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Obama to Nominate Homeland Security Chief; Bogus Papers Set Two Killers Free

Aired October 18, 2013 - 14:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, thank you very much.

Hi, there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Happy Friday to you.

We'll start our hour here at the White House. A live event coming to us moments from now. Take a look at who we will soon be seeing. This is Jeh Johnson. He spells his name J-E-H, Jeh Johnson. He is about to get the president -- right there -- live pictures, people trickling in there at the White House at the Rose Garden. He has been, or will be in a matter of seconds here, nominated to lead the massive Department of Homeland Security. Remember, that is the scrawling federal agency created after 9/11 to prevent and respond to emergencies such as terror attacks. So huge, huge job.

Who is Jeh Johnson? Take a look at the bullet points. A 56-year-old man, a career lawyer. First, a federal prosecutor, and then partner at a prestigious firm in New York. From 2009 to 2012, he was Pentagon general counsel. So in that job, he wrote legal justifications for drone strikes against terrorists and also for allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military. Jeh Johnson is married. He has two kids. He is active in party politics, serving as a fund-raiser and adviser to both the John Kerry and Barack Obama campaigns for president.

So, before we see this ceremony happening in the Rose Garden, let's have a quick chat here with Barbara Starr. She's joining us live from the Pentagon, and Brianna Keilar at the Rose Garden at the White House.

Barbara, first to you. What is Jeh Johnson's reputation at the Pentagon, where he served three years as general council?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, as a top lawyer here, Brooke, he oversaw a team of 10,000 Pentagon attorneys around the world. Very much a legal mind here when he served, writing some of those justifications for drone attacks, speaking out publicly after he left about the justification for the killings, the targeted killings by U.S. drones overseas, killing -- justifying killing of American citizens overseas by drones when they got involved in terrorist activities. Very much also speaking out about the need to change the thinking about the war on terror, that it was becoming not so much a military operation but one for the intelligent and law enforcement communities to pursue.

So his thinking along all of these, certainly and obviously, in line with President Obama. So not maybe so much a surprise around the Pentagon that he would be nominated for this type of job. It falls in line with a lot of his expertise.


BALDWIN: OK. Barbara, stay with me.

Brianna, let me go to you at the White House again, as our eyes are trained on the door waiting for the president and Jeh Johnson and the vice president to exit.

We know that this is a cabinet-level job, so that means the Senate will have to vet and then approve of Jeh Johnson. With that in mind, let me just read you this quote. This is what we saw from influential Senate Republican Jeff Sessions. Quote, "it would appear," says Sessions, "that the president plans to nominate a loyalist and fund- raiser to this post. This is deeply concerning."

My question to you here is, is the White House expecting much resistance to Johnson? Are they expecting some Republicans to try to paint him as a political crony?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know they may, Brooke, but I think the real issue is that that may be all that Republicans have. What the White House -- what President Obama has appointed is someone who has a lot of counterterrorism experience. And, obviously, the Department of Homeland Security includes that as a priority, but also border security. And when you look at Johnson's resume, the emphasis on counterterrorism, you could argue it might be a little bit lopsided. Perhaps there's not a lot of border security, even though we've heard former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta say that he was involved in border security.

Here's the reason that a lot of folks think that he also may be someone who kind of sails through confirmation ultimately and that's that he doesn't have a big paper trail when it comes to that hot button issue of immigration reform. Following this big debt ceiling battle, what did President Obama say that he wanted to be a priority? Immigration reform. And he picked someone who maybe doesn't have, you know, for instance, that paper trail that you might have seen Johnson's, as we expect to be, predecessor, Janet Napolitano, a former governor of a border state. Certainly she would have had a paper trail of having a position on that. Well, Johnson doesn't. And, in a way, it inoculated him against some criticism that someone in this position could have.

BALDWIN: OK. Brianna, stay with me.

Barbara, let me just go back to you because something that, you know, it's unique about this position is that this was established post- 9/11. So we've only seen three people in this specific post. Going back, you had Ridge, you had Chertoff, and now Napolitano and now potentially this fourth. Can you just tell me a little bit more about what this position entails?

STARR: Well, you know, why do Americans even care who's the Department of Homeland Security cabinet secretary? Remember, first and foremost, created after 9/11 for protection of the homeland. So Jeh Johnson, if confirmed, is going to be in the hot seat if, heaven forbid, there's another domestic terrorist attack. Why didn't the U.S. see it coming? What kind of aide is there?

I think they're coming out now. So --

BALDWIN: Here we have them. Here is the president. Let's take a listen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As president, my most solemn responsibility is the safety and security of the American people. And we've got an outstanding team here of folks who work every single day to make sure that we're doing everything we can to fulfill that responsibility.

And that means that our entire government, our law enforcement and homeland security professionals, our troops, our diplomats, our intelligence personnel, are all working together. It means working with state and local partners to disrupt terrorist attacks, to make our borders more secure, respond to natural disasters, and make our immigration system more effective and fair.

Addressing any one of these challenges is a tall order. Addressing all of them at once is a monumental task. But that's what the dedicated men and women of the Department of Homeland Security do every day. And today I'm proud to announce my choice to lead them. An outstanding public servant who I've known and trusted for years, Mr. Jeh Johnson.

Now we are, of course, enormously grateful to Secretary Janet Napolitano. Janet couldn't be here today. She's already made her move to her new position in sunny California overseeing the higher education system in that great state. And I know that she's going to do an outstanding job there with the incredible young people that are in our largest state. But we all deeply appreciate the terrific job that she did over the last four and a half years. I want to thank Rand Bairs (ph) for his service and for stepping in as acting secretary after Janet left.

Thanks in no small part to Janet's leadership, her team, we've done more to protect our homeland against those who wish to do us harm. We've strengthened our borders. We've taken steps to make sure our immigration system better reflects our values. We've helped thousands of Americans recover from hurricanes and tornadoes, floods and wildfires. And we've worked to clean up a massive oil spill in the Gulf, as well as addressed a flu pandemic.

In Jeh Johnson, we have the right person to continue this important work. From the moment I took office, Jeh was an absolutely critical member of my national security team and he demonstrated again and again the qualities that will make him a strong secretary of Homeland Security.

Jeh has a deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States. As the Pentagon's top lawyer, he helped design and implement many of the policies that have kept our country safe, including our success in dismantling the core of al Qaeda and the Fatah. When I directed my national security team to be more open and transparent about how our policies work and how we make decisions, especially when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks, Jeh was one of the leader who spoke eloquently about how we meet today's threats in a way that are consistent with our values, including the role of love.

Jeh also knows that meeting these threats demands cooperation and coordination across our government. He's been there in the situation room, at the table, in moments of decision, working with leaders from a host of agencies to make sure everyone is growing in the same direction. And he's respected across our government as a team player. Somebody who knows how to get folks who don't always agree to work towards a common goal.

Jeh has experience leading large complex organizations. As a member of the Pentagon's senior management team, first under Bob Gates and then under Leon Panetta, he helped oversee the work of more than 3 million military and civilian personnel across the country and around the world. And I think it's fair to say that both former Secretaries Gates and Panetta will attest the incredible professionalism that Jeh brings to the job. And the bipartisan approach that appropriately he takes when it comes to national security.

He's also earned a reputation as a cool and calm leader. Jeh appreciates that any organization's greatest asset is its people. And at the Pentagon, he guided the report explaining why allowing our men and women in uniform to serve their country openly would not weaken our military. Congress ended up using that report that Jeh helped to craft to justify repealing "don't ask, don't tell," and America and our military are stronger because we did, in part because of Jeh's determined leadership. I know he will bring that same commitment to our hard-working folks at DHS.

And finally, Jeh believes in a deep and personal way that keeping America safe requires us also upholding the values and civil liberties that make America great. You know Jeh tells the story of his uncle, who was a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. And he and his fellow airmen served with honor even when their country didn't treat them with the dignity and the respect that they deserved. And it was a lesson that Jeh never forgot. We must adopt legal positions that comport with common sense, Jeh says, consistent with who we are as Americans.

Jeh is a pretty good lawyer, so he knows what that means. And Jeh understands that this country is worth protecting, not because of what we build or what we own, but because of who we are. And that's what sets us apart. That's why, as a nation, we have to keep adapting to changing threats, whether natural or manmade, we have to stay ready when disaster strikes and help Americans recover in the aftermath, we've got to fix our broken immigration system in a way that strengthens our borders and modernizes legal immigration and makes sure everybody is playing by the same rules, and I'm confident that I could not make a better choice in Jeh, somebody who I'm confident is going to be moving not just the agency forward, but helping to move the country forward. So, Jeh, thank you so much for agreeing to take on this very difficult and extraordinary mission. You've got a great team over at DHS, and I know that they're looking forward to having you over there. I urge the Senate to confirm Jeh as soon as possible, and I thank you, as well as your family, to agreeing to serve. Your wife, Susan, and your daughter Natalie and -- couldn't be here because they're visiting Jeh Jr. out at Occidental College, which, by the way, I went to for two years when I was young. It's a fine college. I'm sorry I couldn't be there to say hi to him, but your son chose well.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to invite Jeh Johnson to say a few words. Hopefully our next secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.


