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Interview With Texas Senator Ted Cruz; Violence Escalates in Ukraine; New Terror Warning; Christie Hears From Storm Victims at Town Hall; UPS Pilot's Schedule "Killing Him"

Aired February 20, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Twelve years after a terrorist attempt aboard a U.S. flight, has al Qaeda found a way to succeed where the infamous shoe bomber failed?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead, new intelligence spawning a new warning, airlines on the lookout for explosives hidden inside shoes. Yes, the TSA has gotten much more sophisticated at finding bombs since 2001, but it seems al Qaeda may have gotten better at hiding them too.

That world lead. So much for the truce. The killing in the Ukraine only intensifies after the government agreed to negotiate with the opposition. Could early elections calm Kiev?

And the politics lead.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: I think you would probably have to buy some Alka-Seltzer for an awful lot of people in Washington.


TAPPER: Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, on 2016, on his potential rivals for the White House on both sides of the aisle and on the GOP resurrecting former President Clinton's sex scandals -- Tea Party darling in an exclusive revealing interview.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the national lead. We're reminded of the possibility every single time we fly, when we pull off our shoes and send them through the X-ray machine. Now new fears that terrorists are putting a new spin on one of their old tricks, hiding explosives in shoes to get them aboard flights.

Sources say new intelligence indicate that terrorists are working on new shoe bomb designs. And that prompted Homeland Security to warn airlines, be on the lookout on flights coming into the U.S. from overseas.

It's an updated version of the plot that shoe bomber Richard Reid failed to carry out aboard a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. Reid, a British citizen who later claimed to part of al Qaeda, was overpowered on the flight after he was seen trying to light his shoe on fire.

Reid eventually pleaded guilty. He will likely die in prison for his troubles. This new warning is also reminiscent of the failed underwear bomber plot, when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set up a bomb in his underpants on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. He botched it and like Reid was caught and sentenced to life in prison.

The man suspected of building that underwear bomb may be the very reason for this new shoe bomb alert. His name is Ibrahim al-Asiri, and he's believed to be the top bomber for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. has been trying to kill him for years and may have gotten close with a drone strike in Yemen last August.

Asiri is also suspected of building those printer cartridge bombs that al Qaeda put on two cargo planes headed to the U.S. in 2010. You need more proof of evil? Asiri is believed to have implanted a bomb in the body of his own brother who was killed trying to assassinate a Saudi official in 2009.

Now, we should point out, U.S. officials are stressing there is no threat or shoe bomb plot that they know about, but the government is disturbed enough by this latest intelligence that it does not want any airlines taking any chances.

And our guest today says there's an obligation to disclose this information. You know Bob Baer as a CNN national security analyst and a former CIA operative. He joins me now from California.

Bob, good to see you, as always.

The former acting CIA Director Mike Morell today said that he particular worried about this threat, specifically that terrorists have figured out a way around the screening. What's your take?

BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Asiri is definitely getting better.

These first attempts were amateurish. You don't light explosives. You need a detonator. They were missing a detonator, including with the underwear bomber, a true detonator. These things can be made adequately on board a plane. What they need is practice and they seem to be getting that.

Asiri, the fact he implanted explosives on his brother is troubling. And they have had a lot of practice and they are getting better and better and they're using a particularly effective explosive. It's called PETN. And if placed right in an airplane, it could do major damage, at least kill people, if not cut a hole in the skin.

TAPPER: Bob, how hard is it to bring down a plane with these types of explosives? Is it as simple as you say, you just light it and it blows up and that's it?

BAER: No. It's hard to do. You look at Pan Am 103. They have to get it against the skin, have to use a lot of explosives. A Korean airliner was brought down by the North Koreans. And then you have an Indian Airlines was brought down by the Sikhs. It's complicated. There's a technology out there.

And what frankly scares me is there is not bad intelligence that some of these Palestinian bomb makers who invented this stuff have showed up in Yemen, where al-Asiri is located. This is a fear. I don't know it's going to come about, but if you combine the two groups, they might get there.

TAPPER: What changes should the TSA be making, and what should passengers do differently, if anything?

BAER: TSA is doing a good job. They are using a lot of more swabs.

And if you're using high explosives, you can pick up nitrates. They are doing a great job on that. The Israelis airlines are safe because they profile people. We can't do that in the United States. They could do full body scans. They should take a look at the passengers and see who they are and pull people apart, aside that don't look right.

But there's just so many people traveling. And the technology is getting better. And the administration is absolutely right to put out a warning. If one of these planes do go down and they knew about it in advance, it would just be politically unacceptable. So, I think we're doing all the right things, but you just cannot make aviation 100 percent safe.

TAPPER: A senior counterterrorism official in the U.S. said a couple years ago that al-Asiri is the top of any kill list. We tried to kill him -- the U.S. government rather tried to kill him last year with a drone strike. Why can't the U.S. government seem to get him?

BAER: Well, a couple things.

I think he's stayed off the telephones. He's not on cell phones. There's no chatter to pick him up. He's in a remote part of Yemen the government can't get to. He's hiding out with a tribe up there. It's very difficult. We can't put operatives up there.

And as long as he's hiding -- everybody wants him. The Yemenis want him. The Saudis want him. But he knows what he's doing. He's a smart guy and he's good with technology. And it's going to be a matter of luck if we do get to him.

TAPPER: Why, after all these years, do you think, does al Qaeda still focus so much on attacking commercial airplanes?

BAER: What it would do to the aviation industry. One of these planes went down or a lot of people are killed on an airplane, and it would do major economic damage to the West.

We protect airplanes. People would stay off of airplanes. They would get their message across, much more than a train or even a mall. But, frankly, these threats are out there. The administration has got to put them out. They have got to talk about them, but we're still a long way from really another major attack against the United States.

TAPPER: All right, Bob Baer, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

In other national news, it seems like all of us have suffered enough those this brutal winter, but if you're hoping for an early spring, I'm betting that this is not what you meant. Tornado season, typically more of a March-through-June phenomena, may get off to an early start today in the Southeast.


TAPPER: Coming up next: Republican Governor Chris Christie spent some time touting his successes and even opens up a bit about his weight loss and exercise routine. But how did he manage to get away without one specific little word coming up?

Plus, he was turned down for a job at Facebook four years ago, and Mark Zuckerberg just made him a billionaire -- how the founder of WhatsApp went from living on food stamps to cashing in coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The politics lead now. It was his first town hall since the Bridgegate scandal took hold of the national news cycle last month, but the word bridge today, strangely, never came up. Instead, the increasingly svelte Governor Chris Christie got the chance to strut his stuff on his strong suits, Sandy relief, Springsteen, even his weight loss.

But before the Q&A started, the governor did set some ground rules.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I don't remember how many cameras there are here today, but there are a few.

And if what that does to someone in the audience is decide that today is their day, today is their day to show off for their friends, today is the day we're going to take the governor of New Jersey out for a walk, I think you know what I mean -- all of us are from New Jersey.

And so you know what that means. What that means is, if you give it, you are getting it right back. Hey, that's the way we work things here, all right?


TAPPER: Joining us now to talk about the town hall meeting and Governor Christie, CNN political commentator and politics anchor for New York 1 Errol Louis and statehouse reporter for PolitickerNJ Matt Arco in Trenton, New Jersey.

Gentlemen, thanks for being here.

Errol, let me start with you.

The governor was channeling a little Frank Underwood from "House of Cards" there. Why no questions on the bridge?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, if you're serious about pursuing the story -- this is I think where the governor had it right -- if you're serious about pursuing the story, you have got tons and tons of documents that have to be analyzed and worked.

There's lots of disclosures, there's allegations of a conflict of interest for one of the major contractors involved in Sandy relief. There's tons of regular reporting that needs to get done before it's time to throw a zinger in front of the national press at a governor who clearly is relishing a fight.

So, you know, depending on one story is, what direction one wants to do ones work, it wouldn't have made any difference and it wouldn't have been a particularly good use of time. That's my guess, is what was going through the minds of most of the reporters there.

TAPPER: Matt, today's event, the conversation was mostly about Sandy relief, something that people in New Jersey care a great deal about. One woman praised him. She called him the real governator.

And this is what the governor had to say about the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: There should be a new "F" word in there. FEMA is the new "F" word.


TAPPER: The governor also said he can't regulate the federal government. All he can do is yell and scream. How did that play in the room?

MATT ARCO, STATE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICKERNJ: You know, it played pretty well. You know, this is something that the governor is extremely popular for, his response to Superstorm Sandy.

You know, you're talking about why didn't any bridge questions come up. You know, it's a good question. It's a fair question. But it's worth mentioning that, you know, he was in an area that was rocked by Superstorm Sandy. A lot of the residents there are still reeling from it, still recovering from it.

