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Inside Vladimir Putin's Private Army; Newark Hands Out Bottled Water Amid Lead Concerns; Fire At A Pennsylvania Day Care Kills Five Children. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired August 13, 2019 - 07:30   ET



[07:30:49] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we have a CNN exclusive this morning, inside Vladimir Putin's private army.

This is CNN's months' long investigation and it uncovered a mercenary force of hundreds of fighters operating on three continents. But as far as the Kremlin is concerned, they do not officially exist. According to one member, the mercenaries are part of Putin's plan to replace the U.S. as a world power.

CNN's chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, brings us never-before-seen footage of inside this mysterious enforcement group.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is Oleg. For years, he says he worked as a hired gun in Syria for a shadowy Russian mercenary group called Wagner that has become a valuable tool for the Kremlin.

OLEG, FORMER WAGNER FIGHTER (through translator): Wagner is Putin's instrument for resolving issues by force when action has to be taken immediately, urgently, and in the most concealed way possible. I cannot say it's an army in the proper sense of that word. It's just a fighting unit that will do anything that Putin says.

WARD (voice-over): This is the first time a former Wagner employee has agreed to speak on camera and Oleg asked us to disguise his identity. Private military contractors are illegal in Russia.

Officially, Wagner doesn't exist, but CNN has discovered that the group now has hundreds of fighters operating on three different continents, and this is the man believed to be behind that expansion.

Dubbed Putin's chef because of lucrative catering contracts with the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin is also sanctioned by the U.S. for funding the Internet research agency accused of meddling in the 2016 election.

OLEG (through translator): I'm a mercenary and 90 percent of participants of the company were like me, and they were motivated by money.

WARD (on camera): What sort of training was it? Where did it take place?

OLEG (through translator): You know, I didn't have any training as such -- not then, anyway. I spent six days in the training camp in Molkino. I went to a firing range twice and shot a machine gun once. That was it.

WARD (voice-over): CNN traveled to the remote Russian village of Molkino to try to get to Wagner's training camp and found that the group has a surprisingly close relationship with the Russian military.

WARD (on camera): The only way to get into the Wagner barracks is to get through that checkpoint, which is manned by the Russian military, because this actually belongs to a Russian special forces unit.

WARD (voice-over): Not far from Molkino, there's a monument to fallen Wagner fighters. Visitors are not welcome so we approach we a hidden camera.

WARD (on camera): It looks less like a memorial than a fortress.

WARD (voice-over): A guard soon comes up to us.

"Is the church only for Wagner," I ask? "I don't know for whom," he says.

"For the people who are in Syria," I press him? "I don't know. I'm telling you," he says, "I'm just guarding here."

He begins to get suspicious of our questions and we decide to leave.

WARD (on camera): Yes, he's going to call. Let's go.


WARD (on camera): They didn't let us inside, which is not surprising because in that compound is the only tangible, visible proof that Wagner is real.

WARD (voice-over): No surprise, perhaps, that the monument is funded be Prigozhin-owned company.

It was five years ago in Crimea that mysterious, unidentified fighters dubbed "Little Green Men" helped Moscow rest the province from Ukraine even as the Kremlin feigned ignorance. It was a success and Moscow's use of mercenary forces has since grown.

Analysts say none of this could happen without Putin's approval.

WARD (on camera): Do you think that part of the mission of Wagner is to help Russia restores its role to become a major global superpower again?

[07:35:00] OLEG (through translator): Yes, 100 percent. This is the top priority for Wagner.

WARD (on camera): And so, it's trying to be a rival to America? OLEG (through translator): Russia is trying to suppress the U.S. in every way possible. Using legal and illegal means, it's trying to smash it -- get the better of it somehow. What will come of it as a result? Nothing good, I think.

WARD (voice-over): But for Russian president Vladimir Putin, Wagner is still a worthwhile gamble -- an expendable fighting force with no accountability.


WARD: Now, CNN has tried to reach out to Yevgeny Prigozhin. We e- mailed his lawyers. We did not receive any reply.

We also, of course, wanted to contact Wagner, but because the group does not officially exist, they don't have a Web site or a phone number or an address.

And finally, Erica and John, we also tried to reach out to the Russian Ministry of Defense and surprisingly, perhaps, also no response from them.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: It is -- it is fascinating. I mean, just clarify for us here. Why would Putin want this private army, Clarissa?

WARD: Well, I think there's a number of reasons, Erica.

Primarily, this is an expendable, cheap fighting force that can do any number of things. They're not particularly skilled fighters but they can guard oil fields or diamond mines, they can train local forces. They can do whatever it is that needs to be done.

But most importantly, there is the element of plausible deniability. The Kremlin can simply shrug their shoulders and say this has nothing to do with us.

And we've seen that happen before when more than 100 Wagner fighters were actually killed in U.S. airstrikes as they launched an attack on a U.S.-backed base. And after that, the Kremlin said exactly that. They said it's nothing to do with us.

So it's a very valuable tool for them.

BERMAN: Valuable but, apparently, not something they want publicized because, Clarissa, the Russians, I guess, are coming after you now? There's a propaganda video put out by a Russian news site? What's going on here?

WARD: Yes, we were a little surprised, John. I mean, I don't think any of us are strangers to Russian propaganda, but this is a 15-minute documentary and it went into some level of detail.

It also was clear when you're watching it that people with cameras had been hiding and filming us, both in our hotel lobby in the Central African Republic. Part two of our series comes out tomorrow and we visited the Central African Republic where this Russian mercenary army is expanding to.

They also featured interviews with people in the Central African Republic who alleged that they had received bribes from us to say negative things about the Russians.

There was a particularly eerie scene where they're actually in my hotel room talking about where I was sitting when I had this conversation with them, accusing us of being spies -- things of this nature.

It's sinister and disconcerting on the one hand. But on the other hand, I would say you know you've struck a nerve and you know you're doing good reporting when it elicits this kind of a response.

HILL: Yes, I would say exactly right. Clearly, you touched on a nerve there.

Of course, great reporting, as always, and we look forward to part two as well. Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, there was a big moment yesterday you may not have noticed when the Trump administration moved to fundamentally change the Endangered Species Act.

We're going to tell you what happened and what it means for the animals you're looking at right now on the screen. This is an important reality check, next.


[07:42:37] HILL: The Trump administration just moved to gut the Endangered Species Act. This, as a new study finds whether you believe in basic science or not actually depends on which political party you belong to.

BERMAN: Right. So what's going on here? John Avlon has a reality check -- John.


Look, even in our divided times, there are some things that unite us. For example, love of animals like the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the humpback whale, and even the endearingly odd manatee.

All these species were once on their way to extinction. And then, their savior came in the unexpected form of Richard Nixon, Republican who championed the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which passed the House by a currently unimaginable margin of 355 to four.

But the Trump administration just announced that it will gut the Endangered Species Act by rolling back key provisions, effectively putting big business ahead of endangered animals.

And it's all part of a pattern. The president assures the American people he cares about the environment, then appoints industry lobbyists to key environmental positions. Science takes a back seat to ideology or short-term self-interest and that's something that never ends well.

For example, the Department of the Interior, which is behind these changes, is run by a former oil and gas lobbyist. And not coincidentally there is concern that these changes could open more land for -- you guessed it -- oil and gas exploration.

Because one of the most controversial changes removes the requirement that scientists must decide whether a species needs protecting regardless of economic concerns. This, despite the fact that a recent Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans think that protecting the environment should be a higher priority than economic growth.

The changes also make it harder for scientists to consider the climate crisis when determining whether or not a species needs protection. And that's really a problem given that a recent 1,500-page from the U.N. determined that more than a million species are at a risk of extinction thanks to human activity -- specifically, climate change.

And speaking of the U.N., our newly-minted ambassador there was recently asked by CBS whether she thinks climate change is caused by human activity.


KELLY CRAFT, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: I believe there are scientists on both sides that are accurate. I think that both sides have -- you know, they have their own results from their studies and I appreciate and I respect those sides of the science.


AVLON: OK, that "both sides" stuff might sound diplomatic but in this case, it's just not true. And, Ambassador Kelly Craft probably knows it but she doesn't want to publicly contradict her audience of one in the White House.

[07:45:05] Because study after study shows that virtually all climate scientists believe the planet is warming and people are causing it, which is a symptom of a larger problem and that's the growing partisan divide over science itself.

A Pew study shows that only 27 percent of Republicans say they have a great deal of confidence in scientists. That's compared to 43 percent of Democrats.

And there's a partisan divide on whether people want science to impact public policy as well, with 73 percent of Democrats saying so, but Republicans, just 43 percent.

It's not just these scientists that Republicans have a problem with. It seems to be the science itself. Get this -- some 44 percent of Republicans believe the scientific method can be manipulated to produce any conclusion the scientist wants.

And all this shows why we're having problems agreeing on basic facts. And that, of course, makes it harder to solve common problems. The climate crisis doesn't care which party you belong to. And as we confront rising floodwaters and raging wildfires, the climate crisis might just remind us a little bit too late that we're a lot more similar than our politics might suggest.

And that's your reality check.

BERMAN: Science is science and math is math, John. You know, climate change, it does not recognize party here.

I do want to get to the bottom of your manatee fetish but that might have to wait for another time.

AVLON: (Laughing).

BERMAN: All right, thank you, John.

HILL: I'd also like to recommend John Lithgow's classic on a manatee. It's a song and a book.

BERMAN: Excellent.

HILL: I'll fill you in in the break.

As Flint, Michigan continues to grapple with tainted water, another lead crisis hitting a major American city. Newark, New Jersey is now handing out bottled water to its residents who have been drinking from tainted taps for months or possibly even years.

About one in every eight kids under the age of six in Newark has elevated lead levels in their blood. Now, that is far more than any other city in the state of New Jersey.

CNN's Miguel Marquez is live this morning in Newark with more -- Miguel.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and here's the problem, Erica, is that the city has said for years that they didn't have a problem and then, only after a lawsuit was filed, was it proved that they did have a problem. Now, they're grappling to sort of deal with that for some years now.

Now, this is a health and wellness center here for the city of Newark. Not everybody here is getting water. They're here for different reasons.

A few people are. One of those -- them is this woman right here, Diana McQueen.


MARQUEZ: You live in a senior citizen -- you are upset because there is not enough places to get water?

MCQUEEN: No, it's not. They need more places and they need more service for the seniors. MARQUEZ: OK.

MCQUEEN: You have seniors that are handicapped and cannot get around --

MARQUEZ: And that is a -- and that is --

MCQUEEN: -- and no way they can carry this water. So they need to be brought to them.

MARQUEZ: That is the biggest problem for her. She's been here since 7:30 in the morning, so that is the issue there.

Last fall, they started giving residents tens of thousands of these filters that they said were safe and they could be used anywhere. It turns out they are not. There's been a small sample and they are not as safe as they thought -- so now, they're going to bottled water. The city and the state asking for federal help now.

It is not clear how long people will have to be on bottled water in this area but the city is saying that they will provide it at different locations for at least one of their areas in town that relies on a specific water treatment plant.

But there is great frustration now as to what exactly is safe, are these filters they handed out safe, and how are people, like elderly people, going to get water? For children, it can be devastating -- the effects of lead -- John.

BERMAN: People need information and they need access.

Miguel Marquez, thank you for being on the ground there and helping people understand what's going on in their community.

Severe weather on tap for much of the U.S. today with storms stretching from the southwest to the northeast.

CNN meteorologist Chad Meyers with the forecast. Chad, look at that orange there.

CHAD MEYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, it's centered, really, from Philadelphia to D.C., down to Richmond, Virginia and really, into the mountains as well. I'll show you that in just a second.

This weather is brought to you by Xyzal -- all night, all day allergy relief

So let's get to it. The fronts are in position, the humidity is here, and it's going to fire big storms later on today.

This is what the radar will look like at noon -- not really too bad. But here, by 4:00, big red cells being to develop all along the Appalachian, all along I-95, and will begin to slow down airplanes as well. By 8:00 tonight, you can see the storms are just widely scattered all over the northeast and mid-Atlantic, so get ready for that today. Also, if you're heading to the airport, get ready for this -- hours or two on delays on some of these airports. If a storm gets very close to one of your airports, you are going to be slowed down. Whether you're leaving that airport or your plane is coming from that airport, you're going to get a little slow today.

Look at the heat in Montgomery -- 111 degrees today, Erica, and that's in the shade.

HILL: Oh, that looks miserable, I have to say.


HILL: Chad, thank you.

MEYERS: You're welcome.

[07:50:00] HILL: A firefighter loses three of his own children in that devastating fire at a day care in Pennsylvania. Just ahead, we're going to speak with the local fire chief whose city is now dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy. What he says this morning could save lives.



SHEVONA OVERTON, LOST FOUR CHILDREN IN PENNSYLVANIA DAY CARE FIRE: I lost all four of my babies -- like, all of them. Like, it's hard for me to eat, sleep, cope. It's just so hard.


HILL: You can't even begin to imagine. Shevona Overton says she will never recover from the agony of losing all four of her children in a fire at a Pennsylvania day care center.

[07:55:07] The mother who runs that in-home day care in Erie also lost her child in the fire. And we've learned there was just one working smoke detector in the house, up in the attic.

Joining us now is Guy Santone. He's the fire chief in Erie, Pennsylvania and responded to the fire early that morning. And we can see the remnants of it behind you, Chief.

I mean, as you arrived there, at what point did you realize that there were children trapped in the home?

CHIEF GUY SANTONE, ERIE, PENNSYLVANIA FIRE DEPARTMENT: We were notified on the route to the fire that there were possible people trapped upstairs. And when we got here the neighbors told us they heard screaming up there a little bit before we got there.

So, our crews initially started to attack the fire and then, at the same time, we had crews ladder the building -- HILL: Yes.

SANTONE: -- to gain entry to the second floor.

They were able to find the five children within a couple of minutes and have them down -- outside of the house within 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the results weren't what we were hoping.

HILL: And we just heard from the mother of those four siblings. Three of them -- their dad, Luther Jones, is a nearby firefighter. Have you been in touch with him at all with his department?

SANTONE: I have talked to his fire chief up in Lawrence Park and I expressed our sympathy. And I told him to tell him that if there's anything they need we're here.

HILL: This is -- I mean, I know you train for this and you deal with horrific events often, but I -- from what I understand, this was especially tough for your department -- for the folks who responded.

How are they working through it at this point?

SANTONE: Well, you know, our job is challenging enough. I mean, this was a tough one.

But we have a peer review group that we established a couple of years ago. And what that is is a group of firefighters that are -- that are trained to handling critical incident stress. And they're in the process of now talking to everybody that was on the scene. In case anybody has an issue, we're dealing with it right away.

HILL: When it comes to the home, as we've learned, there was one smoke detector in the attic. There were regular inspections and we've seen the latest one in December, which mentioned some corrections. But the inspection didn't mention any concerns with fire safety.

Based on what you saw and based on what we see behind you, do you think maybe something was missed? I mean, what should we be looking out for here?

SANTONE: What we have -- would happen -- we found this out yesterday. The city was not aware that this day care was here. Any day cares that were permitted prior to 2004 were permitted through the state. Anything after that, they have to be permitted through the city.

Now, there's two loopholes.

One is that when the state permits it before 2004, they don't have to notify the local authorities. So their inspection company is DHS, the Department of Human Services.

The other loophole is when they inspect, they basically inspect just for cleanliness. They don't inspect for smoke detectors or fire extinguishers or anything of that nature.

So I had a conversation with the representative from DHS yesterday. I expressed my displeasure and I instructed her that the city wants the addresses of every day care within the city limits that they inspect, and they delivered through on that yesterday afternoon.

HILL: Well, that is good to know.

And just -- I mean, a reminder for all us right now who are watching at home, just on a practical level, what do we need for smoke detectors? What should be in someone's house just to make sure that if there is a fire they can handle it safely until help arrives?

SANTONE: Well, in the city of Erie, we started a rental inspection program where we require that every residence has a smoke detector in every bedroom, outside in the hallway of the bedrooms, and a smoke detector on every floor, including the basement and the attic. And that's for everybody, whether a rental, a day care or a private residence.

We've shown and proven that the smoke detectors work. And this is my personal opinion, but I think if this day care would have been equipped with the proper amount of smoke detectors there's a very good chance that all five of these children would still be alive today.

HILL: A sobering thought.

Chief Guy Santone, appreciate you taking the time to join us this morning, sir. Thank you.

SANTONE: Thank you.

HILL: Thanks to our international viewers for watching. For you, "CNN NEWSROOM WITH MAX FOSTER" is next.

For our U.S. viewers, CNN's NEW DAY continues right now.


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