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The Situation Room

Interview With Florida Congressman Jeff Miller; Iraq Crisis; Mideast Time Bomb; VA Scandal

Aired June 23, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: new U.S. moves aimed at beating back ISIS terrorists now in control of even more critical terrorist in Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry, he is on the ground promising intense support, warning that military assets are now in position potentially to strike.

Another Middle East time bomb. Israel fights back after a deadly new attack near its border with Syria, sending a powerful message across a very tense region.

And some of the worst horror stories yet about veterans care right here in the United States of America. Stand by for a scathing new investigation that builds on CNN's reporting about this shocking scandal.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, ISIS fighters and their allies have a direct line to the outskirts of Baghdad. They're advancing from the west and they're also advancing from the north after capturing critical, very critical new ground near Iraq's border. Secretary of State John Kerry spent the day personally warning Iraq's leaders to unite against terrorists. He says the country's future could be decided one way or another in just a matter of days.

Our correspondents are covering this dangerous crisis from all the angles, but first let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, who's been traveling with the secretary in Baghdad. He's now joining us from neighboring Amman, Jordan, with the very latest -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today, Secretary Kerry said the threat from ISIS is so great that it could accelerate military action inside Iraq before the crucial step, the U.S. has said, of political accommodation by the Iraqi government.

I have been coming to Iraq for 11 years. I have never seen it so precarious, Secretary Kerry calling ISIS today an existential threat to Iraq's future.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With alarming momentum, today, ISIS militants captured two more crucial towns on Iraq's Syrian and Jordanian borders, fast becoming the regional threat Secretary Kerry has been warning of throughout his Mideast trip.

As Kerry landed in Iraq to meet with its embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, other leaders, he pledged U.S. diplomatic and military help that would be robust --

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The support will be intense, sustained.

SCIUTTO: -- and, if necessary, imminent.

KERRY: The president has moved the assets into place and has been gaining each day the assurances he needs with respect to potential targeting. And he has reserved the right to himself, as he should, to make a decision at any point in time if he deems it necessary strategically.

SCIUTTO: A political agreement pulling Iraq's bitterly divided groups into a truly representative government remains the central focus of administration strategy.

But Iraq's Sunnis, Shias and Kurds suffer divisions inside their groups, as well as between each other. And as U.S. and Iraqi officials talk, ISIS fighters are gaining more ground.

(on camera): The atmosphere here in Iraq, say U.S. officials, one of extreme anxiety.

Iraqis are fearful for their country and for their lives. And, as a result, they are desperate for U.S. help.

(voice-over): Three years after Iraq eagerly bid U.S. troops farewell, we found that many Iraqis, like their government, would welcome them back.

AMMER AL-SHAMRI, IRAQ CITIZEN (through translator): America will not accept the presence of al Qaeda and ISIL in the region because that will impact the Middle East region and the Arab states. It will have an effect on America too. Therefore, I think there is a solution in Kerry's bag to solve the crisis.


SCIUTTO: Despite a lot of speculation that Kerry went to Iraq in part to push Prime Minister Maliki out, he said that is not the case. He said the U.S. is not in the business of choosing or advocating for any individual candidates in Iraq, but he said that that should hold not only for the U.S., but also for Iran as it exercises its influence there.

And, Wolf, just one more story. As I was in Baghdad, I spoke to an American diplomat who said to me how it has become just the norm, the status quo to have ISIS within 40 miles of the capital, and on two sides now, Fallujah and looking in the north as well, really just an alarming status quo when you think of how quickly the situation has deteriorated just in the last two weeks.

BLITZER: Yes, it's an awful, awful situation. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, traveling with Secretary Kerry.

Up to 300 U.S. military advisers being deployed in Iraq may feel a little bit safer because of a new agreement that has just been hammered out.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

What are you learning about this agreement, the situation inside Iraq, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, before those military advisers that the president announced last week could even go, they had to have an agreement, legal immunity from the Iraqi justice system.

Today, it was announced that agreement has been reached. Now six teams of 12 men each of U.S. military advisers will start arriving in Iraq. Their first job will be to assess security, and especially security around Baghdad.

