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U.S. Reviewing Surveillance Programs; New Problem Crashes Obamacare Web Site; Lone Republican Joins Democrats; Interview with Rep. Jeff Denham; Denham Breaks Ranks; White House Briefing

Aired October 28, 2013 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting today from Washington. We start with the fallout over the latest revelations about spying at the NSA and the tapping of world leaders' phones. But the big question people are asking now is, what did the president know and when did he know it?

I'm joined by Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto who has been covering the story. The crux of the controversy is what?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the crux right now is what did the president know and when did he know it? And there's some conflicting information out there. A German newspaper reporting that he knew in very detailed form in 2010 about this spying going right up to and including Angela Merkel's phone -- cell phone. This is something that the White House and NSA vehemently deny. "Wall Street Journal" reports that the president was only made aware of this last summer. So, conflicting at this point.

The truth is that neither of those answers is satisfying because on the -- either he didn't have enough oversight or, on the other hand, he hasn't been entirely forthcoming. So, demands for more information. Of course, some of these things are so sensitive he can't go into full detail. But certainly people want to know how much he knew.

BLITZER: And there's a review underway right now. But we do expect other potentially controversial details to emerge.

SCIUTTO: No question. That's a real worry now, particularly for relationships sensitive -- more sensitive intelligence sharing relationships with the U.S. We know that we share intelligence with the Germans, the French and so on.

But these relationships, for instance, in South Asia, in the Middle East, more difficult countries for which a revelation if they're cooperating with the U.S., for instance, on a country like Iran, could be more potentially damaging for them and a bit damaging for U.S. relationships with them.

BLITZER: In Germany, this is especially sensitive especially because of East Germany and the way it was ruled with an iron grip during the communist era. This is such a sensitive issue for the chancellor Angela Merkel. SCIUTTO: No question. And the entire E.U. In fact, the European Union has sent an intelligence delegation to the Hill. I just met with them up on Capitol Hill a few minutes ago and they had a meeting with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers. They said it was a very candid meeting, a very direct, frank one. That they have serious concerns that they expressed to the U.S. and to Mike Rogers on the Hill and that they still are demanding answers.

But they are at least talking. And one thing that he was able to tell them was that this gathering of phone call information in France and Spain, 60 million phone calls that we just learned about over the weekend in Spain, that that was metadata. It was not the contents of those phone calls. So, they're beginning to exchange information about the true extent of this surveillance.

BLITZER: And one of the arguments I've heard and I'm sure that U.S. officials are making this privately to their counterparts from the European delegations who are coming here is that the U.S. has so much more of a sophisticated capability. The U.S. can find stuff out with the metadata, for example, that their governments, their intelligence agencies can't find out. And, in the end, this will help prevent terrorist operations whether in Spain or Germany or France or other friendly countries.

SCIUTTO: And that's exactly the argument that people like Mike Rogers are making to the Europeans. In fact, I spoke to a member of that delegation, a European delegation from London, and he said, listen, we face terror attacks as well. They've had the seven-seven attacks and others. So, they know that argument. They're amenable to that argument. But still, they want more details. They want to know how high it goes. Does it go up to the prime minister, for instance? And crucially, they want to know why. What was the value achieved from that?

BLITZER: Lots of unanswered questions. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

The system is down at the moment. We are experiencing technical difficulties. Now, that's the message many of you might be getting if you're trying to apply for health coverage on the Obamacare Web site. A new technical malfunction has shut down the application tool for some on

Elizabeth Cohen is joining us now with the latest information. So, what's the current problem right now? At least for parts of the country, the system still remains down. Is that right?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's really spotty, Wolf. Many people have not been able to log on. I logged in this morning twice and it worked. Several of my colleagues could not log in. They got this message that the system is down at the moment.

Now, we seem to have a new culprit here. It seems, we're told, that a subsidiary of Verizon had a network failure and that it affected not just but other sites as well. So, this seems to be a whole new glitch that we're looking at.

BLITZER: So, is there a time frame when this current problem will be fixed and what the Obama administration is advising people to do during these crucial hours?

COHEN: Now, I'm going to quote a press release from the Department of Health and Human Services. They said, we will get this fixed as soon as possible which doesn't sound terribly promising. So, in the meantime, what you can do is you can get on the phone. The operators answer calls very quickly. You can go in person to many sites around the country. You can also try snail mail. I'll tell you, these processes may not be that fast and you may not be able to do it completely over the phone. I know you can't do it completely over the phone. Some of it's going to have to be done in some other way. But there are other ways you can -- other things you can do to get the process going.