As you noted, my wife and two kids are not here because it's parents weekend at Occidental. And thanks to the cost of a nonrefundable airline ticket, they could not be in two places at once. They wished they could be here.

Thank you for the tremendous honor of this nomination and the trust you have placed in me to carry out this large and important responsibility as the secretary of Homeland Security.

I was not looking for this opportunity. I had left government at the end of last year and was settling back into private life in private law practice. But when I received the call, I could not refuse it. I am a New Yorker and I was present in Manhattan on 9/11, which happens to be my birthday. When that bright and beautiful day was a day something like this was shattered by the largest terrorist attack on our homeland in history. I wandered the streets of New York that day and wondered and asked, what can I do?

Since then, I have tried to devote myself to answering that question. I love this country. I care about the safety of our people. I believe in public service. And I remain loyal to you, Mr. President. If confirmed by the Senate, I promise all of my energy, focus, and ability toward the task of safeguarding our nation's national and homeland security.

Thank you again, sir.

OBAMA: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Jeh Johnson, a Morehouse man, would be the first African- American to hold this post if in fact confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Brianna Keilar, let me bring you back in, as you were right there at the Rose Garden where we just heard the president nominate this man who was the tip-top lawyer at the Pentagon. Tell me, do we have any idea when those confirmation hearings would begin with the Senate?

KEILAR: You know, Brooke, we don't actually know at this point, but it was, I thought, pretty interesting when you heard President Obama really emphasizing Johnson's counterterrorism credentials. We talked about this before the announcement that this pick of Jeh Johnson really kind of keeps the powder dry when it comes to immigration reform. It's going to be a hot-button issue. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are miles apart on exactly what they want to emphasize, whether it's the pathway to citizenship, which I think a lot of Democrats want to emphasize, or border security, which more generally Republicans want to emphasize. You don't really have the paper trail here with Jeh Johnson on that issue. He's really done a lot more, obviously managing I think about 10,000 lawyers in the Pentagon, but he's done a lot more in really the legal justification for these targeted killings. So, in a way, you could argue his resume is more towards that than it is on the issue of immigration reform. And in a way, that sort of works as a strength for President Obama in getting Johnson confirmed through the Senate and certainly I think a less painful way, you could argue.

BALDWIN: And how about that? Talking about how his birthday is on 9/11.


BALDWIN: He was in Manhattan, walking the streets, saying what can I do? Looks like the president has found something he would like for him to do. We will await the confirmation from the U.S. Senate. Brianna Keilar for me at the White House, thank you so much.

Coming up, fears grow as two convicted killers walk free.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My life would have been different if I wouldn't have saw it. I saw it.


BALDWIN: He saw his dad murdered by one of these two men. So where do you go when you're on the run?

Plus, the messy Obamacare sign-ups. Find out why some states are doing much better than others.

And that asteroid just zipped by earth, but what will NASA do when one of them takes straight aim? Stay right here.


BALDWIN: No nail files, no underground tunnels for two Florida murders. All they needed for the successful prison escape -- forged release papers. Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walkers are now on the run. Both of these men here, convicted killers. Both serving life without parole. Prison officials let them walk out of prison. So this happened, each of them, about a week apart, thanks to these forged signatures from a prosecutor and the judge. Now, the wife of the man that Joseph Jenkins killed reacted to the news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRYSTAL PUGH, VICTIM'S WIFE: It seemed like my whole world came down on me. I thought I would not have to see them ever again in life because they had life sentences plus 100 years. And now to have to know that he's free on the streets is frightening. It's terrifying.


BALDWIN: Incredibly frightening. Lynn Berry, HLN, here is my first question is, we know they're out and about somewhere as people are looking for them. The two of them a week apart as they leave. Were they in cahoots?

LYNN BERRY, ANCHOR, HLN: That's still unclear.


BERRY: We do know they're both from Orlando. Police are actually concerned one of them has returned to Orlando, which is frightening, especially for the family of the victim.

BALDWIN: Familiar territory. Yes.

BERRY: But here's what happened, and it reads kind of like a Tom Clancy novel. It's completely bizarre. So, the Department of Corrections gets a motion to release early, and a court order to have them leave prison. All of them forged by none other than Judge Belvin Perry (ph) of Casey Anthony fame.

BALDWIN: Oh, wow.

BERRY: Judge Perry actually said, listen, I'm not surprised here. Criminals will do anything to beat the system. But the question is, how was this not flagged? These guys were in prison for life. One, plus 100 years for murder. So why didn't anyone say, wait on a second --

BALDWIN: Hang on a second. This is a little odd.

