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Interview With White House Communications Director Jen Psaki; Shark Fears; Church Burnings; Terror Threat; Interview with Jen Psaki, Feds Probe Airlines for Possible Price Fixing; David Sweat Speaks, Claims He Masterminded New York Prison Break. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 1, 2015 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Radiation, metal detectors now deployed to stop ISIS or those inspired by ISIS from terrorizing the most American of holidays.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Sources are citing increased chatter from supporters of the terrorist group ISIS, leading to new steps being taken to protect the homeland on this Fourth of July. The FBI has already asked for help tracking all the potential attackers. How ready are we?

Also in national news, a church that the KKK once burned to the ground was in flames again, just two weeks after a racist act of terror in Charleston, and stories of other church burnings. What investigators are finding as they dig through the ashes today.

Plus, beachgoers frantically screaming to loved ones, get out of the water, after yet another victim is pulled under by a shark. You know, "Jaws" took place over the July 4 holiday. I'm just saying. How safe is it to swim this weekend?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are following a number of quickly developing stories this hour, including the burning of another black church in South Carolina, and a monumental shift in U.S./Cuba relations, but we begin today with our national lead, the terror threat here at home.

Federal, state and local law enforcement officials stepping up security measures across the country over growing fears of an ISIS- inspired attack during the holiday weekend. Heavily armed police, bomb-sniffing dogs and radiation detection units will be out in full force at landmarks and transportation hubs from coast to coast as Americans celebrate our nation's independence.

Let's get right to CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown, who is live in New York.

Pamela, why are intelligence officials more concerned now than in previous years if, as they say, there is no specific credible threat? PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a few reasons, Jake.

Intelligence officials are more concerned because of how much of an impact that ISIS now has on social media compared to last year, the recent global terror attacks, and how difficult it has become to detect attacks before they happen. That concern is leading to boosts in security across the country.


BROWN (voice-over): With heightened concerned this Fourth of July, major cities like New York are deploying radiation detection devices, resources on waterways, and in the air, in addition to utilizing their more than 7,000 closed-circuit cameras to prepare for the threat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This may be potential the most complex counterterrorism overlay for this event ever.

BROWN: U.S. law enforcement officials are concerned ISIS supporters could be inspired to carry out an attack during the holiday, because it's symbolic in nature and falls at the same time as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

With the U.S. tracking hundreds of alleged ISIS followers, officials say it's difficult to detect in advance who could act out.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: They get it over the Internet, that ISIS wants an attack over the Fourth of July, and there's any number of soft targets that one of these psychos, if you will, can just go out and carry out an attack.

BROWN: Sources tell CNN there's increased chatter among ISIS supporters leading into the holiday, but no specific credible threats. But the homegrown violent extremists remain the number one concern for law enforcement. Just recently, authorities arrested cells of ISIS supporters, including in Boston and five suspect in New York, and overseas, three near-simultaneous terrorist attacks have U.S. officials on edge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have what appeared to be three coordinated attacks overseas in France and Kuwait and in Tunisia. So, given the world situation, we wanted to put those layers of protection behind the regular patrol piece.

BROWN: London is also in the middle of a frighteningly realistic rehearsal for a possible attack, after the terrorists struck in three countries last week.


BROWN: And police departments, including NYPD, say that they will be stepping up monitoring of social media as well, looking for kinds of tips and cues online, similar to what happened right before the attempted terrorist attack in Garland, Texas, when, as you know, Jake, the shooter tweeted about what he was going to do before the shooting broke out -- Jake.

TAPPER: That's right. Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

Another major story we have been following this week became even more complicated overnight. Six predominantly black churches have burned in recent days, igniting fear that hate crimes are spreading sparked by the massacre at a Charleston Bible study two weeks ago today.

Last night came a new devastating blaze at the Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina. That fire is under investigation. Investigators say arsonists are responsible for burning at least two of these churches home to African-American congregations elsewhere in the South.

Brian Todd joins me now from South Carolina.

Brian, is this church fire being investigated as a hate crime?


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, we're here outside the Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.

You can see through that opening. We got a shot of the charred walls, of the rubble inside. Really, all that's left of this structure is the brick foundation following the Tuesday night fire. We can tell you a short time ago, ATF officials tell us that their canine teams went in here looking for signs of accelerants.

