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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

U.S. Servicemen: Fukushima Made Us Sick; Possible Truce In Ukraine

Aired February 19, 2014 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now it's time for the politics lead. You have got to be careful who you pay a compliment to in this town. It might just come back to bite you.

It's game on in the Senate race and -- in South Carolina and for control of the Senate. And many established Republicans are finding themselves challenged by candidates who are running to the right of the old guard.

Right now, Senator Lindsey Graham is facing five underfunded Republican opponents in the South Carolina primary, five. And one of those challengers, Bill Connor, an attorney and Army veteran, just launched a new ad using Graham's own words against him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

NARRATOR: Conservative Republicans love Hillary Clinton. Right? Just ask Lindsey Graham.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: She's dedicated to her job. She loves her country. I think she is a good role model, one of the most effective secretary of states, greatest ambassadors for the American people that I have known in my lifetime.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Did I mention that these challengers are underfunded?

Still, even a low-budget jab like that, could it pack enough punch to shake up the race?

Let's ask our panel, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today" Susan Page and CNN political commentator and Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" Ryan Lizza.

Susan, you pointed out at the end of that ad, there's a grand Hillary hug. And it reminded you of something.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": Watch out who you hug. Remember when Charlie Crist hugged Barack Obama in 2009? And it was a big factor in his Senate primary against Marco Rubio. And so I think the only thing we can conclude... (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: He dropped out.

PAGE: Dropped out, and then became a Democrat. So, I think we're going to see Lindsey Graham gradually work his way over maybe to the Democratic primary.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: That's a joke, just so everybody knows.

PAGE: Just kidding.

TAPPER: But this could have an impact.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Look, Graham is not as conservative as South Carolina. South Carolina Republicans are among the most Republican -- most conservative in the country.

Graham -- I was looking this up before the show -- he's 33rd in the Senate, so he can be way more to the right than he is. A lot of people think that's a good thing. He's sort of a deal cutter a bit of a statesman. He doesn't always play to the right wing back home.

So potentially there should be some -- a little bit of anger on the right in the Republican electorate in South Carolina. He's got to watch it. He's lucky that he has so many opponents, because they're dividing themselves. And if you look at any of the polls, none of them has caught fire yet. But he has got to be careful. He has got to make sure that one of these guys doesn't suddenly come out from nowhere and give him a run.

TAPPER: We should point out of course that Senator Graham is a very harsh critic of Hillary Clinton when it comes to Benghazi.

LIZZA: Oh, absolutely.

TAPPER: So, he hasn't hugged her...

PAGE: You think that's related in any way?

(LAUGHTER)

LIZZA: Look, he's got about $8 million in the bank. His nearest competitor has got a few hundred thousand dollars.

TAPPER: That was not the most highly produced ad I have ever seen in my life. The disclaimer at the end, where guys I'm Bill Connor, it sounded like he phoned it in, literally phoned it in.

LIZZA: But you never know when one of these things takes off and goes viral, and CNN starts playing it.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Fair enough.

PAGE: It makes it seem really legitimate and genuine.

And I think one of the problems with what Senator Graham said is not just that it made him look not so conservative, but it made him look like a part of the cozy Washington establishment. And whatever South Carolina Republicans think about being too liberal in the Republican Party, they I'm sure hate that Washington establishment that includes Democrats and Republicans who are willing to hug each other.

TAPPER: So, let's talk more about a different intraparty fight, which is that in the Democratic Party, President Obama is in Mexico right now. He's talking trade and the Keystone pipeline.

But the president's own party is tying his own hands when it comes to both Keystone, although who knows what he's going to end up ruling, and trade. What is the problem the Democrats have with the trade deals?

PAGE: Well, Democrats are very suspicious of trade deals, 20th anniversary of NAFTA. A lot of Democrats feel like that didn't really serve the interest of American workers.

And so I think there's very little prospect that this trade deal, that the Pacific trade deal and also the one with Europe is going to go anywhere. Ironically, I think it's the one thing that might be facilitated if Republicans gain the Senate in November.

