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Unrest in Kiev Creates Tug of War for U.S., E.U., Russia; Ted Nugent's Controversial Remarks Create Firestorm; DHS Wants National License Plate Database; New Movie Highlights Artwork Stolen by Nazis

Aired February 19, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, a showdown in Ukraine. Anti- government protesters are defiantly huddled into their makeshift camps in Independence Square. Police have tried to move them out. That led to 26 deaths and clashes yesterday. The White House calling this outrageous. You're looking at live pictures from Kiev right now.

The unrest and the protests there have become a sort of high-stakes tug of war between the U.S., the European Union and Russia.

Tom Foreman is joining us now.

Tom, explain to our viewers why Ukraine, all of a sudden, is so important to both sides in this battle.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's a little like the old saying about real estate, location, location, location. Let's talk about Ukraine and why it matters. Ukraine has long been seen as the joining, the connecting part between Russia and the rest of Europe over here. Here's some of the details of the country. There are about 233,000 square miles, or a little smaller than Texas. The population about 45 million people when you add it all up there. And it is a very powerful place in terms of what it has produced for Russia over the years.

So why is this happening? Back in November, the government had an opportunity to make a deal to strengthen its democratic and economic and social ties with the European Union. And there was strong support for that in Ukraine. Instead, what the government did was make a deal with Russia. In exchange for several billion dollars and reduced prices on natural gas, they strengthened all of the ties to Russia. Now considering it was only in the early '90s that Ukraine won its independence from Russia, this is a sore point with a lot of Ukrainians who feel this is going back to what, for some of them, are the bad old days. And because this deal was made, that strengthened the sense among some Ukrainians that their president, Victor Yanukovich, is corrupt and that he's running a corrupt administration and that he's making these deals for his own good, not for the good of the country. And that was all exacerbated and made worse, Wolf, when he cracked down on the protesters the way he did.

BLITZER: Is the opposition there on the ground in Kiev, Tom, as strong as it looks? FOREMAN: It is, but it depends on where you are standing in the country. As a practical matter, the western part of this country, and particularly places like Kiev, tend to feel stronger ties with Europe. So in terms of this E.U. deal that fell apart, maybe around 40 percent of the country wanted to do that. However, if you get into the eastern part, over here, many more people feel strong ties with Russia. In fact, around 20 percent of this country speaks Russian as a first language. This is a country that even before this was deeply, politically and socially divided. But it's very important to Russia, because before the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine produced about a quarter of all agricultural products for Russia. That's why Russia doesn't want to see this go the way of the E.U. And other people, who want to see Ukraine more independent, do -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Good explanation.

Tom, thanks very, very much.

Up next, what are the Republican candidates in Texas doing on this day after reports of Ted Nugent's controversial comments coming to light?

And later, works of art looted by the Nazis. George Clooney and Matt Damon bringing the story to the big screen. We'll talk with a man who specializes in recovering stolen art.


BLITZER: Texas gubernatorial candidate, Greg Abbott, denies knowing about Ted Nugent's vile remarks when he invited Nugent to campaign with him. Nugent didn't say anything incendiary during an appearance yesterday in Denton, Texas, but last month, used what I call some Nazi-era language in describing President Obama. An editorial in the "Dallas Morning News" that didn't mince any words. Quote, "Nugent is a racist. I don't know of any other way to put it. Anyone who would characterize the first African-American president in U.S. history as a, quote, 'Communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel' is a racist. There is no other possible context in which Nugent could defend this remark as not racist." That's a direct quote from the editorial.

Tod Robberson is the editorial writer behind that piece. He's joining us along with the newspaper's senior political reporter, Wayne Slater.

Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

I know there has been a lot of reaction all over the country to what we reported here on CNN 24 hours ago.

But let me start with you, Wayne.

What's been the general reaction in Texas, because I'm primarily interested in what some of these Republican candidates are doing? Are they running away from Nugent or continuing to embrace him?

WAYNE SLATER, SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER, DALLAS MORNING NEWS: Well, you can imagine on the Democratic side a lot of activity in terms of blogging and social media of the Wendy Davis allies. On the Republican side, there has been a little bit of silence. The lieutenant governor candidates are talking about immigration today. Very little talk. I think the Republican candidates on the ballot are trying to stay away from it, with the exception of a challenger. A Republican challenger to the Republican -- likely Republican nominee, Greg Abbott, a woman named Lisa Fritsch, a conservative woman, who says basically the kind of thing that Greg Abbott did in pulling Ted Nugent on the stage is exactly the kind of thing that's driving people away from the party.

