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Escalation in Syria; Interview With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker; GOP Split Over Reaching 'Grand Bargain'; Mayor Wants Stores to Hide Cigarettes; Florida Cyber Attack Could Have Changed Election; New Leads in 22-Year-Old Art Heist

Aired March 18, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Only a day before President Obama heads to the Middle East, Syrian warplanes open fire in Lebanon.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: The United States is calling it a significant escalation of the Assad regime's bloody war for survival.

BLITZER: And as the danger spreads, the carnage grows. Support is certainly building in the West to give weapons to Syrian rebels.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is joining us from Beirut right now.

Nick, let's start with the rockets fired into Lebanon. How close to the capital did they come?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was still pretty far out in the border region between Lebanon and Syria, very mountainous there, indistinct exactly where the border is. We understand from a local source two warplanes fired three rockets and they hit derelict buildings, injuring nobody.

But it's deeply symbolic. Lebanon's government is trying to keep well out of the fighting with a policy it calls disassociation. The concern is not that this will get a government or military response back to Syria, but it might ignite the sectarian tensions inside Lebanon, which pretty much mirror those at play in Syria's civil war.

I should also point out today, Wolf, too, rebels unleashing a barrage of rockets right in central Damascus, too, So, a real uptick in violence today, Wolf.

BLITZER: When it comes to arming the rebels, looks like there's a change emerging from the United States. What's going on?

WALSH: Well, John Kerry came out today and said quite clearly that he would not stand in the way of allies of the United States who wanted to arm the Syrian rebels. That's not saying the U.S. would do that themselves. They have been very reluctant to and in fact Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says in fact his understanding of who the rebels were has in fact got more confused in the past year as the rebels have begun to get more fractured and some of them more extremist.

But what John Kerry's words do, do is permit perhaps the U.K. and France to more openly begin the process of arming. They have been talking about evading or working around E.U. sanctions that stop weapons being given to Syrian rebels. They have yet to actually begin the process of handing them over. It's a long, difficult, practical road ahead, but part of the calculation is by saying they will do it, they might jar President Bashar al-Assad towards a negotiating table, put extra pressure upon him, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh joining us from Beirut with that story, significant developments. Thanks, Nick, very much.

There are huge problems to tackle in the Middle East right now, but the White House is downplaying expectations for the president's trip this week. He leaves tomorrow night for Israel. It will be his first visit there since becoming president of the United States. He will also travel to the West Bank and to Jordan.

And John King is joining us now from Jerusalem.

What are they saying there, John, about Syria right now? This seems to be a critical moment.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a critical moment now, Wolf, in Syria and will be a critical subject of conversation when President Obama makes his first trip to Israel as president and sits down with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

A couple of key points. Number one, from the very beginning the United States has had extremely good cooperation on the intelligence front from the Israeli government. Obviously, they are in the neighborhood, Syria's neighbor to the south. They have a much better picture here, not only of the state of play with the Assad regime and its stability. The Israeli sources I have spoken to say they think a few more months at best for President Assad, but also about the movement of military assets, the movement of chemical weapons.

That exchange of information is critical from the United States' standpoint. While Israel was out even ahead of the Obama administration in saying Assad must go, you have to understand it's a little jittery here in Israel at this moment because they look to the south and what happened with regime change in Egypt, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, given all the uncertainty of who and what would succeed Assad if he were to fall, Wolf, very important the president and prime minister stay on the same page on this one.

BLITZER: What do they expect to emerge from President Obama's visit to Israel this week?

KING: It's interesting.

If you talk to key officials here in Israel, if you talk to members of the Palestinian leadership, most of them say at first, not much. They think the president's coming here because he has to, because he didn't come to Israel in the first four years. They think he's coming here because he wants to talk most importantly about the Iran nuclear cooperation with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But do they expect any breakthroughs on that? No. They say President Obama will ask to give diplomacy more time and they expect the important conversation about Syria. They don't expect any new peace initiative from the American president. On the one hand, people say in a sense, what took you so long, but then in the next breath, you're too late. There's not much that can be done now given the levels of distrust.

There are some contrarians though who say the most important thing is to start to improve the personal relationship. You know as well as I do, perhaps even better, this president and this prime minister do not have a good personal relationship, but given the issues, Iran, Syria, and the president's hope that down the road maybe a few months of reviving peace conversations, they have to build a little bit more trust, detente, if you will,, if not peace.

BLITZER: John, you went and spent some time in Gaza. What was that like crossing in, crossing back, what did you see?

KING: It was fascinating, Wolf, my first time, a very elaborate security apparatus when you cross from Israel into Gaza, even more so when you come back from Gaza into Israel.

They take a much closer look at everything you have with you, check all your papers and the like. We had been in Ramallah over the weekend and so then to go to Gaza is to see the two different Palestinian territories, if you will. Ramallah has many problems, don't get me wrong, but I was there several years ago, and when you look now, much more bustling in terms of the economy, many more later model cars, many shops and cafes open in Ramallah.

In Gaza, poverty, donkeys and horses pulling carts in some cases, yes, some cars, but most of them older and beat up. Still right there in the center of Gaza City, big posters celebrating what the Palestinians and especially Hamas call martyrs. The Israelis would call them murderers, terrorists who have carried out strikes on Israelis, and a big poster celebrating the militant wing of Hamas, which, of course, controls Gaza.

Economically, it's devastation, Wolf. You go to factories. I was at one furniture factory, for example, 150 employees a few years ago, it used to trade to Israel, used to ship to the United States and elsewhere, but since the siege of a few years back, Israel won't accept exports anymore, so from 150 employees down to 20 employees.

The owner of that factory was quite candid. He said, yes, he blames Israel but he also blames Hamas and Fatah. He said the political dysfunction of all of the parties, including the Palestinian competing parties, is what's causing devastation in Gaza and, Wolf, I will tell you this, there is no hope that President Obama is going to make anything different, at least not on this trip.

BLITZER: Yes, maybe they will start something, but I'm sure nothing much is going to be emerging in the immediate period ahead. John, we will check back with you tomorrow. Thanks very much.

KING: Thank you. KEILAR: President Obama's newest Cabinet pick already is facing opposition.

Today, Thomas Perez was formally tapped to be the next labor secretary. Republican Senator David Vitter quickly promised to block the nomination. He and other conservatives say Perez is too partisan in his current job as the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, but supporters say Perez is a fierce defender of civil rights, who's been working to clean up his department.

Now that Hillary Clinton is a former Cabinet member, she's publicly announcing for the first time that she supports same-sex marriage. That puts her in line with other leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Obama, and, yes, her husband.

It's adding fuel to speculation she may be laying groundwork for a presidential bid in 2016. I know you think she will.

BLITZER: If she's healthy.

KEILAR: If her health stands, yes.

BLITZER: I think she will.


BLITZER: Tomorrow, Pope Francis will be formally installed as head of the Roman Catholic Church. The president of the pope's native Argentina will be there.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner met with him today. They have clashed publicly over social issues, but Fernandez said she asked the pope to intervene in Argentina's dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

KEILAR: Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, is representing the United States at the pope's installation and he is also squeezing in some diplomacy, meeting today with the Italian prime minister.

BLITZER: The pope himself is delighting crowds in a rare move for the pontiff who spontaneously left Vatican yesterday to greet well-wishers outside. That was a nervous moment for his security personnel.

KEILAR: Very nervous, almost Bill Clinton-esque, I think you would say.

BLITZER: Started to walk around and talk to people.

KEILAR: Walks -- but that scares whatever the security detail is.

So, this impromptu walk about is telling us a lot, though, about the new pope's style. It also does underscore the dilemma for his security guards. How do you protect a pope who wanders into crowds without warning? CNN's Brian Todd is looking into papal security.

What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, Wolf, we spoke to two people who have been intimately involved in security for the pope and they both say it's hard to balance the need for security with the pope's need to literally embrace his followers and they say after Sunday's incident, adjustments will have to be made.


TODD (voice-over): A new pope with a spontaneous streak steps outside the Vatican's cordon to greet the crowd. He's swarmed with affection, but still swarmed. And his security guards are visibly agitated. "London Daily Telegraph" reporter John Bingham was right there on Sunday, shook Pope Francis' hand and says about the pontiff's security detail.

