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Interview with Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander; Boston Student Charged With Murder; Kathleen Sebelius on Tour; ; White House Official Fired Over Twitter Rants

Aired October 23, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: For the second time in a week, a teacher is dead and a student is the suspected murder.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. She was only 24, a young teacher found dead in the woods behind her school north of Boston. The suspect is just 14 years old. What could possibly have happened between them?

Also, she's about to go on tour. Will it be a farewell tour? Republicans want her head, but Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will soon be out spreading the word about Obamacare, you know, that program she claims already has so much interest, it's crashing the Web sites.

And the politics lead: a mystery Twitter user slinging vicious insults at the Obama administration and revealing insider information. Authorities have traced the tweets, and they're coming from inside the house -- the White House, that is.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the national lead. I'm Jake Tapper.

Last night, the down of Danvers, Massachusetts, a quiet suburb north of Boston, was looking for a missing teenager. He never showed up for soccer practice. Early this morning, police found Philip Chism wandering the highway north of town. Now the 14-year-old is being charged with assaulting and beating to death this young high school teacher.

On Twitter, 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer described herself as a math teacher often too excited about the topic she was teaching. Today, the students and parents at Danvers High are remembering her as an inspiration.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As soon as they heard her name, they all gasped.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was actually just in her room Monday after taking a test with her. And just thinking back on it, it's just surreal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was always the teacher to go the extra mile. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know why she had to die. She's such a wonderful person.


TAPPER: Ritzer's body was found in the woods behind Danvers High, according to the Essex County district's county office.

Blood was also found in a second-floor bathroom inside the building. The entire public school district was closed today by the superintendent as the community tries to make sense of this tragedy.

Joining us now with the latest is CNN's Don Lemon live in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Don, thanks for joining us.

Do we know what the relationship between the student and Ritzer was and what possible motive there might have been?

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We don't know motive, not just yet, and they're not talking about it because obviously he's a juvenile. He's going to be tried as an adult. We heard about that in court today.

But when I spoke with the DA's office earlier, Jake, they said they wanted to be very careful about what they're saying or they were going to release to the public because they didn't enter any bail in court today. They said they didn't enter much information on the record in court today. So they want to wait until this plays out before they release that.

So they don't know exactly what the motive was and they don't know or they're not releasing the exact relationship, except that he was a student here who is a freshman, believed to be a transfer student from Tennessee, new to the community, and that she was a teacher here as well, a math teacher.

TAPPER: We're hearing a lot of nice things about her. We will talk to one of her friends in a minute. What are students saying about him?


Well, again, they're saying that he was a transfer student. They didn't know him very well. He was a soccer player, a star soccer player. They know he did that well. You have heard the old -- it's sort of a cliche, Jake. He was quiet and kept to himself. That appears to be the case in this particular instance as well.

A lot of kids didn't know him because he was new and he was a quiet kid, but he was a great athlete.

TAPPER: So, Ritzer, the teacher, was also reported missing yesterday. Tell us about that.

LEMON: Well, they were reported missing around the same time, first him.

And the reason that they -- you know, that we know he was a transfer student is because on the missing persons report, which is reported in one of the newspapers, it said that he was a transfer student from Tennessee. So they were looking for this new student to the community. She was reported missing because she lived with her parents. She had been a teacher here for about two years, so she was a fairly new teacher here, but also in graduate school at Salem State.

So she was living with her parents so she could pay to go to school. And she loved teaching so she wanted to continue to teach while she did that. When she did not show up, they called police. When she did not answer her cell phone, they called police, and thus the search for her and search in the school behind me and that's when they discovered her body in that second-floor bathroom.

Again, Jake, I want to tell you about the cause of death. They're not saying the cause of death. They said she was beaten, but they're not really talking about it, because they're saying -- excuse me -- when they went to the bathroom, they saw her, you know, blood in the bathroom, and then they found the body in the woods, excuse me.

It is believed he transferred her body to the woods. And there is video surveillance of that. But when they found her body they said it was obvious that she was the victim of a homicide, but they're not releasing the exact cause of death at this point.

