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"Unmasking" of Trump Associates' Names; Senate Showdown Over Gorsuch Nomination; Police Reforms in Jeopardy; St. Petersburg Bomber Identified. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: An AOL spokesman tells us Oath will be one of the most disruptive brand companies in digital.

[05:00:02] AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong will likely oversee this new company. Reports say Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer will not be part of it.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The name was crushed on Twitter yesterday. Yahoo is so iconic.

ROMANS: Yes, I know. I know.

BRIGGS: All right. EARLY START continues right now.


ROMANS: Reports about a top Obama official unmasking Trump associates drawing a Twitter storm from the commander-in-chief. We'll talk about the differences between unmasking and leaking and what maybe lost in translation.

BRIGGS: Will the Republicans change the Senate rules to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court? It's their only option now that Democrats have enough support to sustain a filibuster.

ROMANS: And the attorney general ordering a review of all police reforms nationwide. What does this move means for the changes enacted under the previous administration? Hint: it means any changes made under the previous administration are being reviewed.

Good morning --

BRIGGS: Wipe them out.

ROMANS: -- and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: And I'm Dave Briggs. It is Tuesday, April 4th, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

A lot to get to. First up, amid the constant drip, drip of connections between the Trump administration and Russia, topics gotten some attention, but not much has been given to unmasking. Now, the president taking a leap, doing his best to make unmasking sound illegal, firing off a barrage of tweets that seemed aimed at cooking up a scandal to distract from potentially a real one.

ROMANS: All this begun with a FOX News report that a high ranking Obama official had requested unmasking of the names of Trump officials caught up in surveillance. That was followed by Bloomberg News. Bloomberg News naming President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, as the official who requested the unmasking, citing a leak from U.S. officials.

BRIGGS: So, what is unmasking? Is it -- where a U.S. official request the identity of an otherwise unnamed American caught up in surveillance of foreigners. Unmasking is not the same as leaking, because unmasked identity is only revealed to officials authorized to know.

Now, for more on unmasking and the response from Susan Rice, let's bring in CNN's Jim Sciutto in Washington.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, a source close to Ambassador Susan Rice tells me that the claims that she improperly unmasked the names of U.S. citizens caught up in surveillance is, in a word, false. That's coming from Ambassador Rice.

But I've also spoken to former senior intelligence officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations to ask them about the process of unmasking, is it unusual? Is it illegal? And their answer is unanimously no, not unusual, not illegal.

They say a couple of things. One, the law allows this. Two, for it to happen, the official requests it, but the U.S. intelligence committee has to approve that request.

Often times, it is approved because the intelligence official wants to provide more information to the senior national security official. As they're reading intelligence reports, they want to know more about what they mean, the significance. That information is shared only between the briefer from the intelligence community and that official. It's not more widely disseminated.

Now, it's possible that the official could do that him or herself, but by nature of it, it is only exchanged one to one. There are open questions here how extensive was the unmasking, what was the justification for it? But this we know, this I know from speaking to multiple intelligence officials that this practice is not unusual, it happens, and two, it certainly is not illegal. There are protocols for this specifically established after 9/11 to allow for this unmasking under certain rules -- Christine and Dave.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROMANS: All right. Jim Sciutto had a very busy day yesterday working his sources, trying to get clarity in all that. Thank you for that, Jim.

The web of connections between the president and his associates and Russia seem to be spreading. "The Washington Post" reporting on a secret meeting in early January between a Russian connected to President Vladimir Putin and the founder of the Blackwater security firm, Eric Prince.

BRIGGS: The meeting took place on isolated Seychelles Island in the Indian Ocean. "The Post" sources saying the meeting was an attempt to set up a backchannel line of communication between the Kremlin and President-elect Trump. Eric Prince was not part of the Trump campaign but does have ties to Trump's inner circle, including chief strategist Steve Bannon. Prince's sister, Betsy DeVos, is secretary of education.

The White House says it is not aware of any meetings that Prince had and a spokesman for Prince calls the claim of a connection, quote, "a complete fabrication".

