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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

London Theater Collapses, Dozens Injured; Misplaced Rage Over Diplomat's Arrest?; Rodman Returns to North Korea

Aired December 19, 2013 - 16:30   ET

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


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now the London Fire Brigade telling us, thankfully, that everybody has been evacuated from that theater, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're going to take a very quick break, and when we come back, more on this collapse of part of the theater in London, England, with a report of up to 40 casualties.

Also coming up on THE LEAD, Senator Max Baucus likely to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. But is that more of a chess move from Democrats than anything else? That's our political lead, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Breaking news on THE LEAD. There has been a collapse of a ceiling in a theater in London. We're going to go live to Erin McLaughlin in our London bureau.

What is the latest?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake. Well, we're hearing from the London Fire Brigade that, of the 700 people that were inside the theater at the time the ceiling collapsed, 20 to 40 have been wounded. But we're now hearing that those that were trapped have now been evacuated from this theater.

The incident took place about an hour ago, during the production of the theater performance "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime."

Eyewitnesses described hearing a large cracking noise and then seeing parts of the ceiling collapse onto the audience. Hundreds of people, families and children that had come to the theater for this performance. Eyewitnesses describing seeing casualties, people suffering scratches and head wounds, being evacuated from the theater and getting medical treatment.

Emergency services currently have created a cordon around the theater. A series of ambulances, about a dozen, also seen in the area, ready to treat any of the casualties as a result of this, what now authorities are saying is a ceiling collapse in central London -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Erin, and we also have been told that there are five serious casualties in the 40 or so injured.

We want to go right now to somebody who witnessed the collapse. Joining us now by phone is Martin Bowstock, who was in the theater at the time.

Martin, thanks for joining us. Tell us what you saw.

MARTIN BOWSTOCK, EYEWITNESS (via phone): Hi. I was in the theater with my wife and my two kids. We were sitting under the front of the balcony, the floor above us, and it was part of that balcony, as far as I can tell, that collapsed onto -- the front part of the balcony collapsed onto the people sitting in the stalls below.

I -- we thought at first it was part of the show. It seemed very -- it was very shocking, very scary. The actors were pointing up above us and looking horrified and running off the stage onto people.

We were lucky. I've got a bang on the top of the head. My daughter's got a hurt wrist. But we're very, very lucky to get out of it.

It was full of dust. You couldn't see anything. You couldn't breathe. It was absolutely terrifying. There's a lot of people hurt. We've all been transferred to -- down the road. We're in the foyer of the show -- of a theater down the road, and the emergency services are here. We're all being very well looked after. But it was absolutely terrifying and a horrific thing. And I can't really say any more than that.

TAPPER: Martin Bowstock was in the theater at the time. He joins us on the phone for the -- describing what sounds like a horrific incident. Part of -- are you telling me, Martin, that it wasn't the ceiling; it was a balcony that collapsed?

BOWSTOCK: No, I think it was the balcony. I don't know if you're familiar with old London theaters. There's a floor area and there's what we call the balcony, which is the seating area up above, which covers half of the area of the ground. Sorry, I'm not explaining this very well.

TAPPER: No, no, you're explaining it...

BOWSTOCK: But I don't think -- I don't think it was the ceiling. I think it was the front section of the balcony up above us that came down, as far as I could tell. Because as soon as it started to happen, it was very hard to see anything. There was serious panic in the theater, as you can imagine, and a horrific amount of dust from all the old masonry that was -- that was falling down. So I could be describing this wrongly, but that's just my impression of what happened.

TAPPER: Well, look, you're a witness. I just want to hear what you have to say. What you have to say is much more valuable than those who were outside the theater at the time of the collapse.

I just want to make sure I understand this correctly. You're not even saying that the ceiling part of the balcony collapsed. You're saying the balcony itself, part of that collapsed?

BOWSTOCK: I believe that is what happened. Certainly not the whole balcony, but I believe that sections of the front of the balcony collapsed onto -- onto the people who were sitting in the stalls below. That's what seemed to be happening to me. It certainly wasn't the ceiling of the theater.

