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Americans Taken Hostage in Algeria; President Obama Pushes Gun Control

Aired January 16, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Americans held hostage by terrorists in Algeria.

President Obama unveils his plan to curb gun violence. Children to wrote to him after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre visit the White House. One of them is here to read her letter to the president.

Outrage over an NRA ad pulling the president's daughters into the gun debate.

Plus, a fiery helicopter disaster right in the heart of London. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following the breaking news out of Algeria, a deadly terrorist raid on a foreign-owned gas field with militants taking dozen of international hostages, including Americans. The State Department is trying to figure out exactly who is being held, while the Pentagon is weighing its military options to end the crisis.

And we're also now learning officials believe the attack was launched from neighboring Libya.

Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. She's been working her sources at the State Department and elsewhere.

What's the latest, Jill? What are you hearing?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, U.S. officials are telling CNN that they believe this is a terrorist act as opposed to just a hostage ransom operation.

And the basis for that determination is the fact of who's involved, an al Qaeda-linked group, and the tactics they used. The officials say the group entered Algeria from Libya, where, as we know, the government does not have full control over the country.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Islamist fighters attacked a gas field in Algeria owned by BP and Algerian and Norwegian companies, located in a remote area, some 37 miles west of the Libyan border. Riding in three vehicles, they targeted a bus carrying workers to a nearby airfield, killing at least two, and taking, they claim, 41 hostages. It's believed seven of those hostages are from the United States. The others are from Japan, Britain, Norway, and Ireland. Traveling in Europe, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called it a terrorist act.

LEON PANETTA, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: The United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation.

DOUGHERTY: A State Department official tells CNN the group is demanding prisoners from their group be released to northern Mali. The hostage-takers, who call themselves the Brigade of the Masked One, claim as their leader a former leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group is known for smuggling and kidnapping.

They say they carried out their attack as retaliation for Algeria's allowing France to use its airspace for the French military operation against Islamic terrorists in neighboring Mali.

VICTORIA NULAND, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We condemn in strongest terms the attack on British Petroleum personnel and facilities in Algeria earlier today. We are obviously closely monitoring the situation. We're in contact with Algerian authorities and our diplomatic counterparts in Algiers as well as with BP's security office in London.


DOUGHERTY: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with the U.S. ambassador in Algeria and also spoke with the Algerian prime minister and the State Department is working to get in touch with the families of those American workers who have been taken hostage -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope for the best, Jill. Thanks very much.

Kate is also here, Kate Bolduan following this story for us.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, we're following this story very closely, Wolf.

A defense official tells CNN the Pentagon's Africa Command is taking the military lead on the Algerian hostage crisis, and that there are multiple assets that could be called on to intervene.

Let's bring in CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, for more on this part of the story.

So, Chris, what are you picking up from over there?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, officials are telling us that the U.S. government has the capability to see this area, in other words, to get some idea of what is happening in this area, around Algeria, where the hostages are being held.

Also, that small lethal counterterrorism force, under U.S. Africa Command, that force has now been put on an alert less than four hours. In other words, their readiness time has been upgraded to under four hours. This was the counterterrorism unit for Africa Command that didn't exist when the U.S. ambassador was killed in Benghazi. It was stood up after that attack specifically to respond very quickly to situations just like this one.

But another defense official says, look, any sort of an assault- type mission is not something you would plan overnight. This would take days. He says, you know, when you're talking about limited information, dozens of potential hostage-takers and even more hostages, he says that is an extremely high-risk operation. It would only be undertaken as a last resort, Kate.

BOLDUAN: So what do they need to sort out? What kind of information do they need to get? What kind of details do they need to sort out before they decide on how and whether to take action, and how does the location of where they were taken hostage play into this?

LAWRENCE: Yes, first of all, you want to know how many bad guys, so to speak, are you dealing with, if you can know that, how many hostages, specifically, are there? Where are they? What's the layout of this BP oil facility? How easy would it be to defend or how difficult would it be to defend? And to get a layout of the terrain around that. In other words, going in, going out, all of these would be questions they would want to ask.

But at this point, from what I'm hearing from sources here in the Pentagon, the best-case scenario would be some sort of diplomatic solution to this crisis, not any sort of military assault.

BOLDUAN: At the same time, trying to gather all of those details so they're ready to go if need be. Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, thanks, Chris.

BLITZER: All right, let's dig a little bit deeper right now with Robert Fowler of the University of Ottawa. He's a retired Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa in 2008 and 2009. He writes about his ordeal in his book entitled "A Season in Hell."