ROMANS: Yes. Ands the "The Washington Post" saying, was United Arab Emirates involved in connecting those two? So, fascinating piece in the "Washington Post" this morning.

The House Intelligence Committee plans to meet at noon today with the future of its Russia investigation hanging in the balance. The full committee convened last night for the first time since a top Democrat, Adam Schiff, called on the Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, to recuse himself.

[05:05:01] The topic of Russia and its alleged, alleged ties to Trump administration will be on the table this afternoon. You might recall that trip to the White House by Nunes two weeks ago, it idled the committee and called into question the committee's ability to proceed with a credible investigation.

BRIGGS: All right. To help break it all down this morning, political analyst Ellis Henican, author of "Trump's America" column, for the Metro Papers, and CNN political analyst David Drucker, senior congressional correspondent for "The Washington Examiner", join us.

Good morning to both of you.


BRIGGS: Good to see you both.

All right. Some say this is an attempt to distract by President Trump. What say you, Dave Drucker?

DAVE DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think time will tell. Look, I think the Republicans and Democrats sort of at least in the House have sequestered themselves into their corners, and Democrats want to focus on Russian meddling and possible collusion between Trump associates and Vladimir Putin, and Republicans want to focus on leaks that they think are improper and out-of-bounds, though at least for the moment legal.

And I don't know why they can't all be true. Or, maybe none of it is true. So, what we know and think is pretty obvious is that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. It does appear, and I think this is clear from the fact that Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has not debunked any of what Nunes said he looked at, because they now looked at the same documents, that there was unmasking to look at communications of Trump associates swept in these communications.

And so, the question is, was it as improper as Chairman Nunes and a lot of Republicans believe?

ROMANS: Right.

DRUCKER: We haven't heard yet from Adam Schiff whether or not he believes it was improper or not. And maybe he'll say it wasn't, but we haven't heard yet.

ROMANS: He has said what he has seen -- he thinks the committee, the committee can see. You know, he wants the committee to see everything that he's seen.

I want to listen, on the Susan Rice angle, I think, Ambassador Rice angle, I think this is new information from yesterday that the president and his associates have jumped on. But John McCain spoke to Manu Raju about Susan Rice and this allegation that she may have been the one who unmasked these names.

Let's listen to what he said.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I've not been made aware, but if it's the case, of course, it's just dereliction of duty.


ROMANS: So, there are cases where you say it's not improper and not illegal, and sometimes, it may be improper. The whole unmasking thing.

ELLIS HENICAN, POLITICAL ANALYST: Let's talk about that word in a second. Unmasking, I mean, it sounds so horrible, doesn't it? My goodness, someone was unmasked.

But when you really get into it, this is the way our intelligence system works. The way when wiretaps are run on foreign folks and they happen to catch Americans, somehow someone talking about an American or speaking to go an American, it's a perfectly appropriate and legal and routine process to say, maybe some officials, not everyone in the public, but some officials may need to know who this is, what they're talking about and why?

So, it could be abused but I don't think we have any evidence yet that it has been abused. Do you see any?

BRIGGS: Could be OK if it was in the interest of national security. If it's purely political, we have a problem. But the backdrop of this, David, is -- integrity, the credibility of Susan Rice given what she said on PBS on March 22nd. Listen.


SUSAN RICE, OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOER: I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.


BRIGGS: Your reaction?

DRUCKER: It depends on what the meaning of "this" is.

BRIGGS: The question was about surveillance of Trump transition officials.


You know, "this" could mean all sorts of things. You know, was she the one that requested the unmasking and what does she do with the information?

Look, imagine eight years ago, you have incoming President Barack Obama, limited national security experience, and traveled to Berlin to give a big huge speech. Republicans were ridiculing him because, you know, as "a citizen of the world", quote/unquote, and then we find out that George W. Bush's outgoing national security adviser had done the same thing.

I think Democrats would have been up in arms, even if it would have been legal, and they probably would have said it was improper. And we know that over the years, it's been mostly Democrats that have been concerned about the FISA laws being abused, not Republicans.

