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Saeed Abedini's Family Not Celebrating Iranian Nuclear Deal; Obamacare's Looming Deadline: November 30; Beasties In Battle Over "Girls"; Beloved "Family Guy" Character Killed Off

Aired November 25, 2013 - 16:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. Time now for the Buried Lead. These are the stories we think have not been getting enough attention. And this is a big one.

While the U.S. government is celebrating the deal in Iran's nuclear program, one family in Idaho could not help being disappointed. Saeed Abedini's loved ones hoped the recent negotiations would address his captivity in Iran. The U.S. citizen is a pastor and was jailed last year on charges that his family says were related to his Christian faith. He's facing eight years now away from his family. There are also two other Americans being detained in Iran.

But the negotiation made no mention, no mention of anyone's release.


BERMAN (voice-over): This thanksgiving will mark more than 18 months since the Pastor Saeed Abedini has seen his family. Back on June 22nd, 2012, his wife and children dropped him off at the airport in Boise, Idaho, where they live. The Christian pastor was headed back to Iran to help start an orphanage.

But instead, his family says he was arrested and imprisoned. Abedini was born in Iran and converted from Islam to Christianity, then later moved to the United States and became a citizen. In January, Abedini was sentenced to eight years in prison, convicted of threatening Iran's national security for his involvement in Christian house gatherings, so says his wife.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Are you concerned that he will not survive his prison sentence?

NAGHMEH ABEDINI, WIFE OF IMPRISONED PASTOR: Yes. Very much. Every day is a battle of survival, and that's why we have been fighting to get him out as soon as possible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We ask that you would use this for your glory, Lord.

BERMAN: While his family has kept vigil, its lawyers at the American Center for Law and Justice and U.S. lawmakers have fought for his freedom. SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: It's unacceptable for an American to be thrown in prison just for preaching his Christian faith.

BERMAN: Statements calling for his release have come from Secretary of State John Kerry, and the White House says President Obama even took up the case in a phone call with the Iranian president Hasan Rouhani earlier this fall. But instead of progress, Abedini's plight seems to be getting worse. Earlier this month, the family learned Abedini has been transferred to a notorious prison where they fear for his safety. And this weekend's short-term deal with Iran came and went with no provisions for the pastor's release.

BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We raised two issues with the Iranians in our discussions with them. One is a nuclear program. The other is Americans who are detained in Iran. President Obama raised it with President Rouhani when they spoke. We have raised it at a working level on the margins of the P-5 Plus 1 talks. That includes this pastor.

BERMAN: Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor at the White House, told CNN today negotiations for Abedini and other detained Americans in Iran were ongoing.

RHODES: The Iranians make assertions based on their own legal system. We reject those assertions that these individuals have a legal basis for being detained. It shows one thing, which is we're trying to resolve the nuclear issue which is of great concern to us. But even as we are doing that, it doesn't lessen our concern about other activities of the Iranian government.


BERMAN: Joining me to discuss this is the wife of the imprisoned pastor. Naghmeh Abedini is here. And her lawyer, Jay Sekulow from the American Center for Justice and Law (sic). Thank you both so much for being with us.

Naghmeh, let me start with you here. Obviously, U.S. officials celebrating over the last few days, or at least lauding this deal that has been struck, this six-month deal on nuclear weapons with Iran. Meanwhile, you're heading into your second holiday season where your husband is away from you, imprisoned, separated. How does this all make you feel right now?

NAGHMEH ABEDINI, WIFE OF IMPRISONED PASTOR: It's painful. You know, it came -- it's a hard blow again as the holidays approach, Thanksgiving and Christmas. And for a lot of people it's a happy time of the year; for us, it's a very painful time of the year. Saeed is missing from our family. But not just missing, he's in this horrible, horrible prison. This new prison, he's with murderers who are on death row. We are worried about his health. He will not survive eight years if he's not -- if he doesn't get out of there immediately.

BERMAN: Do you have any sense of how he's doing? As you said, he has been moved to this prison you think has much worse, much more dangerous conditions. ABEDINI: His family was able to see him -- not today, but previously last week, and he looked -- his health looked deteriorated. He looked skinnier and even from the other prison. And they are very much worried about his health and his wellbeing. There is high prisoner- to-prisoner violence where he's at, and, you know, has a high suicide rate and prisoner-to-prisoner violence and deaths. And you know, his health, obviously he hasn't been able to get the medication for his internal bleeding. And so he's not doing very well.

We're worried about him, and to think that we're here, the kids and I - you know, I'm a single mom now -- get to sit together and celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas knowing where he's at, it's very painful. My kids were crying this morning, saying God, don't let daddy die, bring him home. And it's painful to watch that.

BERMAN: It's got to be so hard. President Obama apparently, we're told, brought up your husband in a telephone conversation that he had with the Iranian president. Secretary Kerry, secretary of state has lobbied on your husband's behalf for his release. What more do you think the administration could do?

ABEDINI: Well, they did, but what did the Iranian government do? on the day that they were chanting death to America, they took Saeed to a different prison. They didn't put him in a political ward. They put him in a ward where there's murderers and rapists on death row, and they know there's a high violence rate there.

So here they get a call and they get demands from secretary of state and President Obama, and they do the exact opposite. And they show, I mean, it's not a confidence-building step. You know, our government needs to -- you know, I expect them to speak out and say we asked for his release. And this is horrible, what has happened. He's not going to survive even a few months in that prison. This is Iran's continuous violation of human rights. And here's an American citizen who is being held there because he's a Christian, and he needs to be released immediately.



BERMAN: Go ahead.

JAY SEKULOW, CHIEF COUNSEL, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW AND JUSTICE: Let me say what could have been done here. And this is what has me troubled, and I sent a letter to senator -- Secretary of State Kerry on Friday. The fact of the matter is that before the release of billions of dollars of money that we have held back for sanctions, before the release now of quote, "humanitarian aid directly to the Iranian government," we could have had as a precondition to this the release of Saeed Abedini and the other two Americans that are held as hostages in Iran right now. That should have been a precondition.

When you've got the head of the National Security Council or the deputy making the statement that this was discussed at the peripheries, at the margins, and was brought up in the staff level but not any higher is outrageous.

We had the ultimate negotiating capability. The Iranian sanctions that the United States government has put on the Iranians have been significant enough that it brought the Iranians to the table, and we blinked. The United States blinked. And that's the tragedy in all this.

Whatever happens with the agreement, whatever one views the merits of whether the agreement was the right move for us politically or not, or geopolitically, the fact of the matter is it would have been as one person told me today, a gimme, an easy one for the Iranians to have released this pastor and the two other Americans. And as CNN's own Wolf Blitzer said today when questioning the spokesperson for the National Security Council, why is it that he is not released? Why was that not a precondition? Why wasn't Saeed Abedini and the others standing next to John Kerry when he announced this deal being struck?

So we were across the table from the Iranians, and we did not bring home Americans. To me, that's a tragedy, and it's outrageous.

BERMAN: Naghmeh, I want to leave you with the last word here. If you could get a message to your husband, who is inside prison as we speak right now, what would it be?

ABEDINI: Hang in there. We're spending every waking moment working to get you out. The kids and I miss you, and we're proud of you for standing up for what you believe and your values. But hang in there and we are going to get you out quickly.

And you know, I want to say this is a family torn apart. People usually see this and it's another news story. But really, it's really our family that's been torn apart and two little kids hurting every day.

BERMAN: We are sorry for all of you that you are all going through this. Naghmeh Abedini and Jay Sekulow, thank you both so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

SEKULOW: Thanks for covering it (ph).

BERMAN: And when we come back, he fought against it. But now, Speaker John Boehner is a fully insured Obamacare customer. So how much is he paying, and how is that smoking going to affect those rates?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone.

The Politics Lead, and it could be a rough Thanksgiving at the White House. Today, the administration did say it is on target to meet the self-imposed deadline to improve the Web site. That target, 80 percent functional by the end of the month, which is Saturday. November 30th also marks the end of the second full month of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act.

So after all the problems with the Obamacare Web site and people losing insurance, this afternoon, could there be a new, unexpected failure for Obamacare? A failure to fail, as it were, creating perhaps embarrassing success for one key Republican leader.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Good morning, everyone.