We were protected from -- where we were sitting, you can't see the ceiling. You can see the balcony, which is above you.

And -- and I'm going to have to go. I'm really sorry. I told you everything I can.

TAPPER: All right, Martin. Thank you so much. Martin Bowstock.

BOWSTOCK: OK.

TAPPER: We're glad that you're OK. We're glad that your family's all right. We're going to now play some sound from witnesses who were in the theater when this collapse took place just about an hour ago in London. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People on the stage, you know, the actors said, "Watch out, watch out."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were sitting about three rows from the back of the stalls, weren't we, initially. And then when the actor...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Said, "Watch out."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When the actor said, "Watch out," we thought it was part of the play initially. So that was our reaction, wasn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bang, everything; debris, dust, everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything, everywhere. And then it was like -- you couldn't see anything. You didn't know what was going on. It was sort of like very dusty, very -- well, initially you were calm, but then you looked around you, everybody -- you know, some people were bleeding coming out, wasn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Some witnesses talking about what they saw in the collapse of the balcony, apparently, in the London Apollo Theatre. We're told that 700 people were in the theater. Somewhere between 20 and 40 are injured, five of them seriously, according to local fire and rescue authorities.

We're going to take a very quick break and come back to this breaking story. Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. That breaking news story out of London: We're keeping an eye on the balcony collapse at a London theater, the Apollo. There are multiple injuries. The London Fire Brigade says everyone inside has been evacuated. There are apparently five serious injuries, up to 40 injured total.

We will continue to keep you updated further as news comes in. But I also want to turn into -- turn to another world news story.

We've seen plenty of outrage abroad over the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat, but what about the contempt over the crime she is accused of committing?

Devyani Khobragade faces federal visa fraud charges. The feds say she submitted false documents to get a work visa for her housekeeper, and then paid the woman way less than the minimum wage, about $3.31 per hour, and she is allegedly also having forced her to work far more than 40 hours a week.

She was arrested in New York, privately strip-searched, which law- enforcement officials say is standard in these types of cases.

This has caused an international kerfuffle with the Indians, the Indian authorities removing barricades from outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi.

The woman's attorney, the diplomat's attorney, says because she was a diplomat, she should not have been arrested at all because of diplomatic immunity.

In Indian, groups are staging protests outside the U.S. embassy, calling the treatment of Khobragade barbaric.

What does seem to be getting lost in this debate over how this diplomat was treated is the serious nature of the charges against her. The U.S. attorney's office says Khobragade not only paid her housekeeper a substandard wage, but she lied about it to the U.S. government. They say she made the woman sign a secret contract, putting her wages at far below the minimum wage, and then she removed any language that would protect the worker from exploitation and abuse.

Khobragade's attorney has said that the second contract instead guaranteed that a portion of the salary would be sent to the worker's husband in New Delhi.

The U.S. attorney claims that the Indian government sought to retaliate against the victim once she took her case to U.S. authorities, starting a legal process against her, with her family back in India reportedly confronted in numerous ways regarding this case, making it necessary for the U.S. government to evacuate her family and bring them here.

It's no wonder there are so few reported cases of human trafficking and worker abuse, despite how common it has become among foreign diplomats here in the United States.

The Government Accountability Office looked into this issue in 2008, found more than 42 domestic workers alleged that they were abused by their former diplomat employers since 2000. But the actual number is likely much, much higher, since many victims are too afraid to come forward.

Joining me now is Martina Vandenberg. She's president of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center.

Are you surprised, Martina, by how much attention has been given to how the diplomat was treated at the hands of the U.S. marshals as opposed to what she's accused of doing?

MARTINA VANDENBERG, PRESIDENT, HUMAN TRAFFICKING PRO BONO LEGAL CENTER: Not surprised but utterly disappointed, because the real focus should really be on the housekeeper, the domestic worker who was brought over to the United States on a special visa and then treated abysmally.

