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Examining Obama Administration Scandals; More on Guantanamo Bay Conditions; Previewing Iran's Coming Election

Aired May 16, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

President Obama is in the midst of one of the most challenging weeks of his presidency. In just a matter of days, his administration has been hit by three domestic scandals, all at once. And his ambitious second term agenda, topped by immigration reform, may be stymied. He faced a barrage of questions from the press today in the White House Rose Garden.

Now you might notice a Turkish flag alongside the Stars and Stripes there. That is because this was supposed to be a forum for talk about foreign policy after his meeting with Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Prime Minister Erdogan called their meeting "historic," a vital discussion of key issues -- trade, Iran, the Middle East peace process and, of course, Syria.

Erdogan is struggling with the massive influx of refugees across his border as well as violence near that border from the bloody struggle that's going on. Both leaders played up their common ground, not their differences over Syria.


RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRIME MINISTER OF TURKEY (through translator): Ending this bloody process in Syria and meeting the legitimate demands of the people by establishing a new government are two areas where we are in full agreement with the United States.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is also an international problem and it's very much my hope to continue to work with all the various parties involved, including Turkey, to find a solution that brings peace to Syria, stabilizes the region, stabilizes those chemical weapons. But it's not going to be something that the United States does by itself.


AMANPOUR: Syria the crisis, but of course the first questions that the White House press corps fired at President Obama were all about these domestic scandals, whether the Internal Revenue Service singling out Tea Party and conservation groups for extra scrutiny or the Justice Department's speakered (ph) dragnet of the Associated Press phone records, or the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

Not surprising it's so hard to forge a foreign policy. Besides that internally, how damaging are these scandal questions? Jeffrey Toobin is CNN's senior legal analyst. He's been following all of this very closely and I'm pleased to welcome you right now to talk about this, Jeffrey, because you can imagine our international audience, whether Americans abroad or others, are trying to figure out how big is this?

We hear charges from the president's enemies; this is worse than Watergate. Somebody, the president should be impeached. Somebody should be imprisoned.

Is it that big?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's certainly not that big now and it may never be that big. You know, Washington loves a scandal. Washington loves a big story where the president is in jeopardy. It is far less clear that the American people, much less people around the world, are interested in these stories; they appear to be interested in what they're always interested in, the economy, jobs and the like.

But these three stories don't appear to have any involvement by the president himself and it's far from clear that there was illegality in any of the three (inaudible).


AMANPOUR: Before I get down to one or two of them, is this, though, the kind of thing that can stymie the president in a second term?

TOOBIN: Well, President Obama has a lot of problems in this second term even without these scandals. He has a Republican House of Representatives which is much more conservative even than the Senate and certainly much more conservative that he is. It's going to be very difficult for him to get anything through the House of Representatives and thus into law, even without these things.

Will they make it harder? Probably a little. But I don't sense, at least at this point that immigration reform, which is certainly his top priority, is in real danger because of these things.

AMANPOUR: Now the president addressed the issue of the IRS and the Tea Party in that scrutiny; the head of the IRS has gone. He's resigned.

What about the Justice Department and its secret dragnet of the AP? I was not immune from the irony of watching Prime Minister Erdogan listening to all this. I mean, Turkey is the -- you know, one of the most repressive when it comes to journalism and journalists. And here's President Obama having to defend something that we all find outrageous.

TOOBIN: Right. I mean, certainly we in the news media are very worried and very concerned about this because there was apparently a leak investigation. It hasn't been exactly identified which one. But as a result of that, the Associated Press had enormous amounts of its records subpoenaed. That clearly, at least as far as I can tell, is a legal thing for the government to do.

The government can do this. But it raises real questions of how much the government cares about freedom of the press. I don't know how much the people outside the journalistic community care about this. Republicans usually are mad at the administration for not doing enough about leaks; now suddenly they're angry (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: Firstly, I think it was an overreach. Many are saying because actually the law said that they should have approached the organization and should have talked about them without doing this secretly.

TOOBIN: Well, and there has never been a subpoena this broad to a news organization ever in American history. So you can see why people are quite upset (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: And I can see why people overseas might be concerned, because they also are very concerned about freedom of expression. I mean, many of these revolutions are about freedom of expression and the ability to speak.

Now this was about leaks. We, you know, regarding, you know, a terrorist situation or whatever they claim.

But the administration itself is one of the most prosecutorial when it comes to journalists. And it's been doing its fair share of leaking. And it's under investigation.

TOOBIN: Well, one of the peculiarities, I think you would say, about the Obama administration, though it is a more liberal, more left-leaning administration than the Bush administration which it followed, the Obama administration has been more aggressive in pursuing leakers, that is people who give or are accused of giving classified information to journalists than even the Bush administration or any administration previously.

Many of us in the news media feel that is a terrific threat to what we do, especially national security reporters, and this subpoena to the Associated Press is the latest and biggest step that the administration has taken in this regard.

AMANPOUR: Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much indeed.


AMANPOUR: And again, everybody watching to see whether this idea of national security trumps the idea of a free press.

And turning now to another gathering storm, the ongoing unprecedented hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay prison, with some of the prisoners, as we've been reporting, being force-fed. President Obama says he still wants to close down the prison, but there's no sign of any movement yet. And the prisoners certainly see no end in sight.

As I say, we've been covering this story from all angles. And tonight, we have a guest who knows exactly what it is like in Guantanamo Bay prison, because he was locked up there for three year, two of them spent in solitary confinement.

He is Moazzam Begg, a dual British and Pakistani citizen, who was taken from his home in Pakistan in the middle of the night in 2001. The U.S. had accused him of aiding the Taliban and Al Qaeda and funding terrorists, though he was never charged or prosecuted and denies these charges -- denies these accusations, I might say.

So how did his ordeal end? He joins me now from Birmingham, England.

Mr. Begg, thank you for joining me. What was it like for you in Guantanamo Bay prison, as you see what's happening with these prisoners there?

MOAZZAM BEGG, FORMER PRISONER, GUANTANAMO BAY: Well, it's now nearly eight years since I was released from there, so people have been held there for 11 years. But my -- I'd say relatively shorter time compared with these men was mostly spent in solitary confinement where I know a lot of them are now.

And that means being in a cell measure 8' x 6', where you can't take more than three steps in either direction. It means you can't have meaningful communication with your family.

And most importantly, it means that you don't know what you're there for or if you're ever going to get to see the inside of a courtroom or to face your accuser or have the notion of ever being released in a sane sort of way.

Several people have eventually, of course, been released, gone home to visit the graves of their mothers who've passed away or to see children that have grown up. There is a British individual here who's in Guantanamo, whose family are all here called Shakar Amar (ph). He's been in Guantanamo for 11 years. He's been -- he's been cleared for release twice and he still remains in Guantanamo.

And that is the paradox. That's the nature of Guantanamo, is that you can be held in there without charge or trial, cleared by the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies and yet still at the whim of the president and the Congress remain detained without charge.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you about the hunger strike. I mean, presumably then you support it, despite the risk these prisoners are putting their lives at.

BEGG: Well, yes, of course. I mean, a hunger strike is something that's been going on sporadically for the past 11 years, over the past 100 days it's become something that has gathered momentum; it's gathered numbers and they are hunger striking now for one purpose only, and everything else, sadly and oddly as it may be, torture is peripheral, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is peripheral.

Not communicating with your family or being sexually abused, which is what's happening now when they're being visited by their lawyers, they have to be -- have a cavity search before and after the visits with the lawyers. All of these things are peripheral in comparison to the fact that they've been held for such a long time.

As I said, several have been cleared. Half of them could easily go back home. And yet they're still there and there is no proper sense. And the only way that they can get their voice across, as it were, is to hunger strike to the point of death. And of course that's why they're force- feeding them, so that doesn't happen.

AMANPOUR: I wonder whether you think this will be a turning point and whether, in fact, you think that one or more of these are going to die?

BEGG: Well, you know, every time the most powerful man in the world says something about Guantanamo, the world tends to take note. So the first time Obama said that he's going to close Guantanamo, everybody believed him.

And I guess the greatest trick he ever played in this regard is that once he said something, the world tends to believe it. So when I go around the world and campaign and fight for the rights of the prisoners, people say, oh, isn't that place closed? Obama said it was going to be closed. And I say, no, of course, it's not. There are still 166 people there.

So now that he's said it again and he spoke it out again, either he's simply a president who is impotent when he's faced with Congress, who present him arguments that simply we wouldn't allow, we wouldn't place them in any other normal society and say, well, if there are people there who might, if one out of 600 people went to the battlefield and became a recidivist, therefore now that presents the argument that none of them should be released.

And we simply don't allow that -- we don't do that in our prison systems. Why would we do that in a place where people haven't even been designated for trial by the kangaroo court military commission system?

AMANPOUR: So Mr. Begg?

BEGG: (Inaudible) by the U.S. authorities for release.

AMANPOUR: How -- explain to us, then, how you got out. You weren't charged; you deny all the accusations against you. But you did get out like these you know, 86 who have been cleared for transfer, should be allowed to go back. You did.

How do you think that would work and describe how it worked for you.

BEGG: Well, it's slightly different for me. I'm a British citizen. I'm born and raised in the U.K. My father, he did a very high-profile campaign. He got many British members of Parliament on his side.

He got Amnesty International and many members of the community. And he had a simple call. He went all the way to Washington and he said, please either charge my son or release him if he's not committed a crime.

And that is the rule of law applied, the rule of law. Because you've claimed that your country is one that establishes it. And boasts this civilization (inaudible) the rest of the world. Now the fact that habeas corpus, the right to the body, has not been applied to any of those prisoners there, just denigrates completely the state of the United States in this regard.

So eventually, the British government called for my release because they recognized that as close as they were to the United States in this regard and the British intelligence services were involved and complicit in my torture and my being held in Guantanamo, but nonetheless, the government acted. And it acted on behalf of all the other British Guantanamo prisoners.

The other governments are not doing that. But of course the blocks been put on by Congress, that even those who were cleared, even the Wegas (ph) from China, who were potentially United States allies, cannot find a home. So this is a problem. And according to the ratio, more people have been released by Bush than they ever have been by Obama.

AMANPOUR: Of course, the Yemen government wants their prisoners back; the Afghans have called for them, these 86.

But what I want to ask you is after the treatment that you describe, you nonetheless still have and did then have some, as you call them, decent relations with some of the Guantanamo guards and soldiers. And you even visit with them now. Explain how that ever happened.

BEGG: Well, listen, I mean, in the interest of fairness and justice, which is what I believe in, it's important to speak the truth, even if it's in relation to those you regard you as the enemy.

And I came across several soldiers, male, female, black, Hispanic, white, from different parts of the United States, from the East Coast, West Coast and everything in between, who are really decent, who treated me in a way and many other prisoners in a way that -- I learned from them, I think, the respect that we still have to this day and have several of them as my friends on Facebook; two of them have come over to the U.K. and visited with me.

I've gone to Dubai with one of them and spoken about the effects of torture from both sides. With one of them I did a tour called "Two Sides, One Story," all around the U.K. And (inaudible) my wife and children. They've spoken. They've ate at my house and they're welcome because they were decent people and they still are.

The question I would ask, though, for a lot of American viewers is that would America reciprocate this? Would they invite former Guantanamo prisoners and others to the United States in order for us to be welcome in their homes? Or are we only welcome in prisons where we're tortured?

And here's the reality, a question that the United States should ask itself, because we've stretched our hand across to these men and women. And we continue to do so because that breaks the stereotype, doesn't it? Because we're called these -- the worst of the worst terrorists, who are bent on destroying the West and an American way of life.

Yet then we throw this spanner into the works. How do they answer this question if it's also a ploy for Al Qaeda?

Moazzam Begg, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

And of course we have been interviewing some of the former prosecutors who have also now talked about what's going on at Guantanamo and how it should be closed and how those who've been cleared should be released.

After we take a break, we'll turn to Iran, whose nuclear program featured prominently as well in those talks between Messrs. Obama and Erdogan today. Iran is also about to hold what could be a game-changer election.

Four years after the violence and bloodshed that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's highly disputed reelection. In a moment, I'll have a rare opportunity to speak with one of the men running to become the next president of Iran, who also happens to be his country's chief nuclear negotiator.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Iran's next presidential election is June 14th. And the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, hopes that this one goes more smoothly than back in 2009, when the country erupted in protest after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner amidst widespread allegations of fraud.

Score of reformists, activists and journalists have been jailed now ahead of this upcoming vote. But now two last-minute entries may disrupt the coming race anyway, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, who supported the reformist movement of 2009, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, protege and handpicked successor of President Ahmadinejad, who's lost favor with the Supreme Leader in his second term.

A major issue that caused him to lose the ayatollah's support, Ahmadinejad and Mashaei claim to be in direct communication with the Mahdi, who's an ancient Shiite messiah. The ayatollah has called this a deviant religious practice on a par with sorcery.

Today we have a rare opportunity to talk to another leading contender in the race, a favorite of the ayatollah's and the religious establishment, Saeed Jalili. He is Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and leads the charge for Iran's growing nuclear program.

Despite the brutal sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. Jalili has been meeting the West's lead negotiator, Catherine Ashton, in Istanbul, where I spoke to him earlier today.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Jalili, welcome to the program. You are a candidate in the Iranian elections.

What do you make of the two new candidates who have entered the race, the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani and the chief aide to President Ahmadinejad, Mr. Ibrahim (ph) Rahim Mashaei? What is your reaction to them entering the race?

SAEED JALILI, IRAN'S TOP NUCLEAR NEGOTIATOR AND PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (through translator): Iran is a democratic, religious system of government. In this system, different approaches and points of view are accommodated. The more participation we have, the stronger the system will be. Election competition in an Islamic system helps to further bolster and strengthen the system, I am pleased to say.

And many would-be candidates have signed their names. And, of course, they have to be vetted by the Guardian Council; provided they are vetted, the race will continue.

AMANPOUR: You're right. There are about 600, if not more, candidates who've signed up.

Do you believe the Guardian Council will approve Mr. Mashaei, for instance, and Mr. Rafsanjani?

JALILI (through translator): In any case, I myself or other candidates, all candidates for that matter, have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, and we have to abide by the letter of the law.

The Guardian Council has been accorded a special status by the constitution. One of its duties is to determine the competency of would-be candidates.

AMANPOUR: You know that there's a lot of interest in what's happening right now. It's presumed that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, did not want Mr. Mashaei to run, and nor did he want Mr. Rafsanjani to run.

And the deputy commander of the Iranian police has issued a warning -- and I shall read it to you.

He has said to President Ahmadinejad and his confidant, Mr. Mashaei, that, "the shedding of blood" is allowed if they do not stop claiming to take their orders from the Mahdi, from the Shia messiah, the hidden imam.

Do you believe there's going to be violence?

JALILI (through translator): the Supreme Leader of the revolution, with regard to election, His Eminence has said three things: one, the rule of law; all political leanings and factions within the confines of the law must participate.

The second point relates to the participation of all political factions and leanings. His Eminence does not prefer one candidate over another and His Eminence has said that, again, in a foundation of law, if you give (ph) everyone must participate.

So we are going to Inshallah (ph), God willing, have a vibrant race.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Jalili, let me ask you about the nuclear issues. The Iranian side wants to, quote, "close the file" on the issue. The IAEA still has questions about whether Iran is militarizing your nuclear program. They want more information; they want to visit the Parchin site.

Have you closed that file in these last couple of days of discussion?

JALILI (through translator): In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful, as you will appreciate, Iran is a member of the NPT. We are an active member and we have contributed to the better working of the agency in the past years.

The cooperation we have had with the agency, dare I say, is unprecedented and unique. Thousands of man-hours of inspections have been carried out and all the activities of Iran are under the monitoring supervision of the agencies.

Some years ago we worked out a modality with the agency to provide answers to all the questions of the agency, outstanding questions. They came back with six questions and in less than six months, we provided answers to all six. And later the agency wrote a letter stating that this issue, as far as they are concerned, has been laid to rest, so to speak.

And they have no misgivings anymore, to do away with the ambiguities, the questions that they might have.

AMANPOUR: Well, I guess it's not over yet; and there is another issue, of course, and that is the issue of Iran's uranium enrichment. We know your position, that you have that right under the NPT.

Can you tell me, are there any specific new proposals that Iran plans to give to its Western negotiators?

JALILI (through translator): The Islamic Republic of Iran has always stressed that for peaceful purposes, they believe enrichment is our right. With regards to the P5+1 talks, we have insisted on the recognition of this right.

AMANPOUR: Will these negotiations go forward? Will you have more negotiations? Will they be affected by the Iranian elections which are coming up?

JALILI (through translator): In my good meeting with Lady Ashton last night, we decided to continue with the talks. And of course, there are ideas on the table by both parties and we will work on those. And we will keep in contact to continue with the talks.

I have expressed our readiness to continue whenever the other party wants to continue, whether a meeting can be organized before the elections or after the elections. Both possibilities would be fine by us.

AMANPOUR: We'll be watching. Dr. Jalili, thank you very much for joining me.

JALILI (through translator): Thank you, Madam.



AMANPOUR: Finally tonight, imagine changing the world one girl at a time. That is the theme of "Girl Rising", a remarkable documentary that airs next month right here on CNN. I helped launch the project and I wrote the first of a series of open letters to girls around the globe. Here's a little excerpt.

I said, "Just imagine the whole world rising, as it will when all women and girls are empowered. It has to start with education, because an educated girl is a girl who can get a job, become a breadwinner and raise herself, a family, her village, her community and eventually her whole country. It is high time the rest of the world caught on."

That's it for tonight's program. You can always follow us at our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.