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THE SITUATION ROOM

New Terror Warning; Unrest in Ukraine

Aired February 19, 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: Many people first saw this remarkable story first right here in THE SITUATION ROOM and now we have an update on Isaac Lufkin. He's the Rhode Island teen born without arms, who helped lead his high school football team to a state title, and who hopes to one day play for the NFL.

Like so many of us, President Obama has been inspired by Isaac and he's now written to him, saying, and I'm quoting the president. "Your success on and off the football field serves as a reminder of what can be achieved when we work hard and stay focused on reaching our goals. You have set a powerful example not only for your teammates but for all Americans. And I hope you continue to aim high and strive for excellence in everything you do."

Happening now, we're following two breaking stories. Shoe bomb alert. The U.S. issuing a new warning for all airlines. Sources say terror groups are working on dangerous new designs for hidden explosives.

Plus, crisis talks. We're told there's a -- quote -- "new glimmer of hope" for peace in a city under siege. Stand by for a live report from the center of a deadly conflict in Ukraine.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news this hour, a new terror alert that could affect millions of airline passengers in the United States and around the world.

The U.S. government has now issued a warning about the possibility of shoe bombs.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

He's got the details. What do we know?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This is a new warning and it's issued directly to airlines.

And our understanding is that it's based on new intelligence gathered by the U.S. and other countries indicating terror groups have been working on new shoe bomb designs. This affects overseas flights coming into the U.S. Of course, it is already TSA policy for passengers to take off their shoes going through security checkpoints to be X-rayed. A law enforcement official said that passengers as a result of this new warning may notice additional searches, including explosive detection swabs.

To be clear, there's no specific threat or plot known. An intelligence official told me this -- quote -- "This threat is not specific or credible enough to require a specific response. The DHS often issue alerts out of an abundance of caution."

I spoke with CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen to get an understanding of what kind of groups would be capable of this. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The DHS warning is nonspecific, but the universe of people who have known desire and capability is not large. There's al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. Al Qaeda in Yemen continues to put underwear bombs on planes, continues to try and put cartridge bombs on planes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: You remember only two weeks ago there was another warning regarding terrorists attempting to use toothpaste tubes to conceal explosives, and that tied specifically for flights from the U.S. to the Olympics in Sochi.

Wolf, this is a path that terror groups have been interested in for some time going all the way back to 2001. You will remember Richard Reid, who tried this then. It's something that U.S. intelligence agencies have been focusing on. They want to know if the terrorists are trying to find a new way to do this. They believe they are. Here's a case where, out of an abundance of caution, they're sharing this information as widely as possible.

It doesn't mean they know a group has this capability now or will use it now, but it does mean that they know they're trying this kind of thing. They want to be careful.

BLITZER: Is there any indication that it's linked, the timing of it, to Sochi?

SCIUTTO: There's no indication of that. As I mentioned, we had this toothpaste bombing. That was linked specifically to this. This is linked only to the intelligence that they have been working on new designs. There is no intelligence that they have a particular target in mind or date in flight.

BLITZER: We're talking about flights originating overseas and coming to the United States.

SCIUTTO: That's right. And that's where the passengers might notice additional measures, those swabs they take to look for explosives residue on your person or baggage. That's the kind of thing that passengers coming into the U.S. might see. BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Let's get to the other breaking story we're following right now. We will show you these live pictures coming in from the front line of an international crisis. Tonight, truce talks are under way to try to find a solution to the deadly conflict in the Ukraine. But the U.S. allies are keeping the pressure up on the Ukrainian government.

President Obama warning there will be consequences if the bloodshed doesn't stop.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is joining us live. He's in Kiev.

We hear a lot of chanting. We hear some explosions behind you as well. What's the latest, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you can't see the fires behind me because they're obscured by thick black smoke from tires burned here, as a protective measure by protesters.

We have heard the president saying he's met with opposition leaders and they have agreed on a truce and they have agreed to negotiate to end the standoff. That may be because he will tomorrow perhaps receive the French, German and Polish foreign ministers here and perhaps want to appear more calming and statesmanlike.

But that announcement has not soothed tensions behind me. We have seen fireworks fired by protesters at the police. And we went down amongst the crowds before the truce announcement, precarious as it is, to talk to them about why they're there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH (voice-over): In the ghoulish embers of central Kiev, they're gathering in strength readying for something, as are they, organized in their defenses, the pavement orderly torn up, and then tidily swept down. Those making Molotov cocktails on an almost industrial level didn't want their faces shown because the security chief has now declared the fight engaged them to be a nationwide anti-terror operation.

(on camera): Nightfall always increases tension. Not only these people now know they have been labeled terrorists by the government they're fighting; they have perhaps also heard of increased international pressure in their support.

JOSE MANUEL BARROSO, PRESIDENT, EUROPEAN COMMISSION: We condemn in the strongest terms the use of violence as a way to solve the political and institutional crisis.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint. And we will be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing that, along with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line.

WALSH: After the deaths, they're trying to maintain a sense of permanence here, despite the buildings around them burning and the slow, slow erosion of the space around them.

"We have a war here," one says. "No one can react." "No one can help, "this man adds. "The army's on our side."

The most dangerous weapons we saw were fireworks regularly and clumsily fired at the police. But, still, the army chief was sacked by the president at this vital moment, suggesting turmoil at the top here just when cool heads are needed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH: Now, Wolf, wow, very loud explosion behind me. That could have been a stun grenade. I can only imagine. But it just tells you what I was about to say, tensions are extraordinarily high here. U.S. officials say 20 senior Ukrainian officials won't be getting visas to the United States imminently.

Look, we were hours ago hearing the president of the Ukraine talking about protesters as being radicals. His head of security saying an anti-terror operation was under way. Now there's international pressure, condemnation, foreign ministers arriving tomorrow, everybody is talking peace.

We have been in this sine wave curve before, talks about negotiation and then of escalation in violence. People behind here clearly aren't taking that seriously, these talks about talks, although opposition leaders do say they are hoping they will lead somewhere. We will have to wait to see if tonight passes peacefully. At this stage, though, there's no reason to think that people are even beginning to think about clearing up or going home. We're still seeing consistent back and forth between those front lines and police protesters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The singing we're hearing in the background, do you know what that is, Nick?

WALSH: Well, we have been hearing the Ukrainian national anthem repeatedly here.

I don't quite know what these guys are here. We have had a lot of orthodox priests on the stage recently as well trying to keep protesters' spirits high there, but certainly people are regularly taking the stage to keep crowds during these cold moments where often they're facing sometimes Molotov cocktails thrown in the direction of the protesters from police lines, trying to keep them buoyed.

It's very dangerous, actually, inside that protest area. The floor has been torn up, much of the stones to be used as missiles and weapons, very uneven ground, people crammed in and increasingly concerned actually and unwilling to show their faces because of the extraordinary rhetoric the government is using against them at this particular point. Not a pleasant atmosphere, and sewers overflowing as well. That's about the pressure trying to get them to leave. Police moving in on all sides. We have to see though if these talks go anywhere. We have been here before, not only even as late as last night, but maybe I think on the ground nothing's changed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh in Kiev for us, thanks very, very much. We will stay on top of that story.

Also coming up, President Obama, he is speaking out on the crisis in Ukraine. You heard a little bit of what he's saying. He's also getting an earful from allies about the world's problems and his own missteps.

And disturbing new video shows members of a Russian punk band being whipped by security officials in the Olympic city of Sochi.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're continuing to keep a close watch on the city that's been under siege, protesters standing their ground in the Ukrainian capital even as the truce talks with the government get under way. We may hear more from President Obama tonight about this unfolding crisis. He's attending a summit in Mexico right now.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is traveling with the president and he is joining us from Mexico.

What's the latest, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama arrived in Mexico for a summit that was supposed be on issues closer to home, like immigration and trade, but he took time out to warn Ukraine's leaders about the violence on the ground in Kiev. The question is ultimately whether the Ukrainians listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): For President Obama, it seems there is no escape. Even on this eight-hour trip to Mexico for a summit of North American leaders, the president was forced to switch gears to yet another world crisis, this time issuing a stern warning on the violence in Ukraine.