BERRY: They don't get early release. You know who did flag it was actually a family member of the victim. It's not uncommon for them to be notified when the murderer has been released. And they called police and said, what's going on here, guys. This guy murdered my father. He was supposed to be in prison for life plus 100 years. They investigated, found out these were forged documents, and they were elaborate, county seal, official, you know, documentation, so it seemed legit.

BALDWIN: Signed, sealed, delivered. These guys were living (ph) --- leaving (ph).

BERRY: Now two convicted murders on the street.

BALDWIN: So this is an extreme example. But I'm just curious, how often does this happen where forged documents happen and people just walk? BERRY: Yes, that's the big question, right? We know there is one convict that's actually being investigated for a similar crime. But we don't know how many times this has happened because if it weren't for that family member flagging this -

BALDWIN: We wouldn't know.

BERRY: This would have gone completely unnoticed. And so now the state attorney has said there needs to be a thorough review, which is ongoing, and you need to realize, this is not uncommon for this to happen. It's a problem. It needs to stop. Forged documents are out there. And that's what's so frightening about it, because if it's something that shop lifted, you know, well, I'm not too concerned. A convicted murder, two of them on the street, we don't know where they are, that's a concern.

BALDWIN: Well, their faces are splashed all over national TV and local, so let's hope someone sees them and calls police.

BERRY: So let's hope that changes. Yes.

BALDWIN: Lynn Berry, thank you very much.

BERRY: Good to see you.

BALDWIN: And also, just a reminder, watch this gal, "Evening Express" on HLN each and every night.

BERRY: Join us.

BALDWIN: Which, by the way, will be showing live the coverage of the trial of that doctor accused of killing his wife.

BERRY: Oh, yes, lots of twists and turns there.

BALDWIN: So watch, 5:00 p.m. Eastern on HLN. Lynn, thank you.

Coming up next, these booze bandits make off with hundreds of bottles of very fine, very rare bourbon. So stock around and we'll tell you how these thieves got away with the high-priced whiskey.

Plus, was it a case of life or death or vandalism in a park? Three Boy Scout leaders could face big, big legal trouble after moving a piece of history. And there's video. Don't miss this. That's next.


BALDWIN: Now to some of the hottest stories in a flash. "Rapid Fire." Roll it.

First up here for all you bourbon fans. Someone made off with some pretty high-priced bourbon in Kentucky. So authorities now are trying to figure out who the heck stole $26,000 worth of one of the rarest and most sought after bourbons in the world. What am I talking about? Two hundred bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle disappeared from this distillery. Investigators say the liquor retails for about $130 a bottle, but online it can cost $2,000 a bottle.


SHERIFF PAT MELTON, FRANKLIN COUNTY, KENTUCKY: This was secure in a warehouse in a separate part behind a second lock and key. It would lead you to believe that it would be an internal job. It's highly sought, highly coveted. And as a result of that, it makes it a lot easier to help track.


BALDWIN: An internal job. Hmm. Deputies think whoever made off with the stash did it over the course of two months.

And file this under what never ever to do. Three Boy Scout leaders are now under investigation after toppling this rock from the Jurassic era.


BALDWIN: They're laughing. Not so funny, guys, because this rock is millions of years old. This is part of the formations in a state park in Utah. It is against the law to deface any of these rocks. So one of these guys talked to our affiliate, KUTV. The rock was about to fall over, he says, and could have killed someone.

OK. In Washington, a man in a panda costume had a joyous return to work after the government shutdown.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. We're back!


BALDWIN: The Smithsonian's National Zoo reopened today, which includes panda cam. The zoo's wildly popular panda cam, it's back. Here you go, some of the pictures of the little itty-bitty panda. The eight week old cub packed on a couple of pounds since the last time we saw this little guy.

And a dangerous asteroid zipped by our planet last month and we didn't even know about it. The asteroid was discovered during the government shutdown while NASA, you guessed it, was closed. It is not due to make a return visit for 19 years, so don't pack your doomsday asteroid bags just yet. NASA says the probability of it striking earth is currently one in 63,000. And the odds are expected to grow even slimmer or in fact disappear altogether once more is known about said asteroid.

Coming up next, most women who grace the cover of "Elle" magazine wear, you know, outfits that show a little bit more skin, but not this cover. The funniest woman on the planet, in my opinion, actress Melissa McCarthy, though, she is fully covered, and that is where some of this controversy begins. Coming up next, hear how "Elle" magazine is reacting to the criticism, and the lovely plus sized model Emme joins me, live. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)