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McMaster: Russia Meddling "Incontrovertible"; Students and Supporters Demand Gun Law Reform; Plane Crash in Iran; The Fate of South Korea's First Assassination Squad; PyeongChang Olympics; Tracking Putin's Shadow Army; U.S. Skier Responds to Online Haters. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired February 18, 2018 - 03:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The U.S. president breaks with yet another top member of administration, this time undercutting his national security advisor in a tweet over the Russia investigation.

And President Trump also slamming the FBI again, this time over its botched handling of a tip ahead of a high school mass shooting that took place in Parkland, Florida.

Plus the tone is changing in Russia, at least over school shootings in the United States. What they once gloated about is now something they fear: copycats.

Welcome to our viewers around the world, I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta, NEWSROOM starts right now.


HOWELL: Around the world, a good day to you.

One day after 13 Russian operatives were charged with meddling in the U.S. presidential election, the U.S. President Donald Trump and his national security advisor seem to be at odds about what it all means.

H.R McMaster says the evidence and the indictment proves that meddling took place but the president has yet to acknowledge that; instead, he is focused almost exclusively on his claim of no collusion. First listen to what McMaster said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain.

Now that this is in the arena of a law enforcement investigation, it's going to be very apparent to everyone. But the second reason where I think Russia may have -- may reevaluate what it's been doing is because it's just not working.


HOWELL: But McMaster's candor prompted a sharp rebuke from his boss, the President of the United States, saying this, quote, "General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only collusion was between Russia and Crooked H., the DNC and the Dems."

Keep in mind all those assertions are unsubstantiated. The federal indictment is a thick document. It's full of rich detail about how Russians carried out such elaborate campaigns of disinformation. CNN's Polo Sandoval breaks it all down for us.


POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These 37 pages allege Russians went a very long way in their attempt to interfere with U.S. democracy. According to the federal indictment, Russians operating out of this St. Petersburg troll farm launched a misinformation campaign to wreck havoc on America's political system.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: The Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine ;dependence and democracy. We must not allow them to succeed.

SANDOVAL: Examples of the alleged misinformation campaign include allegations of voter fraud by the Democratic Party and the purchase of advertisements to further promote the allegations on Facebook.

The pages were even designed to look like they were run by real Americans and focus on issues in American life, race relations, immigration and of course, then candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Facebook estimates close to 126 million Americans may have been exposed to this and other propaganda. Federal investigators say the group behind it is the Internet Research Agency link today the Kremlin.

Russia has denied any involvement in the U.S. elections. At the security conference Saturday Russia's foreign minister again dismissed those claims.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIA'S MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (through translator): I have no response. Until we see the facts, everything else is just blather.

SANDOVAL: Then there are the rallies. In May 2016, a small group of anti-Islamic protests gathered outside a Muslim community center in Houston, Texas. Situation grew intense with counter rally.

The very month of the election, both pro and anti-Trump demonstrations were held in New York.

U.S. prosecutors say both events were organized by this same troll group half a world away in St. Petersburg. Russians traveled to the U.S. on a fact finding mission in 2014, say prosecutors. It would be the foundation of a massive operation brought to light in recent months and described in detail in these 37 pages -- Polo Sandoval, CNN, New York.


HOWELL: Polo, thank you.

President Trump is slamming FBI for ignoring a tip just last month that the confessed Florida shooter owned guns and wanted to kill people.

The president tweeted this, quote, "Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion --


HOWELL: -- "with the Trump campaign. There is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud," says the president.

The suspect, Nikolas Cruz, is due back in court Monday. His attorney says that he wants to plead guilty to gunning down 17 people to avoid the death penalty, though prosecutors are not ruling out capital punishment yet.

A friend says Cruz talked about ISIS. He talked about guns and school shootings and his mother repeatedly called police because of his violent outbursts. CNN talked to a neighbor, who saw Cruz right after his mother died.


PAUL GOLD, CRUZ'S NEIGHBOR: He was emotionless. And I wasn't sure if it was shock or what was going on but he had no emotion to him. He was just -- and then I asked him, are you sad?

You know. Can I help you?

And he said I'm sad because nobody showed up.


HOWELL: We get more now from CNN's Kaylee Hartung, reporting.


KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The picture grows more grim as we learn of the habits of the confessed school shooter on and offline. CNN was granted access to a private Instagram group chat that Nikolas Cruz was a part of.

In this group chat he pronounced his anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist views. He posted photos that illustrated his obsession with guns and violence. Since Cruz joined this group chat in August of 2017, the chat was predominantly among six individuals, including Cruz, none of whom would confirm their identities on or off the record to CNN, though all appeared to be under the age of 18 years old.

The language Cruz used there is shocking and offensive, as I quote, "I hate Jews, inward immigrants. Shoot them in the back of the head. I think I'm going to kill people."

And over the course of the story, we've learned that Cruz spent most of his life in a home with an adoptive family and he wrote, quote, "My real mom was a Jew, I am glad I never met her."

Over the past several years authorities visited the home Cruz lived in more than 30 times. We're learning more about one incident in particular in September of 2016. Cruz had gotten into a fight with his mom, she alleged to authorities that he had been cutting himself.

Investigators who visited the home determined he was not at risk to himself or others; we've learned that not to be true. Students remain hospitalized. On Sunday in the U.S., among those who will laid to rest, geography teacher, Scott Beigel, a man who many students credit with saving their lives -- in Parkland, Florida, Kaylee Hartung, CNN.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is breaking news.

HOWELL: We are getting reports that a passenger plane flying over Iran has crashed. It was flying from the capital city of Tehran to Yasuj in the southwest of the nation. It was carrying 66 people on board. Iran's state-run news agency says that the plane disappeared from the radar soon after takeoff.

Let's bring in now "L.A. Times" journalist, Ramin Mostaghim, now on the line from Tehran.

If you could, just tell us what you're hearing about this plane crash.

RAMIN MOSTAGHIM, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": First of all, the deputy governor of (INAUDIBLE) province, which is a tribal and mountainous area, says that the rescue has not yet observed anything, any wreckage of the crashed plane.

So the rescue teams have been sent, helicopters have been sent. But the problem is that area is foggy and there's (INAUDIBLE) is big obstacles to see what is going on, on the ground. So the rescue team has not reached to that area yet and we don't know exactly where it fell down and crashed.

HOWELL: All right. Let's just reset to let our viewers know, if you're just joining us, we are following this breaking news in Iran. We understand that this plane that was flying over the nation has crashed. It was flying from the capital city, you see here on the map, from Tehran, down to Yasuj, in the southwest of the country. It was carrying 66 people, Iran state-run news agency says the plane disappeared from radar soon after takeoff. Again, let's bring in our "L.A. Times" journalist, Ramin Mostaghim, to

tell us what we know so far.

And you say that it may take some time for them to get there. Talk to us about this particular flight.

Is this a routine flight, from what you understand, from the capital city down to the south?

MOSTAGHIM: No, it is not routine, it happens once a week or two, twice a week. And all of the time it's an area that is not easily to fly because it is mountainous areas and in this special particular time of this winter --


MOSTAGHIM: -- it is foggy and it is very difficult and it needs lots of experience and new brand technology. I mean, the plane, I mean, it seems that it is 8-HR (ph) type of the plane and it is 20 years old, more than 20 years old, the plane.

So it is plausible that, in that area, it is not easy to fly and this time of the year, which is very foggy and full of snow.

HOWELL: We have this map and if we could put the map back up because I want our viewers to see exactly the route that was being taken here. But again, the plane was flying from Tehran. It was flying down to the south, the Yasuj area.

But we have on Semirom there, if you could tell us, Ramin, so do you have any understanding of where this plane might have gone down. Because we understand it may have been in that mountainous area.

MOSTAGHIM: Yes, the radar says that it crashed possibly Semirom area, which is part of the (INAUDIBLE), that area. And but exactly we don't know, because the helicopters have -- they could not land on that area. So it is mountainous areas; the helicopter has been dispatched to that area but has not landed. So we cannot say exactly say where the crash happened.

HOWELL: All right, let's just again reset. We understand that this plane was leaving, it left the capital city of Tehran, it was heading to the south, to Yasuj. We're told here that the Semirom area may be the focus of this investigation. That may be where this plan went down, again, the plane carrying some 66 people on board. The Iran state-run news agency said that it disappeared from radar soon after taking off.

We will of course continue following this breaking news story, this plane crash in the nation of Iran. Stand by. NEWSROOM right back after the break.




HOWELL: We're following the breaking news here on CNN. The Iranian passenger plane that reportedly crashed in Central Iran. You see the map here, this plane was flying from the capital city of Tehran to Yasuj, that to the southwest. It was carrying 66 people on board. Iran's state-run news agency says that the plane disappeared from radar soon after taking off.

What we understand from a reporter we just had on that it was foggy, this is a mountainous area, very difficult for the rescue crews and helicopters to reach. Of course we're reaching out to our contacts to learn more about where this plane might have gone down.

Of course, we'll bring you more information as we learn it here on CNN.


HOWELL: The aid minister in Haiti said he won't hesitate to shut down Oxfam's operations in his country, this if the sexual misconduct stories are true. The British based charity is facing allegations that some senior staff members working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake turned their villa into a makeshift brothel and possibly abused some local women.

The group's leaders are also accused of trying to bury the scandal. Oxfam hasn't denied the accusations against its staff members but it is denying that any cover-up happened.

In the meantime, in Mexico, 13 people were killed when a military helicopter crashed on Friday night. This happened in the southern state of Oaxaca. All the victims were in two vehicles on the ground. Our Leyla Santiago has more details for us.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In that military helicopter were government officials who had been surveying the damage of yesterday's earthquake, that 7.2 magnitude earthquake and in that helicopter was that governor of Oaxaca as well as Mexico's interior minister.

We're told everyone in the helicopter was OK; those government officials had some minor concussions. But the real victims were the people who were on the ground.


HOWELL: Those victims on the ground had evacuated their homes after the quake. Officials say the aircraft was trying to land at an airfield when it crashed. No word yet on the cause.

We've been seeing relations between North and South Korea warm up lately, almost at a breakneck speed. The North sent athletes to compete with the South under the Korean unification flat in the PyeongChang Olympics. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent his sister to attend the

ceremonies and the most significant diplomatic encounter between the two countries in more than a decade, Kim Jong-un invited the South Korean president to Pyongyang for a face-to-face meeting.

Just months before all of this, the two countries, they were engaged in war of words and the South was developing a way to mitigate nuclear threats from the North. Our Ivan Watson explains.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Faced with a hostile, nuclear-armed neighbor, South Korea's military has announced the creation of a decapitation unit. In the event of a war, the mission of the special task brigade would be to take out the leadership of North Korea.

But this is not South Korea's first attempt at creating a team of possible assassins. In 1968, after a bloody North Korean incursion, South Korea created a top secret hit squad called Unit 684.

The assassination squad was sent to this uninhabited island called Silmido for years of training.

The initial plan was to recruit death row inmates but, in the end, intelligence officers chose 31 civilians from the streets of South Korean cities.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): They were either a shoeshine boy, a newspaper boy, a cinema worker or a bouncer. They would approach the ones who looked they might have played some sports and had a strong physique.

WATSON (voice-over): In 1970, Yang Dong-soo (ph) was a 21-year-old air force sergeant, sent to Silmido Island to train Unit 684. The conditions on the island were often brutal.

YANG DONG-SOO, UNIT 684 TRAINER (through translator): (INAUDIBLE) accidents in the middle of sea survival training, one recruit died of fatigue.

WATSON (voice-over): In fact, five other recruits were executed for desertion or crimes such as threatening their trainers. For more than three years, unit members weren't allowed to communicate at all with the outside world.

Finally, something snapped.

On the morning of August 23, 1971, Unit 684 staged a bloody mutiny on this beach, they began killing their trainers one by one.

When Yang heard gunfire that morning, he initially thought it was a North Korean attack. But then he says one of his trainees shot him through the neck.

YANG (through translator): When I woke up, I was bleeding from the neck everywhere. Trainers like me were being killed by the recruits or running away. It was chaos.

WATSON (voice-over): Yang says he dragged himself out on to these rocks and hid and somehow escaped being murdered. After killing 18 of their trainers, Unit 684 wasn't finished. They made it to the mainland and highjacked a bus to the capital, where 20 members died in clashes with Korean security forces.

Four survived to be later executed. For decades, the brutal story of Silmido Island was covered up. Until the Korean blockbuster movie, "Silmido," his screens in 2003.


WATSON (voice-over): Though it led to a public government investigation, this former Unit 684 trainer claims much of the film is fiction.

"The mutineers were victims who were sacrificed," he tells me. And so were the trainers.

To this day, the survivor often preaches about how God saved him on that terrible day. When the assassins turned on their commanders -- Ivan Watson, CNN, Silmido, South Korea.


HOWELL: Day 9 of the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, and all eyes were on the men's giant slalom race where the Australian skier Marcel Hirscher -- Austrian skier, I should say, was looking for double glory at these games after winning his first gold on Tuesday.

Let's bring in CNN "WORLD SPORT's" Amanda Davies, following all of the latest -- Amanda.

AMANDA DAVIES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks very much, George. Yes, that very much the headline from day 9 heading into these games. The only question mark really against the ability of ski sensation Marcel Hirscher was the fact that he hadn't won Olympic gold but he has quickly put any doubts to rest, strengthening his claim to being the world's best skier, having won his second gold in two races.

It's been a glorious day here in PyeongChang. And the Austrian followed up his victory in the combined last week with a really dominant performance in the giant slalom here on Sunday, crushing the rest of the field by over half a second.

That was the distance from his closest rival, Alexis Pintero. And the bad news for his rivals with the 28-year old in such dominant form, he still has his favorite event to come, that is the slalom on Thursday.

Could he make it three and three?

It's a very difficult Olympics experience for Hirscher than his two previous games, where he failed to medal. But they do say, you learn a lot about a person from how they react to defeat. And former gold medalist Lindsey Vonn hasn't had to just deal with

finishing sixth in the women's SuperG yesterday but also a barrage of abuse on social media.

You may remember that Vonn told CNN in an interview at the end of last year that she wouldn't except an invitation to the White House from President Trump if was to receive one.

And it seems his supporters have not forgotten in. The 33-year old tweeted about her frustration at her performance yesterday and then received a host of replies, celebrating, reveling, almost, in her defeat. She'll be hoping to let her skiing do the talking, though, when she goes for gold once again in the downhill on Tuesday.

The day's other gold so far have both gone to Norway. Oystein Braaten, the men's ski slopestyle and the Norwegian team in the cross- country 4x10 kilometer relay, that moves them ahead of Germany to the top of the medal table, George. Still a couple more golds to be decided and of course I'll be back with details a little bit later on.

HOWELL: All right, day 9 underway, Amanda Davies, thank you so much

Again, we're following breaking news here this hour on CNN, more on that plane crash, the passenger plane crash in Iran. This plane was flying from the capital city of Tehran to Yasuj in the southwest. It was carrying 66 people on board.

Let's bring in our senior international correspondent Sam Kiley, live from Abu Dhabi this hour.

Sam, what more do you know?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, details are only beginning to filter out now. The aircraft took off at 7:55 local time and according to authorities there, crashed or disappeared rather from radar fairly rapidly.

It's believed to have crashed in the Dina Mountains which is a very wide -- well, there's an individual mountain but it's got many, many peaks, over 4,000 meters. That's over 12,000 feet. Authorities there, members of the company that are running the airline, saying that it crashed in the Dina Mountain area, this is obviously a mountainous area; it's an area popular with people getting out of town, it's a popular place for holiday makers.

But it is not associated with any kind of military activity, nothing to do at all with Iran's now shelved nuclear program, for example. So I don't think there's any suspicion being cast over this event at the moment.

But as we say, there are very few details emerging. The local civil aviation authority will conducting an investigation into what caused the crash. There's no suggestion of foul play at this stage.

HOWELL: All right. And again, just looking at this map, in this Semirom area, that is where we understand the plane may have gone down. We had a journalist on the air just a short time ago who Sam mentioned, that it's a very --


HOWELL: -- foggy area, but fog, the mountains, how difficult might it be for these crews, the rescue crews, search crews, to get in there?

KILEY: That would depend entirely on the weather. Now this time of year there are lot of very high peaks that are 40 over 12,000 feet. So this is a snow covered area in large part.

The weather will depend very much like a rescue attempt being conducted in the Rockies or the European Alps. It will entirely depend on the weather.

This is a relatively modern aircraft, twin turboprop aircraft, capacity carrying 100 people, 66 on board. There will be efforts of course as quickly as possible made by the Iranians to get into that location. They're now using helicopters.

They have substantial civil rescue systems and of course they have a very, very substantial military capability, no doubt that they'll be looking at using both of those to try and see if there are any survivors from what would appear at the moment to have been a crash into these mountains.

HOWELL: Sam Kiley, following the developments live for us in Abu Dhabi, Sam, thank you. And of course, as you learn more from your sources, we'll keep in touch with you. Again, resetting for our viewers around the world, this plane crash in Iran, a plane carrying 66 people on board that crashed in the southwest of the country. That plane was heading from the capital city of Tehran down to Yasuj, we believe that it may have crashed in the Semirom. You see that on the map there in the center of the nation.

And one thing that we learned from a journalist speaking to us earlier, this was not a routine, regular flight but rather a flight that would happen perhaps once a week. So we're learning more about this particular plane crash and that crews are trying to get into that region, as Sam Kiley just pointed out.

It is a mountainous region, difficult for crews to get in there. Of course, stay with CNN as we continue to update you on this breaking news. That's CNN NEWSROOM for this hour. But I'll be back with your world headlines in just a moment. Stand by.