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CIA Director Speaks Out; Assad Denies Using Chemical Weapons; U.S. Military Drops Massive Bomb in Afghanistan; Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We are about to see CIA Director Mike Pompeo give his first major public appearance since taking over this post. So, he will be speaking at a national security event.

And we will that live as soon as he stands behind that podium. It's happening as the Pentagon drops the largest non-nuclear bomb it has in this area of Afghanistan. This is the first time they have dropped this sort of bomb in any battlefield. It's called the mother of all bombs.

This is the MOAB, the Massive Ordinance Air Blast bomb.

This is what White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said about this bomb moments ago.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We targeted a system of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters used to move around freely, making it easier for them to target U.S. military advisers and Afghan forces in the area.

The United States takes the fight against ISIS very seriously. And in order to defeat the group, we must deny them operational space, which we did.


BALDWIN: Let's begin at the Pentagon and our correspondent there Ryan Browne.

Ryan, why did they do this?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, the military officials are saying this was the right weapon for the right target at the right time.

And this is a 21,000-pound bomb. It's so large that it actually has to be dropped out of the back of a cargo airplane using a parachute. It's definitely -- it's the largest conventional weapon ever used in combat by the U.S.

So, again, this large tunnel system, this cave complex was targeted that had ISIS fighters. ISIS has really established itself, a presence in Nangarhar province right in the east, eastern part of Afghanistan on the Pakistan border. And ISIS is considered a real threat.

They have been responsible for several major suicide attacks in the capital in Kabul. A U.S. special forces member lost his life fighting the terror group over the weekend. It's been an ongoing threat.

And what U.S. officials said, they kind of identified this cave complex as a real critical target, but, again, because of its size, because of how well-defended it was by ISIS, they felt this massive bomb was the right weapon to take it out.

BALDWIN: A bomb so big, they used a cargo airplane and a parachute.

Ryan Browne, thank you so much.

Let's talk a little bit more about the implications of this mega-bomb.

I have Buck Sexton with me, former counterterrorism analyst for the CIA, who I have feeling knows Afghanistan quite well, CNN military analyst retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, and CNN senior international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson.

Nic, let me just begin with you in terms of why this target. We have talked. We have covered the war on terror and we talking about ISIS. One often thinks about Iraq or Syria. You don't think Afghanistan. But, you, sir, know this area of the country quite well. And, in fact, this is a couple of miles, I understand, you say, from where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda made their last stand in Afghanistan.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, the Spin Ghar Mountains, the White Mountains. Achen, which this is the vicinity of where this bomb was dropped, is literally just along the mountain ridge a few miles.

It's hard until we know the precise location of the bomb, but just a few miles from where bin Laden was hiding out. He had a set of cave complexes. They were being targeted by bombs at the end of 2001. We spent a lot of time on the mountainside there.

We went up to where the bombs were targeting these cave complexes, saw the damage. I think, at the time, these were 1,000-pound bombs, perhaps the largest that were being dropped, obviously smashing the mountain, ripping apart some of the cave complexes.

But bombs that size that we saw, you could go in some of those caves and, at the back of those cases were cases of ammunition and many, many hundreds of cases of ammunition, untouched, because the explosion wasn't big enough, big enough to injure any people on the ground nearby.

But this is a very strategic location. It was used by mujahideen that the United States and others supported to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. It was their base of operations before they took the nearby town of Jalalabad, which has a significant and important air base for the United States there.

The main roads that runs to Pakistan, a supply route in and out of Afghanistan, is within easy threat of this location. Strategically, it's good for ISIS because they can move between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the mountains.

It's been used historically, bin Laden obviously there in the early to -- well, in the late 1990s, early 2000s. He had made that place a refuge. So, it's somewhere that ISIS and others know has been strategically good for them in the past.

I was talking just this morning with our Pakistan producer, who spent a lot of time in the tribal region just on the other side of the mountains. We were talking about how ISIS is growing in strength, what attracts people to ISIS' movement. The fracturing of the Pakistani Taliban has led some to join ISIS.


But it's really ISIS is seen as being very strong. Its unity and P.R. is what is making it attractive at the moment.

BALDWIN: Buck, we know ISIS has been in this region. He perfectly laid out how strategic and the tunnels. Why now?

