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THE SITUATION ROOM

Nearly 100 Million in Storm's Path; More Than One Thousand Flights Cancelled; Mother Sues NFL Team for Son's Suicide; Newspapers Ask for Clemency for NSA Leaker

Aired January 2, 2014 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: Happening now, a monster storm nearly 100 million people in the path of a powerful nor'easter expected to bring blizzard conditions to the east coast.

Plus, calls for mercy, two prominent newspapers demand NSA leaker Edward Snowden be allowed to return to the United States.

And wrongful death lawsuit, an NFL player murders his girlfriend then kills himself. Why his mother is blaming the team for it all. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta. You're in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

Well, if you live in the Northeast, you're about to get hit very hard. A monster storm threatening nearly 100 million people across 22 states is barreling toward the region right now, with some of the fiercest conditions only hours away.

Cape Cod and Long Island are facing blizzard warnings, where winds are already gusting up to 40 miles per hour, while New York City and Boston could see as much as a foot of snow each.

CNN has team coverage across the region.

But we begin with our Frederick Pleitgen in Boston, where conditions are so bad, the airport is about to stop all flights -- Frederick, what can you tell us?

FREDERICK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim.

Yes, and we are feeling the conditions getting worse, really, by the hour. Right now, the snow is getting a lot heavier. Also, we're feeling gusty winds getting worse, as well.

I can show you, there's already been quite a bit of snow actually coming down. I would say it's about probably like three to four inches that have already come down, very powdery snow. And as you said, that's going to get worse in the coming hours. Probably by 8:00 p.m. is when it's really going to start coming down and when the winds are going to get more treacherous, as well.

We can have a look at the road conditions right here in this neighborhood. It's actually not too bad at this point, Jim, because a lot of the roads were pretreated with salt before the snow even started coming down. So it's more slushy on the ground here than anything else.

However, when the snow starts to pick up, when the wind starts to pick up, that's when it's going to be more and more difficult to keep those roads clear. And that's where we're expecting a lot of problems with traffic. Of course, the schools, tomorrow morning, will be closed. And as you noted, the airports should be closed for landings, at least, very, very soon, as well -- Jim.

ACOSTA: And, Frederick, that snow is going horizontal all around you. So just an indication as to how the conditions are worsening there in Boston.

PLEITGEN: Yes.

ACOSTA: Frederick Pleitgen, thank you so much.

This massive nor'easter isn't all the region has to worry about. Right behind it, a powerful Arctic blast packing subzero temperatures and dangerously cold wind chills.

Meteorologist Alexandra Steele is standing by in the CNN Weather Center tracking the storm's path -- Alexandra, this does sound very serious.

What can we expect in the hours ahead?

ALEXANDRA STEELE, ATS METEOROLOGIST: All right, Jim, well, you know, it's not just a snowstorm. You know, we saw that wind going horizontally. And that's a factor with this nor'easter.

Let's get right to the goods that people want to know -- how much snow are they going to get, right?

In Boston, eight to 14 inches; 8 to 12 in Albany, and through along the Mass Pike. We'll see six to eight in New York City; four to seven, Philadelphia. Washington seeing that changeover from rain to snow right now, and two to four inches for you.

So the snow is a coming. It's just knocking on the doorstep of New York. You can see where it is filling in, coming in from the south and from the west. So the snow will be there.

But also, what's going to happen, kind of the bull's eye time line for this, 9:00 tonight until 9:00 tomorrow morning. This is 11:00 tonight and you can see all the snow. I mean, breadth and depth, it's kind of small, filling out, though, all of the Northeast and Southern New England, especially. Overnight tonight, but you can see by tomorrow at 11:00, it's already east, for the most part, of the Cape.

So the snow may be over, but on the back side, these incredibly strong, gusty winds.

I want to show you the hour by hour wind chill. So tomorrow morning at 8:00, it will feel like 15 below in Boston; 18 below in Albany; 11 below in Providence. By Friday nighttime, still, you can see the temperatures precipitously low. So the temperatures are low, Arctic air is in place -- some of the coldest air Boston has seen in three years, since January 2011. So blizzard conditions why those are up -- you can see delineated here in the red -- for all of Long Island, the Cape and the islands. And now just extended into Southern Maine, because, yes, the snow will fall, but the water content of the snow is very light and fluffy. You can barely even pack it into a snowball. The water content is so low, it's fluffy. And then factor in these gusty winds, 50 miles per hour, blizzard conditions really is all about the visibility. A quarter mile or less visibility, especially in these areas, Jim. So that's really where the biggest problems will be, overnight tonight into tomorrow.

Those blizzard conditions up until about 1:00 tomorrow afternoon. And there you go, kind of a tight shot -- Boston, Providence, Hartford, that I-91 corridor picking up substantial snows and cold temperatures.

ACOSTA: It sounds like a good reason to stay indoors.

STEELE: That's right.

ACOSTA: Alexandra, thank you very much.

Let's bring in CNN's Brian Stelter on Long Island, where a blizzard warning is about to go into effect -- and, Brian, you do a lot of reporting on people in the media who do a lot of these live shots. And now you're doing one yourself, getting a firsthand look at the conditions out there.

How's it going -- Brian?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm channeling my inner weather geek, Jim. We're about halfway from Manhattan to East Hampton, the heart of Long Island. And we're along the Long Island Expressway, which, at midnight, will shut down, according to the governor, Andrew Cuomo, because it will just be too hard to keep up with the snow that's expected.

A little earlier, we spoke to the county executive here in Suffolk County, Steven Bellone, about what makes the storm unique.

So let's take a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVEN BELLONE, SUFFOLK COUNTY EXECUTIVE: This is a treacherous storm. It's got accumulation of six to 10 inches. But we've also got very low temperatures overnight hours and high winds up to 40 miles an hour. That's going to make it very difficult for these operators out here to remove that snow. And they're going to be moving at a snail's pace. So it makes it very treacherous for any drivers out there.

STELTER: Right. So in other words, the low snowfall totals can be deceiving because of all these other elements. BELLONE: That's exactly right. You know, there are a lot of factors go into making a storm treacherous. And, again, while it may not have the accumulations that Nemo had last year, this is a very dangerous storm. And that's why we're asking people to stay off those roads.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: Of course, these road crews have the hardest job overnight, trying to keep at least the secondary roads clear, and trying to clean up the Long Island Expressway here before it reopens sometime tomorrow.

You know, I've got to say, Jim, this is not easy, either. This is harder than it looks for reporters out here. And it hasn't even really started snowing yet -- back to you.

ACOSTA: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Stelter. He can do it all.

Thank you very much.

We appreciate it.

All of this is wreaking havoc, of course, on holiday travel, with more than 1,900 flight cancellations so far.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is at Reagan National Airport just outside of Washington -- and, Sunlen, how extensive are those delays?

Are they starting to rack up?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, here at National Airport, the delays are not major. But as the hours tick by, those cancellations and delays just keep coming in.

Now this is what many travelers here at Reagan National are encountering. As you can see, many of these flights are canceled and delayed, those flights that are going toward the Boston and New York area.

Now, we spoke with a couple. They're trying to get to Providence, Rhode Island tonight. Their flight has been delayed an hour. And they said they're just not optimistic that they'll be able to get out tonight. So they're already making backup plans. They know that they're flying into where the storm is going to hit later.

But nationwide, there's even more of a bleak picture here. According to Flight Aware, there have been 1,900 flight cancellations. That just ticked up a couple hundred in the last hour. Thirty-four hundred delays. Most of those are at Chicago O'Hare Airport.

And we're also seeing preemptive cancellations from many airlines. Let's look at the breakdown. American Airlines, 600 flights canceled; U.S. Airways, over 100; United, 550; Delta, 300; and Southwest, 100 flights canceled alone. Now, here at Reagan National, which is just outside of DC, they have called in a 40 person snow team. They'll stay on hand overnight. They'll make sure they're monitoring the runways and the airplanes to make sure that if the snow accumulates -- and the main concern here, Jim, is the wind. That is what is going to cancel many more flights tonight -- back to you.

ACOSTA: All right, probably not the only snow team being deployed tonight.

Sunlen, thank you very much.

When we come back, a mother sues an NFL team over her son's suicide.

Did traumatic brain injuries drive him to do it?

Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta is here next.

Plus, two major newspapers come to NSA leaker Edward Snowden's defense.

Is the tide shifting in his favor?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDWARD SNOWDEN, NSA LEAKER: We learned that our governments, working in concert...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: It's been a year since former NFL player Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend then took his own life in front of team officials at the Kansas City Chiefs training facility.

Was his suicide the team's fault?

Belcher's mother says yes.

And CNN's Brian Todd is following this story -- and, Brian, it's another one of these cases, another tragic case of an NFL player taking his life, harming others. And there's this issue of concussions and whether there's a connection.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It keeps cropping up, Jim.

You know, Jovan Belcher's mother now suing the Kansas City Chiefs, saying he unknowingly sacrificed his brain during the career -- during his career with the team.

And the suit says the Chiefs not only ignored that, but bullied him into playing through his injuries.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): A horrific morning, December first, 2012. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, nine times, killing her. Inside the house, their infant daughter and Belcher's mother, who made a frantic call to police with the baby crying in the background.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is she bleeding?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, she is.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where is she bleeding from?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't tell. In the back, it looks like.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TODD: Belcher then drove to the Chiefs' practice facility, and, in front of his coach and general manager, shot himself.

Now Belcher's mother is suing the Chiefs for wrongful death, saying he suffered repeated traumatic brain injuries over his four year career, injuries that caused depression, mood swings, suicidal ideations, explosivity.

This is the tackle that lawyers for Belcher's mother say gave him a concussion just two weeks before the murder/suicide. They claim this NFL clip, posted online by Dead Spin, makes it clear even to the layman. But they say Belcher was never removed from the game.

The suit alleges the Chiefs ignored all the signs and, instead, berated Belcher into playing through his injuries.

But could his head injuries be blamed for his violent behavior?

The answer is unclear. One expert says, if one part of the brain is injured, it's possible.

DR. TED ROTHSTEIN, NEUROLOGIST: Think of the brain not as a hard plastic surface, as in this model, but really, like a bowl of Jell-O. And when there is trauma occurring to the side of the brain, the entire brain can shift. And as a consequence, the opposite side of the brain can smash up against the wall of the skull and it can affect the limbic system, which is the seat of emotion.

TODD: Former Dallas Cowboys running back, Tony Dorsett, told Wolf Blitzer how he believes head trauma affected him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM NOVEMBER 7, 2013)

TONY DORSETT, FORMER DALLAS COWBOYS RUNNING BACK: I was short- tempered, you know, flying off the cuff when it was really not a necessity.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TODD: The growing awareness of head injuries is perhaps the biggest crisis facing the NFL, threatening America's most popular sport.

MARK HYMAN, CO-AUTHOR, In the last three years, Pop Warner football has reported that its numbers have fallen by 10 percent. And I think that's very threatening to the NFL.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: The NFL has, in fact, just settled a lawsuit by thousands of former players for $765 million.

The NFL won't comment on Belcher's mother's lawsuit. The Kansas City Chiefs told us they are aware of the suit, but won't comment on it -- Jim.

ACOSTA: And Belcher's family is -- they're even having his body exhumed to deal with this?

TODD: That's right. They had the body exhumed two weeks ago from a cemetery on Long Island. His brain is being tested for what's called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That's the brain disease caused by head trauma linked to dementia and depression, which has affected a lot of former players. Tony Dorsett says it affected him.

Belcher's family is waiting for the results of that exam.

ACOSTA: All right. Very good.

Brian Todd, thank you.

And for more on this, let's turn to CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

He has been reporting on the relationship between concussions and brain disease for years here at CNN.

And also with me is Steve Fainaru, author of "League of Denial," which takes a critical look at the NFL's concussion problem.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us -- Sanjay, interesting that Brian Todd just mentioned that the family of Jovan Belcher had his body exhumed so his brain could be examined for this condition, CTE. That's basically how it has to work.

The person has to die first, is that essentially it?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, as things stand now, that is how it is. You know, you have to specifically identify an accumulation of a particular protein. It's called TAL protein. You have to see evidence of that protein, not only that it exists, but also that it exists in particular areas of the brain. That is how it's diagnosed now. There has been some news lately that you may have heard, Jim, about trying to create these tests that can do the same sort of thing in the living.

They do find or at least identify proteins in the brain, but they're not really specific enough yet to diagnose CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. So, yes, as tough as it is to talk about, autopsy is the only sure-fire way to diagnose things right now.

ACOSTA: And Steve, we know there's a settlement out there for the players, a large one at that, but you are concerned and you've been reporting on this for some time now that it's your belief and the belief of many others that the NFL is just covering this up. How are they dealing with this issue now that we have another one of these lawsuits coming forward?

STEVE FAINARU, CO-AUTHOR, "LEAGUE OF DENIAL": Well, it's true, Jim, that the NFL over a period of a couple decades really tried to bury the science around this issue. They attacked any neuroscientist who really tried to draw a connection between football and brain damage. They published their own studies that denied that concussions were a major injury and had any long-term effects on their players.

Now that the science is contradicting that, they've been trying to get ahead of that and deal with it all the way down to the youth level where they're trying to introduce tackling techniques that would essentially take the head out of the game as they sometimes refer to it. but I think what we're seeing in cases like this is that the specter of these injuries is now hanging over the entire sport.

And so, even when you have something as horrific as this, where the player hasn't even been diagnosed with CTE, but believes that he had -- or his family believes that he had concussions, that that could be tied in with something as horrific as this murder-suicide.

ACOSTA: And Sanjay, I feel like I have to ask this question every time one of these cases come up. Do you feel that the science is conclusive, that the connection is there between these concussions, these repeated concussions, and this CTE disorder that tends to emerge?

GUPTA: I think so -- I mean, look, I think it's pretty clear. It's still small populations of people. You know, you want much larger studies to be done. Difficult thing to do. Again, Jim, as you pointed out, we're talking about examining during autopsy the brains of these players, and other people who may have taken hits to the head, but as far as actually diagnosing it first of all, when you're looking at the brain itself, it's pretty clear-cut. You can diagnose if this protein again is present and it's present in areas where you wouldn't expect to see it, especially at these relatively young ages.

I think that it's not just concussive hits, either, but also what are known as subconcussive hits, a kind of hit that a player may not pay really any attention to but can accumulate over time. When I've talked to the pathologist like I know Steve has as well who've been doing these studies, they say they've never seen those particular findings in any other situation other than when someone was taking these types of blows to the head, again both concussive and subconcussive hits. So, I think the science is emerging. It is still small, but it's pretty clear.

ACOSTA: And Steve, you know, with all these ball games that are on television right now and the playoffs that are coming up this weekend and they're going to be going for several weeks, the question I wonder about, do people, do fans care about this, do you think, because won't the business side of this sort of drive the NFL to make these changes and if fans get upset about this, I just wonder if that might be a way to get the NFL to really solve this problem and for these players?

FAINARU: Well, I think there's a couple things going on on that front. Certainly, I mean, the NFL is a huge business. It's a $9 billion industry. And, it's a huge sport, our most popular sport. But what we're seeing, as Sanjay referred to, I think, is that at the youth level, we're seeing a drop, a significant drop in participation rates.

And that's certainly, even the officials who are at the youth level will tell you that's certainly related to the concerns that parents have about the long-term health implications of the sport. And that has a direct implication on the NFL, because that's the pipeline of players to the league. But at the same time, I do feel like there's sort of a disconnect in which, you know, the playoffs are upon us now. I, myself, am watching many hours of football every weekend.

ACOSTA: People cheer on those big hits.

FAINARU: And people are cheering on the big hits, and violence is a big part of the game. And so, I think the NFL is kind of walking sort of a tightrope right now where they know that violence and brutality is part of the appeal of football, certainly, and yet, they're trying to tell people that the game is safer and how do you balance that. I think that's what they're trying to do.

ACOSTA: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Steve Fainaru, thank you very much for your perspective on this very important problem. Thank you, gentlemen.

Coming up, calls for mercy. Two prominent newspapers demand NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, be allowed to return to the United States.

Plus, it may now be legal to buy pot in Colorado, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Jeanne Moos is just ahead. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: Two prominent newspapers, the "New York Times" and "The Guardian," are coming to the defense of controversial NSA leaker, Edward Snowden. They're calling for some sort of deal which would allow him to return to the United States from Russia where he was granted temporary asylum.

It's all fueling a growing debate between people on his side and President Obama's side, where the president could find himself in the middle when he returns to Washington from Hawaii. He's in Hawaii right now where CNN's Athena Jones is there with the details. Hello, Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim. This isn't the first time we're hearing calls for clemency for Edward Snowden, but given the reach and the readership of the "New York Times" and "The Guardian," they may be the loudest voices to weigh in on his behalf.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): President Obama spending some time on the putting green during his vacation from Washington, D.C. When he returns to the nation's capital, he may find the ground shifting on a top security issue. What to do about NSA leaker Edward Snowden, seen here defending his disclosures in a Christmas Day message?

EDWARD SNOWDEN, FORMER NSA CONTRACTOR: The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it.

JONES: In an editorial published today, the "New York Times" is joining a growing chorus pushing for clemency for Snowden, suggesting he was clearly justified in leaking information about tactics by the nation's spy agency and urging Obama to allow him to return home from his temporary asylum in Russia.

Mr. Obama may also hear that message from some in the intelligence community. The NSA investigator heading a task force on the leaks suggested in a 60-minute interview the U.S. could make a deal with Snowden that would allow him to return in exchange for his remaining NSA data.

RICHARD LEDGETT, LEADING NSA TASK FORCE ON SNOWDEN: My personal view is yes, it's worth having a conversation about. I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured and my bar for those assurances would be very high.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Professionals at the National Security Agency --

JONES: NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, said a deal would set a bad precedent and he doesn't support it. An attorney advising Snowden says public opinion is changing with time as people come to see his disclosures as spurring important public debate.

BEN WIZNER, LEGAL ADVISER TO SNOWDEN: I do think that time generally puts whistleblowers in a better light. What's remarkable is how quickly that process is taking place for Mr. Snowden.

JONES: But just before he left Washington, the president declined to step in on his behalf.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This has done unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (on-camera): Now, the president -- a review panel appointed by the president to review the NSA has recommended major changes to the NSA's operations. The president spent part of his Christmas vacation reviewing the panel's 46 recommendations and he'll be making a speech about his conclusions later this month -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Athena Jones, thank you very much. Joining us to talk more about all of this, CNN senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza, he's also Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker," and WikiLeaks spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson.

And I want to start with you first, Jeffrey. Did the "New York Times" and "The Guardian" persuade you in any way that, perhaps, Edward Snowden deserves some kind of leniency here?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: No. Not a bit. I mean, I think --

ACOSTA: OK. Ryan, let's turn to you.

(LAUGHTER)

TOOBIN: No, you know, this is a guy who admitted or more or less admitted that he's broke the law in an extravagant way. We still don't know what he took. We still don't know where it is. We still don't know if the Russians and Chinese have it. Yes, I mean, I acknowledge it is true. We are having an important conversation and it is because of Edward Snowden.

But we do not know if we wouldn't be having that conversation if we hadn't -- if he hadn't gone through the appropriate channels. Two inspector generals, to Congress. You know, I know that sounds boring and everybody says it would never work. We will never know because he immediately decided instead to take it upon himself to break the law.

ACOSTA: And let me ask Kristinn Hrafnsson who is joining us as well. Christian, would Edward Snowden accept some sort of plea deal where he would come back to the United States but admit some guilt?

KRISTINN HRAFNSSON, WIKILEAKS SPOKESMAN: Well, let me correct something. We know that the Chinese and the Russians do not have any materials, absolutely wrong what was said earlier about that. About the editorial in general that I am very pleased that the "New York Times" editorial board finally agrees with what we have been fighting for, it is justifiable for whistleblowers to break the law when it serves higher ideals. That is the principle that we should abide by.

We have been saying that for years, and now, finally the "New York Times" agrees with us. The only disappointment is it doesn't go far enough. The "New York Times" editorial board should be also fighting for the pardon of Chelsea Manning, the release of Hammond, and the end of the ridiculous investigation into WikiLeaks.

ACOSTA: But Christian, what about Edward Snowden?

(CROSSTALK)

ACOSTA: Let's zero in on Edward Snowden. There's a little bit of a delay with your live shot in Iceland, but I just want to stop you and ask you, do you know for a fact whether or not Edward Snowden would agree to any sort of plea deal in order to return to the United States that would involve him admitting some guilt?

HRAFNSSON: I think I cannot speak for him, but I think that he should not -- he should wait for a full amnesty and that's what should happen. He should be offered a hero's welcome to the United States. He has done such a great service that he is one of the most important men of our times.

ACOSTA: Ryan Lizza, a hero's welcome, full amnesty, is that likely? Probably not, right?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think it's likely, although, it does seem like we've reached a tipping point in the last week of opinion on this subject. And here's the way I look at this. Since 9/11, we have been having a very long-running debate about liberty and security, right? And frankly, during the Bush years, some things happened that were arguably illegal, right?

Nobody ever paid a price for the CIA's torture program. Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA, he was told by the justice department that one of the domestic surveillance programs was no longer authorized by the justice department in 2004 and the Bush White House asked him to continue it anyway. He did so. I asked him about this recently. He said he did so because he was worried about the security of the United States.

When the Obama administration came in, they decided not to look backwards, to look forward, not to pursue any of the allegedly illegal actions that happened after 9/11. I think Edward Snowden comes along, he gets to the NSA, and he thinks that there is a massive system in place that most of the public doesn't know about, that frankly most people in Congress didn't know about, and it was on the other side of the argument, not keeping America safe but harming our liberty.

And I think that's the context that this needs to be looked at, and if we are going to not look backward at some of the things that were done in the Bush years, maybe we should look at that, what he did, in that context and say, this has started an important long delayed debate and maybe we shouldn't prosecute him.

ACOSTA: And Jeffrey -- go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, it's just -- you know, this gentleman from WikiLeaks invokes the Nuremberg principles, in other words implicitly comparing the actions of the United States here to the Nazis who of course were only following orders like the NSA. That is a grotesque and absurd comparison.

(CROSSTALK)

ACOSTA: Let's give Kristinn Hrafnsson a chance to answer that.

TOOBIN: And it just shows how crazy these people are who are supporting -- many of them who are supporting Snowden. It is appalling to make that sort of comparison.

ACOSTA: Kristinn, were you making that comparison? KRISTINN HRAFNSSON, WIKILEAKS SPOKESMAN: I was simply saying that it is a very established principle that an individual has a moral obligation even to break the law when it serves higher ideals. And those higher ideals that Edward Snowden is trying to protect are the principles of the United States Constitution with I suggest that the gentleman just before me does not care very much about.

He has also suggested that national security interest has been harmed. That has been claimed by the administration without any proof being proven that that happened.

What Edward Snowden has also revealed is the simple fact that the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lied to Congress last spring, in April. He committed a felony. Why aren't we discussing the possibility of him getting a plea deal for --

ACOSTA: Jeffrey, what do you think of that?

HRAFNSSON: -- coming clean on that issue?