Mr. Fowler, thanks very much for coming in.

You were held for, what, 130 days by this group? Tell us a little bit about your experience. What's it like being held hostage by this al Qaeda-affiliated group?

ROBERT FOWLER, FORMER AL QAEDA HOSTAGE: Well, Wolf, the group that held me was commanded by the guy who took the LNG facility in Algeria this morning, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the same guy.

He's a jihadi of long date. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He lost an eye in Afghanistan. He's called in the local lingo an Afghan Arab. He returned to be a major Islamist fighter in Algeria, fought for 20 years in Algeria, a war, by the way, in which 200,000 people have been killed, something that we know too little of over here in North America. He's a very serious guy.


BLITZER: What was it like to be held by them? What did they make you do?

FOWLER: I was terrified the whole time. They grabbed me and my colleague, Louis Guay, and our driver just outside of the capital of Niger, Niamey. They took us 1,100 kilometers due north into the middle of the Sahara Desert. We stayed half of that time in one place and in 25 different places for the other half. We never know when we would move or when we wouldn't.

There was no shelter, there were no buildings. We lay in the sand. It was cold at night and hot in the day. The food was appalling. And every moment, every single moment, I thought that it would end like your colleague Daniel Pearl in a tent with a knife at my throat, and you would all be watching it on CNN.

BOLDUAN: That's something horrible to think about, Robert, but as you're talking, as you said, this group's leader is affiliated with AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the very group, as you know, that took you hostage in 2008.

So when you see how this is unfolding now today, does this surprise you or do you think this was a long time coming?

FOWLER: I think they're constantly lacking for opportunities like this, constantly. I heard your lead suggesting that the Belmokhtar gang are claiming that this is somehow in retaliation for French action in Mali.

That's a very convenient thing for them to say. But I suspect that they have an intelligence wing and they are constantly looking for ways to grab Westerners and embarrass the West and confuse our options. And that's exactly what they're doing.

BLITZER: How did you get out?

FOWLER: Well, Louis -- I'm a diplomat, as is my friend Louis Guay, and we would lie there in the sand, asking each other, with our 75 years of geostrategic analysis between us, how are we going to get out? How can we make this work?

And Louis would say, they would get -- they're going to eventually get tired of this and let us go in a humanitarian gesture. And I would say, damn it, they're al Qaeda, they don't do humanitarian gestures. They have got to get enough.

There are pressure -- the Canadian government, Wolf, has said very clearly that Canada paid no ransom and released no prisoners. But I'm not here in one piece because of my pretty blue eyes. They got something. There are press reports. We took two European out with us who were from another group, a group commanded by a particularly nasty guy called Abu Zeid.

We took the two women of four who had been captured out with us. There are stories that ransoms were paid. And there are stories that prisoners were released in Mali.

BLITZER: Well, Ambassador Fowler, we're happy you are out. We're happy you're safe, back in Canada, and thank you very much for your expertise. I hope that these hostages in Algeria right now, or if they're still in Algeria or Libya, if they have been moved -- you say you were moved hundreds of kilometers within a matter of days -- we hope they get out soon as well. Appreciate it very much.

FOWLER: Well, thank you, Wolf. I can only imagine what they're going through now and what their families are going through, and my thoughts are very much with them.

BLITZER: As are ours. Thank you very much.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much.

Still ahead, repugnant and cowardly, that's what the White House calls a new NRA ad that drags President Obama's daughters into the gun debate -- details of that controversy ahead.


BLITZER: Important breaking news regarding the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Japan grounded its fleet after a Dreamliner had to make an emergency landing in that country. Now U.S. aviation officials are taking steps here, dramatic and important steps.

Sandra Endo has the details.

What are you learning, Sandy?

SANDRA ENDO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Kate, this is just coming in from the FAA.

They are requiring all U.S. operators of 787s to cease operations. That means that all Dreamliners operating in the United States have to be temporarily grounded. Here is what they issued in a statement -- quote -- "As a result of an in-flight Boeing 787 battery incident earlier today in Japan, the FAA will issue an emergency airworthiness directive to address a potential battery fire risk in the 787 and require operators to temporarily cease operations. Before further flight, operators of U.S.-registered Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe and in compliance."

So the batteries are the real issue here. There was a fire last week at Logan Airport on a Japan Airlines flight, Wolf and Kate, and also this latest one in Japan as well. And this directive does not apply to foreign airlines. If they do have Dreamliners, they do not require to cease operations.

BLITZER: Even if they're operating in the United States?

