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Massacre in Syria; U.S. Honors War Dead

Aired May 28, 2012 - 18:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone. And thanks for joining me tonight. I am Brooke Baldwin. John King is off.

We have a developing story at this hour. Here is what we know. Engine problems forced this airliner to make this emergency landing, while folks on the ground, they say parts of the plane fell off in the air and were hitting their cars. More on that.

Also, growing outrage over the massacre of dozens of women and children and now increasing pressure on President Obama to stop the slaughter, stop the killings in Syria, even if that means putting U.S. troops in harm's way.

And a charity that has raised tens of millions of dollars all for veterans fighting accusations it isn't really helping at all.

Want to begin with this afternoon's scary situation on board this airliner and I am sure it was equally frightening for some drivers down on the ground who say parts of the plane was hitting their cars.

We can tell you that the jet landed safely.

I want to bring in though Lizzie O'Leary, our aviation and regulation correspondent.

Lizzie, what do we know? What happened?

LIZZIE O'LEARY, CNN AVIATION AND REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, we can take it from sort of two sides, what was happening on the ground, those parts of the plane, potentially, the debris field, and what was happening in the air.

There you see pictures from our affiliate CB24 in Canada pieces of debris that witnesses say fell from the sky, not the BlackBerry. That is there for comparison, but to give you a sense of these things falling. There you see a rear car window that was apparently bashed in by pieces of falling debris.

BALDWIN: Look at that.

O'LEARY: Now, switching over to what we know from the air side, we are talking about an Air Canada plane, a Boeing 777. It's a twin- engine plane, a very large pass engineer jet. It left Toronto, headed for Narita -- that's the Tokyo airport in Japan -- at around 2:10 this afternoon carrying 318 passengers and 16 crew members according to Air Canada. After takeoff, there was an engine shutdown. This is a twin- engine plane, but can fly on one. So they turn around, implemented the standard procedure which is to go back to Toronto, and they did an emergency landing. The plane landed normally, taxied to the gate. There will be a full investigation. They say they couldn't confirm that this debris did in fact come from their plane, but they're looking into it, but certainly according to witnesses on the ground, folks who were calling into the local police department and those pictures that you have seen, it looks like quite a debris field that may have come from that plane, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Right, but quick question. If we're talking engine shutdown, this is from the airline spokesperson, have we talked to passengers on board? Did it feel odd? Did they notice what was happening?

O'LEARY: It sort of depends on what prompted that engine shutdown, because there could be an event in which you would notice that significantly.

There could be a fire or even just a fire warning. And that would prompt the crew to shut down that engine and turn around. So, it could be something that they noticed. It could also be something that was handled very smoothly and they didn't notice. And we won't know until we get some more details from passengers and from the airline on what exactly prompted that emergency landing -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK. Lizzie O'Leary, keep us posted. Thank you.

I still have more questions. I want to bring in aviation attorney Mary Schiavo, who is joining us on this Memorial Day here from Charleston, South Carolina.

And, Mary, I appreciate you joining us.

When we look at these pictures -- and again to be clear, we can't confirm definitively that this debris looks like rocks, kind of the size of a BlackBerry, did in fact come from this particular 777 jet, but if this is true, if these pieces were falling, how often do you hear something like this happening?

MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER TRANSPORTATION INSPECTOR GENERAL: Well, I have worked several cases where there have been parts that have fallen from planes.

The most famous one of course is the Concorde, where a piece from the Continental jetliner that took off before it actually brought down the plane. But the clues here are very important. The engine shutdown and the parts from the plane, it sounds like what the plane experienced is something called an uncontained engine failure.

The plane can fly fine on one. But what happens in an uncontained engine failure is parts literally are ejected from the engine.

BALDWIN: Wow. SCHIAVO: And most cases, obviously no one is hurt, fortunately as in here, but in some cases they can penetrate the fuselage and cause a big problem.

But that does sound what the plane has experienced and thank heavens it landed safely, as it can, on one engine.

BALDWIN: Right. So thank goodness. You're saying this could have been an uncontained engine failure. Is this the kind of thing a pilot or a crew could have noticed on the ground before it went up?

SCHIAVO: No, no. The problem with an uncontained engine failure is what happens is a part, often it's a turbine blade, and often what happens is one of them breaks off, comes loose or experiences a problem and it's spinning at such a high rate of speed that it then takes out other parts and the engine cowling, while it is supposed to help contain the parts of the engine, if they're flying off, it can pierce the engine or they can simply exit the plane.

