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Is Al-Baghdadi Hiding In Eastern Syrian City?; The Next Battlefield In War Against ISIS; Senators Stunned To Learn U.S. Has 1,000 Troops In Niger; Senate Panel To Review Trump's War Authorization Powers; EPA Chief's Security Beefed Up After Rise In Death Threats. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired October 23, 2017 - 06:30   ET




CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Our senators may not be aware of American troops are and what they are doing, but you could be. CNN is going to take you to the frontlines of the next battlefield in the war against ISIS.

It is a little-known city in Eastern Syria where you have dozens of jihadist fighters hold up, trapped by Russian-backed forces on one side and U.S.-backed forces on the other. Some believed the ISIS elusive leader, Al Baghdadi may be hiding there.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is live in Iraq with more. What do we know?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We know, Chris, they have lost Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria, but there is one small pocket still for ISIS as you mentioned the town of Deir Azzour.

But really this story now is less about the potency of that terror group and more about what happens to the resources and the land that they once held, who takes it? Is it U.S.-backed forces or the Russian-backed Syrian regime?


WALSH (voice-over): This may be where ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi is hiding but probably wishes he wasn't. Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes pound ISIS' remnants in the city of Deir Azzour.

But they aren't alone in the skies or on the ground here. Banking hard and keeping out of the Russian's way are U.S. jets. Assisting these U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters to take the nearby countryside from ISIS just the day before. ISIS are collapsing and leaving in their wake an almost cold war standoff.

(on camera): ISIS may be holding out in a pocket of the town of Deir Azzour behind me over there surrounded by the Syrian regime, but they have been kicked out too of this area by American-backed/Kurdish SDF forces. Now they've advance to this river here which puts them literally meters away from the Syrian regime, who were backed by Russian air power. We are told, in fact, these Kurdish American-backed forces have held face-to-face meetings with Russian military officials to be sure they don't clash around here.

Now, in the end game against ISIS, Moscow and Washington's forces literally meters away from each other. The Kurds are so relaxed with their new neighbors that fishing is this afternoon's task with hand grenades.

Five years in and Syria is ground to dust, and this is what they're still fighting over. It is unclear who is left inside Deir Azzour, but those who fled estimated recently at 10,000 a day dot the skyline.

They try to filter them, but last week a suicide bomber struck and yesterday, they found 30 ISIS fighters. They are followed around by the horror of what they fled but also by suspicion. The simple question, are the last to flee the most loyal to ISIS or just the least fortunate.

We saw everything in my village, he says, air strikes, children and elderly dying. My relative just last week, the children couldn't stop crying from fear. I could only stand there. What could I do? I don't know if our home is still standing or even who is bombing us.

(Inaudible) doesn't have any super hero powers here, just dust and bad dreams. When I hear the shelling, he says, I hide on the ground.

[06:35:14] The hardest part about living in the desert is not a home. The stream is endless like the bombing they flee and this war which keeps finding new chapters and adversaries around them.


CUOMO: You put beautiful words to the pain, Nick, and I know that you focus on the kids because in a big way that's what this fighting is all about, who will control their future, those families or some oppressive force? So, how important is the battle in this little place?

WALSH: Well, what's incredibly risky here is ISIS -- well, they are kind of out of the picture now to some degree. Amongst those refugees, the displaced you saw there, there will be ISIS fighters hiding out. We have 30 discovered the day before a suicide attack that you heard earlier as well.

There will be rag tag insurgency across that desert area for many years to come causing that U.S.-backed SDF severe problems. The bigger question now, though, is who takes hold of that territory that they once controlled?

And in the days, we were there, the U.S.-backed SDFs swooped into a very important Syrian oil field called (inaudible) oil field. It was something they were pretty pleased about frankly. It's a substantial source border and certainly was. Now I said to them, look, I mean, that is going to cause a problem surely with the Syrian regime who are pretty nearby. We lost people fighting for it. We're going to hang onto it. This is the key question now.

In fact, you know, how do you divide the spoils as it was between the Syrian regime, who think the whole country should be theirs, and the U.S.-backed SDF with coalition air power above them who think they should be able to hang onto that which they fought for.

