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Ceiling Theater Collapses During Performance; Interview with Peter King; Target Targeted by Hackers

Aired December 19, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Well, we do have breaking news this hour. A ceiling has collapsed at an historic London theatre 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.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know so far that the ceiling collapsed inside the Apollo Theatre about 40 minutes into a performance this evening. It was a crowded theatre, over 700 people in there. Thirty to 40 people injured, five of them seriously. Precisely why the roof collapsed is unclear at this time. The police have cordoned off this very busy West End district in the center of London.

I'm joined by two people here, Michelle (ph) and Henry, who were both inside the theatre watching this performance.

Michelle, can you describe what happened, what you saw?

MICHELLE: Well, we were about a third through the show. And all of a sudden, people started moving. And I couldn't understand why. And then there was a cloud of smoke. And it just became like a black mist. And people were climbing over me and I didn't understand why. And I said to Henry, we've got to go, we've got to go. I don't know why, but we've got to go. Pick up your things, go. We're going.

ROBERTSON: Henry, what did you see?

Did you get any indication the ceiling was about to collapse?

HENRY: No indication whatsoever. So it collapsed and like you said, there were people clambering over us. So we decided it was time to leave. So like you say, Michelle grabbed hold of me and we tried to get out as quick as we could. It was just pandemonium. There was panic everywhere.

ROBERTSON: Did you -- could you see people who were injured around you?

HENRY: You couldn't see a thing. As soon as the roof caved in, there was smoke everywhere. It was very dark. There was nothing we could see.

MICHELLE: Yes, but outside, there were a lot of people, they just looked black. They were just covered in soot. And I didn't see any seriously injured people, but they were just covered in soot.

I was lucky. We were lucky, because we were just higher above the ceiling that actually had collapsed.

ROBERTSON: And the ceiling collapsed toward the back of the theatre.

Can you describe that moment when it happened?

MICHELLE: I thought -- there was a moment where I thought it was part of the show, you know, when you have smoke, that is part of the show. And then it just became obvious, because people were panicking. And it became -- and I wanted to lock myself in the toilet. And then I thought, no, we've got to get out of here.

ROBERTSON: So, Henry, were -- you've got people clambering over you.

What happens then?

What did you do?

How do you pick yourselves up?

HENRY: Well, it's incredibly surreal. You don't know what you're doing, so you're a bit disorientated. And then we were looking for the exits. It was as simple as that. We didn't know where we were. Like Michelle says, we were covered in sort of soot -- investigate guess soot.

MICHELLE: Choosing the safest exit, which one do you choose, the right one, the left one?

Oh, it was...

ROBERTSON: People have described the emergency services getting on the scene very quickly.

What was your experience?

MICHELLE: I -- well, by the time we were out, it was about, what, two minutes, three minutes and they were there. It was incredible. I was very impressed...

ROBERTSON: Police, ambulance?

MICHELLE: -- very impressed that they were there in -- by the time we were out on the street when they...

HENRY: Yes, I mean it was very impressive, to be fair. I mean it's never a situation you want to find yourself in. But it was very impressive the way they dealt with it.

ROBERTSON: And as far as you know, the theatre was very full this evening?

HENRY: Packed, I would say. I didn't see an empty seat the whole time we were there.

MICHELLE: That's right.

ROBERTSON: Thank you both very much, indeed.

Glad you're OK.

MICHELLE: Thank you.

ROBERTSON: Thank you for joining us.

Thank you.

HENRY: Thanks.

ROBERTSON: Thank you very much -- Wolf, we're really only just beginning to get to grips with what has happened here. We are seeing some of the fire service workers move away from the area, an indication that perhaps their job is done. We do understand from the fire service that they have been able to get all the people out of the theatre now. We've seen people being taken away by paramedics. But again, the extent of some of these serious injuries, those details we're not aware of yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're told, what, 700 people, as you say, were inside, and maybe 20 to 40 were injured, some of them seriously, right?

ROBERTSON: Five seriously, we understand, Wolf. That was the most recent count. We had 30 or 40 injured altogether. Eyewitnesses we've talked to describe seeing people with cuts, with lacerations, people covered in dust.

Again, the paramedics that we've seen going in arriving very, very quickly. And this is a recurring theme that we're hearing from the eyewitnesses here, people inside the theatre. There is a fire station just a couple of blocks away from the theatre. They were very quickly on the scene. Police quickly on the scene.

We're now hearing that seven serious casualties, is what we understand at the moment, Wolf. So those figures changing, which is what we would expect in a developing situation like this.

You can probably still hear the sirens going off. This is a very busy district in the center of London. The theatres around here are very busy at this time of year. I was in a theatre myself this weekend, just a block from here. Very, very busy. This area now cordoned off by the police.

