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Obamacare Rollout Problems; Illegal Drone Strikes?

Aired October 22, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the president and his health secretary calling some big guns to help fix the Obamacare Web site as we learn some shocking reasons the site turned into a fiasco.

Plus dramatic new poll numbers. Americans rate the Republicans at the center of the government shutdown and the results are historic.

And a scathing new condemnation of U.S. drone strikes. The administration's response to accusations that the United States may be guilty of war crimes.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

Brand new this hour, only on CNN, Republicans and the Tea Party are getting the worst ratings in the history of our polling just a week after the government shutdown. Democrats aren't faring a whole lot better as they struggle to repair the damage from the Obamacare debacle.

Our chief national correspondent John King is standing by with the dramatic new poll numbers.

Let's go first to our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, we're the learning about a lack of management during development of the Obamacare Web site.

What's being done to fix it?


One of the biggest problems, we are told, facing this Web site was that there wasn't really a single point person, a manager, really, in charge of all of this who would have had a really good handle on exactly where the Web site was, what shortcomings there were.

And we told this by sources inside and outside the government who spoke to us anonymously, because they are not authorized to speak on the record. Now, to that point, today, we learned, and this is really the improvement that you point out, Wolf, that Jeff Zients is going to now, it appears, be that point person to deal with the further rollout of this key phase of Obamacare to get through this debacle involving the Web site. He is a former top economic adviser to President Obama. He has served other administration roles, but he has also has a lot of private sector experience as well. He was the CEO of a company. And belatedly of course to fulfill this role as many observers will point out, but nonetheless one source said this is really going to be really the equivalent of someone giving a no-B.S. assessment of the site.

We are also told by Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius that top Silicon Valley veterans will as well be coming in to assist. We don't know who they are, though, Wolf.

BLITZER: We know that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services were aware in advance before the October 1 roll out that there were some serious problems. They decided to go ahead with it anyhow in any case.

But here's the question. Did officials at the White House, were they fully aware of these problems before October 1?

KEILAR: It's hard to tell, Wolf, but it does seem certainly there was some awareness within the administration.

And talking to sources, you really do come to realize that it was a bit of an open secret, certainly among contractors who were working on this that things weren't where they were supposed to be. In fact, sources tell our Joe Johns that the government was aware that there were at least capacity problems, a source saying that when CMS, which is that division of HHS that is overseeing this Web site roll out and the implementation of Obamacare, when CMS higher-ups realized that there was this issue, they kind of circled the wagons and really downplayed some of the glitches.

That may have been what reflected President Obama really having such a positive face about what the Web site was going to be just a few days before it launched.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar over at the White House, thank you.

Let's get to the dramatic new polling we're releasing right now and Americans' views of the political parties and the lightning rod figures on both sides of the aisle.

Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King. He's going through all the numbers.

What are we seeing, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we're seeing is the American people have a very dim view of all of the leaders here in Washington.

And it's fair to say after the shutdown they dislike the Republicans a bit more. Let's go through some of the leading figures here in Washington. I was about to call them the stars of Washington, but the American people don't view them that way, according to our poll. Let's look at Nancy Pelosi. She's the House Democratic leader, of course. By 10 points, people have a more unfavorable opinion of Nancy Pelosi than favorable, only a 37 percent favorable rating. But her counterpart, the House speaker, the Republican speaker, John Boehner, look at that, essentially two to one more people find -- more Americans find him unfavorable, view him unfavorably than do favorably post-shutdown, bad numbers there for a speaker.

If you move over to the Senate side, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, again just 23 percent favorable, more than four in 10 an unfavorable opinion. And the Republican senator who helped drive the strategy against Obamacare, look at that, Ted Cruz making his mark on the national stage and at the moment, popular with Tea Party Republicans, but with Americans at large, 23 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable.

Want some proof that the best place to be in politics was as far away from the shutdown as you could be? Let's look at Hillary Clinton's polls numbers right now. She of course not involved at all right now. She is out doing some campaigning and thinking about 2016, a 59 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable. You can bet one of the things Secretary Clinton is happy for is to have absolutely nothing to do with what the country just went through.

