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Cooking Up Explosive Recipe for War; U.S.: American Detained in North Korea; GOP Sends New Counter-Offer to White House; Scalia Plays Defense On Legal Writings

Aired December 11, 2012 - 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: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, cooking up an explosive recipe for war: our Arwa Damon is inside Syria with an extraordinary look at a rebel bomb maker fighting the battle with homemade grenades.

Plus, a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice ignites political controversy with comments some consider rather anti-gay.

And disturbing new allegations about the company which owned the plane that crashed, killing a Latina superstar.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and --

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

He was the elite of the elite -- soaring to the top of the U.S. Special Forces unit known for taking out Osama bin Laden and achieving a near lifelong goal many could only dream of training for. Now we're learning more about the U.S. Navy SEAL who died in that successful mission to rescue an American held captive in Afghanistan.

Brian Todd is in that Navy SEAL'S hometown and he's talking to some of the people who knew him best.

What are you learning over there -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, people in this town of North Huntington, Pennsylvania and the adjoining town of Irvin are reeling from this loss. They say that the focus and determination that Nicolas Checque demonstrated as a member of SEAL Team 6 was very apparent when he went to this high school -- and even earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): He died doing what he'd dreamed about since middle school. And his last operation was a success. Twenty-eight- year-old Nicolas Checque, from the elite SEAL Team 6, the lone U.S. casualty in the mission that rescued American Dr. Dilip Joseph from his captors in Afghanistan.

Tony Troisi says he dreaded this day. Still...

TONY TROISI, FRIEND OF FALLEN SEAL: I never thought that, you know, anything like that could happen to him, you know, because he was always smarter, he was always faster, he was always, you know, he was always so dedicated. And, you know, it jut blew my mind when it happened.

TODD: Troisi played football and wrestled with Nic Checque in middle school, wrestled with him at Norwin High School outside Pittsburgh. Troisi and another teammate, Michael Choby, now the assistant principal at Norwin, remember Checque as a no-nonsense kid who never wanted to be anything but a Navy SEAL.

(on camera): You had to go up against him in practice.

MICHAEL CHOBY, WRESTLING TEAMMATE OF NICOLAS CHECQUE: Um-hmm.

TODD: What was that like?

CHOBY: When you got tired toward the end, you know, he was still one of the kids that didn't slow down, that didn't -- didn't give in.

TODD: Here at Norwin, Nic Checque was known a good wrestler, but not a superstar. What stood out to Tony Troisi was an operation that Nic got that didn't have anything to do with wrestling, Tony says, but had everything to do with Nic's determination and his goals.

TROISI: Yes, he had Lasix eye surgery when he was in -- when he was a junior in high school, you know. So I mean that...

TODD (on camera): Why did he have that?

TROISI: To weed out any complications or any doubt that anybody would have for him to, you know, succeed in the SEALS. He -- he wanted perfection.

TODD (voice-over): Physics teacher Doug Knipple remembers a kid who strived for perfection in the classroom, too.

DOUG KNIPPLE, NICOLAS CHECQUE'S PHYSICS TEACHER: He got all As from me.

TODD: A four year honor student, Knipple says, who never thought about going to college. Checque went straight into the Navy from high school, and in 10 years, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was awarded the Bronze Star and other commendations and made it to the unit he'd set his sights on. Now, the loss is just sinking in for a friend who says Nic Checque inspired him to join the Navy, to spend 10 years of his life there and to now go to college. TROISI: And, no, SEAL Team 6, you know, to know what he did, to see how far he got, you know, it's amazing. Absolutely.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: We could not get Nicola Checque's parents or his two sisters to speak with us. Now, although he was a member of SEAL Team 6, it is not clear if he was on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The Pentagon says that now, with his death, 65 Navy SEALS have been killed in action since September 11th, 2001, most of them in Afghanistan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, so that high school really has felt the pain of this conflict.

Talk a little bit about that -- Brian.

