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@THISHOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Crisis in Iraq; U.S. Captures Benghazi Suspect

Aired June 17, 2014 - 11:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: Whole lot of blame going around for what's happening in Iraq right now. In a tense exchange with our Erin Burnett, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, pointed to President Obama pulling out U.S. troops some three years ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: So I want to make it clear, you're not trying to blame President Obama for anything that's gone wrong, are you?

AMB. PAUL BREMER, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY TO IRAQ: I am saying that his decision to withdraw all the troops at the end of 2011 was a serious mistake. And on the...

BURNETT: Right. But I'm saying...

BREMER: -- record of saying that...

BURNETT: -- that wasn't his decision.

BREMER: -- I'm on the record as saying that in three years ago.

BURNETT: Right.

BREMER: If -- if -- yes, it was, Erin. It was.

BURNETT: But it was President Bush who signed that agreement in 2008 that promised that all those troops would be removed at the end of 2011.

BREMER: The -- the planning in 2011, leaked very heavily from the Pentagon and the White House, was to keep 20,000 to 30,000 troops after 2011.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I got to say there are so many people talking about this interview, Erin with Paul Bremer. There are other members of the Bush administration who were involved in Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz was on "NEW DAY" this morning. This is causing so much controversy.

I want to bring in our political commentators Sally Kohn and Raihan Salam to talk about this.

You know, why don't we start with you here? You are a Republican. Nevertheless, you said that the invasion of Iraq in 2003, you say it now, was a grave mistake. You just wrote that in "Slate" magazine. Still you see the criticism of people like Paul Bremer. There are people saying, why does he now get to criticize after the job that he did in Iraq, after the turmoil that was caused in Iraq, after the U.S. invasion? Are these the people to be criticizing President Obama now?

RAIHAN SALAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's fair to say that, you know, Paul Bremer contributed to some of the tensions that we're seeing in Iraq now. I think that's absolutely true. It's also true that there are people like Brent Scowcroft who opposed the invasion yet who also believe that we should keep troops in the country. Because these are frankly two separate and distinct questions.

You know, once you make the commitment, once U.S. forces contributed to breaking down the state that did exist in Iraq, then I think you can make a plausible case, they had a responsibility to do what they could so that a nascent state could emerge and so that you could have a true multi-ethnic state in the region that was more or less stable. And that's what we don't have now. That's what's very much in jeopardy now.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: So, Sally, if they blew it 11 years ago, does that mean that they're wrong again now? That there is not a threat worth acting on?

SALLY KOHN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, this is the -- thing that is a really interesting moral argument. And Raihan is right in bringing it up. The sort of you broke it, you bought it. Whether you think we should have broke it in the first place, whether we foresaw it was going to be broken, there you have it. On the other hand, the real question now is, is there anything the United States could do to fix this? We were incredibly naive as a country when we went into Iraq in the first place.

This wasn't just about getting Saddam. This was about this longstanding fight between Sunni and -- Sunni and Shia that by the way President Bush said he didn't know the difference between them. And John McCain at the time sort of downplayed the tensions and said once we went in they would all get along well.

That didn't happen. We should have known it. Our being there now isn't going to solve this either. We can't pick sides in this longstanding ethnic civil war and have it resolved. It's not going to end good. We can't help.

BERMAN: Raihan, again, a reference to your great piece in "Slate" magazine, you said, had the U.S. kept a presence there, Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki may have acted differently over the last few years. He would have been a better prime minister with U.S. troops there.

My question, though, is if that is going to work at all, aren't you basically committing yourself to if not an indefinite troop presence in Iraq, a very, very long-term one, doesn't your logic require a willingness to keep a fair number of troops there for a very long time?

SALAM: I think that's quite possible. If you're looking at South Korea, if you're looking at much of Western Europe.

(CROSSTALK)

SALAM: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now here's the question, so the possibility that we're offering, that we're throwing out there is that if you have troops for some period of time, you would allow for trust to build among these different communities. Trust that you do not have. Trust that you did not have at the end of 2011. But again that period 2010-2011 was actually the height of political stability for better or for worse. It wasn't great but it was moving in the right direction.

And if you would have U.S. forces to restrain sectarianism, then there's the possibility that you would have been able to see that kind of organic political development. That's the hope. There's no guarantee, though. And I can't tell you that there's some guarantee that it necessarily would have worked. I do think that there's a lot of reason to believe that we would have a much better outcome and we wouldn't have to intervene at much higher cost now.

