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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Terror Threats for New Years Examined; Ethan Couch Detained In Mexico With Mother; Boy Scouts Call 911, Leader Mauled. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 29, 2015 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:01] JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: -- is just barely into the double digits, that is way below where the president is right now. But you know, to the credit of House Speaker Paul Ryan, he is trying to change that. Remember in recent weeks, he's been talking about making the Republican Party the proposition party, not the opposition party and he's been prodding himself on getting things done like the budget, avoiding a government shutdown, those sorts of things.

And so, Paul Ryan and other like-minded House Republicans, perhaps not that conservative caucus that John Boehner had so much trouble with, but the Ryan you might call up on Capitol Hill are trying to change things for the Republican Party and that might change these numbers for Republicans up on Capitol Hill and for the congressional approval rating.

But if you look at the last two -- you know, the two most popular presidents from the last 50 years, Jim, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, what do they have in common? They're handling the economy. And so, even though the president doesn't have sky high numbers in every category, this handling of the economy number has the potential to really a Democrat setting into the campaign stretches, Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, HOSTING THE LEAD: Right. No questions, Jim Acosta, from Waikiki. Thanks for joining us.

In the National Lead, the Chicago police officer charged with the murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was back in court today entering a not guilty plea to charges of first murder -- first-degree murder and misconduct. Officer Jason Van Dyke was met with protesters as he made his way into the building.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible) to shoot an unarmed black man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, people make a home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who cares about him? Who cares about him? Like the holes he made in that boy -- like the holes he made in that boy. What are you talking about?

(CROSSTALK) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like the 16 holes he's done in that boy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: As you saw there, Van Dyke, who is out on -- of jail on bond now remain silent throughout those protest.

The shooting of Laquan McDonald sparked protest calling for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to step down. Emanuel returns to Chicago today cutting short his family vacation to Cuba.

Now, to a major break in today's world, the Pentagon now says than an ISIS terrorist closely connected to the Paris attack was among those killed in coalition air strikes, the key figure taken out but still a long way from destroying ISIS. We're going to discuss that right after this.

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[16:35:22] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to the "The Lead." We're following some breaking news in our World Lead. The Pentagon saying some 10 ISIS leaders were killed by coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria this month alone, most notable among them, Sharif al-Moudan (ph), a French operative with direct ties to this man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He was the wing leader of last month's devastating terror attacks in Paris. This comes as Iraqi troops are going door to door in Ramadi trying to clear the western Iraqi city of remaining Islamic state fighters. This morning, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited Ramadi to congratulate his soldiers on their victory, even hoisted the country's flag there. Abadi is vowing the Mosul, the capital of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate in Iraq will be liberated.

Next, let's get right to CNN's global affairs correspondents, Elise Labott. Elise, you looked at this list of leaders, how significant are they and how significant a blow to ISIS?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't know how senior any of them really are, but the fact that they have direct ties to the Paris attacks, at least some of them make at least one of the killings pretty symbolic, today, the coalition made a direct link between the killing of ISIS leaders to the losses the group is suffering on the battle field.

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LABOTT: As Iraqi forces evacuated civilians from Ramadi city center and swept for explosives left behind the militants, pockets of resistance remain. Tribal leaders charged with holding Ramadi tell CNN ISIS still controls a quarter of the city; now, mostly in ruins. Still, the US-led coalition said it was confident the Iraqis would hold the area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't think that the remaining enemy has the -- has the umph (ph) to push the Iraqi security forces off of their positions. LABOTT: Iraq's prime minister arrived in Ramadi under heavy guard a day after the army declared the city liberated. Today, he saluted the troops, promising to take the fight to Mosul and push ISIS out of Iraq entirely by the end of next year.

Today, the coalition boasted 10 ISIS have been killed in recent air strikes, including Sharif al-Moudan, who had direct contacts with the suspected ring leaders of the Paris attacks days before the siege and was believed to be planning more attacks against the west.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Without leaders to be able to be able to facilitate the activities, your ability to conduct the activities goes down. We haven't severed the head of the snake yet and it still got fangs. We have to clear about that. There's much more fighting to do.

LABOTT: In Syria, the coalition has now helped secure a hydroelectric dam from ISIS quip (ph) for the first time since 2012 located near the eastern city of Manbij. It chokes off a key supply route from ISIS' headquarters in Raqqa. But despite the battlefield losses, one retired general wants ISIS is growing as a worldwide threat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Although they may not be doing ground military offensives, they're still controlling the social media. They're still attracting a significant number of recruits, and I think their new strategy for inspiring attacks worldwide is proven very effective for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LABOTT: The U.S. battle is narrative over whether the strategy against ISIS is working, has been coming under fire. A blog by the State Departments folks mentions, quote, "Bringing peace and security to Syria has raised some eyebrow." The State Department says it is providing assistance to the Syrian people and is trying to get the peace process to get President Assad out of office, but acknowledges the conflict there is not resolved, so, Jim, bringing peace to Syria, as in trying to bring, operative word here.

SCIUTTO: Right. Long way from peace and security there. Thanks very much to Elise Labott. With New Year's Eve just two days away, cities across the globe are on alert for possible terror attacks. In New York, police commissioner, Bill Bratton, said more than 6,000 uniformed and undercover officers will be patrolling Time Square on Thursday night. Though he made clear there is no credible threat to the celebrations at this point.

The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh became the latest oversees post to warn U.S. citizens about attacks there possibly timed in New Year's Eve. And in Belgium, two men have been arrested in an ISIS-inspired plot targeting landmarks across the capital, Brussels, again, timed to New Year's Eve. Investigators there seized military-style training outfits as well as ISIS propaganda materials.

I want to bring in CNN's counterterrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank. He is live in Belgium where that plot was targeting. Paul, big question here because we know there is a nexus to Belgium to the Paris attacks. We're these latest men arrested there? Do the have connections to the Paris attacks as well?

[16:40:17] PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No connections at all to the Paris attackers, Jim. The Paris attackers have been essentially ISIS recruits dispatched to Europe, to France, to carry out those attacks. In this case, this was an ISIS-inspired plot. We didn't see that travel in this case. They also -- we didn't feel that the plot was massively imminent because they haven't yet acquired explosives or weapons. But they have learned these two men had been discussing the idea of launching an attack in the center of Brussels in crowded spaces in the Grand Place or other areas of the capital and they became very alarmed when they heard of these because these two men have had links to criminalities or robberies in the past.

They're also part of a Muslim biker gang, called the Kamikaze Riders. And so, they were concerned that they might have easy access to weapons and be able to very quickly mount an attack here in the capital, Brussels, over the New Year period. They'd also discussed going off to police stations, military facilities.

So the hope here is now in Brussels that this threat has been neutralized with these two men now in custody. But I'm told by Belgian officials they were part of a wider group of about 30 radicals, some of which were in this biker gang. So the threat sort of persists in terms of people potentially becoming radicalized to violence.

SCIUTTO: When we were covering the Paris attacks just a few weeks ago, there was a lot of criticism of Belgian authorities as to whether they had a handle on what is a very big threat there. They got so many jihadist, lots of folks going to Iraq and Syria to fight, lots of them coming back. We saw that play out on the streets of Paris. As you've watched this one, do you have a sense they have a better handle on identifying these groups, you know, here is an excess. They got them before they carry something out.

CRUICKSHANK: Yes. Jim, you know, the Belgian Security Services have got a bad press around the world in recent months. But this is a big success for them. They had a big handle on this. They didn't need to raise the alter level to the maximum level because they had a handle on this group. Remember also Belgian Security Services thought about plots back in January in Eastern Belgium, a major ISIS gun and bomb plot. So they have had some successes this year, clearly also some failures as well, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Paul Cruickshank, thanks very much coming to us from Brussels. He is sporting a different do, but he is still too rich or just too dumb to tell right from wrong, the so-called affluenza teen who killed four people in a drunk-driving crash and did not go to prison. He is now in custody. Police say he was partying right up until his capture. And the desperate calls for help just released after a big black bear went after a group of boy scouts.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:46:43] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: After a three-week manhunt the so-called affluenza teen is on his way back to the United States after being captured on the run in Mexico. Ethan Couch disappeared earlier this month, violating the terms of his probation after he killed four people in a drunk driving accident.

