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Interview With Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring; Olympic Warning; Snowden Speaks

Aired January 23, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Two people are now confirmed dead, and authorities say the crash involves at least a dozen semitrucks and too many vehicles to count.

Teams of coroners are now being called to the scene, where people are believed to be trapped inside cars and under semis. We're told heavy equipment is being brought to try to help people get out. Some victims are already being transported to hospitals and warming buses are being brought in to help others, the eastbound side of this major interstate expected to be closed most of the night.

Happening now: Snowden speaks. The NSA leaker takes part in an online chat discussing the surveillance programs he revealed and he responds to CNN about a possible return to the United States. Would he accept a plea bargain?

Olympic warning -- chilling words from a top U.S. sportswriter heading for Sochi. She calls the Games -- quote -- "an agent of death." Will her worst fears be realized?

And stunning turnaround. A top official announces he will no longer defend his state's ban on same-sex marriage. Why does he now say it's unconstitutional, that ban?

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

Overreach and abuse, that's how Edward Snowden describes the government surveillance programs he revealed in a series of notorious leaks. The former NSA contractor took part in an online chat just a little while ago from Russia, where he's been granted temporary asylum.

The U.S. has charged him with espionage and theft of government property. Now a U.S. justice apartment official tells CNN the government is willing to discuss Snowden's return to the United States if, if he pleads guilty first.

Snowden's latest remarks coincide with a scathing new report on the programs he revealed to the world.

Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's got details on this latest report -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the report says that massive NSA program to collect Americans' phone records in bulk is illegal and should be shut down.

This watchdog panel nominated by the president himself pushes back on the NSA's claim that if it had that surveillance program before 9/11, it could have disrupted the plot.


TODD (voice-over): Khalid al-Midhar, a hijacker on board the plane that slammed into the Pentagon on September 11, he had been inside the U.S. well before 9/11, had been in contact with an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen. The NSA did not know at the time that Midhar was calling that location from San Diego.

The NSA's chief says if they had had their current program of collecting bulk phone records in place then:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd have known about the plot.

TODD: But a privacy watchdog board appointed by the government now rejects that.

DAVID MEDINE, CHAIRMAN, PRIVACY AND CIVIL LIBERTIES OVERSIGHT BOARD: The information was available. The agencies just weren't sharing it.

TODD: And the board says that controversial NSA program, revealed by leaker Edward Snowden, should not exist.

MEDINE: It is unlawful in the majority of the board's view and should be shut down after a short transition period.

TODD: The board says the Patriot Act doesn't give legal authority to collect phone records in bulk, as the White House argued, and says the program is a huge invasion of Americans' privacy. It's a harsh rebuke on President Obama's stance on intelligence gathering.

In the wake of the report, the White House is again defending the phone records gathering program as legal and effective.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We simply disagree with the board's analysis on the legality of the program.

TODD: President Obama has announced plans to take the phone data collection program away from the NSA and give it stricter oversight, but not to end it. In an online chat today, Snowden said -- quote -- "There is no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a zero percent success rate."

The Obama team says the phone surveillance program did help disrupt one terror plot, the 2009 effort led by Najibullah Zazi to blow up part of the New York subway. But this board says the NSA's phone records surveillance, which the board chair calls the 215 program, played a minimal role in that case.

MEDINE: And 215 only played a role only after Mr. Zazi had given up on his plot, returned to Colorado, and it helped find one of his co-conspirators

TODD: Peter King of the House Homeland Security Committee disagrees.

REP. PETER KING (R-NY), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: But it's not just the actual threat that you stop. What this does, it's part of a mosaic. It fills in blanks. It leads authorities one way or the other.


TODD: King says this board is -- quote -- "outside its lane." He says he doesn't know what qualified these five people to decide what's legal and constitutional, when almost all judges' rulings have said the phone surveillance program is legal.

Board chair David Medine responded by saying they were nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate and they're all lawyers, including a former federal judge -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Important report coming out. Brian Todd, thanks very, very much.

During today's online chat, Edward Snowden took a question from our chief Washington correspondent, the anchor of "THE LEAD," Jake Tapper.

Jake is here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

How did that go? You tweeted and he responded? Tell us a little bit about that.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, earlier in the day, the attorney general had suggested that he would be willing to talk to Snowden's lawyers about coming back to the United States if Snowden were to plead guilty.

So I asked Snowden about that. And then I also asked what would you -- what conditions would there need to be in order for you to come back to the United States? He gave a lengthy answer, some of which I will read.

Part of the response was: "Returning to the U.S. I think is the best resolution for the government, the public and myself, but it's unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistle-blower protection laws, which, through a failure in law, did not cover national security contractors like myself."

He noted that the law under which he's been charged is about a century old, and it was never intended, he said, to be used against people working in the public interest and forbids a public interest defense. So it doesn't sound as though there are any conditions, unless, of course, as he points out, when Congress comes together to act on the recommendations that Brian was just talking about, then maybe there will be a different situation. But the odds of that happening... BLITZER: So we shouldn't expect him to plead guilty, get a reduced sentence, or anything along those lines any time soon?

TAPPER: Well, under the conditions he described, Congress would have to come together and have a clemency or justice for Edward Snowden act to pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by the president. I don't see that happening.

BLITZER: Yes. That's not happening. All right, Jake, thanks very much.


BLITZER: A disturbing new message believed to be from the head of al Qaeda now inserting himself forcefully into Syria's bloody civil war and raising fears the terror organization may be rising once again.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, who's working the story.

What are you learning, Barbara?


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In an audio message believed to be from Ayman al-Zawahri, the al Qaeda leader calls on jihadi factions in Syria to unite. But after months of brutal infighting across Syria, can Zawahri exert control?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: For Ayman al-Zawahri, it's all about the Arab world right now, it's all about expanding al Qaeda's operations, expanding the territory that al Qaeda controls.

STARR: It appears to be part of a bigger plan by Osama bin Laden's successor, raising questions about whether he is growing more powerful.

CRUICKSHANK: It would appear that Ayman al-Zawahri has a quite significant capability to communicate with our operatives in the Arab world and indeed on other jihadist fronts.

STARR: The State Department insists the tape is all al Qaeda spin.

MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: We have seen al Qaeda in the past try to take advantage for propaganda purposes of local -- of conflicts in places like Iraq, places like Yemen and places like Syria.

STARR: But a U.S. official says the worry is this. If Zawahri can still get audio and videotapes out to the public, what else is he doing?

Israel Wednesday announced it arrested al Qaeda suspects behind a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and other targets. YORAM SCHWEITZER, INSTITUTE FOR NATIONAL SECURITY STUDIES: It had the personal involvement of Zawahri from his whereabouts somewhere probably in Pakistan border area, and he was personally involved in this operation.

STARR: Privately, U.S. officials believe the suspects may have been inspired by his Zawahri's influence, but they likely never communicated directly with him.


STARR: Now, Wolf, you know, U.S. intelligence believes that whether these tapes are propaganda or not, these audiotapes, these videotapes that Zawahri puts out, that still he has a clandestine network of couriers across the Middle East, across Africa, and that's certainly plenty to worry about -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, Barbara, thanks very much.

Still ahead, growing fear of terror attacks on the Winter Olympic Games, and now a top American sportswriter calls those Sochi Games -- quote -- "an agent of death." I will ask her why.

Plus, an attorney general makes a stunning announcement about same-sex marriage in his own state.


BLITZER: An alarming warning from a noted sportswriter and columnist.

Amid growing security fears surrounding the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, she writes -- and I'm quoting -- "The Olympics have become an agent of death."

And the writer, Sally Jenkins, is joining us now.

Sally, thanks so much for coming in.

You wrote a really strongly worded article. I read it in "The Washington Post" this morning. Among others, on the Olympic Games, you said: "The Olympics are supposed to be about human dignity, in the words of the Olympic charter, but in these Games, the humans are shields."

How worried are you about what's going on in Sochi, Russia, and what's about to happen?

SALLY JENKINS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think the people who are most worried are ordinary everyday Russians who are living in that area with the Olympics approaching. You always hesitate to sound whiny about your own personal security as an American going to over to the Olympics in a region like that.

BLITZER: You're going -- and I take it you're going over there to cover these Games? JENKINS: Yes, for "The Washington Post."

BLITZER: And so how worried are you personally? Because we're hearing all these alarming reports about security.

JENKINS: Well, I think that my understanding from the experts is that interior Sochi should be secure. There are 60,000 Russian troops. There are all sorts of electronic surveillances.

The problem is that Russia is so vast, there are so many areas just outside of Sochi that are inflamed, that I think it could be very difficult for them to protect basic things like railroad tracks, trains, buses. You know, there were a couple of explosions in Volgograd just a month ago. So while the interior Sochi Olympic villages may be secure because of the massive amounts of security there, it's actually -- it's the perimeter outside of the -- quote -- "ring of steel" where the real concerns may be.

BLITZER: They made this decision back in 2007 to hold these Olympic Games, the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Who's responsible for that decision? Because you obviously think that was a huge, huge blunder.

JENKINS: Well, in 2007, the International Olympic Committee had a choice. Salzburg, Austria, was a very appealing destination. South Korea was an appealing destination and in fact got the next Winter Olympics.

Sochi was really the weakest entry. It had no infrastructure to speak of. Its only real asset in terms of a bid was the fact that Vladimir Putin pledged to spend literally two or three times what anyone else was going to spend on the Winter Games. Since then, that figure has ballooned to $50 billion or so.

And so it's a bit of a puzzle why the IOC decided that Sochi was the most attractive venue. Jean-Claude Killy of the IOC at one point during the development of the infrastructure in Sochi said that it was literally the most difficult building project for a Winter Olympics he had ever seen.

BLITZER: What worries me is that the worry about the security could affect the athletes. Even though they're great athletes, it could affect their strength, their ability to do what they're going to these Games to do. Should I be concerned about that?

JENKINS: If your question is, could it tell in the athletic performances...


JENKINS: ... if things get a little hairy, absolutely, certainly. Figure skaters have about two-and-a-half minutes in the short program that they have been practicing four years for, and they have to land jumps on a blade less than a quarter-of-an-inch thick. It would be pretty easy to disturb their focus, I would think.

BLITZER: Certainly would.

JENKINS: It remains to be seen. You know, I really, again, just because the inside of the Olympic Village at Sochi is secured by 60,000 troops doesn't mean that there aren't other concerns. And, again, the people who may suffer the most from this are ordinary Russians who literally live just a couple of miles outside that perimeter.

BLITZER: Sally Jenkins of "The Washington Post," good luck in Sochi. Thanks so much.

JENKINS: Thank you.

BLITZER: And just ahead: He took an oath to uphold his state's constitution, but now there's one provision in it he says is illegal and he won't defend it. Virginia's attorney general is standing by to talk about his dramatic turnaround on gay marriage.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Got some more breaking news just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM out of North Korea.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has got the details.

What are you learning, Barbara?

STARR: Wolf, news coming from North Korea's National Defense Commission in the last couple of minutes.

They have apparently sent a letter to South Korea saying that they, the North Koreans, want an atmosphere of reconciliation and unity. According to this letter, they want a complete halt to hostile military acts and a reunion of separated families between the North and the South.

But, Wolf, let's take a deep breath here. From the U.S. point of view, let's remember North Korea, the U.S. says, is a nuclear state with a long-range missile program. You put a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile, that is, according to the U.S., a direct threat to this country, so there is a long way to go.

Very hopeful words that the North Koreans may be looking for reconciliation and unity, but the U.S. still very cautious. In fact, it was just today that a top U.S. admiral in charge of military operations in the Pacific said he had questions about whether Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, was engaged at all times in rational decision-making.

And the U.S. has upcoming war games, upcoming training exercises with the South Koreans and they are going to stick to it. They say the U.S. is going to go ahead with those exercises with South Korea. So, tonight, a very interesting letter from the North Koreans where they say they're looking for reconciliation and unity and an end to hostile acts, but a long way to go -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I have read this, now read this lengthy letter that's just been released. There are several pretty encouraging lines in there. Would it be fair to say this was a North Korean olive branch, shall we say, from Kim Jong-un, the new young leader of North Korea, to the South, to South Korea?

STARR: Well, yes, I think some people are absolutely going to interpret it that way. You know, it will remain to be seen how the South Korean government reacts to all of this.

An olive branch certainly perhaps a starting point, but as long as North Korea has that nuclear weapons program and that long-range missile program, the feeling in the United States, and I think it is very fair to say across much of Asia, is they are unpredictable. It's an unpredictable regime. Nuclear weapons and long-range missiles cause a real problem. It is a threat to the region -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The timing of this letter is also interesting, Barbara, because there had been some tense moments in recent weeks, but it seems to be improving a little bit. Certainly, if they release Kenneth Bae, the American who's been held about 15 months prisoner in North Korea, that would be a significant olive branch, shall we say.

STARR: Very significant olive branch, and certainly the U.S. hopes for that. But, look, the long track record with North Korea is decision-making that is very opaque to the United States. Most of the time, the United States isn't sure why North Korea does what it does.

BLITZER: We will study this letter and see what the fallout is.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

Other news we're following, a remarkable turnaround by Virginia's new attorney general less than two weeks after being sworn in. Mark Herring has announced today his office will no longer defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage. He's deemed it unconstitutional and he says -- and I'm quoting him now -- "It's time for the commonwealth to be on the right side of history."

The Virginia attorney general, Mark Herring, is joining us now from the state capital of Richmond, along with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, who's joining us from New York.

Attorney General, tell us why you made this decision to go ahead and reject what is now part of your state's constitution.

MARK HERRING, VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, first of all, there was a pending case in Norfolk filed last year that was fully briefed and heading toward oral argument on January 30.

So we knew that coming into office, this was an issue we were going to have to look at closely. And I very quickly appointed the solicitor general to head up the legal team to analyze the law. We researched it carefully, considered the Supreme Court precedents, and determined and concluded that if the Supreme Court were presented with the facts of this case, we think they would strike Virginia's ban down.

And consistent with my obligations as attorney general of Virginia, I felt it was important to fulfill those obligations and present the state's position, which is that the law is unconstitutional.

BLITZER: And you have made the comparison to Loving vs. Virginia, which used to be the law in your state, which the Constitution rejected, that used to ban interracial marriage, if you will. You see a parallel there?

HERRING: Well, we in Virginia are very proud of our heritage when it comes to the contributions many of our forefathers have made to democracy and to freedom, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, Madison, Mason, Patrick Henry.

But there have been critical times in our state's history where we have argued on the wrong side of landmark Supreme Court cases. Virginia argued on the wrong side in the Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case in 1954. It argued on the wrong side of the Loving case, which struck down Virginia's ban on interracial marriage.

And Virginia was on the wrong side in a case where Virginia argued that female cadets should not be admitted to the Virginia Military Institute. And this time, it's important that Virginia be on the right side of history and the right side of the law.

You know, I happen to, as a matter of policy, believe that marriage rights ought to be extended to same-sex couples. But it's not about my personal policy. This is about what the law requires and what my obligations require as attorney general.

BLITZER: I want Jeffrey to weigh in.

Go ahead, Jeff.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Attorney General, one thing that really struck me in your brief is that you say it's not the Virginia constitution that requires same-sex marriage to be illegal. You say it's the United States Constitution. So does that mean that all 50 states should have legal same-sex marriage?

HERRING: Well, I think the question that ultimately is going to need to be decided by the courts and ultimately the Supreme Court is whether the different states' bans on gay marriage violate the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

If you look at the cases that the Supreme Court ruled on last year, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, Justice Kennedy wrote that state laws that treat same-sex couples as second- class citizens violated the due process and equal protection of the Constitution.

It also sent back -- although it did not rule on the ultimate issue, it sent back another case on Proposition 8, effectively nullifying California's gay marriage ban. So when you take those cases and other cases like the Lawrence vs. Texas case, striking down Texas' anti-sodomy laws, couple that with the long line of cases where the Supreme Court has recognized that individuals have a fundamental right to marry, you know, I have concluded after that thorough legal analysis that Virginia's ban would not sustain constitutional scrutiny.

BLITZER: When do you think we will know the final result of your decision today?

HERRING: Well, it's important for people to recognize that the change in the state's legal position does not mean the case will end.

The Registrar of Vital Records will continue to enforce the ban, as it has previously. There are other defendants in the case who will continue to argue for the legality of Virginia's ban. And so those sides are going to be argued and presented. The arguments are scheduled for January 30 and we will go from there.

But it's important that this issue be resolved in a matter of the rule of law, and a court is going to have to decide.

BLITZER: Attorney General Mark Herring of Virginia, a major decision on your part today. Thanks very much for joining us.

HERRING: Thank you for inviting me.

BLITZER: And thanks to Jeffrey Toobin as well.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.