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Terror Investigation; President Obama's Final Moves; Turkey Assassination Probe. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired December 20, 2016 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:03]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Talking about what happened in Berlin a little over 24 hours ago, calling the driver a -- quote -- "soldier of the Islamic State."

This is according to a U.S. group that tracks jihadi Web sites, that claim as we're following news of a stunning admission by Berlin police that they had the wrong guy. Investigators there believe they had detained a suspect who they thought was the one who plowed through that Christmas market with a truck, but it turns out they didn't.

And this individual responsible for the deaths now of 12 people and injuries of dozens more people still out there at large. The driver jumping this curb with his truck, here's an animation, accelerating this tractor-trailer through a crowd of people. Mind you, this tractor-trailer full of steel, dragging some victims as far as 80 feet.

Witnesses there at this Christmas market describing the horror.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EMMA RUSTHON, WITNESS: We heard a loud bang. And we started to see to our left that Christmas lights were being torn down and then we started to see the top of an articulated truck, a lorry, just crashing through the stores and through people.

SHANDANA DURRANI, WITNESS: Literally, the truck was 20 feet away from me as it came barrelling through. And nobody knew what was happening. Everybody just started scurrying and running.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were people bleeding. There were people lying in the pavement.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The police came in right away and were pushing bystanders away and saying, get to safety, get away from here. You don't need to see this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Joining me now, Erin McLaughlin, who is live there in Berlin.

Erin, news on the ISIS front, but also the Berlin police arrested a man about an mile-and-a-half away from that site, turns out they couldn't, what, match him forensically so they let him go.

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brooke. The federal prosecutors this evening releasing a statement saying that they had insufficient evidence to continue to hold that individual that they had in custody. They didn't have the forensic evidence, the fingerprints, the DNA evidence that would indicate that at any point in time that he was, in fact, inside that truck cabin.

Also discounting eyewitness testimony linking him to the attack. Now we understand immediately following the attack an eyewitness had called him in, but now it seems to be a case of missing identity.

Now, this individual they had in custody was originally identified as an asylum seeker probably from Pakistan, something that many people in this country found deeply disturbing, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying if it was in fact an asylum speaker who perpetrated the attack, she said it would be disgusting, in fact, but now seeming to have discounted that man they had in custody that was, in fact, an asylum seeker, having released him this evening.

So, the question remains where does that leave this investigation, especially when you consider police believe that that truck was deliberately driven into the Christmas market, inside the truck cabin? A body of a Polish citizen who had been shot, police believe that that citizen was not the one driving the truck.

So it would seem a suspect still at large, potentially multiple suspects, and police are appealing to the public for help and now we have this claim that ISIS inspired this attack as well.

BALDWIN: Erin, thank you so much.

With the two big pieces of news, I want to just bring in my panel now.

Paul Cruickshank is a CNN terrorism analyst and editor-in-chief of "THE CTC Sentinel," David Andelman, editor of "The World Policy Journal," who wrote a piece on CNN.com.

That's why I wanted to bring you on. Thank you so much.

But, Paul Cruickshank, to you first. I think language matters here. And in this case, when you read, it's a word ISIS is claiming it inspired the attack. How does that differ, does that differ from ISIS officially claiming responsibility?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes.

I mean, they're claiming it was a soldier of the caliphate, but responding to the calls they put out to launch attacks in the West against the anti-ISIS coalition. So they're claiming a certain amount of ownership over this attack, but they're not explicitly saying they directed this in any way.

And with that claim that they inspired it, well, they're offering no evidence at all, Brooke, that that is indeed the case. And I can tell you that German investigators at least as far as what has been publicly articulated have not found any evidence yet of any link to Islamist terrorism whatsoever.

And, now, that doesn't mean it won't end up being Islamist terrorism. It may well end up being that because of the M.O. of this attack having parallels to other ISIS-inspired attacks in Nice and Ohio and elsewhere in the past, but no evidence behind this ISIS claim of inspiration.

[15:05:10]

Now, that leaves several scenarios here. One is that they're just being really opportunistic and they may look really foolish in the hours ahead. Another is that they have some insider information, that they may be in contact in some way with this attacker.

We saw, actually. Back in July, there was an axe attack, you will recall, on a train in Bavaria, and it was exactly this same kind of wording, the same claim of inspiration.

Well, it turned out in that case that an ISIS operative overseas had actually been in touch communicating with this train attacker in the hours before the attack. So in that case they did have insider knowledge. So they may have reasons for doing this. They may just be being completely opportunistic. We will have to see.

BALDWIN: I want to come back to you. I know you and I have talked before, though, about how -- the similarities of using a vehicle as a weapon, both what we saw in Berlin and Nice.

