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Olympic Threats; Edward Snowden Speaks; Civil War Horror

Aired January 22, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. This just coming in the SITUATION ROOM. The Toronto Mayor Rob Ford speaking out only moments ago about his bizarre behavior in a new video that surfaced.

Here's a clip from that video.


MAYOR ROB FORD, TORONTO: (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Leave me alone. I think I got five months, man. And him try to tell me.


BLITZER: All right. So here's what Rob Ford is now saying about that video. Watch this.


FORD: As you know, I'm a human being, the same as every one of you and I'm entitled to a personal life. And my personal life does not interfere with the work I do day in and day out for the taxpayers of this great city.

Monday was unfortunate. I had a minor setback. We all experience these difficult bumps in life. I am telling the Toronto residents that I'm still working hard every day to improve my health and my well-being. But, again, this is completely a private matter.


BLITZER: This is just the latest embarrassment for the mayor who's now infamous for admitting he smoked crack and drank way too much.

Happening now: growing threats. Security is being stepped up ahead of the Winter Olympic Games, but many question whether Russia can keep Sochi safe by itself. Will Moscow call on the United States' military to help?

Black widows, growing fear female suicide bombers may target the Games. Is one of them already inside Sochi plotting an attack?

And Snowden speaks. The NSA leaker dismisses allegations he was a Russian spy. I will talk to the journalist who got an exclusive interview with him. Would a clemency offer bring him back to the United States?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Excitement and fear mounting in tandem, as the world awaits the start of the Winter Olympic Games in just over two weeks. A long-simmering separatist movement in Southern Russia has now morphed into an Islamist insurgency, and there's very real fear its next bloody chapters will play out in the city of Sochi as athletes and visitors from around the world arrive in the coming days.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is already in Sochi for us.

Nick, what is the latest? What are you hearing about these Olympic threats?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, today, there was considerable alarm at what appears to be the same e-mail that went to the Hungarian, Italian, German, Slovenian national Olympic committees, vague in content. It seemed the make a reference to blowing up some attendees here.

And any threat from that was quickly extinguished by the International Olympic Committee trying to say, look, it seemed to be a random message perhaps from a member the public. But it feeds into what Jay Carney, White House spokesman, said was a growing pattern of more information emerging, more threats being monitored, of course, because they are higher on the lookout for them right now.

But people really wondering quite how safe it will be two weeks from now when these Games begin.


WALSH (voice-over): Fifteen days out and already the threats, real or hoax, are piling up against what could be the most tense and guarded Winter Games in decades.

The talk isn't of who will ski to gold, but instead where are these three women, potential suicide bombers, one perhaps in Sochi itself? Known as black widows in Southern Russia, but also because they're said to die to avenge the death of a loved one killed in the bitter decades of insurgency here.

A militant leader was killed by Russian police in a raid Tuesday. That's nothing new in Southern Russia, where separatists have warped into Islamic radicals, as Russia's heavy hand has failed year after year to curb militancy here.

That's left many asking as the Olympic flame has wound its way across this volatile region, why would anyone choose to bring such an event here? Behind that decision, President Putin, who's fond of this Black Sea coast, but also rose to power 14 years ago, viciously bringing order to restless Southern Russia.

On Wednesday, an e-mail to Germany, Hungary and Italy's Olympic committees seemed threatening, but was later dismissed by Olympic officials, saying it contains no threat and appears to be a random message from a member of the public.

But some threats are very real. These two men, likely suicide bombers who attacked Volgograd with back-to-back blasts, here, they pledge others will give a present for all the tourists who come. They show slowly how they made their bombs. "The Games will be engulfed by flames," one militant leader has pledged. They may fail, but have already succeeded in switching the focus from the Games to fear of what may hit its sidelines.


WALSH: Now, when you drive around this city, particularly late at night, very quiet, most of the cars I saw simply police driving slowly to emphasize their presence here.

And the Olympic Village itself, that's behind a tight cordon. But no matter how many troops and police they flood this particular area with, many are still concerned across this huge, lengthy, volatile region that stretches between two seas, you're probably going to probably see some violence from the insurgency.

This all comes down to Vladimir Putin, really, a man who burnished his strong man credentials cracking down on separatists here in the last '90s. Now, 14 years later, he's trying to hold a big spectacle here that will remind him of the Soviet past he so deeply cherishes. Are those militants going to embarrass him here in a place he dearly loves, Sochi, Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Nick, thanks very much, Nick Paton Walsh on the ground for us in Sochi, Russia.

