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New Details on Colorado Shooting; Six Americans Die in Helicopter Crash; NSA Leaker Offers Deal to Brazil; Should NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Be Given Amnesty? Bipartisan Budget Deal Receives Some Praise On Capitol Hill; George Zimmerman Selling Art; Did U.S. Troops Die in Crash or Enemy Fire?

Aired December 17, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jake, thank you. Happening now, breaking news, deadly plan. Investigators reveal new details about the Colorado high school shooter's murderous intent. What was the chilling phrase he wrote on his own arm?

Also breaking right now, U.S. troops killed. Did they survive their helicopter's crash landing only to be attacked and killed by the Taliban?

And an unusual offer, NSA leaker, Edward Snowden says he will help Brazil investigate U.S. spying. What does he want in return? The former spy, Valerie Plame, is standing by to weigh in.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following breaking news out of Colorado right now, where investigators are revealing disturbing new details of that high school shooting that left one student gravely injured and the gunman dead. We're now learning that senior Karl Pierson had written about the attack on his own body, and what he intended to carry out was so much worse.

Our crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns, is working this story for us -- Joe, what have you learned?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these details about the shooting last week are simply chilling and a huge indicator of how much worse it could have been. Authorities say the shooter had used an indelible marker to write a phrase in Latin on the inside of his forearm. The Latin phrase is "Alea iacta est," which translates in English to "the die has been cast."

Along with that Latin phrase, the shooter had also written five separate letters and numbers on his arm. Investigators say those numbers correlate directly with the identification of the library and certain specific classrooms located in the immediate area near the library and media center of the Arapahoe High School.

The investigators say they believe the letters and numbers written on Pierson's arm are an indication of the plan the shooter had laid out in his mind, but it is apparently a still little uncertain. They say they're trying to determine the relevance of the numbers and whether people in those classrooms may have also been targeted for harm by the shooter -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How much firepower, Joe, did he actually bring into that school?

JOHNS: It's a little shocking. The sheriff's department says Pierson also brought three functional Molotov cocktails, a machete and a canvas scabbard and more than 125 rounds of assorted types of shotgun ammunition into the school. He had rounds of shotgun ammo in two bandoliers that were worn across his chest and waist, and had even more in a backpack he was wearing. He walked right into Arapahoe High School and began randomly firing that weapon, a .12 gauge pump action shotgun. He shot 17-year-old Claire Davis once in the head amid shots fired randomly in the school hallway before turning the gun on himself. But now, we know he was prepared to do a lot worse.

BLITZER: It obviously could have been so much worse.

Joe Johns with the latest on that story.


Other breaking news we're following, six US

Troops have been killed after their helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. It first appeared they died from the crash itself, but now we're learning it may have been an attack.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is digging on this story.

What are you learning from your sources -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at this hour, military investigators are urgently looking into these reports that when the six troops were killed in Southern Afghanistan, that they might have survived that helicopter crash. The helo went down due to mechanical failure, they say. But there is a report they're looking at that once they were on the ground, they came under enemy attack, that there was a mortar round fired and that it may have hit the helicopter.

The question tonight is, did any of those troops actually survive the helicopter crash?

Did this mortar round impact?

Were they all killed in the crash?

What exactly happened here?

That is the question. And that, Wolf, is the question to which, right now, there are no answers. This has gotten the attention at the highest levels of the Pentagon. There have been meetings about it throughout the day. Even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel very aware of the uncertainty of this situation and looking for answers about what happened.

But the bottom line here, Wolf, of course, is for six U.S. military families, this tragic news comes at the holiday season. There are still 42,000 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. For them, the war is not winding down -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do we know what their mission was, those six troops who were killed in that helicopter?

STARR: Well, this was in Southern Afghanistan, which is an area where troops move around frequently. Sometimes they are on counterterrorism raids looking for specific targets. Sometimes they're moving around to get into location and position to help Afghan forces.

So far, no word tonight on exactly what this helicopter was doing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara.

Thank you.

We're also following another breaking news development right now -- a wildfire burning out of control along one of California's most scenic stretches of coast. It's already charred hundreds of acres, destroyed multiple homes, forcing residents to flee.

CNN's Dan Simon is on the scene for us -- Dan, what's the latest on this dangerous wildfire?


We are at the fire command center. And among those who lost their home is none other than the fire chief. You'll be hearing from her in a moment.

But first, you can see some of this thick black smoke in the forest land. And the thing everyone has been talking about around here is how unusual it is that you would have a wildfire like this in the middle of December. But this region is facing one of the driest seasons on record and that is why you have had 15 homes destroyed. We're talking about 550 acres.

Now, that is not an enormous fire in the context of these wildfires that we typically cover on the West Coast. Nonetheless, they are fighting this very aggressively, about 500 firefighters on the front lines. You also have a number of water dropping aircraft.

As I said, the chief, she saw her home be destroyed by the flames despite the fact that she tells me she did everything she could to protect it.


SIMON: Some people would say it's just incredibly ironic that the chief's home would be destroyed by fire. CHIEF MARTHA KARSTENS, BIG SUR FIRE BRIGADE: Yes, it is. The irony doesn't escape me. And, again, I try to set an example for fire clearance. And we do the best we can. But it's -- the situation was just -- it was too much, too hot, too fast, too soon.

If I had had other resources, perhaps my home would still be there.

Until it happens to you, you feel sorry for them. But literally, I went out to fight a fire. I had my purse. I had my cell phone and my glasses. And I didn't know I was going to be trying to save my own home.


SIMON: Well, the big challenge with this blaze, Wolf, is that it is burning in terrain that is very steep and inaccessible. And that's why those helicopters are so key. Of course, weather can always be a problem, but right now, winds don't seem to be an issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Simon on the scene for us.

Thank you.

Speaking of weather, our meteorologist and severe weather expert, Chad Myers, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us today -- Chad, this weather situation looks like it's going to get worse before it gets better?

CHAD MYERS, ATS METEOROLOGIST: They have 36 hours to put this out. And then they get 35 mile per hour winds. And it's going to get ugly. If they don't get every spark out, it gets very ugly. And Dan touched on this for a second, how dry it's been in California.

San Francisco should have 20 inches of rain by now. They have four -- 15.12 inches below normal. It is just nasty out there. And the wind is going to blow tomorrow night. We're talking about 6:00 p.m. tomorrow night all the way through Friday. It's going to get cooler. We're going to get a marine layer. And by Friday, it does cool down and that marine layer comes in and it kind of even brings temps up -- brings up some of the humidity a little bit. That will help.

But it's the wind that's just going to get so very bad. Right now, five miles per hour. Watch as we go from today to tomorrow to tomorrow night. And all of a sudden, those wind gusts right there, Wolf, 30 miles per hour on those ridge tops. It is going to get ugly and it's going to get ugly fast. The entire state of California is under a drought, much of it in severe drought.

We could even see this drought fire, basically drought contained fire here, we could see the smoke all the way up into Monterrey Bay, the smoke all the way here, from almost San Francisco, right here on the satellite. That's how big this fire has really grown in just one day. It's a full square mile. It's on both sides of the highway.

And that's part of the problem right now. The U.S.-1 goes right through here. There you go. There's -- there's 1. And then you have fire on that side, on the east side, then on the west side of this system, right through here, this wind is going to blow across. It's going to make a lot more fire where this came from, Wolf. This is a big fire if we don't get it out in the next 36 hours. This gets tragically bigger after that.

BLITZER: All right, Chad.

Thanks for that report.

We'll continue to watch it together with you.

Up next, the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, reaching out to Brazil with a surprise offer. We're going to talk about the impact of his leaks with the former CIA clandestine officer, Valerie Plame. She's standing by live.

Plus, George Zimmerman trying to make money in a very unusual way. We have details of his new online venture.


BLITZER: They're among the biggest names in tech -- Yahoo! ! Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter. And today, top executives from those and 10 other companies sat down at the White House with President Obama. On the agenda, the troubled ObamaCare Web site. One tech executive has been asked to oversee the massive repair project.

But the meeting also covered controversial NSA surveillance programs, which many of these companies have expressed deep concern over.

Just yesterday, a federal judge ruled one surveillance program probably unconstitutional. And now an expected move by the former contractor who leaked them to the world.

CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, has the latest.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Edward Snowden reaching out across the world. We've confirmed that he's accepted an invitation to testify before the European Parliament next month by video link to talk about NSA surveillance, but also today, reaching out to the people of Brazil with an interesting offer.