We're seeing some of the more -- some more of the paramedics moving away from the scene, empty stretchers. So perhaps an indication now that the emergency services have at least done most of their work here. Perhaps a chance for their -- for the other services to get in to try and discover what actually happened -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're told... ROBERTSON: And we're watching now somebody being wheeled away just to my side here, somebody wheeled away, Wolf, wrapped in an emergency aluminum blanket; four paramedics with them. They're helping that person away on a stretcher. We witnessed somebody else being taken away. I see the doors to the ambulance open down there where they're being taken away, loaded into the ambulance.

So although the emergency services very quickly on the scene, it seems that they are still treating people. We understood they were being taken to the theatre next door to the Apollo Theatre for treatment. And now we're seeing some of them taken away.

So, clearly, some level of treatment going on on the scene here, Wolf. Very likely stabilizing some of those injuries.

BLITZER: And we're told about 720 people were in the theatre at the time of this collapse. We're also now told about 80 walking wounded outside, many of whom have had head injuries. About seven people, as you point out, now much more seriously injured, gone to local hospitals.

This Apollo Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, right in the heart of London. It actually opened its doors in February of 1901. This is more than 100 years old. I assume they have renovated it over the years.

But is this extraordinary in London, that an old theatre like this has a problem?

Or has this occurred in the past -- Nic?

You live in London.


BLITZER: We may have lost or connection with Nic Robertson, unfortunately. We'll get back to him. He's on the scene outside the Apollo Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, in London.

Here's another gripping description of the ceiling collapse from someone who was inside the theatre at the time.

Listen to this.


SIMON OSBORNE, SURVIVOR: There was a very, very loud series of bangs and cracks. And then the whole view of the theatre in front of us was obscured by a falling cloud of dark gray dust and debris, and which would have fallen onto the audience in front of us.

Initially, I think the second thought that maybe the noise had to do with the performance, because a serious incident (INAUDIBLE) has sound effects and is a little bit unexpected in places. But immediately it was clear that wasn't the case. And everybody got up and dashed for an exit. There was a lot of screaming. There were people outside completely dumbfounded by what happened. And then, slowly, people started coming out covered in dust from head to toe. I was there. I saw about 20 or 30 people also bloodied.


BLITZER: You can only imagine being inside that theatre with more than 700 people, inside the Apollo Theatre in London. They're watching "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." That's the play up on the stage. And all of a sudden, a ceiling or a balcony starts collapsing and people start screaming in terror.

Jim Sciutto used to be based in London, has been to the Apollo Theatre there in Piccadilly Circus.

He's joining us -- Jim, give us your impressions of what this old theatre is like.

It opened its doors back in February of 1901.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, picture yourself in a famous Broadway theatre, right. It's big. It's historical. And it's just a few blocks from Piccadilly Circus, which is like Times Square, right, right in the center. And inside, it's one of these classic old school theatres. It's got three balconies above the ground floor level, you know, lit with all this gold decoration and that kind of thing, a real antique piece. So you picture yourself inside, imagining one of those collapsing and just how confusing and how much panic there must have been there.

But this is right in the middle of it. You know, the best comparison I can think of is one of those theatres around Times Square in New York.

BLITZER: And these are old buildings, but I assume they -- in London, they go ahead and inspect these buildings all the time. You have more than 700 people crammed into a theatre, they want to make sure it's safe. As you point out, three levels above the ground level, four levels altogether.

SCIUTTO: That's right. And when you think about it, in London, actually, 100 years old is not a very old building. You've got buildings in London that are from the 15th century, right, 600 years old, going back to Tudor times. You have some of those in downtown London. So they've got a history of protecting these buildings.

In fact, Prince Charles has The Prince's Trust, which goes around the country to protect old buildings. But they also have a history of keeping them in good shape, this kind of thing, a very good history of protection and inspection. So this would be a surprise. It's not like in London they're not used to having old buildings like that that they have to maintain and inspect.

BLITZER: They certainly do.

Stand by.

CNN's Erin McLaughlin is in London for us right now -- what are you hearing, Erin, from officials there?


Well, the London Fire Brigade now saying that seven people were seriously injured in this incident, 80 walking wounded, all trapped -- all that were trapped now free. That according to the London Fire Brigade. The Metropolitan Police Tweeting that they do not believe there have been any fatalities as a result of this incident. Also saying that even a London bus, at one point, was used to transport wounded to the hospital in an incident that happened about an hour and 45, an hour and 50 minutes ago at that very historic theatre right in the heart of London -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And it's obviously now, what time is it approaching, it's what, 11:00, and almost approaching 10:00 or 11:00 at night, right?

