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THE SITUATION ROOM

Al Qaeda Rising; Photos of Osama bin Laden Destroyed?

Aired February 11, 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: Happening now: al Qaeda rising, a chilling warning about the world's most feared terror organization. Why is it gaining new strength?

Picture of death -- new details of what happened to controversial photos of Osama bin Laden's body and who might have ordered them destroyed and why.

Back in the headlines, Monica Lewinsky. The intern at the center of the scandal that rocked the Clinton White House, where is she now? Who wants to make sure you don't forget her name?

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's the most infamous and feared named in terror, the ruthless force behind the most shocking attacks of the last two decades, but despite unprecedented efforts by the U.S. and its allies, al Qaeda is not only continuing its deadly mission, it is thriving and finding fertile new ground to grow.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is here with more on the latest very serious warning coming from high-ranking U.S. officials.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question.

I have listened to a lot of these hearings. This was sobering testimony. We knew the threat from al Qaeda was evolving, but it is clearly still formidable with new safe havens, including in Syria, which the national of intelligence, Clapper, called "an apocalyptic disaster."

The bottom line, after two decades of war, targeted assassinations, and the creation of a massive surveillance infrastructure, al Qaeda is not on the path to defeat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Today, the nation's top intelligence official delivered a sobering assessment of the terror threats facing the U.S. Al Qaeda 13 years after 9/11 still a formidable danger, as core al Qaeda in Pakistan has developed working relationships with aligned terror groups in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is al Qaeda on the run and on the path to defeat?

JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: No. It is morphing and franchising itself not only here, but other areas of the world.

SCIUTTO: Syria is a new safe haven for al Qaeda-affiliated groups, perfect combination of lawlessness and combat training. In Syria today, the intelligence community estimates there are 7,500-plus foreign fighters. Hundreds are believed to be Westerners, intelligence officials tell CN, more than 50 of them Americans, some of them being recruited to carry out attacks when they return home.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: So the longer this goes on really and the more fighters that go in, et cetera, et cetera, that the more likely there is a greater and greater threat actually to the United States of America, would you agree?

CLAPPER: I would.

SCIUTTO: One growing fear, that terror groups will acquire some of Syria's massive arsenal of chemical weapons, that frightening scenarios behind one of the threats against the Sochi Olympics.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN, DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations aspire to acquire weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, to further their agenda. The current instability in Syria presents a perfect opportunity for al Qaeda and associated groups to acquire these weapons or their components.

SCIUTTO: Hampering U.S. attempts to contain these threats, the massive leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

CLAPPER: Tourists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources and methods and tradecraft. And the insights they're gaining are making our job in the intelligence community much, much harder.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: One of the most damaging of Snowden's revelations, a detailed map of the world wide Internet fiber infrastructure which shows most Internet traffic, for instance, goes through the U.S. This has made terror suspects who are already wary of cell phone communications much more surveillance-conscience and therefore, Wolf, harder to track.

For instance, a terrorist communicating between, say, Yemen and Pakistan in the past might not have known that e-mail is likely to go through servers with links here in the U.S. Therefore, now they are less likely to communicate that way. That makes it tougher for the intelligence community.

BLITZER: Learning lessons obviously to try to improve their own communications.

Jim Sciutto, pretty disturbing stuff. Thank you.

A life-or-death debate is unfolding right now at the highest levels of the U.S. government, the issue a possible drone strike on an American citizen tied to al Qaeda. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's working the story for us.

What is the latest on this U.S. targeting of an American who is involved with al Qaeda overseas, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, U.S. intelligence now has this person under surveillance in Pakistan.

That is where this American citizen is said to be located. But one of the key questions we don't know the answer to yet, what is the imminent threat he poses that could lead to a drone strike against him? Is it a threat to the U.S. homeland? Is he is a threat to U.S. forces in next-door Afghanistan? Is he plotting to attack U.S. forces?

And the key question on the table of course is what to do about it. Pakistan is deeply resentful of the drone strikes. The U.S. has to decide does it want to anger even more or is it better to keep an eye on this person and see where he goes and see if he leads them to even bigger fish -- Wolf.

BLITZER: On another front, Barbara, the U.S. now saying Hamid Karzai, the Afghanistan president, is about to release highly dangerous detainees from custody, men who have already killed American troops in Afghanistan, this obviously a huge concern to the United States.

STARR: The U.S. is furious about it. Wolf, it is expected on Thursday, actually, 65 of 88 detainees being held by Afghanistan will be released. The U.S. says this is in absolute violation of an agreement they have with the Karzai government.

