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THE SITUATION ROOM
GOP Strengthens Attacks on Hillary Clinton; Interview with Robert Gates; U.S. Nuclear Forces Rocked by Scandals; Is West Virginia Water Safe?
Aired January 16, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thanks very much.
Happening now, hammering Hillary Clinton -- some top Republicans taking the Benghazi blame game to a new level, with a blunt assault on her presidential qualifications.
Plus, Robert Gates is opening up. The former Defense secretary is standing by with his take on Clinton, Benghazi and a whole lot more, including the bombshells about President Obama and Vice President Biden in his new book.
And nuclear nightmare -- a massive cheating scandal in the U.S. military is blowing holes in Americans' hopes that our most powerful weapons are safe.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Some top Republicans seem more determined than ever to make Hillary Clinton pay a political price for the deadly attack on the United States diplomats in Benghazi, Libya.
As the 2016 presidential buzz about Clinton grows louder and louder, new reports on the Benghazi attack are fueling heated debate, partisan debate, about her leadership.
Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is standing by.
She's got the latest on the tough attacks today -- Elise.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
While Hillary Clinton is putting the finishing touches on her book, those closer to her say the book will address Benghazi. I don't expect it will be in any great detail, but Republicans are doing their best now to make sure the issue stays front and center.
LABOTT (voice-over): Just hours ago, the political fight over Benghazi spilled onto the Senate floor, with Hillary Clinton's former colleagues questioning her role. SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: She couldn't be on TV to talk about what happened in the State Department because she was distraught?
I don't buy that.
Does anybody believe that about Secretary Clinton?
And if it's true, it's something the American people need to consider.
LABOTT: Benghazi remains red meat for Republicans, ammunition as Clinton wrestles with another presidential run.
GRAHAM: I think if she wants to be commander-in-chief, she has to answer for her leadership as secretary of State when it comes to Benghazi. She has a lot of accomplishments. She's a very accomplished woman. But under her leadership, the consulate became a death trap.
LABOTT: A Senate intelligence report slams the State Department for failing to protect the U.S. diplomatic mission. But Clinton herself gets a pass in the main report.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: There is no evidence that Secretary Clinton even knew about this. There is an undersecretary for management. There are others that run these facilities, that evaluate these facilities, that make the decisions with respect to security.
LABOTT: But a 16 page addition written solely by Republicans on the committee places the blame squarely at her feet, saying final responsibility for security at diplomatic facilities likes with the former secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
(on camera): Do State Department officials and diplomatic security...
(voice-over): When I interviewed Clinton a month after the attack, she said the buck stopped with her.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I take responsibility. I'm in charge of the State Department, 60,000 plus people all over the world, 275 posts.
LABOTT: But the GOP has seized upon this statement.
CLINTON: The fact is, we had four dead Americans.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand.
CLINTON: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans.
What difference, at this point, does it make?
LABOTT: To question her past and future leadership.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Secretary Clinton, instead of yelling at the Foreign Relations Committee, "Who cares?," she should know, one, we do care, and two, if she wants to be president of the United States, she should come clean and reveal every detail of this tragic situation that resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
LABOTT: Now, Wolf, Clinton insiders insist she has never played politics with Benghazi, and if the Republicans want to do it, they'll have to do it without her. That said, Clinton knows she is going to have to address Benghazi during the campaign. If she does decide to run, the strategy is to let as much time as possible -- no point in getting to a political battle so early.
But clearly, Republicans are not letting it go -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Elise Labott with that report.
Thanks very much.
Let's bring in the former Defense secretary of the United States, Robert Gates.
He's getting a lot of attention for his new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.
ROBERT GATES, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Do you agree with Lindsey Graham and John McCain, the blasts they're delivering at Hillary Clinton today?
GATES: Well, Benghazi happened after I left office, after I retired, so I really don't know the particulars.
I think that the key question is, as Senator Feinstein said, was the information ever brought to her attention?
And -- and if so, what was done?
But I think that's -- that's an important question as far as her role personally.
BLITZER: I know you weren't in the -- in the government anymore, at the time of the Benghazi attack, but everything you've read, everything you're hearing, does it make you more or less inclined to believe she would be qualified to be commander-in-chief, president of the United States?
GATES: Well, let me -- let me use a parallel situation. I fired a number of people at the Department of Defense, including the secretary of the Army over Walter Reed and the secretary of the Air Force over nuclear matters.
And in both cases, it was not because they hadn't known something had happened, it was after it had happened did they take it seriously enough?
