The McLaughlin Group

Issues: US vs. ISIS; Military Veterans & Suicide; Airliner Hacking; Amtrak Crash

John McLaughlin, Host
Pat Buchanan, Author and Columnist
Eleanor Clift, The Daily Beast
Tom Rogan, National Review/Daily Telegraph
Mort Zuckerman, U.S. News & World Report

Taped: Friday, May 22, 2015
Broadcast: Weekend of May 22-24, 2015

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ANNOUNCER: From Washington, THE MCLAUGHLIN GROUP, the American original. For over three decades, the sharpest minds, best sources, hardest talk.



JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president is seeking to implement a strategy that has shown some success -- in Kobani, inside Syria. We have had some success against an ISIL leader in Syria just over the weekend who was taken off the battlefield.

The President feels very strongly that the very significant problems that are faced by people in Syria, for example, are not problems that the United States is going to come in and solve for them. We're not going to impose a solution on Syria. We're not going to commit billions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of thousands of our men and women in uniform to try to solve those problems.

MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, is attracting new scrutiny, because in recent days, the Islamic State has seized Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s massive Western province Anbar, and the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. This gives the Islamic State near dominance of the major arterial highway linking Syria’s capital, Damascus, all the way to Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.

Eight months ago, President Obama began his campaign against the Islamic State. But today, Iraqi forces are retreating, and the Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi is being forced to rely upon Iran-linked Shia militias to fight the Islamic State, militias detested by Sunnis for their long record of sectarian atrocity.

And the Islamic State is spreading. It now has armed supporters in nations including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Thousands of Westerners have also joined the Islamic State, including many Europeans, who have returned home to plot attacks.

Still, the White House insists patience is the key.

EARNEST: Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL? Or are we going to take very seriously our responsibility to evaluate those areas where we succeed and evaluate where steps are necessary for us to change our strategy where we’ve sustained setbacks?


MCLAUGHLIN: Question: President Obama’s strategy to defeat ISIS is based on first beating ISIS in Iraq and subsequently dealing with it in Syria. Why is ISIS still gaining ground in Iraq?

Pat Buchanan?

PAT BUCHANAN, AUTHOR & COLUMNIST: Well, John, let’s talk about the Obama strategy. He has no strategy for Syria, and ISIS just gathered in Palmyra, one of the major cities.

In Iraq, the policy of Barack Obama is failing, and it is failing quite clearly because the Iraqi government and army is simply insufficient to defend Ramadi, Anbar, or take back Mosul, in and of itself. Therefore, they will have to rely on the only forces there which can, which are the Shia militia, which Iran backs.

But that would be a victory for Iran, John, and my feeling here is, there’s going to be push -- and I hope the Republicans don’t get it on it -- to put American troops in there to take back Ramadi and Fallujah or lead the battle in there. That’s going to be a great battle inside the United States.


BUCHANAN: And I think -- well, let me just say -- let me just say this: that’s going to be -- the next two years is going to be the battle inside the Republican Party.


MCLAUGHLIN: Let Eleanor in.

ELEANOR CLIFT, THE DAILY BEAST: The president is right to say this is not America’s fight. This is the fight of the people in the region and that U.S. forces will assist the forces on the ground there.

The problem is that the sectarian divisions run strong and General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that the Iraqi Army did they did not get expelled from Ramadi, they literally just drove out of Ramadi. They were not going to put their lives at risk to save the Sunni population. And so, now, we are forced basically to cooperate with the Shiite militias and I think there will be more coordinated airstrikes and I think that’s an appropriate thing, although it’s tricky because they are, in many ways directed by Iran.

But the president is right to show restraint. U.S. forces are not going to go in, in any kind of numbers into either of these conflicts. And the fall of Palmyra is actually a defeat for Assad. I mean, that’s his turf.

