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THE SITUATION ROOM
New Potential Terror Threats Examined; No Takers on Flynn Immunity; White House Intel Reviewed by Rep. Adam Schiff; Trump Backs Flynn's Request For Immunity; FEDs: 18-Year-Old From South Carolina Tried To Join ISIS; CNN Documentary Explores How ISIS recruits Westerners. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired March 31, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Breaking news - laptop bombs - a CNN exclusive. The U.S. government is concerned terrorists are designing new laptop bombs that are capable of evading airport security screening, and can even be turned on to make them look real.
Stolen screening gear: New intelligence suggests terrorists may have stolen airport screening equipment and may be using it to test out new forms of bombs to target airliners.
Not immune: former national security advisor Michael Flynn is willing to testify if investigators grant him immunity from prosecution. President Trump backs that move, but so far, Congress and the FBI are not interested.
And reviewing the intel: the House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat goes to the White House to look at classified material, a week and a half after White House officials helped his Republican chairman get a sneak peak.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
Breaking news: CNN has learned that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies now believe ISIS and other terror groups have found new ways to hide explosives in electronic devices. An FBI testing shows they can evade some common airport security measures. Compounding that concern, U.S. intelligence suggests terrorists have obtained sophisticated airport security equipment to test how they can hide explosives in laptops. This new threat is a key factor in the Trump administration's move to bar travelers from carrying laptops on flights departing from ten airports in the Middle East and Africa.
Also breaking, fired national security advisers Michael Flynn is willing to testify before congressional investigators looking into Russia's election meddling if -- if he's granted immunity for prosecution. President Trump says Flynn should teach and seek immunity, calling investigation into the Trump campaign ties to Russia a witch-hunt. The White House says it's not worried that Flynn could implicate the president.
The top Democrat in the house intelligence committee Adam Schiff has gone to the White House to review classified material ten days after a pair of White House staffers help provide the secret information to the Republican Chairman Devin Nunes. Nunes went public and briefed the president before informing his own committee about the documents which may show that Trump aides were picked up in intelligence collection.
I'll talk to Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin and our correspondents, analysts and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
CNN's Evan Perez and Barbara Starr joining us now with their exclusive reporting. They reported this story along with Jodi Enda from CNN.com.
Evan, first of all, what have you learned?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, CNN has learned that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies believe that ISIS and other terrorist organizations have developed innovative ways to plant explosive in electronic devices that FBI testing shows can evade some commonly used airport security screening. The concern is heightened because there's U.S. intelligence suggesting that terrorists have obtained sophisticated airport security equipment to test how it effectively concealed explosives in laptops and other electronic devices.
Now, terror -- bomb makers have come up with a way to hide explosives in the battery explosive and still have the laptop turn on long enough to get past screeners. Now, in December, FBI experts reported they have tested variants of the laptop bombs using different battery and explosive configurations to assess how difficult it would be for airport screeners to detect them. Using TSA-rated machines, the testers found the machines have a far more difficult time detecting the new types of bombs -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Pretty scary. Evan, stand by.
Barbara, you're over at the Pentagon. Is the reason for the ban last week on flights from some Middle Eastern and African countries to the United States and Britain?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good evening, Wolf. It is a significant part of it, but there is more. Officials we are talking to are telling us that the U.S. intelligence community, military intelligence for some time now has been tracking increased specific information about what various groups are up to and those groups include al Qaeda in Yemen, al Qaeda in Syria and ISIS -- all of it perhaps raising new questions tonight about whether this ban on airplanes goes far enough.
STARR (voice-over): The intelligence comes amid heightened concerns that ISIS and al Qaeda-affiliated terror groups have perfected their ability to hide bombs in electronic devices. CNN has learned this new intelligence was a significant part of the decision earlier this month to ban laptops, tablets and other electronic devices from the passenger cabins of planes flying directly to the United States from ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, demanding instead that they be stored in checked luggage.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Elevated intelligence that we're aware of indicates terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are aggressive in pursuing innovative methods to undertake their attacks to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer objects.
STARR: Officials have told CNN there was credible and specific intelligence that ISIS would try to attack aviation assets and a hint from a top U.S. commander about why the accelerated effort on the ground in Syria against the group.
LT. GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND, COMMANDER, COMBINED JOINT TASK FORCE, OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE: There's an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqa because our intelligence feeds tell us that there's significant external operation attacks planning.
STARR: Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, AQAP, for years has been actively trying to target commercial airliners destined for the U.S., looking for ways that contain bombs that contain little or no metal content to evade airplane security measures, including hiding explosives in the batteries of electronic devices like laptops. And in February 2016, a wake-up call when a laptop bomb, according to Somalia authorities, was used to blow a hole in the Somali passenger jet. The plane landed safely despite the attack claimed by the al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab.
