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Three U.S. Military Aircraft Come Under Attack In South Sudan; Powerful Winter Storm Poses Danger On U.S. Roads; Can Edward Snowden Be Granted Amnesty?; Emergency Spacewalk Wraps Up; Pope Francis: The People's Pope

Aired December 21, 2013 - 15:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: It's the top of the hour now. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Here are the stories we are following for you.

Three U.S. military aircraft come under attack trying to evacuate Americans in south Sudan. Hear details about what happened to the service members and the deteriorating security situation inside that country.

And back in the U.S., a powerful winter storm is creating dangerous conditions on the road as tens of millions of people head home for the holidays.

And if you are flying, get ready to wait. The severe weather threat, straight ahead.

Plus, 220 miles from earth. A difficult mission with huge consequences. Hear the outcome of a critical walk today outside the international space station.

All right, now to the developing story out of Africa. The U.S. state department warning of a deteriorating security situation after U.S. aircraft in South Sudan came under heavy gunfire this morning during a mission to evacuate American civilians. Four service members are injured. The country has been in turmoil since the president accused the former vice president of attempting a coup last week. And a lot of people have been killed in the clashes since then.

Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is joining me now.

So Barbara, tell us what the U.S. plans to try to get the remaining Americans out.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is now the problem, Fred, 20 to 30 Americans, perhaps, trapped in city of Bor in South Sudan where the rebels have taken over. The U.S. military tried to go in today on an evacuation flight to get them out of there. All three U.S. military aircraft took small arms fire from the ground. All three aircraft damaged, one seriously. Four U.S. troops wounded in the attack, one seriously. They were now in Nairobi getting medical treatment.

But back in South Sudan, this now becomes a difficult situation. A short time ago, the state department said no more government sponsored evacuation flights out of Bor. And that means no U.S. military flights for now. It is simply too dangerous, they feel, to go back in there right now.

So, we are told that defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, the chairman of the joint chief of staff General Dempsey, all talking about this trying to come up with a plan about what to do next on how to get those American civilians out of there. They can't take them out by road, it's just simply too dangerous right now.

WHITFIELD: And Barbara, what was the situation that led to this evacuation of Americans? We mentioned that, you know, attempted coup, but is that it or is there something else?

STARR: Well, once this attempted coup happened, basically what you had was contingent and factions of going against each other, ethnic warfare. Once again, this has been a part of Africa that has suffered from genocide in the past. And the fighting has only, especially around Bor, grown more violent, more dangerous, more just simply unbearable in the last several days when the rebels took this town.

The U.S. has sent an envoy to Sudan to try to talk to them about all of this. But, unless the violence eases and the people there who are trapped in this the South Sudanese can get some aid and assistance, it's really hard to see where this all ends -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, Barbara Starr, thanks so much from Washington.

So, Americans and other aid workers are waiting to be evacuated from South Sudan.

Our Nina Elbagir is following that story from Khartoum Sudan.

NINA ELBAGIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): (INAUDIBLE) is growing this evening other the fate of some 30 American citizens. Aid workers are stuck in Bor in the north of South Sudan in a very remote area. A U.S. evacuation attempt was aborted after the aircraft came under fire. And now, all options are on the table to be considered how to bring the aid workers out.

But it's not just in Bor that the situation is filing. (INAUDIBLE) by the South in the newly independent nation has also fallen to rebels. The U.S. national security advisor advise is a big part of South Sudan gaining its independence from the north in agreement to Bor to end this 21 year civil war between the two countries has recorded an audio message urging the South Sudanese to try and keep their nation together and to keep, and as she put it, to choose peace. The worry is that aid workers, including the U.S. citizens are forced to evacuate if the situation will continue to increasingly fragment. And that those who need the help the most will not be able to find it.

Nina Elbagir, CNN, Khartoum, Sudan.

WHITFIELD: Two NASA astronauts spent more than five hours on an emergency space walk today. They were trying to fix a critical cooling system pump on the international space station. Without the system, they had to turn off some of the important electronics. NASA says the astronauts got more accomplished than expected today and the problem just might be fixed during the next space walk scheduled for Monday.

And back here on earth, a holiday travel mess. Just as tens of millions of people hit the road and head to the airport, a fierce winter storm is bearing down on the Midwest and marching east. It's threatening multiple states with snow, ice and even tornadoes. In the south, the tornado risk became a reality last night. A twister touched down in Mississippi leveling trees. So far, no injuries reported.