ROGAN: Here’s the problem though, right? You know, we’re not talking about a re-invasion. The president pretends that’s the case. But we look at the map at the moment. Where does ISIS control now? They control Ramadi, they control Palmyra, which links out to Deir Ezzor, and then down to al-Qaim, which is on the border with Iraq, and then along to Ramadi, to Baghdad. It’s a huge territory.

And the reason I say that we need special forces on the ground, in limited numbers, to do air controlling, so that some guy goes and hides behind the building, or moves there, we can target them. Why there are limited airstrikes? Because we don’t know where they are a lot of the time.

The strategy is clearly not working. The reason I would disagree with Pat and Eleanor is that the problem is, their problems are our problems, because absent our interlocutor power we bought with political influence bringing moderate parties together, it’s not just Shia versus Sunni, they resort to the extremes. The Shia militias now, when they go into Ramadi, will start executing Sunnis, driving the Sunnis into ISIS.

So, you have two fringes, Iran – Khomeini-ism is one side, Salafi jihadists and ISIS on the other side. They’re hitting against each other. That ends up in Europe. It eventually ends up here. It destabilizes the world.


MCLAUGHLIN: Hold on, hold on.


CLIFT: Right.

MORT ZUCKERMAN, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Look, we have very important allies in that part of the world and they have been our allies for a long time. They’re not perfect, taken, but Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and Jordan, for example, and Egypt. They are all up in arms over all of this because they realize that without American support, that whole region might go to the very radical parts of that community, and that would be a disaster, not only for them but for --


ZUCKERMAN: Just let me -- let me --

BUCHANAN: Mort, why don’t they volunteer troops and send them?


BUCHANAN: They’re all waiting for the Americans to come and fight their war for ‘em, and it is not primarily America’s war. It is their war.

CLIFT: Also, a lot of anti-American sentiment there.

ZUCKERMAN: It is not our war, but it is in our interest to make sure that the radicals do not take over that part of the world.

BUCHANAN: There are radicals on both sides.

CLIFT: There’s a lot anti-American sentiment on the ground there.


CLIFT: And sending in troops in great numbers would be -- I agree with Tom to the extent they do need some people to control the airstrikes. And I think the fact that the Sunni provincial council requested the Shiite militias to come in opens the door for the administration to work with them.


ROGAN: They’ve also been requesting for a long time for arms --


ROGAN: -- which we haven’t given them because Obama’s been upset --


ROGAN: -- worried about upsetting Iran.

CLIFT: They’re sending anti-tank equipment now.

MCLAUGHLIN: I want to get two points in there. Obama famously dismissed ISIS as a, quote, "junior varsity," unquote, in a "New Yorker" interview in early 2014. Is he still underestimating the threat from ISIS?

CLIFT: The administration, from the president to the Pentagon, to the State Department, all underestimated the strength of ISIS. And in taking over Ramadi, they had 30 attacks by vehicles, and 10 of them were at the strength of what happened in Oklahoma City in this country a number of years ago.

So, they have resources and they have fighters coming from a hundred countries around the world. So, I think it’s really shocking to the administration how this force has gotten so significant.


CLIFT: Plus, their use of social media launches them into a whole other world of --

MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: Is Obama losing the war against ISIS? Yes or no?

BUCHANAN: The U.S. strategy is not succeeding. It is failing in Iraq and we have none for Syria.

CLIFT: It’s a policy of containment.

ZUCKERMAN: Containment?

CLIFT: It is a policy of containment. It’s not a policy of victory.

MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

ROGAN: Well, the container is overflowing with chaos.


And it’s -- we are going to be pushed out of large parts of the world. We’re going to lose our allies there. It’s going to have a huge effect over the next couple of decades on America’s interests.

ROGAN: It’s coming here.

MCLAUGHLIN: He needs a new national security team.

Issue Two: Failing the Fallen.


SERGEANT BLANCO: I just, like, slashed my chest, like really bad, at multiple times. At first, it’s like, first time, I’d just keep going and trying to get rid of it. And I guess I just felt -- felt more concentrated on the pain that I was from the cut than anything else. Then, I just -- I was thinking about ending it right there, but I don’t know, I guess if I wasn’t in my right senses, if I would have been more like, would have the means, I probably would have taken my life.

MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): That was Sergeant Blanco (ph) of the 101st Air Assault Division of the United States Army. After a combat tour in Afghanistan, Sergeant Blanco engaged in a period of alcohol abuse and self harm, and actively considered suicide.

But his suffering is far from a unique one. In 2013, the number of active duty military personnel who committed suicide grew to 286.

There are many reasons for military and/or veteran suicide. In a recent study conducted by Dr. Mark Reger and published by JAMA Psychiatry, Dr. Reger and his co-authors found that blaming suicides on deployment is not fair.

Dr. Reger’s study found that of the 5,041 military suicides, in an eight-year span between October 2001 and December 2009, an estimated 23 percent of suicides were by service members who had deployed, but 77 percent of suicides were by service members who had not. One major problem is that service personnel worry they will be shunned or blacklisted if they request psychiatric assistance.

Sergeant Blanco explains.

BLANCO: I was trying to hide it from my fellow soldiers. I don’t want them to think I was just like awkward. I don’t want to have any -- I don’t want to have any -- how do you say it? I didn’t want to be singled out, in other words. So, I just kept my mouth shut.

MCLAUGHLIN: But there is hope. The stigma of post-traumatic stress and the days of limited solutions are fading. Leadership also matters. Blanco explains that his sergeant’s support helped him to get better.

BLANCO: At least now, I can say, like, OK, I can go on. And things will get better eventually.


MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Bearing in my mind that approximately 22 veterans commit suicide every day, what must we do to reduce military and veteran suicides as Memorial Day is here?

Mort Zuckerman?

ZUCKERMAN: I don’t have an answer to that because this is a very serious matter for a lot of these people. I can understand when people go to war and they’re in very different environments and they see their own colleagues being injured or have to deal with this every day that you got to be a little bit depressed about it. And, you know, there’s no way of getting away from that kind of experience in war. But I don’t have any solutions for that.

CLIFT: Well, this is a reminder, though, when people talk cavalierly of, why don’t we just send 10,000 soldiers over to Middle East? We’re not only talking about the cost on the battlefield, but these are costs that extend for decades later.

The Army is getting more sophisticated about this. They’re now putting more mental health personnel into the field. They’re trying to reduce the stigma that this young man really talked about. And there’s now a new phrase that’s entered the lexicon, it’s called "mental wounds", and they can be every bit as significant, more significant, as physical wounds that you can see.

BUCHANAN: John, let me say that, look, suicide is the 10th leading cost of death in the United States, but it’s second for those 18 to 24. And while actually women attempt suicide, as I understand it, more often, men commit four out of five suicides. And the major reason you get and it could have to do with the military, is the depression of the individuals because of the relations that have gone wrong. It can be a guy -- it can be more suicide because they get away from their friends or band of brothers, their platoon, their company, and they go back to their districts and they’re all alone, you know?

So, I think there -- I mean there’s a lot of things wrong here, but it’s not simply the military.

ROGAN: It’s not just about thoughts, it’s about leadership as well at the senior NCO, at the junior NCO level, lieutenants, knowing that if one of your guys or gals have a problem, they can come and talk to and engage. And, look, I’ve been in the military, my grandfather I was speaking to yesterday, Pacific marine. He went on Okinawa when he was 19. Similar, he doesn’t like to talk about it.

This war is inherently horrific and I think Eleanor is right. I do think we should be more aggressive in Iraq, but that’s an easy -- it is easy for me to say. But I do have, you know, platoon commander friends and other guys, who have been --

Look, we need to have a system that there is -- if people want to seek PTS help or traumatic brain injury, they could get it very quickly. They can get it effectively. And you know what? This is one thing that hopefully we can all agree, whatever that costs, we pay it.

MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: Assign a letter from A to F to the U.S. government’s handling of suicide prevention for veterans.

Pat Buchanan?

BUCHANAN: I’m really not familiar with it. But I think I’m sure there are people that are making an outstanding effort to maybe people that aren’t. So, I’d give them a B.

CLIFT: Yes, I would agree with that.

MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

ZUCKERMAN: I would agree. I think it’s very difficult to figure how you deal with people who are young, who are away from their homes, they were in a terrible environment if they’re in the midst of a war. This is not going to be an easy solution, easily solved problem no matter who it is.

ROGAN: I would say it’s E originally, a few years ago. And now to C-plus, a lot more to be done, but a lot has been done.

MCLAUGHLIN: It’s higher than a C-plus. It’s a B-minus.

Issue Three: High Hacking.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Part of the reason I (INAUDIBLE) easy is, you look at the servers that are serving the in-flight entertainment, as well as the carbon control systems, it’s embedded architecture, that because of how FAA doesn’t allow rapid upgrades -- I mean, it’s sitting way behind the curve.

So, one, change that process somehow. And number two, put that in separation in place. And number three, the little box underneath the seat, you might want to put it a little bit better, or make the whole thing, you know, not quite so hard wired in.

MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): Last week, a Canadian news outlet, APTN, released an FBI search warrant from April 17. The warrant pertained to computer expert Chris Roberts, in response to a tweet he posted while on April 15 United Airlines flight from Chicago to Syracuse. Quote, "Find myself on a 737-800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM. Shall we start playing with EICA’s messages? Pass oxygen on, anyone?"

Mr. Roberts’ insinuation -- that he could control the plane’s emergency messaging system. But get this: the FBI warrant also states that on a different passenger flight, Mr. Roberts, quote-unquote, "successfully" commanded the system he had accessed to issue the CLB, or climb command. He stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane’s engines to climb, resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights.

Yes, you heard that right. The FBI claims Mr. Roberts made a plane fly sideways.

While Mr. Roberts has not been charged with any crime, the FBI says he told them he has hacked 15 to 20 flights between 2011 and 2014.

Here’s how "Wired" magazine describes the FBI’s claims, quote-unquote, "He obtained physical access to the networks through the seat electronic box or SEB. These are installed two to a row in each side of the aisle, under passenger seats on certain plane. After removing the cover to the SEB by, quote, ‘wiggling and squeezing the box’, unquote, Roberts told agents he attached a Cat6 ethernet cable, with a modified connector, to the box and to his laptop and then used default IDs and passwords to gain access to the in-flight entertainment system. Once on that network, he was able to gain access to other systems on the planes," unquote.


MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Is high hacking a serious threat? Or is there something fishy about this incident?

Tom Rogan?

ROGAN: Well, I think it’s serious problem, in the sense that you have someone that shows the, you know, the complacency. But also the ignorance actually in terms of airlines and their security with this seat box that the guy was able to hack in. Is this easy to do? No. Will they improve it? Yes.

But, listen, we have -- it’s a good example of in the technological age, stuff that once only exists in a Hollywood movie, now exists horrifically in real life. Plane flying sideways.

CLIFT: I think his claims have been questioned, and unless you think he was suicidal, I don’t think he did anything on these planes to jeopardize safety. If there’s a problem in the system, I think they ought to get some experts, not necessarily him, looking at it and it can be fixed. I’m not worried about it.

BUCHANAN: I think, you know --

MCLAUGHLIN: Are you going to be looking at yourself closely?

CLIFT: No, I’m not worried about it.

BUCHANAN: John, this is a --

MCLAUGHLIN: Are you going to feel around underneath?


MCLAUGHLIN: And you’re holding up the line?

CLIFT: No, I’m just going to try to keep the guy in front of me from pulling -- pushing his seat back.


BUCHANAN: This is good news, John, in this sense, this guy has revealed, exposed, a real vulnerability of airliners and in a way because it’s a technical thing, the airlines and the federal authorities can do something to block that. If they have to, take the entertainment boxes out, rather than let some guy fool under there and steer the plane.

