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ISIS Claims Church Bombing On Palm Sunday; Trump: U.S. Strongly Condemns Palm Sunday Church Attacks; Trump Defends Not Hitting Runway in Syria; U.S. Sends Navy Strike Group Towards Korean Peninsula; Another Shake-up on Trump's National Security Council; Tillerson, Haley Strike Different Tones on Syria, Russia; Tillerson to Visit Moscow Amid Fresh U.S.-Russia Tensions; Big Crowd Marches In Dallas For Immigration Reform; Air Base Hit By U.S. Back In Use By Regime Forces. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired April 9, 2017 - 15:00   ET



[15:00:40] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me this Palm Sunday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. ISIS is claiming responsibility for a pair of explosions that ripped through two Egyptian churches as thousands gathered to mark Palm Sunday today. We want to warn you some viewers may find the images we're about to show you very disturbing.

The first attack ripping through a church in Tanta, north of Cairo.

That attack killing more than two dozen people and injuring more than 75 others. And then hours later, a second attack, a bomber tries to enter a church in Alexandria but is told to go through a metal detector. And as he does, he detonates his bomb killing over a dozen people there. Local media say the head of Egypt's Coptic Church was inside when that attack happened.

In response to the bombing, Egypt's president has ordered the military to help secure buildings across the country there. CNN senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, is following the story for us now and joining us live. Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fredricka, these two bombs left dozens of people dead in Egypt on Palm Sunday. Now, the first bomb took place in Tanta, which is about 60 miles north of Cairo. There, there were more than 2,000 worshippers in the church for Palm Sunday. And apparently, you can tell from the pictures the suicide bomber, and this has been claimed by ISIS, got very close to the front of the church. The front rows before blowing himself up.

Now, we understand the second explosion was in Alexandria at the St. Mark's Church where Pope Tawadros II, the pope of the Coptic Church was inside participating in the mass when the bomb went off. Fortunately, it went off outside. In that case, 16 people were killed, 41 wounded. As a result, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has declared

three days of mourning and he's ordered units of the Egyptian Army to be deployed outside critical government installations.

Now, obviously, Coptic Christians in Egypt very angry about the lapse in security that resulted in these twin bombings. The head of security in the province of Gharbia where Tanta is located went to the church to inspect the damage. When he went inside, he was met by angry mourners who not only shouted at him, they started to beat him before he left the church. He has been dismissed.

And these are just the latest in a series of attacks on Christians in Egypt. In December, there was an attack on a church in Cairo that left 25 people dead. In February, 150 families, Christian families fled from the northern Sinai after a series of killings and kidnappings. So it's a very difficult time obviously for the Christians of Egypt. Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Indeed. All right, thank you so much, Ben Wedeman.

President Trump is condemning those attacks in Egypt. CNN's Athena Jones joining us from Palm Beach, Florida now where the president is this weekend. So, Athena, what is the president saying about all of this?

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred, that's right. He tweeted a few hours ago during a visit to his golf club here, he said, "So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great confidence that President el-Sisi will handle the situation properly."

And Fred, so much have happened in the last few days and it's hard to believe that it was less than a week ago that President Trump welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warmly to the White House. It was just on Monday.

This was the first visit to the White House by an Egyptian leader in seven years. The Obama Administration was critical of Abdel el-Sisi's oppressive human rights record. He was a general and a strong man. But President Trump has chosen and set to focus on the need to maintain a strong partnership with Egypt to fight terrorism and these latest attacks highlight that focus.

[15:05:05] During the visit of el-Sisi on Monday to the White House, the President delivered a message to the journalists in the Oval Office. He said, "We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. I look forward to a very long and strong relationship." Fred?

WHITFIELD: And then Athena, you know, while the president has received a lot of praise for the strikes in Syria, he is receiving some criticism that he didn't -- that mission didn't take out the runway. How is the president justifying that?

JONES: That's right. He also took to Twitter to respond to that criticism. It shows you how much the president pays attention to the reaction to his actions and to that strike on Thursday night. Here's what he said on Twitter. "The reason you don't generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix. Fill in and top." He's talking about the process of fixing runways.

And this point -- the larger point here is that U.S. officials have acknowledged that Thursday night's strikes were not meant to completely destroy the Syrian government's ability to carry out attacks against its people and against rebel groups and ISIS. Instead, that strike was meant to deliver the message that the use of chemical weapons won't be tolerated.

So the larger question remains here, Fred, that is what happens next in Syria. How does Syria respond? How does Russia respond? And what is the overall U.S. policy towards Syria. Is there a coherent strategy for dealing with how to end the conflict in Syria, how to defeat ISIS, and also how to deal with the Syrian President Bashar al- Assad. Officials have said that there's no political solution in Syria that would involve Assad remaining in power. But a lot of questions still remain about what's going to happen next in Syria. Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right. Athena Jones in Palm Beach. Thanks so much.

All right. Meanwhile, the U.S. is mounting a show of force sending war ships towards the Korean Peninsula in response to North Korea's latest missile test just days ago. I want to bring in CNN reporter -- Pentagon reporter, Ryan Browne. So, Ryan, you know, these ships were scheduled, you know, to head to Australia before they were redirected. So what more can you tell us about this strike group and its positioning now?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: The strike group is led by USS Carl Vinson which is an aircraft carrier, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. It's also accompanied by two destroyers that are equipped with what's called Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense which sure did, in theory, capable of shooting down any enemy ballistic missiles.

And in the North Korea's case, this deployment is being described as a direct response to some of Pyongyang's more provocative maneuvers, particularly its recent tests of ballistic missiles, most recently a extended-range scud missile test.

So this is seen, as it should you said, as a show of force. The U.S. has done this in the past. Last year, they flew a series of bombers B-2s and B-52s in the skies over the Korean Peninsula in response to North Korea's missile test.

Now, General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser to President Trump, described this as a prudent maneuver in an interview earlier today.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, it's prudent to do, isn't it? I mean, North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior. This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear capable regime. And President Xi and President Trump agreed that that is unacceptable. That what must happen is a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And so the president has asked us to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat to the American people and to our allies and partners in the region.


BROWNE: Now, the military has long prepared options for the North Korea challenge, but of course, it's a challenge that's taken place over the course of many years and some of these options are more complex than others. The U.S. has been moving more and more missile defense into Korea in recent weeks, last month deploying initial parts of the THAAD missile defense system, which is particularly controversial with Beijing.

But again, U.S. -- even military officials themselves are saying that there's no solution to the North Korea problem without China's buy-in even if though Trump himself said the U.S. was prepared to handle this issue unilaterally.

WHITFIELD: All right, Ryan Browne, thanks so much. So CNN's Will Ripley is inside North Korea right now. What has the reaction been from there?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Fred, I was with North Korean government officials when word came in that the Carl Vinson carrier strike group has been rerouted and is now heading back to the waters off the Korean Peninsula. This is not unprecedented. The same carrier strike group was in the area just a matter of weeks ago for joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. And there's a new round of military exercises due to kick off this week.

And so they didn't seem particularly fazed by it. But they did say that this redeployment is just yet another example of increasingly provocative behavior in their view by the United States and specifically the Trump Administration that they believe is pushing the Korean Peninsula closer to an actual armed conflict. But they say they're ready for it.

[15:10:12] I asked them about the missile strike on Syria in particular, they said they strongly condemn it. They're watching what happened very closely. One official saying, "The previous U.S. administrations have been attacking those countries who haven't gotten nuclear weapons and the Trump Administration is no different from the previous U.S. governments in pinpointing those non-nuclear states."

Clearly, they're watching what's happening in Syria but they're also talking about other regimes that have been toppled by the U.S. and its allies, Iraq, Libya. And they say they are not willing to let that happen here in North Korea. People have been told they may have to go without electricity. They may have to tighten their belts and not have the best quality food. They may be isolated from the rest of the world, but the reason for that is because they have to have nuclear weapons to protect this country and its leader Kim Jong-un from the imminent threat of invasion by the United States.

And some analysts believe that this regime is ready to push the button on its sixth nuclear test at any time which would certainly be a major show of force not only here in North Korea, but around the world. Fred.

WHITFIELD: Will Ripley, thanks so much from North Korea. Another shake-up in, President Trump's National Security Council, we'll talk about whos out and what it means, next.


[15:15:27] WHITFIELD: Another shake-up in President Trump's National Security Council and a move is evidence of the influence National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster wields at the White House.

Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland is expected to leave the National Security Council. McFarland was named to her post by previous National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who was fired in February over undisclosed communications with Russia.

I want to bring in our CNN correspondent Ryan Nobles in Washington. So Ryan, what more do we know about how significant a move this is?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's pretty significant, Fred, and, you know, the White House is saying that K.T. McFarland is actually getting a promotion being named the ambassador to Singapore. But it shows us just how H.R. McMaster is exerting his authority in the Trump White House. McFarland had been rumored for months to be on her way out. In fact, CNN had reported earlier this month that she'd been offered that job of ambassador to Singapore and we now know that she's officially accepted that position now.

McFarland is someone that was considered to be close to the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn, of course, forced to resign after it was revealed that he'd not disclose meetings with high level Russian officials. But it's not just McFarland's move that will displays McMaster's growing influence.

This week, top Trump adviser Steve Bannon was pulled out the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. Now, that's a decision connected to McMaster's growing influence.

McMaster is seemed to settle into his role, who told Fox News this morning that in the ramp up of the decision to attack Syria, his team was running smoothly.


MCMASTER: It is such a privilege to be part of this National Security team and help enable this team for the president as a national security adviser. It is -- it's really extraordinary, I think, the decree of concurrent activity that was going on this week and nobody really can broke a sweat over it. I mean, we have extraordinarily competent people in these positions who are providing the president with options and then have this amazing military that we have that can execute those decisions of the president flawlessly.

(END VIDEO CLIP) NOBLES: And while McMaster seems to be taking control of the National Security team, there's still some instability within the president's inner circle, we know that Bannon and another top adviser, Jared Kushner, of course the president's son-in-law, held a meeting this weekend to settle their differences and the president telling them, "Work this out."

And Fred, I can tell you that I was on Capitol Hill Friday and was part of an interview, a group of journalists interviewing John McCain and he said specifically the fact that the president is taking his advice from someone like H.R. McMaster makes him a lot more comfortable about who the president is gleaning advice from before making big decisions.

WHITFIELD: And tell us a little bit more about H.R. McMaster because he was an author of a book that so many particular in the military community really honor and he has quite the background. And there it is, "Dereliction of Duty".

NOBLES: Yes, and what's interesting about this book, Fredricka, was this is the thesis that McMaster wrote when he got his PhD in American history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It turned into a best-selling book that, as you mentioned, widely praised in the military community, but it's tough on the United States. You know, it's very critical of the way that the United States intervened in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

So McMaster is somebody who is, you know, very educated, has been in the military for a long time, but is also considered to be someone who is willing to speak his mind if he thinks there is an appropriate time to do so.

WHITFIELD: Ryan Nobles, thanks so much, from Washington. Appreciate it.

NOBLES: Thank you, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, coming up, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Russia amid fresh tensions with the U.S. following missile strikes in Syria. We'll take a closer look at what his diplomatic visit might look like.


[15:23:18] WHITFIELD: Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in New York. Mixed messages on Syria, what's next in Russia in the aftermath of last week's U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base? The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. takes a much harder line than the secretary of state who is headed to Moscow this week. Nikki Haley spoke today on CNN's State of the Union about the U.S. position on regime change.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: 10 days ago, you said that getting Assad out of Syria was -- would no longer be a priority for the United States. Obviously, since then was the chemical weapons attack. But I'm trying to figure out, is regime change in Syria now the official policy of the United States?

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: So there's multiple priorities. It's -- getting Assad out is not the only priority. And so what we're trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS.

Secondly, we don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there. Thirdly, get the Iranian influence out. And then finally, move towards a political solution because at the end of the day, this is a complicated situation. There are no easy answers and a political solution is going to have to happen. But we know that it is not going to be -- there's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.

It just -- if you look at his actions, if you look at the situation, it's going to be hard to see a government that's peaceful and stable with Assad.

TAPPER: Well, of course, it's hard to but is it the position of the Trump Administration that he cannot be ruler of Syria anymore, regime change is the policy?

HALEY: Well, regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria. So what I think you're saying is this isn't about policy or not, this is about thoughts.

[15:25:01] And so when you look at the thoughts, there is no political solution that any of us can see with Assad at the lead.

And so I -- and I don't think that that's something for the United States to decide. That's something the entire international community has decided. That it's going to be hard pressed to see Assad in that leadership role. And -- so you're going to see the president is going to very much watch this. We are all going to keep calling out the international community and asking them to push for a political solution.

We're going to continue to call out bad actors when they do something like this. And you're going to see this administration act when they think it's appropriate.


WHITFIELD: And now, listen to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on ABC this week.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC ANCHOR: Do you accept that right now the Syrian people have no way to remove Assad? That's going to take greater pressure from the United States, from international coalition, perhaps military pressure.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, hopefully it could, George, but, you know, we've seen what that looks like when you undertake a violent regime change in Libya. And the situation in Libya continues to be very chaotic and I would argue that the life of the Libyan people is not all that well off today. So I think we have to learn the lessons of the past and learn the lessons of what went wrong in Libya when you choose that pathway of regime change.

So, we know this is going to be hard work but we think it's also a process that will lead to a durable and lasting stability inside of Syria. Anytime you go in and have a violent change at the top, it is very difficult to create the conditions for stability longer term.


WHITFIELD: Tomorrow, Secretary Tillerson meets with his group of seven counter parts in Italy after which he will visit Moscow where Syria tops a very long agenda.

CNN's Phil Black joining me now from the Russian capital and CNN's Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott is in Washington. Good to see both of you.

So Phil, you first. The Nikki Haley interview wasn't even off the air when a Russian senator weighed in with a response, and I'm quoting now, "Calling a spade a spade, this is a direct sabotage of the international community's efforts to start a process of political negotiations between the authorities and the opposition." Which peace efforts is he talking about?

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what he's talking about is the ongoing diplomatic process also known as the Geneva process to try and establish a political transition that people have been talking about for a very long time now. It hasn't come to much, we know that. But, Nikki Haley is dancing around the words regime change.

We know how Russia feels about those two words. They're incredibly powerful here. And to a significant degree have been a big part of why Russia has been so involved, has shielded the Assad regime and initially diplomatically, and in more recent years militarily as well. And that's because Russia is fundamentally opposed to the idea of outside access and especially the western United States declaring who gets to be the leader of another country.

It's interesting hearing Rex Tillerson make those comments there about violent regime change. He is, to a significant degree, making an argument that Russia's leaders have been making here for some time. They believe that America has formed for kicking out leaders and leaving chaos in their wake. That is why Russia has been such a firm ally to the Assad regime. If not Assad the man himself, then at least the regime.

They've gone out of their way to shield them diplomatically and then use their own military to change the events on the ground to ensure that the regime survives. All of that means that it's very unlikely, despite all the international pressure, that Russia is under at the moment for its support of Syria, that the Russian position in regards to that support, it's not going to change anytime soon. WHITFIELD: And Elise, how problematic or perhaps even confusing

particularly on a world stage is it that you've got very different methods of communication and messaging coming from Haley and Tillerson?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: I'm not sure that the message is all that different. The tone is definitely different. I mean, you have Rex Tillerson saying, "Listen, we're not going to get rid of Assad right now, but we're going to push for this political solution and we're kind of confident that, you know, at the end of the day, the Syrian people are going to decide that Assad will not be their leader", which is pretty much the policy of the Obama administration. And then you have Haley being a little bit more emphatic that the U.S. is going to push for this political solution that will not have Assad there at the end.

