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Suspected Benghazi Mastermind In U.S. Custody; Clinton "Very Pleased" With Benghazi Arrest; More Tornadoes Hit Nebraska; ISIS Closer to Baghdad; U.S. Handling of Iraq

Aired June 18, 2014 - 06:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to NEW DAY. It's Wednesday, June 18th, 6:00 in the east. Now, nearly two years after the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the alleged mastermind is in U.S. custody. We have new details this morning on where Ahmed Abu Khatalla is being held and new allegations from the U.S. that he may have been planning more attacks.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, died in the Benghazi attack. It happened during Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, and during CNN's Town Hall with Clinton last night, she spoke about the lingering controversy.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: There are answers, not all of them, not enough frankly. I'm still looking for answers because it was a confusing and difficult time, but I would hope that every American would understand, number one, why we were there, because we need to be in dangerous places, and number two, that we're doing the best we can to find out what happened.


BOLDUAN: We have complete coverage beginning with Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. Barbara, tell us more about what we're learning about the capture of Khatalla.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kate. Well, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power has now told the U.N. that Khatalla may have been planning more attacks against Americans, that being reported by the Reuters organization, but the U.S. now has its hands on him.


STARR (voice-over): Ahmed Abu Khatalla was lured to a location south of Benghazi, U.S. officials from multiple agencies tell CNN. Army Delta Force commandos, FBI and intelligence agencies were watching and waiting for days. Khatalla, a key operative in Ansar Al Sharia, the group the U.S. blames for the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. Intelligence gleaned from local Libyans helped draw Khatalla to the location. U.S. commandos captured him with no shots fired, no one getting hurt. A surprising feat, one former Libyan intelligence official tells CNN, because Khatalla usually surrounded himself with guards.

U.S. commandos whisked him to a Navy ship in the Mediterranean to begin undergoing questioning for his role in the attack and anything else he knows about terrorist activity. Officially the Pentagon will say little.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not going to get into specifics on the actual execution of the operation.

STARR: President Obama touted the capture.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It's important for us to send a message to the world that when Americans are attacked, no matter how long it takes, we will find those responsible and we will bring them to justice.

STARR: But some wonder why it took so long when journalists like CNN's Arwa Damon were able to find and talk to Khatalla more than a year ago.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We met with Ahmed Abu Khatalla in public at the coffee shop of a well-known hotel here in Benghazi for around two hours. He seemed to be confident, his demeanor most certainly not that of a man who believed he would be detained or targeted any time soon.

STARR: So how could CNN get to Khatalla and it took U.S. commandos over a year to find him?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In order to do this safely, effectively and efficiently, and nobody got hurt, by the way, that takes time to plan. It takes a lot of information-gathering, and we did this in a very stealthy way.


STARR: So who were the commandos that got Khatalla. They come from one of the most secretive organizations in the U.S. military, a group called the Joint Special Operations Command, the same group, the same men that walked up to the Taliban to get Bowe Bergdahl, some of the same group that went into Osama Bin Laden's compound -- Chris.

CUOMO: Barbara, thank you very much. Very interesting reporting on how this actually went down. Let's get some more information here, we have Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, he is CNN military analyst, former military officer to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Lt. Colonel, always good to have you with us this morning. Military and FBI working together. The first question, let's just deal with the obvious. Who is this man? When we see Khatalla, what do we know? FRANCONA: He's a Libyan national. He grew up in the Benghazi area and radicalized at a young age, spent ten years in this infamous Abu Salim prison. I suspect that's where he got even more radicalized for ten years. That's a long period of time to spend in one of Gadhafi's jails. He was too radical even for Gadhafi.

CUOMO: What is the logical rationale for him being an insurgent of Libyan proportion and maybe seeing the U.S. as an enemy?

FRANCONA: Well, the U.S. came into Benghazi, which he regarded as a backyard and when he saw that these were foreigners coming into his area and provided a target of opportunity. Remember by the time this attack happened on 9/11, the British had already left and other western countries had already left. The United States was the only western power there. They were the only real target that he could access easily.

