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Americans Among Hostages In Algeria; Football Star Says It's A Sick Joke; Dreamliners Grounded Around The World; Illegal Drugs in Obama's Second Term; Biden Talks Gun Control With Mayors

Aired January 17, 2013 - 13:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Suzanne Malveaux. This is the CNN NEWSROOM. I want to get right to it. What we are following, dramatic developments today in this hostage crisis in Algeria. The White House has just confirmed that Americans are among those that are being held by Islamist extremists at an oil field that is run by BP.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is our understanding there are Americans involved, but I would say a couple of things. One, we condemn in the strongest terms a terrorist attack on BP personnel and facilities in Algeria, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We are in contact with Algerian authorities and our international partners as well as with BP's security office in London. Unfortunately, the best information we have at this time, as I said, indicates that U.S. citizens are among the hostages. But we don't have, at this point, more details to provide to you. We're certainly concerned about reports of loss of life, and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria.


MALVEAUX: We are actually getting reports now that some of those hostages have been freed. This is an operation by the Algerian army, and the operation is said to be going on right now as we speak.

We're going to go live to the Pentagon. Barbara Starr is joining us. Barbara, first of all, tell us, what do we know about the rescue operation and were there Americans among those who were freed?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: At this point, no specifics about the rescue operation, Suzanne. It is believed four hostages were freed, two British citizens, a Kenyan and a French citizen. Perhaps nothing addresses the issue of the uncertainty about all of this more than the question of how many Americans may, at this moment, be hostages in all of this.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta earlier today put it in the ball bark of seven American, but I must tell you, we are hearing from other government officials. They believe it's more in the realm of perhaps three American hostages so lots of uncertainty. And let's be very clear, no one wants to be too specific at this point, for security reasons, about exactly who's being held and from what countries. But that Algerian security operation is ongoing. We are told the Algerians surrounded this facility for the last several hours. For them, this is a classic hostage situation they're dealing with. They've surrounded it. Nobody in, nobody out. And they are trying to resolve this, and the U.S. is letting the Algerians certainly take the lead. It is their country -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: So, I have a couple of questions, Barbara. First of all, do we know the conditions of the hostages who are still being held, and do we know the condition of the hostages who have been freed?

STARR: Well, there have been reports that there was -- in addition, there was another man reported to be freed, an Irish citizen. He's been in contact with his family we are understanding. For those who are being held, I think you can only imagine that it's fairly grim conditions. This is a remote facility deep in the Algerian desert. Very tough situation for any type of rescue to be mounted. All indications are that the attackers may have had this fairly well planned, equipped with AK 47s, rocket propelled grenades. And officials are telling our Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott that there are suicide vests involved, that they believe, at this point, that the attackers went in with suicide vests and they may have even put them on some of the hostages. But I must emphasize, these are all the reports we're getting. Until this is resolved, very little firsthand information.

MALVEAUX: All right, Barbara, when you have more details, we'll certainly come back to you.

I want to talk a little bit more about this. This kidnapping in Algeria, it's really part of a broader North African crisis. The militants claim that they are retaliating after Algerian's government allowed its airspace to be used by the French for attacks on the Islamic extremists in neighboring Mali. Now, the militants, they are demanding safe passage to Libya.

I want to bring in our CNN National Contributor Fran Townsend via Skype from New York. Fran, first of all, what does it sound like to you? What kind of organization or group is involved when you hear Barbara Starr talking about, they've got suicide vests potentially strapped to themselves and now perhaps put on these hostages?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL CONTRIBUTOR (via Skype): Well, I think, Suzanne, we ought to put it in a broader context of the northern African extremist problem which has been going on certainly for a decade and going on two, frankly, right now. The border between Mali and Oratania has been ungoverned space. It's largely desert. It's very remote. And we know the elements -- Al Qaeda affiliated elements have been there going back to the time of the Bush administration where we were working with North African services, military and intelligence, to try and disrupt their activity, their training, their arming. Move forward. There is -- that they, then, affiliated themselves with Al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb, the Libyan Islamic fighting group. These are all groups our viewers have heard of before, but this is sort of the cauldron of extremism throughout the Islamic Maghreb of North Africa.