JOHN BINGHAM, "LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH": They didn't know where he was going to walk, where he wanted to go, and I think we saw the car move about five times just as they desperately tried to work out what he was thinking, what he was going to do.

TODD: The incident raises the question, how do you protect a pope who insists on being with followers physically as well as spiritually?

Andreas Widmer was a member of the elite Swiss Guards who have watched over popes for centuries. He guarded Pope John Paul II. I asked him how a bodyguard should respond to a situation like Sunday's.

(on camera): What is going through your mind then? What are you thinking?

ANDREAS WIDMER, FORMER SWISS GUARD: Yes. I think you stay focused, You will close in on him. There's quite a few people around him. They are trained for this.

TODD: But are you looking at people's faces, are you looking for strange stiff movements?


WIDMER: Yes. Different people in the security detail I think would look at different things.

TODD (voice-over): Widmer says he doesn't know if the pope wears bulletproof vests under his robes in public. There are conflicting reports on whether the previous two popes, Benedict the XVI and John Paul II, wore them. A bishop once said John Paul believed it was against Christ's will to wear one.

After John Paul was shot several times in a 1981 assassination attempt, narrowly escaping death, the popemobile was fortified with bulletproof glass. But popes can still be exposed in public. Pope Benedict was rushed by the same woman on two different occasions, and in one instance she caused him to fall. A young boy once caused a stir when he ran up to Benedict.

Former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, who coordinated security for Pope Benedict's visit to the U.S., says Pope Francis will have a problem only if he mingles with the public at every event.

JOE HAGIN, FORMER DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: If those who would do him harm know that he is holding a mass somewhere and knows that every time he holds the mass, he goes to the crowd afterwards outside, that would be a problem.


TODD: Hagin and Andreas Widmer both say Pope Francis' security detail will adjust to his spontaneous style but they say he will have to adjust too.

One thing they both say is that he's going to have to stop traveling in those small sedans and switch to more fortified vehicles and motorcades. Brianna and Wolf, he's not back in Argentina anymore. He's going to have to adjust.

KEILAR: He's going to have to get used to it. That's a really big job for the Swiss Guard. Is it just the Swiss Guard? Do they have some help?

TODD: No. We have been told that in recent years, the Italian secret service and the regular police have now joined in that security detail and Andrea Widmer tells me when the pope travels aboard or anywhere, those Swiss Guards go with him.

A unit of the Swiss Guards go with him, but those guards do not wear the colorful uniforms. They are more like the Secret Service. They blend in with suits and things like that. It would be a little odd to see them traveling with him.

BLITZER: We wish the pope only the best. Thanks very much, Brian Todd reporting.

TODD: Yes.

BLITZER: Coming up, she was watching TV one minute and the next minute a plane was tearing into her house. A survivor of that deadly crash tells us how she and her son got out alive.

And another controversial attempt by the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, to protect New Yorkers from damaging their health.


BLITZER: We're learning more about the victims and survivors of a plane crash.

KEILAR: A corporate jet slammed into a row of houses in northern Indiana yesterday and sheered it in half. The nose wound up poking through the front window of one home.

CNN's Jim Spellman is in Indiana where he talked to a survivor.


JIM SPELLMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf and Brianna, this South Bend, Indiana, neighborhood is still reeling from a bizarre plane crash that killed two, including a former college football star and injured several others.

(voice-over): On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Patricia Kobalski was watching TV. Her 6-year-old son, Dominick, was on the computer.

PATRICIA KOBALSKI, SURVIVOR: I just heard this loud explosion and I come out of my room and there's insulation and glass everywhere and a window on the floor. I thought there was a hole in the roof, in the front of the roof, but I was just seeing that my window, front window was gone and that there was a plane in my house.

SPELLMAN: With jet fuel leaking from the plane, she knew the situation was dangerous.

KOBALSKI: I was like oh, my God. I just -- I couldn't move for a second. I hugged my son and I cried and then we got out. We walked out.

SPELLMAN: Patricia and her son were safe, but two aboard the plane were killed.

(on camera): The twin-engine jet which took off from Tulsa, Oklahoma, reported mechanical problems and attempted to land at South Bend Regional Airport about a half mile in this direction, but it never touched down. It was reportedly making another attempt to circle around, but it never made it, crashing about halfway down this block.