TAPPER: All right, Don lemon in Danvers, Massachusetts, thanks so much.

The Ritzer family released a statement to CNN about their daughter. I want to read it: "At this time, we are mourning the tragic death of our amazing, beautiful daughter and sister. Everyone that knew and loved Colleen knew of her passion for teaching and how she mentored each and every one of her students. We would like to ask everyone to respect our privacy at this most difficult time. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers."

We want to bring in someone who was a friend of Colleen Ritzer. Charlotte Dzerkacz taught at the same middle school as Colleen Ritzer in 2011, before Ritzer moved to Danvers High School. They had remained friends.

Charlotte, first off, we're so sorry for the loss of your friend.


TAPPER: Tell us what she was like. Tell us what she was like as a teacher.

DZERKACZ: She was energetic and compassionate.

You couldn't ask for anything more from a teacher or a friend. She cared about every single student and put in many hours after school every day, always thinking about how she could be better and better help students. She was truly a beautiful person. TAPPER: Charlotte, when was the last time you spoke to Colleen?

DZERKACZ: A couple weeks ago.

TAPPER: Were you surprised to hear...

DZERKACZ: We kept in touch about grad school. Was I -- oh, shocked. I still think I'm in shock. I can't believe that anything could happen, never mind to someone as wonderful and young as her.

TAPPER: And especially shocking, I would think, for a teacher would be the fact that a student is being charged.


We were teachers together both of our first years. So we went through, you know, all the struggles and difficult times and also all the happy, rewarding times of being a teacher. And I know even after her first year, first couple weeks, she knew she wanted to be a teacher for the rest of her life. And, I mean, she helped kids whenever she could. I -- I just can't believe this happened to her.

TAPPER: Did she ever talk about having issues with any students?

DZERKACZ: No, never.

And she was someone who always had a smile on her face. She was extremely approachable, so I don't know how this could ever -- she could be the target of something like this. I don't know how that could be.

TAPPER: You said she moved to Danvers to be closer to home, to her parents. Do you think she felt safe there? Is that a community that people feel is safe?

DZERKACZ: Oh, without a doubt, yes.

TAPPER: And, lastly, Charlotte, tell us, what will you remember most about Colleen? The people watching right now, what should they know about her?

DZERKACZ: She was someone -- she always talked about how much she loved her family, her parents, her brother and sister.

She -- I mean, she was just full of joy and happiness. And I will always remember that. And I think even just the passion for educating kids is something that I will carry on in her name.

TAPPER: Charlotte Dzerkacz, thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about Colleen. She sounds like a very special person, and I know it probably wasn't easy talking to us about it. Thank you.

Coming up next on THE LEAD: Millions may have logged on, but how many have actually enrolled? One senator is demanding answers from the White House about Obamacare and the Web site problems. He joins me next. Plus, he hid behind a fake Twitter profile while tossing insults at his colleagues inside the Obama administration. And now after more than two years, he's out of a job. How was he finally caught?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In national news, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was on the guest list for a private White House meeting today with health insurance CEOs. Her department is overseeing the disastrous rollout of, of course. The inclusion of Sebelius today could be a sign that despite mounting GOP calls for her resignation, the White House is not ready to put her career into the fishing boat with Fredo at this time.

Sebelius is all about to leave town along with several other administration officials for what they're calling a grassroots effort to get the word out about the Obamacare, the whole program, not just the Web site, even though they said interest was off the charts when it launched earlier this month.


KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: I think that the volume-related issues are ones that we welcome, frankly. We're thrilled that so many people have paid attention, have visited


TAPPER: Sebelius has become the public face of the failures of the Obamacare Web site, besides the president himself, of course, and besides the unidentified lady in that stock photo on the Obamacare site. Who is that? On "ANDERSON COOPER 360" last night, our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, asked Sebelius point-blank if she would step down over this mess.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Would you consider resigning over this?

SEBELIUS: I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the Web site working right. And that's really what I'm focused on.

I work at the pleasure of the president.


