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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
ISIS Recruits; Baltimore Investigates Police Suspect's Death; U.S. Warships Move to Block Iranian Weapons; Interview with the Foreign Minister of Turkey, Mevlut Cavusoglu; Clinton Likely to Benefit from Obama Polling. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired April 21, 2015 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[16:00:09] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Why are U.S. warships moving into the Middle East?
I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.
That world lead, a show of force and a potential showdown at sea with Iran. U.S. warships sent to the waters off Yemen , are they there to choke off the rebels who are friendly to Iran? If not, why are they there?
The national lead, growing protests after a young man dies days after an encounter with the cops. Could autopsy results which we're expecting any moment explain why this man was so severely hurt after police grabbed him and dragged him into a van?
The buried lead. As we know, Rocky Balboa once single-handedly won the Cold War. Now, more seriously, Russian Vladimir Putin is turning to a different '90s action hero to smooth things over with the U.S., Steven Seagal in his comeback project. Perhaps he's out for diplomacy.
Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We're going to begin today with the world lead and a rapidly deteriorating situation that could lead to potentially a standoff at sea between U.S. and Iranian warships in the waters off Yemen. As part of a not-so-subtle warning to Iran, the U.S. increased its military strength in the region, deploying the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and a guided missile cruiser to join other American and allied warships, all with the stated goal of monitoring and potentially blocking Iran's attempts to deliver weapons to Houthi rebels or, as the White House puts it, to ensure freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.
These Iran-backed rebels have been involved in an intense and bloody campaign to take over this country, which is home of course to the major al Qaeda affiliate. But the rebels have faced stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally. Further complicating matters, these escalations come at a time when the U.S. and Iran are supposed to be working together to broker the deal on Iran's nuclear program.
What happens if the Iranian military does not blink? Is the U.S. prepared to step up its involvement beyond this mere show of force? CNN chief security national correspondent Jim Sciutto has been
monitoring these developments.
Jim, would U.S. Naval personnel go so far as to forcibly board an Iranian ship suspected of carrying weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The short answer is, the reality check answer is no. That would be an extraordinary step which could rapidly escalate. All sides know that.
However, the U.S. is sending these ships to send a message to Iran that they are watching, to send a message to the U.S.' Arab allies that even as the U.S. negotiates a nuclear deal with Iran, it still has their back. And it is also to give the president military, counterterror, and intelligence gathering capabilities inside Yemen.
But it does put U.S. and Iranian warships in close proximity in war where the U.S. and Iran are backing different sides.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Warships from the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier group sail towards Yemen, putting themselves into the path of a convoy of nine Iranian ships making their way slowly through the Gulf of Aden, the exact nature of their cargo unknown.
The American warships joined vessels from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other partner nations prepared to intercept the Iranian vessels should they enter Yemeni territorial waters and intend to deliver arms to Houthi rebels.
Still, U.S. officials tell CNN the American ships are primarily in place to give the president military options inside Yemen and crucially to protect trade.
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The movement of the particular aircraft carrier would augment the American military presence in the Gulf of Aden and would send a clear signal about our continued insistence about the free flow of commerce and the freedom of movement in the region.
SCIUTTO: Iran has often flexed its maritime muscle with high-profile, sometimes provocative exercises at sea. A confrontation with Iran, such as forcibly boarding an Iranian ship, would be extraordinary. Pentagon officials acknowledge that moving additional U.S. warships to the region provides additional option to assist the Saudi-led coalition if necessary.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: They want to have the Naval presence not only to send a message, but also be able to keep an eye on what these vessels do and if the vessels are allowed to dock, what is unloaded and where those supplies go.
SCIUTTO: It is the rapid deterioration on the ground in Yemen that the U.S. is most concerned with. Recent airstrikes in the Houthi- controlled Yemeni capital of Sanaa have killed 25 and wounded more than 400, all this as the U.S. tries to finalize a nuclear deal with the Iranians and urge the release of U.S. citizens held in Iran, among them, "Washington Post" journalist Jason Rezaian, who is now facing four charges, including spying and aiding a hostile government.
SCIUTTO: Despite the chaos in Yemen today, Saudi Arabia abruptly ended its air campaign there, declaring that it has met its military objectives.
Just last week, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel Al-Jubeir, told us there would be no half-measures there. Now, a senior U.S. military official tells me that the U.S. does not see this as a cease-fire, but a ratcheting back of military operations there. The Saudis say they're going to begin the political phase of this campaign.