So, I think, all in all, it’s a healthy revelation.

MCLAUGHLIN: Security experts have already demonstrated that they can take remote control of automobiles that have electronic systems, which interfaced with the Internet. Is it inevitable that someone will try to hack a passenger aircraft, if that can be done, Mort?

ZUCKERMAN: Oh, without question. I mean, but it doesn’t mean we’re all going to be comfortable with it. There are people who are going to understand the technology and will be able to play with whatever it is, and can literally affect the entire flight.

MCLAUGHLIN: Which poses a greater threat to commercial aviation, hackers or the widespread use of civilian drones?

I ask you.

ROGAN: I think civilian drones is a potential difficulty, certainly if you look at what’s happened in the White House and the Capitol, with people flying these little things around. That’s going to continue to continue to be an issue. But again, technology, we talked about, you know, future weapons recently in a different episode. We have to be astute to this.

I would say one thing -- you know, it’s a good industry to get into, cyber security. Still is, still will be.

MCLAUGHLIN: You remember President Obama bragging, I’ll use that word, about the use of drones, because it’s kept Americans and American lives safe and therefore, he favored very strongly drone usage.


BUCHANAN: There’s blowback to every beneficial development, no doubt about it, John. I am more fearful of these drones. I’m afraid somebody fooling around with one of those things, it’s going to run into an airliner on the way it’s landing or something like that and then we’re all going to address that problem.

MCLAUGHLIN: Have you ever had a drone deliver anything to your house?

BUCHANAN: Not yet, John.

MCLAUGHLIN: What would it be if it were?

BUCHANAN: I’ve seen a couple of guys at the door I thought were drones.


MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: Should the FAA ban the use of Wi-Fi drones and high tech infotainment system? Infotainment, I-N-F-O-T, what’s that?

ROGAN: No, I --

BUCHANAN: I think they ought to take a look at it and correct any vulnerability.

CLIFT: Right.

MCLAUGHLIN: On passenger airlines, until it can be proven that they are invulnerable to hacking, yes or not?

Pat Buchanan, quickly?


CLIFT: Take a look at it, but I think they can make it safe.

MCLAUGHLIN: What do you say?

ROGAN: He said yes, I say yes as well, but I think they can fix it quite quickly.

ZUCKERMAN: Oh, yes, absolutely. I’m with them on that, all the way.

MCLAUGHLIN: I think it would be all excessive worry.

Issue Four: Amtrak Tragedy.


MICHAEL NUTTER (D), PHILADELPHIA MAYOR: We’ve suffered a tragedy here in our city. Seven people have died as a result of a train derailment, which is a very unusual event. I don’t believe that anyone sitting here, standing here today has any memory of a derailment of this kind in 50 years.

MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): Eight Amtrak passengers were killed, and over 200 others injured, when their Amtrak derailed on May 12 in Philadelphia. The train was on the busy Northeast Corridor route from Washington, D.C. to New York City.

Investigators believe the crash occurred due to the train’s excessive speed, reportedly 106 miles per hour, on entering a turn. Those investigators are now accessing whether the train’s operating engineer was using his cellphone at the time of the crash.

Still, according to transport expert Robert Halstead, the positive train control system currently being rolled out along the Northeast Corridor would likely have prevented the crash.

ROBERT HALSTEAD, TRANSPORT EXPERT: If it turns out to be one or both of those causes, positive train control would absolutely have prevented this accident.

MCLAUGHLIN: Unfortunately, PTS had not yet been introduced at the location of the crash. Oddly, the day after the crash, the Republican-controlled House Transport Committee cut $251 million from Amtrak’s funding. This sparked a fierce battle in Congress, with Democrats accusing the GOP of playing games with public safety.


MCLAUGHLIN: Question: What is the current status of the probe into the derailment of the train number 188? And what do you think of Congress’ behavior on this, the Republicans and the Democrats?

