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Serious Questions Raised on Deadly U.S. Drone Strike in Kabul; Blinken Faces Tough Questions on Afghanistan Withdrawal; Defense Secretary Austin Declined to Testify Today; Polls Open in Less Than an Hour in California Recall Election; Security Fencing Returns to U.S. Capitol Hill Ahead of Right-Wing Rally. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 09:00   ET



ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So there are a whole list of safety precautions involved here. Proof of vaccination is required along with a government issued I.D. You can't just show a card, you have to have your name match the government I.D. Everyone will have to wear a mask unless they're eating or drinking in a designated spot.

They have upgraded their air filtration systems to comply with the CDC's hospital grade air filters. And there's also going to be of course extensive cleaning, hand sanitizing so that people can come back and enjoy Broadway and do so safely -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Get back to normal, take the precautions. These things go hand in hand.

Athena Jones, thank you so much.

CNN's coverage continues right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Tuesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Erica Hill. Minutes from now Secretary of State Antony Blinken back in the hot seat. Set to face a tough day of -- a second tough day of questioning from lawmakers over the Biden administration's handling of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and ongoing efforts to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies who remain in the country.

Blinken repeatedly clashing with Republicans on day one, defending the administration's decision making and placing much of the blame on former President Trump's deal with the Taliban. Take a listen.


REP. BRAD SHERMAN (D-CA): Did we have a plan to gather Americans from all over Afghanistan to Kabul and out in an orderly way? How meticulous was the planning for the Trump administration declared May 1st withdrawal?

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Thank you, Congressman. We inherited --


SCIUTTO: -- acknowledgment of any shortcomings in the administration response, but also this morning a two-week long CNN investigation is now raising serious questions about the U.S. Military's final drone strike on a car in Kabul just hours before U.S. troops left the country. The U.S. Military has claimed from the beginning that it hit a legitimate and imminent terrorist target, but CNN's investigation is raising significant doubts about the U.S. government's account of what happened that day.

And that is where we begin this morning. CNN correspondent Anna Coren, she's been following this now with the latest.

You know, Anna, I was speaking to U.S. Military officials the day of the strike. They were confident that they averted what could have been a deadly attack on the airport. But you've been investigating. What have you found?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim and Erica. Doubts have been raised whether the U.S. Military actually hit an ISIS-K target when they dropped a Hellfire missile on a car in a Kabul neighborhood two weeks ago. According to family and colleagues of the targeted victim, 43-year-old aid worker Zamarai Ahmadi, the U.S. got it wrong.

CNN's investigation was led by journalists Sandi Sidhu and Julia Hollingsworth in the span of past two weeks. We have spoken to 30 people in total, including five colleagues who were there with Zamarai on the day. We've also spoken to two bomb experts who dispute the military's claims there was a significant secondary explosion after the drone strike, code 4 explosive material, which the U.S. suspected. One of them said if there was a secondary blast, it most likely was the vehicle gas tank exploding.

We've also analyzed the CCTV footage that you are seeing right now from the day of Zamarai in the office. And what is critical to note is that a U.S. official with knowledge of the operation who spoke to CNN said the U.S. Military never knew who was driving the car. They began following this Toyota Corolla that Zamarai was driving based on intelligence and chatter they have been monitoring from an ISIS safe house. Now the official said they saw this car leave possibly from the same safe house and then followed it for the next eight hours before launching the strike.

Now, we should remember that just days before an ISIS-K suicide bomber had killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans at the airport, the U.S. had intelligence of an imminent and credible threat and were understandably on high alert.

But, Jim and Erica, from what we have established, there are serious doubts as to whether Zamarai, a father of seven, highly respected, who worked for a U.S. based NGO for 15 years that feeds the poor was, as the U.S. claimed, an ISIS-K facilitator with suspected explosive material in his car for an attack on the airport. And Zamarai was not the only person killed. According to the extended

family who lived there in this compound, nine other family members died, including seven children, three of whom were toddlers.

Now, Jim and Erica, we have seen this distressing footage of charred remains of what was left of the bodies. Parents trying to recognize a hand, a foot, an ear to work out which body part belonged to their child. The Pentagon says an investigation is underway, but maintains the strike was based on good intelligence and that no military works harder to prevent civilian casualties.


Jim and Erica, a full investigation will air later today on Jake Tapper's show.

HILL: An important reporting. We'll be looking for more on that. Anna, thank you.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken likely to face questions about the U.S. Military's drone strike when he goes in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in less than an hour.

CNN national security correspondent Kylie Atwood is at the State Department. CNN congressional correspondent Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill.

Kylie, I want to begin with you. So Blinken pushing back as we saw at an onslaught on Republican criticism on day one. Walk us through what we saw.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the secretary of State defended the Biden administration, first of all, their decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, saying we made the right decision not to send a third generation of Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan. Of course, pointing back to the Trump administration, their deal with the Taliban, saying that they were delivered a withdrawal date, but not a plan for that withdrawal.

