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Sony Hack Threatens Free Speech; Jeb Bush Explores White House Bid

Aired December 20, 2014 - 09:00   ET


MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST: I'm Michael Smerconish. This has been an extraordinary news week and there are new angles on all of the big stories.

First the hack heard round the world. The U.S. says North Korea is guilty even as they are now threatening Sony with more cyber devastation. I'll talk to a very smart guy, the former secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.

And what if big Hollywood stars were sent a petition about the movie in question but nobody signed? That has George Clooney fighting mad and lashing out at his showbusiness colleagues.

Meanwhile, is it possible we'll see another Bush in the White House? We might. If Jeb Bush is conservative enough for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

Plus my dinner with Fidel. Six hours I will never forget. You won't believe what he said and didn't say about Osama Bin Laden. That and much more so please stick around.

The FBI says that North Korea is behind the massive hack of Sony Pictures. And it's all about Seth Rogen and his latest movie "The Interview," the movie is about a comedy about a CIA plot to kill North Korea's strongman Kim Jong-un. But what has happened in the last few days - that's deadly serious. There has been another e-mail threat against Sony promising more cyber devastation if every trace of the movie isn't taken down. In his end of the year presser yesterday, the president said Sony was wrong


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIENT: Sony's a corporation, it suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.

We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like or news reports that they don't like. Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.


SMERCONISH: Sony's CEO Michael Lynton has never spoken about this story and he responded to the president in an exclusive interview, a sit down with CNN's Fareed Zakaria. Here is what he had to say.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: The president says Sony made a mistake in pulling the film. Did you make a mistake?

MICHAEL LYNTON, SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT CEO: No. I think actually the unfortunate part is in this instance the president, the press, and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened. We do not own movie theaters. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theaters.

So, to sort of rehearse for a moment the sequence of events. We experienced the worst cyber attack in American history, and persevered for 3 1/2 weeks under enormous stress and enormous difficulty, and all with the effort of trying to keep our business up and running and get this movie out into the public.

When it came to the crucial moment when a threat came out from what was called the G.O.P. at the time, threatening audiences who would go to the movie theaters, the movie theaters came to us, one by one, over the course of a very short period of time, we were completely surprised by it, and announced that they would not carry the movie.

At that point in time we had no alternative but to not proceed with the theatric release on the 25th of December. That's all we did.

ZAKARIA: So you have not caved in.

LUYNTON: We have not caved. We have not given in. We have persevered and we have not backed down. We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie.


SMERCONISH: You can see more of Fareed Zakaria's exclusive interview at 10:00 a.m. Sunday right here on CNN. The feds say they know who hacked Sony. And now the big question is what should the U.S. do? It's a complex question. The North Korean cyber attack strikes at the heart of something we all hold dear, freedom of speech. But make no mistake this was an attack, and it begs for a counter attack. The president says the U.S. will act.


OBAMA: They caused a lot of damage. And we will respond. We will respond proportionally and will respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It's not something that I will announce here today in a press conference.


SMERCONISH: My view, we should give the North Koreans a touch of their own medicine. The U.S. has a pretty robust cyber warfare capability. I say let's use it. Remember the Stoxnet virus that was let loose on the Iranian facility that produces uranium that could be used for weapons? We should use that capability against the North Koreans, at least that's my opinion.

Tom Ridge knows much, much more about this subject than I. He's the former governor of the great state of Pennsylvania and served as the nation's first secretary of Homeland Security. Governor, thanks for being here. What should be the response?

TOM RIDGE, FMR. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Michael, I think you raised a couple of very interesting points. Let's take the unique relationship we have with the U.N., a diplomatic response. It's a dead end. Economic response, no relationships. Another dead end. Certainly not a kinetic response. We're not going to launch a traditional military attack to respond. We're really left to a cyber response, so I think given the unique place that North Korea is in the world and our estranged relationship with them, I would be - I think the president's options are limited. And I think it has to be a cyber response but again, we'll just see what it is.

I think there is a much bigger issue, frankly, and that is at some point in time we have to say to ourselves we're going to do everything we can to protect and defend the country, but do we as a country now begin to draw a red line in the sand and say this is a new era of warfare, it is cyber war going on every day. If we can hold you - if we can attribute an attack we want to hold you accountable so what are the consequences, not only to North Korea but what's the doctrine, what's the strategy, what's the red line that we tell the rest of the world, the United States will not tolerate those digital attacks, those digital incursions in the United States of America be it toward our government enterprise or the private enterprise.

SMERCONISH: I'm not surprised to hear you say that this demands a firm response, both because I know you but also because of an essay that you wrote which you said "it's time to shake off the shadow of Neville Chamberlain and confront the bully."

Governor, is this the sort of situation where the U.S. you expect will take some action but never announce what it was and frankly, never even acknowledge that they did it, much like the Israelis?

RIDGE: I think that's an entire possibility. I do think that the president's options are quite limited. It's not as if economic sanctions would work. We're certainly not going to the U.N. and complain. I mean, he's really limited to some kind of cyber response. And whether or not he chooses to announce that response, I'll leave that up to the discretion of the president.

But I do think his options are limited. But more importantly, I think, that whatever they are he has to use one and it has to be significant. There have to be consequences to this direct brutal attack against private enterprise in the United States of America, if they were offended by our freedom of speech, so be it. If you are easily offended we understand but it doesn't warrant this kind of destruction of our intellectual property and an invasion across our border - the internet may not have borders but we do. We also have a value system when you cross our borders and impair and try to undermine our value system we respond.

SMERCONISH: Knowing what you know of the global picture is it your hunch that the North Koreans acted alone or had assistance?

RIDGE: You know, it's kind of interesting that you ask that question. My first reaction Michael, was this had to be an insider. I can't believe any country would be so thin skinned to be offended by what a comedy. I don't know how anybody could read a comedic situation in terms of potential assassination attempt but somebody in Hollywood thought it was a good idea but apparently, again, this is unusual because the government itself has attributed the attack to another government. Often we have revelations where private sector enterprises called in by other entities, trace the digital network back to an offender and name a particular nation.

My recollection we don't normally call out another country. In this instance we did. And since we called them out and there have to be consequences.

SMERCONISH: The president said on Friday that he thinks that Sony made a mistake. Does Tom Ridge think that Sony made a mistake?

RIDGE: I agree. I think they should have shown it whether the theaters, whether they were packed or - they had to remain open. I happen to agree with the president. I think that if we are going to blink because someone threatens us because they don't like a point of view that we have expressed, then they have already won. It's a terrorist attack. They intimidated us by a threat then it's a terrorist attack and they achieved the consequences that they sought initially and we just don't tolerate that in the United States.

We're more resilient, we're bigger, we're stronger and I'm very hopeful that the president although he may have limited options uses one with the consequences are dire because it's not only a signal to North Korea but we need to send a signal to our digital adversaries around globe. We'll do everything we can to protect and defend ourselves. That's our first instinct, that's our first mission.

We also understand that we'll never be fail-safe. That there will be attacks and attackers that penetrate even the most sophisticated machine that we put in place. But under those circumstances there needs to be an approach, a red line that says if this is what you do to us, and the consequences are such and such, then you be prepared for responsive action.

SMERCONISH: Governor, final question. I ask you this given that you were the nation's first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. For a long time you've been sounding the alarm, trying to sound the alarm about our vulnerability to cyber attack. OK. In this instance it's the movie industry. What other sector of American life, government or private sector, does Tom Ridge most worry about? RIDGE: I think we've got multiple sectors as you pointed out, Michael, but I think you do worry about the financial services sector, energy, telecommunications, transportation. They are all vital to us. At the end of the day you can imagine the disruption of the financial payment system, attacks on the grid, so they are all potentially vulnerable in the digital forevermore.

By the way, the digital sun is never going to set. The heat's going to get stronger and hotter in the years and the decades ahead so and it's going to be more complex, the adversaries are getting more sophisticated. That's all the more reason for this president to send a message not only to North Korea but the broader global community. You attack us, we can attribute to you, there will be consequences. Hopefully the consequences will be strong enough, it will actually be a deterrent to future attacks.

SMERCONISH: Governor Ridge, thank you as always for your time. We appreciate it.

RIDGE: Great pleasure. Nice to be with you.