OBAMA: There will be consequences if people step over the line, and that includes making sure that the Ukrainian military does not step in to what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.

ACOSTA: Mr. Obama's options for Ukraine are limited. The U.S. and European leaders are threatening the Ukrainian government with sanctions. But the administration has learned the diplomatic path can yield few results and more bloodshed, as it has so far in Syria.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: When is the United States of America going to show some leadership? When is the president of the United States going to look at history and say, how is history going to judge me and this country?

ACOSTA: And eerily similar to the situation in Syria, a key obstacle to the president's approach to Ukraine is Russia's Vladimir Putin.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Putin needs to understand that Obama can be as tough as he is, that the United States is not playing patty-cake here. We do have vital interests in that region. We have an interest in the human rights of people who live in that region of the world.

ACOSTA: The president's constraints are also on display at this North American summit. Canada's prime minister is complaining he may have to wait for a new U.S. administration to approve the contested Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Mexico wants to see progress on immigration reform in the U.S., something the president cannot deliver without Republican help. And Mr. Obama would like expanded authority from Congress to conduct new trade deals, but on that issue, it's his fellow Democrats who are saying no.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: Everyone would be well- advised just to not push this right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: The State Department says it is watching to see whether or not this recently announced truce in Ukraine will hold. As for that warning of consequences against Ukraine, a senior administration official says it's not lost on this White House that the president, when dealing with Syria, once warned of a red line on chemical weapon use, and then chose the path of diplomacy.

This senior administration official is cautioning, though, that when it comes to Ukraine, they still have not yet made a determination as to what the consequences might be, saying there's a full tool belt of options -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta traveling with the president in Mexico, thank you.

The United States says it won't issue visas for 20 senior members of the Ukrainian government and others responsible for the deadly crackdown on protesters. You're looking at live pictures right now. A State Department official says the U.S. is ready to take additional steps if the violence doesn't stop.

We're joined by the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, who is now with the Brookings Institution here in Washington.

Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.

STEVEN PIFER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UKRAINE: Happy to be here.

BLITZER: I want to show you and want to show all of our viewers new video we're just getting in. This is video that occurred -- this is Tuesday night. Look at this stuff. I will let it -- I will just -- I will shut up for a second as we watch this. All right. So you see what's going -- this was Tuesday night; 26 people were killed in these demonstrations that occurred on the streets of Kiev. You spent three years there. When the president says there will be consequences if this continues, this crackdown, what does that mean?

PIFER: Well, I think the United States and the European Union, they don't have a lot of tools, but one tool is visa sanctions and potentially financial sanctions that will target people and say, you need to avoid the use of force, but also you need to push for a peaceful solution here.

BLITZER: Do you think that that's going to be enough to stop this crackdown, if you tell these leaders in the Ukraine, you know what, you will not get a visa to visit the United States or there will be some financial sanctions on Ukraine? You think that would deter them?

PIFER: No, these would be financial sanctions on the people directly.

For example, around Mr. Yanukovych, there's an inner circle. One man, Mr. Akhmetov, is the wealthiest oligarch in the Ukraine. He has an 80 million pound apartment in London. If the Europeans say you can't go there, he's going to worry. If he can't do banking there, he's going to worry.

And the question is, does he then push Yanukovych to move of off this course of use of force and try to find a peaceful settlement?

BLITZER: Is there really -- I'm really worried about potentially a resumption -- you and I are hold enough to remember the bad old days of the Cold War, when there was this rivalry between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union.

Given the differences the U.S. has now with Russia on Ukraine, Syria, Iran, even Venezuela, elsewhere, is that kind of rivalry, those bad old days of a Cold War rivalry returning?

PIFER: I'm not sure we're going back to the Cold War, but certainly you have a much more complicated relationship than you had even four years ago.

BLITZER: Why is that?

