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Obama Talks Gay Rights; Plane Was Headed From Ethiopia To Rome; McCain Says U.S. Syria Policy Abysmal Failure; Refugee Boy Crossed Desert Alone; ISIS Rebels Leave Behind Trail Of Terror; Romney's Clinton Comments

Aired February 17, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, new numbers are out showing President Obama's approval rating and they're down 10 points from this time last year.

Also, right now, authorities are questioning the co-pilot of a plane after he hijacked his own flight, one that had more than 200 passengers and crew on board.

And right now, there is, quote, "an abundance of evidence of crimes against humanity in North Korea, including murder, torture and mass starvation." We're taking a closer look at the United Nations report. That's coming up this hour.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. What a difference a year makes on this Presidents' Day. The latest poll numbers show a dramatic drop in the president's approval rating since this time a year ago. In the new CNN Poll of Polls, 42 percent of the respondents approve of the way the president is handling his job. That's down 10 points from this time last year. The poll is an average of three national surveys. President Obama sat down for an interview that aired ahead of the NBA All-Star game last night and the former basketball star, Charles Barkley, of our sister network, TNT, asked him about having his name tied to health care reform.


CHARLES BARKLEY, REPORTER, TNT: What do you think of the term, Obamacare?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like it. I don't mind. And I tell you, five years from now when everybody is saying, man, I'm sure glad we got health care, there are going to be a whole bunch of people who don't call it Obamacare anymore because they don't want me to get the credit. But you don't know what life will throw at you. And sometimes people don't recognize, particularly young people, how important it is to have coverage until you get sick and you realize you may lose everything you have or your parents may lose everything they have trying to make you well.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our Senior Washington Correspondent Joe Johns. He's over at the White House today. Joe, the interview got into several other sensitive subjects, including gay rights. Tell us about that.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As we all know, the president of the United States is a huge sports fan. And in that interview with Charles Barkley on TNT, the president applauding Michael Sam, the college football standout, who had become the first openly gay NFL football player. The president applauding Sam not only for coming out in the first place but also for the timing of his announcement. Take a listen.


BARKLEY: This week, Michael Sam came out.


BARKLEY: Do you -- and I saw the first lady call his decision courageous.


BARKLEY: What do you think about that?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I really like the fact that Michael did it before the draft because his attitude was, you know what? I know who I am. I know I can play great football. And judge me on the merits.


JOHNS: As you heard there, the first lady, Michelle Obama, also vice president Biden, have lended their support to Michael Sam as well. Pretty clear from this and other steps the administration has taken that they're seeing the fight for acceptance in the gay community as a defining issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Joe, thanks very much. We're going to have more of the interview, Charles Barkley's interview, with President Obama airing later today, this hour. Also, by the way, at 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM", Charles will join us live. We'll discuss what he saw at the White House, the behind the scenes moves, his impressions of the president, and a whole lot more. Charles Barkley joining me live in "THE SITUATION ROOM" 5:00 p.m. Eastern later today.

Other news we're following including a wild scene played out in Geneva, Switzerland early this morning with a hijacked plane landing and the co-pilot claiming out the window. And it was that co-pilot who actually hijacked the plane.

Our Frederik Pleitgen is joining us from Berlin right now. So, what do we know about all of this? He took control of the plane, landed in Switzerland. What happened?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPNODENT: Yes, Wolf, there are so many bizarre details that it's hard to actually name all of them. Apparently, he waited until the plane reached cruising altitude over Africa and for the pilot to go to the bathroom and then locked himself into the cockpit, steered the plane toward Switzerland and even while hovering in Swiss air space, he was negotiating with the authorities to get asylum. I want you to listen to a just portion of what he talked to with the air traffic controllers. Let's listen in.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you have to give us (INAUDIBLE) asylum (INAUDIBLE.)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I know. Sorry, we are still waiting for a response, sir. We are trying our best to get you the response, sir.