CNN has learned the explosives were hidden in space created by removing parts of the DVD drive.
STARR: And I want to add that CNN has discussed this reporting since yesterday with the CIA, the FBI and other U.S. government agencies. So far, tonight, they have declined to comment -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Stand by for a moment.
Evan, the TSA limited the ban, as you know, to those direct flights from those ten specific airports in Africa and the Middle East, but given this new information, why does the government not have a wider laptop ban?
PEREZ: Well, would have, when the ban was introduced, the U.S. and the Europeans say that they, you know, have a layer of security system that greatly improves the chances of detecting explosives beyond the screening of equipment. Now, we reached out to TSA to explain what they know, knowing especially that these FBI tests show the security gap (ph).
We just got a comment from the Homeland Security Department that reads in part, "The U.S. government continually reassesses existing intelligence and collects new intelligence. This allows DHS and TSA to constantly evaluate our aviation security processes and policies and to make enhancements when they are deemed necessary to keep passengers safe. As always, air travelers are subject to a robust security system that employees multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen."
The message here, Wolf, is that there's a lot of things we don't know that they are doing behind the scenes to protect passengers.
BLITZER: Well, how concerned are they that you can bring a laptop into the cabin, but what if it's checked in baggage? Isn't it possible that it could still explode in the baggage compartment?
PEREZ: Well, one of the things they believe mitigates that risk is the fact that your -- the terrorist or potential terrorist is separated from the device, from bomb and so they have not control -- less control of where it is placed. They think that reduces it. They also think that perhaps you won't be able to detonate the device if you're separated from it. Again, that's something they believe mitigates the risk.
BLITZER: Stand by for a moment. Barbara stand by.
I want to bring in our correspondents and experts to discuss.
And, Phil Mudd, this has been a long goal of these terror groups, whether ISIS, AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Shabaab to figure out a way to get another bomb on to a plane and blow it up. But it looks like they have got a much more sophisticated capability now.
PHIL MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: That's right. If you look how their opportunities are narrowing over time, it was years ago, Wolf, when you and I had to go through a metal detector. Then after 9/11, you had to take your shoes off. That was Richard Reid. And then after a liquids plot in 2005 in the U.K., you couldn't bring water bottles on.
And then, a month ago, as Barbara pointed out earlier this month, you had intelligence agencies starting to say and the U.S. government starting to say with the Brits, you can't bring on a laptop. As we looked at that a month ago and we investigated that, there's only one reason if you're a U.S. intelligence officer or in homeland security you would say that, and you're picking up intelligence that the opposite, that is ISIS and al Qaeda, are saying, we don't have that many options left. It's not shoes. It's not liquids. One option, Wolf, your laptop, and we've seen that for some time.
BLITZER: You know, Richard Quest, the new development here is that some of these terrorist groups have apparently now obtained these airport security equipment systems during which they can test their laptop bombs potentially. That's a very, very concerning development.
RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, because, Wolf, basically when you're going through security, a lot of the actual procedure is really automatic, and, yes, you may have a person looking at a screen, but it's the sophisticated machine that is doing all the hard work. It is analyzing what it is seeing, and it's sending out red flags when it sees something it doesn't like. It is machine in many cases that's doing the hard work there.
And as the reporting tonight has shown, when you start to have compromise at various levels, so you've now got the laptop itself compromised, and now, you've got the machine or the ability of the detection capability because now they can test against it. It's this layer upon layer that's being compromised or alleged to be compromised that is so worrying and we start to now understand why they took the measures that they did in the U.S. and the U.K.
One airline show said to me when the measures they came in, they must know something we don't. There has to be a reason why they are doing this. And now we're getting more information that shows just how serious that is.
BLITZER: You know, Clarissa, you've studied this and reported on this for a long time. We do know that al Shabaab detonated a bomb February 2016 on a flight from Mogadishu was successful in bringing the plane down. Investigators learned a lot from that, didn't they?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They did, and, listen, it's just worth emphasizing for all of these extremist groups, there is no greater prize than bringing down a commercial airliner. Ever since 9/11, this has been a constant object of fascination for many different terror groups, from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who were experimenting as you heard from Phil Mudd, with liquids, with underwear bombs, to ISIS who managed to bring down a Russian plane in the Sinai peninsula with explosives placed in a soda can, and now, to this more sophisticated apparently laptop threat, which as you mentioned al Shabaab appeared to have used in Somalia. And it was very lucky in that case, Wolf, that the plane was still flying at a low enough altitude that even though that bomb blew open a large hole in the wall of the fuselage, the pilot was still able to land plane.
