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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Former NY Police Officer Killed in Afghanistan; Iraq Forces Fight to Take Back Ramadi; Manhunt Intensifies for "Affluenza" Teen Ethan Couch; Top Political Moments of 2015. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 22, 2015 - 11:30   ET

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


[11:30:00] RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: She had a family that was supporting her all the time. And there weren't signs something like this would happen. There's a lot of questions right now.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Ryan Young, for us in Las Vegas, thanks so much.

Coming up, new details on the suicide attack that killed six U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Officials revealing that one of the victims was this man, a father, a husband, a National Guardsman, a 15-year veteran of the New York Police Department.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, where in the world is Ethan Couch? The question right now stumping investigators as they hunt for the teenager who killed four people in a drunk-driving crash, walked on that so-called "affluenza" defense, and now is on the run with his mom.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: New information this morning about the American servicemembers killed in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has not released their names, but New York officials say one of the victims is Joseph Lemm. He was a National Guardsman, a 15-year veteran of the New York Police Department.

Moments ago, Governor Cuomo ordered all flags of state buildings to be flown at half-staff tomorrow.

BOLDUAN: Lemm and others on a NATO mission were killed in a motorcycle suicide attack in Bagram yesterday. Two other servicemembers and an American contractor were wounded. NATO says, of course, the attack is under investigation.

CNN affiliate, News 12 Westchester, was there when Lemm surprised his family on a visit home back in 2013. He was deployed three times, twice to Afghanistan, once to Iraq. Joseph Lemm now leaves behind a wife and two beautiful children.

BERMAN: Another area where U.S. troops very much involved happening now in Iraq. Government forces there carrying out an operation to take the center city of Ramadi back from ISIS militants. That's what Iraqi leaders claim. A U.S. coalition is backing the operation with air power. A short time ago U.S. official announced Iraqi forces have moved into Ramadi's central neighborhoods.

[11:35:13] BOLDUAN: We're hearing from Iraqi officials that ISIS is using human shields.

Let's get the latest from Robyn Kriel.

Robyn, what's the very latest you're picking up?

ROBYN KRIEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kate, it sounds like a complex operation. A dawn raid by Iraqi forces, elite counter-terror forces trained by the U.S., they apparently built a pontoon bridge over a key canal and then entered one of the key districts to try to breach into Ramadi's center city. What we're told is they're going incredibly slowly. This is a slow and deliberate operation. It's not expected to be over in a couple hours because of these human shields. They're very worried ISIS militants forced civilians that were trying to flee the city. They were warned by the coalition when they were trying to flee the city with their families. ISIS took them essentially hostage and is keeping them spaced around the city and human shields. ISIS would have also had time to lay traps for these troops that were coming in, that are trying to breach the city center, such as IEDs and booby traps, vehicle car bombs, so that's why they're taking this incredibly solely.

This is a U.S.-led coalition, supported by U.S.-led coalition air strikes. We understand the U.S. has dropped 33 munitions in the past 24 hours.

BERMAN: Robyn Kriel for us watching the situation. Thank so much, Robyn.

Let's talk about this and the significance. Joining us, retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt.

Thanks so much, General, for being with us.

Talk to me about the significance of this operation. ISIS has controlled Ramadi since May. What does it mean if this operation today is successful?

BRIG GEN. MARK KIMMITT, U.S. ARMY, RETIRED: Well, first, I think all of us recognize the importance of Ramadi in terms of iconic value. This is where a lot of Americans died. This is where a lot of Iraqis died. It's one of the largest cities in Anbar Province and should Iraqis take it over, it will be seen as a strategic victory for Iraqis and a strategic defeat for ISIS.

BOLDUAN: A strategic victory for sure. But as we will know, since it was taken over by ISIS in May, there have been several attempts to retake it by Iraqi forces. Why have those -- why have those attempts not been successful to this point? What suggests to you it's going to be different this time?

KIMMITT: Primarily, the fact that the Iraqi security forces have put their most elite units, their counterterrorism forces inside this fight. They have been very well trained. They're much better resourced than the average Iraqi forces. And I think in many ways Prime Minister Abadi has made this a gut-check for himself as the leader and for the Iraqi security forces and their capabilities as people have doubted them recently.

BERMAN: General, what do you think the American role is right now or how deeply involved do you imagine Americans to be? We know these air strikes, 33 bombs dropped. That's not a heck of a lot. We've been told by Iraqi officials there are no U.S. troops involved on the ground but I suspect the reality is a little more nuanced. There might be Special Forces or intelligence operators near the front.

KIMMITT: I certainly can't go to that particular issue. Even if I knew, I don't think it would be responsible to be talking about it. We certainly know the bridge that was put over Ramadi to get back inside Ramadi was provided by the American logistics and American engineers. Little doubt the weapons were provided by the coalition or particularly the Americans. The training that was done for the counterterrorism services was done by coalition, probably Americans as well. I think short of actually putting boots on the ground at the leading edge of this fight, you're not seeing any American participation.

