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Air Crews Risk Lives to Battle Flames in California; Sterling Refuses to Pay Fine; Monica Lewinsky Scandal; Sudan Woman Being Put to Death for Christian Faith; Why Boko Haram Terror Label Delayed; Republicans Target Clinton; Interview with Rep. Peter King

Aired May 16, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the worst I've ever seen. That's how one San Diego official describes the wildfires in his county. Seven separate fires are still burning. But better weather today may bring some relief. We'll see.

Also right now, Donald Sterling's fighting back. He's threatening to sue the NBA if the league doesn't undue his lifetime ban and the $2.5 million fine.

And right now, in Turkey, tensions are high near the site of a mine accident as fighting breaks out between police and protesters.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. Firefighters hope improved weather conditions today will help them get ahead of numerous wildfires now burning in and around San Diego. This is how it looks from space. Santa Ana winds pushing choking smoke far out over the Pacific. But here is how it looks to terrified residents. Twisting pillars of fire consuming everything in their paths.

As of right now, seven major fires are still burning, including two near the Camp Pendleton Marine base. Seventeen square miles of bone dry terrain have been scorched since Tuesday. Fire crews are waging heroic battles trying to save homes but thousands and thousands of people remain at risk.

Our Ted Rowlands is joining us now from San Marcos which is right in the thick of it all. Ted, the firefighters, they are getting some important help from above.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. You see the guys on the ground here, they're doing a lot the work, obviously, mop-up right now where we are because this house has been completely demolished. But they're also getting a lot of help from in the air. In fact, all morning long, we've been seeing air drops, helicopters, fixed wing aircraft. We had an opportunity to go up in one those fixed wing aircrafts a few weeks ago during a training mission to see what it was like to fight a fire from the air.


(voice-over): Inside the cockpit of a BAe-146 air tanker, firefighter pilots, Brian Hales and Peter Bell, prepare for takeoff.





ROWLANDS: During a fire, this plane is capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of retardant from as low as 150 feet above the flames.

ROWLANDS (on camera): What do you actually aim at?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When there's a fire, you know where to aim because you're talking with the guy on the ground.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): I only allowed to ride along because this is a training flight, a water drop for Ryan's annual certification.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that's the suburban.

ROWLANDS: The target just to the right of our camera crew on the ground. Neptune Aviation based in Missoula, Montana is one of a handful of U.S. air tanker companies. Planes and crews are staged at airports throughout the western United States and can be in the air minutes after getting a call.

PETER BELL, PILOT: It's critical to get there before it gets big.

ROWLANDS: Once they get there, the adrenaline kicks in.

RYAN HALES, PILOT: You don't even know you're breathing because you're just so hyper focused. It's very coordinated chaos when you're over a fire.

ROWLANDS: The largest air tanker in the world is this converted DC-10 which can drop an incredible 12,000 gallons.

BELL: Right now, the fire that could call us is in west Texas.

ROWLANDS: We caught up with the plane and Rick Hatton, the man who helped design it, at the Interagency Fire Center in Phoenix.

(on camera): Isn't this too big to really get close to the fire?

RICK HATTON, DC-10 TANKER CREW: That's an excellent question and it's a common misperception.

ROWLANDS (voice-over): Hattan says the DC-10 is the ultimate firefighting aircraft because it carries four times more retardant than any other plane. The tank is mounted to the bottom of the plane. The white you see are two doors controlled from the cockpit. Meanwhile, the area where up to 380 passengers used to sit has been completely gutted, giving the pilots greater maneuverability.

DAVE GABEL, PILOT: Little bit of adrenaline going. But fear, no, there's no room for fear. ROWLANDS: But there is danger. Over the years, there have been several accidents including this 2002 C-130 crash in California that claimed two lives. Then two years ago, pilots Todd Tompkins and Ron Chambless died when the P-2 tanker they were flying crashed along the Utah-Nevada border.

HALES: When we lose people, it's very, very difficult.

ROWLANDS: While there are some critics who believe tankers are not only too dangerous but too expensive, the men and women flying, maintaining and risking their lives on these planes believe their role is critical.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like artillery or air in the war. It isn't the only thing you need but it's a vital part of a coordinated effort.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, our ultimate goal is to put out the fires. And our little -- our little piece of that pie, that's what I enjoy is knowing that, you know, we helped.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Speed checks. And you're clear to land.


ROWLANDS (live): And, Wolf, the areas south will be absolutely critical today. Of the seven fires that are still burning, four of them are contained at 85 percent or higher so those are pretty much out. The evacuations have been lifted. Two at Camp Pendleton are a concern and then this one, where we are in Escondido, is the major concern. And it's up in this ridge area. The air assault is going to be key today. The weather is cooperating. The winds have died considerably.

BLITZER: All right, let's hope it stays like that and gets even better. Thanks very much, Ted Rowlands. He's in San Marcos, California.

Our Meteorologist Jennifer Gray is watching the situation from the CNN Severe Weather Center in Atlanta. Jennifer, what's the weather outlook today and that so-called firenado? The formation of those firenados, those have been very powerful.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, they're very scary looking, very eerie. We've seen a lot of pictures of them, a lot of video. Basically, these fires are creating their own sort of wind pattern on the surface, these little eddies, and so you get that circular motion. We also have a lot of the brush and the debris that's all around these fires. As that warm air rises, it creates this column and temperatures can reach hundreds of degrees and you have that spin going on. The fire is burning that vegetation. And it's releasing carbon in the air. It's combustible. And so, it's searching for oxygen as it's rising. And so, that's what's creating the column and that spin. Just think of an ice skater when they pull their arms in, getting a lot of that momentum when they're spinning. A similar situation when you're dealing with these firenados, so they do look a lot like tornadoes. Los Angeles finally starting to see those temperatures come down in the coming days. We've been running 20 and 30 degrees above normal for the past several days. Now, we'll finally get back into the 70s. Still above normal but temperatures are coming down which is better. Also, getting help from that onshore breeze, that's pulling in a little bit more moisture, increasing that humidity, if you will, over the weekend or so.

I want to put things in perspective, thought, for you, Wolf. This is last year. The state of California, zero percent. An exceptional drought. And less than 50 in a severe drought. Move over to this year, 2014, 100 percent of the state in severe drought and about 75 percent in exceptional. Unreal.

BLITZER: Yes, and that's not good at all. Jennifer, thanks very, very much.

Other news we're following, we'll get back to the fires later. In Los Angeles, the Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, is gearing up for a major fight. A source telling CNN Sterling is rejecting sanctions imposed by the NBA for his racist rant and he's threatening to sue the league if it refuses to rescind its punishment.

Stephanie Elam is joining us. She's covering the story from L.A. So, what are you learning, Stephanie?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've heard conflicting things from Donald Sterling. In that interview with Anderson Cooper, he said, if the NBA spends millions, if I spend millions, what would really matter in the end at my age? And then, he kind of implied that maybe he wouldn't fight. But people I've talked to have said that they expected this, that he would dig his heels in and fight to keep his stake in the team. And, basically, the argument being here that he didn't do anything wrong and that he didn't get due process. So, that's the argument that we think that they are going to be taking. But this just means, perhaps, Wolf, that this could be a much longer fight than, of course, NBA players and also fans were hoping for.

BLITZER: We'll see where the legal battle goes. The Clippers, as you know, they lost their playoff series against Oklahoma City last night. They did really well. They got to the second round, were impressive. They made it to the play offs. The Lakers didn't. Did the coach, Doc Rivers, any of the players talk about the controversy involving Donald Sterling in the postgame news conference?

ELAM: Yes, I was at the game last night and, obviously, it was a topic of discussion, whether or not they would blame their loss on this entire scandal off the court. It was interesting to listen to Chris Paul talk about how when he was lacing up his sneakers, that's not what he was thinking about. He wasn't thinking about Donald Sterling and the fact that the game that they really felt that they were impacted by this scandal was that first game when they were in Oakland and Golden -- the Golden State Warriors series when they had their T-shirts on inside out. He said he felt it then. But listen to what else they had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS PAUL, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: To tell you the truth, we don't think about that. You know what I mean? Like, that's the least of our worries right now is him. We just lost the damn series. We -- I'm sorry but we don't care about that.

DOC RIVERS, COACH, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: We've gone through a lot of stuff over the last three or four weeks. And I don't think that was why we didn't win. I don't think we should use that as an excuse. We're a team in process. I believe we were good enough to win this year. And Oklahoma City told us we were not.


ELAM: And, Wolf, I should also just note how gracious the players were and coach, Doc Rivers, were talking about the loss, not wanting to take it away from the thunder, saying, yes, it was there. It may have played a part. And one thing that was also interesting, Doc Rivers saying the one thing he wish he could have done better was protect his guys, because he said that they were being asked to answer for this when it wasn't something that was their scandal to begin with.

BLITZER: Yes, the Clippers were impressive. They had a good season. They will be back. Stephanie, thanks very much.

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the former White House intern became the punch line of a lot of jokes on all of the late night T.V. shows. Now, one of the hosts is expressing real regret about that. We're going to tell you why.

Also, did the State Department drop the ball on the group behind the Nigeria schoolgirl kidnappings? We're going to take a closer look into the delay in labeling Boko Haram a terrorist group.


BLITZER: A death sentence for a pregnant mother. Now, a husband in Sudan is praying for his family. Here's Miriam Ibrahim and her husband in their wedding photo. But now, Ibrahim and her toddler son are in prison. She's eight months pregnant. And a court in Sudan has sentenced her to death for refusing to recant her Christian faith. The legal battle started after her brother filed a complaint against her saying her Muslim family was shocked that she had married a Christian man. We're going to continue to watch this story for you.

The kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria has shined a spotlight on the terror group behind the abductions. Critics say the U.S. was too slow in labeling Boko Haram a terrorist organization. Some are pointing the finger directly at the then secretary state, Hillary Clinton.

Republican congressman Peter King of New York is joining us right now. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. PETER KING, R-NEW YORK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Would it practically have made any difference if the U.S., a couple years earlier, had formally declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization? Would that have prevented this group from kidnapping those nearly 300 girls?

KING: Wolf, I believe it had - it would have had to have helped. Now, whether it would have prevented it or not, we don't know, but it certainly would have been a step in the right direction. And, yes, I want to make it clear, this isn't just me or Republicans saying this. Within the administration, the - you know, I (ph) recall the Eric Holder Justice Department was pushing as far back as 2012, Lisa Monaco, who was the head of the counterterrorism unit, to have Boko Haram labeled a foreign terrorist organization. The CIA wanted it. The FBI wanted it. And there were - people within the administration who wanted it. But for whatever reason, the State Department decided not to.

Now I actually have heard a number of the reasons they've given and I just don't think in the post-9/11 world that those reasons have much credibility.

BLITZER: I know the assistant secretary of state for African affairs was opposed at the time to giving -- making this designation, Boko Haram, a terrorist organization. Do you have evidence, though, that it went all the way up to the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton?

KING: No, I would just assume that a matter of this importance would go to the secretary of state. And I have a great personal regard actually for Secretary Clinton. I saw her yesterday at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. And - but I think - again, she was the secretary of state during this period so if she, you know, gets credit for what went right, I would say in my belief this went wrong. So as secretary of state, she has the responsibility. I'm not making accusations against her. I'm just saying that in her time as secretary of state, the State Depart, and Johnnie Carson was the assistant secretary of state. He was against the designation of Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization. I think that was a mistake. And I think the fact that when John Kerry became the secretary of state in November of - I guess November 2013, he did designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization. And also I would point out, I believe that Mr. Carson was gone from the State Department by that time.

BLITZER: And so, obviously, when you look back, and I've read the letters that you and others, including Democrats, wrote to the State Department.

KING: Right.

BLITZER: I read the letter that Lisa Monaco, when she was the assistant attorney general, she's now the president's top national security adviser on counterterrorism at homeland security, in the letter she wrote, the CIA. So everybody in the government, except at the State Department, wanted to designation Boko Haram a formal terrorist organization. What was the main argument the State Department was giving you at the time why they didn't want to do that?

KING: Yes. First of all, Wolf, you're right as far as these letters. I sent two letters. Congressman Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania, who's Republican, he was on those letters. And also on one of those letters at least was Jackie Speier, who's a congresswoman from - a Democratic congresswoman from California, we felt very strongly about this.

Now, as the reasons they gave, they felt it would give too much publicity. The State Department thought this would give too much publicity to Boko Haram and they also felt that they couldn't trust the Nigerian government.

Well, you know, again, in the post-9/11 world, we don't always have perfect allies. And the Nigerian government is obviously not a very effective government. But by us designating them as a -- Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization, we could have taken measures as far as funding. And also, it's up to the State Department in those cases to work with the Nigerian government. And also I think they said the Nigerian government didn't want this designation made.

Well, you know, we can't allow Nigeria to be determining our foreign policy. Because as Lisa Monica pointed out in her letter, and, again, she was Eric Holder's deputy attorney general, that this was a potential threat to the United States and this was a potential threat to American interests in Africa.

As far as Boko Haram, as far as giving them notoriety, they already had, unfortunately, tremendous notoriety in Africa. They carried out massacres. They killed people. Murdered I don't know how many people in a Christian church on Christmas Day. They were carrying out massacres around Africa. They were attacking U.N. installations. So everyone who had to know in Africa about Boko Haram knew about it. And by - I think by us not designating it a foreign terrorist organization, if anything it was being perceived in African as a sign of weakness rather than somehow a sign of diplomacy.

BLITZER: All right, congressman, I want you to stick around. There's other issues I want to discuss with you, including more about Hillary Clinton. She's being criticized, as you know, by a lot your fellow Republicans when it comes to what happened in Benghazi. We're going to talk about that. A lot more when we come back.


BLITZER: Republicans are pushing ahead with a select committee investigation into the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya. They're keeping up their criticism of the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over her response to the tragedy.

Let's pick up our conversation with Republican Congressman Peter King. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, the former president, Bill Clinton, strongly defending his wife, saying she did what she did about Benghazi and she was right. She impanelled a committee to investigate. Listen to Bill Clinton. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: They looked into what was wrong. They gave 29 recommendations. She took them and started implementing them. And they established the fact that whether it was right or wrong in the past, secretaries of state never were involved directly in these security decisions.


BLITZER: So he and a lot other supporters of Hillary Clinton suggesting what Republicans are doing in the House side largely political. Here's the question to you. You're a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Your committee under Mike Rogers, the chairman, Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat, you had extensive hearings. You looked into Benghazi. What do you need to know now that you and your intelligence committee members didn't already -- don't already know?

KING: Wolf, first of all, I think everything has to be connected. Various committees held various hearings and there was always a disconnect between the military and the intelligence and State Department. But having said that, to me there's major questions here as to why more action was not taken to provide the security beforehand. And also, when was this decision made and why was it made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks to say that it was caused by a video when nothing on the ground was saying that? When as Michael Morel (ph), who's the number two person in the CIA, said no one in the CIA was saying that the video was the cause of the attack in Benghazi.

And, you know, the issue of the talking points -- it's not just the question of the talking points. It's that you saw the State Department, people in the CIA, people in the White House, coming up with what appears to be, I believe, a cover story after the fact. And I think Americans deserve more than that. Certainly the families of those who were murdered deserve more than that.