MCLAUGHLIN: It's around 10:00 at night. Still, authorities on the scene, they have cord -- they've developed a cordon around the Apollo Theatre. They're still treating people who have been injured and assessing the damage. No doubt in the coming days, Wolf, they will be taking a very close look at the condition of the ceiling inside this theatre to figure out what went wrong.

BLITZER: We're going to stay on top of this story and give you more information to our viewers, as it becomes available.

Erin, don't go too far away.

Once again, the Apollo Theatre, right in the heart of London, near Piccadilly Circus, the Apollo Theatre having a major, major collapse there. Seven hundred people plus inside. At least seven injured critically. Eighty injured altogether, we're told.

We'll stay on top of the breaking news.

We're also awaiting a possible news conference in London. We'll bring you that. I'll bring you the updates as they become available.

There's other important news, though, we're following, including a major story developing right here in the United States. Up to 40 million credit and debit cards used at a national retailer, Target, may have been compromised by hackers. We have a security expert standing by to tell you what you need to know and what you need to do about it if you were impacted.

Also, President Obama commutes the sentences of a group of crack cocaine convicts.

So what's behind this move to free these drug offenders?

Stand by.


BLITZER: Attention, Target shoppers. The department store chain says up to 40 million credit and debit cards may have been compromised in a three-week period beginning on black Friday. The hackers' targeted purchases made inside the stores, not online. We have a top security expert standing by to tell you what you need to know and what you can do.

But let's begin our coverage with our crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns.

Hoe, how bad was it?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it could be one of the biggest known credit and debit card security breaches ever. It apparently started right around black Friday and continued until this past Sunday, and easy to remember because the Target was target.


JOHNS (voice-over): The timing couldn't be worse. The holiday shopping season. But now an international manhunt is on to find out who is behind the massive breach of Target stores. The team led by the U.S. secret service working with the retailer and credit card companies, trying to catch whoever grabbed potentially tens of millions of personal credit card information files before the hackers could maximize their illegal profits.

BRIAN KRERS, CYBERSECURITY EXPERT: It's a race against the clock both for the bad guys and for the merchants and for target, of course.

JOHNS: The bad news? The guy who discovered the data grab says there is evidence the stolen information is already being used.

KRERS: You start to see a huge number of stolen cards flood the underground market. You know something is up.

JOHNS: The perpetrators likely came from abroad and got the goods at customers who shopped at some or all of target's almost 1800 bricks and mortar U.S. stores, headquartered in Minneapolis, not online purchases. They took point of sale information on the magnetic strip of debit and credit cards, including payment data, name, the three or four digit security number on the card, account numbers or expiration dates. Most likely the hackers came from eastern Europe, says one of the world's top cybersecurity experts.

JAMES LEWIS, CYBERSECURITY EXPERT, CBS: All the big crimes come from offshore because there is almost no penalty of being caught. There is no penalty of going to jail. And so, if you live in some parts of Russia or some other countries, the FBI or the secret service is never going to be able to get their hands on you. You can make a lot of money with very little risk.

(END VIDEOTAPE) JOHNS: The good news is that target says it has identified and resolved the issue that allowed the breach, and calls this a sophisticated crime. But for those people whose information was compromised, the question is what to do about it. Check your bank statements for sure, but don't just look for a bogus charge at target. Someone that has your information can try to use it anywhere. Target would not comment on speculation that cash register information had somehow been compromised or that this was an attack on their servers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story.

Joe, thanks very much.

Let's bring in a top cybersecurity expert right now, Kevin Mandia. He is founder and CEO of Mandia which helps detect and contain computer intrusions.

Kevin, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: What should folks do? Forty million people potentially at risk. Do they immediately just change their credit card number? Because that can be a pain to follow up and tell all your creditors you got a new credit card.

MANDIA: I don't think the bad guys are going to be able to use all 40 million credit cards. I don't think the answer is to run out and change your credit card. You will be notified. But you got to do the battle against fraud like everybody else, meaning check your online credit purchases. Could be from anywhere, but if it's not you, there's a number on your card, call. Help out the companies, because Target is not going to be alone. There will be other retailers that are going to have similar issues.

BLITZER: How extraordinary is this, 40 million? You work in this business. Forty million credit and debit cards potentially compromised.

MANDIA: Well, I only have the outside numbers. When you hear 40 million, the first thing I thought is are they all current? Have some of them expired? So, it may not be that big. It may be exercising caution, saying hey, it could be up to 40 million. I don't know. The fact that this happened is not that unusual especially during the holiday season.

BLITZER: Not that unusual.

