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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Senior Presidential Adviser Dan Pfeiffer; Obama Administration Under Fire; Texas Tornadoes

Aired May 16, 2013 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: John Zarrella on the scene for us.

John, thanks very much. All of us do, in fact, love Florida orange juice.

Happening now: reports of a meeting between the Boston bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and a Chechen fighter now living in the United States just weeks before the attack. Our Brian Todd is on the scene. He's investigating.

Plus, the search for missing victims after killer tornadoes tear across Texas. We're going there live. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin, though, with clouds hanging over President Obama's second-term agenda. They became all too real once again today, very real, in fact, when rain started falling during the president's Rose Garden news conference with the visiting prime minister of Turkey. President Obama has been taking some major steps over the past few days to try to get on top of the scandal surrounding his administration.

Our White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is joining us now with the very latest.

What another day for the president, Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was, Wolf.

President Obama can't seem to catch a break, not even from the weather.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Why don't we get a couple of Marines? They're going to look good next to us.

YELLIN (voice-over): A stormy week broke into a steady rain in the Rose Garden.

OBAMA: There we go. That's good. YELLIN: As President Obama beside Turkey's prime minister faced questions about the controversies dogging his administration.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My main concern is fixing a problem. The actions that were described in that I.G. report are unacceptable. I have complete confidence in Eric Holder as attorney general.

YELLIN: On the IRS scandal, he says there's no need for a special counsel. Congress can investigate.

OBAMA: They have got a whole bunch of committees. We have got I.G.s already there.

YELLIN: And sidestepped when asked if anyone in the White House knew about IRS targeting earlier than reported.

OBAMA: I certainly did not know anything about the I.G. report before the I.G. report had been leaked through press -- through the press.

YELLIN: He defended his Justice Department's decision to seize journalists' phone records.

OBAMA: Leaks related to national security can put people at risk.

YELLIN: But says he now supports a media shield law, which may not have made a difference in this case anyway. It seems the president is trying to put the stormy days behind him.

OBAMA: Accepting the resignation of the acting commissioner of the IRS. We're continuing to review our security at high-threat diplomatic posts, including the size and nature of our presence.

YELLIN: But he just can't seem to get out from under the clouds.

QUESTION: How do you feel about comparisons by some of your critics of this week's scandals to those that happened under the Nixon administration?

OBAMA: Well, I will let you guys engage in those comparisons.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: And, Wolf, more signs that the administration is now on damage control. The president just met with Pentagon brass, announcing his next steps to combat sexual assault in the military, and he officially called on Congress to fund more embassy security.

Tomorrow, he makes a big push on the economy. Signal from here, business as usual, but still, they're clearly fighting these issues, Wolf.

BLITZER: Some of his advisers and others -- and we're going to be speaking with Dan Pfeiffer, the senior adviser to the president -- some outside advisers think it might be a good idea for the president to spend more time now outside of Washington, as opposed to being inside Washington. What are you hearing?

YELLIN: Well, if the same old thing doesn't work, try to change it up. He likes getting out and does better when he's outside. But they were planning to do that anyway, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will follow the president if he's inside Washington or outside Washington. Wherever he is, I know you and our entire White House team will be on the scene as well.

Jessica, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, there's fresh fallout from the IRS scandal, another top official now stepping down.

Let's bring in our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's been working really hard.

What else is going on, on this front?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have two developments.

First of all, there is a second resignation at the IRS, Joseph Grant, who until today was the commissioner of the tax-exempt division. That of course is at the heart of the controversy. That's the first development. The second is that I learned this afternoon that former IRS chief Douglas Shulman, who was at the helm during most of this controversial targeting of Tea Party groups, will testify before the House oversight committee next Wednesday.

And the man who succeeded him will testify tomorrow. And I got a preview today from the committee chairman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. DAVE CAMP (R), MICHIGAN: This is the witness table.

BASH (voice-over): In this room, Republican Dave Camp will chair the first IRS hearing since the scandal exploded. His star witness, Steven Miller, the IRS chief who just got fired.

