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150 Marines Moved From Spain to Djibouti; Gay And Lesbian Couples Line Up For Marriage Licenses In Utah; Pope Francis' Approval Rating Skyrockets During First Year of Papacy; Astronauts Pull Off Risky Repair On International Space Station; Interview With Senator Bill Nelson; Big Problems in North Korean Regime; Putin, Polishing Image for Olympics; The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Aired December 24, 2013 - 17:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: Thanks, Dana. Happening now, U.S. Marines are poised to rescue Americans trapped in the middle of a bloody and chaotic conflict in South Sudan. We'll be speaking with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.

A judge rules in the case of a 13-year-old girl declared brain-dead after a tonsillectomy. Her family has been fighting to keep her on life support.

And 200 miles above the earth, space walking, American astronauts carry out a risky repair job. Senator Bill Nelson, a former astronaut, will join us to talk about it. Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This hour, heavily armed U.S. marines are ready to move at a moment's notice to rescue Americans caught up in a bloody and brutal conflict in South Sudan. One hundred fifty marines have been moved from Spain to Djibouti, standing by for possible action. Hundreds of U.S. citizens have already been evacuated. About 15 were flown out of a besieged town by the United Nations on Sunday. A day earlier, the U.S. had to abort a rescue mission when V22 aircraft came under heavy fire and four navy SEALs were wounded.

South Sudan is the world's newest nation. It was created just two years ago after decades of civil war between south and north. Now, hundreds have died since fighting between two rival South Sudan factions broke out this month.

Americans and other foreigners are among thousands of civilians who have sought refuge in U.N. compounds besieged by well-armed militias. The U.S. human rights chief is reporting waves of ethnic killings and says at least one mass grave has been found. Joining me now, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.

Ambassador, thanks for being with us, especially on Christmas eve.

Now, one of the things as we have seen marines have been mobilized to Djibouti and are standing by for any possible evacuation, standing by to provide security to the embassy, the U.S. embassy there as well, African command was talking about how these were lessons from Benghazi that really prompted them to be prepared in this way. Is that really the direct reason why they're taking these actions?

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: Well, I think it's our responsibility, of course, to look out for the fate of our diplomats and other personnel on the ground who are trying to do nothing more than represent the American people in bringing peace to a country that has suffered an awful lot after these last decades of war, and then here in these last days in the wake of the rebellion.

KEILAR: We're hearing now reports of mass killings. We're hearing about ethnic-based killings in South Sudan. Are you worried this is the start of a genocide?

POWER: We are absolutely worried about the ethnic dimensions to the conflict. We have seen those same reports. There was a report of a mass grave discovered near a U.N. base earlier this morning. There have been tales of people being screened off of airplane flights on the basis of whether they are on the primary fault lines at least for now on this conflict.

So yes, I mean, one reason we're investing so much in the diplomatic track, our special envoy is on the ground again today and has held long meetings and is reaching out to other parties again who have leverage and influence on the ground.

But the reason is that we believe there absolutely has to be a political negotiation, a political dialogue between (INAUDIBLE) who has declare the rebellion and between (INAUDIBLE). So we're invested in that, recognizing that if there is not a political dialogue, the consequences could be devastating for members of many ethnic groups in South Sudan.

KEILAR: And Ambassador, you as a journalist covered the Balkan wars. You are credited with what President Obama was a senator, really sort of prompting some of his interest in Darfur. You are credited with his position to get involved when it came to Libya, to get involved militarily. You frequently argue on the side of a responsibility for some intervention. What do you think the U.S. needs to do here?

POWER: Well, we're doing an awful lot. Again, diplomatic first and foremost because this has to have a political solution. There is no military solution. But second, we are supporting the United Nations in their efforts to nearly double the size of their troop presence on the ground. They started, it was a relatively small U.N. peacekeeping mission of about 6,500 troops. The secretary general came to us yesterday afternoon and said I need more, I need about 5500 more police, military personnel, soldiers and human rights monitors and others who can document some of the atrocities in the event there is going to be accountability down the line, which we of course and others are pushing for. So it's very important that we be responsive to the secretary general as an international community.