BOLDUAN: And U.S. military spokesman talking about that bridge that was used, General, he said -- he cautioned there was still a long way before Ramadi was liberated. It pointed this out. There is a lot of dense terrain here, he said, that needs to be negotiated. What makes Ramadi different?

KIMMITT: It's fighting inside of a city. Any time you are fighting door to door, building to building, neighborhood to neighborhood, that's the toughest fight that you've got going. And it takes away in many cases the advantages the Iraqi security forces will use. You're not going to use artillery, air, helicopters. They have intentionally -- ISIS intentionally has decided to fight inside of the city to make this as bloody and as long as possible.

[11:40:02] BERMAN: The question now, General, is what happens next? If the coalition is able to retake Ramadi, are they able to keep the momentum going in the battle against ISIS and just talking about Ramadi in Anbar Province, how do you control, maintain Iraqi government control over this area, which hasn't shown a lot of will to be the main country of Iraq for some time now?

KIMMITT: That's true. I think we saw in 2006 and '07, once Ramadi was taken, once Fallujah was taken, that responsible city officials did come back and take over control of the city.

More importantly is your question about what's next. It's clear that the fight out to the West has been important. Equally important is the fight up to the north to retake Mosul. I would expect the Iraqi security forces and the government to start shifting their focus north to Mosul and away from the West, because Mosul, the second-largest city inside Iraq, is strategically important as well.

BOLDUAN: How essential is retaking Ramadi in the long process of pushing ISIS out of Iraq at some point? KIMMITT: You look where Ramadi's position is, there isn't a lot

between Ramadi and border except for open desert. If you can control Ramadi, the first major city coming in from Syria, you have a pretty good grip on the country. I would note you can't define victory simply in terms of the amount of territory you've retaken. Ramadi and Mosul are important but there's much more to do before we can declare ISIS in any way damaged or degraded simply by taking those two towns.

BERMAN: Remember, they've been in Mosul for more than a year and a half at this point. This is an ISIS city as much as anything right now.

General Mark Kimmitt, thanks for being with us.

BOLDUAN: Thank you, General.

KIMMITT: Sure.

BERMAN: Coming up for us, the hunt for the so-called "affluenza" teenager. He killed four people in a drunk-driving crash and then vanished just a few weeks ago after video showed him on social media -- video surfaced. Officials still searching. He's believed to be on the run with his mother.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:45:32] BOLDUAN: The manhunt has intensified for a Texas teenager and his mother. The so-called "affluenza: teen, Ethan Couch, he's been missing for a week now. That's his mom on the left side of your screen. The U.S. Marshal Service is releasing a "wanted" poster and announcing a reward for the fugitive teenager, given probation after a drunk-driving incident where four people were killed. He got probation for that. The reason he's wanted now is for violating that probation after a video surfaced on social media.

BERMAN: He's on the run, apparently with his mother.

Let's discuss it with CNN law enforcement analyst and former assistant director of the U.S. Marshal Service, Art Roderick.

Art, this is a kid convicted of drunk driving and his mom. I don't know they run a crime syndicate, I don't know they have vast criminal experiences. Why is it difficult to catch them? Shouldn't there be signs of where they are now?

ART RODERICK, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think they're investigating quite a few very good leads out there at this point. Once the sheriff's office referred this case over to the north Texas Fugitive Task Force that opened it up to the whole country. There's 70-plus of these same types of task forces all over the U.S. and territories. With the publicity this case has got, they do have several good leads they're investigating right now.

It is kind of unusual, you're right. I mean, I've arrested career criminals that have breathed a sigh of relief because they're constantly looking over their shoulder. It's very stressful to be on the run like this. Especially when your particular case has garnered this much publicity.

BOLDUAN: Now, the mom is now listed as missing. She wanted as well along with her son. That leads us to wonder, what is the role of the father here? I know the background here is a little complicated. The parents -- we know the parents were divorced. They remarried and then split up again after that deadly crash. He used that now infamous defense of "affluenza." What's the role of the father here, Art?

RODERICK: Yeah, it is very strange. Obviously, the first thing investigators are going to look at are family members. They're going to go directly to the father since he had probably the closest contact with the mother and the kid. Now, the other family members, extended family members, they're going to look at those family members and try to figure out how they're communicating with one another, if at all.

I'm sure there was some type of planning to make this particular run go, so that they might have stashed some money. Sooner or later they're going to make a mistake. These are not career criminals. And I think somebody's going to come forward very shortly with here they are at this particular hotel right now. They have the vehicle out there. There's an 800 number to call, 800-336-0102, if anybody has leads on this particular case.