SCIUTTO (voice-over): Six months after fleeing spying charges all the way to Russia, today, Edward Snowden made an offer back across the globe to Brazil -- help fighting NSA surveillance in exchange for political asylum. In a letter addressed to the Brazilian people, Snowden writes, quote, "Many Brazilian senators have asked for my assistance with their investigations of suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens. I have expressed my willingness to assist."

Snowden appears emboldened by the groundbreaking decision by a federal judge Monday, ruling the NSA program that sweeps up Americans' phone call records is likely unconstitutional. In a scathing ruling, Judge Richard Leon wrote, quote, "The government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack." Throughout, U.S. officials have justified the NSA's mass surveillance program, saying they have been successful averting acts of terrorism -- 54 separate acts to be exact, although over time, that figure has evolved from 54 plots...

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-MI), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Fifty-four times this and the other program stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe.

SCIUTTO: -- to 42.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: Forty-two of those 54 were terrorist plots.

SCIUTTO: -- to 13 plots or cases involving Americans.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S.?

Would you agree with that, yes or no?


SCIUTTO: Today, Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me the administration has overstated the program's successes.

LEAHY: Well, I believe NSA and General Alexander and those speaking for him greatly exaggerated. We went from 54, which became sort of the symbol, until we got down to the substance, which was really one.

SCIUTTO: The one case Senator Leahy referencing, that of Najibullah Zazi, who in 2009, plotted to bomb the New York subway system.


SCIUTTO: Now, U.S. officials have specifically cited a small number of other plots averted, including that involving a Yemeni extremist who targeted the New York Stock Exchange. And there are other members of the Senate who stand behind the program even after the ruling, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. She released a statement saying that quote, she believes the program is constitutional and helps keep the country, Wolf, safe from attack.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, I know Mike Rogers, the chairman of the house intelligence agrees with her.

Let's get some more right now on Edward Snowden.

Valerie Plame is joining us. She is the former CIA clandestine officer whose cover was famously blown by the Bush administration, a Bush administration official, back in 2003. She is also the author of the spy thriller "blowback." She is joining us from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Valerie, I'm curious to get your thoughts on Edward Snowden. Has he done more good for the United States or more harm to the United States?

VALERIE PLAME, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Hi, Wolf. What I would like to talk more about or rather less about Edward Snowden's character or what the appropriate punishment should be, but more about what are the issues at stake. I mean, it goes to the really heart of constitutional issues, how do we reconcile domestic surveillance with the constitution. And those, because of his revelations, that's why we're having this conversation now.

BLITZER: So, has he done all of us a favor by bringing these issues to the fore the way he did, or did he do grave damage to U.S. national security?

PLAME: I will tell you, as a former intelligence officer, I'm deeply offended and upset at his defiance of authority but as an American citizen, I'm glad he did what he did, because now we do understand or are beginning to understand the incredible reach of the NSA surveillance, and is it compatible with what we want our America to be and our values.

This country was founded on the best government is the least government, and I don't think that this pervasive surveillance state that we are -- the infrastructure is being set up by the NSA, it is in place. I don't think that that is compatible with what the original founding vision of what American freedom really means.

BLITZER: I guess if you listen to NSA officials, administration officials or Dianne Feinstein or Mike Rogers, the chairs of the Senate and House intelligence committee, they say even if it's only one or two incidents that are prevented, if you can prevent another 9/11, it's worth it to go through all of this. I take it you disagree with that.

PLAME: That sounds an awful lot like former vice president Dick Cheney's one percent doctrine. If there's a one percent possibility then we do everything, you know, some sort of terrorist attack, we would do everything to prevent it. And I am not sure that is compatible.

The question is, what sort of balance do we need to have in a healthy democracy between security and privacy? And as you -- as we saw in the setup piece you did, the number of attacks, it seems, that have been prevented has been completely overestimated or, you know, overdone by the administration. And I'm not just willing to take some politician's word for it that don't worry, we're keeping you safe. As we saw in a recent interview that General Alexander just did the other night, he said, you know, well, we're just keeping Americans safe and we're not keeping it secret from Americans, we're keeping it safe from foreigners but I do have trouble with that construct. BLITZER: Would you be open to granting him amnesty if he returned to the United States and returned all those documents, supposedly like 1.7 million documents that he stole? Would you be able to grant him amnesty in exchange for that?