FBI agents are now going to Sochi to work with their Russian counterparts on counterterrorism efforts. And the United States military is also standing by to help secure the Winter Olympic Games if asked.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working this part of the story for us.

What are you picking up, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you just mentioned a key point. If the Russians want help from the Pentagon, they will have to ask for it. But discussions are under way, so the pieces could quickly be put into place.


STARR (voice-over): Even with Russia's ring of steel around Sochi, at the White House, worry and limited reassurance.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have seen an uptick in threat reporting prior to the Olympics, which is, of course, of concern, although it is also not unusual for a major international event.

STARR: The chairman of the House Homeland Security committee has just returned from Sochi.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: The area that needs to be improved, quite frankly, is the intelligence-sharing component that the Russians have not been quite as candid with us.

STARR: The U.S. is pressing urgently for Russia to ask for help.

CARNEY: We have offered, as I said, assistance to the Russians, any assistance that they might need to counter that threat.

STARR: That assistance might include the Pentagon, sending IED detection and jamming equipment, the same high-tech gear used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and his Russian counterpart are leading an effort to figure out if U.S. military gear would be compatible with Russian equipment against terrorist bombs. It is possible U.S. troops could be sent to operate the systems, but only if the Russians ask for help, something U.S. officials say is unlikely.

The FBI and State Department's diplomatic security personnel will be protecting U.S. officials attending the Games. Some U.S. Olympic teams are lining up private security to get them out of Sochi in a crisis.

Boston-based Global Rescue will have personnel and aircraft near the games to evacuate members of the U.S., ski and snowboard teams in an emergency.

DAN RICHARDS, GLOBAL RESCUE: I think the level of concern, Barbara, is unquestionably higher. And I think that the amount of effort and resources that have been allocated to this Olympic Games is unparalleled.


STARR: Look, here's the bottom line, Wolf. Right now, Russian intelligence services, U.S. intelligence services and several other nations scrutinizing every piece of information, every piece of intelligence they can to try and make sure these are peaceful Games. It will be very tough going, they say.

BLITZER: Yes, only about two weeks away. Let's hope for the best. Barbara, thanks very much.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Edward Snowden speaking out about allegations he was actually a Russian spy. The reporter who conducted an exclusive interview with the NSA leaker is standing by to join us live.

Plus, a new level of horror in Syria's civil war. Graphic new pictures allege systematic torture, starvation, execution, war crimes.


BLITZER: Was Edward Snowden spying for Russia when he leaked hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents from the NSA?

The head of the House Intelligence Committee is raising the question. And his Senate counterpart says she can't rule out that possibility. Listen to what they said on NBC's "Meet the Press."


REP. MIKE ROGERS (R-MI), CHAIR, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: 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.


BLITZER: Edward Snowden himself is now speaking out about that serious allegation, telling the "New Yorker" magazine -- and I'm quoting now -- "This Russian spy push is absurd. I clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government. Spies get treated better than that."

Jane Mayer conducted the exclusive interview with Snowden.

And Jane is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Jane, thanks very much for joining us.

JANE MAYER, "THE NEW YORKER": Glad to be with you.

BLITZER: Tell us -- it's not every day someone gets a chance to interview Edward Snowden. How did this come about? Tell us a little of the mechanics of how you did this.

MAYER: Well, there are some things I can't really talk about.

But, basically, he communicates through encrypted means, so that he will not be intercepted because nobody knows more than he knows almost about the ways you can be intercepted by the NSA.

BLITZER: What does that mean, encrypted means? How does he...


MAYER: Not using a server on a computer that would allow the NSA to penetrate...


BLITZER: And so you learned how to do that yourself, I assume? MAYER: I did, which is sort of a joke, because there's -- I'm technically not the savviest. But even someone like me can learn how to do it.

BLITZER: So, the interview went back and forth via these encrypted means, if you will?

MAYER: Right, right.

BLITZER: That's pretty unusual. That's the way Bart Gellman did his interview with him "The Washington Post" as well, or he went over there and saw him face to face?


MAYER: He actually went over to Moscow at some point.