(on camera): This is literally the hot seat.

CAMP: Well, I think it will be, because we have been inquiring, and he and the IRS weren't forthcoming.

BASH (voice-over): Miller learned one year ago IRS agents were targeting Tea Party and other conservative groups for excessive scrutiny of tax-exempt applications, but Miller never told congressional investigators, including Camp.

CAMP: So I want to know what he knew. I want to know when he knew it, and I want to know from his standpoint to make sure this doesn't happen again. BASH (on camera): Do you think Steven Miller is the fall guy here?

CAMP: I think this isn't going to end up just being one person's responsibility. This is an agency. There is a group of people. Decisions are made with lots of sign-off. If it's incompetence, it's incompetence that really goes into a level of wrongdoing.

BASH (voice-over): This IRS inspector general report concluded agents who singled out Tea Party groups were not influenced by anyone outside the IRS. Republicans are skeptical, especially the House speaker.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Somebody made a decision to do this. And I doubt that it was some low-level employees in the Cincinnati field office.

BASH: For now, outrage at the IRS is a political no-brainer, so it's mostly bipartisan.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: It's clear that the actions taken by some at the IRS must be condemned.

BASH: But some Democrats worry all this could have a chilling effect on IRS efforts to make sure groups that are blatantly political don't get tax benefits they shouldn't.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Tax breaks for the makes of the malicious super PAC ads that poisoned our airwaves during the 2012 election season, that, too, I would suggest is a scandal.

BASH: In fact, Democrats have worried for years conservative groups are abusing tax-exempt status.

Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus is now investigating wrongdoing. But in 2010, he was one of several senior Democrats who pressured the IRS for more scrutiny. And this 2012 letter signed by Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and others singled out conservative Crossroads GPS, Karl Rove's group. Longtime partisan operative Karl Rove is a senior official behind the 501(c)(4) social welfare charity. "And it's common knowledge that his organization exists to elect and defeat specific political candidates," the senators wrote. Crossroads spent tens of millions to defeat Democrats.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, the top Democrat on the committee holding tomorrow's hearing says he's concerned it will evolve into a partisan show instead of a fact-finding mission.

And, Wolf, some Republicans are actually concerned, too. In fact, one lawmaker in the House who has been investigating this for years says he's a little concerned that his own party will overplay their hand.

BLITZER: These letters that were written back, what, in 2010, 2011 to the IRS from these Democratic senators -- and you point out Senator Max Baucus, Michael Bennet, Al Franken, Chuck Schumer, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jeff Merkley, Jeanne Shaheen, Tom Udall, they all signed these letters.

Is there any evidence that the letters influence those at the IRS to go ahead and single out Tea Party groups or conservative groups for special attention before granting them this tax-exempt status?

BASH: So far there's no direct evidence, no. I can't imagine that this issue won't come up with all the Republicans asking questions tomorrow, and of course, next week.

I can tell you that Max Baucus went on the Senate floor yesterday and said that, yes, he wrote this letter, but he didn't mean for it just to be targeting conservative groups. He meant it to be something that would be scrutinized across the board, Democrats, Republicans, everybody.

BLITZER: And the inspector general's report said that they had no evidence that outside influence outside of the IRS influenced these individuals, these officials at the IRS who were doing what they were doing. All right, we will see what happens at that hearing. Thanks very much, Dana. Good work.

BASH: Thank you. Thanks.

BLITZER: Up next, we're going to get the White House reaction to what's going on. The president's senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, there he is, he's standing by live. He's getting ready to answer all of our questions.

Plus, new details of the Pentagon's plans to capture or kill Benghazi terror suspects. It could include U.S. troops on the ground in Libya, if necessary.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Difficult days over at the White House right now. Already besieged over the Benghazi terror attack, the fallout from that, then suddenly now facing this IRS scandal as well.

Dan Pfeiffer is the senior adviser to the president. He's joining us from the North Lawn of the White House to talk about all of these issues.

Dan, thanks very much for coming in.

DAN PFEIFFER, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarify, did anyone at the White House -- because the president was specifically asked this question today; really didn't give us a hard answer -- did anyone at the White House know anything about these IRS abuses before we all learned about it the other day?

PFEIFFER: Well, Wolf, as we've said, the first time that we were aware of this was when we heard a few weeks ago that there was an active inspector general report into the IRS. That was the first we heard. We didn't know the details of it until they came out in the press late last week.

BLITZER: When you say a few weeks ago, was that like three weeks, five weeks, a month?

PFEIFFER: Like three weeks ago, I believe.

BLITZER: Three weeks ago. So you personally found out at that time as well?

PFEIFFER: No, I actually -- the council was notified then. Just so there was -- without details, just so there was an inspector general review of what was happening there. As you know, there were reviews happening across the government at all times. This was just one of those.

The actually details we learned from the press and learned for the first time what actually happened when we got the inspector general report late yesterday.

BLITZER: So when the president says he only heard about the IRS scandal when he heard about it from the news media, the White House council never told him about the I.G.'s report?

PFEIFFER: Well, Wolf, we -- as I said, there are dozens and dozens of inspector general reports happening at any same time, we didn't have any details of what actually happened, or that they had actually found wrongdoing here. It wasn't until we actually saw the report and heard from the IRS that we knew what had happened.

And at that point, the president took swift, decisive action, instructed Secretary Lew to make sure that he worked to implement all of the inspector general's recommendations, that those who were responsible were held accountable. And you saw the beginning of that process last night. And that we make sure this never happens again.

And so that's -- as soon as we had the actual facts and information, not a bunch of hearsay and leaks to the press but the actual report, the president took decisive action.

BLITZER: Because I'm surprised that you would think that with an issue as sensitive as this, the president would have been told by someone that the inspector general has got a really damning report coming out, Mr. President, you should know about this. He shouldn't have to hear about it from the news media.

PFEIFFER: Well, Wolf, I mean, when -- it's just allegations at this point without details, that's not an unusual thing at all.

BLITZER: All right. Let me talk about another IRS official resigning today, the acting head resigned yesterday. Is the White House asking for more resignations, more heads to fall -- to roll?

PFEIFFER: Well, what the president said is that what we have to do is make sure that anyone who had responsibility here is held accountable. And so he's tasked the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, to make sure that happens.

And so that process is ongoing. As you saw, the president announced last night that Secretary Lew had requested and accepted the resignation of the acting commissioner. And that's the first step in ensuring that everyone responsible is held accountable.

BLITZER: So who is going to decide who else should be fired or punished or whatever?

PFEIFFER: Well, the Secretary of the Treasury is going through and looking at this, working with the IRS to make sure this happens.

We announced an acting commissioner, a career civil servant, Danny Werfel, who has worked for presidents of both parties, confirmed by the Senate unanimously, to head over there on a temporary basis to try to run the IRS, and make sure that we're implementing the recommendations and making sure it never happens again, because that's the most important thing here.

BLITZER: Listen to what Mitch McConnell, The Republican leader in the Senate, said today about the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: This is runaway government at its worst. Who knows who they'll target next.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He was up at a Tea Party rally up on Capitol Hill. You saw Senator Rand Paul and Michele Bachmann and others up there as well. "Runaway government, who knows who they will target next." He's referring to the Obama administration.

PFEIFFER: Well, Wolf, I think you answered your own question by saying that he was at a Tea Party rally with Congresswoman Bachmann and Senator Rand Paul. Senator McConnell was clearly playing to the Republican base, playing politics here. There's no evidence to suggest anything like that.

What we should do as Republicans and Democrats, should come together and try to actually fix the problem because it affects everyone. And so that's what the president's pledged to do. And the hope is the Republicans do the right thing and work with us as he has pledged to work with them to ensure it doesn't happen again. That's the responsible thing to do here.

BLITZER: The president seemed to reject today the idea of a special council, outside the Justice Department, outside the normal investigatory procedures. He seemed to say that was not necessary right now. A lot of other people are thinking it is necessary.

Explain why -- I assume you agree with the president?

PFEIFFER: I generally do, Wolf. Look, we've had an independent inspector general look at this. That's how these allegations were brought to light. That was an unsparing report. It was clear that this was the result of a management problem and offered specific recommendations how to fix it.

We have committees in Congress who are going to exercise their oversight function to look at this, and we're going to work with them to do that as long as they do it in a responsible way. And so there's a mechanism to solve this problem and to look into it, and we should use that mechanism.

BLITZER: Here's what a lot of Republicans are concerned about, that back in 2011, 2012, some Democratic senators were writing letters to the IRS asking them to investigate these alleged charitable organizations for supposedly abusing the tax code. And maybe that has an impact on some of these officials over at the IRS.

Do you understand why they're concerned about how -- the timeline, these letters from Democratic senators and then all of a sudden some of these abuses occur?

PFEIFFER: Well, I think the inspector general did not suggest anything like that had any influence on this. So we've had an independent inspector general's report. People should read that report and draw their conclusions from that.

But also let's not conflate two issues. There is a legitimate issue about we deal with these new 501(c)(4)s in this new campaign finance environment post-Citizens United. And so that's one element. But there is nothing in the inspector general's report that suggests that there was a connection between these letters and what the IRS did.

But Congress should look at this. They're going to do it. They're going to hold hearings and the president has pledged to work with them as they look at it. And so let's get to the bottom of all this.

No one wants to get to the bottom of it more and fix the problem more than the President of the United States because, as he said, he takes responsibility; this is his government, and he wants to ensure that the American people have faith in that government. So he's going to work, do everything he can to solve the problem.

BLITZER: Because the Congress is going to look at it, as it should, the oversight responsibility very important. The attorney general said the FBI is going to have its own inquiry into this matter. And we'll see where it all goes.

But you're right, the inspector general's report said they found no evidence of outside influence on the IRS, to go ahead and take these steps that were clearly inappropriate.

Let's talk about Benghazi for a moment. You took the extraordinary step yesterday releasing all the e-mails that led up to those talking points. But some members of Congress, some Republicans like Darrell Issa, who was here in THE SITUATION ROOM, say that's not enough. They want more.

Are you ready to release more?

PFEIFFER: Well, let's be very clear here. These e-mails that were released yesterday were provided to Congress months ago. Congress looked at them. The intelligence committees, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House, and the leadership, Speaker Boehner, Senator McConnell, they looked at these.

And they didn't bat an eye. They didn't raise any issue for months because they looked at them, just as you had a chance to look at them yesterday, Wolf. And they showed that what we've said all along is the case, is that we were trying to get it right, that we were operating under the recommendations and the conclusions of the intelligence community at the time.

And so we put those forward in large part because Republican staff, as was broken on CNN, actually ended up fabricating e-mails to suggest White House involvement in a way in which we weren't involved. And so we thought the best thing to do was put them out. And so we did that yesterday.

BLITZER: Dan Pfeiffer, the senior adviser to the president, thanks very much for joining us.

PFEIFFER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stay right here. We have a lot more news coming up, including a possible link between one of the Boston bombing suspects and a former Chechen rebel who is now living in New Hampshire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now: The FBI searches a home in New Hampshire, looking for a possible link between one of the Boston bombing suspects and a Chechen rebel.

Also, the blind injustice of nature, homes for poor families built by volunteers leveled in an instant by tornadoes.

And an emotional testimony -- a murder victim's relatives tell a courtroom why Jodi Arias deserves to die.

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

Now to a story first reported on CNN, details of Pentagon plans to capture or kill those behind the attack on the American compound in Benghazi last September 11, an attack which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

CNN's Barbara Starr has been working her sources.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, Benghazi has gripped headlines for months now. But we have exclusive new details about what might, might, be coming next if the president orders it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): CNN has learned that the U.S. military has fresh plans to capture or kill perpetrators of the attack on the American compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans. The president has made clear he is determined to bring the attackers to justice.

OBAMA: We are out there trying to hunt down the folks who carried this out.

STARR: The U.S. intelligence community has a target list, including not only individuals, but militant strongholds where it believes al Qaeda-related operatives conduct planning and training.

The FBI leads the criminal investigation into Benghazi, but the military options are there if the president wants backup firepower for capturing suspects or attacking other targets. If ordered by President Obama, CNN has been told that one part of the military plan calls for sending in U.S. special operations troops to carry out the mission.

At the request of administration officials, CNN is not reporting some of the specific details about the target list or the locations of U.S. military and intelligence personnel in the North Africa region. The FBI has already released images of these three men seen at the Benghazi compound. It's not calling them suspects, but it wants to find them.

And just this week, the attorney general hinted at progress eight months after the attack.

REP. HOWARD COBLE (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Mr. Attorney General, can you give us an update on where the FBI's investigation of Benghazi stands today?

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We will be prepared shortly, I think, to reveal all that we have done.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, details of the military planning were confirmed to CNN after several days of reporting. This was not offered to us as part of any media outreach by the administration. No orders yet from the president, but things are in place if it should come to that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And do they sense they're getting closer and closer to finding those who actually killed the ambassador and the three other Americans? In other words, how close do they feel they are?

STARR: Well, you know, you never know, do you? But I have to tell you that senior administration officials have told me that in recent days, weeks perhaps, the intelligence has improved. That's been part of the reason they have been able to update some of this planning, relook at all of the options and try to take a very deep look at what they might be able to do in the coming days. Attorney General Holder seemed to indicate that something might be coming -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Barbara Starr doing some excellent reporting for us, as she always does.

Meanwhile, a high-level White House meeting on sexual assaults, the president meeting with the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, the Joint Chiefs chairman and the heads of all the military branches just moments ago. And afterwards, the president spoke out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Not only is it a crime. Not only is it shameful, and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made our military less effective than it can be.

And, as such, it is dangerous to our national security. There's no silver bullet to solving this problem. This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time, and that's why I'm very pleased to know that Secretary Hagel is going to be having weekly meetings on this.

And I want us to make sure that we have got effective metrics and feedback loops, so that we are continually evaluating how well we're doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He is really, really angry about this. So is the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has introduced legislation that would remove what's known as the chain of command from the process that victims have to go through to get their claims heard. We are going to hear a lot more about this in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, new developments in the Boston bombing investigation, right now, a law enforcement source telling CNN that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote a message while he was hiding inside a boat, saying the attack was payback for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the bombing victims were, in his words, collateral damage.

He also wrote he would not miss his older brother, Tamerlan, who died in a firefight with police because he would soon be joining him.

We're also following a possible, yes, possible link between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and a former Chechen rebel now living in New Hampshire. Voice of America reporting they met less than a month before the marathon bomb attack, and that the FBI has searched -- has executed a search warrant at his home.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us from Manchester, New Hampshire, right now. Brian, I know you're investigating this part of the story. What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we learned that this gentleman in question is hunkered down right now and there are a lot of jittery neighbors who live right around him.

Investigators are still looking into possible links that Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have had with militant activity in Russia, and they have apparently had a lot of questions for a man living right behind me.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The trail of marathon bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has reportedly led investigators to this condominium complex outside Manchester, New Hampshire. A man who lives on the ground floor, Musa Khadzhimuratov, is, according to Voice of America, a former resistance fighter in Chechnya, who fought against Russian security services.

VOA says federal investigators have learned that Tamerlan Tsarnaev met with him less than a month before the marathon bombings. Agents were here on Tuesday to speak to him; examine his computer hard drive, according to VOA; take his DNA and fingerprints. A neighbor described the scene that day.

ERIC MASIMULA, NEIGHBOR: They had some boxes where you are standing. They were just going through them.

TODD: Khadzhimuratov told VOA that federal officials had not suggested he was a suspect. Asked by VOA if he ever discussed Chechnya or Tamerlan Tsarnaev's beliefs on Islam with Tsarnaev...

MUSA KHADZHIMURATOV, MET WITH TAMERLAN TSARNAEV: Nothing. Never. He never spoken about their religious beliefs or anything like that to me. As I said the past three years, I saw him three times.

TODD: We called and knocked on Khadzhimuratov's door several times. A man and a woman inside called out that he didn't want to speak to us. A neighbor who didn't want to be named spoke of his character.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's been my neighbor for years, and he's a great neighbor and a good guy. Never had a problem with him. Good friend.

TODD: According to VOA, Khadzhimuratov was wounded fighting the Russians in 2001 and paralyzed from the waist down. VOA says he came to the U.S. in 2004 as a refugee.

He told VOA the last time Tsarnaev visited him, he came with his wife, Catherine, and their young child. Asked why federal officials have apparently taken such an interest in them, Khadzhimuratov told VOA of a shooting range in Manchester.

KHADZHIMURATOV: Because they're saying he has a shooting practice here in New Hampshire, which was two or three times. So he's going to buy bullets here in New Hampshire, no? And he buy some ammunition for a gun here in New Hampshire. And he came to my house.

So now I believe they're thinking why he's coming here to New Hampshire, like I tried to help him or do something, you know like that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But again, there's no indication that Musa Khadzhimuratov was involved in the Boston Marathon bombings in any way.

We contacted the shooting range in Manchester, mentioned in the VOA report as being the place where Tamerlan Tsarnaev practiced. The owners there would not comment.

An FBI official would only tell us they were in New Hampshire earlier this week on court-authorized activity, but she said she could not comment on the nature of that activity -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Any reason to believe that the widow may have tipped them off about this individual? Because you say she was there, what, a month before the bombing, together with Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

TODD: That's according to that report, Wolf, no reason to believe that he might have tipped them off to this gentleman. But there are all sorts of questions as to how they found his name and contacted him here in Manchester, New Hampshire, at least an hour away from Boston.

BLITZER: That's Katie Russell purportedly cooperating with the FBI in this investigation right now. All right, Brian, you're on the scene for us. Good reporting, as you always do.

At least ten tornadoes ripping across north Texas. We're going to take you to the disaster zone. Stand by.

And some of the most emotional testimony in the Jodi Arias trial. Her victim's brother and sister, they share their grief.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God! Oh, my goodness! Huge!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: At least ten tornadoes touched down in northern Texas overnight. We know of six deaths, all in a neighborhood for Habitat for Humanity homes.

CNN's Alina Machado is on the scene for us in the area. What awful, awful pictures, Alina. What are you seeing, what are you hearing? ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this has really been a heartbreaking day for people in this community. We've just learned the names of the six people who died. They were all adults. They were all in this subdivision that's located about a mile from where we are, that felt the wrath of this outbreak.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God!

MACHADO (voice-over): An outbreak of at least ten twisters carved a path of destruction through north Texas, shredding trees and destroying homes. In the town of Granbury, this is what's left of the Rancho Brazo subdivision, damaged homes littering an area authorities compared to a war zone. The Hook County Sheriff's Office says six people were killed here; others are still missing.

AL BISCARDI, HOMEOWNER: It hurts. It hurts, because I probably built one of their houses, you know. It's part of the community.

MACHADO: The Rancho Brazo subdivision was known as a Habitat for Humanity neighborhood, built by people like Al Biscardi, who also lives in one of the homes.

(on camera): How does that make you guys closer?

BISCARDI: You're a big family now. You're part of the Habitat community. You're a part of their family.

MACHADO: These are homes you helped build.

BISCARDI: Yes. When you get a chance to build these homes, I mean, you get close to people. You get close to the homeowners. You get close to the people from Habitat.

MACHADO (voice-over): Biscardi, who was not home at the time the tornado hit, has not been able to go back. But he says he has seen pictures of the damage.

BISCARDI: I'm kind of antsy to see what's going on. I know the structure's there. I just don't know what devastation is done to it. It still looks sound. But the house that's on the corner, she has no roof. I mean, she's got a roof, but she's got a big hole in it.