PIFER: Differences of opinion. For the United States, U.S. policy going back 20 years is aimed at seeing Ukraine develop as a stable, independent country that can choose its own course. And Ukraine appears to want to draw closer to Europe.

For Vladimir Putin, that's a real problem. And you have then got that competition.

BLITZER: It sounds to me that there's a potential in Ukraine for some sort of ethnic civil war, ethnic Russian Ukrainians vs. ethnic Ukrainians.

PIFER: I have heard from people who have been on that Maidan, on that square where you now see this fighting going on. And what people said is, you walk around there and you hear a lot of Ukrainian, but you also hear a lot of Russian.

BLITZER: Among the opposition?

PIFER: Among the opposition.

BLITZER: That's encouraging.

PIFER: And they say 20 to 25 percent of the people that are there have come from Southern Ukraine and Eastern Ukraine, which are traditionally seen as the pro-Russian areas.

I think what's going on in Kiev now, it's not so simple as east-west dividing Ukraine. There are a lot of people in Eastern Ukraine who may have supported Yanukovych who are undoubtedly appalled by what they saw happen last night.

BLITZER: Viktor Yanukovych is the president of Ukraine.

PIFER: Right.

BLITZER: Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.

PIFER: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Steven Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Just ahead, beaten in Sochi. We have the disturbing new video of band members in custody and under attack in the Olympic city.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: CNN is trying to get answers from Russia about a disturbing video that shows members of a punk band being beaten in the Olympic host city.

Our senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson, is in Sochi.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is not what the Winter Olympics are supposed to look like. Russian Cossacks whipping members of the dissident punk band Pussy Riot, the attack coming as these outspoken Kremlin critics try to film a music video in the heart of the Olympic city.

Hours later, we caught up with members of the band at the gates of a hospital in Sochi. At first, a security officer denies them entry, calling them provocateurs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): In Russia, there's no possibility of speaking out. If you want to say that you don't agree with the current policy, you will be chased away. You will be thrown in jail. You will be beaten and possibly even killed. WATSON: This isn't the first time Pussy Riot have gotten in trouble in Sochi. The band live-tweeted photos of their detention on Tuesday, when police brought performers along with at least seven human rights activists and journalists to this police station just a short drive from the Olympic Park.

The police say they were investigating a theft at a hotel. Within hours, the police dropped all charges and let the detainees go. Pussy Riot says this was the third time they have been detained and interrogated over the course of three days in Sochi.

The husband of band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova blames Russia's president for the crackdown.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, basically, we do feel that Vladimir Putin personally sanctions all these forms of harassment.

WATSON: Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina served nearly two years in prison after they performed this song in a Moscow cathedral slamming Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. They were released just before the Olympics, and the women immediately went back to denouncing Putin in public.

(on camera): These are not the first people who have been detained and/or arrested since the start of the Olympic Games.

Within the last week, a prominent environmentalist and a leader of the Circassian ethnic minority, both who have come out publicly criticizing the Winter Olympics, have both been arrested. The environmentalist is now reportedly on hunger strike.

(voice-over): Putin has repeatedly said that, at the Olympics, politics should not mix with sports. Those who try to challenge that edict may be in for a beating.

Ivan Watson, CNN, Sochi, Russia.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And we're just getting this in from our Nick Paton Walsh, who is in Kiev. You're looking at live pictures from the square there.

Opposition leaders now confirming that a cease-fire has been agreed, but they're somewhat circumspect, Nick says, saying they'd like to be -- like to be convinced the government of President Viktor Yanukovych is genuine.

We will continue to monitor this story, of course, for you throughout the night here on CNN.

We also have new information on the breaking story we have been following, a new warning to airlines to be on alert for a possible shoe bombing attempt. An airline industry source now telling CNN the alert targets 35 to 40 specific cities. All have nonstop flights to the United States. They include Johannesburg, Cairo, Paris, London and some cities in the Middle East.

The United States has warned airlines that fly those routes that there will be an increase in the screening of people the TSA has deemed suspicious, as well as randomly selected fliers.

We will stay on top of this breaking news store you for you as well.

That's all the time I have. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. CROSSFIRE starts now.