One other thing I would mention is when you look at the remnants of what we're seeing of ISIS in Mosul and you look at the weapons factories that they have, they are not just building crude rockets anymore, Wolf. They are building high-tech explosives. They are using drones. They are trying to build their own planes. They have been trying to build a self-driving car.
All the resources and all the brain power that they have is being funneled into efforts to come up with the next most deadly tactic that they can get their hands on, Wolf.
BLITZER: And, Miles O'Brien, the airport security systems, there are various degrees, some are pretty good, some are great, some not so good and that's the problem.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: And, of course, you know the Achilles' heel in the system is what you need to worry about -- the weak link in the chain. It does occur to me, Wolf, that if we're forcing all the devices into the baggage hold, are we creating another problem? First of all, many of these have the lithium ion batteries, which we all know were a huge fire risk. Having them in the hold exposes the aircraft to another kind of risk.
The other point that Evan brought out that would be difficult to detonate it in the hold, well, Pan Am flight 103 is what I would offer you as counterpoint of that, December 1988. That was a bomb in the hold of a 747 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, and it was on a timing device. So, you don't have to be beside a bomb to detonate it.
So, I wonder if this is such a great concern the proper security response probably should be don't put them on the plane whatsoever. I can't imagine that happening in this day and age.
BLITZER: Yes, that's not going to happen, completely eliminate iPads or laptops.
BLITZER: But there's no doubt, Peter Bergen, and you've studied this for a long time, they are deeply concerned right now, all the counter- terror experts, that al Shabaab and ISIS and AQAP are developing this new technology.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, and it's been a long time coming. I mean, al Asiri, who's the chief bomb-maker of al Qaeda in Yemen, has been building these kinds of devices for many years, and the concern amongst counterterrorism officials is that his knowledge has been propagated to a lot of other people. So, it's not simply ISIS, as Clarissa was talking about, it's al Qaeda in Yemen and in other places, and -- and, unfortunately, you know, we've seen with the insider threat at airports, this is the weakest link. I mean, we have 100 countries sending flights to the United States. Some of them have excellent security and some of them don't.
PEREZ: And we know, Wolf, that there are places on the internet where some of these bomb-makers are trying to share their knowledge. They are trying to export some of that knowledge to other people, to other terrorist groups for this exact reason, because they know, for instance, that the device that was used in Shabaab -- by Shabaab in the Somalia aircraft, they removed the DVD player in the laptop and put explosives there. They were able to use -- they actually had an airport employee who's working for Shabaab who helped get it through security systems.
So, again, that points to another weakness in the system which is the infiltration of airport personnel, that's another reason why they were particularly concerned about these airports that they -- that they named in the electronics ban.
BLITZER: The ones in Africa and the Middle East because they were afraid that people who work at the airport could smuggle a bomb on a plane, is that what you're saying?
PEREZ: There is a deep concern that beyond just the sophistications of the devices that they have, obviously, some of these are very wealthy countries that have some of the late equipment, but there's also a concern about the insider threat at these airports. BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, how does the intelligence community,
the law enforcement community track these kinds of terror developments?
MUDD: There's two ways you track them. One is pretty basic and Peter hit the nail on the head a few moments ago. There are very few bomb- makers who can do this. We're not talking about an unsophisticated explosive device that you put in the middle of the road to blow up a car. There are very few people that can do this. So, there are people in the intelligence community trying to develop the precise intelligence to identify these people so that U.S. military or the intelligence community can kill them.
There's a broader question and this relates -- this is going to go back to a conversation I suspect that will happen in the coming days and that is what the Trump administration's policy on eliminating the space in Yemen and Syria in which case these people can operate? You've seen the administration talk about bombing campaigns so that you can take out the ability of a group like ISIS or al Qaeda to develop the capability of people to train to do this.
One last word: there's a downside to that before you step in and say, why don't we bomb a martyr? As soon as you do, and we've seen this the past couple of weeks, more women and children die. And I think that's the balance we'll have to face in the coming weeks.
BLITZER: This has been the goal, Peter, for a long time. AQAP, they've had articles on their website on how to build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom, and presumably, if they develop this capability to put a bomb in a laptop and make it looks like a real laptop, they could assemble that anywhere, not just in Africa or the Middle East. Flights from Europe or Asia or anywhere to the United States potentially could have that kind of a bomb.