ROGAN: I think -- well, the status of the investigation is they’re looking at whether the train engineer was potentially on his cellphone, whether something hit the train. But it’s ongoing. It takes time.

I actually, you know, as surprising as it sounds, I have sympathy for cutting money to Amtrak, because a lot of the routes are unprofitable. There is infrastructure problem in this country, but there needs to be a fundamental reshaping. It will only work in terms of this Northeast Corridor even, if you take full costing, if it’s high speed rail.

But Amtrak, as it stands at the moment, a lot of routes are not used enough, they cost a lot of money. And remember, that money doesn’t come from that. It’s taxpayers, it’s families, you have to pay for that. We need reform of the system.

CLIFT: Actually, the Northeast Corridor is very profitable.

ROGAN: If you do full costing.

CLIFT: What’s costing money, what’s costing money is from places in the middle of the country that are not well-traveled, that are represented by Republicans who want to keep those routes going. And I think that’s fine. I don’t think there are any public transportation systems around the world that aren’t subsidized in some way by government.

And this bone-headed Congress, you need $500 million to fully implement that positive train control. They appropriate $50 million. I mean, all of this saving money, not spending money, when the interest rates are so low, it is a crime that we have not --

ROGAN: How long will they remain low.

CLIFT: It is a crime that we have not rebuilt the infrastructure in this country, during this period when interest rates are virtually negative.

BUCHANAN: This appears to be, John. This appears to be human error in the cab, the 106 miles an hour. We’ve seen human error this summer -- or excuse me, this spring, in the pilots’ cabin taking down airliners.

I think the sooner we move to basically pilotless aircraft and certainly in trains when you got cars that can drive themselves and stop themselves, so that you program it in that that train could not go more than 55 miles an hour when it goes around that curve. The sooner you get the people out and get the computers and the rest of it, I think the better for security and safety.

ROGAN: Unless you have hackers.

CLIFT: I don’t think you want to get the people out necessarily, but I think you need that system that you just referred to.

MCLAUGHLI: Which seems more probable to you, that this tragedy was caused by a lack of funding for Amtrak, as Democrats like Congressman Israel allege, or that the cause was delay in rolling out new safety systems because of regulatory red tape as Amtrak CEO Boardman maintains?

Mort Zuckerman?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, I’m not familiar enough with the regulations as to why it was delayed. But there’s no question but that this is something that must be put in in these kinds of locations, where they can the technology can reduce the speed of the train, whatever is the engineer or the conductor is doing. And they have amazingly new technologies to help protect against this very event.

CLIFT: Well, the deadline is the end of this year and one of the problems in installing it is that you have to have the equipment talk to all the other equipment in the other trains that used all of those tracks. And that’s not an easy or an inexpensive effort.

MCLAUGHLIN: Predictions, Pat?

BUCHANAN: Those indictments of the six Baltimore cops have produced a police strike, and murders are up in that West Baltimore area, by about 150 percent. I think you’re going to have a real crisis in Baltimore this summer.


CLIFT: Rand Paul bolstered his flagging presidential campaign with his 10 1/2-hour speech against the Patriot Act. But I don’t think he’s going to be able to expand his voter base beyond what his father got.


ROGAN: Expect major pushes from the Islamic State in the coming days. If any of your viewers look on the map, John, you can see they’re controlling the lines of communication, the arterial highways, they made push towards Karballah or Baghdad. Big problem.

MCLAUGHLIN: I’ll check it out as soon as I get home.


ZUCKERMAN: I think it will be interesting to see how the Saudis and other Arab countries now begin to seek work -- to work with Israel, in order to protect themselves from ISIS.

MCLAUGHLIN: This Memorial Day gives us a chance to take a pause and give thanks, silent thanks to the generation of American soldiers who have sacrificed for the freedom we enjoy and bicker over. And if you see a soldier in uniform, say thanks in person.