And in the Midwest, snow and ice are creating treacherous conditions on the road and forcing airlines to cancel or even delay flights.

Our Nick Valencia is in the icy city of Kansas City, Missouri.

So Nick, earlier and through the day, we watched the layers pile on you. You, from finally, you had a hat on to a scarf. And you know, I said I wanted to see your foot gear, if you have boots on or, you know, heavier socks. What's going on with your attire?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you have to have the boots. I wish I had leggings though. When you see your breath that is when you start to put on the layers, you know. That's time.

WHITFIELD: I guess I will to take your word for it. We don't want to see your leggings or the socks.

VALENCIA: Well, we the light snow here, you know, those flurries have continued throughout the day, throughout the morning and afternoon. And the freezing rain is on its way and that is the case so much for the Midwest. They are dealing with freezing rain, sleet and a lot of snow.


VALENCIA (voice-over): From cars skidding on frozen roads and some flipping over to flight delays at the nation's airports, and expected power outages. It's beginning to look a lot like a holiday travel night nightmare.

NANCY WHITE, AAA: It could indeed actually be the perfect storm with increase in travelers and increase in the amount of distance travelers are going.

VALENCIA: Here is the wild forecast. Ice storm warnings in Oklahoma. Severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes across the south. Heavy snow and flooding in the nation's midsection. Who is going to be impacted? More than 94 million Americans traveling this week. Already dangerous driving conditions this morning in Kansas and Iowa.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Try to stop, (INAUDIBLE) is coming. Safest but I couldn't. My car went up like this.

VALENCIA: And if you are flying, watch out for possible flight cancellations in the Midwest. And up to two-hour delays in Kansas city, Chicago and Dallas. With more delays expected up the east coast on Sunday. Travel experts say it's best to check ahead before leaving home.

We really recommend that travelers be smart, they plan ahead, they take advantage of Smartphone technology, by being up to date on travel conditions and road conditions.

VALENCIA: And while the weather can be a pain for millions around the nation, for football fans in Green Bay, Wisconsin, it provided a $10 an hour job to sweep Flambeau field for Sunday's game.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get out, a chance to meet people, and get good exercise and enjoy the cold.


VALENCIA: And we talked about the possibility of cancellations and delays, that is now a reality. Delta cancelling a handful of flights in places like Minneapolis and Memphis. Those flights, if you are in that area, trying to come into Kansas city, check your airlines.

And Fred, be careful what you wish for. Jennifer Gray is talking about Atlanta being cold pretty soon. So, that t could be headed your way in a matter of no time.

WHITFIELD: I know and I have my gear ready, Nick. I'm going to be just like you. I will be top all the way down to the bottom.

All right, let's check in with Jennifer Gray.

So, do I need to pull out, you know, my long Johns and my thick socks and my leggings, as Nick says, and hat?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Not yet because we are actually setting records across the east coast for warm weather on the first official day of winter. Temperatures will start stabilize a little bit the next couple days. But yes, the major cold weather is still in the west, the Midwest.

We are seeing still freezing rain hype and they are starting to transition into snow across Fortune to stay Kansas on into Missouri. The Texas can handle even getting snow right now. The big story though has been the severe weather. And that's what where we are watching throughout the afternoon.

We have tornado watches in effect until 6:00 p.m. for much of Louisiana and southeast Texas including Houston, and then 8:00 p.m. including places like Memphis and that is central time. We have actually already started to see a piece of severe thunderstorms pop up. We have two active warnings right now in north Louisiana. We have one that is going to expire around 2:15 local time and then another one it is about 2:45 local time. These are packing winds of 16 miles per hour.

We also have one in east Texas as well right around center Texas and that is a big one. So, do plan on those damaging winds. We have reports of trees down, Fred. So, this is something to take seriously.

WHITFIELD: We are, indeed.

All right, thank you so much, Jennifer. Appreciate that.

All right, the president had a big stack of homework over the holidays, one item, decide if the NSA needs to be reined in. We'll tell you what he has said about that, coming up.

Next, Beyonce is busy spreading holiday cheer the Saturday before Christmas. How she surprised hundreds of shoppers?


