant Hill. You had Congressman John Lewis. You had Atlanta mayor, Mayor Kasim Reed, all them introducing Hillary Clinton, some really big names here.

Five minutes into the speeches when they came, a very surprisingly, about ten to a dozen or so and interrupted shouting "black lives matter". Hillary Clinton at first addressed them, tried to address them saying she's met with the organization. Please give her a chance to express herself and they talked right over her.

This went on, Jim, for close to 30 minutes. It was extremely distracting. A lot of people just looking not quite knowing what to do.

At some point, the congressman as well as the mayor, both of them trying to convention the protestors to stop. They would not stop.

After that happened, they went onstage with Hillary Clinton to show her and to show this audience they stood with her shoulder-to-shoulder literally and also to give security a sign that, look, we're done. We're trying to convince them to stop. And that didn't happen.

And so -- finally, they ended up stopping and she thanked them for being head-to-head, shoulder-to-shoulder with her but an extraordinary display of tolerance, if you will, as she moves on to South Carolina, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. Thirty minutes long is powerful, too.

Suzanne Malveaux, she was right there in the middle of it, thank you.

In our politics lead, Republican candidates angry over what they call gotcha questions at Wednesday's debate. So angry, in fact, that the Republican national committee is taking an unprecedented step. We'll have the details, after this.