BLITZER: But I've heard also, Elizabeth, that sometimes if you do it over the phone, you give all your personal information over the phone, you speak with an operator. That operator in turn has to put it all into the computer system. The operator has trouble getting it into the system.

COHEN: Right. I myself have had trouble when I called an operator and asked them to do something for me. And she was so sweet. She spent like 20 minutes and she said, I'm so sorry I can't make this work. But, you know, they at least I think may possibly have a better chance of making it work than you will. So, if you want to get this done, it's probably worth the phone call.

BLITZER: Now, what about Kathleen Sebelius? She's scheduled to testify Wednesday before a key House committee. They're really going to grill her, I assume. This latest Web site malfunction is certainly not going to make it easier for her.

COHEN: Right, absolutely it's not going to make it easier. And my guess is she'll say something like, look, this was a Verizon problem. This wasn't our problem. It affected more Web sites than just ours. But still, I think what the public takes away from it is this site hasn't worked well and it continues not to work well.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen will be working the story for us throughout the day. More in the "SITUATION ROOM" as well. Thank you, Elizabeth.

COHEN: Thanks.

BLITZER: The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is sounding the alarm about the security of, that Web site. Republican Congressman Mike Rogers told our Candy Crowley the site is vulnerable to cyber attacks. He says the contractors in charge of building the site may have to revamp it completely.


MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: They do not have an overarching solid cyber security plan to prevent the loss of private information. I'm even more concerned today than I was even last week. I know that they've called in another private entity to try to help with the security of it. The problem is they may have to redesign the entire system. The way the system is designed, it is not secure.


BLITZER: Not encouraging words from Mike Rogers. The Obama administration says the site does not store or retain private information but Rogers says there is active collection and storing of consumer information. Another headache right there.

A lone Republican says he will now join House Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. My interview with the California Republican Congressman, Jeff Denynam, that's right ahead.

And later, CNN's interview today with the former vice president, Dick Cheney. He spoke to Jake Tapper. Cheney says the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden is, quote, "a traitor, plain and simple."


BLITZER: Immigration reform is certainly one of the president's top priorities for action by the end of this year. The Democrat- controlled Senate passed a bipartisan measure in June to allow some of the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States eventually to have a pathway to citizenship but the bill is stalled right now in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of California has now broken ranks with a lot of his GOP colleagues. The only House Republicans, at least so far to do so, saying he will vote with the Democrats if the bill comes to the floor.

He's joining from Capitol Hill right now to explain his decision. Congressman, thanks for coming in.

REP. JEFF DENHAM (R), CALIFORNIA: Wolf, it's good to be with you again.

BLITZER: Tell us why you decided to break with your other Republican colleagues and side with the Democrats when it comes to a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

DENHAM: Look, I don't believe it is as breaking ranks. I believe this is to focus the nation and focus the House on getting real reform done this year, whether it's a top to bottom approach with a number of Republican bills that have already passed through a committee or whether it's a more of a comprehensive approach. My focus is making sure that we actually have a solution done this year.

BLITZER: As far as you know, are you the first Republican to take this position to side with the Democrats on this issue?

DENHAM: I am because I don't look at this as a Republican or Democrat issue. This is an American issue. One that can help solve our economy. One that affects not only my community in California but across our entire nation. So, we've got to get something done. I'm going to be a leader that hopes to get both parties together. And I'm the first but I expect to see many other Republicans signing on very soon.

BLITZER: Do you think that the speaker will allow the Senate-passed version to -- which had bipart -- strong bipartisan support, a lot of Republicans and Democrats obviously voted for it, to come up for a clean vote in the House of Representatives even if a majority of Republicans are not in favor of it?

DENHAM: Now, the speaker has been very clear as well as the conference has been very clear that we will not have a vote on the Senate bill which is why this new bill is so important. The biggest issue the Republicans had, and actually even Democrats had, is the border security piece. We have now added the Republican version to this bill that addresses that border security with real metrics, with guaranteeing that we have a solid 90 percent -- over 90 percent success rate before we even implement the rest of this. So, it -- I think this is a good bipartisan solution. Now, it's time to get Republicans to sign on board as well.

BLITZER: Is -- but do you believe the speaker will allow this version to come up for a vote?

DENHAM: You know, I don't know. It's not a discussion that we have had yet. I have let leadership know that I am signing onto this bill and I'm actively going to pursue other Republicans and ask them to sign on board as well. But whether or not this gets a vote or whether this gets a vote this year I think is -- remains to be seen. My job as a member of the House is to support the things that I feel are important, not only to my community but important for the nation. This is one of those issues. So, the more that we can focus attention on this, I think will help the overall debate to getting a full top to bottom approach onto the floor.

