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Obama Speaks to Nervous Country About Terror Threat; Official: Hackers May Have Spied on U.S. Govt. Messages; Assignment Closes Schools, Angers Parents. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 18, 2015 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:11] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Brooke.

After a year filled with ISIS horrors, the president yet again tries to calm a nation.

THE LEAD starts right now.

For the fourth time in two weeks, President Obama addressing fears of a terrorist attack at home and concerns that he is not handling the threat well. Did he reassure the American public this time?

Bernie Sanders supporters accusing the Democratic National Committee of being in the tank for Hillary Clinton. His campaign now threatening to take the Democratic Party to court after the DNC cut them off from the life blood of their campaign.

Plus, in Virginia an entire county's schools shut down. But it wasn't a terror threat. It was a homework assignment.

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

We have some breaking news in our money lead at the top of the hour. The Dow dropping 370 points today amid massive trading. The big board showing a loss of more than 2 percent.

Factors at work here include investors worrying there could be four interest rate hikes next year. Oil continuing its decline now is the lowest levels in nearly seven years, and also down commodities and all the major indexes.

But now, let's turn to more breaking news in our national lead. President Obama just moments ago addressing a nation very much on edge over the threat of terrorism here at home. President Obama speaking publicly about the battle to degrade and destroy ISIS, another attempt, the fourth in recent days to reassure a skeptical public that this administration has an effective strategy to win this war on terrorism and keep this country safe.

This comes hours before the commander in chief will yet again play the role of consoler in chief. Later tonight, the president will meet privately with the families of the 14 innocent people slaughtered by two terrorists in San Bernardino, the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since September 11th.

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

Jim, President Obama doing his best today to reaffirm to the American people that there's no credible threat to the U.S., but he acknowledged that lone wolf attacks are incredibly difficult to stop.


President Obama tried to take a victory lap today pointing to what he considers his biggest accomplishments of the year. But the president also acknowledged Americans are likely looking past issues like climate change and his policy toward Cuba and are just wondering what's being done to protect the homeland.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Just before leaving the White House for the holidays in Hawaii, President Obama had a spring in his step and a record he wanted to tout.

Even as he tried to deliver a reassuring message on the war on ISIS.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our air campaign will continue to hit ISIL harder than ever taking out their leaders, their commanders and their forces. We're stepping up our support for partners on the ground as they push ISIL back.

ACOSTA: The president again insisted the nation's law enforcement community is doing all it can to prevent so-called lone terror attacks in the U.S. like the one in San Bernardino including the monitoring of messages on social media.

OBAMA: Our law enforcement and intelligence professionals are constantly monitoring public posts. And that is part of their visa review process.

ACOSTA: On ISIS, the president said he will still insist on the departure of Syria's embattled leader Bashar al Assad. But he hinted allies of Assad could remain, a potential shift from his earlier demands that Assad must go and one that could pave the way to a U.S.- Russian partnership to go after ISIS. The fallout from the terror attack in San Bernardino has the potential to dramatically alter Mr. Obama's final year in office, pulling his attention away from big White House priorities, from a new executive action the president is planning on gun control to his long-sought goal of closing the terror detention center at Guantanamo.

OBAMA: It will be an uphill battle.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome these Republican candidates --

ACOSTA: As for the 2016 race for the White House, the president steered clear of his feelings for Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican field, sounding confident not one of them will follow him into the Oval Office.

OBAMA: I think we will have a strong Democratic nominee. I think that Democratic nominee will win. I think I will have a Democratic successor.

ACOSTA: But he also took time to praise new House Speaker Paul Ryan for shepherding a massive $1 million spending bill through Congress without any major threats of a government shutdown, proof the president said both parties can work together.

OBAMA: I also want to give Speaker Ryan credit, so kudos to him as well as all the leaders and appropriators who were involved in this process.

Overwhelming majority of people who are incarcerated --

ACOSTA: On his last scheduled day in Washington of 2015, the president commuted the sentences of nearly 100 mostly nonviolent drug offenders, all a part of the president's bipartisan push for criminal justice reform.

[16:05:01] OBAMA: There has been sincere, serious negotiations and efforts by Democrats and Republicans to create a criminal justice system that is more fair, more even handed, more proportionate.


ACOSTA: The president could conceivably make one more public statement before the end of the day en route to his family vacation in Hawaii. He's scheduled to stop in San Bernardino to meet with the families of the terror attack there. The White House has said we should not expect him to deliver any remarks, but, Jake, he has defied those expectations before.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Acosta, we'll keep an eye peeled. Thank you so much.

Joining me is David Axelrod, CNN political commentator and former senior adviser to President Obama. Also here with me in studio, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama.

General Flynn, let me start with you.

The president said in an off the record meeting with columnists reported out by "New York Times" that he didn't initially realize how anxious Americans are about the threat of ISIS and terrorist attacks here in the homeland. He says he didn't realize that because he doesn't watch cable TV. Polls however have shown that this is an issue on the top of Americans' fear since last year.

LT. GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.), FORMER DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Yes. And I think that one of the indicators, strong indicators, was the day before the Thanksgiving holiday season where I think there was the largest number of guns sold in this country. It was like 185,000 in a day. I think that the president underestimated the real fear and the

real sense of insecurity in the American psyche. And it was not only the tragedy that, you know, of San Bernardino, but the subsequent false alarms in New York City and Los Angeles and all these other things that were happening. And we've seen in the last couple of days other events even here where we are in the Washington, D.C. area. We had this recent thing --

TAPPER: Oh, the arrest in --


FLYNN: With the homework assignment, even in northern Virginia here today.

TAPPER: Oh, right.

FLYNN: So there's this sense of real concern about this. And I don't think that the American public felt like the president was taking it serious enough.

TAPPER: David, let's turn to you.

Obviously, this is the latest attempt by the president to reassure the American people that he's on the case. The country's safe. The U.S. strategy is working. He did it from the Oval Office two Sundays ago. He did it the National Counterterrorism Center, the Pentagon, did it again today.

Is the message working?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, he talked about steady persistent leadership. I think he's also trying to deliver steady persistent message here because you're not going to persuade people what they don't believe. And you're not going to persuade them with one gesture or one speech that everything that needs to be done is being done.

I thought that he reacted, Jake, after the Paris bombing when he was over -- or the Paris events when he was over in Europe, a little bit -- he was a little tone deaf there. He responded to the fear mongering without really addressing the fear. And I think since that time, he's tried to catch up on that.

But look, he's in a difficult position because he's the president. He's not a candidate for office. You know, we've heard a lot of apocalyptic language on the stage the other night. But the truth is no president and no responsible person can say there's no threat. There is a threat. And no matter what you do, these lone wolf attacks may still come.

So, he's trying to walk a line on reassuring people but not being deceptive about the fact that there is a threat.

TAPPER: Yes. That's an interesting point, responding to the fear mongering but not to the fear. General Flynn, in that same op-ed -- same meeting with op-ed

columnists according to the "New York Times", President Obama talked about his concerns about a large-scale U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria saying, it could cost up to 100 lives -- American lives a month, up to $10 billion. It's unwise to get involved in a war that could quickly expand to places like Libya and Yemen.

It's a strong message. I don't know why he hasn't come out and said that, but is it a right message? Is that what you understand to be the case?

FLYNN: I'm not sure if it's right. I mean, I think what David is highlighting is the complexity of the situation that we're facing. And we should not kid ourselves how complex this is.

I have not been kind -- I've been very critical of the administration's lack of aggressiveness, but it's not just military. And I still believe that the president is still -- seems to be going back to the military as the solution. There has to be a much wider solution set here.

That said, there are some scaling up of military activities. When we talk about the bombing campaign, I think our numbers are about, you know, 7,000 strikes in 18 months. I mean, if we really wanted to sort of get in there and really make an impact, you know, you could do 7,000 in a week.

I mean, that's -- we have that capability. Is that the correct method to solving this problem? It's not. I think there has to be a much different strategy. And I think that the president needs to really take a step back.

[16:10:01] And I think he needs to look at other experts that are out there.

And, you know, I've said the other day that there's a group of us that would love to come in there and help try to figure out what are some of the solutions because it's not just military.

I don't think that the president has come across, Jake, confident enough to convince the American public that we're actually on the right track. I really don't believe that.

TAPPER: David, I'll give you the last word here. President Obama, if he does have such hesitations because he is worried about $10 billion, expanding to Yemen and Libya, 100 soldiers killed a month, why not make that case?

AXELROD: Well, look, I think any president has to have those considerations. And not just about the cost but also about the consequences and the long-term effects of the action and will it actually solve the problem.

The one thing I would disagree with the general about was as I listen to the president in his press conference, he very clearly was indicating that military action was not sufficient. And he said there had to be a diplomatic track as well, particularly aimed at Syria, in order to finally curb is. And so I think he's well aware of it. The keyword the general used is complex. And the problem is this is not -- when people are feeling fear, complexity is not very consoling. And that's the challenge the president faces here.

TAPPER: Two wise men, thank you so much. Merry Christmas to both of you, General Flynn, David Axelrod. Thank you so much.

Now to the San Bernardino attacks, we're learning more about a man connected to the massacre. The Feds say they're uncovering a new terrorist plot Enrique Marquez helped coordinate, involved trying to blow up one of the busiest highways in the country. That story next.


[16:15:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We have some more breaking news now in a new security breach. U.S. officials now very worried that hackers working for a foreign government may have spied on the U.S. government and private companies for the past three years in a new case.

Let's get right to CNN justice reporter Evan Perez.

Evan, what can you tell us?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jake, one U.S. official described this as a thief stealing a master key to every government building. We're talking about Juniper Networks. This is a major manufacturer of routers and computer network equipment that supplies the U.S. government, everybody from the Department of Defense, Pentagon, the FBI and Justice Department, Treasury Department.

Now, what they've discovered, they discovered this yesterday -- well, they announced it yesterday, was apparently hackers had got into their systems and had rewritten the source code for some of this very important software that allows for encryption of communications. So, this is very important not only for the U.S. government but also private companies. As you know, when we log into our computers we use a VPN system. And if that is compromised, that means if someone could be able to spy on whatever communications and decrypt all of the encryption -- the encrypted communications that is in that system.

And so we know that the Homeland Security Department and the FBI are trying to get to the bottom of this as you mentioned, foreign government is believed to be behind this. Top suspects are always Russians and the Chinese. No conclusion has been reached yet.

We do have a couple statements, one from Juniper Network that says, quote, "During a recent internal code review, Juniper discovered unauthorized code in its Screen operating system that could allow a knowledgeable attacker to gain administrative access and if they could monitor VPN traffic to decrypt that traffic. Once we identified these vulnerabilities we launched an investigation and worked to develop an issue patched releases for the impacted devices." And we have a statement also from a senior administration

official, Jake, that says, "We are aware of the vulnerabilities recently announced by Juniper. The administration remains committed to enhancing our national cyber security by raising our cyber defenses."

This is a very important issue for the Obama administration, Jake. As you know they're trying to make nice with the Chinese. The Chinese have promised to stop some of these activities. We'll see where this investigation goes, Jake.

TAPPER: Alarming news. Evan Perez, thanks so much for bringing us that story.

We just heard President Obama addressing fears of a terrorist attack here at home. Of course, those fears fanned by the deadliest terror attack since 9/11 in San Bernardino, California.

Today, we're learning new details about the man behind the attack and his friend who bought the rifles. The friend's name, Enrique Marquez, it turns out that the bond between Marquez and the shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, goes way back, almost a decade, way before ISIS was even created, way before Farook married his wife and co-attacker in San Bernardino, Tashfeen Malik. And the FBI says they had dreams of blowing up one of the busiest highways in America.

Let's bring in CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Jim, it appears Farook was radicalized much earlier than previously thought. He recruited Marquez years ago. They've been planning attacks carefully together?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is one of the most alarming results of the investigation, and that is that the San Bernardino shooting was not Farook's first plot. The second, Farook and Marquez, had another plan three years ago potentially just as deadly or more so to attack a major California highway and a college. That attack thwarted not by authorities having any inkling of the radicalization or planning including buying the weapons, but simply Farook and his partner Marquez getting spooked.


SCIUTTO: This busy California highway nearly became the sight of a deadly terror attack. Enrique Marquez, long-time friend of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook has told law enforcement the two watched videos of al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, became radical and plotted in 2012 to throw pipe bombs on to the SR-91 freeway and then gun down motorists in the aftermath.

The pair also planned to target Riverside City College by planting pipe bombs in the crowded cafeteria. The deadly plot stopped not by law enforcement but by Marquez himself who backed out in fear after other terror arrests around the same time.

As time passed, Marquez says, the two then grew apart. JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The Farook and

Marquez relationship is something that FBI agents and historians and counterterrorism officials will be studying for years because it is very rare to have that kind of intimacy, the radicalization process, the conversion process and then it seems to have Marquez walk away from it.

SCIUTTO: Three years later, as gunfire rang out in San Bernardino, Marquez would immediately recognize his friend's handiwork. Just hours after the shooting Marquez called 911 telling the operator, quote, "The expletive used my gun in the shooting", and "Oh, my god."

[16:20:00] When 911 operator asked Marquez, "How do you know it's your gun?", he responded saying, "They can trace all the guns back to me."

He claims he gave Farook the guns for, quote, "safe storage", but authorities believe he bought them with deadly intentions for the aborted 2012 attack.

So far, investigators do not believe that Marquez was involved in or had advance warning of the San Bernardino shooting. However, he is charged with providing material support to terrorism in part as a warning to others.

KAYYEM: It is a statement by the FBI and by the administration that if you even come close to these cases or to helping them, we will charge you as if you are a terrorist yourself.


SCIUTTO: This is now a serious line of inquiry in the investigation into San Bernardino, which is how could three people with many family connections in the U.S., they had day jobs, Farook in the local government, they had international travel, they had international communications, how could these people evade all surveillance by the government and also at the same time not arouse any suspicions of their friends and family?

Jake, we heard the president say today that lone wolf attacks are hard to detect and prevent, and in this one, despite all those connections, we saw that play out very much as well.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Today, one Virginia school district shut down all of its schools not over a terrorist threat or a terrorist hoax, but over a homework assignment.

This is the assignment fueling anger in Augusta County, Virginia. Students in a high school geography class had been assigned to practice calligraphy by writing out this Islamic statement of faith. The school district was then flooded with angry phone calls and emails.

CNN national correspondent Jason Carroll joins me now.

Jason, it's not as if this was the first time the students had gotten the assignment, though, right?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. This isn't the first time, and in fact, this teacher in question had handed out this assignment or a very similar assignment in the past.

And also, Jake, we should tell you, this is an assignment that came out of a standard workbook. So, this is an assignment that was familiar with the district, familiar with the school, this is the first time they've had the backlash.

TAPPER: And what's the mood within the community there in Virginia.

CARROLL: Well, I think you can see in some ways what the mood has been given that the schools have closed down some 10,000 students now not attending class. A lot of parents upset about this assignment, saying this just wasn't a simple calligraphy assignment. This was an attempt by the teacher to convert their children to Islam.

A number of people speaking out in behalf of this teacher, but those who are being most vocal and I want you to listen to some of them, are those who criticize the assignment.


KIMBERLY HERNDON, UPSET PARENT: Shock that it was sent home. Shock that that was in the school. Shock that this was happening right here in our small town. I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian and I want to stand behind Christ.


CARROLL: Now, the district also weighing in on this as you can imagine, Jake, releasing a statement. Let me read part of it to you. It says, "As we have emphasized no lesson was designed to promote a religious viewpoint or change any students' religious belief, although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state board of education and the commonwealth standards of learning, a different nonreligious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future."

I should also tell you, Jake, we did reach out to the teacher. We were unable to reach her, but a number of her students are supporting her. They're posting on Facebook, saying that they were not offended by the assignment. They were not feeling that they were trying to be converted. And they feel as though she's a pretty good teacher -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jason Carroll, thank you so much.

The politics lead: the clash heating up in the Republican race, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz accusing one another of lying. How they're using words as "idiotic" and "baloney" to describe each other's points of view.

Plus, does the punishment fit the crime? Bernie Sanders now threatening legal action against his own Democratic Party after his camp tapped into Hillary Clinton's files. A top aide in the Sanders camp will join me. That's coming up on THE LEAD.


[16:27:45] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Time now for our politics lead.

Have you met Senator Ted Cruz? If you're a Republican voter in Iowa you probably know a fair deal about the Texan. He's now number one or number two choice in polls out of the Hawkeye State, according to polls.

Cruz says he's the only consistent conservative running for the Republican nomination. His rival Marco Rubio says Cruz is inconsistent. He's flip-flopped on supporting legal status for undocumented immigrants. And that's coming up over and over on the campaign trail.

CNN Sunlen Serfaty is following Ted Cruz today in Kennesaw, Georgia -- Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, both candidates really hitting the other on the perceived inconsistencies. Ted Cruz right now wrapping up his campaign event in Mechanicsville, Virginia, where this really big emergent of this dynamic between the two candidates has become quickly the center of gravity in the GOP race. And it's really showing no signs of letting up and getting more heated by the day.


SERFATY (voice-over): The war of words between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz taking a sharp personal turn.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I oppose amnesty. Marco Rubio supports amnesty.

SERFATY: The rivals not only arguing over their roles in the 2013 immigration reform fight, but now openly baiting each other, accusing the other of lying to gain a political edge.

CRUZ: Senator Rubio unfortunately made the decision not to honor the promises he made to the men and women who elected him. And I made a very different decision.

SERFATY: The Cruz campaign launching a new offensive in the battle, debuting a TV ad connecting Rubio's work on the comprehensive immigration reform bill to voters' fears over national security.

CRUZ: That's why I fought so hard to defeat President Obama and the Republican establishment's gang of eight amnesty plan. Their misguided plan would have given Obama the authority to admit Syrian refugees including ISIS terrorists.

SERFATY: Cruz also challenging Rubio's assertion that he previously supported legalizing undocumented immigrants.

CRUZ: It's the most idiotic proposition. Their entire baloney theory is based on an amendment I introduced that said those here illegally are permanently ineligible for citizenship.

SERFATY: Rubio hitting right back.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's going to have a hard time because he's not told the truth about his position in the past on legalization.

SERFATY: The Cruz-Rubio duel taking center stage in the GOP presidential race, even as another showdown picks up steam.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald, you're not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.