MANDIA: It is not that unusual.

BLITZER: Because it sounds like everybody who went into a Target during those few weeks could be at risk.

MANDIA: Well, throughout my 20 years of responding to these incidents, every year around this time, all the retailers, the tier one retailers are massively targeted. They are under siege basically on a daily basis from these attacks.

BLITZER: You agree they are targeted from foreign sources? Offshore?

MANDIA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Because it's easy to do it? I mean, don't they have security procedures to prevent this kind of stuff?

MANDIA: Well, there's no such thing as prevention. That's the real challenge. We are getting sucker punched in cyberspace. There are no risks or repercussions for attackers coming out of Russia or coming out of the Ukraine. And think about it, for the first time ever, you can steal people's money or their credit card numbers from thousands of miles away. It's really a challenge.

BLITZER: But I don't understand, don't the companies have walls that would prevent this kind of theft?

MANDIA: You can do all the right things and it's still like trying to throw a perfect game in baseball. When you have people waking up every day saying I'm going to break into this company and they're smart, right now just the unfortunate state of cybersecurity, there are holes in virtually every company's networks.

BLITZER: Bottom line, if you think you have a problem, check to make sure that every one of those purchases is legitimate. If not, you immediately call the credit card company and dispute those charges.

MANDIA: Absolutely right. That's the best you can do.

BLITZER: OK. Thanks very much, Kevin, for helping us better assess what's going on. What a story that is.

We will go back to London and get an update on what's going on, that theater collapse. We are waiting for authorities to brief all of us. More than 700 people were inside the Apollo Theater in London. There are serious injuries, many so-called walking wounded. An update when we come back.

Also, a new and bipartisan move to authorize new sanctions against Iran. Why the White House is so deeply worried that will hurt the nuclear agreement with the Islamic republic.

And powerful Republican congressmen, a possible, just possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Peter King, is here to talk about that, about the controversial new recommendations to cut back on spying by the NSA.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Quick update on the breaking news we're following right now. Massive collapse at London's Apollo Theater which has left roughly 80 people injured, seven of them seriously. Officials say more than 700 people were inside the theater at the time of the collapse which apparently took down parts of the balconies with it. We are getting more reaction from people who were inside during the performance. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a sold-out show as far as I know. I actually bought the last two tickets. As far as I know the show was sold out. But by the time we were out, emergency services had already arrived. The staff ushered us out very well, certainly from where we were. They say the worst hit area was actually down in the stalls. Back in the balcony, we were kind of OK. But it was hard to see anything down stairs, really. There were a lot of people coming out with cuts and bruises. There were a couple people, not sure if -- there were people taking quite serious medical attention.


BLITZER: We are standing by for a news conference. We are going to update you with the latest news as soon as we get it. A pretty serious collapse there at the Apollo Theater in London.

As the White House tries to nurture a new deal with Iran aimed at slowing its nuclear program, have lawmakers just thrown a wrench into the works? Senators from both parties today moved to authorize new sanctions on Iran if, if it breaches that agreement.

Joining us now, Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, who has already indicated he's running for president potentially in 2016. We'll talk about politics in a little while. But let's talk about sanctions first, Congressman.

What do you think, these senators, Democrats and Republicans, they say that if there's no deal, if it doesn't work out, they are going to give the president in effect a year to reach an agreement, but if Iran cheats, doesn't do the deal, then they are going to tighten the sanctions. I assume you would vote for this, right?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Wolf, absolutely I would definitely support these sanctions. The fact is that if Iran is serious about the agreement, they should have no problem with the sanctions, because the sanctions only kick in if they don't comply with the agreement.

Secondly, the president should want these sanctions as a weapon to hold over the Iranians so I don't see why the president is so opposed to these sanctions. I don't understand why the Iranians, I can understand why they say they're opposed but if they're serious about this agreement they should be able to accept the sanctions.

BLITZER: I assume it will pass. I think they have the votes in the Senate. They almost certainly have the votes in the House of Representatives. The president, though, White House today said if it does pass, the president will veto that legislation, actually veto it, which would require a two-thirds override in the House and the Senate. Do you think you have those kinds of votes?

KING: I think we certainly would in the House. I think the president is making a serious mistake by threatening to veto this bill, because to me, for this to go forward, there has to be strong bipartisan support. If he wants to engage with Iran, if he is right now saying he's going to veto a bill that the overwhelming majority of both Houses want, to me that is really a breach of faith and the president is really getting off on the wrong foot here and hurting himself and hurting whatever chance he has to go forward with this agreement he wants with Iran.