(voice-over): NTSB investigators are working the scene, trying to term a cause of the crash before removing the plane from the house. Killed on board the flight were Steve Davis, star quarterback who led the Oklahoma Sooners to 28 straight victories and two national championships from 1973 to 1975, and Wes Caves, owner of the plane.

(on camera): How do you think you were able to survive unhurt and just walk out?

KOBALSKI: I don't know. Somebody was watching over us. They had to be.

SPELLMAN: Most neighbors have been allowed back to their homes, but it could be seven to 10 days before the NTSB has the preliminary finding on the cause of the crash. Davis spent 18 years as a college football broadcaster after he finished playing -- Wolf and Brianna.


BLITZER: Jim Spellman, thanks very much. What a horrible story that is.

More evacuations, meanwhile, today from the path of a wildfire waging near the resort town in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee -- 35 cabins have been damaged. Propane tanks have exploded. One resident says it looks like a bombing site. The blaze started with a house fire yesterday and has now spread to 230 acres. High winds are fanning the flames and making it hard for helicopters to drop water on the fire.

KEILAR: Imagine a 10 percent tax on your savings. That is what people in one very small country are facing -- up next, why it could save an entire continent.



KEILAR: And up next, Republicans are at odds over whether a grand bargain with the president is possible. After the break, we will talk to GOP Senator Bob Corker, who's a lot more optimistic than the House speaker. Why the split? Find out next.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking ranks. We will ask Republican Senator Bob Corker why he's hopeful about a long-term budget deal with the president when some party leaders aren't.

The mayor's new target -- after Michael Bloomberg's attempt to crack down on sugary drinks, you're going to find out what he's doing now for an encore.

And a 23-year-old museum mystery. The feds think they finally cracked a case of the Boston art heist.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

KEILAR: I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Kate Bolduan.


KEILAR: It is one of the great debates in Washington right now. Can President Obama and Republicans reach a long-term agreement on reducing the deficit?

BLITZER: The answer different depending on which Republican you ask.

The House speaker, John Boehner, doesn't sound very hopeful. He's standing firm against the idea of increasing tax rates, increasing tax revenue.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The president believes that we have to have more taxes from the American people. We're not going to get very far. If the president doesn't believe that the goal ought to be to balance the budget over the next 10 years, I'm not sure we're going to get very far.

And this is the whole issue. We have a spending problem here in Washington, and it's time to solve the problem.


BLITZER: We're hearing some different things coming from various Republicans, including Senator Bob Corker. He's a Republican of Tennessee. He says he's optimistic about the possibility of what's called a grand bargain, and he's open to the idea of raising tax revenues to cut the deal under certain circumstances.

Senator Corker's joining us now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Good to be with you, Wolf. Thank you.

BLITZER: You heard Speaker Boehner saying there's no discussion as far as he's concerned about additional tax revenue. You're saying you're still hopeful there can be a deal in the next four or five months. What's going on?

CORKER: Well, Wolf, I do think the best environment we're going to have under this president's term is going to be between now and August 1.

We're going to move through the sequester process, it looks like, on the Senate floor either tonight or tomorrow. We will pass the bill that funds government at the lower sequester levels. I think that's a major victory. We will have the budgets next week, and then we will have a period of time of about four months before the debt ceiling actually is hit.

I think that's the most fertile time for us. I think what Republicans want to see, Wolf, is they want to see a 75-year actuarial soundness for Medicare and Social Security. We want to make sure that these programs are going to be there for the future.

The president knows that we want to make sure these programs are there. And what the presidents wants, obviously, is some additional revenue. I believe there's a possibility, if we could get the 75-year soundness on Medicare and Social Security with appropriate changes and reforms, I think there may be a way, through full tax reform, to do something that will generate revenues and fit the needs of both sides, and that's what I'm hopeful is going to happen over the next four months.

Now, look, there's no -- you know, no negotiation that's happening right now. There's some general discussions that have taken place, but I think the environment is going to be the best that it's been in the next several months.

BLITZER: So just to be precise, under certain circumstances, to save Social Security and Medicare over 75 years, you'd be willing to raise tax revenue? Do you have a number, two to one, three to one, spending cuts versus tax revenue? Along those lines, what do you see?

CORKER: You know, when we say revenue, we're talking about through closing loopholes, through streaming the process. It's going to be some -- some economic growth that will generate revenue through that entire process if we do it right.

And again, Republicans want to see the tax code change so that it generates the kind of economic growth that we need to have in this country, which is, by the way, the greatest solver of some of the deficit issues that we have.

But I don't have a ratio. I do know that those are the two pieces of the puzzle, Wolf, and there's enough commonality to me between what we're saying and what they're saying that what we ought to try to do is build off that commonality over the next several months and do something that would be great for the American people.

To go back to ratios, remember, the president did just get $120 billion in revenues at year end. And remember in the number that, of course, it's moved around a big deal, but he's already received a great deal of revenue, and so really the revenue piece, if it happens, should be a much smaller component than it was going to be in the first place.

KEILAR: But Senator, I mean, you're leaving the door open to that, so if I'm listening to you, I might be encouraged that there could be some common ground found, but there is a split between the leadership in your party and the rank-and-file members of the Republican Party that's discouraging.

CORKER: No, no, no, there's no split. I think if you -- if you listen to the words that are being said and you listen to Mitch McConnell's comments in the past, you listen to a lot of people on our side of the aisle, again, Republicans want to see tax reform take place. We think it's one of the things that can really drive economic growth in our country.

So, if you look at potential additional revenues through tax reform and you look at entitlement reform that's really solving this problem, I don't think you're really hearing that much differentiation between people speaking.

So, I'd listen closely. I think -- I think people are open to economic growth, and we, obviously, want to see that and the revenues that come from that. And tax reform can help generate that.

And again, I'm listening to a lot of folks, and I do think there is an overlap that's good enough for us to begin some discussions that could bear fruit.

KEILAR: Senator, I want to get your take on this autopsy that came out this morning, the RNC put this out looking back at the 2012 presidential election. One of the things that you can read in this is an emphasis on changing, not the message, but maybe the messenger, maybe the way the message is packaged. Do you think that that's the right way to go, or do you think that maybe the message of the Republican Party does need to be tweaked a little bit?

CORKER: You know, I'm a -- I'm a policy person. I was in business all of my life, and I really arrived in the public arena almost as a civic endeavor. And I try to focus on policy, and I've always said that great policy is good politics, and that's what I tried to focus on. I kind of leave it to others to prognosticate.

I think each of us has to figure out a way to make a difference in this world, especially in this public world. The way I found best is to try to solve problems that are great for the long-term respect of our country and I don't know that I can get into messages and messengers.

Obviously, there was some mistakes made, and no doubt there was some technology advantages that the other side had been able to create for themselves. But I think right now for anybody to say they have exactly the right answer is probably not where we are. And I think things are going to evolve. And I think it's healthy that you have a lot of people offering a lot of different ideas about the problem.

For me, I've always felt that if you offer policy solutions to the problems of this country, especially those that are addressed the long-term issues that we have, you're going to be in a good place. It's worked well for me back home, and I think it will work well for people on both sides of the aisle to focus in that manner.

BLITZER: One final question, Senator, before I let you go. There is a split amongst Senate Republicans. On the one end you've got Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, let's say, the new, younger generation. Then you've got John McCain. There have been some angry exchanges between Rand Paul and John McCain, as you know, in the past few days. Where do you see yourself fitting into this split?

CORKER: I'm kidding. Look, Wolf, I'm a great friend of John's and Lindsey's and have gotten to know Rand and Marco coming in. And look, you know, every now and then you're going to have some old dust- ups. It seems especially those ones relative to foreign policy end up sometimes driving the most passionate dust-ups.

But look, we have four great senators that you've mentioned there. They all have very differing ideas. They are all part of our caucus and bring a lot to it. And I think -- I think it's time to move on and focus on those things that unite us. And -- and look, I really do think it's healthy that people are being as outspoken as they are right now, and hopefully, that will lead to some unification down the road.

BLITZER: We'll see if it does. Senator Corker, always good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thank you.

CORKER: Thank you.

KEILAR: There are very few places left in New York where you can smoke them, and now Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to make it so you can't see them.

Up next, controversy over his plan to force stores to hide cigarettes.