BLITZER: Realistically, Congressman, how many Republicans do you think you can bring over to your side?

DENHAM: You know, there have been a large number of Republicans that have been out there out front talking about an earned path to citizenship. I think if you're talking about an earned path to citizenship, then really your only concern is making sure that the border security piece is strong. And that's exactly what we have in the McCaul Bill that has now been added to some of the Senate versions. So, I'm confident we're going to a huge number of Republican that come out in support of this. You know, the ultimate number I think remains to be defined.

BLITZER: Would you, and we'll just wrap it up, Congressman, describe for our viewers what the process would be for the -- at least a huge number of these 11 million illegal immigrants eventually to become citizens of the United States? What would they have to do? How long would it take?

DENHAM: You know, actually, it's a very difficult process. First of all, we need to make sure that we guarantee that the border is secure. And that is in this bill. But, secondly, just the earned pathway to citizenship, to file as -- that registered provisional status, that RPI status, is the first step. You've got to pass a background check. You have to pay fines, pay taxes, speak English. Those are just the first steps. So that is a big jump on its own.

Then you go through a four-year process. I pay more fees, more back taxes, just to get the second phase of this. It's a 10-year process just to become a legal, permanent resident if that individual chooses so.

After three more years, so after a 13-year process, then you can file for citizenship. That would be the earliest way. One amendment though, I have negotiated into this bill, my enlist act. I served with a lot of immigrants in the military through Desert Storm and through Somalia. I just very strongly believe that immigrants that want to serve our country should have the quickest pathway to citizenship, and that's exactly what my amendment does.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jeff Denham is the Republican congressman from California. Thanks for coming in.

DENHAM: Wolf, good to talk to you again. Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

The former president, Bill Clinton, is out on the campaign trail today, this time in Virginia. He's lending his support to a very close friend who's running for governor. We're taking a closer look at that race and how the 2016 presidential race potentially could be shaping up. That's next.


BLITZER: The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, strongly defending the NSA surveillance program. Listen to this.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That the president has directed us to review our surveillance capabilities. We've talked a little bit about this, and the president certainly has, but it's good in the context of some of the stories that we've seen of late to remember, that the president called for a review earlier in this summer. This review is being led by the White House and it includes agencies from across the government.

There are also important efforts underway that will enable others to review how we strike the right balance, including the review group on intelligence and communications technology and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Our review is looking across the board at our intelligence gathering to ensure that as we gather intelligence, we are properly accounting for both the security of citizens and our allies and the privacy concerns shared by Americans and citizens around the world.

We also need to ensure that our intelligence resources are most effectively supporting our foreign policy and national security objectives, that we are more effectively weighing the risks and rewards of our activities, and that includes insuring that we are focused, above all, on threats to the American people. Once again, as you've heard the president say, we need to ensure that we are collecting information, not just because we can, but because we should, because we need it for our security.

So, again, I won't go on too long, but I think that it's important to contextualize some of these revelations to look at what the administration is doing, to review our intelligence activities, and to look at how we balance the need for security in this completely transformed world that we live in because of the technology advances that have occurred and then against, as I said earlier, the clear and real privacy concerns that Americans and people around the world share.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You just mentioned that it's important for us to make sure that our intelligence gathering above all is about protecting American security and you and the president in the past have talked about the NSA really being focused on things like terrorism, proliferation of WMDs. Can you assure our allies that the U.S. is not using the NSA's intelligence capabilities to promote American economic interests?

CARNEY: We do not use our intelligence capabilities for that purpose. We use it for security purposes and -- first of all. And second of all, it's very important to recall too that we have extraordinarily strong and important intelligence and security relationships with our allies and that those relationships are vital to help keep Americans safe, to help keep Americans safe abroad and to help keep our allies safe, and that kind of relationship, those kinds of relationships, are key to the security of this nation and of our allies.

So, again, we're conducting a review. We are mindful that some of these disclosures have caused tension in our relationships. We deal with those issues through diplomatic channels. And we are in direct communication with a number of countries on these matters.

The president is very serious about, as you heard him say in August, about insuring that this review take place, that we strike that balance, that we remember that our intelligence services and the people in them do extraordinary work to keep us safe every day and that we're one attack away from assessments about what went wrong in our intelligence capes and our - and collections. So we need to remember that the gathering occurs for a purpose. And that - and that's why the review has to look at that issue that the president has identified. That just because we've made these extraordinary technological advances that give us greater capacities, we need to make sure that we're collecting intelligence in a way that advances our security needs and that we don't just do it because we can.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And, Jay, on Saturday, Secretary Sebelius head up the data services hub as an example of what was working well with On Sunday, the data hub crashed and took down the entire enrollment functionality with it. With new major technical problems continuing to emerge, how should Americans be confident that these problems will be fix, as you've said, by the end of November?

