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U.S. Precision Drone Strike Kills Al Qaeda Leader and 9/11 Plotter Ayman al-Zawahiri; Interview with Governor Andy Beshear (D-KY) about Flood Damage and Casualties; Voters in Five States Head to Polls for Primary Elections. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 02, 2022 - 10:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour now. I'm Jim Sciutto this morning.

We are learning new details about the U.S. operation to kill the world's most wanted terrorism, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. President Biden announced from the White House that a U.S. precision drone killed one of the masterminds of 9/11 as he sheltered on the balcony of a safe house in downtown Kabul. That followed a monthslong intelligence operation. The president stressed that his death sends a message.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.


SCIUTTO: The administration is now warning that the Taliban could face consequences for harboring al-Zawahiri, saying that that violated its peace agreement with the U.S. and vowing that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terrorism.

The White House just released this photo from July. President Biden meeting with his National Security team in the situation room discussing the upcoming operation to kill al-Zawahiri.

Let's begin and bring in CNN's John Harwood. He's at the White House.

This was in the works for months and months, remarkable intelligence gathering operation given it had to be taking place largely from outside the country since the U.S. no longer has boots on the ground there. Tell us what we're learning.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Meticulous planning, Jim. Very tightly held. It began when streams of intelligence began to point toward Ayman al-Zawahiri being in Kabul. The information was taken to the president in April. He was continuously monitored as they tried to build a profile of Zawahiri's movements and how they could potentially strike him. You saw the photo from July when they finally had taken to Biden with

all of this top National Security advisers. Inside the box in that photo was a scale model of the house that Zawahiri was staying in in Kabul. The president was concerned to avoid civilian casualties. He wanted a strike that did not to cause the house to fall down compromising structural integrity. And according to U.S. officials that's exactly what happened, that Zawahiri was the only person killed in that raid. and they did not take out the entire house.

They believe without DNA confirmation that they've confirmed that it was Zawahiri but they did warn that this puts the Taliban in potential violation of their agreement not to harbor terrorists on their soil. Here is John Kirby on "NEW DAY" this morning.


JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: We did not have DNA confirmation, Brianna. We're not going to get that confirmation. And quite frankly, Brianna, based on the multiple sources and methods that we have gathered the information from, we don't need it. We have visual confirmation but we also have confirmation through other sources and methods.


HARWOOD: Now, of course, we underlined the double edged sword that this raid shows, that is that there was the leading terrorist in the world, the most wanted terrorist in the world being harbored in Pakistan -- in Afghanistan. On the other hand, you had evidence that there is some over-the-horizon capability to pursue terrorists and that was shown on this raid.

This continues a string of favorable developments for President Biden in recent weeks after a very rough political few months, declining gas prices, legislative progress on Capitol Hill. And this is a moment for him to savor.

And you can't help noticing the irony, Jim. 11 years ago, then Vice President Biden had been skeptical that the intelligence was sufficiently developed to go after Osama bin Laden. President Obama went ahead anyway and got him. And in this case, vice president -- now President Biden gave the order and that was a success just like the bin Laden raid was -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Indeed. 11 years apart. Jim Harwood, at the White House, thanks so much.

Joining me now to discuss this, CNN national security analyst and former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, also Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, CNN military analyst, former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, Seventh Army as well.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining me this morning.

General Clapper, you were the director of National Intelligence during the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. [10:05:05]

I wonder, as you look at the intelligence that went into this, the months that went into this and even the detail that in both cases the U.S. intel community built a scale model, the bin Laden compound back in 2011, and in this case the house in Kabul where Zawahiri was staying.

Does it remind you of the operation back in 2011?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, yes, Jim, it does, although the nature of the operation obviously different but it does remind me a good bit of that. One comment I would make is then-Vice President Biden was at the time, in the run-up to the UBL raid was kind of a skeptic about the intelligence we had, which was -- turned out to be a good bit skimpier apparently than what was presented to the president this time.


CLAPPER: So then-Vice President Biden, now President Biden having been through this, I am sure wire brushed the intelligence community to ensure that it was Zawahiri and that he was present, and having on pretty good authority that the intelligence community is convinced almost 100 percent virtually that it was Zawahiri.

SCIUTTO: It's a good point.

CLAPPER: Even in the absence of the DNA.

SCIUTTO: Yes, it's a good point because back then I remember they had to make judgments about whether this tall, taller than average man circling his courtyard in that compound in Abbottabad was bin Laden, whereas here, with Zawahiri on his balcony, that it appears they might have had better visual confirmation.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, you and I have discussed this and others, the big question post-Afghanistan withdrawal was, could the U.S. carry out comprehensive, effective counter-terror operations without boots on the ground over the horizon as it's known, and here they demonstrated capability to do so. How significant is that?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's important, Jim. No doubt about it. And I think Director Clapper would back me up in saying it was probably much, much, much harder to do, but as we said back in August of last year when the withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred, could we still do it? Absolutely. Because we have those capabilities.