SMERCONISH: So what is North Korea trying to accomplish with this mother of all hacks and why would they be willing to expose themselves to the retribution of the most powerful nation on earth. My next guest is one of the most knowledgeable people I know on that subject, Gordon Chang, is the author of "Nuclear Showdown. North Korea takes on the World." He's also a columnist for "The Daily Beast" and writes extensively on China and North Korea. Good to have you.

"30 Rock, "South Park," "Team America," all examples of North Korea being butt of jokes that didn't draw this kind of a reaction. What is it about a stoner movie, a Seth Rogen film, that you think so incensed the North Koreans?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": A couple things at work here. First of all, I think the North Korean regime is much more insecure now than it was in the past. And so something is going to get their attention. It was "The Interview," the movie we're talking about. Also, because this is a story about the assassination of the North Korean leader and this, if it were known in North Korea that this were possible, might inspire people.

SMERCONISH: Copy cats.

CHANG: Certainly copy cats. And what they were worried about in North Korea was not the theatrical release in the U.S. because North Koreans don't go to an AMC in Omaha, but South Korean activists were talking about taking DVDs of the movie, putting them in balloons, lofting those across the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas and then having North Korean citizens watch them. So I think that that was something that at this particular time of insecurity, that is what got their attention.

SMERCONISH: Of course that assumes the capability on the part of the North Koreans stead to have a DVR player, DVD player to be able to watch it. I want to ask Gordon Chang something else. The level of sophistication of this attack really surprised me. I don't mean the technical aspects, I mean the street smarts for lack of a better descriptor, for whoever was responsible to know OK, they got this treasure-trove of e-mail, to know what to release, that would get the most attention in the American media and then around the globe. Did you think about that aspect?

CHANG: There are two things here. I think that is something important and one of the things here is that the North Koreans are very bold. And so I think that they have a good handle on us. We always say that this is an isolated hermit kingdom. But they actually are very clued in to us. They see us as their primary adversary. And so therefore they want to know what makes us tick. So I'm actually not surprised in a sense that they knew that.

But also, there was a technical expertise that was beyond what most people thought North Korea could do. Well, the North Koreans are very up to date on this. They get the training from the Chinese and the Russians and there's evidence that the Chinese were involved in these attacks on Sony. So clearly the North Koreans were up to speed and doing state of the art work.

SMERCONISH: Let me give you an example of what I'm thinking of. The sort of Sun Tzu "Art of War" aspect of this. And George Clooney made reference to this. Clooney said that he thinks that the racially tinged e-mails were the first to be released, so that there wouldn't be folks rushing to the support of Sony once this issue got out.

Nobody wanted to be associated with that so why are we going to speak in support of. Do you think that they were so sophisticated. The North Koreans responsible for this that they said "OK, we've got this data, what are we going to drop first? Let's go with the race card."

CHANG: Yes, I think so. North Koreans talk about race. They say they are the purest race, and this is very important for them. They understand our race relations to a greater extent than we think they do. As I said I'm not surprised that they were able to take the most inflammatory portions of the e-mails traffic and actually release that. They are very good at this.

Remember, propaganda is really been the forte of the Kim family. From 1948 since the founding of the North Korean state.

SMERCONISH: Are we limited because we know so little about them, are we limited because Dennis Rodman is the only American we can rely on for insights about this guy?

CHANG: I don't think we're limited. Because I think there are a number of things we can do beyond a cyber attack. So for instance, we know that the North Korean regime depends on flows of money. If we cut them off we've seen what happens in the past. In 2005 when the Bush administration put those financial sanctions in place it really affected the regime.

So there are things. We are not without tools in this area. And especially with regard to the sale of ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons technology, that the North Koreans sell to the Iranians with China's help, by the way. If we cut that off that that also would have a big effect on the regime. Because then Kim Jong-un, the ruler wouldn't have the support of the other people in Pyongyang.

SMERCONISH: Final question. I asked this of Secretary Ridge, I'll ask it of Gordon Chang. The Chinese, do you think they were involved?

CHANG: They definitely were involved because those attacks were routed into Chinese IP addresses. And because China has the great fire wall which is the most sophisticated set of internet controls nobody could have been able to do this without China's knowledge. Got to remember that North Korea's most sophisticated cyber attackers are not located in North Korea, they are located in the Chinese city of Shenyang (ph). Some people think that they those people were actually involved. So China one way or another was complicit in this.