TOOBIN: You know what, I am certainly not going to defend Clapper's testimony before Congress. It sure seemed like a lie to me. But it has nothing to do with whether Snowden committed a crime or not.

You know, lots of crimes get prosecuted, lots of crimes don't. But we're here to discuss Snowden and I think nothing that I have read in the newspaper in the past day or the past month suggests anything other than this is someone who committed major crimes against the United States, and you know, if he can work out a plea bargain, fine.

I mean, that's how many cases are resolved. But the idea that he deserves clemency when we don't know where this stuff is, who has it, what they have done with it, is just preposterous.

LIZZA: But, Jeff, wait a second. Don't you think -- haven't -- don't you think anything that he's released, don't you think anything that you've learned about what the NSA has been important and useful? I mean, we now know the entire history of a secret surveillance regime that was set up after 9/11 that we didn't know about before this guy.

We wouldn't be having this conversation. Congress wouldn't be debating changing the laws. The president wouldn't be appointing a panel asking him for recommendations if this didn't happen.

TOOBIN: A lot of this has been known in general but not as specifically. The "New York Times" --

LIZZA: I don't --

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: The "New York Times" --

LIZZA: I don't think that's right, Jeff. A lot of this has not been known. We did not know the history of the domestic surveillance programs that were set up in October of 2001 until those leaks started coming out.

(CROSSTALK)

TOOBIN: It is certainly true --

ACOSTA: Jeffrey, you would not have known about the metadata program, the bulk collection of phone records, we would not have known about that had it not been for Edward Snowden. That is --

TOOBIN: There is -- some of it was known, not all of it. It was certainly true, we are having a much richer, more sophisticated, more informed debate about all of this because Edward Snowden maybe -- committed these crimes. I have no doubt about that. But that is not the only value at stake here. There are other ways this debate could have been conducted.

LIZZA: How?

TOOBIN: You know, Senator Wyden was trying -- Senator Wyden was trying to have this debate and, you know, that is part of what senators do. And he was trying to have this debate. If Snowden had gone to Wyden --

LIZZA: But, Jeff, he'd been fighting on this for -- he'd been fighting on this for almost a decade. And by the end of 2012 he had basically nothing to show for it because he couldn't reveal the classified information. I mean, frankly, by the summer of 2013 when Snowden started these leaks, this debate was over. Nobody was talking about the stuff Wyden had been warning about for all those years.

TOOBIN: Well, and none -- you know, none of it has been proved to be illegal, either. I mean, the idea of him as a whistleblower, yes, one judge, Judge Leon in the federal district court, has says -- has said it's illegal. Every other judge on the FISA court, Judge Pauley in New York, have said it's legal.

LIZZA: Well, look, it's been tested -- it's only been tested in two courts that are not ex parte. It's only been tested in two courts where there are actually two sides to the argument, Jeff. I mean, the FISA court has proven itself to be not exactly the most --

ACOSTA: All right. All right. Well, and we're going to have to leave it there, gentlemen.

Jeffrey Toobin, Ryan Lizza and Kristinn Hrafnsson, my sense is that we're going to have more debates like this in the coming days. Thank you very much, gentlemen. We appreciate it.

Coming up, Secretary of State John Kerry, he's in the Middle East hoping to find a plan for peace. How successful will he be? I'll speak with someone who's been inside the negotiating room just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: John Kerry is laser focused on bringing peace to the Middle East. The secretary of state is in Israel meeting first with the Israelis, then the Palestinians, and determined as ever to find a solution that has eluded so many before him.

CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty is following his trip.

Jill, what is the latest?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jim. Well, you know, John Kerry is in Israel to clinch a deal that could be a game changer, but being a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the toughest jobs in diplomacy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): After five months, 20 rounds of negotiations, on his tenth trip to Israel as secretary of state, John Kerry is trying to prove it's not mission impossible to get a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I come here with no illusions. I know that there are many who are skeptical of whether or not the two parties can achieve peace.

DOUGHERTY: Kerry wants what he calls a framework. It's not a final deal, but a guideline for a permanent status negotiation, addressing all those thorny core issues.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is our land and our water.

DOUGHERTY: Borders between Israel and a proposed Palestinian state. Jerusalem is the capital of that Palestinian state as well as Israel's capital. Security, refugees and their right to return home, recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation state, the end of conflict and of all claims.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Welcome.

KERRY: Thank you, sir.

DOUGHERTY: But within minutes of shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the challenge was clear.

NETANYAHU: The people of Israel and I are prepared to make such a historic peace but we must have a Palestinian partner who is equally prepared to make this peace.

DOUGHERTY: Friday, Kerry meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I emphasized President Obama's and my commitment to working to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

DOUGHERTY: Getting a deal eluded former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Kerry, with no apparent plans to run for office again, has jumped in head first. KERRY: No one should consider any reports, articles or other -- or even rumors reliable unless they come directly from me and I guarantee you they won't.