But I think it's a matter of time at this point before they get picked up.

The other interesting fact is I think the father reported that the passports of both these individuals are missing. If this case goes international, that opens up to a whole other aspect of the investigation.

BERMAN: Look, there's not a lot of goodwill for the people in the local community. There's a lot of people would like to see them caught and soon so a lot of people willing to help. What if they are abroad, what if they did leave the country, Art, what kind of trail would that leave behind? Just based on your experience, you say something's going to trip them up. What do you think it would be?

RODERICK: I think what will trip them up is the cash, the money issue. These people aren't used to living under the radar like most fugitives that are successful at staying away from law enforcement generally do. Money will be their holdup. What's going to happen is the Marshal Service has a great financial investigations unit. They're looking at their accounts, their credit cards, anything to do with any money that's been shifted around.

Now, if this case does go international, then that opens up the whole Interpol avenue where the task force would go to Interpol. There's a section of Interpol, I think it's the Alien and Fugitive Unit that sits over an Interpol hearing here in Washington that would establish a red notice. That red notice would go out to 190 member countries around the world. That red notice would allow them to be picked up if they try to enter another country.

[11:50:00] BOLDUAN: So, they've put out this -- the description of this car they're looking for. They also say the passports are missing. Does that tell you -- the fact the car description has been put out there, does that tell you they don't yet think it has gone international or maybe they just don't really -- don't have a really good lead on where they could be?

RODERICK: I think they're concentrating domestically right now. But you always have to look at the international aspect when passports are missing, obviously. Now, it's their passports, so the minute they scan those passports it will show up somewhere because they are in the National Crime Information Center right now as a wanted person and as a missing person. So, if they try to leave the country under those legal passports that should be picked up fairly quickly.

BOLDUAN: Art Roderick, great to see you, Art. Thanks so much.

RODERICK: Thank you.

BERMAN: Coming up from us, from Donald Trump saying John McCain was a war hero to Ben Carson's story about trying to stab his friend.

BOLDUAN: 2015 was quite a year of one-liners, insults, interruptions and fabulous political intrigue. We'll take a look back at the race for the White House with the top moments in politics of the year, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(SINGING)

BERMAN: The music, and the music almost makes it seem quaint.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: And it is that we were talking about the political year, which is the least quaint political year in the history are the tri of ever, and so many surprises and so much change and so many questions remain.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And in our top-10 of the series, chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, is going to be looking back at some of the most memorable campaign moments of this fabulous political year. How did she decide?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(MUSIC)

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: In politics, 2015 was the year of one-liners, insults, interruptions and controversy.

(voice-over): It was the escalator ride that changed the Republican race. Donald Trump kicked his campaign off full-on Donald Trump style, upending the field and all traditional political rules.

[11:55:16] DONALD TRUMP, (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE & CEO, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: When Mexico sends the people, they are not sending their best. They are bringing the drugs, bringing the crime, and they are rapists, and some I assume are good people.

BASH: Those comments caused a huge backlash, especially in the Latino community, but rocketed Trump to the top of the GOP field.

(on camera): And the provocative statements continued on the campaign trail. In the early Iowa race, Trump sparked another wave of criticism after he said this about former POW, John McCain.

TRUMP: He is not a war hero.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CO-HOST, NEW DAY: He is a war hero.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people that are not captured. OK?

BASH: Many thought those remarks would mean Trumps campaign was finished. But it turns out they were the first of many so-called blunders that failed to knock him from his perch at the top of the polls.

(voice-over): On the Democratic side, questions about e-mails and the Benghazi plagued front runner Hillary Clinton's early campaign, culminating in a contentious 11-hour congressional hearing that backfired on the Republicans and gave Hillary Clinton a boost.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGRESSWOMAN: Who else was at your home? Were you alone?

HILLARY CLINTON, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE & FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I was alone, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGRESSWOMAN: The whole night?

CLINTON: Yes, the whole night.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED CONGRESSWOMAN: I don't find it funny at all.

Did you have any in-person briefings? I don't find it funny at all.

CLINTON: Well, sorry. A little note of levity at 7:15.

BASH: And after months of fielding questions, Clinton got an unexpected assist from the opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, at the Democratic debate.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, (I), VERMONT & DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And the fact is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.

(CHEERING)

CLINTON: Thank you. Me, too. Me, too. BASH: That moment may have hurt Sanders' campaign, but it was great for "Saturday Night Live."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damned e-mails.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: The Black Lives Matter was important to shape the campaign and shutdown a Sanders' campaign event in Seattle.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH (on camera): The most defining moment on the Democratic side may be one that didn't happen.

(voice-over): After months of speculation, Joe Biden decided not to run for president, solidifying Clinton's spot in the campaign.

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent. I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully.