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Crisis in Iraq; Twin Tornadoes Slam into Nebraska; Interview with Congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan; Intelligence Chair: "Al Qaeda-Armed Insurgency Group on the Rise"

Aired June 17, 2014 - 06:30   ET




Half past of the hour. Let's take a look at your headlines now. Powerful, powerful storms tearing through the upper Midwest, including catastrophic tornado touchdowns in Nebraska, and these rare twin twisters. More than half of the northeastern town of Pilger gone. Two people are dead, including a 5-year-old child. More than a dozen others have been injured.

President Obama is mulling options for combating ISIS militants in Iraq. He met with national security officials late last night. Hundreds of American troops are being sent to the Iraq region as ISIS keeps expanding its footprint.

Nic Robertson joining us live from Baghdad with the very latest, as the situation is continuing to change -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Michaela. Late yesterday, Ambassador Stephen Beecroft here met U.S. Ambassador Stephen Beecroft here met with Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister. The prime minister's office said the meeting was productive, that they talk about how to tackle terrorism in the region, but also that the Iraqi prime minister was looking for more support and more help from the United States, an indication here that the Iraqis do feel that they want the United States to step in in Iraq in a bigger way.

At the same time, we're hearing this morning 45 minutes drive northeast of the city, the down of Baqubah, where the ISIS, the radical Islamist splinter groups, took control of the military base over the weekend. Clashes and fights going on in the city there.

Now, Iraqi TV, the state TV, says the government is in control of a number of neighborhoods in that city but an eyewitness who's talked to CNN said that ISIS fighters managed to get into the city, get into the police station and take all the weapons from the police station before leaving it. So, the battle there very close to Baghdad still seems still to be very fluid at this time, Michaela.

PEREIRA: Certainly very concerning for U.S. officials who are right now what to do, what level of support they will be providing.

Nic Robertson, thanks so much.

Also breaking overnight, more violence in Kenya as militants carried out yet another attack in Lamu Region. There are reports that nine people were killed there. This comes a day after dozens of people were massacred when the Somali extremist group al Shabaab attacked another small coastal town in the area. Militants armed with automatic weapons attacked police and set two nearby hotels on fire.

Baseball has lost one of its true legends. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died Monday after a battle with cancer. Gwynn won eight batting titles during a 20-year career with the San Diego Padres. He often said his secret was good old-fashioned hard work. He'll certainly be remembered for being as fine a person as he was a hitter. Tony Gwynn just 54 years old.

Want to talk weather. We're certainly watching severe weather happening across the country. Meteorologist Indra Petersons has been tracking storms for us in Nebraska, joins us for the forecast.

More is expected, isn't it, Indra?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That's the scary thought, especially when you look at sights like this, this morning, Michaela. You're talking about 50 percent, if not 75 percent of the town completely level this morning. The sun is up, very easy to see. This used to be someone's home, now completely down to the ground.

And look far in the distance, you can see this going back a good seven blocks, so the thought that we could still be talking about more severe weather today, and really for a larger population. We're talking about 44 million of you today under the gun. You can actually see a tornado watch box for Chicago. That means the threat for severe weather is in that region, to about 9:00 this morning.

And then we're going to be talking about places, not only like Chicago, but Detroit, even Michigan. All of you do have that threat for severe weather. We're actually going to see it spreading even further to the east.

So, this is exact same storm that brought the severe weather here. But by the time we get through Wednesday, it's going to spread even further to the east, to about 78 million of you, including places like Philadelphia and New York City, we'll still be talking about this exact same storm system.

The other thing you're going to be noticing especially in the Northeast. It's going to be very warm temperatures. You're going to be talking about temperatures in the mid-'90s, in the humidity is climbing well up there, so really kind of setting up that perfect situation for more disastrous weather like this -- Michaela.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Indra, thank you so much. We'll check back with you throughout the show and we're going to be talking to some storm chasers about what they saw on the ground there in Nebraska as well. That's coming up.

But also coming up on NEW DAY, the White House is now weighing its options to respond to the militant uprising in Iraq. We're going to be talking to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, about the next step for the United States.


BOLDUAN: Welcome back to NEW DAY.

President Obama is deciding right now whether or not to provide military support to a struggling Iraqi government. The president has committed about 275 military personnel equipped for combat to help protect the embassy in Iraq. That's just so far.