KEILAR: He's gone after trans fats, sugary drinks, now New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is turning his sights on cigarettes. He wants to make sure young people can't even set their sights on them.

CNN's Mary Snow is in New York with details.

So Mary, what's going on with this?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Brianna, this isn't the first time the mayor has taken on the tobacco industry. This is a new approach, though. And if the last battles were any indication, he will likely face strong opposition.


BLOOMBERG (voice-over): After a defeat over supersized sugary drinks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now taking aim at tobacco, again. He wants a first of its kind city law to force stores to hide cigarettes and tobacco products: under counters, behind curtains, in drawers, but not in plain sight. He explained his push on CNN's "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK CITY: So what we're trying to do is just de-glamourtize, don't remind them, don't make it look like it's a normal product. Cigarettes are not a normal product.

SNOW: The main goal is to get teen smoking rates to drop. The city says they've remained flat since 2007.

(voice-over): Tobacco shops like this one, that mostly sell cigars and cigarettes, would be exempt, because kids under 18 aren't allowed in.

New York has led an aggressive fight against smoking and became one of the first cities to ban it in bars and restaurants. It now touts a drop in smoking rates, but it's not convincing retailers.

The New York State Association of Convenience Stores says, "The notion of forcing licensed, tax-collecting, law-abiding retailers to hide their tobacco inventory is patently absurd."

At the Skyline Deli, where a pack of cigarettes can cost almost $14 because of high taxes, Muhammad Akandi (ph) worries about the bottom line.

MUHAMMAD AKANDI (ph), STORE OWNER: People might walk by, not see cigarettes anymore. They're like, oh, they're probably not selling them, and they'll just keep going to the next store. Because you've got to remember, every block has a deli around here.

SNOW: Others grumble about Bloomberg's regulations on the heels of last week's ruling by a judge to invalidate the city's rule to ban large sugary drinks, now in the appeals process. With all the talk about spoonfuls of sugar, cartoons have depicted Bloomberg as Mary Poppins. He was asked about it.

BLOOMBERG: I take that as a great badge of honor. I can't think anything that I'd like. It says we're trying to do something to save lives. Didn't you learn as a kid, we're on this earth together, we should be trying to help each other and save lives? That's one of the most wonderful cartoons I've seen.


SNOW: Now, unlike the ban on large sugary drinks, which was decided by the Department of Health, this time the mayor is seeking legislation. A bill is expected to be introduced to the city council on Wednesday -- Wolf and Brianna.

BLITZER: He's trying to do as much as he can, I guess, before he leaves office.

Mary, thanks for that report.

KEILAR: Do you think next he might be on Cheetos? Cheetos up on a high shelf.

BLITZER: Fourteen dollars for a pack of cigarettes? Do you believe that?

KEILAR: That's what you were appalled by during that story. It's very expensive. It's a very expensive habit.

BLITZER: So maybe people should stop smoking.

KEILAR: They can save money.

Just ahead, growing fears of a major cyber-attack as we get more information about hacking that may have changed the outcome in voting in Florida.


KEILAR: An election targeted by hackers. We're learning new details of an apparent cyber attack that may have skewed a Florida election. It comes as officials are stepping up warnings about the cyber threat facing the U.S. And CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is working this story for us.

What's the latest, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, the officials in Florida were able to block this cyber attack before thousands of absentee ballots ended up in the hands of folks who had no business getting them. The scary thing is, these attacks are only going to become more sophisticated and they're going to come more often.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LAWRENCE (voice-over): Thousands of phony voters could have had a say in Florida's primary election. A cyber attack bombarded Florida election officials with 2,000 to 3,000 requests for absentee ballots. None of them from real voters. The requests came from untraceable I.P. addresses overseas.

This cyber version of stuffing the ballot box may only be the beginning. Worries about a major cyber attack have skyrocketed in the last year.

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Iran is already at the shores of the United States with cyber attacks, and that's what's so concerning.

LAWRENCE: Iran is one of the suspects behind a cyber attack that destroyed 30,000 computers at the world's largest oil producer and another that disrupted online banking for American customers last year. Remember, a simple software failure triggered the northeast blackout in 2003.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: Now think about somebody imposing a software failure, not just in the northeast, but across all of those, and cascading that across the United States.

