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Nuclear Missile Launch Officers Caught Cheating; Interview with Rep. Dianne Feinstein; NSA Has Bugged 100,000 Computers Abroad; Expelled Journalist: Putin Is Frightened; Special Counsel Named In N.J. Traffic Scandal; Vulnerable Democrats Keep Away from Obama; First Lady Speaks Candidly on Being 50

Aired January 15, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news -- their fingers on the buttons could destroy the world, but dozens of nuclear missile launch officers here in the United States are caught cheating on a test of their competency.

Also, a stunning report on Benghazi says the attack that killed four Americans was, quote, "likely preventable." I'll speak with the Senate Intelligence Committee chair, Dianne Feinstein.

And 100,000 computers implanted with spy devices that can be activated even when the users aren't online. The latest revelations about NSA surveillance.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


But we begin with some breaking news. A truly shocking new scandal that hits the United States Air Force. The Pentagon says almost three dozen nuclear missile launch officers were involved in cheating on a proficiency test. It's but the latest in a series of embarrassments for the U.S. Air Force and its nuclear units.

Let's bring in our new senior White House correspondent, Joe Johns.

He's got a new title, but he's still reporting the same old news. Unfortunately, this is a major problem -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's senior Washington correspondent, Wolf.

But the Air Force officers were from the Global Strike Command at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The Air Force says some of them cheated on a proficiency test last August and September. Other officers apparently knew about the cheating, but didn't stop it or report it.

All 34 have been decertified and restricted from missile crew duty.

The cheating involved text messages shared during the exams. Here's some of what the Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, told reporters earlier today.


DEBORAH LEE JAMES, SECRETARY, AIR FORCE: This is absolutely unacceptable behavior. And it is completely contrary to our core values in the Air Force. And as everybody here knows, the number one core value for us is integrity.


JOHNS: And so this is just the latest in a series of scandals involving those watching U.S. nuclear arms. It's pretty well- documented. An Air Force major with the service was fired because he was said to have drank too much and gotten into trouble in Russia. There's an ongoing investigation into illegal drug possession involving Air Force personnel, which may have actually opened the door to this cheating probe in the first place.

There's also the case of a Navy vice admiral overseeing nuclear weapons who was removed from command after being implicated in a gambling investigation. Not an excuse, but studies suggest manning the missiles could be a very lonely, isolating job. DOD personnel who deal with the nuclear arsenal can have a litany of problems, including burnout, Wolf, domestic violence. Even napping on the job has become an issue.

The secretary of Defense himself actually went out to the base in Montana earlier this month, just to highlight some of those problems.

BLITZER: And to their credit, Joe, we're learning about all of this from the Department of Defense...

JOHNS: Right.

BLITZER: -- and the U.S. Air Force. They're not trying to conceal it.

JOHNS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: This wasn't revealed as a result of great reporting or anything. They told us about this.

JOHNS: I think it's very notable, the level of disclosure you're getting from the Department of Defense, which we know, in some other cases, might not have occurred. But they're certainly putting it out there for people to talk about.

BLITZER: Our senior White House hopeful -- our senior Washington correspondent -- I keep getting confused.

JOHNS: It's all good.

BLITZER: Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns.

Congratulations on the new promotion.

JOHNS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's good to have you always here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The attack that killed four Americans at the U.S. mission in Benghazi was, quote, "likely preventable." That's the formal conclusion of a bipartisan report released today by the Senate Intelligence Committee. And it finds plenty of blame to go around and notes that -- get this -- 15 people who cooperated with the continuing FBI investigation in Libya have already been killed.


And joining us now, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: A very important report your committee just released today, including that the attacks on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi were likely preventable, that those attacks killed the U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans.

Who should be held responsible for what clearly was a failure?

FEINSTEIN: Well, let me say why, uh, the report says they're very likely preventable, and that's because there was adequate intelligence. Uh, I personally went through a stack like this of intelligence, uh, that forewarned, uh, and we know there were a number of events, uh, attacks that took place in the six months prior to, uh, Benghazi.

Uh, we also know that, uh, there was discussion about added security. We know the ambassador did not want added security. Uh, we know there were concerns about Benghazi. We know there were training camps around that area.

And, uh, it is something that I think the State Department has to really come to grips with, uh, and see that we have 285 missions and embassies that, in fact, they are secure.

Now, there's a question of us providing the money for them to do that. But I don't believe that our people should be put in harm's way without adequate security.

BLITZER: The, uh, senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, issued a statement shortly after your report was released, saying that his committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, should reexamine former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's what he calls failure to provide adequate security.

Does the buck stop with her? FEINSTEIN: Well, let me say this. And it's interesting that the first thing out of the box is something that's political. There is no evidence that Secretary Clinton even knew about this. Uh, there is an undersecretary for management. There are others that run these facilities, that evaluate these facilities, that make the decisions with respect to security.

But for the future, we now know that will have to beef up security. And we should do that. And I'm -- rather than casting recriminations, I think the most constructive thing to do is see that any facilities which need increased security get that increased security. Secondly, that we have assets, uh, strategically able to get to a place where we have troubled facilities in time, uh, to defend.

Now, that's difficult to do. And it was not possible to do in the case of Benghazi. The distances were just too great.

But one of the things that has transpired, Wolf, is the spread of terror. Uh, you see it in Libya. It's in Yemen. It's in Syria. It's in Iraq. It's in Mali. It's in, uh, the Central African Republic, it's in Somalia. And that's just a few places.

BLITZER: Did al Qaeda play a role in fomenting or creating or doing anything that resulted in those attacks in Benghazi?

FEINSTEIN: Well, groups loosely associate themselves, not necessarily with al Qaeda in Pakistan, but loosely. And, uh, there are suspects. And they are out there. And by name, it's another group. But, uh, loosely identified with al Qaeda.

BLITZER: So there was some sort of al Qaeda connection. I raise the question...

FEINSTEIN: Well, I don't...

BLITZER: -- because the "New York Times" had that long article saying there was no al Qaeda connection.

FEINSTEIN: Well, it depends on what you're talking about.

Are you talking about, uh, Al Qaeda in Pakistan or are you talking about other aspects of it?

I don't really think it -- look, it came from a terrorist group. We know there were no -- there was no demonstration. Uh, this was an attack, maybe not well organized, but probably 60 or so people. Uh, they set about burning the facility. They set out shooting and killing our -- four of our people. And for that, they ought to be brought to justice.

BLITZER: Did that anti-Muslim video have any role in this at all?

FEINSTEIN: Well, it will -- it well might have. Uh, it's hard to tell. Uh, but, um, our jurisdiction is the intelligence. And I can tell you that the intelligence was there. It was there for six months and ongoing. And if it was read, uh, it should cause people to understand that this is a place that had had minor attacks, two of them, within the six month period. And there had been other major attacks in the area and that perhaps our ambassador should not have been there.

BLITZER: One final question, an important one. Iraq seems to be engaging, getting involved right now in real chaos, terrorism. It looks like the whole situation is unfolding there, the fighting between Sunnis and Shia.

Is -- what -- what is expected?

You've been briefed, uh, on the situation in Iraq, because I'm worried that everything the U.S. Tried to achieve there, a stable, democratic government, pro-American, is on the verge of collapsing into civil war along the lines of what's going on in Syria.

FEINSTEIN: Well, it's one of the problems that we have. Americans wanted out of Iraq. Americans want out of Afghanistan. We pull out and others fill the void. And many of them are not good people.

Uh, if you look at South Korea, decades after a war, we have over 20,000 troops in South Korea for protection of South Korea. It takes time to make the necessary changes.

And I'm not a big fan of Mr. Maliki. But be that as it may, whether the military is as trained, whether, uh, counter surgents -- insurgency, counterterrorism efforts are as well trained, uh, as they would be if we were still there, I can't -- I don't know.

But it's really a great disappointment to see what has happened. And I think we have to learn from this. I think we have to learn from this with respect to Afghanistan.

When we pull out, what is the Taliban going to do?

Is the Afghan military financially going to be able to survive over the next few decades, even the next decade?

I think these are all questions that, uh, have very difficult answers.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right. These are tough, tough the Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James.


BLITZER: If they wouldn't be, they would have been solved a long time ago.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

FEINSTEIN: You're very welcome.

Thank you.


BLITZER: Up next, the stunning new report that the NSA is bugging computers around the world. New information coming in.

Also, never before seen video moments after the crash of that Asiana Airlines flight. And we have new evidence about what killed one passenger who had actually survived the initial impact.


BLITZER: Today, another startling new bombshell about NSA snooping. Tens of thousands of computers implanted with spy devices that can be activated even when the targeted users aren't online. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, has been looking into this story for us. it Is pretty amazing the technological capabilities.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. Another powerful tool in the NSA's arsenal arguably right out of the movies. You know, we've heard how the NSA can already access mass amounts of data via phone lines and internet connections, but, as the "New York Times" reports today it can now do so even with computers that are not connected to the internet.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Already monitoring telephone lines and the internet, according to "The New York Times," the NSA has now bugged 100,000 computers around the world. The secret technology used only overseas, says the NSA, gives the agency the ability to monitor machines and use them to launch a cyberattack. And the NSA can access them even if they aren't connected to the internet using radio waves transmitted by devices secretly inserted into the computers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why are the doors open?

SCIUTTO: It's a technology that could be straight out of a James Bond film.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can someone tell me how the hell he got into our systems?

ALAN PALLER, SANS INSTITUTE: People believe that an air gap is the best defense. If you're not connected to the internet, nobody can get to you. This shows that that's not true.

SCIUTTO: These revelations come as the president is said to announce reforms to the NSA's powers on Friday. The headline, bulk collection of phone metadata will likely continue, though, with additional safeguards. The president will appoint a public advocate to take part in a secret foreign surveillance corp.

He will also set limits on spying on foreign leaders and negotiate agreements with allies on what surveillance is acceptable and what is not. Senator Bernie Sanders, long a critic of the surveillance, says the reforms don't do nearly enough.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, (I) VERMONT: I think what we have to do is to make sure that at a time of exploding technology, that we figure out ways to make sure that the government does not know about all of your phone calls, your e-mails, the websites.

SCIUTTO: It was NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, who brought the NSA surveillance powers into the open.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: End mass surveillance.

SCIUTTO: And a new poll by Quinnipiac University shows that most Americans consider him more of a whistleblower than a traitor by 57 percent to 34 percent.


SCIUTTO (on-camera): The president's review panel recommended some 46 reforms to NSA intelligence gathering. It's becoming clear the president will not accept many of them, but this is not the final word. He may turn, Wolf, to Congress for further guidance and there are some members of Congress who've already introduced some legislation proposing new further guidelines on mass bulk collection.

BLITZER: Yes. The technological capabilities really are amazing. If you look into that, it's amazing what they can do.


BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, yes, thanks very much.

While Russia has welcomed the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, it has expelled an American journalist and author who's been critical of President Vladimir Putin. David Satter is a former Moscow correspondent for "The Financial Times" and recently been advising U.S. broadcasters, "Radio Free Europe" and "Radio Liberty" and Davis is joining us now from London.

You wrote a powerful article in "the Wall Street Journal" today, among other things, David, you write this. You say, "The Russian decision to declare me persona non grata is more than an action against the single journalist. It is an admission that the system under President Vladimir Putin cannot tolerate free speech even in the case of foreign correspondents."

And you say this is an ominous sign, even though you're the first American journalist expelled from Russia in a long, long time.

DAVID SATTER, JOURNALIST, AUTHOR: That's absolutely true. The first as far as I know since the cold war. But it's an ominous sign because the expulsion of even one journalist is a warning to every journalist. And it's intended to encourage self-censorship. It's encouraged to create a psychology in which people feel that there are some subjects that they can't raise. And Russia is a country that has a lot of secrets.

BLITZER: The Russians claim that you're to blame for your expulsion because you waited five days to renew your visa, get a multiple entry visa. They say that you didn't follow the rules and that's why you no longer are welcome there. To that, you say? SATTER: Well, to that, I say they can say anything they want. What happened in effect is that the document that I needed in order to get a visa was not given to me. They told me that there were some problems. They would give it to me in a couple of days and that I could take it later. I couldn't get the visa without that document.

They sat on it. So, it was a situation which created themselves specifically to have an excuse, something that they could say in order to confuse opinion in the world once the news got out that they had expelled me.

The real reason for the expulsion, though, was explained to me in Kiev where a diplomat in the Russian embassy in keeps (ph) read a statement to me and that statement said that the competent organs, which is "the phrase that's used in Russia for the security police, for the FSB, have determined that your presence on the territory of the Russian federation is undesirable and you're banned from entering Russia." That was the real reason.

Now, in other words, I was excluded from the country at the demand of the FSB. All of the stuff about visa, deadlines, that's all a pretense that they created so that they can have something with which to confuse people after the fact.

BLITZER: I was surprised they did this to you on the eve of the Sochi winter Olympics. They've been taking some steps to show that they're a little bit more open, a little bit more moderate, and all of a sudden, they expel you. Does that suggest they're about to engage in a more serious crackdown on foreign correspondents?

SATTER: I think it's probably more selective than that. I think that there are certain people they just don't want in Russia at this time. By all appearances, I'm one of them. I think that the topics that need to be raised in Russia are going to be raised by very, very few people. And the Russians are well-aware of who those people might be.

BLITZER: And you're not going to be one of them because you're not going to be in Russia. David Satter, thanks very much for joining us.

SATTER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, the New Jersey lawmakers naming a tough former prosecutor to lead their investigation of the traffic scandal tied to aides of the Governor Chris Christie.

Plus, crash scene video. We have new evidence that emergency crews saw a plane crash survivor on the ground before she was run over by a fire truck and killed. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The New Jersey assembly today named a special counsel to investigate a traffic jam scandal linked to aides and appointees of the governor, Chris Christie. The former assistant U.S. attorney Reid Schar was the prosecution in the corruption trials of former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich. Our chief national correspondent, John King, has been tracking the story for us. All right. So, what do we know about this new prosecutor?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Experience, Wolf. That's why Reid Schar was picked for this job. He is, as you noted, he was twice the prosecutor who brought Rod Blagojevich to trial. He is known as someone who is calm, someone who is persistent, someone who now understands how governor's office works from that trial, how political staffs organize and communicate, and someone who was known as a document chaser.

He also has worked on some terrorism cases including in one case prosecuting two men accused of cooperating with Hamas in which he convinced the Israeli government to allow some of their most highly classified intelligence agents to testify in the trial. So, he's known for handling sensitive information, known as being a digger. This is a serious move by the New Jersey assembly.

BLITZER: And Blagojevich is in jail even as we speak right now. So, how fast will this current investigation basically kick into high gear?

KING: It will kick into high gear, Wolf, as early as tomorrow and then the question is how long will it last. I say as early as tomorrow because I'm told at least a half dozen of the Governor Christie's Inner circle are on the list of officials who will get subpoenas. Not all of them perhaps tomorrow but beginning tomorrow, some of them will start to get subpoenas. The special prosecutor and his newly formed committee will also issue a very broad request for documents from the New York, New Jersey Port Authority and from Governor Christie and his inner circle.

Documents first they want to collect over the coming weeks and months, and then they want to bring in the witnesses to ask them about those documents. Wolf, the assembly will pass the resolution, I have a copy of it here, authorizing this investigation tomorrow. It gives this committee, it gives this prosecutor very, very broad powers.

And get this -- the committee will be in place if necessary through January 2016. So, if it takes a while, they have a while.

BLITZER: Yes. They certainly do. And they'll presumably have access to all of the governor's e-mail, text messaging, and all of that as well. All right. Thanks very much, John, for that.

So, how worried should Chris Christie be? Let's discuss with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, Peter Beinart of "The Atlantic" along with our CNN commentator, "The New York Times," columnist, Ross Douthat.

Ross, you know, he's going to Florida this weekend, Chris Christie, to do some fundraising, campaigning for Republican governors. He's chair of the Republican Governors Association. How does this embarrassment hurt him in the nature of this other role that he plays?

ROSS DOUTHAT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what's interesting, I mean, a lot of people are talking about, you know, does this hurt him in Iowa and South Carolina in 2016? And, the real issue is right now for him politically. Does it hurt him with the kind of donors and operatives that he needs to woo in order to set up a presidential campaign, because as we know, so much of what matters in presidential politics happens in an invisible primary that takes place before any delegates are picked or votes are cast.

So, that's the danger for him right now. In the bigger picture, it really all comes down to whether he actually had any involvement. If he did, then his political career is basically finished. If he didn't, this is a survivable scandal. It's not, you know, I mean --


BLITZER: You wrote an excellent column on, Gloria, "Chris Christie Presidential." Among other things, you write this, "You don't get elected to any office in this country, much less president of the United States, without accumulating political enemies. But the real question is why you consider someone an enemy and then how you deal with it."

As you know, part of his appeal has been his openness, his frankness, if you will. How does that play out?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, you know, here was Chris Christie's staff, and we're taking the governor's word right now that Chris Christie had no involvement. And there were these Democratic mayors who said, by the way, we're not going to endorse you, a Republican, in your run for the governorship in order to bolster your presidential campaign.

As a result of that, we're led to believe they closed a bridge down, OK, which hurt people in the state of New Jersey. That's not very presidential. And I was reminded in talking to a former Clinton adviser today, you know this, Wolf, you covered Bill Clinton, that the joke inside the Clinton White House was the best place to be was a Clinton enemy because he would spend all his time trying to convince you that he was right and would take you under his wing and talk to you about the substance of the issue and spend an awful lot of time with you. That wasn't the kind of petty retribution that we saw in this circumstance.

BLITZER: Certainly wasn't. Peter, you wrote a piece this week, let me put it on the screen. A line from that article jumped out at me. "The GOP today is an awful's crucial that the next Republican presidential nominee possess a personal brand that transcends his or her party's. If a Republican wins in 2016 it will be because he or she wins over a significant number of people who dislike the GOP." So how does Christie fit into this?

PETER BEINHART, "THE ATLANTIC": Well, I think Christie was by far the best person they had who could have done that. Christie had shown he had a reputation for bipartisanship. He had certain -- important issues like immigration and gay marriage, he had taken a position that was probably more palatable to the kind of voters that Republicans need to win. And he had a big personality. He didn't just seem like the next Republican in line. And that's why I think that his political wounding, and I think it's certain he's politically wounded even if he survives, is really a danger for the Republican party. It's of course extremely early. But when you look at the field of potential Republican candidates now, even the ones considered more moderate like Jeb Bush, I don't see anyone who has the personal brand that can trump the party's weakness in the way that Chris Christie did.

BORGER: And it's also he wasn't just another politician. Right? And if you look at this story, it's not just that he was another politician, it's that his staff was playing really small ball. And that doesn't work when you're looking to sort of get to a presidential level. That doesn't kind of work.

DOUTHAT: Right. But let me just say -- and I agree with everything Peter and Gloria have said --

BORGER: Of course you do.


DOUTHAT: Of course I do. But it is important -- you mentioned Bill Clinton. If you flashback to 1992 to Bill Clinton's run for president, during the presidential campaign he had -- at a time when the Democratic party was nearly in as bad shape as the Republican party is now, he had a cascade of scandals. People were saying Republicans are going to open him up like a soft-shelled peanut in the general election. And in fact Bill Clinton was a masterful politician and was able to come back from that.

I think again, if the scandal is what Christie claims it is -- which it may not be. But if it is, he's a guy who has sufficient talent and sufficient influence to bounce back.


BLITZER: Let me put a couple poll numbers, Peter, up on the screen and then we'll discuss quickly. This is a new NBC News/Marist poll. Choice for president 2016. In December, only a month ago, hard to believe, Hillary Clinton was at 48 percent, Christie 45 percent, well within the margin of error. Now 50 percent for Hillary Clinton, 37 percent for Christie.

But take a look at this. Does Christie come across more as a bully, a strong leader, unsure? Twenty-seven percent say bully, 47 percent say strong leader, 26 percent say unsure. These poll numbers, I think they go up and down. But clearly at least in the short run, Peter, you'll' agree, what has happened in New Jersey with the George Washington Bridge scandal has hurt him.

BEINHART: Yes. It's hurt him. I mean, first of all, and this is a point made by Chris Cilizza in "The Washington Post" today, it's distraction. He's lost some of his top political advisers who've already had to resign. Others are now very distracted by this. This is the time when Chris Christie should be solidifying his national operation. Remember, he's going to go up against a candidate in Rand Paul, who basically inherits his father's quite serious political operation that's already up and running in New Hampshire and Iowa.

I think Ross is right that Bill Clinton was able to survive in 1992 because he was an incredibly gifted politician. We'll see whether Chris Christie is good -- and because he faced a very weak field. The best thing that Chris Christie may have going for him is it looks like a weak field.

BORGER: Well, Chris Christie is a very good politician too. And nobody wants to see Chris Christie emerge as a false version of himself. They want to see the truth teller. They want to see the guy who's not just another politician. They want to see the good manager. They want to see how he handles this. And then they'll judge him by that rather than the controversy itself.

BLITZER: All right. Gloria, Ross, Peter, we got to wrap it up there. Thanks very much.

Up next, crash scene video. New evidence that emergency crews saw a plane crash survivor on the ground before she was run over by a fire truck and killed.

Plus, Michelle Obama getting very personal in a candid new interview marking her upcoming 50th birthday on Friday. We have details of what the first lady is saying about health, beauty, and a whole lot more.


BLITZER: Never-seen video is now surfacing from the scene of the Asiana Airlines crash over the summer, and it's raising more disturbing questions about the death of a teenager who actually survived the impact but died minutes later after a fire truck ran over her. CNN's Dan Simon is in San Francisco and has details.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was such a heartbreaking revelation. Here you had this 16-year-old girl from China who survived the crash only to be killed after getting run over by two fire trucks. Now you have this video, and it's raising important questions as to how firefighters handled the response.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whoa, whoa, stop, stop, stop! There's a body right - there's a body right in front of you.

SIMON (voice-over): Chilling new video obtained by CBS News giving us a rare up-close look from a firefighter's helmet cam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right through there.

SIMON: The chaotic moments first responders encountered after Asiana flight 214 crash landed in San Francisco last July. Sixteen-year-old Ye Meng Yuan was accidentally run over twice by fire trucks. Her family has since filed a wrongful death claim against the city. In particularly blunt language, it accuses first responders of knowingly and deliberately abandoning the teen where they knew she would be in harm's way. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop, stop, stop! There's a body right -- there's a body right there.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right in front of you.

SIMON: Does the new video prove tragic accident could have been avoided? there's also this, another camera appears to show a firefighter directing the truck around the victim.

CHIEF JOANNE HAYES-WHITE, SAN FRANCISCO FIRE DEPT.: We're heartbroken. We're in business of saving lives, and many lives were saved that day.

SIMON: This video may be crucial to understanding what happened to Yuan, who the coroner says survived the crash but died from injuries she suffered after being run over. At the time, officials say Ye's body was obscured by foam and couldn't be seen by the trucks. That combined with the chaos of putting out the fire and rescuing victims.

MAYOR EDWIN LEE, SAN FRANCISCO: I will say this -- it was very, very hectic. Very emergency mode at the crash site minutes after the airplane came to rest. And there was smoke inhalation of people -- coming out of the fuselage as fast as they could.

SIMON: The spectacular crash of Asiana flight 214 was captured on amateur video and on surveillance cameras. The Boeing 777 descending too low on landing, crashing into the seawall and cartwheeling across the runway, tragically claiming the lives of three passengers and ejecting two flight attendants from the aircraft on impact.

A court may eventually have to decide whether fire crews in this video were negligent and should be held accountable for the teenager's death.


(on camera): Why it took so long for this video to come out is also an important question. The fire department isn't talking about it. They say they don't comment on pending litigation, but at some point, Wolf, they'll have to address this issue in a more transparent and clear manner. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Dan, thanks very much. Dan Simon reporting from San Francisco.

Just ahead, why some Democrats are now actually going out of their way to try to avoid appearing with President Obama. What's going on?

And the first lady, Michelle Obama. Is she considering, would she ever consider plastic surgery or botox? She was asked about that, talks about that, including her fitness routine. Very candid interview on the eve of her 50th birthday. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: President Obama got a warm embrace today from a crowd in North Carolina, but some key Democrats are actually keeping him at arm's length.

Our senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar has been looking into this story for us.

So, Brianna, what's going on?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's pretty basic politics. In a tough election year you don't want to be too cozy with the president whose popularity is near an all-time low, but that doesn't mean President Obama can't still in some ways help Democrats and in turn help himself by keeping them in control of the Senate.


KEILAR (voice-over): A warm welcome for President Obama in North Carolina today. But noticeably absent --

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Your senator, Kay Hagan, couldn't be here but I wanted to thank her publicly for the great work she's doing.

KEILAR: Democratic Senator Kay Hagan is facing a tough re-election battle. Her office said she stayed in Washington because the Senate is in session. Republicans balked at that explanation.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R), WYOMING: Senator Hagan conveniently will not be able to be there to stand with the president of her own party, who she has continued to vote with.

KEILAR: With President Obama's dismal approval ratings, vulnerable Democrats, especially in the conservative south, aren't jumping at the chance to be seen with him.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Given what she knows and what the polling is telling her, it is not to her advantage to be seen on stage with Barack Obama right now.

KEILAR: Hagan isn't alone, and conservative groups are pouring money into other states as well, like Alaska, New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Louisiana, running ads against Democrats who support Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Those individuals who like the coverage they already have will be able to keep their current plan.

KEILAR: Senator Mary Landrieu flew on Air Force One with Obama last November but skipped out on a public appearance at his speech in New Orleans.

If Obamacare is a drag on Senate Democrats, the president's fundraising skills are still an asset.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I give you President Barack Obama. KEILAR: In 2013 Obama headlined eight fundraisers to bring in the bucks for Senate Democrats, including this one in Atlanta.

Democratic officials tell CNN they're waiting on requests for him to appear at multiple fundraisers in this crucial midterm year.

LIZZA: Obama can raise -- he can still raise massive amounts of money for these Senate campaigns. Obama's number-one priority this year is keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.


KEILAR: And to that point, President Obama is currently meeting, as we speak, with Senate Democrats. They're talking about the agenda for this year, which will include pushing initiatives for the middle class, trying to reduce the income disparity between rich and poor, extending long-term unemployment benefits, and increasing the minimum wage, all part of a messaging idea, Wolf, that is going to be the core of the election messages for these vulnerable Democrats.

BLITZER: Yes, and there are a bunch of those, as you point out, vulnerable Democrats.

Brianna, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, the first lady, Michelle Obama, is about to turn 50, and she's marking the occasion by speaking candidly about health and fitness, plastic surgery, even potentially becoming a grandmother one of these days.

CNN's Athena Jones has details.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: It is truly a pleasure to welcome you all here.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): First Lady Michelle Obama getting serious about education today at the White House.

M. OBAMA: When all of you are out there working to inspire and educate these kids, you're not just building a better future for them and for their families. You're actually building a better future for our country.

JONES: And as she turns 50 on Friday, she's getting personal with "People" magazine.

In an interview, the mom-in-chief dishes about Botox, her workout routine, and her plans after the White House, including becoming a grandmother -- someday. A fashion icon --

M. OBAMA: Like many of you, I'm not used to people wanting to put things I've worn on display.

JONES: -- and perennial cover girl, Mrs. Obama is a big proponent of healthy eating, who is famous for her fitness. Still, the first lady isn't ruling out getting plastic surgery or Botox to feel good in the future, saying, "Women should have the freedom to do whatever they need to do to feel good about themselves. Right now I don't imagine that I would go that route, but I've always learned to never say never." Her larger message for women?

M. OBAMA: Really what we want people to do is educate yourselves.

JONES: Be healthy and don't skip mammograms or pap smears. "I want to feel good and I want to be as healthy as I can be because I want to be able to enjoy my 70s and 80s."

Her strong arms have gotten a lot of attention over the years. Here she is doing push-ups with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. But as she gets older, Mrs. Obama says she's changing her workout routine, shifting from weight lifting, heavy cardio and running to things like yoga.

Asked whether she's peaked at 50, Mrs. Obama joked that being first lady is pretty high up, but went on to say she can't just sit on her talents or blessings.

"I've got to keep figuring out ways to have an impact, whether as a mother or as a professional or as a mentor to other kids."

M. OBAMA: My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.

JONES: By the time her family leaves the White House, 15-year-old Malia will be in college and Sasha, who is now 12, will be just a couple of years away from leaving home.

"At that point in life, whoa, the sky is the limit."

One of her post-White House goals is to help her daughters out with their own kids, eventually. The first lady was already thinking about this milestone last month.

M. OBAMA: Fifty and fabulous. January 17th. And I'm not exactly sure yet what I'm going to do, but it might involve some dancing.

JONES (on camera): After an early celebration in Hawaii with Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, Mrs. Obama will mark her big day with a dance party here at the White House. President Obama has told guests to wear comfortable shoes.

Athena Jones, CNN, the White House.


BLITZER: Let's get some more right on the first lady's rather candid interview with "People" magazine.

Joining us Sandra Sobieraj Westfall who conducted the interview for "People" magazine.

Were you surprised by her blunt -- her honesty, if you will, when she said never say never to potentially plastic surgery or Botox?

SANDRA SOBIERAJ WESTFALL, PEOPLE MAGAZINE: You know, Wolf, I was surprised in the entire interview about how open she was to talking about things that a lot of women would consider deeply personal. Even just turning 50 is something a lot of women would lie about, but she was really open to girl talk. I think with the idea of reaching women across the country and telling them, you know, life is not downhill after 50. There's still higher peaks to scale.

But, yes, I have asked other first ladies about plastic surgery in the past and not gotten such an open and candid response. So it was a fun -- it was a fun conversation with her.

BLITZER: And talk a little bit more about the change in her exercise routine, a little bit more yoga, what, a little more pilates as opposed a little bit more strenuous exercise, is that right?

WESTFALL: Well, you know, it's funny. She, I think, has always had a really hard charging workout. She works out with the president every morning. And they're so competitive. But planning ahead for being a 70-year-old woman, an 80-year-old woman who wants to get down on the floor with her grandchildren and still hopscotch and dance, she said she's focusing now more on balance and flexibility because she doesn't want to be one of those old ladies who falls and breaks a hip. She wants to be enjoying her life for a long time to come.

BLITZER: She's a graduate of Harvard Law School. Do you see a political future for her after the White House? We know another former first lady went on to become a senator from New York and eventually ran for the White House. Didn't work out. Although that senator -- that former senator became secretary of state and might run again.

WESTFALL: You know, I've interviewed now Michelle Obama, this is my 12th time talking with her. And I'd take her at her word and from what I know of her, absolutely never. That's one case where she will say never say never. She -- politics is not for her. She's never liked it, although she's good at it. She talked about wanting to be a mentor, wanting to travel, finally see the Hoover Dam or hike in the national parks.

And she also envisions maybe being a full-time caregiver for her grandchildren, anything but running for office.

BLITZER: Sandra Sobieraj Westfall of "People" magazine, good work. Thanks very much.

WESTFALL: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And look what just arrived over the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This is the dress that the first lady wore to her husband's second inaugural festivities. The gown designed by Jason Wu will temporarily join the first lady's exhibition celebrating its 100th year.

Be sure to tune in Friday night special for a CNN special, "EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY, MICHELLE OBAMA TURNS 50." That's at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 Pacific, only here on CNN.

Coming up, thousands of people of West Virginia are now getting the all-clear after last week's chemical spill, but is their water really safe to drink?

CNN tested it. We're going to share the results with you. I think our viewers in West Virginia and neighboring states will be interested. You will probably as well.

Plus, new concerns about America's only prisoner of war. Why the U.S. military is now so disturbed by new video of a U.S. soldier abducted by terrorists five years ago.


BLITZER: The Governor Chris Christie is a well known fan of fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen. But must he makes fun of Christie's traffic jam scandal joining Jimmy Fallon on "Late Night" with an updated version of his hit "Born to Run." Listen. (MUSIC)

BLITZER: There you go. What a rendition. By the way, Springsteen campaigned for President Obama back in 2012, although he did praise Governor Christie's leadership following the Superstorm Sandy.