SMERCONISH: Gordon Chang, nice to have had you here. I had you on the radio. I always enjoy your company. Thanks for your expertise.

CHANG: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: We're going to take a short break.

When we come back, if the North Koreans did this to Sony what else can they do? A former FBI cyber security expert joins me next.


SMERCONISH: Cyber terrorism it's a scary word particularly the terrorism part. Finding the people responsible and stopping them is no easy task. When it comes to the cyber part, it's even harder. One man who knows how hard it is is Shawn Henry, he's the president of Crowd Strike Services and a former FBI executive assistant director who oversaw computer crime investigations all over the world joins me now from Washington. Shawn, do you think the North Koreans have the capability to do this themselves?

SHAWN HENRY, FORMER FBI EXE. ASST. DIR.: Well, I think they do, only because I don't know that these types of attacks are as complicated as many people seem to believe that they are. We see lots of organizations, I worked -- when I was in the bureau overseeing thousands of hacks into major organizations, I worked in hundreds of them since I've been with Crowd Strike. It's not that hard to get into many of these networks. Because they are so broad, they're so vast, the adversaries are developing new capabilities but a government like North Korea, they have got training, they got some resources, they got intent and when they are developing their skills, as they are as other nation states are, attacks like this are not that difficult.

SMERCONISH: Is there an element of this that is reminiscent of the nuclear era, the cold war era of mutually assured destruction, MAD, that if competing powers start releasing information against one another and maybe not the North Koreans, maybe they don't give a damn but the Chinese, for example, the Russians but if we all started playing this same game we could take one another down, and therefore we don't do it. HENRY: I think you are absolutely right. I think that we need to look at this as a weapon of mass destruction or nuclear deterrence, that type of an issue where nation states need to sit down and discuss with each other what's acceptable and what's not. You know, the networks that we're talking about, the entire globe benefits from the value of that technology. The effectiveness and the efficiency and the value that it's brought to all of our lives. It's at risk quite honestly.

The networks are fragile and if there is this perception that it's OK to target networks, to take them down, disrupt them, destroy them, that will pretty quickly I think escalate to a point of no return. I've got some concerns about that.

SMERCONISH: So this is a private sector attempt, private sector successful attempt at hacking, is the government generally speaking the American government, more or less prepared than major U.S. corporations to deal with something like this? I ask you because Shawn, I'm saying if it could happen to Sony could it happen to the Defense Department, could it happen to the Transportation Department, could it happen to the White House?

HENRY: Well, honestly it does. I mean there are many U.S. government agencies that have been breached over the years, and it is a concern shared by all infrastructure. I think the government has different capabilities in terms of intelligence that they collected that enables them to perhaps better protect their network but this is a shared responsibility.

The private sector and the government have got to work together in a collaborative way to best protect the networks. The private sector owns the vast majority of the networks and the government honestly is not in a position, I don't know that most understand, they are not blocking the traffic. They are not filtering out malicious traffic so the private sector, the responsibility falls to them. They are obligated to protect their networks because the government's not in position right now to actually filter that out.

SMERCONISH: Quick, final question. How good could we be if we wanted to be in doing the same thing?

HENRY: Well, you know, the U.S. government has technical capabilities for sure. But again, I think this is an area where we've got to be talking to nation states like China, like Russia, and having candid discussion about what those red lines are. If you cross the red lines, this is what the repercussions are going to be. We have to address that. We have do it now.

SMERCONISH: Shawn Henry, thanks for your expertise.

HENRY: Thanks, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Take a quick break. And when we come back with the cancellation of "The Interview" are we Americans letting North Korea's dictator decide what movies we're going to watch? If so the real loser is the concept of freedom of speech.


SMERCONISH: The cyber attack on Sony takes us into unchartered waters. We're all familiar with hacks against businesses, such as Target, Home Depot, JPMorgan Chase and others. Those were criminal attacks looking for credit card information and then putting it up for sale. The Chinese are reported to have hacked U.S. corporations and military computers looking for commercial and military information, but this Sony attack is something quite different. It's really blackmail. Aimed at silencing someone or something.