(CROSSTALK)

KOHN: Raihan is exactly right. There is no guarantee that the United States can do anything about these deep civil tensions in the country. There are two things we can guarantee. Number one, that our going in and intervening and picking sides will inflame more anti-American sentiments on one side or the other and the other thing we can guarantee is that more Americans will die. We can guarantee those two things.

PEREIRA: And that's the thing that I think a lot of Americans are going to wrestle with is the fact that how much money has been spent, how many lives more importantly. How many lives are lost. Yes.

SALAM: Well, we are talking about two separate questions. One question of whether or not we would have been able to do this at manageable costs. For example right now, let's say we do decide that we ought to intervene. We need intelligence assets. Right? We don't have them right now. If we had kept even a very small token force in the country we would frankly know much more about what's happening, who we're dealing with and how to make better decisions to protect our personnel who are there now.

PEREIRA: Raihan, Sally, we want you to stick around because we have more topics. Great conversation.

BERMAN: Yes. I appreciate this. It helps us talk about the future when you guys talk about the past in such a reasonable way. So thanks.

PEREIRA: We like reasonable. We really do.

Ahead, we want to push ahead to our town hall with Hillary Clinton. We want to get your thoughts on the tone she needs to take if she plans on running in 2016.

BERMAN: She might run?

PEREIRA: She might run.

BERMAN: She might run?

PEREIRA: I don't know if she's going to.

BERMAN: She might run.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

PEREIRA: We do have breaking news indeed here at CNN. U.S. forces have captured a suspect in the Benghazi situation.

We want to bring in our Barbara Starr from the Pentagon to bring us up to date.

Tell us the significance and what happened here.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Michaela and John. Not just captured but this is one of the most wanted terrorists in Libya for alleged involvement in the Benghazi attack. A man named Ahmed Abu Khattala now captured. The Pentagon has confirmed that the U.S. military along with law enforcement captured Khattalla on Sunday in Libya. He is being held at an undisclosed location and U.S. forces we are told safely are out of Libya.

But let's unpack this a little bit. The Pentagon not saying very much at all other than to confirm Khattala now in U.S. custody. U.S. Special Forces and the FBI had been after this guy for a very long time. They had been watching his movements in the Benghazi area. He had been seen there. He was someone they were keeping an eye on. The U.S. very much believes that Khattala is one of key masterminds behind the attacks in Benghazi in September 2012 that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, and has sparked an unending political firestorm on Capitol Hill for the White House.

This man now in custody. It's quite interesting what they are not telling us. They are not saying where Khattala is being held. In the past, in several instances, terrorists have been taken and put on board U.S. Navy ships before they are brought back to the United States for -- for federal prosecution. We do know that the USS Bataan, a U.S. Navy ship, is in the med. Not too far from Libya. It has been there for several weeks in case the embassy had to be evacuated there due to unrest.

So there are warships nearby. We don't know that he's on one of them. But that has been the typical practice in the past. Also the U.S. not saying what kind of forces captured him other than military and law enforcement, but we do know that U.S. Special Operations forces, we are talking Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, these are the guys that have operated in and out of Libya in very dicey security circumstances for the last several years. They have captured other people there.

So I think it's pretty safe to assume realistically it was one of these tier 1 types of special operations groups, SEAL Team 6, Delta that went in and got him and brought him out. Of course, unless he was going to be driven across a border, which is unlikely they most likely took him out by airplane or helicopter. This time we believe the Libyan government had much more awareness of it. Knew perhaps the basic parameters of what the U.S. had planned. In the past, the Libyan government has been pretty upset when they believe they don't know what's going on -- John, Michaela.

BERMAN: However it was done and whoever did it got him, those blanks will be filled in soon, I'm sure, Barbara, by your reporting, but fill in the blank about the man now in custody, Ahmed Abu Khattala. You said he's believed to be one of masterminds behind storming the compound in Benghazi. Who is he connected to? What's his background? And you say they have been keeping eyes on him for the last year and a half or so. What's he been doing?

STARR: Well, this is quite interesting. And our colleague Arwa Damon has followed this even more closely. We'll have to check in with her.

Khattala had actually by all accounts been seen in Benghazi, you know, living the cafe life so to speak. Had not necessarily been in hiding. Had given interviews. So very bold that he would not be caught. We know that several months ago when the U.S. forces went after a different guy named al-Libi in Tripoli, they had plans on the books to make that a two-part operation. They were going to go after one guy in Tripoli who was an al Qaeda suspect and go after Khattala in Benghazi.