LAWRENCE: And cyber may be the next great equalizer that makes poor adversaries able to combat U.S. military power.

ALAN PALLER, DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, THE SANS INSTITUTE: Other nations are spending most of their money to take commanding control of our kinetic weapons.

LAWRENCE: Alan Paller co-chairs Homeland Security's task force on cyber skills. He says nations are developing viruses that could make it so an American military commander wouldn't trust his own missiles or drones.

PALLER: If it gets inside the computers that control the weapons systems, he can't be sure where the weapon is going to aim when he shoots it.


LAWRENCE: Scary stuff, and it's one of the reasons new Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is heading to Beijing tomorrow. U.S. officials tell us he's going to carry a -- carry a very firm message to the Chinese that they have to take steps to stop these cyber attacks.

The thing is, U.S. officials have warned the Chinese before that attacks by Chinese officials actually spiked in the middle of last year -- Brianna.

KEILAR: I think we'll be talking a lot more about this in the months and years to come. Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon. Thanks, Chris.

BLITZER: Very scary stuff, indeed. Meanwhile, the most notorious art heist in America's history may be closer to being solved 23 years later. Federal authorities reveal surprising new information today about the brazen theft of 13 works of art from a Boston Museum worth some $500 million.

Lisa Sylvester has got this story for us. What's the latest?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's hard to believe that this artwork was never recovered. There have been numerous theories over the years, but the FBI says they have some crucial pieces of evidence now in the case, and they believe they are closer than ever to solving one of the greatest art heists of all time.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): One-24 in the morning in Boston, the day after St. Patrick's Day in 1990. Two men dressed as police officers bluffed their way in, saying they heard there was a disturbance at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They tied up the two guards on duty and took them down to the basement. During the next 81 minutes, they committed one of the largest property thefts in history, taking 13 different art works, now worth about $500 million.

ANTHONY AMORE, CHIEF OF SECURITY, GARDNER MUSEUM: Imagine if you could never hear Beethoven's Fifth or any great piece of music that you enjoy, and it's just dedicated to memory. That's the same when you lose a painting like the ones we've lost, the singular master works by some of the world's greatest artists.

SYLVESTER: The thieves entered the first floor and went to the Blue Room and stole a Monet painting. Then they went up to the second floor. In the Dutch Room, they stole six paintings, some of them cut out of the frames. Among them, three Rembrandts, including the artist's only seascape. And a Vermeer. There are only 34 Vermeer paintings that are believed to exist. Then they crossed into the Short Gallery and took another six art pieces, including five Degas paintings.

The thirteen masterpieces have never been recovered; no arrests made. But after combing through thousands of leads that have taken investigators around the world, the FBI announced it now knows who took the art work. Investigators say they are reasonably sure organized crime is involved.

RICHARD DESLAURIERS, SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE, BOSTON FBI: We have reason to believe it's likely that the art work changed hands several times and that those who might be in possession of the paintings right now might not necessarily have been those that were involved in the original theft.

SYLVESTER: But where are those 13 pieces of art now? The FBI says it does not believe the pieces ever left the country. And they say about 12 years ago some of the masterpieces were seen in Connecticut and Philadelphia, where someone tried to sell them.

GEOFF KELLY, SPECIAL AGENT, BOSTON FBI: I don't know if all 13 pieces are still together. We've received information that we've been able to corroborate showing that the paintings may have been in different locations at different times.

SYLVESTER: The two men who commit the crime will likely never be charged, because the statute of limitations was up after 20 years.


SYLVESTER: Now one reason for the high level of confidence is that they are offering a $5 million reward. The museum says that is one of the largest private rewards ever put up. And they're hoping that someone out there might have seen these paintings in an attic, a basement, in a home, and they are asking, if you have any information, contact the FBI at this number, 1-800-call-FBI.

And if you want to view these stolen masterpieces up close, we have posted images of them on our show blog, So we have all of the 13 images on there so people can take a look. Who knows? Maybe there's somebody who has seen one of these pieces. But there's $5 million up for grabs, if you will.

BLITZER: If you find them.

KEILAR: How did they not get busted?

SYLVESTER: That's the most amazing thing about this story is the statute of limitations, it was actually up after 20 years. We're now at 23 years. So the people, actual people involved, sorry, there's not much that they can do.