BLITZER: Yes, she just dipped her toes a little bit in the political race in Virginia the other day. Her husband, the former president, will be a little bit more aggressive helpful their good friend Terry McAuliffe in the days to come.

Getting back to these numbers, John, Republicans are facing obviously some very high unfavorable numbers after the shutdown. These numbers are significant because potentially they could affect the 2014 midterm elections.

KING: Exactly right.

History tells you 2014 should be a good year for the Republicans, because you have a Democratic president and his approval rating is at 44 percent, under 50. Republicans were looking at gains next year, not losses, but these numbers show you Democrats have an opening. Still, you would tend to say history says a Republican year, but look at this, a 64 percent unfavorable rating for the Republican Party.

That is an all-time low since we have been testing this question since back in 1992. Never in those 20-plus years have Republicans had such a high unfavorable rating. That's a huge brand problem for the Republicans heading into the election year.

Now if you look at the Democratic Party, they don't fare all that much better, but a bit better, 43 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable. And again we have been asking what people think of the Tea Party since it's made its big move on the stage in 2010, and that is the all-time high over the past several years we have asked that question -- almost 2-1, they're 28 percent favorable, 56 percent unfavorable, exactly 2-1 there. No question a brand problem for the Republicans coming out of the shutdown and heading into the early stages, Wolf, of the midterm election campaign. You talk to Republican strategists, they don't hide this. They say, yes, that's a huge problem, but they also say look at the president's numbers, look at the rollout of Obamacare, look at continuing doubts about the strength of the recovery.

They think by next October, when people are getting ready to vote, those will be the big issues, the president's performance, the economy's performance and health care. But as one top Republican strategist who does a lot of House races just told me, it's going to be a race to the bottom.


BLITZER: So when you see those negative numbers for the Tea Party, can we assume that more moderate Republicans will try to distance themselves from the Tea Party?

KING: Remember, we're looking at national numbers here.

So when you ask that question, you really have to go state by state. We did see a lot of Republicans. We have seen even Leader McConnell in the Senate say it was a bad strategy. We have seen those moderate Republicans. I know you have had Charlie Dent, I believe of Pennsylvania, on the program a couple times, Peter King of Long Island, New York, on the program a couple times.

Those guys have been harshly critical of the Tea Party strategy. But it really depends on where you live because out of the shutdown, what has the Tea Party said? They're going to try to run primary challenges against a lot of the Republicans who voted yes on the ultimate compromise to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

We're not done with this. We're looking at bad numbers for the Tea Party. We're going to watch the internal civil war in the Republican Party play out before we get to the general election in 2014. We're going to see a lot of primaries.

BLITZER: We certainly are.

Thanks very much, John King reporting.

Still ahead, new accusations that when the United States launched some drone strikes, it may have committed what the critics are now calling war crimes. Stand by for the details and the angry White House response.

Plus, he's been charged with helping plan one of the worst terror attacks against an American target. We're investigating questions about his role and his links to al Qaeda.


BLITZER: A powerful new charge today that the United States may be guilty of war crimes. Two human rights groups are out with a scathing report on secret U.S. drone strikes that were designed to target terrorists, but in some case killed innocent civilians nearby.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is joining us with the details and the U.S. response.

Go ahead, Jim. Tell us what happened.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, you travel in a country like Pakistan, and nothing drives anti-U.S. anger than the drone campaign. The White House is very much aware of this.

It has in fact revised rules to reduce civilian casualties, but two reports today, one by Human Rights Watch on Yemen and another by Amnesty International on Pakistan, paint a disturbing picture of the continuing cost of the drone war.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): This is one face of the American drone program, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi killed in front of her grandchildren, says Amnesty International, in Northwest Pakistan.

"I wasn't scared of drones before," her granddaughter Nabila (ph) said, "but now when they fly overhead, I wonder, will I be next?"

In a new report, Amnesty International argue killings such as this may amount to war crimes.

MUSTAFA QADRI, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: We are extremely concerned that these and other killings documented in our report may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.

SCIUTTO: The New America Foundation has catalogued a total of 365 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing as many as 2,700 militants and 300 civilians, meaning that, on average, roughly one in 10 victims is a civilian. The database found similar results for done strikes in Yemen.