This time the Target is a movie, a comedy premised on an assassination plot for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. My view, I question the green lighting of a movie based on the assassination of a sitting world leader even a dictator, but having produced the film, Sony should have released it and defied the hacker ultimatums.

George Clooney sent out a petition to the most powerful people in Hollywood saying they were standing with Sony but nobody would sign it. Clooney is furious over the cyber attack. He told, "We cannot be told we can't see something by Kim Jong-un of all f-ing people."

I want to talk about this with the smartest people in the media world, that would be Jeff Greenfield. He is a PBS contributor and he joins me now from Santa Barbara, California. Jeff, George Clooney also said that the press had abdicated its responsibility in covering this issue thus far. You agree with that?

JEFF GREENFIELD, PBS CONTRIBUTOR: I think the Hollywood industry, I think the government, I think the press in its initial coverage, missed the fundamental point that this was a disastrous attack. And I'm not usually given to overstatement but in its own way this was the cyber version of 9/11, both in the completely out of the blue nature of what happened, and more significant to me in the fear that it engendered, not just in Sony but among the whole Hollywood industry and I think beyond.

I think the fact that not one person would sign that petition that George Clooney and a colleague signaled is an indication of the same kind of response in the first days after 9/11. If this could happen anything could happen. If it could happen in New York, it could happen anywhere in America. And I think we're still living with the consequences of 9/11.

And I think in this case, the ability of I guess we now are pretty sure North Korea, to strip every element of privacy and every element of confidentiality out of a major global corporation should have been met with a response of cyber equivalent, I think the entire Hollywood community should have signed on to co-distribute this movie. It should have been on demand everywhere. It could have been on demand.

And I also think we should have tried to figure out apart from a Stuxnet variation some way, assuming anybody in North Korea has a television set to beam this movie right into North Korea. I think this had to be met with a firmest possible response. And I think instead, it was like, oh, look at these funny e-mails, look at these embarrassing disclosures.

I think we're going to pay for this unless there is a relatively rapid and really firm response.

SMERCONISH: In other words, we got caught -- we in the media got caught up in the titillating details of this, without recognizing the big picture harm that it posed.

GREENFIELD: Absolutely. Look, we live in an age -- and I think we have for a very long time, it just gets more obvious with every new kind of media -- that people love this stuff.


GREENFIELD: Schadenfreude is a very powerful element. We like to see important people, powerful people, famous people, brought low. And there is nothing that I don't think, by the way, there is much anybody can do about this because there are no gatekeepers. We don't -- we're decades away from a time if a certain number of people in the press say, we're not going to run this it never was seen. That's long in the past.

But yes, I think the way you put it is right. Oh, this is fun, and it's only dawning on us in the last day or two that far from being fun, this is a threat to everybody. I don't think people have read deeply enough into what was hacked. It isn't just embarrassing e-mail, it's the most intimate medical records of Sony staffers and officials, things that their children were going through that were leaked.

If that's the world we're going to be living in, it's going to be a much less free and less civilized world. That's why I think this had to be met in the strongest possible terms where the response said, oh, no, we're not only going to exceed to what you want, we are going to make it worse. We're going to make sure that five times as many people see what seems to be a fairly silly movie than ever would have seen it in the first place.

SMERCONISH: Jeff, let me ask you a question of ongoing media ethics. What should the media now do about information gleaned from the stolen correspondence? I have three examples in mind. The first of them is that it was reported that Angelina Jolie was defamed by someone relative to her talent. I'm sure you and I would agree that's a matter of gossip. That should not have entered the public lexicon. People shouldn't have reported on it.

But what of the two other examples that come to mind? The racially tinged e-mails, is there an argument that says --


SMERCONISH: -- well, if they are about the head of a big corporation, you've got to publish that? What about the report that came out this week that at the State Department they viewed this movie in the summer and, quote-unquote, "cleared it"?

When there are matters of public concern but we know about them only because they were in stolen e-mails, should we in the media discuss them?

GREENFIELD: Anybody who says they have a text book answer to your question I think is either lying or delusional.


GREENFIELD: These are never decided -- these are never decided in broad categories. I think the examples you gave are very telling. Look, Donald Sterling was strip of the Clippers ownership because a girlfriend of his I believe I'm right, taped a phone call.