But, yes, my sense is that Snowden is in touch with a number of people. He is a creature who lives on his computer. And this is the world he exists in. And he's online a lot, I think.

BLITZER: Because Mike Rogers is a former FBI agent, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. For him to suggest that Snowden may have been an agent working for Russian intelligence from the very beginning, he must have some inkling of evidence to back that up, I suspect?

MAYER: Yes, that's why I think it's important this is someone with a very important title who's making these allegations. And he talked about clues, unspecified clues.

I called his office to see if I could get him to explain a little bit more, and he didn't want to discuss it. He wouldn't comment further. But what he is saying is not only denied by Snowden. It also is contradicted by several investigations. The FBI's been investigating and the NSA's been investigating. And the CIA has been investigating. They have all been looking for the possibility that Snowden's working with foreign governments. And at the moment, none of them have found evidence.

BLITZER: Were you surprised that Dianne Feinstein sort of said, I can't rule that out? She's the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

MAYER: Yes, in some ways, though, when I called her office, they basically said she was just asking questions. They're not really saying she's standing by this.

In some way, she was being polite and saying, who knows? They were just -- it's interesting that they would float something so serious.

BLITZER: Yes. In the interview -- and I will put it up on the screen -- he also told you this.

He said: "No one has credibly shown any harm to national security. The president himself admitted both that changes are necessary and that he is certain the debate my actions started will make us stronger," although the president in that long interview with David Remnick in your magazine, he did say there was major damage to national security.

MAYER: He basically said that there was more damage than good that came out of it.

But he has, as Mr. Snowden is saying, said that it has provoked a debate that has been useful in this country. And what Snowden said to me was, I have brought the American public to the table. And he also said, if in fact he's smeared and his reputation is ruined, he said, if I end up in a ditch at the end of the day and reform comes out of this, then it will be worth it.

BLITZER: What Mike Rogers also says, he says if you take a look at the stuff that Snowden stole, some of it does deal with the privacy rights of the American public. But most of it, he says, deals with major military-related issues that only a country, let's say, like Russia or China would really find beneficial, had nothing to do with national security issues, if you will, privacy issues, if you will.

Did you get into that at all with him?

MAYER: Well, he -- the other thing is that we don't know. I'm not sure how he knows. But maybe he does. But we don't really know everything that Snowden took.

And what's been released so far really is focused on the privacy issue and has obviously broken into a tremendous debate all around the world.

BLITZER: Because Rogers says a lot of it deals with military hardware, stuff like that, sensitive information.

Here's another quote from your interview with Snowden about his own fate: "At least the American public has a seat at the table now. I end up disgraced in a ditch somewhere, but it helps the country, it will still be worth it."

MAYER: He really casts himself as kind of a martyr and a reformer. And maybe he's -- it's going to take time to figure out who he really is.

But I think there is no evidence that I know of or that has been presented to the American public that he is a spy or working with another country. He says, I'm working alone, I did this by myself, certainly not with another government.

BLITZER: Did anybody -- did he say under what circumstances he would come back to the United States?

MAYER: You know, I think he probably would love to come back if he weren't going to be spending the rest of his life in prison. But I think that I would be hard-pressed to -- if I were his lawyer, to tell him to come back right this minute.

BLITZER: Jane, good work.

MAYER: Thanks. Glad to be here.

BLITZER: Jane Mayer of "The New Yorker" magazine.

I know you're working on a book, too. Don't leave, yet, because we're going to talk about it in the commercial break. Stand by for a minute.

MAYER: All right.

BLITZER: All right.

Just ahead, years of brutal civil war, now disturbing new allegations of war crimes, allegations of mass torture, starvation and execution by the Syrian regime. Our own Christiane Amanpour is standing by to join us.


BLITZER: Defiant speeches, bitter exchanges marked an ominous start to the Syrian peace talks now under way in Switzerland.

They come amid disturbing new evidence of widespread torture, starvation and execution stemming from Syria's brutal civil war. We're about to see some graphic images that some viewers may find disturbing.

And Christiane Amanpour is joining us now.

Christiane, you had another amazing interview with the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. I want to play this little clip and then we will discuss.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And 100,000-plus people have been killed in the last three years in Syria. There is starvation in the land haunting many people. And there just doesn't seem to be any way out of this. What are your real hopes for this Geneva II conference this week? Do you think that there's really going to be some kind of solution?

