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Could Traffic Scandal Hurt Christie in 2016?; Warning To 300,000+: Don't Use The Water; Weakest Job Growth In Years

Aired January 10, 2014 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news -- hundreds of new documents just released in the Chris Christie traffic jam scandal. The first couple of e-mails were enough to put Christie's political career at risk.

Will this latest batch raise new questions about his future?

Hundreds of thousands of people are warned to stay away from the water coming out of their taps.

Did a chemical spill suddenly turn it into poison?

And the unemployment rate falls to a five year low, but where are the jobs?

Why the new numbers are so alarming.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The first couple of e-mails rocked Chris Christie's world. Now our breaking news -- lawmakers releasing more than 2,000 pages of documents, shedding new light on the apparent political vendetta that threw a New Jersey town into gridlock.

Christie has said he was humiliated and blind-sided by the scandal. Close aides and other appointees have now lost their jobs. He now faces a lawsuit and an uncertain political future.

But is there more?

CNN has been reviewing the documents.

And we get the latest now from our crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns.

What have you found out -- Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the paper trail so far shows that at least one other member Governor Christie's senior staff, who has not been named publicly, was forwarded an e-mail detailing the extent of the problems with the George Washington Bridge. However, we don't know whether that staffer actually read the document and there's no indication she was involved in any alleged political retribution.

The e-mail originated from the account of the Port Authority executive director, who was appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. That Cuomo appointee was expressing outraged at the way the lanes were closed, calling it ill-advised and abusive.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): The nearly 2,000 pages of documents released by a committee of state lawmakers within the last few hours come as the committee continues to hone in on why traffic was snarled back in September.

Today, we learned Chris Christie's former deputy chief of staff, whom he fired Thursday, may be the next person subpoenaed to testify in the widening probe. Sources tell CNN lawmakers want to question Bridget Kelly about her involvement in closing two lanes of traffic onto the George Washington Bridge. Kelly's e-mail, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," was made public this week.

DAVID WILDSTEIN, FORMER PORT AUTHORITY OFFICIAL: On the advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent.

JOHNS: On Thursday, David Wildstein, the Port Authority official that Kelly sent that e-mail refused to answer state lawmakers' questions. He was held in contempt.

The pair are accused of snarling traffic on the bridge as political retribution.

Thursday, Christie said he was unaware of the plan to cause the traffic jam.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here. Regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

JOHNS: Now, they actually measured how big a mess this was on the bridge -- 2800 hours were lost on that bridge during the traffic test, according to a report. The documents released this afternoon paint a fuller picture of the chaos and the outrage that occurred in the days after the test. And afterward, the Fort Lee police chief was quoted as saying it was a monumental failure.

No indications in these documents we've seen so far that Governor Christie played a role -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But you and our team of producers, researchers and others, you're still going through these 2,000 pages. By no means have you completed that task.

JOHNS: No. It's a lot of reading and it's a lot of not just e- mails, but also prose and letters and reports. So there's a lot to go through. And we're trying to go through it with a fine tooth comb.

BLITZER: You certainly are.

All right, Joe, thank you.

So how dangerous are these new documents for the governor, Chris Christie?

Let's bring in our chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper, the anchor of "THE LEAD," Jake Tapper, along with CNN's senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin -- Jake, it appears that Christie's senior aide was looped in on the e-mail exchange between these Port Authority officials about the lane closures. It's unclear if the aide read the e-mail.

But could this just be the beginning of more to come?

JAKE TAPPER, HOST, "THE LEAD": Well, I think it has to be, there's still so much we don't know. And if you go by the governor's word, so much he does not know about why this happened, whether this traffic study was borne from political vendetta or started off as a political vendetta and became quasi real, started off as a real thing, became quasi vendetta, whatever, who was responsible, who knew about it. Bridget Kelly, we haven't heard from her. David Wildstein, we haven't heard from him, except him invoking his right to not incriminate himself.

So there is much, much more. And as these documents indicate, much, much more that we don't know. A lot of these documents pose more questions than they answer.

BLITZER: And, Jeffrey, let's talk a little bit about that, because, potentially, a lot could still happen to Governor Christie, as far as the legal investigation now underway.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And I think it's become increasingly clear that what -- if this investigation is to proceed, two people are going to have to get immunity, either from the federal government or the state government, because David Wildstein, who's already taken the Fifth, and Miss Kelly, Bridget Kelly, who is the person who sent the infamous "Time to stop the traffic in Fort Lee," almost certainly, she's going to take the Fifth, too.

So the question is, is Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney, is some state prosecutor going to give her and him immunity so that they have to tell their story?

Because until they do, it sounds like we are not going to have anything like a full story on what happened here.

BLITZER: Well, you used to be an assistant U.S. attorney.

What would it take for the current U.S. attorney in New Jersey to give either or both of them, or anyone else, immunity from prosecution?

What would it take?

They'd have to have some smoking gun involving higher-ups, is that right?

TOOBIN: Not necessarily. They wouldn't have to have a smoking gun. But the rule on immunity is Paul Fishman has to have a good faith belief that the testimony of these two people, or anyone else, would lead to the -- would be productive. He can't just go on a fishing expedition and decide to random -- to immunize random people. But he has to have a good faith belief that a crime was committed and these would be useful witnesses.

Now, frankly, I'm not sure that there is a crime here. I haven't seen evidence of a federal crime.

So the question is, will Fishman decide that there is a good faith basis to give immunity to these people?

Because unless and until he does, I don't think we're going to learn anywhere near the full story.

BLITZER: Jake, both of these e-mails that we have learned about today show local officials, even some of Governor Christie's staff, that they understood the full gravity of the problems they were causing. The governor says he wasn't informed about any of this.

But what does it say about how his administration is run?

TAPPER: Well, the governor, to be precise, has said that he wasn't aware that there was -- there were plans to do this as a vendetta, not that he wasn't aware that there was a traffic study, not that he wasn't aware that there were traffic problems, not that he wasn't aware that there was damage control and spin control after it.

I don't know what you can say about his management style based on this episode, other than if he did not know that top aides were doing this, why did they feel that it was acceptable?

That's a question that they need to answer and that, frankly, Governor Christie said he was doing soul-searching about at his press conference yesterday.

But, Wolf, there's something that Joe Johns touched on that Assembly Wisniewski touched on in a statement he gave. Wisniewski is one of the Democrats in the state assembly of New Jersey holding hearings on this, who has been subpoenaing documents.

And what Wisniewski said is when they subpoenaed Wildstein's documents, he returned a bunch of documents, including with a lot of redactions. But one of those documents was to David Sampson, who is the Christie appointed chair of the Port Authority. And what Wisniewski says is the fact that David Wildstein provided this document, which was before the meeting and before the order to have this traffic study create traffic problems indicates that Wildstein thinks that it's relevant. So the question is, what is the relevance? Governor Christie said that Sampson assured him that he had no role in this as a political vendetta. But as we say, there are a lot of questions about these documents.

BLITZER: And a big picture, Jeffrey, you know, one of the reasons that we're so interested in this whole investigation in New Jersey and the scandal that has now erupted is because, frankly, the governor, Chris Christie, he's a leading potential Republican presidential candidate.

What does this do to that prospect of -- I know it's still very, very early. There's a lot still that has to come out. A lot of people liked the way he handled it yesterday.

But from your perspective, what does it do to the prospect of him becoming a viable candidate?

TOOBIN: Well, it certainly doesn't help. I mean this is obviously a big problem. And it is better, I suppose, for him to be ignorant than him to be complicit. But it's certainly not great for him to be ignorant of his top aides engaging in this political vendetta.

But, look, it is -- this story is still unfolding. There are a lot of people, including law enforcement officials, who are continuing to investigate. And we're going to know a lot more in a week, certainly, and then know more in a year.

So, you know, to evaluate Christie's political problems, it's really very premature. He's got them. This is a problem. But how big, we're going to learn more every day.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Jake, I want you to add something, Jake.

But I just want to give the notion that some people think he really helped himself yesterday. He came across as sincere. He apologized. He said it would never happen again. A lot of folks liked the way he dealt with this.

TAPPER: Well, that's what I wanted to say, is that I have, you know, Governor Christie has never really been popular among conservative rank and file that you hear, you know, you hear on talk radio or you read their -- read on Twitter, you read their blogs, etc. Because he's considered something of a moderate, especially after his literal and figurative embrace of President Obama before the election.

