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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Obama Considers U.S. Boots on the Ground in Syria; Interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham; Paul Ryan Doesn't Like Boehner/Obama Budget Deal; Saudi Prince Caught Smuggling Drugs Helping Fuel Syrian Civil War. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired October 27, 2015 - 11:30   ET

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


[11:30:00] CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right now, they are lightly armed, poorly equipped. They've already Benefitted enormously from U.S. and coalition air support. But if they're going to take the offensives into ISIS strongholds, such as Raqqa, they say they need more heavy weapons.

What you won't hear them asking for, however, is U.S. boots on the ground. It's no secret, John, that the U.S. is a very polarizing force on the ground throughout this entire region. And while most factions will happily say, yes, please, to your American heavy weapons, yes, please, to your American superior technology, you won't hear them say, yes, please, to American troops on the ground.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: How do you think, then, this strategy will be received then, Clarissa, let's say if the president decides to move American boots on the ground? What will happen then?

WARD: Well, that's the million dollar question. What level of engagement are we going to see? What level of U.S. boots on the ground would we actually see? How will the YPG be fighting alongside American troops? How will that affect the U.S.'s relationship with Turkey? Turkey very uncomfortable with the YPG's ascension because of its close relationship with its Turkish counterpart, the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organization, so there's a plethora of questions and complicated issues that will have to be sifted through.

Interestingly, Kate, I've spoken to many ISIS fighters and they say that they can't wait for U.S. boots to get on the ground. They believe that in terms of reframing the narrative, that the American presence would be polarizing enough that, notwithstanding the military difficulties, that they would ultimately benefit from it.

BOLDUAN: Fascinating. You called it complicated.

Barbara, you called it complex. And that, at the very least, is something that is absolutely happening on the ground there.

Thank you both so much.

Coming up next, one presidential candidate calls the president's ISIS strategy "a half-ass strategy at best." We'll talk to Lindsey Graham about that, about what the president is weighing, and also about the new national poll that shows a new Republican front-runner. JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Two tons of drugs, a Saudi prince, a private

plane. Ahead, one of the most bizarre stories you'll hear all day, but a story with extreme consequences in a very dangerous part of the world. A drug bust you will not believe.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:36:55] BERMAN: New this morning, the president is considering proposals from the Pentagon that would, for the first time, put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. We're talking about Special Forces. There's also the suggestion of moving U.S. advisers closer to the fighting in Iraq.

BOLDUAN: This could mark a big turning point for U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS with clearly much higher stakes for the United States.

Let's talk more about this with Republican Senator and presidential candidate, Lindsey Graham.

Senator, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman, they were just before the Senate Armed Services Committee and you had some very tough questions for them about U.S. strategy against ISIS. You said this is "a half-ass strategy at best." What do you think of the options now that the president is weighing?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would support Special Forces helping indigenous ground forces in Syria. The PYK does not have the ability to take ISIL down and hold Raqqa. And the reason we won't give them heavy arms is they're connected to the PKK, which is a terrorist organization, a Marxist group, that Turkey will not allow us to arm. So this overreliance on the Kurds, I think, is just a fantasy. At the end of the day, I don't see the PYK being able to change the tide of battle against ISIL.

But the idea of more American troops supporting the Iraqi ground units makes sense to me. Trainers at the battalion level, more American ground components to do training and advising in Iraq is a very good idea. I would support the president if he did that.

BERMAN: It's interesting, our Clarissa Ward just got back from Syria -- or in Iraq right now. She was in Syria with those Kurdish forces. You know who she says doesn't want U.S. troops on the ground in Syria? The Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. You know who she says does want U.S. forces in Syria? ISIS.

GRAHAM: Yeah, I heard that. I heard that.

BERMAN: ISIS wants that imagery there. What do you make of that?

GRAHAM: I want to destroy ISIL because it's a direct threat to the homeland. I'm not going to let the PYK dictate American foreign policy when it comes to defending the homeland.

Here's a question for you and everyone in the country, do you think ISIL is a threat to homeland? General Humphrey said yes. So degrade and destroy ISIL is the right goal. We don't have a strategy to do it. We need a regional force, not just the PYK. Everybody in the region wants to destroy ISIL because they're a threat to their countries as well as to ours. I take a regional approach, having armies that are already trained, use them, integrate our forces within regional armies to destroy ISIL, because if we don't destroy ISIL, they're going to hit us here.

BOLDUAN: Do you think, Senator, these options that the president is weighing, Special Forces, more advisers in Iraq, Special Forces into Syria, do you think this could -- that this change in strategy could turn the tide in the fight against ISIS?

GRAHAM: It could in Iraq but not in Syria. What did we learn today? We learned that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah will fight to keep Assad in power. What did I learn today? That we will not help anyone in Syria who wants to take Assad down. So, what we've learned today is that Obama has given Syria to Russia and Iran. They will dictate the future of Syria, at a minimum have a veto of what happened in Syria, which means this war never ends. That's why this is a half-ass strategy. You don't have the right construct. The PYK is not the force to rely upon to destroy ISIL within Syria. If you're not willing to put military pressure on Assad, he stays in power up. You can't negotiate a settlement good for the Syrian people in the region. We have effectively given Russia and Iran Syria.

[11:40:25] BERMAN: Senator, I would like to shift gears and talk politics right now because there's a brand-new poll showing a big shift --

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: -- in this race. The front runner is now Ben Carson.

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: Talking about me?

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Let's talk about you. Deep down in the poll, Senator Graham --

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Let us be the first to show you. Let's look at this poll. You are at 2 percent in this poll right now. You're ahead of Lindsey Graham --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: No, Chris Christie.

BERMAN: You're ahead --

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: I'll never get ahead of Lindsey Graham, but I'm tied with him.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Senator, you have Chris Christie in your rearview mirror right now. You're moving up in the game now. Chris Christie is going to be on the main debate stage in Boulder, Colorado, tomorrow night. Do you think you have a right to be on there and maybe Chris Christie should be in the undercard?

GRAHAM: I don't think I would take Chris off. He's polled consistently better than I have. What I would like to do is have all of us, break it into two different groups, randomly draw, and give me a shot at talking to the front-runners. I don't think anyone is more prepared to be commander-in-chief on both sides of the aisle. I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan 35 times, 30 years in the military. I want to have a discussion about the economy but how best to defend this country. I think relying on polls to break the crowd up early on is just ridiculous. You're basically identifying celebrity and name I.D., big state versus small states.

But I just really believe a poll in October doesn't mean much. The reason I'm moving a little bit, I hope, is because I've got a plan to destroy ISIL. And somebody needs to have one. I've got a plan far different than President Obama.

And here's the problem I see on our side, people talk about Obama, they criticism him, but I don't see a difference between their foreign policy and Obama's. I would create a regional army to go in on the ground in Syria. We'd be part of it. We'd destroy ISIL. I'd put more American boots on the ground in Iraq to turn the tide of battle in Iraq. I'd tell Assad he has to go and I'm let the Russians know, if you want to fight for him, you do so at your own peril.

BOLDUAN: Senator, other than President Obama being your chief target tomorrow night, who is your chief target going to be? Is it Donald Trump or Ben Carson, who's topping off in the polls?

GRAHAM: My chief target is to convince people that Lindsey Graham is the best person to beat Hillary Clinton. If you're looking for a change in foreign policy, don't vote for his secretary of state. If you're looking for a new relationship with Russia, don't pick Hillary Clinton. She started this mess. If you're looking to repeal and replace Obamacare, Bill and Hillary did a better job selling it than President Obama did. That I can beat her. That her definition of flat broke and mine are different. So my target tomorrow night is to convince the Republican Party I'd be the best standard bearer, that I'm best qualified to be commander-in-chief in a time of great threat to the country, and that I can win an election we can't afford to lose, and tell the country as a whole, if I do win, I'm putting the country ahead of the Republican Party. That's my target tomorrow night.

BERMAN: Well, you've doubled your support. At least you doubled support of Chris Christie now in the polls, so moving up.

(LAUGHTER) (CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: I'm a juggernaut. Send money.

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: LindseyGraham.com.

BOLDUAN: There you go.

(LAUGHTER)

Use every opportunity. You know it.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: We got a "yay" last time, a "woo hoo" this time. When we talk to you next, you have to come up with another one.

Senator, safe travels to Colorado.

GRAHAM: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: Thanks for coming on.

GRAHAM: Thanks a bunch. Bye-bye.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, some Republicans livid at John Boehner just a day before Paul Ryan is expected to win the nomination for speaker. Hear about Boehner's parting gift, the gift Paul Ryan says stinks.

BERMAN: And a high school girl thrown from her desk, wrestled to the ground. We'll have more on this video. Some new information ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:45:33] BOLDUAN: So the House could vote as early as tomorrow on the budget deal that was announced late last night. It is a tentative plan that would fund government to the spring of 2016 and that is going to avoid the government shutdowns, and that's long after John Boehner and Barack Obama have left office.

BERMAN: The idea was to get this all done before the man expected to be the next speaker, Paul Ryan, takes the gavel. But in what may be a case of the good cop/bad cop or --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Good speaker or bad speaker.

BERMAN: -- or good speaker or bad speaker, Ryan says he does not like the way this deal was reached at all.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: I think this process stinks. This is not the way to do the peoples' business. And under new management, we won't do the peoples' business this way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: It stinks, but does the stench mean that he won't support it?

Let's bring in CNN senior political reporter, Manu Raju, live on Capitol Hill -- Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Hey, guys. Well, I asked Paul Ryan that before he went into a closed-door meeting with the Republicans, and he said that he won't vote against this deal and said he's reserving judgment, studying this. But he is echoing concerns by Republicans that it was cut behind closed doors and the members were not brought into the process and it was dropped in their laps on midnight last night and will be voted on as early as tomorrow. This deal will extend the national debt limit until March of 2017, and it also increases the defense and the domestic spending in an effort to take the scares of a government shutdown off of the table.

And now at the press conference afterwards, I asked John Boehner what he thought the about Paul Ryan's comment, and his concern that this process stinks, and this is what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[11:50:18) JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: No, I agree, it stinks. This is not the way to run a railroad. But when you have is a situation that we are dealing with today, it is, not by any choice. While it may, and certainly not the process that I would want, remember what the alternative was. I mean, the alternative was a clean debt ceiling or the default on the debt. It also means that we got to December 11th where we could be facing another government shutdown. And so when you look at the alternative, it starts to look a whole lot better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Indeed, even though Ryan is keeping his distance from this, this is going to help him tremendously if this deal were passed, because of the fiscal brinksmanship that defined the Boehner era as speaker would be off of the table immediately from when Paul Ryan assumes the speakership later in the week. It would give him room to operate and to push on other matters as well.

The question is, what will the Republicans do when it comes to the vote Wednesday. A lot of the conservatives who are reserving judgment, but a lot of the defense hawks who were worried about the sequestration, those across-the-board cuts, are happy with the higher spending for defense programs, and that means support from Republicans.

And right now, as we speak, John Boehner is meeting behind the scenes with Harry Reid to discuss the plans and strategy to get it over the finish line. So, as we see, congressional leaders are trying very, very hard to get this done in John Boehner's final days in office, guys.

BERMAN: Despite how it smells.

Manu Raju, up on Capitol Hill. Thanks so much, Manu.

RAJU: Thanks, guys.

BOLDUAN: Coming up next for us, one of the most bizarre stories that you will hear today, involving a prince, a private jet and two tons of pills. And why one of the biggest drug busts may impact the world's deadliest wars.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:56:23] BOLDUAN: New this morning, a huge drug bust shining a bright spotlight on one of the little-known drivers fueling the Syrian civil war. The drug is an amphetamine called Captigon. The bust happened in Lebanon. A member of the Saudi royal family allegedly tried to smuggle two tons of this stuff out of the country on his private plan.

BERMAN: And maybe you have not heard it, but this is a huge source of funding for so much of the mess that's going on right now inside Syria.

I want to bring in Aryn Baker, Africa correspondent and former Middle East bureau chief for "Time" magazine.

Aryn, Captigon is this drug -- again, I don't think anybody has heard about it here in the United States, but you have been investigating this, and we are talking about millions and millions of dollars worth of funding for a lot of the forces fighting on the ground inside of Syria.

ARYN BAKER, CORRESPONDENT, TIME MAGAZINE: Yeah, this bust that we saw in Lebanon, it could potentially be worth anywhere from $50 million to $200 million on the streets in Saudi Arabia. But it's a drug you don't have in Europe. It's popular in the gulf. It basically an amphetamine, and it is been funding wars probably since 2006 with the Israeli/Hezbollah war.

BOLDUAN: What is the connection? Why such a strong connection to Syria?

BAKER: Well, what happened is that it started -- Captigon, like cocaine or like heroin, it was a key funding stream for Hezbollah in the 2006 war. And it is an obvious choice. Drugs are a great way to buy the weapons. And so in 2011 and 2012, when we saw the breakdown of security in Syria, a lot of the manufacturing went over into Syria. So that is where the production happened. But the thing is that it can fund both sides of the war. It is opportunistic, and anybody can make this drug, because it is fairly easy.

BERMAN: And cheap, very cheap to make. And the profit margins are enormous. Who is taking it? It is made inside of Syria, but sold to whom where?

BAKER: The street market is largely Saudi Arabia. Probably three- fourths of all drug treatment cases in Saudi are addictions to Captigon and amphetamines.

BOLDUAN: Wow.

BAKER: Yeah. It's one of the largest -- amphetamine captures in the world take place in Saudi, and so this is drug of choice on the Saudi street.

BOLDUAN: Aryn, why isn't it so talked about? I mean, we -- once we saw this bust, that's when I started looking into it. Why don't we hear more about it and more about its role that it plays in Syria?

BAKER: Well, because it is not one side or another. There are many revenue streams. ISIL, or ISIS, can get their revenues from petroleum sales, any other drug sales. Hashish is another big revenue generation as is kidnappings, so it's just one of many revenue streams, although, it seems to be more and more significant as the years go by because the market is so, so strong in the gulf.

BERMAN: And it is not easy to cut off the source. It's not like Afghanistan where you can spot the poppy fields and get the supply chain. This can be made and done anywhere, correct?

BAKER: Yes, it is like methamphetamines. You can do it in your kitchen.

BERMAN: Aryn Baker, thank you so much for being with us right now.

Captigon, $50 million drug bust involving a Saudi prince and a private plane.

BOLDUAN: Two tons of these pills. And how many people would that get to? And what is going to happen to the Saudi prince?

BERMAN: That is a whole other story.

BOLDUAN: That is a whole other story.

Thank you for joining us AT THIS HOUR.

BERMAN: "LEGAL VIEW" with Ashleigh Banfield starts right now.