It does require a significant amount of energy and resources but when you have targeting of key individuals who are threatening the United States, you're willing to go this extra yard and say how do we find other intelligence means to give us the kind of information we need to target the kinds of individuals who are dangerous to the United States? SCIUTTO: Director Clapper, General Clapper, I give you both titles

given that you've earned them, what effect does this have on al Qaeda's operations going forward? Should people watching at home say, well, the leader of al Qaeda is gone now, of course there are other potential leaders, does this make them feel safer? Does this make them feel safer?

CLAPPER: Well, I think, candidly, Zawahiri's career was kind of in its twilight phase anyway, so I am not sure just how much operational influence he had any longer. I do think, though, it is a powerful message to al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that harbors plans and intentions of attacking the U.S. homeland to think twice and, you know, it's obvious to me that the technologies available to us have improved dramatically both with respect to drones, and I believe our overhead reconnaissance capabilities have improved remarkably since the UBL raid.

SCIUTTO: It's a good point. General Hertling, following the bin Laden raid, there were open questions as to whether Pakistani officials knew, right, that here was bin Laden hiding in their midst. In this case, it appears that's less of an open question, given the direct ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban. You have an al Qaeda member in the Taliban cabinet, in effect.

As you look at this, is it a pretty, you know, straight shot here that the Taliban knew and they were giving him cover?

HERTLING: Yes, I think so, Jim. And one of the things that I'd say to reinforce what Director Clapper just said, yes, Zawahiri is certainly older. He's 71 years old. He's been head of the organization for a long time. There is a contentious argument about whether he is charismatic or more of an operational leader. But he leaves behind several other people within Afghanistan that are members of al Qaeda that are directing the worldwide network.


That in and of itself is a pretty significant issue for two reasons. Number one, those individuals all know that they could be on the targeting screen. If we can reach out into Afghanistan, they cannot be as comfortable as they were yesterday at this time or a few days ago at this time and they can't be as complacent within Afghanistan. But the second thing, and you mentioned this, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a member of the Taliban parliament, one of their key ministers, is certainly a guy who knew Zawahiri and he also knows all these other individuals.


HERTLING: And the Doha arrangement specifically said that Taliban would not harbor al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They are doing that. There is no doubt about that.

SCIUTTO: Yes, you might say apartment downtown with a balcony sends like harboring.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, James Clapper, thanks so much to both of you.

HERTLING: Thanks Jim.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, China is waiting to see if Speaker Nancy Pelosi's next stop in her Asian tour is Taiwan. How will they react if and when she touches down in Taipei? We're going to go live to the region.

Plus, devastation growing in flood ravaged Eastern Kentucky and the threat sadly isn't over. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, he'll join me with the latest right after a quick break.



SCIUTTO: As we speak, Kentucky's Governor Andy Beshear is touring the flood ravaged eastern region of his state. Fortunately, the flood watches there just expired in the last hour. That threat for now has passed but people who have lost their homes are facing just scorching heat with temperatures that feel like 100 degrees. At least 37 people are confirmed dead but there are many more who are unaccounted for.

We are getting new images and stories of just remarkable brave rescues. The National Guard recorded this video as they lifted stranded people from their rooftops last week, this when the flooding first began.

Joining us now is Kentucky's Governor Andy Beshear.

Governor, thanks for taking the time this morning.

GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY) (via phone): Well, thank you for telling our story.

SCIUTTO: We're doing our best. It's just devastating to watch. You said yesterday that hundreds were still missing. I wonder if you have an update in the last 24 hours? How many of those people have you been able to find?

BESHEAR: Well, it is incredibly hard to get a good, reliable number on those missing. This hit such a huge area, impacting thousands of people and in many of these areas may not have had a firm number of how many people were in the holler or in the valley to begin with.

What I can say is, between the National Guard, the Kentucky state police, they have made over 1,000 wellness checks and are finding a lot of people that are OK or at least still with us. Thus far, we have lost 37 Kentuckians, those are children of God irreplaceable in their communities. And we know of a couple more bodies.

But the way this water came in, Jim, just -- it swept some people miles away from where they were taken and it's going to be a process that will take weeks to account for everybody.

SCIUTTO: I'm sure. Are you saying that the death toll has risen from 37 now?

BESHEAR: We are at 37, though I know of a couple of additional bodies we're working on identifying.

SCIUTTO: Understood. You mentioned hollers, as they're known, as I understand it small valleys off of valleys. Can you tell us how the geography of this area has made both the flooding more severe but also the rescues more difficult?

BESHEAR: Well, these are areas that because of the way the water moves are used to flooding but nothing like this. No one has ever seen flood waters this high and areas of Eastern Kentucky that don't flood were fully under water. It also makes rescues that much harder. A lot of people live just over what we might call a creek, though it's a lot bigger than what most people would think is a creek, and had a private bridge that got over.

That bridge is gone. And now those people are stranded and we're working day and night to get to them. They may be over there without a house at all, without electricity. But what I can say is we got the best National Guard in the country, and they're proving it. We got amazing neighbors helping neighbors. You know, for every rescue that first responders have done, neighbors in a kayak or we had a kid on a jet ski in Mercer County pulling people out of their houses. The water was so high you could drive through town on it. But these are strong Kentuckians saving each other.

SCIUTTO: Yes, we've been showing some pictures, just what -- I think people need to see them, right, because when these waters come through your house, it just destroys everything. We spoke to the head of Kentucky Emergency Management last hour who said that really having some trouble finding places for people to stay with the hotels, motels and rescue shelters full. How are you able to handle that?

BESHEAR: Well, the first thing we're committed to doing is helping each and every one of our people. In Kentucky, we are good people, we open our homes and our hearts to one another. And what you'll find is people will take each other in. Well, we've opened up multiple state parks. Jenny Wiley in Floyd County. We have folks delivering in travel trailers. And we're going to have people in those, make sure that we can get them stable and feed everyone.

We finally got Buckhorn State Park. That is in Perry County near Hazard, open. That was -- it took everything we had because that's one of the hardest hit areas but we now have dozens of folks coming in.


We had some leftover trailers from when we got hit in December in the tornados. We already have 40 plus of them on site in different areas. Yes, it's a challenge but these are our people and we're going to meet that challenge.

SCIUTTO: Well, my mom is from Kentucky. Got a lot of cousins there. I know exactly what you're talking about. I know you have a lot on your plate. We wish you and we wish all those poor people the best of luck. Thank you for joining us.

BESHEAR: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Governor Andy Beshear there of Kentucky.

So if you want to help, there are lots of good ways to do so. If you go to there is a list of charities there that will get help to these people as quickly as possible.

Politics news, five states are holding primaries today. Up next, we're going to be live from the swing state of Arizona where the former president's election lies are playing a key role in several Republican races there.



SCIUTTO: Right now voters in five states are heading to polls in key primary elections. Beyond any one name on the ballot, the 2020 election remains a key issue in Republican races from Michigan to Arizona where former President Trump has endorsed a slate of controversial election deniers.

CNN's senior national correspondent Kyung Lah joins us now from Phoenix where a lot of this is happening. Tell us what the races are to watch there.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, it's really the top statewide races here in Arizona that we're paying attention to. Governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and secretary of state, there are Trump-endorsed candidates and these candidates that he's endorsed have fully embraced his 2020 election lie.

And I want to talk about one candidate in particular, Republican candidate Kari Lake. She is running for governor. She is running against another competitor. And in her closing message, she not only embraced Trump's 2020 election lie, she also started to cast doubt before even a vote was cast in this in-person vote for the primary.

I want you to take a listen to what she told reporters last night.


KARI LAKE (R), ARIZONA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: We're going to win. And if we don't win, there's some cheating going on. And we already know that. Every poll since I've been in this case has shown me ahead. And they want to cheat so bad. They don't want Arizona to win. They don't want this country to survive.


LAH: We need to point out there, she's saying cheating only if she loses. Now this raising doubts has also been elevated by U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters already again casting doubts before all of the votes are counted. He put out an ad during this primary election season that he says he believed Trump won in 2020. Reminder, he did not.

And then also, the secretary of state, Mark Finchem, is a Trump- endorsed candidate, Jim, and he's someone who has a number of controversial positions and he wants to be the top elections official in this state, Jim. So these are the top races that we're really keeping an eye on today.

SCIUTTO: And we should note as these candidates repeat those lies, they do not, like the former president, present any evidence to back up those claims.

Kyung Lah in Arizona, thanks so much.

Joining me now, Seung Min Kim, CNN political analyst, White House reporter for the Associated Press and veteran political journalist Heidi Przybyla.

Good to have you both on.

Seung, if I can begin with you, you know, Arizona has been the center of Trump's election lies since he lost the state in 2020. I mean, do they have a real shot to win in November at the state level and does that put them in a position where they have the ability to influence the outcome of the election?

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: I mean, Arizona is a very, very competitive state. I mean, Joe Biden did win it in 2020 but he was the first Democratic presidential candidate in some time to be able to do that. So why who wins tonight in Arizona and the Republican primary are just so critical is because, you're right, these are candidates who have a direct role in overseeing that state's elections.

I mean, we obviously on the national level focus so often on Senate candidates or whatnot, but secretary of state, particularly the gubernatorial candidates, really had a role there. And so the fact that Kari Lake continues to push this falsehood, this lie that President Trump, you know, won the 2020 election, is something that is worrisome but also has been a trend for Republican candidates nationwide.

SCIUTTO: No question. And look at the effect, for instance, secretary of state like in the state of Georgia in 2020. A Republican by the way but stood in the way of Trump's attempts to overturn the results there.

All right. You have in Missouri this interesting endorsement, non- endorsement from the former president. There are two candidates running in the Senate primary race there, Eric Greitens and Eric Schmidt. Trump has announced -- has endorsed Eric. Do the candidates --


SCIUTTO: And voters see through this? Does the Republican Party in Missouri? HEIDI PRZYBYLA, POLITICAL JOURNALIST: Let's say that it's going to

have no impact.


PRZYBYLA: That's not a risky thing to say at this point because the president was being -- former president was being lobbied by individuals on both sides including his own son and his girlfriend in support of someone who the party considers to be, you know, politically toxic, Eric Greitens.

Look, this race is not close as close as it was anymore. Eric Schmidt is pulling away.