And also saying that the Biden administration essentially believed, you know, it was time to leave Afghanistan. That staying there any longer wouldn't have made the Afghan government or the Afghan Security Forces any more resilient.

Now, he also defended the way in which that withdrawal, that evacuation was conducted, calling it extraordinary, talking about the tremendous amount of work that the State Department did to get Americans out of the country before the evacuation began. But what you heard from Republicans was just a lot of political attacks on the Biden administration. Congressman McCaul called this an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. A lot of language like that, calling for the secretary of State to resign.

What we didn't hear a tremendous amount of yesterday was a lot of detail-oriented line of inquiry, questions about what the Biden administration did, but also what they didn't do. What they should have done sooner. That may be something that we hear more from today. There was one question about Afghan documents of Afghans being burned at the embassy when U.S. diplomats left the embassy.

Secretary of State said that he would talk to them about that in a classified closed-door setting. But today we're looking for some more details about what the Biden administration did and when.

SCIUTTO: Lauren Fox on the hill -- thank you, Kylie.

Lauren, what struck me about the testimony yesterday before the House was no acknowledgement of any errors or mistakes. And I wonder -- and by the way, there was criticism from Democratic, hard questions from Democratic lawmakers, too. In the Senate, do you expect to see similar?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I think that Democrats in the Senate are poised today to really try to distinguish what could have been done differently and what was actually inherited by the Biden administration when it came to that deal with the Taliban. They want to make it clear that Republicans should not be rewriting history here. Instead, what they are arguing is that Democrats are going to have some very pointed questions for the secretary of State about what they tried to do once they inherited that deal. s

Were there steps they could have taken? Were there preparations they could have made to try to get more Americans out of Afghanistan sooner? Those are the kinds of pointed questions you can expected today from senators.

I'm also told from a committee aide that they had hoped to also have the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testify with the secretary of State today to get a more full picture of exactly what the preparations were because they recognize that there may be some questions that someone who leads the Department of State can't answer when it comes to the military intelligence on the ground.

So they were hoping to kind of have more of a picture. They said that Austin declined that invitation. He is testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, so that may have explained part of the reason for that.

But look, Jim, what I was told from a Democratic aide going into this is they are not going to go easy on Blinken, but at the same time, quote, "They are not going to let Republicans lay 20 years of problems in Afghanistan at Biden's feet" -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Kylie Atwood, Lauren Fox, thanks very much.

Joining us now to discuss more broadly, Susan Glasser, she's staff writer for "The New Yorker" and CNN global affairs analyst.

Susan, good morning. Nice to have you here. Listen, you had 13 dead Americans, right, in the final hours of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. You had Americans still left behind. You had chaotic evacuation that included people clinging to the sides of a U.S. Military jet as it took off and falling off to their deaths. And yet this drone strike now, major questions about whether it was a legitimate target.

I just wonder how the secretary of State can go before the House and now the Senate and not acknowledge any mistakes whatsoever. I mean, it's a remarkable -- I mean, it's message discipline, but does it show any humility or accountability?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Look, what you're seeing today and what you saw yesterday is a political exercise. This is really a Washington ritual. You know, something terrible happened and, you know, someone must be called up to testify about it. Because this is such a partisan moment in a way I think what you're hearing from Secretary of State Blinken is an even more partisan message aimed at Democrats and at the broad swath of Americans who support Biden's overall decision, even if they are uncertain about the execution of that.


You know, in many ways, former President Trump has been so loudly and his former advisers have been essentially trolling the Biden team with outrageous claims as if they had nothing whatsoever to do with this. And in a way, I think that has opened up the possibility for Secretary Blinken --


GLASSER: -- to simply say, look, it's their fault.

SCIUTTO: But set aside Trump's often, frankly, usually baseless claims, why aren't those legitimate questions from Republicans or Democrats?

GLASSER: I think they are legitimate questions.

SCIUTTO: Why were Americans left behind? That's not political by definition to ask the secretary of State those questions.

GLASSER: Absolutely not. I have so many questions, as I know you do, but this is not a fact gathering exercise unfortunately. In recent years congressional hearings like this, you saw yesterday members of Congress in both parties essentially not even bothering to ask questions for the most part, giving very partisan speeches of either defense or attack of the administration. And that, again, it gets the administration off the hook.

It enables Secretary Blinken simply to stick with a set of talking points. But I think you're right. To answer questions about this drone strike, what I would like to know is if the intelligence was there, that there was a possibility, why weren't there more detailed planning against the possibility of a collapse of the government so quickly?


HILL: So to that point, what we just heard from Lauren, right, is that that is expected today as we know. Her sources telling her the questions are expected to be more pointed from Democrats today, talking specifically about was or what was not in place.

