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Armed Drones Flying Over Baghdad; IRS Head Apologizes; Obama Says the Bear Breaks Loose from D.C.; IRS Problems; Obama Abusing Power; Armed Drones over Iraq

Aired June 27, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, as the crisis in Iraq escalates, a U.S. official tells CNN, armed American drones have started flying over Baghdad, saying they will be only used to protect U.S. military advisers who are on the ground right now.

Also right now, the Iraqi ambassador says he appreciates the help the United States has provided but his country faces, in his words, an immediate threat from ISIS fighters, so Iraq is turning elsewhere for weapons.


JOHN KOSKINEN, COMMISSIONER, INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE: I apologize to anybody who had their applications held up needlessly.


BLITZER: An apology from the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. But will that be enough?

Hello, I'm whole reporting from Washington. We begin in Iraq where armed U.S. drones are now flying over Baghdad. That according to a U.S. official.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is following all the late breaking developments. Barbara, what can you tell us about these armed U.S. drones? What kind of missions are they flying? Will the president authorize, for example, those drones to fire hellfire missiles at ISIS targets in Iraq?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: At this point, this is not about air strikes against is, Wolf, that is what U.S. officials are insisting. These armed drones, with indeed hellfire missiles, are flying over the Baghdad area with the mission to protect the 180 U.S. military advisers, with more to come, on the ground in the Baghdad area. These are U.S. military personnel that are fanning out around the Baghdad area, having a look at Iraqi forces, trying to assess their capabilities, also looking at what ISIS is up to.

But, look, the whole area is very dangerous so they have -- they are flying these armed drones overhead, they say, to protect U.S. forces. If it was to be an offensive mission, a decision to go with air strikes, go hunt down ISIS targets, that would require, of course, that air strike decision by the president. He has not made this. This, they say, is all about protecting U.S. troops on the ground and their right to defend themselves -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They are moving a lot more ships, potentially with a lot more planes also, into the upper Persian Gulf, not far from Iraq, in case the president were to make a decision to launch formal aircraft strikes against targets in Iraq.

STARR: Well, right, we are now at about seven warships in the Persian Gulf. Dozens and dozens of aircraft and helicopters all over the area. A lot presaged in Kuwait, just in case. Big aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush still in the Persian Gulf. And we're learning today another Marine amphibious warship is going to head down from the Mediterranean, back into its regular station in the Middle East with about 1,000 Marines on board. So, it's just every day putting more capability in the region on standby at least at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much.

The Iraqi prime minister says he's not waiting for the U.S. to launch air strikes against ISIS militants. Nuri al Maliki telling the BBC, Iraq will strike on its own with fighter jets purchased from Russia and Belarus. And He's saying this, and I'm guoting, "God willing, within this week, this force will be effective and will destroy the terrorists' dens."

Our Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon is joining us now. Arwa, how soon will Iraq be getting these planes from Belarus and Russia?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, based on what the prime minister is saying, as you mentioned just there, within a week. The prime minister also directing some pretty barbed comments towards the United States, saying that Iraq was diluted when it cut that deal for American fighter jets.

Of course, the great concern, especially amongst the Sunni population, because, remember, ISIS and the other Sunni groups fighting alongside it are effectively embedded amongst the population, is that prime minister Nuri Al Maliki is going to use his newfound air power to indiscriminately launch attacks against ISIS strongholds, yes. But, at the same time, against the civilian population as well.

So, the potential for even more bloodshed, at this stage. These fighter jets, in fact, arrive in country and be put to use is that much greater. People are understandably incredibly worried about what that development might hold -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What about what Maliki said to the BBC, that this whole crisis, in his words, could have been prevented if the U.S. had acted more quickly to supply Iraq with sophisticated fighter jets. What's he talking about?

DAMON: Well, Wolf, that's based on a rationale that if Iraq actually had air power, it could perhaps have prevented ISIS from expanding and advancing so quickly, especially in the predominantly Sunni areas in the northern portion of the country. And that perhaps the Iraqi security forces up there would have stood and fought if they believed they had air power that they could call in as opposed to abandon their weapons and go.

The issue in all of this, Wolf, is that the prime minister is, once again, really failing to acknowledge the key issue here, at least among one of the key issues. And that is his own sectarian nature and his polarizing policies which his opponents say are one of the key reasons why an organization like ISIS was able to thrive and expand so rapidly, capitalizing on Sunni anger. And so, that's probably where that rationale comes from, Wolf, although that may not necessarily have been the solution to Iraq's problems.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon on the scene for us as she always is. Thank you.

The crisis in Iraq, the war in Syria, sagging poll numbers, just some of the major challenges President Obama is currently facing. So, it's no wonder he's relishing a chance to get out of Washington and the presidential bubble, in the president's own words, the bear is loose.

Our Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us now. Jim, seems to be more about just a little bit of cabin fever for the president. What is he trying to do here?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. And we saw this a few weeks ago when the president decided to go on this impromptu walk from the White House to the Interior Department for an event. And he uttered the words, the bear is loose. And we've heard it from this president since then. He's been breaking loose from the White House grounds to make Starbucks runs, to go to Chipotle, as you saw earlier this week where Pete Souza, the White House photographer, captured him reaching over the sneeze guard, trying to interact with people there at the restaurant.

And what we're hearing from White House officials, Wolf, is that basically the president just wants to reconnect to voters, that he's feeling a little bit isolated in the presidential bubble. And we heard a bit of this yesterday, when the president was holding a town hall in Minnesota, when he talked about feeling like a caged bear again. Here's what he had to say.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've been really looking forward to getting out of D.C., but I've also been looking forward to spending a couple days here in the twin cities. Our agenda's still a little loose. You know, I might pop in for some ice cream or visit a small business. I don't know. I'm just going to make it up as I go along. With secret service, I always tease them, you know, I'm like a caged bear and every once in a while I break loose. And I'm feeling super loose today. So, you don't know what I might do.


ACOSTA: And, Wolf, the president is going to be doing more events like this. This was a day in the life event he held yesterday outside of Minneapolis where he met with a local Minnesota woman who has been struggling to make ends meet and the president trying to connect with her. They went out and had for burger -- had burgers before they had that town hall in Minnesota. And the president wants to do more of these. And White House officials saying he'll be doing them throughout the summer, trying to reconnect with voters.

BLITZER: We'll see how that works for the president. All right, Jim, thanks very much.

The president also blasting a planned lawsuit by the speaker of the House John Boehner, a lawsuit that challenges his use of executive orders. The president's blunt message to Boehner, that's coming up.

And the IRS commissioner refused to apologize to Congress for improperly targeting some conservative groups. And now, John Koskinen is sounding a bit more conciliatory in an interview with me.

Our Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley standing by to join us with the latest on the scandal over at the IRS.


BLITZER: Turning now to the widening IRS scandal here in Washington. The commissioner of the IRS issuing an apology to conservative groups and others whose application for tax exempt status were targeted unfairly. This is sort of a contrast to John Koskinen's appearance a week ago before the House Ways and Means Committee. That time, he pointedly refused to apologize. He said no apology was actually necessary. Here's what he said yesterday on the -- in "THE SITUATION ROOM."


KOSKINEN: The improper criteria used to highlight organizations for investigation just by their name was a mistake. I apologize to anybody who had their applications held up needlessly. Everybody needs to be confident that the IRS is going to treat them fairly no matter who they are, Republicans, Democrats, whatever organization they belong to.


BLITZER: At the heart of the scandal are two years of missing e-mails from this woman, Lois Learner, who used to run the tax exempt division at the IRS. Those e-mails were lost in a catastrophic computer crash. Koskinen revealed yesterday, IRS computers have experienced 2,000 hard drive crashes just this year. He also said 24,000 of learner's missing e-mails have been recovered. So far, none indicate any communication with the White House or the Treasury Department he said. When I asked the commissioner if the IRS will accept a computer failure as a valid excuse from taxpayers if they're being audited, Koskinen sounded conciliatory.