But I have to say, this controversy, this scandal and the media's coverage of it is causing some affection toward him among conservatives because they see, A, the media is out to get him; B -- I'm not saying any of these are true, by the way, I'm just saying this is how it's perceived. A, the media is out to get them; B, the media is covering the story with an aggressiveness that we have not shown for other scandals having to do with President Obama; and C, there is accountability, there are people being fired, unlike in some Democratic scandal.

So I am seeing -- I'm not saying this is a net good for Governor Christie. Obviously, it's not.

But I am seeing some conservatives start to like him a little bit more. Perhaps the enemy of my enemy is my friend or something like that.

BLITZER: Do you want to weigh in, Jeffrey, on that?

TOOBIN: Well, no, Jake just beat me to it, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. You know, I think what's going on here is there's a lot of working the refs going on. You're a basketball fan, Wolf. You know that phrase, is that, you know, people -- "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page, they're saying, oh, you know, they're not going after -- they're going after Christie in a way that they didn't go after Obama.

Nonsense. We go after scandals as far as we will take them. We need only remember Monica Lewinsky to remember, perhaps, the most extensively covered scandal in modern American history.

So I think this is obviously an important story. There's a lot more we have to learn about it. And to pursue it in good faith is absolutely the right thing to do.

BLITZER: Jeffrey and Jake, thanks very, very much.

We have a lot more on this story. Other news, Christie certainly is in crisis mode right now. The political fallout, we'll have more of that.

Did the embattled New Jersey governor put himself in this mess and how will he get out of it?

And they can't drink it, they can't bathe in it, they can't cook with it -- hundreds of thousands of West Virginians are warned to stay away from their water. The water company has scheduled a news conference in 20 minutes to give us an update.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: For 300,000 West Virginians, the water in their homes is good for one thing only, flushing. A chemical has contaminated the water supply, and as residents run for bottled water, public officials are scrambling to try to clean things up.

Our senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, is in Charleston, West Virginia with the very latest. This is truly shocking what's going on for these 300,000 people in West Virginia. Elizabeth, update us on what we know.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I want to tell you that we just learned that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection just issued a cease order to Freedom Industries, which is the place that leaked this chemical in the first place. They told Freedom Industries to stop their operations.

Now, this is really crucial, because from what we've been hearing, this chemical has continued to leak and so they're telling them, hey, you've got to stop everything while, you know, what we know right now is that the officials at the water department and elsewhere are trying to get this chemical out of the water so that people can start drinking the water again -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, what is this Freedom Industry? What do they do?

COHEN: What they do is they -- are involved in the coal industry because this chemical is used to clean coal. That's the extent of what we know. This chemical is used to clean coal. And it says right there on the chemical information that it is hazardous if swallowed and it can be an irritant to the eyes and to skin. Now, this is an important point, wolf.

All of those things are true if you are exposed to the chemical at full force. What we don't know is how harmful it is if you are exposed to it when it's more diluted, because, of course, it would be more diluted if you're exposed in the water system. It's diluted in the water.

BLITZER: Do they have any idea how long it will take before folks could start drinking tap water or using tap water, take a shower with regular water? Do they have any idea how long this disaster is going to continue?

COHEN: Wolf, I asked the president of the water company about that just about an hour ago, and he said, look, we're hoping that it is days and not weeks. That was the way he put it. We're hoping days. We are thinking it will not be weeks. But he did say days, plural. So, there's not a quick fix here.

BLITZER: So, are a lot of folks just getting out of West Virginia, those areas? You can't take a bath, you can't take a shower, you can't drink water, or you can't use the water to cook anything. Are folks just getting away, getting out of town?

COHEN: You know, we are hearing that people are going to the area just beyond the area that's affected. Remember, the whole state is not affected, just one area. So, for example, we're hearing that the restaurants just, you know, in the other water district that there are waits for hours and hours to eat at those restaurants because they are, you know, so close to this area.

So, yes, it does seem that people are leaving the area in an attempt to get a good meal or possibly to get a good shower.

BLITZER: Yes. We all like bottled water, but it can get pretty expensive. That's the only thing you can use in this kind of the situation.

COHEN: Right.

BLITZER: BLITZER: Elizabeth, I know there's going to be a news conference coming up in about ten minutes or so where they're going to be providing new information. You'll monitor it. We'll monitor it and get the latest information to our viewers. This is really a shocking story out of West Virginia right now. Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.

When we come back, the unemployment falls to a five-year low, but where are the jobs? You're going to find out why the new numbers are so disappointing,

And new concerns al Qaeda may be using Syria as a recruiting base for American extremists. We have disturbing details. That's coming up. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Two striking numbers today on the U.S. economy, the unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent. That's the lowest in five years, but that drop isn't necessarily a good thing. Only 74,000 jobs were added last month, also the lowest in years by far, way below expectations.

Our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, has been monitoring all these numbers for us. Overall, I think most economists were very disappointed in these numbers, weren't they?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they sure were. And of course, the White House was as well, Wolf. 74,000 jobs added in December. The economy needs to add a lot more than that to keep pace with population, and this is the worst since January of 2011. White House officials, though, are trying to assuage concerns by pointing to the overall trend of the jobs numbers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What it does represent is 46 consecutive months of private sector job creation. 8.2 million jobs.

(CROSSTALK)

CARNEY: -- that reinforces that we need to continue to have job growth, economic security, economic mobility as our top priority and those priorities are the president's priorities and he wants to work with Congress and wants to works with others outside of Congress to advance an agenda that delivers on those priorities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: The unemployment rate, as you mentioned, Wolf, went from seven percent down to 6.7 percent in December. That is the first time that it's been below seven percent since the president was elected president more than five years ago, but it's actually an unwelcome dip because its due in part to many people simply giving up even looking for work and those folks, Wolf, are not reflected in this statistic. So, experts say the actual unemployment rate would be higher. BLITZER: It certainly would be. Can these job numbers help the White House, help the president get that extension of long-term unemployment benefits for, what, 1.3 million unemployed Americans?

KEILAR: Well, you know, they could, because four in ten of those who are unemployed are long-term unemployed, longer than six months. But these jobs numbers aren't necessarily game changing when it comes to convincing Congress to find middle ground here. They certainly make the president's case for extending these long-term unemployment benefits more than if the numbers today had been good.

BLITZER: Just to put it into some sort of perspective, and I want to give some perspective, they did revise the job creation numbers for November. Originally, they said 203,000 jobs have been created in November. They revised that upward to 241,000. So, that's good. But that 241,000 compared to only 70, what, 74,000 in December, that's a pretty steep decline.

And as you point out, to really get things going, you need a lot more job creation than that. Brianna, thanks very much. Brianna has got more on this story later here in the SITUATION ROOM.

The deal to extend long-term unemployment benefits for more than a million Americans has now hit yet another snag. Let's bring in our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's joining us. Dana, what's the sticking point here?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are several issues. But I want to underscore a static in today's job numbers. That really does illustrate why Democrats are waging despite, 37.7 percent. That is the percentage of Americans unemployed for 27 weeks or more. And it's been hovering there or higher for months. Now, whether senators can find agreement to extend those people's government benefits remains to be seen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): This sure didn't sound like senators closing in on a deal.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN, (R) OHIO: Let's sit down and talk. We're adults, you know --

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, (D) CALIFORNIA: Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.

BASH: Just when there seemed to be hope for agreement on extending emergency unemployment benefits, the Senate floor devolved into a bitter, angry place.

SEN. HARRY REID, (D) NEVADA: We have continued obstruction that's taken place in this body for five years. It's time we get back to legislating the way we used to.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) KENTUCKY: Does the answer to my question not to say to my -- no. BASH: Calling someone my friend in the Senate usually means the total opposite.

REID: The answer to your question is no.

BASH: These six Republicans crossed party lines earlier in the week and voted with Democrats to start debate on extending emergency benefits for Americans unemployed longer than 26 weeks. But those GOP senators refused to vote for a passage, unless, the cost of that extra government help is offset with budget cuts elsewhere.

Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, cut a deal with one of those Republicans, Dean Heller, on a paid for $18 billion package to extend limited benefits through November, but the other GOP senators didn't like the deal and felt shut out of the process.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would say, first of all, I voted in good faith. One of six Republicans to debate this bill, to solve this problem and I can't get a vote.

