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Terror Suspects Missing From Federal Program; Obama Talks Syria Red Lines; Syrian Chemical Weapons Threat

Aired May 16, 2013 - 13:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: And I don't mean to disrespect a man who was killed and a brave man. But my understanding is that reason. A lot of ambassadors who are in countries like that don't actually like to have big footprints when they travel. My understanding is that Stevens fit that description.

But we should also point out that Stevens wanted more security for diplomats in Libya in general. And one of the interesting parts of the Obama administration's and the White House's reaction to the Benghazi controversy or scandal is the fact that they have now accepted the fact that what a lot of us were reporting in September and October -- I was with another network and I was reporting all these State Department requests being denied, all these individuals on the ground in Libya asking the State Department, we need more security. Why are you taking away our airplane? We want a tour of this security team extended. And the White House and State Department was pushing back very aggressively, in my report, saying, that's not true. This is not an issue. This is not the case.

Now, they accept that it is true. Now that they accept that it is the case and it is one of the points of the three controversies before, during and after and the response to the security situation in Benghazi, it is the one that they are seeding and it is the one that the independent review concludes was handled incredibly poorly --


JAKE: -- by the State Department.

BLITZER: And that's why the president went out of his way just now to say, you know what? We're going to learn from those mistakes, whatever they were. We're going to bolster security, make sure that American diplomats, other U.S. officials are not put in that kind of a situation --


BLITZER: -- once again.

BORGER: -- and, Wolf, there's some Democrats, you know, who make the claim that this was, as a result of budget cutting, that they felt the necessity to do because of Republicans calling for budget cuts. But, honestly, that argument hasn't gotten an awful lot of traction here. Embassy security is important. BLITZER: While we wait for the start of the question and answer session with the president and the Turkish prime minister, he's still involved in his opening statement speaking about U.S.-Turkish relations, there's a new report -- you broke this news, Jake, an hour or so ago here on CNN. And I'll read the title of this inspector general's report for the Department of Justice's. Interim report on the Department of Justice's handling of known or suspected terrorists admitted into the Federal Witness Security Program. Unless, -- hold that thought for a moment because the questioning is about to begin.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- and us to give concise answers. I'm going to start with Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Mr. President, I want to ask you about the IRS. Can you assure the American people that no one in the White House knew about the actions before your counsel's office found out on April 22nd? And when they did find out, do you think you should have learned about it before you learned about it from news reports, as you said last Friday And also, are you opposed to there being a special counsel appointed to lead the Justice Department investigation? And also, Mr. Prime minister, what is the status to normalize relations with Israel? And do you still plan on going to Gaza next week?

OBAMA: Well, with respect to the IRS, I spoke to this yesterday. My main concern is fixing a problem. And we began that process yesterday by asking and accepting the resignation of the acting director there. We will be putting in new leadership that will be able to make sure that following up on the IG audit that we gather up all the facts, that we hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions.

As I said last night, it is just simply unacceptable for there to even be a hint of partisanship or ideology when it comes to the application of our tax laws. I am gonna go ahead and ask folks, why don't you-why don't we get a couple of Marines? They're gonna look good next to us. Just 'cause I...


... I want-I've got a change of suits, but I don't know about our prime-our prime minister.


There we go. That's good. You guys, I'm sorry about.


OBAMA: But...


OBAMA: But let me-let me-let me make sure that I answer your specific question.

I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the I.G. report before the I.G. report had been leaked through press- through the press.

Typically, the I.G. reports are not supposed to be widely distributed or shared. They tend to be, you know, a process that everybody's trying to protect the integrity of.

But, what I'm absolutely certain of is that the actions that were described in that I.G. report are unacceptable. So in addition to making sure that we've got a new acting director there, we're also gonna make sure that we gather up the facts and hold accountable and responsible anybody who was involved in this.

We're gonna make sure that we identify any structural or management issues to prevent something like this from happening again. We going to make sure that we are accepting all of the recommendations that the I.G. has in the report.

OBAMA: And I'm looking forward to working with Congress to fully investigate what happened, make sure that it doesn't happen again, and also look at some of the laws that create a bunch of ambiguity in which the IRS may not have enough guidance and not be clear about what, exactly, they need to be doing and doing it right, so that the American people have confidence that-that the tax laws are being applied fairly and evenly.

So, you know, in terms of the White House and reporting, I think that, you know, you've gotten that information from Mr. Carney and others. You know, I promise you this, that the minute I found out about it, then my main focus is making sure that we get the thing fixed.

You know, I think that it's going to be sufficient for us to be working with Congress. They've got a whole bunch of committees. We've got I.G.s already there. The I.G. has done an audit, it's now my understanding, going to be recommending an investigation. And, you know, Attorney General Holder also announced a criminal investigation of what happened.

Between those investigations, I think we're going to be able to figure out exactly what happened, who was involved, what went wrong, and we're going to be able to implement steps to fix it.

And that ultimately is the main priority that I have, but also I think the American people have. They understand that we've got an agency that has enormous potential power and is involved in everybody's lives. And that's part of the reason why it's been treated as a quasi-independent institution. But that's also why we've got to make sure that it is doing its job scrupulously and without even a hint of bias or a hint that somehow they're favoring one group over another.

And as I said yesterday, I'm outraged by this in part because, look, I'm a public figure. If-if a future administration is starting to use the tax laws to favor one party over another or one political view over another, obviously we're all vulnerable. And that's why, as I've said, it doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, you should be equally outraged at even the prospect that the IRS might not be acting with the kind of complete neutrality that we expect. And I think we're going to be able to fix it. We're going to be able to get there and get it done, and we've already begun that process, and we're going to keep on going until it's finished.

All right, guys, I think that's...

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRIME MINISTER OF TURKEY (through translator): Your question about Gaza --


BLITZER: All right, we're going to monitor what the Turkish prime minister is saying about Israel and Gaza. We'll report that in a moment. But I just want to bring back Jake Tapper and Gloria Borger. You heard specifically the president say he thinks the existing investigations will be sufficient, the Justice Department investigation as far as the IRS abuses are concerned and any other inspector general investigations, there's no need for a special council.

TAPPER: It's interesting. And, of course, he's got this new scandal that is so new that he wasn't even asked about it yet in the press briefing --

BLITZER: It's not over with yet.

TAPPER: -- press briefing yet. We'll see -- however, we'll see if he gets asked about it. And that is if we at CNN have a first report about this Justice Department inspector general report looking at the federal witness relocation program or witness security in which the U.S. marshals admitted that they would give former or suspected terrorists new identities for cooperating in investigations and not provide those identities to the interested parties, the people who keep together the watch list -- the terrorist watch list which meant that these people with their new names could fly on commercial airlines despite the fact that they would not -- they were not allowed to because they were obviously suspected terrorists.

And, in addition, once the auditor -- once the inspector general, during -- doing its audit, told the Justice Department about this and they tried to remedy it, the Justice Department found that they could not locate two of these suspected terrorists. We have some excerpts from the report. In July 2012, the marshal service stated it was unable to locate two former participants identified as known or suspected terrorists and that through its investigative efforts, it is concluded that one individual was and the other individual was believed to be residing outside the United States.

And then, of course, as I just said, as a result of the Department of Justice not disclosing information on how these known or suspected terrorists, the new government provided entities of known or suspected terrorists, the new government provided entities of known or suspected terrorists were not included on the government's consolidated terrorist watch list until we brought this matter to the Department's attention. Therefore, it was possible for known or suspected terrorists to fly on commercial airplanes in or over the United States. It's quite chilling. The Justice Department concedes the points, does not dispute any of them. They say the Justice Department agrees with the inspector general's audit report that the wit sec, the witness security's, program requirements for admitting and monitoring participants needed to be enhanced for terrorism-linked witnesses. Quite remarkable.

