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Obama: 'Deal Shuts Down Iran's Path to a Bomb'; 147 Dead in Terror Attack on University; Al Qaeda Attacks Yemen Prison, Frees Hundreds; Interview with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest; Details on Deliberate Crash of Germanwings Pilot; Senator Robert Menendez Denies Corruption Charges; Flight Data Recorder Found in Plane Wreckage. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 2, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, nuclear deal. The U.S. and other world powers agree on a blueprint agreement to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons. President Obama says if the deal is carried out, the world will be safer. But what if Iran cheats?

University attack. Terrorists strike before dawn, targeting Christian students in a slaughter that takes nearly 150 lives.

U.S. bomb plot. Two New York women, they're accused now of an ISIS- inspired plot to build a weapon of mass destruction, even as another American citizen with alleged al Qaeda ties is charged with conspiring to aid a terror group.

And premeditated murder. That's how one official describes the actions of the co-pilot who brought down Flight 9525 amid stunning revelations from prosecutors that he researched cockpit doors and suicide methods.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now. World powers led by the United States reach a framework, a nuclear agreement with Iran, an agreement that President Obama says shuts down Iran's path to a bomb. Iran will get relief from crippling sanctions in exchange for huge cuts in its nuclear program if, and we're repeating the word "if," the deal is finalized.

And critics are already sounding the alarm. All of this as al Qaeda- linked terrorists launch a bloody attack on a university, singling out Christian students for slaughter at a school in Kenya. Close to 150 are dead.

Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen also struck today, freeing hundreds of inmates, including one of their leaders, in an attack on a prison.

And federal prosecutors reveal two alleged plots right here at home. A U.S. citizen is charged with plotting to aid terrorists, and two New York women, they are accused of planning to build a bomb. Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're all standing by with

the latest developments. I'll speak live this hour with the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest. And Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally of the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.

But let's get the very latest from our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama is describing this as an historic deal. Now he has to sell it. And the question is whether Republicans and even some nervous Democrats in Washington will buy it.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Just when the Iran nuclear talks appeared to be going nowhere fast, top diplomats in Switzerland revealed a potential breakthrough. Moments later, out came the salesman in chief.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After many months of tough diplomacy, we have achieved the framework for that deal. And it is a good deal, a deal that meets our core objectives.

ACOSTA: The tentative deal reached by Iran, the U.S. and other world powers is specific. Iran must slash by two-thirds the centrifuges needed to produce the fuel for a nuclear weapon. Its breakout timeline, or the time needed to obtain the material for an atomic bomb, is extended from just a few months to one year. International inspectors must have access to all nuclear facilities, and only when compliance is verified does Iran get sanctions relief.

OBAMA: If Iran cheats, the world will know it. If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it. So this will be a long-term deal that addresses each path to a potential Iranian nuclear bomb.

ACOSTA: But hold on. This is only the framework agreement that was due March 31. The technical details of the deal still have to be worked out by June 30. If Iran starts playing games, the White House says Tehran could face more sanctions, with military options also on the table. Skeptics from both parties in Congress will be watching.

REP. ED ROYCE (R-CA), CHAIRMAN, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: We need the inspectors to have the ability to go in there and verify. And until that happens, it looks to me like we're being rolled.

ACOSTA: Secretary of State John Kerry, who led the Switzerland talks, said the agreement is proof diplomacy can work.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Simply demanding that Iran capitulate makes a nice sound bite, but it's not a policy.

ACOSTA: For the president, the nuclear deal could achieve a goal he announced at the start of his presidency: to reach out to countries like Iran.

OBAMA: For those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history. But that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

ACOSTA: Either way, Mr. Obama's legacy could well be on the line.

AARON DAVID MILLER, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: You've got quite a significant accomplishment. Is it perfect? No. He's bet a lot on this, and he's wrapped the last remaining 20 months of his presidency in what could be the most significant accomplishment on foreign policy if, in fact, all of this holds.


