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The Lead with Jake Tapper

U.S. & Allies Launch Massive Assault on Houthi Military Targets; Biden Says He Believes The Houthis Are A "Terrorist Group"; GOP Hopefuls Brave Freezing Temps In Run-Up to Iowa Caucuses. Aired 4- 5p ET

Aired January 12, 2024 - 16:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Yeah, file this under truth is stranger than fiction. The acting U.S. attorney said that eBay's senior -- then senior director safety and security Jim Baugh was out to protect the company's reputation and silence the couple's reporting. The couple published an insider newsletter for eBay seller and others in e- commerce. Baugh was sentenced to more than four years in prison.

SANCHEZ: Six other employees face felony convictions for their involvement, facing all sorts of charges, even putting tracking devices on the Steiner's car and posting ads for fake sexual encounters at the couple's home. EBay has apologized. A bunch of people got fired.

KEILAR: Yeah, insane story.

All right. THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now.

SANCHEZ: A great note to end on.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Is the U.S. on the brink of war?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Iran-backed Houthi forces vowing revenge after U.S. and U.K. strikes against them in Yemen. The firepower after repeated Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, but will last night's retaliatory strikes keep Houthi groups at bay? And is President Biden ready for what might be next?

In moments, I'm going to talk to a spokeswoman for the Pentagon.

Plus, a blizzard creating a whiteout in Iowa three days before the state's Republican caucuses. How candidates are going with the backup plans to reach out to voters and try to get those voters to the caucuses on a very cold Monday.

And the brother of an Israeli hostage told THE LEAD this week that when his parents talked to the Red Cross to try to get there her daughter, her medicine while in captivity in Gaza, they were told they should be worried about the people of Gaza. The chief spokesman for the Red Cross is here to respond, live from Geneva.


TAPPER: And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We do have huge news in our world lead. The dramatic U.S.-led escalation in the Middle East, the U.S. and the U.K., with the support of at least for other countries, bombed more than 60 targets in about 30 Iranian-backed Houthi militants locations in Yemen last night. The action following weeks of hostility by those well-armed militants in the Red Sea, targeting commercial ships and endangering U.S. troops and freedom of navigation, according to the White House.

The Houthis are Shia militants. They're considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department until President Biden took them off the terrorist list in 2021. But moments ago, he said this.


REPORTER: Are the Houthis a terrorist group, sir?



TAPPER: Are the Houthis a terrorist group, sir? I think they are, he said.

Houthis control most of northern Yemen. They see the destruction of Israel and the destruction of the United States as a fundamental part of their mission. Houthis claimed that they've been targeting ships in the Red Sea. Ships that have linked to Israel. The Red Sea's waterway absolutely vital to the global economy. Of course, it seats between 10.15 percent of all global trade and about 30 percent of global container shipping.

Since the Houthis began their attacks, most commercial shipping companies have opted to instead reroute around Africa. The Houthi attacks are part of a pressure campaign against Israel, orchestrated by Iran through its many proxies. And while President Biden insists last night's strikes will act as a warning to Iran and its proxies. There's really no way of predicting exactly how and when Houthis or Iran will respond as the Houthis warn American and British interests are, quote, legitimate targets.

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill last night and this morning applauded President Biden for the strike. Some Democrats, however, are upset since the president did not first ask Congress for authorization for the use of force. We're going to talk to one of those Democrats in the next hour.

But let's start right now with CNN's Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv, Israel.

And, Nic, the United States and the United Kingdom with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, the Netherlands carried out this attack. How rare and insignificant is this sort of multi-country operation?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It's rare and it is significant because it comes at a time when the Houthis are backed by Iran are adding to the destabilization in the region and specifically to the economic interests of so many countries around the world.

So to pull together a coalition quickly to get a U.N. Security Council resolution telling the Houthis to desist, to have enough diplomacy to give who is time to desist. They didn't, they upscale their attacks. This response is quite extraordinary.

But yes, there is a potential for escalation. The Houthis run a ceasefire with -- in the internal civil war in -- inside of Yemen, but also they've been firing recently, as recently as a couple of years, cruise missiles, Iranian-made cruise missiles at Saudi Arabia. So can Saudi now be back in the firing line as well? That's something they're worried about, Jake.

TAPPER: Since the strikes, a U.S. official says the Houthis have fired at least one missile towards a commercial ship, though it missed. Do Western officials expect further retaliation?


ROBERTSON: Yeah. So, look, that that target package last night was pretty much down the Red Sea on the western coast. This international military operation, the navies are all there in the Red Sea. But go out of the Red Sea, go south down the Red Sea, through the Bab-el- Mandeb Strait and hang left and go along the Yemeni coast, you are in the Gulf of Aden, that's where the Houthis appear to a struck today with a missile, 400, 500 meters from a ship, mount three of their small attack boats, signature of how the Houthis attack these big shipping vessels, they came into the picture there according to the captain of the ship.

