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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Eric Holder Grilled on Capitol Hill; Interview With New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; Rpt: Plot Foiled Against U.S. Embassy in Egypt; Healing, Heartache 1 Month After Bombings

Aired May 15, 2013 - 15:59   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, ANCHOR, "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER": Remember that kids' book, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?" I bet President Obama does. He's having a week like that.

I'm Jake Tapper and this is "The Lead."

The national lead, facing the firing squad, Attorney General Eric Holder going before the Republican controlled House Judiciary Committee and on the defensive over the many scandals swirling around the administration.

The world lead, two years after the revolution in Egypt, a plot to blow up Western embassies there by a militant group with suspected links to al Qaeda, the Egyptian media reporting the U.S. Embassy among the targets. Thankfully, it all unraveled. We will tell you how.

The national lead. For so many of our service members threats come not only from the enemy on the battlefield, but from their own brothers in arms. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joins us to speak out about the military's sexual assault epidemic, which is taking on ironic, if not epic proportions.

Welcome to THE LEAD.

Now the national lead. You know those slow-motion crash tests they show in car commercials sometimes? It's kind of what it has been like watching the Obama administration this week, and it is only Wednesday. President Obama began the day with a tribute to slain police officers sitting right next to his attorney general, Eric Holder.

Later, Holder took another seat before the House Judiciary Committee. Republicans had their choice of scandals to pick from in their questioning. They went after him on Benghazi, the IRS targeting conservatives, the Justice Department's subpoena of journalists' phone records among a host of issues.

Both Republicans and Democrats alike wanted answers about those subpoenaed phone records.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R), WISCONSIN: Who authorized the subpoenas for the AP? REP. BOB GOODLATTE (R), VIRGINIA: Why was such a broad scope approved?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN (D), CALIFORNIA: The actions of the department have, in fact, impaired the First Amendment.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT), FINANCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Was it in writing? Was it orally? Who did you -- did you alert the White House?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The AP investigation had involved leaks about a CIA operation that foiled a bomb plot. Holder says he recused himself because he had been interviewed by the FBI about leaks. He deflected questions about the record seizure any way that he could.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I was not the person who was involved in that decision. I was recused in that matter. I am not familiar with the reasons why. I'm simply not a part of the case. I don't know. I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: They must teach that technique in attorney general school.

At first, Holder wouldn't even say that his deputy attorney general, James Cole, issued the subpoena for those AP records, before eventually confirming it under questioning. Across town, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had some bobbing and weaving of his own to do over many of the exact same issues. Carney says the White House is asking Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, to reintroduce a media shield law that could have protected the Associated Press.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president's support for this kind of media shield law is well-documented. It is longstanding. And he does believe that it is appropriate to resubmit that legislation and to try to convert it into law at this time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Of course, the Obama administration is a big reason that media shield law was shelved in the first place. Schumer even said so. The White House wanted a broader exemption in it for national security.

Anyway, after all that, we haven't even gotten to the latest on the IRS scandal yet. Every single Republican in the Senate today sent a letter to the White House demanding full cooperation with the congressional investigation into how and why the IRS targeted conservatives. I want to bring in CNN political contributor Paul Begala. He's also a Democratic strategist.

Paul, do you think the White House has any idea how bad things are right now, how it's not just something that's going to disappear?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, yes.

They watch THE LEAD. They read the papers. They read the wires and the Internet. Yes, they -- I'm quite sure they know that they're in a bit of a storm. And I think it's a good thing that, for example, the attorney general was up there testifying.

Now, unsatisfactory answers, because he was recused from it. What I want to see is the deputy attorney general or whoever approved these subpoenas testifying. What I want to see is a legitimate inquiry into this IRS thing. And what I want to see and expect to see is the White House advocating that. Put this all out. No fair-minded person believes the president of the United States was directing low- level employees of the IRS in Cincinnati to target conservatives. Right?

So don't act like it. Don't be defensive. Put it all out there. Answer all the questions.

TAPPER: See, that's the basic -- that's the basic plot when it comes to crisis communication.

BEGALA: Right.

TAPPER: Let's talk about Benghazi for a second.

BEGALA: All right.

TAPPER: I yesterday broke a -- I got an e-mail, Ben Rhodes e- mail, and I think it is obvious that the White House is going to have to release the e-mails that talk about the talking points. That's just going to have to happen.

