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President Trump Addresses U.S. Troops Aboard Navy Ship In Japan; Trump Says North Korea's Missile Tests Don't Bother Him; Elections in E.U. Tilt Toward Populism; Overcrowding on Everest Likely Caused Deaths; Inside Clandestine Mission to Collect Evidence of Alleged War Crimes; Oklahoma Governor: Flooding 'Still Could Get Worse'. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired May 28, 2019 - 00:00   ET

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


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JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): On the day Americans honored troops who died in war, the U.S. president wishes Japanese sailors a happy Memorial Day, telling them it was a great day.

The old political order upended in E.U. elections with voters punishing crucial parties from both Left and Right, sending a record number of both anti-nationalist and nationalist candidates to Brussels.

A race to the death at the top of the world. For many, the lifelong dream of climbing the highest mountain in the world is costing lives in record numbers.

Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us from all around the world, I'm John Vause, you're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

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VAUSE: The U.S. president Donald Trump has ended a state visit to Japan, reaffirming the close alliance between the two allies. A short time ago, Trump toured the Japanese destroyer and made history as the first U.S. president to set foot on a Japanese warship.

The president also visited American sailors and Marines on the U.S.S. Wasp near Tokyo. This was during the final hours of his time in Japan. He thank the servicemen for their service and marked the U.S. holiday, Memorial Day, which honors fallen troops.

Senior international correspondent Ivan Watson from Tokyo.

There was not much notable in the president's Memorial Day remarks, which means there was no attempt to walk back earlier comments about North Korea's ballistic missile tests. No attempts to smooth over any rifts he may have had with Japan when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang. IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, this was very much focused on U.S. service men and women, celebrating them, celebrating a history of and a legacy of sacrifice within the armed forces because, after, all they are celebrating Memorial Day, a very important U.S. holiday to honor those who have served in uniform.

So he was very much playing to the crowd there and celebrating the U.S. armed forces, declaring them the most powerful in the world and repeating the commitment that his administration has had on defense spending and talking about the role the armed forces in Japan have in helping defend the U.S. by being deployed far overseas.

Also protecting U.S. allies, talking about the role they play. For example, saying that they are involved in missile defense. That is where you get into one of the contradictions from earlier this week, where he downplayed the launch of short-range ballistic missiles less than three weeks ago by North Korea, saying he was not bothered by them and yet celebrating the capabilities that the U.S.' armed forces based in Japan have on detecting those types of same missiles.

But that moment of contradiction did not come up aboard the U.S.S. Wasp, this amphibious assault ship. This was, again, about thanking the troops for what they do, to defend U.S. allies and the U.S.

VAUSE: Ivan, thank you. Senior international correspondent Ivan Watson live in Tokyo.

Joining me now from Los Angeles, CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, also senior editor at "The Atlantic."

Good to see you.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Hello, John.

VAUSE: OK, here is the U.S. president and the opening remarks he made on the Japanese helicopter carrier. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to start by saying happy Memorial Day. Happy Memorial Day. It's great.

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VAUSE: You know, it was awkward. It seemed inappropriate for the time, wishing Japanese troops a happy Memorial Day. And this is a very symbolic moment. This is the first time a U.S. president, it's believed, set foot on board a Japanese warship in modern history. This will soon be upgraded to an aircraft carrier, the first time they've had an aircraft carrier since World War II. That seemed to be lost in the moment.

BROWNSTEIN: You, know it is the kind of moment that would be, under any president, heavily scripted, multiple layers of national security bureaucracy determining the right tone and message and words. You know with Trump, you kind of feel as if he is winging it and

saying, whatever comes into his head. Obviously, it's not always that freeform. But there is the sense that, I think correctly, that foreign policy is very much driven by his wins and kind of where he wakes up in the morning.

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VAUSE: With that in mind, one of the big headlines of the visit was the lengths he went to, defending North Korea and its recent ballistic missile tests. As a reminder, this is what he said.

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TRUMP: My people think it could've been a violation as you know. I view it differently. Maybe he wants to get attention. And perhaps not. Who knows?