There is also the possibility that they had a bird strike or something like that that took out parts of the plane as well. And then there have been cases where parts of a flap fell once from a plane over Texas. An engine cowling fell once and parts of landing gear do fall, I won't say routinely, but it happens several times a year.

BALDWIN: Thank goodness not routinely. Mary Schiavo, thank you. We will be looking into the investigation and see what in the world caused this to happen. Thank you.

On this day the U.S. honors its war dead, there are new calls for the U.S. use of military force, this time to stop the slaughter in Syria. The latest outrage over the weekend, a massacre, the total number of deaths 108, but the chilling part is that 49 of those were children.

This happened in a Syrian town. U.N. and Arab League negotiator Kofi Annan called it -- quote -- an appalling crime" as he arrived in the capital city of Damascus today trying to revive his peace plan.

CNN's Arwa Damon, she has reported inside Syria. Normally, we see her on the border with Turkey -- but -- I should say Lebanon. But tonight she joins us from New York.

And, Arwa, we have talked about this before. When you hear this number, 49 children, it is chilling. It is horrific. Do we know what caused this? Has anyone claimed responsibility?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we have, Brooke, is the same scenario where both sides are blaming each other for the violence.

The regime is saying that these deaths were caused by armed terrorist gangs affiliated with al Qaeda and backed by foreign entities. The opposition is saying that this was a slaughter carried out by the regime. U.N. monitors on the ground did say that a number of wounds that they saw appear to be sustained by artillery and weapons that the Syrian government has at its disposal.

From what we have been able to piece together, the shelling of this town Houla began on Friday and once the dust cleared from that, according to residents who were there, pro-government thugs (INAUDIBLE) as they're called, then went through house to house rounding people up and gunning them down as if they were sheep.

That is how one survivor described it. These 49 children, according to the U.N. team that was on the ground, they were also under the age of 10.


DAMON: These are not combatants. These are the most innocent of the innocent.

And the wounds they had, Brooke, were quite simply indescribable. They're images that are so gruesome, we actually can't even broadcast them. But little children, their little shirts covered in blood, some of them had devastating wounds to the skull, to other parts of their bodies.

In one clip, you saw them all lined up. It looked as if they were leaping from far away, as if someone had just put them to rest, one alongside the other. And yet these are the youngest victims of this one massacre that took place in this one city in a single day and it most certainly is not the only massacre that we have seen happening since this uprising began.

BALDWIN: And I know as our viewers in America have been watching this story and wondering when will this stop, and you have the visit today with Kofi Annan -- last week, it was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told our colleague Christiane Amanpour that there is no plan B for Syria.

You and I have spoken extensively about the cease-fire. It is ridiculous to even imagine that that's in existence right now given what's happened over the weekend. What is Kofi Annan hoping to accomplish here with this visit? What can he?

DAMON: Hypothetically speaking, it would be putting some sort of pressure on the Syrian government to actually adhere to its portion of this so-called six-point peace plan. First and foremost would be the withdrawal of tanks and troops from villages and cities that we have not even seen materialize at this point.

It would be trying to hypothetically bring about some sort of lull in the violence that would then pave the way for talks between both sides. But that is quite simply an unrealistic scenario. This is a peace plan that was at best perhaps slightly feasible at the onset, but in the weeks that have passed since then, it is incredibly clear that it is dead.

And that is what the Syrian opposition is saying. The Free Syrian Army, this rebel fighting force, also declaring this cease-fire plan dead in the water, saying that they have no choice but to retake up arms and continue targeting government forces.

And, of course, there is no plan B. And it most certainly seems as if Syria is barrelling on this path of all-out civil war, of all- out warfare that most certainly is unbalanced. And the international community is basically sitting back. Its hands are tied because of politics and various other circumstances.


DAMON: And we have seen history like this playing out before.

BALDWIN: Right. It is a question of who steps in and when and how can it be stopped.

Arwa Damon, we appreciate your reporting overseas, and good to see you in New York.

Today, we should point out the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told CNN, yes, U.S. military action is a possibility to stop the killing in Syria. Here he was.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: My job is to provide the commander in chief with options.

