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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Maryland Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger; Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki; Secret Service Blunders; Russia Planning Air Patrols Off U.S. Coasts; Pathologist Testifies in Michael Brown Case
Aired November 13, 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: So, what impact will a new wave of U.S. airstrikes have on the terror threat?
Russian aggression. As monitors say Moscow sends forces directly into Ukraine, we're learning of new details of plans to have long- range Russian bombers patrol off of U.S. coastlines. Could it spark a military confrontation?
Secret Service blunders. A damning new report on September's White House intrusion by a knife-wielding man reveals a series of stunning missteps by the agents charged with protecting president. I will talk to the "New York Times" reporter who just broke the story.
Autopsy testimony. The pathologist hired by Michael Brown's family appears before the grand jury investigating his death. Could his findings lead to charges against the police officer who shot the unarmed teenager?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Very disturbing report that ISIS and an al Qaeda affiliate have agreed to join forces in Syria. This comes as chilling recording has emerged allegedly of the ISIS leader thought to have been killed or injured in a U.S.-led air attack now threatening, I'm quoting his now, volcanic jihad.
And CNN has just confirmed a new round of airstrikes against terror targets inside Syria. The State Department spokesman Jen Psaki is standing by to talk about all of this and more, along with our correspondents and other guests.
Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has more on the breaking news.
Barbara, what are you learning?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there have been a fresh round of airstrikes against a group called the Khorasan inside Syria. A very hard core al Qaeda group the U.S. is trying to go after. But at the same time these tapes are emerging and a key question now, is the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dead or alive?
STARR (voice-over): ISIS is burrowing in for the long fight. In a new video, the terror group shows off its latest strategy to survive, ISIS fighters in an underground tunnel system in Iraq sheltered from coalition airstrikes.
And ISIS' leader has come out of hiding. Less than a week after reports he was targeted in an airstrike, the group released audio only of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi suggesting he survived. The new message purportedly the voice the leader, al-Baghdadi called the coalition terrified, weak and powerless and threatened volcanoes of jihad everywhere.
CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the audio. With over 800 airstrikes so far, the nation's top defense official today again there will be no U.S. boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS.
CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: U.S. military personnel will not be engaged in a ground combat mission.
STARR: But the Joint Chiefs chairman seemed to leave the door open for greater U.S. involvement in Iraq.
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: I'm not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we're certainly considering it.
STARR: As the United States prepares to send 1,500 additional military personnel to Iraq, the Joint Chiefs chairman says Iraq will need 80,000 of its own troops to recapture territory it has lost to ISIS. But the idea got a skeptical reception.
REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ (D), CALIFORNIA: I'm asking, what's the difference in the men, of the Iraqi men that we have in the forces there in making a difference, not running away from the battle?
STARR: Dempsey admitted, even with more training, Iraqi forces still need to show that they are up to the fight.
DEMPSEY: One of the assumptions is that the Iraqi security forces will be willing to take back Al Anbar and Nineveh province. If those assumptions are rendered invalid, I will have to adjust my recommendations.
STARR: Adjust his recommendations. He's talking about sending U.S. troops to accompany Iraqi forces into the field. But Dempsey's aides say he's not talking about combat forces, he's talking about sending high-tech advisers, U.S. troops that could help the Iraqis pick out targets to hit. He says they won't be in combat, but that could be a combat zone -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.
Let's bring in our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.
Elise, what are you picking up?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think the interesting thing that we're hearing right now is about the story about how the United States is basically looking at a recalibration of their strategy in Syria.
On the Hill today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey and Defense Secretary Hagel recognized that the two-front war, the opposition is fighting ISIS and the regime. But ISIS was the more lethal enemy. Take a listen at Defense Secretary Hagel.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Yes, they want to see Assad go, yes, there's no question. But the most absolute, immediate threat to most of these people is ISIL, and what ISIL is doing to their villages and to their families and their homes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LABOTT: It wasn't so long ago that Secretary Hagel wrote the White House warning that a lack of a coherent strategy in Syria and the future of Assad could hurt the campaign against ISIS.
Wolf, whether you call it a recalibration, as some officials are saying, one official to me called it vigorous reassessment, I think there is a realization they need to rethink how the overall ISIS strategy fits in with a strategy for the future of Syria, Wolf.
BLITZER: What are you hearing from your sources? Can the U.S., Elise, defeat ISIS without Assad leaving Damascus?
LABOTT: The U.S. has said that the airstrikes in Syria are really to blunt ISIS next door in Iraq and they were hoping to arm and train Syrian rebels to battle ISIS and then ultimately Assad's forces.
But these rebels, in this two-front war, battling the regime, battling ISIS. I think many people think that Assad is benefiting from that campaign against ISIS, because it's really zapping the focus of the administration. So the argument of the allies and many in the administration is if you don't help beef up this opposition now, beef up their capabilities, take steps for a political solution in Syria, including an eventual exit for President Assad, that moderate Syrian opposition will be destroyed and they won't be there to fight ISIS.
But the problem, Wolf, is there's no political opposition right now to fill that vacuum if Assad were to go. So the administration, I think a lot of people feels needs to redouble its effort to find that viable alternative. You have Russia and Iran who are not unsympathetic to the cause of combating ISIS still supporting Assad and have shown they're not showing any signs of willing to change course. BLITZER: Yes, Russia and Iran definitely still supporting Bashar
al-Assad. All right, Elise, thanks very much.
Let's get some more now on the breaking news.
Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Great to be here, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much for being here.
We got a lot to discuss. I have got some important questions. You tell me the best information you have.
PSAKI: I will.
BLITZER: Has al-Nusra, this terrorist group the U.S. regards, al-Nusra, they are fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime. Have they formed some sort of new alliance, thanks to Khorasan, with ISIS?
PSAKI: Wolf, we have seen the same reports you have.
We don't have any independent confirmation of that from the U.S. government at this point in time. As you know, and as your viewers know, they had a divorce of sorts earlier this year. This is something we will be watching and tracking.
BLITZER: It wouldn't surprise you though if all of these al Qaeda spinoffs, they may have had some arguments in the past, if they say, you know what, there's a bigger picture, they all oppose Bashar al-Assad, they certainly oppose the United States, they're going to work together. That would be a huge and very dangerous development.
PSAKI: Look, they were working together earlier this year. So only for the last several months have they not been working together. But the bottom line is, they're both terrorist organizations. We certainly are focused most on ISIL at this point in time, but we will certainly be tracking this closely.
BLITZER: Do the Free Syrian Army, the moderate Syrians, the guys that the U.S. wants to train in Saudi Arabia and send back, do they have an alliance of sorts at least some of them with al-Nusra?
PSAKI: No, Wolf, I wouldn't put it that way at all.
There's no question there are some components of the opposition, not the moderate opposition we work with, that have worked with different extremist groups and elements. But that's one of the reasons why we track our vetting so closely and why we work with very specific groups. That's something we're very cognizant of.
But, look, the situation in Syria is a mess. There's no question about that. That's why it's so challenging and why we make careful decisions about what kind of assistance we're providing, what we should do next to address the situation. BLITZER: Can the U.S. and its coalition partners destroy,
degrade, and ultimately destroy ISIS without getting rid of Bashar al- Assad and his regime in Damascus?
PSAKI: Look, I know that CNN has been doing some reporting on this.
We wouldn't put it as simply as that. The fact is, ISIL has had safe havens in Syria for several years now because of Assad. Assad is the greatest magnet for terrorism that there is in Syria. But we're focused on a military approach with other components as it relates to ISIL. We are not focused on a military approach as it relates to Assad. We're focused on a political transition.
BLITZER: Why not a military approach? If the U.S. would like Bashar al-Assad to leave, and there's no indication he will leave on his own, he's got the support from Iran, he's got the support from Russia, he's got Hezbollah from Lebanon supporting him. Is there a diplomatic way, he's just going to wake up one morning and say I have had enough, I'm ready to leave?
PSAKI: It's a good question.
We believe a political transition is the right step. We have believed he's lost his legitimacy for a long time now.
BLITZER: He doesn't believe that.
PSAKI: Well, that's right. Now we have to change his calculus. That's long been the case.
BLITZER: Can you do that only with diplomatic or economic pressure or does it when all is said and done require military action? Clearly, the Free Syrian Army, the moderate Syrian rebels, they don't have the capability of destroying his regime.
PSAKI: This is an important question.
They're all linked in the sense that the opposition, the FSA, needs to be strengthened and needs to be boosted up. We have been increasing the range of assistance. We passed the train and equip program. And if they can be more credible militarily, we believe they can pose a bigger threat politically and we will get them back at the table.
BLITZER: How long is that going to take to get them into a credible military posture to not only represent a threat to ISIS, but also to the Syrian regime?
PSAKI: It's going to take some time.
BLITZER: What does that mean? Describe some time. PSAKI: I can't put a timeline on it for you right now, Wolf,
other than to say that we have begun the process, we're going to start the train and equip program soon, and obviously with that in place, we're confident that they will be more credible militarily. And that will help them.
BLITZER: We're talking 5,000 of these fighters, they are being vetted right now. None of them have gone to Saudi Arabia for training yet, right?
PSAKI: That's right.
BLITZER: They're going to spend months and months in Saudi Arabia being trained by the U.S. and others?
PSAKI: That's right. But I would remind you that we have also increased the scale and scope of our assistance over the course of the last year-and-a-half. We have steadily increased that and we're going to keep taking steps to boost the opposition.
BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the secretary of state, John Kerry. He's your boss.
PSAKI: He is.
BLITZER: He had a very important meeting today in Amman, Jordan. He with King Abdullah. We have got a picture. We're showing it to our viewers there, King Abdullah II. And Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, he went to Amman from Jerusalem. The Egyptian president called in, al-Sisi. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, he is there in Amman as well. What's going on?
PSAKI: Wolf, you spent a lot of time in Jerusalem this summer. You know how tense the situation has been for the last several months.
The secretary has personal and has professional commitment to making sure he does everything possible to reduce the tensions there. He has strong relationships with the leaders. He met today with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with King Abdullah. In a meeting, he met separately with President Abbas and he really encouraged them to take some concrete steps to reduce the tension.
BLITZER: Like what?
PSAKI: He's confident they're going to take some steps. It's clear on the ground what's happening, as there's rhetoric that's been rising, there are attacks going back and forth.
It's pretty obvious what needs to stop and what needs to end. He's confident coming out of his meetings that there's going to be some progress we will see in the next coming days.
BLITZER: So he wrapped up these meetings in Amman. He's encouraged that there may be a little bit of an improvement in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship? Is that right ?
PSAKI: He did.
Right now, what our focus is on is the situation on the ground in Israel. It's very tense. The violence has been increasing. We have seen incidents happen every day. That's the step we're focused on right now.
BLITZER: Is there one specific thing you want the Israeli government to do?
PSAKI: I think there's a couple of specific things as well as the Palestinians. They all need to take steps to reduce the rhetoric. They need to take steps to condemn violence, to prevent that from happening on the streets. There's some steps as leaders they can take. We're hopeful they will do that.
BLITZER: Good luck. I would like to see that peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians get back on track. If the secretary of state can do that, we will admire him if he can get that peace process back on track.
PSAKI: As would we.
BLITZER: Thanks very much.
PSAKI: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jen Psaki is the State Department spokeswoman.
We have more breaking news coming up. A series of jaw-dropping blunders by the U.S. Secret Service they're all laid out in a damning new review of the White House incursion back in September. I will speak to the "New York Times" reporter who just broke this story.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news, a very disturbing new report on the White House incursion in September in which a man carrying a knife scaled a fence and ran inside the presidential mansion. "The New York Times" is reporting that a review of the incident has revealed a series of stunning series of missteps by U.S. Secret Service agents, including one agent that was on his personnel cell phone when the intruder jumped the White House fence.
Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is working the story for us.
Tell our viewers what you're finding out, Joe.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a detailed executive summary from the Homeland Security Department on that incident, September 19, involving Omar Gonzalez right here at the White House.
It details a series of breakdowns and as you mentioned, one of the most interesting things, I think, that's come out of all of this is something we have put into a graphic for you. I will read. At the time of the incident, the canine officer here on the grounds, a technician, was stationed inside a van with his canine neighbor partner parked on the White House driveway when Gonzalez jumped the north fence.
The canine officer was on a call on his cell phone or speaker without his radio earpiece in his ear. He had left his second tactical radio in his locker. That right there is a big breakdown. And it details some others, including intelligence. Secret Service had multiple encounters with this individual, Gonzalez, on July 19, July 21, August 25, and somehow or other, his name didn't get all the way into the system.
There are other concerns on the day this man actually got into the White House, including the fact that there was construction here on the grounds that was blocking the view of some of the officers and a number of other concerns, in fact. So it comes down, they say, to training and figuring out how to handle people who they don't want to shoot with deadly force. How do you handle somebody who jumps the fence here at the White House in that type of situation?
BLITZER: That guy didn't just jump the fence, he actually got inside the White House. He didn't only inside the White House. He got into the East Room of the White House. It was all very shocking and in time we're getting more information.
Joe, stand by.
I want to bring in the reporter who just broke the story. Michael Schmidt of "The New York Times" is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
This report that was done, this review, they want to learn from the blunders, the mistakes that occurred, learn lessons so it doesn't happen again. What jumped out at you as the most startling new development?
MICHAEL SCHMIDT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Unfortunately for the Secret Service, the report is a bit comical. It's like a perfect storm of missteps on all different levels.
The most interesting thing I found was that there was actually an officer at the door who could have stopped him on the outside. But what he did is he didn't know what was going on. He saw all this commotion. He took out his gun. He went up to one of the pillars. He hid there and he said, if this guy is coming up the steps, the door is going to be locked. I don't really need to get involved.
Then the intruder came up the steps and went right in the door because it was unlocked. And then from there, a female officer tried to stop him and couldn't do that and he kept on going. So it's kind of, as I was saying, this kind of crazy little turn of events.
BLITZER: I read your report. There was part of the fence that didn't have some sort of projectiles on the top that potentially could have stopped him from jumping over that fence?
SCHMIDT: There are these small spiky things at the top of the fence, they kind of look like ornaments, but apparently they really can prevent people.
There was not one in the area where he climbed over. And they think that that actually allowed him more easily to do that. The fence is fairly high, and people have climbed it. There's been dozens of climbers in the past few years. But this particular thing looked like it helped him.
BLITZER: Once they finally did find this guy, he ran all the way over the North Lawn of the White House, went right in the door, which was unlocked, then he went inside the East Room. That's where the president can entertain guests, has major news conferences. They could have shot and killed this guy, but they made a deliberate decision that they were not going to use lethal force.
SCHMIDT: Several times in the report, the officers say I didn't think he was a threat, he didn't look armed. That's why I didn't use force.
The interesting thing about he gets to the White House is that he gets through these bushes and the officers figure if he's going in the bushes, there's no way he's going to come out. It's too hard. They thought it was just too complex in there. Next thing you know he goes through the bushes and right up the steps and they're running around the bushes, running after him, and he's already in.
BLITZER: He was on the watch list. They had been watching him for weeks before this incident, as we just heard Joe Johns report, based on the information in this summary that you have a copy of.
SCHMIDT: Yes, lots of run-ins that started all the way back in July with him.
They even saw him on the day that he jumped over the fence. Officers who knew him from a previous incident where they saw him with a hatchet on his belt walking around the White House recognized him. But they said he wasn't exhibiting any odd behaviors and they let him go.
BLITZER: Disciplinary action, has there been any yet?
SCHMIDT: According to my understanding of this, so far no. But that will be reserved until after this larger review, which the deputy Department of Homeland Security secretary is doing comes out, which could be I guess in the next month. After that, there would be discipline.
I think the person probably with the most scrutiny on them is this guy in the van with his dog who was on his phone.
BLITZER: He was on a personal cell phone and his earpiece, he is supposed to be hearing what is going on, he took it out to make a personal phone call. It was awful timing for him and awful timing for this whole incident.
SCHMIDT: The report even had the detail that he was on his speakerphone. So you have this image of this guy sitting there holding his phone. The president has just left. He probably thinks his day is coming to an end, and literally maybe that was the point where his career ended.
BLITZER: Yes. We will see what happens. But so far he still is on the job, she still has a job, he hasn't been fired or anything like that?
SCHMIDT: That's our understanding.
BLITZER: Michael Schmidt of "The New York Times," thanks very, very much. Good reporting, as usual.
Let's get some reaction to what is going on this and other issues.
Democratic Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland is joining us. he's the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, you hear this information. What goes through your mind?
REP. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER (D), MARYLAND: It's just a wild world out there. But I know and I have confidence that the United States and allies will take care of the safety and welfare of our countries, believe me.
BLITZER: Because it's hard to believe a series of missteps or whatever could have resulted in a guy -- I was a White House correspondent for years and I was on the North Lawn of the White House all the time and once in a while you do get some guys jumping over the fence. But within a few seconds, they're stopped there.
It's shocking to me that someone could run all the way across the North Lawn, get inside and actually get into the East Room of the White House.
RUPPERSBERGER: I think it is shocking.
We have to remember we have excellent men and women who work for the Secret Service. But when you have situations like this that has to do I believe with upper management, holding people accountable, making sure the systems work. That just hasn't happened.
