Return to Transcripts main page


New Year's Security Measures; Syrian President Optimistic About Trump Presidency; President Obama Announces Sanctions Against Russia. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired December 29, 2016 - 15:00   ET



FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: This as Obama orders 35 Russian operatives to leave the United States, and they have to do so within 72 hours.

The president also announcing it is shutting down two Russian compounds here in the U.S. Russia will now fall victim to expanded sanctions, diplomatic measures and later covert actions.

Russia warning it will respond to any hostile new steps.

CNN's Athena Jones is following the latest developments. I'm also joined by CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez.

First to you, Athena, in Honolulu. The Obama administration releasing this statement, a very lengthy one. What more is next?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred, that's right. It's a lengthy statement.

I want to read to you just some of the highlights of it. I won't read you all of it.

But we know the president says he's taking these actions, a number of actions, in response to what he calls the Russian's governments aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber-operations aimed at the U.S. election.

The president says these moves are being taken after repeated private and public warnings to the Russian government. He calls these steps necessary and appropriate efforts -- necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests. And the president says that all Americans should be alarmed by Russia's actions.

Also, let's go through some of the steps that the government is taking. The Treasury Department has named nine entities and individuals that are going to be subject to expanded sanctions. Those include Russia's military intelligence unit and the head of that unit, as well as the domestic security service.

As you mentioned, the State Department is declaring 35 Russian intelligence operatives, in other words, spies, as persona non grata. That gives them 72 hours to leave the country. And the government is shutting down two Russian-government owned compounds, one in Maryland, another in New York that were used they say to conduct intelligence activity.

The government is also going to be releasing information. The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau -- the FBI are going to be releasing declassified technical information on Russian civilian and military intelligence service activity.

And that is to provide those who try to help defend networks and defend cyber-networks. It will give them the information they need that could help them detect and disrupt any ongoing efforts by Russian hackers.

So a lot of information coming out today. We're still digesting it, frankly, Fred.

WHITFIELD: We are. All right, Athena, thank you so much.

Evan, now talk us through what specifics we know about these retaliatory measures.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the things that's most interesting in listening to a White House call that's still ongoing at this moment, Fred, is the fact that even though they're taking these actions, I think Obama administration officials know that the Russians aren't going to stop doing this type of thing.

We have already seen in Europe, for instance, where we have a couple upcoming elections in Germany and the Czech Republic, that those countries have said publicly they have seen some of the same tactics that the U.S. said were being used by Russian intelligence agencies here in the past year. They have noticed them being used as well in those countries.

And listening to White House officials and administration officials on this conversation call that is ongoing right now with reporters, it's clear they don't believe that the Russians are going to stop.

And one of the key parts of the announcement today by the administration is this effort by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department, which is to publish and provide to the private sector a lot of the details, a lot of information they have collected in the past couple of years on the activities by the FSB and the GRU, the hackers that work for these organizations, providing all that information to the private sector, so that I.T. professionals can know what to look for if they see activity from these hacking groups.

The problem with this obviously is that you publish this information, you declassify this, it becomes publicly known and those spy services can simply change their operations. They will change their tactics, so we expect that that's exactly what's going to happen in the next few days.

WHITFIELD: Yes. And one has to wonder if you're doing that now and this has been common knowledge in the intelligence community, then why not have done that before? Don't you open yourself up to that criticism when you do make that public?

PEREZ: Absolutely. And I think you see the response already from members of Congress on Capitol Hill who are already saying it's about time you did this.

And it is true that certainly the intelligence agencies, the FBI have been watching this going on for the past couple of years. These same security services, the FSB and the GRU, have been doing break-ins of computer systems not only at the White House, State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff.


That's one reason why when they saw them breaking into the Democratic National Committee last year, they knew what they were looking for and they knew exactly who was behind this. And so the question I think for the administration in this all has been, why did you wait so long?

If you listen to them, and their view is that we needed the intelligence agencies, we needed the law enforcement organizations to do their work. And, then, Fred, the fact remains here is that as the campaign got on in the last few months, there was a concern inside the White House that they not be seen to be favoring Hillary Clinton.

After all, they thought Hillary Clinton was going to win and they thought she had this in the bag. And they didn't want to give Donald Trump any excuse to claim the election was rigged, which was something he was already saying.

So I think that's part of what happened at the White House and certainly inside the administration as they have been debating for the last few months about what to do about this -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: Evan Perez, thank you so much. Athena Jones as well, appreciate it.

Let's talk more about this with my panel, Jill Dougherty, former CNN Moscow bureau chief and Russia consultant, CNN military analyst retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. Also want to bring in David Andelman, editor emeritus of "World Policy Journal" and a opinion contributor, and CNN military analyst Major General James "Spider" Marks also with us.

We have a big panel right here.

So, Jill, you first. What more do we know about the 35 Russian operatives who have been ordered to leave the U.S.? With 35, does that also mean there are dozens more who will be allowed to remain in the U.S. as Russian operatives?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, in a sense, that's the easiest part of it because obviously the U.S. would allege they were spies.

We just don't know exactly what they did, but you can certainly imagine that in a tit for tat response, the Russians will be kicking out PNG, as they say, persona non grata, and kicking out Americans out of Moscow from the embassy, so that is in a sense the kind of the Cold War scenario.

But then you get into some other things that have been really pretty nasty. I'm noting this statement by Mark Toner of the State Department about activities that have been carried out against American diplomats in Moscow, traffic stops, revealing personal information about those diplomats on Russian television, which the United States says could have imperiled them.

So these are things that the U.S. has been talking with the Russians behind the scenes for quite a while. That has been going on literally for years, but it apparently has been getting much worse in the last year. So a lot of this was kind of percolating beneath the surface.

And you note in that statement that the administration says they told the Russians, they raised this to them numerous times, but privately. And apparently they say it didn't have much response, and so they're making it very public and they're getting as close to President Putin as they can.

These are -- maybe the individuals are not known to people widely, but their positions are. And the GRU and the FSB are very close because after all President Putin used to be the head of the FSB and was an FSB agent way back in the day in Germany.

WHITFIELD: General Hertling, what are your concerns about those U.S. operatives, or U.S. intelligence, U.S. personnel on the ground in Russia and what this potentially means for them?


But let me just coin a phrase for you that's well known in the cyber- community, but not well known by the American public, and that's cyber-skirmishing. That's what's been going on for the last 10 years. It's been a back and forth between great countries.

A lot of things have been going on and there's been an attempt to deter full-scale cyber-war, because when that happens you're talking about unbelievable amounts of destruction, huge mayhem and some distrust that is seeded by the use of this cyber-activity.

That's what we're seeing right now, that the Russians have overstepped the bounds of cyber-skirmishing, which we do, too, truthfully. And they have gone more into the realm of operations like they did in 2007 in Estonia, where they literally shut down not only the government, but banking institutions, private servers, personal servers and public servers and really put that country in a tailspin.

We're sighing some of that now. And I think what the president has now done is said, OK, we have reached the boundaries of cyber- skirmishing, we now have to really lay down the card and say no more. And he has the means to do that. We have some vulnerabilities. They have some vulnerabilities.

But we have a great amount of intel which I think Spider -- my good friend Spider could probably talk about. And we're saying we know what you're doing, knock it off, and now we're really playing a tougher card.


WHITFIELD: And so, General Marks, how do you weigh where the risks might be greater if the U.S., if the Obama administration had not made it public vs. kept it quiet and removed the Russian operatives from the U.S. or imposed sanctions without the public knowing?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Fredricka, at some point, the U.S. actions would be known.

The point that I have been trying to make is that for the United States to declare a priori what their intentions are and then to follow through their intentions and to lay them out provides a level of risk to the United States that each one of those actions may not achieve the desired intended effect.

That's the issue that we have. Those 35 diplomats which are spies should have been discharged, should have been told it's time for you guys to go home. That could have been done very quietly. Would that have been public? It absolutely would have been public.

So the fact of the matter is the United States needed to take action. It needed to take action as a matter of routine. And sadly and very cynically, what we see now is I think a scaling of actions right now that are not too little, but are far too late. This is routine behavior, as Mark Hertling very clearly described.

Activity online has been taking place almost forever and it has achieved the level of a domain of war. And so what we have to be able to do is try to bound that in some way with some protocols that allow us to take actions that are a matter of routine and not to make these a big deal.

That's the challenge we have right now. Now it's arms are up in the air, we have a transition, a presidential transition, and this now becomes a really big deal if the intended desired outcome is not achieved.

WHITFIELD: So, David, I wonder if there are a few missions here behind the Obama White House's revealing of these sanctions, of expelling people from the country, whether it be embarrassment to Vladimir Putin in this country, perhaps transparency to the American people for an election that came with so many questions about the cyber-hacking or perhaps even a challenge to the next administration. It's multifaceted, isn't it?