BERGEN: Yes. And as we've seen with the Metro Jet attack, you know, that killed 224 people, you know. They yield, unfortunately, from one of these attacks if that is successful is very large, much more than attack like in Paris which killed 130 people or the attack in Orlando. So that's why this remains the holy grail of the terrorist groups, it's a volume of potential attacks -- of victims and then, of course, you know, the threat to -- you know, the global aviation system is kind of the life line of the global economy.
BLITZER: And, Clarissa, you've done a lot of work in this area. There's, unfortunately, no shortage of individuals who will volunteer to go out on a suicide mission like this. They are true believers. In fact, you have a documentary on this that's going to be airing later tonight, but talk a little bit about these individuals that are ready to not just blow up a plane but blow themselves up in the process.
WARD: Well, I think, Wolf, traditionally, we have thought of these suicide bombers or would-be suicide bombers and recruits to these extremist terrorist groups as being foreign, as being from other countries, and speaking different languages and having different sounding names. Those days are over, Wolf. Through its incredibly strong propaganda campaign, through this kind of shift of the caliphate from a physical territory in Syria and Iraq to kind of a virtual digital caliphate online, groups like ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are now able to recruit actively here in the West.
And the ideology is so seductive to some young minds and so poisonous that it absolutely creates a scenario whereby some people, and I say some, because not all recruits go through with it, are very much willing not just to murder many other people but to kill themselves. This is no longer some foreign distant external threat. The problem now exists within our own societies, Wolf.
BLITZER: Richard Quest, you've traveled all over the world and have studied airport security all over the world. Is it fair to say security at U.S. airports, airports here in North America and Europe are better able to deal with this threat than airports in the Middle East or Africa or Asia?
QUEST: Yes, I think that is a fair generalization as best we can say. And also, I've been at airports in Southeast Asia and in Asia as well which have very high levels.
But it's not just the machine at the airport or the man or woman behind the counter. It is as all the speakers here tonight, all my colleagues are saying, it's multi-layered intelligence. So, you've got an idea of who is going through the airport, who is boarding the plane, who is doing the security checks, what machines are being use, have the machines been tampered, what are the airlines, what's the airline security itself like?
And when you do start talking about European airports and U.S. airports, North American in some parts of Asia and Australia, you are talking about a higher level of integrated intelligence and security and that's what's crucial here. I mean, we've talked about the significance of getting a bomb on a plane and as one of us was saying, Pan Am 103 all those years ago and then you move to 9/11 and you move to Somalia and you move to Metro Jet, you see that this is -- you know, it's an awful way to put it, but for those who wish us ill, this is the big prize because the level of damage, destruction and carnage is so huge as a result.
And I say this without any -- without any, you know, pleasure or whatever, because I'm tomorrow morning getting on a plane flying from the U.K. to the U.S. So, every one of us has this vested interest. And how do you balance, Wolf, how do you balance the need to have effective, efficient security at the same time as to ensure that you don't bring the global aviation market to an absolute halt? And that's the challenge.
BLITZER: Well, Miles O'Brien, you've studied airport security for a long time as well. Answer his question?
O'BRIEN: Well, the Europeans do better than the Americans, frankly. The back door of the airport is something to look at. While we're taking off our shoes and surrendering water bottles, et cetera, the backdoor of the airport in the United States is not as secure as it could be. There's a greater level security in places like Paris and London for the people who work around the planes, who have access to the planes. This is an issue -- we've seen drug-running operations running out of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in the past. It is a vulnerability that should be addressed.
BLITZER: How are the jihadi terrorist circles reacting? Because there's been -- there's been developments over the past year or two expressing fear about this, but now it looks like it's getting to a critically dangerous new level.
BERGEN: Agreed. I want to pick up on what miles said. We've had in the United States people who are self-recruited to ISIS working at Minneapolis airport. We've had people working at Los Angeles International Airport who are part of a self-described al Qaeda cell. So, this is a real issue, and, of course, it's an issue in lots of other places around the world. The Heathrow Airport, we've seen a number of al Qaeda sympathizers being arrested.
So, to me, this is the key which is the insider threat is not something that -- you know, you've got hundreds of thousands of people working in airports around the world. Vetting these people is not that easy, the volume.
BLITZER: I want to bring in Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York. He's a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Iraq war veteran, also introduced the Counterterrorism Screening and Assistance Act of 2016.
Now, first of all, react to this new threat. How troubling is it, Congressman, that ISIS and other terrorist organizations, AQAP, al Shabaab, are thought to have increasingly a sophisticated bomb-making capability that could evade airport security?
REP. LEE ZELDIN (R-NY), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Deeply troubling. It is clear that they have this technology as it exists right now. So, here in the United States where we are used to seeing cameras, the latest multi-vision x-rays, explosive detection technology, the best training, preventing access of personnel to cargo where it should unauthorized, on so many different levels as you've discussed, we are so far ahead in both the United States and Europe.
But what happens in other parts of the world is that you have a lower standard for border screening, but also at these airports, for these flights where it's the last departure before coming to the United States. It also happens to be regions of the world where we have the greatest threat to us. So, as we saw with al Shabaab, the advancements of Ibrahim al Asiri, AQAP, it's going to other terrorist groups, it's an advancement that's real. We have foreign airports where their border screening, screening coming into the airport is nothing like what we're used to here.
The threat is absolutely real now, and we have leverage that the Counterterrorism Screening and Assistance Act which passed the House, just reintroduced into the House and about to be introduced in the Senate, will increase the border security standards all across the world but also at airports. We have supplies that are in surplus that we should be using. They
shouldn't in a warehouse, provide them to these countries to allow them to increase our standards. We provide foreign aid to these countries, better leverage our foreign aid to get them to increase our game.
And last point is, it's -- we're looking at completely different standards from one, almost subjectively from our own security analysis here. And I think we should have one standard as we're looking from one country to the next so that we can identify high risk, medium risk, low risk countries.
BLITZER: As I pointed out, you introduced that bill on counterterrorism screening last year. What else needs to be done? Is the security system capable of dealing with this new terror threat?
ZELDIN: Here in the United States, we can continue to have the latest advancements to be able to deal with this. Unfortunately, what we're seeing in these other countries, you know, I talked about the latest multi-vision x-rays, that was an advancement from a single vision.
So, now, you're able to look at the laptop from multiple levels. You're able to detect that human who is looking at the machine and the machine itself here in the United States and in Europe and in some other countries has the ability to look at that laptop a little bit deeper and to detect the threat, but it is multi-level. It is the latest ability to have explosive trace detection. It is the latest -- you know, it's having the bomb detection dogs but having the best training for the personnel, the best cameras, having the best intel.
So, unfortunately, where the risk is coming, the highest risk of these terror groups in the Middle East and Africa, unfortunately, are the same exact countries where you have the biggest vulnerabilities.
BLITZER: And what happens if the laptop is in checked luggage and is down in the cargo hold? How much of a problem potentially is that?
ZELDIN: Well, it's -- it is a problem. As one of our guests just noted, you know, with the al Shabaab attack just over a year ago the individual who is detonating the explosive device, they picked a very specific location on the plane to -- to detonate. Additionally, timing was a factor. One of the reasons why the plane was able to land was that the plane hadn't yet reached cruising altitude, so if you have a checked explosive device, you don't know where that explosive device is going to be placed on the plane, and you also have a lot less control on when it's going to detonate.
So, it is a very valid point that it is an enhanced security feature to ensure that an individual is not able to take a device on to the plane with them where they have the ability to place it on the plane where they want and detonate when they want to detonate.
BLITZER: All right. Congressman, stand by. We'll have much more on the breaking news.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:32:30] WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Also breaking tonight, a stunning request for immunity for prosecution by fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a move back now by the president. Let's go live to our Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, this is all playing out as a top democrat gets a look at some classified material over at the White House.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We should point out the ranking democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff. He's been visiting the White House all this afternoon to review materials offered up by the Trump administration, presumably to backup the president's claims that he was wiretapped by former President Obama, and we should point out, Wolf, just in the last hour we've seen Adam Schiff go back and forth from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building into the West Wing, then back to the EEOB and then back to the West Wing. So, he's been busy here this afternoon. But the White House also has its eye on a former member of the administration, the ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who, as you said, wants immunity before telling what he knows.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any comment on Michael Flynn, Mr. President?
ACOSTA: President Trump biting his tongue on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's request for immunity before testifying on questions about campaign contacts with the Russians. Flynn's attorney explained his client's position in a statement. "General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit."
Is the White House concerned that General Flynn has damaging information about the president, his aides, his associates, about what occurred during the campaign with respect to Russia?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Nope.
ACOSTA: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president is encouraging Flynn to testify, even though the retired general once misled the administration about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Spicer tried to make the case the real story is the president's allegations, that Mr. Trump and his team were unlawfully surveilled, but Spicer didn't offer any evidence.
It sounds like you are just as the president is alleging that the Obama administration conducted unlawful surveillance on the Trump campaign and Trump transition team.
SPICER: And I said in the statement, I believe that we've - that what has been provided and will be provided to members of both committees, I think should further their investigation.
ACOSTA: But the ranking democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who was invited to review materials at the White House today, insisted Flynn's proposal is significant saying "We should first acknowledge what a grave and momentous step it is for a former National Security Adviser to the President of the United States to ask for immunity from prosecution. The president is backing Flynn's request for immunity, saying in a tweet, "This is a witch hunt, excuse for big election loss by media and dems of historic proportion. The lawmakers from both parties are bucking at providing immunity to Flynn.
[17:35:11] JASON CHAFFETZ, HOUSE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: No, I don't think it's a witch hunt. It's like - it's very mysterious to me, though, why all of sudden, General Flynn is suddenly out there saying he wants immunity.
ACOSTA: The concern echoed time and again. An immunity request could interfere with an FBI investigation.
JACKIE SPEIER, UNITED STATES CONGRESSMAN FROM CALIFORNIA: There's no way that immunity is going to be granted, and it would be granted by the Department of Justice if and only if it provided a bigger fish.
MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Lock her up.
ACOSTA: Then there's the question of hypocrisy. During the campaign when legal questions were aimed at Hillary Clinton, both Flynn ...
FLYNN: When you are given immunity that means that you've probably committed a crime.
ACOSTA: And then candidate Trump mocked the idea of immunity from prosecution.
DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: If you're not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for, right?
ACOSTA: Now, the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee both appeared to be rejecting the idea, providing immunity to Michael Flynn. The White House would not weigh in on whether Flynn should testify even if his request for immunity is not granted. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer today said that is between Flynn and his lawyer. Wolf?
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.
The top democrat at the House Intelligence Committee, he's over as the White House to review classified material, 10 days after a pair of White House officials helped the republican chairman of the committee get an advanced look at the secret information. Let's bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider. So, Jessica, what's the latest.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, Congressman Adam Schiff saying he's reserving judgment on all these documents. He's issued a lengthy statement saying it just isn't possible to fully understand what he's reviewing because he doesn't have the appropriate agency representatives with him. Congressman Schiff now wants the full committees to review the information, and he wants the White House to finally disclose if these are the same documents they provided to committee chair Devin Nunes.
SCHNEIDER: As the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee arrived at the White House to examine documents, the Trump administration pushed back against concerns it coordinated with the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
SPICER: It's not in our interest to talk about the process. What occurred between Chairman Nunes and coming here was both routine and proper.
SCHNEIDER: The administration continues to deflect questions about whether it provided the documents, Devin Nunes said revealed the incidental collection of communications by President Trump and his staff.
SPICER: The unmasking and leaks is what we should all be concerned about. It affects all Americans, our liberties, our freedom, our civil liberties.
SCHNEIDER: But ranking member Adam Schiff questioned the timing of this letter from the White House, inviting the committee to view documents the National Security Council discovered in the ordinary course of business. The letter was sent on the same day The New York Times identified White House officials who allegedly provided Nunes with intelligence reports during his secret visit to the White House grounds.
ADAM SCHIFF, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: The timing certainly looks fortuitous, and probably more than fortuitous.
SCHNEIDER: It is unclear if the information now available to Schiff was the same Nunes saw. Nunes has repeatedly declared it was a whistleblower who provided the documents.
DEVIN NUNES, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: We invite whistleblowers to come forward. In fact, we've had many people come forward to the committee in recent weeks.
BLITZER: By holding the meeting on the White House grounds, it makes it appear that someone in the administration was coordinating the release of this information to you. Is that not the case?
NUNES: No, that's not the case. In fact, I'm quite sure that people in the West Wing had no idea that I was there.
SCHNEIDER: Schiff is taking issue with Nunes' characterization of his source.
NUNES: To me, this looks like nothing like a whistleblower case. And again, I think the White House needs to answer is this, instead a case where they wish to effectively launder information through our committee to avoid the true source of the information? That question, the White House really needs to answer. SCHNEIDER: Nunes has gone back to California. His spokesman
reiterated today as he stated many times, "Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source's identity."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is calling Chairman Nunes' actions bizarre and said there's no doubt the White House set Nunes up for political purposes.
NANCY PELOSI, HOUSE MINORIT LEADER: Of course, he was a duped - he was duped. Now, let's just get - that's the most innocent, most benign characterization that he was duped, but he should have known better. I mean, you're the chairman of the committee.
SCHNEIDER: Despite repeated calls for recusal, Speaker Paul Ryan is still standing by Chairman Nunes.
PAUL RYAN, UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES SPEAKER: I want the House Committee to have a full and thorough and bipartisan investigation, get everything out there, follow the facts wherever they go, and get to the truth. That's going to take some time, and I'm confident they're going to do that
[17:39:51] SCHNEIDER: The House Intelligence Committee is now looking to get back on track. Chairman Nunes and Congressman Schiff met face- to-face, and now they're working on compiling witness lists and setting up a closed hearing with FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director, Admiral Mike Rogers. And Congressman Schiff says he is waiting to find out when they can reschedule that open hearing featuring former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Wolf?
BLITZER: We'll look forward to that hearing. Thanks very much, Jessica Schneider, reporting for us. So, let's bring in our political experts. And Gloria, let me play those two little clips from last September, the president then the candidate and Michael Flynn talking about immunity.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: If you're not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for, right?
FLYNN: When you are given immunity, that means that you've probably committed a crime.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: But now he's seeking immunity in order to testify before Congress or meet with the FBI.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: What a difference six months makes, Wolf. Look, I think that it's standard for anyone who is a potential target of an investigation to seek immunity, period.
Having said that, the question has to be raised about why General Flynn is doing this and why his attorney would say we have a story to tell. It's clear they're trying to sort of tantalize the committees as well as the FBI, but as we reported today, the FBI doesn't seem interested at this point and neither -- and neither do the committees because normally, you would do this if Flynn could lead you to a - to a bigger fish. And so, I think he's trying to protect himself. That is not shocking. The question is what else he'd be able to offer to them, and we - and we don't know, and it seems to me the committees don't think much.
BLITZER: Yes. And you've been doing reporting on this, Rebecca, as well. The expectation is he's not about to get immunity.
REBECCA BERG, CNN ANALYST AND REAL CLEAR POLITICS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Right, and it is in part because he might be the big fish, he might be the one that they want to catch with this investigation, the FBI investigation or the Senate Intelligence Committee, but it's also very early in the process, especially when you look at the congressional side of this equation. They are just beginning to interview witnesses, to compile documents, so they don't necessarily know where this is going and offering Flynn immunity at this stage would be a little bit presumptuous and it could limit their options later on as long as (INAUDIBLE)
BLITZER: I want to get David Axelrod into this. You worked at the White House, you understand the procedures that go on in any White House. When the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said to me earlier in the week; he didn't meet with the president or with White House officials. His visit there was not coordinated with anyone in the West Wing. Now, we know that two White House officials, at least two White House officials did coordinate that visit there, what -- what's your reaction when you hear that?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISER: Well, first of all, when Sean Spicer said in the -- in Jessica's piece that it's not in our interest to talk about the process, truer words were never spoken because the process obviously implicates Chairman Nunes. But I wasn't terribly surprised by the revelation because once it was learned that he was on the White House grounds the day before he made his breathless announcement on the White House lawn, it seemed pretty apparent that folks at the White House may have been his source.
What is kind of stunning to me is that the speaker reports that Nunes told him that he was contacted by a whistleblower. It sounds more like he was whistled down to the White House and given a political chore by the administration. This creates huge problems in terms of credibility moving forward, and it's going to be pretty hard to repair his credibility as chairman of this committee.
BLITZER: Well, let me get Phil Mudd into this. Phil, you didn't -- you didn't only work at the CIA, you worked at the FBI, at one point, you were detailed over to the White House National Security Council Staff. When you hear that the former National Security Advisers, and he was only there for a few weeks, Michael Flynn is now seeking immunity from prosecution, what does that say to you? PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think it's laughable. Look, the question the American people should have is are we eventually going to learn the truth about what happened in our elections, and whether there's any involvement about people involved in the republican campaign? The right avenue to learn that right now is the FBI. They have the right to not only investigate people, but unlike the senate investigation, they can walk across the street to the Department of Justice and say, "We have to the prosecute someone." Why would they give up that right on Michael Flynn, like, right now?
Let's say they decide in two months they don't want to prosecute. They can then go to the Senate Committee and say we don't come - we don't care anymore. You can give him immunity. I think this is a claim by his lawyer to pretend like he's a victim of the media when, in fact, he's the one who had to quit because he lied to his boss about connections with the Russians. This is a joke, Wolf.
BLITZER: Do you agree, David?
[17:44:48] AXELROD: Yes, I do. I think it's posturing, and I think the president's tweet was posturing. Look, the strategy of the White House is to cast this whole probe as a politically motivated exercise, and Flynn's lawyer has picked up on that theme here, but clearly, they have concerns about his status relative to the investigation that the FBI is conducting, and that's what motivated the proffer.
BLITZER: In that tweet today, the president, Gloria, called it a witch hunt.
BLITZER: But that, really is smearing the FBI investigation, the house and senate investigations.
BORGER: No more witch hunt. Right.
BLITZER: And the White House called on all these -- go ahead and investigate.