David, let me just turn to you, because you make that point in your piece. I just want to quote you. You wrote: "The domestic fallout of both incident, being Berlin and Nice, promises to carry far beyond the borders of Germany or France, spreading a radical shift to the right that holds the potential of upsetting not only the ruling elite, but the very glue that holds Europe together."

DAVID ANDELMAN, EDITOR, "WORLD POLICY JOURNAL": Right.

BALDWIN: How do you mean?

ANDELMAN: Well, first of all, let me back up one step.

BALDWIN: Yes.

ANDELMAN: There's no real evidence, of course, that is actually commissioned this attack.

BALDWIN: Could be self-radicalized, we don't know.

ANDELMAN: Absolutely.

It could also be that there are 1.3 million refugees that have come into Germany just in the past year-and-a-half. Many of these people are not very happy about how they have been received there. They somehow have not managed to grab that brass ring.

BALDWIN: Right. ANDELMAN: So, instead , many of these people have a thing against

Germany. So here's another opportunity for them to strike back.

BALDWIN: And Angela Merkel has been opening her arms to those, right?

ANDELMAN: She has been. And this is a great danger for Merkel going forward. Then it becomes a political thing. Then it becomes the question of the glue that holds Europe together, remember, is the European Union. All of the foes of Merkel, the people -- many of the foes of Merkel, the people who really are, shall we say, opposed to admitting any of these refugees, any of these people who are coming into the country from abroad, they also want to break away from the European Union.

So we have the potential of Europe fracturing and leaving the road open for frankly even more events like yesterday.

BALDWIN: Case in point, why so many polls were wrong in the U.K. and why so many people voted in favor of leave. Staying with you, though, because we could take this to the U.S., right, and the country has elected Donald Trump to be the next president.

And, guys, throw the Trump tweet up, because I think it's important to see how he has responded to what happened in Berlin. "Today, there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany, and it's only getting worse, the civilized world must change the thinking."

You mentioned Trump in your piece at the very end. How should he handle this?

ANDELMAN: He has to be very cautious about this. There's no doubt about that.

He does have opportunities, though. He has opportunities, for instance, in being very friendly towards Putin, who has a stake in a lot of this. He has opportunities really in a lot of folks in Europe, a lot of the right-wing people who are coming along, the populist movements in Europe, these are very close to Trump.

There's a story going around, by the way, that the head -- a senior official of one of the Austrian right-wing parties actually saw Michael Flynn at Trump Tower a couple of weeks ago, so that these are the kinds of...

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: I don't think we have that, just to be crystal clear.

ANDELMAN: Right, exactly. This has been...

BALDWIN: Sure.

ANDELMAN: Right. Understand. And this is something that the Austrian party have been very, very overt in saying.

BALDWIN: Sure. ANDELMAN: Go ahead.

BALDWIN: No. I was just saying, just listening to you on the geopolitical and what is happening over there and what is happening here, Paul Cruickshank, I just want to pivot back to you also just on what is happening on the ground and just knowing what you know.

Whether there is self-radicalized or if somebody is working with a network or cell or alone, how then with that knowledge do law enforcement handle this manhunt?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, it's going to be difficult, because it's not clear at all that they have got good any leads at the moment.

And one of the things they're asking the public to do is to hand over any video they might have shot from the scene, so perhaps they could have a chance of identifying who really was the perpetrator, the driver who drove this truck into the crowd last night.

They're worried that this perpetrator is still at large, that they're armed and dangerous and that they could strike again. They are not even sure how many people were involved. They don't know whether it was one person driving, two people driving.

But they know whoever was responsible actually killed the Polish driver, the trucker, and hijacked this truck, appears in Berlin and then drove it into this crowd.

[15:10:05]

So they're going through anything they can to try and get some good leads on who might be responsible. But they have got to assume that this individual could strike again, could strike again with another vehicle, could strike again with a gun because they have already used a gun once on that trucker inside the vehicle.

ANDELMAN: In terms of vulnerabilities, what is interesting particularly, there are 2,300 of these Christmas markets all over Germany.

There are at least 300 in Paris. There is a fabulous like that one on the Champs Elysees right now.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: I know it.

ANDELMAN: Exactly. We have all been there.

And these are enormously vulnerable too. So, really, there is fear that goes even beyond Germany's borders that this kind of an attack could replicate itself.

BALDWIN: And people being very cautious here in New York City as well.

David, thank you so much. Please come back. And, Paul Cruickshank, as awl, invaluable from you.

To my point, on the domestic front here, Berlin warning to the rest of the world be on alert. That's exactly what police are doing in New York and across the United States right now. Highly trained and highly equipped officers in high-profile areas, if you live in New York, you might have noticed the increased police presence at the holiday market in Columbus circle.

That's Brynn Gingras has been and even told us the tale of an unmarked van last hour that police quickly swarmed.

What are you seeing?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, yes, Brooke.

You just said it, highly trained and highly armed authorities always at these areas around the city. Right? It's part of the NYPD's counterterrorism units; 500 members of the NYPD are part of the units and they really just hop around the city on a daily basis.

But when something like this happens like we saw in Germany, they sort of get mobilized to areas that could be of threat. This holiday market behind me one of them. There are about a half-a-dozen or so around New York City. The German consulate is another example of where you would see those officers standing post.

But I also want to show you this. You can see this NYPD vehicle. It's not parked here just by happenstance. It's because this is acting as sort of a natural barrier. So these open markets aren't as open to any potential threats.

So these are sort of the things we're seeing as we also see those counterterrorism officers going through these markets talking to vendors, asking them questions, what they should be on the lookout for, also talking to people who are just doing shopping here.

And you mentioned that unmarked van. I thought that was so fascinating. It was about an hour ago. An unmarked van pulled itself right up, actually right in front of this NYPD vehicle. And the driver got out. He was just trying to make a delivery, but it was a suspicious-looking van.

And the counterterrorism units really went over to him and started yelling at and said what do you think you're doing? So they really act quickly and that is their job. The NYPD, though, Brooke, it's so important to note they say right now no credible threat here in New York City. And you can definitely see that people here feel safe doing their holiday shopping, Brooke.

BALDWIN: It's the holidays, enjoy yourself, but any cop would tell you just be alert. Brynn, thank you so much.

Coming up next, we're going to take you inside the home of an assassin. What Turkish state media says investigators have turned up on the suspected gunman who killed Russia's ambassador to Turkey in that art museum yesterday. Also, CNN interviewed the photographer who managed to take these

stunning photos of this assassin in action. What he was thinking as this unfolded around him, the fear in the room.

And with exactly one month remaining before President Obama hands over the proverbial keys to the White House, he is cementing his legacy. What the president may do to try to ban offshore drilling long after he's gone.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:17:01]

BALDWIN: We have some chilling new video from the assassination of Russian ambassador to Turkey just taken moments before the gunshots rang out.

You can see the ambassador speaking there at the microphone, but we have spotlighted the shooter. You see him reaching in or adjusting something in his jacket. That's the gunman. And I want you to watch as he crosses the room slowly behind the ambassador.

He's still fidgeting with his jacket, no indication of what he's about to do. When the shots did ring out moments later, people, you know, ran for the doors, understandably, but not the photographer from the Associated Press. He stayed put, taking photos, documenting what was happening in front of him.

He recounted the experience to Nic Robertson.

And a warning: The pictures he took are graphic, they are difficult to watch. Here's the interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BURHAN OZBILICI, ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER: I heard shots, very loud. Bam, bam, bam.

I said, what is this? This is horrible. So the people standing in front, they disappeared. They throw them onto the floor. And then they tried -- they were trying to hide them to take shelter.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Were you afraid?

OZBILICI: I was shocked, but -- afraid, but not much. Not panicked.

ROBERTSON: Were you not afraid taking his picture? You have got a camera. He's got a gun.

OZBILICI: I'm very sensitive. In difficult situations, I'm calm.

I have a responsibility to record the event. And the ambassador was lying on the ground, not moving. And the guy was making some political -- politically motivated speech.

But I could not understand. I thought maybe he's speaking Russian, in Russian. Some people were screaming and crying. So I could not hear well.

Then he turned around the body, and from very close range, he shot one more time.

ROBERTSON: On the ambassador?

OZBILICI: Yes.

ROBERTSON: Just to make sure he was dead.

OZBILICI: I think so.

When I learned that the guy was killed, I was really shocked. Why they killed him? He did nothing, took -- take anybody hostage. He was alone. They have to capture him alive.

ROBERTSON: They could have done.

OZBILICI: I don't know. I don't know what is the reason, motive behind. But there's something revolting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Stunning, stayed behind to take those photos.

We are also getting word now that the body of the Russian ambassador, Karlov, has arrived in Moscow, where today you have the foreign leaders from Russia, Iran and Turkey holding talks on what's happening in Syria.

[15:20:03]

According to Turkey, Aleppo evacuations could be complete as early as tomorrow.

CNN's Muhammad Lila joins us from Turkey near that Syrian border.

Let's start with the assassination. Has that changed the conversation at all today in Moscow among these world leaders as it pertains to Aleppo?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, absolutely, it's changed the conversation, just not in the way that a lot of people thought it would.

You have a top-ranking Russian diplomat who was gunned down in cold blood by a Turkish national in the Turkish capital. You would think that there would be some blowback. You would think that that would drive a wedge between the relations between Russia and Turkey.

But publicly anyway we're actually seeing the opposite happen. We're seeing Turkey and Russia both coming out very publicly and saying this is going to unite them even further. They talk about how they're now both fighting the same enemy.

