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GOP Senate Primary Runoff in Mississippi Heating Up; Fight for Iraq; Fallout to VA Scandal; Polls Close in Mississippi GOP Senate Runoff Primary Race; Suarez Has Been Suspended Twice for Biting Other Players on the Field; Porn Star's Explicit Tweet Prompts Congressional Aide to Resign

Aired June 24, 2014 - 20:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, good evening, thanks for joining us.

We have breaking news tonight. Polls closing, a number of key primary election races, none closer, none uglier, none allegedly dirtier, weirder or more widely watched than the Republican Senate runoff in Mississippi.

Incumbent Thad Cochran and Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel. The matchup would be drummed enough given the shock of Eric Cantor's defeat two weeks ago that sent a message that nearly no incumbent is safe but this one has so much more. It's been marked by a pro- McDaniel PAC ad suggesting Senator Cochran committed bestiality which would merely be ugly but this makes it just plain weirder.

The senator at a campaign event said that as a kid he did, quote, "all kinds of indecent things with animals," then told the audience, "And I know some of you know what that is." It's hard to know where a campaign goes from there, but it has and now it's over.

Dana Bash is in Jackson, Mississippi, with the very latest.

So very nasty, kind of surreal race at times for the GOP nomination. What's the latest?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The latest is that the polls just closed and the question is going to be whether or not Thad Cochran can win this Republican runoff, supposed to be, you know, about Republicans, likely with the help of Democratic voters because, Anderson, it's legal here. It's an open primary system and that includes the runoff, and so all day we have seen Thad Cochran supporters in -- an organic way and in a very overt coordinated way try to get out people who didn't vote before, not just Republicans but in very heavily Democratic precincts in and around Mississippi.

These are people who have voted for Thad Cochran over the years. He's been in the Senate for 36 years but haven't had to do so in a Republican primary because they haven't had a race. But big picture despite the nastiness, despite the bizarre nature of this race, it has been really the place for the Republican Party to battle out what we've seen over the past two election cycles. COOPER: Yes.

BASH: The whole concept of whether or not it should be an establishment or the anti-incumbent fever. Whether that really is still real and, you know, we're going to see if that is the case tonight.

COOPER: All right. We're going to check back with you a little bit later on the program as the picture seems to come into focus there.

Now in Iraq, 90 American military advisers arriving there today joining about 40 already on the ground. They'll be working with an Iraqi army widely viewed as ineffective, fighting a Sunni extremist enemy that a new estimate says is growing and its support of a central government that needs to unify but so far has not.

After meeting with top Iraqi leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry was cautiously optimistic. He spoke exclusively with CNN's Jim Sciutto.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Words are cheap. I fully -- you know, I'm not taking anything I hear to the bank and saying wow, it's going to be solved but I'm hearing things that indicate to me that if they follow through on the things they're saying, there is a capacity to have a new government that could be a unity government, that could reflect a greater capacity for success.


COOPER: A lot to talk about with Nic Robertson tonight who's in Baghdad, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, and David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan and Pakistan and Central Asia.

Barbara, let me start with you. The 90 military advisers, the additional ones who are now on the ground, you've been talking to Pentagon officials. What more do we know about exactly their mission, what they're going to be doing and where?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Ninety came today, about a total of 130 now, Anderson. They will start off in Baghdad and stay in that area because the big concern right now is, could Baghdad fall to ISIS? Unlikely at the moment, but that's what they want to figure out. The word we hear, assess.

They are there to assess the situation, assess how the Iraqi forces are doing, assess the ISIS threat. But their reports may not come for another two or three weeks, and that could be very late in all of this because the latest estimate is ISIS now has about 10,000 fighters between Syria and Iraq, about 3,000 of them already possibly inside Iraq and foreign fighters joining to boot -- Anderson.

COOPER: And, Barbara, earlier today there were reports that the U.S. had launched drone strikes in Iraq. Is that confirmed? What are you learning about that?

STARR: Very quick, the Pentagon and the White House were to deny that, saying that there was no U.S. -- there were no U.S. air strikes inside of Iraq or on the Syrian border. What we all think they -- what happened was Syria launched jet air strikes against ISIS targets inside of Iraq leading to a lot of concern, a lot of confusion and just once again under scoring that that border has virtually disappeared.

COOPER: And Nic, Iraqi officials were today claiming that they have made some gains against ISIS. Do we know if that accurate?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't, Anderson. Once again, it's just when the Iraqi government is really feeling the heat of international opinion voicing that the Iraqi army is collapsing, morale is collapsing, you know, a quarter of its forces left the battle field.

They are really pushing back. Today the spokesman of the army is saying that they were trying to retake the oil refinery in Baiji, this biggest oil refinery in Iraq, that they were well on the way to doing that. State TV tonight has put out pictures, what appeared to be helicopters, government helicopters, landing there. The government also saying that they are taking back control of two key border crossings, one into Syria and one into Jordan.

Again, no way for us to independently confirm that.

Also, interestingly, today we're seeing a lot more helicopter activity. Helicopters that are similar to those normally used at the U.S. embassy here, in the vicinity of the embassy, and tonight, helicopters taking off again from the vicinity of the U.S. embassy deploying flairs as they were taking off.

That increased activity not clear if it's linked to those new 90 military advisers who have arrived in country, but we haven't seen this up until now -- Anderson.

COOPER: David, let's talk about drone strikes and airstrikes. I mean, is that the solution in terms of military involvement, if there is going to be military involvement, which would be better, drone strikes, air strikes, would they even work against this enemy?

DAVID SEDNEY, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I think the use of solely air power and particularly solely drone strikes as being the way to solve this problem, to fight this war, is really questionable. There is really no record of drones being effective and a conventional military advance, seizing territory, and their air power alone has proven historically not to be enough to be successful in contesting this kind of war.

COOPER: I mean, the way ISIS is fighting, though, David, I mean, it is relatively conventional. I mean, they are -- it seems like -- I mean, they are moving around in pickup trucks, which could be targeted. They are, you know, in many cases it seems like in Mosul, they are leaving kind of the governance of it to Baathist groups and to others. They do seem to be a movable target, no?

SEDNEY: They are a movable target, but to hit those targets and hit the right targets, you'll need really good intelligence and that intelligence needs to come from all kinds of sources, not just from the air but also from intelligence assets on the ground. And you have to be able to use that intelligence effectively to take out the people who in the assets that are threatening to you, but in the case of what is happening in Iraq you have a lot of people who -- in the Sunni side of the equation, who are supportive of ISIS but if we were to attack them, some of these people were people we were allied with in the past.

If we took them out, then that unity government that Secretary Kerry was talking about, it gets even harder. So the actual employment of air is in my mind questionable unless you have not just intelligence assets but the ability to follow up on the ground.

COOPER: And, David, I mean, unless you have U.S. military personnel in forward positions, I mean, this must be a very difficult thing to try to orchestrate from Baghdad at this point.

SEDNEY: Well, unless you have U.S. military, our intelligence personnel or assets that are there that can see what's happening, especially in such a dynamic situation. If you go back, for example, to the war in Afghanistan in the early days, it was the presence of U.S. Special Forces and intelligence people on the ground that enabled our air power to be used effectively to push the Taliban and al Qaeda out of Afghanistan.

You can't do it just with air. You need intelligence and, as we found in Afghanistan, if you don't follow that up with something conventional, then you end up with a long, drawn-out war that doesn't really achieve the objectives.

COOPER: And, David, even in close battles, unless you have, you know, special forces on the ground with lasers guiding in aircraft to where the bombs should go, the chance of having civilian casualties, which in this kind of war you certainly don't want to antagonize local population, is enormous, correct?

SEDNEY: Exactly right. The chance of civilian casualties are high, the chance of killing people you don't mean to kill and the ability to have the kind of strategic impact just isn't there unless you have intelligence. And then I would also add you have to have the ability to follow up on the ground.

COOPER: Right.

Nic, Barbara, David Sedney, it's great to have you. Thank you very much.

I want to dig deeper to the implications of ISIS controlling not just territory inside Iraq and border crossing, but also its wider ambitions, how to contain them from 2010 to earlier this year. Robert Ford served as the American ambassador to Syria where he saw

firsthand the growing influence of ISIS. Ambassador Ford, American advisers are arriving today, at least some

of them arriving today in Iraq, is what's going on in Iraq right now a problem that America can solve?

ROBERT FORD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: I think America can help from the margins, but the problem is essentially a problem among Iraqis and it will have to be solved by Iraqis.

COOPER: And solved -- I mean, is the political part of it the most important part of it?

FORD: Oh, for sure, for sure. If you listen to what the different elements of the Sunni community that have risen up, if you read what they are saying, it's very much political grievances at the top of the list.

COOPER: You said that one of the biggest things that Americans need to understand about what's happening in Iraq and also what's happening in Syria is that it's one big conflict.

FORD: Yes.

COOPER: Not two separate ones. Can you explain that?

FORD: The main group is called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and it extends from the eastern half of Syria into the western half of Iraq, ignoring the border between Syria and Iraq as if the border wasn't even there. And if you hit the group in Iraq, say, then they may just retrieve back into Syria, regroup, rest, reorganize and then go back into Iraq again.

COOPER: And is it a national security interest or a national security threat to the United States?

FORD: Well, it is. No, it is, for sure. This Islamic state has threatened the United States and there are jihadis that are fighting with it that have promised to come after targets in the West.

COOPER: But when you talk about, you know, saying that if you hit ISIS in Iraq, you also have to deal with them in Syria. I mean, that just sounds like, again, you know, mission creep -- exponential mission and very rapid mission creep.

FORD: Yes, well, this is not a problem, Anderson, that is going to be solve in one day or one week or one month. This is a really tough problem now and to be honest, I see no easy choices for the administration. I see no easy choices for the countries in the region and friends in places like Europe for how to solve this problem, but we can't ignore it because the problem is actually growing bigger.

COOPER: But in terms of United States action, though, I mean, you're saying it's -- obviously it's not a short-term fiction.


COOPER: Is there a military solution to this? FORD: No, ultimately there is not, neither in Syria nor in Iraq. In

Iraq, they are going to -- I think the administration's basic thrust is right, to focus on trying to get a government that addresses some of the Sunni Arab community's concerns without surrendering to the Islamic state, far from it.


FORD: But you know what --

COOPER: If we weren't able to do that with a trillion dollars and more than -- you know, 150,000 troops on the ground, we weren't able to get Maliki to do that for a short period of time but not really to the extent that we wanted him to, and after we left not at all, why should anyone believe that the U.S. with 300 advisers on the ground is going to be able to do that?

FORD: Yes. And that's a fair question, Anderson. But what I would say is two things. Number one, the situation in front of the government in Iraq is more difficult for them now than it was, say, in 2009 and 2010. The al Qaeda problem in Iraq was much more under control then than it is now. And so we have more leverage promising to give help if the Iraqis will move on political issues.

And number two, Anderson, it's not a problem we can ignore. I did not say there are easy choices here. But to stand back and do nothing is to simply this cancer metastasize further and that is not advisable either.

COOPER: Ambassador Ford, it's good to have you on, thank you.

FORD: My pleasure.

COOPER: Well, a quick reminder, make sure you set your DVR so you can watch 360 whenever you want.

Coming up next tonight, they are listening up there. Drew Griffin's reporting on new VA hospital scandal allegations getting lawmaker's attention just moments after his report aired on this broadcast.

Also tonight, the whistleblower he talked to has even more to say. This time about the possibility that what she says she saw was a crime.

You've also already seen the U.S.-Portugal nail biter. Now everyone is talking about a shoulder biter with billions watching. The player known as the soccer vampire allegedly claims another victim. Details from Brazil, and yes, because we know you were thinking it, too, boxer Evander Holyfield is going to join us to talk about what it's like to be bitten.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: Every time we do a "Keeping Them Honest" report, we hope it makes a difference. We hope the right people see it and follow through. That's the goal always. But especially so in the case of America's servicemen and women, getting the short end of the stick, whether it's phony charities raising money in their name or more recently VA hospitals making them wait months for medical care. The fact is, some have died waiting.

The allegation by a Phoenix whistleblower in charge of scheduling appointments concerns what she says was done to conceal those deaths.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Somebody is going on that electronic wait list and where people are identified as being dead, somebody is changing that and saying, no, they're not dead.


GRIFFIN: To hide the fact people died on that list?

DEWENTER: That's my belief.

GRIFFIN: What would be the other -- any other purpose?

DEWENTER: There wouldn't be any other purpose.


COOPER: That's the key piece of Drew Griffin's reporting last night in this broadcast.

As it was airing last night, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs was in session. Moments later Indiana Republican Congresswoman Jackie Walorski put Drew's story and Pauline DeWenter's allegations in front of a VA official.