CUOMO: Best new information on where he is that they believe he may already be in U.S. custody on a ship. Tell us about that.

FRANCONA: I think that's probably the most rational explanation because what you want to do is get a hold of this guy and you want to get him out of there as fast as you can. Get him somewhere where you control everything. Of course, the best place to do that is on a U.S. Navy ship right off the coast.

CUOMO: The "USS New York" is there, right?

FRANCONA: That's what we're told. Of course, this is an amphibious ship with all the capabilities to hold anybody and also has about 500 Marines on it.

CUOMO: All right, so the two big questions, got a positive and negative here. Let's start with the positive. What's happening on that ship? What can you do there?

FRANCONA: He's in U.S. custody. He is being interrogated. They will call it interviewed.

CUOMO: Intelligence interviews.

FRANCONA: Probably the FBI because the FBI takes the lead on these. They have a high value interrogation group that's got everybody there. Intelligence people, special ops people, but the FBI will take the lead because they are the law enforcement people and now this is a law enforcement issue.

CUOMO: So this isn't about war or battlefield type tactics, this isn't waterboarding and torture. You believe this is more criminal case procedure.

FRANCONA: This will be done by the book and I'm sure it will all be videotaped done exactly as the FBI does everything else. They are building a case. This has to be presented to a U.S. judge.

CUOMO: OK, so that degree of detail in particularity feeds in the other big question, which ear hearing which is why did it take so long to get this guy. If Arwa Damon, who is a reporter is able to meet and speak with him, why did it take you guys so long?

FRANCONA: Well, the answer is that Arwa who did a great job in that interview, and I listened to it. You know, he was being very condescending and full of himself. He felt very confident in that meeting because he controlled the environment. When you go in to get him, you have to control the environment. You have to have the intelligence, know where he is, who he is and what kind of security is there --

CUOMO: Are we celebrating with a little bit of Hollywood romanticism in terms of how easy we think we can go in and just get somebody?

FRANCONA: This is very difficult because you are going into a foreign environment where you control nothing and you have to set up a secure perimeter and take someone against their will and try to do it without killing anybody, especially local civilians or local police. This could turn into a very ugly gun fight and they were able to pull it off with no shots fired.

CUOMO: Is it your position that CNN was able to find someone that the U.S. didn't know where they were, but it was about how they had to get him and what kind of case they had to have set up before they did that created the delay?

FRANCONA: Yes, exactly. I mean, they probably knew where he was a lot of the time. You have to build a profile of where he's going to be so you can predict where he's going to be. They actually lured him to a location. You need someone on the ground that is willing to do that. Remember after 9/11 we lost all of our intelligence assets in the Benghazi area. It took a long time to rebuild those.

CUOMO: You can't just snatch them. You have to keep them, right. If you don't have the case against them then you can be in trouble?

FRANCONA: That's where the FBI comes in. They build cases.

CUOMO: We'll learn more about him as they start bringing him on a long slow ride.

FRANCONA: Hopefully they will get information from him on that trip.

CUOMO: Certainly will have time. Keeping him on the ship, not flying, they will have a lot of time.

FRANCONA: Can he lawyer up? Is he under arrest? What's his legal status?

CUOMO: As soon as he says can I go and they say no, it might trigger rights. Anyway, we'll see what happens with that. Kate, over to you.

BOLDUAN: All right, so as we mentioned, the Benghazi attack occurred on Hillary Clinton's watch as secretary of state. During CNN's town hall, Clinton said that she was very pleased with the arrest, the capture of the suspected ring leader. Brianna Keilar is following that part of the story for us from Washington. Brianna, you were there during the town hall. Talked about a lot of hard choices. What does she say about this?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: This was a fascinating part of the evening, Kate, and this is why. Because in her new book, which she is rolling out, she is very clear that the way that she sees Benghazi isn't in a political light and she says she doesn't want to engage in a political fight and that she puts it on the backs of dead Americans.

Last night she toned it down saying there's still a lot we don't know and she says she is still looking for answers.


KEILAR (voice-over): Hillary Clinton gave her first reaction to the capture of the mastermind of the attack in Benghazi, Ahmed Abu Khatalla, by U.S. forces.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm very pleased. The United States has an unwavering commitment to bring to justice those who are responsible for attacks on Americans, no matter where they are or how long it takes.

KEILAR: But earlier on CNN, the mother of one victim had demanded more answers.

CLINTON: I totally relate to her as a mother or to any of the family members of the four Americans who were killed that night. I can say why she and others are inconsolable.

KEILAR: Clinton took questions from CNN chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, from the internet and the audience at Washington's Newseum while promoting her new book "Hard Choices." Clinton was asked about immigration reform and the harsh realities of the current system.

CLINTON: The horror of a father or a mother going to work and being picked up and immediately whisked away and children coming home from school to an empty house and nobody can say where their mother or their father is, that is just not who we are as Americans.

KEILAR: She addressed the violence in Iraq, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the war in Syria, highlighting policy risks between her and President Obama.

CLINTON: I recommended that we do more in the very beginning to support moderate opposition.

KEILAR: But --

CLINTON: The buck stops with the president and the president had very legitimate concerns.

KEILAR: On Tumblr, one person asked for a more definitive marriage equality answer.

CLINTON: My views have changed over time. It really became very clear to me that if we're going to support marriage in our country, it should be available to everyone, regardless of who they love.

KEILAR: On reinstating the assault weapons ban.

CLINTON: We cannot let a minority of people, and that's what it is, it is a minority of people, hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.

KEILAR: And there was a little humor on marijuana.

CLINTON: I didn't do it when I was young. I'm not going to start now.

KEILAR: And on the hard choice between being a grandmother or being president, Clinton could not resist.

CLINTON: There have been a lot of grandfathers who have done it.


KEILAR: Now a source at Simon & Shuster talking about book sales, of course, because this is a book tour. It's all about rolling out her message as well, 100,000 books, we are sold, that includes through retailers as well as e-books. We expect today that Hillary Clinton's new book will debut as number one on the "New York Times" best-seller list.

The question, Michaela is, how long will it stay there, long enough to justify the reported $14 million advance and to really show that Americans are engaged in her message? We'll have to see.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: That remains to be seen. Brianna, thanks so much for a look at that. Let's take a look at more of your headlines right now at 12 minutes past the hour.

In a few hours' time, the House Foreign Affairs Committee convenes a hearing on the swap of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban prisoners and for its implications for U.S. national security. Bergdahl is recovering at a military hospital in Texas. His reintegration team is gradually exposing him to the media coverage that surrounds him.

Breaking overnight, convicted rapist and murderer in Georgia became the first execution in the U.S. in seven weeks. Marcus Wellins (ph) was put to death by lethal injection. Minutes later, convicted murderer, John Winfield, was executed in Missouri. The executions were two of three scheduled in less than 24 hours. Lethal injections have been on hold since a botched execution in Oklahoma back in April.

This morning, General Motors CEO Mary Barra is back on Capitol Hill to testify in the company's internal investigation of an ignition switch defect that was linked to 13 deaths. The report found that GM failed to understand the potential danger and blamed a corporate culture that discourage the flow of bad news. GM knew of the problem for over a decade before issuing a recall in February. The automaker recalled some 20 million vehicles in 2014 alone.

A dramatic crash caught on cameras -- on a Kansas highway. End over end, an SUV going up and over in the air on Interstate 70. The person shooting the video noticed the jeep kind of driving erratically and called police. The SUV driver was the only one hurt in that crash, and what's remarkable is injuries are not considered life-threatening.

CUOMO: Do they think --

BOLDUAN: Was the other car moving? No, on the side of the road.

CUOMO: Do you think he tried to jump it like a ramp?

PEREIRA: Police are investigating right now to determine if the driver was somehow impaired. If they didn't see the car. If there was some sort of impairment. It looks as though the other vehicle was pulled over --

CUOMO: Some type of trailer and had a ramp behind it and was certainly on the shoulder.


CUOMO: So that car veered over on it.

PEREIRA: That's why they are looking into the state of the driver.

BOLDUAN: Unbelievable.

PEREIRA: Yes, kind of crazy. Speaking of kind of crazy, the dangerous weather hitting the Midwest and it hit again overnight. Twisters and funnel clouds spotted a day after twin tornadoes devastated parts of Nebraska. This morning torrential downpours and devastating floods are now threatening millions of people in the region. Gone from bad to worse.

Let's go live to Indra Petersons tracking developments for us in Stanton, Nebraska, one of the areas hardest hit. Hi, Indra.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Michaela. This is one of those areas that saw the first tornado that ripped through before those twin tornadoes on Monday. A lot of damage here is in the field. You can actually see trees completely snapped in half and the bark completely stripped off of them, but even a lot of farm equipment flipped over.

Out in the distance, hard to see right now, but we actually have a tractor that looks like it's thrown into the tree. The preliminary report is that this was an EF-3 tornado. And nearby in Pilger it looks like right now the preliminary report is that that was an EF-4 tornado. The concern on everyone's minds this morning is that more severe weather is expected to affected these areas again today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) PETERSONS (voice-over): Residents of Nebraska hit by another round of wicked weather.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I turned around and start going.

PETERSONS: Storm chasers capturing just one of three possible tornadoes ripping through Cherry County, Nebraska, and dropping tennis ball-sized hail on the ground below.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my goodness.

PETERSONS: Another immense twister caught on video tearing through Coleridge. The sound of the wind, deafening.


PETERSONS: This just one day after twin tornadoes, both massive and violent, barreled through the state.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's ripping up a whole town.

PETERSONS: Obliterating practically everything in its path. This powerful storm system reached beyond Nebraska. Harsh thunderstorms spawned several twisters that pummeled southern Wisconsin, flattening homes into piles of rubble in Verona and Platteville. The risk of severe weather stretching across the upper Midwest, threatening millions of people. Major flooding leaving parts of Iowa under water with roads and homes completely submerged. It was the same sight across parts of Minnesota and South Dakota, where heavy rainfall caused substantial flooding in rivers and lakes, damaging homes, cars and businesses.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we tried to get things as high as we could, but when the water came, it came fast too. It was - you know, at first we had an inch and then all of a sudden we had a foot and then it was waist deep.

PETERSONS: Many houses surrounded by piles of sandbags up to four feet high. Residents able to reach their homes only by boat.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No matter what happens here, we always have each other. And no matter what we lose, we'll still be together.


PETERSONS: The last thing anyone wants to hear is that more severe weather is expected today. But, unfortunately, that is the case. We have this storm system that's really stretching from Montana all the way even into the northeast. That means 66 million people today are under the gun for severe weather. You can see all the instability that's already out there, even right now. Again, even the northeast seeing some of these light showers.

And that's only one part of the equation. Yes, severe weather will be out there, but also a threat for a heat advisory. In places like Philadelphia, you guys are going to feel what I'm feeling out here right now. That hot, muggy weather. Philadelphia looking for temperatures into what feels like would be up 90s today. So, unfortunately, another day of severe weather, especially as residents in Pilger are trying to return home today with the volunteers. The threat that another storm could impact their region today is the last thing they want to hear.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely right. Indra, thank you so much for that.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up on NEW DAY, we know what is happening in Iraq, so what will the U.S. do? Battle for Baghdad is looming, air strikes, even more? Boots on the ground now back on table? We'll give you the latest.

BOLDUAN: Plus, Dick Cheney with a blistering attack against President Obama. What Cheney says about the president's handling of the Iraq crisis.


CUOMO: Welcome back to NEW DAY.

Politicians are pointing fingers and revising the history of how we got there in Iraq, but at least the president will meet with congressional leaders today to figure out what to do about the raging violence there. This morning, the Sunni militant group ISIS, just 37 miles from Baghdad, attacking the city of Baqubah. Now, they are finally getting resistance from Iraqi military and tribal fighters who are insistent on taking a stand. Will that change the fate of the country? We're covering every angle starting with senior international correspondent Nic Robertson in Baghdad.