[17:05:15] ACOSTA: the president now has a lot of calls to make. He's already spoken with Saudi Arabia's king. He's scheduled to talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and congressional leaders today.

House Speaker John Boehner released a statement saying the parameters for a final deal represent an alarming departure from the White House's initial goals. The president, in addition to that, will hold a summit with gulf state leaders at Camp David later this spring.

Every step of the way, Wolf, doubts will be raised. Even the Iranian foreign minister is tweeting he wants to know when the sanctions are going to be lifted. The pressure is coming from all sides.

BLITZER: Yes, and as you correctly point out, he becomes now salesman in chief, selling this framework agreement.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much. More on the Iran deal coming up.

But there's other critically important news we're following. They struck before dawn, shooting students and seizing hostages, reportedly singling out non-Muslims. Close to 150 people are now dead in an attack by the al Qaeda-linked group al Shabaab on a university campus in Kenya. It's the same group that carried out a bloody mall attack in Kenya and has called for similar attacks in the west.

Let's get the very latest from our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the assault went on for hours, starting in the early morning when al Shabaab gunmen, part of an al-Qaeda-linked group in East Africa, attacked this university in southern Kenya. Kenyan authorities are reporting by the time it was over, 147 dead, more than 500 actually nearly 600 students finally accounted for. At least four gunmen dead.

The gunmen began by separating out the Christian and Muslim students on this campus and killing many Christian students. So this has just been a devastating attack. It's another attack by this group, which has been on the run somewhat against one of these so-called soft targets. Universities, shopping malls, people who are just going about their daily business, and there's really no practical way to fully protect them from a terrorist attack. The White House condemning it. The president of Kenya coming out,

reassuring his people, telling everyone to stay calm but also asking if anyone has information about the attackers to please share it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tell us a little more about al Shabaab. The notion that they would take the Christians, separate the Christians and the Hindus, for example, away from the Muslims, let the Muslims live but start killing the non-Muslims. They did that -- they did that at the mall attack in Nairobi, as well, didn't they?

STARR: Well, yes. I mean, this is a group that is hardcore, hardcore Islamist group with al Qaeda links. They are feeling a good deal of pressure because they have been pushed out of their strongholds in next-door Somalia. So they have been reacting against the Kenyans.

And I will tell you, the U.S. military has launched several raids in recent months to kill top al Shabaab leadership. The group reacting against that.

It was in February that they put out a video, threatening the Mall of America in Minnesota, threatening to attack other American and European malls. That threat, thankfully, did not come true. There was no attack.

But there's ongoing concern that this group is able to reach out and recruit young Somali Americans to their cause, possibly even inspire lone wolf attacks.

So, you know, while it's in East Africa, it's something that's really resonating with law enforcement and intelligence authorities here in the United States, keeping a very close eye on what they are up to. And in fact, the U.S. embassy in Kenya has been repeatedly warning Americans in that region to remain vigilant.

BLITZER: Yes. Only this week, the White House announced the president would be making his first visit to Kenya later this year. So we'll see how that unfolds, as well.

Barbara, thank you.

BLITZER: Meanwhile, there's been a bold attack by an al Qaeda group half a world away, and it may increase the threat for Americans even here at home. The terror group has taken advantage of the chaos and the violence in war-torn Yemen, targeting a prison there and freeing hundreds, apparently including one of its own leaders.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's got the details for us and the enormous implications.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question, enormous. I spoke to a U.S. counterterrorism official today who called the situation in Yemen dire and says there's no indication things are going to get better soon.

Keep in mind Yemen, home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which along with the Khorasan Group considered the two most threatening terror groups to Americans, including the U.S. homeland, and now dozens of their fighters are free.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): As Yemen continues to unravel, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is capitalizing on the chaos. Attacking a prison in the city of Al Mukallah, freeing an estimated 270 inmates. One-third of those prisoners believed linked to the terror group. A senior AQAP figure, Khaled Batarfi, is believed to be one of them.

[17:10:16] U.S. officials consider the group, linked to the "Charlie Hebdo" attack and the underwear bomber, as one of the biggest terror threats to the U.S.

Now these escaped prisoners are poised to strengthen the group just after U.S. Special Forces tracking them were evacuated from the country last month. A U.S. counterterrorism official tells CNN, quote, "Long-term, the instability has reduced counterterror pressure on AQAP, potentially giving them greater freedom of action to carry out attacks."

AQAP's master bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, remains on the loose and now even more difficult to catch.

GEN. JOSEPH L. VOTEL, U.S. JOINT SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMANDER: ... our top soft (ph) forces over the weekend. It certainly put us in a different posture right now. So it's much more challenging today than it was when we had people on the ground.

SCIUTTO: Now there are concerns that Saudi airstrikes backed by U.S. intelligence are just continuing to destabilize the country on the brink of civil war, leaving even more of a vacuum for terror groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and ISIS.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: They're going to be in a situation where they can control not only the territory but potentially use that territory as a springboard for attacks in other countries.

SCIUTTO: Caught in the middle of the Saudi bombardment, an American imprisoned in Yemen on suspicion he's a member of al Qaeda. New Jersey resident Sharif Mobley tells his lawyers on a phone call obtained by CNN that he fears for his life, as bombs seem to land near the prison where he's held.

SHARIF MOBLEY, SUSPECTED TERRORIST (via phone): I don't know if I'm going to make it out of here alive. Last night there was a bomb in here. Saudi Arabian airplanes. It hit the base, but this was very scary. It made the whole building shake.


SCIUTTO: A senior military official tells our Barbara Starr that the fighting in Yemen may for now cause AQAP's overseas plotting to be sidetracked. But, Wolf, medium and long-term, there's no question there's less

counterterror pressure on that group there. That's a real concern to U.S. officials going forward. They have eyes and ears. They've got satellites. They've got drones, et cetera, but very different from having the partner government there, those partner forces, and having those U.S. Special Forces on the ground.

BLITZER: Yes, I've got to agree with that official. Reported the same situation in Yemen right now, dire. I think that's a fair assessment. Awful assessment but fair.

SCIUTTO: And in private, I'll tell you they use stronger terms.

BLITZER: I can only imagine. All right. Thanks very much for that, Jim Sciutto. Joining us now, Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona. She's a member of both the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. She retired from the U.S. Air Force as a full colonel. She was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us. You agree with that counterterrorism official that the situation in Yemen right now is dire?

REP. MARTHA MCSALLY (R), ARIZONA: Yes, absolutely, Wolf. My last assignment at U.S. Africa command, I was overseeing our counterterrorism operations in Africa. And I will tell you, we worked very closely with Central Command, dealing with AQAP as they were growing and metastasizing. And now, basically, there's a vacuum of ungoverned spaces that is quickly spiraling into chaos. And AQAP is a very sophisticated threat that is now taking advantage of that.

BLITZER: You served 26 years in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot. You think Saudi air power can get the job done in Yemen?

MCSALLY: Well, again, what we're seeing is a larger strategic concern where we've got elements of, you know, Sunni non-state actors like AQAP, and then we've got Shia non-state actors in the Houthis. And, you know, Iran is backing them up, and so now there's the potential to have a proxy war going on in Yemen that is backed by Iran on the other side.

So it's a complex situation, but if you're trying to take out military targets, command and control, and destabilize their ability to be able to communicate and achieve military objectives, you can certainly do that using overwhelming air power.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on...

MCSALLY: Not like, by the way, what we have used against ISIS.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on this -- this framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program. You with the president on this?

MCSALLY: No, absolutely not. Look, the president's strategy has been absolutely incoherent in the Middle East in general. And he is pinning his legacy on this agreement. This should be about the legacy of the free world and the future of our interests and stability in the Middle East, and a generational struggle that we're having against the largest state sponsor of terror that I believe still is going to be marching towards a nuclear capability.

BLITZER: So what...

MCSALLY: The devil will definitely be in the details. But I'm very concerned about what is not in this agreement, and that Obama is doing whatever it takes to get an agreement at the risk of our strong ally, Israel, and stabilization in the region. And you know, American citizens and our own national security.

[17:15:07] BLITZER: What is it in the agreement that you want?

MCSALLY: So, you know, I've read through the four pages. Again, there's a lot of vague terms, but I'm still concerned that Iran is the largest state sponsor of terror. They have been exporting terror around the region and around the world. They still, you know, chant death to America. They are still responsible for the deaths of American soldiers.

None of this addresses their other irresponsible activity as a state sponsor of terror, also does not address their weaponization capability. It still allows them to have an infrastructure, and there's a lot of technical concerns about what do you mean by continuous monitoring versus access? You know, we've watched North Korea march towards a nuclear weapon, so inspectors don't stop it from happening.

BLITZER: Congresswoman, we're only getting started. We have a lot more questions on what's going on not only in Iran but throughout the region. I want you to stand by. We'll continue right after this.


[17:20:24] BLITZER: We're back with Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona. She's a member of both the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.

Congresswoman, President Obama says if you guys in Congress were to kill this deal by imposing new sanctions or refusing to ease existing sanctions, assuming Iran goes ahead with what it's supposed to do, and if you don't offer any alternatives, the U.S. will be blamed for all of this. That could lead to a disaster. Your reaction?

MCSALLY: Well, my reaction is that he is a co-equal branch of the government, and he needs to be working with Congress on many different things to include this, and he has to answer to the American people, not to the U.N. Security Council.

So we should have been having the dialogue hand in hand. And Congress should have a voice related to what is really an arms control agreement that impacts the future of national security and security of our citizens.

BLITZER: Well, are you going to at least wait until the end of June to see what the details are, or will you push for strengthening sanctions right now?

MCSALLY: Well, I'll be working with my colleagues and the leadership when we get back to Washington, D.C. These are the types of questions that we need to have.

Again, all we've seen is a four-page document that still raises additional concerns, whether they're going to fess up to their previous military activities, potentially, in the nuclear realm, the limits of their research and development, how long ten years, 15 years, whatever is on this four pages that I've read.

There is still tremendous concern that we're basically legitimizing a state sponsor of terror in their ability to break out and become a nuclear power. And so we've got to work for our colleagues, and we're the voice of the American people, so that's an appropriate role that we play.

BLITZER: So the president says this deal will halt Iran's capability of becoming a nuclear power for at least ten or 15 years. If the U.S. were to launch airstrikes, he said, they could come back within a few years, a couple of years, and rebuild their capability. This is a better way to stop them from building a bomb. That's what he says.

MCSALLY: Well, you know, the president is the leader of the free world here, the leader of the United States, and he is saying things like this is our best option.

Look, our best option is to have a coherent strategy in the Middle East, which is what he's failing to do right now. And it's our best option not to capitulate to state sponsors of terror, taking them off the terrorist list and negotiating with them from a place of weakness, which appears to be what this is.

Even the language that he's using is like, "This is all we can get out of them." Look, we're America, and we should be leading our allies in order to strengthen our position so that we're not negotiating with terrorist countries or state sponsors of terrorism like this.

And so I think it's a very weak response, but it's very similar to what we've seen in his failed foreign policy around the globe and the region, for sure.

BLITZER: Let's shift gears and talk about what's going on in Kenya, an awful situation. At least 140 students murdered after Islamist gunmen burst into a university campus, separating Christians from Muslims, killing the Christians.

Here's the question, because a lot of people are worried here in the United States. Put on your hat as a member of the Homeland Security Committee. How vulnerable are soft targets -- whether shopping malls, universities -- right here in the United States, especially since this very same al-Qaeda-affiliated group, al Shabaab, has threatened to go after U.S. malls after that shopping mall attack in Nairobi.

MCSALLY: Well, Wolf, when I was overseeing our counterterrorism operations at U.S. Africa Command from 2007 to 2010, we were watching this organization, al Shabaab, train thousands of fighters in training camps out in the middle of nowhere in Somalia.

And we went up the chain of command with plans to say we have got to take these out. This is a destabilizing force in the region and potentially for us in America. And the Obama administration failed to acknowledge that. Wouldn't even call al Shabaab an al Qaeda affiliate and allow us to even use force for several years.

So we watched this threat grow and metastasize under his watch and it is a serious threat. We've seen it now with two strikes in Kenya. These are the same fighters that we watched graduate and then spread out and continue to threaten our interests.

We have soft targets in America that are certainly in danger, not just from organizations like this, but from home-grown threats. Those that are inspired on the Internet by ISIS and other jihadists around the globe.

Look, we don't want to live in fear, but we need to be vigilant that this is definitely a concern. We've got potential foreign fighters that are flowing into these combat zones, and then can flow back to us. We also have the home-grown threat, like we saw with the Boston Marathon bomber.

So we all need to be on very vigilant alert, and as a member of the Homeland Security Committee, I'm very concerned about this threat.

[17:25:06] BLITZER: I'm sure you are.

There's another very concerning development today in New York City, two women in Queens, Queens, in New York, they were arrested for allegedly plotting to make an explosive device to use right here in the United States, maybe at Herald Square in New York City. How close was this plot of a bombing actually to becoming reality, based on what you're hearing?

MCSALLY: So what I'm hearing so far in the initial reports is that they were being monitored and communicating with some undercover agents. So we were monitoring their activities, but it looked like it was fairly -- not sophisticated but fairly far along. Certainly, they had the ideology of jihadists for the last several years.

And so this is a good example of a potential home-grown threat for maybe not a typical profile person, right, coming from a woman. Not to make gender generalizations, but we've got to be making sure our law enforcement has the tools they need.

And we have intercepted this one. The biggest concern of law enforcement in the briefings we've had, both classified and unclassified, on the Homeland Security Committee, is the ones that we don't know about. The ones that are out there being inspired, bringing potentially off-the-shelf capabilities to bear and then going after soft targets.

So I'm on the task force for combatting terrorist and foreign fighter flow, was appointed to that. And my colleagues and I are looking at these very threats. Again, those flowing into the United States from training but also those who are right here at home in our communities. We don't want to be living in fear, but we have got to do what it takes to defend Americans.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Martha McSally, thanks very much for joining us.

MCSALLY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: You prefer being called Congresswoman or Colonel?

MCSALLY: Martha is fine. But Congresswoman right now.

BLITZER: All right. We'll call you Congresswoman for now. Thanks very much for joining us.

MCSALLY: Thank you.

BLITZER: We're going to get the Obama administration's response when we come back. The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, he's standing by live. We'll ask him to get his thoughts on what's going on about the concerns expressed by the representative, other members of Congress, what the Israelis are now saying. In fact, we just got a statement from a senior Israeli government official.

Also, today's stunning breaking news from the Germanwings crash investigation. The co-pilot actually did research on ways to kill himself, and he also did research on cockpit doors.


[17:31:42] BLITZER: We are covering multiple breaking stories, including President Obama's announcement just a little while ago that the United States, Iran, other world powers, have now agreed on what's being called a framework agreement, a deal to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons.

Joining us now is the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, he's joining us from the North Lawn of the White House.

Josh, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: I understand the president now has had his conversation with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was aboard Air Force One flying to Kentucky. What can you tell us how that conversation between the Israeli prime minister and the president went?

EARNEST: Well, Wolf, I don't want to reveal too many details of their private conversation but I can tell you that the president made a powerful case to the prime minister that he has in public many times which is that the president strongly believes that diplomacy is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that's clearly in the best interests of the United States, it's clearly in the best interests of the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, which is Israel.

And the other thing that we're going to insist upon is we're going to insist upon the most stringent intrusive inspections regime that's ever been imposed on a nation's nuclear program to verify their compliance with the agreement.

BLITZER: Because I just got a statement from a senior Israeli government official in Jerusalem who says Iran will still have extensive nuclear capabilities, it will continue to enrich uranium, it will continue its centrifuge research and development, it will not close even one of its nuclear facilities, including the underground facility at Fordow, this and more. They don't seem to be very impressed by this deal.

EARNEST: Well, listen, Wolf, people need to look at the details of this deal before they reach a conclusion. The fact is, just to take a couple of those things right on, in terms of the plutonium reactor, the core of that reactor would be removed, destroyed and shipped out of the country to ensure that weapons grade plutonium could not be made at that facility and they wouldn't be allowed to make -- to build any other facilities like that for more than a decade.

In terms of the Fordow facility, they would not be enriching uranium at that facility. And we would have inspectors in there on a daily basis to confirm that. So the fact of the matter is, Wolf, we have shut down every single pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon and they have agreed to inspections that would verify their compliance with the agreement.

Now there are more details to be worked out and that's what our experts will be focused on over the course of the next couple of months but based on the framework that has now been established, we have set out a path where we can use diplomacy which is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

BLITZER: The other point that this Israeli official makes, and I'll read it to you again, "The bottom line is this deal ensures the full removal of the sanctions against Iran's nuclear program while assuring that it will keep its nuclear capabilities. There is no demand that Iran stop its aggression in the region, its terrorism around the world or its threats to destroy Israel, which it has repeated again -- repeated again over the past several days."

EARNEST: Well, Wolf, we have been very clear that what we are trying to do is to build support across the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and there is no case in which we have made the case that the United States is going to -- that this agreement is going to resolve all of the concerns that we have with Iran.

We know that Iran is supporting terrorism around the world. We know that Iran is fomenting instability in the Middle East. We know that Iran is making terrible threats against our closest ally, Israel, in the Middle East. We know that Iran is actually detaining unjustly some American citizens inside of Iran. [17:35:11] Those concerns still persist and they would not be resolved

in the context of this agreement but, Wolf, here's the thing. This is precisely why it is so important for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. If Iran had a nuclear weapon, they would be more dangerous in supporting terrorism. A nuclear armed Iran would be able to more dangerously menace Israel.

If Iran were able to obtain a nuclear weapon it would be even more destabilizing to the Middle East. So we recognize that we've got a long list of concerns with Iran. That is in fact why we want to take steps to ensure that Iran is not able to acquire a nuclear weapon.

BLITZER: Do you have any commitments from the Iranians as part of this deal that this deal will stop the Iranians from funding or supporting terrorist activity?

EARNEST: That's not part of the deal, Wolf. But we regularly insist and we continue to insist that Iran not support terrorism, that they not create so much instability in the region and that they cease their anti-Semitic threats against Israel.

There are a whole host of sanctions in place through the international community against Iran for those reasons. Those sanctions will remain in place. What we are focused on right now is dealing with their nuclear program and making sure that this dangerous country doesn't get access to a nuclear weapon and it's precisely because they are so dangerous and because they are so menacing that we want to make sure that they don't get a nuclear weapon. So that's why this deal is so important.

It's why it's critical to the national security interests of the United States. And that's why we clearly believe it's in the best interest of Israel.

BLITZER: Because the critics, there are plenty of critics up on the Hill, including some Democrats, who say that billions of dollars that are going to be flowing now into the Iranian economy once the sanctions are eased, once many of them are lifted, is going to -- a lot of that money is going to be used to promote international terrorism around the world.

EARNEST: Well, Wolf, the fact of the matter is that right now what we want to do, the most important thing we can do to deal with Iran is try to prevent them and to ensure that they cannot develop a nuclear weapon. We do not want them to acquire a nuclear weapon. That's exactly what this agreement would accomplish. And there is no question that all of Iran's bad behavior would only be worsened if they are nuclear armed.

And that's why this agreement is so important. It's also why we've got some more work to do. We want to make sure that we're going to go through the details here, have our experts have the opportunity to sit across the table from Iran's experts, and verify in very detailed fashion that they are going to comply with the agreement and as it's implemented, that it can achieve our goal of ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. BLITZER: I know the president and other top officials, and Secretary

Kerry, they're going to be briefing members of Congress, and the House and Senate, but what is the specific role that Congress has in all of this other than just going along with it?

EARNEST: Well, the fact of the matter is, Wolf, Congress has had an important role since early on in this process. One of the reasons we have succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table with the international community is because Congress was instrumental in passing very difficult sanctions against Iran that had a terrible impact on their economy. Their currency was deeply devalued, their oil exports plummeted and we saw that the Iran -- economy has weakened substantially because of these sanctions.

Now we put these in place in conjunction with the international community to really maximize the impact of those sanctions. Congress was integral to that work. What is also true is as we implement this agreement, at some point down the line, Congress will have to make the decision to vote to remove those sanctions.

But here's the thing, Wolf. The administration does not believe that Congress right away should remove those sanctions. What we want to see is what we want to see over the course of a sustained period of time, not just days or weeks or months, but over the longer term, that Iran is actually living up to the terms of the agreement and if they demonstrate over the long term that they will comply with the agreement, then Congress should consider whether or not it's appropriate to remove those sanctions.

BLITZER: Well --

EARNEST: They shouldn't do that on the front end. Not at all.

BLITZER: Would that be a year from now, five years from now, when would you ask Congress to go ahead and remove those sanctions?

EARNEST: Well, these are some of the details that are still under discussion. But what we do not envision is over the course of a couple of weeks or a couple of months, basically saying OK, Iran, the toughest thing, the toughest punishment that we have imposed on you in terms of compelling you to the negotiating table with the international community, we are ready to take that away.

We are not going to do that until Iran has demonstrated, look, Iran is a country that for years has sought to evade detection, that they have tried to work around inspectors. We want to make sure through the course of this historically intrusive inspections regime that we can keep tabs on their nuclear program and if we can verify their compliance over the longer term, then Congress should do the rightful thing and consider whether or not it's appropriate to remove the sanctions regime that's been instrumental to getting this agreement in the first place.

BLITZER: Josh Earnest is the White House press secretary. Josh, thanks very much for joining us.

EARNEST: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very busy day over there at the White House.

Up next, other stunning developments that we're following, including the airliner crash investigation.

[17:40:00] Not only have searchers now found the plane's flight data recorder, they have discovered that the co-pilot had researched cockpit doors and ways to commit suicide.


BLITZER: We're also following the breaking news in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 including startling new evidence that the co- pilot recently used the Internet to look for ways to kill himself.

Let's go to Germany, where our justice correspondent Pamela Brown has been getting new information for us.

[17:45:05] It's pretty startling to hear this. Tell our viewers, Pamela, what you've learned.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. We're learning more about the actions that Andreas Lubitz took in the week before the crash and officials say it shows it was premeditated. He searched not only ways to commit suicide, different methods, but also cockpit doors and security measures.

Officials say when you look at this evidence coupled with everything else we have learned, with his psychological issues, that he was coping with before, that it's growing increasingly clear that this is a deeply disturbed man who was trying to hide a dark secret. We learned from a source close to this investigation that he had been doctor shopping in the months leading up to the plane crash, that he had had a relapse of severe depression in 2014 and that he was going from doctor to doctor.

A neuropsychologist, as we know, an eye doctor, a sleep specialist, because he was having trouble sleeping. Sources I have been speaking with say it seems as though one of the possible motives is that he was very afraid to lose his medical -- his pilot license as a result of his medical issues and he apparently told his doctors this as well, Wolf, but officials are not yet ready to come out and say they have reached a conclusion.

BLITZER: Now we know, Pamela, that they found the cockpit voice recorder badly damaged but still usable, very, very quickly, but now they have finally found the flight data recorder as well. Tell us about that.

BROWN: And this is key, Wolf. We heard from the French prosecutor today that a female French police officer was there helping with the rescue efforts and she found the flight data recorder under about eight inches of debris there, and that it was burnt but that of course the hope is they're going to be able to still retrieve data from that recorder and perhaps give us better answers as to what exactly happened in those final moments before the plane crash -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's hope. Thanks very much, Pamela Brown, reporting.

Coming up, we also are getting new details now on today's deadly terrorist attack on the university campus. At least, at least 147 people are confirmed dead.


[17:51:43] BLITZER: We have some breaking news in the latest political scandal to hit Washington. Today in federal court, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez pleaded not guilty to corruption charges.

CNN's Athena Jones is following the case for us. She has more on latest.

What else is going on?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're talking about influence pedaling, conspiracy, bribery. These are not the kinds of words politicians want attached to their name. But that's exactly what Senator Menendez is facing. He began his political career four decades ago fighting corruption. And now he's facing corruption charges in the fight of his career.


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: These allegations are false, and I am confident they will be proven false. And I look forward to doing so in court.

JONES: A defiant defense today from Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. Facing federal corruption charges for allegedly using his Senate office to help a longtime friend and donor in exchange for lavish gifts. The indictment outlined in salacious details 14 counts, including eight counts of bribery for accepting gifts, from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen including flights on his private jets, a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris, use of Melgen's villa at an exclusive Dominican Republic resort with golf courses, spas, beaches and even polo fields.

And money, lots of it. Including $750,000 in campaign contributions in 2012. And another $600,000 in donations to a political action committee that solely benefitted Menendez. In exchange, Menendez among other things intervened in a dispute over millions of dollars in Medicare payments to the doctor, pressured the State Department to convince the Dominican Republic to honor Melgen's multi-million dollar port contract there, and helped Melgen's foreign girlfriends to get visas to travel to the United States.

Menendez repaid Melgen who was also indicted $58,000 for the plane flights after word of the federal investigation became public. And he insisted at the press conference Wednesday that the feds got it wrong.

MENENDEZ: Prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption.

JONES: Menendez's Republican opponents pounced. The party's Senate campaign arm saying in a statement, his actions reinforce all that the American people believe is wrong with Washington Democrats.

Menendez has been one of the White House's top critics on foreign policy, slamming the president's approach to nuclear negotiations with Iran. He co-sponsored bills that would acquire a congressional vote on an Iran deal and impose new sanctions if a final deal isn't reached.

JONES: (voice-over). He has criticized the decision to ease the trade embargo and reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba.

MENENDEZ: We got nothing in terms of democracy and human rights.

JONES: The charges have forced Menendez to step down as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's called it a temporary move and insists he will be vindicated, telling supporters --

[17:55:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: because I know I have done nothing wrong.


JONES: Now Menendez's next court date is April 22nd. And the trial is set for July -- Wolf.

V, All right. We'll We will see what happens. Thanks very much. Athena Jones reporting for us.

Coming up, led by the United States, world powers have reached a blueprint arrangement for a nuclear deal with Iran. President Obama says it shuts down Iran's path to a bomb. Can Iran be trusted to shelf most of its nuclear program?

And horror on campus. Al Qaeda-linked terrorists attack a university, singling out Christian students for slaughter at the school in Kenya.


BLITZER: Happening now, nuclear deal. New reaction tonight to a just-reached agreement aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Will it make the world safer or will it create new dangers? Stand by for a brand new CNN interview with the Secretary of State John Kerry.

Dozens are dead after terrorists storm a university, reportedly slaughtering Christians while letting Muslims go free .

Terror in the United States. An American allegedly linked to al Qaeda facing charges tonight, while ISIS apparently inspired a separate bomb plot, leading to the arrest of two women in New York City.