I mean, that's possible that Republicans would be more willing to work with President Obama on this trade issue than Democrats are.

LIZZA: And, look, the worse the economy is, in the Democratic Party, the more opposition to free trade there is.

TAPPER: Because they see those as Americans jobs going...

LIZZA: Yes. And there are a lot of economists who are second- guessing the effects of globalization and tying it to the increased inequality in the United States.

And it's not like the '90s, when most Democrats were pro-free traders. There's a lot of angst about that a lot more on the left than usual. And on Keystone...

TAPPER: I got to break you off right there, Ryan. I apologize.

Ryan Lizza, Susan Page, thank you so much.

We actually have some breaking news right now, a reminder of why everyone has to take their shoes off at the airport. The Department of Homeland Security is warning airlines of a potential threat.

And I want to bring in our justice reporter Evan Perez on this.

Evan, what's this warning about? EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the Homeland Security Department is warning airlines to be on the lookout for possible explosives hidden inside shoes.

Now, this all comes apparently from intelligence that has been showing up in the last few weeks that indicates that there are some terror groups that have been working on new designs for shoe bombs. As you know, this has been a scare before and a concern before, which is why, as you mentioned, we have to take our shoes off at the airport a lot.

And so, you know, there's no specific threat right now. There's no plot in mind that people know about. But they're doing this out of an abundance of caution to warn the airlines to be on the lookout for this. And so for flights coming into the United States -- this is not for flights inside the United States, but for flights coming from overseas into the United States -- you might see additional procedures at the airports.

Some passengers might see some additional searches. But it's not clear that there's any anything per se that the authorities believe is imminent or anything that's about to happen. This is just out of abundance of caution that DHS is doing this, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much.

Coming up: They were there on a humanitarian mission. They were trying to help the people of Japan, and now dozens of American sailors and Marines are suffering from mysterious illnesses. Our LEAD special investigation is next.

Plus, he says they made him out to be a criminal and a drug user. They even made fun of his toupee. Now a real-life lawyer is suing the filmmakers behind "The Wolf of Wall Street." Stay right there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Time now for our burred lead. That's what we call stories that are not getting enough attention, in our view.

It was about three years ago, three years ago next month that the U.S. Navy deployed to Japan to aid victims of the tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant. And now almost 80 U.S. sailors and Marines on that mission are reporting a series of serious health issues. They're suing Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, alleging that the company misled them about the danger they might be in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): March 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan triggers a deadly tsunami, killing more than 15,000 people.

Waves swamped Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex. Huge explosions followed, and, ultimately, meltdowns of three of the six nuclear reactors, spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Into this unknown sailed the USS Ronald Reagan, an American nuclear-powered supercarrier with more than 5,000 sailors and Marines on board. The carrier was a key part of the U.S. Navy's Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese word for friends.

And now, three years later, more than 70 sailors and Marines from that mission have filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against TEPCO, alleging the company withheld information that led to radiation exposure, causing illness, even cancer.

Medical experts are skeptical of the connection, but the cases are heartbreaking. Lindsay Cooper and Kim Gieseking both served on the Reagan and said, since they have gotten back, they have faced debilitating thyroid issues.

Thomas McCants was on the USS Germantown in July 2011 when it responded to Japan. When he returned, he told CNN he was diagnosed with leukemia.

And then there's Navy officer Steve Simmons, who served on the Reagan. Before he set sail, he was an avid hiker in the mountains of Hawaii.

(on camera): What was your health like in the months leading up to deployment?

STEVEN SIMMONS, U.S. NAVY: The summer of 2010 when we pulled into Hawaii, I was actually out doing trail runs. A couple days later I hiked Diamond Head and from there I hiked Stairway to Heaven.

TAPPER (voice-over): But Simmons said something happened to him off the coast of japan. A year after returning to the U.S., he lost all function in his legs.

(on camera): What do the doctors think is wrong with you?

SIMMONS: No idea.

TAPPER: They don't know?

SIMMONS: They have no idea.

TAPPER (voice-over): Two moments during his deployment stick out to Simmons. At one point the ship stopped taking in water from the sea and purifying it because of contaminants. He had already had some of it to drink that day.

SIMMONS: The water feeds everything, the showers, the water faucets, the soda machines.

TAPPER (on camera): How serious is it when water has to be secured because they've picked up contaminants? Had that ever happened to you before? SIMMONS: This was the first. I think that was first for everybody on board.

TAPPER (voice-over): The Reagan also sailed through the post meltdown nuclear plume for hours, leading to this thorough decontamination. The ship locked down the ventilation systems, Simmons said. That account fits with the prior reporting by CNN's Bill Weir, who tried to get on the ship for a story and was waved off by commanders citing radiation concerns.

The Navy declined our interview request because of the pending litigation, but in a statement a spokesman said, quote, "There is no indication that any U.S. personnel supporting "Operation Tomodachi" experienced radiation exposure at levels associated with the occurrence of long-term health effects."

The Navy acknowledged the ship sailed through the nuclear plume, but disputed a key point in the lawsuit. The complaint alleges that the Reagan was operating two miles off the coast. The Navy told CNN repeatedly the Reagan was operating approximately 100 miles out to sea. There was great concern from the Navy.

CNN's Martin Savidge was on board the Reagan during part of its month-long deployment. His team, like the sailors and marines, went through constant radiation testing and decontamination after being on deck.

(on camera): When your superiors tell you, OK, we secured the ventilation system or we can go back to using water from the ocean, it's safe now, how confident are you that everything is OK?

SIMMONS: There was some misleading information that was given not from the stand point of Navy or DOD. Information that we were using to make decisions was all being fed from Japan and Teppco.

TAPPER (voice-over): In response so our questions about the suit, the power company issued a statement thanking the U.S. for its aid but adding, quote, "We withhold any comments on this lawsuit and will take appropriate measures in accordance with the judicial procedures in the United States."

Teppco has until April to respond in court. There is no question Simmons' health has radically deteriorated since his time on the Reagan. But why? Cham Dallas, the director of the Institute for Disaster Management at the University of Georgia is a respected radiation expert who has led seven expeditions to Fukushima.

CHAM DALLAS, INSTITUTE FOR DISASTER MANAGEMENT: I think that there was probably some exposure to radiation on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, but saying "some" manifests to many people that any exposure to radiation is going to be dangerous. That is actually not the case.

TAPPER: Dallas said the Navy's calculations suggest the radiation exposure of the sailors and Marines was about the same as taking a transatlantic flight, or not very much. He says health effects from radiation such as cancer take years or even decades to show up. For Dallas and other experts CNN consulted, these illnesses have happened too soon to have been as a result of the exposure at Fukushima.

DALLAS: You have an exposure to radiation and then there's a pause. There is a certain period of time before the health effects start to come.

TAPPER: So what is the reason dozens of sailors and Marines exposed to radiation are having these health problems? Does the Navy and do these experts know everything that went on at Fukushima? Getting to the truth cannot come quickly enough for Steve and Summer Simmons.

(on camera): Let's say there is somebody watching this report and they say, look, I'm really sorry that you're going through what you're going through, but the Navy and the Pentagon don't think this is related to Fukushima, so maybe this isn't related at all. What would you say to them?

SIMMONS: Time will tell.

TAPPER (voice-over): Steve Simmons and his wife, summer, like the 78 other plaintiffs, hope time will bring compensation from Teppco or at the very least more information. Until then, the Simmons family is trying to cope as best they can, going so far as to reshoot the memories of their big wedding day so those pictures are no longer a reminder of what once was.

SUMMER SIMMONS, STEVEN SIMMONS' WIFE: We retook our wedding pictures to include the chair because we wanted to be able to look forward instead of looking back and we wanted our wedding photos to be what we are.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Simmons is in the process of being honorably discharged from the Navy for medical reasons. He continues to wait for a diagnosis so he and his family can sort out what their next step should be. The budget bill that Congress passed last month demands that the Pentagon provide Congress a full accounting for the health of all those who served on the "USS Ronald Reagan."

Turning now to our "Pop Culture Lead," members of the group "Pussy Riot" tried to film a music video today in Sochi's court. Then this happened -- yes, that was a security official pepper spraying a member of the band in really, really close range. They were then beaten batons and thrown around. The music choice likely played a role. The band was performing a song called Putin teaches us to love our motherland." Just yesterday two band members were detained for hours in connection with a theft.

The jury is still out over whether "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is an eviscerating indictment of the excesses of Wall Street or a celebration of them, but we know where Andrew Greene, a former member of the firm depicted in the movie, comes down on it. He's suing for defamation, claiming that the character played by actor, P.J. Byrne behind me is based on him and presents him to be a, quote, "criminal, drug user, degenerate."

He wants more than $25 million, but maybe this is why he's so mad. The suit also alleges that the film made fun of his toupee in a, quote, "egregiously offensive manner."

Coming up, the White House has called the violence outrageous and now word that a truce may be coming in Kiev. Stay with us for more breaking news on the chaotic situation in the Ukraine.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Live pictures from Kiev. We have some breaking news in our "World Lead." A possible truce in Ukraine a day after violent, deadly crashes between police and anti-government protesters left 26 people dead in the capital. President Viktor Yanukovych has now agreed, he says, to negotiate with opposition leaders.

I want to get back out to our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh. Nick, explain the deal right now.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we hear from the presidential office themselves that he met with some senior officials and leaders of the opposition movement here including Vitali Klitschko, and they agreed firstly there would be a truce and then there would be negotiations about creating an environment of stability and peace basically in Ukraine.

Now a huge caveat to this, Jake, unless the people behind me haven't heard this, we're not seeing peace breaking out. I've seen lots of cob tames thrown back and forth. The whole square filled with black smoke from tire fires right now. So no sign of change in the environment behind me, but it follows a pattern of an uptick in the violence, then a calm, then perhaps worse to come.

Bear in mind, too, Jake, we are tomorrow morning expecting three key European foreign ministers from France, Germany, and Poland to arrive in Kiev. I'm sure Viktor Yanukovych wants to set a more diplomatic and calm environment and sound more statesmanlike ahead of their arrival.

TAPPER: Nick, put on your analyst's hat for a second for us. These protests have been going on since the end of last year. But obviously they've grown quite deadly in the last couple days. We've seen President Obama talking about them, Secretary of State John Kerry raising the specter of sanctions. You mentioned the three European foreign ministers coming to Ukraine tomorrow. Does this international pressure -- is that what's bringing Yanukovych to the table and the opposition leaders or more the feeling this can't continue the way it is?

WALSH: I think they're under great pressure, I'm sure. There are people in Moscow backing Viktor Yanukovych who don't in the middle of the Sochi games want to see this kind of thing play out with their branding perhaps attached to it. But just hearing the continued blast behind me, it could be fireworks, could be a number of things, but it certainly isn't a truce. I think sanctions do apply pressure upon all the players, but Yanukovych is concerned about a strategy for himself. I think many opposition people believe he has in some ways bloodied his hands in the past 24 hours if not before that. So perhaps any part of a situation for him leaving power if that was to happen, would know he has to be safe in the future.

Sanctions and international pressure may be applied to him to perhaps soften his position. We saw this in 2004, though, the world gets involved, they say they may act, that changes the environment briefly on the ground again, but then the two sides realize they're basically at an impasse and things turn to the tense situation of before.

So nothing has really changed on the ground behind me, Jake, except for the fact we have this statement that they're willing to talk. The last talks they had just before the last period of violence broke out last night, they also ended with the opposition saying they thought it was pointless and Yanukovych wasn't being serious. Have to wait and see what happens -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, indeed, Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much. As always stay safe. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." And we'll have more on our continuing coverage of the crisis in the Ukraine -- Wolf.