Nic, what's the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the fighting still goes on, we understand, in Baqubah. Last night the state media was saying that the government still controls various parts of that. That said, we cannot independently verify it. And in the morning yesterday, state media had said that the ISIS militants had killed 44 prisoners by throwing grenades at them. That turned out to be just government propaganda, but it was, in fact, the government security forces of police who shot dead the prisoners because ISIS was trying to get in to release them. It was the Shia guards killing the Sunni prisoners.

There's also reports of gun battles goes on around the oil refinery. Iraq's largest oil refinery that produces 40 percent of the gasoline used by cars in this country. A very significant piece of infrastructure for the government. We're expecting a statement by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, his weekly address. People will be looking to see if he's going to make any political concessions. None of that seems to have been on the table so far.

At the moment ISIS, backed by the Sunni tribes, is fighting an increasingly sectarian battle with Iraqi security forces who are increasingly bunked (ph) -- bumped (ph) up by Shia militias.


BOLDUAN: Nic Robertson, so many moving parts on the ground right now. We'll be back with you throughout the show. Nic on the ground there. Thank you so much.

And as we've mentioned, President Obama will meet with top congressional leaders today to discuss options for U.S. handling of Iraq. There are conflicting reports this morning about what he is considering. The "Wall Street Journal" is reporting that he's decided against air strikes, at least for now, but "The New York Times" reports selective strikes are possible. Is that his distinction without a difference? We're going to talk more about it throughout the show. One thing is certain, more American firepower and manpower have moved into the region. White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski is tracking all of the developments for us this morning.

Michelle, what's the latest?


Well, you know, after all that fallout surrounding the release of Bowe Bergdahl, obviously this administration wants to involve Congress this time around leading up to a decision. Now, senior administration officials keep telling us no decision has yet been made. That the president and his national security team are weighing options. That those options do include things like air strikes, using special forces to train and advise the Iraqis, but the president has also made clear that nothing is being ruled out except for combat boots on the ground.

Now, all this seems to have led to some discrepancy in the reporting this morning. You mentioned that some are reporting that the president has decided against air strikes for now. Others said he's considering only very targeted drone strikes similar to what we see in the war on terror in Yemen, Kate.

BOLDUAN: That will all need to be worked out throughout the morning. We'll learn more after that congressional meeting. Obviously we hope today.

But before we let you go, Michelle, former Vice President Dick Cheney knows something about the Iraq War. He addressed President Obama's handling of the situation in Iraq in a truly blistering opinion piece in "The Wall Street Journal" this morning, in part, and this is just part of it, he wrote, "rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many." And he goes on and on to blame the president for turning his back on the situation in Iraq.

KOSINSKI: Right, it was scathing. Basically accusing President Obama of golfing while Iraq burned, saying, "Iraq is at risk of falling to a radical Islamic terror group and Mr. Obama is talking climate change. Terrorists take control of more territory and resources than ever before in history and he goes golfing. He seems blightly (ph) unaware or indifferent to the fact that a resurgent al Qaeda presents a clear and present danger to the United States of America."

And he takes issue with what he says the president said about al Qaeda being decimated, America's enemies being decimated. He says President Obama has taken America down a notch and only a fool, he says, would think about involving someone like Iran in what's going on in Iraq.

But, remember, the president has really only talked about al Qaeda leadership being decimated in Afghanistan. And this administration has been defending itself, saying that the response thus far to Iraq has been robust. Over the past year, steadily increasing military aid to Iraq.

Chris and Kate.

KATE: And you can be sure that the White House will likely be asked and likely will be happy to respond to Vice President Dick Cheney a little later this morning.

Michelle, thanks so much.

CUOMO: Boy, for Dick Cheney to say, rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many when talking about Iraq. The administration is going to push back and say, which president are you talking about?

BOLDUAN: Exactly right.

CUOMO: Coming up on NEW DAY, she's not a candidate yet, but she sure sounds like one. And, by the way, she's being treated like one, too. Hillary Clinton gets a global platform to take on hard questions about Benghazi, what's going to happen in 2016 and a host of other topics at a CNN town hall event. We have analysis from a couple of political experts just ahead.