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THE SITUATION ROOM
Iran Reacts to State of the Union; Justin Bieber Surrenders; Frozen Hell
Aired January 29, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: frozen hell. A snow and ice disaster drags into a second night in the South's biggest city. Stand by for new horror stories from people who were stranded on the road for hours and hours and hours.
Plus, an Iran exclusive. CNN is there for a surprising response to President Obama's State of the Union address.
And this -- Justin Bieber surrenders. The pop star is in Canada right now to answer an assault charge.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Begin with the breaking news this hour, the snow and ice paralyzing the Deep South. The misery is spreading from Louisiana to the Carolinas. Millions of people are caught in the chaos and the gridlock. At least seven people have been killed. Hundreds are injured. The biggest nightmare of all has been in Atlanta.
This city has been shut down for over 24 hours. Residents are being told to stay home for at least another day. And thousands of commuters wound up trapped for hours on roads littered with wrecked and abandoned cars. And now a P.R. disaster is unfolding as local officials try to explain what went wrong.
CNN's Victor Blackwell is joining us now live from the metro Atlanta area.
What's the latest, Victor?
VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the misery stretching into a second evening. Thousands of stranded people spent the day struggling to get home or find the car that they were forced to abandon yesterday. And the local leaders spent this day explaining what went wrong and why they are not to blame.
BLACKWELL (voice-over): New day, same nightmare. National Guard members now are searching stranded cars and giving tired, hungry drivers MREs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basic nutrition, that's what your soldiers are eating out in Afghanistan when they're out on patrols and everything else.
BLACKWELL: But, for many, it's too little, too late.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a nightmare, and I have yet to see a snowplow or anybody slinging sand. I have been on the road for over 16 hours now. I'm not seeing anybody out.
BLACKWELL: On social media, frustrated Georgians blame Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for the shutdown, one person tweeting: "I'm a lifelong Republican. Governor Deal, you failed. I will never vote for you."
Another: "Kasim Reed, you failed the people of Atlanta once again."
But during a news conference early Wednesday, neither leader is accepting blame.
KASIM REED (D), MAYOR OF ATLANTA, GEORGIA: I'm not going to get into that blame game, but the crisis that we're going through is across the region. So if you look at anybody's street in any community across the entire region, there's no one who is doing any better job than we're doing in the city of Atlanta.
GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: Well, I have talked to some of your meteorologists, and let me say that there were a couple who said they were disagreeing with the National Weather Service.
BLACKWELL: A sober tone from the mayor and the governor as they reviewed the response Wednesday, but representatives from both the mayor's and the governor's offices confirm the two were together at an awards ceremony Tuesday at an Atlanta Ritz-Carlton. Governor Deal posted this picture and the tweet, "I was honored to introduce Mayor Kasim Reed as he was named 2014 Georgian of the Year. Congratulations. N.D."
Hours after Mayor Reed received his hardware, Brittany Louise (ph) was forced to abandon her car and sleep in the hardware section of an area Home Depot.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They gave us food. They gave us blankets. They gave us pillows. They put down rugs. People were sleeping everywhere. They had movies showing. We could watch the news. It was -- they were really amazing.
BLACKWELL: Midday Wednesday, the ice thawed and many of the thousands of people trapped and stranded overnight made their way home just as temperatures began to slide toward freezing again. Many schools and government offices were closed for another day as local and state leaders mull over just how two inches of snow became a statewide crisis.
QUESTION: Did you make the right call?
DEAL: Well, I think we did under the circumstances of what we knew at the time. We have just got learn the lessons from this. (END VIDEOTAPE)
BLACKWELL: And, Wolf, many of those stranded cars, the thousands you mentioned, some of those are now being towed from the interstate so people who are going back to get those cars are finding nothing and they have to start that search all over again -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What a nightmare in Atlanta. All right, Victor, thanks very much, Victor Blackwell reporting.
Our own Kyra Phillips was one of the many people in Atlanta who had a hellish trip home during the worst of the gridlock.
Kyra is joining us now via Skype.
So, Kyra, tell us your personal story. Where were you, what happened?
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, I will tell you, I'm here at the airport now. You can probably see everybody behind me there because so many people tried to get in and out of the city, and now the airport is insane.
But last night, let me tell you, I left work about quarter to 1:00. It took eight hours to get home. I had to ditch my car. I had to drive or walk, rather, eight miles to get to my house. And, as you know, Wolf, I had twins. I was concerned about my kids. But what I saw during that walk home and during that eight-hour commute was horrendous.
I saw desperate people on the streets. I saw pregnant women in 24-hour pharmacies, people in sleeping bags, sleeping, looking for food, looking for water, kids in school bus, school buses blocking off roads. It was absolutely crazy. And when I heard the mayor today give that news conference and last night talking about how everything is now under control, and what was amazing is how he said there were no deaths earlier this morning.
And he didn't even know the status of all the injuries and what had happened. And, as you know, we have seen the number of people that have now died in what was a complete -- I mean, it was utter chaos. I mean, the entire city was paralyzed, Wolf.
BLITZER: And you were showing our viewers, Kyra, some of the pictures you sent us, people sleeping in a drugstore. It just looked like -- it's hard to believe that this could happen in the United States of America with, what, only a little bit more than two inches of snow.
PHILLIPS: Yes, and you know, I lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin. OK? We commuted when it was five feet of snow. You could drive, you could get around, because that city was prepared. They had salt, they had de-icing capabilities. They had the manpower to get ready for big snowstorms.
So you could go on with business as usual. The leadership in this area was not ready. They knew what was coming, and they were not prepared. No child should have ever gone to school yesterday. And it's appalling that 24 hours later, I'm hearing my neighbors, they're texting me saying, my kids are finally home from school. That's just -- it's unacceptable.
BLITZER: It certainly is. Kyra Phillips reporting for us, Kyra, thanks very much.
The Georgia governor's office says 95 school buses were immobilized by the snow and authorities were forced to assist them. In Atlanta, more than 1,000 weather-related traffic accidents have been reported. And those are just the ones we know about.
Let's check in with CNN's Michael Holmes. He's on the road in Atlanta right now.
Michael, you're just back from Baghdad. Who would have thought you would have to cover a story like this in Atlanta?
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you're right, Wolf. I'll tell you what. The irony does not escape me. A week back from Baghdad and here we are looking at this.
What a nightmare it's been. And Kyra's dead right. People around here just cannot believe that this happened. I got to show you, this is one of Atlanta's main freeways. This is 75 North. And it is -- at 6:00 p.m., this should be jam-packed. It's not. But last night, this was a parking lot.
And have a look over here. These are the cars that people just got out of and abandoned in the middle of the night. Some people slept all night in their cars. We spoke to a truck driver earlier who had been since 4:30 yesterday afternoon by the side of the road. You can see here the police came along and put this plastic on all these door handles showing that they checked the cars and no one was in them.
All these people have just abandoned them. There's some in the emergency center lane as well. They're all over the place. You can come back and have a look over here on the side, Wolf. There are dozens and dozens of cars. And, as you say, we have been on the road all day. And we have seen this up and down the freeways.
Fortunately, the gridlock seems to have passed for now. And traffic is moving. That's because everyone's gotten home. But even now, all these hours after it happened people have not come back to get their cars. I will tell you what. The other worry here is that you have got water on the road, on some of these roads and it will refreeze.
When we were out earlier, Wolf, we did see some good stuff, though. We saw a young man walking down the freeway, this was on I- 20, with gas cans in his hand and water bottles in a backpack looking to help people. Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRIS WHITE, GOOD SAMARITAN: Well, I just came here. I bought some water and some towels to see if anybody was stranded, to see if any families needed some water. And I actually met some other Samaritans what -- they gave them some gas and they actually gave me some gas to help out some more people.
HOLMES: You're literally walking down the freeway looking for people who have run out of gas?
WHITE: Correct. I found two people, two couples. I'm going to bring them back to my house, let them warm up a little bit, give them some food.
HOLMES: Why are you doing it?
WHITE: I'm just doing it just to help. So I looked on the news and they said they have trouble getting to the people, so I thought I might come out here just to help and lend an extra hand.
HOLMES: Yes, that was pretty nice to see, I can tell you.