It doesn't matter. All I know, is that there have been no nuclear tests, there have been no ballistic missiles going out. There have been no long range missiles going out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're not bothered at all by small missiles?

TRUMP: No, I'm not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: Yes, there is a level of complexity to this that goes beyond the usual allies have about an inconsistent American president. The Japanese prime minister pushing to rewrite the country's pacifist constitution which was written by the U.S. at the end World War II. In particular, Abe wants to remove Article IX, which has limitations on the country's military.

So when the American president throws a country under the bus like that, you have a pretty substantive argument.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Look, I think this was very revealing on several fronts.

First, can you imagine a previous president separating himself from his government in the way that Trump does so often?

And again today, saying, the government views it one way, I view it another, trying to create a distinct separation.

Second, I think that it underscores the extent to which the president has committed to this concept that he alone can untie the Gordian knot in North Korea that has perplexed so many of his predecessors and the leverage that gives him. You see again, in his comments today, how reluctant -- hello?

VAUSE: We're with you, keep going.

BROWNSTEIN: Oh, I'm sorry. The -- how reluctant he is at any point to suggest that this is going

off track. He has invested so much in this relationship that, even when they do something alarming to a close ally like Japan, he is reluctant to call it out. And I think North Korea correctly understands, that gives him a lot of leverage in determining how this relationship unfolds.

VAUSE: That is interesting because there is no dispute about whether North Koreans have violated U.N. Security Council resolutions with this missile test. The people at armscontrol.org have noted the United Nations Security Council has adopted nine major sanctions resolutions on North Korea in response to the country's nuclear and missile activities since 2006.

But as you say, he has to continue on with this theater, like he is the only one who has this great relationship with Kim Jong-un. He's the only one that can fix this. There has been some muted criticism from Republicans. In particular, Senator Joni Ernst was one who spoke out.

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SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA): Japan does have reason to be concerned and I'm concerned as well. We need to see North Korea back off of those activities. And we need to take a strong stance on that.

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VAUSE: When I say critical, critical in a very mild way. But this is global because Ernst was once being considered by Trump as his choice for vice president.

BROWNSTEIN: I think, on foreign policy, Republicans have been more willing to speak, even a bit more willing to act, at points, as in the conflict in Yemen.

But are there consequences?

Are there teeth?

When you hear a senator say something like what she said, the obvious question is, and therefore, I will ... what?

And the what is usually nothing more than tweeting. So it's not clear what that translates into.

But it is a reminder of how far Republicans have gone in accepting zigs and zags from Trump, particularly in international affairs, on trade, on relations with allies, which in many cases have been inverted, where we have conflict with allies and buttery comments about dictators as the price of Trump's presence in the Oval Office that allows him to advance some of these things they want to do on the domestic side.

VAUSE: What we saw in the past four days, with Prime Minister Abe, this is a charm offensive the likes of which goes beyond any sucking up we've seen before. Emmanuel Macron, France, seems an amateur compared to Abe and the big takeaway seems, no matter how sycophantic you might be, Donald Trump will always throw you under the bus when your interests do not align.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, the president has made clear, he does not really see the world as allies and adversaries. He views everything as transactional and really gives no particular deference to countries that have stood with the U.S. for decades.

Abe decided from the outset that he was going to try to avoid conflict with Trump by trying to be his biggest champion internationally. And so far, he can point to one success in that, at least to this point, that they have avoided the kind of head-on collision --

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BROWNSTEIN: -- over trade that has been going on with China, with the E.U., with Canada and Mexico.

Even that, the expiration date may be coming on that with the president's indicating he wants to turn to Japan after their elections in July.

The irony, of course, is that many of the changes in Japanese policy on trade, that Trump might seek in a bilateral agreement, were part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Japan signed, along with 10 other Asian nations, which Trump withdrew the U.S. from as one of his first acts in office.

VAUSE: The everyone but China trade agreement.

On the other end of the Trump equation, we have this tweet from the president supporting the Israeli prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu's trying to build a workable coalition to form a government after a historic result in the elections a few weeks ago.

He tweeted, " Hoping things will work out with Israel's coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!"

