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THE SITUATION ROOM

BP Statement Expected Soon; U.S. Increase role in Mali; Algeria Rescue Raid Reported Over; Mysterious Hoax Embroils Football Star; Fires A Risk Onboard Dreamliner

Aired January 17, 2013 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, breaking news -- the military option to free hostages seized in a terror attack on a gas plant in Algeria is now over.

But where are the Americans held captive?

Bizarre details emerging in the mysterious hoax surrounding a popular football star. Just ahead, what we're learning about at least one person believed to be involved.

And Boeing Dreamliner flights worldwide, they are now grounded for the first time since a deadly plane crash more than 30 years ago. This is going on with one airliner. Why it may all come down to one key component -- batteries.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin with the breaking news -- the military operation to free hostages seized in an attack on a gas facility in Algeria now over. But the fate of the Americans being held remains unknown. Any minute now, we're expecting a statement from BP. We know the company has chartered a plane carrying BP employees out of Algeria. But BP isn't confirming whether those employees include those at the plant in Eastern Algeria.

Let's go straight to our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, who's over at the State Department with more information.

What else are you learning -- Jill.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this is moving very fast and a lot of these numbers are changing. But we do understand that there is a plane that is taking five freed hostages to London, and, also, President Obama has been on the phone with the British prime minister. And kind of an ominous statement coming from the British foreign officer, Wolf, saying that some bad -- even though this is over, some bad and distressing news could follow. So, obviously, some people have been killed. Some people have been rescued. But the numbers are really all over the map at this point.

Here at the State Department, Secretary Clinton has been speaking with the prime minister of Algeria. She came out and spoke with reporters, talking about a very fluid situation.

Let's listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: This incident will be resolved, we hope, with a -- a minimum loss of life. But when you deal with these relentless terrorists, life is not in any way precious to them. But when this incident is finally over, we know we face a continuing, ongoing problem. And we're going to do everything we can to work together to confront and disrupt al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DOUGHERTY: Yes, in that entire region. And that's what Secretary Clinton is saying. It's a very broad region, part of a strategic challenge she's talking about.

And remember that this is connected, we believe, with Mali. And concerning Mali, the United States is helping the French in that operation, intelligence. They're providing intelligence, airlift and also trainers for the African force, that ECOWAS force, supposed to be on the ground this weekend -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What other steps is the State Department taking right now to try to protect other Americans in the region?

DOUGHERTY: You know, they are putting out the word. Secretary Clinton, in fact, ordered her staff to take a look at the strategic lay of the land in the region for American citizens and for American businesses. So they've been alerting them, as they have been for quite some time, that these terrorist groups could be expanding their efforts to take people hostage, kidnap people.

And so there's really a state of alert that they are putting out, that companies and Americans in that region should be very, very careful, be prepared.

BLITZER: Very careful, indeed, if they should be there at all.

All right, Jill, thanks very much.

Let's get a little bit more now on the delicate diplomatic dance the United States has to play in this crisis.

CNN contributor, the former assistant FBI director, Tom Fuentes, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What's your sense about what's going on right now? It seems very murky and we don't know the fate, for example, about those Americans being held hostage.

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: That's right, Wolf. It's going to be very murky and difficult to get details for several hours, if not some time tomorrow, probably. So you have a situation which, obviously, the Algerians are in charge of, but they would seek assistance from, you know, their trusted partners, which would include the French, since they were formerly very close -- actually occupied by the France and eventually stayed close with the French. But, also, the United States is offering assistance, including the FBI, because when we have Americans captured or killed overseas, that violates U.S. law. The FBI has jurisdiction to work with the host country government, with our permission and partnership, to try to solve that case and ensure that the people that committed it are brought to justice.

But in this case, you know, there are so many difficulty -- so much difficulty in getting information, because this plant is out in the middle of nowhere. You know, the Algerian government military force is surrounding it. You have the employees on the inside.

Some of the employees, at the time of the attack, did get out. They didn't capture every employee in the plant. So there are people that saw the initial attack or maybe they were on the other side of the plant and didn't see it. So, you don't know who actually saw it, what kind of information they had, what the details are, and especially if, you know, the Algerians were taking the lead on the negotiations initially to try to free them. We don't know all the details of that.

BLITZER: When you were the assistant FBI director, you opened the FBI's office in Algeria.

So was there then -- I assume there is now -- a significant al Qaeda presence?

