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Court Could Split 4-4 On Immigration Case; Russian Jet Flies Close To U.S. Recon Plane; Russia Dismisses U.S. Concerns Over Recent Fly-Bys; Saudis Warn Of Economic Payback For 9/11 Bill; Saudies Didn't Actively Prevent Terror Funding, According To Obama Aide; Both Clinton And Sanders Back Bill Letting 9/11 Victims Sue Saudis; Clinton And Trump Leading In New York, According To Polls; Magnitude 7.8 Tremor Kills 350 Plus In Ecuador; Iraq Town Struggling After Hit In ISIS Chemical Attack. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 18, 2016 - 16:30   ET


[16:30:08] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN GUEST HOST: Four-point-three million people.

Pamela Brown, thanks very much.

Too close for comfort. For the second time in one week, Russians pilots flying dangerously close to an American reconnaissance plane, but Russia insisting their pilots did nothing wrong, all trolling the U.S. about it on Twitter.


SCIUTTO: Topping our world lead today: Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are boiling over close calls on the high seas and at high altitude.

Just days after a Russian fighter jet buzzed the USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea, coming within 30 feet of the guided missile destroyer, a Russian jet flew within 50 feet of an American surveillance aircraft wingtip high over the Baltic Sea.


U.S. officials say the flights are, at best, unprofessional. At worst, they risk military confrontation.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): The two Russian fighter jets sped by the USS Donald Cook within yards of the destroyer's bridge, ignoring, the Pentagon says, repeated radio calls to the pilots in English and Russian. It is just the latest in a series of flybys the U.S. has repeatedly deemed unsafe and unprofessional.

But this one, the commander of U.S. Naval forces in Europe told CNN, was unprecedented.

ADM. MARK FERGUSON, COMMANDER, U.S. NAVAL FORCES EUROPE: The behavior that we saw from the pilots engaged in this operation was very different in its aggressiveness, lack of communication, and proximity to the ship.

SCIUTTO: So close that Secretary of State John Kerry warned publicly that the Cook could have shot the Russian jet down.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It is reckless, it is provocative, it is dangerous, it is unprofessional, and under the rules of engagement, that could have been a shoot-down.

SCIUTTO: The flybys follow months of increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and it is not the first. In June, a Russian SU-24 jet flew within about 1,600 feet of a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Black Sea. That was followed by similar flybys of U.S. aircraft carriers and jets.

In all, there have been hundreds of intercepts between Russian and U.S. aircraft in the past couple of years. In the case of the Cook, U.S. Navy officials tell CNN, commanders on board quickly determined the Russian jets were not a threat. The ship's instruments indicating they were not armed and did not employ targeting radar to lock on or light up the ship.

CAPT. RICK HOFFMAN (RET.), ORION SOLUTIONS, LLC: Those ships are very sophisticated. We can make decisions about whether they live or die from great distances with great speed. But we don't want to do that unless it's absolutely necessary and it's absolutely supported by our rules of engagement.

SCIUTTO: The Russian Defense Ministry told state media that Russia acted -- quote -- "in accordance with international rules." The Russian Embassy in Washington taking a more lighthearted tack, tweeting to CNN and others: "Keep calm when the Russians are around. These aces know how to fly," along with a link to a series of videos showing Russian fighter jets performing aerial stunts.


SCIUTTO: I asked the U.S. Navy if the rules of engagement would have allowed the crew of the USS Donald Cook to shoot down the Russian jets.

A Navy official told me the following -- quote -- "Every commanding officer of a U.S. Navy ship is empowered to make the decision regarding the self-defense of the ship and its crew. Again, in this case, the commanding officer recognized that the flight patterns were unsafe and unprofessional, but did not feel threatened and therefore did not engage with tactical weapons."

Well, President Obama leaves for an official trip to Saudi Arabia tomorrow. And it's not clear that he's going to get the warmest welcome. The Mideast superpower and close U.S. ally is threatening to sell off tens of billions of dollars in American assets if the U.S. Congress passes a new bipartisan law that would allow victims of 9/11 and other terror attacks to sue foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia's.

The White House said today the president will not sign that bill as it stands. But will President Obama release 28 classified pages of the 9/11 Commission report that could indicate Saudi royal family ties to the worst terror attack ever on the U.S.

I want to bring in David Axelrod now. He's CNN's senior political commentator. He's the host of the podcast "The Axe Files." It's great. You should listen to it.

In the latest episode, you spoke with Ben Rhodes. He's of course the president's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and he spoke about possible Saudi knowledge of 9/11. Here's a brief clip from the interview.


BEN RHODES, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It's not that it was Saudi government policy to support al Qaeda, but there were a number of very wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia who would contribute sometimes directly to extremist groups, sometimes to charities that were kind of ended up being ways to launder money to these groups. So a lot of the funding -- and we know bin Laden himself was a wealthy Saudi.


SCIUTTO: David, listening to that and other comments that Rhodes made here, later in the interview he said that there was at least a lack of attention to this kind of money going to groups such as al Qaeda. So if it was not explicitly Saudi policy supporting al Qaeda and 9/11, was he saying or implying that someone in or tied to the Saudi royal family knew about 9/11 or, if not 9/11 specifically, was directly supporting al Qaeda in advance of 9/11?



He talked about how far-flung the royal family was and left open the possibility that there were members of the royal family that were among those who were funneling moneys to extremist groups. And, yes, it was very, very clear.

And remember Ben Rhodes is interesting here not just because he's been working with the president on national security for the last nine years dating back to the campaign, but he also was a staffer on the 9/11 Commission and helped write the 9/11 report that has come back into question now because of some pages that are not public that relate directly to this issue.

So he was talking around that a little bit, but clearly gave the sense that there were people around the Saudis, around the influential circles there who may have been involved. And, you know, I asked him, did he have -- have there been blunt conversations about this? And he said we have had blunt conversations with them.

And he made the point that the Saudis now see these extremist groups as threats to them, and so they have become partners in counterterrorism, which they weren't back in the period before 9/11.

SCIUTTO: That's right. They had to set their sights on Saudi Arabia before they really took action.

Now there's this legislation before Congress that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, for attacks that killed Americans on American soil. We have seen on the campaign trail that both Senator Sanders and Clinton have expressed support for this legislation.

Is this a law that the president is likely to sign, assuming it gets through both houses of Congress?

AXELROD: You know, he's indicated his opposition to it. And the Saudis have been very tough in speaking about how they might react in terms of unloading American treasuries and some other steps they might take.

So, you know, this is one of those uncomfortable areas. You cover this beat, Jim, so you know that there this is one of those uncomfortable areas where our national security interests may not align with what makes sense to the broad number of Americans. And in the midst of a political campaign, that becomes even more fraught.

But I would think the president would think long and hard about that.

SCIUTTO: All right. Onto domestic politics, of course, we have the pivotal New York primary coming up on Tuesday. And I have to ask you, with your background, you have been at a campaign or two before, what's your prediction on the Democratic side and Republican side?

AXELROD: You know, this one doesn't seem all that mysterious. If you look at the aggregation of polling -- and there's been a lot of polling in both the Democratic and Republican primaries -- Hillary Clinton seems to have a double-digit lead over Bernie Sanders.

And there's no sense of that diminishing going into the final day of the campaign. And Donald Trump seems to be running away with the Republican primary, which is meaningful, because if he gets over 50 percent of the vote under the rules that are established in New York, he could walk away with all or most of those delegates, which would put him back on track to get the majority that he needs or potentially get the majority that he needs to win on the first ballot.

My view is, if Donald Trump doesn't win on the first ballot, he's not going to be the nominee of the party. So this is very consequential.

SCIUTTO: No question. David Axelrod, thanks so much.

AXELROD: Good to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Widespread devastation and destruction, as another earthquake rocks one part of the world, survivors now digging through piles of debris, searching for the missing. We go live there next.

Plus, a terrifying look at the lengths that ISIS will go to, to develop a chemical weapons program. That's right after this.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: This just in to CNN. A tragedy during U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power's trip to Cameroon as an armored jeep and her motorcade struck and killed a 7-year-old who had darted into the road.

Power was on her way to meet refugees displaced by the war with the infamous terrorists in Boko Haram. Power said that she met with the boy's family to offer her deep regrets over what happened.

The search through the rubble continues for loved ones today as more massive earthquakes struck two continents over the weekend. In Japan, at least 43 people are dead as a result of two quakes that hit Japan's southwestern region, first on Thursday night and another one again on Saturday morning.

Then hours later, a powerful -- even more powerful, devastating earthquake struck Ecuador, magnitude 7.8, to be exact, claiming the lives so far of more than 350 people.

Let's go to CNN correspondent, Boris Sanchez. He's on the scene live in Ecuador. So Boris, you see these quakes so soon after each other. Does the quake in Japan and the one in Ecuador, any possibility they are connected?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is simply too early to say with certainty, Jim. There's a lot of research in the area of something called remote triggering. Keep in mind, both of these places, Japan and Ecuador, are on that Pacific rim of fire where there are volcanos and seismic activity.

The research is still in its infancy to figure out whether or not what happens in one area affects another. So it's still maybe some time before we find out whether or not these quakes were directly linked.

I do want to paint a picture of what is going on behind me, though. This is an area of Ecuador called Manta. It's not far from the epicenter of the quake. The building behind me used to be a beauty shop and an optics store.

And neighbors tell us there was a couple that lived inside that they believe was trying to escape when the quake first hit. They got stuck in the stairway and did not make it out.

[16:50:00]The neighbor that was telling about this is actually not living on the street because he can't get back into his apartment. It's simply unsafe. Scenes like this one playing out all over Ecuador, a country that has a long road to recovery.


SANCHEZ (voice-over): The desperate search for life continues here on the west coast of Ecuador. Now, a race against time as rescuers dig through debris and families pray their missing loved ones will not be part of the growing death toll.

Hundreds of people have died since Saturday's devastating 7.8 magnitude quake. According to tweets from Ecuador's government, 120 rescuers from Mexico and 53 from Cuba arrived before dawn today to offer aid.

Teams from Colombia, Spain and Chile are expected as well. The task before them immense. Drone video shows the tops of buildings leaning precariously. Ecuador's president toured some of the troubling scenes this morning, posting photos to his official Twitter account.

RAFAEL CORREA, PRESIDENT OF ECUADOR (through translator): The resources have arrived. The whole country is mobilized. This is an enormous tragedy.

SANCHEZ: Six coastal provinces are in states of emergency. No doubt the road ahead is uncertain for entire communities here where livelihoods and neighborhoods were crushed in an instant.


SANCHEZ: The other big question here is the death toll. Earlier today, it sat at 272. This afternoon, the minister of security told us it is inching towards 350, but that's not an official number. That's a ballpark figure and it is, sadly, expected to climb -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Sad news, Boris Sanchez on the scene there in Ecuador. The United States is sending more troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and take back a key city and this time they will be even closer to the front lines.



SCIUTTO: Welcome back. Hundreds more U.S. troops are heading to Iraq and even closer to the front lines there. On a surprise trip to Iraq, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announcing the U.S. is sending 217 additional U.S. troops including Army Special Operations forces as well as apache attack helicopters.

Those forces expected to take part in a planned offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and an ISIS stronghold. Now there is growing concern that ISIS is gets its hands on chemical weapons. CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad and she filed this report.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Every few steps, Mohamed (inaudible) needs a break. His lungs can't take it. His body shakes. A month after he was exposed to a chemical attack, he still needs shots every day to control the symptoms.

This man was also exposed. He had a small blemish that spread and grew into this. And this reads, the first martyr of the chemical attack. She came into this clinic alive, the doctor remembers. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): She was crying, but she was wounded and the chemical was all over her body, like black grease.

DAMON (on camera): The town has been hit by numerous chemical attacks. One of the strikes happened right here and there's still a very distinct chemical odor, a bit hard to describe.

(voice-over): Hundreds were injured, describing troubled breathing, burning eyes and blistering skin. Chemical weapons experts say it was some sort of homemade mustard gas, possibly combined with something else. Because of security concerns, this man does not want his identity disclosed. His background is chemistry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Look at this book. It's the same one we used for training in how to protect the Iraqi forces from gases. I found this book in the market and it has very dangerous information.

DAMON: For example, details on the chemical makeup of lethal gases and how to store them. Mustard gas, he says, is among the simplest to concoct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Anyone with a degree in chemistry would know how to prepare.

DAMON: ISIS also has plenty of foreign operatives with expertise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we compare this attack less than a month ago to the attacks maybe five, six months ago, we saw a difference. We see that they have moved forward with their chemical capabilities.

DAMON: The U.S. has bombed Mosul University's high-tech chemistry lab, but the chemist says there are plenty of other facilities ISIS could potentially be using and the advance of their capabilities poses a serious threat both here and beyond.


DAMON: And Jim, part of the concern is that the U.S. is unsure at this stage what kind of damage it may have done to that facility at Mosul University and to other facilities that they have struck in other parts of Iraq. And no one knows exactly to what length ISIS will go when it comes to trying to defend Mosul -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: It's an alarming prospect. Arwa Damon, thank you so much. Please stay safe.

That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto in today for Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, ending Trump's slump. After weeks of watching Ted Cruz snapped up delegates, GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump is predicting a big win in his home state of New York. Could that put him back on the path to the nomination? Showbiz, Trump says --