Why didn't they do it after the election? I understand why they clammed up before the election. They're paranoid, they're political, they want to get reelected. But November, December, shouldn't they have done a document dump then?

BEGALA: Well, the short answer is yes.

But I don't know what's in there and you don't. In other words, you still have to -- the most important thing for the president to do is protect national security. You don't want to do anything that compromises the sources and methods...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Right. So, you can redact out the national security stuff.

BEGALA: You redact it.

It is also a good rule that anything you give to the Hill, at least half of whom of are your political adversaries, is going to wind up in the hands of the press anyway.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: They let the Hill see it in December. Why not just then go to one of their favorite reporters or just the whole White House press corps and give them everything?

BEGALA: That's right. I think anything you give to the Hill is certain to wind up in the press. And sometimes -- it looks like in this case -- you set the record straight, but it looks like the first reporter who got this got it from a source who kind of had an axe to grind and misled that reporter.

TAPPER: But why not do that?

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Right. They should. They should. They -- they...

TAPPER: So, what are you going to recommend? You're going to the White House tomorrow. You're going to meet with the chief of staff, Denis McDonough.

BEGALA: Yes. Well, this is a longstanding -- Denis for a long time has had outsiders come in.

TAPPER: Right. Right.

BEGALA: It's not about these scandals.

TAPPER: No, no, no, I get it.

BEGALA: Should I be asked about it, yes, I would say what I'm telling you, which is you have to get out ahead of these things. You have to put everything out.

There is another side of it, though. You cannot be too dismissive. You have to honor it, even if you think the motive is political. This is the legitimate role of Congress to look into four diplomats being murdered in Benghazi. That is a legitimate inquiry.

This IRS thing is a very legitimate inquiry.

TAPPER: Yes.

BEGALA: So is the question of when we subpoena journalists, which should be almost never. So, these are legitimate. This is not like when I worked for Bill Clinton and right-wing Republicans were investigating his Christmas card list.

But guess what? Even those subpoenas were honored, because -- but you can't be obsessive either. He has got a job to do. Today, he was honoring those slain law enforcement officers. I'm glad you showed that tape. I hope everybody else does. He still has to do his job.

TAPPER: Still doing his job.

BEGALA: So, it's that balance between being obsessive and wallowing in it, but -- and on the other hand not being too dismissive. And that's what we will watch and we will see.

TAPPER: All right. Paul Begala, thank you so much, CNN contributor.

The Benghazi scandal may not be as fresh as the IRS and phone records seizures, but rest assured the Republicans haven't forgotten about it. To really understand the push and pull over the bungled talking points in the wake of the attack, you have to understand the nature of the mission in Benghazi.

Officially, the building, the presence of the U.S. there was a diplomatic one. It is under the purview of the State Department. But in practice, and this is what so few people have focused on, it was mostly like -- it was mostly a clandestine presence operated by the CIA.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): Was the U.S. presence in Benghazi, Libya largely diplomatic, as the White House and others have described it?

VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: The diplomatic facility in Benghazi would be closed until further notice.

TAPPER: Scratch beneath the surface and the answer seems fairly obvious. About 30 people were evacuated from Benghazi the morning after the attack and more than 20 of them were CIA employees.

Clearly, the larger mission in Benghazi was covert. The CIA had two objectives in Libya, countering the terrorist threat that emerged as extremists poured into the unstable country, and helping to secure the flood of weapons after the fall of Gadhafi, weapons that could have easily been funneled to terrorists.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Good morning, everybody. How are you?

TAPPER: The State Department was the public face of the weapons collection program.

CLINTON: We had a concerted effort to try to track down and find and recover as many MANPADS and other very dangerous weapons as possible.

TAPPER: But the CIA's role during and after the attacks at the diplomatic post and the CIA annex in Benghazi have so far escaped much scrutiny. The focus has instead been on the failure of the State Department to heed growing signs of the militant threat in the country and ensure adequate security and on the political debate over why the White House seemed to downplay what was a terrorist attack in the weeks before the presidential election.

But Republican Congressman Frank Wolf says the public needs to know more about the CIA's role.

REP. FRANK WOLF (R), VIRGINIA: There are questions that must be asked of the CIA and this must be done in a public way.

TAPPER: Sources at the State Department say this context explains why there was so much debate over those talking points. Essentially, they say, the State Department felt it was being blamed for bungling what it saw as a largely CIA operation in Benghazi.

