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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

NSA Agents Spying On Virtual Worlds; Bad Weather, Good Times; Torre, Cox, La Russa Going To Cooperstown; "Frozen" Ices Box Office Competition

Aired December 9, 2013 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Time now for our Buried Lead. Today's is an explosive and hotly disputed new piece from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh alleging the Obama administration cherry-picked the intelligence it had about who used sarin gas to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians in August.

Now, here's what President Obama said when addressing the nation on September 10th, making the case for military action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We know the Assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.

If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER; Hersh, however, says that it's not so crystal clear that Assad was the one who definitively used the chemical weapons. Now, to be clear, CNN has not verified any of Hersh's reporting.

Let's bring in Seymour Hersh to explain. So, what exactly are you reporting?

SEYMOUR HERSH, WASHINGTON, D.C.-BASED REPORTER: First of all, I'm not saying I know. But I don't think our administration knew, either. Don't forget, we are talking about a president who wanted to go to war against a country for which there is no national security interest here. We're not threatened by what's going on in Syria. He was talking about going to war on the basis of having a case which you just heard him say was just not so. We didn't have that kind of information in real time. In fact, I doubt if that -- my friends tell me that was a story just put together. The basic real point that I make is that we know, and we have known since spring, that the most radical jihadi, if you will -- opposition group, rebel group, al Nusra -- we are talking about (INAUDIBLE) what you will, had access to sarin. There was a lot of intelligence reporting about it. The White House can say anything they want about it, but that is a fact, hat they had access to sarin.

So when the incident took place, the one thing they didn't do is they didn't consider the possibility that al Nusra could have been one of the people involved. They went right away to the notion it had to be Bashar, and the world's press went with him, including the American press. And in fact, they didn't have much of a case.

TAPPER: It will not surprise me to hear the White House is strongly disputing your report. We received this statement from the Director of National Intelligence spokesman Sean Turner. Quote, "The intelligence clearly indicated that the Assad regime and only the Assad regime could have been responsible for the 21st August chemical weapons attack. There is no evidence to support Mr. Hersh's claims to the contrary, and the suggestion there was any effort to suppress intelligence is simply false." He added to me separately when I said, well, what about this report that Hersh talks about, the CIA report or this Joint Chiefs looking into whether or not they should -- what they should do if there is a contingency to send troops there. They said, "As of December 9th -- this is Turner again, "2013, no U.S. intelligence agency assesses that the al Nusra front has succeeded in developing a capability to manufacture sarin."

HERSH: That's contradictory about what the intelligence they have. And that happens. This is an embarrassing thing for a president of the United States. If somebody is saying look, I've got no problem with Obama, I voted for him, I think he's as good a president we're going to have and bright.

But the fact of the matter is he did not have a case, there's no suggestion anybody in the government has made that we had any information about the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, having any direct role. He never alleged that. Always it's always Bashar did this, Bashar did that.

It's uncomfortable to say it, it's against the stream, but the reality is that inside the American intelligence community, this particular handling of the issue has been -- caused an awful lot of trouble.

TAPPER: The United Nations high commissioner for human rights told reporters in Geneva last week that the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria's chemical weapons attack quote, "points to the fact that evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including head of state." Now, I know that the U.N. report did not say who was responsible.

HERSH: U.N. commissioner was talking about war crimes in general, specifically excluded the gas issue because they had no information about it. They're not allowed, the U.N. -- presumably, they're not allowed to make a statement about who did what. They can say that there was a gas attack, but they don't want -- by commission, I guess, they're not allowed to say who did it. I don't know why, because I think there's a lot of evidence to be made available.

There is sarin, it was used. The sarin that the Syria army has has a different chemical component than the sarin that would be made by al Nusra because the army is more sophisticated, has certain additives. Certainly someone has looked at that. I don't know why they don't talk about the sarin they have and whether it shows it came from the army or did not.

The other thing one could say is that what the president suggested that we were watching in real time, what we heard him say in that bit -- we were watching in real time as this incident took place. That's not so. The government has acknowledged --

TAPPER: No, they acknowledged they were not watching in real time. It was after the fact.

HERSH: And then the question then is if it's such a wonderful case he has and they're so sure, why so quick to walk away? Why say after a little heat, why say that we're going to go all of a sudden, he's a constitutionalist? The guy who invaded Tripoli without one worry about the War Powers act, all of a sudden he's a constitutionalist and wants to go to Congress?

TAPPER: Well, that's a separate issue. Let me ask you this last question, sir, which is the British, the french both believe that Assad was responsible -- or at least the Syrian regime. The Iranians even seem to have indicated that they also held the Assad regime responsible, and it's not just the United States. There seemed to be consensus.

HERSH: Has there been any positive evidence yet? Has anybody said here's the chemical? Did we know that al Nusra, no matter what they say, the fact of the matter is, the Syrian opposition, and not necessarily the Free Syrian Army, the secular opposition, the Islamist opposition, has access to this stuff. It's not hard to make sarin. You can mix it in the backyard, two chemicals melded together.

The fact is, they have it, we know it, they're not talking about it. It's embarrassing to them. I don't mean to embarrass them. But that's, you know -- I'm sorry, that's just the way it is. It was there, they should have been a suspect, and they weren't looked at.

TAPPER: All right. Obviously, the White House disputes the fact that -- your assertion that al Nusra has it. But --

HERSH: Let me just say this. Time is running out. When I did Abu Ghraib, that was a different White House. The comment they made for the record was, "Hersh is just throwing crap" - that was the word they used "against the wall to see what sticks." Nobody likes unpleasant stories and they will deny it. Period.

TAPPER: Sir, it's your track record for not just for Abu Ghraib but also the My Lai massacre that is the reason that you're here right now. HERSH: There you go.

TAPPER: I respect your work. But it's just obviously a hot (INAUDIBLE) story.

HERSH: Of course.

TAPPER: Sy Herse, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it.

Just in to CNN, don't laugh, it's paid for. According to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, the U.S. government has sold its last remaining stake in General Motors, which it bailed out in 2009.

I want to go straight to CNN's Zain Asher. Zain, explain the significance of this sale. It's all gone?

ZAIN ASHER, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. The Treasury Department just announcing that it's selling the remaining shares it has in G.M. You've got to remember, just a bit of background for you, G.M. actually got about $50 billion from the government during the financial crisis. That money was actually converted into equity. The government did also bail out Chrysler, too.

But at the peak, the government actually owned more than 60 percent of G.M. It's been slowly selling those shares, winding down as the stock price recovers. Now, the taxpayers' current stake, basically before the call, was two percent. That's about 70 million shares. So, obviously the higher G.M. stock price goes, the more taxpayers will make back. But likely we're not going to be breaking even. G.M.'s shares have to surge upwards of roughly $300 for that to happen. G.M. actually closed the day at $40 a share so there is a loss.

By getting out now, the government can officially takes its hands out of G.M. As you remember, Jake, I'm sure, its involvement was highly controversial back in 2009. Obviously a lot of people were saying it's not the government's place to bail out corporate America. President Obama, though, has always defended that as saying that bailouts were actually cheaper than obviously the complete collapse of the auto industry, which would have led to huge job losses, huge pension costs for retirees.

But now if you look at the auto industry now, car sales are actually on track to be the best before the recession. Automakers are hiring again, they're making money, and are profitable. Jake?

TAPPER: Zain, if it's a $10 billion loss for taxpayers, is that -- according to experts -- is that a reasonable loss for what was achieved with bailing out the automaker?

ASHER: Well, for the government, you know, their focus is really just recouping what they can and actually getting out now. Obviously, G.M. when they actually bought those shares was roughly around $300 a share. Now they are getting out with $40 a share, so it is a significant loss. But their priority is just to sort of get out now and unwind it off its hands. Jake? TAPPER: All right, Zain Asher, thank you so much.

Coming up, so you thought you and your online buddy, the chieftain of the Dark Spear Trolls were slaying just another dwarf. Turns out that just might have been a real life undercover agent with the NSA.

Plus, most of his recent movies were a flop at the box office. Remember "Jack and Jill"? Neither do we. So, it's no wonder Adam Sandler's name tops Forbes's most overpaid actors list. We'll tell you what other big-name stars are on it.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Now turning to the "National Lead," it's kind of like "The Matrix" except the agents are with the NSA and British intelligence and their targets are terror suspects. We learned today that government spies have reportedly been infiltrating the virtual worlds of online video games like "World of War Craft" and "Second Life" to try and recruit informants and stop terror attacks before they happen.

That's according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, and reported in a joint investigation by the "New York Times, ProPublica" and "The Guardian." Now, if your knowledge of the video game universe begins and ends with "Frogger" don't worry. We will break it down for you.

Spencer Ackerman, U.S. national security editor at "The Guardian" joins me from New York. Spencer, "The Guardian's" calling this a hoard of undercover orks. Please break out the nerd to English/English to nerd dictionary and translate that for the rest of us.

SPENCER ACKERMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR, "THE GUARDIAN": "World of War Craft" like many other popular addictive video games is this amazing deeply, deeply, deeply richly developed fantasy game in which you go on quests along with your virtual friends and face things like orks and weird creatures and other things that I don't know about because of course, I would never play these games, never.

TAPPER: How would a militant or terrorist group use such a game to launch an attack?

ACKERMAN: Well, that's kind of unclear. But the suspicion around the sort of late 2000s that emerged in intelligence circles, in defense circles, was that as more of our lives migrate into massively multiple online role playing games like "War Craft" and others, more people would seek to use them as sort of online sanctuaries where you wouldn't think intelligence agencies like the NSA would be watching, so they could potentially discuss planning attacks like that.

