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TSA Security; Mississippi Death; ISIS Terror; Police Update on Mississippi Hanging; Obama Reassessing Relationship with Ally. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 20, 2015 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:13] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Two days, two continents, two horrific acts of terror, and ISIS warns, this is just the beginning.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. One witness says blood was running like a river, suicide bombers blowing themselves up inside two mosques, as ISIS stakes a claim on al Qaeda's turf and sends a new warning to the United States.

The national lead. While you were putting your belt and shoes back on as you rushed to make your flight, the TSA allowed one convicted killer and domestic terrorist to take the express lane through airport security, even though an agent recognized him. How could he possibly have been allowed to fly?

Also in national news, would you believe this bright smiling baby was pulled from an icy creek and did not have a pulse for almost two hours, but ultimately survived? Today, stunned doctors talking about the unbelievable medical effort to save him.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon, everyone.

We are going to begin with breaking news out of Mississippi. The Claiborne County Sheriff's Office there is about to reveal new details on that disturbing case that to many in the area and throughout the nation might evoke memories of a very painful chapter in our nation's history, this, of course, after an African-American man was found hanging from a tree by a bedsheet in a small town just outside Jackson, Mississippi.

The big question, of course, was this a horrific hate crime or a suicide or something else altogether?

Let's go live to CNN's Ed Lavandera, who is in Port Gibson, Mississippi, where this press conference is about to get under way.

Ed, we know this man has now been identified by local authorities. Who is he?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He is 54-year-old Otis Byrd. And he was discovered yesterday by a team of Fish and Wildlife search-

and-rescue people who had been going through a wooded area behind his home. Now, Otis Byrd was reported missing on March 8. He was last seen on March 2, Jake, and officials here are saying that it is either a murder or suicide.

We spoke with the sheriff earlier today, who told us that the autopsy was being performed on Mr. Byrd's body and that perhaps here at some point we would get a better indication as to exactly what they are dealing with. But the area where he was found, Jake, extremely remote, very wooded area about 500 yards or so away from the main road, so a great deal of intrigue as to what exactly is going on with this case.

Mr. Byrd was found hung by a bedsheet in a tree in that wooded area. Obviously, in this part of the world, that image evokes all sorts of questions. In fact, I was talking to the sheriff about that. He said, Jake, as soon as he got to the scene on Thursday and saw Mr. Byrd's body hanging from the tree, that he immediately reached out to federal and state investigators because of that very issue, just the way that situation looked.

And he wanted all of the full board of help and investigators here on the scene to help them with the situation. We are waiting to hear from the sheriff, perhaps some other officials and perhaps get some indication of what the early preliminary information from the autopsy reports is telling investigators. So, we hope to have that information here for you here in a little bit -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Ed, what else do we know about this man? He had done about 25 or 26 years in prison, I believe?

LAVANDERA: Right. In 1980, he was convicted of robbery and murder. He was paroled back in 2006. It's been almost 10 years since he has been out on parole. We spoke with a family member who said that he had done some work for oil companies and the sheriff said that he had actually seen him around the courthouse, checking with his parole officer, didn't report any other kind of problems with him over the course of the last 10 years.

That's a little bit of the background. His family has been very hesitant to speak publicly about what exactly is going on, but those are some oft tidbits they did share with us since we have arrived.

TAPPER: All right, Ed Lavandera, stick around. We are going to come back to you when that press conference begins.

But, in the meantime, we are going to turn to some gruesome news in the world lead. Today, at least 135 people were killed by suicide bombers, ISIS says they did it, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In Yemen, in the capital city of Sanaa, two mosques crowded with worshipers for the busiest prayer service of the week turned essentially into a trauma ward when terrorists wearing belts stuffed with explosives detonated themselves.

Witnesses say the first bombs went off inside the buildings, inside the mosques, and then as people fled and others rushed to help the victims, more explosions came, the White House today cautioning it's too early to pin blame on is, but ISIS certainly wants to convince the world that they are responsible, written audio, visual and video statements all claiming responsibility from ISIS popping up on jihadist Web sites within hours of the attacks today.

[16:05:14] CNN, of course, not yet able to independently verify those claims.

I want to get right to CNN's Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon.

Barbara, before today, ISIS was only thought to have had a small, fledgling presence in Yemen, where al Qaeda is very strong. If these claims turn out to be authentic, this would be I would think very troubling to the Pentagon.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It would be, Jake. They would want to know much more about the ISIS organization in Yemen, who is there, how many are there, what kind of access do they have to weapons, but, again, right now, the U.S. not ready to say that it was ISIS behind it all.


STARR (voice-over): The horrifying aftermath, hundreds killed and injured after suicide bombers attack mosques in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, ISIS-affiliated Web sites posting claims of responsibility, saying -- quote -- "This is the tip of the iceberg."

U.S. officials say they cannot verify the claim, cautioning militants may be affiliated with the organization, knowing spectacular attacks attract fresh recruits.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is not at this point clear evidence of an operational link between these extremists and Yemen and ISIL fighters in Iraq and Syria.

STARR: Yemen is a top worry because al Qaeda there has continuously vowed to attack the United States. Yemen, once a showcase for the U.S. strategy, trained government forces to fight militants.

But the government collapsed. Millions of dollars in U.S. military equipment may now be in rebel hands.

ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: The restoration of a government there that will cooperate with us is very important.

STARR: Few signs of that, and relying on drone strikes and U.S. firepower no longer sufficient.

SETH JONES, SENIOR POLITICAL SCIENTIST, RAND CORPORATION: The U.S. should be and must be concerned about the spread of jihadist activity in these areas.

STARR: Fragile governments across the region are giving way to violent extremism now spreading in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab spring, people are taking to

the streets after terrorists at a museum killed nearly two dozen, two of those terrorists training next door in Libya, where there is no central government in firm control.

In Egypt, one place where the government did respond, warplanes pounding those ISIS camps in Libya after ISIS militants slaughtered Egyptian laborers.

JONES: The big problem in Yemen, in Tunisia, in Libya, and several other countries is political and economic. They do not have governments that are capable of providing basic security. So, you can strike targets in these areas, but until you have a reliable ally on the ground, a lot of this is like mowing grass.


STARR: Now, I have to tell you, Jake, the death toll in Yemen has been mounting all day, no signs of stability returning to any of these areas we are talking about -- Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

Let's bring in the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, CNN's national security commentator, former Congressman Mike Rogers.

Congressman, thanks so much for being here.

ISIS making two separate claims on these terrorist attacks, in Tunisia earlier in the week and in Yemen today. Do you believe either claim of responsibility is credible, both, neither?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think they are both credible. I'm a little more suspect of the Yemen event.

There is a huge pushback there. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who has been one of the strongest offshoots of al Qaeda, has been operating there. That's why the U.S. has such a focus, an operational focus in Yemen. It could have been ISIS. We know that they had recruiters there. We know that they have been trying to make inroads there.

I think we should let that one play out a few more days to find out in fact if it was them. But, Tunisia, Jake, I'm telling you, I think that's absolutely an ISIS-led and -inspired attack.

TAPPER: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has denied that they were responsible for the attack in Yemen. Does that suggest more evidence that ISIS may have been?

ROGERS: It certainly does. It certainly continues to lend credibility. A, they have come out and taken credit for it. No one else is counterclaiming that they have done the event.

I would wait until all of the pieces of information are in if I were the intelligence folks to make that conclusion. I'm fairly sure that's exactly what they're doing. It is equally likely that it is today. Again, I just don't have the high degree of confidence.

But I will -- Jake, this is a big event. This will ramp up that sectarian violence that's happening in Yemen, which damages U.S. prospects for going after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, again, the number one threat, we believe, to the United States when it comes to an al Qaeda affiliate planning attacks against the United States.

[16:10:18] TAPPER: Some very disturbing words today, Congressman, from the French prime minister, saying it's not a matter of if, but when there will be another terrorist attack in Europe.

Do you agree that ISIS is not just on the doorstep of Europe, but there and ready to carry out another attack imminently?

ROGERS: I do believe, just the way we have seen them recruit people in Australia and Canada and attempt to recruit people in the United States, that, yes, they probably have conversations with individuals across Europe.

Libya is concerning because they have that northern region of which they're present. The distance between the northern shore of Libya and the southern tip of Italy is not very far. There are regular boatloads of illegal immigrants crossing that strait every single day, undocumented migrants.

And it is easy to infiltrate that human trafficking pipeline. And I think that's why ISIS was making the threat that they will take Europe through Rome. I think they are trying to say that they are getting stronger in a place like Italy and will be able to conduct attacks across Europe. And that's something that certainly law enforcement and intelligence officials are going to have to be worried about.

TAPPER: Very interesting comments today in "The Washington Post" from retired General David Petraeus, who told the newspaper that, in his view, ISIS does not pose the greatest danger in Iraq, but Iran and the Shiite militias under the influence of Iran do. Are you in agreement with that assessment?

ROGERS: Well, if you think about what's happening in Yemen, Jake, that's caused by Iranian activities by supporting the Houthis, which are kind of an offshoot of the Shia religion.

That was a sponsored Iranian event. They trained them, they financed them for years. When the Houthis went over to take over in Sanaa, that was, again, an Iranian really inspired event. That has created this increased friction between the Shias and the Sunnis there.

I would chalk one up for Iran there. When you look at what's happening in Iraq, the Shia militias who went through pushed ISIS out of these villages and then conducted the same bad behavior that ISIS was doing to these villages, chalk one up to Iran. These are inspired and trained by the Iranian Quds Force.

As a matter of fact, one of their senior generals has been seen on the ground multiple times in Iraq leading these particular efforts. So Iran is a dangerous influence in that region and is likely to cause more trouble when it comes to Sunni/Shia violence.

TAPPER: Congressman Mike Rogers, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's go back to Mississippi, to our breaking news story, where the Claiborne County Sheriff's Office in Mississippi has new information on the case of that African-American man found hanging from a tree.

Ed Lavandera is there in Port Gibson, where this news conference with the Claiborne County sheriff and an FBI special agent is about to get under way.

Ed Lavandera, what are we expecting them to say? Do we have any information about this case, this gruesome case?


Well, I think we are just about a minute away. Officials from the FBI office here in the state of Mississippi and the sheriff in Claiborne County are starting to make their way to the microphone and brief reporters on what exactly they have to update us on.

I'm not exactly clear or sure that we are going to get some sort of definitive answer at this point as to whether or not 54-year-old Otis Byrd committed suicide or if they have a murder investigation on their hands here in Claiborne County.

But we do know that the sheriff said that Otis Byrd's body had been sent off and that autopsy work was being done and that he had hoped to get some preliminary autopsy results here early afternoon in Mississippi. So I think we might get some of that indication, but I'm not exactly sure, Jake, if these preliminary reports on the autopsy is going to be enough to definitively say whether or not Otis Byrd committed suicide or if this would be ruled as a homicide.

And, Jake, I think if you're -- as you are looking at that live picture there, you can start seeing the sheriff here in Port Gibson, Mississippi -- that is Marvin Lucas there in the black shirt -- and the special agent in charge here of the FBI here in the state of Mississippi starting to walk toward the microphones.

They are about 10, 15 yards away or so. So, they will be speaking here momentarily about the latest information they have.

I will let them kind of take over here as you begin to listen to what they have to say.

Good afternoon.

DON ALWAY, FBI SPECIAL AGENT: So, my name is Don Alway. I'm the special agent in charge for the FBI in Mississippi. I apologize for being late. We have been with the family of Mr. Byrd, informing them of some of the progress that's been going on to date.

So I would like to talk a little bit about our progress. And then I will turn it over to the sheriff. And then, at conclusion, we will try and answer your questions.

[16:15:03] So, overnight, our forensics team completed a search based on a discovery from the state Fish and Wildlife Agency who yesterday found the body which was confirmed to be Otis Byrd. The state medical examiner today confirmed that and we have just recently briefed the family as to those findings. So, we will expect next week sometime to find a preliminary report as to cause of death.

So, so far today, approximately 30 agents from the FBI, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and other state and local agencies who are out trying to identify friends and family that we can gather additional information that might help us paint a picture as to the cause of death of Mr. Byrd.

Our evidence response team today is also searching a storage location owned by Mr. Byrd in furtherance to try and identify more of a fact pattern that might help us get to the answers that we all are seeking.

The community deserves answers, specifically the family deserves answers so we are doing everything in our power to be transparent, to talk about what's going on so far, but we want to reiterate that individual single pieces of information and bits of rumors, we are going to hold off on speaking to those until we can collectively come to a conclusion and get you the truth that everybody deserves.

So, the things that we identify, we are going to make sure we talk to the family first. Our victims witness coordinator is still with the family now offering them support and condolences. We will keep that as a priority as we move forward.

Everybody wants answers and they want those quickly. We understand that. And everybody has heard rumors including myself as to who may be behind this and why. We are going to hold off in coming to any conclusions until really, the facts take us as to a definitive answer that we are all seeking.

So, in the meantime, I can assure you that members of the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, the civil rights section, the U.S. attorney's office for the southern district of Mississippi and all our state and local partners are going to actively pursue this until we get a definitive answer.

At this time, I would like to turn it over to the sheriff.


First, I would like to say to the Byrd family that life matters. Our prayers go out to the family and this community. We heard with both from the FBI and MBI give this information. I ask this community allow the agencies to do their work.

I commit to you as the sheriff of Claiborne County we will not allow the sins of the past cast a shadow on the future. Thank you.

(INAUDIBLE) ALWAY: So, we're bringing the resources that we need to come to a conclusion, wherever that takes us. So, we are going to bring all the resources we have to bear. That's in conjunction with the MBI and the sheriff's department. We're going to bring as many resources until we can do the interviews and check as many leads as possible, as many as it takes.

REPORTER: What questions are you looking to answer at this point?

ALWAY: We are still trying to find out more about Mr. Byrd's life. We're really trying to paint a picture as to what was going on both personally and professionally to help us further identify potential reasons. That's going to be done in conjunction with all other aspects that are potential evidentiary value -- the autopsy report, et cetera.

REPORTER: Are you aware of any personal problems that he had?

ALWAY: So, I'm not going to discuss the nature of his personal life so far because again, that wouldn't be fair to him or his family. We are really going to wait until we find anything that's of evidentiary value.

REPORTER: Can you talk about (INAUDIBLE)?

ALWAY: Excuse me?

REPORTER: Can you tell us whether or not he had been shot in the head?

ALWAY: So that is not anything that I'm aware of but if there's things that we can provide to you, we will provide that at a later point in time. But no, I have no information that there's any type of gun play involved.

REPORTER: Can you confirm --


REPORTER: Let me make sure that your comment -- I'm with local chapter of the Claiborne County NCAAP branch, I want to make sure I understand your comment, what you are saying today is that you have notified the family, confirmed that that is Otis Byrd, and the second thing that you have not completed the autopsy?

ALWAY: Yes, sir.

REPORTER: So, that should be due --

[06:20:00] ALWAY: We are expecting a preliminary response back sometime later next week.

REPORTER: Can you tell us --


REPORTER: At the scene out there, it was stated that the Wildlife and Fishery was the first on the scene --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Let's take a break from this press briefing from the local branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation there outside Jackson, Mississippi. Let me bring in CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez.

Evan, it doesn't sound like there's actually any headlines coming from that press conference except to disavow, disabuse anyone of the notion that in addition to having been found dead by hanging, that he had been shot. The FBI special agent in charge said that he did not know of any shots fired upon Otis Byrd.

Why was the FBI called in so quickly when at face value, we do not yet know that this was not a suicide?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it's because the local sheriff there immediately saw a scene that he was not familiar with, that's not something that happens very commonly, and given the history of Mississippi, Southern Mississippi, I think he immediately had some concern. He wanted to get some help brought in the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI to come take a look, bring their forensic experts.

And then the FBI decided quickly to bring in its civil rights people to make sure that it could handle this scene.

But I'll tell you this -- I mean, the scene tells us a lot. From what I'm talking to law enforcement officials, tells us a little bit about where I think this might be going.

We know that he was found with a bed sheet, again, this indicates perhaps -- it doesn't point in certain directions of perhaps somebody who was trying to murder this man. Again, this is not a conclusion but that's where law enforcement officials -- these are some early guesses that they have from looking at the scene, you know? Again, they are doing the forensics, they are going to make sure they do the autopsy.

You can tell from what the FBI says that there's no indication that he was shot, that there was any -- there was anything done to him before he was hanged. So, that's another thing that was an early indicator that they were looking for, if there was any indication he was hit over the head. Again, we don't know whether or not that's been found, but that is exactly what they are going to try to figure out to try to determine what the cause of death was.

TAPPER: All right. Evan Perez, thank you so much. And we will, of course, keep you up to speed on that story as new information comes in.

In other world news today, after a tense few months between President Obama and the prime minister of Israeli, Benjamin Netanyahu, the two finally spoke on the phone. How did the Israeli prime minister respond when asked about his campaign pledge that there will not be a Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister? That's next.


[16:17:10] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In other world news today, the White House is, quote, "reassessing" its relationship with Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign pledge that there would be no independent Palestinian state on his watch. President Obama raised that remark and what it might mean to any Mideast peace process when he spoke with the Israeli leader late Thursday to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory and to reinforce the American commitment to a two-state solution.

This as we're now learning that House Speaker John Boehner will lead a congressional delegation to Israel in the next two weeks.

Let's go right to CNN's Jim Acosta live at the White House.

Jim, two-state solution, one Israel, one Palestine, has long been the position of the U.S. government, including President George W. Bush.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And here at the White House, they say it remains their position but for now, it doesn't matter how many times Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says he still wants a two state solution with the Palestinians, the White House is refusing to take him at his word.


ACOSTA (voice-over): If there's one thing that's clear after President Obama's phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed, it's that a single conversation won't repair a damaged relationship.

Netanyahu has said in at least three interviews that he still believes in Palestinian statehood despite his pre-election flip-flop on a two- state solution in a desperate appeal for votes. "I haven't changed," Netanyahu told NPR, but that's not good enough for the White House.

REPORTER: Why not just take him at his word on that? Is there a reason that the White House --

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I guess the question is which one?

REPORTER: His latest.


ACOSTA: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest clarified his position in his phone call with the president.

(on camera): Did the prime minister tell the president that he believes in a two state solution in his phone call?

EARNEST: Well, that's something the -- you can ask my Israeli counterpart about what the prime minister said in this phone call.

ACOSTA: But don't you know what the president heard?

EARNEST: I'm not saying I don't know. I'm just saying that I will allow my Israeli counterpart to describe the views that his boss conveyed in that phone call.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Despite those tensions, House Speaker John Boehner plans to visit Israel at the end of the month, while the speaker's office says the trip was planned well before the prime minister's re-election, it will come around the deadline for an initial nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This moment may not come again soon. I believe that our nations have a historic opportunity to resolve this issue peacefully, an opportunity we should not miss.

ACOSTA: In a video message to the Iranian people, the president urged leaders in Tehran to come to an agreement and later released a statement calling for the release of Americans either imprisoned or missing in the country.

Secretary of State John Kerry who spent the week working on a nuclear agreement sounded optimistic as he left the talks.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We'll be back next week.

REPORTER: Here in Lausanne?

KERRY: We made a lot of progress. Yes, here.


ACOSTA: The White House has said before Netanyahu's victory that the president would not meet with the prime minister just weeks prior to an election, but with the voting now over, aides to the president say they won't rule out a future meeting, noting they still have to discuss, Jake.