And it seems to me that's a -- that's an important question.
I -- it's completely conceivable to me that the secretary of State would not have known about a request for additional security from an ambassador, that that would have gone to various other parts of the department.
BLITZER: But do you think that what she did afterward...
BLITZER: -- would disqualify her, as the people you fired disqualified them?
GATES: Well, as I -- as I was saying, I wasn't in the government at the time, so I actually don't know what happened after the fact that I left (ph). That would be an important question to me.
BLITZER: So you're open on that.
Here's a question that on of our followers on Twitter, Christin (ph), sent to us, when I asked for some suggested questions to you.
"Will he support Hillary in 2016?
Would he serve in her cabinet?"
GATES: Well, I think that with this book, the chances of my coming back to Washington are probably not very high. And as far as my wife is concerned, probably non-existent.
As for Secretary Clinton, I make clear in the book that I have a lot admiration for her and considered her a valued colleague when I was in government.
By the same token, I don't think that the Democrats want a Republican handicapping their 2016 (INAUDIBLE)...
BLITZER: But is she someone, conceivably, you could endorse?
GATES: Well, I've never gotten into politics. I've never taken a political role since I first entered the government in 1966. And, frankly, I don't see any reason to start now.
BLITZER: So you're really not going to -- you're going to stay out of it?
BLITZER: There's no way -- that's what I'm hearing.
All right, you are very tough on a lot of people in this book, a very candid book, I must say.
But Congress -- and I'm going to read just a sentence from the book, "Duty." "Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities, micro managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self and reelection before country, this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress."
Wow! I mean you didn't mince any words there at all.
Was there anybody you actually liked in Congress?
GATES: Absolutely. There are actually quite a few members that as individuals and as -- as people, I liked and enjoyed and some that I really respected.
BLITZER: Give me an example...
GATES: But that was my reaction...
BLITZER: -- give me an example of who you really admired.
GATES: Well, one of the persons that I talk about, actually, to take the chairman and vice chairman of the -- or ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. I had a lot of respect for Carl Levin. He and I disagreed with almost everything. But when Senator Levin told me he would do something, he did it.
He was very political about a lot of issues. He, I think, went after my predecessor. But I -- I could take -- well, I could take Senator Levin at his word.
The same thing with Senator McCain. Senator McCain was always interesting to deal with in hearings and -- but by the same token, I think he -- he was very important and helpful in my efforts to cut some wasteful defense programs and I found that he also would keep his word.
BLITZER: I want to get through a lot of important issues, so let me move on to Iraq right now, which seems to be boiling over, as you well know.
Knowing what you know now -- and we're all obviously a lot smarter with hindsight -- should the United States have invaded Iraq back in 2003?
GATES: Well, I say in the book that I -- I was, along with everybody else, a believer that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Part of the reason everybody believed it was because Saddam let everybody believe it.
BLITZER: But they -- but he didn't have it.
GATES: Well, he didn't...
BLITZER: And then when... GATES: -- and I...
BLITZER: -- that was an intelligence failure.
GATES: And it was. And I...
BLITZER: So the question is specifically, knowing what we know now, that there were no weapons of mass destruction stockpiles in Iraq, was that invasion in March of 2003 a mistake?
GATES: Well, I think that I've said all along, and I continue to believe, that will have to be a judgment made 10 or 20 or 30 years from now. The fact that the information on which we went to war was wrong will always taint the war, no matter what history's ultimate judgment is.
BLITZER: Because you're very blunt in this book. You admit a lot of successes, a lot of failures. But you're reluctant to say at this point, and we know a lot more, obviously, now than we knew in March of 2003, you're reluctant to acknowledge, to say this war was a mistake.
GATES: Well, I think it's a -- I think it -- I think it's too early to draw a final conclusion. But I do say that after the initial success, there were a number of amazing blunders and mistakes that turned a -- an early victory into a long and grinding war. And I think we made a lot of wrong assumptions, the -- whether the length of the war or how soon it would end and so on.
I just -- I think I'm pretty candid about all of the mistakes that were made.
But in terms of the ultimate judgment, even when I was in office, I was reluctant to draw a final conclusion on whether, historically, this will prove to be a mistake.
I will tell you the one condition under which I think it might come out OK, and that is if 20 or 30 years from now, the removal of Saddam Hussein is seen as the first crack in a wall of authoritarianism in the Middle East that, after we get through the period of turbulence and problems that we're having today, ultimately leads to a more democratic and prosperous Middle East.
BLITZER: Because it looks today...
GATES: Frankly, today...
BLITZER: It's a -- there's a civil war...
GATES: -- I think that's a long shot.
BLITZER: -- there's a -- it's a long shot. It's a civil war is erupting. What's happening in Syria could explode inside Iraq right now. And the big winner may be Iran, because its influence from Iran through Iraq, through Syria, through Lebanon, has been expanded. GATES: Well, and I -- and I acknowledge in the book that one of the consequences of our invasion of Iraq was ultimately to strengthen Iran's role and influence in the region.
So I'm -- what I just posited is the only scenario that I see that ultimately would make people think that the decision to invade Iraq was a good thing.
BLITZER: Because, as you know, the United States, we lost thousands of American troops. Tens of thousands came home injured. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent. And a lot of them are now asking, and they're looking at what's going on in Fallujah, in Ramadi and elsewhere, where so many American troops were killed and hurt and injured, and they're saying, what happened here?
GATES: I think that our troops accomplished their mission when, in 2008 and 2009, we handed over to the Iraqis a stable, relatively secure, relatively democratic country. We basically handed them their future on a silver platter thanks to the sacrifices and the courage of our troops and the civilians -- American civilians who served there.
What has happened subsequently, first of all, I think, is Prime Minister Maliki's refusal to try and include the Sunnis in a multi- sectarian government, his effort to arrest his Sunni vice president, Hashemi, and other senior Sunni officials, his failure to invest any money in Anbar and the Sunni areas, he basically has given the Sunnis no reason to believe this government serves their purposes or is good for them.
BLITZER: But (INAUDIBLE)...
GATES: So he...
BLITZER: -- there were so many people...
GATES: -- so he is...
BLITZER: -- predicting that would happen, no matter how courageous...
BLITZER: -- and brave and brilliant our troops were, given the historic rivalries between the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds, the tribal rivalries within these various groups that have been going on for hundreds of years. To believe that we were going to achieve this pro- American democracy, a lot of folks were saying, and I was in Fallujah back in 2005, they were saying to me, soldiers, you know, what was going on?
Do we really think we're going to resolve this thing and create a stable democracy?
GATES: What I'm trying to say is that -- that I think our troops accomplished their mission, was -- which was to stabilize the country and create a circumstance there where we could leave Iraq without it being a strategic disaster for the United States with global consequences.
But the second thing that's happened, over which Maliki has had very little control, is the spillover from the civil war in Syria and the resurgence of al Qaeda there and other extremists, which has spilled over into Iraq. And there, I think whatever effort we can do in -- make in Iraq in terms of providing weapons or whatever to the government to help them fight this back, but the key is Maliki reaching out to the Sunnis.
There's a few signs over the last few days that maybe he's gotten a wakeup call and they start to do that.
BLITZER: Yes, I'll believe that when I see it, because (INAUDIBLE)...
GATES: Yes, well I wouldn't bet the ranch on it.
BLITZER: I wouldn't bet much on it, either.
Mr. Secretary, stand by.
We're going to continue this conversation and get into more of the revealing details you include in your new book, "Duty."
We're also going to talk a little bit about President Obama's cocktail diplomacy -- a new attempt to win over members of his own party try to keep that
Deal, that nuclear deal with Iran on track.
Also ahead, a military cheating scandal raising new concerns about the security of America's nuclear arsenal.
BLITZER: Just coming in to the SITUATION ROOM, United Airlines flight forced to return to Newark, New Jersey, after what's described as severe turbulence. An FAA spokesman telling CNN several passengers on board flight 89 to Beijing were injured. We're told up to five flight attendants were hurt. Apparently, they have minor injuries. They've all been taken to the hospital.
We're going to bring you more information as soon as we get it. Disturbing information coming out of Newark, New Jersey.
The start clock is about to go off on one of the biggest gambles of President Barack Obama's administration. The temporary nuclear deal with Iran takes effect on Monday and the president is fighting harder than ever to protect it from some very vocal naysayers, many of whom happen to be members of his own party, including some of his closest allies.