TAPPER: Do we have any idea how many agents might be playing this game, these games, at any one time?

ACKERMAN: I have some suspicion about people who have gone after me and totally poned me but, no, we don't really have that suspicion. What we do have based on documents and based on subsequent reporting is that they collected quite a lot of data that it wasn't targeted to particular individuals, but was an opportunity as one of the documents describes the online role playing world.

TAPPER: Now the Xbox Live console network has more than 48 million players. How many people possibly were unknowingly playing with spies, all of them?

ACKERMAN: It's a great question and potentially, yes. We have a great deal of difficulty determining precisely how many people's online gaming communities were infiltrated or what the real exposure was. It's not as simple as asking someone, you know, guys who have seen --

TAPPER: CNN has not received an on the record response to these articles from the NSA, but do say their programs are all centered on valid foreign intelligence targets. Have any terrorists, to your knowledge, actually been caught by doing this?

ACKERMAN: Not to my knowledge. There has been a great deal of effort not just by NSA, but by the U.S. central command, to try and put people pretending to be either gamers or people in chat rooms otherwise seemingly unaffiliated with these groups to try and penetrate these networks. But we really haven't seen that either, A, these sorts of online environments led to actual terrorist plots or, B, much evidence of how much intelligence was really usefully collected out of them.

TAPPER: Of course, after 9/11, intelligence agencies were faulted for a failure of the imagination. Here we are watching them and they're trying to rectify that. Spencer Ackerman, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

ACKERMAN: Thank you.

TAPPER: When the very people responsible for this new culture of oversharing tell you you're being too nosey, maybe it's time to take a good hard look in the mirror. Facebook, Twitter, Google, they are among several tech giants calling on the NSA to back off. Eight companies signed an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress calling for new limits on government surveillance.

They say while they understand the need for the National Security Agency to protect American citizens, they think the snooping has gone too far. Plus, of course, it's bad for business. The companies have been getting hammered with consumer complaints ever since leaked documents revealed the extent to which th NSA tracks internet and cell phone communications.

According to the "Washington Post" the latest document dump showed the agency collects about five billion cell phone records a day.

Coming up on THE LEAD, take football and snow, lots of snow, mix in a dash of Lesean McCoy, what do you get? Well, dare I say perfection. Highlights from the craziest Sunday in recent memory, next.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Now it's time for the Sports Lead. For the first cold weather Super Bowl to be played this February, at the home of the New York Jets and Giants, the Farmer's Almanac now predicts, quote, "an intense storm, heavy rain, snow and strong winds."

We may have gotten a preview of that yesterday. It was awesome. Snow, sleet and ice impacted games all the way up I-95 on Sunday. No game was more fun to watch than the instant classic at the Linc in Philly. You can almost hear the NFL films music in the background as the Eagles and Lions combined for eight touchdowns, but there was only one extra point attempt because kicking was impossible, with about eight inches of snow on the ground. The Eagles, of course, were victorious.

For all the snow yesterday, it's the boys of summer on everyone's mind today, specifically three men whose resumes are as long as July is hot. Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony Larussa will be enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame next year. The three managers stood on the dugout steps for a combined 91 years of baseball life leading their teams to 17 pennants and eight World Series titles.

Torre won four of those championships with the New York Yankees, including three straight from '98 through 2000. Larussa won nearly as many games as he made calls to the bull pen, finishing his career third on the all-time wins list. While Cox only claims a single championship banner, he skippered the Braves to 14 straight post season appearances.

The "Pop Culture Lead" now, given the kind of weather most of us suffered through this weekend, it's no wonder a movie named "Frozen" took top spot at the Box Office. The animated adventure came in number one hauling in more than $31 million in its second weekend. That was enough to dethrone the "Hunger Games" sequel, "Catching Fire," which had been holding steady at number one for two weeks in a row. Rounding out the top three, the Christian Bale "Out of the Furnace," which didn't exactly heat things up. It earned a disappointing $5 million in its opening weekend.

Remember the Adam Sandler classic "That's My Boy?," a pithy examination of the estranged father/son dynamic and really a seminal piece of cinema from 2012. You don't remember it? I didn't see it, either. But it's memorable as one of the movies that landed Sandler a top "Forbes'" list of the most overpaid actors.

The magazine takes a big star and does a little calculus based on how well their last three films did at the Box Office versus how much they were paid. Sandler gave Hollywood the most bomb for the buck. Right behind him, Katherine Heigl, the "One for the Money" helped her make the list. Even Oscar-winner Denzel Washington is on the list and Steve Carell makes an appearance in the top ten.

Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jaketapper and also @theleadcnn and check out our show page @cnn.com/thelead for videos, blogs and extras. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I'll be back in two hours substitute anchoring on Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Until then, I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Mr. Blitzer.