It seems like Netanyahu may have asked him for the support. It's left the opposition outraged over what is seen as great interference in Israeli domestic politics. So hypothetically, what happens if Netanyahu cannot form of government and it affects the Blue and White opposition party. They are in power. They are the ones who will be left outraged by Donald Trump.

BROWNSTEIN: You know, the strange thing here is that Netanyahu has been more inappropriately involved in domestic American politics than any foreign leader, I believe, in the world, short of Vladimir Putin and his efforts to influence 2016 through cyber warfare.

Netanyahu came here and openly campaigned against the Iranian nuclear deal. And now Trump, of course, is taking this to the logical or to the extreme next step in reverse. And his involvement in Israeli politics, in essence, what you are seeing is the continued convergence of the Right in America and Right in Israel.

And that is having an effect on the way Israel is perceived in the U.S. It is no question that Democrats' rank and file have not elected officials yet, are much cooler toward Netanyahu than they had been in earlier generations.

And I think it's a dangerous development for both nations on both fronts, to have the ruling party aligned with one party on the other side. It makes it tougher for that alliance to withstand the inevitable changes of power that come sooner or later in democracies.

VAUSE: Yes. It is an interesting way of transactional politics, all based on personalities, which it normally is to a large degree, how leaders get on with each other. But never to this extent.

Ron, it is good to see you, thank you for being with us.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you, John.

VAUSE: Europe's populists and nationalists made solid gains in weekend parliamentary elections. But the outcome is not entirely sure. This may not be the day of reckoning that many had expected for pro- and anti-E.U. unity.

In the highest turnout in 20 years, 75 percent of voters still backed pro-Europe parties. The Greens Party had their strongest showing ever. In Italy, the anti-immigrant far-right League Party was victorious. The deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, sees the tide turning against the bureaucracy in Brussels.

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MATTEO SALVINI, ITALIAN INTERIOR MINISTER (through translator): The balance changes for sure. The League is the first party in Italy. Marine Le Pen is the first party in France. Nigel Farage is the first party in the United Kingdom. Orban is the first party in Hungary. Kaczynski is the first party in Poland.

This means that there is a desire for future, there is the desire for change, there is a desire for work, there is a desire for dignity.

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VAUSE: CNN's European affairs commentator Dominic Thomas joins us from Berlin.

Good to see you.

DOMINIC THOMAS, CNN EUROPEAN AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: Good to see you, John.

VAUSE: Now that the dust has settled, the votes are counted, everywhere except Ireland, it seems, this was not the day of reckoning that everyone expected. It didn't stick to script. Listen to the spokesman for the European Council.

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MARGARITAS SCHINAS, EUROPEAN COMMISSION SPOKESPERSON: Before the election, we were told by the prophets of doom and Cassandras that, today, Europe would go up in flames, that the E.U. will go belly up, that this is over. And with all due respect, this is not the case. It is not the case. Europe is alive, is well. European democracy is working.

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VAUSE: A spokesman for the European Commission, I should say. The results seem to suggest that fault lines are still developing. And the mainstream traditional parties on both sides of E.U. politics are hemorrhaging support.

THOMAS: I think, what has happened in this E.U. election --

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THOMAS: -- is that all the changes that have taken place in Europe over the past five years, where we have seen, in many countries in general elections, mainstream parties lose their historical influence they have had. And a proliferation of smaller political parties that led to long coalition talks in places like the Netherlands and Germany.

So the E.U. is playing catch-up here. If anything, historically, you could argue the divide had been between right-wing parties and left- wing parties and centrist parties emerging. What we now have is a majority set of parties that favor a transnational progressive approach.

All have clear issues, such as the Greens, standing off against those that are nationalists. And that is really the divide we have now. But they are still, albeit a significant number, a small number, when you look at the overall returns of these elections.

VAUSE: What we had, voters on both sides were energized. That led to this surge in turnout. And that fed the rise of populist parties. Also the Greens. Especially in Germany. Listen to one leaders of the Green Party.

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SVEN GIEGOLD, EUROPEAN MP, GERMANY (through translator): The people in Germany, the people in Europe, have voted for climate protection and for European solidarity. And that is the signal that is being sent this evening.

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VAUSE: You mentioned this. The Greens are united, they have a common goal no matter where they are. But the populist parties have different goals, different interests.

So which group is likely to have a bigger impact on questions of policy, on where the E.U. is heading?

THOMAS: Well, all these questions are interesting. When you look at the Greens, this is a party that was initially in talks with Angela Merkel and ended up not joining the Jamaica coalition. I think they were rewarded at the polls for doing that.

This is the era in which Merkel has announced she is stepping down. And people are moving away from traditional politics. The far right share many points in common. It is clear that nationalist rhetoric, xenophobia and so on, that when you take a party like the Brexit Party, their goals are different. It is simply to get out of the European Union.

When you look at those that are the real kingmakers now, it is the Greens and the liberals. We already see this playing out with Emmanuel Macron talking about the succession of the E.U. president of the commission not being selected along traditional lines.

So it is the Greens and the liberals who are going to be the absolute ones that determine how policy is made and shaped in the E.U. in the years to come.

VAUSE: You mentioned the Brexit Party. This party did not exist until six weeks ago in the U.K. And did very well with results. Highest voter turnout results for them over other official parties.

But we are seeing this spin from Alastair Campbell, he of Number 10 spin doctoring. I try and tell the story, that by adding all those who want the U.K. to remain within the E.U., then this result at this election is actually a win for the Remain camp. Here is how the Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, reacted to that theory.

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NIGEL FARAGE, BREXIT PARTY LEADER: This is absolute bosh. If you want to look at that way --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a fact.

FARAGE: -- well, it's not a fact, all right. Add up the Brexit Party vote, add up the --

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- percent.

FARAGE: -- let me finish -- Add up the UKIP vote, after that the Conservative vote, who are still a party who says we are going to leave and you will find that Leave beat Remain. In fact, what you find overall is that right now the country, is 52-48 in favor of leaving.

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VAUSE: My math is not that great but I think he is right. Besides that, it seems trivial to try to take that route, do the numbers and tweak it here and turn it there and well, and we actually even kind of won, even though they did kind incredibly well. It seems almost desperate.

THOMAS: The polls were absolutely dead on. The Brexit Party emerged as the leading party out of this election. This was a single issue election. It was all about allowing the British public that had not been provided a second referendum or a people's vote the chance to weigh in and to send a message to leaders, either in Westminster or to someone like Nigel Farage.

On all sides of the issue you are going to have interpretation of these particular results. But the fact remains that, as that things stand right now, the Conservative Party of 2015 under David Cameron essentially made a deal with the U.K. to provide a referendum and UKIP disappeared. The Brexit Party disappears if the Conservative Party are able to deliver some kind of Brexit.

If they are not, it is quite clear that, as the party stands right now, if they were to go into a general election without having delivered Brexit, it is the Conservative Party itself that is going to take the most significant hit. The big dilemma that they have, therefore, in selecting a new leader is --

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THOMAS: -- do they go with a Brexiteer, that is going to end up in a standoff as an unelected representative of the country in Parliament or a more moderate figure that is going to be faced with the same kinds of issues as Theresa May?

But as the Conservative Party stands right now, it has to address the Brexit issue if it wants to survive in the political landscape in Britain and I think that was the message that was sent here, no matter how the spin doctors will look at this.

VAUSE: They've been trying to address this issue of Brexit for the last couple of years and they're not doing a particularly good job of it. But I guess this is a wake up call if nothing else. Dominic, thank you.

THOMAS: Thank you, John

VAUSE: Angela Merkel has been Germany's chancellor for almost 14 years. Only now is she giving her first indepth interview to a U.S. television network. And she spoke with CNN and Christiane Amanpour after her party saw losses in the European elections. Here's part of that exclusive interview.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: I just want to get your reaction, though, first, to the European elections, the results. Your party came first here in Germany. But the Greens did very well and you did do a little worse than usual.

In general, how do you think it has gone? ANGELA MERKEL, CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY (through translator): First of all, I was pleased that more people went to the elections than in the last European elections. That has been the case in many countries.