But FBI investigators believe a lightning strike may have caused this fire. That is according to senior people in the FBI. Investigators on the ground here have made no firm determination of what caused it, but given the recent tension surrounding the Charleston shootings, and the history of this building, tensions are in fact very high in this area.


TODD (voice-over): Another Southern black church up in flames, this time the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina. No one was hurt, but the building is a total loss. All that remains are the outside walls. So far, no sign of arson.

Federal investigators suspect lightning may have caused the fire. There was plenty of it in the area Tuesday night. A forensics report of lightening strikes by CNN meteorologists shows four strikes occurred in the immediate vicinity of the church, all around the time the fire was raging, just after 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

It was just two weeks ago that nine worshipers were shot and killed in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, that shooting by a white 21- year-old saying he wanted to star a race war. Since then, at least six black churches have burned in the Southeastern United States. A fire at the Glover Grove Baptist Church of Warrenville, South Carolina, cause undetermined. Two more in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee, both

caused by arson. The cause of Macon, Georgia's recent fire is undetermined. Authorities say a fire at a Tallahassee, Florida, church was likely a result of natural causes. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the most recent religious targets of hate crimes have been synagogues and mosques, but senior fellow Mark Potok says little there's no real evidence so far suggesting any of these fires is a political motivated arson, the recent flurry of black church burnings is cause for concern.


TODD: In the broader context, churches get threats all the time, especially churches in this region. The sheriff of nearby Clarendon County, South Carolina, just told us that both before and after the Charleston shootings, five AME churches got threatening letters, but those letters had to do with the fact that all five of those churches were headed up by women who headed the congregations.

The person who sent the letter apparently had a problem with women, and that person, according to the sheriff, is an African-American male, who is in custody -- Jake.

TAPPER: Brian Todd in Greeleyville, South Carolina, for us, thank you so much.

Today, one note bearing President Obama's signature thawed a 54-year- old diplomatic glacier between the United States and Cuba. President Obama announcing in the Rose Garden this country will officially reestablish relations with the island nation and with Raul Castro's communist government.

Let's go now to Havana and to CNN's Patrick Oppmann.

Patrick, President Obama dusted off a favorite refrain of his, saying, this is what change looks like, but in Havana, there seem to be some pretty steep hurdles before we can call relations between the two countries normal.


And some of those hurdles may be getting taller by the day, but, listen, Jake, quite an achievement. Seven months of negotiations, 54 years of a policy trying to isolate Cuba essentially ended today. This is a policy that goes back to the Eisenhower administration, but in a short ceremony this at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, pleasantries and diplomatic notes were exchanged. And that was it.

July 20 will be the day that Cuba and the U.S. after all these years resume diplomatic relations. It will also be the day that a Cuban embassy opens where you are in Washington, D.C. When exactly will the U.S. Embassy hope in Havana? Well, perhaps by the end of July. They have to find a space.

But Senator (sic) Kerry, of course, has a very full dance card right now to come to Havana to open the embassy himself. It would be the first time we have a U.S. secretary of state here since 1945. What do Cubans think about this? Most Cubans who were born after the revolution have never seen in their lifetime a U.S. embassy here, have only heard essentially bad things about the U.S. throughout their lifetime, that the U.S. has been the big brother, the country that's tried to invade Cuba, the government tells them.

But they're showing, many of them, their hopes by wearing the U.S. flag. You're seeing it all over Havana, and the polls that have been done here show that as many as 90 percent of Cubans are extremely hopeful about this process. They feel it could better their economy, improve their lives. And whenever that flag goes up, there will be Cubans here celebrating a historic moment, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Patrick Oppmann in Havana, Cuba, thank you so much.

Not everyone believes the U.S. should mend relations with Cuba. Some critics say extending this olive branch is not in our national interests. The White House communications director will weigh in about that, along with heightened terror alerts ahead of the upcoming holiday weekend.


Jen Psaki joins us. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Topping our world lead today, ISIS terrorists today carried out simultaneous attacks on five Egyptian military checkpoints, killing dozens of Egyptian soldiers and injuring scores more. This comes on the heels of U.S. officials ramping up security here at home due to serious terror concerns over July 4 weekend.

Joining me is talk about the terror and of course other news is White House communications director Jen Psaki.


TAPPER: Thanks so much for being here.

PSAKI: My pleasure.

TAPPER: So, how concerned is the Obama administration that ISIS is expanding its reach to places like Egypt?

PSAKI: Well, we have been long tracking this threat.

