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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Edward Snowden Opens Up; Pope Francis' Message; One-on-One With Senate Chaplain; South Sudan "Spiraling into Disaster"; Can Mayor Ford Step Up?

Aired December 24, 2013 - 16:00   ET

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


DANA BASH, CNN GUEST HOST: Well, look who forgot to log off Twitter before he left for Christmas vacay, #trollingtapper.

I'm Dana Bash. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Season's greetings from Edward Snowden. The man who revealed the U.S. government's secret spying program sent a Christmas message from asylum sobering enough to wake your uncle on the sofa.

And the world lead. Pope Benedict's (sic) approval rating is up there with bacon as he gets ready for his first midnight mass as Holy Father. We're live in Rome as he prepares to deliver his message to the faithful.

And the pop lead. It's what you do on Christmas when you don't celebrate Christmas. You know who you are, a sneak peek at the potential blockbusters hitting theaters tomorrow.

I'm Dana Bash in for Jake Tapper.

We begin with the national lead. He's been referred to as everything from a hero to a traitor, but you can just call him indoor cat. In a revealing 14-hour interview with "The Washington Post," former NSA contractor Edward Snowden opens up about the fallout over his decision to leak classified documents on the government snooping program.

And if you think his life on the run is like Matt Damon in a Jason Bourne movie, that's only if the latest installment features Bourne sitting around a hotel eating chips and ramen noodles and writing in his journal. Snowden compares his life in asylum in Russia to that of an indoor cat, saying he rarely leaves the house.

Despite that low profile, this holiday season seems to have made Snowden into somewhat of a Chatty Cathy. Not only did he agree to an interview with The Post. He is also delivering a pre-recorded Christmas Day message that will air in Russia. It will be similar to most holiday messages, except that valuable lesson everyone learns won't be about the giving spirit. It will be about how some creepy guy could be spying on you and your phone calls to grandma.

Now, Snowden also says, no matter what happens as a result of his leaks, he has already won. It's a debatable perspective, to say the least, depending how you view his decision to blow the whistle on the NSA's surveillance program, but what is not debatable is whether his actions have clear consequences for both the National Security Agency and the Obama administration.

And Barton Gellman joins me now to talk about his interview with Edward Snowden.

This was unbelievable. For the kids at home who don't know, this is an actual newspaper, they still do exist. But you were the first person to talk in person to Edward Snowden. What's he like?

BARTON GELLMAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": He is serene. I wasn't sure what to expect.

This is a man that I had never met face to face before. I had communicated with over the computers, and we all know that it's hard to pick up everything about a personality that way. I didn't know how he would feel about what's become of his act, what followed on.

And what I found was a man who is calm and comfortable and at peace with what he did, who believes that he succeeded quite considerably in promoting the debate that he was looking for.

BASH: One of the many criticisms of Snowden and the reason why people call him a traitor is because they say he should have used the internal process to make his concerns known internally, and not take it to the press the way he did, and unveil all of these deep, dark secrets of the U.S. government.

He told you that he actually did try. The NSA in your story denied that he even did that. They said there's no record of him raising his hand and saying, I think that this is not a good program to have, we shouldn't be spying on people in the United States the way we are.

GELLMAN: I believe that the NSA has no record of the conversations that he had with four superiors and 15 co-workers about his qualms.

He described them in some detail. The NSA also acknowledged to me that they have not asked any of his superiors or his co-workers whether he had conversations like that.

(LAUGHTER)

GELLMAN: And if you think about it, in retrospect, if you had a conversation with Edward Snowden before he left in which he said what do you think the American people would say if this stuff appeared on the front page, might not want to volunteer that if you weren't asked.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: In the interview, one of the most fascinating quotes for me, as somebody who covers Capitol Hill, is what he said about the two chairmen of the Intelligence Committees in the House and the Senate.

He told you, "Dianne Feinstein," Senate chairwoman, "elected me when she asked softball questions in committee hearings. Mike Rogers," the Republican House chairman, "elected me when he kept these programs hidden."

You cover national security. You think he has a point? Because I covered these people on the Hill. Obviously, they support this program, but they are no shrinking violets, particularly Dianne Feinstein.

GELLMAN: Yes, I'm not going to pass judgment on what he said.

What he believes is that the congressional Intelligence Committees and the FISA court, the special surveillance court that oversees some of the NSA's work, had become a graveyard of judgment, that they were captured by the system, that they were completely inside the bubble, and that they were not asking fundamental questions, like should the NSA be sort of taking in all of the...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: But how would he have known that as a low-level guy in Hawaii? How would he know that those questions weren't asked?

GELLMAN: What he knows is that throughout the period that these programs were operating, a period of over a decade under various authorities, there was no congressional effort to scale them back. And in fact, that's correct. There was none.

BASH: Just a final question. Reading this story, he seems like he's very proud of himself. As you said, he's serene, that he did the right thing, almost that like he feels like a martyr for what he thinks is a just cause.

If that's the case, why is he hiding? Why not come back and face the music?

GELLMAN: Well, I don't think he would call himself a martyr or use language like that. He told me six months ago...

BASH: But he did say to you in several ways that he knew that, by doing what he did, that the consequences were going to be unbelievably tough.

And he looked around and said, these people aren't going to do it, so I have to do it. That is in some ways being a martyr for the cause that he believes in.

GELLMAN: Well, I'm not going to put words like that in his mouth. It doesn't feel quite like the spirit of what he was saying.

What he was saying was that he knew that there would be consequences regardless, whether he faced trial. He considered it a possibility that there would be physical harm done to them if any government thought it could stop him from making these disclosures. And he also told me from the start that he wanted to create a model, set an example, in which one could resist, one could dissent, one could take secrets and place them in the public domain without being crushed by it.

He wanted to show that you could blow the whistle and continue to live a life. So that's what he's trying to do.

BASH: Barton Gellman, thank you very much. Again, this is fascinating, 14 hours sitting down in person, the first journalist to do it, with Edward Snowden. Thank you.

GELLMAN: Thanks for having me.

And now in the world lead, while you were doing your last-minute Christmas shopping, way up high, more than 200 miles above the planet, two astronauts were taking part in a risky space walk. Who knew there was a more dangerous way to spend Christmas Eve than fighting for parking outside the Toys 'R' Us? Well, there was.

The astronauts were on a mission to fix a cooling pump malfunction on the International Space Station. It's a critical problem that, if left unattended, could have resulted in an evacuation.

CNN's Alina Machado has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dana, this is the second space walk to ever take place on Christmas Eve, and after a very long day, the two American astronauts came out celebrating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The headline for the day is that we have a newly installed pump module.

MACHADO (voice-over): After a space walk that lasted more than seven hours, astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Michael Hopkins successfully replaced the faulty cooling pump aboard the International Space Station.

The pump, which is the size of a refrigerator, had been damaged for nearly two weeks, cutting back station operations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like Christmas morning opening up a little present here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything looks good. Nothing seems to be flowing out.

MACHADO: Three hours into the space walk, the unit was in place and astronauts were bolting in the new module.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe it's got to go in maybe another inch or so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And, Houston, if you're there, pump module in position.

MACHADO: The task is a delicate one. The equipment contains a noxious cooling fluid, ammonia. CHRIS HADFIELD, RETIRED ASTRONAUT: And some of the danger is hooking up the big heavy ammonia lines. They're really thick and massive. And hooking those up, of course, if you were to leak ammonia, it's not a very pleasant chemical. You couldn't bring it inside. So there's definite risk out there.

MACHADO: And the risk became reality when one of the fluid lines carrying that ammonia got tangled. The crew was able to free the line, but some frozen flakes of ammonia were released during the disconnection process, and it came in contact with the astronauts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have seen maybe about one very small, a couple millimeters, flakes coming out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could you tell if any of the flakes contacted your suit?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

MACHADO: Mastracchio and Hopkins inspected each other and did not see any suit damage. They still underwent a routine decontamination process before returning inside the station.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It took a couple looks to get her done, but we got it.

MACHADO (on camera): The pump has been tested and appears to be working properly, but NASA expects it to take several days before all the systems on the International Space Station are fully functional again -- Dana.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: That is so cool. Alina Machado, thank you very much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: He is the man senators turn to for advice and to spill their secrets -- next, my interview with the Senate chaplain who made a name for himself by admonishing senators in his daily prayers during the government shutdown.

Plus, Toronto covered in ice after a major storm. Mayor Rob Ford vows to do everything he can to help, so will it also clean up his image?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now time for the buried lead. That's what we call the stories that may not be getting enough attention. You know those family squabbles you dread sitting through this time of year? Well, what if you had to witness that pretty much every day? That's sort of what life is like for Barry Black, who is the Senate chaplain.

In today's contentious Capitol Hill environment, Black often finds himself playing the role of fed-up mom, caught between kids in a food fight. He deals with it by sending not-so-subtle messages to senators to cut it out. Before the Senate left for the holidays, I went to Barry Black's office, tucked away inside the Capitol, and got some fascinating insight about his approach to ministering politicians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Senate Chaplain Barry Black got a lot of attention this fall by using his daily prayers to admonish senators during the government shutdown, with lines like this.

BARRY BLACK, U.S. SENATE CHAPLAIN: Cover our shame with the robe of your righteousness.

I was in an environment where most of the people I minister to had been furloughed because of the federal shutdown. So these were people who were not getting paid, and who definitely needed their checks. If I could not muster up some passion, if I could not muster up some candor, and if I could not be somewhat prophetic in what I was talking to God about, then,shame on me, I really don't need to be in this job.

Forgive us also when we put politics ahead of progress.

BASH (on camera): Did you get any blowback from any senators saying, you know, this kind of -- this isn't your job, sir?

BLACK: I didn't. I tried in my prayers to be sufficiently nonpartisan that nothing I said could not be used as a description for both sides of the aisle.

BASH: That's not easy.

BLACK: No. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Anyone watching the debates would know that that indictment could be made for both sides.

BASH: You were parodied on "Saturday Night Live."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Send a flood to Washington and just drown everybody.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Or at least allow your cleansing waters to carry them to a place far, far away.

BLACK: Yes, I thought it was funny. I thought the premise was quite humorous, that, you know -- not that I would want a flood to come, and I certainly would extend a hand if I were in a boat to help a lawmaker out of the water, but it was funny.

BASH: Black is known for his public prayers but most of his work is in private, ministering to the Senate community, a place he says really needs it.

BLACK: I am providing spiritual guidance through religious education. I officiated weddings and funerals. I'm in the hospitals for hospital visitations. I have been with a number of senators when they died.

BASH (on camera): Whose bedside were you at when they died?

BLACK: Well, most recently with Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii.

BASH: A year ago.

BLACK: Yes.

BASH: What's that like?

BLACK: He was a great American, an amazing man. The last thing he did was scribble the word "aloha" on a piece of paper. There was nothing more instructive I think than being with someone who dies well.

BASH: Do any senators ever come to you for advice on how they are going to vote?

BLACK: I have senators who ask me, how would you vote on this issue? Which is one way of saying, how do you think I should vote?

BASH: How do you answer those questions?

BLACK: Well, I tell senators I'm more interested in you having ethical reasons and evidence for your vote, and so I would rather teach you about ethical decision making than to tell you which way to go on a particular issue.

BASH: It's not unusual, unfortunately, for senators to have ethical problems. Have you had those senators come to you seeking --

BLACK: I usually know about the ethical challenges long before it hits the media. Yes, I have had senators who have attended my bible study who have had ethical challenges and ethical problems.

Fiftieth Psalm says we are born in sin and shaped in inequity. A poet once said there's a little bit of bad in the best of us, and a little bit of good in the worst of us, so it behooves the rest of us not to talk about the rest of us.

BASH: Pope Francis, you're not Catholic. But I'm just curious to get your take on the kind of impact that he is making. I mean, he's making Catholics happy to be Catholics again. He's making non- Catholics look at the church and the tenets of the church based on what he has been saying and it's kind of political.

What do you think about it?

BLACK: I think there's a providence that seems to raise up great leaders at the right time. I think he brings a desperately needed charisma, coupled with this amazing humility. You rarely see that kind of a synthesis of this marvelous charisma, yet this amazing humility. I mean, paying your own hotel bills and carrying your luggage and this kind of thing. Just a tremendous example of how people of faith ought to live. So, I'm just so excited. BASH: It is Christmastime. Lot of people are thinking about their spiritual center. What is your wish for Congress and for the Senate this holiday season?

BLACK: Well, my wish is that our lawmakers and all of those who labor for freedom will take seriously the notion of peace on earth, good will to humankind. I mean, that is so critically important. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called the children of God.

And I want us all to be the children of God. We need to take peace a little more seriously than we do. So let there be peace on Earth, as the hymn writer says, and let it begin with me. Let it begin with us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: The minister also has a PhD in psychology, which you might imagine comes in quite handy often in his line of work. Very interesting man.

Now, when we come back, fears of a potential civil war and an increasing humanitarian crisis as Marines stand by to evacuate Americans.

Plus, she tried to fly under the radar this year, but she just couldn't stay out of the headlines. So how will 2013 come into play for Hillary Clinton if she does decide to run for president?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Dana Bash, in for Jake Tapper. In other world news, it's something that many of us don't want to think about this time of year, but it is a story that is too important and too horrific to be ignored.

In South Sudan, there are reports of mass graves and attacks on civilians as violence spreads throughout the country. U.S. Marines are standing by in the region to help evacuate Americans caught in the middle of the chaos. Tensions in the country are between South Sudan's president and supporters of the former vice president boiled over about a week ago. Since then, hundreds have been killed and many fear the country could be on the brink of a civil war.

Joining me now with more on this is our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott.

And, Elise, first of all, how widespread is this violence?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, it started in the last week or so, Dana, in the capital, Juba, but it seems to have been spreading throughout the country. You saw over the weekend in this area of Bor where there was intense fighting and they had to evacuate those Americans and also in some of the oil-producing areas, and the numbers have been relatively small, about 500 so far. That's not a large number.

But now that you're hearing about these mass graves, there is a concern here that it's much bigger problem than people realize, and they're worried about this full-blown civil war. That's why just moments ago, the United Nations Security Council voted to almost double its peacekeeping operation from about 6,700 to about 12,000. There's a growing international concern.

BASH: And just quickly on Americans, what's the status of Americans there? Most have gotten out, right?

LABOTT: Most have gotten out. They have taken somewhere about 380 Americans. There are about 100 or so that are still working in the country, but that's why those Marines have moved from Spain to Djibouti be at the ready to take them out, because after Benghazi, the attack on the consulate, this is the new normal, having an emergency force ready.

BASH: And humanitarian crisis could be just mind-blowing.

LABOTT: Well, you have about 80,000 people displaced right now. Half of those are in U.N. camps. They need food, they need water. The U.N. is trying to bring in supplies right now but there is also a concern that it -- you know, refugees could be spreading to other countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and become a regional crisis.

You have a looming humanitarian disaster right now.

BASH: You have the humanitarian side and then, of course, you also the national security risk. It is the continent of Africa. How much of a security risk is it, particularly when you talk about al Qaeda?

LABOTT: Well, there is always a concern, particularly -- you know, there has been a growth of al Qaeda in Africa and also, when you have lawlessness. When you have chaos, there is always a fertile ground perhaps for al Qaeda to spread. We have seen it in Syria right now.

I don't think that's the big concern right now. I think the big concern is that these ethnic tensions are bubbling over and we're seeing, you know, the kind of disasters that we could -- we saw in Darfur, you know. You think years back about Rwanda. That's the concern, that they relatively keep it contained now. That's why you have a U.N. envoy on the ground trying to mediate this, bring the parties to the table.

BASH: I was just going to ask you. Hopefully he will be successful.

LABOTT: He seems to be having some success in coaxing them to the table. So, we have to see what happens.

BASH: Thanks, Elise. We know you'll stay on it. Appreciate it. Thank you.

And the Toronto area is facing a frigid Christmas. Temperatures are in the single digits. Thousands of people are without electricity, thanks to a brutal ice storm. Now, many cities lean on their mayors to step in in times like this, but you remember who Toronto's mayor is, right? The guy better known for smoking crack and wacky behavior than leadership.

But the storm may have provided Rob Ford an on-ramp to the road to redemption. No matter how icy it is.

Here's Margaret Conley.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARGARET CONLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It will be a cold, dark Christmas for nearly 200,000 people in Ontario after an ice storm blew through Canada, leaving hospitals and homes without power. At the center of the storm and from the city hardest hit is Toronto's embattled mayor, Rob Ford. So far, unlike in recent months, he appears to be sticking to script.

MAYOR ROB FORD, TORONTO: We're going to stay here every day, including Christmas day, until every light's back on the city.

CONLEY: Ford says this has been one of the worst storms in Toronto's history.

FORD: It's a challenge. It's -- you know, my heart breaks for these people.

CONLEY: With paramedics and hospitals running overtime and warming stations placed throughout the city, the situation on the ground is improving, and with it, the mayor's image.

Mayor Ford's tone handling the storm stands in contrast to his string of very public gaffes that have shown him dancing to a different tune. From his crack cocaine confession --

FORD: Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. But -- do I? Am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors.

CONLEY: To this rant.

FORD: No (EXPLETIVE DELETED) interference, brother.

CONLEY: City council has since stripped form of mayoral powers, funding staff and control over policies. It's not too late for him to turn things around. He could launch his re-election campaign as early as next week.

ROBYN DOOLITTLE, REPORTER, TORONTO STAR: So, imagine he's 60 pounds lighter, articulate, knows his stuff, showing up for work and keeps doing these events where he looks mayoral and people read about him in the paper talking about city services as opposed to, you know, quote, "drunken stupors," and it's a redemption story.

CONLEY: Mayor Ford seems determined to charge ahead, no matter what obstacles he hits along the way.

Margaret Conley, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: When we come back, from an ambitious presidential agenda that didn't quite pan out to Governor Chris Christie calling on Washington to watch and learn, see how it's done, we look back at some of the biggest political moments of the year.

Plus, it's where millions of Americans will spend their holidays this year, at the movie theater, which films with Christmas openings are worth seeing? Watch ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)