ENDO: If they are registered in the United States, then, yes, they would temporarily have to cease operations.

BLITZER: When you say register, what if a European airliner or an Asian airliner flies to the United States, does that mean they can still fly a Dreamliner to the United States?

ENDO: That's a good question, because the FAA doesn't mandate or have jurisdiction over those foreign airlines, but typically what happens, because of the courtesy here, in terms of all the airlines working together, they usually fall in compliance to the FAA's requirements.

BLITZER: Because United is the only U.S. airliner that does have the 787.

ENDO: That's absolutely correct. United Airlines is the only U.S. operator of 787s. They have six in their fleet. So that means right now the FAA is grounding all of those six Dreamliners, yes.

BLITZER: The six United. Japan grounded theirs today. We will see what Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, what some of the European countries do as well. This is a big issue for Boeing. Obviously, the safety of the passengers comes first and foremost. Sandy Endo, thanks very much.


BOLDUAN: ... to know tonight. Thanks, Sandra. Thank you so much.

Still ahead, we're going to hear from one of the children who wrote to the White House after the Newtown massacre. Julia Stokes is here to read her letter to President Obama.

Plus, a fiery and deadly helicopter disaster in the heart of London. Just look at that video.


BLITZER: Thirty-three days after the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre, President Obama now proposing significant changes to the U.S. laws in an effort to try to curb gun violence.

BOLDUAN: He unveiled them at the White House today, surrounded by children who wrote to him after the shooting, among them, 11-year- old Julia Stokes, who wrote this in part. She wrote: "Dear President Obama, I beg you to try very hard to make guns not allowed."

Julia and her father will be joining us in just a few moments.

First, though, our White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is standing by.

Jessica, give us the specifics what the president proposed today.


He is proposing sweeping changes to the nation's gun safety rules, and now the administration is focused on the public relations campaign. Tomorrow, Vice President Biden addresses the nation's mayors on the topic. Then, on Friday, the attorney general takes up the topic. The idea, keep this issue front and center in the public eye.


YELLIN (voice-over): President Obama laid out an ambitious agenda to change the nation's gun safety rules and insisted he won't back down from a fight.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will put everything I have got into this, and so will Joe. But I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.

YELLIN: He used the power of the presidency, moving executive actions allowing the government to crack down on gun crimes by tracking stolen guns and prosecuting people who use them, improving background checks, with more mental health reporting and information- sharing, upping school resources and supporting mental health with more teachers and counselors.

OBAMA: Congress needs to help rather than hinder law enforcement as it does its job.

YELLIN: So he's calling on Congress to step it up, too, with a ban on armor-piercing bullets, stricter gun trafficking laws and more cops on the street.

But the top priorities will be pushing Congress to ban high- capacity magazines and making background checks universal. His point man on the issue predicts tough politics.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have no illusions about we're up against -- what we're up against or how hard the task is in front of us.

YELLIN: To make the case, they brought persuasive advocates, elementary school kids who wrote the president after the Sandy Hook shooting.

OBAMA: Julia said - Julia, where are you? There you go - "I'm not scared for my safety. I'm scared for others."

YELLIN (on camera): What do you hope can happen?

JULIA STOKES, WROTE LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I hope it's much harder for people to buy guns. I hope that like people with mental illness don't -- can't buy a gun.

YELLIN: What made you write the president?

TAEJAH GOODE, WROTE LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: I wanted the children that still have their lives now to be safe, instead of endangered.

YELLIN (voice-over): It's a message the president hopes will deliver results.

OBAMA: Let's do the right thing. Let's do the right thing for them, and for this country that we love so much.


YELLIN: Wolf, also today, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reached out to leaders in the faith community, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, who have been impacted by gun violence to let them know what steps they are taking to help their communities, but also these faith community activists will also be important leaders in helping to lobby Congress to help pass new laws.

They also will be joined by some of the president's top supporters, including Organizing for America and other activists, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, who will help organize lobbying efforts to keep this agenda front and center -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The president will obviously be working hard together with the vice president to try to get this done. Jessica Yellin, thanks very much.

The National Rifle Association says the president's proposals will only affect law-abiding gun owners and do nothing, nothing to protect children.

Meanwhile, a new NRA ad pulling the president's children into the gun debate is generating at of controversy.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, is working on this part of the story.

Explain what's going on.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I talked to a House Democrat earlier today who called this add dangerous, Kate and Wolf. And there's no doubt the NRA's tactics have been effective over the years in blocking gun control on Capitol Hill. But the question is whether the group's latest ad will backfire.


ACOSTA (voice-over): More than 12 hours before President Obama and Vice President Biden unveiled their proposals for gun control, the nation's most powerful advocate for the Second Amendment had already launched a preemptive strike.


NARRATOR: Are the president's kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools?


ACOSTA: In the move to rally gun rights supporters, the National Rifle Association released this ad, calling attention to the Secret Service protection guarding the president's daughters Malia and Sasha at their private school in Washington.

AD NARRATOR: Protection for their kids and gun-free zones for ours.

ACOSTA: The spot echoing the group's proposal for armed police officers in schools nationwide is another reminder of the NRA's hardball tactics aimed squarely at any gun control measure to hit the halls of Congress. But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi heading into a hearing of new gun restrictions with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said the ad crosses a line.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA: It was completely inappropriate to include the president's children. They have protection because of national security and it was really inappropriate.

ACOSTA (on camera): Do you think the NRA made a mistake there?


ACOSTA (voice-over): Other House Democrats said the ad amounted to intimidation.

REP. GEORGE MILLER (D), CALIFORNIA: We're dealing with people who aren't terribly stable. And so, that kind of ad is -- I think it's dangerous.

REP. RUSH HOLT (D), NEW JERSEY: It was irresponsible and, you know, this is not your grandfather's NRA.

ACOSTA: There was also outrage over at the White House." Most Americans agree that a president's children should not be used as pawns in a political fight," said press secretary Jay Carney." But to go so far as to make the safety of the president's children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly."

NRA leaders are also ratcheting up the rhetoric in an e-mail to their members, saying, "I warned you this day was coming and now it's here. This is the fight of the century and I need you on board with the NRA now more than ever."

At his news conference, President Obama indicated he knew this was coming.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This will be difficult. There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all out assault on liberty.

ACOSTA: Back at the Capitol, Janet Robinson, the superintendent of the Newtown School System said she's not backing down either.

(on camera): It was going to be tough, isn't it, for your side to prevail on this?

JANET ROBINSON, NEWTON, CONNECTICUT SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT: I'm standing up, I'm standing here talking about children and I have no issue at all with people's Second Amendment rights. But I will tell you, I have no locks. I have no artificial barriers I can put up to withstand an AR-15.


ACOSTA: It's worth noting the NRA is hardly paying a dime airing this ad, but it didn't take long for the spot to make the rounds on social media.

As for House Republicans, many of them were out of town on a retreat and not available for comment. We did try to reach out to them as well, but did not get a response.

BLITZER: It's definitely touching a nerve, though, that's for sure.

ACOSTA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

ACOSTA: You bet.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Jim.

BLITZER: This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM: the U.S. government now telling CNN there are perhaps as few as three American hostages being held in Algeria right now.

Earlier, the hostage-takers claimed to have as many as seven Americans, but U.S. officials are disputing that claim. We're also told the attack appears to have been long-planned long before France's air attacks in neighboring Mali this week. That's the excuse, U.S. officials say, given by hostage takers earlier today. We will stay on top of this story.

BOLDUAN: A developing situation, as we speak, Wolf.

Also still ahead: a letter to the president from a child grieving over the Newtown school shooting; 11-year-old Julia Stokes was at the White House today. She's here with her father to speak to us.

Plus, new questions swirling around Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o. Was he the victim of a cruel hoax?


BLITZER: Happening now: Her letter to the president of the United States about guns took her to the White House today. Now 11- year-old Julia Stokes is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to share her heartfelt plea.

How pill bottles can lead police to prescription drug thieves.

And questions swirling around a college football star -- was he victim of an elaborate, elaborate hoax?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama surrounded by children as he announced his proposals to curb gun violence.

BOLDUAN: Definitely right, Wolf. Each of them had written to the president following the Newtown school massacre. The president singled out 11-year-old Julia Stokes.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In the letter that Julia wrote me, she said, "I know that laws have to be passed by Congress, but I beg you to try very hard." Julia, I will try very hard.


BLITZER: Julia and her father, Theo, are here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us right now.

Julia, thanks so much for joining us.

Theo, thanks to you, as well.

So what was it like to be with the president of the United States today?

JULIA STOKES, WROTE LETTER TO PRESIDENT: It was breathtaking. It was just amazing.

BLITZER: What was the most exciting moment? When he actually mentioned your name?

J. STOKES: Yes, and when he hugged me.

BLITZER: Afterwards?


BLITZER: And he signed your letter, right?