BLITZER: But apparently, the agreement with Iran was that there would be no additional sanctions imposed during the course of this interim six-month agreement. They would presumably view this, these additional sanctions, which would only kick in after a year, if there's no deal and if Iran cheats. They would see that as a breach of the agreement, they would immediately end their cooperation and then what?

KING: Well, Wolf, if they're serious about the agreement, they wouldn't breach it. They would realize that these sanctions are in keeping with the spirit of the agreement. So if Iran is opposed to the sanctions bill, then to me it shows that Iran is not serious about going forward with compliance. So, I don't think the president should allow them to say that this is a breach of the agreement. Otherwise he is basically taking the side of Iran against the United States Congress.

BLITZER: I guess the question the White House would ask you, and I will ask it to you, what's wrong with giving this a chance? Hold off on passing additional sanctions, give this opportunity, this diplomatic opportunity, you will always be able to pass additional sanctions if there's a collapse. That would zip through the house and the Senate. Why not do what the president of the United States, the secretary of state, are asking you to do? Just hold off, be patient and give these negotiations a chance?

KING: The fact is, we have been strung along by the Iranians before. The Iranians have strung us out and the fact is I think it's important to have this in place now so that after six months, there could be a question are they in compliance or not and then it could be harder to get it through. The president, it would put the Iranians in stronger position. I think right now, we should deal from strength. Our position of strength right now is to put these sanctions in and saying if Iran does not comply, the sanctions come into effect. The president should show strength and say he's standing with Congress and not allow Iran to distort the meaning of the agreement.

BLITZER: You're chairman of the House homeland security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence. What do you think of those 46 recommendations made to the president yesterday to reform the NSA surveillance programs?

KING: Wolf, I am really opposed to them. First of all, there is no NSA scandal. To me, this is -- this commission or this group is caving in to political correctness. The fact is there are no Americans that have had their rights violated, no one's calls -- no American citizens' calls are being listened to unless they're in contact with terrorists. No one's name is on file. No one's address is on file. This is a totally phony issue. And when I say someone like Rand Paul, who is a member of my party, somehow comparing Snowden and General Clapper, what is happening to our country when the United States senator compares a traitor with an American hero like General Clapper?

BLITZER: He said that on this program yesterday. I'm going to play that clip for you. Here's Senator Rand Paul talking about James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. The accusation he makes that he deliberately lied to Congress about the NSA surveillance programs and the comparison to Snowden. Listen to this.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Clapper's lying to Congress is probably more injurious to our intelligence capabilities than anything Snowden did because Clapper has damaged the credibility of the entire intelligence apparatus and I'm not sure what to believe anymore when they come to Congress.


BLITZER: All right, he is a fellow Republican. What do you say to him?

KING: That is absolutely disgraceful to compare General Clapper with a traitor. The fact is General Clapper was put in an impossible position because the senator who asked the question had already gotten the information in a classified setting. He knew that General Clapper could not give the full answer because it would let our enemies know what we were doing.

The question was wrong. General Clapper gave the best answer he could. And for Senator Paul, to compare that patriot, General Clapper, with someone like Snowden, who is a traitor, who has put American lives at risk, Senator Paul should be ashamed of himself. It's an absolute disgrace. He disgraced to me, he disgraced his office and he owes General Clapper an apology immediately.

BLITZER: Spokesman for General Clapper issued a statement among other things just a little while ago, responding to other Republican lawmakers who have sent a letter calling on him to resign. This is part of the statement. Let me put it on the screen.

DNI, director of national intelligence. Clapper had been testifying before members of Congress for more than two decades and he enjoys a well-earned reputation as a doggedly honest and honorable public servant. He apologized for the confusion caused by his response and is focused on working with the intelligence committees to increase transparency.

A lot of Republicans want him -- apparently there's a letter out there as you well know, including members of the house Republicans who want Clapper to resign. You totally are opposed to all of that.

KING: Absolutely. That comes from the isolationist wing of the party. That goes back to the days of Charles Lindbergh. These are people apologizing for America. That is not the Republican tradition, not the tradition of Ronald Reagan. It's the tradition of Charles Lindbergh radical left-wing Democrats of the 1960s. That is not a Republican decision.

BLITZER: We are out of time. but give me a yes or no, you running for the Republican presidential nomination?

KING: I wouldn't decide that for another year, year and a half. Right now, I'm just meeting with local Republicans around the country to find out what's on their minds.

BLITZER: I'll take that as a yes. All right?

KING: No, Wolf, come on.

BLITZER: All right. Congressman, thanks very much. We will see you out on the campaign trail.

KING: Happy holiday.

BLITZER: Merry Christmas and happy new year to you as well.

Thank you.

KING: Wolf, thank you very much.

