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Interview with Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter; Raqqa Liberated From ISIS, Syrian City Left In Ruins; CNN Goes Inside Underground ISIS Prisons In Raqqa; Syrian Forces Declare Raqqa Liberated; Trump: ISIS Is Retreating Because I Am President; Bush, Obama Criticize Trump Without Naming Him; Five Former Presidents To Attend Benefit. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 16:30   ET


[16:30:00] ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): French fighter jets arrived on the scene to help U.S. troops, but CNN learned they didn't fire on the militants because they couldn't ID targets and risk hitting the U.S. and Nigerien forces on the ground.


LABOTT: One of the main unresolved questions is why were the Americans caught by surprise? U.S. intelligence initially deemed it was unlikely that ISIS was in the area which meant, Jake, that these U.S. troops were not traveling in armored vehicles and did not have any air cover.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right. Elite Labott, thank you so much.

And more critical crises on the world stage. Pyongyang says no ifs, ands or butts when it comes to their nuclear weapons. While ISIS is out of Raqqa. But are they really gone?

We're going to talk to Ash Carter who just left the Defense Department nine months ago, next.

Hello, sir.


TAPPER: Welcome back.

Also in our world lead today, a major warning from North Korea, the country's central news agency which serves as a mouthpiece for the Kim Jong-un regime declared that the U.S. is, quote, seeking to ignite a nuclear war and also said that the nuclear program in North Korea is, quote, nonnegotiable.

[16:35:07] Joining me to now to discuss this and much more is Ash Carter. He's a former secretary of defense under President Obama.

Secretary Carter, thanks so much for being here. Appreciate it.


TAPPER: I want to get to North Korea, but before I do, so much has been discussed this week about these gut-wrenching condolence calls, consolation calls that people like President Trump, President Obama, secretaries of defense do, and I wondered if you could just tell us a little bit about how challenging it is to do them.

CARTER: Yes, and I -- it -- this is something to focus on the service member and their loved ones and not politics.

TAPPER: Right.

CARTER: Very sad to see it turn into a political football.

I did meet with many families of the fallen. As did all the presidents that I ever served. And I'm glad that our president is calling and contacting those family members. It's a very important thing to do.

You have to remember, it's not about us, it's about them. Each circumstance in my experience, and I did it way too many times, Jake, over all of these years, particularly when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were taking more American lives every week than fortunately are now lost around the world every week.

What I would tell people is, fit of all, you have to listen to them and see where they're coming from. Sometimes it's a place of sadness. Sometimes they're confused and they want to know more. Sometimes they're even angry because they didn't want their son or daughter serving in the first place or something else.

So you have to listen. As far as what to say, what I always said was, like, there is nothing I can say to you today that will make you feel better because I can't give you what you want most, which is your loved one back. I can tell you something that may some day mean something to you or to the children of this service member, and then I would explain what the significance was of the mission, how the mission was being conducting, and in most cases they were really interested. They wanted to hear it from the person who after all had signed their orders.

TAPPER: Right.

CARTER: Why it mattered that their loved one had been lost.

TAPPER: That's fascinating.

CARTER: And they would remember that. If there were children, remember, there are frequently children there. There are parents there. So there are six, eight people. They're all listening to that. They'll remember that in days and years to come, even if that day, it's all grief.

TAPPER: Let's turn to North Korea. You have said that a nuclear- armed North Korea cannot be tolerated. What would you advise President Trump to do right now? CARTER: The reason it can't be tolerated is it won't just sit there.

There are people who say, well, just let it go. As long as we don't bother them, they won't bother us. I wish that were the case.

I think that they will sell what they have. They will be provocative in ways they wouldn't be willing otherwise to do. It sets a bad example for nonproliferation. So, it's serious.

I can't say obviously what the current administration is doing. Here is what I would do. First, I would continue to do what we were doing, and I'm confident Jim Mattis, my successor, is doing and Joe Dunford namely to continue to recognize that until and unless we're able to turn North Korea around, deterrence and defense are essential. That means constant strengthening of our forces there, the reinforcing forces, working with the South Koreans and the Japanese and introducing new forces on the peninsula as needed.

But to get to your question about diplomacy, you know, there is a lot of talk about should we use diplomacy or military things. The right approach mixes the military and the diplomatic. Let me give you an example. It's good to slap pressure on and to get the Chinese to slap pressure, but an even better way to do it is to say to the North Koreans, don't launch another missile that is long range. If you do, here is what will happen.

TAPPER: Spell it out specifically.

CARTER: And if you don't, here is what, let us say the Chinese -- we're not willing to do much for them. The Chinese might do for you or the Japanese or the South Koreans. Don't launch -- detonate another underground nuclear test. If you do, here is what happens.