Can the Iraqi forces even hold on to Baghdad? They will also, make no mistake, collect intelligence about ISIS, where they are, how they're moving, what weapons they have, in case the president was to decide on that targeting option, to target the militant Sunni fighters.

But what this is really all about now that is emerging in Iraq is trying to make this country hold together, try to make the borders even hold. Right now, ISIS essentially has erased the border between Iraq and Syria, ISIS close to the Jordanian border. This is spreading unrest now across multiple borders in the Middle East, Wolf.

BLITZER: And speaking of unrest along borders, there was a Syrian attack against Israel near the Golan Heights. Israel retaliated with airstrikes. Is this an isolated incident or something else going on?

STARR: Well, it's not entirely clear this border incident between Israel and Syria was related to the war in Syria or not. But, indeed, Israel fired back against several Syrian military positions on its side of the border, across the Golan Heights, because they say the Syrians fired on them.

It may be useful to think of it this way, Wolf, Israel making clear it will tolerate no violation of its borders, especially during this current situation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And on top of everything else, three Al-Jazeera journalists convicted and sentenced today seven years to 10 years in prison for supposedly aiding Muslim Brotherhood, even though they were simply doing their job.

The U.S. reacting angrily, although I see no indication the U.S. is about to curtail military or economic aid to Egypt. One of those Al- Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fahmy, formerly with CNN, he spent a lot of time with us. There's a picture a year-and-a-half ago, when I was in Cairo, interviewing the then President Mohammed Morsi. Mohamed Fahmy was working with us, doing an excellent job. So what's going on? Is the U.S. about to retaliate, do something if

these guys wind up spending years in prison?

STARR: Perhaps exactly the opposite of any retaliation, Wolf. It was just yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo and made clear that the U.S. is headed back towards business as usual to some large extent, giving the new government in Egypt that it will, the U.S. will resume full military aid, including Apache helicopters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with that.

Let me just say I know Mohamed Fahmy. He's an excellent journalist. He does not belong in jail. The other journalists don't belong in jail either for simply doing their job.

Let's get back to the battle for control of Iraq right now. We're learning more about Iran's hidden hand in the fighting through a shadowy figure who does have American blood on his hands, according to U.S. officials.

Brian Todd is looking into this part of the story for us.

Brian, what are you seeing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in fact, one of the most pivotal figures in Iraq right now is from Iran. General Qassem Suleimani is a mysterious, daring commander. There's barely a spy network, weapons pipeline or militant unit he's not aware of.

Right now, he's using his dangerous talents to fight against ISIS, but U.S. officials know better than to completely trust him.


TODD (voice-over): He's a powerful player in the war rooms and on the battlefields of Iraq, an aggressive formidable commander, ruthless against his enemies. Right now, he could be playing a critical role in keeping Baghdad from falling to ISIS. Security officials and analysts say General Qassem Suleimani has his Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard giving crucial support to Iraqi forces.

PHILLIP SMYTH, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: They're training. They're fighting alongside them. They're also recruiting.

TODD: Analysts say the shadowy Suleimani slips in and out of Iraq, helping the forces Shia Iraqi forces battle the Sunni militants in ISIS, but it's a mistake to think Qassem Suleimani is a friend of America's in Iraq.

ALIREZA NADER, RAND CORPORATION: He coordinated the Iraqi Shia insurgency against the United States in Iraq which resulted in hundreds of U.S. casualties.

TODD: U.S. officials believe during the Iraq war, it was Suleimani's units that provided Iraqi insurgents specially made bombs that could penetrate armor, a deadly weapon against American forces. Iran denied it. Suleimani is believed to have provided so many weapons, so much command-and-control for Bashar al-Assad, that he helped Assad turn the tide against rebel forces in Syria. But Suleimani's Quds Force has wreaked havoc far beyond the Middle East.

SMYTH: They manage assassination attempts. They manage a lot of the outside external activities for Iran in terms of spreading the revolution.

TODD: U.S. Treasury officials say Qassem Suleimani was involved in a notorious plot on American soil, overseeing Quds Force officers who in 2011 tried and failed to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States at Washington's upscale Cafe Milano. Now analysts warn, because of Suleimani's presence, American military advisers in Iraq have to be careful when sharing intelligence with the Iraqis about American movements.

SMYTH: There's so much overlap between the Iraqi security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds force run by Qassem Suleimani, that there's always the potential that any information that the Americans are giving to them, it's also going to Suleimani.


TODD: And analysts say Suleimani could well use that intelligence against Americans in the future with the blessing of Iran's top leaders. He's said to be a favorite of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and reports directly to Khamenei -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd with that report, thanks very, very much.

Still ahead, a shocking refusal by the Department of Veterans Affairs to acknowledge that neglect of patients could harm their health. It's in a new independent report on the VA scandal. Stand by. We have details. And we will also get reaction from the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee. There he is. We will talk with him in a moment.


BLITZER: A scathing new independent report is exposing some of the worst horror stories yet about veterans care in America and it reveals some very shocking claims by the VA that patient neglect did not affect the quality of care.

Our senior investigative correspondent, Drew Griffin, has been reporting on this crisis. He's brought so many of these problems to light. He's joining us now.

What's the latest with this new report, Drew?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Office of Special Counsel, which protects government whistle-blowers and investigates their claims, sent a pretty damning letter to the White House today claiming that the Veterans Administration has ignored whistle-blower complaints for years, has refused to admit harm was being done when patients were being denied care, and most importantly seems to be telling the White House the VA can't be trusted to investigate itself.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): Among the worse documented of the VA horror stories comes from Brockton, Massachusetts, where two veterans languished inside a psychiatric facility for years without treatment. One of them was there for eight years after he was admitted before he got his first psychiatric evaluation.

Citing a troubling pattern, the letter from the Office of Special Counsel to President Obama says, "Veterans' health and safety has been unnecessarily put at risk because the VA refuses to admit that problems reported by whistle-blowers could impact the health of patients."

That is something CNN learned firsthand from whistle-blowers across the country, like Brian Turner. As a scheduling clerk at the VA hospital in San Antonio, Texas, he saw how appointment times were being manipulated to hide excessive waits for care. He also saw how some veterans were suffering because of it. Yet, when he blew the whistle, he says he was shut up.

BRIAN TURNER, VA WHISTLE-BLOWER: There was never a response back, except for -- to get a direct order not to say anything else to anyone.

GRIFFIN: (on camera): Shut you up?

TURNER: They shut me up the very next day.

GRIFFIN: The very next day.

TURNER: The very next morning, I was called into an office and told not to e-mail another person.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The Office of Special Counsel said it is currently investigating 50 whistle-blower cases that allege threat to patient health or safety.

In Jackson, Mississippi, whistle-blowers brought forth a laundry list of complaints, including unlawful prescriptions for narcotics, unsterile medical equipment, and chronic staffing shortages.

In Grand Junction, Colorado, the drinking water was tainted with Legionella bacteria. And, in Montgomery, Alabama, a lung doctor just copied over patient readings from previous appointments in 1,200 records, instead of putting in current information. Yet in case after case, the VA's internal medical review agency refused to admit any patient was harmed and failed to use information from whistle-blowers to identify and address systemic concerns that impact patient care.


GRIFFIN: Wolf, the Office of Special Counsel is asking that a high official at the VA be put in charge of taking these whistle-blower complaints and their allegations seriously and doing something about them. The White House responded by saying it's accepted this letter and is sharing the concerns with the VA -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's pretty shocking stuff. Drew Griffin, thanks very much.

Members of Congress now are making the VA scandal a top priority. We're joined by the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida. When you saw this report, what did you think, Congressman?

REP. JEFF MILLER (R), FLORIDA: Well, obviously it angers anybody that watches a report like that, but I'm not surprised because we've heard from whistle-blower after whistle-blower all across the country. When they bring information forward, there is a campaign to shut them up. Basically they're said to be disgruntled employees, and they have been asked to do something extra so they're just trying to cause trouble for the bosses. It's not the way to get the problems solved that exist at VA today.

BLITZER: So the suggestion that maybe not one but two patients in psychiatric wards, units at VA hospitals, didn't actually see a doctor or psychiatrist for eight years -- you saw that allegation, what was your reaction to that?

MILLER: Can you imagine somebody being put into an institution and then not being treated for the very issue that they're there for? It boggles your mind in an agency that apparently every single superior leader in that agency has received the best types of reviews that they could have gotten. I would guarantee you if we dig into it, somebody there that was responsible for the oversight got a bonus.

BLITZER: You know, and in this report there -- you get the reaction from the Department of Veterans Affairs, they say there's no real evidence that despite some of these problems that veterans' health was negatively impacted. I find that hard to believe. I assume you do as well?

MILLER: I do, and I will tell you this. When the Phoenix story first broke, we found out from within the central office in Washington that their whole idea of trying to tamp down the committee's request was to try to prove that nobody had been harmed by the delay in care.

Well, we already know there had been 23 veterans that have died in this country because of delays in care, and that's what -- instead of trying to focus on fixing the problem, they were trying to come up with a way to spin their way out of the crisis that's here. The fact remains there are thousands of veterans out there that did not receive the care they were supposed to receive, and the people that are responsible for that delayed care are still on the job today.

BLITZER: You know, you heard in Drew's report of this report that came out, really horrible conditions at VA hospitals. Massachusetts, Colorado, Mississippi, including unsanitary medical equipment, tainted drinking water. Is this a nationwide problem, or are these simply isolated incidents, exceptions to the rule? MILLER: No, I don't want to think it is an isolated incident because

that's exactly what Secretary Shinseki said about the issue at Phoenix. I have been to VA medical centers across this country, some in my own state of Florida, where in fact there have been sanitary issues and sterilization problems.

The problem is people are not being held accountable for mistakes that are made that could have been prevented in trying to -- all they want to talk about at VA is going through and retraining more people, giving people a little more education. No, this is a culture within the VA that acceptable behavior is the norm, not the exception.

BLITZER: You've got hearings coming up, is that right?

MILLER: I have a hearing tonight, as a matter of fact. We're going to be talking about their ability to handle this backlog. How did we get here? What are you doing right now to try to solve the situation? They have not given us a brief yet, even though we've been asking for it for weeks, trying to find out what are you doing to fix the problem.

BLITZER: Well, we'll be monitoring your hearing and stay in close touch, Congressman. Thanks very much. Appreciate what you're doing on behalf of veterans all over the country.

MILLER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And CNN, as all of our viewers know by now, we have been digging deeper and deeper on the VA scandal. Anderson Cooper, he's going to have much more on this story coming up later tonight, "A.C. 360" 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Just ahead, we remember a brilliant Middle East scholar, a good friend of this program, and a good friend.


BLITZER: We leave you with this very sad note.

We learned over the weekend that our good friend, Professor Fouad Ajami, had passed away from cancer. He was a brilliant Middle East scholar who always educated us on some of the most complex issues of the day. He was passionate, with very strong views on so many issues, including the Obama administration and Syria.


FOUAD AJAMI, HOOVER INSTITUTION: Had they come to the rescue of the civilian, we would not be here.


BLITZER: On Egypt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) AJAMI: It's very interesting, this idea that somehow the military could pull off a coup and it would not be a coup, it would be a path to democracy. It's really kind of idle to think this way.


BLITZER: On what he called the Arab pain.


AJAMI: Well, you know, you have asked the right question, but when you have young people who are underemployed, unemployed, angry with the feeling of disinheritance, and when you have a culture that winks at these kinds of things, when you have the rule of the unreason, if you will, I think these things are perfectly predictable. That is where the Muslim world finds itself today.


BLITZER: And even on Herman Cain.


AJAMI: The idea that someone is running for president and is so unprepared.


BLITZER: He always had a sharp, sharp wit as well.

I was fortunate enough to have studied with Professor Ajami at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. I learned a great deal about the Middle East from him. I will always be proud of that, just as I was always proud to say the words when he joined us that I always would say. I'm so glad, Professor Ajami, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM today.

A native of Lebanon who came to the United States as a young man, Fouad Ajami was only 68 years old. Our deepest condolences to his wife and family.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead, tweet me, @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show, @CNNSitRoom. Please be sure to join us tomorrow in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always watch us live or DVR the show so you won't miss a moment.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Van Jones.