We're told he made a passionate appeal to Senate Democrats before enjoying a martini with them over at the White House last night. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She has the very latest -- Brianna? BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. This was a very long, relatively speaking, and a very jovial meeting that President Obama had with Senate Democrats last night. Members of Congress came armed with questions for him, input on his State of the Union address, but one source inside of the meeting told me it was a single question that a senator asked about Iran that gave President Obama the chance to make his case to them.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If our economy --
KEILAR (voice-over): President Obama making his case for college affordability today, but behind the scenes, a big push on Iran. At a rare two-hour strategy session Wednesday night, President Obama and Democratic senators hashed out their plans for the coming year and talked about their differences on Iran. Afterwards, something extremely uncommon for this president, a casual cocktail hour with Obama sipping a martini outside the east room
One senator in attendance tells CNN it was one of the most powerful arguments he's heard from Obama, a lengthy impassioned and detailed explanation of why he wants Congress to halt a bill that ready sanctions against Iran if negotiations fail. It's a case he's been making since November when Iran agreed to a six-month negotiating period on its nuclear program.
OBAMA: Now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions. Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work.
KEILAR: It appears Obama is winning over Democrats, though, many of them have joined Republicans in support of a sanctions bill. Today, Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, suddenly indicated it may not make it to the Senate floor any time soon.
SEN. HARRY REID, (D) MAJORITY LEADER: People on both sides of this issue are working in good faith to try to come up with a result that's favorable. I say the result is going to be a factor. Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon.
KEILAR: In an effort to buy time with skeptical lawmakers, the White House released to Congress the terms of its six-month negotiating period. The U.S. and allies will free up some of Iran's assets frozen overseas and Iran will neutralize its stockpile of near weapons-grade uranium. But sure to add to lawmakers' doubts --
(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
KEILAR: A new report that Iran's top negotiator says the country could reverse those promises within 24 hours if they choose.
KEILAR (on-camera): That was a report broke in by CNN by "The Daily Beast," Josh Rogin, Wolf. And administration officials feeling, though -- even though that may be considered alarming, they feel that it's rhetoric, meant for internal consumption in Iran for hardliners there who are reticent to negotiate with the U.S.
BLITZER: Brianna Keilar over at the White House, thanks very much.
Let's turn back to our special guest, the former defense secretary of United States, Robert Gates. He's here to talk about his new book "Duty Memoirs of a Secretary at War." Who's right in this current debate over Iran and interim nuclear deal? The president, almost all of the Republicans in the Senate, 16 Democrats in the Senate, basically the Israelis and the Saudis who don't like this deal?
ROBERT GATES, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I agree entirely with the president that to vote new sanctions on Iran right now probably would torpedo the negotiations. I think the sanctions that have been place -- put in place, first by President Clinton, then President Bush, then intensified by President Obama have, in fact, successfully put enough pressure on Iran to get them to the table.
The key to me is what happens in six months. And from my stand -- and so I agree with the president. This is not the time to impose new sanctions on the Iranians. I think that could very well kill the negotiation before it ever starts. I think, though, if I were sitting in the situation room at the White House, I would be saying, what is there that we can do that let's the Iranians know that if these negotiations fail, that circumstances will be worse for them after a failed negotiation than they were before the negotiation.
BLITZER: Well, that's what the senators who are resisting with the president's admonitions are saying. None of these new sanctions would go into effect for six months, unless, the Iranians broke the deal. They would only go into effect afterwards if there's no deal.
GATES: Well, I think that, you know, the president needs to run this negotiation, he and Secretary Kerry. And so, I think people ought to cut them slack in terms of getting the negotiations under way and seeing what we can get at the end.
But at the same time, I would encourage the administration to work with the Congress and figure out if there's a way that their hand can be strengthened as they go into that negotiation that the Iranians know that trying to slow roll the negotiations or the failure to roll back the Iranians from being a nuclear threshold state, that that failure would lead to things being worse for Iran than they are today.
BLITZER: Looking back on your role in government, what was your biggest mistake?
GATES: Well, I think that my biggest mistake as secretary of defense and I talk about a number of my mistakes, frankly, in the book. I think one was failing to get a command -- a chain of command problem fixed in Afghanistan quickly enough. I think that was a mistake. I think that -- and I talked at the end of the book, you know, there's a lot out there about what I've said about Vice President Biden and so on.
The truth of the matter is I say in the book, I think I should have worked harder as secretary of defense to reach out privately to the vice president to see if there wasn't a way to narrow our differences.
BLITZER: Because he comes across in a really, really negative way --
GATES: Well, and the irony is, if you read the book, it's clear that I was in agreement with the vice president on most of the issues facing the administration except for Afghanistan and, frankly, his what I see --
BLITZER: -- on national security for over 40 years.
GATES: Well, and I would stand by that during his time as senator and particularly from the early 1970s until the early 1990s beginning with voting against the aid package for South Vietnam in the early 1970s when we were trying to pull out to voting against the first Gulf War.
BLITZER: You and the vice president were on the same page as far as the raid to kill Bin Laden. Both of you were reluctant to do it. The president overrode your objections.
GATES: Yes, and we were on the same page in terms of how to deal with Mubarak during and the Arab spring, and we were on the same page, well, as -- Libya.
BLITZER: As far as the raid on Bin Laden, you acknowledged both -- you and Biden were wrong, the president was right.
BLITZER: But there's other points and fascinating, I went through the book --
GATES: What I say in the book is that I think the vice president was against the raid because of the domestic political consequences. I was against the raid because successful or failure, I was worried that it would create such a problem with the Pakistanis. They would shut down our line of communication in Afghanistan. But at the very end, I did turn around and support the raid.
BLITZER: You also say you were wrong when the Israelis told -- Ehud Olmert was then the prime minister of Israel -- told the United States, told the president the Israelis were going to take out the Syrian nuclear reactor that North Korea was helping them build and you didn't want the Israelis to do that. The president basically, you say, gave the Israelis the green light. GATES: Well, I didn't say I was wrong in that case. What I said was that my concern that it might spark a wider war in the Middle East certainly have proved not to be the case.
BLITZER: Well, you say your fears did not materialize.
GATES: But my biggest concern and that I still stand by is that we chose to allow somebody to pull a gun first without trying to resolve the issue diplomatically and, frankly, holding Syria accountable and making them pay a price internationally for having built this nuclear reactor.
We always had the option to destroy the reactor before it became active and both Secretary Rice, in my point was, let's try the diplomacy to embarrass this regime and to make them pay a price internationally before we turn to the military option.
BLITZER: Because nobody even knew the Syrians were building this reactor and the Israelis went ahead and did it. You expected a very hostile Syrian reaction, but they turned the other cheek and forgot about it?
GATES: Well, I thought that there was a risk of a wider war and, as we've been talking, I was wrong in that.
BLITZER: Some of the most powerful stuff in this book included your emotions in dealing with U.S. troops, especially casualties, writing letters to family members. And you write this at one point. "My fuse was really getting short. It seemed like I was blowing up in my own quiet way nearly every day. I did not enjoy being secretary of defense. People have no idea how much I detest this job." You were going through a personal crisis, weren't you?
GATES: Well, people would ask me, are you enjoying yourself? And I would say, you must be joking. I'm sending deployment -- I'm signing deployment orders every week, sending young men and women in harm's way. I'm going to the hospitals, I'm going to the front lines, I'm going to the funerals, I'm writing these condolence letters. Anybody who says they're enjoying a job like that ought to be the first person to step down.
What I detested about the job was how difficult it was to get anything done here in Washington no matter how positive or important it was in light of the polarization and the paralysis here, even in the middle of two wars. So, trying to get the right things done in the war including and supporting the troops was just so difficult. And that's the part of the job that I detested.
I say in the book that I think both President Bush and President Obama for giving me the honor of a lifetime and the most gratifying position I've ever held primarily because of the opportunity to work with our men and women in uniform.
BLITZER: And when I read those lines in the book, talking about you go home at night, pour yourself a stiff drink, start writing letters to families, you know, it's sort of almost sounded like U.S. troops that I've spoken to that have come home, suffering a little bit, and sometimes not so little, from posttraumatic stress disorder and you were going through a similar kind of situation.
GATES: I think there was a cumulative effect and I reached the point, as I say in the book, where I was so preoccupied with protecting the troops and preventing them from being put into more conflict. When I opposed the war in Libya, I said, "Can I just finish the two wars I've already got on my hands before you guys go looking for a third one?"
And I felt toward -- you know, I worked -- I did the job for 4- 1/2 years and in the last few months, I began to feel that my preoccupation with protecting them was clouding my objectivity in being able to give the president hard-headed advice in some international problems and that was one of the reasons I decided it was time to step down.
BLITZER: Did you ever seek some professional help in dealing with the anguish you were going through?
BLITZER: Because a lot of troops, they come back and they were reluctant to get that kind of psychological or psychiatric help that they clearly need and obviously you were reluctant to ask for that kind of help as well?
GATES: Well, I think -- I think that my concern was that it was affecting my objectivity, not that I was having a psychological issue.
BLITZER: You end the book with an amazing few paragraphs and I want to read them to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I know this is going to be difficult for you to hear it but I'll read it and then -- and then we'll discuss.
"Because of the nature of the two wars I oversaw, I could afford the luxury of sentiment and at times it overwhelmed me. Signing the deployment orders, visiting hospitals, writing the condolence letters, and attending the funerals around Arlington all were taking a growing emotional toll on me. Even thinking about the troops, I would lose my composure with increasing frequency."
And then you conclude the book with this, "I am eligible to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I have asked to be buried in Section 60 where so many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest. The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity."
Do you want to elaborate or react?
GATES: I think it speaks for itself. That's obviously how I feel and how I felt.
Because when you sent those young men and women off to Iraq and Afghanistan, you personally took that responsibility knowing many of them would not come home. GATES: And I began telling the troops and the young people at the service academies probably in 2008 that I had come to feel a personal responsibility for each of them, as though they were my own sons and daughters and that -- that was the time.
BLITZER: And that's why I come back to our earlier part of our conversation when you look back and you made these decisions and obviously the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, he was ultimately in charge, were these the right decisions?
GATES: Well, and I think history will have to judge.
BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, thanks so much. Thanks for your service to our country, thanks for writing this book "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War."
Appreciate it very much.
GATES: Thank you, Wolf. Appreciate it.
BLITZER: Thank you.
Coming up, we're going to get reaction to the interview I just conducted with Robert Gates. Our panel is standing by.
Also a trail of trouble for the people who command and guard America's nuclear arsenal. The potential dangers for all of us. That's coming up.
BLITZER: Let's get some reaction now on my interview with the former Defense secretary, Robert Gates. We're joined by our chief national correspondent John King, CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the host of "FAREED ZAKARIA, GPS," and Carrie Rudoff Brown, the senior White House correspondent for "Politico."
Fareed, what did you think? What did you think of the defense secretary?
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: Well, he's a very impressive man. I thought it was an excellent interview, Wolf. I thought what came through more than anything was the kind of -- the seriousness with which he took these decisions. You know, he was very honest about the ones where he was wrong, but what you get -- what you sense when you listen to a man like Robert Gates is how many decisions in foreign policy are not 90/10 decisions. They are 51/49 decisions.
You know, you have other evidence suggesting one course of action, you have other evidence suggesting another course. It's a judgment call and then we look back on it and we assume it was so obvious because we now know how it worked out, whether it's the Libyan, you know, intervention, when it's the bin Laden raid, whether it is the one you spend the most time on correctly, the Iraq war.
At the time, all of these seemed, you know, much more even-handed and then you get history and it, in a sense, tells you what the answer was.
BLITZER: He's brutally blunt, John. And that came through in the interview but even more so in the book.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And remember his history. Worked on the National Security Council, he was at the CIA, he was at the Defense Department, a holdover to the Obama administration from the Bush administration.
He talks about his personal pain and anguish and I think he also tries to draw a roadmap for what he thinks Washington could do better. He's harshly critical of this president, President Obama, his former boss, for what he thinks is the over politization of some of the decisions.
The National Security Council getting involved in things that he believes was a Defense Department's. He's a process guy because of his service from the bureaucracy and if you read the book it's clear, and I've had several conversations with him over the years when he was at the Pentagon. He thinks Congress has become a farce essentially. That Congress does not do legitimate, thoughtful oversight of foreign policy, that it's all stunts and politics.
And he's damning, damning of the decay of the serious discourse in this town, if you will.
BLITZER: What did you think, Carrie?
CARRIE RUDOFF BROWN, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Well, I'm fascinated by what he said about the vice president, how he could have worked harder to reach out to him, work out some of those differences. The fact that those two key members of the president's inner circle, you know, were at such odds is a story that I, you know, can't get enough of.
BLITZER: Fareed, why are so many of these officials -- and he was not back in 2003 in the government so he did not have a direct role. He was outside the government at the time. But so many will say to you and to me and to all of these other reports, off the record, privately, you know, if we knew then back in March of 2003 what we know now, the U.S. would never have deployed a few hundred thousand troops to go into Iraq and get involved in that messy situation.
Why are they so reluctant to acknowledge that it was a blunder?
ZAKARIA: I think it's a very important question, Wolf, and you -- and I think you pressed him very well on it. I think the reason is this. They cannot face up to the reality. Then you have to tell those troops, those men and women whom Robert Gates so rightly admires, that they were sent there in vain. That this was a mistake.
You know, who wants to be the last man or the first man to have died from a mistake? But you hit the nail on the head when you were talking about the issue of fundamentally we went in there, we didn't just -- you know, and failed to create a democracy. We over -- we got involved in a very complicated sectarian struggle. We overturned a Sunni regime, installed hard lined religious parties there, and then watched as a sectarian civil war brewed and then kept trying to say to each of them, hey, can't you guys get on better.
And you know, we're still doing it. Robert Gates was still saying, if only Maliki would reach out to the Sunnis more? Maliki is a hard-lined Shia religious thug who was sheltered by Iran and Syria for 15 years. Ever since he's come in power, he's had 10 years to reach out to the Sunnis. Why do we think he's going to do it now? We're in the midst of something so deep that we can't quite acknowledge the magnitude of the error.
BLITZER: And these tensions, John, the religious tensions, the ethnic tensions, the tribal tension that have been going on, not just in Iraq but elsewhere in the -- they've been going on for hundreds of years yet U.S. officials continue to believe the United States can create democracy, create -- do some nation building and end what has been going on for so long.
KING: To Fareed's point, and you were pressing and trying to get the question, the commander in chief of that operation, George Bush, continues to say history will judge, I think I did the right thing.
It is probably not to be expected that those underneath him, even Secretary Gates who came in and assumed the war in midstream, but this is -- there is the debate among them of the Powell doctrine versus the Rumsfeld doctrine, that if you were going to do this, if you were going to make that decision, and your point about the sectarian violence goes back decades and decades and decades. So if there -- should have been a question, what are you going to get at the end anyway, aren't they going to go back to their old ways anyway?
But if you're going to do it, most of them will now admit that the troop levels sent in initially left them unable to try to have a firmer or solid initial piece, initial piece, and then the sectarian stuff bubbled up quicker than it would have.
BLITZER: And so many experts have told me, Carrie, and I assume they have told you, you know, Iraq is probably not going to have a happy ending when all is said and done as far as the U.S. is concerned and almost certainly Afghanistan as well. The U.S. thinks Afghanistan and Hamid Karzai and his allies are going to merge as pro-American Democratic features, you're living in a dream world.
So the question is, does it really make any difference if the U.S. stays in there three years or five years, or whatever?
BROWN: I think, you know, it's a question for sure and I think one that the White House is going to be confronting this year. I think one of their big, you know, focus this year is transitioning out of Afghanistan in a way that, you know, shows that they are confident at implementing and following through on what they're saying they're going to do.
BLITZER: All right, guys. All right. Good discussion. Important stuff that will continue to be debated for many years. Appreciate it very much.
When we come back, other news we're following. So what's behind a growing trail of scandal surrounding the people who command and guard the country's nuclear weapons arsenal? We're digging deeper.
And West Virginia, the contaminated water there cleared for most of the general population so why are pregnant women still being advised, stay away from that water? We're going there for a live report.
BLITZER: A massive cheating scandal, just the latest in a string of shocking troubles plaguing the U.S. nuclear forces in the last year.
Brian Todd is here. He's been digging into all of this for us.
What are you finding out?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've been looking at some of these problems for months now and we've found a series of incidents of misconduct and other problems inside the U.S. nuclear force. These are the commanders and junior officers with their hands on America's most powerful weapons and the problems don't seem to have a quick fix.
TODD (voice-over): They stand ready to unleash nuclear fury. A job with awesome responsibility, prestige. But there's a clear patterns of problems among the people who command and guard America's nuclear weapons arsenal and there's not a single easily solvable cause.
Why would several Air Force officers entrusted with maintaining nuclear missiles at a Montana base cheat on a proficiency exam?
JEFFERY GREEN, FORMER AIR FORCE MISSILIER: Hundred percent of the expectation, perfection is the expectation here so there's certainly amount of pressure involved.
TODD: Experts say different types of pressures can affect the junior and senior officers at nuclear commands. General Michael Kerries seemed to go off the deep end last year, removed from his post after going on a drinking and womanizing binge during an official visit to Russia.
Kerrie commanded the 20th Air Force which oversees three nuclear wings.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, FORMER AIR FORCE INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: That job is extremely stressful. Any general office or especially numbered Air Force command position is an exceptional stressful job because the Numbered Air Force is actually the war fighting element of the Air Force. TODD (on camera): Separately experts say the junior officers, the ones deep inside these silos, illustrated here on our virtual studio, the people with their hands on the switches, face the pressures of staying proficient while at the same time battling long drawn-out periods of sheer boredom.
(Voice-over): Jeffery Green was a nuclear missilier for three years inside a silo in Wyoming.
GREEN: Twenty-four hours or more underground, days where it could go to 48 or 72, you're literally locked, you know, in a launch control center, you're under the ground. You know, there's no opportunity to go take a break or take a run. And it's a tedious nature of the job.
TODD: Aside from the disciplinary issues, morale could also be a problem in a force whose cold war mission is no longer perceived as a top priority.
ERIC SCHLOSSER, AUTHOR, "COMMAND AND CONTROL": If there's one area of a defense budget where we shouldn't be cutting costs. It's in the management of our nuclear weapons because the consequences of a mistake are just unimaginable.
TODD: With all these problems, has safety been compromised? Top military officials stressed it has not. The secretary of the Air Force says the Pentagon has, quote, "Great confidence in the security and the effectiveness of the ICBM force."
But, Wolf, still, Secretary Hagel, the current secretary of defense, went to one of these facilities last week just to kind of reassure some of the officers and tell them that their mission is very critical, they've got to toe the line.
BLITZER: Yes. It's pretty shocking stuff when you think about it.
All right, Brian. Thanks very much.
When we come back, the do not use order lifted for most of the West Virginia population. So why are pregnant women still being advised to stay away from the water?
We'll go there for a live report.
BLITZER: Nearly one week since hundreds of thousands were told not to drink contaminated water in West Virginia, health officials are now advising pregnant women in that state to continue drinking only bottled water even though it's been cleared, the water, for most of the general population.
CNN's Jean Casarez is in Charleston, West Virginia, with the very latest.
JEAN CASAREZ, CNN LEGAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jacqueline Bevan and her family have been waiting for eight days to be able to use their tap water. At the same time, the CDC is recommending, out of an abundance of caution, that pregnant women don't drink the water until there's no trace of the chemical any more.
JACQUELINE BEVAN, CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA RESIDENT: We just don't know what we're drinking. I mean, if the CDC is saying that pregnant women can't drink it, I think that's going to go for all of us.
CASAREZ (on camera): If this isn't safe for pregnant women, how can we say that anyone is safe drinking the water?
DR. RAHUL GUPTA, KANAWHA-CHARLESTON HEALTH DEPARTMENT: Well, that's a good question. There is a lot of unknowns about this potential chemical that have the chance to do some harm to humans.
CASAREZ (voice-over): It was soon after the chemical leak federal authorities determined that one part per million of 4- methylcyclohexane methanol or MCHM could be deemed safe to consume but they also admit that was based on limited information.
SCOTT SIMONTON, WEST VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY BOARD: Right now it's an acceptable standard. I don't think anybody can genuinely call it a safe standard.
CASAREZ: CNN had independent water testing done which showed the chemical was present in water deemed safe but well below the one part per million threshold. That water is now being used by more than 200,000 people in the affected area.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, says following more and more people now using their tap water, hospital visits actually spiked midweek.
GUPTA: When people come to us and report right after they've taken a shower, they have this rash. We've had people walk in here with scary-looking rashes.
CASAREZ: After an earlier chemical explosion in this area, the Chemical Safety Board recommended in 2011 that West Virginia gave Dr. Gupta the authority to establish a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention program which could have included monitoring the chemicals stored just upriver from Charleston's water treatment plant.
GUPTA: That would have helped us at least to have an idea to develop some sort of a comprehensive program in order to ensure that those chemicals are being stored in a safe manner.
CASAREZ: But the state decided not institute that program and with the safety of this chemical in question, this family isn't sure they even want to stay in West Virginia. BEVAN: I have a child and I want to raise him here. And I want to know that he's going to grow up safe. And I feel like West Virginia's letting me down.
CASAREZ: And while the people are still consumed and worried about their tap water, the state of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is concerned about where Freedom Industries is currently storing the rest of their chemical. They went there this week, did an inspection and they've issued five violations, among other things, holes in the walls where the container canisters are stored -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Still many, many unanswered questions. Pretty shocking story as well.
All right, Jean. Thanks very much.
Just ahead in our next hour, we're learning new information about the man at the center of the bridge scandal embroiling the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Stay with us.
BLITZER: Happening now, subpoenas are issued in the New Jersey traffic scandal. Chris Christie says he's ready to meet any test but his office has just hired an outside lawyer. Can Christie still conduct business and politics as usual?