SMERCONISH: Surreptitiously I think.

GREENFIELD: Chris Rock -- Chris Rock, who is emerging as one of the smartest social commentators and the funniest around, made the point, he said, you know, that was a free speech problem. But because -- but it was important, what overrode that the idea that the owner of an NBA basketball team is harboring racist sentiments, that's kind of in the public domain.

But the problem I have, Michael, is not with your category. It's just that it's -- you're being King Canute here. There is no way to say to the world that includes Defamer and Gawker and I don't even -- TMZ and all of the others, that, you know, Angelina Jolie's --

SMERCONISH: Whatever, is off limits.

GREENFIELD: -- in every conceivable detail, yes, whatever --


GREENFIELD: -- is not going to get out there.


GREENFIELD: If people -- you know, if you learn, I don't mean you personally, if people learn that there are hacked photos, nude photos of celebrities, you think that to a man and woman people are going to say, well, I could get that with a click but it's unworthy of me.

SMERCONISH: Right. These are tough calls.

GREENFIELD: I wish we lived in that world, we don't.

SMERCONISH: Me too. Jeff Greenfield, thank you as always. We appreciate you being here.

GREENFIELD: OK, Michael. Bye-bye.

SMERCONISH: Lots more still ahead.

Jeb Bush exploring a presidential bid. If he does run, where will he stand with Republican Party base and how would he likely fare in the crucial Iowa caucuses?

Plus, what I learned about Fidel Castro when I met him. It's help me form an opinion about President Obama's decision to resume full diplomatic relations with Cuba.


SMERCONISH: Like it or not the 2016 presidential race is under way. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, took everybody by surprise this week by announcing that he is exploring a run for the White House. Other potential Republican candidates such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made it clear they are seriously considering a presidential bid.

But for the past few months, Bush seemed to hem and haw, leaving many Republicans to wonder if he had the fire in the belly to take a crack at the GOP nomination. Now, he's put those doubts to rest.

And here's my take: I think it's a smart move with regard to the timing. And I'm glad he's got a full foot in the water. Jeb Bush caught everybody off-guard, thereby sending a message that he would be a serious candidate. That could position him well to get the support of establishment Republicans, who have seen their party hijacked to the far-right and are fearful that the White House will be out of reach if the GOP doesn't start fielding more mainstream candidates.

I think he could be a formidable candidate in a general election. The big question, of course, could Bush survive the long and arduous primary season?

Robert Costa is the national political reporter for "The Washington Post."

Robert, could someone supportive of Common Core and immigration reform capture the GOP nomination?

ROBERT COSTA, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think there certainly is a possibility that Jeb Bush, even with his problems with the Republican base, could find a path to nomination. I was in Iowa this week, and I sat down with conservatives, with moderates and party officials, and they said Bush may not win a place like Iowa but he could win, place or show and do well in New Hampshire and other states where they are looking for a winner in the general election.

SMERCONISH: What is his announcement -- it wasn't announcement but he's warming to the idea of running. What does it mean for Chris Christie and what does it mean for Mitt Romney?

COSTA: The timing of Governor Bush's announcement is significant, because in a political sense, it boxes out Governor Christie, and Governor Romney who need to perhaps shorten their timeline and make decisions.

Jeb Bush is now moving fast with donors. He had meetings this week in Chicago and in Florida. He's starting to put together an opera operation. That's going to put pressure on all contenders, especially those who are looking for that same establishment money.

SMERCONISH: Nate Silver did something interesting at the FiveThirtyEight blog. I'm going to put it up in the screen in two parts. He tried to fit Jeb Bush into an ideological spectrum that included other candidates and some well-known historic figures in the Republican Party. In fact, there you can see page 1 may be on your screen.

Chris Christie he pins as the most moderate of the entire field, he's got Jeb somewhere between George Herbert Walker Bush and Susana Martinez. At the other end of the spectrum if we go to page two, there you see Ronald Reagan somewhere in the middle, Robert. And then Barry Goldwater furthest to the right with Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann and Scott Walker.

Here's my question for Robert Costa, given your reportage. Do we know enough about Jeb to know where he would fit on an ideological spectrum?

COSTA: Yes, I think when you look at that spectrum, you have to look really at what he did as governor of Florida. It's easy to look at Governor Bush's mild manner, his temperament and cast him as a moderate, because when it comes to how he approaches his rhetoric in politics, he has more of a moderate temperament.

But he was a deeply conservative governor of Florida. He was a popular person with home schoolers. He was an education reform with charter schools. He did a lot to be pro-business down there.

That's what his camp are trying to remind conservatives of, that he was a conservative when he was governor, even now if he doesn't have the Ted Cruz combative personality.

SMERCONISH: A blank slate, though, on foreign policy, by the definition. He's been a governor.

COSTA: He is. I mean, he is closely associated on a personal level with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He consults with her, according to people I've spoken to in Bush's camp.

But beyond that, he is a blank slate. And that's one area he has to define himself, in a party that's at war right now between the hawks and doves, the Rand Paul wing, and the John McCain wing. Where does Bush fit? He needs to articulate it.

SMERCONISH: Robert Costa, as always, thanks so much for being here.

COSTA: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Who was the mystery man who carried to his grave the story of his generosity to the most desperate in his home town? We will tell you, next.


SMERCONISH: Eighty-one years ago this week, the week before Christmas, 1933. It was the depth of the Great Depression. In Canton, Ohio, unemployment stood at 50 percent.

When folks there looked in the local paper, they saw an ad, a very unusual ad, offering modest help to people in need. Those in despair were encouraged to write to an anonymous benefactor who went by the name B. Virdot. Hundreds of requests poured in. Some sought money for themselves and their family.

Myrna Jury wrote that her husband had been out of work three years. But now was making 40 cents and added, "We're in debt." The Juries had four children, quote, "they all need shoes and clothes and Charles who was 7 needs an overcoat." Mrs. Jury mentioned that her spouse would not permit her to seek assistance for clothes hence her P.S., "I decided to write without telling my husband."

Others sought assistance for friends and acquaintances, some wanted only loans. A few admitted brushes with the law.

The mystery man then sent 150 checks for $5 each, about $90 by today standards and many recipients then wrote beautiful thank yous. The benefactor carried his identity to his grave.

But enter Ted Gup, a journalism professor and formerly an investigative reporter for "The Washington Post." He is also the author of "The Secret Gift" and he joins us from Boston.

OK, Ted, who was the donor?

TED GUP, JOURNALISM PROFESSOR, EMERSON COLLEGE: The donor it turns out was my grandfather, and the name B. Virdot was a combination of his three daughters' names. Barbara, Virginia, that's my mother, and Dots or Dorothy. Those were the three girls and my grandfather combined to come up with this anonymous donor.

SMERCONISH: How did you become aware of this entire act of friendship and generosity?

GUP: My mother had her 80th birthday and we surprised her, took her to dinner and afterward, she said she had a gift for me. It was an old suit case. She took me to her attic and he handed me this beat up old suitcase. She had no idea what was in it except old papers.

So, I took it and several days later, I opened it. I found hundreds of letters all of them dated December 18th, 1933, all of them addressed to B. Virdot. I had no idea what I was looking at.

And I put them away and a few days later, I looked again and eventually I found a newspaper clipping from the Canton repository identifying this gift, and I put it together that the anonymous B. Virdot was my grandfather, Sam Stone.

SMERCONISH: Sam Stone was Jewish, this was a predominantly Christian community, and he chose to do this in the Christmas season. Why?

GUP: Very good question, Michael. I think he did it for several reasons. One is although everyone in the community assumed that this was a good Christian, the Secret Santa, he was the son of orthodox Jews, he had escaped the programs of Romania.

And 1933 as you'll remember was the year that Adolf Hitler came to power. I think that having walked out of Romania with the clothes on his back and having been rejected by country after country, and having witnessed what was going on in the old world in Germany, vis-a-vis under Hitler I think that he felt enormous debt of gratitude to his Christian neighbors for welcoming him to this new land.

SMERCONISH: "The Secret Gift" is a fascinating story, a great book. You've done him a mitzvah -- how's that? -- by writing it. Thank you, Ted.

GUP: That's terrific, Michael. Thank you.


When we come back, my provocative time with Fidel Castro, talking about Osama bin Laden, and his offer to help the victims of 9/11. Stick around.


