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Young police officer killed in an ambush style attack in a Denver suburb; Democrats are warning that the House investigation into Russian election meddling could be in danger in the New Year; Aired 4- 5p ET

Aired December 31, 2017 - 16:00   ET



[16:00:27] ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Thanks for being with us on this our final show of 2017.

We begin with a young police officer killed in an ambush style attack in a Denver suburb. And all five sheriff's deputies were shot. 29- year-old deputy Zachary Parish was a father of two. He died today in a hail of gunfire. Authorities say the shooter fired more than 100 rounds. The Douglas County sheriff describes breaking this tragic news to deputy Parish's wife. Watch.


SHERIFF TONY SPURLOCK, DOUGLAS COUNTY, COLORADO: I spent some time with his wife. I can't tell you how difficult it is for a leader to sit down with a spouse of an officer killed in the line of duty. They had many hopes and dreams and he was doing his job. And he is doing his job well. And his life was taken from us this morning.


CABRERA: Parish and his fellow deputies responded to an early morning disturbance finding the gunman and his roommate inside their apartment. The unidentified gunman with an assault rifle fired more than 100 rounds. He was killed, as well.

Let's get right to CNN's Scott McLean in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

So Scott, you have new details.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, we know according to the sheriff here in Douglas County that deputies had actually been to that apartment complex. It is a sprawling campus of several two story walk ups each with four different suites inside of them.

They were there at 1:30 in the morning for a noise complaint. They couldn't find anything so they left. It wasn't until shortly after 5:00 that they got another call about some other kind of disturbance. They went inside the apartment of the suspect. You mentioned his roommate was there, as well. They talked to him for some time. At some point he barricaded himself

inside one of the bedrooms and sometime after that he fired shots. He hit all four deputies who were in that area. One of them you mentioned 29-year-old Zachary Parish were killed. The other three were injured and taken to local hospital. So this was sometime before 6:00.

It wasn't until 7:30 that a regional response team, a SWAT type team was able to mobilize and actually go in to try to get Zachary Parish who was still inside or in the vicinity of that apartment and try to get him out. They didn't know what type of condition he was in at that point. An officer who was part of that team ended from (INAUDIBLE), he ended up getting shot in the leg, as well. He has actually been released from the hospital.

But the sheriff said that Parish's injuries were not something that he could have survived from. But it did take -- this did go on for quite some time, an hour and 45 minutes from the first shot being fired from the last shot that actually killed the suspect in this case.

There were also two civilians who were injured. They have both been released from the hospital. We know that they were in neighboring apartments. According to sheriff, though, he wasn't entirely certain. That roommate, Ana, also is cooperating with sheriff's deputies and investigators at this point.

CABRERA: All right. Scott McLean, keep us posted as you continue to learn more information. Such a sad situation to hear about a man losing his life, father of two young children.

Now much of the country is on high alert today. New Year's Eve in New York City thousands of police officers will be in and around Times Square to guard the estimated two million revelers expected in Midtown Manhattan for that iconic ball drop tonight. Officers will be on the lookout in subways as well following that attempted suicide bombing near the Times Square station earlier this month.

Law enforcement will also be patrolling from the air and rolling out sand trucks and concrete blocks in hopes of preventing another truck attack like the one that killed eight people back in October.

Let's head out to CNN's Polo Sandoval live in Times Square for us.

Polo, the New York police department says this is going to be one of the safest venues in the world tonight. And I still -- it never ceases to amaze me how early people show up even in the cold. Tell us what you are seeing.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of people are braving the cold, Ana. Planning for this started after New Year's earlier this year. That's gives you an idea of just how much (INAUDIBLE) comes into this. Because it is such a monumental task to keep at two million, at least two million people safe.

And they are already starting to line up. Everybody here has been coming out here to Times Square since about 10:00 this morning, Ana. People here are in it for the long haul. Some of the folks here have been here since 10:00 a.m. eastern time. They are already coming to the terms with the reality. They will be here for about 14 hours when everything is said and done.

The mayor saying that the weather should be taken seriously. It is going to get extremely cold so asking anybody who wants to break the weather to bundle up. And that is what McKenzie did from Orlando, Ana. It is much warmer at home back in Florida. But it is worth it to you.

