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U.S.-Backed Forces Drive ISIS Out of Raqqa, Syria; Interview with Madeleine Albright; Crisis in Puerto Rico: Millions Without Power & Water One Month After Maria. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 06:30   ET

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


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[06:33:26] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: U.S.-backed forces driving ISIS out of its self-declared capital of Syria, but still telling citizens on of Raqqa not to return home until the city is cleared of improvised explosive devices and land mines.

Take a look at what's happened there in just the past three years. Here's Raqqa in 2014. You can see ISIS terrorists a parading through the city center that they declared their headquarters.

This is Raqqa today. Syrian Democratic Forces are now the ones celebrating.

CNN's Arwa Damon is live with us for a firsthand look inside Raqqa. This is the first time CNN has been able to broadcast from there.

Arwa, we're so happy to have you on the ground. Tell us what you're seeing.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the square behind me right here, this is the square where we saw those first horrific gruesome images of the beheadings, and the executions. On the spikes, ISIS would place the heads of its victims as a morbid reminder to anyone walking by of what their fate would be if they dare to defy ISIS's role.

The forces that you see driving past and scattered throughout here, they are with the Syrian Democratic forces. That is the U.S.-backed force.

And a lot of them who are around us right now are actually part of their female fighters. We were speaking to them earlier. They take quite pride in the fact that women played such a big role in liberating a city that was so oppressive to the female population.

[06:35:02] But then also just take a look at the destruction around us. You know, sometimes you go into these war zones and you're able to see something of a semblance of the life that was. You see some bits and pieces of what civilians may have left behind.

Here the destruction, the devastation is so widespread, Alisyn, that you can't find anything of the lives that used to exist in this city. CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: What is the situation in terms of what

they'll be return to, Arwa? What are the chances of the people there, especially the children, being able to have any semblance of sustainable life in Raqqa? We hear that they're being told not to go back to their homes in some cases.

DAMON: In fact, they're encouraging not everyone to come back home, Chris, because there are mines, exclusive, boobytraps, underground tunnels that have yet to be cleared. One of the commanders said this was a multilayered battle field. You have the fighting that took place on the is surface, the bombings that took place on the surface.

And then underneath the city, you had the ISIS labyrinth of complexes of various different tunnels that didn't just went from one building to another, they stretched at times for at least a mile we were told. This one commander said it will take at least three months to even begin to have most of the city cleared of those various different explosive devices. And then, of course, this massive reconstruction effort.

Now, there is a civil council, a Raqqa civil council that has been working throughout this entire process. They do have representation. They do have some sort of a plan in place. But then who he is going to pay for all of this?

They have received some pledges from foreign donors, from countries. But nothing has actually materialized.

And what we keep hearing over and of and over again is that physically rebuilding the city is actually the easy part. That can be accomplished. What they really have to fight and start to accomplish is rebuilding the fabric of society here to ensure that an entity like ISIS is not able to ever again gain a foothold in Raqqa.

CAMEROTA: So, Arwa, I mean, the leadership, the ISIS relationship that was dug in there, where do officials think they've gone? Where do they think al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is?

DAMON: It's a great question. At this stage, what we understand that when the real fighting for Raqqa broke out, a lot of the top senior leadership at least did in fact, leave the city. Quite a presence still in Deir Ezzor, and that is where the front line has shifted. You know, that huge swathe of al Anbar province, the desert of al Anbar province in Iraq that is still under ISIS control. A few isolated pockets here and there.

We did hear from some of the commanders here that they did kill some of the top ISIS emirs. But at this stage, no one knows exactly where al-Baghdadi is.

However, as we have historically said, just because you take off the head of the snake, as they say, it actually doesn't end up killing the rest of it. Osama bin Laden was killed. Al Qaeda continued to thrive. Al-Baghdadi's predecessors were all killed in the previous incarnations of ISIS, and ISIS managed to come back. What is going to be really critical is not necessarily going after

senior leadership but really trying to defeat the ideology, to prevent this kind of violence, this kind of destruction, this kind of wreckage being wrought upon civilian lives from ever happening again.

CAMEROTA: Arwa, we can't tell you how valuable it is to have you there on the ground for us in Raqqa so we can see it all with our own eyes and rely on your great reporting. Thank you so much for being there with us.

CUOMO: And once again, the kind of danger that she and that team have put themselves in to show you the reality and it matters, because even though the fighting is over, a larger battle has just begun. How do they get back to life there? How do they create opportunity in a way where they don't become a breeding ground for extremism again? We'll see what the future holds.

Our thanks to Arwa.

So, there are a lot of against about what has been going on in Niger. We know that four Americans lost their lives. We don't know so much else.

The president has been focusing on how he dealt with the families of the fallen. But that's about politics. There's as lot of other stuff going on here we have to address and we have a great guest for some perspective.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joins us.

Always a pleasure, madam. Good to have you with us.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Very nice to be here.

CUOMO: How do you deal with the fallen matters? This is something that you have to deal with and that you've seen dealt with on the highest echelons of government. What are your concerns about this ongoing debate about what the president did and win?

[06:40:00] ALBRIGHT: Well, I am concerned about the politicization of it, because this is obviously a tragic matter for the family. And so, that is most sad, I think.

I do think that we need to find out what happened. There are American forces in a variety of places for good reason I think in order to try to deal especially in Africa as ISIS has metastasized and gone into a variety of places. But I think we need to know what happened, why it happened, so it doesn't happen again if at all possible.

But it is really hard I think to always find out the circumstances. In my case, I had to deal with our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania being blown up, trying to figure out what happened, and then to bring the bodies home and talk to the families.

CUOMO: So if you want to talk about this situation in Niger in terms of what matters, well, the first thing that matters to people, I think, based on what we're getting as feedback -- why are we there? I get that Niger, there is geographical relevance because of what is going on in Mali, and Libya and elsewhere.

But we keep being told, well, the troops are there in an advisory role. They're support and assist. They're to help the locals fight the fight. We're not fighting the fight for them.

Then you see something like this, Green Berets out in front in the middle of an ambush. Life is lost. Why?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I do think we have a variety of operations in different places to try to push back on terrorists threats in various places that are of concern. I do think it is important to try to explain to the American people why our forces are where they are and under what circumstances, or at least understand what the levels of support are, and not to kind of fudge things. And, clearly, they didn't have enough information to release. It is hard for me to second-guess as to why --

CUOMO: How do you know they didn't have enough information?

ALBRIGHT: I don't know. I mean, I do think --

CUOMO: Because they -- whatever we're finding out, they obviously knew, right, Madam Secretary?

ALBRIGHT: Yes.

CUOMO: I mean, if we're able to find out here at CNN, well, yes, it was an ambush, oh, yes, they were at a meeting and here's how they got evaced out and here's how many they were and yes, it turns out one was left behind and that created confusion. If we know all that, they knew that all. But we didn't hear anything for days.

Did the president have a responsibility to tell the American people this happened, this is who did it? It happened to have been ISIS. You know, one of his main targets to talk about otherwise. Should he have told us, or was it right to stay quiet?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think there may have been a reason to stay quiet. But the thing that really bothers me, we have no explanation of any kind of strategy of what the president, what this administration is thinking about in terms of our overall national security strategy. I mean, I try to follow this very carefully. But in most regions, we do not know what the overall plan of the Trump administration is in terms of --

CUOMO: Fair defense for this administration to say, I didn't put him there? You put them there, Obama put them there in 2013, the level was then increased. They're there. We're just getting under way there. These are situation not of our own creation.

ALBRIGHT: Well, they have been in office nine months. And one of the things that we haven't seen is any kind of explanation of national security strategy. It's an obligation of an administration to put out what our national security strategy is generally. I can understand that the problem has become as ISIS is pushed out of

the Middle East, of its territory, that it has gone into a variety of different places and it's kind of franchised now. And I do think that there are ways that we need to help those countries deal with the threat of ISIS, Boko Haram, a number of different aspects.

The question is, we have not had an overall explanation about where our troops are, what they are being used for. The president announced something about Afghanistan and then didn't really explain all of that. And so, I think there's just a general disregard of explaining not kind of tweeting and having political arguments, but truly trying to explain what the situation is.

CUOMO: Well, there's no question. It's more helpful for this particular president to be engaged in a fight against a Democratic congresswoman about what he did or did not say, and something is going to be almost unprovable with this family of the fallen then these largest questions.

The irony, of course, Madam Secretary, is that they have been hanging their hat on ISIS, this administration, about how they beat them back. We just had Arwa Damon so bravely where her team in Raqqa where they have been vanquished apparently. It was their putative capital. And now, they're gone from there and yet, it was ISIS that took out these Green Berets.

Does that feed into why we weren't told us because it shows a lack of progress in something that is more important? It takes us to the next topic, he's going to Asia. This is being billed as the most major trip abroad to date.

What are your concerns going on? Do you think he should go to the DMZ, to the militarized zone in South Korea? What's your take?

ALBRIGHT: Well, let me just briefly talk about it. A president's travels are an incredible undertaking. There's no question about that. He is going to five countries and theoretically two multilateral conferences, and an awful lot to do.

[06:45:07] And also, there is really not the support in the State Department. I have just been looking at the fact that most of the people in the bureaus that deal with those countries have not been named. We don't have ambassadors in a lot of places and these countries that he's going to.

I mean, he's going to go to Japan and South Korea. He's going to go to China for a really kind of central aspect of this, and then to Vietnam and Philippines. So, what could possibly go wrong?

So, the bottom line is there are an awful lot of issues going on and a lot of discussions to be had. And so, my concern is basically, what is the support system for this? Where has the president gotten his briefings? What is he going to say? What are the people that are in these discussions, what are they're going to ask him? How is he going to respond?

CUOMO: Do you think he should not go?

ALBRIGHT: Oh, I think he should go. But I think part of the issue here that those kind of trips, having been on them myself with the president, they take a lot of work.

With President Clinton, you know, he was always interest the details of things. He wanted to know everything. We had lots of briefings. There was lots of staff.

And that's what I don't quite know, is how they are preparing for the trip? And there are a lot of real issues with the Chinese right after their party congress.

CUOMO: Well, the big unknown is the most essential relationship here was you go abroad, is that between president and secretary of state.

What is your take on Rex Tillerson? We saw this kind of press conference. Lucky for you, you never were forced to have during your tenure. But do you think that this is sustainable for him to stay as secretary of state, how important you believe it is to have him stay as secretary of state?

ALBRIGHT: Well, let me say again say -- the relationship between the secretary of state and the president, any part, is one of the most important ones. You have to -- you don't have to talk to each other all the time, but there has to be an element of trust. You have to be able to pick up the phone to talk to the president or vice versa, and you have to feel that you have the confidence of the president.

And I think that it is kind of peculiar to read the things that we have in terms of how they have been relating to each other. It is only my hope that actually the president might say, you know, Mr. Secretary, I'm going to have to say this. Understand that this is part of our strategy that I'm going to make it look as though we are not interested in diplomacy.

But I have no idea about how this relationship works and I loved being a secretary of state. I thought it was the most incredible job in the world. I don't see Secretary Tillerson seeing it quite that way.

CUOMO: So, without names or any details, you're saying your experience wasn't where you're walking around dropping F-bombs about the president of the United States? It wasn't your experience?

ALBRIGHT: Yes, definitely not. Definitely not.

CUOMO: It's good to know. It's good to know.

We'll see what happens with this. Please come back as we find out more about the trip, the planning, and the actual execution and give us your take on the progress that might be made, might be missed.

ALBRIGHT: I always enjoy being with you guys. Thank you so much.

CUOMO: The pleasure is ours.

CAMEROTA: I can't imagine Secretary Albright ever dropping an F-bomb, with anything.

CUOMO: We went at it once on a panel and I'll tell you, it gets -- it can get ugly.

CAMEROTA: Very good.

All right. Meanwhile, we have an update for you because one month after Hurricane Maria, it is desperate daily struggle for millions of Americans in Puerto Rico.

Bill Weir is live for us with the latest, next.

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[06:51:29] CAMEROTA: OK, now an update for your on Puerto Rico. This morning, millions of Americans are still without electricity and running water. This is one month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

Today, President Trump will meet with Puerto Rico's governor to discuss discovery efforts.

CNN's Bill Weir is live for us in San Juan with more.

Bill, tell us what the situation is this morning.

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, well, sadly, it is much more of the same, Alisyn. Yesterday, we heard sort of rumblings that there were communities up in the western mountains near Las Marias. People who grow citrus and coffee up there who had yet to see any help from the outside.

So, we have a little plan to go and investigate, just sort of skim the tree tops along the length of the island and really got a lesson in a tale of two recoveries, both federal and private.

Take a look.

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WEIR (voice-over): As dawn brings Maria's one-month anniversary, we head out of San Juan by air and low to the ground.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Terrain, terrain, pull up. Pull up.

WEIR: All the better to see the mudslides, broken bridges, shattered homes. We passed Arecibo, one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world, but we are looking for intelligent signs of life in the western mountains where people have been waiting for help for weeks.

We land and inside the Mayaguez Airport, a group of bighearted military veterans has turned baggage claim into a bunk house and operations center.

ERIC CARLSON, WARFIGHTER DHT: I think we're at, like, 30,000 meals, 35,000 meals. And I don't know how many crates -- WEIR (on camera): Wow.

CARLSON: And that's just with the small trucks we've had and by hook or by crook getting supplies.

WEIR (voice-over): They came down on their own dime and shake their heads in frustration with FEMA. If it were up to them, they would bring in the National Guard.

CARLSON: We get you two weeks training that you have to do here, right? Air National Guards has to get their hours in. All you guys getting on planes, in rotations, you come down Puerto Rico 15,000 at a time to do this -- water purification unit, construction units, engineers. You guys are all coming down and just rotate them every two weeks.

WEIR (on camera): yes.

CARLSON: You're not paying them anymore. You have to pay these guys anyway to sit at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for two weeks.

WEIR: Right, right.

CARLSON: You're wasting your money. All this stuff about bringing the contractors, security contractors to ride shotgun on the trucks, I'd get 5,000 military vets who will do it for free.

WEIR (voice-over): We head into the hills in search of answers, but soon get a taste of the logistical headaches here. Maria obliterated this stretch of highway. And with little hope for road crews, the neighbors are building their own bridge.

(on camera): Do you feel like Americans in moments like this? Do you feel taken care of as citizens?

(voice-over): We're not people that say the government must help us, Santiago says. We're all part of humanity. Every person does the best they can.

(on camera): What kind of help are you getting from the outside? Have you seen FEMA or?

JOSE RODRIGUEZ, LAS MARIAS RESIDENT: We've seen FEMA. We've seen other group. They came from Connecticut. They are five or six people and they purify the water. And that water, you can drink it from there.

WEIR: Are these the veterans? The guys, some are soldiers --

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, that's right.

WEIR: We met them at the airport.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yes, they are beautiful people.

WEIR (voice-over): Thanks to Junie (ph) and his mini-monster truck, we get past yet another mudslide and soon track down one of FEMA's top men on this island.

(on camera): Couldn't you use National Guardsmen in two-week rotations to come in?

[06:55:02] Are you begging your bosses for more men?

JUSTO HERNANDEZ, DEPUTY FEDERAL COORDINATING OFFICER: No, I'm not.

WEIR: Why?

HERNANDEZ: Because we have 4,500 National Guardsmen coming in.

WEIR: But just as a point of comparison. Two weeks after the Haiti quake, the U.S. had 22,000 troops on the ground in a foreign country?

HERNANDEZ: I don't know how much more we can bring without actually impacting the economy of Puerto Rico. If I keep flooding the place with food and water, when is it that they knock neighbors (ph), are going to open their supermarkets?

WEIR: Is it true that FEMA had a presence in New Orleans for like seven years, right? People were living in FEMA trailers for years.

HERNANDEZ: We were in New Orleans just two years ago and we left 5,000 mobile homes there.

WEIR: Right.

HERNANDEZ: And we were there for seven or eight months, responding there. And we're in Florida. And we're in Harvey. And we're going to be in Puerto Rico and now, we are in Virgin Islands also, for as long as it takes.

WEIR: For as long as it takes?

HERNANDEZ: For as long as it takes.

WEIR: Despite what the president says?

HERNANDEZ: You know what? We don't follow -- I don't see TV. So, I don't even pay attention to them. I pay attention to the mission that I have in my heart, which is fixing Puerto Rico.

WEIR: In just a few hours, we've been out shooting, an amazing development here at this abandoned airport, the Air National Guard out of Tennessee and Kentucky has arrived and are militarizing this airport. They tell me off camera they have 500 guys, more are coming. They have been sitting at home for two weeks chomping at the bit to come, but there are so many layers of bureaucratic red tape. They just couldn't pull the trigger.

But the good news is, they are here now. They got supplies and they're going to start pushing them into the mountains as soon as they possibly can.

(END VIDEOTAPE) WEIR: It's worth putting a point on Mr. Hernandez from FEMA's comment that he doesn't want to flood the island with more aid because he's afraid people would get used to that and not open their grocery stores.

Everybody I talked to rolls their eyes to that. They can't believe that. Nobody here is becoming addicted to MREs. They want to get back to normal lives as fast as they can. They are still in the day- by-day survival mode, Chris.

But good signs to see those guardsmen and women from Tennessee and Kentucky down here finally.

CUOMO: Nobody questions the effort to help, the question is, is enough being done in the right places?

Thank you for continue to go show the reality, Bill. Appreciate it.

All right. So, back here, President Trump denies disrespecting the grieving family of a fallen soldier. This has become a political battle for the president, between him and a congresswoman. What about the ambush that killed four soldiers in Niger? How come there's not as much talk about that controversy? We dig deeper, next.

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