And I think the military option should be considered and I think that -- but my preference, of course, always as the senior military leader would be that the international community could find ways of increasing the pressure on Assad to do the right thing and step aside.


BALDWIN: It wasn't just General Dempsey talking about this today.

You see the president, the human cost of military action very much so on President Obama's mind today on this Memorial Day. He observed today by placing this wreath at the Arlington Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns, and then later in the afternoon -- you see the wall, all 58,282 names etched behind him. This is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here on the National Mall, part of an afternoon ceremony marking a half-century since the start of that war.

Across the country, in San Diego, Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain attended a Memorial Day ceremony as well . Romney called for the U.S. to maintain a strong military, warning that the world is not safe.

Still ahead here on this Memorial Day A veterans charity fights complaints it isn't really helping, despite collecting tens of millions of dollars.

But, next, the president and founder of a group trying to help heal military families, including children who have lost loves ones to war. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All of us can and should ask ourselves how we can help you shoulder a burden that nobody should have to bear alone.




OBAMA: As long as I am president, we will make sure that you and your loved ones receive the benefits you've earned and the respect you deserve. America will be there for you.



BALDWIN: President Obama speaking at Arlington National Cemetery earlier today.

And we just wanted to take a moment here to highlight one group whose mission is to be there for the families of the fallen. Take a look at this video. If you never heard of it, it is the Good Grief Camp, a Memorial Day weekend event sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

It's an acronym. It's TAPS. They help military families, including children, cope after losing a loved one. And over this past weekend, TAPS brought together 1,200 families in the nation's capital for refuge and really just to remember.


MEKA DURHAM, WIDOW: I brought my kids five months after my husband died because I wanted them to know they were not the only kids who had lost a parent. And I wanted them to know that there is a place they can go to where they feel normal and where they feel like they don't have to always talk about what happened, that we're all here for the same reason.


BALDWIN: Bonnie Carroll is the president and founder of TAPS.

She joins me now live from Washington.

Bonnie, nice to see you. And let me just point out for our viewers you are also a veteran. You served in the military, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. So, nice to see you.

And I want to talk about really the benefits it sounds like for kids feeling a sort of sense of normalcy in the Good Grief Camp. But I have to ask about you, because on a personal level, you lost your husband in an Army plane crash in 1992. You founded TAPS soon after. And so -- I know here you are and your husband. I know this morning you were actually at the White house.

You and other surviving family members had breakfast with the president, the first lady. Tell me about that and tell me a little something about that conversation with Mr. Obama.

BONNIE CARROLL, PRESIDENT, TRAGEDY ASSISTANCE PROGRAM FOR SURVIVORS: Oh, we really had the chance to talk with the president and the first lady about the work TAPS is doing with the families of America's fallen heroes.

TAPS lets families know that America remembers and honors their service and their sacrifice, regardless of how or where the death occurred. In TAPS, we have families who have lost loved ones not just in combat, but to suicide, to illness, to accidents, and TAPS is there to honor their life and their service.

BALDWIN: And you're there 24/7, as you point out on your Web site. This past weekend, it was the 18th year of the Good Grief Camp and it is sounds like obviously it's beneficial for the parents, but also for the kids as well. Why?

CARROLL: Well, the children learn that America honors their loved one's service and sacrifice. They learn that they're not alone in their grief.

They meet other kids their same age talking that same language of loss. They're paired one-on-one with a military mentor and they get that buddy and they get to reconnect with the military that their family was so much a part of.

BALDWIN: Speaking of the mentors, I want to play a little sound. This is Senior Airman Louis Iverson of the Air Force. He is a peer mentor from the camp. Take a listen.


SR. AIRMAN LOUIS IVERSON, U.S. AIR FORCE: And these kids really benefit from it. The active-duty individuals here benefit from it as well. You really get that sense of pride in what you're doing. And it is one of the best ways to serve even outside of the uniform itself.


BALDWIN: Who are these mentors, Bonnie? And I am sure their role is -- can't really put a price tag on what it is they do for these families.

CARROLL: Absolutely. TAPS recruits actually hundreds and now thousands of military members who we train to work with the child that is experiencing a traumatic loss.

But for the military mentors, it is also an opportunity to share their own grief and to be in this safe place where they can honor their fallen battle buddies.

BALDWIN: Bonnie Carroll, we appreciate you and your service and the work you're doing here with TAPS. Bonnie, thank you so much.