It didn't work out because of the security situation and again because the Libyan government got so concerned about the U.S. forces being there. It became a very complex situation. They backed away from getting Khattala at that time. But, you know, not too far behind the scenes, we know that U.S. Special Forces, the intelligence community, the FBI, had been in and out of Benghazi, in and out of the region very quietly, very covertly, over the months, keeping their eye, trying to track him, trying to keep eyes on him and get the right moment to move in.

Khattala, one of several suspects in the Benghazi attacks. There are other guys they want to get just as bad, but this is somebody they really wanted. Said to be associated with the al Qaeda affiliate elements operating in that region and said to be very involved in the planning.

Benghazi is such a complicated situation in terms of who did what, who was behind it, what elements were behind it. It's this constant sort of unending dialog, was it al Qaeda, was it local al Qaeda, affiliate elements in that part of Libya, was it outsiders? You know, that debate goes on and on. But Khattala very specifically was someone they feel they had very good understanding that he was one of the key masterminds, not the only, but one of the key masterminds behind that attack.

PEREIRA: Well, as you mentioned, other men involved, but getting that one man, the most wanted as you also said, Barbara, is so key to this.

We want to bring in our Arwa Damon. We'll pick up your suggestion and talk to Arwa who is in Iraq right now.

And, Arwa, you can give us more an understanding of who this man is, how he operates and as John, you were saying, what he's been up to the last while.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we actually met him around a year ago, and it was as Barbara was mentioning there in an open space in a coffee shop of a very well-known hotel. He seemed to be fairly confident that he was a man at that point in time who is getting hunted down even though he was very well aware of the fact that the U.S. did consider him to be a person of interest. He was at the time being protected by one of the other Islamist groups in Benghazi.

Now we did speak of course to him about the attack on the U.S. consulate. He does not deny being on the scene of the attack. But he does fully deny or he did at the time that he was directly involved in any way, and that he was in fact the orchestrator, the mastermind of the U.S. consulate attack. He had claimed that he had arrived on scene after receiving a phone call from one of the Libyan commanders on the ground requesting his assistance, and then that is why he showed up there. He claims to have been directing traffic.

Now at times, his narrative did not exactly match up to how we knew events have unfolded on the ground, but he was also saying that despite what the U.S. was claiming at the time, and that is that he was a part or the leader of the organization Ansar al-Sharia that is widely believed to have been behind the attack. He says no, he was never involved with that. He did lead a rebel force during the Libyan revolution, but he said that he had suspended them at that point in time.

He mostly certainly think to be a man who was very confident and quite outspoken about what had happened at the U.S. consulate, making no effort to mask how he felt about the Americans. Now interestingly, at the time he said that he did not support what had happened there nor did he support the killing of the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, but he did say that the Americans were not doing enough to reach out to the appropriate people in Libya. He felt as if they were meddling too much in Libya's internal affairs.

But he did say that he would be willing to speak to U.S. authorities, not be interrogated by them. He was very clear to specify that. I will not be interrogated by them. If they want to come talk to me I will talk to them.

BERMAN: Arwa, I should say I'd like to welcome our viewers around the U.S. and around the world from CNN International.

What's interesting to me is that you met with this man as you say about a year ago. I think a lot of people are probably wondering how it is that you, a journalist, albeit one of best, got to sit down with this man and it took U.S. Special Forces a year to apprehend him. How could one explain that gap?

DAMON: Well, a number of factors, presumably, and that would be that after the attack on the U.S. consulate and then the CIA subsequently shutting down (INAUDIBLE) to the attack that the U.S. did not quite have the reach into Libya and into Benghazi that it needed perhaps to pick him up. Also playing into all of this is the sensitive nature of Libyan politics. Picking him up even at this point in time presumably is only going to inflame the situation there.

But, again, this is not a man who was in hiding. I was the first television correspondent to speak to him but he had spoken to one or two other print outlets beforehand. He did not feel the need to secure himself other than with this small unit of Libyan -- of Libyan forces that were part of one of the Islamist militias there at that point.

I don't know if he went into hiding afterwards. He was certainly -- was not someone we were able to reach after and I have tried to contact him at his phone number afterwards on a couple of occasions, it would just ring, there would be no answer, whenever his name would come up in the news, whenever the news about Benghazi would come up, so I'm not entirely sure what he has been doing for the last year at this stage. We're working numerous sources trying to get more information about that.

But again when it comes to U.S. operations there are a number of calculations that go into that. And after the attack on the U.S. consulate, the Americans in terms of boots on the ground, assets on the ground and intelligence gathering capacities most certainly had those capacity diminished at the very least when it came to Benghazi.

PEREIRA: Well, they got their man. You could say.