TAPPER: So lay out in specifics the carrot and the stick beforehand --

CARTER: We don't wait until they do something and then do something to them that --

TAPPER: Right. Fascinating.

CARTER: That's justified, makes us feel better, but it doesn't get anywhere with them. That's how you conduct coercive diplomacy.

TAPPER: So, Secretary Carter, I know you want to talk a lot about ISIS and Raqqa. Stick around. We're going to do that in the next block. Stay with us.


[16:44:22] TAPPER: And we're back with more in our world lead.

It's a horrific day in the fight against ISIS. Syrian forces taking to the streets and officially declaring the terrorist group's self- proclaimed capital of Raqqa has been totally liberated. But at this point, there is still no sign of ISIS' elusive leader, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh just returned from Raqqa. He's in the Syrian

city of Ayn Issa.

Nick, where does the coalition think al-Baghdadi might be?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In short, they simply don't know. They've made a couple of attempts to try to kill him over the past few months. The best guess, though, is that he's headed towards the east, down the Euphrates River Valley. Maybe Deir Ezzor, or maybe try to be Mayadin, simply unclear.

But he is one remaining symbol ISIS have now they've lost their major cities, greatly diminished. The caliphate if you like -- the caliph if you like without his own caliphate, but still able to inspire potential ISIS attacks until he's actually brought to justice, Jake.


TAPPER: Nick, Raqqa has been reduced to apocalyptic rubble above the ground. You got a firsthand look at ISIS' depravity when you visited an underground prison?

WALSH: Yes, extraordinary place where you got an idea of how they treated their own people. This particular cell had writing on the walls in many different languages, Russian, French, Turkish, one chilling set of instructions in English, though, saying to people held there, you're there because you either were caught red-handed, maybe you were sending tweets with a GPS locator on, maybe using Wifi that was insecure to upload videos or photographers.

A sign of how they sought spies in their own ranks and chillingly people's names on the walls for the amount of time they'd spent in there, unclear if they were released or killed afterwards. One man's name though clearly written on the wall saying he was killed and the date in which it happened, a real sign of the depravity there and how they treated their own awfully on a day-to-day basis. That city absolutely leveled. Not a single person we saw there apart from the SDF U.S.-backed forces that have, in fact, have liberated it. A massive job to rebuild or even coax people back, Jake

TAPPER: All right, Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much for the reporting. Please, stay safe. Let's continue the conversation with former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. So given the liberation of Raqqa, Mr. Secretary, does this mean ISIS is defeated?

ASH CARTER, FORMER UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It doesn't mean it's totally defeated, but it's a very big milestone. This has been something in the works for two years. Americans ought to give huge congratulations to their own militaries for this. You've got to congratulate the Syrian forces that we're fighting with and the rest of the coalition we're fighting with. And it was absolutely necessary to destroy ISIS in Raqqa because that was, as your correspondent indicated, what they claimed was the capital of a state. And we -- there can't be a state based upon barbarism of the kind you just saw. We can't have that. Also, in Raqqa, in addition to its symbolic significance, that was the

principal hub from which people were plotting against Americans. And our job in the Defense Department first and foremost is to protect our people, and that was a place from which attacks on Americans here at home as they were traveling in the region or around the world, and, of course, against a lot of friends and allies as well. So it's an important milestone and we should be very proud of our people who did this.

TAPPER: President Trump says that this happened because he's President and because of the changes that he made and the rules that he allowed the Pentagon to follow as opposed to under President Obama, under your leadership at the Pentagon. Is that fair? Is that accurate?

CARTER: Well, the plan has been -- was laid out two years ago and has been executed pretty much in the manner and on the schedule that was foreseen then. And, again, the credit goes to, first and foremost, our military for carrying that out. I was always looking for ways to accelerate it. And Joe Dunford, the Chairman and I were doing that. And as we did that, we always got the approval of our President, President Obama at that time, who understood where we were going and wanted to get there also.

And I can't speak for the new administration and the new team, but I can well imagine that if my successor, Jim Mattis, had ways of moving things along, that he would have recommended them as well. But the outcome here was one that we knew we had to achieve, as I said two years ago, and the basic plan was to put together an army north of up where your correspondent is, north of Raqqa. Train them, equip them and then bring the awesome might of the American military to bear in enabling them. That took some time, which is why -- but at the same time moving up the Tigris Valley to Mosul, which was the other principal city that needed to be taken.

TAPPER: So the threat from ISIS though is not over. It's great they don't have a caliphate, it's great that they don't have a capital, but they're still around, they're still posing a threat to people around the world, yes?