DMITRY MEDVEDEV, RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): The thing has happened with the withdrawal of the invitation to Iran, I believe that's unacceptable. Can someone think the Syrian problem can be discussed without the Iranian factor and their account of it?


BLITZER: The Iranians were invited, then disinvited. Does anybody really think that anything positive is going to emerge from these so- called Geneva II peace talks?

AMANPOUR: Well, they're all putting a good face on it. It's already started by a load of speeches and those were cantankerous, to say the very at least. Diplomatically, there was quite a verbal fisticuffs going on between those parties that supported the opposition in Syria and, for instance, the Syrians.

They blame, for instance, the Turks for being totally behind all the goings-on in Syria right now. The Russians are hoping that something will come of it. They obviously support the Assad regime. They say it's only a domestic matter, that it cannot be resolved by people from the outside, not the United States, not them, not anybody.

And so there's a lot of -- there's not a lot of hope that actually there's a diplomatic solution. Some are saying the best hope could be for some humanitarian aid and maybe even some progress on visiting and releasing detainees on both sides.

That's of course been put into very sharp focus by what we reported this week, the systematic torture and killing, the allegations thereof, of Syrian prisoners.

BLITZER: And you did some amazing work and you showed the world these pictures for the first time right here on CNN earlier this week.

And I want to show some of those pictures to our viewers. I want to warn our viewers that they are very, very disturbing. Young people might not want to be in the room when we show these pictures. But these are horrendous pictures. You have heard the reaction now from the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad that this is really the work of the opposition, the rebels, if you will, and al Qaeda, who oppose Bashar al-Assad's regime, although it's been well-documented that this is the work of the Syrian regime.

Go ahead and explain what's going on.

AMANPOUR: Well, this is a defector who came out with 55,000 images representing what he said were 11,000 bodies, detainees who he said, as part of the military police in Syria, he had to photograph.

And the photographs, you will see black squares over them. Those have obscured numbers that the intelligence services have put on to identify these bodies. And the purpose, according to this defector, was to put false death certificates and tell their families that they had just died of natural causes in prison.

The international jurist who came up with this conclusion said that this shows evidence of systematic torture by starvation, torture by beating, torture by strangulation other than hanging, and the first such pictorials, such evidence of prisoners in Syria.

They blame the Syrian regime and they believe that this kind of evidence -- and they thoroughly debriefed the defector -- could stand up and would stand up in a court of law and would provide evidence of crimes against humanity.

And I specifically asked them, this is a war zone. Could these have been war dead, and they specifically said to me, the forensic scientist, said, no, because there are no evidence of any gunshot wounds or shelling or any of the kind of battlefield wounds that you would expect if they'd been killed in the course of this war.

And you can see the starvation. This, as they said to me, is not a prisoner on a hunger strike. This is months and months and months of using starvation as a weapon of war, as a torture device.

BLITZER: What horrendous, horrendous pictures. Christiane, it's very important work you have done. Thanks so much for bringing those pictures to light, Christiane Amanpour reporting for us from London.

AMANPOUR: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Before we go, some other stories we're monitoring in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Much of the Northeast is attempting to dig out from under record amounts of snow after that monster storm. Almost 1,500 flights have been canceled. States of emergency are in effect up and down the coast.

At least four people are dead and hundreds injured amid escalating demonstrations over new laws limiting the right to protest in the Ukraine. A medical source says the U.S. State Department is condemning the violence which has grown out of weeks of largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations.

Firefighters were on the scene of a massive fire at a Mississippi plant after what our affiliates report were multiple explosions. The blaze was apparently so hot, crews weren't able to get close enough to fight it. No injuries are reported.

The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, is under fire from some conservatives for saying in an interview what he called right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, and anti-gay extreme conservatives have no place in New York. An aide has since sent an open letter to "The New York Post" saying -- and I'm quoting now -- "the Governor was making the point that he makes often: New York is a politically moderate state and an extremist agenda is not politically viable statewide. New York has a long history of electing Democrats and Republicans statewide who are moderate rather than on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. That is an inarguable fact."

The letter goes on -- quote -- "The governor is a gun owner and a Catholic. His faith is very important to him and he respects the Second Amendment. The governor's main principle for New York State is tolerance of different opinions, races, sexual orientation and religion."

Remember, you can always follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSITROOM.