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THE SITUATION ROOM
Pilots Addicted to Automation?; Interview with Michael Goldfarb; Sources Say Russians Busted for Fraud Were Spies; Sources: Russians Busted For Fraud Were Spies; Extraordinary Gathering For Mandela; Newtown Families Plead for Privacy; Epic Coma Prank
Aired December 9, 2013 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right, Jake, thank you. Happening now, automation addiction on this, the eve of hearings on a deadly airline disaster, there are now growing questions about whether airline pilots are relying too much on cockpit technology. Also, spies busted, current and former Russian diplomats just brought down by prosecutors for fraud, now suspected of espionage. What brought them to the attention of federal agents?
And a VIP flight, Air Force One departing for Nelson Mandela's memorial service with an impressive passenger list including two presidents and three first ladies. What's going on behind the scene? I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."
It was a horrifying and deadly disaster, all caught on camera. Tomorrow, the National Transportation Safety Board going to begin a two-day hearing on the July crash of this Asiana Airlines jumbo jet at the San Francisco International Airport. The "Wall Street Journal" is reporting that investigators say the crash was caused by a combination of pilot confusion about thrust settings and their excessive reliance on cockpit computers.
CNN's Tom Foreman is working the story for us. What are you finding out, Tom?
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what it looks like in this situation is that, in fact, there was going to be an engagement in this discussion about whether or not these pilots, in fact, relied too much on these computers to land the plane safely.
And if they did, why?
How do you keep it from happening again?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Two key questions surrounding the Asiana Aircraft. As the jet approached the San Francisco Airport, why did computers controlling the throttle disengage?
And why did the pilots fail to notice, as the plane's speed plummeted dangerously low? The answers could explain why the jet landed so short of the runway, smashing its tail into a sea wall, cartwheeling, killing three people and injuring almost 200 more.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I thought, you know, that was it. I thought, I'm dying.
FOREMAN: Aviation analysts say the crash is a warning. Computerized automation has clearly improved airline operations and safety in recent decades, but relying on it too much, so-called automation addiction, is a real danger.
BILL WALDOCK, EMBRY-RIDDLE AERONAUTICAL UNIVERSITY: Automation definitely helps in most circumstances. But you have to treat it as help rather than exclusively letting it fly the airplane. And the thing to remember is no matter what happens, it's still an airplane and pilots still need to be able to fly the airplane.
FOREMAN: And if you think Asiana was a freak occurrence, think again. In 2007, investigators say the auto throttle on a 737 turned itself off just before landing in England. The disengagement was neither commanded nor recognized by the crew, they wrote in their report, and air speed decayed rapidly. Then a crew member spotted the problem, took control and landed the plane safely.
That's why experienced pilots like Captain Keith Walzinger, who has flown planes just like that Asiana jet, says...
CAPTAIN KEITH WALZINGER, PILOT: The pilot should have his hand on the throttle itself. Whether it's being controlled by the autopilot or by the pilot manually, you have a feel for where the throttle position should be.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
FOREMAN: These hearings will not get to the bottom of what caused this crash. That's not really their purpose. This is more of a general investigation.
But the investigation itself is already spurring serious discussion about accountability and passenger safety and making sure that computers help pilots fly planes, not the other way around -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much.
Let's get some more now with Michael Goldfarb, the former chief of staff of the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration.
How much of a problem, Michael, is this automation -- we're all getting used to it -- in the cockpit?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: It's huge. In fact, FAA last month issued a report requiring the manufacturers now to factor in human limitations in the cockpit precisely because of this automation addiction, this overreliance where, in fact, many pilots, the piloting skills themselves have atrophied over the years. BLITZER: But that's pretty shocking to hear that, especially with a very sophisticated brand new airliner, a major jet, and you've got hundreds of people, potentially, on board at any one time.
GOLDFARB: Well, I think in the case of Asiana, they're going to find some contributing factors. You know how we always discuss, it's a series of things that come together, which is why crashes are so rare.
We had the instrument landing system at the airfield that was not working. Now, the pilots knew that when they took off, but that helps the pilot maintain its position, vertically and horizontally.
And we had a pilot who had never landed before at San Francisco.