But it seems that the early part of this campaign was about big military hardware that they're going after. It doesn't mean you're going to see the absolute end of all Saudi military action there.
TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much. Appreciate it.
With warnings flying from both sides of this conflict, it is difficult to predict what might happen next.
CNN's Tom Foreman is live in the virtual room along with Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project and a former U.S. Navy officer.
They're there to show us how all of this might play out as the tensions escalate -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake.
Yemen is right here. The U.S. forces are coming this way, the Iranian forces coming this way. This is the line of convergence happening right here. Again, as Jim just pointed out there, look at the sizes of the forces we're talking about. U.S. force, about 12 U.S. Naval ships and the Iranians somewhere between seven and nine of their own Iranian vessels coming in here.
And yet even though this looks very much like a big standoff, Chris, you're saying that nobody here intends to shoot anything.
CHRISTOPHER HARMER, MIDDLE EAST SECURITY PROJECT: That's correct. It's been other a quarter of a century since the United States Navy and the Iranian navy actually fought each other.
Both sides want to avoid an inadvertent escalation of hostilities. So, both sides communicate via third parties and we deconflict our operations. We don't coordinate directly with each other, but we do deconflict to make sure we don't inadvertently escalate the situation. FOREMAN: While all of us look in and we see the fighter jets out
there and we see the Tomahawk missiles out there and all of the potential for these coming into play, the actual goal here is to make sure that these do not come in to play and yet, while everyone is looking over here, you're saying there's a lot of action going on even here in this open water.
HARMER: That's correct. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its belly. His meaning in that was an army was dependent on its logistical supply lines for its ability to fight.
In this case, the Houthi rebels of Yemen are entirely dependent on their supply lines out of Iran. Now, the way Iran gets its weapons, equipment and supplies to the Houthi rebels is via thousands of these small cargo vessels.
FOREMAN: Small ships that take off in here and sail right around here, thousands of them.
The U.S. Navy can't possibly stop all of them. The real reason that the U.S. Navy is there is just to keep on eye on that.
FOREMAN: And that means intelligence capabilities on an aircraft carrier out here which will allow them to not only see what's happening on the ground, but call in more strikes from Saudi Arabia if need be with extra knowledge out there -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Tom Foreman, thank you so much.
Turning to our national lead now, family members of a missing young woman from Alabama now say what they have discovered about her whereabouts is worse than anything they could have ever imagined; 20- year-old Hoda Muthana is believed to have traveled to Syria to join ISIS. And not only that, she may be using social media to encourage attacks on Americans here in the United States.
CNN's Pamela Brown is here to tell us more about who this woman is and how she linked up with this terrorist group -- Pamela.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it all started online as it so often does with these young Americans being lured to join ISIS.
Intelligence sources I have been speaking with say the concern here about this latest American woman in ISIS' ranks is that she could inspire lone wolf attacks in the U.S. and recruit other Americans to join her in Syria.
BROWN (voice-over): Intelligence officials say this 20-year-old University of Alabama, Birmingham dropout, once considered quiet and shy by her classmates, is now a potential national security threat. A family spokesperson says Hoda Muthana fled to Syria in November after communicating with members of ISIS online.
HASSAN SHIBLY, FAMILY SPOKESMAN: She had withdrawn from the Muslim community over a year before she left to join ISIS because she knew that the community was not sympathetic to those extremist idea groups.
BROWN: According to BuzzFeed, she later posted on social media this picture of four Western passports with the caption "Bonfire soon, no need for these anymore." In March, she tweeted, "Go on drive-byes and spill all of their blood or rent a big truck and drive all over them."
A law enforcement official says women like Muthana play a powerful roll influencing and recruiting others.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're very good at both drawing in other women and also egging men on, basically saying, I'm over here in Syria. Why are you still waiting at home?
BROWN: In an interview from Syria, Muthana told BuzzFeed -- quote -- "I felt like my life is so bland. Life has so much more meaning when you know why you're here."
But her family believes Muthana may have been speaking under duress. The spokesperson says her messages to her family have been conflicting. In one, she asks for $2,500 to escape ISIS and complained the group was pressuring her to marry against her will.
But when the family offered to help, she went dark and later messaged that she was happily married to an ISIS fighter.
SHIBLY: She will have to answer to God for the pain and suffering she is putting her parents through.
BROWN: And law enforcement officials say now that Muthana has made her identity known and basically put herself squarely on their radar, it's highly unlikely she will ever be able to board a plane and make it back into the U.S. because of screening measures in place -- Jake.
TAPPER: Pamela Brown, thank you so much.
How are so many ISIS wannabes able to make it to ISIS, make into Syria? Most of them go through Turkey, where it's just a short trip over the border into the terrorists' hands. What is Turkey doing to stop this influx of foreign fighters, including young Americans such as the student from Alabama? We're going to ask the Turkish foreign minister next.
[16:15:18] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We're going to continue now with our world lead. And the frustration
that some Western leaders are feeling towards Turkey, the only majority Muslim country in NATO. Officials here in the United States and Australia and Europe have all voiced concern that Turkey could be doing much more to fight ISIS, and that Turkey is not doing nearly enough to seal its border with Syria to stop the flow of foreign fighters joining that terrorist group.
Joining me now to discuss the ongoing threat from ISIS is the foreign minister of Turkey, Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it.
MEVLUT CAVUSOGLU, TURKISH FOREIGN MINISTER: Thank you. Pleasure.
TAPPER: So, Turkey has the second largest military force in NATO behind the United States. I think a lot of Americans, whether public officials ore members of the public, what they want to know is why is Turkey not doing more to take on ISIS? Shouldn't Turkey be leading the effort?
CAVUSOGLU: Turkey is doing its best actually to support the coalition in the coalition's fight with Daish.
TAPPER: ISIS, right.
CAVUSOGLU: ISIS. You say ISIS, we say Daish.
CAVUSOGLU: Because we believe that this terrorist organization is neither a state nor Islamic.
TAPPER: But why is the Turkish military not leading the fight which is right in your back yard?
CAVUSOGLU: Well, there are 60 countries in the coalition. And Turkey is one of the most active member in the coalition and Turkey in the core group in the coalition. But --
TAPPER: Why are you not sending more forces in? Why is Turkey --
CAVUSOGLU: Why don't we together -- all together? Who has the force on the ground? We have been asking for boots on the ground. But main countries, including U.S. in the coalition are against boots on the ground. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the neighboring countries that know the realities are insisting for boots on the ground. It is obvious that the air strikes are not sufficient enough even to stop Daish.
TAPPER: You're holding off on sending troops until there's a larger military strategy from the coalition?
CAVUSOGLU: And airstrikes are not sufficient. We need boots on the ground or the forces in the ground to fight Daish. Now, we are -- TAPPER: And again to remind our viewers is Daish is what you call
ISIS. You're meeting today with the Secretary of State John Kerry, and the national security adviser, Dr. Susan Rice, I assume you're going to be saying to them there needs to be more of a strategy to go after Daish or ISIS, and there need to be boots on the ground. These are two things you're going to be saying?
CAVUSOGLU: This is what I have been telling -- what Turkey has been telling at every meeting of the coalition, that I'm going to raise with both Secretary Kerry and also Susan Rice during our meetings today.
TAPPER: Today, we're learning about a 20-year-old woman from Alabama who is the latest Westerner to travel to Syria to join ISIS through your country. Why aren't you doing more or what more to you need to do?
CAVUSOGLU: Who is telling that we are not doing more. We are doing more and more. We are doing our best. But we don't get enough support.
TAPPER: OK, I understand. What do you need? What do you need from the West?
CAVUSOGLU: We need better information, timely information. We have been increasing the security measures along the border. We have 1,300 kilometer border with both Syria and Iraq. And it is not easy. Can you control your borders with Mexico?
TAPPER: I think we're having some problems with that as well.
CAVUSOGLU: Yes, so it is not that easy to control. We have to spot and stop them before they leave these host countries.
TAPPER: Why aren't the Western countries giving you the intelligence?
CAVUSOGLU: First, sometimes they don't have the information. Sometimes they are reluctant.
TAPPER: Why would they be -- why would they be reluctant?
CAVUSOGLU: Different countries have different approaches, and when I ask this question, I don't get a satisfactory answer to be frank. And sometimes they know the people are leaving the country to join the Daish but because of the freedom of movement, we cannot stop them.
TAPPER: Let's turn to Yemen, if you will. If Iran tries to unload weapons to the rebels in Yemen, would you support an attempt by another country, whether the United States or Saudi Arabia or Egypt to intercept and board those ships?
CAVUSOGLU: Iran should play positive role in not only Yemen but also in Iraq and in Syria.
TAPPER: Is it? CAVUSOGLU: Unfortunately, Iran sectarian policies have been
undermining the stability and the security even territorial integrity of all of these countries. And Iran has been supporting Houthis and they should stop. They should ask Houthis to withdraw.
[16:20:01] TAPPER: A diplomatic resolution would be great. But in the meantime Iran is sending arms, it appears, to the rebels. Would Turkey support the U.S., Egypt, Saudi Arabia, boarding those vessels, stopping the transport of arms?
CAVUSOGLU: We will support any efforts to stop the delivering of the weapons and also to stop the bloodshed in Yemen.
TAPPER: Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, thank you so much for coming and answering our questions. I really appreciate it.
CAVUSOGLU: Thank you.
TAPPER: Coming up, welcome news for President Obama. A new CNN/ORC poll reveals more Americans approve of how he's handling his job. But is Hillary Clinton the real one celebrating today?
Plus, who better to bridge the gap between the U.S. and Russia than a washed up action star. The role Vladimir Putin apparently wanted Steven Seagal to play, coming up.
TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
For the politics lead now: for the first time in nearly two years, President Obama has traveled into positive territory. A brand new CNN/ORC poll shows more Americans now approve of his job performance rather than disapprove.
[16:25:04] And that's not all -- 52 percent of Americans say they're feeling good about the economy. That is the highest rating on that topic since President Obama took office.
But interestingly enough, the person who might benefit the most from these numbers was never mentioned in the polling. Her name is Hillary Clinton. The Democrat presidential candidate hopes to ride a wave of good vibes all the way to the White House. Of course, right now, she's trying to avoid an undertow, the tug and pull of the questions from those pesky reporters who wonder about donations given to the Clinton Foundation. Clinton is in New Hampshire today, taking questions from voters, not from journalists.
Our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is traveling with her. He joins me now.
Jeff, you're in Concord, New Hampshire. Yesterday, Clinton called the allegations in this new book about Clinton money. She called it a distraction. Did she have anything to say today about the issue?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, good afternoon.
She had nothing at all to say about the issue, but the campaign sure did. They sent surrogates out to push back against this. Even the campaign chairman, John Podesta, was on Capitol Hill, asking Democrats to fight back.
But for Hillary Clinton, she kept her focus squarely on New Hampshire.
ZELENY (voice-over): A double dose of Clintons today. Hillary campaigning in New Hampshire.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We love you Hillary. Thank you for running again.
HILLARY CLINTON (D), 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you!
ZELENY: Bill delivering a speech in Washington.
WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: For obvious reasons, I don't intend to talk much about electoral politics.
ZELENY: But the real split screen of the day was not between competing Clinton appearances --
HILLARY CLINTON: Good to see you.
ZELENY: -- but rather between them and the anti-Clinton cottage revving up once again, this time over a soon-to-be released book "Clinton Cash". The Clinton campaign calls the book a political hit job. But today, questions about whether any allegations of favors for foreign donations to the Clinton administration went unanswered.
From Secretary Clinton --
REPORTER: Can you comment on the specific allegations though?
ZELENY: -- and President Clinton, who declined to talk about the book but told CNN off the camera, "I am really proud of this foundation."
But it's the first drill for Clinton's 2016 campaign. The book was written by a conservative scholar and former aid to Sarah Palin. The title is intentionally explosive, "Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich."
Republicans, given an early preview, have seized on it.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think people are going to read this book and they're going to say, my goodness, this is happening in America.
ZELENY: But other top Republicans who reviewed the book aren't too sure, telling CNN it lays complicated questions but not necessarily a smoking gun of potential conflicts of interest at the State Department on Hillary Clinton's watch.
HILLARY CLINTON: Hi. How are you?
ZELENY: As she campaigned in New Hampshire today, Democrats who met with her shrugged their shoulders at the controversy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With Hillary, we know who she is. I mean, I think these allegations probably won't hurt her. Certainly this book, no one will accept the right wing, no one except -- I don't think any independents or Democrats are going to change their mind because of that book.
ZELENY (on camera): Do you worry that voters will be kind of weighed down by all of these old Clinton stories?
SUZANNE SMITH (D), NEW HAMPSHIRE STATE HOUSE: I hope not. I think that we have seen enough of the Clintons and of Hillary in particular to have been -- she's been dragged through the dirt enough. I don't think that that needs to continue to happen.
ZELENY: Now, top Clinton advisers tell me they're not worried about any specific allegations in the book, but rather the potential that this could erode what they're trying to protect, that is Clinton's trust and credibility -- Jake.
TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny, live in the great state of New Hampshire, thank you so much.
In national news today, another round of protests set to begin any minute now over the unexplained death of a man in police custody. Will autopsy results, which are expected to be released soon, finally explain why he died? How he died? All of that coming up next.