These are people they say are very dangerous and have been responsible for U.S. and alliance coalition deaths. And a U.S. official says if the U.S. finds them again plotting on the battlefield, they will go after them and capture or kill them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, apparently there is still obviously no agreement with Karzai to allow a residual U.S. force to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. He's going to be out of office though in a few months. What's going on?

STARR: Well, this all gets to the question can the U.S. even do business with Karzai at this point?

The presidential election indeed is in April. One of the questions is do you just wait him out, wait for him to go and try and negotiate with the next president? He is not signing the agreement that the U.S. needs in order for U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

And James Clapper, who you just saw in Jim Sciutto's piece, also very dire today about how he looks at Karzai right now. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLAPPER: Obviously, it takes two to sign this. And it's my own view, not necessarily company policy, is, I don't believe President Karzai is going to sign it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: The top man in U.S. intelligence not a very optimistic outlook -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Clearly a serious problem. Barbara, thank you.

We are also learning new information about some of the most controversial photos ever taken, pictures showing the dead body of Osama bin Laden. Were they destroyed in what some critics are charging was an illegal cover-up?

Brian Todd has been investigating this part of the story.

What are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this information just getting out 2.5 years after the bin Laden raid. A Freedom of Information Act request finally bringing it to light, this sensitive e-mail from the commander of the SEAL raid, saying to subordinates if you have the photos, get rid of them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): In those highly charged days after the killing of Osama bin Laden, news consumers searched for any morsel of information about the raid. The Obama administration faced intense pressure to release photos of bin Laden after he was shot and killed by Navy SEALs.

The Associated Press and the conservative group Judicial Watch filed requests for the photos. And Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit. What happened under all that pressure? This order. Just hours after that lawsuit was filed, the commander of the SEAL operation, Admiral William McRaven, sent this e-mail: "Gentlemen, all photos should have been turned over to the CIA. If you still have them, destroy them immediately or get them to the 'blank,'" whoever that was still classified.

TOM FITTON, PRESIDENT, JUDICIAL WATCH: If these records were indeed destroyed, there may have been crimes committed.

TODD: Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch believes it shows a cover-up, the possible suppression of key documents from maybe the most famous raid in military history.

FITTON: There's laws that prohibit the mutilation and destruction of public records. It shows contempt for the law and it shows contempt for the people's right to know.

TODD: The Pentagon wouldn't comment on those assertions or the McRaven e-mail. A spokesman for Admiral McRaven wouldn't comment, nor would the CIA or the White House.

But in the days after the bin Laden raid, President Obama told CBS' "60 Minutes" why he believed the photos of a deceased bin Laden should not be made public.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence.

TODD: It is not clear whether any photos of bin Laden were actually destroyed. Could any of the SEALs depicted in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" have taken personal photos? CNN military analyst General James "Spider" Mark says it is likely they were ordered not to by their commanders.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: And it wouldn't be surprising if they shook them down and they said, OK, I want to make sure you don't have something that is hidden away someplace.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But Mark says the SEALs would have dedicated some member of that team to take official photos and video for posterity and training purposes. He believes that if Admiral McRaven photos destroyed, he was trying to protect operational secret, sources and methods and trying to protect American troops in dangerous areas -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What about photos of bin Laden buried at sea? Could those be made public?

TODD: Judicial Watch says it has asked for that as maybe some compromise. If you're not going to release the photos of bin Laden himself, at least give us those. But the Obama administration has steadfastly said it is not going to release those. It's very concerned about incitement to violence.

BLITZER: Incite a new generation of terrorists who would be outraged by seeing those pictures.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Brian, for that.

Still ahead, crippling snow and ice from Texas to Georgia all the way to the Northeast. Officials are bracing for an emergency as severe weather moves in, threatening millions of people in the Eastern U.S.

But it's the opposite problem at the Winter Olympic Games. New details of how bad the snow shortage really is. We are going to Sochi. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Historic and catastrophic, not words commonly associated with weather, but officials hope those words will grab the attention of millions of Americans who are in the path of a storm system expected to bring devastating snow and ice to much of the Eastern U.S.

We are looking at live pictures from across the South right now ,which was caught badly off-guard, virtually paralyzed by a winter storm just two weeks ago. That fresh memory has prompted officials to already declare emergencies in Georgia, Alabama and other states.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

BLITZER: A very different problem at the Winter Olympic Games. It feels more like spring or even summer in much of the area around Sochi. And that's causing some problems for some of the athletes.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is there for us -- Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at night, the temperature drops down here at the coastal cluster, but sometimes it is feeling just that little bit too tropical and that's having an impact on some of the most important sporting events up in the mountains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH (voice-over): On these slopes, something is clearly missing. It's not just the snow, but the cold, too, to keep the ice hard and athletes happy. Temperatures could rise to over 60 degrees, 16 Celsius, on Thursday.