CARROLL: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Happy Memorial Day.

CARROLL: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Tonight: A charity for disabled veterans is fighting accusations it is taking people's money, but not at all helping veterans in any kind of useful way.

But, next, the astronauts, they go inside the supply ship visiting the International Space Station.


BALDWIN: Welcome back.


BALDWIN: One of the most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage just got an -- we will call it an unusual invitation and is thinking about saying yes here. We're going to tell you who Tony Perkins appears to be agreeing to visit.

And then later on: the politics of Memorial Day, muted, but still there.


BALDWIN: This half-hour, $56 million raised for our veterans, but the charity's own tax forms say not one cent was actually spent on the men and women who fought for our country. We're following the money here at the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.

Also tonight, our commander in chief not so popular among veterans -- what President Obama needs to do to close that gap.

Also, be excellent, live in the moment, right your wrongs, all good advice given to the class of 2012 from Oprah to Mitt Romney. We have got the most memorable graduation day moments.

Picture this, Tony Perkins, one of the loudest opponents of same- sex marriage , sitting down to dinner at the home of a gay rights activist. Folks, it looks like it could actually happen. And it all started back last Thursday.

I interviewed Tony Perkins, who is the leader of the Family Research Council, and I asked him, among several -- I asked him this question.


BALDWIN: Have you ever been to the home of a married same-sex couple, Tony?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: I have not been to the home of a same-sex married couple, no.

BALDWIN: If you were ever to do so and you're sitting cross from them over dinner, how would you convince them that their life together, either two men, two women, hurts straight couples? What do you tell them?

PERKINS: Well, first, Brooke, we don't make public policy based on what's good for me and my family or you and your family or...


BALDWIN: I am just asking on a personal level.


PERKINS: But we're engaged here in a discussion about public policy and what's best for the nation, not anecdotes or what one couple likes...


BALDWIN: But this issue is -- it is personal. It is personal as well.


PERKINS: But that's not how we make public policy.

Certainly, there are some same-sex couples that are probably great parents, but that is not what the overwhelming amount of social science shows us.

BALDWIN: Why do homosexuals bother you so much? Would it be fair to characterize...


PERKINS: They don't bother me.


BALDWIN: They don't bother you?


BALDWIN: Not at all?

PERKINS: I am not going to be silent while they try to redefine marriage in this country, change policy, what my children are taught in schools and what religious organizations can do. I am not going to be silent.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BALDWIN: OK. So that was last Thursday.

After hearing that, the head of this LGBT group, call themselves the Family Quality Council, they sent Mr. Perkins a letter that reads in part here -- quote -- I "would like to extend an open invitation for you and your family to visit my home and have dinner with my spouse and children with the full hope that you will witness the love that exists in our families."

And just today, we got this from Tony Perkins -- quote -- "My wife and I will be glad to respond when we receive the invitation to find a time that works."

So, now it seems just a matter of setting a date.

So we followed up today. I spoke with Jennifer Chrisler, the woman who extended that invitation to dinner, just a couple of hours ago, and she seems surprised that Perkins was willing to participate.


BALDWIN: It sounds like he's ready to accept. Did you expect that?

JENNIFER CHRISLER, INVITED PERKINS TO DINNER: That would -- well, you know, no, in all honesty. But we'd be delighted to welcome him into our home and to have him spend time with me and my spouse and our twin ten-year-old sons.


BALDWIN: Chrisler says she hopes sharing a meal with Perkins will sway his opinion. She told me she's hoping her -- his heart will be opened, you know, enough to stop his, quote, "hateful rhetoric." These are her words. Take a listen.


BALDWIN: I asked Tony Perkins at the very end of that why homosexuals bother him so much. So it's only fair to ask you this. So flipping the question around, is there something about evangelical Christians that bothers you?

CHRISLER: Not at all. What bothers me is when people who haven't taken the time to know me and to know my children and to know my values talk about me and then espouse hateful rhetoric that my kids hear, that the children like them hear. And that's why as a mother, I'm just so troubled by that. And I thought, well, maybe an invitation to dinner, maybe breaking bread together might soften him just enough that that's not the world my children have to live in anymore.


BALDWIN: Chrisler also says she is not asking Perkins to change his religious views. We will let you know if, in fact, the dinner happens.