Arwa Damon, we want to say a big thank you to you, and also to Barbara Starr. We're going to continue our conversation about the raid that netted a prime suspect in the Benghazi attack on the diplomatic compound there in Benghazi back in 2012.

We're going to take a short break. We'll be back to tell you more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BERMAN: All right. Welcome back to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world. And the breaking news is this, the United States forces have captured a major suspect, in fact the major suspect, in the attacks on the embassy or the consulate in Benghazi, more than a year ago now.

I want to bring in our Evan Perez in Washington to talk about the situation now facing this man.

What kind of charges does he face and where?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that the prosecutors here in Washington have -- has filed charges against Khattala on terrorism charges. These are related to the attack on the Benghazi compound. Those charges have been under seal and we reported them last year here on CNN for the first time.

The president later on in a press conference confirmed the existence of those charges. So what is probably happening right now with Abu Khattala is that he is likely being held on a Navy ship or somewhere in U.S. custody, in the Defense Department's custody, and they're questioning him and then, you know, from there they're going to try to bring him to face those charges here in the U.S. -- John.

PEREIRA: Let's fold in Barbara Starr into the conversation right now.

I think a lot of us, after listening to Arwa Damon talking about the fact she met with this man face-to-face, even had his cell phone number, are wondering why on earth it took Special Forces or U.S. forces so long to capture him. He was sort of in plain sight seemingly.

STARR: Well, perhaps -- so let's kind of walk through how these things -- how these things work. Benghazi, that area where we believe he was captured, is not friendly to the United States in any way, shape or form. For -- I mean, Arwa did incredible work. For her to go up to him and talk to him is one set of circumstances. But for U.S. Special Operations Forces, potentially CIA personnel, FBI personnel, to move in to what essentially is not friendly territory, capture someone and get that person and themselves out of there, you have to have perfect intelligence. You have to know where the person is and to be able to move in. And you don't want to have a gunfight suddenly erupt. So this takes time. What we do know is they had been watching for exactly the right time to move in and it looks like they got it.

BERMAN: Well, Lieutenant Colonel -- retired Lieutenant Colonel Rich Francona is here with us.

And you were telling us at the break, basically, easy for us to say how come they didn't get this guy for the last year. You hunted criminals in Bosnia.

LT. COL. RICH FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. We went after five, and as Barbara says, you have to have perfect intelligence. You have to know where they're going to be, what company they're going to be in, how fast can the security forces react. What is -- what is, you know, all the situation around you. And sometimes you have to call it off because the police will be there because the last thing you want to do is get involved in a firefight inside another country, especially a country that's not friendly to you.

So for them to set up everything would take time. They may have -- they may have aborted this several times.

PEREIRA: Yes, but we don't know that.

FRANCONA: We don't know that.

PEREIRA: They did get him alive. The hope is they'll get more intelligence about the other players in this scenario from him?

FRANCONA: Absolutely. I mean, it's always better to take these guys alive. And I think that's one of the criticisms a lot of people have of the drone program is you don't get the opportunity to debrief these guys. So we may have had the opportunity to go in and kill this guy, but now we've got him. And whether we can get anything out of him or not remains to be seen. But at least he's going to stand up in front a jury.

BERMAN: He's going to stand up in front of a jury. Can they talk to him before he gets a lawyer?

FRANCONA: You know that's an interesting thing.

(CROSSTALK)

FRANCONA: Once he's in U.S. custody and the way we did this in Bosnia is once he was -- these guys were in our custody, they had not formally been arrested yet. We had to take them to an FBI agent to do that.

PEREIRA: OK.

FRANCONA: Because the military can't arrest people.

BERMAN: Rich Francona, thank you so much for being with us.

You know, the timing on this is fascinating.

PEREIRA: What's happening today?

BERMAN: Particularly for CNN. CNN has got a town meeting. A live town hall meeting with Hillary Clinton who was secretary state when this whole Benghazi thing happened. I think there will be a lot of questions for her about this man.

PEREIRA: Yes.

BERMAN: About this operation and about what it means for the Benghazi controversy going forward.

PEREIRA: They have breaking news at the town hall that will be moderated by our Christiane Amanpour this evening here on CNN, 5:00 p.m. and again at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

BERMAN: Yes, watch it twice. It's going to be that good.

(LAUGHTER)

PEREIRA: I want to thank Barbara Starr for joining us. Also Rich Francona, really appreciate it. Evan Perez.

Thanks so much for joining us, all, AT THIS HOUR.

BERMAN: The coverage of this breaking news continues right after the break with Ashleigh Banfield and "LEGAL VIEW." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)