BASH: These Republicans Reid needs complained he wouldn't let them offer amendments.

SEN. DAN COATS, (R) INDIANA: I don't even have the ability to offer an amendment that my constituents think is a -- they sent me here to do. They didn't send me here to just be told to sit down and forget it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (on-camera): Now, Reid is actually reversing himself saying today that he will allow Republicans to offer a limited number of amendments, but even if that satisfied Republicans, there is still no agreement on the fundamental question of extending unemployment benefits and how that will be paid for. Now, CNN is told that tempers are cooling right now. Those key six Republican senators are in discussions with Democrats, will be all weekend long in the hopes of finding a deal by Monday.

And wolf, if they do something that really does get bipartisan support, the question is whether the House speaker, who has said he won't take this up at all, will be forced to reconsider, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. So, even if that passes the Senate, and that certainly unlikely or may be still up in the air right now, even if it were to pass the Senate, then it would go to the House where its faith, assuming they don't make the kind of concessions Republicans want would be dead. That's the only thing I can conclude, right?

BASH: Right. One of the key things that John Boehner, the House speaker has said, is that he wants it to be paid for.

If there is a deal that they can work out over the weekend, where these benefits would be paid for, offset in other places in the budget, and there -- you have enough Republicans in the Senate who support that and some sort of a big bipartisan vote. There are a lot of ifs here, but if that happens, it might be hard for John Boehner to say no because that was one of the key requirements that he put in giving any kind of extensions to these emergency unemployment benefits.

BLITZER: Yes. The question is, how do you pay for it, assuming the Democrats will pay for it --

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Which they say that they will now. Yes.

BLITZER: Where that money should come from.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Yes. (INAUDIBLE) where the money should come from as opposed to a lot of Republicans. So there's still a lot of the uncertainty. That's the bottom line.

We'll watch it closely with you. Lots of stake obviously right here.

Dana, thank you.

Just ahead, we're standing by for a live news conference on that contaminated water affecting 300,000 people in West Virginia. We're going to bring it to you live when it happens. Really unbelievable what's going on.

Plus, he may have represented, at least a lot of folks believe, the GOP's best hope for the White House in 2016 so why are some fellow Republicans actually happy about Chris Christie's political troubles?

And the federal government says it will recognize those same-sex marriages performed in Utah on 1,000 marriages over the past few weeks but the state of Utah won't accept them. So what happens to those couples while the courts try to figure out the legality of their unions?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: At least until a couple of days ago, Chris Christie may have represented the GOP's best chance to regain the White House in 2016, at least a lot of analysts thought so. So why are some fellow Republicans now gloating over his political crisis?

Brian Todd has been taking a closer look into this part of the story.

Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, for several reasons, the Republican Party's conservative base has squared off against Chris Christie over the past few years. He's angered enough of them that now at a time when he could sure use broad GOP support, he doesn't seem to have it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Facing his biggest crisis, Chris Christie may not want to look toward fellow conservatives for a political lifeline because it appears some would rather see him drown. Listen to influential conservative Glenn Beck on his talk show.

GLENN BECK, CONSERVATIVE TALK RADIO HOST: Conservatives need to run from Chris Christie. Run from Chris Christie. This, again, is the quintessential example of why I'm against him.

TODD: Or Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, CONSERVATIVE TALK RADIO HOST: The point of the story is that he will, Christie, he -- it's payback. If you don't give him what he wants, he'll pay you back.

ROSS DOUTHAT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There are a lot of conservatives who have never liked Chris Christie. For them, this is sort of vindication.

TODD: Vindication, some say, for Christie's brash antagonism of the conservative base on issues they hold dear. For example, he's been more favorable toward gun control and immigration reform than most Republicans. And he's blasted the Tea Party for one of its core beliefs.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: This strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought.

TODD: That comment was the political equivalent of picking a fight with potential Republican rival, Senator Rand Paul, who made this aside when asked about the Christie bridge scandal.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I have been in traffic before and I know how angry I am when I'm in traffic, and I'm always wondering, who did this to me.

TODD: The New Jersey governor's willingness to cut deals with Democrats has long made conservative Republicans suspicious that he'd sell out in Washington. But the animosity is also personal. Some Republicans believe Christie's speech at the 2012 Republican convention was intentionally more about him than Mitt Romney.

CHRISTIE: The greatest lesson that mom ever taught me, though, was this one. She told me there will be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected.

TODD: And many Republicans still haven't forgiven Christie for his buddy flick-style appearances with President Obama after Superstorm Sandy, just hours before Election Day.

DOUTHAT: Among Republican operatives, people who work for campaigns and for politicians, there has been a sort of undercurrent of complaint that Christie's team is tough to work with, that he's a primadonna.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: We couldn't get Christie's office to respond to that. Just who were the Republicans who have defended him this week? Well, Rudy Giuliani is one and also South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who said Christie, in the wake of the scandal, has shown the kind of leadership that has earned him huge levels of trust in New Jersey, but Haley is someone who Christie could help this year. He is chairman of the Republican Governors Association and she's got a tough re-election fight coming.

Wolf, she could sure use his help this year.

BLITZER: The politics of the Republican Party always fascinating, Brian. Thanks very much.

I want to go to West Virginia right now. Freedom Industries, the company that supposedly had this poisonous chemical thrown into the water supply there, they are speaking out now on what's going on. 300,000 people in West Virginia can't use water. Listen to this.

GARY SOUTHERN, PRESIDENT, FREEDOM INDUSTRIES: We worked through the night last night to remove all materials from our site. The material is no longer here. It's sitting at another remote location that we have. We've drained the storage site that was in -- that had the problem and we have removed all of the material that is available and it can be vacuumed out of the ground.

We've brought in a large number of circuit trucks which are big vacuum cleaner trucks that removed the material and took the material to another site for storage and amalgamation ultimate cleanup.

We have worked with the emergency services all day yesterday, all day today. Our -- our intent is to be totally --

(CROSSTALK)

SOUTHERN: OK. OK. Our intent is to be absolutely transparent and we'll tell you what we know and as much as we know to date is that we've had this release. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the material did get into the river and potentially or has impacted the water supply in Charleston.

We have mitigated the risk, we believe, in terms of further material leaving this facility and our mission now is to clean up.

Thank you very much.

Our mission now is to move to the next phase of remediation, which would be to take the dirt, which is in the storage area, and take that off site for the appropriate disposal. We have worked with Coast Guards, we have booms that were placed on the river just in case of a potential for the material to move which will trap the material and stop the material from leaving the facility. We don't believe a great of material left the facility, although this time we are not in the position to give you a number in terms of how much volume left. We simply do not know yet. We will know that in the next couple of days and as more information becomes available, we will make it available to you, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How much was held in the tank? And how much that's in the tank right?

SOUTHERN: The tank is a 35,000 gallons storage tank and we have taken --

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Look here, sir.

SOUTHERN: Sorry. It's a --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold the microphone, if you would, sir.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even if the questions come from over here.

SOUTHERN: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You need to look at all the cameras.

SOUTHERN: OK. All right. The -- it's a 35,000 gallons storage tank. We've removed them. All of the material has been removed off site. There is no more of that material on site other than the material that went from the storage tank into the dike and some dirt that surround the affected area, which were in the process of removing from the facility.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you do that before or after the DEP order?

SOUTHERN: This has been an ongoing -- no, this has been an ongoing process. We started this yesterday. DEP has been here full time and we've been working hand in hand with DEP since the beginning of this event.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So that means at maximum it could 35,000 gallons?

SOUTHERN: No. No, no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is the maximum?

SOUTHERN: It's a 35,000 gallons storage tank. But the maximum -- we've taken several trucks of material out of that tank off this facility. We don't know what the volume is. As soon as we do know what the volume is, we will do a math balance on what we collected. When we know what was in the tank when we started and we'll be able to tell you basically, you know, what material was either taken with dirt or went out of the facility. We don't have that data yet.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)

SOUTHERN: Yes, that's a good question. We're working on that right now and we hope to have some answers on that question tomorrow.

Look, guys, it has been an extremely long day. I'm having a hard trouble talking at the moment. I would appreciate it if we could wrap this thing up. I will --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a lot -- we actually have a lot of questions. It's been a long day for a lot of people who don't have water. So can you give us an exact timeline as to how this all happened, the DEP was saying earlier today, as early as 8:15 yesterday morning, they were getting reports and that you all did not call it in until 12:00 noon. The DEP was already here at 11:15. So what's the timeline in all this?

SOUTHERN: We were aware of the leaking storage tank around 10:30. We load tank trucks of this material on a regular basis and occasionally we've had reports of an odor previously. So we were first aware of any material being expelled at 10:30 yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could it have been earlier than yesterday because we've also received reports into our newsroom that it was as early as Wednesday, possibly Tuesday people were starting to smell this in the area.

SOUTHERN: We have no information on that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are there no systems in place to alert you of a leak at your facility other than a smell?

SOUTHERN: At this moment in time, I think that's all we have time for. So thanks for coming. Thanks for your time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have more questions. Hey, hey, hey, no, no, we're not done.

SOUTHERN: We are done.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're not done.

SOUTHERN: Well, there is --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Anyone else have any questions?

SOUTHERN: Hold on a second.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How all -- the storage tank. How was the material able to get out of the storage tank at all?

SOUTHERN: OK. So it's a steel storage tank. But we don't know the answer to that. That's one of the things that we're trying to determine. There are a number of different theories and quite frankly it's pointless hypothesizing as to how it happened. It's a steel storage tank. It's been extremely cold. There are theories that maybe the cold, change in temperature has something to do with it. We honestly don't know. Until we can get the metallurgy on the tank results but we won't know that.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How is the tank looked at to make sure they are up to par?

SOUTHERN: They are looked at on a regular basis.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As in?

SOUTHERN: We have people with the tanks every day. Literally, we load trucks of this material every day.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are there any danger to the plumbing?

SOUTHERN: I'm sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are there any danger to the plumbing?

SOUTHERN: Not that we're aware of. I mean, there's a posted ban on the consumption of water. You know, we're not in the business of producing drinking water.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes. But the chemical itself, is it dangerous to the public?

SOUTHERN: The chemical has a very, very low toxicity. So if you look at the technical data that's available on the product, it has no effect on aquatic life. So there is no danger to fish in the river. So as a chemical, the answer to that question we would have to say would be no.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know -- I mean, because it seems like there is a failure on two levels. There was a failure at the tanks and then there was a failure at the retainment wall. How often is that wall looked at? And then tell us about what procedures are in place at the plant, you know, to keep the -- are there any alarms, alerts, anything like that?

SOUTHERN: We run this facility -- this facility operates around the clock at this time of year. We always have employees on site. We do a regular walk-through of the facility and part of the process of loading the trucks which we dispatch from here involved being at the storage tank so there are not times when the tanks are left unattended for long period of time.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: At what point did you stop doing regular business?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's got to get back --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: After you discovered the leak, when did you stop doing regular business?

SOUTHERN: I can tell you that all our efforts have been focused since 10:30 yesterday morning on the remediation of this problem.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was also the --

(CROSSTALK)

SOUTHERN: We will get back to you with an answer on that. We're working on one right now. We're working on that right now, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

BLITZER: All right. That's Gary Sutherland. He's the president of Freedom Industries there in West Virginia, this chemical plant. There was a leak. 300,000 people now are directly affected in the Charleston, West Virginia area. They can't drink water, tap water, they can't take a shower, they can't take a bath, they can't use that water to cook at least for the time being. And it's obviously a very, very serious situation.

You heard the president under enormous stress right there but as one of the reporters pointed out, a lot of other people are under more stress because they don't have access to water. Maybe they have some bottled water you saw him drinking some bottled water but they don't have access to tap water at least for now.

Elizabeth Cohen is there in Charleston, West Virginia, for us.

Elizabeth, this is a painful story for so many people because we just take water for granted but here in West Virginia, because of this chemical leak at this plant, Freedom Industries, these folks can't even take a shower or take a bath.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I know. It really is a terrible situation and you think of all the things that you use water for and, of course, you know, if you think about how you use it in your own house, think about how a hospital uses water, Wolf, for so many things, and that's why hospitals here, many of them have had to shut down their elective surgeries. They're just telling people, unless it's an emergency, you're not coming here.

You can imagine how dangerous that can be for people who were really expecting to have these elective surgeries. I mean, it's just -- it is a terrible, terrible situation.

BLITZER: And we're going to be speaking shortly, Elizabeth, with the governor of West Virginia, Earl Tomlin. And we've got a lot of questions for him. The governor will join us. Elizabeth is going to join us as well. We're going to continue to watch this story. What can the federal government do to try to help these 300,000 people in West Virginia? We'll have much more on this and all of the day's other news when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A new travel alert has just been issued by the State Department warning all Americans who plan to attend next month's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, to remain attentive, quote, "remain attentive at all times." This just weeks after two deadly terror bombings occurred.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is joining us with the latest update.

Barbara, what's going on?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, of course, the Russians are in charge of security but the U.S. taking no chances already moving things into place. The Navy expects to put a Navy warship in the Black Sea off of Sochi just in case it's needed.

And now we have learned that the FBI director has already moved law enforcement and his intelligence personnel into place saying that he's got people already on the ground in Moscow and in Sochi, intelligence, counterterrorism specialists on stand-by ready to help the Russians if they ask for help and advice.

FBI director James Comey saying in part, "I think it's particularly challenging in Sochi because of its proximity to areas of unrest and sources of terrorist threat." And of course what he is talking about are the recent attacks the terrorist group known as IK in the caucus region. This is an al Qaeda type group. The al Qaeda type ideology, though not formally affiliated with them.

They have called for attacks against the Olympics. They are virulent against any Russian control over their region, so this is the big worry. It's a terrorist group, Wolf, with many cells, very dispersed, different leaders, different commanders and that is what is causing so much concern.

How do you keep track of them all? Everyone certainly hopes for a peaceful games.

BLITZER: So the State Department is telling Americans to remain attentive if they go to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, but they're not saying don't go. They're just saying if you go, just be careful.

STARR: That is what the State Department is saying. You know, it's the kind of travel advice they give Americans around the world these days.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thanks very much. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Coming up, not even boiling the water in West Virginia will make it safe. When will clean water be restored to 300,000 people? I'll ask the governor of West Virginia. He's standing by live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To Syria now and fears al Qaeda is using the country as a base to recruit extremists, some of them Americans in plots against western countries including the United States.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is joining us with new information -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, U.S. authorities have known for some time that extremist groups fighting in Syria have a desire to plot terror attacks abroad including against the U.S. Now I'm told the U.S. is watching closely for signs that those ambitions are morphing into operational planning.

I'm also told that these groups have a desire to train American veterans of the Syrian fighting and there are dozens of them to carry out attacks here on the homeland.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): He allegedly fought in Syria for al Qaeda- tied militants. Bragged on the Internet about shooting down a Syrian aircraft. And he is an American.

Eric Harroun, a former U.S. soldier, is one of an estimated 50 Americans who joined the insurgency in Syria. And now U.S. authorities are gravely concerned they're being recruited to carry out terror when they return home.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: One of you our greatest concerns is al Qaeda operatives in Syria training westerners including Americans that have legitimate travel documents that can travel back to Europe and the United States and hit western targets.

Right now the fight's in Syria, but tomorrow they want to bring the fight back to the United States.

SCIUTTO: Syria, two years into a brutal civil war pitting radical Islamist groups and more moderate rebels against the regime of Bashar al-Assad has become a new base for recruiting, training and launching terrorism against the west, including the U.S. A U.S. official tells CNN foreign fighters now number in the thousands and most of them gravitate toward the more radical extremist groups, which have operational ties with core al Qaeda.

The official says the U.S. is now watching closely for signs their ambitions, including those of Americans, could be morphing into operational planning.

SETH JONES, RAND TERRORISM ANALYST: They're well trained, they're radicalized and they have the ability and the intent to strike the U.S. homeland.

SCIUTTO: American fighters have bragged about their violent exploits in Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bashar al-Assad, your days are numbered. You're going to die no matter what. Where you go, we will find you and kill you.

SCIUTTO: The fear now that others may someday brag about terrorism at home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's it for now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: And there are several ways U.S. authorities are tracking these Americans. Their travel documents, of course, but also human intelligence sources on the ground in Syria, signals intelligence phones and e-mails, and interestingly, via social media. These fighters like to brag about their experience on the ground there, and then they post it on Facebook, Twitter, Wolf. And that's one way that we're able to keep track of them.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.