And we heard ourselves that those U.S.-backed Syrian fighters had four people injured and one killed by a rocket they thought were fired by the Russians or the Iranians or the Syrian regime, so hard to tell in that area. A lot of potential things to go wrong there and it's Moscow and Washington really facing off across that piece of river you saw there -- Chris, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you very much for all the reporting and helping us understand what's happening there.

So, these four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger, now some lawmakers admit they did not even know the U.S. had troops there. What is America doing in Niger and why doesn't Congress know? We discuss that.



CUOMO: Lawmakers are demanding answers about the mission that led to four U.S. soldiers being killed in Niger. They really seemed to need them because Schumer and Graham, senators who are big shots on both sides of the aisle admit they didn't know American troops were in the West African nation in the numbers that they are there. Take a listen.


SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I can say this to the families, they were there to defend America. They were there to help allies. I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger. John McCain is right to tell the military because this is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time and geography, you have to tell us more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You heard Senator Graham there. He didn't know we had 1,000 troops in Niger. Did you?



CUOMO: What do you think matters more to the families of those who were serving, platitudes about how they are there to do the right thing or the reality that these two senators didn't know how many are there? So how much can they really know? Let's bring in Retired Brigadier General Anthony Tata and Retired Major General James "Spider" Marks. Spider, are you surprised to hear these senators saying that they didn't know how many people were there?

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. I'm not surprised at all. I would think that they could probably both assume that there is a presence in the contested areas where we want to deny sanctuary to our enemies. Essentially, you know, different forms of terrorism, but the numbers I think are very surprising.

CUOMO: Yes, I know that I was hearing that you guys too thought it was a little high, but you're not supposed to know right now. It is OK for you to not know the specifics. General Tata, it's not as OK for U.S. senators especially of that elevated status of Schumer and Graham to not know. What do you make of the state of play about the authorization for the use of military force?

BRIG. GENERAL ANTHONY TATA, BRIGADIER GENERAL, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Well, you know, I think as Spider said, we need to deny sanctuary around the globe in many different place and here we have ISIS migrating to the northern tier of Africa and in the Central Africa. So, it's an area that we need to monitor.

And I would think that we want to keep the Armed Services Committees up-to-date on where we are in classified briefings. So, that's where I think this discussion should be taking place.

CUOMO: Is it about just being up-to-date? I guess, it's about who drives the bus here, Spider. Of course, the military executes the plans. Of course, the politics just gets in the way of the execution of those plans. We understand that frustration. But in terms of who drives the bus and whether this is supposed to be debated, what is your take on where we are in terms of who is controlling strategy.

MARKS: Yes, Chris. Let me -- I tell you I think he hit the nail on the head. The real issue is, you know, as you framed it, politics gets in the way. Let me tell you, politics does not get in the way. It is a part of the fabric of how we engage with our military.

It is simply another element of power and those that are in our Congress must have that authority to provide some over-watch and some input in a very fulsome way in terms of what we do with our military.

So, I think it is not a casual conversation and it is a routine conversation at the worker level coming in and saying, look, this is where we are engaged. This is what we're doing on a routine basis through the different sinus of our Congress.

So, the Senator Grahams and the Senator Schumers and the Senators John McCain can say, wait a minute, I want to dig a little more deeply into this particular element of what you guys are trying to achieve.

[06:45:02] So, at that classified level, we must be keep the Congress completely apprised of what we are doing, where our military is, what the objectives are so we can have these good conversations.

CUOMO: Right. Look, the problem with the process is that type of information is supposed to follow something that's been signed off already. They haven't signed off on anything since the war in 2002. General Tata, is the mission and the complexity and the design of what we are doing around the world right now with our military the same as it was in 2001?

TATA: You know, Chris, I think it has actually come full circle. You know, the initial mission in Afghanistan was to deny sanctuary to terrorist groups such as Taliban and al Qaeda that had planned the 9/11 attacks and they did so under the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan, al Qaeda did.

And then we gravitated toward Iraq, which was a wholly different kind of mission. Now we're back to the deny sanctuary, as Spider said, to terrorist groups that want to do us harm. I know when I was the deputy commander in Afghanistan, we did -- you know, stopped three different missions that I know of that were planned against the homeland, the United States.

So, there is credibility and a real need to disrupt enemy formations that are trying to plan attacks against the homeland or against the west. And it's the idea of fighting the enemy on their five-yard line, not our five-yard line.