Joining us now to discuss the path forward, what the United States should do, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, the congressman from Michigan.

Mr. Chairman, it's great to see you this morning.

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: It's great to see you and congratulations on your one-year anniversary of your show.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. That's very kind of you.

You have been talking -- you, of course, are one of the point people that everyone wants to hear from when issues like this arise.

I want to clarify a couple of points with you. Do you think at this point what you have seen, what you have heard, that U.S. airstrikes are necessary?

ROGERS: Well, I do think you have to have a coordinated effort to slow down the momentum and turn the momentum of what is an al Qaeda army on the rise and on the move. And so, you have two places they operate, both Syria and in -- eastern Syria and western Iraq, and they are holding ground. They are gaining weapons. They are amassing cache. All of that is very, very dangerous.

So, I do believe air strikes should be part of any option laid on the table in conjunction of pushing forward Iraqi troops back into this fight.

BOLDUAN: We've also seen you say you do not support boots on the ground, but a big question right now is how do you successfully target is with airstrikes without boots on the ground, without eyes on the ground because of how ISIS operates?

ROGERS: Well, and I think we should be very, very careful here, and I've heard this on the news, that the president is flip-flopping on this boots on the ground thing. We need a functioning number of troops for support in force protection, meaning protecting the embassy.

When people say troops -- boots on the ground, they are talking about big footprint, the fourth infantry division, the 101st Infantry Division, those kinds of things. That's not what we're talking about. Not talking about large-scale troop unit. You will need trainers on the ground, you'll need intelligence officials on the ground, to help guide the fight, provide some command and control, provide some training for certain forces on the ground and to help best coordinate target packages -- meaning where do they strike and when they strike to the most impact to slow down this al Qaeda army on the move?

BOLDUAN: Well, not a big footprint. How many military personnel do you think is needed for that to be accomplished?

ROGERS: Yes, I wouldn't even hesitate -- I would hesitate to even guess at that, Kate, but it's -- it needs to be robust enough to help the Iraqis move forward, but, again, this is not a big target footprint that we want to put on the ground or that the United States would want to put on the ground, at least way I would support it. I don't think the president has made any decision.

The first movements I support. They actually put troops on the ground to protect the embassy. That's important. You've got to have that happen, and that I think has happened, and so the next step is what does that package look like, and I think those discussions are ongoing now. I've had some discussions with the White House National Security Council staff and I think, you know, a plan is coming together, I do believe that.

BOLDUAN: Can you give us any inkling of what that plan is?

ROGERS: Well, again, I hate to get too far. I don't think any decision has --

BOLDUAN: What's your advice to the White House?


ROGERS: Well, listen, I would like to see two things. We need to very aggressively re-engage the Arab League. I would not go into negotiations with Iran on this. Iran still has American blood on its hands from Iraq and it's making our Arab League partners very, very nervous about this.

Re-engage the Arab League, have a two-pronged strategy. You need to disrupt their activity in eastern Syria, and you need to change the momentum in Iraq, and you need to have a political discussion all at the same time. Maliki really probably needs to go. Some -- we need somebody of serious stature to be able to tell him that so that they can get a unity government to start taking away this Sunni/Shia problem that is developing or is there already.

But again, we have an al Qaeda-armed insurgency group that's on the rise. That is a problem for Iraq. It's also a problem for the United States and Europe. Thousands of people we believe with Western passports are on the ground getting further radicalized, trained and will go back home. That's dangerous for the United States in the light that there has been an American who was used in a suicide bombing in eastern Syria. BOLDUAN: I've heard you raise this concern about supporters of ISIS,

of al Qaeda with U.S. and Western passports. Do -- are you confident that the United States has eyes on these people because the question is, wouldn't they be easy to track if they tried to re-enter the United States?

ROGERS: No, not necessarily. And so, again, we -- we have some understanding of who they are. We don't have a complete understanding of who they are. Remember, it took 19 people to kill 3,000 Americans. If you're talking thousands and you can track half of them or three quarters of them or 80 percent of them, that still leaves a significant problem for us.