KEILAR: You have argued at times for intervention beyond diplomatic means, when you're talking about genocide or the possibility of heading in that direction. We've heard President Clinton say the greatest regret of his presidency was not getting involved in Rwanda. Knowing that, what kind of counsel do you give President Obama and how does that shape your opinions, these two sort of disparate things that Americans don't really want to get involved but this is a very big issue that could be a great regret?

POWER: There are a whole host of tools in the toolbox and that is what President Obama has always instructed us to do in the face of moments like this one, where things are spiraling downward. We need to, of course, look out for the fate of our diplomats and folks, you know, who are representing the United States abroad. And then, we need to open up that toolbox and see is there a way to document atrocities in a way that makes people who are committing them feel watched. Is there a way when you have a U.N. peacekeeping force on the ground as we do in South Sudan to reinforce that.

In Rwanda, you'll recall that when the genocides started there, atrocities started there, the U.N. peacekeepers were pulled out of Rwanda and you had horrific scenes of peacekeepers leaving through one gate and the killers coming in through another. The diplomatic play and the investment of secretary Kerry's time, national security advisor, ambassador rice's time, special envoy being on the ground again in a difficult situation with our ambassador. I mean, these are the kinds of investments that we need to make in order to do everything in our power to try to bring this violence to an end.

KEILAR: And just in to CNN, we have some new information about this U.S. marines who were mobilized from Spain to Africa in light of the violence that we have seen in South Sudan and the fact that there are an estimated 100 U.S. citizens there.

Let's go ahead and bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, as well as CNN foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott.

To start with you, Barbara, so what does this mean? Because these U.S. marines were in Djibouti and now there are some of them have been moved.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. one hundred fifty marines moved TO Djibouti yesterday. We have learned that the last few minutes that 50 of those 150 marines now have moved into Uganda. This now puts them closer to the South Sudan. The reason they have been moved, a U.S. military official tells me, with the violence growing, the military wants to have more options, troops closer, if there is a request from the state department to go in and either evacuate the embassy, pull more Americans out, or provide security for the Americans who are there at the embassy. So, this now puts 50 heavily armed marines within a relatively short flying distance of the South Sudan.

KEILAR: And you saw the other day when the Navy S.E.A.L.s had to essentially abort their mission and leave the South Sudan, they went to Uganda. That even though it's quite far away still, it's sort of the jumping-off point.

STARR: It is. It's about 500 miles, but it does put you closer and it was quite extraordinary on Saturday when those Navy S.E.A.L.s got hurt, their aircraft shot up full of holes, the Navy S.E.A.L.s sadly bleeding from their wounds and they still managed to make it back 500 miles to Uganda and then go on to Kenya for medical care.

KEILAR: So Elise, as we watch South Sudan, a lot of times when you see sectarian violence, you see ethnic killings, you start to see mass killings, the question is always are we talking about genocide, are we moving towards that? Sometimes it's a hard thing to put your finger on, but we're having reports now of mass graves in South Sudan. Is this more serious than we thought?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the numbers started initially kind of small for a crisis like this, about 500 over the last week. Now, you've seen these reports of mass graves and the U.N. and others fear that these are the kind of ethnic tensions that we saw in Darfur. It started with a couple hundred, then it went to thousands and tens of thousands.

So, this is one of the concerns of the international community. That's why the U.N. just voted in the last hour or so to double its peacekeeping operation from about 6700 to 12,000 to make sure that this violence doesn't spread. It started in the capital, now it's spreading and I think until the peacekeepers get on the ground, they really don't know what they're dealing with.

KEILAR: And there is always the question of what is the responsibility of the U.S. and the international community to be involved. I think, you know, we just heard the ambassador talk about there's not a military solution, there is a diplomatic solution. Is there a diplomatic solution here?

LABOTT: Well, that's what the U.S. is trying to find out. You have an envoy on the ground, ambassador Donald Booth, who has been meeting with the president, talking with his former vice president, and forces loyal to him, trying to coax them to the table, you know. The president was warned earlier this year if he didn't bring these groups into the fold, that he was going to have a problem. He ignored them, he sacked the vice president, sacked the government, and these militias defected with the vice president and now they have to try again to find a political solution because there is no military solution to this conflict.

KEILAR: And certainly the U.S. isn't happy with what the South Sudanese government is doing but at the same time, this country was formed very much with a push from the U.S. to that end, there is a U.S. embassy there and it makes you wonder when you look at these troops mobilizing, Barbara, is that in a way to try to prevent Benghazi?

STARR: First and foremost, the responsibility of the U.S. military is to protect U.S. diplomats, U.S. citizens in its embassies around the world. The lesson of Benghazi is if you don't have military force there and you run into trouble, tragedy is going to happen. What are you going to do. So the military is taking no chances to have another Benghazi. But I think it's very important to realize in South Sudan, they are taking no chances to have another incident like what happened on Saturday, to have three of their aircraft full of bullet holes and wounded Navy S.E.A.L.s, wounded U.S. troops. If they have to go back in, they will go back in heavily armed, full bore. They do not want to see any of this happen again.

KEILAR: They don't want a repeat for sure.

You know, something that struck me listening to Ambassador Power was that when you know her background of what an advocate of intervention she is, more so, I mean, you could say in a way that she's maybe not an out liar but certainly in a little way she is, certainly more so than President Obama, do you think -- you didn't really hear it actually in the interview. That's what struck me. But do you think this is a source of friction that we're going to be seeing between the ambassador and the White House?

LABOTT: I don't think it's a source of friction now but it's something to definitely watch. You know, Samantha Power has been the kind of conscience of the Obama administration and you remember, she wrote this book on the Rwanda genocide. She was one of the loudest voices on people paying attention to the crisis in Darfur. She was instrumental in getting the administration to get involved in Libya. That didn't go so well. Now you're seeing she's working for a president that is very reluctant now to get involved in international crisis he doesn't want to get involved in Syria, clearly. She was just in the central African republic talking about, you know, atrocities and possible crimes against humanity, so I think it's going to be really interesting to watch how firmly she's going to be pressuring the administration because yes, she's a U.S. official but she's a humanitarian at heart.

STARR: And let me add one thing very quickly. Diplomatic solution, humanitarian operation, there's a lot of questions about how that will happen without U.S. military assistance. How are you going to move 12,000 new peacekeepers through Africa without U.S. air lift, how are you going to help provide the supplies long-term that will be needed. This may not be over for the U.S. military.

KEILAR: How do you find that balance? It is hard.

Elise Labott and Barbara Starr, thanks to both of you.

And up next, NSA leaker Edward Snowden speaks out on his massive revelations about U.S. intelligence gathering and says he's already won.

And last minute shopping for health care though. A surge of traffic on the Obamacare exchanges as Americans try to beat the deadline.


KEILAR: Nsa leaker Edward Snowden has given his first face-to-face interview since taking refuge in Russia last June. After revealing vast quantities of information about U.S. intelligence gathering, Snowden tells the "Washington Post" quote, "for me in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished. I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work everything that I had been trying to do was validated." Let's get more on this from CNN crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns.

What did he mean, you think, by mission accomplished?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, he says he's already done what he set out to do. The quote from the article in terms of personal satisfaction, he says for him the mission's already accomplished, he said he already won as soon as the journalists were able to work everything that he had been trying to do was validated.

Now, Barton Gellman, the author of the article in the "Washington Post" talked about this earlier today on CNN. Let's listen to what he had to say.


BARTON GELLMAN, REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: What he means by mission accomplished is he wanted the public to know what was being done in its name and what was being done to it in terms of surveillance, and he wanted it to be possible that decisions be made outside the secret bubble that they had been made since 9/11.

To that extent, because he's had a lot of -- a great deal of public attention, because many of his concerns have been validated by, for example, a federal judge, by the president's own study commission, he believes he has launched the public debate that he wanted.


JOHNS: So mission accomplished, but it's pretty clear also that there's more to this mission for Edward Snowden. We haven't heard the last of him.

KEILAR: Yes, exactly. And a lot of folks said why didn't he just raise his objections inside, why wouldn't he just be a true whistleblower and he said that he tried to do that. How did that work out?

JOHNS: Absolutely. Starting October of last year, he said he brought his concerns about the amount of information being collected to two superiors in the NSA's technology directorate, two more in the NSA threat operation center's regional base in Hawaii and to 15 other co- workers detailing the volume of data ingested by the NSA. His colleagues were often astonished, he said, to learn we're collecting more in the United States on Americans than we are on Russians in Russia. Many of them, he says, were trouble but he said several said they didn't want to know anymore.

He also said he asked these people what do you think the public would do if this was on the front page, which is where it ended up.

KEILAR: Yes. And now we know, right? A lot of outrage and the president himself said it changed his mind on really striking the balance.

Joe Johns, thank you so much.

We know it turns out that almost every American is a last minute shopper. That's right, even for health care. Even ahead of today's Christmas eve extension to the Obamacare sign-up deadline, there has been a surge of traffic on federal and state health care exchanges.

And CNN's Athena Jones has been following it from where the president is vacationing in Hawaii -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brianna. That's right, a lot of last minute shoppers, both the state and federal exchange,, both exchanges have seen a big jump in visitors as folks scramble to sign up for coverage starting January 1st.

Health officials say that Monday was a record day for The federal exchange had two million visitors to the site and 250,000 people calling in to the call center. Now, that heavy traffic meant that some people had to wait in line, essentially an electronic line on the Web site to get through, or to wait a long time on the phone. Today, they say today's numbers are also high, but not quite as high, so no more waiting in line.

I should mention the administration says they are doing everything they can to make sure that folks are making their best effort to enroll in coverage but aren't able to keep -- to finish the process by tonight. They are going to be able to enroll in coverage through the help of a customer representative to do so by January 1st. This is an accommodation they say they are making for folks who are making their best faith effort to sign up.

Now, I should say that state exchanges have also been seeing a jump. Colorado was a record day of sign-ups on Monday. Connecticut saw twice the number of sign-ups they usually see on Monday. In California, 27,000 people signed up for coverage on Sunday alone, bringing the total of the last several days to 7,000. And in New York, which has also extended the deadline until late tonight, 40,000 people have signed up for health care since December 16th.

Now, this all depends on where you live, of course. Some states have extended this deadline even further than tonight, some until Friday, others until December 31st. And in Washington state, folks who are having trouble have until January 15th to sign up for coverage retroactive to January 1st. So, people are encouraged to check with their state.

Now, of course, this is all good news, this surge in traffic is good news for the administration, given the early problems with and many of the state exchanges but the fact of the matter is they are still unlikely to reach their original target of 3.3 million enrollees by this time this year.

KEILAR: That's right. There is going to be some drag. We just have to see if they can reach their goal by the end of march.

Athena Jones in Honolulu, thank you. And we want to bring you some breaking news now out of Oakland, California. A judge has made a crucial ruling in the case of that 13- year-old girl whose family is fighting to keep her on life support.

Let's go straight to Dan Simon. He is outside the courthouse.

Dan, what can you tell us?


We're talking about the 13-year-old, Jahi (INAUDIBLE). As we all know, this is a teenager who went to Oakland children's hospital to have her tonsils removed, then she wound up brain-dead. Well, the family wanted to keep her on life support and they went to the court system to make sure that she could remain on life support.

Well, today, the judge heard from another expert in this matter and the judge, the bottom line here, determined that she is, in fact, brain-dead. However, life support will continue for this teenager at least until December 30th. That's going to give the family some time to appeal if they want to appeal, and also of course, process this information. This is what Jahi's uncle had to say a short time ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As far as accepting them, I don't know if we have accepted them yet. Like I said, there's still time for that miracle. Christmas is tomorrow, so it would be great if she woke up tomorrow. But overall, I mean, with my faith and background, you know, eventually we will be able to accept it if the worst case scenario did come about.


SIMON: So the family obviously hoping for some kind of Christmas miracle. The bottom line, though, is you had a number of experts who have come in and examined this teenager and they have all determined that she is, in fact, brain-dead. So the question now is what does the family do. Are they going to appeal? This is how the lawyer answered that question.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So in terms of the family's rights to appeal, I think it's first important to know that that process couldn't even begin until 15 minutes ago. What this case represents legally is that parents can say no when a hospital says we're pulling the plug.


SIMON: So we know that Jahi will remain on life support until December 30th. After that, it seems at least at this point that life support will be removed. Again, this is such a tragic case for everyone involved. We're talking about a girl who just wanted to have her tonsils removed. Obviously, some terrible complications and we don't know exactly what happened in the operating room. Obviously there were some terrible complications and we don't know exactly what happened in the operating room, obviously, there was some terrible complications that we're left with this really unfortunate situation -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes. So many answers yet to come.

Dan Simon for us, thanks so much.

Coming up, a same sex marriage surprise. Same sex unions are now legal in one of the most conservative states yet. We'll show you where couples are lining up to tie the knot.

And he has approval ratings any politics would envy. What's behind the soaring popularity of Pope Francis?


KEILAR: It's a deeply conservative state and maybe one of the last places that gay rights advocates expected to see same sex marriage legalized but it has been, thanks to a federal court ruling and gay and lesbian couples, they are lining up they are ling up for marriage licenses in Utah.

CNN's Miguel Marquez reports.


MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For the gay and lesbian couples in Utah, those two little words mark the sound of victory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now pronounce you bound together in the covenant of marriage, what god has joined together let no one put asunder.

MARQUEZ: On Monday, a federal judge Shelby (ph) ruled same sex marriages are legal, denying the conservative state's emergency request to halt them, calling the ban unconstitutional.

COURTNEY MOSER. MARRIED PARTNER IN UTAH: I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. I'm so grateful to finally have the protection of the state.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is it. It's go time.

MARQUEZ: Hundreds of LGBT couples now ling up at clerk's offices, weathering frigid temperatures.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Brave the cold all night long.

MARQUEZ: And long waits to tie the knot, getting their hands on marriage licenses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Try number four for us.

MARQUEZ: It's a victory nine years in the making, since the state's ban in 2004. Utah now joins the nation's capital and 17 other states that have legalized same sex marriage.

MCKAY COPPINS, POLITICAL EDITOR, BUZZFEED: It's a huge deal because for Mormons who have been spending these years fighting this battle, they have seen it happen across the country but really didn't expect to have it come to really their backyard.

MARQUEZ: The conservative state refusing to back down. It filed an appeal in the tenth circuit court, the state's governor accusing Shelby (ph) of being quote, "an activist federal judge" and saying he's working to determine the best course to defend traditional marriage within the borders of Utah.

COPPINS: It's going to be that much harder for conservatives to make the case that this can be stopped, when Utah, one of the most conservative states in the country, has now legalized it. Once the dominos start falling you wouldn't be able to stop it.


MARQUEZ: Miguel Marquez, CNN, New York.


KEILAR: Pope Francis signaled change when he said the catholic church was too focused on issues like gay marriage. That was really just the beginning. Since becoming pontiff in March, his words and actions have marked a break with the conservative papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, winning Francis fans around the world.

CNN's Joe Johns is here with a closer look.

I mean, just how popular is he?

JOHNS: Very, very popular, Brianna. A new CNN/ORC poll shows Pope Francis with sky-high approval ratings that arguably make him the most well-regarded religious figure among Americans.



JOHNS: He is greeted around the world like a superstar. Hailed as "Time"'s Person of the Year. And even though he's yet to come to the United States, Pope Francis has hordes of American admirers, Catholic or not. A new CNN/ORC poll shows 88 percent of American Catholics approve of the way the pope is handling his role as leader of the Catholic Church. And among all Americans, the pope enjoys a 72 percent favorable rating, a number that would make any American politician jealous.

REV. EDWARD BECK, CNN RELIGION COMMENTATOR: I think people feel that Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air and there's a newness in the Church.

POPE FRANCIS (via translator): Dear brothers and sisters -- JOHNS: From his first humble words after being elected, the pope has sought to address the issue of wealth and poverty through words and his own doings, turn down the palacial papal apartments for more modest quarters. Ditching the Vatican's luxury fleet, and even carried his own luggage.

Americans approve of this pope of the people. SixtY-five percent approve of his comments on capitalism and the effects of a free market economy on the poor. Twenty-seven percent disapprove. He has been unafraid to confront social issues such as homosexuality.

POPE FRANCIS (via translator): If a person is gay and accepts the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge them?

JOHNS: The pope saying the Church is too consumed with gay marriage, contraception and abortion. Americans polled tend to agree with his positions. Only four percent feel he's too conservative, seven percent, too liberal, and 87 percent say his position on these hot- button issues is about right.

He's also confronted one of the most profound issues facing the Catholic Church, pedophile priests, forming a commission of both laypeople and clergy to address this. Sixty-one percent of Americans polled say Pope Francis is doing a good job on this issue. Compare that with his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who garnered a 56 percent bad rating on this issue in 2010.

From his Twitter account, which has millions of followers, to reports of him personally telephoning the faithful who have written to him, Pope Francis has endeared himself to people all around the world. But even a superstar cannot compete with a child for the limelight.


JOHNS: Now, just to put the popularity of Pope Francis in perspective, we said just about 86 percent of American Catholics say he's in touch with the modern world. By comparison, more than half of American Catholics said Pope John Paul II was out of step with the times in 2003, near the end of his 26-year long papacy.

KEILAR: Fascinating numbers. Joe Johns, thank you so much.

Coming up at the top of the hour, a special on Pope Francis as he celebrates his first Christmas midnight mass at the Vatican. We'll see parts of the service. We'll talk about his extraordinary first year as pope. That's coming up at 6:00 Eastern, 3:00 Pacific right here on CNN.

And just ahead, 200 miles above the earth, spate - space walking, I should say -- American astronauts carry out a risky repair job. Senator Bill Nelson, a former astronaut, will be joining us to talk about it.


KEILAR: Two American astronauts spent much of their Christmas Eve outside the international space station, carrying out emergency repairs. This was a risky seven-and-a-half hour space walk. They replaced a vital part of the cooling system.

And joining me now is Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. Back in 1986, when he was a congressman, he actually trained as an astronaut, spent six days in space aboard the shuttle Columbia. So, Senator Nelson, you are certainly familiar with some of the work that was done today. How dangerous is a repair like this?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: I'll tell you, I was riveted to an iPad watching this realtime. And each time that they would take that grappling hook on the tether and move it to another place, you would hope that it would catch because if the two that connected them suddenly detached, they would float off in space. And so just that in itself is an extremely risky maneuver.

KEILAR: That just makes you realize how scary it is. And they're doing this on Christmas Eve, obviously. This is how they're spending their Christmas Eve, something that needs to be done because this system cools vital parts of the space station.

But this makes us also think about the space program in general in the U.S. What do you think about the state of the space program? Funding has been cut. Are we looking at sort of an aging program?

NELSON: We really have it up and running now. Most people think with the shutdown of the space shuttle that the program will shut down. Well, you saw today, there are exciting things going on, and when you put the human in the loop so that the human is actually doing things like they did today, no robot could do all of that. And now we are building new rockets, we are building the rockets to take us to and from the space station. But we are also building the monster rocket that will take us beyond low earth orbit as we go out and explore the heavens and eventually in the time of 2030s, we'll go to Mars.

KEILAR: In the wake of the space shuttle program being shuttered, Senator, I know there were -- I guess some jobs that were shed certainly in your state. What are you hearing from people in your state, from people involved in the space program, about the state of things?

NELSON: People are excited. Engineers have hands-on flight hardware. We're getting ready next year to do a test flight of the new space capsule called Orion. So they are actually assembling a space craft right there at the Kennedy Space Center. So people's attitude has turned around and looking to the future.

In the meantime, you are seeing these commercial rockets that are delivering cargo to the station. They have been tremendously successful and now they are going through and putting in all of the redundancies and escape systems so that we can fly humans safely on those rockets to the station.

KEILAR: You know, part of when you look at the space program, in a way it's been about competition with other nations. It's a symbol of innovation and who is leading in science. China just had a moon landing. Do you think that Americans should be concerned about this? Is this a possibility that they could be surpassing us here in the not too distant future?

NELSON: Well, when we're dealing with China, we better be concerned. But put this in context. Remember, it's over four decades ago that we landed on the moon. And we landed with humans on the moon. China has just put an unmanned spacecraft on the moon.

But you better look out for the future, and I think our mission to Mars will be an international mission. Now, whether or not that will include the Chinese is another matter. But a lot of that has to do with the international politics that will play out over the next couple of decades.

KEILAR: One final question. On a completely different subject while I have you here, Senator Nelson, because you are a Democrat, and Obamacare has been a huge story lately. You've heard about this surge in sign-ups. The Obama administration isn't going to hit its mark, but certainly they have seen some progress here in terms of enrollments. What do you think about whether the administration can sort of make up the losses that it's had in time for it to really make a difference in the midterm elections in 2014? NELSON: It will. The Affordable Care Act will be a success. You will see between now and the deadline, March 31st, you will see a lot of people sign up. You know, the computer glitches were inexcusable, but that's done. Now looking to the future, people are going to see that they can get affordable health insurance, and you'll see the public respond.

KEILAR: All right. Senator Bill Nelson, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

NELSON: Merry Christmas, Brianna.

KEILAR: You, too. Merry Christmas.

Now let's get to some of our other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM. An Israeli man and four-year-old Palestinian girl are dead after Israel and Gaza traded attacks today. This all started when a sniper in Gaza shot an Israeli maintenance worker. Israeli officials say he was repairing a border fence. In response, Israeli air strikes and tanks pounded parts of Gaza. Hamas security sources say the attack killed a girl and wounded 11 others.

A Massachusetts pharmacy will pay $100 million to victims of a meningitis outbreak that it caused. This epidemic was linked to tainted steroid injections at the New England Compounding Center. More than 700 people in 20 states got sick. Sixty-four of them died. The money will also be used to pay off the creditors of the now bankrupt company whose owners deny wrongdoing.

And almost 60 years after he committed suicide, Alan Turring (ph) is receiving a royal pardon. The British codebreaker and computer pioneer killed himself in 1954 after he was convicted of and chemically castrated for homosexual activity. Turring and his inventions cracked German code, saving thousands of lives and helping end World War II. He is often referred to as the father of modern computers.

And next, punk rockers and a former billionaire out of jail in Russia. Why is President Putin suddenly easing up on his critics?

And why did North Korea's leader execute his own uncle? We are beginning to get some answers. We have that coming up.


KEILAR: Punk rockers and a former billionaire jailed for challenging Vladimir Putin are suddenly out of Russian prisons, and other activists may soon be on their way home.

Is President Putin perhaps trying to polish his image just weeks before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics?

Let's bring in CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty.

Is that what's going on here, Jill?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, partially there's no question. He wants to polish it certainly before that very important Olympics, but also he wants to send some messages.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): After almost two years in prison, punk protesters go free as part of a broad amnesty.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (Through Translator): They just put on another show ahead of the Olympics.

DOUGHERTY: Then suddenly, President Vladimir Putin pardons Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his economic and political nemesis, after 10 years in prison.

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY, RUSSIAN DISSENT (Through Translator): Just remember, the fact that I'm not the last political prisoner in Russia.

DOUGHERTY: Now the latest bombshell. Charges are starting to be dropped in the cases of Greenpeace activists who climbed up a Russian oil platform to protest drilling in the arctic.

Why now? What is Vladimir Putin up to?

The games in Sochi are just six weeks away, and Putin is under fire from many in the West for Russia's anti-gay law.

FIORA HILL, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think the Sochi Olympics is too much of a simple answer. Given the nature of President Putin. He likes to keep everybody on edge and guessing.

DOUGHERTY: Putin, a former KGB officer is sending multiple messages says, (INAUDIBLE) expert, Fiona Hill. For the punk rockers, you may just be girls, but if you protest, you can be punished. For Greenpeace, don't even think about trying to shut down Russia's oil rigs. For Khodorkovsky, you challenged me, I sent you to prison and only I can free you.

HILL: It's a very effective way manipulation and it's pretty much KGB tactics, if you look back to the periods of oppression in the Soviet period, anybody could anticipate that something could happen to them. And it was real, effective way of keeping people in check. It's all about societal control and stopping people from mobilizing.


DOUGHERTY: In Tuesday Khodorkovsky posted a message to those punk rockers on his Facebook page. He called the last month a living hell for you. And he also said that freeing political prisoners makes those in power at least a little more humane. But he also called their detention torture unworthy of a European country in the 21st century -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Tough words.

Jill Dougherty at the State Department, thank you.

Now the story is beginning to emerge as to why North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un executed his own uncle.

CNN's Karl Penhaul has been looking into that.

Karl, what are you learning?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot of this information has been coming out in bits and drabs since December when we learned that Jang Song-thaek had been purged from the senior leadership. And this week in fact the head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service briefed parliaments and we're getting some new details as well.

We do know that Jang Song-thaek, before he was executed, been charged with 24 crimes. Perhaps the most important of those trying to install some kind of counter-revolutionary factionalism, and also corruption. And so there have been varying narratives. And the first narrative was in fact that Kim Jong-Un's own uncle was maybe trying to stage some power grab.

And what is really emerging now is that perhaps the real fight here was over economic issues, was over business issues. We have heard from the National Intelligence Service in South Korea that perhaps Jang Song-thaek was doing under-the-table cheap deals with China to sell North Korean coal, possibly also a dispute over the sale of crabs and clams to its best market in China.

We're even seeing some media reports that the dispute over business rivalries became so bad that at one point the North Korean military went into a fishing farm that was being run by Kim Jong-Un's uncle and there was even a gun battle there. But the whole problem really at the root of this is that it is very difficult to get confirmed sources on this. A lot is intelligence sources. A lot is from unnamed sources. So I think we still not got the full definitive picture just yet -- Brianna. KEILAR: Look for that, Karl, whether it's an issue of a power grab or an economic issue. Obviously there's behind-the-scenes tensions. Does this tell you that perhaps there is a bigger issue in the government there?

PENHAUL: Well, I think initially what we did see when we learned of Jang Song-thaek's execution and that emergency possibly of a power grab, then there was a suggestion both by U.S. officials and South Korean officials that perhaps the government of Kim Jong-Un wasn't consolidated. That maybe there was an effort to destabilizing it.

The narrative that is now emerging is perhaps the rivalry wasn't with the top tier of power itself, but a lower level of power between two political rivals, Jang Song-Thaek and a political rival in the military politburo. As we say, we're going to have to see what emerges over the coming weeks -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Karl Penhaul in Seoul. Thank you, Karl.

Now coming up at the top of the hour we have a CNN special, Pope Francis. He's celebrating his first Christmas eve mass at the Vatican. We'll take a closer look at the pontiff bringing dramatic change to the Catholic Church.

And up next, why holiday cheer is in increasingly short supply in the U.S.


KEILAR: Despite the song, Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year for all Americans.

Here's CNN's Tom Foreman.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ask Americans if Christmas is a great or the best time of the year. And a few years ago, this is the answer you would get. 49 percent would say yes, it is. Jump forward to 2008, it drops down to 43 percent. And today we're at 42 percent.

So what's happening? Is this the Grinch? No. Something much more basic we talk about all the time. The recession and the slow recovery.

Here's how we know. We said to people, are you going to cut back on gift giving this year because of the economy? A whopping 62 percent said yes, they will. What about giving to charities? Helping others? 61 percent say they'll cut back on that because of the economy. And this is happening in a country where despite many different religions and atheism, 94 percent of people in one way, shape or form say they do celebrate Christmas.

So what is all of this doing to what we call the ho-ho-ho factor, we asked people to rank themselves, what kind of Christmas fan are you? The people out there who say they are gung ho, they put up all the lights, they throw all the parties if they live on your block, you know them, comprised about 25 percent of the population. The people who are ho, ho, not as much into it but still pretty keen on Christmas. That's the 32 group there. Thirty-two percent in that category. And then we have the people who are ho-hum, they like Christmas or just not that 23 crazy about it. That's 23 percent. You'll notice that doesn't add up to 100 percent. That's because we've left out one of the big groups. We have to talk about it. Anytime you talk about Christmas and that's the bahumbug crowd.

How many Americans just don't like Christmas? Sixteen percent. But like we said, all of this can change year to year. So we'll have to see how all these numbers add up with Christmases yet to come.