BLITZER: We're going to continue our analysis of this latest development. And once again, Jake breaking the news here on CNN a bit more than an hour ago. But the president is now answering another question over at the White House.


OBAMA: It is important for us to make sure that we're able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.

But separate and apart from the chemical weapons, we know that tens of thousands of people are being killed with artillery and mortars and that the humanitarian crisis and the slaughter that's taking place by itself is sufficient to prompt strong international action.

And that's why the prime minister and I spoke extensively about the steps we're taking on humanitarian efforts, the steps that we're taking to strengthen the opposition politically so that it is inclusive and representative of all the people inside of Syria, the steps that we need to take to continue to strengthen the capacity of the Syrian opposition that are on the ground fighting to protect themselves from the Assad regime, and that we continue to try to mobilize the entire international community to put more and more pressure on Assad so that he recognizes that he is no longer legitimate and that he needs to go, and that we are able to move to a political transition in which the institutions inside of Syria are still functioning, but we have a representative multi-ethnic, multi- religious (ph) body that can bring about democracy and peace inside of Syria.

With respect to what I've said in the past around redlines, what I've said is that the use of chemical weapons are something that the civilized world has recognized should be out of bounds. And, you know, as we gather more evidence and work together, my intention is to make sure that we're presenting everything that we know to the international community as an additional reason, an additional mechanism, for the international community to put all the pressure that they can on the Assad regime and to work with the opposition to bring about that political transition.

Now, there are a whole range of options that the United States is already engaged in. And I preserve the options of taking additional steps, both diplomatic and military, because those chemical weapons inside of Syria also threaten our-our security over the long term as well as our allies and-and friends and neighbors. But 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 gonna be something that the United States does by itself, and I don't think anybody in the region including the prime minister would think that U.S. unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside-inside of Syria.

Chuck Mason (ph)

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

I would like to ask you about the Justice Department.

Do you believe the seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists this week, or the four that was (sic) announced recently this week, was an overreach? And do you still have full confidence in your attorney general? Should we interpret yesterday's renewed interest by the White House in a media shield law as a response to that?

And, more broadly, how do you feel about comparisons by some of your critics of this week's scandals to those that have happened under the Nixon administration? OBAMA: I'll let you guys gauge those comparisons. You can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions.

My concern is making sure that if there is a problem in the government that we fix it. That's my responsibility. And that's what we're going to do. That's true with respect to the IRS, and making sure that they apply the laws the way they were intended. That's true with respect to the security of our diplomats, which is why we're gonna need to work with Congress to make sure that there's adequate funding for what's necessary out there.

Now, with respect to the Department of Justice, I'm not gonna comment on a specific-impending case, but I'll-I can talk broadly about the balance that we have to strike.

You know, leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I've sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised at risk. U.S. national security is dependent on those folks being able to operate with confidence that folks back home have their backs. So they're not just left out there high and dry and potentially put in even more danger than they may already be.

And so I make no apologies, and I don't think the American people would expect me, as commander in chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.

Now, the flip side of it is, we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable and helps our democracy function. And, you know, the whole reason I got involved in politics is because I believe so deeply in that democracy and that process.

So, you know, the whole goal of this media shield wall that was worked on and largely endorsed by folks like the Washington Post editorial page and by prosecutors was finding a way to strike that balance appropriately. And to the extent that this case-which we still don't know all the details of-to the extent this case has prompted renewed interest about how do we strike that balance properly -- and I think now's the time for us to go ahead and revisit that legislation. I think that's a worthy conversation to have, and I think that's important.

But I also think it's important to recognize that, you know, when we express concern about leaks, at a time when I've still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I've still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations, in outposts that in some cases are as dangerous as the outpost in Benghazi, that part of my job is to make sure that we're protecting what they do, while still accommodating for the need for information, so-or the need for the public to be informed and be able to hold my office accountable.