CARTER: Well, yes. Much -- what they can't claim is that they have a state. What you can't do is if you're some loser on the internet is get the idea that this is a happening thing. That said, some of the people who are in Raqqa that we didn't kill -- I hope we killed as many of them as there were in there -- but those who scurried out who might have included Baghdadi are going down the lower Euphrates as your correspondent has said. And we need to follow them and kill them there. There are some little nests of ISIS around the world, Libya, for example, Afghanistan, for example, so we need to keep at it. At this point though, Jake, my -- I think looking forward now and to the administration and what still needs to be done, my concerns at this point are less about the military campaign, which I think has culminated in Iraq and Syria and more about the political and the economic. So, for example, you saw a little dustup between the Prime Minister of Iraq, Abadi --.

[16:50:46] TAPPER: And the Kurds.

CARTER: -- and the Kurds in the north Barzani, I spoke to them all the time starting two years ago when we put the plan together and said we need you to work together and we're not going to support either of you if you don't work together. And I'm sure my successor is making those phone calls today. And over in Syria, the situation is much more complex. We said the same thing. Those who take a city don't get to keep it. We need to return it to the people who live there, otherwise you're going to have to -- you're just going to have some sort of extremism come back, right, if people aren't happy with the circumstance. So we have to make sure that the people who are liberated now down the road feel like life is distinctly better.

TAPPER: Better, improving otherwise --

CARTER: That's the challenge ahead and I wish that my successor -- well, he's somebody who knows the region well, Jim Mattis, but that's the challenge ahead for him.

TAPPER: All right, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate it.

CARTER: Thank you for all your reporting on this war.

TAPPER: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

It's the world's most exclusive club, the former Presidents of the United States of America. Why some of them are breaking tradition and taking some not so veiled shots at the current President. That's next.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: We're back with our "POLITICS LEAD." In the world's most exclusive club, former Presidents of the United States of America, traditionally these former Presidents have largely avoided commenting on politics or their successors after leaving the White House, but now President Trump is in the Oval Office and certainly, nothing is traditional in our new abnormal. A spokesman for former President George W. Bush told reporters after Election Day that the former President didn't vote for either Trump and Clinton in November and it would seem from his recent remarks that W remains concern about Trump and Trumpism, the same with former President Obama, who also had a pointed remark.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone. It provides permission for cruelty and bigotry.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In some of the politics we see now, we thought we put that to bed. I mean, that's folks looking 50 years back. It's the 21st century, not the 19th century.


TAPPER: Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley joins me now. Professor, thanks so much for being with us. The five former U.S. Presidents are attending a concert tomorrow night to benefit the hurricane victims. President Trump not attending. When you listen to those criticisms by Bush and Obama, they really are criticizing the tone, the invective and what people think is the ugliness that Trump might have brought out in our society.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: There's no question about it. Usually, former Presidents try to be fairly kind to who is ever in the White House. And Republican Party history, you have to go all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt after he left office in 1909, about a year later started going after Republican William Howard Taft. So the idea of the spectacle of George W. Bush insult, critique, criticism of the Trump administration and Trumpism was I think a very bracing moment yesterday and I think George W. Bush came out of it very well. There is no love lost between our 43rd President and our current one.

TAPPER: Van Jones, I've talked to him and he talks sometimes about the spiritual power that Presidents have that we don't talk a lot about. When JFK was elected, he inspired thousands of people to join the Peace Corps. Ronald Reagan inspired people who work on Wall Street to join the military. What do you think Trump is inspiring in the American people?

BRINKLEY: Xenophobia, fear, paranoia. You know, he's trying to -- what he would consider nationalism, but what both Bush and Obama clearly consider nativism. It's a divide and conquer strategy. We've seen that before. I mean, and now, I think the Bush versus Trump square often. I mean, look at the 1950s, as you know, Jake. You had Joe McCarthy versus Dwight Eisenhower except the establishment figure was empower, this time the insurgent in the White House. So you're -- when you look at Donald Trump, it's not about that exclusive club of ex-presidents, it's more about talking about people like Joe McCarthy and George Wallace, Ross Perot a kind of outsider approach to being presidential.

TAPPER: Does it matter? I mean, do you think that President Trump cares? Do you think his supporters care or is it just more of the establishment versus Trump?

BRINKLEY: I think they care. It has to hurt to have George W. Bush do that, but, boy, it's simple payback. I mean, Donald Trump has been pounding on 43. He eviscerated Jeb Bush name-calling by pounding 43 on the Iraq war. But I think we're in the middle of a civil war of sorts. Someone has called it a neo-civil war right of the Republican Party right now between George W. Bush, the establishment Republicans, and the Trumpians.

TAPPER: All right, Douglas Brinkley, thank you so much. Be sure to tune into CNN this Sunday morning for "STATE OF THE UNION." We're going to talk to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It all starts at 9:00 a.m. and noon. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Have a great weekend.