[16:05:27] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Definitely worth it. It's awesome here.

SANDOVAL: A little bit about what you have done to prepare because this is going to be a long time before that ball starts to drop.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have hand warmers, scarves and a bunch of warm clothes.

SANDOVAL: What do you have to say to all the family back in Florida that is maybe wearing shorts right now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I love you all, but I miss the warm.

SANDOVAL: McKenzie, thank you so much. Have fun tonight.


SANDOVAL: McKenzie and her father, Bill, have been bundled up. You can see the road just continues to go, Ana, for blocks here. This is obviously a big-time security challenge, Ana. NYPD won't say exactly how many officers are out. But I can personally tell you that they are out on almost every corner and every few feet because, yes, the attacks we have seen this year, the truck attack from October 31st and the failed suicide bombing attack not far from where we are standing, they certainly or they are at least two reasons why security is at its highest right now. Officers on high alert. It may be one of the safest could well also be one of the coldest, Ana.

CABRERA: Yes. We know they have radio logical detection teams out there. They have field of courageously. They are implementing additional safety measures that they haven't done in years past.

Polo Sandoval, thank you. Stay warm. I hope you have some hand warmers there to keep fingers nice and toasty.

When in doubt stay indoors. Stay warm. You can ring in 2018 with CNN's New Year's Eve special hosted by Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen. It all starts tonight at 8:00 p.m. eastern here on CNN.

Now back in Washington, Democrats are warning that the House investigation into Russian election meddling could be in danger in the New Year. The "Washington Post" reports that concerns center around House Intelligence chairman, Devin Nunes. Democrats say Nunes is taking some steps to try and shut down the committee's investigation and expose the FBI as corrupt. Now his tactics are even starting to concern some Republicans who

worry Nunes could do lasting damage to the justice department and law enforcement.

Joining us now, the "Washington Post" reporter behind this piece Karoun Demirjian also "New York Times" correspondent Mark Mazzetti and former White House ethics Czar under President Obama and former ambassador to the Czech Republic Norm Eisen.

So Karoun, I want to ask you about your reporting. What exactly is congressman Nunes doing that has Democrats and even some Republicans are concerned?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there has just been concerns that he has been working from behind the scenes. Look, Nunes was under an ethics inquiry for several months of 2017 because of comments that he made that were basically alleging that the Obama administration had unmasked certain names of Trump affiliates and surveillance reports.

The ethics committee looked into questions of whether he had actually broken the rules by disclosing classified information. Decided he had earlier this month. But Democrats have been concerned for a while that even though Nunes kind of stepped aside and handed over the leadership to others he has been pulling the strings to try to keep -- to try to keep this from being a fully open investigation.

They have complained about the order of operations things have been done and the access that they have had to certain witnesses who they believe should come back in. And now there is concern that, you know, with Nunes coming back more fully into chairmanship, even though he is not resting that probe away from Republicans he deputize to run it that there will be more things happening. There is expectation that a subgroup of the Republicans in the committee may be releasing a report in the New Year that would try to address corruption allegations against members of the law enforcement that were involve in the Russia probe.

Also, clearly there has been a drum beat towards trying to do more investigation of the FBI and DOJ in so far as the probes of Hillary Clinton and with their reports that there is going to be, you know, pulling back of the ending, I guess, of the investigation into Trump's alleged ties to Russia this is kind of a moment as we head into the new year where it is critical to see what is going to happen now that you have the chairman of the committee who was part of trump's transition team back in the fray and this pivot point coming on that committee.

CABRERA: And yet, as you point out he was cleared in this ethics investigation that he was involved in. He hasn't actually taken back the reins of the house Intel probe into Russia's election meddling. So what authority does he really have?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, he has always had the authority sign off on subpoenas of the chairmanship. And he never gave up the authority the sign off on subpoenas for example. He never actually, and will (INAUDIBLE), that he never completely stepped away from the probe. So even though he hasn't really been in the room for any of the meetings, it has just been, you know, staffers, he has stayed involved and stayed basically the final arbiter of some of the most stringent tools that the committee has to do its investigation still depend on Nunes' buy in, (INAUDIBLE).

And you have a dispute between Republicans and Democrats in the committee about whether or not he is, you know, he is letting things go ahead that should be going ahead. Democrats saying no he is not and Republicans saying we have gotten everything we ask for. But this clearly a political split here. And this is one of the committee, of all the congressional probes, this is the most beset by political squabbling where that has taken its toll on the work that they have been able to do.

[16:10:27] CABRERA: Ambassador Eisen, is that House intelligence investigation even needed at this point when you had a special counsel probe given. Mueller, we know, seems to be ahead of everyone. He doesn't appear to be leaving any stones unturned. For example, we know he requested 400,000 plus documents from Paul Manafort and Rick Gates alone.

NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Ana, thanks for having me back. And I do think that House probe is needed. Look. Mueller is the tip of the spear on the investigation. But there are things that the House and the Senate can do that Mueller cannot do including report to the American people. They have a freer hand to do that.

This is a time -- there is no question, our country and our elections were attacked by Russia. This is a time when Americans of all political parties should come together to say what happened? Let's understand it. For heaven's sakes we have hid terms coming up again in the New Year. We need to harden our system to prevent this from happening again. Instead of this partisan conduct that chairman Nunes has been engaged in bending over backwards to help trump, smearing law enforcement. The FBI on the front lines of protecting us.

Let's work in a bipartisan way to solve the problems. That's the unique thing or important thing that the house intelligence committee should be doing compared to the Senate intelligence committee, much more bipartisan, the sniping that is going on there is shameful and an insult to FBI and to law enforcement.

CABRERA: Mark, do you get the sense that the congressional probes that are currently three of them, are they going the same direction as Mueller's probe?

MARK MAZZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATION EDITOR, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, they are trying to be pretty clear that their job is not to investigate crimes. That's Mueller's job. They are trying to look at something else about whether the extent of Russian interference and possible contacts with the Trump campaign, the extent that the Russians trying to use social media to influence voters. And so they do say that there is day light between them and the Mueller committees. But as the other panelists have said, you know, they are exactly right. There has been very, very different approaches by the different committees. It's been clear from the get go that the House Republicans and particularly chairman Nunes don't want this investigation. They want it to end quickly or they want to go after other things like Hillary Clinton or the FBI or press leagues.

So, you know, it's hard to imagine salvaging it in 2018 or at least salvaging it in a bipartisan way. The other committees particularly Senate intelligence committee probably more of a hope for it.

CABRERA: Karoun, I'm sure you saw Mark's reporting yesterday about how it was Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, not the dossier that likely spark the FBI investigation to the Trump campaign and its connection perhaps to Russia.

Do you think reporting and that specific story makes it harder for Republicans like Nunes to argue that the FBI had it out for trump and that these investigations had no basis?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, I doubt that those investigations and accusations go away in the New Year. But it does seem to weaken that point that they have been trying to make. They have been trying to make the dossier the central episode, the central thing of this investigation to be able to say there is no there there. And the dossier has been that pivot point especially because of reports that there was Democratic might have went through his financing, some of the research to end up in it.

But the revelations that the times had about Papadopoulos, you know, suggests that this all started from something very much in House, not from something that was external that they can say, this was all a setup. So that is going to certainly complicate the messaging that they were going to be trying to pursue for the next several months to the election, I'm sure. Whether it actually forces them to change course, I would be surprised given that at the very end of this past year you already saw House judiciary and oversight committees launching in on their questions about the FBI - how the FBI ran its probe with Hillary Clinton. That's one of, you know, two things. Basically there would seem to be on top for 2018, the other one being the dossier, to have them say, kidding, we are not going to go in that direction seems like it is farfetched but it certainly is as you are saying it, it is not as clear the message that they were hoping it would be.

[16:15:08] CABRERA: Ambassador, looking ahead as far as what is next, I know, you and I have talked and you have argued there is already plenty of evidence of collusion. But are you talking about it in the criminal sense or the, I guess, other more general sense of collusion that is not illegal?

EISEN: Well, the thing that was established by the Flynn guilty plea is that not just Flynn himself but many others in the transition it appears were involved in colluding with Russia to subvert the Obama era sanctions at the very end of the Obama administration during the trump transition. I think that has been established by Flynn.