However, the people in possession of these art works, that is still a crime. But the prosecutors say that they would be willing to give immunity in certain cases. So really at the heart of all this, they want the art back.

KEILAR: They want it; $500 million worth of art and they want it back.


KEILAR: Lisa Sylvester, thank you.

Well, an article about race sparks an uproar in the City of Brotherly Love. CNN's Erin Burnett is going "OUTFRONT" on the story at the top of the hour.

What's that about, Erin?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Well, this article is getting such incredible feedback. It is called "Being White in Philly." And the mayor of Philadelphia has called it "pathetic and uninformed." There's a town hall tonight. It has caused such a discussion about race. The editor of that magazine is going to be our guest tonight.

And someone said that the character Satan in the hit series on History Channel called "The Bible" looked like President Obama. That person said it was all in fun. Well, in tonight's essay tonight, we actually look at the record on Glenn Beck.

Back to you guys.

KEILAR: Erin, thanks for that.

BLITZER: And when is popping the question breaking news? When an anchorwoman reads her proposal on the teleprompter on the air. The happy couple talks to CNN's Jeanne Moos.


BLITZER: This is a marriage proposal one TV journalist won't forget and neither will her viewers. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): How did this Huntsville, Alabama, news anchor find out she was getting married? She heard herself deliver the news.

JILLIAN PAVLICA, NEWS ANCHOR: And we do have some breaking news to report you to. FOX-54 has just learned that a Huntsville news anchor is being proposed on live TV right now.


MOOS: The rest of the WZDX news team walked off the set, and Jillian Pavlica's boyfriend walked on. He had sabotaged the teleprompter.

VINCE RAMOS, JILLIAN'S BOYFRIEND: I can't picture a day of my life waking up without you by my side.

MOOS: And then Vince Ramos dropped down on one knee.

RAMOS: Will you marry me?

PAVLICA: Yes. Yes. Thank you.

RAMOS: I love you.

PAVLICA: I love you, too.

MOOS (on camera): You made some cute but funny little noises.

RAMOS: I told you.

PAVLICA: How embarrassing.

MOOS (voice-over): And now the back story, the doctored teleprompter.

(on camera): The truth finally dawned on Jillian when she got about 23 words in and finally read aloud the word "proposed."

RAMOS: My main goal was for her to get at least 50 percent of the way through without her realizing it.

PAVLICA: A Huntsville news anchor is being proposed on live TV.


MOOS (voice-over): Now Vince is the sales manager of a car dealership. He knows nothing about TV and needed an accomplish to commandeer the teleprompter.

(on camera): Julian's producer was instrumental in tricking the anchor for about ten seconds before coming out of the break.

PAVLICA: Oh, my gosh. She was in my ear: "Jillian, we have breaking news." She's like, "Just shut up and read it." I'm like, OK.

MOOS (voice-over): Their friends are joking about it being a Ron Burgundy moment.


FRED WILLARD, ACTOR/COMEDIAN: Damn it. Who put the question mark on the teleprompter? For the last time, anything you put on that prompter, Burgundy will read.

MOOS: The media blog FTV Live wasn't feeling romantic: "Why should anyone else give a crap that the news anchor's boyfriend wants to marry her? Propose on your own time, not the viewers'."

PAVLICA: Everyone always says, "We want to see happy news." And you know what? It was a happy ending.

MOOS: All of Jillian's precipitation led into the weather.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A hundred percent chance of a few tears of joy tonight.

MOOS: Some things don't require much teleprompting.

(on camera): All right. Well, you may kiss the bride to be.

(voice-over): Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

RAMOS: I love you.

PAVLICA: I love you, too.


BLITZER: That is sweet.

KEILAR: Very sweet. It's like an "I'm getting married?" moment.

BLITZER: Yes. He surprised her.

KEILAR: It's beautiful. They did a pretty good job. BLITZER: Remember, you can always follow what's going on in "THE SITUATION ROOM" on Twitter. You can tweet me, @WolfBlitzer.

KEILAR: Tweet me, @BriKeilarCNN. And you can tweet the show, @CNNSitRoom.

BLITZER: That's all the time we have. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.