SMERCONISH: Welcome back to the program.

This week, of course, President Obama announced the reestablishment of relations with a country that's been our enemy for half a century. And I thought to myself, it's about time.

I have long believed this was the right thing to do ever since I went to Cuba and participated in a formal meeting and dinner with Fidel Castro. The year was 2002, I was a columnist for "The Philadelphia Daily News" and I got a call from the late Senator Arlen Specter who said to me, M-M-Michael, in that distinctive Kansan twang, how would you like to go with me to Cuba and meet Fidel Castro? Which is how I find myself four months after 9/11 asking Castro to publicly condemn the terror attack against the United States.

He launched into the 10-minute discourse about the attacks and then ultimately condemned whoever was responsible. He also grew a bit defensive. "Cuba made the first statement against terrorism after September 11th," he told me. "We offered Cuban airports for the landing of any aircraft that needed to get on the ground. We offered blood. We offered nurses." He said that America never acknowledged his offers.

But he didn't condemn bin Laden, claiming not to know definitively who was responsible. And when I countered that bin Laden had taken credit on a video, he said, "I can't judge a person based upon a videotape."

I asked him about the al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and he said, "We're willing to cooperate with Americans on relevant measures."

You know, it was the one time I saw him refer to a preferred statement, which he read verbatim.

Castro reminded me of a Western politician soliciting votes. Later in the evening, he crossed had room to seek me out and ask if he'd given a satisfactory answer to my bin Laden question. I made clear he hadn't. At one point, Senator Specter asked him why Cuba didn't have free and fair elections. And Castro replied, oh you mean like you had in the year 2000?

Castro exhibited a keen awareness of American politics that kept the embargo against his country going. He fully understood that anyone running for president needed to court Florida, and to do so meant appealing to the then monolithic Cuban-American voters. And he acknowledged how the embargo was a unifier among his people. He criticized the embargo and claimed he wanted it dismantled -- but I wasn't so sure. I believe then and still posit that it provided him with a ready answer to any complaint about Cuban life, namely, that it was the fault of the Americans and their foreign policy.

Beyond the substance there were plenty of surprises like the Christmas tree in our hotel lobby, the Coca-Cola in the mini bar, and CNN on televisions in our room.

When I drive my hands in the men's room of a new restaurant, I took note of the "Made in Illinois" stamp on the appliance. I did not find Castro to be a central casting communist. He spoke with conviction, but not slogans and ideology and he was surrounded by a cadre of surprisingly young, Capitol Hill types, calling into question my assumption that communism was an old man's game.

Information mattered to Castro. I peeked through the doorway into his private office and noted a presence of a desktop computer. Later, I watched Castro thumb through a two-inch stack containing what he said were 309 pages of the news clips published that day in America all concerning Cuba.

I viewed the evening as the once in a lifetime opportunity to survey a world leader up close and personal, but my takeaway would be better served without him at the helm. I got enough of a look around to know that Cubans enjoyed a third world existence just ninety miles from Florida. That the Cuban people and America would be best served by new Cuban leadership has never been a question, at least for me.

Well, it's been 14 years since I met Castro, but finally, an American president who faces no more elections has taken the appropriate initiative. In the process, he's removed from the Castro brothers their boogeyman, an ever present excuse for all the failings of their role.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. But one thing is certain. It can't be more of a failure than we've had for the last 54 years.

My special moment with another guy, Stephen Colbert, and all the other people sharing the love as he moves from the "Colbert Report" to "The Late Show".



STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: Is it shmer or just smer? SMERCONISH: Smerconish.

COLBERT: Smerconish. No sh in there, right?




COLBERT: Like Smith.

SMERCONISH: It's phonetic, Smerconish.

COLBERT: Smerconish, OK.


SMERCONISH: Hey, so what's in a name anyway? That was a special moment for me.

And I will always remember what Stephen Colbert said to me before the show. He took the pressure off me to be funny, saying, "Hey, I'm the village idiot. So you don't have to be." It was fun. I had a great time.

And now, I want to send a message to him. Congratulations for what you've done and for what you are about to bring to late night television. All the best.

And thank you so much for joining me. Don't forget you can follow on Twitter if you can spell Smerconish.

Wishing everybody a wonderful holiday.