MACHADO: Authorities here in North Texas say most of the subdivision's 110 homes were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

BISCARDI: It's a mess. But we're all still here.

MACHADO: Biscardi says he's relying on his faith and his neighbors, hoping to rebuild their tight-knit community, even stronger than before.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MACHADO: Now, this is a live picture of what used to be a mobile home. People who live in this area tell us that, thankfully, no one was inside this home when the tornado hit.

Now, the National Weather Service says a preliminary survey of the damage in this area suggests that the tornado that hit here was an EF-4. That says that the wind speeds were anywhere between 166 and 200 miles an hour.

So far, there are still seven people missing. A spokesperson for this town tells us that this is no longer a search-and-rescue operation. This has now -- this has now moved into a search-and- recovery operation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Alina Machado on the scene for us. Our hearts go out to all those folks. Wish them only the best. Good luck to them. Thank you, Alina.

It's also been a very dramatic and tearful day over at the Jodi Arias trial out in Phoenix. Stay with us. You're going to hear what the relatives of the man she killed told the jury, and what -- what they have to decide, right now, whether she lives or dies.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Jodi Arias will have one more chance to talk to the jury that convicted her of murdering her boyfriend and now has to decide whether she lives or dies. Today her attorney told the jurors that Arias, quote, "will talk to you in a different way, not about what happened, but who she is."

So far today, the jury's heard very emotional statements from the relatives of Arias's dead boyfriend, Travis Alexander.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVEN ALEXANDER, BROTHER OF TRAVIS ALEXANDER: I thought my brother was bulletproof. I thought he was stronger than anything. He couldn't be cut down or knocked down. He was in two motorcycle crashes and walked away unharmed. He wrecked several cars and nothing happened to him. He rolled a snowmobile, and again, not a scratch. He was unbreakable.

Who on earth would want to do this to him, for what reasons? He wanted to move forward in life, to better himself, and only to help others. Why him? Unfortunately, I won't ever get the answers to most of my questions about my brother's death. Questions like how much did he suffer? How much did he scream? What was he saying? What was the last thing he saw before his eyes closed? What was his final thought in his head?

SAMANTHA ALEXANDER, TRAVIS ALEXANDER'S SISTER: Travis had an incredible heart. He had a huge heart. And it was this huge heart, and his kindness that will forever be missed. We were robbed of so many good memories, so many awesome moments with Travis. Our lives will never be the same. We can never get him back.

We are so grateful for our wonderful brother, and we feel so lucky and blessed for the time we had with Travis, however short- lived. We would give anything to have him back. Anything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, is watching and listening, like all of us.

Jeff, very emotional statements today. How much do you believe this will affect the jury, which must now decide whether she gets the death sentence or life in prison?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it does matter. Because remember what her -- Jodi Arias's defense was in this case, was that her boyfriend was a monster, that he was a pedophile, that he was an abuser. And, you know, by the way, none of that was proven.

And now they are seeing a very different side of him. A much more sympathetic side of him, which might make the jury even more angry at Jodi Arias. So it does seem to have some good deal of potential to be very damaging there.

BLITZER: We're learning today that Arias's defense attorneys actually -- get this -- they tried to withdraw from the case after her conviction. The judge ruled they had to stay. So how common is this?

TOOBIN: Well, it's very rare for attorneys to attempt to leave a case at the very, very end. I mean, there are only a few days left, and this trial has gone on for months and months.

You know, I don't think it takes a psychic to figure out that Jodi Arias has been a very difficult client. I can't imagine that her lawyers authorized her to give that bizarre interview to the local FOX reporter, right after she was convicted, where she said she wanted to die, and didn't want to be sentenced to life in prison.

So I'm sure she's been a very difficult client. But to take this step is unusual. It's not surprising, though, that the judge said no. You couldn't possibly bring in new lawyers to master a case this long and complicated at this late stage of the case. So she just made sure that the lawyers stayed on.

BLITZER: If she does testify, and we assume she will, do you believe she will say what she said in that FOX interview, right after she was convicted of first-degree murder, that she would prefer the death sentence?