And let's remember, this is foreign internal defense mission that was going on in Niger. So, we have several of those missions happening around the globe and they are aimed at collecting intelligence and denying sanctuary.

CUOMO: Absolutely. They are very dangerous. They are called advise and assist, but as we just saw in tragic fashion, when you're on the ground, there is a danger. It's not just about advising and assisting. It's about dealing with an enemy often in close quarters as these troops had to suffer through.

Now another thing that happened that I want your guys take on. Spider, let me play this sound from the press secretary about what's the right thing to do where a general is involve.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate.


CUOMO: Now, both of you have told me this IN different ways, but I've always dismissed it as seeking favor. Do you think that it is improper to get into a debate with a four-star general?

MARKS: I think Sarah Sanders should have said, if you want to have a debate with a four-star general, get after it. There is nobody that is sacrosanct and beyond questioning. We have to have a contrarian in the room who is willing to speak truth or at least challenge assumptions to power.

She was totally off base when she made that comment and I bet you General John Kelly told her afterwards, look, I'm going to give you an A for initiative here, but I'm going to give you a D minus for judgment. I don't need your advocacy in that regard.

CUOMO: Well, they are quick to give out A's in this administration for efforts that seemed subpar and this seems to be one of them, General Tata. I mean, what does that mean? That military deserved deference that are our civilian leaders do not?

TATA: No. I agree with Spider on this. I think the bigger question is why are we allowing a congresswoman to stand on the backs of four dead soldiers. Why are we continuing to dig this hole? I thought there might be one last refuge of reverence here and that is military deaths.

You know, maybe she was speaking from that point of view, I don't know. I can't (inaudible) I'm not inside her head, but the idea that we are continuing to use the military killed in action combat deaths as a political weapon is appalling to me. So, I just think everybody needs to put the shovel on this one.

CUOMO: Well, it is important when you say everyone, you better include the president of United States and our commander in chief in that because nobody is keeping it alive more than he is, General Tata. Gentlemen, thank you very much for both of your perspectives on this as always. Appreciate it -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Chris, another story, his security detail was already unprecedented, now EPA Chief Scott Pruitt is getting even more protection. Why? That's next.



CAMEROTA: So, the already unprecedented 24/7 security detail for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is getting beefed up. The price tag is skyrocketing. Why? CNN's Rene Marsh is live in Washington with more. What have you learned, Rene?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, you know, when you hear it, it really sounds like the security bubble around may be the CIA chief or perhaps the FBI director. But this is the EPA administrator. He is responsible for protecting the environment and regulating pollution.

And CNN has learned that the agency is beefing up the 24/7 security for Pruitt. They are hiring more agents and installing new security equipment for his office. So, take a look at all of this.

The EPA is in the process of hiring and training 12 new agents for a team that again provides him with 24/7 protection, according to a source familiar with all of the decisions. Now, based on the dollar figures in the job postings for the security positions, salaries alone for the team will cost at least $2 million.

And they are also growing the fleet so that each agent can have one. Now the EPA is also stepping up security inside of the building, not necessarily at the front door but outside of Pruitt's actual office.

[06:55:08] Documents show that the EPA recently made arrangements for access card readers and an alarm. They'll cost about $16,000 and a source said that officials have also considered biometrics security system that would essentially check your fingerprints or palm prints.

It is unclear at this point, though, if the EPA is still considering that or if that technology has already been installed. We will point out that the agency's spokeswoman declined to comment on any of these -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Rene, hold on a second. Twelve new agents for Scott Pruitt, each with their own vehicle, I mean, let's talk about the irony of that being for the EPA chief, and then added security inside the building where he works. So why? Why is this necessary?

MARSH: Yes. So, you know, and those 12 added are on top of some that he already has on his detail. We did speak with the Inspector General's Office. They tell us that he has received more threats than any other EPA administrator.

All that being said, there are some members on Capitol Hill who are saying this may not be the best use of taxpayer dollars and they have asked the inspector general to investigate whether this beefed up level of security is actually necessary.

CAMEROTA: OK, Rene Marsh, please keep us posted on what you learn with this. Thanks so much for your reporting.

CUOMO: All right. Lawmakers say they want answers about how and why four U.S. soldiers died in Niger. The president is still playing politics here, still being bated by a Democratic congresswoman, and they are going back and forth in a feud over Gold Star families. There's a new turn in this. We have it next.