WHITFIELD: "Duck Dynasty's" 12 million viewers on A&E will have to watch to watch the show without the star. Phil Robertson is suspended indefinitely after making some racially insensitive and homophobic remarks.

Gary Tuchman shows what happens celebrities say things they wish they probably could take back.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): "Duck Dynasty'" Phil Robertson certainly isn't the first celebrity whose mouth has gotten him or her in trouble.

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: Get away from my wife and the baby with the camera.

TUCHMAN: Alec Baldwin recently lost a program on MSNBC when he had a run in with paparazzi in New York.

BALDWIN: Get away from my kid with the camera. Come on.

TUCHMAN: After those comments, Baldwin was suspended from the show, then it was canceled what was described as a mutual departing.


TUCHMAN: Celebrity chef Paula Deen was accused of using the "N" word in times and was sued by a former employee alleging racial and sexual discrimination. The food network said it would not renew her contract. And one by one she lost many of her sponsorships. She went on the "Today" show to apologize but was also defensive.

DEEN: I tell you what, if there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you are out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. Please. I want to meet you. I want to meet you. I is what I is and I'm not changing.

TUCHMAN: The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

Shot Jack Don Imus got in hot water after saying this about African- American basketball players at Rutgers University.

DON IMUS, RADIO HOST: Awesome rough girls (INAUDIBLE). They got tattoos and some (INAUDIBLE).

TUCHMAN: Imus apologized later, but it wasn't enough to keep his radio program or MSNBC deal, although, he is back on radio and TV today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like I was swimming through a flabby armed spanking machine.

TUCHMAN: The man who we know is Kramer at Seinfeld, Michael Richards, also was called a racist after he said the "n" word seven times in just over two minutes to hecklers at an L.A. comedy club. Later, he was contrite on the late show with David Letterman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's important for the African-American community to make sure this kind of crap doesn't come about and I'm sorry that it happened.

TUCHMAN: Richards maintained a low profile for some time following the incident.

Few celebrities have been exposed quite like actor, Mel Gibson. Not only that anti-symmetrical racist (INAUDIBLE), but incredibly profane and threatening messages left on his ex-girlfriend's phone mail.

Some careers can't recover, but others do. Experts say, it all comes down to how it's handled.

MARVET BRITO, ENTERTAINMENT AND PR STRATEGIST: The best way for any celebrity to navigate from a mishap or words they didn't mean to say or words that fell on the public in a wrong way is to be honest, transparent and truthful about the way the words were shared.

TUCHMAN: But not all heed that advice.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some say you are bipolar.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow, what does that mean?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are on two ends of the spectrum?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then what? What's the cure, medicine? Make me like them? It is not going to happen. I'm by winning.

TUCHMAN: Winning or not, "Duck Dynasty's" Phil Robertson is not the latest member in the celebrity club.

Gary Tuchman, CNN Atlanta.


WHITFIELD: And attention Wal-Mart shoppers, forget the last minute Christmas bargains. Folks at a Massachusetts Wal-Mart get a really big surprise from a mega superstar. Beyonce showed up, yes, she was calling on that blue light special there last night spreading a little holiday cheer. And guess what the message was? She purchased 750 $50 gift cards for everyone in the store. She also just on holiday shopping of her own picking up, of course, her new album on sale there and toys for her little daughter.

So earlier this week by t he way, retail giant Target refused to sell Beyonce's self-titled album because it was released online first. The new album has sold more than a million copies.

All right, the NSA is in white hot spotlight as President Obama considers possible limits on spying. One question coming to the surface, should Edward Snowden be granted amnesty? The former director of central intelligence and a former whistle blower facing off next.


WHITFIELD: President Obama says he knows people are still on edge about NSA surveillance and, in his end of the year news conference at the White House yesterday, he said he will take a closer look at recommendations from an independent panel.

Here is Jim Sciutto.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Under continuing fire at home and abroad for the NSA mass surveillance, the president signaled real changes to come.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We may have to refine this further to give people more confidence and I'm going to be working very hard on doing that. And we got to provide more confidence to the international community.

SCIUTTO: One possible reform, moving data on billions of phone calls from Americans from the NSA back to the phone companies.

OBAMA: Programs like 215 could be redesigned in ways to give you the same information when you need it without creating potentials for abuse.