The Senate Financing Committee just launched a probe into potential abuses by a veterans charity. The charity here in question is called the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, DVNF. It is fighting accusations here it isn't giving people the help they need, despite raising tens of millions of dollars. Here is CNN's special investigation correspondent, Drew Griffin.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Over the past three years, thanks to the generosity of thousands of Americans, a charity called the Disabled Veterans National Foundation has raised nearly $56 million. Yet, according to its own financial tax forms, not one dime of that money has been used for direct services to military veterans.


GRIFFIN (on camera): That's right.

(voice-over) Meet Precilla, president of the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, whom we found at a small VFW office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

WILKEWITZ: Well, this is the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and I really didn't think you'd do something like this. And we've agreed to talk to you and answer questions.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Nobody's agreed. So here's the questions raised over three years...

WILKEWITZ: Thank you so much.

GRIFFIN: And none of the money has gone to any veterans, ma'am.

(voice-over) While Wilkewitz is the former national legislative liaison for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, it's another veterans group she's president of that we wanted to discuss.

(on camera) OK, so the bottom line is you're not going to give me an interview.

(voice-over) CNN has been trying for two years to get an interview with the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, since we began tracking its fundraising. We've gotten angry phone calls, angry e-mails, promises of written responses, and now a slammed door.

(on camera) Veterans, ma'am.

(voice-over) But no answers. And when you see just how this charity operates, you'll understand why.

WILKEWITZ: We're paying down our start-up costs.

GRIFFIN: Wilkewitz, on the organization's Web site, likes to boast about the charitable gifts that her group gives away. And DVNF does give away stuff. Stuff actual veterans groups say they really don't need.

It's called "gifts in kind" on tax forms. Instead of giving away some of the $56 million in cash raised over the past three years, DVNF gives away stuff it got for free.

In 2010, the group filed this tax form, claiming it provided more than $838,000 in gifts in kind to U.S. Vets, a charity in Arizona. U.S. Vets showed us what actually was sent. Twenty pairs of men's football pants. More than 100 chef's coats, 125 chef's aprons. A needlepoint designed pillow case. Two pages worth of stuff the director told us "We don't need."

And take a look at what showed up at the St. Benedict's Veterans Center in Birmingham, Alabama, where J.D. Simpson takes homeless vets off the streets. Simpson says the modest shipment included some useful items: 2,300 disaster blankets, good for a couple of days' use. And some cleaning supplies. But it also included this.

J.D. SIMPSON, ST. BENEDICT'S VETERANS CENTER: They sent us 2,600 bags of cough drops and 2,200 little bottles of sanitizer, and the great thing, 11,520 bags of coconut M&Ms. And didn't have a lot of use for 11,520 bags of coconut M&Ms.

GRIFFIN: Here's what the DVNF posted on its Web site about the work they were doing in Alabama.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We send by the truckload items that these centers and shelters say they need desperately.

GRIFFIN (on camera): "For our veterans, who have given so much to our country and now need our help."

SIMPSON: Great sound bite.

GRIFFIN: Did they ever ask you what you wanted?

SIMPSON: No, no. They always call and say, "Hey, we've got a truckload coming."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody up here on the top is a lot of the stuff that came in on the last truck. The bandages, the lotion, the hand sanitizer.

GRIFFIN: It's unpacked.


GRIFFIN: Because...?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We really have no use for it. These shelves should be filled with this...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... not that.

GRIFFIN: Do you ask yourself, well, where's the money?

SIMPSON: I ask myself that after I ask myself what the heck are these people doing, stealing from our veterans? Because that's what they're doing.

I don't care how you look at it. These people have sacrificed for our country, and there are some people out there that are raising money to abuse them, and that just makes me mad.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Executive director J.D. Simpson became even more angry when these showed up. More than 700 pairs of surplus Navy dress shoes.

SIMPSON: Not a lot of use for these unless you're going to stand in a personnel inspection.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Those shoes are now part of the yard sale that this group uses to raise real funds for the things they really need. Not shoes like these.

Here's the question.

(voice-over) Precilla Wilkewitz wouldn't tell us why she sent homeless vets in Alabama shiny new Navy surplus shoes.

WILKEWITZ: Hello. I'm Precilla Wilkewitz, president of the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.

GRIFFIN: And DVNF wouldn't really tell us anything. What the group and its president continue to tell you, the American public, is to keep sending in those donations.