But I think to make it a personal attack on Hillary Clinton is wrong. I think that when you have a bureaucracy such as the State Department, not everything makes it to the top. I think we should see how far it went. And if it didn't go to Secretary Clinton then as President Clinton said, reforms should be made.

And, listen, every administration's had failures as far as security, unfortunately, going back to 1983 in Beirut, you know, with the Reagan administration. But, having said that, it was the fact that in the immediate aftermath, there seemed to be such a political cover put on it. And I don't think just for the campaign. But I think also in keeping up with the Obama narrative that al Qaeda had been defeated, that we could go back to a pre-9/11 state and a security state, as opposed to, you know, the measures that were imposed after 9/11.

So I think that, again, it's all - it's the larger picture of how either politics or the intention to create a narrative that was not based on fact really impacted our policy in Libya. Also that could tie it in with Boko Haram in that the Obama administration, at least the State Department, didn't want to acknowledge that in many ways al Qaeda was metastasizing and morphing and was in some ways more dangerous than before 9/11.

BLITZER: Yes, you're referring to Beirut back in the early '80s when terrorists blew up the U.S. marine barracks outside of Beirut -

KING: Right.

BLITZER: Killing more than 200 U.S. military personnel. Also blew up the U.S. embassy and killing dozens of people inside the U.S. embassy, including some high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials -

KING: Right.

BLITZER: And diplomats at the same time. As you correctly point out, that was during the Reagan administration.

KING: Right. Right.

BLITZER: Quickly on today's "Wall Street Journal" report suggesting Iran is recruiting Afghan refugees to go to Syria to fight in support of the Bashar al Assad regime, offering them $500 a month. What do you make of that?

KING: Yes, I've not been able to confirm that. I have not heard that. I wouldn't be surprised. First of all, we know Iran is involved in trying to prop up Assad in Syria. He is clearly an ally of theirs. And I wouldn't be surprised if there is some training. You know, when you say thousands, that seems like a big number only because I've not heard it and I've been trying to track it down today since that story appeared. It may well be. There's no doubt Iran is behind Syria and is taking strong measures to support the Syrian regime, just as al Qaeda affiliates are working with the rebels.

But as far as being able to confirm that there's actually foreign fighters coming from Afghanistan, being trained in Iran and being sent into Syria, I've not been able to confirm that. I wouldn't be surprised if there was some amount, but when they say thousands, that, you know, causes me to doubt that. But again, I - you know, I'm still trying to get to the bottom of that.

BLITZER: We're out of time, but one quick political question. Are you thinking of running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016?

KING: I'm certainly looking at it. I'll be back in New Hampshire on June 21st. And when I saw Hillary Clinton yesterday, I told her to get ready.

BLITZER: Get ready. You think it's possible you could win that Republican nomination, she would get the Democratic nomination -

KING: Oh, I don't know -

BLITZER: And I would be moderating debates presumably between you and Hillary Clinton, is that what you're saying? KING: It would be a good show, it really would. No, seriously, I'm - I mean I - I'm looking at this because I see people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and, to me, I don't want the Republican Party going in that direction. Whether it's me or someone else, I want to do all that I can to make sure that what I call the realistic foreign policy wing and national security wing of the Republican Party does not give into the isolationists. And I don't want to go back to the 1930s and the days of Charles Lindbergh.

BLITZER: Strong words from Peter King. All right, so you're seriously considering it. We'll see what happens. And if you do get the Republican nomination, Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, I'm ready to volunteer to moderate a debate between the two of you.

KING: Hey, Wolf, you got it.

BLITZER: Let's see if that happens.

KING: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

Other political news we're following, Idaho, the race for governor, they let it all hang out. The debate ran the gamut on topics like, get this, wolf hunting and gay marriage. You're going to meet the cast of characters. Stand by.

And in Turkey, police clashed with protesters upset over the huge loss of life at the Soma coal mine. We'll have a live report from Istanbul. That's coming up.