As you know, it's something we have been -- it's something we frequently talked about, you frequently talk about on your air, Jake.

[16:15:00] Obviously, we condemn the attacks in Egypt. Also going into holidays like July 4th, we're extra vigilant about the

steps that need to be taken. DHS has taken a number of steps, and that's something we're going to be tracking closely over the coming days as well.

TAPPER: Yes, I want to ask about the ISIS attacks clearly on the minds of officials. We've heard all these warnings from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the like. If there is no specific credible threat for this weekend, why the heightened alert?

PSAKI: Well, typically going into holiday weekends when a lot of people are going to be out celebrating with their families, in public places, it's just a time we have to be extra vigilant. We do that as the United States government. And when needed, we certainly provide information to the American public as well.

TAPPER: There are people out there who track FBI warnings and say these warnings come and go, and there have been dozens and dozens of them, and they're never met with actual terror attacks.

PSAKI: Well, you never get credit for things that you prevent. Obviously, that's what our authorities, that's what our officials who serve at both the Department of Homeland Security and our intel agencies are responsible for tracking. So, we certainly want to provide information when we can provide it. And, obviously, around holidays, we remain extra vigilant.

TAPPER: Let's turn to Cuba. There are a lot of critics of thawing of the relations, including in your party, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez blasted the decision say, quote, "The message is democracy and human rights take a backseat to a legacy initiative."

How do you respond to that, to the idea that President Obama cares more about beings in history books than he does about the human rights and freedom of the people of Cuba?

PSAKI: Well, nothing to be closer to being false, Jake. I have to say, there are policy of isolation for more that 50 years did not lead to improved human rights in Cuba. There's the old saying that, you know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We needed to change what we were doing, that's why the president moved forward with the announcement he did in December. Obviously, opening embassies is an important step.

There's more work to be done, but having more flexibility for the people in Cuba, diplomats being able to travel around Cuba, provide more resources, that's a positive step and something we think can help communicate and improve human rights in Cuba.

TAPPER: I assume you know the names Joanne Chesimard, who shot and killed a New Jersey state trooper, William Guillermo Morales, he admitted to planning to bomb a New York military installation, they are among the 70 or so American fugitives who have received safe harbor in Cuba. Will they be forced to return to the U.S. to face justice as part of this new relationship? PSAKI: Well, Jake, I don't have any updates for you. I will say

obviously we have addressed these issues in the past. Certainly, we understand the emotion ascertain these individuals. We're far from being in agreement on every issue with the government of Cuba. There's more work that needs to be done, more dialogue and discussion that needs to be done. I'm sure that will be part of Secretary Kerry's trip when he goes to Cuba later this month.

TAPPER: Will the U.S. be willing to give up Cuban prisoners that the U.S. is holding in exchange?

PSAKI: Well, Jake, as you know, when we announced the changes in policy in December, there was certain prisoners and assets as well who were exchanged at that point in time. I don't have any to predict for you for the future. Our focus really is what's on the interests of the United States national security. And that is to improve our relations with Cuba. It's important for our relationships in the western hemisphere and that's why we're pursuing this policy.

TAPPER: The Cuban government today was demanding that the United States government end radio and TV broadcasts into Cuba and eliminate what they call subversive programs. What is the White House response to this demand?

PSAKI: Again, just because I think we're opening embassies doesn't mean we're in agreement on every issue. And, we certainly believe in the freedom of speech. We believe in the ability of people to communicate, and certainly increasing that and increasing resources to the people is part of what we want to do over the coming months with an embassy open there.

So, certainly, that's not what I would anticipate we're going to pursue or approach as we take the next steps forward.

TAPPER: White House communications director Jen Psaki --

PSAKI: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: If you will allow me, you're having a baby in about a week and a half.

PSAKI: I am.

TAPPER: Our thoughts and prayers with you and little baby Vivie (ph), who will be coming soon. Thank you so much for being here.

PSAKI: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: New details today into how a construction worker and a sledgehammer helped two inmates escaped a maximum-security prison and why the killer captured alive ditched his partner in crime.

Plus, breaking national news, is there a coordinated scheme to make you pay sky-high airfare? What are we learning about a federal investigation into price fixing among airlines? That story, next.


[16:23:46] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We do have some breaking news in our national lead right now, news that might enrage anyone who recently paid more than they would have liked to fly for their summer vacation. The Justice Department now investigating several airlines in what they say might be a coordinated price fixing scheme.

Let's get right to CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

Rene, this is shocking. What can you tell us?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, we do know that the Justice Department, they sent subpoenas to several major airlines as part of their investigation into, and this is the Department of Justice's over words, quote, "possible unlawful coordination".

Now, this is more than just fixing the prices, but they're looking into whether the airlines coordinated to essentially manipulate capacity, perhaps limit the amount of available seats and what that would do in turn would keep fares high. As a consumer, you don't like to hear that.

So, now, the Department of Justice is looking into if this is the case, with they all working together. This all started when Senator Richard Blumenthal, he sent a letter to the Department of Justice earlier in June, asking them to look into this very issue.

And, of course, the concern is we've seen all these consolidations, we saw several of these airlines have now merged.

[16:25:02] And what you have now is four major airlines controlling 80 percent of the domestic market. You're looking at the four majors there. So, it's made some lawmakers pretty uncomfortable and this all started again when the letter went to DOJ asking them to look into it, and now, we have word from them officially today that they're doing just that.

TAPPER: Have the airlines responded?

MARSH: We've reached out. I was just on the phone with American Airlines and they are sending me a statement on this very issue. They acknowledged they received the letter from the Department of Justice. We've also heard from United. They also say that they received the letter from the Department of Justice and it's limited at that.

TAPPER: That's all they're saying, is that we received it and we're going to comply with the request, that's all they're saying?

MARSH: Correct. And so, we're still waiting to hear from other airlines, but so far, we've heard from American and United acknowledging it.

TAPPER: All right. I know you're going to have much more in this in THE SITUATION ROOM in the next hour. Thank you, Rene Marsh. Appreciate it.

Also in our national lead: the inmate who broke out of a New York prison with an accomplice spent three weeks on the run and was then captured in dramatic fashion earlier this week is now shedding new light on his almost unbelievable escape. David Sweat has not stopped talking, apparently from his hospital bedside since authorities shot him on Sunday.

CNN's national correspondent Jason Carroll is at Dannemora, New York, outside the prison from which Sweat escaped.

Jason, his story of getting help from Joyce Mitchell in the escape is not surprisingly not the same story as Joyce Mitchell. What is he claiming?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, not the same at all. In fact, Jake, it's drastically different from what Joyce Mitchell told investigators. David Sweat telling investigators it was not his idea or Richard Matt's idea to Kill Joyce's husband Lyle. David Sweat telling investigators it was actually her idea, that she was the one who wanted him killed.

So, you can imagine that was quite a bit of a different story than what Joyce Mitchell told investigators. She said once again she was getting cold feet about this whole idea of being the getaway driver, and said that she had loved her husband very much, told her husband that these two inmates wanted to kill him, told investigators that these two inmates wanted to kill him, but David Sweat telling a drastically different story.

TAPPER: Sweat is also talking about his relationship with partner in crime, Richard Matt, who of course was shot and killed last week. How did their relationship evolved as they were on the run?

CARROLL: Well, they were close. They started out as, you know, being very tight. As they got in the run and tensions increased, things really started to fall apart. And what did not help is the alcohol they found on the way that apparently Richard Matt started to drink over and over again. And that was one of the things that upset David Sweat.

He was also upset that Richard Matt was out of shape and couldn't keep up. That also added to some tension there. And, eventually, because he couldn't keep up, because of hi drinking of this alcohol, he finally decided to go out on his own.

Apparently, he did hear at one point that Richard Matt had been shot. He was saddened by that. At that point he decided to make a run for the Canadian border -- Jake.

TAPPER: Any new information about the tools that were used or any way they prepared for the escape?

CARROLL: Yes, I think you're talking about that sledgehammer, a sledgehammer that a worker somehow left behind that they took and used to break through a brick wall and helped make their escape. That's just one of the things that the officials here at the Clinton correctional facility are going to have to take a look at, to make sure things like that don't happen in the future. Workers should not be leaving behind any tools that inmates can get their hands on.

TAPPER: Seems like a rather bit of obvious bit of advice, but apparently it's needed at this facility -- don't leave sledgehammers behind.

Jason Carroll in Dannemora, New York, thank you so much.

It's the best of times and the worth of times, the tale of the Donald Trumps, as the Republican presidential candidate loses yet another huge business deals, but strikes it rich in political polls. Can he hold on to the public momentum as he rides this rocky race to the White House? Our politics lead is next.