Algeria is no novice to these problems. They've had confrontations with these extremists before so they're very well equipped. They understand the capability. We shouldn't be surprised that the Algerians have taken quick action be in response to the hostage crisis. I will tell you that's counterintuitive to the way western and American forces behave. You'll know when we have a hostage crisis we tend to then do a lot of intelligence and surveillance gathering to support planning. We engage hostage negotiators. Right now, I've confirmed with a source that the FBI is directly involved. Often times that means that they will detail to the American military command taking the lead. Here it would be Africon (ph), a hostage negotiator, so that they can plan. Because in the first instance, we don't generally launch a military offensive.


TOWNSEND: Now, we'll work closely with the Algerians, because, as Barbara said, this is their territory, but we will want to work very closely with them to ensure the safety and the safe passage and retrieval of our hostages.

MALVEAUX: And Fran, being someone who's been very experienced in the Bush administration regarding national security measures here, is there a lot of confidence in the Algerian government and the Algerian military that they are a reliable partner to get this done, get the Americans freed?

TOWNSEND: Well, I will tell you, I think -- I think they are certainly capable. We use different -- it's what I was referring to, Suzanne. We tend to take a different approach in terms of -- we won't go rushing in, right? For fear we will cause the bad guys to inflict harm on the hostages. It's not clear what the situation is. I think Jay Carney at the White House during the briefing said they are seeking information from the Algerians. What is the nature of the operation? If it's a cordon and they're just on the perimeter, that's one thing. If they are actually inside the compound engaging the extremists, we worry about the condition of not only our hostages, but, of course, the other hostages that are there.

MALVEAUX: Time is of the essence. They have been held for at least 24 hours now. Do we have a sense as time ticks on the condition of how those people are being held?

TOWNSEND: I don't think we do. Look, our -- what you normally do is, you not only employ sort of overhead and satellite imagery, but that doesn't really give you the sort of information you're talking about. We'll have to rely on the Algerians. We'll have to rely on human intelligence. The Algerian source -- or intelligence services are very capable. So, we'll look to see if they have in intelligence or from our neighboring -- the neighboring services, namely the Moroccans, the Libyans who can provide the kind of insight to what may be going on inside the compound.

MALVEAUX: All right. Fran Townsend, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

One of the most promising young football stars in the America says he is now the victim of a sick joke. We are talking about Manti Mateo, Heisman finalist and superstar linebacker for Notre Dame. Although his public life really has two stories. One, a gifted athlete on the field, a tale of love and tragedy off the field being the other. It is the second part that people are really scratching their heads and wondering what is going on? Here's CNN's Ted Rowlands.


TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): University of Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick fought back tears while discussing Manti Te'o at a late news conference. He's convinced Te'o was the victim of an elaborate hoax.

JACK SWARBRICK, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME: That the single, most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in this life.

ROWLANDS: During the football season, the story of the star linebacker enduring the death of his girlfriend and grandmother on the same day transcended sports. People from around the world were touched by how in love Te'o seemed to be with Lennay Kekua, the girl he called his soul mate.

MANTI TE'O, LINEBACKER, NOTRE DAME: I cried. I yelled. I've never felt that way before. And this is -- six hours ago, I just found my grandma passed away, and you take, you know, the love of my life.

ROWLANDS: On the day of his girlfriend's supposed funeral, Te'o played football. After the game, Notre Dame's football coach, Brian Kelly, actually awarded the game ball to the girl we now know doesn't exist.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to award this game ball to Lennay, and I'd like Manti to have this ball to take back to Hawaii.

ROWLANDS: Te'o told his coaches about the hoax on December 26th. Notre Dame kept the truth under wraps, despite the fact that the media was still telling the story leading up to the national championship game.

SWARBRICK: From the outset, we established a parameter that this was Manti's story to tell. We wanted to know it would be told, we wanted to know at a -- at the appropriate time when it would be told, but that it was his to tell.

ROWLANDS: Many people, including one of the reporters that broke the hoax story, doesn't think Te'o's story adds up.

DAVE ZIRIN, SPORTS EDITOR, "THE NATION MAGAZINE": Te'o's story that he's a complete -- completely innocent in this doesn't really shake through with us.

ROWLANDS: What still isn't clear is why didn't Manti Te'o ever mention that he'd never actually met Lennay when talking about how much he loved her? How did the story about how they first met at a football game start, and if it wasn't true, why didn't he correct it? And how could he have been so in love with someone he'd never actually met face to face?

SWARBRICK: You know, I think, as Manti tells the story, you'll see the same thing I saw that it does -- it does fully line up.


MALVEAUX: Just a few minutes ago, we talked to a sports editor and a columnist who floated the idea that possibly Manti Te'o was somehow involved in creating the hoax and keeping it alive.


ZIRIN: I'm tempted to say that this is somebody who probably needs a great deal of therapy. I mean, it's very difficult, actually -- honestly, a little bit sickening and upsetting to hear the interviews that he did. I was going back into the audio vault last night and listening to interviews he gave about her and, I mean, you would have to accept that he would have a three-year relationship where he was in love with a woman who didn't exist and nursed this virtual woman through leukemia. Through, first of all, a devastating car accident where they discovered she had leukemia, stories were told about how they would stay on the phone with each other for eight straight hours while he would sleep so she could hear him breathe because it eased her pain.


MALVEAUX: All right. So, the one thing that we can hope for is some clarity. That's going to happen later, possibly later this afternoon. Manti Te'o is expected to address the media. He's going to give his version of this so-called phony girlfriend mystery. And everybody is debating about it. is all over the story. Some of the comments that you guys are bringing in here, garnering sympathy for the Heisman vote. Really? I think the kid got punked. Raymond writes, so he made up a girlfriend. I work in a middle school. Most of the boys here have made up girl friends, too. And how about this? This is kind of like when Jan Brady dated George Glass on "The Brady Bunch."

Here's what we're working on as well for this hour. Europe, Japan, Qatar, India and the United States now grounding Boeing's Dreamliner. The airlines are scrambling now to rearrange these flights. This is a huge job and not only protecting the president, but hundreds of thousands of people. We are actually taking a look at security measures for Monday's inauguration. And Vice President Biden making his case for the newly outlined gun policy proposals, trying to drum up support for the U.S. conference of mayors.


MALVEAUX: Countries around the world, they are following the lead of the United States and Japan. They are grounding all Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Now, the FAA is saying that these Dreamliners, they're not going to be allowed in the air until you fix those problems. These fires that have been linked to battery failures. The investigation, this could take several weeks. Here's a look at all the airlines around the world that are pulling the 787s from service. Well, last night, Boeing issued a statement saying in part, "we are confident that the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to ensure our customers and the traveling public of the 787's safety and return the airplanes to service."

Here's how one aerospace expert predicts that customers are going to react to the safety question.


CARTER LEAKE, AEROSPACE & DEFENSE, BB&T CAPITAL MARKETS: Let's clarify the word "safe," right? The airplane is safe, but safety speaks to levels of redundancy. And so I am completely comfortable. Yes, the airplane is safe because I am very comfortable that Boeing knows what it's doing, has spent years in the redundancy, you know, department, you know, of all of these systems. What is unclear, you know, uncertain at this point is, you know, what is the root cause? And that's what makes it difficult.

Now, as far as passengers go, even though we could -- you know, conversationally, we could get to passenger aversion issues, but statistics show that passengers really don't know the aircraft type that they're flying on. And when they show up at the gate, you know, they're unlikely to walk away from that flight and they will, you know, take confidence that, you know, if the airplane is there, that the airline and the FAA have rendered this aircraft safe.


MALVEAUX: Well, the investors, they're not as confident. Boeing's stock flat today after losing 2 percent yesterday. Sandra Endo, she's joining us from Washington.

And, Sandra, talk a little bit about these -- the minor problems, right, with the Dreamliners. This has happened since September. But you've got this problem with the batteries that is really causing these officials to ground the planes. Explain what the technology is behind this.

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, it's definitely new technology. Lithium ion batteries have never been used before in commercial airlines to this extent. And these batteries are lighter, they're smaller, they're more powerful, but the concern is over possible overheating. Boeing had to get special permission from the FAA to use these batteries and they were only approved under the condition it would install specific safety measures to address these potential problems. So clearly they are going to revisit and look at these batteries to see if they were installed correctly, and if everything is OK and safe.


MALVEAUX: I know they've got more orders. Eight hundred more orders for these Dreamliners. Is -- does that still go through? ENDO: Yes. It's certainly unclear at this point what happens to those 800 aircraft that are on order. But clearly right now it's too soon to tell. But keep in mind, this is a big expenditure for any airline. Each aircraft costs $200 million each.

MALVEAUX: And do we think -- should we be worried about flying on these planes? Bottom line?

ENDO: Yes, that is the biggest question here because clearly every aviation expert we've spoken to, you heard it right there just before talking with me, they say that these are just the normal teething problems that happen when a new aircraft is really unveil and delivered. And even last week the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said he thinks the planes are safer. He would actually fly on one. But, obviously, the FAA is clearly changing its tune, ordering this directive, which hasn't been seen since 1979, the grounding of an entire fleet of aircraft. So they're taking every precaution to make sure these planes are safe.

MALVEAUX: Teething problems. That's an interesting way of putting it. Sandra, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

ENDO: Sure.

MALVEAUX: Well, the vice president, he's making his case. He is speaking to the Conference of Mayors today. Guns are top of the agenda. We're going to have a live report.


MALVEAUX: Preparing for the next four years of the Obama administration. One of the big issues is reducing the demand for legal drugs in this country. Our John Zarrella, he's reporting on what to expect going forward.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With America's use of illicit drugs continuing to rise, the challenge -- what's the best way to curb it? Clarence Jackson started smoking pot when he was 14. He says he quickly graduated to coke, crime and then prison.

CLARENCE JACKSON, DRUG COUNSELING PARTICIPANT: I've been in prison every consecutive year of my life since 1989 until 2009.

ZARRELLA: Twenty years in and out of Florida jails and prisons. Jackson is now in court-ordered group counseling.

GUY WHEELER, COUNSELOR: And you know how selfish it is? Everybody around you hurt when you get locked up. Even your dog. I know that sounds silly. Even your dog.

ZARRELLA: Guy Wheeler runs the program, 12 to 24 sessions. For first- time offenders, the gold ring upon completion, a cleansed record. Jackson laments if only this program were there for him 20 years ago.

JACKSON: I wouldn't have been the liability. I would have been a great asset to society today.

ZARRELLA: Jackson could be the poster boy for a philosophical change in how the nation is now dealing with the illicit drug use. It's not just a crime, but an addiction.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE, DIR. NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL POLICY: It shouldn't come as a surprise if we've arrested someone for a crime and they also have a drug problem, and we do nothing about the drug problem, that they're going to end up right back into the system again committing another crime.

ZARRELLA: For the White House now and going forward, fighting illicit drug use is a multilayered approach. A focus on education and prevention. Treat drugs and addiction as a public health issue not just a criminal justice concern. And law enforcement focuses remains on choking off supply. Studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse show the road ahead is tough. Illicit drug use in America has been creeping up. Twenty-two and a half million Americans, 8.7 percent, used or abused illicit drugs in 2011. Up 0.4 percent in a decade. Most of that increase comes from marijuana use. The drug of choice for teens.

KERLIKOWSKE: The one particular thing that worries me the most is the youth use of marijuana. Study after study shows that it can have a number of significant health and mental health impacts, particularly on developing young people.

ZARRELLA: Says Guy Wheeler, it's not your father's marijuana. The main psycho active ingredient, THC, is at least twice as high as in the old days.

WHEELER: We keep thinking that the marijuana is like 3 percent, 5 percent. The population that I'm serving every day, the marijuana has a THC rate of 25 percent. They call it wake and bake. Some of these clients wake up every morning and they go smoke a joint.

ZARRELLA: One of the pillars of the administration's approach is to curb use before it becomes abuse. Dr. Daniel Alford is part of a program doing just that.

DR. DANIEL ALFORD, BOSTON MEDICAL CENTER: Eventually it becomes very much like a relapsing crack disease.

ZARRELLA: Primary care physicians ask patients about substance abuse, provide advice and, if necessary, a treatment referral. Alford says 80 percent of those screened have not problem. Studies show those who do are receptive to the intervention because it comes from their doctor.

ALFORD: So if you ask it in a non-judgmental way, if the patient thinks you're really asking it just to take good care of them, I think people are much more likely to be open about it and honest about it.

ZARRELLA: Experts say the benefits from early intervention treatment education are huge. More productive workers, few people behind bars. Reduced medical costs and maybe it gives people like Clarence Jackson very simply a chance. John Zarrella, CNN, Miami.


MALVEAUX: Vice President Biden making his case for the newly outlined gun policy proposals. He's trying to drum up support at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.


MALVEAUX: President Obama is expected to name his close aide, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough as his new chief of staff. That is what we're hearing from several sources. McDonough would replace Jack Lew, who was nominated to be the next Treasury secretary. Now, McDonough would be the president's fourth chief of staff since he first took office back in 2009.

Vice President Biden talking gun control with the countries mayors. Biden is speaking at the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. That is happening in Washington right now. It is set to begin and he's expected to talk about the new proposals that we actually saw. The gun violence that was veiled yesterday.

I want to bring in our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, joining us.

And obviously the administration, the White House, trying to build a case here to support these new gun regulations. What kind of response do we think we're going to get from some of these mayors? Because we've got folks from Chicago, from Washington, D.C., who have some pretty tough neighborhoods to police.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And from all over the U.S. with disparate views. I will say, Suzanne, right now Philadelphia Mayor Nutter has been talking and he just told this crowd that the right to own a firearm should not interfere with his right to live. So for someone like Mayor Nutter or, for instance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg from New York City, especially these bigger city mayors that are dealing and have for some time now with gun violence, President Obama, Vice President Biden, are getting a ton of support on their new recommendations for how to tackle gun violence. They're definitely finding allies in these folks and yet there are still other mayors who are not going to support this, who are on the opposite side of this issue.

But this is all part of the White House effort to kind of look to the grass roots. We expect, although it's not confirmed, that President Obama will likely take his gun violence message, and the vice president as well, on the road, trying to rally some grass roots support. We heard from the president yesterday that he said the only way to change this is if the American people demand it. As he announced, Suzanne, some executive actions that he will take unilaterally, including tracing stolen guns, prosecuting folks who use them, improving background checks to include more information about mental health, making agencies share that information, increasing mental health resources in schools. But, really, the big things to be done on gun violence from the perspective of the White House are things that Congress would need to do. An assault weapons ban, banning those high-count magazines, those high-capacity magazines, and also including universal background checks, which, perhaps, may be the one thing, it seems politically, that Congress can tackle.

But I will tell you, Suzanne, even now, just a little over a month since the shooting in Newtown, you're already sensing that politically the will to get something done has started to dry up here in Washington. And not just among Republicans. Also some Democrats who are more towards the center.

MALVEAUX: All right, Brianna, thank you.

As we mentioned, more than 270 mayors around the country are attending this conference where the vice president is speaking now. And the gun control debate is just one of the issues that is on the agenda.