PLAME: Well, I think it's a moot point. I think the cat's out of the bag in that he's not the only one that has the documents now. We know that he has given some documents to Greenwald, (INAUDIBLE) and others. And as we go forward and think about NSA reform, the president's commission on this of five men that were appointed to that are going to put forward their report very soon, make it public. Some has come out.

But imagine if there were whistleblowers like Snowden and others that were highly critical of the NSA, if they were at least included in the process, doesn't mean you take all their suggestions and incorporate them. But you know, what he did was -- Snowden did was an act of civil disobedience and you can argue, you know, we don't know all the facts yet where that will come out, but what we do know is these programs deeply exceed what even the writers of the patriot act had in mind. And now, from yesterday, the federal judge's ruling, Judge Leon, that these in fact overstep legal boundaries despite what the NSA says.

BLITZER: The other day, Friday, when we spoke, we spoke about Bob Levinson, the former FBI agent who disappeared seven years ago in Iran. We now subsequently have learned he was doing some work for the CIA at that time. Senator John McCain said this the other day. I want to play the clip and I want to get your reaction.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: -- to the American Congress about Mr. Levinson. If that's true, then you put this on top of things that our intelligence committees didn't know about other activities which have been revealed by Snowden, maybe it means that we should be examining the oversight role of Congress over our different intelligence agencies.


BLITZER: McCain said he believes the CIA did not tell the truth to the American Congress about Levinson, what he was doing in Iran, the connection he had to the CIA, not necessarily as a CIA employee, but as a contractor who was getting money from the CIA to do certain so- called analytical work. What do you make of what senator McCain is saying because that's a pretty serious charge?

PLAME: It is and I think it's long overdue. We need to have much more stringent and robust congressional oversight. Senators hate being lied to or when they find out that intelligence briefings have not been entirely forthcoming, and that's what's happened in this case. They, both the FBI and the CIA, were caught out. It took them way too long to investigate what happened to Levinson. As I read in reports, it took over a year for the FBI to look through his hard drive on his computer that they were given access to from Levinson's family over a year? I mean, it just doesn't add up. And I want to hear more of how this is not going to happen again, how you don't have the analysts on the CIA side of the house running operations which should be on the ops side.

BLITZER: When you were working with the CIA, did you have any such experiences where you knew for a fact, for example, or you suspected the CIA was deliberately lying to members of Congress?

PLAME: No. I did not -- I wasn't senior enough to see anything like that. I was very much involved in operations and the run-up to the war in Iraq. I was deeply involved in trying to understand exactly what is the state of play of the Iraq alleged WMD program. So I didn't. But it's clear I would love to see a really stepped-up oversight over intelligence, because since 9/11, it has truly grown to now, where I think of it as military industrial intelligence complex and it is vast.

BLITZER: Valerie Plame, thanks so much for joining us.

Once again, I want to remind our viewers, your new book is "Blowback." It's a novel, it is a thriller. I think our viewers will enjoy reading it. We'll have you back soon. Thanks very much.

PLAME: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, grim new poll numbers for President Obama. Is he going to end his presidency as unpopular as President Bush did? That's what one columnist is suggesting. Stand by.

And a Republican senator releases his annual so-called waste book. We are going to show you what's included in the $28 billion he says was totally wasted by the federal government.


BLITZER: The bipartisan budget deal has been praised as a way to avoid a government shutdown but no surprise from many on Capitol Hill. It's more about party politics than potential compromise.

Let's go to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

What are you learning, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, so much of the dynamic that has created the atmosphere here on Capitol Hill really since maybe we can call it the tea party revolution back in 2010, when Republicans took over the house, has been that grassroots conservative groups have been really trying to convince lawmakers on the Republican side not to give up on party principles. That really has, for better or worse, led to some of the grid lock here.

Well, if you take a look at the procedural vote on this budget deal today, it really crystallizes that dynamic. There were about seven Republicans who voted no. Every single one of them, in fact, every single Republican senator who is up for re-election in 2014 and has a primary challenger from the right voted against this, every single one of them including the top two Republicans in the Senate, the Senate leaders, one of whom, Mitch McConnell, has been a leader on trying to find compromise on fiscal issues over the past few years, much to the chagrin of some of the conservatives, not so now.

And the primary reason, he certainly wouldn't admit this publicly, but a primary reason is because first and foremost, he has to make sure that he doesn't lose his seat because there is a Republican running against him from the right urging him not to compromise. And that is very much what you see from others. And again, it really does help inform and explain a large part of the dynamic that has been going on here on fiscal issues in the Republican party over the past couple years.

BLITZER: Well, given that they did pass, they got over this procedural hurdle today, that filibuster, it will pass tomorrow, it will go to the president. He will sign it into law. There won't be a government shutdown in January or at the beginning of the next fiscal year in October. So this two-year deal, it will now be the law of the land.

BASH: It certainly is heading that way for sure. Total 67 senators voted for this procedural vote today. It's likely to be a little smaller tomorrow when the final vote happens and certainly that sets the budget levels for the next couple of years. They still have to pass the actual bills that fund the government. But this paves the way for that to happen pretty easily because everybody who supported this did so because they don't want another government shutdown. At least they want to breathe a sigh of relief from the crisis to crisis we have been seeing the past several years.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thank you.

Republican Senator Tom Coburn is out with his annual waste book. His breakdown of government spending in 2013 that he says was a complete waste of taxpayer money. It's worth noting that Senator Coburn is a devout believer in smaller government, supports deep cuts to the federal budget.

CNN's Tom Foreman is looking at what made his waste book this year. Give us some examples, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, this is really one of the most popular bits of holiday reading around here. It is partisan in the sense it's his opinion, but the number one item in Coburn's big bag of budget-busting surprises is this. $400 million paid to federal workers for no work during that government shutdown. He readily acknowledges it was not their fault but rather the result of Congress' inaction. But nonetheless, that's a lot of money out the door.

The National Endowment for the Humanities was looking behind closed doors to the tune of almost $1 million. Specifically, NEH has been funding the Popular Romance Project to look at how love is depicted in romance novels, movies like "Twilight" and on the web. And there are so many more in this collection. For example, a parking facility and transit hub in Maryland made the list after receiving $50 million from the Department of Transportation. Why does that matter? Because it's been under construction for 16 years, and it still hasn't opened. Let's not even talk about the million-dollar bus stop in Virginia, complete with heated benches and sidewalks and wi-fi.

In Arizona, about $1.25 million, according to Coburn, went to build an apartment complex for deaf senior citizens. Look, this is a noble idea, he says. Problem is, another department, HUD, came along and said now you have too many deaf people living here. So, a conflict between them.

And several studies took aim at people who are being studied by the government, including a study by NASA on what happens when people spend weeks and weeks in bed. I'm pretty sure we know: they're called teenagers and it's very hard to get them up.

And then there was another study beyond that, the National Institutes of Health, about how marital harmony improves if wives get over being angry quicker. Wolf, I think that's something most of us knew.

BLITZER: Given my experience in Washington, these agencies, they usually have some explanation for these expenses. So, what are the defenders of these programs saying?

FOREMAN: Well, it's interesting you should say that, Wolf, because the defenders of these programs say that Coburn is usually in this oversimplifying and exaggerating the idea that all this is waste. They do have explanations for these programs. For example, Coburn says -- he's a Republican -- implementing Obamacare and the awful launch of that Web site was a waste of $379 million. Of course, many Democrats and many others say no, that's not a waste. That's just the cost of operating government. That's what you have to do.

And Coburn lit into the military over wasting $7 billion by destroying military weapons and equipment taken to the Middle East. But the Pentagon looked at this issue and said actually, it would cost more tax money to bring all that gear home and refurbish it than it would be to leave it behind, Wolf.

Nonetheless, it's entertaining reading for much of Washington. I'm sure many people will pass part of their weekend looking through the Waste Book and deciding for themselves what's really waste and what's not.

BLITZER: I'm sure they will. Tom, thanks for that report.

Up next, President Obama forced to play defense as he meets with some of his biggest supporters and tries to enlist their help.

And will he leave office like his predecessor, George W. Bush? Stand by. Our political experts are getting ready to discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're just getting this into THE SITUATION ROOM. We're learning about what the White House plans for the Olympics in Russia that's coming up in a few months. Brianna Keilar is standing by over there. Who's in the delegation? What's going on?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, this is fascinating. When you look at the delegation, we're finding out that leading the delegation to the Sochi Olympics on behalf of the U.S. will be Janet Napolitano, who is a former Homeland - pardon, Homeland Security Secretary, but currently is leading the University of California. So you also have a number of athletes as well, and I think what's fascinating, Wolf is that they -- some of them are openly gay.

