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Adm. John Kirby, White House Coordinator For Strategic Communications, Discusses Zelenskyy Speech To U.N. General Assembly, Rift Between Canda, India; El Paso Braces For Migrant Influx, Shelters Full; Soon: Hearing On Water Tainted By Military Jet Fuel Leak. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired September 19, 2023 - 13:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Welcome back to the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly here in New York at U.N. headquarters. I'm Jim Sciutto.

We're awaiting a speech from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He is scheduled to address the assembly any moment now. And we'll, of course, bring you those comments live.

It is expected he will question Russia's very inclusion here at the U.N. Of course, it continues to be a permanent member of the Security Council.

And make his case as well for more international assistance and aid as Russia's war on Ukraine nears 600 days. We'll bring you that speech live as soon as it begins.

All this as an explosive rift is unfolding between Canada and India. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to the floor of Canada's parliament saying that India's government may have been directly involved in the killing, the shooting death of a Sikh activist, a Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil.

India is denying those allegations, calling the claims absurd. Both countries have now expelled senior diplomats from their nations, sending relations between the two of them plunging.

And moments ago, Trudeau said, "I'm not trying to provoke India, but I want answers."

I'm joined now by John Kirby. He is the White House coordinator for strategic communications.

Thanks so much for joining us, for taking the time.


SCIUTTO: I want to begin with Ukraine. Because the president's comments on Ukraine were meant to globalize this to some degree. To say, if Russia was allowed to violate the borders of Ukraine, then any nation is at risk not just Russia but other authoritarian states that might threaten sovereignty.

Those were strong words. But I wonder, in hard terms, in concrete terms, what will the Ukrainian president leave the U.N. with? Will he leave with any new aid, any new promises of support?

KIRBY: I can't speak for other nation, but I hope that President Zelenskyy knows that he can count on continued U.S. security assistance.

Look, Jim, we've been announcing about every two weeks a new security assistance package. They will keep coming from the United States.

And just today -- actually, I think he is flying back right now. Secretary Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, hosted yet another Ukraine defense contact group in Ramstein, Germany, where, again, they solicited and were able to get additional contributions.

So I think that President Zelenskyy, when he walks away from this meeting, even though -- and I can't speak for what he might get specifically here in New York.

But he should be able to go home happy that the international community, by and large, is still united in supporting him and giving his troops the arms and equipment that they need.

SCIUTTO: And I spoke to the British foreign secretary a short time ago. And he said, despite slower-than-expected progress in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, that, in his words, "Ukraine is still winning." Not just winning the war but winning that counteroffensive.

And I wonder if you agree with the assessment.

KIRBY: I agree that they are absolutely continuing to make steady progress here. Particularly on the most southern line of access. This is the one coming out of Zaporizhzhia, in the direction of Melitopol. They continue to make steady progress.

Now look, I think President Zelenskyy will be the first to tell you, Jim, that it's not as far and fast as he would like to go but they have -- they have dedicated more manpower to it, more resources to it, and they are starting to roll back, getting inside the Russian lines of defense.

SCIUTTO: I'll say, when I've spoken with senior U.S. officials recently and European officials, that despite public professions of hope and support, that privately they will say it is unreal unrealistic in the near term that Ukraine can achieve its primary objective, which is to liberate all territory taken by Russia, including Crimea.

And I wonder if that is a private message that U.S. officials are delivering Ukraine, saying, listen, you are making great progress, but the goal of taking it all back is unlikely to happen?


KIRBY: No, we're not trying to armchair quarterback President Zelenskyy and throw in, you know, plays from the sideline. We want to support him in the decisions that he's making.

He has spoken very strongly and eloquently, and I expect that you will hear it again today, about how they want all of Ukraine back. All of the internationally recognized borders, which includes Crimea. We support them in that effort.

What they will be able to achieve in the coming months remains to be seen. What we're focused on and what President Biden said today is making sure that they have what they need to be as successful as possible.

SCIUTTO: I want to ask you about the allegation that the Canadian prime minister made on the floor of the Canadian parliament.

Appears to have intelligence indicating that India was directly involved in the killing of a Sikh activist there. Of course, Canada, with the U.S., part of the five eyes program, liberal sharing of intelligence across the borders.

Do you believe that this is a credible allegation? And if it is true that India has carried out an extra territory assassination, what should be the response?

KIRBY: Well, they are certainly serious allegations, Jim. And we believe, in order to determine how credible they are, there needs to be a thorough, transparent, comprehensive investigation.

Prime Minister Trudeau has called for that investigation. And so we'll watch and see how Canada moves forward on this.

Certainly, it's well within their capacity to do this. We have no doubt about that.

We urge India as well to participate and cooperate in that investigation. It is important to find out exactly what happened.

SCIUTTO: And one final question. The president did mention China today. It seemed to be a message that was deliberating nonconfrontational. Said no intention to contain China, though, of course, stand up to China where there are disagreements.

He did not mention Taiwan. And I wonder why, given the genuine fear about Xi Jinping's plans for Taiwan.

KIRBY: The president felt his comments on China really encompassed everything about our approach to Chinese behavior. Including the coercive and intimidating behavior that we've seen around Taiwan and the South China Sea.

It wasn't about specifically mentioned geography here. It was talking about, writ large, the challenges and the threats that we continue to face from the PRC and the PLA specifically.

But also, making it clear that we are not looking for conflict. And this is a competition that he believes the United States is well positioned to win that competition.

And that there are going to be areas, like climate change, like terrorism, where there is an overlap, where we can work with China. And we have to continue to pursue those efforts.


KIRBY: He wants to keep those lines of communication open. And that's what we -


SCIUTTO: Yes, Of course, he's made the point you cannot do climate change without ----

KIRBY: Absolutely.


KIRBY: They're the second-largest polluter in the world.


John Kirby, thanks so much for taking the time. I know you're going to be --

KIRBY: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: -- the Ukrainian president just a shot time from now.

We will bring you those comments live. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is set to address the nations here, the nations -- the leaders of the nations here in just moments. We'll be on top of it.



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Officials in El Paso are warning that the city is on the cusp of a third wave of migrants with nowhere for them to go. And on top, it says the shelters there are already maxed out.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is live for us in El Paso for us.

So, Ed, how much of a wave are we talking about? Put it in the context of numbers.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is not as big as what we saw in December of last year, you'll remember, and also in the weeks leading up to the end of Title 42 in May.

But it is substantially than what we saw right after the ending of Title 42 in May. And that's why there is a great deal of concern and many people trying to figure out exactly what is going on.

This motel that you see behind me is on the northern edge of El Paso. And this is among several motels or hotels that the city is partnering with to be able to handle the influx of migrants that have arrived here.

That's because many of the shelters that migrants have been using here are at capacity. There have been a growing number of people having to sleep on the streets.

CBP officials and city officials have warned that there might be a possibility that people would just have to be released after they get processed by Border Patrol agents and federal immigration officials.

But that, we are told by CBP officials, has not had to happen yet here in El Paso.

But across the southern border, we're seeing a large number of -- a growing number of migrants arriving at the southern border. More than 7,000 per day. That was about 3,500 just after the ending of Title 42.

So as we mentioned, Boris, a lot of people are trying to figure out exactly why this is happening. It is a very complicated situation.

And there are a number of reasons. We've spoken with about a dozen migrants here this morning on the streets of El Paso and there is a wide range of reasons why people chose to cross between the ports of entry and turn themselves into Border Patrol agents.

Some people said that they were simply tired of waiting, growing very desperate. They at least thought that they would at least take their chance.

Other people saying that they were told by other people -- and this is part of the disinformation campaign that many smuggling operations deal with -- telling people that they are OK to cross, that they can get into the U.S.

Soo a lot of varying reasons for what we're hearing from migrants here on the ground here this afternoon.

SANCHEZ: And, Ed, it is not just happening in El Paso, right? There is an influx in southern California as well.

LAVANDERA: Yes, we've seen large numbers there in the San Diego area as well, as well as south Texas. This is kind of something that we're seeing in various parts of the border here in El Paso.


Which has always been kind of a focal point of this kind of migration because of the smuggling routes coming into Juarez on the Mexican side of the border. But we're also seeing it from San Diego all the way to south Texas.

SANCHEZ: Ed Lavandera, live for us in El Paso, Texas. Thanks so much, Ed.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Military families and civilians taking legal action against the U.S. government after they were sickened by jet fuel-tainted drinking water near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. We'll speak to a servicemember whose family was affected, next, on CNN NEWS CENTRAL.



KEILAR: Happening just hours from now, a key court hearing as military families and civilians sue the U.S. government for a jet fuel leak that contaminated their drinking water in Hawaii.

It's a case that could impact thousands. Lawyers representing plaintiffs poisoned when 20,000 gallons of jet fuel contaminated drinking water near Pearl Harbor say they have now reported more than 4,000 claims from people suffering health problems.

This was a leak that you may recall happened back late in 2021. Servicemembers and their families, many of which included small children, complained of nausea, vomiting, skin problems, like you see here, illnesses like thyroid conditions as well.

Some say there are still suffering symptoms nearly two years later. You can see some of these images from one of our guests.

Joining us now, we have Kristina Baehr, who is the attorney leading a class-action lawsuit against the government. And Army Major Amanda Feindt, whose family was sickened by the contaminated water.

Thank you so much to both of you for being with us.

Major, to you first.

We're going to talk about the specifics of today's hearing. First off, tell us how the family was affected by the spill and what concerns you have about their health going forward.


I'd like to start by saying it's been about 20 months since the last time we spoke when this first broke. It's also been about 18 months since Secretary of Defense Austin directed the DOD for the fuel to be shut down at Red Hill.

I wish I had better news for you. But quite honestly, today as I sit before this hearing, not a single ounce of fuel has been drained from Red Hill. Thousands of military servicemembers, their dependents, innocent civilians are still getting sick.

They were forced to move back in the homes that made them sick with little to no remediation like hot water heaters and things like that.

Folks are still denied medical care, medical testing, air quality testing. They're being denied hazardous duty pay. There's retaliation for folks speaking up for their own families.

I think the most disheartening to me, as a mother and the parent of a servicemember, we continue to have senior leadership, governmental and military officials come to the island, visit the island, meet with political leaders, but no one has stepped a foot inside of a home of an impacted family member.

There's very little took, among the most senior leadership about Red Hill. That has been really disappointing. And not much has changed unfortunately.

KEILAR: There are a lot of families who feel as you do.

Kristina, the DOD is not commenting on ongoing litigation. That's pretty standard.

The Navy did investigate the spill. They found inadequate responses to the spill. DOD is closing down the fuel-source facility. I know that hasn't happened. This is a multiyear process.

But asked for comment on the lawsuit, the Defense Health Agency told CNN it, quote, "is committed to the health and safety of our patients."

That, obviously, is very different than what we're hearing from the major here.

At the heart of the hearing today is how the military responded medically, or did not, as you were alleging, to the needs of families like Major Feindt's. What was the experience of these families?

KRISTINA BAEHR, LAWYER REPRESENTING CLASS-ACTION LAWSUIT OVER RED HILL FUEL SPILL: So, the government contaminated the water. They didn't let people know. They didn't tell people not to use the water, so people got very sick.

But here's the problem. They then came to the government for medical care. And the government said it's in and out of your body in 48 hours. You're going to be fine. Don't worry, there's no long-term impact.

And we're here two years later, and thousands of people are still sick. And the government is still looking at them and saying, are you sure you didn't have a tummy tuck?

It's outrageous. It's medical gaslighting at the highest levels. And it's deeply upsetting for the men and women and civilians, men and women who served our country and civilians. It affected this entire island.

KEILAR: Major, you say that you got medical care, that your husband and kids did not. Tell us about that, and why do you think that is. FEINDT: Certainly. So, all three of my family members, my husband and

my 1 and 3-year-old children went to the hospital before I did. They probably spent less than 30 minutes in the hospital.

My children were given a rehydration auto pop. And no medication, no testing. I begged for hair, skin, blood, urine testing because we knew at that point that we had drank contaminated water.


We were sent home with information about contaminated water. But there was no testing and there was no care for our kids.

However, I went in, you know, just a couple of hours later. And I was given, you know, the standard of medical care. All sorts of testing. Monitoring, sent home with medication.

You know, we were denied, even after our initial emergency room visit, basic testing. Eventually, we received a compassionate reassignment to Colorado where we actually got the medical care that we needed.

Our family alone has been to 450-plus medical appointments, nine major procedures, including major surgeries. We're still dealing with neurological issues, gastrointestinal issues, skin rashes that continue to pop up.

Beyond that, Brianna, as you can imagine, the mental health aspect, the stress and the trauma that families are experiencing. They're still being denied that sense of care that this has happened to them. It's just been really, really tough.

KEILAR: And, Kristina, at issue today is expert testimony. Tell us what you're hoping to achieve in court.

BAEHR: I'm not going to comment on the issue that's in front of the judge at the moment.



BAEHR: But what I will say is --

KEILAR: OK. Sorry, go on.

BAEHR: That's OK.

The issue -- the issue at large that's at play today is military servicemembers were provided environmental care that their family members were not.

The government knows how to treat servicemembers for jet fuel exposure. They know how to treat anyone for jet fuel exposure. It happens day in and day out with aviation, with people who are working the lines. And we denied that care to the thousands of people who drank

contaminated water at Red Hill. That's the medical negligence claim that's before the court today.

KEILAR: Well, look, we'll be watching to see what happens. I know that's happening in about an hour or so.

Kristina, Major, thank you so much to both of you.

BAEHR: Thank you.

FEINDT: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: We'll be right back.