Now, that appears to have been another attempted Houthi attack, and it appears to be done outside the scope or location of that main operating force, international operating force to stop the Houthis doing this.

So do they intend to carry on? They clearly do.

TAPPER: It seems Iran is kind of just sitting back and reveling in this chaos that they've created. What is Iran's end goal here?

ROBERTSON: At a moment, it appears to be regional destabilization to further encouraged the belief that this is an attack by the United States and the U.K., A, to protect Israel, and B, against the region more widely, Muslims more widely.

Look, the coalition here is striking specific typically at military targets, five Houthis were killed. They were Houthi targets, military targets. Five Houthis were killed. Military personnel were killed. Six were injured. No civilians as far as we know. But Israel, their regional proxies like Hezbollah, like Hamas are saying no, this was not a strike against the Houthis and military targets they say, and this is a strike against Yemen. So what the Iranians are trying to do is cloud the situation and draw their supporters in the region into thinking that the United States who's trying to amp-up the conflict at the moment, this all suits the Iranian narrative. Very well to paint the United States as they always have, as the big Satan.

TAPPER: Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv, thanks so much.

Joining us now at the magic wall, retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Steve Anderson.

General, take us inside the military decision-making here, the fourth -- and planning for a strike. Do you think that more U.S.-led strikes are going to follow?

BRIG. GEN. STEVE ANDERSON, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, it all depends, Jake, on the battle damage assessment that's ongoing right now. They're right now going through all the strategic intelligence. They're looking at aerial photography. They're looking at drone footage. They're looking at trying to intercept communications.

They're trying to determine just how successful this attack was. I mean, its over 1,000 square miles in this area here. They hit 16 different locations. They got to feel pretty good about themselves right now in the --

TAPPER: The U.S. and the U.K., yes.

ANDERSON: The U.S. because they've been very successful, not only in taking out most of this down, but they didn't have any civilian casualties that were aware of. And, of course, they didn't lose any aircraft and that would have of course been a game-changer if we lost an aircraft.

So they've got to feel pretty good about what they did. They're looking at how successful they were and they want to make sure that they -- if they miss some targets, they go back and they get them.

TAPPER: All right. That's based on the initial assessment. Let's hope that stays -- that stays valid with the no civilian casualties.

Which weapons did the U.S. use and were they effective?

ANDERSON: I believe they absolutely were. So, these are the assets that were used in the attack. So you had 150 drones -- you had 80 Tomahawk missiles that were fired on these platforms right here. The Florida attack submarine has 150, for the Philippine Sea has 122. The Gravely and the Mason are both destroyers. They had 80 each, and they all engage targets about 80 or so were involved in this.

They also had F-18s in the sky and what the F-18 does is it provides the targeting, the laser pointing and designations that are needed in the so vital to make sure that they hit the actual targets. So, a very, very important that they were able to do this.

The other thing I would say is they launched these from destroyers. We can see a video here of the launching of a destroyer, and here's a sub launch video as well. Again, these were fired from the sea of red -- the Red Sea, and they're very successful in hitting their targets initially, but they're conducting battle assessment right now to make sure that that in fact is the case.

TAPPER: All right. Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Steve Anderson, thank you so much. Fascinating stuff.

Let's bring in deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh now.

Sabrina, thanks for joining us.

So the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have resulted in major disruptions to shipping while endangering U.S. service members. This has been going on for nearly three months since October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel.

Why did the U.S. and U.K. wait until now? Why now to strike?


Well, today -- last night's strike is when we felt the most comfortable that we would be able to effectively disrupt and degrade Houthi capabilities that have been targeting commercial merchant vessels, ships that have been transiting throughout the Red Sea. We always reserve the right to decide at a time and place of our choosing when we feel it as best to strike, and last night was that moment.

And as you had your brigadier general on commenting on just some of the targeting and what we were able to strike, we were are we are very confident in that in the impact that we were able to leave on the Houthis again, as they are probably trying to recalibrate and trying to think through next steps. We were able to hit approximately 16 locations where they have been holding capabilities that have been targeting not only commercial vessels, but, of course, other ships transiting that region.

TAPPER: How did White House and Pentagon officials come to the conclusion that the strike would serve as a warning and perhaps deterrence, and won't tip the Middle East into an all-out war involving the United States?

SINGH: Well, we certainly don't want to see this become a regional conflict. Again, our -- our target, our strikes last night, we feel were proportionate into the over 25 attacks we have seen from Houthis since November, as you mentioned, on different vessels transiting that region. We know how important that waterway is, over 15 percent flows through -- flows through the Red Sea. We want to keep that open. We want to make sure that ships are able to transit freely.