GRIFFIN: Brooke, Senator Max Baucus was really hot when he saw these reports. And I think what he wants to get to the bottom of with the finance committee that he chairs is exactly, from the perspective of the donor, where is my money going that I thought was going to go to help an actual disabled veteran? We'll see what the finance committee comes up with.

BALDWIN: Coconut M&Ms and shiny Navy surplus shoes? I saw that, and I just shake my -- I shake my head. You stand by. I want you to join me in this conversation with Ken Berger. He's the CEO of Charity Navigator. It's this group that rates charities to help donors with their choice.

So Ken, welcome. First, I just want you to react to Drew's story. I mean, you heard him say just about 56 million raised, really not a dime...


BALDWIN: ... used, you know, directly for our veterans. Your Web site, in addition to other watch dog Web sites, you know, one Web site gives it an "F." You give it a "donor advisory status." What does that tell me if I'm looking to give? Should I not?

BERGER: Absolutely not. This kind of organization is really scary, and unfortunately, when we look at veterans' organizations, we find that five times more often than any other kind of charity that we evaluate, this kind of telemarketing that takes the majority of the money is very commonplace and really, really disturbing to all of us.

BALDWIN: So if it's common place, but you know, a lot of people in our country want to give, they have the means to give, tell me how to know which charities are reputable, which ones are legit.

BERGER: The key is to do some research, and sites like Charity Navigator are places to go, because our organizations will vet the charities in terms of their financial management, will vet the charities in terms of how they're being supervised by the leadership, if they're following best practices.

It's critically important to do a certain amount of that kind of research first, because all charities, as you can see, are clearly not created equal. And there are some great ones, and there are clearly some terrible ones out there.

BALDWIN: Do your homework. Know where your money is going. Ken, hang on just a second. Because drew, I want to bring you back in.

And first, just kudos to you and your team for really digging into this group for two years, and now the Senate Finance Committee is launching this investigation. I just want to read this quote in reaction to that. And it was from the president of this particular charity.

Quote, "Media reports about our activities have been plain wrong, and we welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. Countless veterans organizations that have benefited from DVNF's help have acknowledged this assistance in warm letters and calls. We will happily answer the questions posed by the United States Senate Finance Committee and provide it with information that others have sadly chosen to ignore," from the woman who slammed the door in your face, Drew Griffin.

What exactly have you chosen to ignore, to quote her?

GRIFFIN: You know, if you just look at our reporting, not just this report but several reports, you'll see that we've bent over backwards to try to get information from this group. All we've gotten in is return was slammed doors, as you saw, angry phone calls, angry e-mails from P.R. companies and unresponsive attorneys.

I don't know what information that Precilla Wilkewitz will provide the Senate committee, but if it's the information that they filed with the IRS, I don't think the senators are going to be too happy with what they're going to show them. Because it shows exactly what we've reported: $56 million in donations being taken in and all of that money going directly to a private fundraising company that helped them raise that money.

BALDWIN: We'll follow up with that hearing and see what comes out of it. I know you will, Drew Griffin and Ken Berger. I appreciate you both. Thank you.

GRIFFIN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Coming up, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney tells veterans today that the world is not safe, but would voters feel more or less secure with a Republican as president?



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For the first time in nine years Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq. We are winding down the war in Afghanistan, and our troops will continue to come home. After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light in a new day on the horizon.


BALDWIN: That was President Obama speaking today at Arlington National Cemetery.

Joining me now to talk about how foreign policy will impact this election, "National Journal" editorial director and CNN political contributor Ron Brownstein; also Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen; and in Little Rock, Arkansas on this Memorial Day, Republican strategist Alice Stewart.

So, hello and welcome to all of you.


Let's begin with the president. We just heard him say, speaking from such hallowed ground as Arlington National Cemetery, saying, yes, we're going to be bringing the troops home but I want to point all of us to this poll. This is Gallup, just out today.

You're going to see this. You're going to see that Romney has a 28-percentage-point lead among male veterans. If you take out the veterans, the non-veterans there, you see it's pretty much tied 44 percent-46 percent.

Hillary, let me throw this to you, as the Dem here on the panel. Why -- why is the president not more popular among veterans when he -- you know, he says he's done a lot for our men and women in uniform?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I don't know actually. The president has increased veterans' assistance by more than any president has in the last 30 years.