BUCK SEXTON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It sends a message, I think, for this administration that there's a willingness to use every tool and do whatever is necessary to try and combat any of the jihadist Islamic forces that we're facing in Afghanistan.

The war has been going on for a very long time. I was surprised at how little attention it when just a little over a month ago, I think it was, you had the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan testifying saying we may need more troops. They don't have enough to secure the country right now.

The Taliban is by some estimates in its strongest position in terms of territory under its control since the U.S. invasion. Things are not going well at all in Afghanistan. The Taliban is the main enemy. The fact that there's an ISIS franchise that we have to worry about on top of that is incredibly concerning.

And I think the administration with this first major shot across the bow, or in this case a major bomb drop, is showing that they are going to tackle this problem as well.

BALDWIN: And adding to that, we have reporting that a senior administration official said yesterday that the Trump administration was undergoing a -- quote -- "full strategy review" of Afghanistan plans and policy moving forward.

Colonel, to you, on Buck's point about the message this sends, I had Gordon Chang sitting here a minute ago talking about this sends a message to North Korea. Maybe it sends a message to Syria, given what has happened there just even in the last week. What do you think? LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it sends

a message to everybody that, you know, this is a new administration, there's a new set of rules and a new set of reactions when presented with a crisis.

As far as this particular weapon at this time, it makes perfect sense to use this weapon in this environment. This is what this weapon was designed for, collapsing tunnels and destroying targets that are in caves. So I have no doubt that this was in the works for some time. They have been wanting to use this weapon for a while. They could never get approval. It was the right thing to do. The timing couldn't be better.


SEXTON: We see what is happening, as Gordon said, in Korea. We see what is happening in Korea. This is not lost on everybody that is watching the United States right now.

BALDWIN: How will we, Nic, have any sort of -- how quickly some sort of assessment of the damage done and any sort of response?

ROBERTSON: Well, daybreak over there is going to come in, what, five or six hours from now.

And certainly everyone will be talking about it in that local area. There are initial reports are coming in from the villages, but they are unsubstantiated so far. I don't think it's going to take too long before we start to hear from people who live in that area.

What I remember at those high altitudes -- and again we don't know the precise location, but at the higher altitudes where these cave complexes were, there aren't any villages.

But you will find the odd shepherd up there with his goats or his sheep or whatever. There will people who spend time high in those mountains and then the nearby villages for sure will pay an interest in what's gone on.

It's surprising how many people, local villagers you actually find when you get out in the mountains. You don't see much, but then you stand still and they come out of the trees and come out of the valleys.

BALDWIN: Turning the page from Afghanistan, and, Colonel, let me just bring this into the conversation, that we have also learned that some 18 forces, 18 allied forces in Syria were killed in a coalition airstrike in Tabqa, Syria, yesterday.

And so you have innocent lives being lost there in Syria. How do you see the bigger picture of this, and why there isn't maybe more to be done on innocent lives being lost with this...

FRANCONA: Yes, this was a particularly tragic incident.

This was a group of Kurdish forces, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, allied with us. The coordinates were passed to the Air Force. The Air Force hit those coordinates.

Unfortunately, they were the wrong coordinates. This is what happens when you're relying on local personnel to provide you targeting information. The best way to do this, of course, is to get American air controllers on the ground out front with these troops.

And we're starting to do that. And that's what Central Command wants to do. They want to push the advisers down to lower levels, so they can prevent incidents just like this. This is -- it just goes badly, and it really undermines the confidence that our allies have in us when these incidents happen.

This is part of this ongoing effort to take Raqqa. They are surrounding it. I believe this happened on the east side of Raqqa. There's a lot of fighting going on in the west. They are opening up phase 4. That's the complete encirclement of Raqqa. And then they will squeeze the city.

So it's a glitch in the ongoing process. Unfortunately, Brooke, these things happen, and we have to move on.

BALDWIN: Do you agree, Buck, these things happen? Because you can already hear critics saying, if this was some other country and all these lives were lost of innocents, that much more attention would be paid.


SEXTON: There's always a balancing act between the level of strikes you're going to go for and the risk you will tolerate in those strikes.

And the longer we wait to take Raqqa, the more that they can continue to commit under the Islamic State banner atrocities, murder people, kidnap people. All those of things continue on.

Speed does matter, but, unfortunately, with that, as was just discussed, you're going to have incidents like this that are unfortunate. I think forward-deployed U.S. air combat controllers would assist in this, making sure there are far fewer of these possible misstrikes.

But this is going to happen, especially if you're going to try to accelerate the process, which I think this administration is doing on a number of fronts, most notably in Syria.

BALDWIN: Buck, thank you. Colonel, thank you. Nic Robertson, appreciate your voice as well, your area of expertise.

We have much more on this breaking news, including the Afghan ambassador to the United States. We will talk live with the ambassador and get his reaction to this breaking story, the mother of all bombs.

Plus, the new director of the CIA will make rare public remarks moments from now, live pictures in that room there in Washington. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN's special live coverage.



BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the man accused of launching the chemical attack, the deadly chemical attack on his own people, has just called the accusations against him 100 percent fabrication.

Speaking on camera for the very first time since that attack, Assad claimed he couldn't do it morally and that his regime gave up its entire chemical weapons stockpile months ago.

Worth mentioning here there was strict restrictions on this AFP interview with the president. In fact, the AFP didn't even get to shoot the interview. It was the Syrian regime who had the camera and they only gave the AFP a portion of the interview.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: About the attack, that it's not clear whether it happened or not, because how can you verify video? We don't know whether those dead children, were they kids of Khan Shaykhu? Were they dead at all?


BLITZER: Let me bring in Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former British soldier, director of Doctors Under Fire, and an adviser to an organization that is investigating this chemical weapons attack.


Hi. Good afternoon.

BALDWIN: So, you say there's no question that it was sarin gas that was used in this attack on these innocent civilians and that they were dropped from Assad's bombs. How are you so sure?

Well, I think, first of all, President Assad is either deluded or he doesn't know what his generals are doing.

I have been investigating chemical attacks in Syria since 2012. And the first sarin attacks in 2012 and 2013 were exactly the same as what we have seen today, the same sort of modus operandi.

With the international medical charity UOSSM, I helped set up something called the CBRN task force in Syria. And we trained doctors and medics to deal with chemical attacks and, in this case, I suppose more importantly, to collect evidence.

Now, we know that a lot of that evidence has come out of Syria. The Turkish Health Ministry a few days ago confirmed that those samples tested positive for sarin, and the British prime minister today confirmed that samples have reached the government scientific establishment at Porton Down, and they've also tested positive for sarin.


DE BRETTON-GORDON: I have spoken to the doctors on the ground who treat human casualties. And they confirm to me that it was sarin that has been used.

BALDWIN: Can you just explain for all of us the difference between sarin and, say, chlorine, which was apparently used in Aleppo December of last year? I know they are both horrible, but the suffering, can you describe it?

DE BRETTON-GORDON: Yes, absolutely.

First of all, chlorine is a very widely available chemical. You can buy chlorine gas virtually anywhere. And it was the first chemical weapon. But on toxicity terms, if chlorine was, say, one, sarin would be 4,000.


DE BRETTON-GORDON: It's 4,000 times as toxic. It's a nerve agent. It attacks the nerves and kills people.

And the pictures -- Assad saying, are those children really dead? They are really dead. I spoke to the people who dealt with them, over 80 people killed, the majority children, whose nerves have been destroyed by this nerve agent. And they are absolutely dead.

And it's the samples from those people that have come out of Syria, and eventually more detailed samples will arrive in the U.K. and the U.S.

So, in my mind, there is absolutely no difference at all. That is it. And also the people on the ground talked about aircraft dropping it. We heard yesterday that the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense has intelligence, communications intelligence of those aircraft.

It also has intelligence of those aircraft being tracked. So, in my mind, there's no doubt. And for Assad to say they have never had chemical weapons and have never used them, well...

BALDWIN: He says it's a 100 percent fabrication.


The U.N. removed 1,300 tons of Assad's chemical weapons in September and October 2013. He's obviously forgotten that.

BALDWIN: He's forgotten that, and apparently everything else, according to all kinds of generals and folks in intel, that he's done and continues to do. Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, please continue your work, and safe travels

to you. Thank you, sir.


BALDWIN: Right now, the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, making rare public remarks amid all of this. We will dip in live momentarily.