But to your point, Susan, even if we get those questions, right, let's say there isn't as much political grandstanding in the Senate today from both sides, even if we get those questions, to Jim's point, are we going to get a direct answer from Secretary Blinken and perhaps some admission that there may have been other things they looked at, that maybe -- why they discounted those?

Those are questions, too, though, that the American people do want answered. What was the calculation here?

GLASSER: Absolutely. What I have heard privately as well as publicly from the very beginning of this is simply a very strong aversion to answering those questions. What the Biden administration has done and has made a point of doing from the very beginning is to answer questions about the execution of the withdrawal by talking about the overall policy decision and essentially saying, we made the tough call and it was always going to be a mess.

That's exactly what you heard from President Biden himself. And I don't think you're going to hear anything fundamentally different from the secretary of State than what you heard from President Biden.

SCIUTTO: You know, Erica and I were talking about this before the show. It raises questions as to whether real oversight exists. Right? I mean, it's political theater, but do you have any genuine fact finding and then solutions offered after the fact? But that's a larger discussion.

On this drone strike, Susan Glasser, I mean, this -- we'll see what the Pentagon investigation shows, but legitimate deep questions about whether this was a legitimate target. Does this expose the weakness in the administration's over the horizon plan for counterterror in Afghanistan going forward, trying to do this all from a distance?

GLASSER: Well, look, Americans, generation after generation, have been sold on the false promise of war without casualties. And the truth is that casualties are on the ground in something like drone warfare and, of course, over the last two decades of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan region, that's already been the case, that there have been many tragic mistakes. And I think with a lack of even further human intelligence on the ground, the lack of resources inside a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, you're looking at the possibility for many more tragic civilian casualties that could result from that kind of an approach.

HILL: How much do you think this could also trigger perhaps a change, if at all, within the administration, within the existing plan, perhaps rethinking some of that, whether it be trying to find another way to have some eyes and ears on the ground there in Afghanistan or in surrounding nations?

GLASSER: I think the bottom line is that Biden has made it very clear they're out of Afghanistan. They're not going to be going back in. The direction of this new Taliban government is pretty clear it's not going to be the, quote-unquote, "inclusive government" that some people tried to sell us, which was always a pure fantasy basically. And so obviously there is not going to be a robust U.S. official presence inside Afghanistan.

They have yet to announce or, as far as I understand, make any significant deals with surrounding countries to have a more robust counterterrorism presence. And, of course, there remains the big question of our relationship with Pakistan, which over decades has helped to foster and support the resurgence of the Taliban. So, you know, this is a nuclear armed nation, hundreds of millions of people.


I really have no -- I cannot tell you today what our policy is towards Pakistan, but that's key to any regional questions around, you know, dealing even with counterterrorism threat that might emerge in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

HILL: Yes. Certainly is. Susan Glasser, always good to have you here. Appreciate the insight. Thank you.

In less than an hour, polls open in California and voters there set to decide whether they want to keep Governor Gavin Newsom. President Biden even showing up to help boost his support. We're going to take you there live.

SCIUTTO: Plus, a CNN exclusive this morning. New data shows black and Hispanic Americans are missing out on both COVID testing and vaccinations while being more likely to be hospitalized or even die from the virus.

And the fencing is going back up at the Capitol as security concerns grow over a planned right-wing rally this weekend. Hear what law enforcement is expecting, they're concerned.



SCIUTTO: In less than an hour polls will open in California for a recall election that will determine if Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, will stay in office. But Republican candidate Larry Elder, the leading candidate to replace Newsom if he is recalled, has already begun to spread the 2021 version of Trump's big lie, baselessly claiming a Newsom victory could only be the product of Democratic cheating. Ahead of any election results, Elder is already threatening legal action. Have a listen.



JACOB SOBOROFF, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Whether or not you win or lose, will you accept the results of the election tomorrow?

LARRY ELDER (R), CALIFORNIA SPECIAL ELECTION GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I think we all ought to be looking at election integrity. We have lawyers all set up all ready to go to file lawsuits in a timely fashion.


SCIUTTO: No evidence of any wrongdoing or fraud.

CNN's Dan Simon is at a polling place in Sacramento.

Dan, tell us what you're seeing there and is turnout expected to be big?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim. We are actually at the Sacramento County Registrar's Office. And the polls will open at the top of the hour. There will be a lot of activity here today. This is actually where the votes will be tabulated later today. And behind me you can see this drop-off box and already seen a number of cars, people dropping off their ballots. But in terms of the overall turnout, we'll just have to wait and see.

But we should know, at least by tonight, whether or not Governor Newsom keeps his job in office. And it's worth repeating that this recall election really began to gain steam during the heart of the pandemic. There was criticism over Governor Newsom's policies with respect to COVID-19. That led Republicans to get the 1.5 million signatures, which was necessary to get this recall on the ballot.