The White House rejects the accusation of war crimes emphatically, arguing it takes civilian casualties seriously and has acted to reduce them.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The administration has repeatedly emphasized the extraordinary care that we take to make sure counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable law.

SCIUTTO: Still, the drone campaign remains the primary driver of anti-American anger in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond, a message Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old shot by the Taliban in Pakistan, delivered to President Obama in person when she met with him earlier this month.

Tomorrow, the president will likely hear the same message when he meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who today called for the strikes to end immediately.

NAWAZ SHARIF, LEADER, PAKISTANI PRIME MINISTER: This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship as well. I would therefore stress the need for an end to the drone attacks.


SCIUTTO: Well, the hard reality is that the drone campaign is unlikely to end because it has simply been so successful. In fact, a principal reason the number of attacks has come down is that they're running out of targets. They have decimated the leadership of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups or driven them into hiding. Still, the argument remains that there is a real danger that the attacks might radicalize more people than they kill.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting, thank you.

Meanwhile, a new court appearance in New York City today for a terror suspect snatched from the streets of Libya by U.S. forces. He's been called one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. But there are some questions now being raised about his direct role in the deadly attacks and how long he was involved with al Qaeda.

Brian Todd is looking into all of this for us.

What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, new questions tonight about how big a role he played in those attacks.

When Abu Anas al-Libi was grabbed by U.S. commandos recently off the streets of the Libyan capital, U.S. officials and terrorism analysts said it was a major capture because of his alleged links to one of the worst terror strikes against American interests. Now, as al-Libi gears up for his trial, his wife is trying to make a case for his innocence by constructing a timeline.


TODD (voice-over): One of America's most wanted terror suspects back in court in Lower Manhattan with new indications of how he may argue his case.

Abu Anas al-Libi, charged with helping plan the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and in Tanzania that killed more than 200 people appeared before a U.S. federal judge. His wife tells CNN he's not only innocent, but he left al Qaeda well before the 1998 attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): It is true my husband was a member of al Qaeda, but he left al Qaeda in 1996, two years before the bombings. He did not take part in any bombing anywhere in the world.

TODD: Another al Qaeda member once testified in a U.S. trial that Abu Anas al-Libi left al Qaeda's group in Sudan in the mid-1990s, but there's no indication that he completely severed ties with al Qaeda.

And the indictment says he helped plan the embassy attacks before leaving. In the latter part of 1993, the indictment says, al-Libi conducted visual and photographic surveillance of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank cites the testimony of an alleged co-conspirator of al-Libi's on what happened next.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: These very same pictures were brought to bin Laden in Sudan, and that bin Laden looked through the pictures and then decided where he was going to put a truck bomb.

TODD: But the plan was put on a shelf for five years. All U.S. officials seem to know now is that al-Libi was simply allegedly a scout for the operation. By the time bin Laden ordered the 1998 embassy bombings, al-Libi had joined another militant group.

CRUICKSHANK: It's plausible he had no knowledge that bin Laden had actually green-lighted the operation, that bin Laden had used his photographs to attack the embassy.


TODD: But of course that does not mean that al-Libi was not part of the plot originally. Contacted by CNN, neither the prosecutor's office nor U.S. intelligence officials would comment on the remarks by al-Libi's wife that he's innocent.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, thank you.


BLITZER: Just ahead, insights into the Obamacare fiasco. The administration's former chief technology officer is joining us in the conversation. If you have some questions for him, tweet them to us right now and don't forget to use the hashtag SITROOM.


BLITZER: Let's get back to our stop story, the administration scrambling to fix the Obamacare Web site. But we're also learning more every day about its failures.

We're joined now by the former chief technology officer for the Obama administration, Aneesh Chopra.

Aneesh Chopra, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Let me read to you what Clay Johnson, a former member of the Obama technology team, wrote on a blog post the other day.

" got this way not because of incompetence or sloppiness of an individual vendor, but because of a deeply ingrained and malignant cancer that's eating away at the federal government's ability to provide effective online services."

You want to comment about that?

CHOPRA: Well, I begin by saying I know Clay and I have a great deal of respect for his commentary.