(on camera): Down here away from the mountains, none of this warm weather should really have been a surprise about Sochi. The surprise for many was Vladimir Putin's choice out of all of Russia to bring the Winter Games here.

(voice-over): But in some ways, Russia was ready, organizers admitting Tuesday the use of stored snow for the first time, reserves from the last season.

Reports of skiers stuffing snow into their suits to keep cool, practices and events delayed. Some American athletes saying the snow was too soft.

TED LIGETY, U.S. OLYMPIC ATHLETE: It is pretty wintry up top and then springlike in the bottom. Hopefully, get some clear nights and gets cold at night, so it stays frozen.

WALSH: Another joked he would like to compensate with a margarita, chips and salsa. But, elsewhere, there was a bid to cool tempers. The Russian veteran Olympic athlete Irina Rodnina lit the flame Friday, but on Monday tweeted a part apology about a picture she tweeted last year of Barack Obama with a banana superimposed. She said in rare perfect English that she had great respect for the president and should have said earlier that she didn't support the tweeted photo or racism in any form. She claims she had been hacked.

But that probably won't warm things up between Washington and Moscow.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH: Wolf, Vladimir Putin said on Monday the Western attitudes towards these Games sometimes negative date back almost to Cold War attitudes.

And you have to acknowledge really the furious Russian attempt to keep spirits high here. They have been sending volunteers, the young Russians here welcoming those athletes arriving, putting them in the stands to fill them up. And, as you just heard, they have been moving snow to ensure things keep going smoothly up in the mountains. Despite the many, many hurdles, they are doing what they can to keep things afloat -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nick, thanks very much, Nick Paton Walsh in Sochi.

Just ahead, a very different story. Her affair with Bill Clinton was the biggest political drama of the '90s. Now someone is putting her name back in the headlines, so where is Monica Lewinsky now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: She was a household name at the center of a political drama that gripped the nation and nearly toppled a presidency. But we haven't heard much about Monica Lewinsky for the past decade, until now.

CNN's Athena Jones is joining us. She's got more on what is going on -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as political scandals go, President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was a big one. It's a topic that is grabbing headlines again, thanks to Republican Senator Rand Paul and new details emerging from the papers of a late friend of Hillary Clinton's. It does make you wonder what Monica Lewinsky is up to these days.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): She was the most famous intern to set foot in the White House.

BLITZER: Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern.

JONES: But where is Monica Lewinsky today? Now 40, Lewinsky has been keeping a low profile. Her former publicist told CNN she is trying to lead a private life. Cameras caught Lewinsky last year leaving a party in London's posh Mayfair district, and in New York with friends in 2009.

She earned a master's degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics in 2006. Before that, Lewinsky hosted "Mr. Personality," a short-lived reality show on FOX, in 2003. The former intern became a household name in January 1998 for having an Oval Office affair with President Bill Clinton that led to his impeachment.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate.

JONES: The affair put Lewinsky squarely in the spotlight, fame she parlayed into the book "Monica's Story," published in March 1999, a month after the Senate acquitted the president of the charges.

MONICA LEWINSKY, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN: I felt like a piece of trash. I felt -- I felt dirty and I felt used.

JONES: That same month, millions of viewers tuned in to see Barbara Walters interview Lewinsky on ABC's "20/20."

LEWINSKY: Sometimes, I have warms feelings. Sometimes, I'm proud of him still, and sometimes I hate his guts.

JONES: That lipstick she was wearing flew off the shelves. For a while, the former intern designed and sold handbags.

LEWINSKY: I tried every diet in the world.

JONES: And served a brief stint as a spokeswoman for weight loss program Jenny Craig.

LARRY KING, FORMER HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Tonight, Monica Lewinsky exclusive.

JONES: Lewinsky told Larry King in 2002 that the biggest misconception about her was:

LEWINSKY: Probably that I went to Washington with an agenda to seduce the president and then expose that relationship so I could become famous.

KING: All a scheme.

LEWINSKY: Right, when that is the farthest from the truth. I had really gone to Washington as a short pit stop on my way to graduate school.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now, reports going back a couple of years say Lewinsky has been shopping around a tell-all book about her relationship with President Clinton.

Now, we haven't been able to confirm that. If she does ever write another book, it is sure to be a must-read. But, Wolf, you have got to wonder whether she would really be interested in being back in the spotlight in that way.

BLITZER: Athena, thanks very much.

And we are just getting this into THE SITUATION ROOM. The veteran NBC News anchor and correspondent Tom Brokaw is now revealing he has been diagnosed with cancer. He says his physicians are encouraged with the progress he is making. Tom Brokaw is 74 years old. He says he has multiple myeloma. It affects cells in bone marrow.

We wish him of course a complete, complete recovery.

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