Now, what crime is that? It's a violation of law. The Logan act is on the books. It forbids that kind of collusion very rarely criminally charged. Probably won't be charged by Mueller. I think what Mueller is doing now, Ana, is saying, OK, we saw this secret cooperation between Russia and Flynn and others in the transition. Did it go back further and he is probing things like the new Papadopoulos report. Was there an agreement?

Now, there is no crime of collusion but there are other crimes that may apply. Campaign finance violations. You are not allowed to take help from a foreign government. Computer fraud and abuse violations. Conspire if the Trump campaign was involved in the supporting the hacking operations, conspiracy statutes. So there is a variety of other ways.

Nobody knows the answer. Mueller is digging into it. It's going to be a very interesting 2018 as we start to see some answers to this critical question of what happened during the campaign.

CABRERA: Mark, as ambassador Eisen pointed out earlier, Mueller's team has kept his cards very close to the vest unlike some of the congressional investigators. How much longer do you think the congressional investigations might last? Is there a point where Republicans shut them down and will Democrats ever be satisfied?

MAZZETTI: You know, as we are saying, it does appear that they are going on different tracks. The Senate side, the Senate intelligence committee you would think might try to wrap up at least the first half of this year or during the summer. They want to probably be done well before the November elections. It's unclear about the House. You know, as I said, they would like to shut some of the Russia part down but they might want to keep it going on other fronts, Hillary Clinton, FBI corruption, what have you. So there may be political reasons to keep them going. Whether they will find bipartisanship it will be hard to see on the House Republican side - the House intelligence side.

CABRERA: All right. Mark Mazzetti, ambassador Norm Eisen and Karoun Demirjian, out hanks to all of you and happy New Year.

EISEN: Happy New Year, Ana.


MAZZETTI: Happy New Year.

CABRERA: Well, this is how Moscow welcomed in the New Year. Just a few minutes ago, fireworks above the kremlin. Of course, they will be hard pressed to look back at 2017 and not think about Russia given the special counsel investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. But for now take a moment and enjoy the show.

We will be right back.


[16:22:23] CABRERA: Welcome back. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM.

I want to talk more about an effort by some Republicans and conservative media to undermine the Russia investigation and paid the special counsel as corrupt.

Joining us now CNN political commentators Ana Navarro and Scott Jennings. Ana has work closely with former governor Jeb Bush and Senator John McCain. And Scott is a former special assistance to President Bush. They are both Republicans.

Ana, there has been criticism particularly from Democrats that Republicans are rushing to end their congressional investigations and that they want the Mueller probe done because midterms, of course, are right around the corner. What is the impact of the investigations as they continue into 2018?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: (INAUDIBLE) Republicans frankly as for the benefit of all of America. For these investigations to conclude at the time that they need to conclude. We need to let the process happen. We need to scrutinize it. These investigations need to be scrutinized. For example, I think it is a good thing that all of these conflicts of interest and text business tween FBI agents working on this were discovered. It may see investigation better. Bob Mueller did the right thing by getting rid of them.

But I think Republicans need to be very careful of not looking hyper partisan, of not looking like they are trying to cover Donald Trump's back, of not looking like they are trying to obstruct this investigation. They need to put the interest of the country above the interest of the party. This is a place where it has to be country first. And if they don't, I think that they are going to pay a very high price at the ballot box.

CABRERA: Now Scott, the President has said as recent as this week that this investigation has united his base making them feel stronger than ever. Could Republicans use the Russia investigation to their advantage in some way on the campaign trail?

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No. I don't know that it is going to be any kind of a political advantage. I do think Republicans would be wise to continue to draw the line between acknowledging Russian meddling and the concept of collusion.

I think a lot of Republicans I talked to acknowledge that the Russians did try to meddle in the election, but that is different than collusion. And our own legal analyst here at CNN including Paul Callan has said he hasn't seen evidence so far that a conspiracy exists to violate federal law that would constitute someone going to jail for the term collusion.

