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A Look at a Base Being Built in Iraq; Interview with Rep. Martha McSally; Toomey Endorses Rubio For President; Congress Holds First Hearing On Flint, Grills Officials. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 3, 2016 - 16:30   ET



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Topping our world lead today, an exclusive firsthand look at the front-line fight against ISIS.

CNN's Clarissa Ward is the first TV journalist to visit an airfield in Kurdish-controlled Northern Syria being built to help the U.S. military and Kurdish forces step up the battle to try to defeat and destroy the terrorist group.

Joining me now live from Irbil, Iraq, near the border with Syria is CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward.

Clarissa, take us through what you saw.


Essentially, as the U.S. has been ratcheting up its presence on the ground in Syria, we know that at least 50 U.S. special forces troops are in country. They have been looking and exploring other ways to take the fight to ISIS beyond just airstrikes. And they're also working very hard to enhance their strategic alliance with those Kurdish YPG fighters on the ground. Take a look.


WARD (voice-over): This place doesn't exist, according to the U.S. Defense Department. But behind that berm of freshly dug earth, a small agricultural airstrip is being turned into something very different, a military airfield just 100 miles from ISIS positions.

Satellite photos show the work that has been done here in recent months.

(on camera): So, you can see behind me they're working to extend the runway so that larger planes could land here, and the advantage of this site is that it's well-secured inside Kurdish territory, so it could be used to supply U.S. special forces deployed here in Syria.

(voice-over): We were escorted away from the airfield as soon as we were spotted, told it was a military zone. It's another example of the U.S.' growing military footprint in this remote corner of Northern Syria, and its deepening relationship with Syrian Kurdish fighters known as the YPG.

In an abandoned apartment building closer to the front line, we were given access to the YPG's joint operations room. It is a modest setup. And 21-year-old Dahem Hasaki (ph) and his colleagues talk to their men on the battlefield. Using newly provided tablets, they pass on enemy locations to a coalition command center from where airstrikes can be launched.

"Right now this is the front line of Hasika," he says. "Our comrades there have seen the movement of two enemy fighters, and so we sent this message along with their coordinates to the general command room."

When there are heavy clashes, the operations room moves to the front lines. Immediately after the strikes, Hasaki and his men rush in to make sure that the right targets have been hit.

(on camera): Who taught you how to use this?

(voice-over): He tells us a group of foreigners and Americans trained his commanders,, who in turn trained him and his comrade comrades. In the skies and on the ground in Syria, the U.S. is deepening its commitment to the battle against ISIS.


WARD: And it is not just the U.S., Jake. Less than 50 miles from that airstrip, there are reports that the Russians are also bolstering their military presence significantly, certainly Northern Syria becoming a more crowded neighborhood -- Jake.

TAPPER: Clarissa Ward live in Iraq for us, thanks so much for us and stay safe.

The terror threat in Europe is higher than it's ever been. Is the U.S. doing enough to stop ISIS from bringing that terror here? We will talk to a chief critic of President Obama's war against ISIS next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Let's continue with our world lead, the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. Critics of the Obama administration strategy say not enough is being done to defeat and destroy the terrorist group, that the rules of engagement for the U.S., those rules are too restrictive, they say, and more punishing airstrikes need to be leveled against the self- proclaimed caliphate.

Joining me now is one of those critics, Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona. The retired Air Force colonel serves on the Homeland Security and Armed Services Committees.

Congresswoman McSally, thanks so much for joining me.

REP. MARTHA MCSALLY (R), ARIZONA: Thanks for having me on, Jake.

TAPPER: Really appreciate it.

So, the U.S. strategy right now is multipronged, using American and coalition airpower to take out ISIS targets, including oil infrastructure, some special forces operation in Iraq and Syria, and a train and advise role with Iraqi security forces.


TAPPER: Is that enough to destroy and defeat ISIS?

MCSALLY: No, it's not.

Think about it. The caliphate was declared coming up on almost two years ago. And we have been doing these airstrikes, this air campaign -- and I use quotes because it's pretty anemic -- for over 18 months.


And if you look at their head of their headquarters, their centers of gravity, their financing, their financing, their leadership is all in Syria, and we are averaging six strike sorties a day in Syria.

It's very gradualistic, allowing them opportunity to regroup. It's a strength that ISIS is a state, but it's also a weakness. They're acting like a state, let's treat them like a state. We're having this mind-set of sort of counterinsurgency and absolute rules of engagement are ridiculous, and then we're allowing them to continue to finance and export terror, like we have seen them do with now a presence in over 19 countries.

So, I have long been saying we should have unleashed airpower. We still can unleash airpower to go after their command-and-control, their leadership, their communications, their infrastructure, their logistics, certainly more against the oil infrastructure. They didn't even start striking that until a couple months ago.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the rules of engagement, because when you talk about unleashing, that is what you're talking about.

MCSALLY: Yes. Right.

TAPPER: And the big dilemma is if you go at them harder, you run the risk of killing innocent civilians.


TAPPER: Currently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford, says the U.S. is striking the right balance.

You obviously disagree. MCSALLY: Look, we have never targeted civilians. The law of armed

conflict is clear.


TAPPER: Right, but -- obviously, but unleashing them, changing the rules of engagement, runs the risk of killing...

MCSALLY: But if you think about it, if we have legitimate targets, and we have known terrorist targets or capabilities, like the oil infrastructure, we know at least a million dollars a day was funding their terror, terrorizing and killing civilians, not just in Iraq and Syria, but exporting it to Europe, to America through their social media campaign, the momentum that they have shown.

So by us not using our military power for all it brings to the fight early on to crush and defeat them, we're actually allowing them to continue to kill civilians themselves. So we just follow the laws of armed conflict. When we have a legitimate target, we do everything. Trust me. I have been in all elements of targeting.

TAPPER: You're saying more innocent civilians are being killed by ISIS...

MCSALLY: Yes, by us not doing anything.


MCSALLY: Right, by our inaction.

And think about it. It looks like they're taking on American airpower and they're winning, which actually adds to their momentum. We have got 30,000 individuals that have traveled from over 100 countries to join the fight. We have got homegrown extremism, so we have got to unleash airpower in a much more potent way.

TAPPER: I want to talk to you about the hearing you held today about letting in Syrian refugees.


TAPPER: Now, the Obama administration, as you know, says that it can take up to two years for these refugees to get in. They go through a major vetting process, including biographic, biometric information, interviews, background checks, looking at social media. Is it comprehensive enough?

MCSALLY: Right. No, it's not.

And we have had some classified briefings looking back at the San Bernardino case and the exploitation, for instance, of the K-1 fiancee visa program. And we had officials from many different departments in front of us today. And when they talk about social media, it's not being used across the board.

I mean, we have got parents who obviously are checking social media. We have got employers who check social media before they hire someone, but we don't have the U.S. government using social media as a routine way to address whether somebody should legally come to this country, not through the refugee program, but through all the other visa processes that we have.

Clearly, we have had people slip through, and they're acting at the speed of bureaucracy while ISIS is acting at the speed of broadband.

TAPPER: All right, Congresswoman Martha McSally, thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

MCSALLY: Thanks for having me, Jake.

TAPPER: Back to our politics lead now.

The news about one 2016 candidate that you will only see on CNN, but will it make a difference in the race for the White House?

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. The Republican race in New Hampshire is a bare-knuckled brawl. Some aren't even sticking around for the fight. Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, they're dropping out.

Donald Trump is trying to show he can shake off that Iowa black eye, but the stakes might be higher for the four other candidates vying to be the antidote to Republican frontrunners, Trump and Cruz.

There are four guys in the so-called establishment lane, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, for them it's beat up all the other guys in that lane so any edge counts, including endorsements.

Joining me now, Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey. Senator, you looked long and hard at all these candidates. Which one do you think should be the Republican nominee?

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Last week I called Marco Rubio and I said, Marco, I want to help you any way I can. I want to help you become the next president of the United States. I'm endorsing his candidacy and I'm very optimistic about his prospects.

TAPPER: Why him? Why is he better than, say, Cruz?

TOOMEY: You know, we face a huge national security crisis, obviously emanating from the Middle East. There is tension all around the world. I think Marco has demonstrated a clear understanding.

He's done the hard work. He's very knowledgeable, thoughtful. He's a smart guy. He's demonstrated the leadership. You know, domestically I think we've sometimes have a crisis of confidence.

And Marco has an extraordinary ability, I think, to communicate and to inspire people. I think he's going to be a really strong leader. TAPPER: Well, Jeb Bush earlier in the show said that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have never really made a tough decision in their lives. I notice that you didn't say anything about any tough decisions he's ever had to make.

TOOMEY: Well, I think he has made some tough decisions. I think Marco's leadership in trying to make sure we would retain the abilities that the NSA had to keep us safe was an important voice and he was on the right side of that.

I think he's been a very important leader on foreign policy generally. Look, he's got a history of this. He was elected to lead the House of Representatives in Florida. Took on the establishment in Florida when there was a Republican governor who wasn't really a Republican governor.

TAPPER: Charlie Crist, yes.

TOOMEY: That's right, that's right. Marco has consistently I think been a solid, thoughtful, conservative leader.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question because you are one of four incumbent Republican senators who the establishment, the Republican establishment talks about when they express concerns about either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz being on the top of the ticket, because you are in a battleground state, Pennsylvania, and you are up for re- election.

The other one would be Portman in Ohio, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and there are a few others. But in any case, are you worried -- I understand you like Rubio because you like Rubio. But are you worried about Ted Cruz or Donald Trump at the top of the ticket? Would that hurt you in your re-election contest?

TOOMEY: So I honestly don't think it's possible to know the answer to that question at this point because the dynamics are very different for those two candidates. What kind of down ballot effect they would have is not really knowable right now.