SCIUTTO: His promise comes at the NSA intelligence dragnet is proving even bigger than was known. New documents revealed by Edward Snowden and shared with "The New York Times" revealed the NSA spied on the Israeli prime minister, the U.N. and businesses including French oil giant total and the European competition commissioner over seeing U.S. companies such as Google. This, after the administration is long insisted the NSA does not spy for commercial purposes.

The NSA reaffirmed that point saying in a statement we do not use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of or giving intelligence we collect to U.S. companies to increase their bottom line. Critics should surveillance say the president should accept most of all the recommendations over reform panel on intelligence and legal experts. SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: They have done this for a living and have made those decisions that are key to keeping America safe.

SCIUTTO: The ACLU is a strong critic of mass surveillance took a lighter look at the NSA.

The You Tube video timed to Christmas.

The president was also asked about the idea granting amnesty to Edward Snowden, idea raised by NSA official in the "60 minutes" piece. And he said he couldn't comment on it because Snowden is involved in a legal proceeding. But he didn't exactly endorse the idea. Either, we went on to say that he continues to believe that Snowden caused quote "unnecessary damage both to American intelligence gathering and diplomacy."

Jim Sciutto, CNN. Washington.


SCIUTTO: Thanks so much, Jim.

All right, I'm joined now by two experts on the issue of national intelligence. Let's talk more about this so-called amnesty, possibly extended to Edward Snowden.

Ambassador James Woolsey, the former director of central intelligence joining me from Nevada and former whistle blower, Kirk Wiere joining us from Maryland (ph).

Good to see both of you, gentlemen.

So James, let me begin with you, you call Snowden a traitor and that he deserves to be hung if that were an option. I'm quoting you. Under no circumstances, should he receive amnesty in the U.S. in your view?

AMBASSADOR R. JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER DIRECTOR OF CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE: I think amnesty for Snowden is one of the most idiotic ideas that has filtered into the public debate in a long time. This man has caused great damage to the United States and put a number of people at risk of losing their lives, intelligence officers, intelligence agents and others. He has helped the terrorists figure out how to get around American protections and that's comfort to an enemy, which is the classic definition of treason.

Yes, I think he has shown himself to be a traitor. And I would very much like to see him tried and convicted. And if convicted by a jury of his peers, the jury and judge, I guess get to decide what the punishment is. And I think this is severe enough that it is worth serious consideration of a death penalty.

WHITFIELD: So Kirk, given that argument, why would anybody support the notion of amnesty for Snowden?

Well I don't. And Jim Woolsey, let me say, how do you do, sir. I have never met you before but it's my pleasure to do so.

KIRK WIERE, FORMER NSA WHISTLEBLOWER: We need to understand the charter of NSA and the kind of constraints it's enjoyed over the past years until around the time period of 9/11. The NSA has had strict controls against monitoring the communications of innocent Americans and that's without exception. It has occasionally, accidentally taken up in its vacuum approach a few Americans. But those were always minimized and gotten rid of immediately unless they were open to suspicion under probable cause constraints by a court judge.

WHITFIELD: But Snowden has then said he took it upon himself to say I don't like there is this kind of surveillance taking place. Instead of making that complaint to the authorities, particularly while a contractor of the NSA, he decides to tell the world, take classified information. So, how do you support that, Kirk?

WIERE: All right, let's look at this, the events leading up to Snowden's decision to do this. And it was not an easy one, certainly.

First of all, I, myself, along with four others blew the whistle on NSA both mismanagement leading to the trail blazer program that under Michael Hayden which was an utter failure and also this business about bulk collecting data about communications of innocent Americans.

We tried to work within the system and utterly failed. We didn't even get a hearing. No one would seriously talk to us. If they did anything, it was to derail our efforts to enter other parts of the intelligence community and bring these capabilities that we were working on in, which were designed to, in their realtime, process bulk communications and, at the same time, afford the privacy rights to innocent people that are covered under the fourth amendment of the constitution.

WHITFIELD: So, you are saying because there isn't the support within any of these federal agencies, for someone to air their grievances, it is incumbent upon that individual to just say I'm going to handle this the way I best see fit.

So, James, if that's the argument, if that's what I'm hearing here, is there a problem? Is the system broken as it pertains to someone, whether a contractor or employee saying I feel uncomfortable with the way we are doing things and I'm airing my grievances. And if they go ignored and so, this is the only recourse that someone has?