Russia has had terrorist attacks in the past, as has Turkey. So they're now talking about fighting the terrorists together. Some of that language came out in today's joint declaration after this meeting in Russia, where they both talked about going after the terrorists in Syria in joint operations.

BALDWIN: So what about the evacuations? Apparently, they could end as early as tomorrow. What are you hearing?

LILA: Well, in fact, that timeline might even be moved up a little bit. There are rebel sources on the ground that have told us that we're now looking at the last batch of evacuations that are set to take place.

They're confident that they might be completed within the next few hours. The Syrian government has put out similar messaging. So it may not even be tomorrow. It may be some time today that we will see that process complete.

And, Brooke, when the process is complete, the world and certainly especially this region will be waking up to a very new reality, one that we haven't seen in quite some time. And that reality is that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad will be in control of all of Syria's major cities for the first time in more than four or five years, certainly since this conflict began.

So it is going to be a very different Syria when the world wakes up tomorrow.

BALDWIN: Before I let you go, Muhammad, all these reports of death, I just want to end on positive news on life and this little baby. We have this photo. This is the first baby apparently born from that group of evacuees who fled Aleppo. We're told mom and baby are in good health.

But can you just tell me more, Muhammad, about what life is like for the people who have made it out?

LILA: Sure.

Well, life is certainly difficult. These are people who are leaving their homes. They don't know if they are going to be able to come back. In many cases, they only have the clothes that they're wearing on their backs, maybe small belongings that they can take with them.

But just on this baby, her name is baby Tasnim. She's in good health, her mother is in good health. The photo was tweeted out by the World Health Organization. We understand mother and baby are being treated in a World Health Organization facility in Turkey.

And it's kind of bittersweet, because you look at that child and you think it represents hopes for the future and that child is so innocent and she managed to survive this evacuation process, and now she's healthy.

But, on the other hand, when you look at her, she's away from her home and her family is away from their home and they don't know if they will ever be able to go back to their home. So it is bittersweet. But finally every dark cloud has a silver lining, and that baby is certainly a silver lining.

BALDWIN: She has a long road ahead. But bless them.

Muhammad, thank you. Thank you so much for that.

Coming up next, this flurry of activity before the president leaves the White House, from Gitmo prisoners to offshore drilling -- what President Obama is trying to do in these final days of his administration, how that is going to impact president-elect Donald Trump. We will take you live to Hawaii, where the first family is vacationing.

Also, the first lady sits down with Oprah and reveals why her family has been so supportive of president-elect Trump as he's making the move to the White House. Don't miss that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:27:19]

BALDWIN: It is the holidays, so, naturally, President Obama and the first family are on vacation as per tradition in Honolulu, his final as president of the United States.

But this is not stopping him from trying to push through some major policy changes during his final days in office. I'm talking about Gitmo transfers, pardoning more low-level drug offenders and banning drilling in some places offshore.

Athena Jones drew the short straw -- I kid -- in Honolulu.

Athena, a lot on the president's plate. Let's start with the offshore drilling piece. How is he planning to restrict it?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brooke. That's right.

As soon as today, the president is going to move to bar offshore drilling indefinitely in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. That means no more selling of these oil drilling rights, no more leasing, I should say, of oil drilling rights.

Now, he's taken similar steps in the past to limit drilling in the waters off of the U.S. mainland. But these steps would go further. They would be much more difficult to reverse because he's doing them using a law and not through executive action.

He's relying on a 1953 law that allows him to do this. And that would make it much more difficult for a President Trump to reverse these. This news is not going to be welcomed, most likely, by oil companies or the president-elect. Trump has said he wants to increase U.S. energy production. So this is a step the president is trying to make, and trying to make it difficult for the next president to undo -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes.

What about the clemency piece? I know that we have reported on this throughout his presidency. This seems near and dear to him, issuing clemency, commuting or pardoning some 200 prisoners. It's the largest, apparently, single-day act, but it's not over.

JONES: No, it's not over.

And, Brooke, not only was it the largest single-day act of clemency. It also brings the total number of clemencies, of pardons plus commutations, to a record, when you compare it to the past several two-term presidents.

So, this has been an important part of the president's agenda. And we know from the White House, White House counsel Neil Eggleston, that we can expect more acts of clemency to come. So, in these closing days, this is one more example of President Obama doing what he says is running out the tape, working up until the very end to get as much done as he can -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: And then finally something else.

We know he had wanted to shut down Gitmo. Now we're hearing -- this is "The New York Times" reporting -- that the Obama administration is planning on transferring nearly 20 detainees from Gitmo. Tell me more about that.

JONES: Well, my colleagues at the Pentagon have confirmed that the Obama administration has alerted Congress that they have -- that they do plan to transfer a number of detainees.

"The New York Times" has 17 or 18 -- they put it at 17 or 18 detainees to other countries. That would amount to nearly a third of the inmates remaining at Guantanamo Bay.