TOOBIN: You know, that's a great question. And I don't know. Obviously she's a very unpredictable person. Her lawyers have previewed her testimony. Her lawyers have told the jury that she is going to testify. So presumably they would not put her up there if she was going to say to the jury, "Please execute me."

But, you know, this is an unpredictable woman; it's an unpredictable situation. I think she won't say that, but no one can be sure.

BLITZER: No one can be sure, indeed. All right. Jeffrey, thanks very much.

A plane used on long-haul flights has a scary problem. Some of them have a defective part that can cause an engine to shut down in flight. We'll have details.

Also, on a very different note, how a bag of pretzels led to the arrest of a child porn suspect. Stand by.

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BLITZER: Let's take a quick look at some of the other important stories today.

Airlines are being warned to inspect and replace an engine part in one of Boeing's long-haul jets. The problem caused engines on two of Boeing's 777s to shut down in mid-flight. It's been traced to an Italian-made part and an engine gearbox. Boeing and General Electric say there are about 25 jets out there that have it in both of their engines. The companies say those planes should be grounded and fixed now.

An unlikely clue has led to the arrest of a suspected child pornographer. Danish authorities noticed a bag of pretzels only available in the United States in a video posted on the Internet. U.S. authorities released pictures of the man and appealed for the public's help. Today he's under arrest and a child who likely was his latest victim is in protective custody.

No matter how good they are, there comes a time when all sports heroes have to call it quits. Today it's soccer great David Beckham's turn. He announced he will retire at the end of the season. He is 38 years old.

Hip-hop music and Italian restaurants in Libya. Only two years after the fall of Moammar Khadafy, Anthony Bourdain ventures there in "PARTS UNKNOWN." It airs Sunday night, 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, only here on CNN. Anthony Bourdain, by the way, will join me here in THE SITUATION ROOM tomorrow.

A comedian is taking his humor to new heights. That's next, with Jeanne Moos.

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BLITZER: Some people will go to great lengths, or heights, for a good joke. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

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JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Did you hear the one about the joke written in the sky?

KIRK BRAUNOHLER, COMEDIAN: When that "H" came, everyone went crazy.

MOOS: And that was just the first letter, not the punch line. BRAUNOHLER: Hello.

MOOS: Comedian Kirk Braunohler begged for donations through this freezer door on the crowd funding site Kickstarter. His goal was to hire a sky writer to...

BRAUNHOLER: Insert uncertainty or stupidity into strangers' lives.

MOOS: ... by flying over downtown Los Angeles writing, "How do I land?" That should make folks smile.

We haven't seen such elaborate skywriting since the couple in "Malcolm in the Middle" celebrated their love with a heart formed by two planes, which proceeded to collide with one another when the halves of the heart met.

But we digress. Within a couple of days, Kirk received almost $7,000 in donations, more than enough to write a ten-character joke.

(on camera): But it was a windy day in L.A., and almost as soon as the plane would write a word, the letters would be G-O-N-E.

(voice-over): So at the watch party Kirk hosted on a roof top...

BRAUNHOLER: As soon as, like, the second letter was done, it just blew away. And so everyone is like oh, OK.

MOOS: So why does this look so good? It's a composite, so convincing one poster said, "This person can write better with a freakin' plane than I can using a pen."

But this is what the joke actually looked like. Everyone's favorite part was the question mark.

BRAUNHOLER: He did it all in one move as a big curl, and then he straightened out and then turned off the smoke and then just hit the smoke one more time for just the period at the bottom of the question mark. That was pretty awesome.

MOOS (on camera): For his next project, Kirk wants to put jokes on billboards.

(voice-over): Hundreds of billboards. At least they won't vanish the way the skywriting did.

BRAUNHOLER: So you could see "How," but by the time he started on "do," "how" is almost illegible.

MOOS: Funny how the Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz" made it look so easy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Surrender Dorothy!"

MOOS: Better to have your joke go up in smoke than to have it bomb. Even if it did take 20 minutes to get to the punch line. Jeannie Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thank you, Jeanne.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.