PLEITGEN: So, they were having trouble getting him the answers, Wolf which is no secret because it was 6:00 a.m. in the morning in Switzerland as he was demanding an answer on his asylum request. So, clearly, he didn't get it then. He then landed the plane. The passengers were all able to disembark, luckily nothing happened to anyone. But get this, most of them didn't even know that their plane had been hijacked and that they had landed in the wrong city. They all thought they were in Rome when they got out and they were in Geneva and it was all full of police on the tarmac -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, what are the chances this pilot, co-pilot, will actually get asylum?

PLEITGEN: Well, he says he feels that he's under threat in Ethiopia and clearly it is a country that does have a lot of internal issues. But the Swiss authorities have already said it's still very early in this process. But, on the one hand, it's very difficult for them to say what's going to happen.

But they do say that hijacking a plane certainly is not the way to get political asylum and he may very well end up in a Swiss jail instead of getting asylum in that country. They say that air piracy, as they call hijacking an aircraft, carries up to 20 years in jail. But it's still far too early to tell if he's going to have to go to jail, if he's going to get asylum or whether they might deport him back to Ethiopia. Still very early in the process -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. You'll stay in touch with us. We'll hear what happens. Fred Pleitgen joining us. Thank you.

PLEITGEN: If you're one of the millions of Americans listening to Pandora, you may be tipping your hand politically. We'll tell you why. That's coming up this hour.

But up next, has U.S. policy in Syria been a complete failure? That's what one senior U.S. senator is saying.


BLITZER: Turning now to the civil war in Syria. Some 5,000 people have lost their lives to fighting in just the past three weeks, making this one of the most violent periods yet in the three-year-old conflict and there's little hope it will end any time soon. Peace talks ended Saturday in Geneva without any significant progress and that prompted harsh words from Republican Senator John McCain.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The policy towards Syria has been an abysmal failure and a disgraceful one as we have watched these horrendous what director clapper said was an apocalyptic situation, particularly in regards to these photos that have now come out. Eleven -- there's 11,000 documented pictures of the starvation, beating, torture, murder of men, women and children.


BLITZER: The desperate situation inside Syria sent wave after wave of refugees racing for the nearest border. The U.N. now estimates some 2 1/2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. Among them, this four-year-old boy who arrived today at the Jordanian border alone. U.N. refugee workers say he got separated from his family and ended up crossing a large part of the desert by himself. A little four-year-old boy who carried his worldly goods in a plastic sack. He was successfully reunited with his family inside Jordan.

For months, reports have been emerging from northern Syria about atrocities being carried out by a rebel group of Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists. It's known as ISIS, the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been battling the Syrian government, as well as other rebel groups. Some of which are moderate and supported by the west. It wants to oppose a fundamentalist version of Islam on people under its control. And the brutality carried out by this ISIS force is so extreme that it's been highly dangerous for journalists to report from areas under its control.

But now, as ISIS is being forced out of some areas, CNN's Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon, her producer, Roja Rozik (ph) and cameraman Clayton Nagel (ph), travels to Adana in northern Syria to witness the human devastation left in its wake. We should warn you, some of these images in this exclusive report are very disturbing.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This grave has been dug up before. The bodies unidentified, reburied in the same spot. In video filmed at the time, gruesome images of the corpses of four men. It's among many mass graves rebel fighters unearthed after they recapture the town of Adana from radical fighters who once were their allies.

Now weeks later, a family hopes for closure. We found a foot and a shoe and a jacket, Aushane (ph) says. She is with her neighbor, Mohamed Ismi (ph). It's his two younger brothers missing, one might be here. He just went out to get tomatoes and sugar, Mohamed recalls, still disbelieving. And his wife wanted socks for their kids. It's the same jacket, Mohamed says. The site is next to a former prison run by ISIS, the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. Its walls lined with bullet holes, some from clashes, others, we are told, from executions. Massed ISIS fighters, as seen in this rare video posted to YouTube, used fear to rule. Anyone caught filming them, killed.

(on camera): This was the main ISIS checkpoint leading into Adana. And as part of their terror tactics, eye-witnesses were telling us that they would leave some of the bodies of people they had executed lining the check points so that every single car coming through would be forced to slow down and could not ignore that brutal message.


DAMON (voice-over): ISIS is a group so merciless that even Al Qaeda has reportedly distanced itself from it.

(on camera): Aushane is telling us that ISIS had beheaded one of the main key rebel commanders here. And they came in the early morning when the market was really busy and placed his head on top of the garbage heap that was in that very same spot. And they turned around and told everybody that that would be the fate of anyone who dared speak out against them.

(voice-over): Their harsh, intolerable rule caused other Islamist and moderate rebel groups to watch an offensive against them earlier this year.

So, we had to leave the fronts with the regime, Abujani (ph) says. And fall back to fight ISIS to liberate the already liberated areas another time. But ISIS still looms large in Syria, consolidating its forces, imposing its reign of terror. In this video filmed the day after we met Mohamed, he realizes it's not two but three of his brothers that were murdered by ISIS. He thought one of them was in jail.

BLITZER: And Arwa is joining us now from Beirut. What an amazing story, Arwa. First of all, how dangerous was this for you and the - and our colleagues to make this trip into northern Syria?

DAMON: Well, it was pretty unnerving, Wolf. Since ISIS first appeared on the Syrian battlefield, they've made it incredibly difficult for journalists who move around. We have to avoid them as much as we have to avoid the regime forces. They deliberately set out to try to target members of the media, Syrian activists as well. There are a number of individuals that still remain in their custody. So it took a lot of research in terms of trying to put the plan together. And you take as many precautions as you possibly can, but there is, of course, always a certain level of risk that is involved.

BLITZER: Do we know, Arwa, where these ISIS rebels have gone?

DAMON: Well, according to the rebels that we were traveling with, the closest ISIS front lines or strongholds are about 60 miles away from where we were. Now, this offensive against ISIS is not just happening in Adana (ph). It's happening across northern Syria. And ISIS fighters are now consolidating themselves, it seems, in some of the areas where they do believe they have firm control, Alrabca (ph) to the east, for example, right up against the border with Iraq. Now, ISIS may have been driven out of some places, but it still very much remains entrenched in Syria and is an incredibly terrifying force. They number around seven to 11 ,000, many of them non-Syrians, many of them with experience fighting the war in Iraq, and they're absolutely determined to do whatever it's going to take, from suicide bombings to assassinations, to establish their ultimate goal, and that is the creation of an Islamic state, Wolf.

BLITZER: And this ISIS group, they have a significant presence in Iraq right now, whether in Fallujah, Anbar. You've spent a lot of time in Iraq. They seem to be gaining some significant strength, not only in Syria, but in Iraq, as well.

DAMON: And they are effectively an extension of the Islamic state of Iraq, headed by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who, around a year ago if not a little bit more, announced the creation of the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, and that is when we began to see ISIS moving from Iraq and setting itself up -- beginning to set itself up inside the Syrian battlefield. Arguably right now it is more powerful than it has ever been across both nations because it has proven that it is capable of expanding from Iraq into Syria, very capable of taking advantage of the kind of dynamics that we see in Syria, the chaos, the killings.

What's really interesting about it, though, is that ISIS in Syria, the Syrian battlefield, has proven to be more of a magnet for jihadi foreign fighters than Iraq ever was. We're seeing a significantly higher number of foreign fighters streaming towards Syria, especially those coming from Europe and even from the United States than we ever saw back in the days when al Qaeda was at its strongest in Iraq, Wolf.

BLITZER: And U.S. officials are very concerned some of those foreign fighters will leave Syria, some already have, go to Europe, come back to the United States even, and engage in terrorists acts here. So it's a breeding ground clearly for international terrorism.

Arwa Damon and her crew doing exceptionally courageous work for us. Thank you very much.

Up next, President Obama's take on Syria and the administration's efforts to try and end the fighting. I'll discuss that and more with the "Crossfire" co-hosts S.E. Cupp and Van Jones. They are standing by live.


BLITZER: Last week, President Obama said he's feeling, quote, "enormous frustration" over Syria and calls Syria a, quote, "crumbling state." But the president is sticking with the current U.S. policy of effectively ruling out military intervention. Here with us, two of the co-hosts of CNN's "Crossfire," S.E. Cupp and Van Jones.

Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Is that a mistake? Not a - the American public clearly has no appetite to get involved militarily in another Middle Eastern country after Iraq and Afghanistan. So is it a mistake for the president to be saying what he's saying?

S.E. CUPP, HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": It's one of so many mistakes that we've made on this conflict. The conflict has been going on just over two years. And all of the worst things that we know now, we knew two years ago. We knew Bashar al Assad was killing his own citizens. We knew he had chemical weapons. We knew he had proxies in Hezbollah and Iran and Russia, dangerous people in a dangerous part of the world. And we knew that al Qaeda and al Nusra and ISIS and other jihadist fronts were going to capitalize on this conflict, on the chaos. They've done all of that. And the problem is that Obama has pleased no one. If you wanted military intervention, if you wanted us to go in, he clearly hasn't provided that. If you wanted us to stay out, well, too bad, he's drawn red lines. He's called for the ouster of Assad. He's allowed Russia to broker a deal where they take the chemical weapons. We are both in and out and our inaction and confusion has made this a more dangerous conflict.

BLITZER: And, you know, a lot of the U.S. allies in the (INAUDIBLE) -- the Saudis or the Emirates, other countries, they're very worried about U.S. strategy in the Middle East right now because -- and I've spoken privately with a lot of these leaders, they say they don't see a strategy.

CUPP: We don't have one.

VAN JONES, HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": Well, first of all, let's be clear that it's a good thing that the president is ruling out military intervention right now because there's a big question, how much would it cost, who would pay for it, how long would we be there and whose kids are going to go over there to fight that? So I think it's important that we're exhausting all diplomatic means, all nonmilitary means to get in there.

That said, we are now in a situation where we have to have a regroup and a reset. This disaster in Geneva, I think, opens a new chapter. What we are doing right now is not working. We're going to have to do something different. The difference, though, between the liberal internationalists and some of our more hawkish friends is, we don't think that we're going to be able to shoot our way out of this thing, we're going to be able to bomb our way out of this thing. We've got to - we've got to do two things. One, we've got to double down on humanitarian aid and call Russia's bluff. If Russia wants to be this new, responsible world power, then stop blocking humanitarian aid and go hard with Russia on blocking humanitarian aid. And number two, we've got to put ourselves in a position where we get Iran and Saudi Arabia to the table together, because this is actually a proxy war between them.

CUPP: But drawing a red line is implicitly suggesting military intervention. When you draw a red line, which we've done not once but a few times and we've continued to move it, the implication there is that we are willing to put our full military behind the weight of those words.

JONES: Are you - look, here's what I would say. I would rather for us to stumble on the way to peace than to blunder into another war. Part of the problem we have right now is that we overextended ourselves the last time. And so now you have not just the president not wanting to go forward, the American people don't want to go forward with a war. And, frankly, most of the Republicans, when they had a chance to vote for war in the fall said they didn't want that either. So --

CUPP: That's - you're absolutely right, the president did not make the case effectively. He came out a year later to say, here's what I'm asking you to do. He didn't tell us why. He was mixed on his strategy even. He said, going in militarily is not calling for Assad's ouster.

JONES: You would - let me ask you a question. Do you think -

CUPP: What?

JONES: Do you think we would be better off right now if we were engaged in another land war, another civil war in the Middle East? Yes or no?

CUPP: I think we are going to be paying for our inaction far longer than any surgical military action now. That would be a tough decision, but the right thing to do.

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE). Should the U.S. provide $1 billion to Jordan to help with these hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled from Syria into Jordan -

CUPP: Right.

BLITZER: A close friend and ally of the United States?

CUPP: You know, someone's got to --

JONES: Absolutely.

CUPP: Deal with this humanitarian crisis.


CUPP: We've got at least 140,000 (ph) dead, millions of refugees. We are part of the world stage.

JONES: Absolutely.

CUPP: I think it is our responsibility to help out in ways that we can.

BLITZER: You agree?

JONES: Absolutely.

CUPP: I don't know if it's going to be enough, though.

JONES: Well, first of all, of course. But here's a problem. Liberals like myself criticized George W. Bush for rushing into war. We said he -- it was an illegal war. The U.N. wasn't with him. It was illegitimate, the coalition was too small and he didn't have a plan to win the peace. We can't now ask Obama to go in with no U.N. mandate militarily, with no coalition and with no plan to win the war. So we have to be consistent here as Americans. What we learned from the Iraq War was that Bush's strategy was wrong. This strategy that's being proposed now is even worse.

CUPP: Didn't he go into Libya illegally without Congress?

JONES: I believe that was the United Nations -

BLITZER: Security Council resolution.

CUPP: Right. OK.

BLITZER: All right. Let's, quickly, I want to get your thoughts, very quickly, on the latest comments from Mitt Romney.

CUPP: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: A very different subject, suggesting, you know, Hillary Clinton, if she runs for president again, she should be judged on her own merits, her own record, including as the secretary of state, and forget about her husband. You don't have to bring him into the equation with some of the issues that, for example, Rand Paul has been discussing lately.

CUPP: Mitt Romney is generally a little high-minded about these sorts of things. No matter what Republicans bring up, it will be the wrong thing. We will not be allowed to bring up Benghazi. We will not be allowed to bring up her past. We will not be allowed to talk about her health or Bill Clinton.

JONES: I think you're going to do it anyway. Who's going to stop you from doing that?

CUPP: So no matter - well, (INAUDIBLE). Was it right to bring up the dog on Mitt Romney's car or Rand Paul's fraternity? I mean she is a public figure potentially running for president. Everything should be on the table.

JONES: Everything will be on the table. Everything's already on the table. She hasn't even announced. So I do think it was really important for Mitt Romney to say what he said because, at the end of the day, I do think it's important for Hillary Clinton's record to be the record that she runs on and is judged on. Also, stuff will come in. But I thought it was very high-minded on the part of the Mitt Romney. I thought it was also very appropriate. At some point we've got to start drawing some lines about what's in and outside the lines. It's all going to come in, but what's in and outside the lines.

CUPP: Oh, I'd love to do - I'd love to do that. We only have that conversation when it's about a Democrat. I'd love to talk about what's outside of the lines when it comes to -

JONES: Oh, I think we have the conversation quite often. I heard Sarah Palin (ph) --

CUPP: Palin and John McCain and Mitt Romney -

BLITZER: And, Van - Van, you know -


BLITZER: If somebody runs for president, everything --

JONES: It's all in. It's all in.

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: Don't run if you -- if you have - if you have some baggage, leave it and don't run for president of the United States.

JONES: I agree with that. All I'm saying is, there will be foul balls, there will be fair balls. Somebody should be willing to call the fair ones fair and the foul ones foul. That's all I'm saying.

BLITZER: Good discussion, guys. Thanks very much.

An important note to our viewers out there. You can see "Crossfire" weeknights 6:30 p.m. Eastern right after "The Situation Room." Tonight, they'll have more on President Obama's foreign policy. S.E. and Van, check it out, 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

Later, online music service Pandora says it can predict your political choices just by who you listen to. But up next, political odd fellows, the awkward relationship between Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, both of Kentucky.