I think what you're going to see and you have Secretary Tillerson travelling out there, you're seeing a much more concerted effort to put this on -- squarely on the responsibility of the Russians, that not just to the Russians bear responsibility for the actions over the last several days in terms of the chemical attack and not making sure that President Assad destroyed all the chemical weapons and not using them.

[15:30:02] But that Russia bears responsibility for the actions of the Assad regime, that I don't think it's ever really been put to Russia so starkly as it may be in the coming days, which is you really need to have a choice. Are you going to side with a murderous dictator who is responsible for gassing his people, or you're going to work with us, not necessarily so you're with us or against us, but are you going to work to end this conflict once and for all?

And, I mean, I think that the U.S. wants to work more cooperatively with Russia on a political solution that will leave some elements of the regime intact as Phil was saying, but don't necessarily have Assad. I mean, look, the Russians have always said that they're not wedded to Assad but, you know, they're wedded to stability in the terms of the regime. But I think now, you have a situation that's largely similar to the Obama administration.

But the one thing that the U.S. had said and Secretary Kerry when he was having all these negotiations with the Russians, he was saying, "I don't have any leverage." What this strike did now is give Secretary Tillerson or President Trump, or whoever is going to be at the end of the day really talking tough to the Russians, it gives them leverage to say, "You know, we stand by what we say and we're going to be firm on this."

WHITFIELD: OK. We'll see how that messaging lands in Moscow when Rex Tillerson is there this week. Thanks so much, Elise Labott in D.C., Phil Black in Moscow. Appreciate it.

All right, happening right now in the streets of Dallas, thousands of people marching for immigration reform and taking a stand for minorities. We'll take you there live after this.


[15:35:50] WHITFIELD: Breaking news right now, a huge crowd marching in Downtown Dallas for a push for immigration reform. They are also rallying against discrimination of minorities and aggressive deportations. CNN's Ed Lavandera joining us live now from the march. Ed, kind of paint a picture. What's happening there?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fredricka, we're in the middle of Downtown Dallas and the march is about halfway through. And the crowd you might be -- right behind me, you might be able to catch a glimpse there of Dr. Martin Luther King III who is marching here with civil rights leaders here in the city of Dallas. This was a similar march that was organized several years ago with over several hundred thousand people.

Once again, coming out a big crowd here in Downtown Dallas marching from the Cathedral (inaudible) Dallas, you can see it all where a number of speakers will be speaking to the crowd. And this is a march that has swelled into a very large crowd. In fact, it's hard to tell here because we're at the very beginning of the line here, but it's a crowd that makes its way back through several downtown blocks here in Downtown Dallas, Fredricka.

And as you mentioned, it is those issues that you talk about, immigration, the wall. Those are the types of issues that once again these marches hope to bring to the forefront again and they continue to talk about. Very much, an anti-Donald Trump message here as you might expect in here in the streets of Downtown Dallas this afternoon.


WHITFIELD: All right, Ed Lavandera, thank you so much for that. Appreciate it. We'll check back with you there in Dallas.

Also, ahead of some very high stakes meetings this week with G7 allies in Italy and the Russian foreign minister in Moscow, a lot on top for the Trump Administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is arguing against what he calls violent regime change in Syria and refraining from accusing Russia of complicity in Syrian war crimes.

On both, those points, he strikes a very different tone from his Trump Administration colleague, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. Joining right now with his insight is Richard Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and former assistant secretary of state for near east affairs. Good to see you, Mr. Ambassador.


WHITFIELD: So, is it your belief there are different messages coming from Haley and Tillerson, or is it they just have different styles in conveying a similar message?

MURPHY: It's a little hard to get inside the heads to be the one, but it's a different style. By talking about regime change, however, that message is bound to make the Russians even more alarmed at where things are going in terms of U.S. policy. They were much more comfortable with the idea that somehow we would work something out politically with Assad and that in a transitional period he would be eased out of power.

WHITFIELD: But it was Ambassador Haley who said regime change will be a consequence of many things to come. But she did not go as far as saying it was the U.S. that was advocating any kind of military action that would lead to regime change, but she said it would be a collection of things.


WHITFIELD: Russia doesn't want to hear regime change at all. It's a dirty word.

MURPHY: Well, they don't see an alternative to the Assad leadership at this point in time. And, their concern is that this country not totally fall apart. I mean, as far as we're concerned, the country is devastated and yet he does represent still a leadership of a type. But he controls the loyalties of certain elements in the population who are afraid of what might come after him.

WHITFIELD: So there are already 400,000 people have been killed, slaughtered in Syria. A, what is behind -- what is Bashar al-Assad after? Why is that he is trying to erase an entire populace from Syria? What is he looking to gain? What is at the root of why this is even happening?

[15:40:03] MURPHY: Survival.

WHITFIELD: For whom?

MURPHY: For him, his family and the -- his clique in charge. He has been extraordinarily lucky in staying on top of a very complicated situation. And, his rivals have been very poor at cooperating with each other. His domestic rivals, be the political or military. They've each been bucking for the number one position themselves and it's been a tragedy that the Syrian opposition has not been able to come together.

WHITFIELD: And then what's in this for Russia?

MURPHY: Well --

WHITFIELD: Not about oil. There's oil in the region, but what is it that, you know, Russia is after by continuing to prop up Assad and his techniques and wielding power and slaughtering people?

MURPHY: Well, Russia has its own domestic problems with fanatical Islamic leadership in the Chechnya region. They have brutally suppressed that element to the best as they could. Many hundreds of Chechnyans have gone to the Middle East to fight in Iraq and Syria for the Islamic state for Al-Qaeda. And those boys might come home, will come home.

WHITFIELD: So then, realistically, what can Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, demand or walk away with when he goes to Moscow to meet his counterpart and Syria and relations with the U.S. and Russia are at the top of the agenda?

MURPHY: Well, in terms of Syria, it's to get back to an effective negotiation, be it in Geneva or be it around the way, so things are developed in Kazakhstan where they've met. He needs to see if negotiations can be energized. And the military strike the other day by the United States may have provided some incentive in Moscow and in Damascus not yet clear.

WHITFIELD: Does it put the U.S. in a greater advantage in your view, those strikes?

MURPHY: At a greater advantage? Well, we have so --

WHITFIELD: To help broker some peace, some end to this war?

MURPHY: Well, the end result is yet to be seen.


MURPHY: But, we have practically no leverage in Syria today. So if this has given us an element to work with and some new respect on the part of the Russians, on the part of the Syrians, it may have helped.

WHITFIELD: All right. Ambassador Richard Murphy, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

MURPHY: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Good to see you.

All right, criticism from U.S. Senator John McCain after Syria resumes flights from that very air base that was struck by U.S. missiles. Raising the question, should the strikes on Syria have been carried out differently?


[15:47:35] WHITFIELD: And welcome back, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in New York.

Republican U.S. Senator John McCain is calling the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base, "An excellent first step". But he's questioning if the U.S. operation went far enough considering the Syrian air field is back and operational within 24 hours after that strike.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Looking at there all their support facilities doesn't let them fly with any consistency. But it -- the signal that they're able to fly almost right away out of the same facility indicates that I don't think we did as thorough enough job, which would have been cratering the runways. And somebody will say, "Well then, they can fill in the runways, yes, and we can crater them again, too."

(END VIDEO CLIP) WHITFIELD: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said this morning that the missile strikes were meant as a warning shot.


MCMASTER: What's significant about this strike is not that it was meant to take out the Syrian regime's capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people, but it was to be a very strong signal to Assad and his sponsors that the United States cannot stand I live by as he is murdering innocent civilians, what was a red line in 2013.


WHITFIELD: All right. I want to talk now with our panel here. Colonel Cedric Leighton is a CNN military analyst and former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Also with us, CNN Military Analyst and former Military Intelligence Officer in Syria, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona and Bob Baer, he is a CNN Intelligence and Security Analyst and former CIA Operative. Good to see all of you, gentlemen.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Good to see you too, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. So Cedric Leighton, you first. You heard General McMaster say a strong signal was sent. Was this strong enough?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think it's a little bit too early to say, but if the goal was and it seems to have been the goal to just give them a warning, then we've achieved that goal. You know, in essence, what we've done is we've changed the way in which the United States is playing in Syria and that makes a big difference already. If we wanted to do an all-out attack on them, of course, it wasn't sufficient to do that. But I don't think that was the intent. And that's, I think, what General McMaster's point was this morning when he spoke about that.

WHITFIELD: And, Bob, the President has said in the past that he doesn't believe that, you know, publicly military plans need to be made.

[15:50:04] But is this a case in which this president, this administration, needs to publicly lay out what is the next step, if indeed this was a first step?

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Fred, I think absolutely, we have to move to a political solution.

This regime can stay in place. I don't think anybody has a real problem with that. Islam can stop the massacring of civilians. And that this message was received and the Syrian regime stops using Sarin Gas, it will achieve what it is meant to.

But as far as getting rid of Bashar al-Assad and the Alawites, who control that country, that would take an enormous amount of force which I don't think this administration, anybody in this country wants to bring to bear. It just -- it's too difficult, it would be too bloody, the country is already down, mostly in rubble.

That's the problem. The Geneva process does not come up with an acceptable solution for these sectarian, you know, divisions between Sunni and Alawite. And until we get there, we're not going to get a solution and we need the Russians, by the way, as well as the Iranians to participate in this.

WHITFIELD: And we know Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his way to Moscow this week. We'll see if more discussions about whether there's a diplomatic solution, political solution, or military solution on the horizon.

So, Colonel Francona, you know, according to the "Washington Post," administration officials have said that that attack on that airfield was successful in destroying refueling stations, hangars and some planes, effectively making the base inoperable. But you see that it's very much up and running. And when we heard from John McCain today and he said somebody said, you know, that, you know, the -- damaging the Tarmac, you know, we'll just go back and refill it, that somebody was actually the President of the United States tweeting from Mar-a- Lago, "The reason you don't generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix, just fill in and top."

So, was this a mistake in this strategy of, you know, bombing this airfield that the Tarmac that the airstrip would not be also destroyed or cratered?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, OK, here's the rationale for not hitting the runways. The Tomahawk missile system is not the ideal weapon to do that. The warhead just is not big enough. It can put small holes in the runway and as the president says, they can be easily patched. Patching runways is something that all air forces practice extensively. That's one of the things that you're tested on is how fast you can repair a runway.

So, breaking up runways really isn't the way to shut down an airfield. The way to do it is how they went about it. But you'd have to do it in greater numbers. You got to take out the refueling, the ammunition, the maintenance, all the other facilities that go into making an airfield operate.

So I think it's very important that we realize this was, as Colonel Leighton said, a warning shot. And if the message were received, that's great. But we don't know yet, and we won't know.

As far as the base being back in operation, as long as you've got a runway and an aircraft that can fly, you can technically take off. Now, how effectively is that air base running, we don't know.

WHITFIELD: And, Colonel Leighton, is this a prelude to more U.S. troops in the region, if not, in Syria already, some, what, a thousand U.S. troops that are in Syria? Do you see that more are likely to be dispatched there? Lindsey Graham today on a Sunday talk show said that he would like to see upwards of 5,000 U.S. troops there. What would be your view? LEIGHTON: Well, I'm not sure about the exact number, Fredricka. But

what I can say is that, I think it is definitely a prelude to some more insertion of troops in Syria or in the region. These kinds of events have a way of establishing their own ecosystem, and that ecosystem will require further action and the further insertion of armed force of one type or another. It could be air power, it could be naval power like we saw with the Tomahawks, or it could be ground forces.

WHITFIELD: Bob Baer, Colonel Cedric Leighton and Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, thank you, gentlemen. Appreciate it.

All right, tomorrow, Neil Gorsuch will be officially sworn in as the nation's newest U.S. Supreme Court Justice. How will he mold legal opinion and impact the court, next.