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Arkansas Religion Bill Raises Controversy; ISIS Pushed Back; Sen. Menendez Indicted on Corruption Charges; Publication Defend Reports of Crash Video; Technology to Steer A Plane Away from Disaster; 11 Educators Convicted in Cheating Scandal. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 1, 2015 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:11] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What's all this talk about ISIS wanting a truce?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. The Iraqis and U.S.-led coalition recapture a key town, while ISIS uses one of its best known hostages to say the West should consider a truce. Would ISIS actually do that? Would the West ever consider such a thing?

The national lead. First, he said he was going to sign it. Now Arkansas' governor is kicking a religious freedom law back to the state legislature. We will ask one of the main authors of the bill why he insists it does not allow people to discriminate against gays.

The money lead. Amazon wants to make sure you never run out of toilet paper again and that you never have to schlep to the store to get more. A new device you slap on the Cottonelle or on your coffee maker, press it and wait for the supplies to show up on your doorstep. This is not an April fool.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to the lead. We are going to begin with our world lead.

Why would ISIS, the vile terrorist group that has vowed to attack here in the United States, seemingly be floating the idea of a truce with the West? News outlets have noticed an unexpected thread woven through their latest propaganda, paying particular attention to a piece in the new issue of the ISIS English-language magazine, saying all the nations aligned against them will have to consider a truce.

Now, this article purportedly written by British hostage John Cantlie, almost certainly under duress, of course, could certainly be more -- further misdirection, or could it be an indication ISIS is finally feeling the impact of months of airstrikes, losses in places such as Tikrit? Could that be playing a role in this new ISIS pitch?

Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, where Iraq's prime minister took something of a victory lap this morning hours after announcing his troops had retaken the city from the bloody hands of ISIS.

Let's get right to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, how significant is this victory for Iraqi troops?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, Tikrit is a very important town. What the U.S. is watching right now is whether the Iraqis can actually hold on to the town and can they hold on to it without help from Iran?


STARR (voice-over): Iraqi police cheering their victory. With the help of U.S. airstrikes and Shia militiamen, the Iraqis entered the center of Tikrit, largely taking the city back from ISIS. If the Iraqis can hold on to it, it's a crucial victory.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They need Tikrit badly because the highway that goes between Baghdad and Mosul runs right through the middle of the town.

STARR: Iraqi troops still face clearing some 200 miles of territory on the way to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. Months of fighting may be ahead.

In Tikrit, pockets of ISIS fighters still remain. In a show of confidence, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi came to Tikrit to support his troops. Not mentioned for now, the Iranian-backed Shia militias that Abadi desperately needed to help win on the ground.

U.S. warplanes again striking ISIS targets to support those ground troops. U.S. officials are adamant that the American airstrikes were never aimed at supporting Iranian-backed fighters, long opposed by U.S. commanders.

GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: And I would just to highlight, sir, that three tours in Iraq, commanding troops who were brutalized by some of these Shia militias, I will not and I hope we never coordinate or cooperate with Shia militias.

STARR: The Pentagon insists the ground offensive stalled when the militiamen proved unreliable. And U.S. officials say airstrikes were not started until Baghdad took full control on the ground. But the reality may be different.

HERTLING: You don't have an Iraqi force that has complete control of all the forces that have been fighting. They have had some command of elements of that. It's been a hodgepodge of actors all contributing.


STARR: Now, the Iraqi forces, the reality is, they still cannot function on their own on the ground. They need those thousands of Iranian-backed Shia militia to make further progress, according to U.S. officials.

It's a really interesting wrinkle, another wrinkle in that U.S./Iran relationship -- Jake.

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

Let's talk more about this with CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon, who is live in Baghdad.

Arwa, you just returned from Tikrit. You were there this morning. What's it like on the ground inside that city?

[16:05:09] ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you, Jake, first and foremost that those Iranian-backed Shia militias that the U.S. is so concerned about are very present on the ground. They were very much a part of the push into Tikrit.

They proved to be essential in the battle to take Tikrit and there are a lot of concerns we are hearing about from the various senior members of the Iraqi security forces, the federal police, that we have been speaking to as to how much control they can actually exert over them. The entire city has been decimated. There are plumes of smoke that rise above it due to explosives that the Iraqis had to detonate in place, but also, when we were turning around one corner, we saw a group that was mostly made up of these -- threat Iranian-backed Shia militias.

And one man was holding a severed head in his hand. He was saying that it was the head of an ISIS fighter, vowing to take the fight to them straight to Mosul. We saw the rest of the corpse on the ground, hands bound. It was a man who they said was an ISIS fighter. He was detained. He was then shot and decapitated.

Senior Iraqi officials, Iraqi government officials, have consistently been saying that they are concerned as to how much control they can exert over these Shia militias. It would seem at least in this one instance, they were not able to exert control over them -- Jake.

TAPPER: Arwa, I would think Shiite militia troops parading around with a severed head could really risk inflaming the Sunni/Shiite tensions and possibly even pushing Sunnis more towards ISIS.

DAMON: It could, and it is violence like this that has caused a large chunk of the Sunni population, not necessarily to be pushed towards ISIS, Jake, but to feel increasingly alienated from the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

And that is why, even though, on the one hand, yes, Tikrit, the victory there, as it is being called, is militarily important. What happens afterwards, what happens in this space politically speaking is just as, if not more, significant. The Iraqi government has to prove that it is in control. It has to ensure that these Shia militias do not carry out acts like the one that we saw earlier today, because of the potential it does carry to inflame those tensions.

But, also, when it comes to those families that are returning back home, they don't want to feel as if they fled from ISIS on the one hand, only to return back to their destroyed homes and find themselves at the mercy of these Shia militias. So, it's a very delicate stage, phase right now.

TAPPER: Arwa Damon in Baghdad, thank you so much. Stay safe.

While ISIS runs out of Tikrit, they are still running roughshod over other places. Today, a human rights group says the terrorists now control large parts of a refugee camp just six miles from Damascus in Syria. So while the terrorists have been defeated in Tikrit in Iraq, ISIS is expanding elsewhere.

Let's bring in CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

Thank you both for being here.

Daveed, let me start with you.

This talk of a truce floated in this propaganda magazine from ISIS, is it potentially real? Is it just a tactic? What's your take?

DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: It's just a tactic in the sense they don't actually expect the United States will take them up on this offer of a truce.

In fact, in the Cantlie piece, he even provides a number of conditions that the U.S. is not going to ever agree to, including ending support for all governments in the region, ending support for Israel. And Cantlie says that's just a start. They don't actually think the U.S. is going to sit down and talk to them.

TAPPER: So why even propose such a thing?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I think there are a few reasons. There is not a simple reason that they would propose it.

But one is to appeal to segments like those who are against the war, fed up with it. People can say look, ISIS has proposed a truce. It can add fuel to that narrative. A second thing, there's another purpose to this article. It's not just about the truce. It's also about the narrative. ISIS has done something interesting with their hostage, with Cantlie. They have put him in the role of kind of the objective observer.

A lot of the piece is meant to take areas of weakness for ISIS, that they are losing money, that they're losing territory, and turn them into strengths, basically through appeals to authority, talking about how objective observers are seeing ISIS as something much more than just a terrorist group. His argument is that they are at this point a legitimate state, something that is a fait accompli.

TAPPER: Phil, does this kind of propaganda work on some people?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think if you look at this in the long term, it might work by persuading people that ISIS is not just a terror group.

Jake, at the outset of this show, you referred to them as a vile terrorist group. They refer to themselves as the Islamic State. In this video, they are trying to say, we are not just a terror group that beheads people. We are a group that's willing to participate in negotiations as a state with a foreign government, that is, the United States.

[16:10:09] Remember, going back to last fall, when you saw the beheading videos, you had ISIS in those videos pretending to talk directly to the president of the United States, not talking to the globe in general, but pretending to be a state that could negotiate directly with the president in Washington, D.C.

So this is about a perception of a group that has rapidly taken territory. They believe they own that geography, they provide some services to that geography. They want a state-to-state dialogue. And this is propaganda suggesting that they can have that.

TAPPER: Daveed, how significant do you think this Iraqi and coalition victory in Tikrit is?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I think it's significant geographically. It puts much more pressure on them.

I think the thing to watch is what happens in Northern Iraq after this. Observers who thought that ISIS was quite strong last year are now almost basically to a one saying that it seems like by the end of the year, ISIS is going to lose Mosul, which is the de facto capital of their holdings in Iraq.

Let's watch and see whether their forces crumble. Let's watch and see signs of internal dissent. Those are the kinds of things that will be critical to what this means in the longer term.

TAPPER: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Phil Mudd, thank you both so much.

Our other big world story today, the prosecutor leading the crash investigation in the French Alps says video from inside the plane as it went down does not exist to his knowledge, but two newspapers claiming otherwise are standing by their stories, saying their reporters actually watched the video and are confident it is real. So who is telling the truth?

That's next.


[16:15:57] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Some breaking news now in our politics lead. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, has just been indicted on corruption charges by the U.S. Department of Justice. The government alleging Menendez used his office to peddle influence on behalf of a friend in exchange for gifts.

CNN first reported last month the government's case hinged on the senator's relationship with a high profile donor, Salomon Melgen, zeroing in on plane trips the senator took in 2010 to the Dominican Republic. Menendez has previously said he is innocent. CNN will continue to cover this story as it develops.

In other world news headlines today -- today, we are getting our first ground view at the site where Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed tragically into the French Alps. This is where investigators say a co-pilot deliberately steered a plane into a steep mountainside, killing 150 people, including three Americans.

Search teams continue to search for bodies at the crash site. Also still missing, the plane's second black box, the flight data recorder, which experts believe may be buried under all the gravel. Two European publications are standing by their reports of a memory card having been discovered at the crash site capturing on cell phone video the flight's final moments.

CNN's Pamela Brown is following all of this for us from Dusseldorf, Germany. She joins me now -- Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, tonight, another investigation is developing. We have learned that the French federal police are questioning the head of the BEA Remy Jouty. Of course, the BEA leading the investigation in France and the interview surrounds leaks in the investigation, specifically to the "New York Times."

As we know, "New York Times" came out first with some details about the cockpit voice recorder and that the captain was locked out of the cockpit. And so now, we have learned that Jouty is being questioned in relation to that to see if there is any violation that the contents of that cockpit voice recorder were leaked to the press before some of the key investigators on this case.

Meantime, here in Dusseldorf, Germany, the criminal investigation into Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot, continues. A source with knowledge of the investigation tells me today that investigators are looking at all of his electronics, everything taken from his home. So far a search of his computers is the only relevant thing really turning up at this point is details about his 2009 depression episode.

As we just learned from that bombshell from the airline Lufthansa, Lubitz actually self-reported back in 2009 that he had had depression. This is a big deal, obviously, because Lufthansa initially came out and said it wasn't aware of any medical issues relating to Lubitz.

The CEO of Lufthansa visited the crash site today, laying a wreath there in a pile of flowers left by families. He was pressed by reporters about the criminal investigation. He didn't want to comment on that but he did say it would be awhile until we find the answers we are looking for -- Jake.

TAPPER: Pamela Brown in Dusseldorf, Germany, thank you so much.

Could technology have prevented this crash? The auto pilot feature has been around for more than a century but what if the plane's computers could take control and steer the aircraft away from disaster? Is that even a good idea?

CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh joins me now.

Rene, automatically controlling a plane's path sounds great in this instance but I can think of many ways it might not be.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, you know, is it a good idea. It really depends on who you ask. We do know that after September 11th, this technology went into development. The goal was essentially to prevent someone from deliberately flying a plane into a building or crashing it in some other way.

But the technology never made it into aircraft and some say that was a lost opportunity to save lives.


[16:20:03] COCKPIT ALARM: Sink rate. Pull up!

MARSH (voice-over): Despite glaring cockpit alarms like these, Andreas Lubitz continued Germanwings Flight 9525's deadly descent, the plane in his control alone. More than 10 years ago, Airbus, the plane's manufacturer, helped develop software to potentially allow a plane's computers to take over a flight if it got close to crashing. But the project was scrapped before it was put to use.

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: In the case of the Germanwings passenger murders, this technology would I believe have saved the flight.

MARSH: Here's how it would work: if the pilot does not respond to current audible warnings in the cockpit, an auto pilot function would kick in, steering the plane out of danger and on to a safe course. Many commercial pilots say a plane should never be taken out of a pilot's control.

The crash landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York, an example. After a flock of geese knocked out both engines, the heroic efforts of Captain Sully Sullenberger saved all 155 people on board.

Some pilots also warn technology like enhanced crash avoidance could make jet liners vulnerable to hackers.

CAPTAIN JOHN BARTON, COMMERCIAL PILOT: More and more people will come to know the technology. They will work on the technology. And therefore, there will be bad people that will be able to exploit that technology. That's not a good thing.

MARSH: But in incidents like the Germanwings tragedy where a pilot is being blamed for the trash, former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo says there must be additional safeguards.

SCHIAVO: Most of the major commercial jet liner crashes in the last two or three years could have been saved by an override. (END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Well, Airbus is not saying anything about all this. However, Honeywell, the firm that worked with Airbus, says they won't develop it unless airlines or regulators ask for it and at this point, Jake, so far, that has not happened.

TAPPER: Rene, do we have any idea why the project was scrapped the first time around when it was proposed?

MARSH: Well, I asked Honeywell this very question. They tell me that they determined at the time they didn't feel as if the technology was mature enough, essentially, it wasn't ready for prime time. They thought introducing this sort of technology into the cockpit essentially may create other hurdles. For example, at what point and under what circumstances would the plane give back control to the pilot. There were a lot of questions and so they decided not to go with it, Jake.

TAPPER: Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

Coming up, 11 teachers and school officials already taken into custody after this afternoon they were convicted of racketeering for helping their students cheat on standardized tests. How much prison time could these teachers face?

Plus, the hours are ticking by and now, Secretary of State John Kerry is changing his travel plans again. Is a deal with Iran even further away than before?


[16:27:02] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The national lead: some shocking breaking news out of Atlanta this afternoon. Eleven teachers and school officials mired in a cheating scandal are, as of today, convicted felons. They had the job to educate students. Now, they could be heading to prison for inflating test scores. A Fulton County jury in Atlanta found them all guilty of racketeering. Prosecutors managed to prove they conspired to boost scores on standardized tests. Those scores could have meant more federal funding.

Let's go now to CNN's Martin Savidge live at CNN headquarters in Atlanta.

Martin, how much prison time are we talking here?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Serious. You know, that old adage that they say, you know, cheaters never prosper? Well, in this particular case, these convicted cheaters now could face decades, decades behind bars. Each one of the 11 that were found guilty had one charge of racketeering against them. That charge alone, the maximum they could get could be possibly 20 years.

Then on top of that, many of them also had additional charges, the maximum time on that if you add up is anywhere from five to 10 years per offense. So, you are talking decades potentially behind bars.

And then, what stunned the attorneys of these defendants was when the judge immediately said, all right, let's start rounding all these people up and getting them behind bars. Remember, they haven't had sentencing yet.

So, the attorneys were absolutely dumbfounded. They couldn't believe it. They tried to argue that none of their people had criminal records, they shouldn't be going to prison but the judge said, well, what do you think at the beginning of this trial, it was well known what the charges were, you went ahead and now they have been found guilty and the charge is serious.

TAPPER: And, Marty, as you know, there were others who took a plea deal before this phase of the case. What exactly happened to them?

SAVIDGE: Yes. This is what is the remarkable difference. There were about 20 or 21 others that did take a plea deal that was offered to them and they got one year of probation.

Now, in return, they also had to testify against those who were put on trial. But it shows you a remarkable difference and even the judge was very angry, because you clearly got the sense that he felt it should never have come to this, but that was the trial. There was the conviction that came from the jury after what was essentially five months of testimony, a very costly case, and now, you have been found guilty. It's time to as he said pay the piper.

TAPPER: Martin Savidge, live from Atlanta, thank you so much.

In our national lead, the governor has refused to sign it but the state senator who cosponsored the Arkansas religious freedom bill is still standing by it. So, how can he explain how the law gives residents the ability to refuse service to certain customers based on religious beliefs and yet does not discriminate? We'll ask him, next.