KOSKINEN: If you lose a document, it doesn't mean you lose the argument. We actually work with tax payers to say, we'll look at other evidence like the 24,000 e-mails. And if we can find any evidence to support your case and, in fact, if the circumstances support your case, we'll support you and you won't have any problem.


BLITZER: Candy Crowley is our Chief Political Correspondent, the anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" is joining us right now. So, what do you think? The pressure is mounting for an outside independent counsel -- special counsel prosecutor to take over this whole investigation. There are so many questions still outstanding. Is that going to happen?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't know is the -- is the -- is the real answer here. In some ways, you can see these hearings this fall playing into some of the things that Republicans want to have out there. Democrats, clearly are uncomfortable with this. In particular, they were OK up until now, the e-mails. And I think you hit on it. The disappearing e-mails has struck a chord. And I'm sure you've talked to folks sort of outside this business who say, does this mean we should get rid of the IRS?

So, there is a real resonance to what's going on here. Even though the facts of the matter, as far as we know, have not changed. And the investigation has not turned up anything that shows a link between the IRS or the White House or the Treasury Department. But, you know, there's certainly a lot of questions out there. So, I just don't know if Democrats see this as a way to get it kind of off the table and somebody can look at it. And don't know that Republicans actually want it off the table.

BLITZER: Because it's a good issue going into November, is that what you're saying?


BLITZER: So they can just play it and play it and play it? But let's not forget, the IRS is a critical agency of the U.S. government. Its responsible for bringing in almost all of the revenue that the -- that pays for our national security, pays for Social Security, pays for Medicare, pays for all the vital services of the U.S. government, all the services that the American public benefit. And when there is a taint that there's some sort of partisanship, whether it was during the Nixon administration or what's going on in the last few years, and you see the head of this division, this tax exempt division pleading the fifth, computer documents -

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: E-mails missing, people get anxious about that.

CROWLEY: They absolutely do. And it brings up that old phrase, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up. I mean this has been about where are the e-mails, why won't Lois Lerner talk ahead of this division, and now we have the Chuck Grassley e-mail where it looks as though that Lois Lerner was suggesting that there might be some sort of audit. So none of this looks good. And the Democrats understand that. I mean there is a lot of smoke here and it's almost impossible for Republicans to see no fire. And Democrats are going, you're right, we'd be looking at it too.

BLITZER: And, remember, John Koskinen, he only took over last December. So he was not involved -


BLITZER: In any of these alleged shenanigan -

CROWLEY: He didn't have a part in the (INAUDIBLE), right.

BLITZER: That were going on earlier. He just came in. The president asked him to come in, to take charge. He's taking charge. So he came back into public service.

He did point out to me yesterday that the IRS computer system, in his words, is antiquated. Now what's - I mean the IRS has an antiquated computer system?

CROWLEY: Antiquated. Right. And, again, it brings up the whole thing. I mean I think Paul Ryan was sort of the first one to say it, saying, wait a minute, you expect taxpayers to have all this documentation and you don't keep e-mails for more than six months and your system doesn't work and it crashes all the time. They will point and say, listen, our budget has been cut. The IRS budget has been cut. But it's still, you know, a very hefty budget.

So it doesn't seem like a logical excuse to anybody who's been told anything you put on the computer stays forever. Be careful what you e- mail. Be careful what you put out in a blog because it stays forever. Now all of a sudden things are gone forever. And, you know, frankly, it looks suspicious. And that's why there's been - you know, we sort of went for a while where we didn't hear much about it and then all of a sudden it's popped back up because it just looks bad.

BLITZER: You'll have more Sunday morning on "State of the Union"?

CROWLEY: Yes, we will have Darrell Issa on. You know he's sort of been at the - the head of this investigation. We're going to talk to him about where he wants to go from here. Also Mike Rogers, to talk a little bit about Iraq and intelligence.

BLITZER: All right, Sunday morning, 9:00 a.m. Eastern.

CROWLEY: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: We will be watching, as we always do.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Iraq on the edge. Several significant developments today as militants press on towards Baghdad. Is the idea of one nation still feasible? We'll speak about that with an expert.

Also, President Obama getting heat from Republicans who claim he's presiding over what they call an imperial presidency. Will there so- called abuse of power accusations resonate with voters? The possible strategy, the potential risks, a lot more coming up.


BLITZER: Using executive powers to bypass a gridlocked Congress, it's a presidential privilege, but many Republican lawmakers now say President Obama is exercising it way too often. The House speaker, John Boehner, in fact, is even planning to sue the president, claiming he's overusing his executive powers. The president responded to that planned lawsuit during a speech earlier today in Minnesota.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're not doing anything and then they're mad that I'm doing something. I'm not sure which of the things I've done they find most offensive, but they've decided they're going to sue me for doing my job. I - you know, I mean I might have - I might have said, in the heat of the moment during one of these debates, I want to raise the minimum wage, so sue me when I do, but I didn't - I didn't think they were - I didn't think they were going to take it literally.


BLITZER: Meantime, the president is having to deal with the consequences of yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court decision that curbed his powers to make what are called recess appointments. And on Monday, the high court is set to rule on a challenge to Obamacare.

Let's discuss all of this and more. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here with me right now.

The Supreme Court really did give the president a significant slap yesterday -


BLITZER: Nine to zero, saying it went way too far on these recess appointments, when the Senate says it's technically in session, he says they're not. They all sided, including the Supreme Court justices who are - who were appointed by the president, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, all of the liberals, all of the conservatives, they said the president's decision was unconstitutional. That's a pretty significant slap.

BORGER: Right. And it plays into the whole Republican narrative, which we're going to be hearing more and more heading into the midterm elections about the so-called imperial presidency, about President Obama overreaching, about this president wanting too much government in your lives. And what it plays into is the notion that this president, when he gets stymied by Congress, does what he wants anyway through executive orders. Whether it's on immigration, whether it's on the Obamacare rules, whether it's on energy policy. And this is, you know, this is what they're taking to the American public. And I'm told, after talking to Republicans, they're looking at polls

that show that this question of presidential overreach, executive branch overreach, rates higher for them with their fundraisers, with independent voters and with their base than the single issue of Obamacare does, for example. So this gives them a nice little rubrick (ph) to stick it all into and run on.

BLITZER: So how do the Democrats respond to this?

BORGER: Well, the Democrats say, look, none of this would be necessary if it weren't for Republican obstructionism on every single issue. If you would let us, you know, have votes on things we wanted to have votes on. If you'd let us have votes on immigration reform, if you'd let us have votes on judges, for example, none of this would have been necessary. So it's a result of your obstructionism.

What the court said is, just because you may have a political or a policy gripe doesn't mean you have a constitutional justification for pushing things through. So there is this kind of tug-of-war, which, by the way, Wolf, as you know, goes on in every administration. This president has not offered more executive orders than previous presidents. He's offered fewer executive orders. So there's always this constant tug-of-war between the Congress and the executive branch and it continues. This time, the president lost.

BLITZER: I suspect, though, the Supreme Court decision will give the speaker, John Boehner, some ammunition in going forward with his lawsuit.

BORGER: Absolutely, and they're going to use it. They're using it.

BLITZER: All right, stand by. We're going to have more political discussion coming up. Gloria's going to be with us.

Also ahead this hour, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, possible contenders for 2016. We'll take a look at how family legacy might affect their political policies.

But coming up next, U.S. drones flying over Baghdad. They are armed, those drones. Is this the first step towards broader air strikes by the United States against ISIS insurgents? We'll speak to a Middle East expert.