And so, what you saw last night was a coalition of like-minded nations coming together to uphold international -- the international rules- based order and continue to protect ships that are -- that are moving through that Red Sea.

TAPPER: We're told that the Houthis have fired at least one missile onto a ship in the Red Sea since then. So does that mean the deterrence didn't work?

SINGH: I really wouldn't say that again, we are expecting and would expect some type of response. Again, that's one missile that failed, that didn't thankfully damage any ships in the Red Sea. We're going to continue to monitor the situation.

Again, we feel very confident that we were effectively yesterday in being able to not only disrupt but degrade the capabilities that the Houthis have had access to.

TAPPER: Just moments ago, President Biden was asked if Defense Secretary Austin showed a lapse in judgment by not providing notice of his hospitalization earlier as you knew, several days passed before the president knew that General -- sorry, Secretary Austin was in the hospital.

When he was asked that question, Biden said, yes. Does depend forgotten have a response to that? I mean, the president said the secretary of defense showed a lapse in judgment.

SINGH: Well, the secretary did take responsibility for his actions there and, you know, did apologize for not notifying the White House about his procedure. Again, right now, what we are thinking of him here at the Pentagon is hoping that he recovers well, that he's able to turn -- returned to work soon.

But he has been very active over the last 72 hours, been in touch with the president, the National Security Council, the CentCom commander, and of course, the chairman of the joint chiefs, monitoring the strike that happened last night, and we are really hoping for a speedy recovery for the secretary.

TAPPER: How is Secretary Austin doing? He had prostate cancer and then he had complications to that -- to that cancer. It's all very serious. How is he?

SINGH: You know, he's doing well, he's on the mend. We were hoping for a speedy recovery so he can he can come back. I know he certainly wants to be back here at work.

But again, he's been incredibly active over this last week, not only monitoring the strike last night, but as you might remember, and I know you covered this on Tuesday, we saw one of the biggest barrage of attacks from the Houthis on vessels transiting through the Red Sea. So he's been monitoring both in touch with the White House, in touch with his staff, and will continue to do so.

TAPPER: How exactly does that work if he's in the hospital? Because, obviously, this is sensitive manner. There's a thing called a SCIF, where -- you know, there have them in the Pentagon, they have him at the White House where it's a secure place, where no one can spy.

Is there a SCIF at the hospital?

SINGH: There is. He does have access to a SCIF. He has access to a whole suite of his communications. He's able to keep in touch on secure lines with his team but the Central Command commander on the ground getting real-time updates as they were coming in last night.

So he is fully equipped to monitor everything that happened last night and all around the world. And so again, he's -- he's able to do that from where he is right now. And, of course, we are looking forward to having him back here in the Pentagon.

TAPPER: I want your take on something that we heard from the former U.N. ambassador and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley on the campaign trail this week when she was asked about Secretary Austin's hospitalization and the fact that people didn't know about it.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think Biden should be fired. This is unbelievable that we have a situation like this to have a problem with the fact that Biden is not talking to as secretary defense every single day, anyway.


TAPPER: Is it not common practice for the president to speak with the secretary of defense daily while two consequential wars rage?

SINGH: They do speak quite often. Again, we're coming off of a holiday period. They are in touch frequently. Our staffs I can tell you are in touch almost on an hourly basis.

Again, there was no lapse in command of control. Our national security was never at risk.


And I would again reiterate the fact that the secretary did not only apologize but take responsibility for not notifying the White House of his own procedure that that did occur.

Again, and also, I'll stress that we are doing a 30-day review to examine our own processes here, to examine what worked and what did not work. And when we have those results, of course, we will be previewing those as well.

TAPPER: I know. It just seems odd to me --

SINGH: Yeah.

TAPPER: -- I just have to say. I mean, this is not the director of the bureau of weights and measurements. This is the secretary of defense, and there are two major wars that the U.S. is involved in, one way or another. And Ukraine and Gaza with Israel and the President Biden and Secretary Austin don't talk every day? SINGH: Again. They do have frequent communications. I will tell you

and I can reassure you, our staffs, our teams are in constant communication with each other, and the secretary is -- you will not meet someone that works harder than the secretary of defense.

Again, he is -- he has a short 40 years service here in the military. He prides himself on the fact that he has been able to serve his country. He's in touch with his team here at the Pentagon, with the White House monitoring everything that's going on around the world.

And right now, you know, he's focused on getting better, focused on returning to work, but is able to keep in touch with the White House. Just like we saw last night, no ones disputing how hard he works.

But anyway, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh, thanks so much for joining us today.

My next guest spent more than three decades with the CIA investigating potential threats. We're going to get his reaction to all of this and whether or not the U.S. is on the brink of a larger war.