So, my point in saying is that I think we need more information about --

ROMANS: I agree.

DRUCKER: -- what motivated this and what was done with it. Obviously, in this case, we have an unusual situation where we're concerned about a foreign adversary meddling in our elections. And all of that could have entailed, before we knock this down and say, oh, there's nothing to see here, I think we need to know more about it.

ROMANS: Chairman Nunes said it wasn't about Russia. So, imagine this scenario and this is all we can do, actually, because we -- there's a lot of information we don't have, where you have a foreign adversary, not Russia, spying on the Trump Tower, and discussing it amongst foreign, you know, nationals, we hear it and Susan Rice or whoever decide, wait, the intelligence community needs to know this potential enemy is tapped right into Trump Tower.

HENICAN: Yes. And in hindsight, let's not forget.

[05:10:01] I mean, it's increasingly looking like if the Obama administration made a mistake in all this stuff, it maybe that they focused too little, not that they were overly dogged or trying to get to the bottom of it, but is that they didn't understand early enough frankly how severe this Russian threat to our democracy was. And so, we may be in a little bit of a contradiction here by saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on a second, don't be unmasking these people, actually, we need to learn more, don't we?

BRIGGS: And this story, like everything else, strict party lines, partisan, how you view it depends on where you stand politically, as does the Supreme Court of Neil Gorsuch.


BRIGGS: Does look like it's heading, David, to the nuclear option? It looks like they will filibuster on the left. They will not have the 60 votes. How politically risky is this play for Chuck Schumer, and the Democrats, given that they could have another opening in the Trump administration, which could shift the philosophical balance of the entire court for decades?

DRUCKER: Democrats are in a tough spot because the base reminds me so much of the base of the Republican Party during the Obama years. They just want Democrats to say no and fight every step of the way.


DRUCKER: Even if you can make an argument that you should be strategic about how you fight and when you fight, they don't care. They don't want to hear about it.

And, you know, from the Democrats' point of view, they are not really going to support the philosophy of a right of center judge. And Gorsuch is a solid conservative. So, then you look ahead to the next Supreme Court nominee, you could make an argument that the Democrats at least provided the votes to kill the filibuster and then they voted against on this on final -- his confirmation final passage, maybe they would be in a position to influence Trump into nominating somebody next time around that was right of center but not far right of center.

But, you know, on the other hand, if you look at the Gorsuch nomination and you look at the fact that the Supreme Court is such an important issue for Republicans when it comes to Trump and he has been so transactional about this, wouldn't you probably get another Gorsuch? Yes, you probably would.

HENICAN: And what's the cost? Honestly?

BRIGGS: The filibuster.

HENICAN: Yes. Aren't they going to get slammed either way, right? I mean, they're not going to control who Trump is putting on the court. The guy is going to get through most likely.

BRIGGS: But they might next time. It maybe replacing Kennedy.

HENICAN: But why does playing nicely this time, does that really get you anything next time? I'm not convinced that --

ROMANS: They very could call the nuclear option, because nobody wants to pull the button, because you don't know exactly what happens on the other side.

Guys, thanks so much. Come back in a few minutes. We'll talk again, OK? Get a cup of coffee. Come back. Thanks.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering a review of police reforms initiated under President Obama. More on what that could mean for major police departments. That's ahead.


[05:16:42] BRIGGS: Police reforms enacted by the Obama administration could be in jeopardy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering a review of all agreements made with troubled departments. He wants to make sure they don't conflict with the president's goal of promoting officer safety and fighting morale while fighting violent crime. Since 2009, the Justice Department has conducted 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies and is currently enforcing 14 decent consent decrees and agreements.

ROMANS: All right. The future of Internet privacy in question this morning. The White House following through killing off a series of Obama era privacy rules. President Trump signing into law a repeal of protections that would have required Internet service providers to get your permission before collecting and sharing your data.

So, why block the rules? Well, Trump appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, says, quote, "Those flawed privacy rules which never went into effect, they were designed to benefit one group of favored companies, not online consumers."

Here are the three buckets of data that Internet service providers are collecting, that they can now share without you knowing -- your browsing history, your app usage and your geo-location. Now, most online programs will not block ISPs from collecting this data. You will have to get a VPN, a private network or a Tor program to do that if you want to try to keep a hold of that.

BRIGGS: Is that easily done?

ROMANS: I am not the person to ask but I have been asking about it. We're talking about medical record, financial records -- I mean, there's stuff there that's you know private.

BRIGGS: Oh, boy.

Well, some redemption for North Carolina winning the national championship one year after losing the title on a buzzer-beater. The Tar Heels beating Gonzaga 71-65 in Phoenix Monday night. The game was close throughout though. UNC trailed at half. They score the first eight points in the second half and the last eight points of the game to close out the victory. This is the sixth national title in North Carolina's storied history, third since 2005.

The win setting up a wild celebration. The school posting this awesome real time -- excuse me, time-lapsed video of students and the fans swarming the streets there in Chapel Hill.

ROMANS: They are happy.

BRIGGS: They get it there in Chapel Hill. They have celebrated a couple times. Pretty peaceful partying going on late last night.

ROMANS: Congratulations, everybody.

All right. Nineteen minutes past the hour. Breaking overnight, officials revealed the identity of the bomber behind that deadly attack on the metro in St. Petersburg. We're going to take you there live.


[05:23:34] ROMANS: Breaking news: authorities in Russia identifying the suspect behind the deadly bombing of a metro station in St. Petersburg. The blast killed 14 people and left 51 others injured. The Kremlin describing the incident as a terrorist attack.

I want to go live to St. Petersburg right now in Russia, and bring in CNN's Oren Liebermann with the very latest.

It's certainly -- I mean, certainly a tragedy, Oren, that looks like it could have been far worse.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was. And that's because there was another device that was found, another bomb that was -- that had not detonated that they before, that hadn't gone off, that was defused. And authorities saying that was a kilogram of TNT hidden in a fire extinguisher. That was just one station away, one or two stations away from the explosion that did go off, killing as we just learned 14 people as well as dozens of others.

What we've learned now is the identity of he suspect in this case. Kyrgyzstan security authorities identifying him as Akbarjon Djalilov, born in 1995. That would make him 21 or 22 years old. He was born in Kyrgyzstan, he is a Russian citizen, so that sheds a little bit of light on which direction the investigation is going at this point.

We also know that the foreign ministers of Russia and Kyrgyzstan are set to hold the joint press conference held shortly. That could reveal more about, was Djalilov working alone? And where else the investigation going? There's also set to be another press conference from the governor of St. Petersburg. So, just 24 hours here, that's about the mark we're nearing since the explosion. We could learn where the investigation is going. [05:25:02] Meanwhile out here, there is a memorial to those 14 who lost their lives, as well as dozens who are injured. And we can give you a look at that, because that has been growing since last night, well into this morning, as you can see people here, paying their respects in their own way, dropping off flowers, or lighting candles or just pausing to reflect the moment, we have seen more than a few people paused here and shed a few tears as they reflect on what happened.

To an extent, life has returned to normal as the metro station has reopened and people have gone about their day, but so many have stopped to reflect on now this scar, this open wound in St. Petersburg just one day after the attack.

Now, I will point out that Sennya Square, the station here, was just near where this explosion happened, is blocked off at the moment by some 10 fire trucks and two paramedics. They haven't been informed why all of these authorities are here, but it is, at this moment, blocked off, and we have seen a flurry of activity. We'll keep you posted.

ROMANS: All right. Oren Liebermann for us in St. Petersburg, Russia -- certainly a terrible event there yesterday -- thank you for that.

BRIGGS: Nice to see people back though, not staying home, not out of fear.

All right. Real story or attempt to distract? The president lashing out after his news outlet of choice said a top Obama official wanted Trump associates unmasked. But is that even a problem? We'll discuss, next.