So you can put that combined with the 777 automation system that they're new to and they didn't know when they were caught in a particular mode. It's called, you know, mode awareness, where -- you know it on your VCR, you know it on your computer, when you start panicking and you think you're in one part of the program and you find out that maybe you need a different screen. Absolutely the same thing happens to our pilots.
BLITZER: How prevalent, how widespread is this problem right now?
GOLDFARB: Well, 27 percent of the crashes are tied to it, number one. We've solved the other problems, Wolf. We have things in the cockpit that help us with weather displays. We don't fly in thunderstorms. We have ground awareness systems. We've taken away those kind of problems.
This is a remaining problem. It's extremely boring, quite frankly. You remember the conductor in New York last week who said he zoned out?
Imagine taking off in Los Angeles, landing in New York and only touching the controls two to three times. You're just not needed. You're more of an IT person than you are a pilot.
BLITZER: You're just sitting there watching all the numbers and everything else on the screen.
GOLDFARB: Let's take oppo -- the opposite example, "Sully" Sullenberger. Here's an example of someone with a feel for flying...
BLITZER: He had the miracle on the Hudson.
GOLDFARB: Sorry. The miracle on the Hudson. When it all went wrong, Sullenberger was close to the FAA and the NTSB. He understood the issues. And he was a glider pilot. So those things came together to allow him, with his experience, to get out of a terrible emergency situation.
Many pilots are trained on simulators. They really haven't had hands- on flying. They're trained on simulators and they don't know, at that moment when things go wrong, how to react. BLITZER: "Sully" Sullenberger, by the way, is going to be here in your seat tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're going to talk about this.
So how do we fix this problem?
GOLDFARB: Well, as I mentioned, they're starting to put in human factors to the design of the cockpit. They're starting to reintroduce manual controls. So whereas an automated system can work, let's train the pilots manually again on holding onto the throttle and understanding the aircraft. So a lot of remedial training will make a big difference in this.
BLITZER: For a new generation of pilots, who, presumably, haven't had that kind of training, is that what you're saying?
GOLDFARB: Well, the double bind is the new generation of pilots have a better IT background than flying.
But what happens when something goes wrong?
When happens when you get caught in a situation where you're over relying on a piece of automation and you don't know how to get back out of that?
BLITZER: All right,
Well, Michael Goldfarb, as usual, thanks very much for helping us. We appreciate what's going on. Let's hope they fix it and fix it soon. It's a serious problem out there...
GOLDFARB: Yes, sir.
BLITZER: And millions of people are flying every year.
BLITZER: They want to be safe.
GOLDFARB: Yes. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Michael.
Up next, alleged Russian spies busted in the United States, but not for spying. We've uncovered new information and it's a story you will see and hear first right here on CNN.
And we'll talk about it with a former FBI agent who took down one of America's most notorious spies. That was in a story made famous in the film "Breach."
BLITZER: All right, walking into THE SITUATION ROOM right now, Eric O'Neill, the former FBI agent who helped bring down a notorious Russian spy, Robert Hanssen. He's here to talk about that story and a lot more. You're going to hear it first on CNN.
There's a new wrinkle in the fraud case involving nearly 50 Russian diplomats and their wives. They're accused of running a decade long scheme to steal $1.5 million from Medicaid. But now it appears there may be a whole lot more to this story.
Sources telling CNN some of these alleged thieves are also spies.
CNN's justice reporter, Evan Perez, broke the story for us, all right, Evan, tell us what you've learned.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, sources tell me that for some time, the FBI has been trying to bring spy charges against several of these diplomats. These are diplomats that work out of New York for the Russian consulate there.
But in the end, the Justice Department decided that they wanted to bring -- there wasn't enough evidence and they decided to go after them for fraud, defrauding Medicaid, which is even more embarrassing to the Russian government.
Now, you might recall the 2010 case that exposed a group of Russian sleeper agents, including one named Anna Chapman. She was the classic good looking spy who climbed up social circles in Washington and New York and has since become a media star back home in Russia.
This case appears a lot less sophisticated. One of the diplomats charged in this case, is charged in this case, he is charged with his wife, allegedly filled out Medicaid forms claiming to make about $3,000 a month, when, in fact, he was making more than $5,000 a month.
His family got about $30,000 in Medicaid benefits. And meantime, according to prosecutors, they were spending about $50,000 at high end stores like Prada and Bloomingdale's.
Here's what Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, had to say about this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PREET BHARARA, U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: As the complaint alleges, the scam exploited a weakness in the Medicaid system and the charges expose shameful and systemic corruption among Russian diplomats in New York.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Evan, how many of these diplomats are still in the United States and what happens to them?
PEREZ: Well, of the 49 that are charged, Wolf, only 11 are still in the United States. And they cannot be arrested. That's because they have diplomatic immunity.
Now, the only way the case can move forward is if the Russian government waives their immunity, and that's not likely to happen. The State Department is expected to send them home instead.
BLITZER: What's the Russian government been saying about all of this?
PEREZ: Well, the Russian government, it said that the public announcement of these charges was undiplomatic and that they appear designed to cause problems between the two countries. The Russian deputy foreign minister told local news agencies, quote, "We have a lot of claims to American diplomats in Moscow, but we're not making them public."
So, Wolf, it sounds like we can expect some more retaliation, perhaps, from the Russians in the coming weeks and months -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I wouldn't be surprised. Usually when the U.S. does something like this, they respond tit for tat in Moscow.
BLITZER: We'll see what happens. I suspect some U.S. diplomats are getting ready to be expelled, presumably, from Russia. But we shall see.
Evan, good reporting.
Evan Perez reporting for us
Perhaps the most famous espionage case since the cold war ended was that of Robert Hanssen, an American FBI agent who was busted for spying on behalf of the Russians. Hanssen was brought down by a fellow FBI agent, a young man named Eric O'Neill, who was played by the actor Ryan Phillippe in a movie about the scandal called "Breach."
Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "BREACH," COURTESY UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE)?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I never cared about making headlines, I wanted to make history.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a traitor, Eric. He started spying for the Russians in 1985. The good news is you're in the middle of the biggest case we've ever run.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And joining us now is the man who actually busted Robert Hanssen, the former FBI agent, Eric O'Neill.
Eric, thanks very much for coming in. ERIC O'NEILL, FORMER FBI AGENT: It's great to be here.
BLITZER: All right, so let's talk about this case that Evan was just reporting on.
What do you make of this alleged spy ring?
O'NEILL: Well, it sounds a little bit like the mobster investigations where you can't get them for what you want to get them for tax fraud. We've got a group of Russians who are working in the different diplomacy, the diplomacy here in D.C. and consulate in New York, and it seems that you guys broke a good story.
The initial investigation may have been for intelligence, for spying, and they found some other information that was able to release a much broader and distressing number of actions against them.
BLITZER: And if these were all Russian diplomats or their spouses, for example, they would have diplomatic immunity as Evan points out and the U.S. -- unless the Russians agree to waive it, they're going back to Russia. They're not going to jail.
O'NEILL: Exactly. And we don't have a treaty with Russia where they would send their people back to be on trial here. So, they would literally have to waive it and allow us to do it. And it's very, very rare.
BLITZER: Based on your information, you're a former FBI agent, you know a lot about this. The cold war is over. So, a lot of folks thing that spying between the U.S. and Russia should be over as well, but there's still a significant amount of espionage going on and some are saying maybe it's as significant as it was of the bad old days of the cold war.
O'NEILL: I'd say it's even worse. Espionage is the way the world turns. Espionage is how a country or a society gets an advantage over another. And espionage right now has transformed from cold war espionage to espionage looking at economic information and information that can make a country stronger. So, it's even more of a problem today for us.
BLITZER: When the U.S. goes ahead and makes all of this public, all this kind of information, what kind of pressure does that in turn put on the Russians to follow suit, if you will, and make up stories or maybe find some real stories about U.S. espionage inside Russia?
O'NEILL: Well, if you think about it, there's back and forth. So, we had Edward Snowden. And that was a big problem and Russia I believe was, if not behind it, at least complicit in it.
BLITZER: Let's step back. So, you say behind it. What do you mean by that?
O'NEILL: Well, I've got this theory and you can call it a conspiracy theory, that the ease with which he left here, the ease with which he has suddenly gotten asylum in Russia may have been aided by the Russian intelligence services.
BLITZER: That's your suspicion.
O'NEILL: That's my suspicion.
BLITZER: You have any evidence to back it up?
O'NEILL: I don't.
BLITZER: None whatsoever, because --
O'NEILL: Just --
BLITZER: -- he flatly denies everything --
O'NEILL: Walks like a duck, smells like a duck, and sometimes, it's a duck.