CARNEY: Josh, as you know, Verizon Terremark successfully resolved the issue with the networking component overnight. And as of 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time this morning, the data services hub was fully operational. The technical team continued trouble shooting the issue with the online creation account process -- our account creation process in the application, and has now opened the online application and enrollment tools back up to consumers. So this was the host for the site that had troubles that led to the site shutting down. It is now up and running again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But if there are new problems that are emerging, separate from what we had already learned about in the first few weeks, doesn't that make it more likely that these -- this all won't be able to be resolved in the timeline you've set forth?

CARNEY: No, look, we have a - we have several teams, many teams of highly, you know, highly qualified experts who are addressing the identified and isolated problems that do exist and have existed with the website. And they are fixing them incrementally, as Jeff Zients and others have talked about. That work continues and the improvements are happening every day. And the consumer experience on the website will continue to improve every day, incrementally, as those changes are made. More changes have taken place that make the website more efficient and effective for consumers as we speak.

The separate issue of the -- essentially the company that hosts the site having a trouble that caused it to shut down is not linked to the troubles that we've - are identifying and isolating and working on and fixing. So, you know, we're glad to see that the site is up and running, that the issues have been resolved and we're obviously continuing the work of making improvements to the site as we make it more apparent to Americans across the country that there are four ways for them to get information, four ways for them to signed up and for ways for them to enroll. And that's in addition to online, by phone, in person and by mail. So, you know, this is work, as we've said, that comes about because the website from October 1st on has not functioned at a level that meets the president's standards, has not functioned at the level that would meet the secretary's standards. And, therefore, we have, you know, taken all these efforts to make the necessary improvements so that we can improve this experience.

What's important to remember, too, however, is that from day one, Americans have been able to get information, Americans have been able to sign up and they have been able to enroll. Because, in the end, this isn't about a website, it's about making sure that millions of Americans have access to affordable health insurance, many of them for the first time.



The report that Josh mentioned citing officials made it sound as if the program had been under way for a number of years and that when the president learned about it, he ordered it stopped. Does the president continue to have full confidence in General Alexander to administer security? CARNEY: The president has full confidence in General Alexander and the leadership at the NSA and in the rank and file at the NSA who do extraordinary work on behalf of every American citizen and on behalf of our allies and keeping them safe. The issues that are part of the review look at how we can better balance our security needs and the security needs of our allies against the real privacy concerns that we all share. And as I noted at the top, you know, there has been extraordinary change, technological change, in the last 10, 20 years, but certainly in the last 10 or so years since 9/11 that has affected I mean the whole world in the way that we transmit and gather information. And that includes -- that has brought about changes in the way and developments in the way that we gather intelligence. It's obviously brought about changes in the way that those in the world who want to do harm to Americans and do harm to our allies operate. So that has meant that we've had to adapt. And as we've adapted, and as we adapt, we need to make sure, as the president is insisting, that we are keeping a balance that protects our security and takes into account our real privacy concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As I'm sure I don't have to tell you, revelations of this eavesdropping or alleged eavesdropping have caused damage with our allies. When would you expect the reviews that you've talked about to be done, and would you expect them to include any scaling back of monitoring of phone conversations by our friends?

CARNEY: The entire review that is being led by the White House will be completed by the end of the year. There are other efforts, as you know, underway by the review group on intelligence and communications technology, as well as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Infer tandem, the president also announced that the administration will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms of Section 215 of The Patriot Act. And after having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians, the president believes that there are steps that can be taken to give the American people confidence that our - that there are additional safeguards against abuse of these programs.

For example, steps could be taken to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency, as well as constraints on the use of this authority. The administration is also working with Congress to improve the public's confidence in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Moreover, the president has directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible. Mindful of the fact that these are very sensitive security programs, the administration has declassified unprecedented information about the activities of the NSA, and we are continuing to do so. So there are a number of efforts underway that are designed to increase transparency, to work with Congress to look at reforms to The Patriot Act, to look at ways that we can increase oversight and increase constraints on the authorities provided by these programs.

Separately, there are ways -- you know, there's a review underway that will look at, among other issues, some of the very specific things with regards to intelligence gathering, including matters that deal with heads of state and other governments. So these are all important issues. And you've heard the president talk about them and I think reflect in what he said, the fact that they're important in his view and that we need to take these steps.