But in the days and the weeks leading up to this election, Newsom and his supporters were happy to have this election framed as somebody who would follow the science versus someone like Larry Elder who would loosen restrictions, which according to Democrats would cause more cases and ultimately more deaths. This was Newsom yesterday making the closing argument. Take a look.


GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM (D), CALIFORNIA: Does it surprise, though, any of you?


NEWSOM: That we have someone on the other side of this that's to the right of Donald Trump.


NEWSOM: To the right of Donald Trump. We may have defeated Donald Trump, but we have not defeated Trumpism. Trumpism is still on the ballot in California.


SIMON: Well, right now all of the polls absolutely show Gavin Newsom cruising to victory and a top adviser of his saying there is no scenario, no scenario in which the governor loses tonight.

Jim, we'll send it back to you.

SCIUTTO: All right. We'll watch for the votes to be counted. Dan Simon, thanks very much.

So, if you don't live in California, you may be wondering exactly how this recall election works. And it's very interesting. So here are the facts. Voters are going to be presented with two questions actually on their ballot. This is the first one here. Simply stating, "Shall Gavin Newsom be recalled, removed from the office of governor?" The second question, that gives voters a choice of, in this race, 46 different candidates, all of whom have registered to replace him. This includes 24 Republicans, nine Democrats.

But listen to the math here. It's an interesting catch. Governor Newsom himself, he needs 50 percent of voters to keep his seat as governor. If he doesn't meet that threshold and is, therefore, recalled, the challenger who has the most votes of those 46 then becomes governor. That's even if that challenger gets far less than 50 percent of the votes. And in a race with such a huge field, as you see here, it's pretty likely.

In fact, if the votes were more or less evenly split among those 46 candidates, someone theoretically could become the next governor of California with just over 2 percent of the vote. Those are the facts. The math is interesting.

Here's a reminder. CNN's special coverage of the recall election begins tonight 10:00 Eastern Time. Erica?

HILL: Well, Jim, security fencing will be erected once again around the U.S. Capitol. This is ahead of Saturday's right-wing rally in D.C. supporting the January 6th insurrectionists. Law enforcement officials says there's been an increase in violent online rhetoric recently and they are preparing for potential clashes.

CNN law enforcement correspondent Whitney Wild joining us now with more on these preparations and also, Whitney, what they're hearing in terms of these protesters who could potentially be armed.

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Right now, Erica, they think that hundreds of people are planning to attend this protest around the Capitol this Saturday.


This protest is in defense of people who were arrested for taking part in the January 6th insurrection. Law enforcement officials are expecting counter protesters to show up as well. As you mentioned, they are preparing for some of these people at this event to be armed. That is according to a source who was part of a briefing on the preparations.

The possibility of violence brought about that emergency declaration, which means that the temporary fence put up around the Capitol after January 6th is going back up. And Capitol Police will be able to deputize outside law enforcement officers as backup, something they desperately needed on January 6th, but we know came too late. They are clearly trying to do better than they did on January 6th, especially given the violent online chatter surrounding this event.

Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said yesterday, quote, "We are here to protect everyone's First Amendment right to peacefully protest. I urge anyone who is thinking about causing trouble to stay home. We will enforce the law and not tolerate violence."

That announcement came not long after police arrested a California man near the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They say he had a bayonet, a machete in his truck which was covered with white supremacist symbols. That's just another example of why Capitol Police aren't taking any chances this Saturday, Erica. The department is now under new leadership, they are promising better communication, better intelligence sharing with officers and other surrounding law enforcement agencies.

Internal reviews of January 6th partially blamed intelligence sharing failures for the lack of preparedness on January 6th, Erica. It was a huge problem, something that has been explored by the United States Capitol Police inspector general, something we've discussed many times on our air. It is critical. They are trying to do better. But this will be the first real test for police chief Tom Manger and we'll see how he does with this preparation.

I think it's important to note, Erica, probably what gave Tom Manger the edge here in becoming a Capitol Police chief is that he's a local guy. He knows all of the surrounding law enforcement leaders. So he's able to get everybody on the same page very quickly because there's really no learning curve for him when he's meeting and greeting these law enforcement officials he's going to have to work with.

HILL: Yes. Whitney Wild, appreciate the reporting. Thank you.

Up next, new data shared exclusively with CNN details how black and Hispanic Americans are being hit harder by the COVID pandemic than other communities. We'll explain how.

Plus we're just moments away from the Opening Bell on Wall Street. Stock futures are up after the release of the Consumer Price Index this morning. It's a key indicator of inflation and shows prices were up .3 percent in August, that is less than expected. Overall, though, what you pay for items has still risen about 5 percent in the past year. Investors also watching Apple stock today as the company debuts the company's iPhone 13.