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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With New Jersey State Assemblyman John Wisniewski; More Trouble for Chris Christie; Olympic Terror Threat
Aired January 20, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following all of the Olympic terror threats and new moves by the U.S. military to be prepared for the worst.
One security expert tells me, flatly, it's not safe, and Americans should simply stay home.
Plus, eye of the storm. Governor Chris Christie's lieutenant governor denies allegations of using Sandy relief money as a political weapon. I will get reaction from a top state lawmaker investigating the widening scandal in New Jersey.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Right now, the danger of terrorists attacking the Winter Olympic Games in Russia is more real and urgent than ever. Less than three weeks before the Games, Russian police are actively searching for a possible suicide bomber, while other would-be attackers are making new threats on video.
Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is investigating for us.
And Jim is here.
What are you learning?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a counterterror nightmare scenario, because the concern is the attacker is already inside this enormous and elaborate security core that the Russians have erected around Sochi.
There's a very intense dragnet under way, police handing out flyers in hotels, asking residents and staff to be on the lookout for what the Russians have come to call a black widow attacker.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Could this be the face of a female suicide bomber stalking the Winter Olympics? Russian police are frantically distributing her picture throughout Sochi with warnings that the so- called black widow, the wife of a militant killed by Russian forces, may be inside and ready to strike.
Russia was already on edge following an ominous threat in this martyrdom video by terrorists behind recent attacks in Russia. Coldly and calmly, they say, "As for the Olympics, we have prepared a present for you."
With the opening ceremony now less than three weeks away, U.S. lawmakers are warning of lax security and disappointing cooperation with U.S. counterterror teams.
REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-MI), CHAIR, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The Russian government needs to be more cooperative with the United States when it comes to the security of the Games. We have found a departure of cooperation that is very concerning to me.
SCIUTTO: Senator Angus King, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN's Candy Crowley, Sochi is no longer safe.
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I would not go. And I don't think I would send my family. It's just such a rich target in an area of the world that has -- you know, they have already broadcast that they're going to try to do something there.
SCIUTTO: The U.S. military is now considering plans to deploy two warships and several aircraft to evacuate Americans in the event of an attack. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, terrorism is a growing threat to an expensive Olympics meant to project Russian power to the world.
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The job of the Olympics host is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors. We will do whatever it takes.
SCIUTTO: Terror analysts tell CNN Sochi is uniquely at risk, dangerously close to the North Caucasus and Chechnya, both hotbeds of Islamic militants.
TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: We have never had an internal, within- the-country threat at the level of this one, so this group does not have to fly in from the Middle East or North Africa or Asia or some other remote location. They are already in the neighborhood, so to speak.
SCIUTTO: U.S. officials are aware of the black widow threat and they tell me they are concerned about the wider terror threat to Sochi and about Russia's ability to handle it.
One area of concern is lack of cooperation. One U.S. official told me there are clearly sensitivities in our relationship with Moscow, but that the recent bombings underscore the threat and why, Wolf, the two sides need to be working hand in hand to protect all the athletes there and clearly Americans as well.
BLITZER: Yes, this is really a sensitive and very serious issue. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with CNN national security analyst, the former Bush Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend. She's on the external advisory boards of the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. Also joining us, law enforcement analyst the former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes.
Fran, how dangerous are these so-called black widows?
FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, we have seen the Chechen and Dagestan extremists deploy them before, even as suicide bombers.
And so clearly the Russians have intelligence that have led them to focus on this one woman, but I'm quite sure American officials and intelligence officials around the world are focused on more than just the potential for one. We saw the two bombings in Volgograd and they would be foolish to think that there was only one person they needed to be worried about.
BLITZER: Tom, you told me earlier today that you don't think it's safe for American athletes to go to Sochi right now or for Americans to go as fans, if you will, just as spectators to see the Games.
FUENTES: I think it's an unsafe situation. Everybody has been talking about the threat. You have a group that promised six months ago that they were going to attack. Three weeks ago, they killed almost three dozen people in a demonstration of their power in Volgograd.
And now they issue a video showing the suicide bombers who attacked there. And now you have had the latest threat come out today or yesterday about the so-called black widow that they're looking for. So this is an extremely dangerous situation. It has been. It continues to be.
And I think no matter how much the Russians were cooperative, if they could tell us everything they know in the world, but do they know everything? Do they know everything about these groups in Chechnya and Dagestan that have been at war with them for the last two decades? Do they know what they're capable of?
BLITZER: Fran, what they say is, and I'm anxious to get your reaction, they're deploying literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of military and security personnel, police. And they have cordoned off this entire perimeter around Sochi. You have got to have special passes to get in.
You go through several layers of metal detectors, a bomb detection equipment to get in, and they insist it will be safe. What do you think?
TOWNSEND: Look, Tom is quite right. This is sort of the most dangerous, threatened environment that we have seen for an Olympics. There were threats inside Greece during -- in the run-up to the Athens Olympics. We worked with Greek officials.
But let's be clear, the Russian security services are very, very capable. The intelligence services are very capable. I make a distinction that I am not sure Tom would agree with, but I don't worry about the athletes. The athletes, dignitaries, they get a level of protection. I have walked these Olympic villages, I have worked with security officials. They will go to real extremes to protect the athletes and the venues for the sites.
There's a big falloff, though, when you talk about the families and tourists. They don't get that level of protection, not when they're traveling, not when they're -- until they get inside the venues and so there really is, I think, a far greater vulnerability to the families of the athletes and to the tourists who are watching than there is to the athletes themselves and the dignitaries.
BLITZER: There's going to be thousands of Americans there, Tom. What advice do you have for them?
FUENTES: Well, I don't know what advice you can give them. How do you watch out for something that, if it occurs, it would happen so suddenly and they'd be unable to know it's coming?
I agree with Fran that the athletes are going to be much more protected than the spectators and others that come to visit. But the athletes that go to the skating venues have to be transported 29 miles through the mountains. The athletes going to the skating venue, it is about 20 miles out of town.
So their vulnerability will be getting to the Olympics and then when they're at the Olympics leaving the village and going to the venue where they could possibly face an ambush. And I think in this case the authorities have known for years to get the security in place, but so have the Chechen terrorists.
BLITZER: Go ahead, Fran.
TOWNSEND: Wolf, the one thing I would say is, we ought to remind out viewers that anyone who's traveling to Sochi, one, ought to register with the State Department, the registered traveler program, so that the U.S. Embassy in Russia knows they're there.
They ought to have a communications plan. They ought to test and make sure that their communications devices actually work so they have a plan. They ought to have a rally point in case people get separated, sort of the basics of crisis planning in advance before they go to a foreign country. And that's especially true of the families of the athletes. Make sure that they have plans to be able to communicate with the athletes, because I have spoken to former Olympians who are really concerned that the athletes themselves will worry about the security of their families who have come to watch them.
BLITZER: Fran, quickly, sort of related, but different, Russia's story, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, is now raising the possibility that Edward Snowden in leaking all these documents, these NSA surveillance documents, was actually doing this in cooperation with Russian intelligence. Listen to what he said yesterday. This is Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and then Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROGERS: I believe there's questions to be answered there. I don't think it was a gee whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the FSB. As somebody who used to do investigations, some of the things we're finding, we would call clues that certainly would indicate to me that he had some help.
DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": Do you think -- you agree with Chairman Rogers that he may have had help from the Russians?
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: He may well have. We don't know at this stage.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, Fran, quickly, what do you think?
TOWNSEND: Well, look, I think you would be foolish to rule it out. I think they don't have affirmative proof yet that that's the case.
But, look, it ought to be the operating assumption for the entire counterintelligence community that he did have help.
BLITZER: That he was a Russian agent.
Do you believe that, Tom?
FUENTES: It's a possibility.
But he did go to Hong Kong first and then before he went to Russia he was trying to go to other countries. When he arrived in Russia, he was still trying to go to South American countries. So it's a possibility. I don't know what clues they have, which obviously the intelligence community would have more clues than we in the public would right now, but, of course, it's possible.
BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, Fran Townsend, thanks very much.
Still ahead, did Chris Christie's administration play political games with superstorm Sandy relief funds? The governor's team fighting back against new allegations. I will ask a top New Jersey lawmaker to weigh in on the new claims and the counterclaims. He's investigating a scandal that's getting bigger and uglier by the day.
BLITZER: New accusations, denials and damage control in the widening scandal surrounding the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.
Just hours before the Republican is sworn in for a second term, his lieutenant governor came forward today to deny new allegations of political bullying and possibly outright corruption.
CNN's Jake Tapper is following the Christie scandal and the impact on his presidential ambitions.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat, claims top Christie officials threaten to withhold Sandy relief funds unless she went along with a lucrative development project.
This morning, the state's lieutenant governor, named as one of the two alleged intimidators, hit back hard.
LT. GOV. KIM GUADAGNO (R), NEW JERSEY: Mayor Zimmer's version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined.
TAPPER: With 80 percent of her city underwater after superstorm Sandy, Zimmer was desperate for relief funds and, in the midst of statewide cleanup efforts, Governor Christie visited Hoboken, promising aid.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I spoke to the mayor this morning and told her that Hoboken is in the front of my mind, and, whenever there's any assistance needed here, we will be here to help.
TAPPER: Hoboken is perched along the Hudson River facing Manhattan, where developers have the potential to make huge profits, developers such as the Rockefeller Group, whose plan to develop an area in Northern Hoboken was stalled by the local planning board, and that's when Mayor Zimmer says the lieutenant governor stepped in to deliver a message from Christie at a political event last may.
DAWN ZIMMER (D), MAYOR OF HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY: The lieutenant governor pulled me aside and she the -- essentially, you have got to move forward with the Rockefeller project. This project is really important to the governor. And she said that she had been with him on Friday night and that this was a direct message from the governor.
TAPPER: Zimmer also charges New Jersey Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable told her at a panel discussion -- quote -- "The money will flow" if she approved the development plan.
Zimmer tells CNN she met with the U.S. attorney for two hours on Sunday, showing him what she says are diary entries from the day she says she was pressured by Christie's lieutenant governor. "I thought he was honest. I thought he was moral. I thought he was something very different," she wrote. "I am disappointed. It literally brings tears to my eyes."
Christie's camp says the whole thing is just abjectly false.
GUADAGNO: I deny any suggestion made by Mayor Zimmer that there was ever any condition on the release of Sandy funds by me.
TAPPER: Jake Tapper, CNN, Washington.
BLITZER: We're joined now by John Wisniewski. He's the deputy speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. He's chairman of the special committee investigating the Christie administration.
Thanks so much for joining us.
You believe this mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer? Because, as you know her tweets in recent weeks were very, very nice to the governor. She seems to have had some conflicting things earlier. The decision to come out now raising some questions. Do you believe her?
JOHN WISNIEWSKI (D), NEW JERSEY STATE ASSEMBLYMAN: Mayor Zimmer has in the past said very supportive things of the governor, but her allegations are very serious, Wolf.
And I think that the committee has to consider the facts that she's put on the table. I think we need to listen to what the lieutenant governor said. I don't think this is an opportunity to rush to judgment. I think that there are a lot of facts that we don't know and that we need to get to.
But I also want to make it clear the committee is already looking at clear evidence of improper behavior in the governor's office, and we're going to continue to follow that first.
BLITZER: Do you have plans for Mayor Zimmer to testify?
WISNIEWSKI: I think what we're going to do first is have a conversation with her to make sure that we understand all of the accusations being made. Right now, we don't have any plans for her to testify, but we're going to assemble the facts and then make a decision once we know more.
BLITZER: Are there any other mayors, as far as you know, Mr. Speaker, who have come forward with similar kinds of allegations?
WISNIEWSKI: No. There have been no other mayors who have come forward and said anything quite like what Mayor Zimmer said.
You always hear a lot of intimations that things like this have happened, but you never really had anybody come forward to say it. So, she's the first one to make this kind of specific allegation about a specific event with somebody in particular from the governor's administration.
But I just -- I don't think it would be appropriate for the committee to rush to any conclusions. There's a lot we need to learn before we can make any decisions.
BLITZER: You said last week, not involving this Hoboken scandal, but the bridge lane scandal, if you will, that if there are ties to Governor Christie, direct links to Christie, despite his denials, in your words, it clearly becomes an impeachable offense. Explain exactly what you mean here.
WISNIEWSKI: Well, what I said -- and I was responding to a question about that issue about impeachment.
And what I have said since then is that we're not there. There's no document right now that says the governor ordered the lane closure, that the governor knew about the lane closure. We have a lot of questions about his version of the story that says he only learned of this on January 8. We find it hard to believe. We have a lot more investigating to do. We have got 20 subpoenas that were issued and we're waiting to get those documents back.
And so I think it's really ahead of the investigation to start talking about what the ultimate conclusion will be. We will look at the facts as we get them. We're going to follow this one step at the same time, as we have so far. We started looking at a toll increase on the George Washington Bridge, and we found ourselves with evidence of somebody in the governor's office sending out an e-mail that was clearly not for an appropriate government purpose.
We need to find out why that e-mail was sent, who authorized the deputy chief of staff to send that e-mail, and follow those facts where they lead us.
BLITZER: I want to give you a chance to respond to the former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Both of you were on "Meet the Press" yesterday. And following your interview, he was on and he said this about you. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDOLPH GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: It would seem to me the assemblyman has an ethical obligation to step down, to recuse himself. He's no longer an impartial arbiter of the facts. He's announced he doesn't believe Governor Christie.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He says this is all a partisan witch-hunt. He wants you to recuse yourself and step down. And you say?
WISNIEWSKI: I'm not stepping down and I'm not recusing myself.
It has been healthy skepticism throughout this process that has led to us where we're at. When we first started looking at this, we were told this was a traffic safety study, and then we were told it was about the lanes in Fort Lee and that we need not look any further, that this was really simple low a perfectly acceptable government operation.
But by asking questions and by doubting the stories we were told, we found e-mails, documentary proof that this came out of the governor's office. Now, as I said before, we don't have an e-mail that says the governor ordered it, but it's clearly disturbing that somebody in the governor's office thought it would be OK to close these lanes from Fort Lee and then essentially laughed about it as the entire town was shut down for a week.
BLITZER: The governor gave an interview to Yahoo.com on Friday, and among other things, Governor Christie said this.
"I don't know exactly what it is yet that I will learn from it, but when I get the whole story and really try to understand what's going on here, I know I'm going to learn things."
What's your reaction when you hear him talk like that?
WISNIEWSKI: Well, I think we all need to learn things. This can't happen again. And the laws and the situation we have right now in New Jersey and at the Port Authority allowed Bridget Kelly and others to plot to close these lanes and to shut down a town for an entire week.
And so what we need to learn as a legislature is, how do we stop this kind of abuse of power from happening again? I think the governor needs to understand, taking him at his word, how his administration and his inner staff, his high staff, could do something like this and, according to him, he would not know anything about it? It's just -- there's a lot of questions that are not answered and all of the things we're seeing just lead to more questions.
BLITZER: John Wisniewski is the deputy speaker of the New Jersey Assembly.
Thanks so much, Mr. Speaker, for joining us.
WISNIEWSKI: Thank you, Wolf.
And, by the way, Anderson Cooper will dig deeper on the Christie scandal later tonight. He will interview the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, about her explosive allegations. Dawn Zimmer will be Anderson's special guest, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.
Just ahead, as the nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy, we're going to hear some stirring words, some rare recordings that haven't been heard for decades.
BLITZER: On this MLK Day holiday, we're getting a rare opportunity to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in recordings of a speech that haven't been heard by the public for decades.
Listen to his moving words, along with scenes from some of the events honoring the civil rights leader today.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: We do not have as much time as the cautious and the patient try to give us.
We are not only living in a time of cataclysmic change. We live in an era in which human rights is a central world issue. The shape of the world today does not afford us the luxury of an anemic democracy.
The simple fact is that the relative progress in undeveloped sectors of the world in human rights races at jet-like speed, while we strain in a horse and buggy for advancement.
Floods of consumer goods, and superhighways, supermarkets does not obscure the existence of racial injustice. The touchstone is not the sophistication of our industrial devices, but our commitment to freedom and equality.
In the final analysis, racial injustice must be uprooted from American society because it is morally wrong, because it stands against all of the noble precepts of our Hebraic-Christian heritage.
Many generations of Americans suffered, bled and died, confident that those who followed them would preserve the purity of our ideals. All Americans must enlist in a crusade finally to make the race question an ugly relic of a dark past.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BLITZER: Moving words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this special, special day.
Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @SITROOM.