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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Ted Cruz Running for President; Yemen in Crisis; Police: No Evidence of "Rolling Stone" Attack; Witness: Suspect Researched Bombs, Jihadi Websties. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 23, 2015 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:12] JOHN BERMAN, CNN GUEST HOST: Al Qaeda is there, ISIS is there, and now the U.S. is gone.

I'm John Berman, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead. A civil war unravels the country and creates a terrorist melting pot. This is a script we already saw play out in Syria. And now that U.S. special forces have evacuated Yemen, are we seeing it happen again?

The politics lead. Ted Cruz takes a Texas-sized leap into the presidential bull ring, the first to make his 2016 bid official. But can the fiery senator ride social conservatives to the Republican nomination or will he get the establishment's horns?

The buried lead. He's a septuagenarian who gets mobbed like he's a One Direction drummer, if they had one. The pope spent the weekend touring through Naples, grabbing a slice, lecturing the mafia and, oh, you know, performing a miracle.

Welcome to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, pinch-hitting for Jake Tapper today.

And we do begin with the world lead in Yemen, which just might be the most dangerous strip of land on this planet right now. Today, the West has all but abandoned that Middle Eastern country. CNN confirmed hours ago that British special forces departed Yemen in just the last few days, this after U.S. Navy SEALs and Army Delta Force troops pulled out over the weekend.

This flurry of movement comes just hours after ISIS suicide bombers sent shrapnel scattering through two mosques. The twin bombings there killed 137. ISIS was quick to stamp its brand on these attacks, something that did not seem to sit well with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the other terror group in Yemen, the one the U.S. has been most concerned about for years.

And that fiery attack just may have pushed both groups into a deadly game of oneupmanship, but the stakes are body counts instead of bragging rights. Today, al Qaeda says it murdered 30 people in two separate incidents in the city of Al Bayda.

Want to get straight to CNN's Barbara Starr over at the Pentagon. And, Barbara, back in September, President Obama actually hailed the

government in Yemen as a model in the global war on terror, but since name-checking his Yemeni counterpart, that country's devolved into this toxic stew of terror and unrest.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It has indeed, John.

And the main reason is that government there has virtually collapsed, leaving Yemen, as you say, another country where the U.S. has almost no influence.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Yemen now on the brink of civil war. Amid the rising unrest, the United Nations warning the worst may be to come as groups vie for power.

JAMAL BENOMAR, U.N. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR YEMEN: Unless a solution can be found in the coming days, the country will slide into further violent conflict and fragmentation.

STARR: A U.S. official tells CNN al Qaeda fighters, which have vowed to attack the U.S., are now moving quickly to increase recruiting and continue plotting attacks.

But the U.S. just became essentially blind on the ground. More than 100 U.S. military commandos like these who had been tracking al Qaeda, known as AQAP, secretly ordered out of the country by the Pentagon over the weekend. The special operations forces were evacuated by military aircraft and transported across the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti. Fighter jets patrolled overhead, while emergency response helicopters were stationed nearby.

SETH JONES, SENIOR POLITICAL SCIENTIST, RAND CORPORATION: One of the organizations that has been most interested and capable of conducting strikes in the U.S. homeland, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has increased its control of territory.

STARR: The remaining U.S. tools? Drone strikes and monitoring cell phones and social media.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is true that that coordination would be more effective if there were U.S. personnel in the country.

STARR: The number one U.S. target, Ibrahim al-Asiri, al Qaeda's master bomb-maker. Al-Asiri knows how to make bombs with difficult- to-detect explosives, a major threat to aviation. He was tied to the so-called underwear bomb attack in 2009.

The newest threat, the ISIS branch in Yemen which claimed responsibility for these mosque attacks, killing and injuring hundreds, their popularity growing.

MOHAMMED ALBASHA, SPOKESMAN, YEMENI EMBASSY TO THE UNITED STATES: They are promoting themselves as ISIS. It's the rebranding of a new militant group. They are understanding that we -- they initially started recruiting from within AQAP ranks, but now they are expanding and trying to recruit within the tribal areas.

STARR: All of this leaving the U.S. at risk.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: We will have no intelligence footprint or capabilities to monitor what AQAP and ISIS and the Shia militants are doing in the region, and without -- good intelligence stops plots against the homeland.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:05:14] STARR: And Pentagon officials say there was no direct threat to those U.S. commandos on their base in Yemen, but with so much fighting going on across the country, they simply couldn't stay, they couldn't do their job, couldn't go out and meet with villagers.

Right now, it is -- as we see in so many countries, it's the people of Yemen who are suffering so much in these crosshairs -- John.

BERMAN: Yes, there is so much suffering there. Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

So much of this war on ISIS has been waged on the digital battlefield. The terrorists have really weaponized the Internet, so the Pentagon had to be concerned when a group calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division uploaded a hit list of U.S. military personnel on the Web. The group posted names, photos, even addresses or everything a would-be lone wolf needs to attempt to kill.

Want to bring in CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, the military has notified everyone on this list and their families. Do they have a sense of just how credible this threat is?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the concern here, John is that, regardless of whether this group is credible, the concern is that a lone wolf, someone living in the U.S., could go to one of these addresses listed of military members.

We are talking commanders, captains, major generals in this list, a lot of pilots. The concern is that they could try to go there, target these U.S. service members. We are learning more also about the group behind this, the Islamic State Hacking Division. The FBI has apparently been tracking a few of the individuals in this group and they are considered ISIS affiliates, according to a law enforcement official I spoke with.

But it's still unclear whether ISIS leadership directed the group to compile this list. We know that ISIS has repeatedly been calling on attacks against U.S. service members. And one person I spoke with today, an official I spoke with, John, said that this is really an elevation, because this is an actual organized list of addresses, names, pictures of U.S. service members pulled from the Internet, all publicly available information. And it's interesting to note that some of the people on this list are involved in the U.S. air campaign in Syria against ISIS, so it's believed that perhaps they were cherry-picked to be on this list.

BERMAN: Now, I remember the FBI actually warned U.S. service personnel to scrub their social media accounts of any information. This was back in November.

BROWN: Yes.

BERMAN: But have we ever seen anything quite like this before? I can't recall.

BROWN: This is, like I said, an elevation. This is the first time we are seeing something this sort of organized.

As you point out, the FBI has been asking service members to scrub their social media pages because of intelligence suggesting that ISIS members, sympathizers were trying to pull information on them online, publicly available information.

We know that service members and some of the service members' spouses have been targeted online by ISIS members, be it Twitter, Facebook. But this is the first time where we are seeing sort of a compilation of addresses and service members' names. So, it's very concerning.

BERMAN: All right, Pamela Brown, thanks so much. Appreciate you being with us.

BROWN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Want to bring in CNN terror analyst Paul Cruickshank and David Tafuri, a former State Department official.

Thanks, both, for being here.

Paul, let me start with you. We talk about whether or not this is a credible threat, but if you are one of these families or one of these service personnel, one of the hundred on this list, you don't have the luxury of thinking about whether it's credible or not. You have to be very concerned right now, especially because you know this is the type of thing that ISIS has talked about doing.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: John that's exactly right. Of course, last year, last October, there were two Canadian soldiers who were murdered by pro-ISIS extremists within just a few days of each other.

There was also, back in 2013, a British soldier who was hacked to death on the streets of East London. And last may, there was an aspirational plot by a pro-ISIS American here in New York state, Rochester, New York, to kill veterans of the Iraq war. So absolutely this needs to be treated very seriously indeed.

BERMAN: David, I want to shift gears back now to Yemen, where there really is nothing short of a full-scale civil war going on right now. The U.S. still says it is supporting what it calls the legitimate government there, but is there a legitimate government there, and why exactly is this country so important to the United States?

DAVID TAFURI, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, Yemen has been a failed state for awhile, but this is a very negative benchmark.

We can no longer keep troops in the country. These were special forces troops who were used to being in a conflict zone. That's really going to hurt our ability to impact and degrade al Qaeda and perhaps ISIS, as ISIS is potentially in Yemen now, too.

Yemen is important for that reason, because we have to stop terrorists from training there, from becoming stronger there. It's also important regionally. We now have the threat of a Shia takeover of the government in Yemen. That is not only a problem for the U.S. It's very much of a provocation to Saudi Arabia.

BERMAN: You could see a proxy war that could be staged there any minute right now.

[16:10:03] And, Paul, we talk about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This is a group that has actively targeted the United States all around the world for years. They have actually staged real-life terrorist attacks, not just planned them.

But now we see ISIS, last week, ISIS claiming responsibility for killing 137 people on the ground. There were more attacks today, killing 29 that they claim credit for. Now ISIS is popping up there. What's the significance of that?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, it's very significant, indeed, because just until a few weeks ago, ISIS really just had a fledgling presence in Yemen. They have been able to very quickly build up some operational capability there.

I think there have probably been defections from AQAP to ISIS. I think probably there has been the arrival of some Yemeni ISIS veterans from Syria and Iraq. And now you have AQAP and ISIS in competition inside Yemen. I think there is likely to be some oneupmanship between these two groups.

And I think that puts even more onus on al Qaeda in Yemen to carry out a spectacular attack against the United States. They have been trying to do this for the last several years, but because they are now feeling this pressure from ISIS, I think their bomb-makers are going to put this into overdrive in terms of building increasingly sophisticated devices that they are trying to get on Western passenger jets.

It's a very worrying situation in Yemen indeed. Al Qaeda has more space to operate. It's had a recruitment windfall from Sunni tribals who have been infuriated by this Houthi takeover, not only of the capital now, but also areas like Taiz to the south, Sunni heartlands.

BERMAN: David, what do you do about it? Because you are now pulling out the U.S.' -- whatever personnel it did have on the ground, shut down the embassy. What kind of power do you have to assert U.S. interest in that country? Look, let's face it, the U.S. is leaving more countries than it's entering in that region right now.

TAFURI: We have much less influence in Yemen. And it's a shame.

But we do have troops very close by in Djibouti. I expect we will continue to do drone attacks on known terrorists in Yemen. That will have some impact. As you mentioned, we have pulled the embassy out of Yemen. That hurts our ability to engage in diplomacy. We will have to rely on neighbors like Saudi Arabia and like other countries nearby like Oman to help with the diplomacy.

But after all, there is political instability in Yemen, and there's no real way forward with terms of who's going to be in charge of the country. We have a Shiite insurgency that's gained a lot of power. They have taken over the capital. So there needs to be a political solution and we will have to rely on our neighbors and hopefully the U.N. to engage in more discussions, more negotiations, to work out a political solution. That's really the only way to solve this.

BERMAN: Paul, you keep hearing that there are still U.S. drones that could operate in that country, but what are the limitations to drones now that, again, special forces are gone?

CRUICKSHANK: Where are they going to get the intelligence from in Yemen now? They have no presence on the ground we are told on the ground anymore in the country. How will they develop sources, how will they pay informants in the country?

Also, you can forget now the central government cooperating with the United States. They're in a fight for political survival. They have been driven out of Sanaa. They are in the south. All their energy is going after the Houthis, trying to respond to the Houthis moving south.

So the United States kind of counterterrorism strategy in Yemen is in complete tatters. The group al Qaeda in Yemen is getting stronger. They want to hit U.S. aircraft. I think they are likely to put more resources into that because of this rivalry with ISIS.

BERMAN: Have to start all over again. Paul Cruickshank, David Tafuri, thanks both so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

In our national lead, his lawyer wants the jury to believe he was coerced by his brother to participate in the Boston Marathon terror attacks, but Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's computer tells a different story, from details about how to build a bomb to audio recordings from a known terrorist. We have the latest key evidence against him. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:06] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today. In national headlines, not long ago, Charlottesville police announced

their findings after investigating claims of sexual assault at the University of Virginia. A woman who called herself Jackie detailed a terrifying gang rape to "Rolling Stone" magazine last year. She said she had been attacked at a UVA fraternity house, but some of the details in that story ended up not checking out.

CNN's Rosa Flores was in Charlottesville today for the announcement from the police about what they found in their investigation.

Rosa, what can you tell us?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, John, the police chief saying that they have found no evidence that this alleged rape happened on the date that was published by "Rolling Stone" magazine, at the frat house that was published by the "Rolling Stone" magazine.

Now, they are not discounting that this particular incident did happen at another date, at another place, so that's why the police chief is saying they are continuing to have this investigation be open, open but suspended, because they are hoping that more people come forward and that perhaps other evidence can be presented.

But let's not forget this is not the only investigation that is going on. There is a state attorney general investigation that is looking and digging specifically into the response of the university and then you also have the Columbia journalism review, looking at the reporting, John, at the editorial process of this story, making print. And then, of course, so many media outlets poking holes into that story, including CNN and then "Rolling Stone" coming forward and presenting an apology.

But again, the headline today is that police are saying that they do not have any evidence that this alleged rape happened. Now, I've got to say that the description of this alleged rape is so graphic that I asked the police chief, wait a minute, if you did have contact with Jackie prior to this "Rolling Stone" magazine article, why didn't, just for public safety's sake, did you not investigate this?

[16:20:16] Here's the exchange we had. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLORES: You didn't know the facts that were disclosed in that "Rolling Stone" magazine, those graphic details.

POLICE CHIEF: Absolutely not.

FLORES: Otherwise, do you think you would have investigated?

POLICE CHIEF: I think it would have been imperative to investigate it, particularly -- let me step back a minute. We would certainly talk with our commonwealth attorney and victim witness persons in the commonwealth attorney's office to make sure that they had a certain comfort level to move forward with an investigation, because we typically will honor the requests of a survivor unless there is some bigger public safety purpose behind that investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FLORES: And again, that investigation suspended but still open, John.

BERMAN: Still so many questions. Rosa Flores live in Charlottesville, thanks so much.

A gruesome mystery in Mississippi has attracted the attention of an elite group of profilers from the FBI. The behavioral analysis unit, that's the same unit that inspired the TV show "Criminal Minds", is now playing a key role in investigating whether a man found hanging from a tree in rural Mississippi was lynched or if he took his own life.

An autopsy report for 54-year-old Otis Byrd should be released in just a matter of days. In the meantime, federal, state and local investigators are trying to piece together clues on his state of mind and whereabouts in the days leading up to his death. Given the state's history of racial violence, the Department of Justice is also now monitoring that investigation.

Coming up next, just how did Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan learn how to build the bombs they used in their terror attack at the Boston marathon? New details today of what investigators found on a computer.

Plus, he grabbed a pizza, was mobbed by a group of giddy nuns, even stood up to the mafia. But it's the miracle, yes, the miracle that Pope Francis supposedly performed that has everyone talking.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:12] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In other national news, hours ago during a tense cross-examination in the trial of Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his attorney tried to downplay some of the damning evidence FBI forensic experts found on Tsarnaev's computer, like links to jihadi Web sites and directions for how to make a bomb. That evidence seemed to indicate that Tsarnaev did his homework in the weeks leading up to the terrorist attack that killed three people, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and 8-year-old Martin Richard.

But today, Tsarnaev's attorney tried to shift focus to another side of Dzhokhar, the college kid who spent most of his time on Facebook and listening to music like Jay-z.

CNN's Alexandra Field is live in Boston.

And, Alexandra, today things got pretty heated.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they absolutely did. So much so that the prosecution at one point actually stood up and objected to the defense's line of questioning, calling it argumentative. But still, the defense proceeded in their cross- examination going on for a couple of hours, trying to make the point that prosecutors had cherry picked, picking only the most incriminating evidence found on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's computer to show the jurors.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FIELD (voice-over): Instructions for how to make bombs in the pages of "Inspire" magazine, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's recruitment periodical; "Join the Caravan", a document promoting jihad, audio recordings from terrorist Anwar al Awlaki, key pieces of evidence on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's computer. According to prosecutors, they show Dzhokhar's interest in jihad, the virtual record they argue of his research to bomb the marathon with brother Tamerlan.

IPods, cell phones and computers collected during the investigation contain hundreds and hundreds of thousands of files investigated by FBI agent Kevin Swindon who testified about text messages Dzhokhar sent to his friend Dias Kadyrbayev after the FBI releases his photo and this video. "I saw the news, better not text me, my friend. If you want, you can go to my room and take what's there."

Kadyrbayev later pleads guilty to obstructing justice, accused of taking a backpack and computer from Tsarnaev's dorm room following the bombing. Also found on that computer, a school paper he wrote on drone use called "The Predator War", a high school graduation picture of Dzhokhar seen with Stephen Silva, who testifies to giving Dzhokhar a .9 millimeter Ruger. Prosecutors say it was used to kill MIT Officer Sean Collier. And a resume, Dzhokhar describes himself as responsible, hard working, a good swimmer.

Chechnya, near where Tsarnaev is from, comes out as a top Internet search term, Swindon testifies on cross examination. Islam and jihad are not among the 16 most searched words, defense attorneys point out. The two most searched terms? Typical of an adolescent, the defense suggests, without revealing those words to jurors.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FIELD: The defense didn't make any effort to try and disprove that any of those, quote/unquote, "incriminating files" existed on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's computer. Instead, John, what they were trying to do was put it into some kind of context, saying those files picked up by the prosecution weren't representative of what existed on that computer as a whole.

They also raised a lot of questions when they had that FBI analyst on the stand talking about the fact that devices can be connected so Dzhokhar and Tamerlan's devices could be connected to one another. They also raised questions about whether or not you can really precisely tell who is using a compute computer at what time and who downloaded what.

BERMAN: Interesting. Alexandra Field in Boston for us today -- thanks so much, Alexandra.

In our politics lead, the first official entry into the 2016 presidential race, already getting a taste of what is to come. Ted Cruz being called a, quote, "carnival barker" by a Republican, and "absolutely unfit to run" by the Democratic governor of California. But still, Cruz is convinced he can raise big money. We'll have that next.

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