Actually, when President Obama took office, one of the early insights we learned on identifying ways to reduce some of the challenges of the operations of technology was in contracting. We have taken some early steps that have shown some promising results.

In fact, Clay was on the team that actually built a bit of an RFP-EZ program that made it easier for government contractors who were small businesses or individuals actually who didn't have the resources of some of the more significantly sized firms to compete.

And when they opened up the competition, prices fell and quality went up. So, we have already begun the road of trying to make an improvement in the government procurement processes. And I think more work will continue to be done, but that will require Congress to engage on some of these issues.

BLITZER: Why wasn't this done leading up to the rollout of Obamacare?

CHOPRA: Well, actually, much of these principles have been at the heart of it.

If you recall, when the law was signed in March of 2010, the administration had less than 90 days to stand up the initial version of That version was built in the spirit of a lean government startup. It had the most comprehensive inventory of public and private insurance options and made that information accessible to anyone from the public and private sectors to reuse to make sure that folks had the information they need.

Much of what you're seeing today is early steps, but I hope an indication that that spirit of openness and collaboration will help us make our way through these initial challenges that we're dealing with in these early weeks.

BLITZER: Because only now they're saying they're bringing in the best and the brightest to fix this. My sense is they should have done this early on.

CHOPRA: Let me be -- I don't want to speak for the administration.

I think that term best and brightest may be slightly over-described. I think what you're seeing is there's an all-hands-on-deck approach right now, Wolf. There are problems that have been identified and experts who are very successful in identifying how to break those problems into component parts are now coming to the table.

Once you break a problem down into smaller bite-sized chunks, you can prioritize them to say, which ones do we go after first, second and third? I think the idea of best and brightest in this case is really about making sure that we have done a great job identifying the root cause problems, prioritize those that we can intervene on, and then use every available asset, public and private sector, to solve the problem.

That's what the president has indicated that he's doing and the early indications suggest that the team is focused on those issues.

BLITZER: Should someone be fired?

CHOPRA: Oh, I don't believe any of that conversation.

There's a lot of accountability and Monday-morning quarterbacking. I think number one priority right now is making sure that every American has the ability to access these affordable, quality plans so they can live a more comforting life in the coming months. That I hope will happen before December 15. And that's the real milestone, how many folks can sign up by December 15 to get coverage on January 1.

BLITZER: Based on what you know, is this fixable, the current Web site, or do they basically need to trash it and start from scratch?

CHOPRA: Well, the good news is I do believe there is a path forward.

Look, Wolf, this is really two major complex projects, one, which is sort of the marketplace, the site that we know, logging in, getting credentials, finding out what subsidies have and shopping for a plan. And then there's the back end, if you will, the system that connects the IRS, Homeland Security, Social Security, that latter system, the data hub, as what has been publicly reported, that system is working.

If you told me that the ability to get all these old legacy systems to talk to one another, if that was failing us, that might be a little bit of a harder lift, but the piece that's broken, thankfully, is something that we understand. It's not a new form of physics. Wolf, it's making sure folks can find the plan that's right for them and to make sure they have got the financial resources and the subsidy calculations to get there.

That's a known good and they're going to work through these issues as they uncover them.

BLITZER: Here's a question from one of our Twitter followers. I have been asking this question for days myself.


BLITZER: "Why didn't they build a Web site where you could just window shop, get estimates without having to give so much personal information?"

CHOPRA: So, actually, Wolf, this question's come up quite a bit.

And it actually isn't entirely correct, the assumption that the tweet suggests. Almost within days of the site launching, in addition to publishing the site at, all of the underlying pricing and shopping data that HHS has made available through the marketplace was available on

Now, that's a site you and I as consumers might visit, Wolf, but entrepreneurs, media companies, others, could and should take that information and make it really compelling and available to folks. So, the idea that the administration wasn't intending to release that, that's just not true.

It's available. It's just that I believe the reason they did, Wolf, what they did is, if you're a Medicaid enrollee, do you want to go through a shopping experience, only to be told afterwards you should be in Medicaid?

BLITZER: Aneesh, we got to end it right there.

CHOPRA: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: Aneesh Chopra, thanks very much. Appreciate it very much.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.