TAPPER: The White House announced that Sebelius' department will start giving daily briefings on the progress in fixing

And joining me now is Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, who is introducing a bill that would push the government to release weekly updates on Obamacare figures. Senator, thanks for joining us. I have to say...


TAPPER: ... it doesn't, on its face, sound unreasonable, weekly updates.

But given how much trouble the Web site is having, is it not possible that this would create an additional burden that would make it even more difficult for to get up and running?

ALEXANDER: This is pretty basic information.

I mean, McDonald's 20 years ago could tell you how many hamburgers it was selling every day. All we want to know in the Internet age is how many people tried to get on, how many were successful, what's their zip code, what was their level of -- what was their level of insurance.

Governors need to know this because if you sign up for Obamacare, if affects Medicaid in virtually every state. We need to know it in the Congress, because we appropriate the money. The American people need to know it.

So why not do it?

TAPPER: You have 760,000 adults in Tennessee who do not have health insurance and over 100,000 children without health insurance.

Do you see a functioning Web site as a possible way to help these individuals out?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think it could. I mean, many of those would be available for what we call TennCare. That's our Medicaid program.

But at least Tennesseans need to know what the cost will be. Now let's think about this, the federal law says you've got to sign up and buy insurance by December 15, not very far away, to be in place by January 1. And you may be fined by the IRS if you don't for trying to enroll on a Web site that doesn't work.

So we need to know if that's the case. Already one Democratic senator has said it's going so badly perhaps they should delay implementation of the individual mandate.


TAPPER: Senator...

ALEXANDER: ... good idea.

TAPPER: ... you do think it's a good idea to delay the individual mandate.

How long do you think it should be delayed? ALEXANDER: Well, it should -- well, I'd repeal it and replace it. But at least delay it a year. And let the process work. That would also give us a chance to have a referendum in 2014 on whether we ought to make dramatic changes in the health care law, which I think we should.

TAPPER: And our Sanjay Gupta interviewed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

I want to play part of that, get your reaction.



GUPTA: Do you know when he first knew that there was a problem?

SEBELIUS: Well, I think it became clear fairly early on, the first couple of days, that...

GUPTA: But not before that, though? Not before October 1st, there was no concern at that point either in the White House or at HHS?

SEBELIUS: I think that we talked about having testing going forward --


TAPPER: Do you think President Obama and/or Kathleen Sebelius really didn't know about the problems with the website before October 1st?

ALEXANDER: I have no idea. But they should have. I mean, the president himself seems embarrassed by it. And if he's not going to resign over this mess, why, he ought to decide who should.

TAPPER: You have not yet joined the calls from some of your colleagues that Kathleen Sebelius resign. If not her, who do you think should be held accountable?

ALEXANDER: Well, I'm not the president. You know, it's the president's job to do it. You know, when Hyman Rickover was head of the Nuclear Navy, he told the captain, if anything goes wrong with the ship or the reactor, your career is over. The president should say that to somebody in his administration and get somebody in charge who knows how to make a Web site work.

Senator Barrasso has said there are 5,000 Web sites with more traffic than this that are working just fine. So, this was a big screw-up. And it's the president's job either to take the responsibility himself or to put somebody else in charge.

TAPPER: Lastly, sir, you're up for reelection next year. Are you worried at all that this current environment, the shutdown, the fight over ObamaCare in a state where you have over 800,000 people who are uninsured, split in the Republican Party with members of the Tea Party, Senator Cruz, all of this combined could cost you your Senate seat in a tough Republican primary?

ALEXANDER: Look, I've -- I respect the voters of Tennessee a lot. I take nothing for granted. I'm in pretty good shape in terms of the polls. I'm in pretty good shape in terms of fundraising. And when I go out and talk to people, they listen. And if they don't agree with me, they at least give me credit for trying to do my job.

I want us to be the take-over-the-government party, not the shut-down- the-government party. That means we need to elect six more Republican senators, the president in a couple of years. Then we could really change Obamacare.

TAPPER: Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, thanks so much and enjoy that -- enjoy your time back at home in that beautiful state of yours.