DAVID ANDELMAN, EDITOR, "WORLD POLICY JOURNAL": There's no doubt about that.

But it's interesting to step back and look at who is the real target here? The real target here is Vladimir Putin. We can't target him directly. But you have to know that he knew everything about this.


WHITFIELD: This would not come as a surprise to him?

ANDELMAN: Oh, gosh no. People who know him very well from the Kremlin...


WHITFIELD: Meaning the expelling of 35 operatives, the shutting down of compounds?

ANDELMAN: Right. Right.

But you have to understand he gets multiple -- in addition to his own background, he gets multiple briefings everyday from all of his intelligence people. He knows everything that is going on. People tell me he actually gets transcripts of conversations between people on his own staff that he will read that evening. He is totally plugged in to everything that is going on.

WHITFIELD: KGB all the time.

ANDELMAN: KGB -- FSB, which was the KGB, GRU, everybody. He is totally plugged in.

He is a creature of that. To send him a message is what this is really about, in my view.

WHITFIELD: Jill, how does this translate there and how does it either provoke the leadership of Vladimir Putin or perhaps undermine him?

DOUGHERTY: Well, I think, as everyone has been saying, Vladimir Putin knows the game, he knows the game very well, he knows what's going on in cyber, and he knows these kind of traditional kick diplomats out motives.

But what's important about this, I think the United States is saying -- or let's call it the Obama administration is saying that there was a boundary that was crossed when Russia began interfering in the election process.

Before that, it was find out information, maybe use it, maybe there's economics, fine, et cetera. But when you start fooling around with elections, I think that's where the Obama administration said this can't go on.

And then also you have this amazing aspect of it which is the incoming president says that he doesn't accept that that is true. So there may be a message that the Obama administration is giving, which is, this is real and this is war and here is the step we're going to take, again trying to carefully tread, but strongly give a message.

It's a very uneven balance, because there's no rules written out. There's no law of war about cyber yet.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jill, thank you so much.

(CROSSTALK) WHITFIELD: Oh, go ahead, General.

HERTLING: If I may, I think Jill brings up a very important point.

And that is, we have talked over the last year or so about the threats posed by ISIS. Are they existential or not? And there's a lot of debate about that.


But when you talk, like Jill just did, about the potential for a foreign government to affect our daily life and our mode of operation in the constitutionally declared government, that's an existential threat. It threatens our existence as a country.

And I think that's the important point to remember about this, that Mr. Putin and those who are doing this activity are truly threatening our existence.

WHITFIELD: All excellent points. Thank you so much to all of you. We will talk more.

Also next, more breaking news, what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just said about the future of the Trump presidency.

Back in a moment.


WHITFIELD: Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

Breaking news, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacting to the future of the Trump presidency. In an interview with an Italian news outlet, Assad says he is optimistic with caution.

I want to bring in CNN's Muhammad Lila in Istanbul.

So, Muhammad, more on this now.

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, we do have the full transcript that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gave to the Italian news channel, where he said, as you mentioned, that he is cautiously optimistic.

He was asked specifically what he thought the impact of a Trump presidency, the incoming Trump presidency, would mean for Syria. And Assad said he's optimistic, not because Trump would be able to solve the Syrian crisis overnight, but because he was hopeful that it would lead to better relations with Russia and the United States.


And that's key, because Russia has been a key backer of the Syrian government since this conflict began. Assad saying that he believes that if Russia and the United States are able to come towards some sort of closer arrangement, a closer relationship, it would help solve many of the problems in the world, specifically the Syrian crisis.

And of course this comes as there are peace talks set to get under way, peace talks that were brokered completely without the United States' involvement, but of course those peace talks will take place in Kazakstan with Iran, Syria, Turkey and Russia all on board.

Russia today almost offering an olive branch, not, mind you, to President Obama, but to incoming president-elect Trump, saying that they're hopeful that president-elect Trump might want a seat at that table to help establish some sort of peace in Syria.

So we're clearly starting to see a positioning of Russia and Syria more hopeful that under a Trump presidency the Syrian conflict might be solved.

WHITFIELD: All right, Muhammad Lila in Istanbul, thank you so much.

Meantime, in this country right now, security measures are ramping up from coast to coast ahead of New Year's Eve weekend celebrations, this just 10 days after a man inspired by ISIS plowed into a crowd at a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people.