Meanwhile, Abbott is not campaigning with Nugent today. He's nowhere to be found. And I have to say, Wolf, the Abbott campaign was shocked, stunned, by the reaction to this, especially your show, and your comments, and rather deep reporting about some of the Nazi implications. So lots of silence among some Republicans, shell-shock silence. Lots of talk by the Wendy Davis people who have had the best day they have had in a long time.

BLITZER: Yeah. You may not know this, Tod, but Nugent has been tweeting, going after CNN, calling us a Nazi propaganda machine. He's been going after me personally, suggesting I'm not even a journalist. Whatever he's saying.

But, you know, that doesn't -- I come to expect that kind of stuff. What really worries me, though, is some politicians continuing to embrace this guy after some of these things he's been saying. And you write about it yourself. Give us your thoughts on this day after this controversy developed, speaking as a Texan right now.

TOD ROBBERSON, EDITOR, DALLAS MORNING NEWS: Wolf, first of all, I have to clarify that it wasn't the editorial opinion of the "Dallas Morning News." It was my personal opinion on a blog. But I imagine we're going to chime in, editorially, in the not too distant future.

This is shocking. This was Greg Abbott's race to win. Wendy Davis was way behind, and probably will continue to be way behind. She has got to struggle. He handed her a gift, and she should be thanking him right now for all of the help that he has given, just by inviting this vitriolic man onto the stage with him. He didn't need to do it. It's inexplicable.

BLITZER: I assume Greg Abbott weighing in, his campaign, going through some strategy now for damage control as a result of all of this. What are you hearing? What do they plan on doing? Do they continue to campaign with him or run away from him?

SLATER: Oh, let me tell you, you're not going to see Greg Abbott, most likely, with Ted Nugent on stage again, certainly not in the next few weeks before the March primary, and likely not after that. You're going to see the Greg Abbott people put up some celebrities. They were trying to cause some noise and attention on the first day of early voting, and they did that. But they are going to be celebrities or people like Colt McCoy, former quarterback of the University of Texas, and others, maybe Nolan Ryan, who don't have the same kind of baggage.

The Abbott people told me today that they're not running away from Ted Nugent, but they're simply getting every indication in every other way that they're going to make sure he's nowhere to be seen near Greg Abbott for quite a while.

BLITZER: Tod, how close of a race, potentially, could this be, the race for the next governor of Texas between Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott?

ROBBERSON: Well, most pundits probably regard this as an uphill battle, steep uphill battle for the Democrats. But Wendy Davis really hopes to awaken a sector of the electorate that hasn't been very active in the past -- women voters, minority voters, that sort. And by inviting someone on to the stage who calls women dirty whores and fat pigs is not going to win Greg Abbott a lot of support among that sector of the electorate.

BLITZER: You also say in your article, Tod, he's a, quote, "admitted pedophile." Explain what you mean by that.

ROBBERSON: Well, I didn't say admitted pedophile. He gave a VH1 interview in which he admitted having affairs with underage girls. And well, that's a no-no. You can't do that.

BLITZER: So that's what -- I want to be specific on that.

All right. Well, he's got some baggage, obviously. And we'll see what happens, how this unfolds. But the political fallout is obviously very, very important in the state of Texas.

Guys, thanks very much for joining us, Tod Robberson, Wayne Slater.

Up next, first it was e-mail and phone records. Are automobile license plates next? The Department of Homeland Security makes a bold move to gather even more data about Americans.

And President Obama apologizes in a hand-written note. You'll find out who was on the receiving end and what the president said that got him into trouble.


BLITZER: Even if you live off the grid, a license plate on your vehicle might be all the federal government needs to track your movements. The Department of Homeland Security now wants to track license plates all over the country.

Brian Todd is covering the story for us.

Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if you get caught by those speed cameras in your neighborhood, from now on, in the future, at least, your license plate number and any information associated with it could be placed in records kept by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS wants to it hire a private firm to be able to take those camera images and make them instantly searchable in a massive data base. DHS and specifically its Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division, ICE, they want to use that database to catch fugitive illegal immigrants, according to a document posted last week, which is seeking bids for the project.

This license plate tracking system would not only use speed cameras, but any readers that scan the tags of vehicles crossing their paths, like toll booths and parking garage cameras. Also repo services. If the car is repossessed, usually, the repo agent takes a picture of a license plate. That gets entered as well. DHS and law enforcement advocates say this will enable authorities to catch suspects quicker to reduce the time needed for surveillance. It would be crucial for other law enforcement pursuits like an Amber Alert.

But privacy advocates say this is more evidence of Big Brother tracking us all the time, even innocent people. And they say it could be abused.

Here is Chris Calabrese of the ACLU.


CHRIS CALABRESE, ACLU: A crooked insider could stalk his wife. He could try to find out who has been visiting a gay bar or where someone has spent the night. Any of those records could be very revealing. Whether you are an abortion clinic. We don't want innocent people to be part of that system.


TODD: Now under Homeland Security guidelines, an officer who wants to check on a license plate in the database has to enter what they call a reason code. That could be a way of preventing abuse of the system. Wolf, maybe if that officer doesn't enter a good enough reason for wanting to check a license plate, they don't get access.

BLITZER: If a license plate gets entered into the system, how long would it stay there?

TODD: That's a huge question. We're asking DHS that. We don't have a clear answer. But according to various reports, that will be up to the private firm that eventually wins this contract. One of the firms that's a front-runner for this contract keeps its records indefinitely. So the next time they snap your license plate -- don't speed, Wolf. They next time they snap your license plate, that could be in the system forever. Who knows?

BLITZER: Brian Todd, reporting for us, thank you.

An apology from the president of the United States. You will find out what President Obama said that got him into some trouble and who received a handwritten note saying, quote, "I'm sorry."


BLITZER: President Obama learns a lesson about picking on art history majors. An art history professor took issue with the president, a remark the president made during a speech last month. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing, with the trades than they might with an art history degree.


Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree. I love art history.


So I don't want to get a bunch of e-mails from everybody.


BLITZER: The president did get plenty of e-mails, including one from the Professor Ann Collins Johns (ph) at the University of Texas. She pointed out that art history "encourages critical thinking." And according to reports, the president sent her a handwritten apology saying, quote "I was making a point about the jobs market and not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of the favorite subjects in high school and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed." We get an apology from the president.

The recovery of artworks looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust is the basis of a hit movie in theaters right now.


MATT DAMON, ACTOR: Monuments matter.

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR: Time to put a team together and do our best to protect buildings, bridges and art before the Nazis destroy everything.


BLITZER: It stars George Clooney and Matt Damon. They were invited to the White House for a special screening of the film last night.

We want to bring you a guest right now with special insight into the story behind the movie.

Chris Marinello is an art historian, an expert in recovering stolen and looted and missing works of art. He's joining us from London.

Chris, thanks very much for joining us.

Give us a sense of how much art was taken by Nazis, how valuable it was during World War II.

CHRIS MARINELLO, ART HISTORIAN: Well, there were billions and billions of dollars worth of art work stolen by the Nazis. They were trying to build a museum to Hitler in Austria and also trying to wipe out an entire culture of people in the Holocaust.

BLITZER: You point out that -- I know that you represent some heirs whose art was stolen by the Nazis and you're seeking to get some compensation or restitution for that for these heirs, is that right?

MARINELLO: It's right that we are seeking restitution. It's wrong that we are seeking compensation. The Rosenberg family is seeking restitution of a Matisse painting currently in the museum in Oslo, Norway, and another Matisse that has been found as part of that collection in Munich, Germany.

BLITZER: A stash of art was found also not only in Munich but also in Salzburg, Austria. Is that believed to be part of the stolen art by the Nazis?

MARINELLO: I have been in touch with the lawyer regarding those works and have offered to go through them with our researchers to make sure that none of these newly surfaced works are part of any Nazi-looted lists or collections.

BLITZER: What could heirs do to regain some of this art? How should they go about doing it if they suspect their parents or grandparents had art that was stolen by the Nazis?

MARINELLO: It's important that they come forward. They can contact me at Art Recovery International or any other organization that specializes in this type of work. They shouldn't be afraid of any lack of documentation. The Washington principals have allowed claimants to come forward in a relaxation of the statute of limitations in the requirements to actually prove their claim. The first thing they need to do is come forward with as much documentation as they have.

BLITZER: What if they don't have any documentation? What if it was destroyed during the war?

MARINELLO: We have recovered works of art based on a single photograph of a looted painting that was hanging over the family's sofa. You would be surprised at what you can do with a small amount of information.

BLITZER: What did you think of the president's apology to the art historians and those students who are majoring in art history right now?

MARINELLO: The "Monuments Men" movie was all about art historians that saved these works of art from the Nazi destruction. Art historians are going to save the culture for all of us and for the world. So I think President Obama was right in admitting that he slipped up.

BLITZER: I think you are right. I think he admits it himself.

Chris Marinello, thanks very much for joining us. MARINELLO: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

NEWSROOM starts right now with Brooke Baldwin.