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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez; Syria's Chemical Weapons; Red Sox Win World Series; Interview with Kendrick Johnson's Parents; Interview with Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon

Aired October 31, 2013 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So I had this great idea to dress up as the Obamacare Web site for Halloween, but it turns out the costume won't be ready until the end of November. I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Syria, remember Syria, the country the U.S. came this close to attacking after concluding the Assad regime gassed its own people? Well, now a watchdog says Syria has destroyed or disabled all its chemical weapons facilities. Can we trust that?

The national lead. Local police called it a freak accident, but the parents of Kendrick Johnson, they suspected foul play. Now after CNN joined their quest for answers, the feds are stepping in.

And the sports lead. Much to the relief of their wives and girlfriends, the Red Sox can finally shave today -- how the city of Boston plans to keep the party going now that the Sox are champs again.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We will begin with the world lead today, Syria still a war-torn nightmare in which tens if not hundreds of people are killed every day, but if you believe a report released today, at least it won't be with any new chemical weapons, which is what the U.S. government really seems to care about.

Remember these scenes from August 21st, when the U.S. says the Syrian regime gassed its own people in an effort to push back rebel forces in the Damascus suburbs? U.S. officials estimated more than 1,400 people, many of them children, were killed in that attack.

Well, now the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, which is overseeing Syria's disarmament, says the regime of Bashar al-Assad has destroyed or disabled all of its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities -- facilities. The deadline to finish that process is tomorrow.

Again, we're talking about the facilities, not the existing cache of chemical weapons. Inspectors visited 21 of the 23 sites. Two of them were too dangerous to go to and they reported that all chemical weapons at those sites have been placed under seal.

The next deadline is November 15. That's when the OPCW and Syria have to agree a plan to destroy the huge stockpile. The timetable was set up as part of the U.S.-Russia agreement, after much public vacillation on the part of the U.S. in August and September that Israel which has little reason to trust Syria still carried out an airstrike on a Syrian military base today, according to an Obama administration official.

The target? Missiles and other equipment that Israel feared would fall into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite political party and militant group that the U.S. State Department classifies as a terrorist organization.

Let's bring in Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which just held a hearing a few hours ago on the situation in Syria.

Senator, good to see you. Thanks for coming in. We appreciate it.

This is obviously a good sign, if true, that 21 out of 23 Syrian chemical weapons facilities have been destroyed or rendered inoperable, but how can we be sure that that's it, that these are the only facilities?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, that's exactly the question I asked of the State Department today, because public reports indicated that we believed that there were 45 sites or so in Syria, so while this is certainly much welcome that the 21 sites which -- and the machinery to produce chemical weapons have been destroyed, we need access to all of the sites, as well as ultimately a conclusion as to how do we get rid of the chemicals that exist, and how do they get destroyed.

So good news to some extent, but still a lot more work to be done in access to all the sites that we ourselves, through our intelligence, determined exist and for which we need access to.

TAPPER: And what about the chemical weapons themselves, the stockpiles? How concerned are you that we're going to -- that the watchdog will actually be able to monitor all of those?

MENENDEZ: Well, this is going to depend upon access. And this is the next stage of what we want this organization to do and the world needs to follow through on, through the Security Council.

And it is my hope that they will have access to that. But at the same time that we're riveted on chemical weapons, which, of course, is a great national security interest of the United States, I must be honest with you, Jake. Today's hearing left me bewildered about that this government does not have a strategy as to Syria.

It seems that we're having meetings about how we get to meetings in Geneva, while Syria's becoming the Somalia of the Middle East and attracting an all-star cast of violent extremists. And it's beyond my imagination that, at this stage, we don't have a comprehensive plan to try to get Syria into a different track, when we have all of the consequences to the region, to our allies, and to our own national security because of Syria ultimately becoming a breeding ground for terrorists.

TAPPER: Have you conveyed that? I mean, those are very strong words from you, Senator, especially as an Obama supporter and Democrat. Have you conveyed that directly to Dr. Rice, the national security adviser, or Secretary of State John Kerry in terms of your concern that there really isn't any sort of coherent strategy?

MENENDEZ: Well, I was waiting for this hearing to see whether I would hear anything that would indicate to me -- we had Ambassador Ford, who is a tremendous public servant, but whose testimony along with the assistant secretary of state in charge of the chemical weapons element and our AID administrator in terms of humanitarian issues, for which there is Some great work being done in that regard, but the reality is I heard no comprehensive, cohesive strategy.

And so I will, shortly after I leave your program, going to be meeting with Secretary Kerry on Iran. I intend to also pursue him on Syria, because this is not acceptable.

The committee acted in a way that gave the administration back in May the wherewithal to try to help the vetted opposition in Syria and also gave them the power that I think got us to this more successful point on chemical weapons by the authorization of military force at the time, which was critical to being able to negotiate with the Russians to move forward on the chemical weapons.

But that doesn't stop the underlying massacre that is taking place and the consequences to the entire region.

TAPPER: Let's turn to another place where there are horrific massacres going on, Iraq. President Obama is meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, where he's expected, al-Maliki, to ask for military aid in combating al Qaeda-driven violence in Iraq.

You were one of the senators, a bipartisan group, who sent a letter to President Obama this week. You wrote -- quote -- "We encourage you to step up our counterterrorism support for Iraq. It is in our national security interest to enhance the effectiveness of Iraq security forces, especially through greater intelligence-sharing."

Have you heard back from the White House since you and your fellow senators sent that letter?

MENENDEZ: We have not.

But I did get an opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Maliki. And I will say, that letter also spoke to the necessity for the prime minister to take bolder political steps within Iraq to have less of an authoritarian and sectarian government and a more inclusive government with Shia and Kurds in power-sharing and in resources.

And weapons alone or even the sharing of intelligence is not going to solve some of the fundamental challenges that we believe in that bipartisan group is creating part of the attraction by al Qaeda acceptance in elements of Iraq, because, ultimately, if you find yourself in the Shia or Kurd community and you feel that you're not part of this new national government and participation, then you ultimately feel not only marginalized, but open to susceptibility of the arguments that al Qaeda will make to you.

So, yes, we want to help the Iraqis have the intelligence and the resources to fight al Qaeda, but we need them to help themselves in a political process that creates a more open and inclusive Iraq, if we're going to ultimately meet this challenge.

TAPPER: And, finally, Senator, some of your Republican colleagues, such as Senators Graham and McCain, they are threatening to hold up Obama administration nominations, such as Janet Yellen, the nominee to be Fed chair, until they are able to get more information on Benghazi, hear specifically directly from survivors.

Why not let survivors testify?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, Benghazi has had the most exhaustive set of documents, hearings.

In our own committee, we held several hearings on Benghazi both in a classified setting, so every question could be asked without the concern of certain intelligence information getting out, in a public setting. We had it with former Secretary Clinton. We have had questions raised with Secretary Kerry.

At some point, it becomes a question of, do you want to hold on to the issue or do you want to get to the truth? The truth is, I think what has been shared with the committee both publicly and privately and in other forums -- and I'm not sure what continues to be the goal of some of our colleagues in this regard.

TAPPER: Do you -- I covered that story a lot when it broke and I was a White House correspondent. And one of the things that struck me was there were many, many officials on the ground in Libya, diplomatic officials, security officials, who wanted more security in Libya and the State Department ignored them, ignored their requests.

And I have never understood why that was, and I haven't seen any real accountability for those who denied those requests. I know that there are a lot of conspiracy theories about Benghazi that are ludicrous, but that is a very real problem, what happened there in terms of the security requests being denied. Why do you think they were denied security?

MENENDEZ: Well, it would take a long time to go through all the elements, but I will say this, that there was clearly some informational process in terms of upwards information that did not work well.

I think there was some look at the intelligence in a way that didn't look at it in terms of specifics towards an imminent threat that maybe should have looked at the entire environment in Libya to make the analysis for what was or not a threat. That has created changes at the State Department where there is a clear line not only of authority, but a person for high-risk, high-threat posts that directly has a lot of power going directly to the undersecretary of state. The undersecretary of state, Wendy Sherman, is intimately involved in this process. That's one step away from the secretary. So the experiences of Benghazi have ultimately created a new order that will, I hope, both in terms of the analysis of intelligence, looking at intelligence in a different way, and having a clear line of communication that can be used expeditiously, will ultimately meet our challenges in a challenging global environment where terrorism is a constant threat.

One of the things we need to do is to pass the embassy security bill that has elements of this that passed through the committee on a bipartisan basis. We need to get that passed in the Senate as well.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, you just got a new colleague today, Senator Cory Booker sworn in. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up next on THE LEAD: a mysterious death in a high school gym, a boy found rolled up in a gym mat, dead. And it's ruled an accident. The family is calling it a cover-up by the police. Now investigators are reopening the Kendrick Johnson case, and his parents are going to tell us what they think really happened coming up next.

Plus, Ted Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz's father caught on camera saying President Obama should -- quote -- "go back to Kenya." Huh? What does the Republican senator have to say about it? Stay with us.

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JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In the national lead, it's a mystery that tormented a Georgia family for nearly a year. How did their 17-year-old son die in what should have been the safety of his school? His bloody body was found rolled up inside a gym mat.

Well, the parents of Kendrick Johnson have been relentless in their quest for answers, ever since his death back in January. Just hours ago, the U.S. attorney in Georgia agreed to launch a federal investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL MOORE, U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: My objective is to discover the truth, and I believe that can only be done by gathering all of the evidence and relevant information surrounding Mr. Johnson's death.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, the Lowndes County sheriff's department has said all along that Johnson's death was a freak accident, that there was no evidence of foul play, but the teen's parents think their son was murdered and that the school and sheriff's office are guilty of a cover-up. The family launched its own investigation and found blood smears on a wall near where Johnson's body was found. And a private pathologist hired by the family found evidence of a blow to the side of his neck.

These discrepancies have led some experts to question the official explanation that Kendrick had suffocated reaching for a sneaker. CNN has been covering every angle of this story from the start and we managed to get access to surveillance video from the school the day of Johnson's death. The video shows him in a hallway and entering the gym, where other students are playing basketball. But none of the released images show the moment he died.