BLITZER: Would that be -- you would guess that a lot of your former colleagues in the FBI would have a similar suspicion?
O'NEILL: I think so.
BLITZER: That there's more to this story than he's alleging right now, he's suggesting?
O'NEILL: He sure seemed very sophisticated in how he did it, and suddenly, he disappears and he sneaks through China and all sorts of things happen and he's sitting in an airport lounge and he gets asylum. It's that easy.
BLITZER: How much damage do you think Edward Snowden did to the United States?
O'NEILL: Untold damage.
BLITZER: When you say untold, what does that mean?
O'NEILL: One of the biggest problems that he did is he created a system where we cannot trust any of those different systems, whether the NSA or other intelligence services we put together. So, they all have to be dismantled and start over.
BLITZER: Some people think he did a service by exposing a really aggressive NSA surveillance which could filter in on American citizens, not just foreigners.
O'NEILL: True. I mean, that's one -- I don't subscribe to that. I don't think it's a service because I think that had he really felt passionate about it, had he really felt like he was making change, he might have actually gone -- come back and said OK, I'll go on trial. Let me have my say, because I'm right. Instead, he ran and hid and who knows what else he's selling out to the Russians right now.
BLITZER: But that's a serious, you know, suspicion that you have, charge that you have, that the Russians, the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, was actually running him as an agent when he committed these whatever he did, stealing all this information.
O'NEILL: Exactly. A suspicion, but I would not be surprised if that's where it started. They're that good.
BLITZER: How tense would you say the espionage relationship between the U.S. and Russia is right now?
O'NEILL: It's extremely tense. We go from the Russian illegals. You showed Anna Chapman and her friends and colleagues there, which are illegals. Now, we started with diplomatic immunity. These are Russian intelligence agents who do not have -- or spies who do not have immunity. So, they're here illegally under some pretext. That's dangerous for them because we can arrest them and try them, and that's what we saw in that case.
In the current case, we've got 49 or so individuals who are here, many of them with immunity, and we can't try them. Now, they've committed fraud and it's clear they committed fraud against the United States and against the United States people. That's why so many of them were pulled out quickly, the ones that have immunity, while they can hang around and finish up what they need to do, and then, we'll see them all leave.
BLITZER: What did you think of that film that was based on what you did with Ryan Philippe?
O'NEILL: Right. "Breach." That was great film. It was an inside look at how the FBI actually conducts an investigation without all of the extra gadgets and wizardry that goes into so many Hollywood movies.
BLITZER: Hanson caused an enormous amount of damage to the United States.
O'NEILL: Hanson caused untold damage, and we are literally still trying to figure out --
BLITZER: Who caused more, he at the FBI or Aldrich Ames, another Soviet Russian spy at the CIA?
O'NEILL: Well, if you asked Hanson, he would say himself. He had no respect for Aldrich Ames. He constantly would tell me that Aldrich Ames was a bumbling fool. Those were his words. And I think he was almost proud at how good of a spy he was. And I truly believe that he did more damage.
BLITZER: Now, without acknowledging at all that Snowden was run by the Russians, who caused more damage, Snowden or Aldrich Ames, or Robert Hanson?
O'NEILL: I think at the end of the day, Robert Hanson, because the secrets that Hanson stole were targeted to hurt the United States. And, the damage that Snowden has done, we don't -- one, we don't know the full extent of it. Two, you know, one could say there are some politically beneficial aims to it. But at the end of the day, I think that most of what he did was tear apart different goals that we had and different programs and systems we had that now have to be redone.
BLITZER: Eric, thanks very much for coming in. Eric O'Neill, former FBI agent.
O'NEILL: Thank you.
BLITZER: Appreciate it.
Coming up, power flight unlike any other. We have details on who's flying aboard Air Force One with President Obama to Nelson Mandela's memorial service. It could be an awkward moment when they all get there. Will President Obama come face-to-face with Cuba's Raul Castro? They're both on the podium. They're both speaking tomorrow morning. Stand by.
BLITZER: Presidents, prime ministers, dozens of other leaders are heading to South Africa for what could be the largest gathering of its kind at least in decades. The stadium where Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance at the 2010 World Cup will also be the setting of his massive memorial service tomorrow. Speakers will include President Obama, the Cuban president, Raul Castro, and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon.