Also ahead, more on our breaking story today, that the United States has dropped this MOAB bomb also known as the mother of all bombs on these ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan. Why hasn't this bomb ever been used? It was apparently made during the Iraq War. Why has it never been used until this point?

We're following all the breaking details. You're watching CNN.



MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: ... Congress, the courts and the executive branch has provided to us, consistent with our American ideals.

We do these things because it's our job. It's what we signed up to do. It's what our president needs. And if we didn't have a tough time justifying our budget to the American taxpayers, that, too, would be inappropriate.


As the CEO of a security research firm recently noted, the CIA appears to be doing exactly what we pay them to do, exploit specific targets with limited attacks to support America's national interests.

Now, our mission is simple in concept, yet incredibly difficult in practice. I have seen that in just the few short weeks. We work to provide the best information possible to the president and his administration, so they can advance our national interests and protect our country.

It's a mission that the CIA has carried out for years, quietly and effectively. Accomplishments often remain classified and secret, but a few special ones are known to the world.

The CIA was a crucial player in the global campaign against nuclear proliferation, and continues to be today. We helped unravel the nuclear smuggling network used by A.Q. Khan, assisted in exposing the covert nuclear facility in Syria, and gathered intelligence with the help of partners that persuaded Libya to abandon its nuclear program.

We also have been on the cutting edge of technological innovation throughout our history. The CIA efforts to developed the U-2 aircraft and orbiting satellites, endeavors that allowed us to surveil activities in rival states that were closed to us. We have pushed the boundaries of the possible in ways that have

benefited both security and welfare of the American public. More recently, CIA investment in technology venture in 2003 led to the development of what we know today as Google Earth.

My first few months on the job have only reaffirmed for me that this innovative spirit and can-do attitude are much alive and well.

So, now I would like to talk about what the CIA does not do. We're a foreign intelligence agency. We focus on collecting information about foreign governments, foreign terrorist organizations and the like, not Americans.

A number of specific rules keep us centered on that mission and protect the privacy of our fellow Americans. To take just one important example, CIA is legal prohibited from spying on people through electronic surveillance in the United States.

We're not tapping anyone's phone in my hometown of Wichita. Now, I know there always will be skeptics, and we need to build trust with them. But I also know firsthand from what I saw as a member of a congressional oversight committee and from what I see now as the director the CIA takes its legal restrictions and responsibilities with the utmost seriousness.

We have stringent regulations and engage a robust Office of the General Counsel and an empowered independent Office of Inspector General to make sure of that.

Moreover, regardless of what you see on the silver screen, we do not pursue covert action on a whim and without the approval or accountability. There's a comprehensive process that starts with the president and consists of many levels of legal and policy review.

Let me assure you, when it comes to covert action, there's oversight and accountability every step of the way.

And I inherited an agency that has deep respect for the rule of law and the Constitution. It's embedded in the very fiber of the people that work at the CIA.

And despite fictional depictions meant to sell books or box office tickets, we're not an untethered or rogue agency. And so while we have had some truly office -- excuse me -- some truly awesome capabilities at our disposal, our offices do not operates in areas or against targets that are rightfully and legally off -limits.

At our core, we're an organization committed to uncovering the truth and getting it right. We devote ourselves to protecting our trade. We work hard to remain -- truly global coverage.

We spend hours upon hours collecting information and poring over datas and reports. And we also admit when we make a mistake. In fact, because CIA is accountable to the free and open society we help defend, the times in which we failed up to high standards of our fellow citizens have been cataloged well over the years, even by our own government.

These mistakes are public. They're public to an extent that I doubt any other nation could ever match. But it's always our intention and our duty to get it right.

And that's one of the reasons we at CIA find the celebration of entities like WikiLeaks to be both perplexing and doubly troubling, because while we do our best to quietly collect information on those who pose very real threats to our countries, individuals such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden seek to use that information to make a name for themselves.

As long as they make a splash, they care nothing about the lives they put at risk or the damage they cause to national security. WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service and has encouraged its follows to find jobs at the CIA in order to obtain intelligence.

They directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information. It overwhelmingly focuses on the United States, while seeking support from anti-democratic countries and organizations.

It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is, a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.

In January of this year, our intelligence community determined that Russian military intelligence, the GRU, had used WikiLeaks to released data of U.S. victims