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The Lead with Jake Tapper

At Least 3,400 People Dead After Massive Quake In Turkey & Syria; China: "Irresponsible" For U.S. To Shoot Down Balloon; Feds: Two Arrested In Plot To Attack Baltimore Power Grid; Ukraine: Bakhmut's Natural Defenses Make It An "Unwinnable Fortress"; GOP Officials Calls For Pause Of Wind Farm Project Over Whale Deaths. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired February 06, 2023 - 16:00   ET



LISA FRANCE, CNN SENIOR ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER: So, it's just a wonderful night, great Grammys night.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: A nice Houston connection there, as well.

Lisa France, thank you. It was a magical evening.

FRANCE: It was. Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now. Thanks so much for watching.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Quote, it felt like Armageddon.

THE LEAD starts right now.

A new baby, one of the thousands of innocent people killed earlier today in that catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria. The scramble to reach the people buried alive beneath crumbles buildings.

Then, we're learning more about China's suspected spy balloon shot down after flying over the United States for days, including concerns that the balloon may have had explosives onboard.

Plus, arrests in a neo-Nazi plot to completely destroy an American city by targeting electrical substations. The details coming up on the wild and violent conspiracy.


TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we start today with our world lead. The frantic search for survivors after the devastating earthquake that so far has killed more than 3,400 people. A number that tragically continues to grow, seemingly every hour. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake striking Turkey and Syria earlier this morning. Powerful aftershocks complicating the rescue efforts. Making things even more difficult, some of the areas are under winter

weather warnings for snow and high winds and very low temperatures. Turkish President Erdogan today pleading for other countries to send their most experienced search and rescue teams. There's currently really no way to assess even a rough idea of how many people are missing right now, trapped under these giant piles of concrete and twisted metal.

Videos captured the moment this building collapsed in central Turkey today. This was one of the strongest earthquakes to hit the region in more than 100 years. Now, there have been some moments of hope today. This video shared by the White Helmets volunteer group showed rescuers pulling a young boy out of the rubble in northeast Syria.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh starts off our coverage today from Istanbul, Turkey, with the country's leaders have declared a week of national warning. We want to warn you, of course, some of this material may be difficult to watch.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Flattened in seconds. Moments later, two aftershocks. A Turkish TV crew reporting live during the makings of an apocalyptic scene. The reporter grabbing a young girl as the rubble and smoke settles around them. Rescue efforts beginning immediate immediately.

In southern Turkey, a young man trapped, desperation in his eyes, then in the predawn darkness, a moment of joy, hauled from the wreckage. This was a residential building full of families asleep in their homes when the massive earthquake struck.

IHSAN CETINTAS, RESIDENT OF DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY (through translator): I was sleeping when my wife suddenly woke me up. The quake was very severe, very scary. It took almost two minutes until the shaking stopped.

KARADSHEH: As the hours go by, more rescues. Hospitals also begin to overflow. Reported deaths going up by the hundreds each hour. Millions impacted.

In Syria, a father cries over his baby's limp body. Many children among the killed and injured. It's unclear just how many are still trapped and how many have lost their lives.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): There are 12 families and no one managed to get out. They are all inside here.

KARADSHEH: The white helmets have done this before. Heroes of the Syrian civil war now pulling people out from under a very different disaster. So many until rebel held northern Syria had very little yesterday. People will be left with nothing today.

In Turkey, too, foreign help will be needed. World leaders already pledging and deploying rescue teams. The search and rescue will stretch on for days. Hope remaining as long as possible. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KARADSHEH (on camera): And, Jake, search and rescue operations are continuing into the night, but they are dealing with really challenging conditions right now, of course, nightfall has slowed down the search and rescue operations. You've got the weather, it is freezing, it is snowing. You've got roads that are blocked.

And you've got these powerful aftershocks. More than 130, according to Turkish officials, also making this extremely challenging for them. And the international community is rushing to provide Turkey with the aid and support it has requested. People in northwestern Syria, in the rebel-controlled parts of northern Syria, desperately calling on the international community, saying not to forget them.


This is a population that has gone through so much, Jake, as you know, over the years, and people there have absolutely nothing and they really need all the help and support they can get right now.

TAPPER: Jomana Karadsheh in Istanbul, Turkey, thank you so much.

Joining us now is Kaan Saner with the Turkish Red Crescent. That's part of the International Red Cross.

Kaan, thanks for joining us.

What are the biggest needs on the ground right now?

KAAN SANER, DIRECTOR OF INTERNATIONAL POLICY AND PARTNERSHIPS, TURKISH RED CRESCENT: Yeah, as Turkey as a society, we are very much focusing on the coverage of the basic needs, such as blankets and provision of foods, because we are in the very initial stage of the response. So, we are trying to protect people from harsh winter conditions. That's why we are dispatching, I mean, blankets and other nonfood items from our stocks to the affected area.

As you know, I mean, our area is composed of ten provinces, so our -- we dispersed our teams to dispatch these items and they are now distributing to the people.

TAPPER: For our viewers who might not be familiar with this region, what can you tell us about the areas that were hardest hit?

SANER: Yeah, the areas -- the hardest hit areas is Maras (ph) province, and also, there are other areas affected by earthquake, and these areas are around Maras province. I mean, basically, these people are mountainous and altitude is high and the winter conditions is very harsh.

So, that's why the time of the earthquake is not, you know, is not allowing proper response operations. So, this is the most important difficulty that we have encountered now.

TAPPER: What is the short-term recovery process look like and what does the long-term recovery process look like?

SANER: Of course, we have a hybrid approach in that. First of all, we are now -- we are trying to contact initial response stage. After that, we are going to focus on some cash assistance, together with our government. Of course, we are complimenting the efforts of the government in containing the impact of the response.

But long-term, we are going to of course we are going to focus --

TAPPER: We just lost Kaan Saner's feed there. Thank you so much to Kaan Saner and the International Red Crescent.

Let's bring in the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, former senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake.

Mr. Ambassador, good to see you.

What kind of help is the U.S. sending and providing to Turkey right now?

JEFF FLAKE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO TURKEY: Well, I'm pleased to report just in the last few hours, President Biden spoke to President Erdogan, Secretary Austin spoke to his counterpart, the minister of defense, and our secretary of state spoke to the foreign minister.

And so there's been a lot of offers of help, and in particular, what is needed is search and rescue. And there will be two teams going from the U.S., one from Fairfax County, another from Los Angeles, what they call these heavy units, each with, I think, 70 personnel, with search dogs, as well as paramedics, and so that's what we're told is needed and certainly there's going to be a lot of that needed in the next few days.

TAPPER: And what is the long-term plan?

FLAKE: Long-term, obviously, if you look at the scope of devastation, it's daunting. Turkey is very capable and experienced with these kind of disasters, but the scale is just so huge here. And I should say, Turkey has requested help and is accepting help.

But over the past seven years, they've paid it forward, if you will. They've helped in natural disasters around the world, I think 50 countries, five continents. So, they -- but they are needing help.

A lot of it in the coming weeks is going to be finding housing for those who cannot get back in their apartment buildings. It's a lot more vertical living here than people realize and so, a lot of those apartment buildings are going to be unstable. I think the last word was about 2,800 structures were either down or partially damaged and it's going to be hard to occupy those.


So -- certainly blankets and tents and some field hospitals and some other things are going to be needed, as well. TAPPER: Obviously, there's a significant difference between the

United States ability to help Turkey, which is a fairly western NATO member, and Syria, which is a country, I don't think we have any diplomatic relations with them, at least not officially, and it's a country that's still racked by a civil war that's been going on for years and years.

Are United States forces and NGOs and other agencies able to get into Syria to help those suffering people?

FLAKE: Well, certainly, there are a lot of NGOs and U.S. government has a number of programs there that we've worked with our Turkish partners a lot, and with Europeans, as well. There is a crossing down near one of the areas really damaged by this earthquake, but that's going to be difficult, as you mentioned.

There's no functioning government, really, in a number of the areas, you know, in northwest Syria. So, it makes it doubly difficult. But a lot of nonprofit organizations, church groups and others are working hard to make sure that aid is delivered there, as well.

TAPPER: The United States says millions of people in these affected areas were already displaced and receiving humanitarian assistance, I imagine, because of the civil war in Syria. Are there any discussions about helping to relocate refugees?

FLAKE: Well, the hope is, you know, there are in Turkey already about 4 million Syrian refugees who have come over the past ten years. Turkey's been very generous in terms of placing refugees around the country.

But the hope is that they can be settled where they are and helped where they are, but it's going to be difficult. We don't have good numbers coming out of Syria, it's difficult to have good numbers anywhere, given that this just happened 24 hours ago. So -- it's going to be difficult, but the hope is that we can help people where they are.

TAPPER: Mr. Ambassador, for Americans watching this coverage, or anyone, really, how -- and wondering how they can help from far away, what do you suggest?

FLAKE: Well, gratefully, the U.S. government has offered assistance and that assistance has been accepted and also a number of church groups, obviously, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent are active in this area, obviously, the Red Crescent.

So, donations are certainly accepted there. Also a number of church groups, we've already heard and nonprofit organizations are working, they're going to be active here. So, there will be plenty of opportunities for giving and certainly U.S. State Department is active, as is DOD, with certain assets, as well.

So, this is -- this is going to be a big task and we need the public sector and the private sector to be active.

TAPPER: U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Jeff Flake, thank you so much for your time.

For more ways that you can help, after this devastating earthquake, you can help to, where you will find links to multiple reputable organizations doing work on the ground in Turkey and in Syria. That's

Coming up, what can the U.S. military learn from the debris from that shot down spy balloon belonging to China? Officials in Ohio are also about to release potentially deadly chemicals from a derailed train in order to avoid a massive explosion.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our other world lead, tensions are ballooning between the United States and China in the wake of the Chinese surveillance balloon that flew over the United States and was shot down by the U.S. over the weekend. The Chinese government earlier today reiterating its criticism of the U.S. for shooting down the balloon, while two senior Biden administration officials reiterated there are no plans to reschedule that diplomatic trip that Secretary of State Blinken canceled in the wake of this news. This all comes as usual officials are beginning to share more details on the balloon.

CNN's Kylie Atwood takes a look at what the U.S. is learning.


KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A Chinese spy balloon up to 200 feet tall and weighing thousands of pounds roughly the size of a regional jet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my god, they shot it down.

ATWOOD: Shot down by a U.S. missile on Saturday afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just shot it.

ATWOOD: A blue bird day off the coast of South Carolina, after taking a four to five-day journey across the continental U.S. first catching the attention of everyday Americans in Montana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What the heck is that?

ATWOOD: But the agency tracking America's air space new the minute it entered Alaskan skies a few days earlier.

Biden first briefed on options for handling the situation last Wednesday decided that the balloon had to come down.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I told them to shoot it down.

ATWOOD: And so did a planned visit to Beijing for the secretary of state.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We concluded that conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time.

ATWOOD: Prioritizing the safety of Americans, the administration waited until the balloon was no longer over U.S. soil to shoot it down.

Now, recovery in the Atlantic Ocean is under way to learn more about the Chinese surveillance operation. The debris field is larger than 15 football fields by 15 football fields.

A top U.S. general said Monday.

JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It will take some time and people, all of us, including myself, will have to be patient, as we do the recovery, and do the exploitation.

ATWOOD: In a rare admission, China claimed the air ship was theirs, but called it a weather balloon taken off course, and deemed the shoot down an overreaction.

Furious critiques quickly emerged from Biden's political rivals.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): The president was paralyzed for an entire week by a balloon. We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): I think this entire episode telegraphed weakness to Xi and the Chinese government.

ATWOOD: Biden officials said there have been at least three past instances of Chinese spy balloons crossing into the U.S. air space. A top U.S. general said today that the threats were not detected in real time, calling it an awareness gap, which might explain why former Trump officials said they were unaware of the incursions.

The administration explained that Biden has ordered additional as sets to detect Chinese spying efforts.

SULLIVAN: We are also able to go back and look at the historical patterns, and that led us to come to understand that during the Trump administration, as you said, there were multiple instances where these surveillance balloons traversed American air space and American territory.


ATWOOD (on camera): Now, I'm told, Jake, that neither U.S. officials nor Chinese officials have proposed a new date for the secretary of state's renewed visit to Beijing. There's no date on the calendar, that's something, of course, we'll continue to watch. And when it comes to who knew what went on the Chinese side, like if

President Xi knew that this balloon was going to be coming over the U.S. at this time, or if the ministry of foreign affairs knew that as they were planning Blinken's visit, the national security adviser Jake Sullivan said today that the U.S. is still piecing together that assessment.

TAPPER: All right. Kylie Atwood, thank you so much.

Today, pieces of the wreckage are arriving at the FBI's lab in Quantico, Virginia. This comes after the debris was pulled from the water off South Carolina, Saturday and Sunday.

CNN's Oren Lieberman is at the Pentagon.

Oren, can the U.S. use this wreckage to prove that this was, in fact, a spy balloon, and not a weather surveillance craft as the Chinese government claims?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, and that depends on the condition of the wreckage. How much can be pulled up from the bottom of the ocean, not all that deep, just about 50 feet, but still has to be lifted, checked and analyzed.

Now, it's worth pointing out, the Pentagon is already confident this was a surveillance balloon. When China put out an explanation that this was a weather balloon, the Pentagon pretty much instantly rejected that and said since there was the ability for this to maneuver somewhat. The National Security Council said a short time ago it had a propeller and rudders and gave it limited maneuverability. It could loiter, so it could stay over the air in one spot and monitor.

And it's for those reasons the Pentagon has already said they are confident this was a surveillance balloon, a spy balloon designed for intelligence gathering and to look and see what could be picked up. They have also said it appears it did not have any ability or technology above and beyond Chinese spy satellites, but, Jake, what it can do that spy satellites can't do, as we just saw, is loiter, and stay over an area for an extended period of time.

To get up close and personal with Chinese technology, that is a unique opportunity.

TAPPER: And we're learning more about the Pentagon claim over the weekend that three of these suspected spy balloons from the Chinese flew over the U.S. during the Trump administration. The Trump folks said they never heard of anything about that, but the Pentagon is now clarifying they didn't discover this until Biden took office.

Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton says, how were they able to assert this? Did they build a time machine? How are they able to assert this?

LIEBERMANN: So, this is an interesting question, one they haven't given a full and complete answer on. But the Biden administration has focused and we've seen the Pentagon do this, focused on UAPs, unmanned aerial phenomena. For us, generally just UFOs, looking at all sorts of aerial sightings and trying to make sense of them are figure out where they're real or simply anomalies in sensors.

So, perhaps here is the trail of the observational data that the Biden administration then used to put together that, yes, there were Chinese surveillance balloons that transmitted over the continental U.S. Again, Jake, they are still not clear on how they can look back into the past and figure this out.

TAPPER: Yeah, it's also possible that they got human intelligence. Maybe some spy or whatever told them about this after the fact.

Oren Liebermann, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

In South Carolina, the recovery effort is still underway to collect all the pieces from that spy balloon. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard's span out the length of 15 football field searching for more debris.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher who is made of sturdier stuff than I that went out on the water to see just how the recovery effort was going.


DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Under the full moon, just before dawn, we set out for sea. Captain Charlie readied his shrimp boat, Linda Anne. Dropping the outriggers, checking the radar, steering us toward the U.S. military's operation to recover debris from the suspected Chinese spy balloon.

The U.S. Air Force shut it down with a single missile on the Saturday over the Atlantic Ocean, roughly six miles off the coach of Myrtle Beach. The NORAD commander now saying the full payload was about the size of a regional jet. And the attached balloon was some 200 feet tall.

As a day breaks, we begin to see something on the horizon.


The first glimpse of a multi vessel mission, which officials say include Navy divers and ships coming from as far away as Virginia. A law enforcement sources tell CNN the first pieces of sensitive spy balloon wreckage are already arriving at the FBI headquarters in Quantico for analysis.

But recovery continues. CNN captured this exclusive video of a Navy salvage team coming onshore in North Myrtle Beach today and setting out on two more votes towards the search area.

With restricted airspace above, the debris field at sea remains heavily protected. The Coast Guard warning our captain as we're getting too close.

CAPTAIN CHARLIE: Copy that, we'll go ahead and turn around.

GALLAGHER: Followed by a second call an hour later to confirm we were leaving.

CAPTAIN CHARLIE: This is Linda Anne, go ahead.

COAST GUARD: I just wanted to confirm your intentions?

CAPTAIN CHARLIE: I've got news crews onboard, news crew, and they were just trying to get some video of the cutter and just trying to stay out yours all's way.

GALLAGHER: The Coast Guard following us to ensure we stayed clear of the work zone.

As for how long the stretch of ocean will remain restricted, a senior U.S. military official shared it would be months or weeks, a fairly easy recovery, they said, because the spy balloon just shot down and 40 feet of water.


GALLAGHER (on camera): Now, according to the NORAD commander, the USS Pathfinder is also on site using sonar to map out the debris field. When I spoke to the captain here he said that it makes sense that this perimeter is so large, that 20-mile perimeter.

And to give you an idea, because of the sonar, to give you an idea of just how big that is, I want you to look. See how close we are to the shore? According to our captain, we are just now leaving that 20-mile perimeter. We're right off at the shore, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Dianne Gallagher, off the South Carolina coast, thank you so much.

Coming up next, what we're learning today about a foiled plot to destroy a major American city by targeting the electrical grid.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our national need, a neo-Nazi leader and his Maryland girlfriend have been charged with conspiring to bring down Baltimore's power grid. Authorities say the two were plotting to completely destroy the city by attacking several electrical substations encircling Baltimore.

The charges come as experts warn that attempts by extremist groups to attack U.S. power facilities are trending up.

CNN's John Miller joins us now live with more on this.

And, John, the pair were not just talking. They were taking active steps to fulfill this neo-Nazi conspiracy. Tell us about it.

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, this involves a guy named Brandon Russell and a woman that he met on line. Russell is the former head of the Atomwaffen division, a neo- Nazi group that was based in Florida. He did his time for possession of explosives and bomb making materials. He was on supervised release when he allegedly began this plot.

And the active part was trading maps, locations of power stations, information about vulnerabilities and how to cause cascading failures of the power system that would lead to extended blackouts in the Baltimore area.

TAPPER: And as you note, this isn't the first time this neo-Nazi leader has been in trouble with the law. He was accused of plotting a different attack before, right?

MILLER: Well, at the time that he was arrested, the last time having bomb making materials, it was because one of his roommates was murdered by another one. But together, the people living in that house was looking at critical infrastructure, assembling the homemade explosives to attack power stations along alligator alley.

So, the first thing he allegedly does, on supervised release, is go back to square one and start planning this. Jake, it's important to note that this is now become a thread of the neo-Nazi national socialist white supremacist conversation in the darkest corner of the web. We've gone over some of the materials they've been trading back and forth.

The theory is, if they can black out enough cities for long enough, that will lead to rioting and looting and then a race war and then the collapse of the government. It is part of the master plan to take over the world. Luckily, they're not very good at it.

TAPPER: Yeah, luckily, they are far from the master race.

John Miller, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Also in our national lead, any moment officials in East Palestine, Ohio, will take steps to get the threat of a catastrophic explosion under control. A train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed late on Friday causing a huge inferno, a conflagration that continues to burn.

Officials are begging residents to leave. They are setting up roadblocks to prevent those from coming into the one mile evacuation zone.

CNN's Jason Carroll is in East Palestine, Ohio.

Jason, what's the plan to reduce the threat right now?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, Jake, we should tell you that a fire official just came by our camera position and told us that this should be getting underway in about two minutes. So, we'll see if that happens.

Basically, the governor put it this way -- he said, Jake, that there are no easy choices here given what they are up against. We are here at the command center, where they gave us a rundown of how this controlled release and controlled burn is supposed to work.

Basically, what's going to happen, once it gets underway, experts are going to be going over to those derailed train cars. They're going to be planting small explosive devices on each of the five cars.


Once there's an explosion, some of that toxic material will then ooze out and will go into a trench where it will burn and it all goes as planned, it will then burn itself off.

A short while ago, one of the experts from the train company, a representative from the train company also an expert and hazardous materials weighed in on this and gave us more of a rundown of how this will take place.


SCOTT DEUTSCH, NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY: This will allow the material to come out of the tank car. It will go into a dip and trench that we have dug and set up for this operation. Inside that trench will be flares aligning the trench. It will light up the material. We are doing this so we control this car that we have concerns with.


CARROLL: So, a lot of questions here, Jake, one of them is how will we know it works? When we put that question to the experts they say they will get a sense very quickly if it's working based on how the burn is going, whether or not they see this toxic material releasing from these engines. They say this whole thing should take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours if all goes as planned -- Jake.

TAPPER: What are the dangers surrounding this controlled release, Jason?

CARROLL: Well, there are -- there are many because in a controlled release such as this, remember, you have this toxic material, vinyl chloride that's inside these derailed cars. And once that burns, the byproduct of that is hydrogen chloride and phosphine. In this particular area, if you are in what they call the red area, which is very close to the derailed cars, according to the experts here, they say if you inhale this toxic gases, it can be deadly.

If you are and what they call the yellow zone, a little bit further, out remember there's a one-mile to two-mile radius around East Palestine. If you are in the yellow area, even in that area, you could have adverse effects from this. So, that is why they were urging people last night to get out. They are feeling is last night some 100 additional people actually evacuated. In terms of how many people are left, we really pushed them on that issue.

They say by their best estimation some 30 people might be left in that area. So, you can see why they were urging people to get out -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jason Carroll in East Palestine, Ohio, thanks so much.

Coming up next, to seemingly never ending fight for control of the key Ukrainian city. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Now to Ukraine in our world lead, and a relentless fight for the key eastern city of Bakhmut.

Private Russian Wagner army boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, admitted on Sunday that Ukraine's armed forces, quote, fight to the last, refuting earlier media reports about a Ukrainian retreat from the northern corner of that city.

CNN's Sam Kiley is southwest of Bakhmut in Zaporizhzhia.

And, Sam, a Ukrainian commander in the area describes Bakhmut as a, quote, unwinnable fortress. How is the geography of the city playing into this grinding battle?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the main thing is -- well, there are two things, Jake. It's on a hill and it is a city. So, a large town, rather. It has a very big industrial outer ring.

Now, all of that lends itself to defense and makes it very difficult for Wagner, which is hard to fight against open fields, to get to the city. And not just Wagner, but the other Russian regular forces, too. So, it has been particularly from their perspective a meat grinder.

Now, Prigozhin, as always, is seeking some kind of publicity on the almost daily basis, this time suggesting that the Ukrainians might be able to hang on. Indeed, President Zelenskyy has said that he would be reinforcing troops there. I'm in contact with soldiers by foreigners, volunteers and Ukrainians on the frontline who don't believe that the city or the town, rather, is worth hanging onto indefinitely with an unending cost of life, particularly as it has been so bloody for the Russians, ultimately.

But Ukrainians are spread thin. They are short of man. They are short of material. Those two assets that the Russians have plenty, what they have over the Russians is some more moderate equipment coming in. And above all, motivation.

So, there is a debate going on within the Ukrainians as to whether or not it's really worth holding on in terms of a military strategy to this town. It doesn't really serve the Russians, even if they were to capture. It doesn't serve them particularly important strategic window.

TAPPER: Sam, to the south of you is the port city of Kherson which has recently liberated. But Kherson is also still bracing for a Russian spring offensive.

What are the people there telling you?

KILEY: Well, Kherson is getting hit and hit hard, Jake. One of the hardest hit cities, probably the hardest hit city anywhere in Ukraine on a daily basis. The number of incoming shells and missiles can number anywhere between 15 or 20 right up to 70 or 80. A mixture of direct firing from tanks, mortars, Grad, multiple rockets launching systems, the whole panoply, because they were just across the river from the Russians. The Russians did hold it until November. They withdrew from the city to the other side of the Dnipro River. They're using the natural barrier to bombard the civilian population there.

Medical's absorbed a lot of Ukrainian troops. I don't think there's any real chance that the Russians would try to breakthrough in this much vaunted potential spring offensive in that area. There are more likely to come further north here in Zaporizhzhia and out west from -- rather, east from there be towards the areas they control more strongly. They have a long front lime there that's relatively quiet.

But this -- along this whole front there are preparations, secret preparations going on among the Ukrainian forces to prepare for any eventuality.


And a lot of effort going into figure out what the next Russian move will be -- Jake.

TAPPER: CNN's Sam Kiley in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, thank you so much.

A few moments ago, we told you about the controlled release about to happen in Ohio. And these are the live pictures from the city of East Palestine, Ohio, where officials have started that process of releasing the chemicals. A trained chemical -- this is a prevented of a catastrophic explosion, setting off a controlled release of some of the hazardous chemicals. These chemicals are expected to burn off for 1 to 3 hours. The area has been evacuated as much as possible, authorities say.

Still ahead, dead whales and the mystery of why they are ending up on beaches in the northeastern United States. Do offshore wind farms really have anything to do with this, as some conservatives are claiming? We're going to ask an expert. That's next.



TAPPER: In our national lead, in just the last two months, nine whales, nine, have washed up on beaches in New York and New Jersey. Now, New Jersey Republican state and federal lawmakers say they have a hunch as to why so many whales are showing up dead on their beaches, pointing to a Biden-backed offshore wind farm project that it's just in its early survey stages.

Scientists say that their concern too about the whale deaths, but they do not don't agree with the wind farm theory, citing a few other possibilities, including increasing population, migrating food sources due to warming oceans, and more whales and busy boating areas, which makes them more likely to get hit by ships.

Let's bring in whale expert and marine biologist, Michael Moore.

Michael, thanks for joining us.

An official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, quote, there are no known connections between any of these offshore wind activities, and any whale strandings regardless of species, unquote.

Now, we know that birds can be killed by wind farms, although house cats are statistically a bigger risk to birds. But are there any proven risks, proven, risks to marine wildlife from wind farms?

MICHAEL MOORE, WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION: Directly? No. Indirectly, wind farms beget vessel traffic. And that vessel collisions or a well-established source of trauma to large whales, which can be fatal or sub lethal.

So, yes, in terms of increased activity on the water from that industry. No, in terms of specific direct impacts of the perspective, or establishment of these farms.

TAPPER: If blunt force trauma from votes is possibly a primary cause of these whale deaths, is there a solution to help ships locate these animals, avoid them, even with the increased traffic because of the wind farms?

MOORE: The management solution to the vessel strike are to slow vessels down if you cannot move them out of whale have attacks. Ten miles is a good number to aim for, detection of the animals is also important and it's difficult at times. Visually from a plane, from a boat, we also have technologies were told that are developing for -- listening for them with mobile gliders and also using infrared cameras with automatic detection of these animals, looking firmly for the heat of the animal as they surface.

So, better awareness, and slower ships, and management of shipping lanes have been important piece of the attempts to reduce blunt drama, and propeller trauma too when a vessel strikes, for whatever cause, whether it be wind, navy ship, or cargo ship, or ferry, or recreational boat.

TAPPER: There's speculation about sonar, which is used to map the ocean floor. Some officials say the New Jersey wind farm project is prohibited from using the level of sonar that's fatal to marine life. Is there any level of sonar that is -- let me rephrase -- is any level of sonar harmful to whales, or is some acceptable?

MOORE: How do you define harm? Certainly, any noise in the ocean can cause behavioral disturbance. Toothed whales, such as pilot whales, killer maidens, sperm whales you sonar themselves. They're well tuned to that, the more sensitive to the affects of sonar whether it'd be mild or more severe. Whereas, baleen whales do not use sonar, they, therefore, have not

been shown to have any substantial behavior responses to sonar of any kind.

TAPPER: Michael Moore, thank you so much for your expertise. Really, really appreciate it. Very interesting story.

Should the United States have shot down that spy balloon when it was still overland? A Republican member of the Homeland Security Committee joins me next to discuss.


TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

This hour, that that mystery inside the Dallas zoo. Exotic animals keep disappearing from their enclosures. And one has died. We'll take a deeper dive on the strange happenings.

Plus, rescuers from around the world scrambling now to reach anyone buried alive under collapsed buildings from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, as the death toll soared into the thousands.

And leading this hour, we're learning more about that downed Chinese spy balloon that has left behind a debris field 15 football fields long. U.S. military officials are revealing there were concerns about potential explosives onboard. Some Republican officials have criticized Biden's decision to wait until the balloon was over water, the Atlantic Ocean to shoot it down.

The Pentagon officials are defending the decision, claiming they were to able to gather more intelligence about double in that way. And also, downing it overland posed a risk to American civilians.

We're going to start our coverage today with CNN's Natasha Bertrand from the Pentagon and CNN's Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.