ALEXANDER: Thank you very, very much.

TAPPER: Let's check in with our political panel in the green room now.

Ryan Lizza of "The New Yorker". A White House official just lost his job for cracking wise on anonymous Twitter account. It's just the latest cautionary tale when it comes to the professional pitfalls of the Internet. What are you going to tell your two little boys when they start asking for social media accounts?

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: You know, they've actually already started asking. My son the other day asking me if he could sign up for a YouTube account. But I have a very simply role in my house, Jake, no Internet they're 18 years.

TAPPER: Eighteen --

LIZZA: You know, it's too dangerous.

TAPPER: Good luck with that.

More on our political panel when THE LEAD continues.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Now, it's time for the politics lead.

The anonymity of the Internet, or at least the perceived anonymity of the Internet, well, it can be awfully tempting to some people. Just make up a Twitter count, let it fly against about all the things that drive you nuts.

But if you work for the government, consider the story of one Jofi Joseph before trying anything like that. Last night, it was revealed that Joseph had been tweeting for two years as natsecwonk, or national security wonk, offering nasty tweets, calling the Palin family white trash, other useless garbage, calling presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett a "vacuous" cipher, and plenty of others, cruder and nastier, more sexist and homophobic than that. He also occasionally offered scathing critiques of Obama foreign policy and insider information about moves in the national security community.

One problem? Joseph was the director in the nonproliferation section of the National Security staff at the White House. Oops.


TAPPER (voice-over): State Department officials, Capitol Hill staffers, senior national security staffer at the White House with top clearance, Josi Joseph's resume read like a Washington "A" lister and the national security director was being vetted for a plumb job at the Pentagon.

One teeny-weeny problem -- he was tweeting anonymously vicious things about his bosses, senior members of the administration, members of cob, and world leaders. Tweets like this, "Obama can be a jerk to his staff and not afraid to throw them under the bus for his own self- interest." And, "Look, Republican Congressman Issa is an ass but he's on to something with here with the Hillary Clinton whitewash of accountability for Benghazi."

Senior officials confirmed to CNN that Joseph was fired for tweeting under the alias natsecwonk.

"The Daily Beast's" Josh Rogin broke the story last night.

JOSH ROGIN, THE DAILY BEAST: He's vulgar and insulting and often rude attacks created a community of people who are so angry and so frustrated with his efforts that they started sort of an informal investigation.

All of this eventually culminated into his discovery by the White House itself, which somehow figured out that he was the mystery tweeter and summarily fired him.

TAPPER: Joseph's targets included Democrats and Republicans alike. "Senator Bob Corker is running amateur hour over there as lead Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee." He called Secretary of State John Kerry "a human loose cannon". Al Gore, a major moneygrubber.

As recently as September 20th, natsecwonk posted a personal attack against the president himself posting, "This has Dukakis in a tank written all over it," in reference to this photo of Obama in a Ford. It took more than two years and 2,200 tweets, but last week, natsecwonk's feed was shut down, a man with a golden resume behind it gone.

Cloaked in anonymity, Joseph launched insults at individuals like deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes. "Oh, Ben Rhodes," he wrote, "The sad and pathetic life of constantly spinning appears to be getting to you."

ROGIN: In one fell swoop, Joseph managed to trash all relationships he's had both inside and outside the administration. It will be very difficult for him to repair. He also lost his top security clearance and he'll have a very hard time rebuilding his career.

TAPPER: Then he took it further, accusing Rhodes of leaking confidential information.

ROGIN: He also took issue with Mr. Rhodes' personality, his appearance, and accused him on several occasions of leaking classified information including related to the Stuxnet virus, the U.S./Israeli secret project to thwart Iran's nuclear program.

TAPPER: The White House would not comment to CNN, but former national security council spokesman, Tommy Vietor, told us, "I sat 10 feet away from Ben Rhodes for two years at the NSC. He spent countless days trying to prevent or mitigate leaks of classified information that could harm our national security. These accusations are ridiculous and wrong."


TAPPER: And I should note that natsecwonk attacked many reporters and guests who we have on the show regularly. And a year ago he tweeted, quote, "How does Jake Tapper justify bringing Beau Biden on the show? Other than being the VP's son, how does he different from 49 other state A.G.s?"

Now, Joseph did not return our calls and emails, but he told "Politico", "It's been a privilege to serve in this administration and I deeply regret violating the trust and confidence placed on me, which started out as an intended parody account of D.C. culture developed over time int a series of inappropriate and mean-spirited comments. I bear complete responsibility for this affair and I sincerely apologize to everyone I insulted."

I should point out, I'm sitting here with the panel, I should point out it became fairly nasty fairly quick. It was like within two or three days he started attacking people. So I'm not sure how sincere that apology is.

But let's turn to our panel right now. Politics editor for "Business Insider", Josh Barro, Republican strategist and vice president of the Winston Group, Kristen Soltis Anderson, and CNN commentator and Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine, Ryan Lizza.

Ryan, you know, I was talking with Josh Rogin about this earlier -- how to you get so high in the national security establishment and do something so dumb? Not a momentary lapse of judgment like an affair or DUI. But --

LIZZA: Two years.

TAPPER: Two years of letting the vile out.

LIZZA: Really self-destructive. I feel like you're nobody in this town if you weren't attacked by natsecwonk.

TAPPER: I wasn't really attacked.

LIZZA: You were mentioned. Come on.

TAPPER: Beau Biden was attacked through me.

LIZZA: You know, there's nothing -- there's no way to defend what he said. I mean, he was mean-spirited and just -- it was almost like the id of someone, you know, just a complete stream of consciousness of the nastiest things you could think of as you're going through your day about people around you, arrivals or obstacles in your professional career. And I wouldn't defend what he wrote for a second, but I can't help but ask the question of, you know, does someone who works in the government have the right to sort of vent on Twitter? I mean, is there any sort of right that you have just to be out there and say what you want anonymously?


TAPPER: That's the end of that. No.

BARRO: No, there are sorts of jobs where it's important that you not say things in public that undermine your employer. I mean, that's, you know, even as journalist.

TAPPER: If you don't know that it's someone at the White House, what's the harm?

BARRO: Well, for one thing, it isn't necessarily anonymous forever. These things can be --

TAPPER: We would not have been doing this story if it was to somebody at the Brookings Institute. The fact that it's newsworthy because it came out and because he was a national security staffer, that's what's newsy about this.

BARRO: Right. And I wonder about, you know, the -- you mentioned his losing his clearance about this. If you're for two years tweeting from inside and, you know, making complaints about other people within the administration, I wonder we're going to have to look back through the whole archive of this, but was there really nothing that he said that didn't actually undermine policy objectives of the administration rather than just being, you know, unpleasant?

TAPPER: No, no, he definitely criticized policy, talked about the Obama's Syria policy being incoherent. What do you make of this mess?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: So I'm all about people who are dissenting views making their voices known. But I also think that if that means your employer wants to fire you, then your employer has a right to fire you.

TAPPER: Right.

ANDERSON: In this case, I mean, this wasn't like -- he wasn't a whistle-blower where he has this principled stand against something and is just trying to get the word out there. I mean, there were nasty comments about how he seems to think that every woman in Washington needs to drop about 10 pounds. I mean, this was just -- it was just gross and it didn't really further, I don't think, any kind of cause that he may have had.

TAPPER: And one of the sad apparent victims in all this, in addition to all the people who he maligned, his wife, a top staffer for Senator Bob Corker, whom he accused of having amateur hour. So, this is going to adversely -- fairly or not, and I suspect not --impact her.

LIZZA: Yes. Look, embedded in the feed were these sort of juicy nuggets about what was going on in the national security world within the Obama administration, right? It was like having a good source inside the administration with this sort of real time feed, except, you know, the majority of it was also these crazy comments.

ANDERSON: But did he not also have contacts who were journalists? That if he really felt like it was important to get this information out there, that he could leak?

TAPPER: No, my understanding is he actually was a source to several journalists who were all surprised that it was him.