And people need to be held accountable, because the Secret Service is one of the best in the world in what they do. But this embarrasses them and we need to deal with it. And I'm sure we will.
BLITZER: Yes, the Secret Service does a fabulous job, except in this particular case, they made some -- there were some serious blunders there. And we will see what happens.
RUPPERSBERGER: They do a great job. They're dedicated people.
BLITZER: Hopefully, they will learn the lessons to make sure it never, ever happens again.
Let's move on and talk about some other issues in the news right now. Al Qaeda and the al-Nusra Front, as you will, there are these reports it may be merging with ISIS. What do you know about that?
RUPPERSBERGER: Well, they talk about merging. There was supposedly a meeting for four hours. Remember, al Qaeda told ISIS, we don't want you here, we don't like you cutting people's heads off, we don't like your tactics, we think that you hurt us.
Now, the al-Nusra Front, by the way, which is part of al Qaeda, is strictly focused more on their region, where al Qaeda is focused more on the United States and our allies and attempting to do whatever they can to perform attacks on Americans and our allies and Israel also.
BLITZER: Because there are reports that this Khorasan group, another al Qaeda splinter group, if you will, they are brokering this deal between al-Nusra and ISIS.
RUPPERSBERGER: Khorasan is a group, it's a very -- they have been around for a while. They come basically from Pakistan.
But they are very smart. They do research. They're trying to develop bombs that can get through detection. They're trying to develop bombs that can go into laptops. They're trying to find a way to do whatever they can do to attack the United States or our allies.
And really Khorasan is probably at this point just as dangerous as ISIS. ISIS is now still focused on their region and they're focused on controlling land and moving. But when it comes to Khorasan, that's the core al Qaeda that still looks at us as the ultimate target. That's the West.
So we have to be very vigilant with them. And I believe that they feel they're getting recently -- resources because we been effective in the last couple of months in taking out some of their leadership with our airstrikes.
BLITZER: This new audio recording of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, who is supposedly -- the Iraqis said he had been injured at least, if not killed, in an airstrike a week or so ago, there's a new recording of him now. Has the U.S. authenticated it is in fact the voice of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
RUPPERSBERGER: We had briefings today.
No, it has not been authenticated. But let just me point this out. If it is Baghdadi, why didn't they have a visual? Why was it just audio? Why did they have his voice and not talking as an individual?
We just still don't know. But he is a very strong leader. He's charismatic. He's the person who has led ISIS where they are. He's the person who has coordinated them, really obtaining illegally billions of dollars. And it would hurt ISIS if he were killed.
But there's a lot of other leadership that is involved with this, too. They have had command-and-control. They are a very, very serious group that we have to deal with and we are dealing with them.
BLITZER: We heard our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr report the U.S. is conducting more airstrikes against Khorasan now. Three weeks ago, the Obama administration said Khorasan posed an imminent threat. How imminent is that threat to the U.S. homeland from Khorasan, these other al Qaeda groups right now?
RUPPERSBERGER: What I just said before is that right now Khorasan is probably a bigger threat to us than ISIS.
ISIS is a threat. They will be a threat for a long period of time. But as far as the present danger to the United States or our allies, I'm worried about Khorasan. We have to be focused on them, because they're doing research and development and trying to develop mechanisms to attack us, to blow us up, whether it be airlines, whether it be attacking the United States, whether it be suicide bombs.
Khorasan is a group that is working hard to develop that type of technology.
BLITZER: So there is a possibility, correct me if I'm wrong, Congressman, that core al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, who is hiding someplace maybe in Pakistan, we don't know where he is, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Al-Shabab in Somalia, all these other groups, ISIS, al-Nusra, Khorasan, they could unite and that would be a pretty formidable front, wouldn't it?
RUPPERSBERGER: I don't believe they're going to unite. I think they will try to work and help each other if they can. But you have the group that is in Yemen, in that area.
They have done a lot of research. They work -- they do the type of things focusing on us as Khorasan would. But the core al Qaeda still focuses on the attacks. Most of the time, they're focusing on suicide bombs, blowing up airplanes, that type of thing.
This ISIS is a different situation. But if -- they are working together, but I think Zawahri, who is the leader of al Qaeda, I think he has lost a lot of his command-and-control, which makes it dangerous, more dangerous for us because we have more people to look at and to find throughout the world that are threats to us and our allies.
BLITZER: Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, thanks, as usual, for joining us.
RUPPERSBERGER: OK. Sure. OK, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you very much. Just ahead, as reports surface of Russian convoys rolling into
Ukraine, there is now growing concern about Moscow's plan to have Russian bombers patrol the U.S. coasts.
And the pathologist hired by Michael Brown's family to perform a second autopsy of his body appeared before the grand jury probing his death in Ferguson, Missouri. We're taking a closer look at how his testimony could potentially change the investigation.
BLITZER: It's an aggressive move certain to strain the already tense relationship between Moscow and Washington. Russia now planning to send warplanes on patrols off U.S. coastlines.
Brian Todd is looking into this story for us. Brian, what is going on over here?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is about Russia's risky calculated pattern of aggression toward the U.S. and its western allies.
There have been multiple incursions close to U.S. air space this year. Recently, a Russian military plane came within 50 miles of the California coast. Some of these encounters have come within a razor's edge of causing serious casualties.
TODD (voice-over): A dangerous maneuver: a Russian jet fighter buzzes right in front of a U.S. Air Force surveillance plane, within about 100 feet of the nose. A move which U.S. officials said endangered the American crew.
Another incident: a Russian military aircraft comes within 50 miles of the California coast, the closest in years. Get ready for more. Russia's defense minister says his military is about to send long-range bombers to patrol near American coastlines.
BARRY PAVEL, THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL: You're going to have bombers coming in this direction from Russia. You're certainly going to have longer range bombers coming down this coast almost certainly. And you're also going to have bombers coming down this coast. And he also mentioned in particular flying in the Gulf of Mexico. So we're talking about ringing the United States, with the exception of the Canadian border.
TODD: The Russian planes likely won't fly inside U.S. Air space, within 14 miles of the coast. But U.S. Officials call the action "provocative and destabilizing." Russia's defense minister says it's in response to aggression near its border with Ukraine.
PAVEL: This is a rationalization by Russia and, in particular, by President Putin to strengthen Putin his appeal with his base.
TODD: Russia's aggression playing out around the globe. A Scandinavian passenger jet nearly colliding with a Russian surveillance plane.
One incident right out of a Tom Clancy novel: In waters near Stockholm, a mysterious underwater vessel makes an emergency call in Russian. It triggers the largest submarine hunt off Sweden since the Cold War. All this has taken place since Russia invaded Crimea in February. More than 40 close military encounters in that period, according to one European report.
Analysts say this is one man, Vladimir Putin, flexing his muscle, desperate to restore Russia's Cold War power.
FLORA HILL, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Putin is personifying as the tough guy, the image of Russia he wants to present, a Russia that will not back down, a Russia that will take on the west. And a Russia that will take on everybody.
TODD: The dangers now, according to analysts, that Russian or western forces might miscalculate, and there might be some kind of military confrontation. Also, that given all the air traffic around the United States, especially the Eastern Seaboard, there might be some kind of accident with a Russian aircraft. Or that some other American adversary will follow Vladimir Putin's lead.
BLITZER: These Russian planes, when they fly into these areas, including off the U.S. Coast, whether in the gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, areas close to the United States, they won't necessarily be using some key instruments.
TODD: That really makes it dangers, Wolf.
Analysts say the Russian military aircraft often don't file flight plans. They turn their transponders often. They sometimes don't fly with their lights on at night. They don't always respond to radio queries from air traffic control. That is the real concern, about a potential aviation accident with a commercial aircraft. That could happen. It's very worrisome.
Brian, thanks for that report.
Just ahead, he performed a second autopsy on Michael Brown. Now this pathologist, hired by the teen's family, is sharing his findings with the grand jury investigating the controversial police shooting. We're taking a closer look at the impact his testimony could have on the case.
BLITZER: Critical testimony in the grand jury investigation into the police shooting death of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The panel will decide whether the -- to indict the officer who shot him.
They heard today, I should say, from a famed pathologist who was hired by the Brown family to conduct a second autopsy on Brown's body. We don't know when the grand jury will reach a decision whether to indict or not.
But let's talk all about this with the community activist, John Gaskin; CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes -- he's a former FBI assistant director; and our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.
John -- well, let me start with you, Jeff. The pathologist, Michael Baden, he's very well known. He appears before the grand jury for a couple of hours, if not longer. What do you make of this?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I'm familiar with his results, and his results are ambiguous, frankly, about whether a crime took place here. He now says he believes there were seven shots, as opposed to six shots. One of the shots hits Michael Brown in the arm in a way that potentially could have been from behind or potentially could have been with his hands up.