BLITZER: Up next, inmates will soon walk free thanks to a presidential pardon. We have details coming up. Also, the legendary lawyer Alan Dershowitz is standing by with his analysis of what this means.


BLITZER: Republican representative Frank Wolf of Virginia has announced his retirement in 2014. He's joining a growing slice of Congress who are calling it quits. So who are these congressional retirees and what will their retirement mean for the next Congress?

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is here. She got the story.

Sunlen, what's going on?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All the retirements this week have been moderates. It's a group that's disappearing quickly in Congress, leaving many to wonder if the hard left and hard right are squeezing out the middlemen and setting up, if you can believe, an even more polarized Congress next year.


SERFATY (voice-over): The three congressmen announcing retirements this week, one Democrat and two Republicans, are notable not because of their parties or ideologies but because all are part of what many see as an important moderate middle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The extreme wings of the two party are clearly in control.

SERFATY: Among the casualties, Republican congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia and Tom Lathan of Iowa. When they were both elected years ago, both were considered squarely Republican. Now the conservative Heritage Foundation rates them both as less conservative than almost every other House Republican.

Also to go, fiscally conservative Republican Jim Mathison of Utah who opposed Obamacare and Democratic senator Max Baucus of Montana, who supported the bill but blasted its implementation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just tell you, I just see huge train wreck.

SERFATY: When former moderate congressman Republican Steve LaTourette retired last year, he said the partisanship drove his decision. Today, he is working for a centrist political action committee.

STEVE LATOURETTE, MAIN STREET ADVOCACY: There is no willingness on either side of the aisle to sort of reach out that hand and find common ground. It just doesn't exist anymore, the middle. It's a pretty lonely place in the Congress.

SERFATY: Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says the growing rift between parties is making it impossible to get anything done.

STU ROTHENBERG, ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: When you don't have a middle, you don't have people who are go-to guys to put together the deal.

SERFATY: Take, for example, this Congress. It has passed just 57 bills, compared to the last three years, when each Congress passed well over 200 bills each year. An analysts say don't expect it to get better any time soon. With midterm elections, which tend to be partisan, coming next year, centrists will have even less incentive to find common ground.

ROTHENBERG: I think the two years after the midterms are going to be just as difficult as we're seeing now, maybe even tougher.


SERFATY: There likely will be more retirements in the house to come. The key question, will we see more chipping away at this important middle that at least this week took a big hit.

And Wolf, the president will have -- will the president even have a harder time getting anything done.

BLITZER: He might, if it moves in that direction.

Sunlen Serfaty, good to have you here in the SITUATION ROOM. Welcome. Let's get some more with our chief national correspondent, John King, our senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar and our CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for "the New Yorker."

What do you think? Is it going to be even more difficult, more partisan, if all of this falls out like that?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think so. The history, the recent history of these retirements is even in a district that may be a 50/50 district who are moderate, after they have been around for a long time and they retire, they may be able to keep that district for a long time and keep a moderate record. But as soon as they retire, what happens in the last 20 years is a far right or far left person takes over the seat. And that's more likely than not what's going to happen with these seats.

I think the biggest mistake Barack Obama made when running for president in 2008 is he described this country as not red America, not blue America, and the history of his presidency is this deepening polarization and a middle carving out.

BLITZER: He has three years in office. He has his legacy. Is he going to make it even more -- I know officials at the White House are thinking about all of this.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And I think when he lays out his agenda, you see just how difficult it's going to make it. Because he talks about his agenda, right, not his legislative agenda. You look, what is he talking about doing next year, climate change and he's talking about doing, of course, the economy, continuing with the recovery. Those are things he has to circumvent Congress to do.

The third thing he's putting all of his I sort legislative gravitas if he has any at this point, he's putting all of his eggs in one basket on immigration. And that is going to be an extremely heavy lift but obviously something he feels worth doing. And Republicans do want to do it but may not be able to push that.

BLITZER: Gun control, they basically have almost given up hope on.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's the key question, though, in 2014.

There's no question you get a more polarized Congress because the national parties are increasingly irrelevant. They used to try to pick the candidates, they would pick more established, more centrist, who can win in a general election candidates. They are almost irrelevant. All the south side money, whether conservative or liberal, tends to favor people who can win the primaries on the extreme.

Here's the big question, Wolf. Do we have a divided Congress still or do we have a Democratic president and two Republican chambers? If Republicans take the Senate, I think you actually might see more get done, not exactly what the president wants, but then the Republicans will have more of a stake in governing and the president will have fewer choices about compromise. If you get the Republicans keeping the house majority, the Democrats keep a narrow Senate majority and a lot of new members are more to the extreme, then you get more of the same, if not worse.

BLITZER: Ryan, you saw it in the interview I did with peter king, the Republican congressman from New York, almost two parts of the Republican party right now are merging very different, not only on domestic issues but on national security issues.

LIZZA: Yes, that's sort of interesting. On the right and the left, there's this sort of populist anti-government movement gathering around civil liberties issues and what Peter King, what King would call isolationist. I don't think Rand Paul considers himself an isolationist. But that divide, look, Rand Paul is still a bit of an outlier, at least in the Senate club. You know, he is the only one worked up on the NSA spying. In the House, there's a little more of a Paul wing. So, I think that's where the tea party energy is and where the energy is in the Republican party.

BLITZER: Let me play a clip. This is the former Montana governor, Brian Schweitzer. He was in Iowa. He's thinking about running for the Democratic presidential nomination and had this allusion to Hillary Clinton, who is also thinking about it.


BRIAN SCHWEITZER (D), FORMER MONTANA GOVERNOR: George Bush got a bunch of Democrats to vote to go to that war. I was just shaking my head in Montana. I'm asking you to pick the leaders that are going to say we're not going to make those mistakes.


BLITZER: Hillary Clinton when she was a senator voted to go to war in Iraq.

J. KING: And this young guy who had no chance of being the Democratic nominee was a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, I think, used that in 2008. He happens to be president. So what is Brian Schweitzer out there doing very early, trying to test. Can you recreate the 2008 dynamic in 2016 against Hillary Clinton? And if you're Hillary Clinton, you are probably thinking huh? I'm not even sure if he runs in the end but if not, it's not smart, if you will, I don't want to call it not stupid, but is there any traction against this woman, why not try what worked last time.

KEILAR: Sometimes the best record is no record, right?


BLITZER: Let's leave it there. We have three years to talk about this.

Guys, thanks very much.

Up next, eight inmates will soon walk free thanks to a presidential pardon. We'll have details.

Along with the legendary lawyer and professor Alan Dershowitz standing by with his analysis.


BLITZER: President Obama, who was rather stingy with acts of clemency in his first time made some dramatic moves today to free prisoners, the commuting the crack cocaine sentences of eight federal inmates, most of them serving life terms. One of the eight is a cousin of the Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick.

And President Obama also issued outright pardons to 13 other people convicted of a variety of offenses.

Our senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is here with more details of what happened -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, so this obviously highlights a larger problem, or a problem I think as the White House would see it. You have eight people whose sentences President Obama commuted today, most of them had served 15-plus years and the point that they're at now, let's say they had been convicted today. Let's say they had been convicted today, they likely would have served far less time in prison and that's really the point here.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law what was called the fair sentencing act. It was to narrow the disparity between the sentencing time for people who were serving sentences for crack cocaine related offenses and powder cocaine related offenses.

So, President Obama here sort of making the point here and he's trying to do it right now for a reason and that is because the Senate Judiciary Committee next month will be taking up the issue of wider reform for drug related sentencing and he's trying to elevate this.

BLITZER: Basically a symbolic political decision right now. Sending a message to Congress and the American public.

Brianna, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little deeper right now with the Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, with his latest book that is entitled "taking the stand."

Professor Dershowitz, thanks very much for coming in. What do you think of the president's decision?

PROF. ALAN DERSHOWITZ, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Well, it's a starred, but it's really just the tip of a very, very disturbing iceberg. So many lives have been ruined by these draconian drug sentences, particularly people who haven't been involved in any kind of violence, who get caught up because of a girlfriend or boyfriend and end up spending 15, 20, 30, sometimes life in prison. So many ruined lives. The disparity between white people and black people. White people who tend to use powdered cocaine and black people who tend to use more likely cracked cocaine. Sometimes the sentences were ten times greater for the crack cocaine than the powdered cocaine.

So, it is a beginning, but there is so much to do to create some disparity and sentencing. We're five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's inmates. And many of them are in for nonviolent drug related crimes. It's time to dig deep into this problem.

BLITZER: You live in Cambridge. As I reported, the Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, one of the eight commuted today is a cousin of the Massachusetts governor. Does that raise flags? Is that OK as far as your analysis is concerned?

DERSHOWITZ: Sure. You know, he was one of eight, and obviously one who suffered a massive discrimination, you know, talk about Massachusetts, we've legalized marijuana now. Nobody notices the difference. It is just that fewer people were imprisoned. Quality of life hasn't change.

You know, crime is going down in the United States. In fact, all over the world, and yet, inmate population, prison population, is not going down proportionate to the reduction in crime. Crime is costing us a fortune in terms of imprisonment. It is not -- we're not getting bang for our buck. We're not getting justice. And I think it's a good beginning by the president. And there's a lot more to go.

I think he should be pardoning and commuting more people. You know, the pardon power is one of the most important powers given a president by the framers of our constitution. It was intended to be used broadly to bring about justice, and bring about equal treatment. And it hasn't been used. Ever since, I think, President Clinton got in to some trouble for his pardons at the end of his second term, we've seen the process really come to a grinding hall.

I hope this is the beginning of greater use of the pardoning and commutation process. I hope that Jonathan Pollard will have his sentence commuted. He's been in for 28 years after the government recommended that a shorter term of years would be enough. And so, I think the president should sit down before Christmas and really look at a large range of people who are imprison today who don't deserve being there.

BLITZER: All right, Alan Dershowitz, stand by for a moment because Brianna Keilar, You have one more point you wanted to make?

KEILAR: Yes, that's right. When it comes to the commutation of the sentence of the cousin of Deval Patrick. I asked a White House official about this and they said that they don't think that the governor pushed the White House or requested even the White House or the department of justice on behalf of his cousin. They don't believe this impacted the decision. But certainly when you know there are thousands of people on this position that you have these eight in, it is going to raise a lot of questions because Deval Patrick is such a good friend of President Obama. This is his cousin, the cousin of a governor. A lot of people will ask questions about this.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar, thanks very much. Alan Dershowitz, as usual thanks to you as well.

If you have a quick point, make it in ten seconds.

DERSHOWITZ: I think we are going to see a lot of applications now for commutation based on the principle of these eight cases. People claiming that come within the principle and they won't get a hearing.

BLITZER: You did it in ten seconds. Thanks very much, Alan Dershowitz and Brianna Keilar.

Coming up, he's the only American ever to meet the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Now Dennis Rodman is back in Pyongyang for his third visit. Details are coming up.


BLITZER: The capitol dome has been at the center of the D.C. skyline since 1866. Well, pretty soon you won't be able to see it anymore.

Dana Bash is joining us with more.

Dana, looks pretty good to me. What's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It's going to be restored. It does look nice. But when you get up close like we did today, you can see it needs some repair.



BASH (voice-over): The capitol dome, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. We got a rare tour inside the dome, more than 200 feet up in the air, where you can really see some of the damage. A long crack in a window. Rust eroding the dome's ornaments and underlying structure. Architects count more than 1300 cracks in the capitol dome caused by wind, rain and sun threatening the historic frescos inside.

KEVIN HILDEBRAND, ARCHITECT, AOC: When the rust develops between the flanks, it binds the place from moving. And that creates enormous pressures within the ironwork.

BASH: This spring a massive two-year renovation will start. It is no easy task. The dome is made of nine million pounds of iron.

HILDEBRAND: I'm going to lift this copper.

BASH: With an incredibly thin exterior shell as demonstrated here. When the capitol was first built in the late 1700s, this dome didn't exist. It was added 150 years ago, taking us through narrow teem staircases behind its walls, the architect was eager to show off the dome's beauty, why it is so important to restore.

To get up here we had to walk hundreds of stairs, very narrow treacherous staircase, but boy, was it worth it, look at the view. Up and all the way down.

From famous frescos, including Washington ascending to heaven, to dramatic acoustics high inside the rotunda.

HILDEBRAND: You have to be careful what you're saying up here. Because anyone on the other side can hear you. Please be very careful on dock as you go through the door right.

BASH: Then to the breathtaking view outside.

All right, the way up here, 260 feet in the air this is what you getting to.

It's really clear from up here, the capitol is the focal point of the city's design.

HILDEBRAND: The axis of the mall, Maryland avenue, all radiating from the center point.

BASH: Starting from this spring, the dome will be wrapped in scaffolding, stay that way for the renovation. Congress already approved $59 million for the restoration. Still, these costs tend to explode.

So can you guarantee that you're not going to go over budget?

STEPHEN AYERS, ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL: Guarantee, that's a big word. We're pretty confident, I'll give you that.

BASH: It has been meticulously planned, in the works for four years.

HILDEBRAND: It's just something that has to happen. There is no more recognizable symbol of the country than the capitol dome or our national flag.


BASH: And the last time the dome was restored was 50 years ago, but architects say because of how technology has advanced, the way they'll do this restoration, it will be longer than 50 years before the next one is needed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good luck with the restoration.

Dana, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news, theater disaster. Huge portions of the ceiling come crashing down on a nearly packed house inside a historic London building, injuring many people in the audience. So, how did it happen?

Basketball diplomacy. Dennis Rodman returns to North Korea just days after the execution of the leader Kim Jong-un's uncle.