Secondly, we have become the strongest party and this will, of course, play a role when we nominate the positions of the new European Union.

And third, it's correct that the Greens actually have been very strong and did test it with the issues that people are interested in the most these days; for example, climate change. And that is also from my part, of course, a challenge now.

We have to give better answers to all these issues and we have to say clearly the targets that we have committed to are targets that we remain committed to.

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VAUSE: And you can watch the entire interview with German chancellor Angela Merkel on "AMANPOUR," Tuesday night at 7:00 pm in Berlin, 6:00 pm in London.

A senseless act of violence in Japan has left a school girl and a man dead; 19 others were wounded when a man armed with a knife attacked a crowd in a park in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo.

The victims included 16 elementary schoolchildren. A hospital spokesperson tell CNN one of those killed was 12 years old. The other victim was a 39 year old man. The suspected attacker stabbed himself as he was being arrested by police.

Next, on CNN NEWSROOM, at least 11 people have died this year trying to climb Mt. Everest, raising concerns that too many climbers with too little experience are putting others in danger on the world's highest peak.

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VAUSE: In the past two weeks, at least 11 people have died climbing Mt. Everest, the highest death toll number in four years. The most recent fatality is a 62-year-old American who was on the way down.

Another was a 64-year-old Austrian man. Some believe the world's highest peak is too crowded. Too many climbers are being granted permits. But tourism officials in Nepal saying it is nonsense to blame the number of deaths on heavy traffic.

Mark Jenkins has climbed Mt. Everest. He is also a contributing writer at "National Geographic" and a veteran of over 50 climbing expeditions. He joins us this hour from Denver, Colorado. You know, it is incredible to see these images of overcrowding and the

long lines to reach the top of the mountain. If you look at the images, it is kind of a circus with wealthy people with no climbing experience playing someone to carry up them up the summit. And it is sad that some died. But it's a first world problem that could be easily avoided.

MARK JENKINS, "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC": Well, the reason there are so many people lined up is that now we have technology that gives us the best weather reports. It used to be, 20 years ago, everyone went to the summit at a different time. The teams decided when they would go up.

But, now everyone will get the exact same whether airport. So everyone goes when you have the best weather. That is why you end up with the crowding.

And there are also too many permits. There are ways to fix Everest. And I wrote about this in "National Geographic." The first one, as you said, would be to limit the number of permits given out. The reason they don't do that is because they make money off each one, $11,000 per permit. People are typically paying $50,000-$100,000 to climb Everest.

VAUSE: Should there be a way to determine if people are capable of doing this, whether they are fit enough, healthy enough, have the experience to actually go on it? JENKINS: Absolutely. And there is essentially no regulations on Everest. The outfitters regulate themselves. Some do a great job. Some of the most professional climbers go to Everest. But some of them do a poor job. And I believe they should have some kind of requirement.

For instance, Everest is 8,000 meters. If every person who goes there would've already climbed a 7,000 meter peak, then there would be probably a natural winnowing of those who actually go to Everest. They would have more experience. The people who didn't have the experience wouldn't go.

VAUSE: You know, the big problem, from a survival point of view, is the lack of oxygen at 29,000 feet. A few years ago, there was an earthquake in China, it's about 4,000 meters above sea level. I went to cover that story. So this is the impact of a lack of oxygen at that altitude.

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VAUSE: The air out here is really thin. It's difficult to breathe. Trying to take a breath is like you've just run a mile or something. Also, part of the effects of altitude sickness is that you end up with a really bad headache.

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VAUSE: And it must be so much worse when you get past 25,000 feet. After that, it is lack of experience for some of these climbers. JENKINS: It is. You have to remember, because there are these crowds on the top, many people are waiting for someone to get on the line or off the line. And as they wait, they use up oxygen. And if they run out, they immediately start -- they can't think well and they start to freeze.

So with these crowds, you will have an increase in deaths, I'm afraid to say. And the only way it can change is if the Nepali government starts some kind of regulation on Mt. Everest.

VAUSE: When you think about the tragedies, climbing Mt. Everest, it's a lifelong dream for many. But that dream is costing lives.

JENKINS: It is. And it doesn't need to. The thing is, these things are all preventable. The problem is, the government itself largely just wants to make money off the climbers. They bring in $4.2 million just on the permits alone. And none of that or very little goes back to Sagarmatha National Park, which is where Everest is.

VAUSE: Yes. That is often the case. It's a big revenue winner for the government. They don't have a lot of choices and they need and I guess that's the --

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JENKINS: -- have to do a better job of policing themselves. They have very -- instead of focusing on how much to make off every trip, how safe can each trip be. And some outfitters do actually do that.

VAUSE: And invest for the future as well (INAUDIBLE).

Mark, thank you. We appreciate it.

JENKINS: Thanks a lot.

VAUSE: There is evidence of war crimes by Syria's government. Just ahead here, CNN gets rare access to a group risking their lives to find justice.

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[00:32:33] VAUSE: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause with the headlines this hour.

The U.S. president, Donald Trump, has wrapped up a four-day state visit to Japan by addressing American sailors and Marines on board the USS Wasp, docked near Tokyo. He thanked them for their service and marked the U.S. holiday, Memorial Day, which honors fallen troops.

Two more climbers have died on Mt. Everest. One, a 62-year-old American on his way down. The other, a 64-year-old Austrian man. In all, at least 11 people have died this year trying to summit the world's tallest mountain, the most in four years. Many say overcrowding is making the climb even more dangerous.

The Israeli military says it struck a Syrian anti-aircraft system just hours after the IDF says that system fired at an Israeli jet. Syrian state-run news says one soldier was killed, another was injured in the strike. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country will respond with strength and firmness against any aggression.

A recent escalation in violence in Syria's last rebel-held province has killed hundreds of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. The airstrikes have destroyed schools, hospitals, and most recently, an open-air market, which left dozens wounded.

International organizations believe some of these airstrikes may have been aimed intentionally at civilians, which could amount to war crimes. Just some of the many committed by all sides in the Syrian conflict over the past eight years.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh and her team were granted rare access to a clandestine operation by a group of investigators risking their lives to collect evidence of alleged war crimes committed by the Assad government. And a warning here that some of the images in her report are disturbing.

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JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a nondescript building in Europe is a room called the Vault. Nearly 800,000 documents smuggled out of Syria are here, logged and translated, stored and preserved.

Chris Engels heads the regime crimes unit at the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, known as CIJA, a nonprofit organization funded by western governments. In these boxes is potential evidence of alleged war crimes that could one day be used against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

CHRIS ENGELS, DIRECTOR OF INVESTIGATIONS AND OPERATIONS, CIJA: The documents cover a wide range of information and levels of command. They start from the highest levels of command, that include information on the president and the policymakers at the national level. We're able to get quite a lot of clarity on how orders went up and down the chain of command, how the responsibility at the highest level for policy is implemented in a way that we can see criminality actually take place on the ground.

KARADSHEH: There is no one document here that's a smoking gun. But in international criminal justice, it's about linking the crimes to those responsible.

Documents like this 2011 order, authorizing pay raises for military personnel, signed by President Assad, the commander in chief of the armed forces, may seem innocuous. But Engels says even this is crucial evidence.

ENGELS: We have several documents that are similar to this, naming Assad and others, that demonstrate that they are in control, and they have the power to direct the army and security services. And it is a fact that the army and the security services are continued to commit crimes, and these individuals aren't doing anything to stop it. KARADSHEH: CIJA has built dozens of cases against the regime, most

relating to the early days of the revolution; the violent repression of protests; and the alleged torture and killing of thousands of demonstrators detained across the country.

Since 2012, in the shadows of a war that's unleashed some of the worst atrocities of our time, a network of more than 100 Syrians were recruited, vetted, and trained by CIJA. We get a rare opportunity to meet one of those document hunters.

Hadal (ph), as he wants to be called, was a lawyer. Now he heads this team that has risked everything to save the evidence.

HADAL (ph), DOCUMENT HUNTER FOR CIJA (through translator): All members of our team, men and women, have been subjected to arrests, or beatings, or humiliation, or danger. We are operating in a war zone. In most cases, we would enter areas as airstrikes would be ongoing. But we have to go in to collect the evidence before it's damaged.

KARADSHEH: For Hadal (ph) and his fellow evidence hunters, a treasure trove of documents has been left behind by the regime's infamous bureaucracy.

HADAL (ph) (through translator): After the free Syrian army captured locations from the government, LIKE military or intelligence sites, OUR teams would be ready, and they would enter these sites. Their primary task: to preserve these documents, or what is left of them. Because in many cases, these documents would be destroyed.

KARADSHEH: CIJA has not only relied on evidence collected by its own network of investigators. In a number of cases, they've combined that with some of the most damning visual evidence of this conflict. Twenty-eight thousand horrific photographs of dead detainees smuggled out in 2013 by a military defector, code named Caesar.

CIJA has been able to cross reference the identifying numbers seen in these pictures with ones in the smuggled documents, allowing them to identify some of the prisoners, and link them to specific facilities and the security apparatus who were holding them.

One of those photos of those numbers was 30-year-old Hamad (ph) Kholani, a newlywed law student detained in April of 2012. His sister, Amana (ph), a survivor of government jails, now a refugee in the U.K., is a living testimony to the Syrian regime's brutality.

AMINA AL-KHOLANI, SYRIAN ACTIVIST (through translator): When the Caesar files came out, Mohammad's (ph) photo was the first one. We went to issue a paper from the civil registry to confirm his status. They told us he died as a result of a heart attack. Our 34-year-old boy died of a heart attack.

KARADSHEH: Documents issued by the regime claimed thousands held in its facilities all died of natural causes.

Three other brothers from the al-Kholani family were also detained. Only one of them, Ilal (ph), emerged alive, his gaunt face testament to the horrors inside government jails. According to CIJA's investigations, it's a story replicated thousands of times over in Syria, where torture is rampant and systematic and forced confessions are the norm.

Syrian government officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But the regime has repeatedly dismissed evidence as fake and insisted it he was fighting terrorists, not peaceful protestors.

Amina Kholani still desperately calls for justice for her brothers, but like so many other Syrians, she fears she may never live to see the regime held accountable for its crimes, as Bashar al-Assad seems to have defied the odds for now, surviving a revolution, and is on the verge of winning the war.

ENGELS: The tide's changed. And what we're making sure, is that when the shift does come, when the discussion about justice does appear, in five, or ten, or 20 years, that there will be evidence there.

KARADSHEH: Evidence collected by CIJA has already been used in individual trials in the United States and Europe. It has also led to the arrest in Germany of at least one mid-level regime member accused of torture. For Hadal (ph), this is just the start.

[00:40:06] HADAL (ph) (through translator): I said good-bye to my wife and children and told them, "I am no longer yours. I am now owned by Syria and justice."

KARADSHEH: Justice, he says, is a duty from which there is no turning back.

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN.

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VAUSE: The U.S. heartland continues to be battered by severe weather. Take a look at this video. It's a tornado about eight kilometers from Charles City, Iowa. An emergency official says 11 buildings were damaged, three of them homes. But no reports of injuries or any deaths.

But in Oklahoma, which has been inundated by severe storms since last month, the governor is warning flood waters will continue to rise, and every single county, all 77, remain under a state of emergency. Six people have reportedly died in the flooding. More than 100 hundred inured.

We'll take a break. When we come back, cameras in China capturing a rare sight. An endangered animal, never recorded in the wild before now. So what is it? And what makes it so unique? We'll tell you. But maybe you can guess.

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VAUSE: Well, you don't see this every day. A rare, fully albino giant panda has been filmed in a bamboo forest in China. A researcher with Beijing's Peking University tells CNN this is the

first ever recorded in the wild. He says the panda is about one to two years old.

Footage of the cub was taken back in April at a nature preserve in Sichuan province, but it was only now just released.

The reserve plans to set up more cameras to continue to observe the great panda.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only 1,800 giant pandas left in the wild.

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause. Please stay with us. WORLD SPORT is up next. You're watching CNN.

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