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At This Hour

CNN's Clarissa Ward Says, No U.S. Flights Took Off in Past Eight Hours; Hurricane Watches Issued from Long Island and Cape Cod; Mask Mandate Bans in Florida and Texas Face Legal Challenges . Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired August 20, 2021 - 11:30   ET



GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: We've got people all over this country. Help us get this Americans in. They say, oh, what's it worth to you? We want our money released. We want this. We want that. So now, you're in a diplomatic bargaining position with your worthwhile (ph) opponents, the people you tried to kill for 20 years. So there are many different wrinkles of this being that are being sorted through on the inside, I'm sure. It is how much can you get for how little you have to give to the Taliban. What does it say about future relations? How much can you push on the airfield perimeter without getting into a firefight with Taliban checkpoints? You don't want to do that. That makes it worse.

So, then how do you accelerate the flow? You've got to have people there who could do the identification and processing. And some of that may be tied up in Washington with the SIV visa program. We don't know these details. But I do have confidence in the United States government and I do know that they feel the impact of this just as strongly as our viewers on CNN do. And they're doing, I'm confident, everything possible to accelerate this.

The commander of central command was on the ground on the airfield, saw it with his own eyes, has instantaneous communications to the State Department, the Pentagon, wherever else he needs and we haven't talked about our allies. So we know the French, the Germans and other people are trying to get in there and work. Are they flying in or are they working with them? We're not seeing any reports of allied forces in there participating in this. And so that is another wrinkle on this.

President Biden said we went in there, we're going to come out together. Well, we didn't actually go in together but we did have a NATO mission in there that we put together 15 years ago and it really is important that we think about not only the U.S. response and U.S. nationals but other foreign nationals who want to get out.

On the outside of this, you have the Iranians, the Chinese and the Russians. And it won't be long before I suspect one of those three steps forward and say, we can solve this problem for you, like we solved the problem in Syria with chemical weapons. So, someone will come in here ant interface with this and also take some benefits from this. The very complicated situation, and I know on the inside, as Clarissa said, we're doing the best we can to take care of people with water and MREs. On the outside, there is not as much that we can do because they're under Taliban control. And that interface, the Washington interface, the big picture of other countries all in this stew pot going around and around and around, it is terrible.

I would say this, Kate, in terms of humanitarian catastrophes, this isn't a humanitarian catastrophe yet. There are a lot of people out there in the hot sun. There is a lot frightened people and frightened families. And there is a few casualties and that is totally regrettable. But we still got time if we got the skill to put this right. So it is not over. It is a work in progress and I know that our U.S. military and our State Department will do everything they can to put this right as best we can. I don't think it is going to be done by the 31st of August.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN AT THIS HOUR: Yes. That seems to be definitely moving in that direction. General, thank you very much for your time, I always appreciate it.

Coming up for us, New England on high alert now. Forecasters now say a hurricane could make landfall there this weekend. Chad Myers has the new forecast track and timing, next.



BOLDUAN: Developing at this hour, millions of Americans are under a hurricane watch from Long Island to Cape Cod, as Henri gains strength and takes aim at the U.S. This could be the first hurricane to make landfall in New England in 30 years.

CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers, he is tracking it for us. Chad, what is the latest forecast on this?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: The latest forecast came out 11:00 and it shifted the track, Kate, probably 15 miles farther to the west. So, 15 miles closer to New York City and a little bit farther away from Cape Cod. I'll get to it right here.

Here are the hurricane watches, everywhere in pink, even hurricane warnings likely are going to posted with this. I know it is a watch now but when it gets closer, that's when they would move up it to hurricane warning status. We do have tropical storm watches almost all the way to Queens.

Now, the good news is the storm didn't get any stronger overnight. It is exactly the same strength as it was when we went to bed last night. That is good. Because if this storm doesn't get much stronger, it has a much more likelihood of going out into the ocean and not making landfall, but that is not the forecast. It would be the right side of the cone. But the middle of the cone, the part that we want to focus on is very close to New England and Long Island coming on shore somewhere between 75 to 70 miles per hour. Now it is an 85-mile-per-hour storm here in the Gulf Stream, but when it gets farther north out of the Gulf Stream, that's when then it begins to lose some speed. That is the good news.