Still, Johnson's parents say they're hopeful that with the Feds now getting involved, a fresh pair of eyes will uncover what really happened.

And joining us now from Tallahassee, Florida, are Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson, Kendrick's parents, along with the family's attorney, Chevene King, and Benjamin Crump.

Thank you all for joining us.

And, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, we are so sorry for your loss.

Kenneth Johnson, I would like to start with you. What's your reaction to the U.S. attorney general's decision to reopen your son's case?

KENNETH JOHNSON, KENDRICK JOHNSON'S FAHTER: Well, we're happy that a fresh pair of eyes is starting to look at Kendrick's case, and we're just waiting on the truth to really come out.

TAPPER: Jacquelyn, why do you believe that the school or the sheriff's office or anyone would attempt to cover up or at the very least, not try to get to the bottom of the circumstances behind your son's death?

JACQUELYN JOHNSON, KENDRICK JOHNSON'S MOTHER: I don't know. That's what we're trying to find out. That's why we're trying to get to the truth. I have no idea.

TAPPER: Chevene, do you think race played a role at all in how the initial investigation into Kendrick's death was handled?

CHEVENE KING, FAMILY ATTORNEY: Well, certainly you have to consider race as a factor. But I don't think that that's the end-all in terms of trying to understand why this case was handled in the way that it was. We believe that certainly if there is a cover-up, it is a cover-up for somebody and not a nobody. So, who this person might be or who the individuals might be is a mystery at this point, and we are hoping that the investigation that the federal government will now actively get going will help to uncover the truth in that regard.

TAPPER: And, Chevene, just to follow up, do you have any suspicions or you just have this mystery and you're trying to figure out why there wasn't this due diligence done, in your opinion?

KING: Well, over the now going on ten months that I have been involved in this case, we have received bits and pieces of information from various sources within the community. You have to understand that Valdosta is a small community and that there's no such thing as a secret. And so, while we have our ideas as to who may have been involved, we have not received this information in such a way that you could say that it is completely reliable.

We do intend to pursue our investigation through the use of a coroner's inquest. We hope that in this process, the various individuals will be subpoenaed and compelled to give testimony, and give us the information that the family has been in search of for so long.

TAPPER: Benjamin Crump, we know you worked closely, of course, with the parents of Trayvon Martin to pursue justice for their son. Do you intend to pursue a civil rights case in Kendrick Johnson's case regardless of the outcome of the federal investigation?

BENJAMIN CRUMP, FAMILY ATTORNEY: We certainly plan, Jake, to explore all possible legal remedies to hold those individuals accountable who killed Kendrick Johnson and those who covered up for those individuals.

Because make no mistake about it: his parents never accepted this explanation that he climbed into a wrestling mat, got stuck and died. It flew in the face of all common sense, logic and the laws of physics.

What's more likely to have happened, he was murdered and there's been some conspiracy to cover up the truth here. This is a murder mystery and we're going to get to the bottom of it, Jake.

TAPPER: Kenneth, tell us what the past 10 months have been like for you and your family as you've dealt with the grieving process and also tried to pursue justice.

K. JOHNSON: Well, it's been hard for the last 10 months. You know, me and my wife haven't worked since January, since this happened to Kendrick. We've just been trying to move forward.

We've been on the corner protesting for six days a week, there's -- for the last six months now, and it's just been hard, you know? We just gave up everything to fight for justice for our son, you know? We've just been fighting, fighting. We just gave up everything.

TAPPER: And, of course, behind this all, there was a young man of immense promise, Kendrick.

And, Jacquelyn, I want to give you the final word. Tell us about Kendrick. What should people at home who are watching right now, what should they know about him?

K. JOHNSON: Well, Kendrick was a nice young man. He was the son every parent will dream to have. You know, Kendrick had never been in trouble with the law. He had never been in trouble at school. He just was a great child, you know?

He had one incident with a young man at school, but Kendrick was a great child. Any parent would have loved to have a child like Kendrick Johnson.

TAPPER: Jacquelyn, the same question?

J. JOHNSON: He was an athlete. He was funny. He always did little silly things. He was the life of our house.

TAPPER: Our thoughts and prayers are with you, Jacqueline and Kenneth Johnson.

And the rest of you, thank you so much for joining us. We hope you find justice and we hope you find peace.

J. JOHNSON: Thank you.

K. JOHNSON: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.

CRUMP: Thank you.

TAPPER: And within the past hour, we have received a statement from the Lowndes sheriff's department reacting to the U.S. attorney's decision to reopen the Johnson case. It reads in part, "While Sheriff Pine has every confidence that his office's investigation was handled with the necessary diligence to assure that all leads were examined and exhausted, he welcomes the U.S. attorney's further review of the case."

Coming up on THE LEAD: two retail giants going for each other's throats. But can Wal-Mart really compete with Amazon's online dominance? I'll ask Wal-Mart's CEO Bill Simon, next.

Plus, the Obama administration turning to the private sector to help fix the debacle with Healthcare.gov. So who's on the IT team?

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