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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Will Weather Clear Up For Searchers?; Russia Builds Up Troops On Ukraine Border; Obama Meets Pope Francis; Conspiracy Theories Surround Flight 370

Aired March 27, 2014 - 16:30   ET

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


CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: High pressure coming in after that low pressure that just pounded them for two days in the past too -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: So Chad, searching for something white when the surface of that ocean is white. We've seen a video of the waves. This seems like an impossible task down there. As you look at it, and you've seen this -- you've been following this for a long time, I mean, do you think that it's realistic that they are going to be able to see these things from the altitudes that they are flying in?

MYERS: Yes. Today. I believe today is the day because we're zeroing in on the drift pattern. How the ocean current goes. We've talked about this gyre out there. That's the way main that the ocean goes here in a big splits south of Australia. But there are these little eddies, these little tiny currents that are blowing the debris back and forth up and down here. And some of these currents split off and some of them go one way, some of them go left and something else in the mix with the 50 mile-per-hour wind.

If any of those objects were sticking ten inches out of the water, Jim, they got blown in a different direction than the current was going. So these things are getting bigger and bigger, scattered and scattered. The more we scatter it, the better chance at least we have a finding one piece, maybe not finding all the pieces clumped together, but we are getting a bigger search zone because the pieces are getting farther and farther apart.

SCIUTTO: We've seen all those eddies, it must be impossible to predict where these things go after so much time. Thanks very much, Chad Myers down in Atlanta, in the weather center.

When we come back, tens of thousands of Russian troops are mobilizing on the border of Ukraine. What is President Vladimir Putin planning? Stay with us. We're going to go live to Ukraine right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. And in "World News," new fears today that taking Crimea away from Ukraine was just a start as Russia beefs up on the border. CNN has learned that U.S. intelligence is upping the chances that Russia will invade Eastern Ukraine. Now that Vladimir Putin has about 40,000 troops and hardware on the border, doubling the troop presence just in the past week. The U.S. says that's way more than you need to test your military's readiness, as Russia claims it has been doing.

One official said the Russian build-up reminds them of Moscow's military moves before it went into Chechnya and Georgia in both numbers and capability and the types of units that can move quickly, just the right ones for a potential land grab.

It looks like Russia's muscle flexing has gotten a left foot and right foot to work together in Congress after being briefed on this new intelligence last night, the House and Senate today, both parties, each passed measures to help Ukraine financially and come down on Russia and Vladimir Putin hard with new sanctions including a $1 billion aid package approved by the Senate. That's on top of an $18 billion bailout to Ukraine from the International Monetary Fund.

Now, I've spoken with intelligence officials that have been briefed on the latest intelligence and the prevailing view is that the Russians have a capability to go in in a moment's notice. One U.S. intelligence official tells me, quote, "No one is ruling out the possibility of an additional Russian military aggression."

But there has also been criticism. Democratic Congressman Adam Shift who is traveling to Ukraine this weekend and says U.S. sanctions have not been strong enough. They have been, he says, more encouraging of Russian action than discouraging.

Today in Italy, our Jim Acosta asked President Obama why he is pressing Russia with money and not with might.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I've been very clear in saying that we are going to do everything we can to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. But I think that it's also important for us not to promise and then not be able to deliver.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: CNN's Karl Penhaul is live now near the Ukraine-Russia border with the latest. Karl, I want to start, if we can, with this number of Russian troops involved because there's a discrepancy, U.S. officials saying 40,000, Ukrainian officials saying 88,000. Why that difference?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Really, they are basing this on intelligence that they've received over the last few days. I believe where the discrepancy is coming from, Jim, is because they are talking, the Pentagon sources are talking about Russian forces bang on the border that could be across into Ukraine with zero warning. The Ukrainian figures talk a little bit more about other Russian units who are a little bit further back, but could be deployed in a second wave coming across into the country should that incursion occur.

Now, just to set the scene for you where we are, we're just a few houses to speak of and this is on the Ukrainian side, just a couple of hundred yards away that side, the Russian side. If you carry on a few miles further north, that is where the Russian town of Clemovo and this is where the Ukrainian government have said that over the last two days they have had intelligence that two trains pulling 60 wagons have arrived there.

They are bringing with them tanks, troops as well. And what the Russian government says is that on that side of border as well, a number of attack helicopters are ready, but what the Pentagon and the Ukrainian government are saying is right now they don't know exactly know what the Russian intent is. They don't know exactly when or if those troops are going to roll into Eastern Ukraine -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. I've been hearing from officials, the real question is, do they get that order? They are ready. Do they get that key order from Moscow? Karl Penhaul, thank you very much on the Russia-Ukraine border.

Coming up, President Obama heads to Rome for a meeting with Pope Francis. And the question we wanted to know, did they talk politics?

And later, Malaysia continues to say there is no hope for passengers on Flight 370 after it crashed into Indian Ocean. So why are conspiracy theories continuing to spread?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Turning now to the "Politics Lead." After falling flat on its face out of the gate, Obamacare enrollment seems to be surging towards the finish line. The White House announced just moments ago that 6 million people have signed up for the president's health insurance plan, up from 5 million just two weeks ago. That number is significant in that it hits a milestone set by the administration earlier this year.

But it still falls short of the initial 7 million enrollees the White House had estimated last summer. Enrollment expectations were lowered after the Obamacare web site's famously suffering roll out embarrassing setback after another. Administration officials are still making a last-minute push to get more young people signed up before the March 31st deadline. As of last month, they were still way off target there and without those young enrollees, insurance costs could skyrocket.

In other world news, President Obama made his second trip to the Vatican as president. The ninth American leader to stop by and see the pope. He and the first family met Pope Benedict back in the summer of 2009 and now, nearly five years later, Obama returned to pay respects to a man he says he greatly admires, Pope Francis.

The two men met for nearly an hour. And while they were expected to discuss income inequality and immigration reform, many observers expected some more controversial topics to be on the table like birth control and same-sex marriage. Our own Jim Acosta was traveling with the president and asked him what they actually talked about.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, in your meeting with his holiness, Pope Francis, did he register any objections with you about the contraception coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act or your efforts to advance the rights of gays and lesbians in the United States?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: He actually did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act in my meeting with secretary of state, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that -- that conscience and religious freedom was observed in accordance with applying the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Joining me now is the Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit priest, editor-at-large of "America," a national Catholic magazine. He's also author of "Jesus, A Pilgrimage," which just hit the "New York Times" bestsellers. Thanks very much for joining us, Reverend Martin.

REVEREND JAMES MARTIN, JESUIT PRIEST: My pleasure.

SCIUTTO: So in looking at the meeting today, looking at the rapport between the president and the pope, they seem to be getting along very well. Is this the beginning of a long friendship?

MARTIN: Well, I would hope so. They were all smiles afterwards and the pope said I really feel that you should feel at home here. So I think it's a start of a good relationship.

SCIUTTO: One of the gifts that the pope gave the president was his apostolic and that book was famous for criticized western capitalism. Do you think that kind of topic came up and do you think there might have been a message in that gift?

MARTIN: I think it's a general gift to give him. It's his most sort of substantial writing so it's not surprising he would get that gift. But certainly poverty came up in terms of immigration reform. Those are generally poor people and human trafficking again. The pope is, interestingly, much more forceful about income inequalities than President Obama is. So if anyone is kind of taking the lead on poverty, it's the pope here.

SCIUTTO: Let's talk for a moment about the popularity, if we can. If you look at Francis' polls, they are great, 89 percent approval rating among Catholics, 76 percent among all Americans. That is almost double President Obama's approval rating here at home. Do you think he's trying to get a little bit of the aura of the pope maybe a Francis bump by meeting with him and being seen with him?

MARTIN: He might. I mean, I think it's logical that the president would want to meet with the pope and you know, popes have been meeting with world leaders since the time of Charlemagne so I think it's more of a courtesy visit. Yes, it wouldn't help Obama to get a little of the Francis effect. On the other hand, I don't know if Francis really wants the Obama effect. I think he's happy that his, you know, approval and his popularity is as high as it is.

SCIUTTO: I want to read you a letter that's in "The New York Times" today to coincide with the visit. It's Catholics for choice and this is a quote from Pope Francis is our spiritual leader but not our political leader. Francis' interpretation of church teachings does not represent that of the majority of Catholics, especially on issues related to sexuality and pro productive health and family life.

They may have a point, 77 percent think Catholics should be able to use birth control, and 50 percent says the church should recognize same-sex marriage. Does the president have the backing of American Catholics on these issues, which he might have brought up or that get into a discussion with the pope today?

MARTIN: Well, I mean, first of all, Catholics for a free choice is a kind of fringe group. So I would, you know, avoid kind of drawing conclusions based on that. Certainly American Catholics with certain Vatican teachings, but you know, on the basics, they are with the pope. I mean, the basics are the gospel, Christ is risen, love, mercy and compassion. They are right with the pope on those most basic Christian teachings.

SCIUTTO: All right, thanks very much, Reverend James Martin. The president's first meeting with Pope Francis, a very popular pope. Thanks for joining us.