TAPPER: Treated abysmally, almost like an indentured servant. Not quite a slave, but...

VANDENBERG: Well, the criminal complaint here does not say that this is trafficking, but it does allege very serious crimes: lying to the federal government and committing visa fraud and putting this person in a situation of a true labor exploitation.

TAPPER: And let's be frank here. The reason why -- the State Department would not just get involved if it was an issue of lying about a visa application. This has to do with much more serious crimes, many of which maybe they haven't been able to successfully investigate yet or prove.

This is the third known case of alleged employee abuse involving the Indian consulate in New York in recent years. There was a similar case involving an ambassador back in 2009. How big of a problem is human trafficking and slave labor among diplomats living in the U.S.? And how often do we actually see criminal prosecution?

VANDENBERG: So it's a huge problem, and unfortunately, we almost never see criminal prosecutions.

Now, in this case, this individual only had consular immunity, so she only has protection, essentially, Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. That's her immunity.

But a lot of the diplomats who are engaging in really serious behavior -- trafficking of domestic workers -- have immunity 24/7, and so they are not arrested. They are not prosecuted, and indeed, enjoy total impunity for their crimes.

TAPPER: I know that there are a lot of people in the anti-human trafficking community, including people in that division in the State Department...

VANDENBERG: Right.

TAPPER: ... who were a little upset by what Secretary of State John Kerry did when he called Indian officials and expressed regret about how it was handled. But that is the tension here, right? We need to get along with India. They are a very important ally.

VANDENBERG: That's true, but I feel like what India is doing here is diplomatic blackmail. It is a violation of U.S. law, what this consular official did.

TAPPER: Allegedly.

VANDENBERG: Allegedly. Right. What she allegedly did is a violation of U.S. law, and that should be prosecuted. It should be prosecuted fairly and completely separate from politics.

TAPPER: How can the U.S. preserve good relationships with countries that this kind of behavior is SOP, standard operating procedure, back in their home country? How can we do that? There are more countries than we would care to admit that do this all the time back home.

VANDENBERG: Well, the interesting thing here is that the U.S. government, the Ambassador Samantha Power and that same unit within the State Department, just did a meeting last week with the entire diplomatic corps in New York, telling them not to engage in labor exploitation and trafficking of their domestic workers. So the State Department was on record. People were on notice that this would not be tolerated, and still, these crimes, alleged crimes, have been committed.

TAPPER: Martina Vandenberg, we've had you on before. We'll have you on again...

VANDENBERG: Thank you.

TAPPER: ... as we continue to cover this important issue. Thanks for being here. We appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD, believe it or not, the highest profile American to meet Kim Jong-un is still Dennis Rodman. What is the former star rebounder doing on his return trip to North Korea?

Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In other world news, it would be tempting to treat the humanitarian missions of former NBA star Dennis Rodman as something of a joke. And if tensions on the peninsula weren't so potentially deadly, maybe we would.

But Rodman arrived in the nation for his third hangout with his newfound, quote, "friend for life," Kim Jong-un. He's there to train a North Korean basketball team for an exhibition game next month against some former NBA players. An online betting company is sponsoring the trip.

And a documentary crew is with Rodman, of course, to capture it all, which is weird, because Rodman usually doesn't like attention.

Even though he's on a mission of basketball diplomacy, don't expect him to be giving Kim Jong-un any political advice while he's there, he says.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA STAR: It has nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with me. I mean, whatever goes on in North Korea, I mean, I have noting -- no kind of control over that. These things have been going on for years and years and years.

I'm just going over to enjoy a basketball game and have some fun.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Just going over to play some basketball and have some fun. Nothing says fun like hanging out with a dictator who just executed his uncle and former mentor.

But snark aside, the big question: Can Rodman actually serve a purpose to the United States while in North Korea?

I want to bring in Christopher Hill. He's a former ambassador and assistant secretary of state. He was also the lead U.S. delegate during the six-party talks with North Korea from 2005 to 2009.

Mr. Ambassador, good to see you again. Even though the State Department is not involved and Rodman is not officially representing the U.S., does this trip provide any possible value to the U.S. government?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, you know, trips of this kind, there's always two sides to it. On the one hand, it kind of helps the regime there to suggest that everything's normal, that they're having basketball players over.

On the other hand, there might be an opportunity to make a clear message.

But you know, frankly speaking, I'm not sure that Dennis Rodman is the kind of a person who can make that clear message to the regime there. So on balance, I'm not of the view that this is a particularly positive development.

TAPPER: Former Ambassador Bill Richardson says that there can be some value if Rodman comes back and shares information that he has gleaned while there with the U.S. government. Does Rodman get briefed by the State Department after these visits?

HILL: My understanding is he does not, or if he does, it's very cursory. So no, I'm -- I'm kind of skeptical of that.

I mean, Governor Richardson has gone on many occasions and often unusual circumstances and has been briefed and has been debriefed, but I'm not sure that extends to Dennis Rodman.

You know, there are people who have spent a lifetime trying to figure out what's going on in North Korea, and I'm not sure Dennis Rodman is really quite up to that challenge at this time. TAPPER: Is the fact that Kim Jong-un is letting these Rodman visits continue, even, after what happened with his uncle, his execution of his uncle, is that any sort of diplomatic sign to the U.S.?

HILL: I don't see it as any kind of diplomatic sign. I think it's -- it's maybe a sign to his own people that, you know, the show goes on, that, you know, the regime is fine, they've got these informal contacts with Americans and things are fine. So go back to work, everybody.

So I don't think it's really of any diplomatic significance. I mean, clearly, there is a commercial purpose to Rodman's visit, and I think that very much stands.

TAPPER: And lastly, Mr. Ambassador, do you have any concerns about Kim Jong-un's aunt? She was missing from a state memorial ceremony on Tuesday. Obviously, her husband was executed. What do you think?

HILL: Well, she's been rather ill health for some months, even some years, so it's not unusual that she misses events. I don't think the purge will extend to her, but I do emphasize that I don't think this purge is over. I think usually, when you go after the top person like Jang Song Thaek, it suggests it's going to go further. So I think a lot of North Koreans are very nervous right now.

TAPPER: And South Koreans, too, worried that there will be some sort of flex of military might.

Chris Hill, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

HILL: My pleasure.

TAPPER: Turning to our pop culture lead, from the people who brought you "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," it's your very own fireplace.

Netflix has released a trailer for its modern take on a 47-year tradition, the yule log. Feel the excitement as fire creeps up that first log or when a crackle warms the cockles of your heart.

For those who are not familiar with New York's WPIX-TV's yule log tradition, it started in 1966 when the channel wanted to give fireplace-less viewers a treat Christmas morning. After an 11-year hiatus in the '90s, it was brought back to Christmas after 9/11.

It cost the channel thousands in advertising, but it was the most watched show in New York on Christmas day in its first year back.

So far, more than 130,000 people have rated the show on Netflix: 3.8 stars. That's portable holiday cheer.

Make sure to follow me on Twitter: @JakeTapper. That's all one word. Also, @TheLeadCNN. And check out our show page at CNN.com/TheLead for videos, blogs, extras.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake tapper. I'll be back in two hours, substitute anchoring on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT," 7 p.m. Eastern. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Mr. Blitzer.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And we're following the breaking news. A ceiling collapses during a performance at an historic London theater. There are casualties. We're going live to the scene.

Also, Target shoppers targeted. Up to 40 million credit and debit cards may have been compromised by hackers who somehow broke into the retailer's checkout system. We're going to tell you information you need to know, what you need to do about it.

And cocaine clemency. President Obama commutes the sentences of a group of crack cocaine convicts and hands outright pardons to other prisoners. What's behind the move?

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

Well, we do have breaking news this hour. A ceiling has collapsed at an historic London theater right in the middle of a performance. Authorities say there are many casualties.

Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is on the scene for us.

Nic, tell our viewers what we know.