But, as I said, Wolf, all the Atlanta schools are closed tomorrow. Not a bad thing. This stuff's going to start freezing up overnight, what hasn't dried off already -- back to you.
BLITZER: Michael Holmes on the scene for us in Atlanta. Michael, thanks very much. What a story that is.
There's news coming in, get this, Justin Bieber now facing assault charges in Canada. We're learning new details about yet another brush with the law. Stand by.
And we heard the Republican reaction, the Tea Party reaction. Now we're going to get the Iranian reaction to the president's State of the Union speech. We will go live to Tehran for an exclusive report. Our own Jim Sciutto is there.
BLITZER: This just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. The pop star Justin Bieber is in Toronto, Canada, right now. He's from Canada, and he's about to face an assault charge in connection with an encounter with a limousine driver about a month ago.
All this comes just about a week after Bieber was charged with drunken driving, resisting arrest, driving without a valid license when police saw him street racing in Miami Beach.
Our national correspondent, Susan Candiotti, is working the story for us.
What are we learning, Susan? What's going on?
SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, more trouble for the Biebster, it would seem. Justin Bieber, that's right, our source telling us that, in fact, he is in Canada at this hour and his arrest could come within the next hour or so in connection with an alleged assault on a limo driver that happened just last month.
Now, this has all been prearranged. They have been in consultation with a lawyer representing Mr. Bieber, and he will be said to be turning himself in, surrendering to authorities at a police precinct in Toronto. My source tells me this could very well result in an arrest on an assault charge.
What happens to him after that is unclear at this particular hour, but just last week, he got into trouble in Miami Beach, arrested for driving without a proper license, driving under the influence and resisting arrest without violence, so he still is facing those charges as well.
BLITZER: And we got those live pictures from that police station in Toronto, where supposedly he's about to appear, is that right, Susan?
CANDIOTTI: That's right. Apparently, this is in connection, according to the CBC, with this alleged assault that happened after a Maple Leafs game late last month. So, that's what this is all about.
BLITZER: We're also getting this other information, Susan. He's already entered a not guilty plea to all those charges in Florida, in Miami Beach, when he was drag racing, if you will, on the streets of Miami Beach. Are you familiar with this part of the story?
CANDIOTTI: Yes, reportedly, that's already happened, a written not guilty plea.
I have reached out his lawyer, Roy Black, who I covered for many years in Miami, to see whether that's the case and we're also checking other resources as well to find out whether that has happened. That still has to make its way through the court system, of course, in Miami-Dade County.
BLITZER: Susan Candiotti, thanks very much.
Our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, he's got a lot of legal problems, this young guy.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Now, you have to keep track of this.
First of all, you have the alleged assault on the limo driver in Toronto. That's what -- Susan's story. You have the alleged drunk driving drag racing in the rented Lamborghini in Miami. You also have the alleged egging of a neighbor's house in Los Angeles County, which is also under investigation. So he better knock it off or he's going to get into some serious trouble.
BLITZER: Well, he's a legal resident here in the United States. He's a Canadian citizen. There's a petition now to basically bar him from coming to the United States, a petition that's gone to the White House.
TOOBIN: Right. He's 19 years old. He shouldn't be drinking. You shouldn't even be able to rent a car at 19, but obviously he's in a separate category from most people.
Given the kind of charges he's facing, these are not usually the kind of charges that would get you deported, but it is possible if these turn into felony charges. In both Miami and Los Angeles, the prosecutor's offices are deciding how to proceed. And one thing prosecutors look at is, are these people getting in trouble? Is someone look -- should they get a break or are they taking advantage of the system? And if you keep getting arrested, prosecutors are not going to be happy with that.
BLITZER: Hold on for a minute, because Susan is getting a little bit more.
What else are you learning, Susan?
CANDIOTTI: Yes. And we also have to remember that he had a busy week earlier this week because he was seen on video in Panama with friends surrounded by bodyguards walking on the beach there. And we understand that he was getting advice from some of the people closest to him.
Remember, he's been very close to Usher, who has been his mentor and got him started with the recording contract years ago. So now what happened between the trip to Panama and now he's in Canada? A lot of stuff must be going on behind the scenes, consultations. Perhaps, perhaps, he's trying to clean up his act and face the music.
TOOBIN: I don't know if Usher is telling him this.
CANDIOTTI: Maybe not, no, right.
TOOBIN: But maybe some good advice would be to stop getting arrested.
BLITZER: Yes, that would be a great start for this guy.
All right, thanks very much, guys.
We have got other news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM, including reaction to the State of the Union address from the president, reaction from inside Iran. Our own Jim Sciutto is in the Iranian capital. He's got an exclusive report.
We're going there live when we come back.
BLITZER: Now to a CNN exclusive. You have heard the Republican response to the president's State of the Union address. How about the Iranian response?
Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is inside Iran right now, just spoke with the foreign minister of Iran.
Jim, how did it go?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is his first on-camera response to the State of the Union.
And, as in all my dealings with him, he's friendly, but he's firm and direct. He said the things he liked about the speech, that the president is going to veto any sanctions bill, things he didn't like, that the president said that all options are on the table, including the military option.
This is what he gave us, including a behind-the-scenes look at his long day of diplomacy.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): For the Iranian foreign minister, it is a grueling 16-hour day, starting at 8:00 a.m. with a cabinet meeting, then greeting the Turkish prime minister, and ending just before midnight with a visiting Lebanese delegation.
One of his last orders of business:
MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: This is a response to State of the Union.
SCIUTTO (on camera): Positive or negative or mixed?
ZARIF: Well, mixed.
SCIUTTO: What was your impression of the speech?
ZARIF: Well, obviously, what comes out of White House and the State Department in the United States is for domestic consumption. It doesn't matter how the Americans try to spin it for the domestic audience. When it comes to Iran, it does matter.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): On news today that the U.S. will begin sending weapons to the Syrian opposition, however, Dr. Zarif was unequivocal.
(on camera): You heard that the U.S. is going to be sending arms, small arms to some of the rebel groups. Do you think that's helpful?
ZARIF: No, I do not think a war can be stopped by more arms.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): With midnight nearing, in came a call from his wife.
(on camera): Please take it if you have to.
ZARIF: Yes, it is my wife.
SCIUTTO: OK. I knew it.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): It was time to go home.
ZARIF: As we left, he took us to the stateroom where he receives visiting foreign diplomats. And I asked him if he could imagine seeing John Kerry in that room some day. He said, you know, I can imagine it, but the human imagination is a remarkable thing, he said.
He said, frankly, in his words, we're not there yet. I think U.S. diplomats would say the same thing. But this interim deal is a step, he said.
But, Wolf, as you and I know, they have got a long way to go.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto in Tehran with that exclusive reporting. We will check back with you tomorrow. Jim, thanks very much.
Other news we're following, the director of national intelligence here in Washington is out with some disturbing information about the spread of al Qaeda.
Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
What did he say, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was testifying before the Senate today. He was asked the critical question, is al Qaeda still as capable as they were on 9/11 of carrying out an attack? He had a very interesting answer, yes and no.
And the real answer is, it's a different al Qaeda, much more dispersed across the Middle East and Africa. Want you to have a listen to what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER (RET.), NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: I can't say that, you know, the threat is any less. I think our ability to discern it is much improved over what it was in the early part of the 2000 period.
So I think that dispersion and decentralization actually creates a different threat and a harder one to watch and detect because of its dispersion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STARR: Decentralization and dispersion, what is he talking about?
Well, the U.S. intelligence community is watching very carefully these al Qaeda affiliates, if you will, popping up all over the place, Libya, North Africa, Yemen, of course, Somalia, all of these places that are not the 9/11 Pakistan core al Qaeda that attacked the United States.
These are the new affiliates. They are very strong. They're growing in strength and there's a good deal of concern that they do pose a threat to the United States and to Europe. And one of the biggest concerns is in Syria right now, al Qaeda affiliates on the rise, a number of foreign fighters going to Syria.
And Clapper said today one of the biggest concerns in Western intelligence services is those foreign fighters will return to their countries in Europe or possibly to the U.S. -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's potentially a huge, huge threat.
Thanks very much, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
Remember, you can always follow what's going on here THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. You can tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.