So it seems in a way that you have a couple things going on here. When you look at the list of who's going to the ceremonies, for instance, in London, Michelle Obama led the delegation. You have a sort of lack of really important officials who appear to be going, which could perhaps be a message when it comes to the fact that Russia currently is giving Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker. temporary asylum. And then the fact you have a number of openly gay athletes really does seem to be sending a message as there have been a number of anti-gay policies that have come into place in Russia, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clearly they're trying to send some sort of message to the Russians. The president had a major meeting today at the White House with some real senior technology executives, some of the biggest names in high tech.

So what's going on? Because he seems to be on the defensive right now as far as NSA surveillance and also the rollout of that health care website.

KEILAR: That's right. Ostensibly they did come to talk about the website, but really, the two hours that they spent with the president and the vice president, that was all about spying.

So, speaking of the NSA leaker, some of the things that he has revealed have created major concerns for these big names in technology. President Obama today really trying to smooth over some of those concerns, at the end of what has been a year where he's had a hard time really sticking to his agenda.


KEILAR (voice-over): President Obama spent two hours today with 15 leaders of the country's biggest high-tech companies, many of whom had backed his re-election. The president playing defense, explaining the disastrous rollout of and trying to ease concerns over the NSA spying scandal, which has touched many of their companies.

The president at one point joking with the CEO of the movie site Netflix, admiring the efficiency of the lead character in that company's hit online Washington drama, "House of Cards."

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like Kevin Spacey. I was thinking, man, this guy is getting a lot of stuff done.

KEILAR: If Obama is envious of Spacey's character, because it's because he hasn't had much success this year. His approval rating above 50 percent this time last year is now near an all-time low, a steep dive in just 12 months. And a new poll shows more Americans trust Republicans over him to deal with the all important issue of the economy.

Critics on the left say the president also squandered the advantage Democrats had after the government shutdown with the administration's poor handling of Obamacare.

AMY WALTER, THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT: Where I see the president sort of ending up is in a place of meh. He's not really good, he's not really in a bad place. He's just sort of there. And it's not helping his party.

KEILAR: The White House, trying to change that narrative, continues retooling the president's staff, appointing a former Microsoft executive to oversee improvements to the health care website and reaching out to those high-tech executives behind closed doors. Advisers realize if he doesn't turn things around quickly, he could drag down fellow Democrats in next year's midterm elections.

WALTER: The only question now is whether it gets worse for him because then he loses control of Congress and is forced to spend his last two years in office just simply playing defense.


KEILAR: Now, President Obama's second term approval ratings dip sort of mirrors what we saw, Wolf, with George W. Bush. He saw his ratings dip amid two wars, so a very different situation. But you'll remember the midterm election that he faced in his second term, 2006, where Democrats took over the majority in both the House and Senate. Certainly President Obama doesn't want the reverse of that.

BLITZER: Yes. Certainly has his hands full right now. Brianna, thank you.

Let's dig a little deeper right now. Joining us, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. Ron Fournier, editorial director of "The National Journal" and our chief national correspondent, John King.

She referred, Gloria, to this poll in "The Washington Post," who do you trust to do a better job on the economy, issue number one. Back a year ago, 54 percent said Obama, 36 percent said Republicans. Now look at this. 41 percent say Obama, 45 percent say Republicans. That's quite a swing.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It was up 18 points, now he's down four, right? It's crazy how this has switched, even given the fact that the Republicans blew the government shutdown in October, and you would think the president might still be riding on that.

But he's not for a variety of reasons. One is people don't think he's as competent as they used to think. They don't think he's as trustworthy as they used to think. One of these poll numbers also shows that they don't believe he's going to protect the middle class as much as they once believed, and we all know that's his bread and butter, when he ran for re-election, that was it. I'm all about the middle class.

BLITZER: Is it simply the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the health care website, the promise if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health -- is it simply, is that largely the reason these numbers have dropped like that?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's not just that, but there was a small snowball rolling down the hill, then you had the rollout that made it a giant snowball. Because that not only undermined his approval rating, it undermined people's view of number one, his competence, can he effectively manage the government? Number two, can the government do anything right?

So you're a left-of-center president, you believe in progressive, you leave the levers of government to do good. And here he is, Wolf, go back to the state of the union at the beginning of the year. He's 0 for 2013. He wanted jobs programs, he wanted to raise the minimum wage. Go back through the policy list, then add gun control after Newtown. Nothing. Nothing.

So now you have him around 40. What does that mean? The Republicans will look at 2014 and think we will gain seats in the House and perhaps get the Senate. It causes jitters and in some cases panic among the Democrats, which makes it hard to get things done.

BLITZER: Ron, you wrote an article about this in "The National Journal," entitled provocatively "This Is The End of the Presidency." You wrote among other things, "Obama needs to shatter the cycle of dysfunction, his and history's, or risk leaving office like Bush: unpopular and relatively unaccomplished."

RON FOURNIER, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, "THE NATIONAL JOURNAL": That was a quote from Steve Schmidt right in the middle of the Katrina collapse and disaster that Bush was going through in his fifth year. He wrote to his colleagues the presidency is over --

BLITZER: Republican operative who worked in the Bush White House.

FOURNIER: Obviously there's no comparison between a war and a natural disaster to what President Obama is going through. But there is a comparison between how they handled the crises, starting with coming into their first term, overrating their mandate. Then not realizing the trouble they're in, and then not responding forcefully to that trouble by fixing the way they're leading.

BORGER: I think you made the point in the column which was so good, which was about when the president won, the first thing he did was avoid the fiscal cliff by doing the tax cuts for -- I mean, the tax increases on the wealthy. He sort of jammed that down Republicans' throats. It was a huge victory for him, but then --

FOURNIER: His prerogative.

BORGER: His prerogative, right? He won. But then ever since that point, to John's point, it's been downhill.

BLITZER: So how does he turn this around?

KING: He has to be modest in the State of the Union, number one. He has to hope probably that Republicans misplay their hands again and give him an opening to seize the opportunity. Still the president, he's a good politician, he's a good communicator. He has the power of the bully pulpit.

However, when his own party is nervous, what can this president propose in the State of the Union that Republicans are going to embrace? Are they going to do comprehensive immigration reform right now? I think not. Will the president accept a major compromise? The liberal base would revolt on him on election year.

So once we turn from '13 into '14, Wolf, a very difficult situation gets even harder because of all the election year components on both sides.

RON FOURNIER, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, NATIONAL JOURNAL: I think -- I should think it's more fundamental. Let's go back to a president we all covered, President Clinton, who went through a terrible time in 1994. What did he do? He changed the way he led. He brought in -- he fired a bunch of people who weren't serving him, he brought in some people who changed the way he managed the White House the way you ran the bureaucracy.


FOURNIER: That's what Barack Obama has to do. He's layering people now. But where are the people who have been -- who have been giving him bad advice? Why haven't they been shown the door? And why isn't he bringing in people who are changing the way the White House is run?


BORGER: But -- but --

FOURNIER: That's what's got to happen --

BORGER: This is -- this is a president who seeks out his comfort level. He --

FOURNIER: Yes. But his comfort level isn't working right now.

BORGER: And he's bringing back some people he's very comfortable with. He's bringing --

BLITZER: John Podesta.

BORGER: Well, and Phil Schiliro, for example, who served him in the first term. So I think he's just -- he's going for his comfort level and -- FOURNIER: That's a mistake.

BORGER: And I would argue, yes.

BLITZER: We'll continue this conversation, guys. Thanks very, very much.

Just ahead, George Zimmerman all of a sudden back in the news. This time it's because he's selling his own so-called original artwork. You're not going to believe how much it's going for.

And Pope Francis invites some surprising guests to celebrate his birthday. We're going to tell you who's on the list. Stand by.


BLITZER: Appears that George Zimmerman may do just about anything to make some money. The former neighborhood watchman who says he's $2.5 million in debt is trying to sell an original painting. You're not going to believe how much it's going for.

Let's bring in Martin Savidge who's watching this story for us.

Martin, what have you learned?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, having covered George Zimmerman for almost two years, I continue to be surprised. And I'm not sure which part of this surprises me more. One, that George Zimmerman is an artist or two, that there apparently are people out there who are willing to bid at least for it's up to $100,000 for his work.

This is a picture -- well, there's the painting right now. It is a blue American flag which is in oil on canvas. It's done with house paint. And then there's George Zimmerman holding it. That photograph of George holding the artwork appeared later on the eBay site apparently to dispel any concerns that folks might have had that this was a hoax.

Robert Zimmerman has confirmed to CNN that in fact this is a piece of artwork that was done by George Zimmerman but he won't say much more beyond that. It appeared yesterday. The first bid initially, 99 cents. But in less than 12 hours, that bidding had soared to over $99,000. It's right now at $99,966.

Again, that is the bidding. That isn't necessarily where it is going to end. But I think many people were surprised by this. Our critics that have looked at it said yes, there is some talent there, but more than likely, what's really driving the value is that it's coming from Zimmerman supporters.

I should point out that George put a note on there and it says that "My artwork allows me to reflect, providing a therapeutic outlet, and allow me to remain indoors," smiley face. And of course that's a reference to the death threats that he's been under. It's also likely facing more than $2.5 million in legal bills. If this works, you can bet there's going to be a lot more art from George Zimmerman to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We certainly can. Martin Savidge reporting for us, thank you.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right. There is some breaking news coming into the SITUATION ROOM right now. We've just learned there's been a shooting at a medical center in Reno, Nevada. Police say the situation is active right now.

We're going to take a quick break to gather some more information. We'll be back with more details in just a moment. A shooting at a medical center in Reno, Nevada. More details right after this.


BLITZER: Once again, we're looking into the breaking news coming into the SITUATION ROOM. We've learned there has been a shooting at a medical center in Reno, Nevada. Police say the situation is active right now.

We're trying to gather some more information, we're checking all of our sources, our affiliates in Reno right now. We're going to update you with more, but there has been a shooting, this according to Dawn Damon with the Reno Direct City Communications Center.

There has been a shooting at the Renowned Medical Center. That's what it's called. Renowned Medical Center. The verified Twitter account, by the way, of the University of Nevada, police say there's an active shooter, ask staff and students to shelter in place.

So we're watching what's happening in Reno right. And as soon as we get some more information we'll share that with you. But there are some other stories we're following right now including 13 people who are in the hospital after a passenger ferry ran aground in North Carolina.

CNN affiliates reporting 53 people were en route to Baldhead Island when Adventure slammed into a sandbar and sent passengers flying. One woman was airlifted to the hospital. The Coast Guard is investigating.

We've just learned NASA says it's delaying a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station to replace a faulty pump module. Instead astronauts will replace it through a series of spacewalks and use a spare that's stored on the space station. Hopefully everything will be OK there.

The Mega Millions jackpot rising even higher to $636 million with $341.2 million immediate cash payout. The drawing will be held tonight and millions of Americans are playing in this lottery. If a winner doesn't step forward, the jackpot will start at almost, get this, almost $1 billion. We're talking $950 million. That would be on Friday. And the Pope is celebrating his birthday in what's become his trademark style, with the people. Pope Francis turned 77 today and hosted four homeless men at the Vatican for mass and a meal. Along with top aides and the staff of the Vatican guesthouse, the men sang happy birthday to Francis and shared breakfast with him. One of the men also brought his dog.

The Pentagon is investigating the deadliest incident for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in more than a year and whether enemy fire is to blame.

Let's go right to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

What are you learning, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, military investigators urgently tonight looking at these reports when a helicopter went down in Afghanistan earlier today. Six U.S. troops killed.

Were they killed in the crash? There is a report they are looking at that it's possible the helicopter came under enemy fire after it crashed onto the ground. So the question for investigators is how exactly did the six U.S. forces die? Did they perish in the crash? Were they alive when the helicopter hit the ground? Did a mortar round hit the helicopter?

You can imagine the confusion, the uncertainty they are talking to the crew of another helicopter flying in the vicinity to see what they saw, what they heard. They're talking to a survivor, trying to piece all of this together, Wolf, for six military families. A very sad holiday season they are going to be looking for some answers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: This is a -- I mean, a lot of folks are wondering what's going on in Afghanistan right now. This is obviously a tragic incident, but do we know more specifics what these troops were up to, what they were doing, did they have the backing for Afghan authorities? What are we learning?

STARR: Look, Wolf, there are about 42,000 U.S. troops as you well know better than anybody in Afghanistan right now. Most of the troops are involved in helping train and equip Afghan forces. They move around by helicopter doing that. There are also a number of special forces there that go on terror raids, counter terror raids, hunting down terrorist targets.

We do not know at this hour exactly which mission this helicopter had. We don't know the circumstances. Very tough now for investigators to determine what exactly happened -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know -- they're working it, you're working it. We'll get more information.

Barbara, thank you.