BLITZER: That must have been -- you still have it, right?

J. STOKES: Yes, we're going to frame it.

BLITZER: You're going to frame it. You're going to share that and keep that forever, I assume.


BOLDUAN: Julia, could you do us a favor? Could you read us your letter?

J. STOKES: Yes. Right now? BOLDUAN: Yes. Please do.

J. STOKES: "Dear President Obama, My name is Julia. I'm an 11- year-old who lives here in D.C. There are no words to explain how sad I am about the school shooting. Even though I'm not scared for my safety, I'm scared for others. I have four brothers and sisters, and I know I would not be able to bear the thought of losing any of them.

"I may not be that into politics, but my opinion is it should be very hard for people to buy guns. The only thing they do is harm or kill, and guns should only be in the most horrible event, where others -- others will get hurt if they are not.

"I know that laws have to be passed by Congress, but I beg you to try very hard to make guns not allowed, not just for me, but the whole United States. My love and regrets, Julia."

BOLDUAN: That's a very thoughtful letter, Julia. Why did you decide to sit down and write it?

J. STOKES: Well, I was overwhelmed with sadness about the school shooting, and I knew as one person I couldn't do anything, but I knew that President Obama could. So I decided to write this letter, hoping that at least he would read it and think of doing something.

BLITZER: Theo, you're the dad. Did you ever think when she wrote this letter to the president, that today would wind up as it did?

THEO STOKES, FATHER: I thought, at most, we might get a response, and I was trying to encourage Julia to do something with these feelings that she had. And by no means did I ever imagine this would happen.

BLITZER: What was it like for you?

T. STOKES: This was extraordinary. I think the -- when the event happened, I just remember that I couldn't get through a newspaper article without tearing up and thinking about my own kids and just how awful it was. And I think Julia, I remember, we were sitting at the table, sort of, I think, saw me kind of tearing up, and she kind of quietly went off up to her room and began to write this letter. And -- and I said, let's just send this off and see what happens.

BLITZER: So this wasn't like a project for school or anything like that?

J. STOKES: Uh-huh, no.

BLITZER: This is just something that you wanted to do?

J. STOKES: Yes, I saw how sad my dad was, so I went up to my room and wrote it.

BOLDUAN: Did you ever think the president would read it? J. STOKES: No. I thought maybe he'll put it on his desk and frame it, and that was about it.

BLITZER: Put it in a frame, that would be pretty good.

BOLDUAN: Now what do you make now, now you've come to the White House. You're at this big event, in the middle of a very passionate and very divided debate about gun control. What do you make of all this?

T. STOKES: I think that there are definitely areas that common ground can be met. And I think that we all, all of us especially that have kids, you know, can't fathom what this must be like for these families that are going through this.

And actually, I take -- I take that back. We can fathom it too much, actually, and we can feel it too much to know, as parents, how hard this must be. And there have to be things that we can do and that we can agree on as a society that can help strike a balance.

BLITZER: You take your kids to school?

T. STOKES: Of course.

BLITZER: They go to a local school. You live here in Washington. What do you want to see, for example, your school do to strengthen security?

T. STOKES: I don't think anything needs to be done at our school to change security. I think our society is what needs to change. I think schools are fine.

I think that the issue is that we need to come together and figure out how to get, you know, military-grade weapons out of Joe Public's hand. I mean, that's a personal opinion, but it just doesn't seem like there's much reason in a society as ours for us to have, you know, military-style weapons.

BOLDUAN: And Julia, you were very impacted by what you saw happen in Connecticut. Unfortunately, that you even had to see it, it makes everyone sad, thinking that you had to see the news and see how all that happened. What was it like for you then to go to school?

J. STOKES: I was actually kind of scared.

BLITZER: The first day back?

J. STOKES: Yes, right after -- I was scared. I didn't want to go to school. I mean, I didn't know what happened. I had a dream the night before that somebody did come to our school, and I was very scared. But I think my school has really good protection. So, I knew in my heart that I would be OK.

BLITZER: Did your teachers do something special to reassure you? I assume a lot of the other kids were a little scared, too.

J. STOKES: They didn't really do anything, but we had five minutes of silence, and that was a big thing.

BLITZER: In memory of those 20 children who were killed in Newtown.

You know, Kate and I went to Newtown, Connecticut, right after that horrible, horrible event. It changed our lives, too, and I'm sure it changed your life, and it changed everyone's life.

But what you want to see happen right now is the president and the vice president get this passed, this new legislation?

J. STOKES: Yes, I hope that they try very, very hard.

BLITZER: So when the president promised you he would try very hard, you believe him?

BOLDUAN: You're going to hold him too it, right?


BOLDUAN: Before we let you go, Julia, there was another very, a very cute moment, I think, between you and President Obama. I want to make sure we play it first, and then I want to ask you about it.


OBAMA: Any of you guys left-handed?


OBAMA: Are you?


BOLDUAN: That clearly was awesome. What was the president saying there?

J. STOKES: Well, he told me, "and our signatures get very messy."

BOLDUAN: Because he asked...


BOLDUAN: ... is anyone else left-handed?

J. STOKES: Anyone else. Yes, my hand.

BLITZER: You're a lefty?


BOLDUAN: As a fellow lefty...

BLITZER: You're a lefty, too?

BOLDUAN: ... I really do hope you have better handwriting posture than the president.

BLITZER: This is what I want you to do, Julia, for me. The president did it for you, and I want you to do it for me. Would you sign this letter that you wrote to the president for me?


BLITZER: Thank you.


BLITZER: Thanks for the good work.

J. STOKES: Oh, no problem.

BLITZER: You're an amazing young girl.

J. STOKES: Thank you.


BLITZER: Your dad's very proud of you.

T. STOKES: Just a tiny bit.

BLITZER: He loves you very much.

BOLDUAN: A big day for you.

BLITZER: And we love your smile.

J. STOKES: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Julia, Theo.

T. STOKES: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you, Julia.

Thank you, Theo. Great to meet you.

Still ahead for us, one of college football's biggest stars may have been the victim of a very cruel hoax. We're digging into this shocking story, and we're going to bring you the details, ahead.


BLITZER: Historic time here in the nation's capital. We're counting down to the presidential inauguration, along with those involved in the massive security operation.

BOLDUAN: Massive security operation. CNN's Brian Todd takes a look at some of the extraordinary measures being put in place right now -- Brian.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf and Kate, with all the planning and choreography surrounding the inaugural events, few people are as on edge right now as those in charge of security. Because unlike a ceremony or an inaugural ball, all it takes is one minor security glitch to start a cascade of problems.

(voice-over): Joe Hagin remembers his first jolt working security in an inauguration. January, 2001, just after George Bush's swearing in. Hagin's in a motorcade moving with the new president toward the White House.

JOE HAGIN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: Turned down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the military aide who was in the right front seat of the car I was riding in, turned around and said, "Sir, there's a gas mask under your seat. Get ready to put it on." Which was a little -- a little startling.

TODD: That was to prepare for possible tear-gassing of protesters.

Later, as deputy White House chief of staff under President Bush, Hagin coordinated security and logistics for big events. Summits, secret presidential trips to war zones, inaugurations.

As we looked at the buildings President Obama will pass, Hagin said the Secret Service, the lead security agency for the inauguration, will make sure the buildings are clear of potential snipers.

Elsewhere, manhole covers will be welded shut, SWAT teams will be deployed all over the city, plain-clothed law enforcement officers mingling in the crowds, bomb-sniffing dogs, even teams trained on weapons of mass destruction. And...

DEBRA EVANS SMITH, ACTING ASSISTANT FBI DIRECTOR: Our dive team, our intelligence analysts will be working around the clock, our hostage negotiators.

TODD: That FBI official spoke to us inside the multi-agency communications center, where security teams will do real-time monitoring of surveillance cameras, posted on buildings and roads. They'll also share tips and incident reports.

(on camera): With all the checkpoints, monitoring stations and other precautions, it's this stage, the parade route here along Pennsylvania Avenue, where the real unknown comes in. It's often along here where the president gets out of his car.

(voice-over): That's when the president is most exposed, and the crowds are massive.

(on camera): If he's right in this area and gets out of his car and walks, what's going through your mind at that moment?

HAGIN: Well, what's going through my mind is, you know, having -- having faith in the plan and -- and, you know, assuming that the -- that the agents are, you know, doing their job.

TODD (voice-over): Hagin says the Secret Service often choreographs where the president will get out of his limo and where he'll get back in, a tightly-held secret. When it's all over, a big sigh of relief.

HAGIN: An event of this magnitude takes hundreds of thousands of people to execute it effectively. And those people tend to not have a whole lot of fun.

TODD (on camera): Hagin says no matter how smoothly everything goes on inauguration day, security officials will still conduct a thorough review after the event so they can tweak their practices for the next time -- Wolf and Kate.


BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much. And this important note, we have two -- not one, but two -- days of special inauguration coverage lined up. Join me this coming Sunday and Monday morning, starting at 9 a.m. Eastern, for the presidential inauguration.

BLITZER: The 113th Congress may be one of the wealthiest this country has ever had. The median net worth of all members of the current Congress was nearly $1 million in 2011, the last year for which financial disclosure data is available.

Compare that to the income for the average American family, a relative paltry $66,700.

The richest member of Congress is Republican representative Michael McCaul of Texas. He's worth $500 million and some change. If I remember correctly, I think he topped the list last year, as well.

BLITZER: A rich guy.

BOLDUAN: Sure is. I could definitely have that.

BLITZER: Yes, he was on top last year, on top this time. Five hundred million dollars, that's pretty good.

BOLDUAN: Yes, I would say so.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Bottles of painkillers equipped with tracking devices. Up next, the latest on a New York City police effort to crack down on crime.

And questions swirling around a college football star. He was a victim, apparently, of an elaborate and twisted hoax.


BLITZER: Prescription drug theft is a growing problem across the United States. In New York City, police are using a new weapon to try to help nab some of the culprits. CNN's Mary Snow is joining us with some details.

What's going on here, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if you think of a LoJack system to track stolen cars, this is a similar idea. The city's police department wants pharmacies to store decoy pill bottles with tracking devices to help catch thieves, but it's not the first place to use this kind of technology.


SNOW (voice-over): Just to get inside this Long Island pharmacy, you have to be buzzed in. Owner Harold Levine changed security drastically after an armed robber held up his store twice, looking for pain killers.

HAROLD LEVINE, PHARMACY OWNER: I still love coming to work, but it's a different feeling, because now you wonder if you're going to be going home at the end of the day, also.

SNOW: He no longer carries OxyContin and other painkillers in the store, but for the past year, he did stock a fake bottle of painkillers, equipped with a tracking device inside.

LEVINE: When the drug is actually lifted up out of its base, sort of like a phone charger, or when it's lifted out of the base, it activates a signal directly to the police department.

SNOW: In Levine's case, it was the Suffolk County Police Department. Police there say they've used the devices as part of stepped-up security measures, following a quadruple murder in 2011 by a robber, searching for prescription painkillers.

The tracking device, they say, is embedded inside the bottle and is not visible. It emits a signal when it's removed from the shelf.

Now, New York City's police chief plans to do the same and asks the city's 1,800 pharmacies to carry the GPS devices as an investigative tool.

COMMISSIONER RAY KELLEY, NEW YORK POLICE DEPARTMENT: We in the police department have seen the destructive power of addiction firsthand. We had a police officer who was injured in the line of duty. He was given painkillers. He started to abuse them. He then started to rob pharmacies on his own.

SNOW: The devices are made by the same company that makes OxyContin, and it would only say it's working with the NYPD.

Nationwide, the number of pharmacy robberies, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fell in 2011 to 663, down from 758 the previous year.

But in New York City, painkiller addiction is so pervasive, the city recently announced it's restricting the use of prescription painkillers in emergency rooms at city hospitals. With addiction such a problem, Harold Levine, for one, isn't hopeful that tracking devices will make a big difference in pharmacy robberies.

(on camera): Why?

LEVIN: Because the person who's coming in who needs the medication has a true psychological, physiological dependence, and they really don't care whether somebody is looking at them on cameras. It doesn't matter.


SNOW: As New York City gears up to launch the program and expects to do so in two months, the police department says it's also building a database of all of its 6,000 licensed pharmacists in the city and will be working with them on special security recommendations.

BLITZER: Mary, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

BOLDUAN: We turn now to a strange and really troubling story involving college football star Manti Te'o. The question now is, was he a victim of a very, very cruel host? Many questions being asked, and not a ton of answers at this moment. Brian Todd has been trying to sort through all of this.

I've been reading up on it, Brian, and I can't really make heads or tails of this.

TODD: It was bizarre, Kate and Wolf. This story, it looked like it was made for TV back in the fall, and now it appears that a good part of it was made up.

Manti Te'o, the all-American linebacker from Notre Dame, Heisman trophy runner up, he had a heart-wrenching story back in September. According to Te'o in several media accounts, he had lost his grandmother and his girlfriend, both to illness, in a span of six hours. His girlfriend, named Lennay Kekua, reportedly had died of leukemia. Just a few days later, he starred in Notre Dame's win over Michigan State.

The part about Te'o's grandmother is, by all accounts, true. But now, the sports investigative Web site reports that the girlfriend Te'o had, named Lennay Kekua, likely did not exist. In an exhaustive article, it says, based on an investigation, Deadspin reports there is no record anywhere of a Lennay Kekua being in a car accident a few months before her reported death, as had been the story. And Deadspin reports now there is no record anywhere of a Lennay Kekua dying of leukemia, as had also been reported.

Deadspin says Te'o, apparently, had only communicated with a Lennay Kekua on social media, but she was basically a fictitious creation of an acquaintance of Te'o's and that a picture of her on social media was really that of another woman who's not part of any of this.

CNN and other outlets have obtained a lengthy statement from Notre Dame in which they characterize Manti Te'o as a victim. Here's the statement, quote, "On December 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te'o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The university immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of the hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators."

Wolf and Kate, extremely bizarre at this point.

BOLDUAN: Extremely, extremely bizarre. So is anyone speaking out about why Te'o had gone so much lengths as characterizing this person as his girlfriend?

TODD: No one to this point, but just moments ago, ESPN got a statement from Manti Te'o. In fact, he is kind of explaining part of this himself.

In part, it reads this: "This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online." Te'o says, "We maintained what I taught to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was and is painful and humiliating."

There is more to his statement, but that is the crux of it.

Now, what's interesting here about all this is that statement by him. He apparently spoke to someone on the phone who was posing as this girlfriend. It wasn't just the social media, you know, an into the ether type thing. Someone was a voice on that phone and maybe in the coming days we'll find out who that is.

BLITZER: Listen, be careful on social media. What you think is going on, something totally different could be going on.

BOLDUAN: This was part of the fairytale story leading up to the national title game. I mean, I watched all about it. Notre Dame, my God, and Indiana.

TODD: Anybody who watched college football saw this on every Notre Dame telecast, this heart-wrenching story, lost his grandmother, lost his girlfriend, overcame such hardship.


TODD: Half of it was a hoax.

BOLDUAN: I will be following this closely, and so will all of you, as well.

Other stories we're watching, a woman trapped between two walls for hours. Her amazing rescue and how she got there, next.


BOLDUAN: One woman's -- one woman's extraordinary rescue from the very tightest of spaces. Here's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Imagine being stuck here, trapped in a tiny space between two walls. On second thought, why imagine? Just look at this woman wedged between two buildings in downtown Portland, Oregon, as rescuers try to cut through a wall to get her out.

She was apparently on this second-floor roof often used as a smoking area when Kia King heard her yelling for help a little after 3:30 in the morning.

KIA KING, CALLED 911: She was climbing on the wall. Why are you climbing on the wall at this time in the morning anyway? And she falls down.

MOOS: Falls between the exterior walls of the two buildings. Fireman pulled down a section of wall and inserted air bags to widen the space.

LT. DAMON SIMMONS, SPOKESMAN: They're using that bottle there, and that's lubricant to try to make her more slippery.

MOOS (on camera): Rescuers estimate the space the woman was in measured a mere 8 inches or so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, she really couldn't freely turn her head, but she could breathe.

MOOS (voice-over): About 3 1/2 hours into the ordeal, KPTV's Nicole Doll relayed some good news.

NICOLE DOLL, KPTV CORRESPONDENT: I see her hand, I think. Do you see her hand? I believe I see her hand with a glove.

MOOS: At one point there were two rescuers in the hole. Lieutenant Rich Chatman was the one she talked to, saying...

LT. RICH CHATMAN, FIREMAN: We know that she was cold and that she wanted to get out as soon as possible. She was in good spirits the whole time, though. Real trooper.

MOOS: He used scissors to cut off clothing and pulled and tugged. Body part by body part she emerged. It felt a little like a birth.

DOLL: She looks relieved. Yes, here she comes. She was actually pushing and bracing her hand, trying to help herself out.

CHATMAN: When she got to about that last foot, and she looked over and she just said, "I'm coming out."

DOLL: And it looks like we're for a bit of -- and she's out.

MOOS: Delivered to safety after four hours. Her husband was on hand, and he delivered a couple of kisses before she was wheeled off. Her glasses survived the fall so at least this wall flower could see the jam she was in. That's the sound of rescue equipment with the thump of her heart.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: That is one happy lady, as she should be.

BOLDUAN: That gives me the heebie-jeebies even thinking about it.

BLITZER: That's it for us. Thanks very much for joining us. Remember, we're on Twitter. I'm @WolfBlitzer.

BOLDUAN: And I'm @KateBolduan.