Current and former U.S. government officials tell CNN that then CIA Director David Petraeus and others in the CIA initially assessed the attack to have been related to protests against an anti-Muslim film and, officials say, Petraeus may have been reluctant to conclude it was a planned terrorist attack, because that would have been acknowledging an intelligence failure.

Frank Wolf says he and his office are getting calls from CIA officials who want to talk.

WOLF: If you're 50 years old and have two kids in college and a mortgage, you're not going to give your career up by coming in. So you also need subpoena power. Let people come forward, subpoena them, to give them the protection so they can't be fired.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: After the attack, the CIA was reluctant to acknowledge that the two Navy SEALs, former Navy SEALs killed at the annex in Benghazi, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, worked for the CIA.

That is not always how it's done. With high-profile attacks leading to CIA deaths, as with the attack on the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009, in which seven CIA officials were killed, sometimes the CIA publicly acknowledges and honors CIA officials killed, but that did not happen in this case. Then CIA Director David Petraeus did not attend the funerals of Woods and Doherty.

Obviously, CIA officers believe it imperative to keep their work in the shadows, but that in this case may also keep some of the answers about Benghazi in the dark as well.

Coming up, not a great week for the president, but while the scandals swirl, there is a little, teeny bit of good news getting ground out. The deficit problem may be slowing, not disappearing, slowing.

And breaking news out of the Arab world. An al Qaeda-backed suicide attack is foiled in Egypt. The reported target? Western embassies. We will have an update when THE LEAD continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: We have some breaking news in our world lead.

We're following breaking news on the arrests of members of an al Qaeda-linked militant cell. According to a report by Egyptian state media, that cell was plotting a possible attack on both the U.S. and French embassies in Egypt.

CNN has not been able to independently confirm the reported targets. We do know that, over the weekend, Egypt's interior minister announced the arrests of three militants who allegedly were plotting to attack a Western embassy and other targets.

Both the U.S. Embassy and a spokesman for Egypt's Interior Ministry have refused to comment on specific targets.

Let's get more now from CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen.

Peter, thanks for joining us.

If an al Qaeda-linked militant was to target a U.S. embassy in Egypt, how concerned should the State Department and Americans in general be about all U.S. embassies in the Middle East being targeted?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well --

TAPPER: (INAUDIBLE) than normal?

BERGEN: Yes. The State Department has issued a new advisory about travel to Egypt and mentioned that somebody, an American, was stabbed outside the U.S. embassy on May 9th, in that advisory. So, clearly, the State Department is concerned.

I mean, what I would say is a little interesting about this case, Jake, is that al Qaeda or groups like it traditionally haven't really been operating in Cairo very much. We've seen a lot of activity in the Sinai in attacking tourist destinations, Sharm-el-Sheik, these kinds of place. There was an attack on a central market in Cairo in 2005 frequented by Western tourists.

But in general, al Qaeda or groups like it haven't been attacking in Cairo, itself, you know, in any kind of consistent way over the past decade. And there are some reasons for that.

TAPPER: Including Mubarak being fairly oppressive.

BERGEN: Well, and also these groups really lost -- in the mid '90s they conducted almost an insurgency against the Egyptian government. More than a thousand people were killed. You may recall the Luxor massacre in 1997 --

TAPPER: Sure. BERGEN: -- where 56 tourists were stabbed to death. That basically -- any popular appeal these groups had basically disappeared and these groups did a peace agreement with the Egyptian government which was the Mubarak government. Many of those guys are in jail or were in jail. So, there is kind of a sound history for this not being very consistent in Cairo.

That said of course al Qaeda is led by an Egyptian, many of the people who --

TAPPER: Al-Zawahiri.

BERGEN: Yes.

Many of the people who are its leaders are Egyptian.

TAPPER: What should we -- what should we read into this attempted attack? Is it comforting to know that the Egyptians are on the case? Is al Qaeda gaining strength in the region? What do you think?

BERGEN: Well, you know -- I mean, in all of these countries that experienced the Arab spring there is a lot of chaos. As you indicated, you know, they were run by repressive governments that had a pretty good handle on these groups. Yes, so I think it is comforting this was discovered in time. But I don't think it is going to be the last time we see the U.S. embassy targeted in a major Arab capital like this.

TAPPER: All right. Peter Bergen, thank you so much.