WOOLSEY: Well, I can't speak to the personal issues that he raised, but we have had inspectors general and the intelligence community for a long time. We had one at the CIA when I was director of central intelligence. People felt free to go to them with complaints about how the agency was being run.

And the U.S. intelligence community, NSA, CIA and all the rest is the most heavily overseen regulated and scrutinized intelligence community in the world. It is scrutinized heavily by the court system, the foreign intelligence surveillance act courts. There are many judges who have, over the course 15, anyway, approved the collection of so- called meta data, the phone numbers, not the content of telephone calls.

This is something that we have worked on, many of us in the intelligence community for some time. And this very particular thing that was raised about the metadata has been approved for government surveillance for decades. The government can look at, and this has been true since around the '60s or early '70s, anyway, can look at and keep a record of what's on the outside of an envelope of a first class letter. They can't look inside the envelop, but they can keep track of the postmark and so forth. They have been able to do the same thing with telephone calls for many years under Supreme Court decisions.

And for Mr. Snowden or anyone else to decide that they don't think the scrutiny by this House and Senate intelligence communities and they don't think the scrutiny by the foreign intelligence surveillance act court and they don't think all of the limitations that take place are adequate, so they are going to send out classified information that can get Americans killed all over the world.

They are sending it to Hezbollah. They are sending it to al-Qaeda because they cannot cutoff those recipients and just send it to nice people sitting --

JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: -- are adequate, so they are going to send out classified information that can get Americans killed all over the world. They are sending it to Hezbollah, they are sending it to al Qaeda because they cannot cut off those recipients and just send it to nice people sitting in their living rooms. They are sending it out. And I think it is a very, very traitorous thing to do. I don't think there's any other good word for it.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And the, Kirk, why would Ed Snowden want amnesty after he has essentially said that, you know, this country is wronged him and it's wronged all Americans because of how he interprets intelligence gathering and collecting to have taken place?

KIRK WIEBE, FORMER NSA WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, I don't think Ed -- I can't speak for him. It's difficult to do so. I've never met the man.

But, I would assume that Ed Snowden was simply trying to inform the American people about illegalities committed by the United States government, at least in his opinion.

WHITFIELD: But then he ran away. Right?

WIEBE: Well, he did. Yes, he did. And I think he's looked at what happened to me, Bill Binney, Thomas Gray and Ed Loomis and Diane Roark. You know, four of us are former NSA employees for years and years and years, and having received awards for meritorious service. Diane Roark served as a senior staffer on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and she, with no reticence, shared our concerns.

But, all of our efforts to inform people in the oversight business failed utterly. When she went to Porter Goss with her concerns about the Constitution being subverted. Porter Goss simply said, don't talk to Mike Hayden. There was no effort to launch any kind of investigation or to perform any oversight over this matter.

WHITFIELD: All right. Kirk Wiebe, we'll have to leave it there.

James, Woolsey, thanks so much for your time. To both of you gentlemen, appreciate it.

WIEBE: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: And how could this happen? An EPA employee collecting a big paycheck for work he rarely showed up to do, and he ran up a million dollar tab before getting caught.

Plus, how did today's emergency space walk go? We'll ask someone who's actually done quite a few times, next.


WHITFIELD: NASA's emergency space walk has wrapped up for the day. Two astronauts spent several hours outside the International Space Station, trying to fix a cooling pump. Earlier, I spoke with Michael Massimino. He's a NASA astronaut and also visiting professor at Columbia University Engineering School. And I asked him how the repairs were coming along.


MICHAEL MASSIMINO, NASA ASTRONAUT: I know both of those guys, they are good friends of mine. They're just doing a good job. The control team on the ground has been very, very busy and again doing a great job working with the astronauts. So, they're doing so well.

You know, they try to be conservative. You don't get too much -- you don't want to plan for too much. But at the same time, you want to make sure that you are getting what you need done. They have done so well that it looks like they might be able to be ahead of where they want to be in --


WHITFIELD: And when in a situation like that, I mean, they are clearly kind of calling the shots. They are seeing it. They are making progress. Things are going along swimmingly and they figure, let's just go ahead and ride this momentum, why stop now? I mean, let's just go as long as we can. It's not an issue of, you know, weighing the vulnerabilities.

Can you spend too much time, you know, doing this kind of work outside the space station?