FUENTES: Well, there was. And -- and at that time, I went there in 2007. I went there a couple of times. But in 2007, I went and met with the U.S. ambassador and, also, the Algerian authorities. And we were responding to their invitation for the FBI to open an office in the U.S. Embassy in Algiers, to work more closely.

Now, back during the time of the Iraq War, we were fighting what was called the jihadi pipeline that went across the top of the Sahara Desert from Iraq over to Algeria, to Tunisia, Libya, through Egypt and up into Iraq, where they went to terrorism school. They learned how to operate RPGs, mortars, AK-47s, create explosives, make IEDs. And then these very same people would go back to their original countries.

We know that a number of people from the Benghazi area in Libya learned how to be terrorists in Iraq during the Iraq War.

Then, of course, the Libyans are fighting Gadhafi to gain their independence. And what you have is weaponry from all over the world pouring in to assist them in their effort to overthrow the dictator. Well, the war is over. They win. A new government goes in that is not used to governing, does not have the skills set. And they're faced with a population that's armed to the teeth and has 18 months of on-the-job-training...

BLITZER: Yes.

FUENTES: -- of not just shooting machine guns and RPGs, which don't have a long range, but mortars. And that was one of the concerns of the FBI in Benghazi.

BLITZER: And all those borders in North Africa, from Egypt and Libya and Tunisia, Algeria, they're all -- Morocco -- they're pretty porous.

Hold on for one moment.

FUENTES: OK.

BLITZER: All right, we're getting some new information just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

The United States is now increasing its role in the Mali conflict in Africa.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is getting new information.

What are you learning -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, we're now learning that the U.S. has agreed to help the French airlift more troops, more supplies, more heavy equipment, into Mali for their offensive against the militants there. This had been under consideration yesterday. Today, that request was accepted and now I'm told by Defense officials that military planners are in deep discussions with the French to go over specifically what they're going to bring in and where they're going to bring it.

Now, one Defense official that I spoke with said it could be the equivalent of an entire mechanized infantry battalion of the French -- troops, heavy equipment, big vehicles. And it might take up to about 30 flights to get all of that in there for the French.

In the end, the French would then reimburse the U.S. for the cost of those cargo flights. There was a separate request, another request for some U.S. surveillance, as well as some refueling, aerial refueling, so that U.S. planes could pull up next to some of the French jets, refuel them in the air. That's another request that's still under consideration, but that part has not been decided -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's stepping up the military role in Mali to help the French. That's a significant headline.

Let me bring Tom Fuentes back in.

Are you surprised that the U.S. is helping France right now deal with this crisis in Mali?

FUENTES: I'm not surprised. I mean there's pressure on the U.S. to provide assistance, to take on these terrorists, to not let the al Qaeda affiliates in Mali, Algeria, Libya, other countries, become more powerful, to gain a foothold in those countries. So we're under a lot of pressure. And you hear from our own political leaders advocating that the U.S. get involved and do something strong.

The other consideration, though, is that it does play into some of these political aims of the Islamic groups to say see, look it, here come the infidels once again. Here is the U.S. looking for a way to get in our country or our region and exert their power. So there's a little bit of difficulty.

You have the French trying to basically establish a coalition and get assistance from the U.S. and other countries, maybe NATO countries, much like the U.S. wanted assistance in the original Gulf War, and then also in the Iraq and Afghanistan, to say that this is not a unilateral action on the part of one Western country against the militants, but a coalition.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment.

Paul Cruickshank, our CNN contributor, an expert on there is some they), is joining us right now -- what do you make of the latest information we're getting, Paul, coming out of Algeria, where these Americans and others, a lot of Europeans, were being held hostage?

We don't know the fate of those who were held. We know that the Algerian military has completed some sort of rescue operation. We don't know how many people are dead or alive in the process of that so-called rescue operation.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, Wolf, there seems to be a significant death toll. A lot of hostages seem to have been killed. And this really is one of the most significant terrorist attacks involving hostage taking since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that we all covered a few years ago. So a very significant attack.

It appears that these jihadists came across the border from Libya into Algeria to conduct this operation, Wolf. And we've been learning from some trusted sources that a number of jihadist training camps are present in the region, in Libya, near to where this Algerian gas facility is, and that these training camps are actually linked to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda-linked jihadist commander who masterminded this attack.

BLITZER: And many of these terrorists in North Africa, as Tom Fuentes was just explaining to us, Paul, they were actually trained by al Qaeda in Iraq during the height of that war?

CRUICKSHANK: Absolutely, but not only trained by al Qaeda in Iraq. Now it appears they're increasingly being trained in other areas, as well, including Southern Libya, including Northern Mali. This terrorist commander, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is believed to be based in Gao they), in Northern Mali. So different parts of the region where these training camps now are. It's a more complex threat, in many ways, than ever before -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of us thought that with the Arab Spring in North Africa, these kinds of ugly stories, these horrendous stories, were history. But it seems to be getting worse right now.

What's going on?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, a number of these jihadist groups have sort of taken advantage of the political turmoil to expand their safe havens in the region, to boost the number of people who are joining their groups. We have seen that in Libya, where there really is a lot of political chaos in the country, where there are significant areas in the country which are not really under government control.

And so the Islamist militias in Libya have really been able to establish quasi-safe havens in certain parts of the country. And it's quite possible that from these safe havens, they were able to launch this attack into Algeria -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And once again, we're standing by from a statement from BP, which was operating that gas field in Eastern Algeria, near the Libyan border, where these hostages, including the Americans, were taken.

Paul Cruickshank, stand by.

We'll check in with you.

Tom Fuentes, stand by, as well.

Among those foreign hostages freed from the gas plant, an Irishman. In an emotional interview, his young son talked about his dad's release.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DYLAN MCFAUL, SON: I feel over the moon. I'm just really excited. I just can't wait for him to get home.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But he's coming home?

MCFAUL: Yes, he's coming home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE). I just can't wait (INAUDIBLE). I'll never let him go back there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And what's the first thing you'll do when you see him?

MCFAUL: Give him a big hug. And I won't let go.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: You can't blame that young boy for being so happy. His dad's getting out of Algeria. And the kid says he never wants his dad to go back there again.

We're going to continue to watch this developing story out of Algeria, bringing you updates here in THE SITUATION ROOM, as soon as we get them. We're wondering what's going on with those hostages being held, the Americans and the others.

Meanwhile, other news we're following. Some very bizarre details emerging in the mysterious hoax surrounding a popular college football star. Just ahead, what we're learning about at least one person believed to be involved.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The mysterious bizarre hoax surrounding the Notre Dame football star, Manti Te'o, seems to be getting more difficult to piece together. At the center of it all, the woman he called, quote, "the love of my life" who apparently never existed. Her supposed death in September along with the death of his grandmother around that same time is what Te'o said inspired him to lead his team to victory in a critical game.

On September 30th, he tweeted this about her. Let me read it. "I may not hear your voice anymore, but I do feel your presence. According to Notre Dame, on September 6th, Te'o received a phone call from her number saying she wasn't dead. On December 26th, he said to have notified the school of the situation.

Notre Dame launched an investigation, and yesterday, DeadSpin.com published the story for the first time revealing the hoax.

Let's go straight to our own Brian Todd. He's been digging deeper into what is going on right now. Brian, you're getting some more information?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are, Wolf. And you know, DeadSpin named one man, in particular, who it says is behind this. He is based in Southern California. With our teams here in Washington and Los Angeles and Atlanta, we did get some information on him, but it is not clear at the moment if he knows Manti Te'o or not.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): It was a hoax made all the more believable by his hushed mournful interviews, like the one he gave ESPN.

MANTI TE'O, NOTRE DAME LINEBACKER: I cried. I yelled. Never felt that way before. This is six hours ago, I just found out my grandma passed away and you take, you know, the love of my life. Last thing she said to me was, I love you.

TODD: But Manti Te'o's supposed girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who reportedly died of leukemia never existed. Te'o and Notre Dame say he was the victim of this hoax. Who perpetrated it? Deadspin.com, the sports investigative website that broke the story points to a young man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. CNN obtained a yearbook photo of him from 2008 when he was a senior Paraclete High School in Lancaster, California.

DeadSpin, citing friends and relatives of Tuiasosopo's, says he created the girlfriend and spread the myth online.

TIMOTHY BURKE, EDITOR, DEADSPIN.COM: They told us that he has been doing the Lennay Kekua fake online profile for several years, and, that he's caught other people in its trap but that they caught on way earlier than Manti Te'o did.

TODD: CNN cannot confirm Tuiasosopo involvement. We went to addresses, called numbers in Southern California listed for Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and could not reach up. We caught up with Tuiasosopo's father, Titus, a former football player at USC and now a pastor at a place called the Oasis Christian Church of the Antelope.

He wouldn't speak on camera but told us "the truth will all come out, God knows our character." Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's uncle who gave us these pictures of him as a child tells us Tuiasosopo is religious and plays in a band at his father's church.

VINCENT AMITUANAI, RONAIAH TUIASOSOPO'S UNCLE: It's hard for me because I know the kid all his life, and this is the first time I've heard something like that.

TODD: DeadSpin says Tuiasosopo and Manti Te'o know each other. Notre Dame's athletic director who hired investigator in this case was asked if they're cousins or family friends.

JACK SWARBRICK, NOTRE DAME ATHLETIC DIRECTOR: That characterization does not square with my information, but I'll let the Te'os address it.

TODD: We could not reach Manti Te'o, his parents or his agent for comment. Tuiasosopo is a former player, himself, seen here as a quarterback at Antelope Valley High School. He's got relatives who play college and pro football.

(on-camera) I spoke on the phone with Marcus Tuiasosopo, a former quarterback for the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets. Marcus said he's a distant cousin of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Markus didn't want to tape an interview. He said he can't say anything about this story, doesn't know Ronaiah well. But Markus did say that he and his family know the Te'o family.

(voice-over) Who is the woman depicted in social media photos as Manti Te'o's girlfriend? A woman we contacted whose name we're not airing says she realized her picture had been used for a fake Facebook page for Te'o's girlfriend.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (on-camera): That woman told CNN she knows Ronaiah Tuiasosopo through church but says she is shocked to find out that he might be involved in this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's a current NFL football player who supposedly says he knew this non-existent girlfriend?

TODD: Yes. Making the story even more bizarre when you think it couldn't be anymore. A man named Reagan Mauia. He's a fullback for the Arizona Cardinals, he told ESPN that Lennay Kekua is a real person, that he met her before she knew Manti Te'o, and that they became friends. Now, we have tried to call -- we have called Reagan Mauia today, and he's not returned our calls.

BLITZER: What a bizarre story, indeed. We're going to have more on this coming up. A lot of people are talking about it. Brian, thanks very much.

Much more on the bizarre story coming up, including a panel discussion on the media's role in this whole thing. That's just ahead.

And we'll continue to monitor also the other breaking news story we're following, a very fluid situation under way. Americans being held hostage in Algeria. there's a military maneuver under way. We'll update you. That and more coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Aviation authorities from Japan to India to Ethiopia today are joining the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in taking a dramatic step with Boeing's new Dreamliner aircraft. The move is so rare. The FAA hasn't done it in more than 30 years, grounding the entire fleet of 787s. It's not even waiting for a safety review to be completed.

We'll breakdown exactly what all this means with -- for the Dreamliner with Miles O'Brien who's standing by, but CNN's Sandra Endo reports. The issue comes down to one key component. Batteries.

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, safety concerns surrounding the 787's batteries canceled Dreamliner flights around the world and disrupted travel plans for thousands of passengers and who knows how long Boeing's plane of the future will remain out of the sky.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENDO (voice-over): Grounded indefinitely. All 50 Boeing Dreamliners worldwide were parked on tarmacs Thursday. This, after the FAA ordered U.S. 787s to stop flying until there's proof their lithium ion batteries are safe.

In terms of historical context, though, this doesn't happen that often?

KEVIN HIATT, FLIGHT SAFETY FOUNDATION: No, it's doesn't happen that often at all. You have the last one was about 34 years ago with the DC-10 accident (ph) in Chicago. ENDO: It's a major black eye for Boeing's marquee plane which debut in 2011 after years of delay. The company is defending its aircraft saying, "We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind it's overall integrity."

But two incidents involving the plane's batteries in ten days have left the FAA with no choice but to ground the Dreamliner while the NTSB analyzes the charred evidence from last week's 787 fire. Lithium batteries are smaller and more powerful but can over heat.

DAN DOUGHTY, BATTERY SAFETY CONSULTING INC.: When they're used normally and the energy is released slowly as it's supposed to, batteries have a very good safety record. But if that same energy is released very rapidly, the battery cells will vent, release their content, and have the potential both for fire and explosion.

ENDO: Boeing needed special FAA approval to allow the Dreamliner to use lithium batteries for key electrical systems.

HIATT: They have narrowed it down to the battery system on this aircraft. We've had two events, and so, therefore, they're going to now be able to look at it a little bit more in detail and figure out what's going on.

ENDO: Boeing's European archrival, Airbus, uses lithium batteries only for emergency lighting in their A380, but Airbuses claim (ph) of the future, the A350 do out by the end of next year relies on them more heavily. The company says there are no plans to change its electrical design.

FABRICE BREGIER, AIRBUS CEO: We are confident our design is robust both regarding the batteries, its architecture, the safety means.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ENDO (on-camera): There are still 800 Dreamliners on order and it's unclear at this point if these safety concerns will affect the purchases. Each aircraft costs $200 million -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sandy Endo at Reagan National Airport for us. So, what does all this mean for the future of the Dreamliner? Miles O'Brien is a pilot and aviation analyst. He's a science correspondent for the news hour on PBS and a good old friend. Miles, good to have you back here in the SITUATION ROOM. Is it safe to fly, you think, these Dreamliners? Did the FAA do the right thing?

MILES O'BRIEN, AVIATION ANALYST: Well, you know, it's better to err on the side of the caution. And I guess we can say it's sort of a mood issue, Wolf. There's no Dreamliners in the sky right now so whether it's safe or not doesn't really matter to you or I. We're not going to be getting on board one of them. I guess by definition it is unsafe because the FAA has taken this very unusual action of grounding an entire fleet of airplanes.

Last time it happened with it -- right after a crash of an American Airlines DC-10 in Chicago in 1979 killing everyone aboard. As it turns out, that was a maintenance issue, not a problem with the DC-10 but that DC-10 aircraft ultimately never really recovered its reputation.

BLITZER: If these batteries are overheating, would that be enough to actually bring down a plane?

O'BRIEN: You bet. Fire on an airplane is one of the scariest things you can imagine. We've seen a couple of crashes in recent years involving fires from airplanes. Of course, you remember Value Jet outside of Miami. You remember the Swiss Air crash off the coast of Maine a few years ago. In both of those cases fire was the root cause.

When there's something burning on an airplane, you want to get it on the ground as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: They have been testing this plane for many years. It was late in production. You would have thought that if there was a problem it would have come up a long time ago. Why is it only coming up now?

O'BRIEN: Well, you know, there's some things you can do in testing and some things you're only going to find out by flying an aircraft. Some of this could be related to the number of cycles, for example. In testing, you're not going to fly an airliner like you fly it on the lines, so to speak, with passengers, takeoffs, and landings, charges and discharges of the batteries in this case.

So maybe a problem is coming to light after a number of cycles, a number of uses. The fact is that the airplanes that are involved, Japanese airplanes, were the first to go into service. That could be one thing. Another issue is, what about the types of battery used? Did Boeing switch the type of battery? Is it a different batch? Is it a different manufacturer?

This aircraft is a heavily outsourced aircraft with parts made all over the world. It's part of a marketing strategy, frankly, to ensure that the 787 is purchased by airlines all over the world but it also is potentially fraught with peril as we saw in the development of the 787. It was slow to market because of that heavily outsourced idea.

BLITZER: You probably know this and I was just told, these same lithium ion type batteries on the Dreamliner, they're about to go on some Airbus airliners as well. The question is this, is that technology for these lithium ion batteries, is it too risky right now?

O'BRIEN: Well, we know lithium ion batteries can get hot and burn. We've seen it in laptops. We've seen in it the Chevy Volt. This is the first time we've seen lithium ion batteries used like this in airlines ever. So we're -- this is pushing technology. This is new and there's a lot of new things that are happening are.

Boeing has relied heavily on batteries and electrical systems as a way of making the aircraft more efficient and lighter. And so it uses 20 percent less fuel and that has made it a very popular airplane as far as orders go. It's the most impressive initial orders -- a batch of initial orders that Boeing has ever had.

But when you push a lot of technologies simultaneously, which is what is happening here with the 787, inevitably you're going to find things that aren't just exactly as you hoped they would be.

BLITZER: What a nightmare for Boeing, the manufacturer of this 787.

Miles, good explanation as always. Thanks very much for coming in.

O'BRIEN: You're welcome, Wolf.

BLITZER: So why did it take to long for the hoax surrounding the football star Manti Te'o to come out? We're going to talk about the media's role in all of this. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The bizarre hoax involving the Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o. Here's what the Notre Dame Athletic director said about it. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK SWARBRICK, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME ATHLETIC DIRECTOR: I think as Manti tells the story, you'll see the same thing that I saw, that it does -- it does fully line up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's talk about it with the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES," Howard Kurtz. He's the Washington bureau chief for "Newsweek" and the "Daily Beast." Also, joining us, the editor-in- chief of the daily-download.com, that would be Lauren Ashburn.

Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Howie, there's a problem here because for months and month and months the media bought this story apparently without checking who this woman was.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, CNN'S RELIABLE SOURCES: This was a feel good story even though it involved a tragic death. It was inspiring and it was completely and totally false. And even a basic few phone calls, Wolf, would have discovered the fact that the imaginary girlfriend didn't go to Stanford. There was no record of the car crash. There was no record of her death, there was no record of her birth, but nobody seemed to want to make that minimal effort.

BLITZER: It was such a beautiful story to hear it. An emotional, warm story that people just said, great, let's go with it.

LAUREN ASHBURN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, DAILY-DOWNLOAD.COM: I think it was media, journalism 101, fail. As Howie said, people didn't check the facts. Not -- especially when there had been previous accounts and you could go back and say, well, gosh, she died this day? No, she died here. No, she -- all you had to look is the evidence.

And what's really critical here, Wolf, is that the Twitter accounts and the Facebook accounts, and all of that had someone been reporting social media reporting, I think --

KURTZ: As Deadspin eventually did.

ASHBURN: Eventually did yesterday. I think we would have figured this out a long time ago.

BLITZER: That's when they say they started to investigate last week as somebody sent them an e-mail saying, you should take a look at this and it didn't take very long for them to find out this woman who didn't exist.

KURTZ: Now the reporter who wrote the cover story for "Sports Illustrated," Wolf, does say that he had a number of red flags. That he got detailed accounts about the imaginary girlfriend from Manti Te'o himself, from the guy's father, from people on the campus, and that he couldn't find in the Nexis database search basic facts about her life or even if she existed, but, you know, when you're reporting on the story, the guy says his girlfriend just died, everybody is upset about it, I guess he just kind of --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me read -- let me read, Lauren, a line or two from the article of "Sports Illustrated," October 1st, 2012, entitled "The Full Manti."

"Te'o had dated Lennay Kekua, 22, for nearly a year. She'd been hospitalized in California since an April 28th car accident left her on the brink of death. Two months after the accident, as she began to recover from her injuries, doctors discovered that she had leukemia and sent her to a new hospital with another daunting health issue. Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice."

Now that's pretty detailed stuff in there.

ASHBURN: It is. And there's a lot of detail, excruciating detail. It seems to me that you would have to think Manti would have to be involved or know something about this. It just doesn't add up.

KURTZ: Right. He's having all these nighttime phone conversations allegedly with a woman who we now know doesn't exist. So he bears some responsibility here and Notre Dame officials say, by their own account, they knew about this last December 26th. They allowed some of these other media accounts to go forward as Notre Dame went into the bowl season. That is shameful that they didn't worry about -- BLITZER: They said they wanted to do a full investigation before they released the public information. They wanted to make sure that there was nothing he did that could be -- because they were standing completely behind this football star.

KURTZ: It smells to me like Notre Dame was covering its collective backside and didn't want to interfere with what was a very good storyline for the university.

ASHBURN: But the bottom line in this is that we are all rushing to get things on the air, to get things into newspapers, and I think that journalists rely a lot on what is already printed, what is already in and on the Internet.

KURTZ: You just vacuum it up.

ASHBURN: And if they -- and if it was vetted by the "New York Times" or if it's vetted by "Sports Illustrated," it must be true.

BLITZER: Let me -- let me put this up on the screen. This is from the writer from "Sports Illustrated."

"In retrospect, there were some red flags. When I checked Lexis Nexis to find out more about Kekua, I couldn't find anything, though that's not uncommon for a college-aged student, not was there anything on her supposed twin brother -- I believe it's pronounced -- Koa. I was unable to track down any obituaries or funeral notices, but that might be explained by the fact that she had three recent places she called home or by her family not wanting publicity."

KURTZ: He was rationalizing, and I give him credit for doing this mea culpa. He was rationalizing about the fact that even though he couldn't verify this woman's existence, that "Sports Illustrated" published a coverage story.

This one emphasized, Wolf, you didn't need a Bob Woodruff investigative team here. Basic reporting. Basic phone calls. Checking with Stanford. Looking at why there was no car accident --

(CROSSTALK)

ASHBURN: But he did check with Stanford.

KURTZ: OK, but --

ASHBURN: And Stanford said, well --

KURTZ: We don't have any record. We couldn't find her.

ASHBURN: We don't have it and then he felt, well, maybe she didn't graduate so he took Stanford out.

KURTZ: He (INAUDIBLE) it. Others didn't. This was, as you say, a collective failure on the part of the media that I think just liked the story and now everybody looks bad. BLITZER: He put out a -- he put out a statement, a written statement. But we're waiting for him to go before cameras, either in an interview or a news conference, to explain what's going on.

What do you think the bottom line is going to be?

ASHBURN: I mean, my gut on this, you look at all of the evidence and you look at how it was all presented, all of the differences in opinion and in time and who she was and all of the Twitter and the Facebook --

KURTZ: The corporals that haven't met her -- yes.

ASHBURN: It seems to me that there is something bigger going on here.

KURTZ: It's strange (INAUDIBLE) to me to think that he was solely the victim of a hoax and maybe we'll find out differently but right now it is hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

ASHBURN: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're just getting this in. And I want to be precise in what we're learning. We're learning that some Americans have now been freed in Algeria. Others are still unaccounted for in the ongoing situation, the hostage-taking situation in Algeria. This, according to our foreign affairs reporter Elise Labott. She is citing U.S. officials.

They didn't -- they are not providing additional details other than some Americans who were taken hostage in Algeria at this gas facility have been freed.

We're going to get more information from Elise, from Chris Lawrence over at the Pentagon, from all of our reporters. But that is good to know that at least some have been freed.

We've also just heard from the president of BP in London addressing the overall situation in Algeria. Here's a clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our focus is 100 percent on the safety and welfare of those people and their families and we're now beginning a staged and planned reduction in nonessential workforce, temporary basis, pulling them out of the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Earlier we learned that BP chartered a plane carrying its employees out of Algeria but the company wouldn't confirm whether those employees include those at the specific plant that was attacked.

Meanwhile, another company involved, Statoil, released this statement. And I'll read it to our viewers. "The whole of Statoil is strongly affected by the situation in Amenas. The situation is still unresolved. Uncertain and very serious. In an unresolved situation, it is important for us to be hands-on with those who are most affected."

We'll stay on top of this story for you. Get more information.

We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Almost everything the president sees and hears goes through his White House chief of staff. Sources say President Obama is about to name one of his most trusted advisers to that post.

CNN's Athena Jones reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dennis McDonough has been a trusted adviser to President Obama, counseling him on foreign policy issues during the 2008 campaign and later as deputy national security adviser. He was in the situation room during the historic raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

DENNIS MCDONOUGH, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It was quite a team effort over the course of this. The president obviously leading that team.

JONES: Now the president is poised to name McDonough as chief of staff. The person responsible for helping make his second-term goals a reality. It's a key role that requires the right fit, as captured by the popular TV show, "The West Wing".

MARTIN SHEEN, ACTOR: You've got a best friend?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir.

SHEEN: Is he smarter than you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir.

SHEEN: Would you trust him with your life?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir.

SHEEN: That's your chief of staff.

JONES: The 43-year-old McDonough grew up in Minnesota. One of 11 children in what he's described as a proud Catholic family. He's kept a low profile in the administration but once stands in the president inner circle as a man of integrity.

Former Obama aide Melody Barnes was chief domestic policy adviser. MELODY BARNES, FORMER SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Dennis traveled extensively with the president. When you spend day in and day out with someone in a high stakes, very stressful set of circumstances, you get to know them well. I think they think very similarly but at the same time they are very straightforward and honest with each other. Dennis isn't afraid to challenge the president.

JONES: Barnes said that while McDonough is known for his foreign policy chops, he'll be ready to handle domestic issues. And his experience as a one-time aide to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle means he knows how Capitol Hill works. Something that will be crucial in the coming fiscal fights.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now this expected announcement comes as the president is being criticized for a lack of diversity among top staffers. His choices for the nominees for secretary of state, secretary of defense, secretary of the treasury and the CIA director are all men -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena Jones at the White House with the latest on that. An important position indeed. Thank you.

Monday's inauguration is a big day for President Obama. Historic day for the entire country. It's also a big day for some young Iowans.

When we come back, practicing to march in the inaugural parade.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to come to Washington, D.C. for President Obama's second inauguration. Most of them will be here to watch him be sworn in and to hear his inaugural address. But a lucky few are traveling a very long way to be part of the inaugural parade.

CNN's Emily Schmidt is joining us right now.

Emily, there's one young group coming in from Iowa.

EMILY SCHMIDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you are exactly right. You know, the Presidential Inaugural Committee says more than 2800 groups applied for the chance to be in this year's inaugural parade. So far only 96 have earned an invitation.

That means only the top 3 percent are going to get to perform in front of President Obama. And as you'll see, getting the invitation is only the first step in getting to Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHMIDT (voice-over): In the first hours of Barack Obama's presidency, these Iowa kids gave marching orders even the new commander in chief couldn't resist. A cadence so catchy, it swept up the first family. They met the Isiserettes Drill and Drum Corps while courting Iowans during the caucuses. Four years later, it's time for an encore. The Isiserettes are coming back for Monday's inaugural parade.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is like a pretty big opportunity to do this stuff.

SCHMIDT: The 50 members who range in age from 7 to 18 are about to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience again.

SYMPHANEE FISHER, BAND MEMBER: To be able to do it a second time, that means that he understood us on a personal, like, way, and it's just, it's mesmerizing.

SCHMIDT: It's 1,000 miles from Des Moines to the nation's capital. For this nonprofit group, the road looked much longer.

(On camera): What does it take to get from where you are to where I am?

CORY WILLIAMS, BAND LEADER: It's extremely difficult for us.

SCHMIDT (voice-over): Cory Williams leads the Isiserettes.

WILLIAMS: We don't have boosters. We basically have the state of Iowa, our community, our local churches, our family and friends.

SCHMIDT: They've raised about two-thirds of the trip's $12,500 cost so far. The price tag would be four times greater, almost insurmountable, without help from one of Washington's most exclusive schools.

TOM FARQUHAR, SIDWELL FRIENDS HEAD OF SCHOOL: They'll roll in here on Saturday night, and they'll set up camp in here, and they'll have a ball.

SCHMIDT: Tom Farquhar is Sidwell Friends head of school. He met the Isiserettes in 2009 and this year he's making the gymnasium their weekend home. It saves about $50,000 in hotel costs and pays priceless dividends.

FARQUHAR: It's a privilege for us to show hospitality to a group coming a long way and making the sacrifice to be part of this national event.

SCHMIDT: The Isiserettes say they feel like they'll be playing for friends on Monday.

WILLIAMS: We've always had that kind of kinship with the first family. We work hard. We're dedicated to what we do. And I think they recognize that in our kids.

SCHMIDT: Getting a second term off on a right foot which can't help but move to the beat.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SCHMIDT: The band's going to spend about 30 hours on the bus, planning to arrive Saturday evening, after the parade, then on Monday, they get back on the bus for the return trip. It is more time traveling than they're going to spend in Washington, but the Isiserettes say, it's time well spent -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They'll never forget this moment in their lives, to be sure. Thanks very much for that.

Don't miss CNN's special coverage of the presidential inauguration Sunday and Monday mornings. Our special coverage begins each day, Sunday and Monday, 9:00 a.m. Eastern.

Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including what a positive trend in the fight against cancer.

What's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, this is always good news to hear. The American Cancer Society says the death rate from cancer is down dramatically over the past two decades, thanks largely to a reduction in smoking. According to a new report, the decline is is a whopping 20 percent.

And stronger than expected data on new housing fueled a rally on Wall Street today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 84 points at 13,596 and that's near a five-year high. The S&P 500 did end at a five-year high at 1480. The Nasdaq posted healthy gains as well, closing at 3136.

And here's one way to get out for some fresh air. A thousand or so people are in the Florida Everglades. They are hunting pythons for the 2013 Python Challenge this week. Senator Bill Nelson initiated the effort to rid the Everglades of the non-indigenous snakes, which have damaged the delicate ecosystem, and he joined the hunt today.

So that's not for the squeamish, not for those who do not like snakes -- Wolf.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Not indeed. All right. Thanks very much for that.

So was Manti Te'o's girlfriend what's known as a catfish, a fake social medial persona created to deceive someone. We're digging deeper with the executive producer of MTV's "Catfish." That's coming up in our next hour.