Of course, security onstage and elsewhere will be extremely tight, but there are other concerns as well about the audience that will include three former U.S. presidents, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter as well as many other dignitaries and celebrities.
George and Laura Bush are aboard Air Force One with the Obamas right now, so is the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the current attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, the national security advisor to the president, Susan Rice, among any, many others.
Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King, who's covered a lot of these kinds of trips. We've been on many of these major trips. Can it get awkward from time to time? You have -- there will be four American presidents, current president, three former presidents, in South Africa with their wives at the same time.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Number one, a major security challenge for the United States secret service and their international allies as they cooperate on this. I just spoke to a couple of sources about (ph) security. They say they're very confident going forward. Can it get awkward? You mentioned the current president of the United States and Raul Castro.
I was at the Mandela inauguration where Vice President Gore was there and Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro several times tried to approach vice President Gore and he literally ducked him, went behind aides, and it was actually a comical scene if you watched it play out. So, we'll watch if that plays out. BLITZER: Let me disrupt you for a minute, because I have the official program that the South African government put out and among the tributes after Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary general speaks, the tribute by foreign dignitaries, and then they have the president of the United States, Barack Obama, followed by the leaders of Brazil, China and India and then Cuba, Raul Castro.
But they'll all be on this little stage, this little area in front of 90,000 people who have gathered in the soccer stadium. So, there could be a moment there where President Obama And Raul Castro, they may shake hands, they may talk, who knows.
KING: Be interesting to watch if they shake hands. That was the big thing. The Gore people said they wanted no physical contact and they wanted no substantive communications because of the relationships between the two countries. Obviously, you can get as close as we are at an event like that and we'll see what happens. So, you watch something like that.
For the former presidents to be together, Wolf, you know this because you've been at big events, the opening of presidential libraries here at home, the King Hussain funeral, you had a group like that. Rabin's funeral, you had a group of several presidents. The Pope John Paul II, his funeral, you had several of the presidents together.
It's a security challenge, number one. And then the question is, how do they work amongst themselves? It's an exclusive club. We do know on this flight over, the president is in his office. George and Laura Bush have the Medical suite which is right behind --
BLITZER: On Air Force One.
KING: On Air Force One. And they can rejigger that a little bit. We can figure it, make it more comfortable, and Secretary Clinton is in the senior staff quadrant of Air Force One, but we also know they spent a decent amount of time. Jay Carney, the press secretary, told reporters on the way over, they spent a lot of time, the group of them together, at the conference table. The president has in his little suite of offices there.
So, you'd want to be a fly on the wall in that conversation. You know, remember, President Obama essentially ran against George W. Bush in 2008 as much as he ran against John McCain. But, I've spoken to the former President Bush about this. He said he gets it, that's politics. The one thing about former President Bush, he has done this president a favor. And President Obama appreciates it. He's pulled back from the public discourse, but he loves politics.
He loves to talk politics. And so, I can imagine George W. Bush, if he gets a private moment, looking over at Hillary Clinton and saying, so, what are you thinking?
BLITZER: But Bill Clinton is flying over separately with Chelsea from another location. He presumably has his own plane. And Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, they're flying over separately with a group of so-called elders as they're called. So, that will be a separate plane for them. But all four of those presidents, one current, three former presidents and their wives, they'll all presumably be at this memorial service.
So, you were saying the secret service has got to be worried about a situation like that, and even though the South African security forces, they've been preparing for years, literally, for this day. They've got to be extremely nervous.
KING: Look, the Mandela inauguration back in 1994 was a who's who of world leaders as well and it went off without a hitch. It was a very emotional, very dramatic event. You can be sure -- again, I just spoke to a federal law enforcement source who says, of course, there's a bit of nervousness, but they think they're in very good position here. And you have support planes.
You have groups that have already gone over. There'll be plain clothes people in the crowds and all that. But think of the fascinating moment for the former presidents in the sense that you have Jimmy Carter who was president when the Iran hostage degree played out. George W. Bush called Iran the axis of evil. President Obama now who's trying to negotiate what would be a historic breakthrough on the nuclear program.
Do they talk about that at all? When the former presidents talk, mostly we learn almost nothing because those are off-the-record conversations of that exclusive club. But boy, you would love to know if they exchange any notes on that or just any historical reflections or observations. But it's a big, historic event, and we will find out in bits and pieces after about the interaction between the presidents themselves.
BLITZER: And it would be interesting to see what if anything happens, because there will be representatives, high ranking officials from Iran, for example, attending the memorial service, presumably the funeral on Sunday as well. And these kinds of diplomatic, awkward moments potentially could be significant.
KING: Sometimes awkward moments, sometimes either the front of the cameras or away from the cameras, a chance for somebody, even in a very brief conversation, maybe, to start a relationship or to continue or advance a relationship. Or let's just say, the President Raul Castro -- if the president of the United States wanted to change a relationship, he could do it. That's up to him.
But often you learn days, weeks, months, sometimes even years later that somebody met somebody at a big event like this. And whether it's a day later or a year later, it actually helped move a ball at some point.
BLITZER: Yes, wondering if, for example, I don't know if this is in the realm of possibility, if the president is there and happens to be standing next to Raul Castro, he says to him you know, President Castro, there's an American citizen who has been held for four years in Cuba, Alan Gross. Don't you think he should be allowed to come home?
KING: Would the president do that? Would one of his people with one of Castro's people? That's one of the questions. I just -- going back to that moment, I remember Fidel Castro was walking the halls because he knew vice president Gore was right there, and he wanted to give him a cigar. He was walking around. He was in a cheery mood, and a couple of Gore staffers actually got in trouble because they took advantage of the moment and took a photograph with Fidel Castro out in the hall at the Mandela inauguration. They got in trouble.
BLITZER: Awkward. Cuba technically still listed as a State Department -- by the State Department as a country that supports international terrorism. So, that's a further complicating factor.
KING: Very tough for the president himself to do it.
BLITZER: All right, John, thanks very much. John King reporting for us.
Up next, Iranian leaders threatening to walk away from the historic nuclear agreement with world powers. We will show you what's happening in the U.S. Senate potentially that could cause the collapse of the deal.
Plus, sheriff's deputies accused of beating inmates and visitors. We have new details of more than a dozen arrests.
BLITZER: Historic agreement aimed at preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon now under threat potentially, at least, from the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers, including some Democrats, are taking diplomacy into their own hands in a move that could result in the collapse of that hard-won deal, at least potentially. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is watching what's going on. I know the Obama administration, Jim, is very concerned what these members of the Senate are planning on doing.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPODNENT: No question. This puts Congress on a direct collision course with the White House. As you know, they have been lobbying hard, the administration has been lobbying hard against it. Secretary Kerry, including - even sending a video message over the holidays arguing against sanctions, saying that will in effect scuttle this deal.
What we're seeing now, that intense lobbying campaign appears to have fallen on deaf ears, even among members of the president's own party.
SCIUTTO: With the ink barely dry on the historic nuclear deal with Iran, today the Iranian foreign minister pronounced it dead if Congress passes more economic sanctions. The entire deal is dead, Mr. Zarif told "Time" magazine. "We do not like to negotiate under duress." Even so, sources tell CNN Republican and Democratic senators are close to doing exactly that, nearing agreement on a bill to impose new sanctions within six months unless Iran ships all stockpiles of enriched uranium out of the country and dismantles both its heavy water plutonium reactor and its uranium enrichment program. Two separate paths to a nuclear bomb.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Thirty years, they have been one of the more chaotic, mayhem-causing regimes on the planet. Why would you want to let the ayatollahs have the ability to enrich and hope the U.N. can stop them? That's not going to be an acceptable out come.
SCIUTTO: Trouble is, the administration is calling for none of those proposed steps in its negotiations with Iran. This weekend, President Obama once again said he can live with uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.
OBAMA: We can envision an end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity.
SCIUTTO: The administration gained some grudging support for diplomacy with Iran from its harshest critics so far, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Israel is prepared to do what is necessary to defend itself. We share President Obama's preference to see Iran's nuclear weapons program end through diplomacy.
SCIUTTO: Senate aides tell me it's the view of the senators on the Hill that these new sanctions would only strengthen the administration's hand at the negotiating table. That is certainly not the White House view. In fact, White House sources calling this "seriously counterproductive." It's their view that it damages their position not only with Iranians but with their European partners, the P5 Plus 1, who are an essential part of this deal. They are pushing back hard. Doesn't appear that that's working.
BLITZER: But the six-month time frame is significant because the interim agreement is supposed to last for six months. And if there's no long-term commitment, only then these new sanctions presumably would go into effect.
SCIUTTO: No question. That's exactly the senators' argument. The White House argument is hey, listen, in six months, you can pass the sanctions then, no problem. In the meantime, this could scuttle the deal and you hear from foreign minister Zarif that it appears it has at least a chance of doing that.
BLITZER: Yes, even though it won't take effect until after the six months. All right, Jim, good reporting. Thank you. Shocking arrests in Los Angeles. Sixteen current and former sheriff's deputies taken into custody as part of an FBI probe into alleged misconduct at the county jail, including alleged beatings of inmates and even visitors.
Our crime and justice correspondent Joe Johns is working this story for us. Pretty shocking stuff. What are these deputies actually accused of doing, Joe?
JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is an enormous sheriff's department. The L.A. County jails have been called some of the worst in the country for prisoner abuse, and the allegations if true sound like a case of jail guards gone wild. Prisoners and even visitors to the jail beaten up or in some instances, handcuffed, detained, including incredibly, consul general of the government of Austria, who went there to visit a prisoner.
Now, about 18 current and former sheriff's deputies have been implicated. A long-running federal investigation. All but two in custody, according to authorities.
The charges include allegations that employees of the department deprived jail prisoners of civil rights, also obstruction of justice allegations. Apparent attempts to cover up the truth after it became clear that cases were under investigation.
Some of the most outlandish alleged behavior started after it became known that an informant in the jail was working with the FBI. The U.S. Attorney's Office said employees of the sheriff's department went so far as to try to get a judge to release names of everybody involved in the investigation. And when that didn't work, they allegedly even tried to put the squeeze on an FBI agent.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDRE BIROTTE, U.S. ATTORNEY: Despite a judge's refusal to issue this order because he had no jurisdiction over the federal agency, two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, sergeants, allegedly confronted an FBI special agent outside her residence in an attempt to intimidate her into providing details about the investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNS: Now, in the past, Sheriff Lee Bacca has said it was the FBI who was breaking the law and said there was really no attempt to intimidate the FBI agent. It doesn't really sound all that smart. These claims of corruption and brutality in this jail go back years and years, Wolf.
BLITZER: How far up the chain does all of this go?
JOHNS: That's a huge question. The sheriff is going to hold a news conference around 3:30 Pacific time, but it is pretty clear that the United States attorney tried to walk around any questions of how high that goes. There's also a clear indication that this investigation is ongoing, so there are things the authorities are not saying at this stage, Wolf.
BLITZER: Joe Johns reporting. Pretty shocking stuff out in California. Thanks very much.
Just ahead, you won't believe what the robot on Mars has discovered. Why it could help answer the long-time question, is there life on Mars?
And wait until you also hear what a music legend sang, sang a classic Billy Joel song at the Kennedy Center. We are going to play it for you. I think you are going to enjoy it.
BLITZER: Still fresh in the minds of so many people, but this Saturday actually marks one year since the horrific massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Families of the victims as well as other Newtown residents have asked the news media to respect their privacy. They announced the new Web site to honor their loved ones.
Listen to what some of them said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KRISTA REKOS, MOTHER OF VICTIM JESSICA REKOS: In the midst of our grief, we have come to realize that we want our loved ones to be remembered for the lives they lived and how they touched our hearts.
We have been uplifted by the support of so many people and we would like to keep that spirit of unity and love alive in all we do to remember those we so dearly miss.
It is with this in mind that we have created the MySandyHookFamily.org Web site. This Web site is intended to serve as a singular place of sharing, communication and contact with the families of those who lost their lives that day.
JOANN BACON, MOTHER OF VICTIM CHARLOTTE BACON: On the one-year mark of this horrific day, we know that many people across the country will be thinking of our children and educators, so tragically taken from us. And wondering how to help. We ask that you consider performing an act of kindness or volunteering with a charitable organization in your own local community.
We hope that some small measure of good may be returned to the world.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The families say sirens and news trucks remind them of that awful day one year ago.