Here's what the models look like now. They're still not perfect for sure, some going straight north, a couple of them turning left, making a loop and going back out into the ocean. If this happens down here, that would be perfect. That would be no land contact, whatsoever. But we do know that there is going to be a surge one way or the other. We also this weekend is a full moon and those tides are high and tides on top of surge make it worse. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Chad, thank you so much. I mean, this is something everyone needs to watch in the next two days. Good to see you, thank you.

Let's turn now to the pandemic. Two of the biggest states in the country are facing major COVID surges now and also juggling major legal battles over masks. In Texas, the state Supreme Court said it will not intervene in Governor Greg Abbotts fight with local leaders over mandates, and in Florida, the first legal challenge led by parents heads to trial, the parents fighting back against governor DeSantis' efforts to ban mask mandates in schools there.

Joining me now is CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. She's also the author of the book titled Lifelines, A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health.

Dr. Wen, these legal battles in Texas and Florida over masks, I mean, you have been very clear all along that wearing masks indoors is key to keeping children safe.


From a public health standpoint, I'm wondering what does -- I don't know if it is confusion, but what does this confusion and these legal challenges do in terms of impacting the effort to keep people safe, keep the information accurate and truthful that people are getting?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, here is the thing, Kate, there actually is no confusion. As in the science, the public health evidence is totally clear at this point. We don't have a lot of tools to control this pandemic. But we have several that are really powerful. We have vaccination, medium to longer term, and in the short-term, indoor masks is really essential. And while we are on track to 200,000 new infections every single day in the U.S., I don't understand why we would want to take away the few tools that we actually have. These are the tools to keep our children safe and we're now entering the phase in the pandemic that is probably the most dangerous for kids. And yet we're sending them back to school, which is essential, but let's at least do that with the tools to keep them safe.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I'm going to ask you by booster shots. There are three U.S. senators all fully vaccinated announced in the same day that they tested positive forever positive for COVID. I want to show a tweet from one of the senators, John Hickenlooper of Colorado. Here is a tweet from him in January when he got his second dose, which really does put him eight months out from when he was fully vaccinated, which is exactly the timeline that health officials are saying booster shots are needed. Is this becoming like a real-time, real-life case study for the need of booster shots?

WEN: Well, maybe. Although I think that we need to put breakthrough infections into perspective, because some people are saying, well, what is the point of getting the vaccine if there are these breakthrough infections? But let's talk about why they're happening. Breakthrough infections are increasing mainly because the number of infections is increasing. The unvaccinated are the people who are driving the spread and now there is spillover into people who are vaccinated.

Think of the vaccine as a very good raincoat. If it is drizzling, it will be dry. But if there are thunderstorms all the time, at some point, you are going to get wet. That doesn't mean the raincoat isn't working. It means that weather, we're just talking about the weather, it means that the weather is really the problem. And, ultimately, we need to stop these thunderstorms from happening.

And so I do think that it is good for us to anticipate the need for boosters. That could also help to reduce breakthrough infections in the future, but, ultimately, what's is going to stop infection among the vaccinated is for a lot more people to get their first doses and not be unvaccinated and, therefore, driving the spread.

BOLDUAN: Yes, the solution is still the same, over and over, and it will be continue to be. Get vaccinated and more people getting vaccinated. Dr. Wen, thank you very much.

Coming up still for us, as CNN's Clarissa Ward has reported just now in the last eight hours she's been on the airfield at the Kabul airport, she has seen no U.S. flights taking off. I'm going to speak live with the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee get his assessment of what is happening on the ground. That is next.



BOLDUAN: We do have breaking news. CNN's Clarissa Ward just reported that in the eight hours she's been on the airfield at Kabul's airport, she and her team have seen no U.S. evacuation flights taking off. She also describes a chaotic scene even inside the airport of disorganization and men, women and children suffering in this scorching heat. It is a horrible situation all the way around for people there, for the troops that are trying to help them. It is just horrible.

In about an hour, President Biden, he will address the nation on this crisis in Afghanistan.

Ahead of that, joining me right now is Democratic Congressman Adam Smith. He is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Chairman, thank you for being here.

I haven't seen you speak publicly or put out a statement since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. What is your assessment of how bad this situation is right now?

REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA): Well I have spoken publicly. I was actually out of the country when it first started. But since I came back in, I've been on T.V. several times and have spoken about it, first of all. My assessment, is it is a great tragedy. I mean, the tragedy is that we tried for 20 years to get in place a government in Afghanistan that could be a reasonable alternative to the Taliban and all people involved in that effort were unable to do it. And now the Taliban is back in power and the chaos that we knew would come if they were is coming. And it is a great tragedy, without any question. We've seen it play out and it makes me very sad to see this happening.

BOLDUAN: Is it clear to you how to fix it in this moment of crisis unfolding before us?

SMITH: Well, first of all, the sad truth of the world is you can't fix everything. So, I don't know that there is a way to fix it. I think in the short-term, what we're trying to do is to get as many people out as possible. That is why we sent the troops in to secure the air base. That is why I know there are backchannel conversations going on two with the Taliban to try to get as much leeway as we can to get people to the airport and get them out and to process all of that.

But, look, all across the country, I mean, it is chaotic in Afghanistan. There are a lot of people who don't want the Taliban back in charge. There are conflicts happening. And in the midst of all of that chaos to try to remove this many people, I mean, it is pretty obvious how difficult that is. But for the time being, that is the mission, get as many people out as possible. That's what the U.S. military is trying to facilitate and it's what we need to do.

BOLDUAN: Clarissa Ward told us at the top of the hour that in the eight hours she's been on the airfield in HKIA, she's not seen a single evacuation flight take off. Does that make sense to you?

SMITH: I don't. I don't know about that. I know that in the previous couple days, a whole bunch of flights have gone out. I think the estimate is that we've evacuated between 6,000 and 7,000 people at this point. I don't know why in the last eight hours they haven't flown out yet. I don't have anything, any information on that. But I know that we have been able to get quite a few people out, and I believe we'll continue to be able to get some out going forward.

BOLDUAN: Do you know why they haven't reached the capacity that they said they were going to reach, which was 5,000 to 9,000 people evacuated a day?


They're not there. They just did 3,000 yesterday. SMITH: I don't know specifically but I don't think it's hard to sort of figure out why, because this is not an orderly process. People are pouring into the airport. They're trying to clear them, trying to figure out who they are, go through the visa process and everything involved. It's not at all surprising that it's proving difficult.

I think -- I mean, the big issue here is we should have been more, I guess, clear-eyed about how quickly it would be that the Taliban would be taking over. And this is something the Armed Services Committee last February, we were asking the Pentagon about as they were putting together plans to withdraw, what is your plan to get the civilians out of the country, to get the visa holders and people who have helped support us? And it just -- they did not focus as much on it as they should have. And we've pressed them. I know Congressman Jason Crow has been really out front. And we've passed a couple pieces of legislation just in the last few months to try to press this.

I think the Biden administration did not adequately plan for this. And the main reason they didn't adequately plan for this is they were kind of kidding themselves about the ability of the Afghan government to stand after we left. I think the intel made it pretty clear that that wasn't going to happen, and we should have planned for that. And the president is fundamentally right. There was no way to do this when there wasn't going to be some amount of chaos.

BOLDUAN: But he wasn't straight with the American public about that, right? He did not say that leading up to it, right? But you're thinking Joe Biden was not being clear-eyed enough even with himself when you say -- I think it's important when I hear you say, Mr. Chairman, that they were kidding themselves when they thought that they were going to be able to pull this off.

SMITH: Look, I mean, play the tape. It's not hard. I mean, the president said as this was going on, that he said quite clearly, it would not be chaotic. And now, he is saying it was inevitable that it was going to be chaotic. Okay. Well, that doesn't really add up. One of those two things is not true.

And I think that's unfortunate, because, fundamentally, the president isn't wrong in that when Donald Trump decided to negotiate with the Taliban and cut out the Afghan government. I mean, that put us in a terrible position. And also, it's become clear that the Afghan government was unable to stand. I mean, we put 20 years, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars into this, and at the end of the day, the corruption, the tribalism and the incompetency of the Afghan government just never got to the point where they had enough confidence from the Afghan people to hold off the Taliban, staying there for another -- go ahead, sorry.

BOLDUAN: I'm sorry, Mr. Chairman. You --a tweet you put out in July, you said, we must protect the Afghan partners who put their lives on the line to support our mission in Afghanistan. Are you confident --

SMITH: Absolutely.

BOLDUAN: -- the U.S. is going to do that? We have not heard that no matter how -- Joe Biden has not made that assurance. And it's starting to sound like they're preparing to leave people behind.

SMITH: Part of the reason I put out the tweet is because I was not confident. And, look, again, we started these conversations in January or February. I remember having the hearings and asking the Pentagon officials who were testifying before us, what's your plan? And I'll tell you, that the answer they gave us, they said, well, the State Department is working on that. And a number of us on the committee said, that really doesn't help. It's going to take the military to get this done. So what is the plan? And there just wasn't that coordination between state and DOD, and there wasn't the focus. And that's why we've been pressing on this.

It's hard. They tried to divide the issues. I mean, I don't think we should imagine that if we had just kept troops there and kept fighting for some number of years, that that would have somehow succeeded. The president wasn't wrong to say that the mission in Afghanistan was passed its useful point.

BOLDUAN: But it's the execution of this. That's where we are right now, right?

SMITH: That (INAUDIBLE) where I was headed before it was -- there're two parts of this. There is, was it the right decision to leave? But the second part is, did the president do it right? And on that second part, I mean, the evidence is very clear that they did not. So those are two separate questions that tend to get conflated.

But I think it is a great tragedy no matter what. But we certainly need to take a hard look at the decisions that went into this evacuation and why there wasn't a better plan on this. I mean, and to begin with, as Congressman Crow has told me, it's like, so, you take the military out first, then you take the civilians out? It seems to me that you might want to do that the other way around to make sure that you have adequate protection. The mistakes were made here.

We've got a hearing on Tuesday, a classified brief where we are going to press the administration on, A, what happened, and, B, what they're doing now to try to get as many people out as possible.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Chairman, thank you for your time.

SMITH: Thank you. I appreciate the chance.

BOLDUAN: So, the risks to people on the ground in Afghanistan also extend to the journalists reporting on the crisis.


One of them is Los Angeles Times Correspondent and Photojournalist Marcus Yam. You'll remember, he joined us on the show yesterday to talk about these graphic images that he captured of the brutal crackdown by Taliban fighters against Afghans simply trying to make their way to the airport.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BOLDUAN: Do you know why the people in your pictures were beaten and attacked by the Taliban as they were trying to make their way to the airport?

MARCUS YAM, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT AND PHOTOJOURNALIST, LOS ANGELES TIMES: I mean, they were -- there were thousands of Afghans basically standing around and basically gathering at the airport, hoping for any information or trying their luck in basically -- a lot of them had read on Facebook, according to a lot of people I talked to, that the Americans were evacuating Afghans at the airport. So a lot of them would just show up and hope to try their luck out there. And I guess the Taliban were trying to keep the crowd away from the airport, at least the road on the airport side by shooing them away on to the other side.


BOLDUAN (voice over): And then on the front page of today's L.A. Times, Yam reveals that he was attacked by Taliban fighters as well, as he was trying to cover and report on protests taking place. Yam says he was sucker punched by a Taliban fighter writing that his attacker, quote, was joined by another Taliban fighter shorter and holding a radio in his hand. They attacked my journalist companion, hitting him squarely in the ear. The bigger guy continued to hit me in the head. We tried to speak to explain that we were foreign journalists but they pummeled us to the ground.

He also writes, the best thing I could do was try to deescalate. I raised my hand and told him, please don't hurt us, we're journalists, we're foreigners. We kept saying, we're media, we're allowed to work.

Yam says the beating eventually stopped when one of the fighters realized they were journalists working for western publications. And then the surreal happened. Yam writes, he apologized profusely for our troubles but not for beating us. They became solicitous. We were each brought a bottle of cold water and a can of Monster Energy drink, a favorite of the U.S. soldiers who controlled the city until a few days ago. Radio Taliban asked us, please, could you tell me who hit you? We will capture him and punish him. I looked at my colleague in disbelief.

Yam does report, we can say, that he is okay and already back out reporting.

Before we go, a quick programming note to all of you. You can join CNN this weekend for the We Love NYC, The Homecoming Concert. This once in a lifetime concert event airs tomorrow at 5:00 P.M. Eastern right here on CNN.

Thanks for being here. Inside Politics with John King starts after a short break.