BERMAN (voice-over): Look who's got Obamacare. That's John Boehner. The once and future fully insured speaker of the House. Last week, he tweeted about his experience trying to sign up for health insurance under Obamacare. Hash tag, train wreck, he wrote.

The speaker claimed it took a few hours, a few failed log-ins and some calls to the help desk. What he didn't realize was that somewhere in the middle of his for the cameras somewhat planned exercise in futility, someone from the D.C. health exchanged returned his call to help him sign up, but the speaker's office put help on hold.

ANNOUNCER: You have reached speaker of the House John Boehner's Office.

BERMAN: For 35 minutes. After half an hour of patriotic hold music, help gave up. So now the top Republican in the land has health insurance from the law he has fought so hard.

BOEHNER: The law's a train wreck. There is no way to fix this monstrosity.

BERMAN: There is good news and bad news for the speaker. The bad news, when he unrolled his notes, he realized his premiums are going up. From $433 per month with a $700 deductible for the speaker and his wife, it's now $449 with a $1,000 deductible. That's just for him.

Mrs. Boehner is going on Medicare. The good news for the speaker, it could be worse. His new premiums include a $426 discount that members of Congress and staffs are getting on their health insurance under Obamacare. The speaker is accepting that subsidy even though he once supported a Republican plan to take it away.

BOEHNER: Why don't we make sure that every American is treated just like we are.

BERMAN: That sentiment apparently so October. That's not all. Mr. Boehner is also a famous smoker.

BOEHNER: I know that smoking is probably not good for my health.

BERMAN: Now if you bought insurance in his home state of Ohio, insurance companies could have charged him up to 50 percent more. Call it the beltway boondoggle. Under Obamacare in Washington, D.C., there is no penalty for smoking. Guess those smoke-filled rooms where all that compromise happens are just too important.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BERMAN: So I have been duly informed there are no more smoke-filled rooms in Washington. You have to smoke outside. But you know what? There's no compromise, either, so that last joke still works.

I want to bring in our panel for reaction, the founder of the political action committee, Democracy for America, and the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, and the former governor of Maryland and author of "America, Hope for Change," Bob Erlich.

Governor Erlich, I want to start with you. The White House says that, the web site fixes are on target. The speaker even managed to get insurance last week.


BERMAN: After a while, but he got it. So is this the beginning of the end of Obamacare being a technical debacle?

EHRLICH: It's the beginning of the end of the technical debacle, which is the beginning of the real substance, which is going to be real problematic because sticker shock has already begun and will continue to hit hard as most of the bill kicks in over the course of the next year. I see this it's the end of the beginning of the sort of nonstory. You can fix a web site. You can fix a negligently put together web site. You can't fix the bill.

BERMAN: Now I should add by the way, there were some problems this morning. The site was down for a little bit. We just got that note here. Governor Dean, are you brimming with confidence that the site will work on November 30th, which is the White House self-imposed deadline, for 80 percent, to get an 80 percent success rate and is 80 percent in and of itself a good enough number? That means one out of five people will still fail to get insurance.

HOWARD DEAN, FOUNDER, DEMOCRACY FOR AMERICA: Well, I disagree with the governor. I actually think this is the beginning of a big victory because I think Obamacare is going to work, but i do not think 80 percent is good enough for the web site. They've got some work to do on the web site. I actually think what they've done so far is a miracle considering the shape of the web site when the new team went to work on it. I think this is going to work.

I don't think this is going -- this is going to be some sticker shock. I expect the Republicans to have every anecdotal piece of evidence, but for the vast majority of Americans, their costs are going to go down because of the tax subsidy and they will get decent health insurance.

In Kentucky, where this is working well because they have a state exchange, there are huge numbers of people who would never have thought of voting for Barack Obama who are benefiting from this health care plan.

BERMAN: The problems haven't just been anecdotal. There are millions of people who have received those letters saying their insurance no longer applies, correct? DEAN: Yes, but for many of those people, the majority of those people, those were not good health care policies. There are some, of course, I have gotten letters saying what about this and there were some good health care policies. None of those policies meet the definition of under Obamacare what a good health care policy is. I know a lot about this. We did this 20 years ago.

We did community rating, got rid of the ability of insurance companies to kick people off because they got sick, got rid of bad policies where you would buy -- pay $50 a month and get two office visits covered and no health insurance if you went to the hospital. Those are the kinds of policies that are mostly not being renewed.

So of course the policies that you get will be more expensive. Most of those people get the crumby policies in the first place because they're cheap. Those are the people who will be eligible for a tax subsidy. When this gets straightened out, the vast majority of people who get their health care policies non-renewed are going to get better care under Obamacare.

EHRLICH: I love the gov and we have been friends for many years, but what he just told you was the bottom line philosophical divide between the parties, because those folks who were pretty happy in the individual market, who had their health care, many young, healthy, they had the high deductible catastrophic plans, they just didn't know enough.

Government knows better, trust us. That's the whole denominator with regard to Obamacare. The governor just said it, in fact. We know what's best for you. We know what a 25-year-old healthy male needs and you will pay big-time because this is all about redistributing income from the relatively wealthy to the relatively poor. That's all it is.

BERMAN: Governor, I want to shift a little bit to Iran here. But it is related to Obamacare. This weekend, Senator John Cornyn, the Republican of Texas, tweeted after news of this deal with Iran. He tweeted, "Amazing what the White House will do to distract attention from obamacare."

Do you agree with that? Do you think the Iran deal is some sort of wag the dog conspiracy to distract from Obamacare? Is foreign policy supposed to stop until the web site's perfect?

EHRLICH: I don't think it's a wag the dog deal because you're not going to be able to wag the dog with how tangible this thing is. What, 5.3 million people cancelled. The employer market about to begin in a few months, that's when tens of millions will be hit and will be into the exchanges for a lot worse deal in many cases.

But i don't believe, by the way, this is the president's wag the dog sort of thing. I think this is a lousy deal and a lot of Democrats have come forward. You may actually agree on this, that what we have seen and read so far, I'm not a scientist. I'm a lawyer, guilty.

But what I see in a bipartisan way when the Senate leadership, Senator Schumer is the first one out of the box with this is a bad deal, when Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu is this nervous already, I think the American public needs to take a long look at this supposed piece of progress.

BERMAN: Governor Dean, I'll give you the last word here.

DEAN: Just to quickly finish up on the health care, the nice thing about the argument we're having now, it will be settled by the American people. They will decide whether they got a better health care deal or not and I think they will.

As far as the Iran situation, I think this is mostly positive. We don't know how this is going to turn out, and John Kerry deserves credit. You know who deserves credit that's not getting any is Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton cranked up the sanctions for the first time under President Obama that actually made the Iranians come to the table. That has not happened before. She deserves some credit she's not getting.

BERMAN: I think that may be the first time -- let's not open the can of worms right now. Governors, I appreciate you both being with us. You can talk amongst yourselves right now.

Coming up, you're supposed to laugh during the family guy, not cry. So why did Seth McFarland decide it was time for one of his most beloved characters to get hit by a car?


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. Today's Pop Lead, the movie that turned the Norse God of Thunder into a Box Office brides maid. The "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" blew everything else away, more than $161 million in its first weekend. That is the best November debut ever. The "Thor" sequel finished second with about $14 million.

So you've got to fight for your right to parody. A company called Goldie Blocks did a send-up of the Beastie Boys' 1986 song "Girls" for its educational products. The spoof version talks about girls doing spaceships including apps. The original talked about girls. Goldie Blocks has sued the hip-hop legends claiming use of the song is OK.

Both surviving Beasties are bewildered by all this. Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz writing "Long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads, when we tried to simply ask how and why our song "Girls" had been used in your ad without our permission, you sued us."

OK, Downtown Abbey" isn't the show for knee-slapping bathroom humor and "Family Guy" isn't really the place for drama and tears, which makes this most recent episode so jarring.

There's no punchline there. Brian the family dog got hit by a car and is gone. The show's executive producer defends the decision, saying it's less traumatic than killing off one of the kids.

That's all for THE LEAD. I'm John Berman filling in for Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."