Let's take a look at some of the other stories coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
More than 1700 flights have been canceled today. Millions of people are stranded. At home from a rare icy weather pattern affecting virtually the entire U.S. Temperatures plunged below freezing, even in California and Nevada. And windchills are 40 below zero in the Midwest.
Snow and ice have blanketed a large portion of the northeast, including in Yonkers, New York, where 40 people were hurt in a 20-car pileup. Fortunately none of the injuries appeared to be serious.
NASA says it has found evidence of a large freshwater lake on Mars and scientists believe it may have supported life. Samples from the Mars Curiosity Rover, a robot that has been collecting data from Mars since last year, revealed that the lake may have been around for thousands of years, but eventually turned to desert just like many lakes in the western U.S.
And I was thrilled to be in attendance last night in a truly inspiring event. The Annual Kennedy Center Honors here in Washington, D.C. This year's show brought together entertainers and politicians alike, including, of course, the president and the first lady, to celebrate the careers of five legends -- the actress Shirley MacLaine, the opera singer Martina Arroyo, jazz artist Herbie Hancock, rock and roll icon Carlos Santana and Billy Joel.
Listen to Garth Brooks performing Billy Joel's hit "Only the Good Die Young."
And the rapper Snoop Dogg pumped up the crowd with his tribute to Herbie Hancock, much to the delight of President Obama.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SNOOP DOGG, RAPPER: C'mon, give me some keys, that guitar. Make it funky, y'all. Hey, Herbie, you know we love you, baby. C'mon, somebody say yes. Say yes. Say Hancock. Say Hancock. Say Herbie. Say Herbie. We love you. We love you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The president, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of the secretary of state, they were up in the presidential box, enjoying Snoop Dogg, as all of us were. What a night. Beautiful.
All right. The full performance, by the way, will air later this month on CBS.
Just ahead, imagine walking up in -- waking up in a strange hospital room from a 10-year coma, only to find out none of it is real. The epic prank, coming up.
BLITZER: Friends trick each other all the time, but convincing someone they've spent the last decade in a coma is no easy task.
Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Who deserves a prank who fools you into believing you're waking up --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh my gosh.
MOS: -- from a 10-year long coma.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My son was 2 years old when you came in here. And he's 12 now.
MOOS: We know only his first name -- Dennis. His friends say he has a long history of driving under the influence.
TOM MABE, PROFESSIONAL PRANKSTER: Want to do a bit? I mean, we could do this bit at any given night.
MOOS: The bit involved turning an office into a hospital room. And when Dennis passed out from drinking, they say they carried him in under the care of a fake nurse and doctors.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know you're confused, a little disoriented.
MOOS (on camera): Dennis was only out for about three hours or so. The pranksters say he was still intoxicated when he woke up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were out drinking and you decided to drive, and there was an accident. This accident took place back in 2013. This is 2023. You've been in a coma for the past 10 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is my daughter all right?
MOOS (voice-over): Who would doing something like this? Tom Mabe is a professional prankster, but in this case he said he was worried about his friend's drinking. So this was half prank, half intervention.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watch a little television if you got.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Former songstress and actress Miley Cyrus is facing eviction from a Bullet County, Kentucky, trailer park. You may recall back in 2015, Cyrus was busted for cooking meth in her double wide.
MOOS (on camera): I have to say it was hard to believe at first. You know, we go through all this stuff, looking at it and say, well, is that fake?
MABE: He was totally hook, line and sinker up to the point to where he'd just seen a video he recognizes me. This is 100 percent real.
MOOS (voice-over): This is Tom dressed up like a doctor.
MABE: What do you recall? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Drinking, that's all I remember.
MOOS: And then the doctor.
MABE: Feel that? Feel that?
MOOS: Slaps some sense into him.
MABE: You feel that?
MOOS: With the doctor's mask off Dennis recognized Tom.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (EXPLETIVE DELETED). It's not funny. It's not funny.
MABE: Five DUIs. Yes, I ought to kill you.
He laughed a lot. He laughed the whole, whole lot. He just thought, we got, man, you guys got me, man, you got me. So I'm not sure that he learned a lesson.
MOOS: Some posters were mad. "They have turned his addiction into a joke." Tom says they're pushing to get Dennis into a program. After all DUIs can leave someone else in a real coma. But Dennis came out slaphappy.
MABE: You (EXPLETIVE DELETED), you got to stop it.
MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.