So, you know, I can only imagine that they want a governor that's going to be able to help them and that's -- he's been popular because of that. We know that. When he was rocketed to re-election, his response to Sandy helped get him to be re-elected. So, it's something that plays well with folks. TAPPER: Errol, the governor's national polls are hurting. Christie saw a 14-point approval drop between December and January. And in Ohio, a key battleground state, a new Quinnipiac Poll puts him 13 points behind Hillary Clinton in a potential matchup.

I know this is years and years away and maybe hypothetical for them. But why doesn't Chris Christie look worried at all, do you think?

LOUIS: Well, I think he doesn't look worried because he's sort of a master politician. That's why he's playing on the national stage. That's why the Republican Party has been so interested in him.

But, you know, look, he's got other problems. He goes nowhere on the national stage without a strong standing in Jersey, hence his 110th town hall meeting today, and the worst hit areas of his home state, only 38 percent think he's doing a good job or that -- or think that the response to the hurricane and the devastation has been adequate. So, he's got a lot of work to do before he can sort of recover.

But, look, Jake, he did a pretty good town hall meeting. I don't know how much of it you watched but it ended on a perfect note with a little girl, he was in command of the facts and he told some jokes and he told some jokes on himself. That is his home turf. That's where he's strongest and you'd never know from watching him perform today. But he's got a world of political and even legal troubles that are waiting for him back home.

TAPPER: Let's play that sound if we could that Errol just referred to.


CHRISTIE: Do you have a question for me?



UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: My house is still broken.

CHRISTIE: Your house is still broken? OK. Come here, Nicole.

What town do you live in? Do you know?


CHRISTIE: New Jersey. All right.


TAPPER: This, of course, is the Port Monmouth section of middle town New Jersey. It's Christie country to begin with.

Matt, as you pointed out, this is an area that is very preoccupied with Superstorm Sandy and not so much his presidential ambitions or what happened in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Do you think this charm offensive and, by most accounts, he was in very good form today. Do you think this will work in other town halls and other parts of the state?

ARCO: I think we can see a lot more of this. Look, I must have entered maybe 50 of these town halls. You're right that is it followed the same sort of script. You play the intro to the rules, to the town halls. I mean, that's something from his old script going back years.

So, I think we can expect more than this, more of this. And I think we can also expect him to go to other shore communities because these are folks that still have questions, still have problems that are not resolved and this is a way for him to try to get back and, you know, cater to what he's popular to, which is being the governor that's trying to help folks recover from the storm.

TAPPER: Matt Arco, Errol Louis, thank you so much.

Coming up next on THE LEAD: a relative of one of the 9/11 hijackers accused of plotting an attack with al Qaeda, he now admits he did it but will not spend his life in prison.

Plus, a pilot so tired he complained to co-workers that the hours were killing him just one day before the jet that he was flying crashed. But was his work schedule to blame for the mistakes he made?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In national news, a Gitmo detainee copped to a deal today that would not only make him a free man one day but could help authorities take down an even bigger fish. Ahmed al-Darbi of Saudi Arabia pleaded guilty today to plotting a suicide bombing on an oil tanker in Yemen that killed one crew member and injured dozens more. He also happens to be the brother-in-law of one of the 9/11 hijackers, one who crashed American Airlines 77 into the Pentagon.

Now, under this deal, al-Darbi could get 15 years in exchange for testimony against another terrorist, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who's accused of orchestrating the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Seventeen American soldiers died in that attack, 39 others were wounded.

The pilot of the UPS cargo plane that crashed last August had just complained to a colleague that he was tired and that the flying schedules were, quote, "killing him." That came from a National Transportation Safety Board hearing today, into a crash of an Airbus that killed two pilots after trying to land before dawn at an Alabama airport.

The pilot descended too steeply and struck a hill about half a mile away from the runway. Cargo airline pilots are exempted from a new rule that limits the number of hours that pilots can fly. But UPS had found that the pilot schedules had met the FAA's new requirements. No official cause has been determined for the accident but investigators have found no mechanical problems. The Centers for Disease Control says this is not your granddaddy's flu season. In fact, this season, the strain just might be coming after you. More young people are being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms this year compared to years past. There have also been more flu deaths of people under the age of 65.

Researchers say it has a lot to do with the fact that only a third of the people between 18 and 64 got the flu vaccine before the peak of the season. Vaccination is still considered the best form of protection against the bug. This year, we also saw the return of H1N1 strain which caused a pandemic back in 2009.

When we come back, sniper fire, kidnappings and dozens more dead as protests intensify. President Obama is warning about consequences in the Ukraine but will the U.S. get involved?

Plus, is the U.S. ready for a woman president? No, says one woman, who actually ran for president herself.

Stay with us for our politics lead, ahead.