BORGER: Right. It's - first of all, it's an - a very serious investigation into whether our elections were influenced by the Russians. And, you know, today, what was stunning to me about Sean Spicer's briefing, was that he was asked a question, kind of, which is more important, finding out about whether the Russians hacked into our elections or talking about the leak issue, and he kind of equated them, and said, "Sure, sure, it's more important." You know, sure, it's important to, you know, to find out about the Russians but it's also really important to find out about these leaks. It is important to find out about these leaks, but I would argue that finding out about whether the Russians were hacking in to our elections is a very, very large issue for this country. Dick Cheney said, "If it's true, it's an act of war." That's Dick Cheney.
BLITZER: Yes. And there's no doubt that they did do all of this to all the U.S. intelligence agencies already agreed. The question is, what our elections learned from this and if there was any collusion. But you're absolutely right. Everybody stick with us. An important note to all of our viewers, please be sure to tune in to CNN tomorrow night for the television premiere of "THE AXE FILES" with David Axelrod. His special guest, Senator John McCain. You can see it Saturday night 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.
Coming up, we'll have much more on this hour's exclusive breaking news. CNN has learned U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies now believe ISIS and other terror groups have found new ways to hide explosives in electronic devices. An FBI testing shows they can evade some common airport security measures.
[17:51:29] BLITZER: An 18-year-old from South Carolina appeared in Federal court today charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIS. Federal prosecutor say Zakaria Abdaime sought to join the terror group and was arrested by the FBI last night before boarding an outbound flight at the Charleston International Airport.
In a new CNN documentary, CNN's Senior International Correspondent Clarissa Ward takes a unique and revealing look at ISIS, speaking with a young man from Belgium who joined the terror group and then returned home. Watch this.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Were you aware of the behavior of some of your other Sharia4Belgium colleagues who were bragging to their friends at home about shooting people in the face and cutting people's heads off?
YOUNES DELEFORTRIE, FORMER ISIS FIGHTER: They're young people.
DELEFORTRIE: Who wouldn't?
WARD: Who wouldn't brag about cutting someone's head off?
DELEFORTRIE: Yes, it's not - it's not the right thing to do, of course, but if you're doing something like that, or you're executing somebody or you're killing somebody on the battlefield, keep it for yourself and Allah, because you're doing it for him, not to brag out, of course.
WARD: But what were they doing cutting people's heads off in the first place? Or, shooting people in the face?
DELEFORTRIE: You have to ask them. I am not responsible for what they did.
BLITZER: Look who's joining us now. Clarissa, tell us a bit more about this special tonight. WARD: Well, Wolf, what is - what is remarkable about this story and about spending time with this young man, Younes Delefortrie, is that he really provides viewers with an unfiltered sort of glimpse of the mentality of a young western ISIS jihadi and perhaps some of our viewers don't know this, but thousands and thousands of Europeans have actually traveled to Syria and to Iraq to join ISIS. And the problem that authorities are facing is what do you do with them when they come back home? How do you know who poses a genuine threat and who maybe has seen the error of their ways and just wants to get on with their lives.
And you have this unique situation with people like Younes who say, "Listen, I never killed anybody and I never would, and I don't consider myself to be a violent person. But I still support ISIS, I still support their violent ideology. After the Paris attacks, my prayers are with the attackers and not with the victims." What do you do with someone like that, Wolf? Because you can't criminalize an ideology, you can't put someone in prison for having offensive beliefs. But how can authorities know who is simply just a radical extremist type and who might be the next ticking time bomb?
BLITZER: We've heard the stories over and over again, Clarissa. Young European men going over to train to fight with ISIS, coming back to their home countries, are Europe and the U.S. with that matter making progress when it comes to countering the initial recruitment?
WARD: I think that they are making progress. I think that the U.S. was significantly ahead of the curve from Europe, and I think that Europe, particularly countries like Belgium have kind of been scrambling in the aftermath of some of these brutal attacks that we have seen from ISIS returnees. They're now scrambling to staunch the bleeding so to speak. There was an attitude when a lot of these extremists first left Belgium and France and other European countries that maybe it's better to get rid of them. But now when they come back, there is a real, because suddenly the penny is dropping and people are understanding that possibly they're coming back to kill us, Wolf.
[17:55:09] BLITZER: Clarissa Ward, thanks so much. An important note, once again to our viewers, you can you watch the CNN Special Report "ISIS: BEHIND THE MASK" airs later tonight, 10:00 p.m. eastern only here on CNN.
Coming up, our breaking news, a CNN exclusive. The U.S. government now concerned terrorists are designing new laptop bombs that are capable of evading airport security screening and can even be turned on to make them look real.
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. New Terror Threat. CNN has exclusive new -