I think the Republicans would be wise, though, acknowledge the meddling, a hostile foreign power try to meddle in our election. That doesn't mean they needed a colluding partner to do it necessarily. But I do think the Republicans would be wise to make a strong statement that we will not allow any foreign country to mess around in our democracy whether a presidential campaign or any other election.

CABRERA: And while you point out that Mueller and his team have not concluded there was collusion at least in a criminal sense. Again, collusion not a legal term actually but the different charges that could point to collusion or perhaps conspiracy or cooperation, they haven't ruled it out yet either. And so that's why their investigation continues.

But Ana, let me read you a quote from the "Washington Post" about what is happening in Congress regarding these investigations. Nunes, is says as quote "convening a group of intelligence committee Republicans to draft a likely report on corruption among the investigators working for the special counsel. Nunes told CNN it is not a secret we have an investigation into the DOJ. Now some Republican allies have expressed concern about these tactics. Do you share that concern?

[16:25:47] NAVARRO: I do. I share the concern that Nunez is back, frankly. He is like, you know Freddie from Friday the 13th. He just keeps coming back. He had become a very partialized player in this entire investigation process. He seemed to be collaborating with the Trump White House. He seemed to be carrying the water for Donald Trump. That in turn compromised the congressional investigation.

Since he has taken a back seat because of the ethics investigations he was embroiled with earlier in the year it has been a better process. And so I think Devin Nunes if he is going to come back and be a player again he still really take stock of the gravity of the seriousness of the responsibility that is on his shoulders.

This is not about helping Donald Trump. This is about uncovering what happened in the elections, the integrity of our democracy. That is where his loyalties need to be. That's where his loyalty needs to be. Not to any one given person or anyone one given president or even one given party. And I think Republicans realize that he had become a huge distraction who was frankly taken away from the validity of these investigations.

CABRERA: Scott, I think it is important to remember Robert Mueller was appointed by President George W. Bush as FBI director. Someone you served under. Why do you think Nunez would try to undermine a Republican appointed FBI director?

JENNINGS: I think there are some Republicans who have raised questions about as some of Mueller's personnel choices on his investigations. I have heard a number of Republicans praise Robert Mueller as an American hero, as the right man at the right time.

I think there had been some appropriate question raised about some of the information that has come forward. And I think we need transparency in all of our government agencies including the DOJ and the FBI.

And even this past week, President Trump said he expects Robert Mueller will treat him fairly. He praised Mueller, in fact, in that big "New York Times" article after he did the interview down at Mar-a- Lago.

So I don't really hear people claiming corruption on Mueller. I do think some questions have been raised about the judgment he showed in hiring some of the people he did. But as those things come out, that people can draw their own conclusions about whether the investigation was fair and unbiased.

But I think Robert Mueller is a hero. He served out government well. And he does need to be allowed to do his job. Because as Ana said, we have to get to the bottom of the meddling. Even if we never find any collusion, we have to get to the bottom of the Russian meddling issue.

CABRERA: One thing we really learned in 2017 was just how divided the Republican Party is. Ana, in 2018, who will you expect to be the voice of moderate


NAVARRO: That's a good question. Look, I'm not sure that there is a single voice right now for any faction of the Republican Party other than the Trump base and that voice is clearly Donald Trump. I think the rest of the Republican Party is going through growing pains. I think it is divided. We saw it clearly during the Alabama election where as you had Republicans all over the place, some defending Roy Moore, some against Roy Moore. You have, you know, establishment Republicans. You have base Republicans. You have the wayward kind of dark horse of Steve Bannon running around trying to make trouble for the party.

So I don't know, Ana. That's really a very hard question. I can't come up with one single moderate Republican voice that I think will be the leading voice. I think you will continue to hear from people like John McCain. We heard from him yesterday despite his illness on the Iran protest. I am so thankful for his continued leadership. I think you will continue to hear from other fragmathon (ph) from Lindsey Graham. You will continue to hear from Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse and John Kasich. But I'm not sure that there is one voice that you can appoint as the voice of moderate Republicans.

CABRERA: Scott, your thoughts on that?

JENNINGS: You know, I expect a lot of unity out of the Republican Party. I think we started seeing it in December. You saw the Republicans rally around the president's tax reform package. He is standing up there with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Everybody in the Senate voted for it. Virtually everybody in the House voted for it. That's a handful of folks.