Authorities say the 18-year-old and his mother, Tanya Couch, carefully planned their trip to Mexico. They held a going-away party before disappearing, even disguised themselves to help them lie low.

Let's go to CNN correspondent, Ed Lavandera in Fort Worth, Texas. So Ed, the mother/son pair on the run for some time. How did Mexican authorities capture them?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the authorities here in the U.S. and Mexican side being cautious with the way they describe exactly what led them to Ethan Couch and his mother there in the Mexican resort town of Puerto Vallarta. But they will be coming home to a very angry situation here in Fort Worth.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICK TAYLOR, U.S. MARSHAL SERVICE: After 11 days of U.S. Marshal Service tracking down Ethan Couch, we can finally say he's in custody.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): The 18-year-old Ethan Couch and his mother were arrested Monday night by Mexican authorities in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta. Police believe Ethan fled the country with the help of his mother, driving his pickup truck from Fort Worth, Texas, to Puerto Vallarta.

An official tells CNN U.S. Marshals tracked Couch using his cell phone and other electronic surveillance.

SHERIFF DEE ANDERSON, TARRANT COUNTY: What we suspected all along had happened, that they had planned to disappear, that they even had something that was almost akin to a going away party before they left town. Our suspicion that his mother was assisting him and helping him has proven true.

LAVANDERA: Couch apparently dropped off the radar when this video surfaced which allegedly shows him playing beer pong at a party, drinking alcohol is a violation of his probation.

Known as so-called affluenza teen, Couch received ten years' probation for 2013 drunk driving crash that killed four people.

His trial drew national attention, and outrage, when his lawyers used the affluenza defense, arguing his privileged upbringing did not teach him responsibility for his behavior.

ANDERSON: I wasn't surprised that they were found together, I'm not surprised she helped him. There's just no -- no chance that she will ever think he needs to be punished or held accountable.

LAVANDERA: The U.S. Marshals are working to get Ethan and his mother back to the U.S., where Tanya will be arrested for hindering an apprehension and faces up to ten years in prison. Ethan will return to juvenile custody since he was only 16 when he committed his crime. Prosecutors are trying to get him transferred to the adult system.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If he stays in juvenile court the maximum sentence he could receive is incarceration in a juvenile facility until he turns 19, which is April 11th of 2016. That is not enough.

[16:50:02]LAVANDERA: The sheriff, prosecutors and the victims' families have been vocal in their belief that justice was not served.

KEVIN MCCONNELL, SON SURVIVED CRASH: Anger is a temporary emotion and you know, I try not hang on to that but I do feel like accountability hasn't been demonstrated yet and I would like to have accountability.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: Jim, Ethan Couch's mother faces a charge of hindering apprehension of a fugitive. She could face up to ten years in prison. And in the meantime, prosecutors, as we mentioned in the report, trying to get Ethan Couch's case moved from juvenile system in Texas to adult system and there's a hearing scheduled on that for January 19th of next year -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Ed Lavandera, thanks very much. I want to talk to Todd Clement, an attorney for the families of the victims who Ethan Couch killed in that drunk driving accident. Thank you, Todd, for joining us today.

I know you have spoken to the victims' family members. Just to remind our viewers, Boyles' family lost a mother and daughter, Holly and Shelby, and the McConnell family lost a family member as well. How do the family members respond to what looks like Ethan Couch going on the run?

TODD CLEMENT, ATTORNEY FOR VICTIMS OF ETHAN COUCH: Well, initially, it was another victimization. I mean, you know, this kid should have been behind bars as a result of killing four people. He ends up going on probation, and then goes on the lam, particularly during holidays.

These families have been victimized multiple times, both with initial deaths, then the probation, then you know this kid running. And so you know, I managed to speak with Eric Boyles seconds after the apprehension was announced on CNN, and you know, there was a great deal of relief.

There was a great deal of gratefulness to all of the people in America as well as officers that apprehended him. And I think there's some amount of satisfaction. Now, we're hearing some issues about how long Ethan is actually going to serve here.

But I think it's really important to note that, from the very outset of this, the parents were blamed, in fact at the very beginning of the criminal trial they said Ethan was a product of profoundly dysfunctional parenting that enabled this behavior. Well, there was no way to really hold those responsible for that behavior up until now. I think it's particularly satisfying to families that indeed it appears that his mother, Tanya, may have committed a crime and may finally be held accountable as well.

SCIUTTO: Todd, I don't want to profess to say that there's a way for the families to be satisfied, no one will satisfy losing a loved one, nothing will satisfy that, but what do the families need, want to see here, to feel that jut has been served?

CLEMENT: I think they want to see the system work. They want to see that indeed there be consequences for profoundly bad behavior. And I think they want to not be seen as victims of this affluenza.

I think, you know, that is something that these families have carried around for all this time. I think they want to now be able to grieve, now be able to heal and not have this open wound that keeps opening and opening as it's continued to do so for the last two and a half years.

SCIUTTO: The disappearance, it did not seem to be spontaneous, seemed to be carefully planned. You have Ethan appearing to change his appearance, right, dyeing his beard, different color, that kind of thing, and they had a going away party, so they were telling people that they were going. How do the families react to that?

CLEMENT: Without any surprise whatsoever. Remember, the initial thing is, Ethan is a product of profoundly dysfunctional parenting that enables his behavior. What happened here?

The exact same thing. There aren't consequences for Ethan, and that's why this has been repeated again and again. Remember, what the twitter that has -- that sparked this fleeing, he was playing beer pong.

Guess what he was doing the night he killed four people. He was playing beer pong at the Couch's second home.

SCIUTTO: Incredible. Incredible to just compare toes two moments. Todd Clement, thank you for taking time to join us.

CLEMENT: My pleasure. Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: New 911 calls released give us a riveting view inside the already amazing story of the three boy scouts, their troop leader and, yes, a bear. Their troop leader mauled by the animal.

The calls for help came after the group ventured into a cave in northern New Jersey during a walk last week. Little do they know that that cave was a bear den and they likely woke up an animal hibernating for the winter. CNN's Deborah Feyerick walks through the rescue.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jim, talk about real life Boy Scout wilderness training. Boy Scout Leader Christopher Petronino (ph) was in the woods with three boy scouts, one of them his own son. [16:55:05]He was lowering himself into a crevice within he stumbled on a bear. The bear getting ready to hibernate was not happy, and he attacked 50-year-old New Jersey man biting him on the legs, shoulders and head, using a cell phone, the boys, all of them about 12 years old, called 911. Listen to what happens next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: 911, where is the emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED SCOUT: We're in split rock reservoir on a trail. Me and two other scouts were hiking, my scoutmaster went into a cave and a bear's in the cave. I think the bear is on top of him.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: The bear is on top of him?

UNIDENTIFIED SCOUT: Yes, I think so.

UNIDENTIFIED SCOUT: One of the scouts is putting food in the cave. We'll make a lot of smoke.

UNIDENTIFIED SCOUT: Guys, if we don't make it out of this alike, I love you guys.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FEYERICK: It was pretty frightening, but those boys, very brave, stayed and helped. This could have been more serious but the quick thinking scoutmaster hit the bear with a hammer, taking his shirt, pulling it over his head, and curling into the fetal position.

With the apparent threat gone, the bear lost interest. The scouts were able to call 911, put down food to lure the bear out and all took about 80 harrowing minutes. The scoutmaster was treated and released, the boys are fine. Listen one more time.

(AUDIO CLIP)

FEYERICK: A happy ending to a scary story -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Did the boy scouts proud. Thanks very much, Deborah Feyerick.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jimsciutt or tweet the show here @theleadcnn. That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto in again today for Jake Tapper. Brianna Keilar up next filling in for Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

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