But there is no piece of evidence from Michael Baden that suggests that, with certainly, that Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown in the back. It simply is ambiguous, it seems to me, whether this evidence will encourage the grand jury to find indictment or no true bill.
BLITZER: How prominent do you think this testimony from Dr. Baden would be, Tom?
TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I don't know. Because the other problem with this is there's two other autopsies. So the odds that three autopsies are going to be in exact agreement and that three sets of doctors and scientists are going to come to the same conclusion as to what exactly occurred, I think are rare. I think it only compounds the problem and the confusion in the case in the long run.
BLITZER: Walk us through this process right now. They're right near the end, we assume, of this grand jury, right?
TOOBIN: ANALYST: Right. And the prosecutor, McCulloch, has said he's presenting all the evidence to the grand jury, which is very unusual. Usually, prosecutors try to only give a limited amount in order to find -- in order for the grand jury to find probable cause.
At that point, at some point, the grand jury may well be presented with a draft indictment by the prosecutors and they would be asked to vote on it. And they don't have to be unanimous. All it takes I believe is three quarters of the grand jury to vote indictment, or the prosecutor may simply advise, we don't think it's justified to have an indictment in this case.
Prosecutors have a lot of control here. Even though it's the grand jury voting, much more than in the trial, grand juries control the process. Remember, there's no judge in a grand jury room. The prosecutor runs the whole show.
BLITZER: And we don't know what the grand jury, John Gaskin, is going to do. But go ahead and give us a little flavor of what the mood is there in Missouri right now. Give us a flavor of what's going on.
JOHN GASKIN, COMMUNITY ORGANIZER: Well, things are calm. I guess it could potentially be the calm before the storm. Many people are waiting, just like we are, for what the grand jury's decision will be.
So, we're waiting patiently. As we know, it could be any day now. But the concern still lingers in the air on what the reaction will be from local law enforcement and the National Guard, if they are deployed into Ferguson and the St. Louis community.
Many people are concerned about their First Amendment rights, about their right to protest. I've spoken with some local media, some of those individuals are also concerned about, you know, will they be able to cover the story and from what angle, considering the constraints that we saw back in August. If we see anything remotely close to the rubber bullets, the bean bag bullets I guess, if you will, the tear gas, the armored trucks, the snipers or anything remotely close to that, then I think we're in for a very difficult and hostile situation again.
BLITZER: John, you know the Hazelwood School District, which includes Ferguson, Missouri, they've already issued guidance on their Web site telling very worried parents and students that school superintendents will, in fact, be given three hours' notice if a grand jury decision is reached during the week. Twenty-four hours notice if it's made on weekends.
Have you heard about other school districts in the area receiving similar plans?
GASKIN: Yes. They met with community -- the law enforcement met with community leaders just last Friday, and I believe I mentioned that on your show last week, and those were some of the guidelines that were recommended by the prosecutor's office. It's my understanding that the prosecutor's office has asked schools to close really for two days following the announcement. Either way, it goes.
And so, I can understand that for those types of safety precautions, because many school leaders are concerned about the safety of their children, coming to and from school and what the reaction could be within the classroom amongst other students, especially if words are shared in the classroom.
BLITZER: And very quickly, Tom, does the federal government -- federal law enforcement, do they have role to play once a decision is reached?
FUENTES: Well, I think in this case, just the monitoring and assisting all of law enforcement and intelligence and also the fact that this could play out in other cities around the country. So, really, we're looking at a potential of maybe being two storms. You know, we could have Officer Wilson indicted in this case and go through this same emotion again at the conclusion of a trial, if he's prosecuted, because it's going to be much more difficult to find him guilty than it is to indict him in the first place. BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, thanks very much. Jeffrey, thanks to you,
as well. John Gaskin, always good to have you on the program.
Gentlemen, stand by. We're going to have much more news right after this.
BLITZER: It's one of the biggest battles looming between President Obama and congressional Republicans. We're talking about immigration reform.
Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with details.
Dana, it looks like things -- at least the rhetoric is really heating up.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It absolutely is. Things are so tense, Wolf, that the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, told our own Ted Barrett that he asked the president to wait on executive order on immigration until after Congress gets, quote, "the finances of the country out of the way." Translation -- do it too soon. It could risk another government shutdown.
BASH (voice-over): Fresh from being elected by fellow Republicans as the next Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell lashed out at President Obama for antagonizing the new GOP Congress by promising to change immigration laws by executive order.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), INCOMING MAJORITY LEADER: We'd like the president to recognize the reality that he has the government that he has, not the one he wishes he had.
BASH: Brinksmanship is back, even concerns about another government shut down. McConnell insists that won't happen.
MCCONNELL: We'll not be shutting the government down.
BASH: Still, CNN is told Republicans are engaged in private conversations across the Capitol, to cut funding in order to block implementation of any presidential executive order, allowing some illegal immigrants to stay legally.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We're going to fight the president tooth and nail if he continues down this path.
BASH: Arizona Republican Matt Salmon actually agrees with the president on immigration reform but says executive action without Congress --
REP. MATT SALMON (R), ARIZONA: It would be a poison pill. BASH: -- he got some 50 Republican lawmakers to sign this
letter, urging their GOP leaders to retaliate against the president on immigration by chopping funding for immigration policies.
(on camera): So, you want to use Congress's power of the purse to stop the president or at least take away what he's done on his executive order on immigration?
SALMON: That's really all we have. Either we can complain mightily and ring our hands or we can try to do something about it.
BASH (voice-over): But GOP sources tell CNN some Republicans are reluctant since the last time they used government funding to stop an Obama policy, it led to a government shut down.
(on camera): But you know from last year, you risk the government shut down. Are you willing to do that?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one is talking about a government shutdown.
BASH (voice-over): As for Democrats --
REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ (D), ILLINOIS: What we want the president to do is act big, act bold and act broadly and act soon.
BASH: Most support the president going it alone, fed up that the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration legislation last year, and the GOP-led House never acted.
REP. STENY HOYER (D), MARYLAND: This is about doing from what a humanitarian and morale standpoint is right.
BLITZER: Dana, I know you're also, even as you're working this, getting some new information that's just coming in on what we can expect from the White House, is that right?
BASH: Well, it's a working plan. And this is told to me by an administration official confirmed to me, originally some in "The New York Times". First, that it would direct immigration agents to allow illegal immigrants whose children are Americans to obtain documents to allow them to stay legally. Second, it would protect illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, so-called DREAMers. But it would also make clear that anybody who is actually a criminal would still be deported.
Now, the big question, of course, is timing. When is this going to happen? The source I spoke to said, as soon as late next week, but I should also say that at the White House they are telling Jim Acosta that the president will make no decision until he returns from Asia, which is this weekend.
BLITZER: We'll see what happens. Thanks very much. Good report. Meanwhile, a new recording has emerged of a professor who helped
to design the Obamacare making jaw dropping remarks about Americans and how the act was sold to them.
Our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns is working the story, joining us from the White House once again. What's the latest on this front, Joe?
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, Republicans were excited to discover these videos that show a former administration consultant calling the American public "stupid". This is the latest trouble for Obamacare. And this time, the issue is transparency.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are done (ph).
JOHNS (voice-over): Leave it to one of the key consultants of the Affordable Care Act to inflict the kind of damage to the president's signature achievement in office that Republicans were never quite able to muster.
JONATHAN GRUBER, MIT & NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH: Get a law which said healthy people are going to pay in, you made it explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed.
JOHNS: He was only getting started. Here is MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, one of the president's go-to guys on healthcare, talking about what he described as the tortured way the law was written so it wasn't viewed by the public as a tax.
GRUBER: Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and basically, you know, call it the stupidity of American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to get anything to pass.
JOHNS: In fact, the key takeaway of the now infamous Gruber recordings, is that Americans are dumb.
GRUBER: The Americans are too stupid to understand it (ph).
JOHNS: Here's what he said about taxing expensive health care plans which would create higher costs passed on to consumers.
GRUBER: It is a very clever basic exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.
JOHNS: On MSNBC, Gruber tried to clean it up.
GRUBER: I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately, and I regret having made those comments.
JOHNS: The White House response?
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the president is proud of the transparent process that was undertaken to pass that bill into law.
JOHNS: Democrats also tried to downplay the role Gruber, a paid consultant, played in creating the law.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA: I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill.
JOHNS: Top Republicans in Congress piled on in glee.
MCCONNELL: We were subjected during the Obama care debate to a whole lot of stuff that we all knew was not true, not even close to true. And what this insider saying confirms that they were spinning tails from beginning to end.
JOHNS: Now, this all got started with one guy who was upset with his insurance and started watching hours and hours of Jonathan Gruber -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Joe Johns, with the latest on that front -- thanks very, very much.
Joe is at the White House.
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