AARON DAVID MILLER, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: He is clearly the most self-confident, self-assured secretary of state that I have seen, maybe to a fault.

DOUGHERTY: But if John Kerry wants to make his mark in history, he's got a tough order.

MILLER: He is relentless. He's not going to give this up. Now whether or not he can persuade Netanyahu and Abbas is another matter.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY: Kerry could be even more involved in diplomacy over the next few weeks, cautioning that it's time for the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make some tough choices -- Jim.

ACOSTA: John Kerry has been a busy man lately.

Thanks very much, Jill Dougherty. Appreciate it.

And joining us now is the former Senate majority leader and former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell.

You've been in this room before. You know what the negotiations are like. What do you think is happening right now? What should be expected?

GEORGE MITCHELL, FORMER U.S. MIDDLE EAST ENVOY: Well, first, I commend Secretary Kerry for the effort he's put into this. His persistence, perseverance and leadership I think is much appreciated all around.

There are several difficulties, obviously. The objective initially was to reach a full agreement within nine months. That now appears to be not attainable and so it's now the objective to get a framework agreement which is an outline of an agreement that could then be used as the basis for a full negotiation over a long term.

I think it will be difficult, but we all have to hope and pray that it will succeed. Both parties of course have different points of view on many major issues, and so I think it will be a hard task.

One of them, Jim, will be to define just what is a framework agreement. I suspect the Israelis, based on my own experience in a similar situation, will want a shorter, more general agreement. The Palestinians will want one that is more detailed and more specific, at least on the issues that they're most concerned about.

So there will be both procedural and substantive issues but I think in the end getting an agreement is of such value to both of them that I hope they will overcome their mistrust and their concerns and reach that framework agreement, and then go on to negotiate a permanent agreement following that.

ACOSTA: When you have somebody like Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas in the room together, these are the negotiating partners at the table, you know, a lot of experts who look at this region say these just aren't the types who are going to form a longer lasting peace.

MITCHELL: It's very difficult on both sides. I personally sat into the four meetings that Netanyahu and Abbas had back during the first term of President Obama, and there's no doubt that they have a long history that goes back and it's not a positive one. But at the same time, they both do represent people and in both societies I believe that there is a valuable benefit that will come from getting an agreement.

For the Israelis, who have a -- a state, a very successful one, they want security for their people and they are entitled to have it.

ACOSTA: And let me ask --

MITCHELL: For the Palestinians, they don't have a state and they want one, and they are entitled to have that.

ACOSTA: Let me just ask you, because a very important foreign policy question has come up just today, as you probably read in the "New York Times" and in "The Guardian" newspaper, both of those very influential newspapers, have urged this White House to show some leniency, perhaps offer clemency, a plea bargain of some sort, to the NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, for all those National Security leaks that he's released out to the -- to the rest of the world.

I'm just curious, what do you think the president should do about that? Should he offer him leniency?

MITCHELL: Well, a plea bargain means a lot of things. It means that Snowden must confess to guilt for committing a crime, and to be punished in some way for it. I don't object to plea bargain negotiations but I also think that people should be obeying the law.

It's understandable that the "New York Times" and "The Guardian" would take that position because they have been participants, in fact, leaders in disclosing the information that was made available by Snowden. But --

ACOSTA: But, Senator, do you believe that Edward Snowden -- I guess to a more critical question is, do you believe Edward Snowden is a whistleblower or traitor?

MITCHELL: Well, I don't like to get into the use of terminology, this or that, or particularly inflammatory language. I think two things are clear. The first is that it has been overreaching on the part of our security agencies, technology outran reasoned judgment, in my view, and I think there will be corrections made. That won't be the first time in the history that has occurred and I think it will be a valuable thing.

The second thing that is clear is that Edward Snowden broke the law, and so while there clearly have been benefits, I think there also has to be accountability and the phrase that they use and that you put out well should be clemency and plea bargain.

ACOSTA: Right. I mean, that's to the issue is --

MITCHELL: Those are two different things.

ACOSTA: Well -- but I guess if you feel like the NSA has overstepped its bounds a little bit, you know, a lot of people who have that same viewpoint are now suggesting that maybe he should deserve some kind of leniency or something in exchange for his return back to the United States. You think that's reasonable?

MITCHELL: A plea bargain in which he would plead guilty to violating the law and be subjected to some punishment for it, yes. But I'm not -- I mean, bringing him back as a hero and having no accountability for violation of the law, I don't think sends the right message.

ACOSTA: All right. Senator George Mitchell, we appreciate your time very much on all of those topics, and hope you're having a happy new year. Thank you very much, Senator.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Jim.

ACOSTA: Just ahead, a town is reeling from the murder of a beloved Catholic priest. Why would anyone want him dead? The latest on the investigation next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: Let's get to some of the other top stories coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

California Police have arrested a man for the killing of Reverend Eric Freed, a popular Roman Catholic priest. Gary Lee Bullock is in custody in Eureka, California.

Listen to the police account of what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHIEF ANDREW MILLS, EUREKA POLICE DEPARTMENT: A security guard heard noise in the area of the church and went to investigate. He saw a person matching Bullock's description and directed him to leave the property after a very short conversation.

At about 9:00 in the morning when Father Freed did not show up for mass, parishioners from the church went to the rectory and found that Reverend Father Eric Freed was badly injured. They called the police and a doctor who belongs to the parish told our officers that the father was dead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Police initially arrested Bullock on New Year's Eve for public intoxication, but let him go before arresting him again. A motive is not known.

It looks like we'll be seeing a lot more of Rob Ford in 2014. The embattled Toronto mayor has officially to run for reelection. Ford gained notoriety of course worldwide this past year when he admitted smoking crack in what he says was a drunken stupor.

And the family behind "Duck Dynasty" is launching its own line of guns. Gunmaker Mossberg has teamed with the family business to release nine different shotguns, plus semiautomatic rifles and a semiautomatic pistol. A spokesman declined the name which retailers will carry them.

"Duck Dynasty" has been under fire recently after one of the show's stars made controversial comments about gay people.

And tonight CNN Films presents the movie that melted the hearts of millions. I love this one, my family love this one. The Academy Award-winning "March of the Penguins" is a story of love and survival in the harshest place on earth. That is tonight at 9:00 Eastern on CNN.

Coming up, marijuana may be legal in Colorado now, but buying it still comes with its share of difficulties. The lighter side of pot shopping just ahead.

And a huge swath of the country is bracing for a blizzard. The latest on a powerful winter storm that has 100 million people in its path.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: Buying pot in a store may be legal now in Colorado, but that does not mean it's easy.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's like going to the deli.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll help, who's next?

MOOS: But instead of half a pound of ham, it's an eighth of an ounce of pot, each type described lovingly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's the euphoric high.

MOOS: Customers seemed euphoric even before smoking. Though a few on line hid from the cameras. All you have to do is show I.D. to prove you're over 21, then pay cash, 55 bucks or so with tax, for an eighth of an ounce that makes five to seven joints.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have a really nice, fruity, juicy fruit. Tastes very much like it smells.

MOOS: Customers were doing a lot of smelling, sniffing the bouquet as if it were a fine wine or a pungent cheese.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's an Afghani blend. Really nice. Bud structure on there.

MOOS: Appreciating Bud structure rather than ordering a Bud, weed has gone mainstream.

(On camera): The Denver pot, I mean "The Denver Post" even reviews pot.

(Voice-over): The paper has gone to pot with the Web site called "The Cannabist" and a marijuana editor who appeared on the "Colbert Report."

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Are you high right now? Are you high right now? You're not high now but do you smoke pot at all?

RICARDO BACA, MARIJUANA EDITOR, THE DENVER POST: I don't smoke pot. I do eat it, though.

COLBERT: Oh, OK.

MOOS: On the "Cannabist," you can use a handy map to find a pot store near you or learn about cooking with cannabis. The site has two reviewers who try strings like Granddaddy Purple and tell you how socked you'll get. "Initially the Granddaddy gave me a nice uptick of energy that had me pondering a walk with our Sheltie. I could string together the concepts like socks before shoes, but by the time I made it to the shoes, where had the socks gone?

(On camera): Now that it's legal, everyone is playing name that pot.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you hand me a green (INAUDIBLE), please?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is Strawberry Diesel. Great flavor, good energy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sour Alien. It's a cross of Sour Diesel and Alien Technology.

MOOS (voice-over): Even reporters can pronounce Golden Goat, but some of these names can get your goat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Babakush (ph). Is it Babakush or Babakush? Babakush. There's the experts.

MOOS: But if you're really nice to the clerks, maybe they'll sing it to you.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Don't ask me to name that stuff.

Well, that's it for me. Jake Tapper takes over our coverage now -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a blizzard assault. A third of the nation is in the bull's eye of a ferocious winter storm that's about to get worse and hit parts of the northeast with maximum force.

Plus pleas for mercy. Should Edward Snowden get a plea bargain or a pardon. The journalist who first reported the NSA leaker's information joins us for a very heated debate.

And driving danger. New research shows there's one distraction behind the wheel that may be even worse than texting.

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Jake Tapper, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A blizzard warning is taking effect right now in the New York area, as a powerful winter storm intensifies. About 100 million people in 22 states are in its path and the coming hours will be the most brutal in parts of the northeast.