MARTIN: My pleasure.

SCIUTTO: The search for landslide survivors in Washington State has started to take both a physical and emotional toll on the rescue teams.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That miracle can happen. We live for that hope. We really live for that hope.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Emergency officials confirm there have so far been 24 deaths, although some bodies still remain in the rubble and 90 people are still unaccounted for. As the rescue mission continues, many survivors are questioning why they were allowed to build homes in the area to begin with. Several reports show the region was vulnerable to a catastrophic landslide.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBIN YOUNGBLOOD, LANDSLIDE SURVIVOR: Nobody told any of us. Those houses on steel head drive were built after they got that geology report. This is criminal, as far as I'm concerned.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said this week that families have been warned of the high risk of landslide and work had been done to lessen that risk since a landslide hit the same area back in 2006.

Now Wolf Blitzer is here with a preview of "THE SITUATION ROOM." Chad Myers was telling us the weather is a bit better today.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Let's hope those planes are able to take off from Perth, Australia. We're also going to Perth and check in with our correspondent there. We are also going to speak with the U.S. Navy Commander William Marks. He's the spokesman for the Seventh Fleet. He is in charge speaking for those pilots on that P-8 Poseidon will be heading out there and we'll get the latest from him. We're going to speak to a reporter in Kuala Lumpur who wrote the story in "USA Today" suggesting that the pilot of the plane was responsible for what happened.

SCIUTTO: Let's hope those planes spot something from the sky today. Thanks very much, Wolf. Coming up here, with no concrete proof that Flight 370 crashed, some are refusing to give you their conspiracy theories no matter implausible. Why do so many people continue to believe them? That's up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In our "World Lead," the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. While investigators have started to tighten their focus on the potential debris spotted by satellites in the Southern Indian Ocean. Many families of the passengers of the Flight 370 hold on to the possibility that their loved ones are still alive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN WANG, MOTHER ABOARD FLIGHT 370: To me, I think it might be 5 percent that there's still hope, that it was the hijacker and government or something like that and they are just imprisoned by the hijackers or something like that. If they make a deal maybe our family will be back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: The family members are not the only ones with wild theories. On the web, conspiracy theories are being swapped conspiracy theories all the time. What feeds their desire to believe in them? Earlier Jake Tapper spoke with law professor, Cass Sunstein, the author of "Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas about How These Stories Come About and Why They Stick Around For So Long."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: How do conspiracies blossom especially in a case like this one?

CASS SUNSTEIN, AUTHOR, "CONSPIRACY THEORIS AND OTHER DANGEROUS IDEAS": Well, there are two forces, really. One is when there's a terrible tragedy or surprise. People want an explanation and they want it in a hurry especially if they are scared or angry, they will try to make sense of it all. Even though the thing that makes sense of it all is pretty out there. The other thing is that there's an isolated social network of people talking to one another and people can snowball, persuade a small group that it's true and then that group can become a little bigger than small.

TAPPER: Isn't one of the reasons we find theories like this because right now we have so few facts and to be critical for a bit, both of the governments of Malaysia and the United States have been slow and at times contradictory in releasing information and we still know so little about this plane.

SUNSTEIN: It's absolutely true that one reason conspiracy theories spread is that about a lot of the things that are out there in the world, we don't have direct or personal information regardless of whether anyone is hiding anything. And if you have a lack of direct or personal information about something, you'll kind of believe the people you trust and you might be trusting people who are not trustworthy, who are able to season a detail and it will show that it doesn't match reality.

TAPPER: And you talk about the power that people have to say about no comment and address the conspiracy theories, it's often difficult. You also write in the book, quote, "Conspiracy theorists overestimate the competence and discretion of officials capable of devising and carrying out sophisticated secret plans despite abundant evidence and action does not usually remain secret for long."

I have to say though that's not always true. You were part of the Obama administration that promised unprecedented transparency and then of course, there was this huge, massive NSA surveillance program scandal. Do you think it's naive to think that there aren't secrets that our government is actually, actively keeping from us?

SUNSTEIN: Well, it is true that in an open society, the likelihood that really scary conspiracy theory that it is true is smaller than in a totalitarian society or dictatorship, openness is a safeguard. But you're absolutely right that even in an open society that there are secrets and there is a legitimate ground for classifying material that is important for national security. And sometimes material comes out that whether or not it's technically a conspiracy disturbed some people. I was privileged to serve on the president's review group on the NSA surveillance and communication technologies and we did make a number of recommendations for greater transparency.

TAPPER: All right, Cass Sunstein, the book is "Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas," thank you so much.

SUNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM."