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Bombings in Russia; Stranded Ship; Colorado Cana-Bliss; Racing Legend In A Coma

Aired December 30, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Will the Winter Olympics be safe after two terrorist attacks in Russia?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. In fewer than six weeks, many of the best athletes in the world will gather in Russia, which was just attacked twice in two days by terrorists targeting civilians. Will American athletes and spectators be safe at the Sochi games?

Also in world news, call it plan C. Rescuers are taking another crack at reaching a ship stuck in a sea of ice. Will this attempt succeed where other attempts have failed?

And the sports lead. Third prize is, you're fired. A slew of NFL coaches getting sacked today after their lackluster seasons. Who will survive Black Monday in the NFL?

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We're going to begin with the world lead, terrorism at the Olympics. It is always a fear, but the international sports event at least aspirationally attempting to draw out the very best in humanity and drawing millions of innocent civilians packed in small, enclosed spaces, but now that fear is fresh after two horrific terrorist attacks in Russia, the country where athletes and crowds from 85 nations will gather in fewer than six weeks for the Winter Olympics.

In Volgograd today, investigators say a man triggered a suicide blast on a trolley bus, killing at least 14 people and injuring at least 28 others. Investigators say there are strong indications that this bombing is tied to another in the very same city just a day before, when another apparent suicide blast at the Volgograd train station killed at least 17 people and injured another 35.

Now, no one has yet claimed responsibility for either blast. We will get to the likely suspects in a moment. Volgograd is about 600 miles south of Moscow and 600 miles or so northwest of Sochi, which is the site of the Winter Games. The city is a train hub. Russian President Vladimir Putin assures that security will be tight and the Games will be safe, but the world stage presented by the Olympics, well, it's been hijacked in the past before.

Who can forget the 1972 Games, when Palestinian militants killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich, an attack that still casts a long shadow over the Games today? Then there was Atlanta in 1996, right here on American soil. Two people died and more than 100 were wounded during the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park.

Years later, anti-abortion, anti-gay domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph was caught and charged with that bombing and three others. Just this year, we got a painful reminder of the violence that major sporting events can attract when bombs killed three people near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April.

So the real question is, will the men and women of the U.S. Olympic team be safe after the torch is lit along with all those who descend on Sochi to watch them?

I want to bring in Amy Knight, author of several books on Russia. She has been watching the ramp-up to the Winter Games closely. And Peter Brookes, former CIA officer and deputy assistant secretary of defense who now works with the Heritage Foundation.

Thanks to both of you for being here.

Amy, I will start with you.

After these two attacks, should we believe Putin when he says the Sochi Games will be safe and secure?

AMY KNIGHT, AUTHOR, "THE KGB": Well, I think probably yes.

The attack, of course, took place quite far from Sochi, and -- in Volgograd, and I think that the Russians have made it very clear, the Russian government, that they are going to have extra -- they are going to really cordon off the Sochi area, a large chunk of territory. They are making it very difficult to get passage. You have to show passports and your identity.

I think Sochi itself will probably be safe. Just remember, this happened quite a ways away.

TAPPER: Peter, in July, the leader of the Chechen group Caucasus Emirate, we don't know that they're responsible, but in July this group vowed to use maximum force to disrupt the Sochi Games. How big a threat is this group?

PETER BROOKES, FORMER CIA OFFICER: They're a big threat. They are on our terrorist list.

They have been involved, the Chechen Islamist militants have been involved in everything from taking theaters to schools. Remember Beslan? Attacks on train stations, aircraft, airports. This is a very, very dangerous group and it is led by someone who is very dangerous and is public enemy number one in Russia today. I think we have to take the threats very, very seriously and Volgograd is proof of the pudding here.

What we see after this is anybody's speculation.

TAPPER: Amy, the State Department, as Peter referenced, considers the Caucasus Emirate a terrorist group. Chechnya's leader has said he is certain that they will eliminate the group's leader before the Games start. That's quite a promise. How realistic is that?

KNIGHT: I don't think that's realistic. He's been hiding in -- Umarov has been hiding in the mountains for a long time in the North Caucasus.

I think this is a deep, deep problem the Russians have with Islamic militants. And it has deeply rooted causes, and it's highly unlikely that they are going to solve it in the near future. So as far as the Olympics go, that's a different question. But, yes, Russia faces a huge terrorist threat and it will continue as long as they can't somehow resolve this issue with the Islamic rebels.

TAPPER: Peter, explain the significance of Volgograd. And what other cities obviously beyond Sochi and Moscow might be targeted?

BROOKES: Well, Volgograd has a long history. It was called Stalingrad.

The Islamists probably want to strike at the Russian pride. It's a major transportation hub. A lot of trains come through there, if you're coming down to the Caucasus to Sochi. It's another soft target. Most of the attacks have been in the Caucasus region or in Moscow.

It shows this terrorist group, whoever it is, can strike just about anywhere, and so far with impunity. Two attacks in two days. I think it's significant that way. Also, they don't have to strike in Sochi to be successful. This is -- remember, terrorism is psychological. This is a public relations campaign. I think the terrorists right now are up because they -- this will bring people to their cause, increase the notoriety of their cause, fund-raising.

It makes Putin look bad, who is their main enemy. So there's a lot at stake here beyond just the Olympics. Obviously, the Olympics are something -- Russia, this is Putin's Olympics. OK? He wants to showcase it and there is already a pall over the Olympics even though it's 40 days away.

TAPPER: Amy, very quickly, if you would, New York Congressman Michael Grimm, who co-chairs the House Russian caucus, he released a statement today that read in part: "We cannot sweep these threats under the rug like we did with Benghazi or the warnings from Russia on the Tsarnaev brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing."

Now, there will be those who read political connotation into his statement, but the main point he brings up, is there anything Americans should be doing about this?

KNIGHT: I don't really think there is.

The so-called cooperation between Russia and the U.S. on the terrorism issue really, as actually demonstrated by the Boston bombings, has not been very successful. And the terrorism problem that we're talking about with the Olympics and in Russia itself is really the Kremlin's problem.

I see very little opportunity for U.S. -- for the U.S. government to take any part in this.

TAPPER: Amy Knight and Peter Brookes, thank you both so much. Appreciate it.

Turning over to our other world news, no matter how big of a letdown New Year's Eve might be, at least you won't have to spend it stranded in the middle of one of the coldest places on Earth; 74 people might have to ring in 2014 aboard a Russian research ship frozen in thick Antarctic ice if the latest attempt to get them out fails.

Rescuers will now try to evacuate most of them using a Chinese helicopter after the first two attempts to reach them failed. The ship has been marooned in the ice since Christmas Eve, but the crew has enough warmth and supplies to stay chipper, at least in these videos they post online.


NICOLE DE LOS ANGELES, EXPEDITION MEMBER: It's absolutely spectacular here. It's like this magical winter wonderland.

CHRIS TURNEY, EXPEDITION LEADER: The team spirit has been fantastic. It really has.


TAPPER: The latest rescue attempt by chopper comes after not one, but two icebreaker ships were forced to turn back because the ice was too thick.

Coming up on THE LEAD: new details on the school shooting in Colorado that killed a 17-year-old girl, how the shooter got his gun and why he should not have been able to get in the door.

And in our pop culture lead, ABC's Robin Roberts comes out in a Facebook post. Was she following the new gay celebrity coming out playbook? That's coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In the national lead, less than three weeks ago, we witnessed horror in the aftermath of a school shooting, as we have done far too often in this country. In short order, we learned the names of the suspect and the victims in the shooting at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, but so many questions remain. Today, some are being answered as new chilling details come forth.

I want to get to our own Frederik Pleitgen, who is following the story for us.

Fred, what did police reveal today? FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it was interesting, Jake, because we heard some of the things about some of the possible lapses that might have helped along in all of this, but also some of the details about how Karl Pierson actually planned all of this.

As far as the security lapses are concerned, what we did learn is that he apparently got into the school through a door that should have been locked, but wasn't, and that door not only wasn't locked. It was even propped open so people could get in and out easier.

Let's listen to what the county sheriff had to say earlier.


GRAYSON ROBINSON, ARAPAHOE COUNTY SHERIFF: We know that the doorway on the north side that the murderer entered is supposed to be locked. Unfortunately, it rarely is because it is more convenient for people to come and go from that area and not have to be obstructed by a locked door.


PLEITGEN: The other interesting thing is that Karl Pierson apparently was planning all of this for a very long time, and he also tried to mask what he was about to do and even went to the length of having a normal meal before going to the school and even going bowling alone before heading out there, so certainly some very chilling details that we heard from the sheriff today.

TAPPER: And, Fred, in terms of the firearm, I know he brought other weapons with him to the school, but in terms of the firearm, it seems as though he bought this weapon perfectly legally.

PLEITGEN: Yes, that's something that certainly is going to raise a lot of questions. He bought this weapon, a .12-gauge shotgun, legally after passing a background check. He apparently acquired it on December 6.

What he did was, he used the time from December 6 until he carried out the shooting rampage on December 13 to acquire as much ammunition as possible. In total, he showed up at the school with 125 rounds of ammo and apparently, he was acquiring that ammo until about 30 minutes before the shooting, so he was basically hoarding it in the days before that.

And one of the things that the sheriff said today is that this shooting could have been a lot worse if it were not for the heroism of one of the deputies who was actually on duty guarding at that school. He believes that Pierson took his own life when he heard that deputy coming to where he was in the school library. Otherwise, all of this could have turned out a lot worse, Jake.

TAPPER: Chilling details. Fred Pleitgen, thank you so much.

The family of Jahi McMath is working against the clock to keep their 13-year-old daughter alive. Earlier this month, as you no doubt recall, doctors at Children's Hospital in Oakland, California declared the girl brain-dead after complications from tonsil surgery. Her family says they have seen signs of improvement and they have raised money to move her to another facility, but the hospital says it's not aware of anyplace willing to take her.

A judge has ruled that the hospital may unplug the ventilator, keeping Jahi alive after 8:00 p.m. Eastern tonight. The hospital declined to comment on whether it would do so.

A key member of the launch is retiring. Michelle Snyder is the chief operating officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversaw the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. She is leaving at the end of the year. And because, well, tomorrow is the last day of the year, she does not have much time left.

Snyder's name came up in an October hearing when Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn was grilling Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about who was responsible for the Web site's many woes.


REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), TENNESSEE: Michelle Snyder is the one responsible for this debacle.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Well, excuse me, Congresswoman. Michelle Snyder is not responsible for the debacle. Hold me accountable for the debacle.


TAPPER: The Obama administration has been criticized over the last few months for the Web site's poor rollout. And Snyder is not the first to leave. The chief technology officer at CMS stepped down in November to join the private sector.

Meanwhile, the administration released new enrollment figures announcing that more than a million people have signed up through the federal exchange since October 1st -- but that number falls well below the original goal of 3.3 million by this time.

When the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Day, you can expect thousands in Colorado to party like it's 4:20 at a fish concert. The law making it legal for people over 21 to buy small amounts of pot takes effect on January 1st.

It will make Colorado the first state in the country to offer recreational marijuana stores. And many of the store owners say they are expecting huge crowds when they open for business at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning.

CNN's Casey Wian joins us live now from Denver.

Casey, what's the state been doing to get ready for this? CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the state's been scrambling, Jake, to put together a new series of regulations to govern this industry that has never been tried before in the United States. The state regulations are pretty much in place. There have been hundreds of businesses that have been approved by the state to operate these recreational marijuana retail operations.

But there's a whole other level that these businesses need to go through and that's city regulations. Some cities are not approving recreational marijuana sales. For those that are, there are very stringent requirements that these businesses have to go through.

There's product labeling, packaging requirements. There are different potencies that are allowed to be sold for recreational use versus what's sold for medical use. There are labeling requirements. There are inventory controls, point of sale systems, different tax regimes.

It's a very, very complicated process. So complicated that here in the city of Denver, there's about 250 medical marijuana businesses, only 14 of them will be ready for recreational sales on Wednesday morning, New Year's Day -- Jake.

TAPPER: So, beyond a surge in late night Taco Bell runs, what should we expect once these stores open?

WIAN: Well, everyone here from the police to the business owners say they do not expect sort of a marijuana Mardi Gras-type atmosphere because it's still illegal to smoke marijuana in public. They do expect, though, that there are going to be lines of people outside of these stores at 8:00 on Wednesday morning, because there are predictions of a shortage of recreational marijuana, because the time crunch from getting all of these businesses up and running, they -- a lot of businesses say they are expecting to run out of recreational marijuana.

They just don't know how soon they are going to run out. So there's going to be a heavy demand and with that, there is going to be an increase in prices, they say, Jake.

TAPPER: Casey Wian, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: he's the most successful driver in formula one history, but after surviving crashes on the racetrack, it was a skiing accident that landed him in a coma. We'll bring you the latest on Michael Schumacher in our sports lead.

And later, more than six million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD, but did doctors oversell medication as the answer?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now, it's time for the sports lead. For more than a decade, he was the Michael Jordan of Formula 1 racing, dominating the world's premier auto racing. His worst injury in all those years was a broken leg. But now, Michael Schumacher is struggling for life after a devastating ski accident. Schumacher was skiing in the French Alps over the weekend when he fell and hit his head on a rock. Doctors say he would not have survived at all if he had not been wearing a helmet.

Schumacher won 91 races and seven drivers' championships over his career. He won five of those championships with Ferrari, before he retired in 2006. But then he returned to the sport four years later and joined the Mercedes team before retiring again last year.

And CNN's Rachel Nichols joins us for this. And a brutal day to be a coach in the NFL.

Rachel, first, what's the latest on Michael Schumacher's condition?

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN HOST, "UNGUARDED": Yes. You know, it's interesting, when you see all the outpouring of support, you're reminded just how important an athlete he is to so many people around the world. You mentioned him being the Michael Jordan of formula 1, just an icon.

It is so agonizing to know that he is now in critical condition and his doctors say it's really hour by hour. They aren't predicting whether he's going to survive this or not. They say there's intense swelling in his brain.

He was actually conscious right after the crash. The workers who helped him on the slopes say he was coherent at that time but just obviously got worse as the brain swelling developed and they did say if he hadn't been wearing that helmet, there is no way that he would have gotten this far.

And it really is amazing, Jake. This is a guy who raced one of the most dangerous sports that we have, barely a scratch on him. As you pointed out, only broke a leg, that was the only injury he had. Now, he did have a motorcycle crash in later years when he wasn't racing anymore. He had some neck and spine injuries and now this injury.

So, apparently getting off the race course has been the most dangerous thing for Michael Schumacher. And, of course, we wish him a speedy recovery.

TAPPER: We do indeed. And the other big sports story, especially in this country, it's been a downer of a day in the NFL. More than a handful of coaches are out of a job. Who got the axe today?

NICHOLS: Well, as you can see, the murderers row up before us here. Mike Shanahan, Jim Schwartz, and Detroit's Greg Schiano in Tampa, Leslie Frazier, really beloved by his locker room in Minnesota, but that organization has to sell new tickets for a new stadium and they said that he has to go as well.

So, you've got six openings, including Gary Kubiak, who was fired in Houston a few weeks ago in the NFL and, hey, they might not be done yet, guys. There is a situation in Oakland where we're still waiting to hear how that's going to go. The situation in Tennessee is still developing.

So, a lot of people losing their jobs today, a lot of people not just the head coaches but the assistants. And it tells you what a tough world the NFL is.

There are 20 teams that didn't make the playoffs that are sitting around today and already six of them have said the head coach has to go.

TAPPER: It is Seth Myers on Twitter who remarked it reminds him of the final scene in "The Godfather" pictures where all these people, all these rival gang members get whacked. In particular, Browns players don't seem to be taking the news of their coach's firing too well. According to Mike Silver of NFL network, one Browns player said quote, we are so dysfunctional, these billionaires need to pick somebody and stay with them. These aren't girlfriends.

Now, this team ended the season 4-12. Are you surprised by the show of support for coach Chudzinski?

NICHOLS: Well, a lovely picture by the way of what NFL players think how their girlfriends should be treated -- but we'll leave that alone for the moment.

TAPPER: For now, yes.

NICHOLS: The biggest thing with Chud as the players call him in Cleveland is that he was in that position for less than a year. He was installed less than a year ago. They traded away one of his best players in the middle of the season, and apparently, one of the points of contention with management was that he wasn't going to suspend a player a couple of weeks ago for discipline reasons that apparently ownership wanted him to, quote, "hold players more accountable", and he stood up on the side of the players.

So not surprising, considering all that back-story, that there is such a show of support for him. But it is surprising that after less than a year, they are kicking this guy out. There's no way that an NFL coach can install systemic changes that need to be done in an organization like the Cleveland Browns that have been losing so long, in less than a year.

So the tolerance level is obviously not very high, a lot of backlash and criticism. Browns ownership held a press conference today where they were just hammered by the local media, saying how can we trust you on your track record to pick the next coach, you just picked a new guy less than a year ago and you're telling us he's no good. So, a mess over there. A mess where you are in Washington, D.C., too, with the Mike Shanahan firing.

Lot of interesting stuff going around the NFL. And we'll all, of course, be watching.

TAPPER: And the season continues, of course. I'm sure you saw my Eagles barely win, but win nonetheless, last night.

NICHOLS: A win is a win is a win is a win. And as your Eagles know from a few seasons ago, all it takes is getting in.

It's a whole new season coming up starting this week. We've had several teams, the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants, win a Super Bowl after barely getting in by the skin of their teeth in recent years. And then it all starts again in January.

Hey, it's anyone's game now.

TAPPER: All right. Rachel Nichols, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

Let's check in with our political panel in the green room. Ryan Lizza, "The New York Times" says when it comes to TV, the president's a fan of everything from "Breaking Bad" to "Homeland" to "House of Cards, all good stuff.

Any other suggestions for the commander in chief's DVR?

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: You know, besides "The Lead" obviously, which I was surprised to see not on the list. But I think as he enters this surveillance debate he might want to check out old episodes of "Big Brother," check out some old episodes of "Big Brother".

TAPPER: Nice, nice, I appreciate it.

The politics lead coming up next. Stay with us.