[16:50:11]Now, I will say I think Marco Rubio is the strongest candidate to go up against Hillary Clinton. I think the contrast is terrific, especially on national security issues.

I think he'll do extremely well in Pennsylvania, as he will across the country. But my real motivation is I think he's going to be a really good president.

TAPPER: Now, you disagreed with Marco Rubio on the immigration issue, the Gang of Eight. You disagreed with that bill. That's a bill that has a lot of conservatives very concerned about him.

TOOMEY: Yes. I did disagree. I voted against the Gang of Eight Bill. But as you know, Marco has come to the conclusion that that's not the right way to go forward. So we're in agreement now on how to go forward. I think many of the other candidates in this field have also changed their minds over various aspects of immigration because it's a tough, complicated, difficult topic. But I think Marco is absolutely right.

He understands nothing can happen until we convince the American people we have security on our borders and we can keep dangerous people out of this country. Marco understands that, and that's -- he's right.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Pat Toomey from the great commonwealth of Pennsylvania, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

A bombshell dropped about Flint's poison water as one resident told Congress the state tried to silence an EPA whistleblower. That shocking story coming up next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In Flint, Michigan, there remains so many questions and not enough answers, so today Congress held a hearing to find out how decisions were made that led to 100,000 people in Flint being exposed to lead-poisoned water.


REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


TAPPER: Some Flint residents were there today holding bottles filled with the dirty water. One woman even holding clumps of her own hair that fell out while using the toxic water. Some key officials from Michigan were not at today's hearing. Those people will be looked into by the FBI, which is investigating whether any laws were broken.

Let's talk to CNN correspondent, Sara Ganim. Sara, what did we learn from today's hearing?

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first, Jake, there was so much emotion at this hearing today. You saw those pictures. I took them of the people that I thought were the most jarring, most emotional and passionate. They were shedding tears at times, cheering during the hearing.

Some telling me that they're just so happy that someone is finally listening to them. At the hearing the new director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted that mistakes were made, regulations weren't followed, but that was not nearly enough for lawmakers who are clearly angry over the seemingly lax response to this health crisis.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) GANIM (voice-over): A bombshell on Capitol Hill. The Flint mother at the heart of the water crisis testifying that the state of Michigan tried to silence an EPA whistleblower.

Leeanne Walters told the House Oversight Committee that an official with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality bragged to her that a leaked memo from an EPA researcher was being, quote, "handled," telling her --

LEEANNE WALTERS, FLINT RESIDENT: That his report was flawed and that there would be no final report.

GANIM: That report was written by Miguel Del Toro, the EPA researcher who tested the water in Walters' home in early 2015. The resulting memo was leaked in June, showing the water in her home was more than twice the level of hazardous waste. The EPA sat on this memo for months and now we're learning through Walters' testimony that the state tried to suppress it too.

WALTERS: This was the ultimate betrayal for the citizens.

GANIM: CNN has reached out to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for comment.

CUMMINGS: Why would they be paying for water that they can't use that is poisoning them? That's not American.

GANIM: Today's often heated hearing was about the people who were not there as much as it was about the people who were there. Chairman Chaffetz kicked off today's session with strong words for Flint's former emergency manager, Darnell Early, who declined to testify.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ (R), OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: We're calling on the U.S. Marshals to hunt him down and give him that subpoena.

GANIM: Early is not the only person the committee wants to hear from. Democrats have urged leadership to invite Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to testify too.

REPRESENTATIVE MATT CARTWRIGHT (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Can anybody tell me why the governor of Michigan is not here today? Because he's hiding. That's what's happening.

GANIM: And those who did show up were chastised for being less than forthcoming. The chairman of the committee pushing to know why the EPA waited months to act on that Del Toro memo.

CHAFFETZ: Why wasn't that made public?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know the answer to that question. I think that they --

CHAFFETZ: You can't come to a hearing before Congress and be in charge of water quality for the EPA and not know the answer to that question. GANIM: As the Oversight Committee continues to pursue answers to questions that have plagued Flint residents for almost two years, one glaring truth came out of today's hearing.

KEITH CREIGH, INTERIM DIRECTOR, MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: We cannot guarantee at this point in time the water is safe to drink.


GANIN: And the committee is expecting a full, unredacted batch of e- mails from the EPA by Friday which will show the level of involvement of EPA officials in keeping this issue from becoming public.

Jake, the other thing too here is that several congressmen brought up this issue of funding and whether or not the state is doing enough. Whether or not Governor Rick Snyder is doing enough.

Bringing up things like how many PR firms have been hired to handle this crisis. Representative Dan Kildee saying it appears they're treating this more as a public relations crisis than they are a public health crisis, and that's something that the people are very aware of too.

TAPPER: Very upsetting, Sara Ganim, thank so much.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jaketapper or tweet the show @theleadcnn. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."