QUESTION: I'd asked about Holder, as well. And for the prime minister, I wanted to ask you, sir, if the United States does not step up its involvement in Syria, in your view, how will that affect the war? And what plans do you have to react to the bombing of the border town that the president mentioned of Reyhanli?

OBAMA: Mr. Prime Minister, just excuse me. You're right. I have complete confidence in Eric Holder as attorney general. He's an outstanding attorney general and does his job with integrity, and I expect he will continue to do so.

ERDOGAN (through translator): You are talking about the part of the glass which is empty. I'd like to look at things with the glass half- full --


BLITZER: So once again we'll continue to monitor what the Turkish prime minister is saying. We'll get back to him shortly. We'll hear what the president has to say as well. They're getting into some other issues including Syria and if the U.S. doesn't step up its own military involvement in Syria what will Turkey, which borders Syria, what will Turkey do?

But, Gloria, we just heard the president say, you know, he's got a delicate line he's got to walk. He wants to protect the first amendment, make sure there's freedom of speech. At the same time he wants to protect U.S. national security and military personnel. And if there are leaks that endanger them, he wants to make sure that something is done.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. He was talking about striking the balance properly because it is a balancing act. And he said he makes no apology about looking into national security leaks that could endanger the lives of men and women who serve overseas. So it's very clear that he believes in some kind of a journalistic shield law so that you can protect your sources, et cetera. He didn't come out and say that he believed that the Justice Department overreached. Obviously he cannot do that. He did express complete confidence in his friend, the Attorney General Eric Holder, but he can't comment obviously on this specific breach.

BLITZER: How much trouble do you think Eric Holder, Jake, the attorney general is in?

TAPPER: I think we're getting a question from President Obama right now? Oh, Turkish reporter. I apologize. How much trouble do I think Attorney General Eric Holder is in? Eric Holder is known for being one of the closest people in the president's cabinet to the president. He has a very close friendship with him. I've heard other members of the administration marvel at how little Eric Holder can do to get the president mad at him, even though he has been under fire any number of times. I should point out to follow-up on what Gloria was saying. This is what presidents always say. Always say, when they go after journalists.

BLITZER: The president is now responding to this latest question. Let's listen in.


OBAMA: -- there's been consistency on the part of my administration that Assad lost legitimacy when he started firing on his own people and killing his own people, who initially were protesting peacefully for a greater voice in their country's affairs. And, obviously, that's escalated during the course of time.

So the answer is: the sooner the better. In terms of the question how, I think we've already discussed that. There's no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria's. If there was, I think the prime minister and I would have already acted on it and it would already be finished.

And, instead, what we have to do is apply steady international pressure, strengthen the opposition. I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and representatives about a serious political transition that all parties can buy into may yield results. But in the meantime, we're going to continue to make sure that we're helping the opposition and, obviously, dealing with the humanitarian situation, and we'll do so in close consultation with Turkey, which obviously is deeply invested in this and with whom we've got an outstanding relationship with.

ERDOGAN (through translator): Thank you very much. As you know, we will be meeting again this evening, so we'll have time to go in further detail. As I said before, our views do overlap --

(END LIVE FEED) BLITZER: All right. So we were talking earlier this whole Syria issue obviously a huge issue of concern, Jake and Gloria, for the U.S. and Turkey. Turkey especially, it borders Syria and wants a much more assertive U.S. response, which apparently, Jake, doesn't seem based on what we're hearing from the president, it doesn't seem to be in the works at least right now.

TAPPER: This is a president who feels burned by what generals told him when it came to the first surge in Afghanistan in 2009, who feels that a much greater reluctance to use American force abroad than he did in his first term. If you look at his national security team right now, especially the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, they are much more dovish when it comes to the use of American force than their predecessors, Kerry and Hagel, who not coincidentally are both Vietnam veterans, combat veterans, are much more reluctant than Panetta or Gates were at the Pentagon or Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton. It's not a surprise to me. What would surprise me is that if President Obama ever sent boots on the ground into Syria. He's been reluctant to even send military assistance -- direct military assistance.

BLITZER: He's not going to do boots on the ground. Even John McCain or Lindsey Graham don't want that. But they want more of an air cover, if you will, or supplying lethal weapons on a more assertive basis.


BORGER: What Turkey really wants is much more help with the refugee problem than they believe we're giving them. There are 400,000 refugees from Syria in Turkey. And it's costing them, you know, over $1 billion a year to deal with it. And this is a real problem for them. And I think that they're looking for some assistance with those refugees from the United States.

BLITZER: They are looking for some help from the U.S. and I'm sure there will be some diplomatic help, political help, financial assistance. But as far as what the U.S. and NATO allies did in Libya, sending in cruise missiles, having a no-fly zone if you will, there doesn't seem to be an appetite for that.

TAPPER: No. None at all. None at all. I also don't think there's much of an appetite for it among the American people who are very war wary. We still have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. I don't think the military's particularly excited. Military official not excited to enter into a new military engagement. I know we're about to break away.

BLITZER: They're wrapping up.

TAPPER: One other point I wanted to make. We were talking about President Obama talking about how the Justice Department subpoenaed the records of the Associated Press, a very broad subpoena of phone records to find out more about who leaked information about a terrorist plot. And President Obama talked about the need to balance the first amendment and also the freedom of the press and also national security, that's what every president says.

Every president whether it's Nixon with the Pentagon papers or George W. Bush with the NSA wiretapping story, every president exerts 'I'm doing this to keep you safe.' A lot of people in the public, they say that's enough. And they believe it. But the truth of the matter is that it's not enough of an answer in and of itself. That's why there is congressional oversight of the executive branch. It's not enough just to say we're doing it to keep you safe, because the moment the American people cede that territory, then presidents can do whatever they want.

BORGER: And when you look at the specifics of this case with the Associated Press, you have a subpoena that was broadly drawn.

TAPPER: Very broad.

BORGER: That was done in secret. That they only discovered after the fact about a story that was a successful attempt to thwart terrorism that eventually the administration revealed itself. So there are questions regarding this particular case that are different from sort of the overarching theme.


BLITZER: The Attorney General, Eric Holder, says this might be the one or two or three most severe damaging impacts on national security.


BORGER: And the Associated Press held the story.

TAPPER: And keep in mind this administration, the Obama administration, has used the Espionage Act more times to go after whistleblowers, individuals in the government who share potentially damaging information with reporters, they have used the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers more than every other administration combined. This is a very aggressive administration when it comes to squashing freedom of the press.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin, our chief White House correspondent at the Rose Garden where it was raining earlier. I assume it stopped raining now. We're looking at the president. I guess he's with the family of the Turkish prime minister, is that correct? Jessica? We're not hearing you.

We got to get Jessica's microphone going. We're going to fix your microphone, Jessica. And then we'll hear what you have to say. That's very important.

The president has just wrapped up his news conference with the Turkish prime minister Erdogan. They spoke extensively about Syria. Clearly the U.S. no major news on that front. The U.S. reluctant to get involved on the ground or even in the air over Syria. There you see the president -- that picture's breaking up as well.

Jessica's microphone's breaking up. But we're going to try to reconnect with her in a moment. That's what happens when you got live television and the clouds are over Washington. Jessica, can you hear me now?


BLITZER: Yes. Looks like the president said good-bye to the Turkish prime minister and his wife. Go ahead. What's your take-away from what we just heard from the president?

YELLIN: He's actually just walked back into the Oval Office. I don't know if you heard at the very end, but I did shout out a question asking him if he would comment on the witness protection program, the latest news Jake brought us earlier. And he heard the question, looked at me, smiled and walked away.

I shouted it again and he kept on walking. So the president does not want to engage on that front. He didn't seem to want to provide more news on any of these fronts today, Wolf, except that he has faith in his attorney general.