MASSIMINO: Yes, you can. In fact, you've got to look at a few things. One is they're looking at what we call consumables, making sure that their oxygen is in good shape, that their carbon dioxide scrubber is working, that they are feeling good. You don't want to get into a situation where you start a whole new thing, and then you get into it doing the new thing, and you don't have enough time to finish it, and then you're kind of in a situation you don't want to be.

So, it's a fine line you want to walk here, where you want to get ahead and ride the good work. At the same time, you don't want to go overboard, you don't want to get too tired as well. These guys are going to come back in a couple of days.

And if you are listening to the transmissions, they were discussing with the crew what else they could do. And they take the crew's input. They were getting feedback from Rick and from Mike of whether or not they thought they could get some extra tasks on. So, that's -- we work together. You look at how the astronaut is doing. You look at how the consumables are doing, and how things are working and what you want to try to get done the next day. So, a lot of people are working to make the right decision.

WHITFIELD: Oh, yes. So, I mentioned at the top as we were looking at those live pictures that, wow, it looks kind of scary, but at the same time, it must be exhilarating -- you know, I'm only saying that from outside looking in. You've actually done it. What does it like? Are you thinking about how potentially vulnerable you are?

I mean, people think of the movie "Gravity" and you can't help but think of, you know, those things now. But at the same time, you know, this is what you trained for.

So, you know, how exhilarating is it, really?

MASSIMINO: It's very exhilarating. And the movie "Gravity" is a good movie, but you probably don't want to watch that when you're in space.

WHITFIELD: Good point.

MASSIMINO: But it's really a great experience for the astronauts. You know, they'd rather not have to go out to fix a problem because they'd rather have everything working fine.


MASSIMINO: But once you make the decision to go out there, you're in a position where you can do something to affect the space station and keep it going. And at the same time, have probably, I think, the best experience any person can have, which is getting a chance to work in a space suit with some really cool tools --


MASSIMINO: --on a magnificent machine, on a magnificent space ship, the space station, and get a chance to view the earth at the same time.

WHITFIELD: It's incredible.

MASSIMINO: You can't beat that.


MASSIMINO: It's an incredible experience.

WHITFIELD: Yes, that's a cool job.

All right. NASA is hoping the work can be wrapped in the next week, the spacewalk. Another one is scheduled for Monday.

All right. In less than a year, Pope Francis has won the hearts of millions of people around the world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. What makes him different from his predecessors? Hear what our expert says, next.


WHITFIELD: Pope Francis gave his first Christ Christmas message to the Vatican staff, priests and cardinals today. He asked them to reject the bureaucracy and ceremony of the church focus on service and helping the poor.

"TIME" magazine named the pope its Person of the Year earlier this month, calling him the "People's Pope". He has declined the red papal slippers and the Mercedes for regular shoes and a small car.

He has also reached out to everybody, including hugging so many people, including this disfigured man. And getting off the pope mobile to kiss babies, just like that moment, taking a selfie with young people and meeting his favorite soccer team at the Vatican and shaking hands with each and every one of them. He's definitely the man of the people.

Let's bring in CNN senior analyst, John Allen, about this fascination with Pope Francis. He's doing something that is not always associated with the papacy. He really has made the pope very approachable.

He's kind of disarmed people, hasn't he? I mean, I think a lot of people seem like they are behaving they forget that he's the pope. He's just like a regular guy, but a very holy one. It's working for him, isn't it?

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Well, listen, Fred, that is exactly it. I mean, I think the truth of it is that some of the magic of Pope Francis is that his appeal has relatively little to do with the formal powers of his office and everything to do with his personality. I mean, people see this as a man who has risen to one of the loftiest positions in the world and yet has lost none of his zest for ordinary people and for ordinary experiences.

I mean, I will tell you this -- as a media professional, and I have been covering the Vatican for almost 20 years, I will tell you that prior to his election, the dominant story lines about the Catholic Church and the global media were things like bruising political scandals and pedophile priest scandals and, you know, financial meltdowns in the Vatican and so on. While none of that has gone away, the dominant story line today is "rock star pope takes the world by storm."


ALLEN: I mean, if that's not a revolution, Fred, I'm not sure we've ever seen one.

WHITFIELD: So, it really was no surprise then right to you -- maybe into many that he was chosen the "TIME" person of the year.

ALLEN: Well, I mean, the truth of it is by the time that calendar 2013 runs out, I'm not sure there's going to be a magazine left on earth that hasn't named him its person of the year.


ALLEN: It's not just "TIME". I mean, as you know, you know, even "The Advocate" in the states, the very first out of the gate, Fred, actually was the Italian edition of "Vanity Fair" way back in June. But it already decided by June, just two months after he was elected that nobody else was going to come close.

And so, they pulled the trigger on their person of the year award, including a tribute from the well known Vaticanologist, Elton John, who said of Pope Francis, he is a miracle of humility in an era of vanity. I think that sums up the popular reaction to this pope.

WHITFIELD: Is there a feeling in your view that, you know, the pope is trying to reform the Catholic Church, or is he just doing what is most comfortable to him and he's hoping that people just simply embrace his papacy?

ALLEN: Fred, I think it's both. I mean, a lot of what he's doing comes out of his own personality. I mean, for example, in the early stages of his papacy, it was the gestures of humility and personal simplicity that kind of took the world by storm. I mean, him choosing, for example, not to live in the papal apartment --


ALLEN: -- stay in the modest bed, it can resonate.

WHITFIELD: And paying his own bills.

ALLEN: Calling up his shoe maker -- yes, exactly -- or calling up his shoe maker in Buenos Aires to say, I'm not going to be able to come back to pick up my plain brown shoes, can you please put them in a box and ship them here?


ALLEN: I think a lot of that came out of who he is. I mean, I went there to spend time with people who know him. And they will say this is who he was for 12 years as the archbishop of Buenos Aires. He lived in an apartment, rather than the archbishop's residence, that was so modest, he left his stove on over the weekend because they turn off the central heat and he didn't want to freeze to death. That was the only choice.


ALLEN: I think he's politically savvy enough figure to realize that those sorts of gestures sets a tone for the kind of church he wants to lead. Remember, Fred, He said three days after his election his vision of a Catholic is a poor church for the poor.

I think he knows that all of the personal choices he is making also send a message to those 5,000 Catholic bishops around the world and everyone else in leadership in the church -- this is the direction he wants them to move.

WHITFIELD: Yes, fascinating and incredibly influential whether you are Catholic or not. That's really what makes him so incredibly amazing. I think everyone agrees on that.

All right. John Allen, thanks so much from Rome. Good to see you. Happy holidays.

All right. Every day people overcome odds to achieve their passion. Well, that's what Derrick Coleman of the Seattle Seahawks did. Our Sanjay Gupta has the story in this week's "Human Factor."


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Derrick Coleman is living a boy's dream, playing in the NFL for the top team in the league, the Seattle Seahawks.

Now, he didn't start playing football until seventh grade, because his mom really didn't want him to.

DERRICK COLEMAN, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: I was just a normal kid, I was just going out there and trying to play football.

GUPTA: And the dream of making it to the pros began in high school. There, he was ranked the number two fullback in the nation by ESPN.

COLEMAN: I wasn't really thinking about it so much until maybe my senior year. And I was just going out there and just playing hard. I just wanted to play.

GUPTA: Next stop, UCLA, where he was a running back for four years. His college career ended with a degree in political science, and now the 23-year-old is showing his versatility as a fullback for the Seahawks, scoring his first touchdown in the pros earlier this month.

He's gotten this far with lots of hard work and by overcoming something only two other players in the entire NFL have. He is legally deaf, the result of a rare genetic disorder. COLEMAN: Basically I lost my hearing when I was three. I had hearing aids ever since.

GUPTA: How does he do this? Well, first of all, he makes no excuses.

COLEMAN: No matter what your issue, that shouldn't stop you from doing what you want to do. You can always find a way.

GUPTA: His skull cap keeps his hearing aids in place. And --

COLEMAN: I can read lips. And I can read lips very well. So what I do is when I can't hear something, I'll always go and make sure I'm looking at the person. The person who I know is the quarterback or whoever, they look at me.

I was basically just like all of you guys.

GUPTA: Off the field, Coleman tries to make time to speak to deaf and hard of hearing children to offer words of encouragement, especially for those who may be struggling.

COLEMAN; Don't let your hearing being an excuse for not wanting to go for your dream, whatever your dream is. Successful people, in my opinion, they always find a way. If you want to be successful, you have to find a way.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.



WHITFIELD: You might not have noticed, but today is the shortest day of the year and, of course, it's also officially the first day of winter.

But meteorologist Jennifer Gray explains why it has felt like winter for a while now in many parts of the country in this "Science Behind" winter weather.


JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST (voice-over): There's no doubt about it winter is not only officially here, it's been here for weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) the curb a little bit. So, you can drive like maybe 10 miles an hour at the most.

LARS NELSON, POTTSTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA RESIDENT: Got plenty of salt. The back roads are starting to stick a little bit. It looks like it's coming down pretty good now, though.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm going to stay in for this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And get out of the way.

GRAY: At least six winter storms have hit the U.S. coast to coast, impacting tens of millions of people. So, what's the science behind all the extreme weather?

MARSHALL SHEPHERD, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN METEOROLOGICAL SOCIETY: In terms of the storms that we've seen in October, November, and December as I often tell people, you know, the atmosphere doesn't have an on/off switch that knows when winter actually begins.

GRAY: Dr. Marshall Shepherd is the president of the American Meteorological Society, he says there's a big reason for the wild weather, the jet stream.

SHEPHERD: When we have this El Nino neutral conditions, the jet stream pattern, you'll get the strong dips in the jet-stream pattern and in those dips they get cold air and in those hills, we're going to have warm air. And so, generally, the jet stream pattern is the governing forcing function of our weather in the wintertime.

GRAY: Case in point, Denver, Colorado. In a matter of 10 days, the Mile High City went from negative temperatures to a near balmy 70 degrees, a time of year when it should be hovering around 40. We're talking about 30 degrees above normal.

And in the Big D, an ice storm earlier this month took Dallas from a high of 79 degrees to freezing in three days.

And in Philadelphia, December 8th winter storm dropped more snow in one day than the city received all year last year.

SHEPHERD: It just illustrates that there's going to be quite a bit of variability this season because we don't have a strong sort of leaning towards one side or the other in terms of the scale. So, we will see an occasional storm. I think we have seen above-normal snowstorm activity for this time of the season. It's still interesting that we see the chance for tornadoes this weekend here in the United States, but indeed this has been a year of extremes.

GRAY: Jennifer Gray, CNN, Atlanta.



WHITFIELD: A former federal employee is going to prison for an astounding scheme to get out of work and rip off taxpayers.

Chris Lawrence has details.


CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): John Beale walked out of court Wednesday, a man who took being lazy to legendary heights. Now, he's heading to jail after swindling the government out of nearly $1 million. SCOTT AMEY, PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT: How does this occur in modern-day society with managers that are trying to make ends meet and budget are tight?

LAWRENCE: Beale was a climate change specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency, making $164,000 a year. But he rarely came to work, and filed thousands of dollars in fake travel claims.

His bosses didn't question his frequent absence because Beale said he was actually working for the CIA. For 10 years, EPA officials believed Beale was at CIA headquarters or on some secret mission overseas. He once claimed he had to go to Pakistan to help a fellow agent in trouble. Beale was actually here hanging out at his home in the D.C. suburbs, or hiding in plain sight at his vacation home in scenic Cape Cod.

In 2008, he didn't show up at work for six months. And apparently nobody at the EPA batted an eye.

AMEY: What do you do for the CIA? Where are you going? Who's authorized it? At some point, the managers at the EPA should have been asking for some kind of proof.

LAWRENCE: No one checked Beale's story, even he took five trips to California and billed the government $57,000, claiming those flights were for, quote, "personal reasons."

And now, Beale will serve nearly three years in prison. He's also agreed to pay $900,000 in restitution and forfeit about half a million dollars in pay. The EPA says it's upgraded its safeguards to do more thorough checks on its employees travel and attendance -- Fred.


WHITFIELD: Thank you so much for that one.

Hey, thanks so much to you for joining us all afternoon here in THE NEWSROOM. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

And my colleague Rosa Flores will take it from here.

Rosa, how are you?

ROSA FLORES, CNN ANCHOR: I'm doing well. How are you doing?

WHITFIELD: I'm doing good. I can't believe we're in the same building and then we can't even, you know, say hi, no mwah, mwah, nothing like that.

FLORES: I know. You'd have to stay late, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: My goodness. All right. Well, have a great evening.

FLORES: Thank you so much.

The next hour of CNN NEWSROOM begins right now.