That's why this rising problem, and we've known about this problem for about two and a half years now, is so concerning for those of us who are worried about national security. And that's why you have to have an aggressive disruptive campaign. Stop the flow of those people into both Syria and Iraq and then make sure that we can try to figure out who they are, so that when they come back we can stop them and take them into custody if that's what we need to do.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Chairman, we have heard some of your colleagues say that they believe that Syria and Iraq, with -- with what's going on now will likely become the next staging ground for the next 9/11. But you do wonder is that bluster, or do you see real evidence of that? Because doesn't it also seem right now these guys are busy enough fighting and trying to kill each other and wage war over Middle East ground?

ROGERS: Well, something interesting happened here recently. So Zawahiri who's the head of al Qaeda as we know it, the head leadership -- ISIS was in eastern Syria, and they were fighting with al Nusra, another al Qaeda affiliate.

And the argument then was, Zawahiri, the leader, who replaced Osama bin Laden, wanted ISIS to -- to only fight in Iraq and -- because ISIS was talking about external operations, meaning Western, Europe and the United States. So think about that. They've already had those discussions. They understand the value of Western passport holders. They're weaponized very, very well now. Unfortunately, they have a lot of money, so something interesting happened.

Now they went back and are fighting in Iraq. It doesn't mean that they have lost their interest in these external operations. They are very aggressive, and they're brutal. They've already issued Sharia law statement in Mosul and Tikrit and other towns. They've done summary executions. They've dragged people in the street and shot them in the back of the head.

It's really important to understand who we're dealing with. These are very bad characters. They will not stop until they have their -- they have their version of a caliphate, and they're willing to commit acts of violence to do it, including terrorist operations outside of Syria and outside of Iraq. That's what is so concerning.

BOLDUAN: And here's -- here is the hang-up. You have an American public that has no appetite for another -- getting involved with another major military option, getting involved with another war.

The United States has left tons of equipment in Iraq, spent billions of dollars training the Iraqi army, paid -- paid for it with countless lives as well. But the troops, they've left their tanks. They've put down their equipment. They've walked away. They don't have the commitment to this fight that the United States wants them to have. Any -- how is anything short of a surge, which no one has an appetite of, how is there any possibility of having a real impact here?

ROGERS: Well, I think you can, and obviously we could -- we could go back and debate. I disagreed with the decision for a unilateral pullout of Iraq. I thought it was premature; it was dangerous. It was going to cause problems, certainly has. But here's where we find ourselves.

Now this -- this really -- people want to say this is a sectarian civil war. This is Shias versus Sunni. There's some of that clearly, but this is an al Qaeda affiliate who is using violence to get its gains and has already talked about external operations. Look at -- look at what you see...

BOLDUAN: Mr. Chairman, how do you get this al Qaeda affiliate to be back on its heels when what the problem is in Iraq is they need political reconciliation, and that is -- does not seem like a likely outcome when you still have Prime Minister Maliki in power and you have decades, century-old tensions between these two religious sects?

ROGERS: Well, clearly, if you ever want political reconciliation you have to have some breathing space. Right now you have al Qaeda knocking on the door of Baghdad.

I mean, this is as bad as you can ever see it. You have to disrupt their ability to continue operations, they being ISIS, the al Qaeda affiliate group, in the way that they're doing it. If we don't disrupt that, if we don't give breathing space, you'll never get to the next question, which is how do we make sure we have political reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia factions in Iraq and the Kurds as well in the north? If we don't do the first part, you'll never get to the second part.

And if you look back, we have a great history here, Kate. Look at what happened in Afghanistan. Everybody pulled out and said that's it, we're done. The Taliban took over. It fostered al Qaeda, a safe haven like we've never seen; 9/11 happens.

And so, what we see here is all of the recipe is there. All of -- all of the ingredients are going in the stew, and we see it happening on our watch.

Here's the trick -- or here's the question, not the trick, is how can you disrupt it long enough to have Iraq do that political reconciliation and get their army back in the fight? That's going to take a little bit of investment. It's not going to take huge military presence. It's not going to take huge amounts of sorties (ph) from an aircraft carrier every single day. It will take some of that to change the momentum, but it is in our

national security interest. Imagine a safe haven the size of Indiana. That's what they have right now, meaning they can train and recruit and finance. Some estimates as much as $1 billion in both cash and gold. That means they are well financed to do any operation in the world that they want to do. That is what is so concerning.

We have to find a way to disrupt that activity very, very quickly, and this isn't a month-long project or two months or six month. We need to start that now, and you can also have political reconciliation going all at the same time.

BOLDUAN: That gets to my very final quick question. Real quick button on this, if you could. With all of this in mind and everything you know that you cannot talk about publicly, is it more likely than not that the U.S. will conduct air strikes?

ROGERS: Well, I would -- I don't even want to say that. I mean, there's some -- I think some options are being talked about that will provide for some disruption, and I'll support those options as long as they give breathing space to any political reconciliation, which means you're gonna have to get the Iraqi (ph) military back in the fight, and that may include U.S. air strikes to break the momentum of the al Qaeda army.

BOLDUAN: Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Mr. Chairman, it's always great to have you, thank you for your time.

ROGERS: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

Chris, over to you.

CUOMO: Well, I'll tell you, Kate, you don't have to be head of the Intelligence Committee to know that Iraq has been in trouble for a long time. At least there's some urgency in Washington at this point.

Let's take a quick break here on NEW DAY. Rare twin tornadoes. They touched down practically next to each other. They almost leveled a town in Nebraska. What was it like to be this close? We're going to talk to storm chasers who were right there, and they tell some amazing stories of how people survive.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where has that happened before?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the town.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh (expletive deleted) That's the water tower.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at the little vortices chasing in there. That's crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep moving fast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're merging. They're gonna merge!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A massive tornado, just massive.


CUOMO: Count your blessings this morning that that is not your backyard. A devastating storm system turned deadly. At least two lives lost, multiple injuries this morning in Nebraska. The headline is what you're looking at right now, twin tornadoes. You know, you almost never see this. One grew out of the other. They ripped through the state, leaving a trail of damage. Luckily, they took the same path. They could have gone different directions and even doubled down on what they did.

We have Brian Davidson and Mark "Storm" Farnik. They're storm chasers, and they arrived to Pilger the same time as the storm. Now, this is a phenomenal thing to see in terms of the science, but let's start with what matters, the people.

How are they doing on the ground there, gentlemen? And tell us about the family that you encountered firsthand.

MARK "STORM" FARNIK, STORM CHASER: Want to start off, Brian?

BRIAN DAVIDSON, STORM CHASER: Yesterday we arrived moments after the tornado went through the town, and both our immediate reactions was to start helping people, immediately started going through businesses, making sure everyone was OK.

Both myself and my chase partner, we're photojournalists as well, so we also had to get the story out there so the world will know what happened. We just arrived on site here, so we don't know what's going on right now. It is our understanding that the town was evacuated last night. The storm is the one that encountered a family last night.

CUOMO: So tell us about that. Because you know these small -- these small towns often get hit even harder because they don't have the resources. It's tougher to recover. What did you find with this family last night?

FARNIK: OK, well, when we got in, we were probably about five minutes behind the main tornado that hit Pilger. It was encountering an intensification phase as it moved through the town, doing probably ef- 3, maybe ef-4 damage right through the center of town.

When we arrived on the scene, me and Brian split up. Our first immediate reaction was that the photos can wait. We need to get into town and check on people and make sure that they are OK. I went straight into the heart of the main damage area near the grain elevators and went to a home where there was a family that was trapped in a basement. A lady named Jody and her children, Cameron and Samantha. They're probably about 11 and 9 years old approximately. And there was one other gentleman that was helping them out of the basement. And I went and helped Jody and then the kids out of basement.

I just gathered that little family in my arms and held them there while they had a good cry because they just lost everything they own. You know, their house was wiped out. Their cars were gone. Their dog was gone. The kids were crying for their dog. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and -- but I just held on to them until they could calm down a little bit.

But they got caught off guard by the tornado, and they weren't even wearing socks, shoes or anything, so I helped the other gentleman that was there carry Jody out to the pavement where there wasn't any debris. Someone had come through and swept a path to the vehicle. And then I went back, and the other gentleman grabbed Samantha and I grabbed Cameron, who's probably good 180 something pounds, big kid, threw him on my back, and I carried him out of rubble to safety to where he could be placed in the vehicle and not have to walk across glass, nails, all the usual tornadic debris.

CUOMO: Well, look, that was a good thing you did. Because we love to see the pictures. They help us understand the devastation and how these things happen, and it's amazing that you caught it on tape. But to help the people involved, that's what it's all about. So thank you for doing that, Storm.

Also, safe to say you guys have never seen anything like this before.