And let's just pause for a minute on this Memorial Day to give some props for that amazing speech today honoring Vietnam veterans, you know, a group of people who really have been too many times ostracized from this country. And I thought that the president kind of captured the country's emotions about the Vietnam War and veterans really perfectly today.

And I think if he does more of that, going into -- into this campaign, you know, I see that gap closing.

BALDWIN: But Ron, what do you think? I mean, if he does more of that, she says, but thus far you look at the numbers, and apparently he hasn't.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, veterans are historically a tough audience, Brooke, for Democrats. Obama lost them by 10 points in 2008.

In 2004 when John Kerry, Vietnam veteran, was the Democratic nominee. He lost them by 16 points to George W. Bush. They tend to lean Republican. They're not a monolith, but they do tend to lean Republican.

They are, on the other hand, politically only about 15 percent of the electorate. So while our debt as a society is great to them, it's really part of the -- you know, kind of the modern reality of the military, an all-volunteer force. It is not a mass phenomenon any more. The number of people who've worn the uniform is kind of, distressingly, small in some ways in our society. So even though it's a tough audience for Democrats, usually, it is not a decisive block in an election.

BALDWIN: OK. Let me talk theory here, and let me throw a question to you, Alice. And that is I was talking to Arwa. She's covered, you know, the situation -- and slaughter, really, is what it is -- inside Syria over the weekend, something like 108 deaths, 49 children.

The Republicans are quick to criticize the president for not helping the rebels there. Senator McCain has had quite a strong voice in Syria, saying just this past Sunday that the president's foreign policy was, to quote him, "feckless."

And Mitt Romney released a statement. He said this, quote, "After nearly a year and a half of slaughter, it is far past time for the United States to begin to lead and put an end to the Assad regime. President Obama can no longer ignore calls from congressional leaders in both parties to take more assertive steps."

Alice, how does Mitt Romney prove, though, that he is the best man to be commander in chief? What experience does he have?

STEWART: Well, he has the same level of experience in military matters as President Obama did going into office.

But I agree with Hilary 100 percent. The president gave a wonderful speech today with the veterans, and the memorial address, and pointing out individual stories of soldiers who sacrificed and the need to thank their families, as well, who are carrying the burden with their heart.

But we saw a tale of two different leaders here. We saw President Obama thanking the veterans, which we all need to do, but I think Governor Romney pointed out the differences here. He pointed out that we are in a dangerous world. We do need to strengthen our military.

And he pointed out very eloquently there are two pathways. We can go one way, the way of Europe, shrink the size of our military, instead paying for social programs, which is what President Obama is doing. Or we can go and we can continue to support and protect and preserve our military, restoring us to the military super power that we are.

And that right there, that kind of support and that kind of mindset on the need for a strong military, is why he has tremendous support from veterans across this country. And that's the contrast we have in these two candidates.

BALDWIN: Yes. You know, Mitt Romney spoke today in San Diego, and I want to play some of that sound, because wait for the last few words here of this sound bite. Take a listen.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Iran is rushing to become a nuclear nation. China is on the road to becoming a nuclear -- excuse me, a military super power. Russia is rebuilding their military and is now led by a man who believes that the Soviet Union was a great as opposed to evil empire. Chavez is campaigning for power throughout Latin America. Mexico is under siege from the cartels. In the Middle East the Arab Spring has become an Arab winter. The world is not safe.


BALDWIN: The world is not safe. Ron, I'm going to give you the final word. How do you think those words, that kind of rhetoric, will it work for Mitt Romney?

BROWNSTEIN: The president has a lot of risks in this campaign. But foreign policy isn't really at the top of the list right now.

This kind of a conventional argument between Republicans and Democrats, Republicans arguing the Democrats are too soft.

But generally speaking, the public gives the president pretty good grades on foreign policy, especially as compared to the economy. And he does, as you know, have one big hole card against the argument that he has been soft on America's enemies, which is that he is the president under whom Osama bin Laden was caught and killed.

So I think he's got a lot of risks, but I wouldn't put this at the very top of it.

BALDWIN: Ron Brownstein, Hilary Rosen, Alice Stewart, I thank you all very much here on this Monday.

Coming up, "ERIN BURNETT" -- "ERIN BURNETT UPFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. John Avlon is sitting in for Erin.

John Avlon, nice to see you. You're working late on a holiday, as well, here. What do you have coming up?

JOHN AVLON, GUEST HOST: Love it. We're busting the top three political myths of this political season. We've got interviews with Grover Norquist and Gene Simmons, so tune in for that.

BALDWIN: We will, thank you so much.

Still ahead tonight, two American men questioned in Tokyo after an exchange student is found dead. Where they were partying before things took a turn.

Plus, life advice for the class of 2012. Oprah tells grads to be excellent. Bill Cosby tells them to move out of their parents' house. Here's some of our favorite commencement speeches, next.


BALDWIN: And we're back. Let's check back with in with Mary Snow with the latest news you need to know right now -- Mary.


Two American men are being held in Tokyo as part of the investigation into the strangling death of an Irish exchange student. Neither of the men is charged with the death of 21-year-old Nicola Furlong, but Japanese media say the student and her friend ended up in a hotel with the men after a Nicki Minaj concert. Both men are entertainers, but police did not say if they were part of the singer's entourage.

It's official. There will be a runoff in Egypt's presidential election, and it pits the old guard against the new. Based on results from the first round of voting, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi will face former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in the final round in June. Just about half of all eligible voters turned out for the first round of the election.

It was former prime minister Tony Blair's turn to testify before the Leveson inquiry today. The former leader denied being, quote, "too cozy" with Rupert Murdoch during his leadership term but did admit to feeling political pressure from the media mogul.

Pop star Justin Bieber is reportedly wanted for questioning by L.A. County sheriffs because a paparazzi [SIC] is accused -- accusing him, that is, of assault. The photographer says he was taking pictures of the singer and his girlfriend, Selena Gomez, at a southern California shopping center when Bieber hit him. Bieber has not yet spoken publicly about the report but today tweeted that he was, quote, "going to focus on the important stuff, the music." And diehard Elvis fans can now bid on the king's crypt. This is where Elvis Presley was first laid to rest in 1977 before his body was buried at Graceland. And now it could be yours. The starting price is $100,000, which includes a memorial inscription and the opening and closing of the vault. It's all part of Julian's Auction's music icons event, which starts next month.

Brooke, I'm not sure I've ever heard of an auctioning of a crypt.

BALDWIN: A crypt is creepy.

SNOW: It is.

BALDWIN: Mary, stay with me, because I don't want to end with something creepy. I want to end with this. A few moments maybe you missed as graduation season comes to a close. And a wave of graduates preparing, of course, to enter the real world, but not before getting some words of wisdom during their final school ritual, that being the commencement speech.

So here are some of the best pieces of advice we heard for the class of 2012.


OBAMA: The job of a commencement speaker primarily is to keep it short. Chloe, they've given me more than two minutes. But the other job is to inspire.

OPRAH WINFREY, MEDIA MOGUL: Be excellent. People notice. Think of how you notice. You go to Taco Bell. Somebody gives you an extra napkin and some sauce, you notice. You want to go back to that person. Because even at Taco Bell, excellence shows itself. Be excellent. Let excellence be your brand.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Do one thing every day that scares you. And in the process become the action hero of your own life.

OBAMA: Don't accept somebody else's construction of the way things ought to be. It's up to you to right wrongs. It's up to you to point out injustice. It's up to you to hold the system accountable. And sometimes upend it entirely. It's up to you to stand up and to be heard.

ROMNEY: And as you now leave and make for new places near and far, I hope for each one of you that your path will be long and life will be kind. The ideals that brought you here, the wisdom you gained here and the friends you found here, may these blessings be with you always wherever you go.

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: In the end, people can only define you if you let them. In the end, it's up to each of us to define ourselves. It's up to each of us to invent our own future with the choices we make and the actions we take. BILL COSBY, COMEDIAN/WRITER/ACTOR: You have this education. You have these expectations. There are parents waiting for you to move out.


BALDWIN: Get out of your house, kids. Mary Snow, I love that from Sanjay: be the action hero of your own life.

SNOW: That was great.

BALDWIN: Honest time, do you even remember who spoke at your college graduation?

SNOW: I do. It was Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York. How about you?

BALDWIN: Mine was Stewart Scott of ESPN. He went to Chapel Hill. But if you asked me what he said, I don't remember. What a day it was.

Mary Snow, thank you so much. And thanks to all of you for watching John King. Back tomorrow. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.