I think what you will see the party do is try to unify. Yes, there may be days where they have problems with the President on this, that of the other. But they know that political unity may be the key to survival. It is a difficult midterm environment. The President's job approval is lower than you would like it to be. The generic ballot is bad, showing unity in purpose and showing unity on results may be the way the Republicans can stave off the Democrats in November.

So I don't know that we're going to see factions on the moderate side. I think we're going to see unity and try to sell the President's agenda as good for the country.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Scott Jennings and Ana Navarro, best wishes to you in the New Year.


JENNINGS: Happy New Year.

CABRERA: Feliz Navidad. Well, that's Christmas. Feliz ano Nuevo. See you, Ana.

Across Iran this weekend, people are protesting. And in fact, people are dying. The government is warning protesters that they will, quote, "Pay the price for their actions." President Trump is watching out for any human rights violation. We'll explain what exactly is going on there next.


CABRERA: Iran's government with a warning, protesters causing trouble may pay the price. Authorities are shutting off access now to social media apps like Instagram. This is day four of unprecedented demonstrations. Protesters are chanting that the regime must fall.

Now these protests are striking, much different than we've seen before, erupting outside of the capital, of Tehran as well as in small towns and villages. And protesters are openly calling for the overthrow of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

President Trump warning Iran today, quote, "The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations."

Let's bring in senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance. Matthew, Iran's president is pointing the finger now at President Trump, explain.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Hassan Rouhani is the name of the Iranian president and he is basically saying that Donald Trump has been causing disorder, has been, you know, kind of a big problem when it comes to causing trouble for the Iranian people. But he is attempting to offset criticism.

This is being made now across the country of his regime and of his government by protesters that are taking to the streets, not just in the capital, Tehran, but across

the country in very widespread demonstrations.

The individual demos themselves are not particularly large, particularly in comparison to what took place in 2009 where more than a million people came into the streets in Tehran, at the capital alone, to protest against the reelection of the incumbent president back then.

These protesters, as you mentioned, are very different. They are aimed not just at one particular political figure. They are aimed - at least, at the moment, they started off as economic protests. But now they have taken on a political flavor against the entire clerical regime. And the authorities led by Hassan Rouhani are sort of, you know,

expressing their concern, I think it's fair to say, about where this might lead. Hassan Rouhani telling a cabinet meeting which is broadcast on state television in Iran that people have the right to protest but not to cause disorder. Take a listen.


HASSAN ROUHANI, PRESIDENT OF IRAN (through translator): We are a free nation. And according to the constitution and the citizen rights, the people are free to express their criticism and their protests. They are completely free.

At the same time, we should be careful. We should pay attention to the way these criticisms and protests are made. They should be made in a way that can culminate to

reform and betterment of the conditions for the country. Yes, when it comes to economic problems and social problems, the people have problems, of course.


CHANCE: So the Iranian president is saying the people in Iran have the right to protest but not cause disorder. There has been a much blunter message from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, that is the military outfit charged with protecting the Islamic Republic.

One of their senior figures has said that the protesters will face an iron fist if the unrest continues. So there is a potential for the violence - or for the violent response to this, Ana, to get much worse.

CABRERA: Right, Matthew Chance reporting. Thank you.

Coming up, their fate was unknown after living through the horrors of the civil war. But now thanks to a few animal lovers, these lions, tigers and bears are getting a new home. Their remarkable story of survival next. You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


CABRERA: A small sign of hope in the midst of a brutal Syrian civil war. An animal rescue organization has stepped in to save some of the most helpless victims of this ruthless conflict. A team of volunteers risked their own lives to save zoo animals in Aleppo. CNN's Hala Gorani has more -- Hala.

HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Ana, after a year's long devastating civil war, whole cities and towns inside Syria have been nearly obliterated. Estimated 400,000 people have been killed. Residential areas, office buildings, roadways are now laying pretty much in ruin. Amidst so much destruction, it can be hard to see any kind of silver lining.

But we did find a story about a team of volunteers who tried to make a difference for some animals that were left behind in Aleppo. And obviously, Ana, the challenge was moving them to a safe place. But how do you safely transport full-grown lions and bears across borders? Take a look.


GORANI: Originally modeled after Disneyland, the sprawling theme park is now a war zone on the outskirts of Aleppo. Like much of the city, Syria's long conflict has laid waste to the Magic World zoo. And to the helpless animals inside, unable to escape when bombs began to fall.

DIANA BERNAS, MANAGER, ANIMAL CARE: Currently, there were over 300 animals in the zoo and only 13 survivors. So that tells you the horrific conditions that they had to exist in.

GORANI: Violence, starvation and disease claimed most of the lives inside here. But help came for the few animals who survived.

AMIR KHALIL, VETERINARIAN, FOUR PAWS: I'm very happy that the animals are here. We still have very long trip.

GORANI: In July, Dr. Amir Khalil and animal rescue organizations, Four Paws, conducted what was essentially a military operation. Across hundreds of kilometers to one of the world's most dangerous war zones, they moved the traumatized animals to safety.

BERNES: It was a mission that was planned for several months in advance because it was so dangerous and people literally risked their lives for these animals. Once all 13 animals were retrieved, then the trucks started rolling through Syria, through different checkpoints until the borders were open for them in Turkey.

GORANI: Arriving safely in Turkey from Aleppo was a nearly miraculous feat. The animals were safe there until they could be airlifted to their new home, a wildlife reserve in Jordan.

BERNES: The physical wounds that they arrived with were really hard to see. They were just totally dehydrated. They were malnourished. They were very, very skinny.

GORANI: Months later, their physical wounds have healed.

BERNES: Sayed, hello, hello.

GORANI: But the scars from suffering years of conflict don't fade as quickly.

BERNES: The emotional attributes they bring with them, they don't display that as obvious as the physical wounds. Sometimes we see, if we just raise a broom, sometimes around Sayed, he will react. One of the Asian black bears that when he hears a military helicopter fly overhead, he'll immediately run into the night room.

GORANI: These four-legged refugees can now recover in peace, owing their lives to the small dedicated group that dared to save them. BERNES: If we want to call ourselves civilized, we have we have to be

able to share this planet with these magnificent beings, and that's part of my work.


GORANI: And Ana, the animals you saw on that report were the lucky ones. As I mentioned in the piece, most of the wildlife that previously lived at that theme park didn't survive. And it really just shows how desperate the situation inside Syria is that for a chance of survival, all these animals had to seek refuge in another country -- Ana.

CABRERA: Hala, thank you for sharing that story with us.

Coming up, we're going to head to the Florida Keys, where communities hit hard by Hurricane Irma months ago are getting ready for a new beginning in the New Year.


CABRERA: It's been a long painful few months of loss and very hard work for people who live in the Florida Keys. They took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. It was the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane ever recorded outside the Gulf of Mexico. But Key West, one of the most festive places to be at any time of the year, especially New Years, has come back to life still with many challenges ahead.

CNN's Bill Weir is in Key West right now. Bill, we were just looking at video that you shot actually in Key West immediately after the storm. How are

things looking there today?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Ana, I got to tell you, it's amazing what 120 days or so does. It's a completely different place.

As you can see, the sunset cruises are loading up for the last pastel show in the sky of 2017, very festive. We'll take you down here as folks load up on one of the many catamarans getting ready for today's sunset party.

But, yes, we came down here just a day or two after the storm. We couldn't use one. Of course, it was impassable because of the strength of Irma, so many downed power lines. So we came down here with such dread and we pulled up into this very wharf. And the first request for humanitarian aid we received was when a woman asked if we had a bottle

opener, we can spare.

And if that doesn't say everything about Key West, I don't know what does. But let's bring in one of the county commissioners of Monroe County who actually can give us a better status report. Heather Carruthers, this is one of five county commissioners. Happy new year to you. HEATHER CARRUTHERS, COMMISSIONER, MONROE COUNTY, FL.: Happy new year

to you, too. And happy new year to everybody who's out there watching and enjoying Key West certainly.

WEIR: Well, this place was back to normal almost immediately after the storm.

CARRUTHERS: Yes, it took a little while. But, yes, we are pretty much back to normal in Key West right now.

WEIR: Right. But let me ask you about the other Keys, I've been to Big Pine, Cudjoe, some of the places where you see debris piles. It's really rough. How would you grade the recovery so far?

CARRUTHERS: Well, I know that it's hard to say this when there is a big pile in front of your own house, but actually this recovery has been pretty remarkable. The fact that we got power and water back so quickly is amazing.

We have, believe or not, already collected as much debris as we would normally create in 14 1/2 years as a result of this storm. We have removed 2.2 million cubic tons of - cubic yards of debris, like over 6,500 refrigerators and appliances. It's an enormous task. And you know, when you put it in the perspective like that, it is pretty remarkable.

WEIR: But the message for America tonight is that the Keys are open for business.

CARRUTHERS: The Keys are open for business. You know, in Key West, we got about 93 percent of our hotel rooms are back. You know, we still have - we still do have some folks who are living in hotel rooms because their homes are uninhabitable. Keys-wide, we got about 70 percent of hotel rooms here.

WEIR: That's good to know.

CARRUTHERS: Yes, it is.

WEIR: And for those who are here tonight, we got Sushi, the drag queen who drops at midnight in a giant stiletto heel.

CARRUTHERS: You're right.

WEIR: We got the pirate wench who's going to come down here, the conch shell at Sloppy Joe's. So the spirit of the Conch Republic is alive.

CARRUTHERS: It is very much alive. And you know, frankly, the resiliency of the people who live here and how we all pull together in times like

this is one of the great things that the storm did reveal.

WEIR: It's that spirit, Ana, that keeps the best last stop on any road in the world alive despite some of the harshest conditions. But happy new year to you and your family.

CARRUTHERS: Happy new year, happy to be here and glad you guys made it down here.

WEIR: And we will be here all night with all the festivities as we look back on what was really a devastating year, but what a resiliency and comeback as well -- Ana.

CABRERA: No doubt about it. I am channeling that spirit. There's such positive energy there. And you too, Bill, happy New Year. We will be checking back in with you next hour. Thanks so much.

Meantime, remember when Hurricane Harvey flooded parts of Houston, there was that furniture store that opened its doors as a make shift shelter. Well, today's "Inspiring People" spotlights Mattress Mack and the storm victims who are still lining up to get his help.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We used to have a couch right here. This was one of the last rooms to take on water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We went through Harvey. We lost all this. At this point, we are just trying to focus on our little boy and put the pieces here back together.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jeremy. Colleen, Jeremy, great to have you all here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thankfully, Mattress Mack makes an offer to us to go in and pick $10,000 worth of whatever furniture we wanted and he was offering $3,600 worth of accessories.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're giving one needy family a week that got affected by this horrible storm a house full of furniture.

Wonderful furniture, made in California, made in America.

And there are so many needy people out there. It's going to be a while as we continue to do this, because that's who we are. We are -- the essence of living is giving, said John Paul II, and that's what we're trying to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that's what he does.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, he's helped, I mean, not just us, but the entire greater Houston area during the time of the storm, when he was letting people stay there, like evacuees, to letting the National Guard use his mattresses as a place to sleep.

Just non-stop, from beginning to end, he's helped so many people all throughout this. It's amazing how much generosity one person can have.



CABRERA: It's another story of a flight turning around for an unauthorized passenger. But this time the stowaway was not human.

It happened yesterday on a Delta flight. This plane was taxiing on a runway when the captain turned it back to the gate because a little bird was in the cockpit. That sent people scrambling, crew members and maintenance workers all looking for this bird, but in the end they couldn't find it.

As one passenger who live tweeted the whole ordeal noted, "This bird is playing hide and go Seek, apparently." Well, since they couldn't find the bird, the

flight took off. But shortly after takeoff, guess who showed up again?

According to passenger while in the air, the captain announced that the bird was going a little nuts in the cockpit. So he turned around again and went back to Detroit out of an abundance of caution landing, back at the same airport 34 minutes after takeoff.

This time, though, success, a little bird was set free.

And about an hour later, the plane took off again and finally made it to Atlanta minus one wayward bird.