And here in New York, police will implement brand-new security measures for Times Square traditional New Year's Eve ball drop and celebration. Mayor Bill de Blasio says more than a million people are expected to fill Times Square on Saturday.

CNN's Brynn Gingras is live for us now in Times Square.

Brynn, what new security measures are you hearing about this year?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, certainly, it's taking lessons from you just talked about, those attacks that happened in Berlin, they happened in Nice.

So really what we're hearing from the NYPD is that they're adding 65 sand trucks not just here in Times Square, but other areas that there are New Year's Eve celebrations.

And they're you're going to form a perimeter around this area of Times Square, along with 100 barrier trucks which they say are really just department vehicles parked in the streets so cars can't come down these streets. These are new security measures really that haven't been taken place to this extent yet. Again, lessons learned from what we saw from those terror attacks overseas and really the NYPD says it's about everyone being on their toes, being aware, the public helping out and no complacency.


JAMES O'NEILL, NEW YORK POLICE COMMISSIONER: I know it's complacency that can set in at times, but certainly not in an event like this. Everybody knows how important this is. Everybody knows that the eyes of the world are upon Times Square on New Year's Eve night, so there will be no complacency.


GINGRAS: And when we talk about that extra layer, Fred, that is just one layer of so many layers of security that the NYPD has put in place for this celebration come New Year's Eve, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, Brynn Gingras in Times Square, thanks so much.

Meantime, Pasadena police are also stepping up security for Monday's Tournament of Roses Parade. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to be on hand to watch the parade of the marching bands and the flower-covered floats. More than 1,000 police officers and a dozen bomb-sniffing dogs will be working the five-plus-mile parade route.

Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez joining me live now.

So, Chief Sanchez, good to see you.

You have been studying terror activity abroad. What have you learned from them that has helped your department prepare for this upcoming parade?

PHILLIP SANCHEZ, PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, POLICE CHIEF: Well, first of all, thank you for having me on the show and happy new year to you and your visitors.

The truth of the matter is many of the lessons that we have learned have come about from collaboration and communication, increasing those kind of components to ensure that the Pasadena Police Department and our state and local and federal partners really understand the mechanism of threat, the delivery methodology, and how best to mitigate that.

And recent issues involving a vehicle incursion along the roadways has caused us to reevaluate the parade this year, and we're taking steps necessary to mitigate that threat.

WHITFIELD: And are you tackling security with help from other jurisdictions and perhaps even on the federal level?

SANCHEZ: Absolutely.

We're in constant contact with the FBI, with JTTF and other law enforcement entities. Secret Service plays a role, U.S. customs. It really is a collaborative effort throughout the state and particularly in Southern California to bring this to fruition.

I do have to say that is not new ground for us. Every year, the Pasadena Police Department helps facilitate the Rose Parade. We look at security measures. We are consistently evolving, consistently evaluating and that relationship with the state, local and federal government really helps us deliver a finely tuned product.

WHITFIELD: So it's become the norm for you. Is it your feeling this kind of large-scale security planning is becoming the norm across the country as it pertains to large events? [15:25:00]

SANCHEZ: Absolutely.

Any time I think that there's a gathering of a modest amount of people, we need to be concerned about whatever the security threat might be. In an asymmetrical environment, the truth is that we have to consistently be vigilant.

We will have, for example, an on-site threat assessment center, so through our cooperation with the federal government, we will be able to have analysts who will give us real-time information about potential threats to the Rose Parade or the Rose Bowl Game.

And as you have heard many, many times before from a lot of different law enforcement officials, we're asking people that are coming to the parade and coming to the Rose Bowl Game if you see something, say something. Law enforcement is very sophisticated. We're well prepared, we have a great plan.

But our community also plays an important role and if you see something suspicious, you can alert a uniformed officer.

WHITFIELD: All right, Chief Phillip Sanchez, thank you so much. All the best, happy new year, and, of course, we're wishing the most exciting of Parade of Roses, a festive good time. Thanks so much.

SANCHEZ: Thank you again.

WHITFIELD: All right, more now on our breaking news. The U.S. government releasing names of the Russian hackers, and now we have pictures to go along with those names. We will have more of this information for you when we come right back.


WHITFIELD: Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

Payback is under way. Today, President Obama is hitting back at Russia for hacking the U.S. election, specifically the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman during the 2016 race.

In an unprecedented step, the Obama administration has just named names of those believed to be responsible, six Russians and five entities, including Russia's main intelligence body, now facing sanctions, this as Obama orders 35 Russian operatives to leave the United States, and they have to do so