Return to Transcripts main page


Olympic Terror Worries; President Obama on Marijuana; Cities of Ice; Record Snowfall Slams East Coast; Tough Words at Peace Talks

Aired January 22, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think you could concentrate on landing a triple axel if you believed terrorists were at that very moment threatening your life?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. It's finally happened, a threat made directly against the lives of Americans going to the Winter Games. How worried are athletes? At least one member of Team USA is telling his cheering section, stay home.

The national lead. Just getting home from work tonight might almost be an Olympic sport for many of us freezing in the bitter cold left by a massive storm. Some of our major cities look like they have been hit by an avalanche. Is relief on the way?

Also in national news, unlike some Democratic presidents we could name, there's never been a doubt about whether Barack Obama inhaled. But if the president really believes pot is no more dangerous than booze, shouldn't he tell his drug czar?

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

And we are going to begin today with the world lead. In 16 days, the top athletes in world will meet in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics. And the competitors are hardly the only ones with jangled nerves as the day draws closer. Today, with Russian authorities on the lookout for so-called black widows who may be part of a plot to attack the Games, the U.S. Olympic Committee is confirming that it received an e-mail warning of a terrorist attack against visitors to Sochi, along with Olympic committees in several European countries.

The U.S. committee coordinates travel plans for the whole American delegation. However, the International Olympic Committee is downplaying the e-mail, saying it -- quote -- "contains no threat and appears to be a random message from a member of the public" -- unquote.

But the White House says it isn't just your imagination. We are, indeed, hearing more and more about threats to the Olympics by the day.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: But we have seen an uptick in threat reporting prior to the Olympics, which is, of course, of concern, although it is also not unusual for a major international event.


TAPPER: Even before this new threat, athletes were starting to feel spooked. Imagine watching your son train his entire life to become one of the top athletes in his sport, but when he makes it to the Olympics, he says, mom, maybe you shouldn't come.

U.S. speedskater Tucker Fredricks has asked his loved ones to stay home over fears for their safety at the Sochi Games.

I want to bring in our Nick Paton Walsh. He's standing by live in Sochi, Russia.

Nick, what do we know about the nature of this new threat?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, this e-mail which seems to be the same one received by the Hungarian, Italian, German, and Slovenian national Olympic committees, seems to have been vague, seems to be suggesting a threat to blow perhaps part up of a contingent here, but it was quite swiftly downplayed, as you mentioned, by the International Olympic Committee, who seemed to be suggesting it was just a member of the public.

There's been other traffic intercepted which purports to perhaps have been communication between Russian officials discussing a threat. But in this part of the world, really a decade now, you do see a lot of chatter like this, confused signals at times, and, of course, everyone's deeply scrutinizing anything they can right now to work out what threats could possibly be around.

We have seen warnings about potentially three female potential suicide bombers in the area, one maybe near Sochi. That's often something you will see in this part of the world quite regularly. Week by week, notices will go out where they're looking for people who launch the attacks that blight this part of the world on a regular basis.

But it's just right now, with this huge international event coming here, those threats, those daily attacks are now under massive international scrutiny, of course, because people are terrified about what might happen to athletes when actually they come here.

TAPPER: And, Nick, how successful can the Russian security operation be based on what you're seeing there?

WALSH: Well, I think that they will throw down a substantial dragnet, a sort of cordon around the Games itself.

It's already pretty hard to get near, anywhere near the area without the accreditation, which I'm trying to get today, but their machines were down and they couldn't actually issue the badges. The problems though come down to the training and the knowledge of the actual soldiers and troops on the ground. The policeman I tried to move past, he said he'd only been there for a day and he didn't even know the name of the street he was in fact on. And the Russians have a history of flooding the zones, so to speak, of many police, but occasionally lacking the coordination to prevent stuff getting through.

That's Sochi. They will probably do quite a good job in Sochi and Adler, where the Olympic Village is, at keeping major disasters out, but this is a massive region that stretches all the way over to the Caspian Sea as well, Dagestan, where so many of these blasts we have been hearing have been originating, where the Tsarnaev brother who bombed Boston were also from.

It is going to be very difficult to put a lid on all violence across this massive region for the entire period. They simply don't have the manpower. Bear in mind, Jake, there's bombs, assassinations going off nearly every day for the past 10 years. I don't exaggerate here. This is a region that's been very volatile for a long period of time.

The idea that suddenly an international event and the Russian federal government focusing its resources can suddenly switch that kind of violence off, it's simply not going to happen. There will be something happening. The question is, does it actually hit this Olympic Village or the area around it, Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much.

All these reports leave the world wondering as well as athletes traveling to compete in the Olympics, is it safe to go to Sochi?

I want to bring in Bob Baer. He's CNN national security analyst and a former CIA operative.

Bob, good to see you, as always.

For everything we have heard, do you think there's a real terror threat in Sochi? Should we be worried?


I think American citizens are at risk in Russia either in the North Caucasus, in Sochi, Moscow, St. Petersburg. This group, mainly led by Chechens, is formidable. They're militarily trained. They're able to hit. They have got access to explosives. They have said they're going to hit and they usually follow through.

TAPPER: One of the things we heard U.S. officials express concern about is the degree of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Members of Congress in Sochi, other officials saying Russia is not sharing enough intelligence. That's also got to be a concern, I would think.

BAER: Absolutely, Jake.

I sat across the table with Russians for years, very friendly, but they just never give up anything, especially when it involves their internal security. They will do everything they can to protect Americans. They're a very good intelligence service, but they're not going to share information with the CIA or the FBI on the threat. They just won't do it.

It's a Soviet mentality. It doesn't surprise me. That's the way it is.

TAPPER: Take a listen to this sound from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul. He was visiting with officials in Sochi and he talked about the type of attack he would anticipate there. Take a listen.


REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: I think we're going see more explosions like we saw at the train station and the bus. There are softer targets outside of the perimeter that are close to the Olympic Village where they can make the same statement.

They know that the eyes of the world now are on these Olympics. And what better way to make a statement than at these Olympics? And that's my concern.


TAPPER: Bob, does that sound right to you, the idea that soft targets, not inside the Olympic Village, but outside is more likely?

BAER: Jake, absolutely. They're going to go for mass casualties, make the biggest splash they can, embarrass Moscow. Anything necessary, they will do it.

And I think we can just pretty well count at it. Something at the very end may change this, some negotiation or decision on the part of terrorists. But, you know, up until now, I haven't seen that.

TAPPER: The viewers who might not be familiar with the type of terrorist threat that comes out of the Caucasus, how dangerous are they? Where do they stack up vis-a-vis -- like, how would you compare them, for instance, with al Qaeda?

BAER: They're the best in the world. They have got military training. They're more determined. They have got a bottomless pool of willing suicide bombers.

They can get to missiles. They can blow up infrastructure. They are very, very good. And people like the Chechens in particular worry me more than anybody in the world.

TAPPER: That's terrifying. Bob Baer, stand by, if you would. We want to come back to you after this report coming up.

A plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv foiled, Israel says, by its security forces. The prime minister's office says that Israeli authorities arrested members of a "terror cell" operating under al Qaeda, ones who were planning attacks inside Israel, and the U.S. Embassy was not the only alleged target.

I want to get to senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman live in Jerusalem.

Ben, who are the suspects and what exactly are they accused of hatching here?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are three suspects from Palestinian East Jerusalem.

What -- according to Shin Bet -- that's Israel's fairly formidable domestic security agency -- a man in Gaza contacted via a Facebook and Skype one of these three men in East Jerusalem and sent him files on how to manufacture explosive devices.

Now, this man, according to the Shin Bet, was going to go to Turkey and then into the rebel-controlled parts of Northern Syria, where he would receive military training. He would then return to Israel, hook up with jihadis who would have entered the country with forged Russian passports, and he would have provided explosives and other material with which these jihadis would have attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, the convention center in Jerusalem, which is just near the CNN bureau, as well as attack an Israeli bus on the West Bank.

What's interesting in all of this is the Syria angle. Just yesterday, Jake, I was speaking with a senior Israeli intelligence analyst who said that they are now concerned that there are as many as 10,000 jihadis in Northern Syria, a real source of instability for Israel and many of the other countries in this region -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Ben Wedeman in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

Let's go back to CNN security analyst and former CIA operative Bob Baer.

Bob, what do you make of these arrests? Do you think this was likely a credible threat?

BAER: I don't think it's credible. It may have been aspirational. They may have had the plans on the books, may have sent people here and there. But al Qaeda cannot operate in the West Bank or Jerusalem or Gaza. It's just -- it's too difficult for them. They couldn't make a concerted attack. They'd like to, yes.

The Israelis have the place well too wired for them to get away with this. What scares me more, of course, as mentioned, is Syria, and that would be mainly rocket attacks across the Golan Heights. But we will wait to see on that.

TAPPER: Bob Baer, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

When we come back, digging out in the wicked cold. From Boston to D.C., the East Coast is feeling the pain after yesterday's snowstorm. We will check in on some of the hardest-hit areas next.

Plus, Republicans gathering today here in frigid D.C. to work on the issues they think will help them win in 2016. Here's a hint. It involves fighting back against what Democrats call the war on women.


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

And the national lead. A heavy snowfall in January on the East Coast doesn't exactly sound like news that should be accompanied by a fainting couch, that is, until you see the record snowfall this latest winter storm left behind.

More than a foot of snow blanketed the I-95 Corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston. The storm system shut down schools and created a travel mess not just on the roads, but at airports, forcing the cancellation of more than 1,400 flights nationwide. CNN crews are feeling the freeze firsthand.

Meteorologist Chad Myers in Plymouth, where there are reports of 18- inch snow drifts. Alison Kosik is in Islandia, New York, and Margaret Conley is all cozy at the -- at La Guardia Airport.

Let's start with you, Chad. What do -- how bad is it up there?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's warmer than last night by about 15 degrees. At least it seems it.

Our snow is somewhere between zero and 12 inches. Because there's literally no way to figure out what is real snow, what's a drift, what's plowed, what's scoured because I can see the grass here. And then all of a sudden, I walk into a drift. That's at least 18 inches.

And all of a sudden yesterday the wind blew and this snow, because it is so light, just drifted.

Something else that happened in the wind, too. About three miles south of here at Plymouth Beach, the waves started rolling, and let me tell you it was like something out of a movie. I walked down there almost at high tide and these waves were crashing onshore over the seawall, onto people that were scrambling away, getting wet, literally, so was our car as we were taking pictures of this.

But the waves were coming in, the beaches are being eroded, and probably the next storm we talk about is how much there may not be much beach left for the summer unless they take that sand and try to push it back up onshore.

All right. Alison Kosik is cold on Long Island. Just like me, Alison. How are you doing today?


You know what's funny as we sit and report about this snow? Many people say, look, it's winter, it's supposed to snow. But I'll tell you what? The storm that moved through here, it was doozy. It dumped anywhere from six inches to more than a foot of snow here on Long Island. The good news is that it left behind really good snow to play with -- the light, fluffy kind, not the heavy, mucky, wet kind. This kind you can actually make little snowballs and have some fun. The bad news is, yes, sure, the storm has moved out but guess what it left behind? Brutally cold temperatures.

Right now, it's 13 degrees. It feels more like four below zero.

And as the sun goes down, even as picturesque as this picture is, it's going to get a lot colder. Whatever snow has, quote, melted is going to refreeze and make the roads very, very icy.

Let's go to the skies and talk about the airlines with my colleague Margaret Conley.

Hey, Margaret.


It's a very different picture here at LaGuardia compared to yesterday at this time when this airport had cleared out. A lot of flights had been canceled.

We'll give you a look around to see a lot of people hanging out. They got to the flights -- they got to the airport early because they knew their flights might be delayed. It's also warm in here. This is where we've been hanging out, unlike my colleagues who have been braving the cold outside.

Now, there were about 4,000 flights that take off in this region on a daily basis, 20 percent of them canceled today. The Port Authority stopped calculating these cancellations because they say the crush of the storm is over.

Now, we are expecting operations to be back to normal, Jake, by today. Back to you in Washington.

TAPPER: All right. Margaret Conley, Chad Myers, Alison Kosik -- thank you so much.

Coming up next, the dramatic moment on the world stage as the Syrian foreign minister reprimands the secretary-general of the United Nations for trying to cut him off.

Plus, Republicans meeting today to talk about the future of their party as they look ahead to 2016. Which candidates do they think can take back the White House?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now, it's time for more world news.

It's being billed as a peace conference, but the hostile back and forth we're watching unfold at the Syria talks in Switzerland is starting to feel as futile as the spiraling civil war itself. Check out this testy exchange between the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moualem, and the leader of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, who interrupted Moualem after running over his allotted time at the microphone.


WALID MOUALEM, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: You live in New York. I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum.



MOUALEM: After three years of suffering, this is my right.


TAPPER: Secretary of State John Kerry has called the talks a test for the international community. But with this level of vitriol, are the talks in danger of collapsing?

CNN's foreign affairs reporter Elise Labott is live with Secretary Kerry in Montreux, Switzerland.

Elise, it sounds like things got pretty heated for a bunch of diplomats.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: That's right, Jake. I've been to a lot of these conferences over the years and I've never seen anything like it.

Secretary of State John Kerry got the fireworks started, saying there's absolutely no way President Bashar al Assad could take part in a transitional government. That got the minister started. He addressed Kerry by name, saying, you have absolutely no right to determine the fate of the Syrian people.

And you noted the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, usually very mild-mannered and timid, some would say, really kind of trying to take to task the Syrian foreign minister repeatedly trying to cut him up.

So, literally, a lot of fireworks today.

TAPPER: As you noted, Elise, Kerry says there's no place in a transition government for Assad. Obviously, the chances of Assad willfully giving up power have seen for years now nonexistent.

What's the end goal here? Does what happens there today even matter given his firm grip on power there?

LABOTT: Well, everybody expected today to be full of fiery rhetoric and vitriol as you say, but the real work is going to begin tomorrow and the hard part is tomorrow when the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is going to try to get the Syrian side, the opposition and the regime, to sit down.

And there is the problem, Jake. They're both speaking what they call in the Middle East the "dialogue of the death". They're speaking past each other. The Syrian opposition and the rest of the world really here today is saying Assad has to go. The regime is saying, hey, that's a nonstarter for us.

So, it's really hard to see how they could have any progress and, indeed, the opposition is saying, what's the point of talking?

So it's unclear if this is the beginning of a process or the end of a process. And the fact that Iran was not here today really Syria's key backer not only with money and weapons but with fighters on the ground, it's hard to say that this is a peace conference if Syria and Iran are not in the room together trying to find a solution.

TAPPER: As you know, Elise, earlier this week, CNN's Christiane Amanpour reported on these horrific images purportedly of starvation and torture of Syrians by the Syrian government. They came from a defector.

If real, they would appear to be proof or evidence of crimes against humanity. What would be the next step in that process?

LABOTT: Well, this is part of the strategy I think of the United States to talk more not only about these images but about systemic torture, starvation, type of war crimes and try and put a scare in some of Assad's inner circle to try and peel them away and get them to abandon him.

You know, before we came to Geneva and Montreux, we heard from a senior State Department official who told some of us reporters, these images are reminiscent of concentration camp victims. So, I think this kind of language, trying to put the scare on the regime, they're hoping this will induce the inner circle to sit down and try and be part of the solution here.

Jake, I think everyone really wants this to end. It's just a way of getting all sides to find some common ground. And I think that when they sit down now, they're going to try and talk about small things that could ease the growing humanitarian situation on the ground, prisoner exchanges, delivery of humanitarian aid, maybe some local cease-fires. But as they do that I think the United States and the United Nations and others are going to be building the case for war crimes. So, if and when this conflict ends, that people will be brought to justice.

TAPPER: Elise Labott in Switzerland, thank you so much.

In another world news, Kiev is starting to look like a war zone. Burned-out shells of police buses lined the streets in an ongoing protest that's left at least four people dead, hundreds more injured according to the movement's volunteer medical service. Demonstrators there are clashing with police over new laws that limit the right to protest in Ukraine. Tensions first began when President Viktor Yanukovych decided in November to reject a planned trade deal with the European Union and turn toward Russia instead. The leaders of three opposition factions met with Yanukovych to try to stop the chaos, but that meeting ended with a warning from an opposition leaders. Quote, "If tomorrow the president does not make a step forward, we will attack", unquote.

Coming up next, President Obama might not think pot is any more dangerous than alcohol, but one former drug czar, he ain't buying it. I'll talk to him next.

And later, his sideline rant lasted just seconds but he's still defending himself days later. What Richard Sherman is saying now. Our sports lead is ahead.