TODD: It sure has, Wolf. It's pretty extraordinary. You know, Nicolas Checque now becomes the second graduate of Norwin High School here in North Huntington to be killed in action in Afghanistan just in the last few months, and also in a pretty high profile battle. Back on September 15th, a gentleman named Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Otis Raible -- he was a lieutenant colonel in the Marines -- was killed in that well-known attack on Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. That was the attack where the militants were dressed in U.S. Army uniforms. They breached the base. They were trying to kill Britain's Prince Harry in that operation. There was a counterattack led by this gentleman, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Raible. He was a graduate, also, of Norwin High School here in Huntington -- North Huntington, Pennsylvania. So this community has really felt the brunt of it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Brian Todd is there in North Huntington, Pennsylvania for us.

Thank you.

Turning to Syria right now, the United States insists that designating a key Syrian rebel group as a terrorist organization linked to al Qaeda will not weaken the opposition's ability to fight the Syrian regime. The U.S. Treasury Department today slapped sanctions on the leaders of the group only hours after it was blacklisted by the State Department.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is inside Syria with an extraordinary look at one rebel literally fighting the battle with an explosive homemade recipe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: With the precision of a master chef, Sheron Mahr (ph) adjusts the flame. In the pan, table sugar and a chemical compound bought locally that we've agreed not to name.

It's almost ready, he says, as the color darkens. Sheron Mahr, who doesn't want his face shown, has decades of experience in the art of war. He says he fought with the Palestinians and was detained twice by the Israelis in the 1980s. "But they had more mercy than the Assad regime," he adds bitterly.

Now he's using his training in weapons design that he got in Libya.

(on camera): This amount, combined with another substance, is what he uses to make a single grenade. When it comes to making the propellants for a rocket, it's around 20 times this amount and two more substances are included.

(voice-over): Sharon Mahr now works alone after his was killed while they were experimenting. He's designed crude but effective grenades, and his biggest accomplishment, a sleek looking rocket, which he claims has a rage of 12 kilometers.

(on camera): Much of what Sheron Mahr uses comes from unexploded ordinance like this, fired by government forces. And clearly marked on this rocket, "Made in Russia."

(voice-over): When he first started, Sheron Mahr tell us he would modify unexploded rockets. "From here to here, for example, it's our adjustment, as are the fins," he says. "we'd shoot one and it would just go three kilometers or it would turn back around in our direction."

Now he designs from scratch, mixing a substance he won't reveal, but that is imported from outside, with the explosive he extracts from the government's artillery. He may be the master bomb maker, but Sheron Mahr says he's a man of peace. He wants to see a democratic Syria that reflect this nation's rich diversity and he believes that after the Assad regime falls, there will be another revolution to purge this one of extremists and opportunists.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Aleppo Province.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: We're also getting new information just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. U.S. officials reporting an American citizen has been detained in North Korea now for over a month.

Let's bring in our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott.

She's getting details for us.

And what do we know about this situation -- Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know the nam's -- man's name is Kenneth Bae. We believe he's a Korean-American, and as you said, he's been detained for over a month. A senior U.S. official telling me that Mr. Bae has been in and out of North Korea.

South Korean media reports are saying that Mr. Bae is a tour operator and one of the people on his tour had a computer disk with some sensitive information about North Korea.

The State Department doesn't want to say more at this point, Wolf, because of privacy concerns.

BLITZER: What are they trying to do to get him released?

LABOTT: Well, the Swedi -- the Swedish embassy, which is the U.S. protecting power in North Korea, is working it, trying to get him released, and also trying to get what they call consular access, a visit with him.

No indication, Wolf, that he's been mistreated. But the State Department really doesn't want to say anymore, not only because of these privacy concerns, but, also, they don't want to jeopardize any chances of getting him out.

Wolf, you remember, several years ago, when there were two Korean-American journalists that were held in North Korea, Laura Ling, and, also, another Korean-American, it went all the way for President Clinton to go and negotiate his release.

We're being told that nothing of that sort is in the offing right now, just the Swedes. But we have no indication he is being mistreated -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope they release him soon.

Elise, thanks very much.

Sandy may have come and gone, but the mold doesn't seem to be going away. Just ahead, what hundreds of homeowners are now doing to fight it and the health problems it brings.

Plus, a chilling eyewitness account of what allegedly happened only moments after that car crash that killed a Dallas Cowboy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can't just stand here and watch this man die. Pull him out of the car. And he said to me, "He won't get out." I said, "Get him out of the car," you know, commanding him, "Get him out of the car."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There are new developments in the fiscal cliff negotiations. CNN has just learned that House Republican leaders have sent the White House a counteroffer on tax and entitlement reform.

Let's bring in our Capitol Hill senior correspondent, Dana Bash, who's got the details.

What have we learned?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've learned from our Congressional producer, Deirdre Walsh, that, as you said, the Republicans have to the White House an offer that they describe as something that is significant with regard to tax and entitlement reform.

Of course, those are the -- really, the two tranches that we're talking about here. They're being very -- holding their cards very close to the vest in terms of what specifics these are.

But apparently, this is a counteroffer to something the White House sent to them yesterday. So big picture, although we don't know the details, this is, I think, good news for progress, even though publicly, both sides are posturing, saying that they're still waiting for each other, particularly the Republicans say, as I reported earlier, saying that, uh, that the White House has to give them more spending cuts.

But this is really key because the first thing they have to do, Wolf, is get those top line numbers. They're not talking specifics, what kind of tax rates, how much to do. They're really first talking about, well, how much, when it come to revenue increases, are we going to agree to?

How much, when it come to entitlement cuts, are we going to agree to?

And then sources I'm talking to in both parties say they hope that things will fall into place from there, because the numbers will really determine what they can and cannot do.

So the fact that they're talking is a good sign.

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) negotiation is important. The White House want $1.6 trillion in additional tax revenue.

BASH: Right.

BLITZER: The Republicans want $800 billion. Split the difference and you get 1 point, what, 2, and -- and you've got a deal. Let's see if they do that.

BASH: See how easy that is?

They should bring you in...

BLITZER: I just made a deal.

BASH: They should bring you into the...

BLITZER: Split the difference.

BASH: -- the talks.

BLITZER: That's what they do in negotiations. You buy a house, you split the difference between what you're selling and you're offering. And that's it. Let's see what happens.

Dana, thanks very much. The conservative Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, playing defense when it comes to his legal views on homosexuality. A student at Princeton University on Monday asked why Scalia in past writings has compared sodomy laws to laws on bestiality and murder. Here's what Justin Scalia said in response.

"It's a form of argument which is called the reduction to the absurd. And to say that we can not have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder, can we have it against these other things? Of course, we can. I'm not comparing homosexuality to murder. I'm comparing the principle that a society cannot adopt moral sanctions, moral views against certain conduct. I'm comparing that with respect to murder and that with respect to homosexuality, polygamy, whatever you like."

Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. He's the author of "The New York Times" best-seller, "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court." So, what exactly does he mean? And you've studied Justice Scalia. You've studied the law when he talks about the reduction to the absurd.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's actually a very interesting controversy that may be changing before our very eyes, Wolf, because historically, one of the grounds that Congress can pass a law is they say, we morally disapprove of some kind of conduct. Moral disapproval on it of itself isn't appropriate grounds for government action.

But, over time, the court has said certain kinds of moral disapproval are no longer allowed. For example, segregation. You know, you simply can't morally disapprove of Blacks and Whites going to school together and pass a law. The question now is, is moral disapproval of homosexuality a legitimate ground for the government doing anything? That's really one of the main issues in this case coming out.

BLITZER: That's his argument, that that's why he's opposed to it? Is that what you're saying?

TOOBIN: Well, what he's saying is that the legislature, whether it's a state legislature or Congress can say we morally disapprove of homosexuality, thus, we will say they can't get married the way heterosexuals can. That that's a legitimate ground for government action. That's a question that's really very much before the Supreme Court right now, which is, is moral disapproval alone a legitimate basis for a government to act.

BLITZER: Because I understand the intellectual legal argument he's making on this point, but it sounds to the layperson out there that he's comparing homosexuality to bestiality or to murder. That's the criticism he's getting.

TOOBIN: And he is. I mean, there's no question. I mean, he is making that comparison. You know, he can throw in all the Latin words he wants, but he is making that comparison. But that's his position. I mean, his position is moral disapproval of homosexuality, of bestiality, of murder is a legitimate grounds for government action and the question is, do four other justices agree with him?

Historically, at the Supreme Court, you know, he has had several justices with him. It's unclear whether he'll have five this time, and it's also unclear whether he should be expressing himself this way with such an important gay rights case, you know, right in front of the court.

BLITZER: Because some people already are saying he should recuse himself from this decision. Is that in all of the cards?

TOOBIN: You know, it not. The Supreme Court is different from other federal courts. There are no formal rules about justices recusing themselves. It's completely on the honor system. It's up to the justices when they feel they have a conflict. Justice Scalia speaks out all the time on controversial issues.

There is absolutely no way he's going to recuse himself and there's no vehicle, there's no remedy that people who are upset about it can protest about it. So, he's in, this case, for better or worse.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much.

Unemployed and desperate. What falling off the fiscal cliff will mean for millions of Americans who are out of work? Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's lots of speculation about the health and political future of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. What's the latest, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Chavez is in Cuba. He arrived yesterday for another round of cancer treatment. He has just undergone surgery and that's the word from Ecuador's president, a Chavez's ally, who called it, quote, "a very delicate operation."

Chavez won re-election in October after declaring himself cancer- free a few months before. The socialist leader has endorsed his vice president as a possible political successor.

And Delta Airlines is buying a stake in Virgin Atlantic Airlines creating a joint venture on lucrative flights between North America and the United Kingdom. Virgin Atlantic keeps its name and Sir Richard Branson keeps a 51 percent stake in his company. Frequent flier benefits will be reciprocal. The deal expands the international reach of delta, now, the number two U.S. airline.

And if you're a fan of hair straightening treatments like Brazilian blowout, well, you might want to take note of this story. Safety questions are being raised again, this time, by three Democratic lawmakers. They accuse manufacturers of lying about the levels of formaldehyde used in their products and they're calling on the Food and Drug Administration to remove straighteners that pose health risks from the market.

And the Australian radio station that made that prank call to the London hospital room of the duchess of Cambridge that says it will now donate more than half a million dollars to the nurse's family. That nurse was found dead of an apparent suicide after two deejays duped her into giving out information about Catherine. They have since apologized. That is just a sad story, Wolf, all the way around. Very sad.

BLITZER: Lisa, thank you.

So, it's a story that every football fan is talking about. A Dallas Cowboys player killed in a car crash while his drank teammate was behind the wheel. Now, new details are emerging which may shock you about what really happened only moments after the accident.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It started with the fierce controversy over her public response to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Now, the growing backlash against the U.S. ambassador, Susan Rice, as a possible contender for secretary of state includes new questions about Africa and Iraq.

CNN's White House correspondent, Dan Lothian, is over at the White House. He's got the latest information. Dan, what is the White House doing? Are they standing by her?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are, Wolf. I spoke with a senior administration official today who told me a lot of these criticisms are deeply unfair suggested that their opposition researchers out there actively pushing this information, information that's fueling a fire that hasn't died down.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): At the state department, the clock is ticking. Secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is expected to depart at the end of next month, and U.S. ambassador Susan Rice is considered to be at the top of the short list to replace her.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is the hold up? Is there a hold up?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's no hold up. The president has made no decisions, and I have nothing no personnel announcements to make.

LOTHIAN: But with every passing day comes another critical argument to keep Ambassador Rice from getting the job, and the loudest voice is none other than Sen. John McCain, who jumped in the fray again on Piers Morgan tonight.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: There are now additional concerns about her role as far as Africa is concerned.

LOTHIAN: Sen. McCain, who's seeking a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would bet Ambassador Rice if she's nominated, touched on concerns voiced by human rights advocates about her close ties to some African leaders and the U.S. response to war crimes by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Add that to the senator's harsh rebuke of the ambassador's actions after the Benghazi attacks.

MCCAIN: But the fact is she not only gave wrong information, but she gave the party line.

LOTHIAN: Then, there's the controversy over major investments Rice and her husband hold in TransCanada, the company seeking to build that Keystone XL Pipeline.

BOB DEANS, NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL: We need for the next secretary of state to be completely unburdened of any interest that could present a conflict or the appearance of a conflict.

LOTHIAN: Even her position on the invasion of Iraq is being questioned, whether she was for it or against it. So, is there a White House strategy to hold off on a decision until Rice is vetted in the court of public opinion? Aides aren't playing the game of hypotheticals since Ambassador Rice has not yet been nominated, but some doubt any of this will matter in the end.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: If he nominates Susan Rice, I think he will get her through the Senate. It will be contentious. But look, I just don't think the Republicans can afford to be in a position where you have a black woman facing a tough fight from a bunch of older white guys.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Now while aides here won't talk about a timeline for a nomination, CNN is hearing that a decision, a national security announcement could be made as early as next week.

I asked Jay Carney about all of this today and he simply said that the president was engaging in discussions about some of these personnel decisions -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Dan Lothian at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's talk about this and more with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, who's joining us now.

Reince, thanks very much for coming in.

REINCE PRIEBUS, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Hey, Wolf. Nice to see you.

BLITZER: What did you think of what David Gergen just said, that it would look bad for Republicans to go after a younger African- American woman, especially at a sensitive time like this after the election?

PRIEBUS: Well, I don't -- I don't think skin color has anything to do with any of these things. It has to do with what's right for this country and, you know, as chairman of the party, I don't really weigh in on national security issues like that and that's why we've got people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham that are looking at these things and asking the questions.

I mean, certainly, just in the tail end of the presidential election, there were a lot of questions about what happened in Benghazi and how things trickled out and whether or not the State Department and Susan Rice and the White House were on the same page.

Those, Wolf, though, generally those are questions for the leadership in the Senate. It's really not a place that the chairman of the party gets too involved with.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk a little bit about what you are directly involved with. Yesterday you announced the major -- I don't know if you want to call it autopsy, postmortem, whatever, looking back at what happened in the elections --

PRIEBUS: You guys love that phrase.

BLITZER: In November.

PRIEBUS: You guys love that phrase.

BLITZER: You put together a commission. We had Ari Fleischer, one of our CNN contributors, he's on your commission. To take a look at what you can do to fix some of the problems that Republicans had, the ground game, messaging, fundraising, demographics, third parties campaign finance, presidential primaries, Democratic campaign, tactics.

Here's the question. Are you also going to be looking at substantive policy issues? You have the Republican platform that you approved in the convention in Tampa. Are policy issues subject to review right now to see if maybe that should change in order to bring back some voters?

PRIEBUS: Well, Wolf, I mean, I think ultimately -- I think where we're at is that a lot of things went well for team Romney. In other words, they did a lot of things -- they did a lot of things well. It was an eight-month basic campaign on their side. The only problem is that the other side did a lot of things well for four years. And so the question is for the RNC. I mean, just our piece of the -- of the puzzle here. What do we need to do in the next two and four years to be better in all of the areas that you outlined?

Now, as far as policy is concerned, I mean, I think Ari was right. And I saw him on your show. I mean, this is not a committee to recommend policy changes to the leadership in the legislature. We have a platform. But I do think that messaging plays a role and I think that Ari hit the nail on the head and I think, you know, candidate recruitment, what to say and how to say it, and I think we can inspire with love and I think that that's something that we can do a better job of. But these are the things, Wolf, that this committee is going to be looking at. It's not recommending actual policy changes to the legislature but what can we do as a committee to be better in all of those areas.

BLITZER: Well, probably one thing you could do, and you're getting a lot of advice along this line, including from a bunch of Republicans, in order to attract Hispanic voters out there, the president got re-elected in part because he got 40 percent more Hispanic voters than Romney got, is to support what's called comprehensive immigration reform.

Would that be smart right now for Republicans?

PRIEBUS: I'm going to let the legislature deal with that, Wolf. I mean, obviously it's a hot topic. And we've got Republicans that are involved in coming up with different levels of path way and what that means.

But I think what it means for us, though, Wolf, just to put it in context for you, my guess is, at the end of this you're going to have an RNC and a Republican team that decides that we need to get a whole lot more granular in our approach across the country, which means that we're going to have to be in a four-year cycle, having lots of people around the country doing registration drives in Hispanic communities, going door to door, going to community events, going to naturalization services and then coming up with a system of how you measure that success over a four-year period of time.

My guess is, is that's the direction we're going. Much more granular, long-term, and a sustained presence on the ground. Not just for eight months but for years to come.

BLITZER: The popular Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, he gave an interview to "Politico" the other day. I'm sure you saw it. Among other things, he said this about the state of the Republican Party. He said, "It's not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party but it can't be tolerated within our party. We've also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic. We need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the American -- of the voters out there."

What do you think of his advice?

PRIEBUS: Well, I mean, I think we're pretty clear on some of the dumb things that were said over the last cycle. But, you know, I love Bobby. I think he's doing a great job as RGA chairman, and I can't disagree with a lot of the things that he says. I think that how you communicate, how you inspire, how you message, how you talk about freedom and liberty in a way that -- in a lot of the ways that Ronald Reagan did is really important.

But these are things that I think the party can look at to improve in the years to come and that's what this committee is going to do. BLITZER: One final thing, because we're almost out of time, Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, a Republican, he said this. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK ARMEY (R), FORMER HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: We had a lot of candidates, quite frankly, that did dumb things out there. I don't think the Republican Party school their candidates very well or supported their candidates very well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And I guess that's what your commission, your advisers, are now going to come up with, how better to school candidates. Is that right?

PRIEBUS: Well, I think that's important. Absolutely. But, you know, there's a lot of entities involved in that and the RNC can't necessarily pick winners and losers. But, you know, all members of this team could do a better job of training, better job of communicating. But at the end of the day, though, Wolf, I mean, we have to put together the mechanics and the infrastructure necessary so that four years from now we have absolutely the best possible product that's not as good as the Democrats but better so that a presidential nominee can plug in to something that I think is going to be vastly improved.

BLITZER: Reince Priebus is the chairman of the Republican Party.

Reince, thanks for coming in.

PRIEBUS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're getting new details about that Mexican plane crash that killed a Latina superstar. We're learning about the company that owned the aircraft including why the company's planes were seized earlier this year by federal marshals.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Falling off the fiscal cliff. It may mean one thing to Washington and something entirely different to millions of struggling Americans.

CNN's Kyung Lah has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Lis de Bats doesn't call it a fiscal cliff. What she could be facing at year's end a financial freefall.

LIS DE BATS, UNEMPLOYED WORKER: I don't know. I just wish I wasn't in this situation but it is what it is and I could just do what I can. LAH: De Bats lost her job as a new home sales manager last January. And an old laptop with a broken cord, she applies for job after job, keeping track in a packed notebook, averaging 15 applications a day. At age 54, this is the first time she's ever been on unemployment. She's emptied out her savings and now the last resort, the Emergency Federal Jobless Program has kept de Bats in her townhome giving her $450 a week. But on December 29th, unless Congress and the White House act, the money stops.

DE BATS: We're not trying to live off the system. We're trying to survive. It's not a luxury to be on unemployment. It's a means to keep us going.

LAH (on camera): The fear of the fiscal cliff isn't just here in de Bats' suburban neighborhood and the states with the highest unemployment, from the west to the north to the south, they will be hit the hardest. Some two million Americans will see those federal unemployment benefits disappear all at once.

(Voice-over): Economists Chris Thornberg says these Americans are the unfortunate pawns in the tough game of politics and budget balancing.

CHRIS THORNBERG, BEACON ECONOMICS: So ultimately this is a tradeoff. The tradeoff, of course, has to be that while some ways some people are going to be -- hit painfully by reductions in federal benefits, at the same time, we have to appreciate that this deficit has to be closed.

LAH: But at what human cost, asked de Bats. She's down to condiments until the next unemployment check arrives. But while we're here talking to her about the fiscal cliff, she gets an e-mail.

DE BATS: Yay. My third interview. OK. Great. Whoa. OK. That's good news.

LAH: A third interview for a sales job. If Washington can't do it, maybe this job will pull her back from the cliff.

DE BATS: Oh, my god. You have no idea how excited I am right now.

LAH: Kyung Lah, CNN, Los Angeles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Chilling allegations about the Dallas Cowboy who survived a car crash that killed his teammate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STACEE MCWILLIAMS, WITNESSED CRASH AFTERMATH: He wasn't a hero and he wasn't trying to help this man. He wasn't like, you know, hang in there, man, help is on the way, or what you would just think, you know, a friend would really do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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A witness to the aftermath of the crash that killed the Dallas Cowboy's Jerry Brown is now speaking out. She claims Brown's teammate, Josh Brent, is no hero. She says Brent, who was arrested on suspicion of intoxication, manslaughter, initially did nothing to help.

More now from WFAA reporter Jason Whitley.

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JASON WHITLEY, WFAA REPORTER: Stacee McWilliams said she came forward to set the record straight about Josh Brent.

MCWILLIAMS: He wasn't a hero. And he wasn't trying to help this man. This was after the police showed up.

WHITLEY: McWilliams tells us that she was one of two people to drive up to Brent's overturned Mercedes minutes after the crash.

MCWILLIAMS: I'm like, are you all right? Are you OK? And he's like, yes, I'm OK, and then the lady in the car said, I've already called 911.

WHITLEY: That is when the engine caught fire, though, and McWilliams says, she began to hear cries for help.

MCWILLIAMS: And I looked to him, I said, is there somebody in the car? Is there somebody in the car? And he was like, yes.

WHITLEY: You can see the smoke rising off of the car from the cell phone picture that McWilliams took.

MCWILLIAMS: That's the smoke coming out the fire.

WHITLEY: What might be one of the only images of the wreck that night.

MCWILLIAMS: And so I said, get him out of the car. You can't just stand here and watch this man die. Pull him out of the car. And he said to me, he won't get out. I said, get him out of -- you know, commanded him, get him out of the car.

WHITLEY: And Josh Brent did. McWilliams said that he pulled a badly injured Brown out into the road as police pulled up.

MCWILLIAMS: And then even after he pulled him out of the car, he wasn't like, you know, hang in there man, help is on the way, or what you would just think, you know, a friend would really do.

WHITLEY: McWilliams first contacted the "Dallas Morning News" on Monday to reveal what she saw, saying she wasn't close enough to Brent to determine whether he had been drinking but the 40-year-old Irving woman told us that police never took her statement because since she did not witness the accident itself.

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BLITZER: That report from our affiliate WFAA reporter, Jason Whitley.

Jerry Brown's family, by the way, tells CNN that Brown and Brent were like brothers and the best of friends. What a tragic story.

Meanwhile, investigators have found human remains at the Mexican crash site where the Latina superstar Jenni Rivera is believed to have been killed. It's too soon to know if Rivera's remains were found and her family is still holding on to hope.

Meanwhile, there are new disturbing allegations about the company that owned the private plane.

CNN's Tory Dunnan once again is here. She's got more information.

What are you learning, Tory?

TORY DUNNAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, FAA records show us that more than a dozen planes are registered to this company and that actually includes the plane that was in this crash this weekend. But a closer look into their operations has turned up more questions than answers.

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DUNNAN (voice-over): This is the plane Jenni Rivera was flying on when she died. A Learjet 25 registered to Starwood Management, a Las Vegas company with a history of legal troubles. Lawsuits say the U.S. government seized two of Starwood's airplanes this year with the help of the Drug Enforcement Administration. A suit filed by the company ensuring one of the confiscated planes says Edwardo Nunez, who used a variety of names, was the man behind the company.

The suit alleges he served time for falsifying airplane logbooks to resell aircrafts and inflated prices. And court documents said he was convicted of cocaine possession with intent to distribute.

(On camera): Starwood filed a separate suit against the DAA trying to get one of the seized planes back. The company says Nunez is not part of its management, but was working under a power of attorney.

(Voice-over): When Starwood learned it was possibly illegal for Nunez to sign registration documents, the company's manager signed them. CNN attempted to reach Starwood but was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government has released the names of those on boards including the pilots, listed as Miguel Perez and Alejandro Torres. An FAA document found in the wreckage says Perez was 78 years old. It's not clear who was in command at the time of the crash. Commercial pilots in the U.S. are only allowed to fly until they are 65 but for charter pilots there's no age limit. We asked NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman if this was appropriate.

DEBORAH HERSMAN, NTSB CHAIRMAN: On a private side there are no limitations but there are requirements that you be medically fit.

DUNNAN: The investigation into what exactly happened continues and could take weeks.

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DUNNAN: The NTSB is on site assisting the Mexican government with this investigation. As we pointed out yesterday, the exact same plane was substantially damaged in a 2005 landing, and, Wolf, that is certainly something that investigators are going to look back on those records and sort of match everything up.

BLITZER: When you get more, let me know.

DUNNAN: Will do.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Going home to toxic homes. Many survivors of the Superstorm Sandy lost it all and now they're battling a dangerous enemy inside their own houses. Was it safe to return, when will it be safe if at all? That's up next.

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BLITZER: Here's a look at this hour's "Hotshots." In Kuwait, check it out, people look at a 60-year-old green turtle as it crawls toward the ocean. In Germany, an Eiffel Tower replica is erected on the center of a shopping mall. In England a group of choir boys hit the ice skating rink on the coldest day of the year, so far. And in Ukraine, a dusting of snow covers the face of the statue of Lenin, the Russian revolutionary figure.

"Hotshots," pictures coming in from around the world.

Six weeks after Superstorm Sandy made landfall victims in places like Staten Island are now dealing with toxic homes. Experts say mold might be the top health threat now facing those who are trying to rebuild.

Our national correspondent Deborah Feyerick is joining us from New York. She's got more information.

What's going on here, Deb?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, a number of people who have already started complaining about breathing problems and this problem is likely to only get worse.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) FEYERICK (voice-over): Every day Nancy Knoble suits up for a battle she's fiercely determined to win.

NANCY KNOBLE, STATEN ISLAND HOMEOWNER: I'll give myself about four hours. And you do both sides and the top.

FEYERICK: Bleach, hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, even professionals have not been able to kill the mold thriving in the wake of Sandy's floodwaters.

KNOBLE: I'm just trying to stay ahead of it and I hope it's -- not for naught.

FEYERICK: Homeowners helped by thousands of volunteers like those from World Care Center have been gutting houses, ripping out floors, walls and insulation. If not cleaned properly mold continues to grow and can make people very sick.

(On camera): It is everywhere. The mold is everywhere.

(Voice-over): Dan Hoeft has seen it before.

DAN HOEFT, NECHAMA JEWISH RESPONSE TO DISASTER: The mold can replicate itself and just keep growing. That starts to become a toxic situation.

FEYERICK: He travels the country with an organization that helps muck out home soaked by hurricanes and floods.

(On camera): The fear is that people will start getting sick.

HOEFT: Yes. She'll start to see a lot of upper respiratory issues and a lot of allergies that are going on. You start hearing about the Sandy cough.

FEYERICK: Those mold related illnesses can trigger an epidemic, says disaster readiness expert, Irwin Redlener.

IRWIN REDLENER, NATIONAL CENTER FOR DISASTER PREPAREDNESS: I think there's quite a bit of concern now about this looming public health crisis, which is what we're dealing with in terms of the mold infestation in many of the homes that have been damaged by water.

FEYERICK: The New York City Health Department is tracking emergency room visits and says following a spike immediately after the storm the rate of breathing illnesses seems to have stabilized.

DR. THOMAS FARLEY, NEW YORK CITY HEALTH COMMISSIONER: Looming public health crisis might be too strong a term. But I can't say that it is absolutely a health risk.

FEYERICK: City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley says getting rid of the mold is key. Still, not everybody knows how to do it properly.

(On camera): This is a professional mold remediation company. We spoke to the owner and he said people here on Staten Island have been coming up to him desperate to know how to clean the mold out of their homes. Some of them don't have insurance and they don't have the money to pay for it. He says a lot of people here are going to start getting very, very sick.

(Voice-over): Mold has taken over Anne Marie Parenti's home now too dangerous to enter.

ANNE MARIE PARENTI, STATE ISLAND HOMEOWNER: So the house is pretty much covered in mold like three feet up the wall. The basement ceiling is all green and fuzzy.

FEYERICK (on camera): Does the New York City Health Department have a responsibility or obligation to the folks affected by the hurricane to sign off and say your home is safe to live in?

FARLEY: The Buildings Department is signing off on whether the house is structurally safe. But there's not any one test that can say OK, the mold levels in this house are too high or too low.

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FEYERICK: And, Wolf, keep in mind, that some people have nowhere else to go. So what they're doing is they're actually living in partially gutted homes and by so doing they are exposing themselves to mold. They are waiting until it's safe and dry enough to put the walls and insulation back up, and also to fix the doors in order to keep out the cold and damp. So it's really just a problem and a problem that's going to continue for many, many months.

BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick with that story. Deborah, thanks very much.

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