BERGEN: Coming up next, too often, victims are forgotten. But we're not going to let that happen. One month after the Boston marathon terror attacks, we have an update on those who suffered some of the worst injuries.

Plus, one senator is so disgusted by sexual assaults in the military that she is taking matters into her own hands. But does her latest bill go far enough?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In more national news, it's been one month since two explosions turned a time honored tradition into a grim reminder of how vulnerable we all are to an act of terrorism. The bombs went off within seconds of each other near the finish line of the Boston marathon. The senseless tragedy claimed the lives of 8-year-old Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lingzi Lu. And in the aftermath, Officer Sean Collier who was killed during the manhunt for the bombing suspects.

Two hundred seventy-five people were hurt in the attack. But today, we learned only six remained hospitalized. For the survivors, the pain in many ways remains raw. But there are encouraging signs that the city is on the path to healing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JARROD CLOWERY, BOSTON BOMBING VICTIM: I'm a new man for sure and I don't sweat the little things anymore like I used to.

TAPPER (voice-over): In fact, for Jarrod Clowery, the little things like a little hop are now a blessing.

CLOWERY: I am so blessed to be here. One month. If you seen my legs a month ago.

TAPPER: The 35-year-old carpenter was one of hundreds injured in the Boston marathon attacks one month ago today. But Clowery says he was fortunate.

CLOWERY: Three of my friends have no legs.

TAPPER: Many of the victims who lost limbs at the marathon are pushing towards a new kind of finish line.

ROSEANN SDOIA, BOSTON BOMBING VICTIM: Once it happened, you just have to move forward because that's what it is. There is no way -- there's no way or no reason to look back and say why did this happen or just focus on the negative.

TAPPER: Roseann Sdoia injuries led to one amputation below the knee. But as she returned home this week, she vowed not to let it slow her down.

SDOIA: I used to run. I'm hoping at some point through the prosthetic process, I'll get back to running at some point.

TAPPER: After a long, grueling month, many of the wounded are getting back on their feet.

NICOLE GROSS, BOSTON BOMBING VICTIM: I'm a much better person. It's taught me a lot about myself.

TAPPER: Triathlete Nicole Gross had been cheering her mom at the marathon when the bombs went off.

GROSS: It was just a day of positive and well wishes for her and unfortunately had a traumatic ending to it.

TAPPER: Several surgeries later, Gross is now in rehab, working hard towards recovery. That's a challenge brothers Paul and JP Norden know well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm ready to move on. I feel like myself is just a different normal.

TAPPER: Each lost a leg in the attacks and each is healing each day together.

PAUL NORDEN BOSTON BOMBING VICTIM: I'm just one in front of the other, just going forward. That's it. That's how I want to believe that it's going to happen. TAPPER: In Boston, healing is a team effort. Heather Abbott needed a hand getting to the mound but she proudly threw out the first pitch.

(CHEERS)

TAPEPR: And remember Jeff Bauman? Check him out now. Smiling broadly at the Bruins game earlier this month.

Their bodies may be battered, but one month after the attacks that changed their lives, their spirits remain Boston strong.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: And do you remember that touching cover of "Boston" magazine after the bombings that showed dozens of running shoes in the shape of a heart? Well, we've learned more than 5,000 posters made with the same design have been sold raising more than $75,000 for One Fund Boston. And the shoes you see in the photo have been donated to Boston's homeless.

If at first you don't succeed, try and try and try 37 times again. That's the game plan for House Republicans who are still trying to kill Obama care after three dozen failed attempts.

Ana Navarro --

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, sir.

TAPPER: -- trying to kill Obama care for the 37th time exercise in futility or is it gaining traction?

NAVARRO: Well, you know, Jake, there is a fine line between doing it over and overdoing it. I think my folk have to be very careful of not doing the latter.

TAPPER: All right. Well, that's ahead when THE LEAD continues with our political panel.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Another "National Lead": They treated the physical wounds but the emotional ones they suffered are still fresh in their minds. How Boston's first responders are coping one month to the day after the terrorist attacks.

"The Politics Lead": Firings, resignations -- that's not going to be a good enough response to the IRS scandal for some Republicans. They want to see someone go to jail for it.

And "The Money Lead": Is six seconds enough time to sell you something? Big name brands think so. They're using Twitter's newest toy, Vine, to catch your increasingly fragmented attention.

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