Plus, the ghost town on Iowa streets right now as a blizzard moves through, certainly not good news for candidates trying to get their message out to voters and trying to get voters to turn out on Monday for the Iowa caucuses. We're going to go live to Des Moines.

And this just in, it's -- some breaking good news, a major update on a story that THE LEAD has been following closely, U.S. Navy Officer Ridge Alkonis has been paroled and is back with his family. He has been released from a U.S. prison. We're going to bring you that next.


TAPPER: We've got some amazing breaking news for you on this Friday, part of a story we've been following here for lead -- for years on THE LEAD.

U.S. Navy Officer Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis is now free from prison and has been reunited with his family. Here's a photo that Brittney just sent me. You can see them happily reunited on their way back from prison. This is after the U.S. Parole Commission ordered the lieutenant's immediate release.

Lieutenant Alkonis, as you might remember, he was stationed abroad in Japan. He was sentenced to three years in a Japanese prison back in October 2021 for a car accident. He says he suffered acute mountain sickness while driving with his family down from Mount Fuji and that caused him to lose consciously -- consciousness and tragically to cause a deadly car accident.

Lieutenant Alkonis was transferred to the U.S. in December and booked into a federal prison in California. Now he is home and we'll bring you more on that story next week.

Staying in our world lead, we want to step back and put these latest strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen in the larger context as the U.S., Israel and Iran weigh how their actions could ignite a war that engulfs the entire Middle East.

We're going to get insights right now from Norman Roule, who spent 34 years in the CIA, including senior roles focused on Iran, and also with us in studio is Barak Ravid. He's an Israeli journalist for "Axios" and a foreign policy analyst for CNN.

Norm, let me start with you.

What do you think Iran is going to do now? And will these strikes make it more or less likely that we're going to see an outright war if you had to guess?

NORMAN ROULE, FORMER NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE MANAGER FOR IRAN, ODNI: Well, Iran is going to focus on issuing harsh, defined rhetoric, demonstrating with the Houthis and some fighting capability remains, spending time assessing the damage to see what remaining capabilities exist after the U.S. attack and how they can deploy them. And last, to see what other attacks can be done through proxies.

I don't think Iran is interested in a war. They know that we have massive capabilities with which they can compete, but they do seek to have the U.S., Israel, and western general under a state of political, economic, and even military siege, the question now becomes, how will we define success in such a conflict which may well be long term and require resources that were also sharing with Israel and Ukraine in their fight.

TAPPER: Barak Ravid, what impact might this have on Israel's war with Hamas right now?

BARAK RAVID, CNN POLITICAL AND FOREIGN POLICY ANALYST: I'm not sure it will have a lot of impact. I think if anything, the Israelis are very happy. That's at least what I heard from Israeli officials that the U.S., U.K., and some other countries took action against the Houthis without making any linkages in connection to what's going on in Gaza. And that Israel didn't have to do it on its own, because for a long time, Israel thought it will have to do something because the Houthis also attacked many, many Israeli ships and fired missiles at Israel. I think they are very satisfied that this was done without their participants at all.

TAPPER: Or it being blamed at all.

RAVID: Exactly, exactly.

TAPPER: Or possible by the U.S. or the U.K.

Norman, we're also -- we're already hearing from progressive Democrats on the Hill. This is essentially the fault of Israel's war on Hamas, that that's why the Houthis are doing this. How do you think this might affect U.S.-Israel relations if at all?

ROULE: Well, to be clear, the Israel's war on Hamas is because of Hamas's war in Israel, which Hamas refuses to end and will not surrender. Certainly, the United States is going to call for reduced intensity of operations, humanitarian assistance for Palestinian and hostage release.

But truth, Hamas actions on their own are going to dictate how this conflict goes. It's a very tough battle area. It's going to see a lot more Israeli military casualties. This conflict will extend for some time, albeit at a lower intensity

TAPPER: And, Barak Ravid, you talked about the response from Israeli officials. How about the Israeli public? We know that families of the hostages remain vocal on the desire to keep the focus on freeing their loved ones still more than 100 Israelis. The Israeli government believes being held in Gaza.


Are there any fears that this strike against the Houthis are going to take attention away from them?

RAVID: I think so. I think that domestically in Israel, the pressure on Netanyahu and his government is growing by the day to take a strategic decision that says, what's more important, is it dismantling Hamas or freeing the hostages? Because those two cannot live together, you have to choose one over the other.

And Netanyahu is under a lot of pressure to take this decision inside the Israeli war cabinet. There are members like Benny Gantz who say, we need to prioritize the hostages.

On the other hand, Minister of Defense Gallant says we need to prioritize dismantling Hamas. And this is the tension right now inside Israel when it comes to what we saw in Yemen last night.

I think what you hear from many Israelis is sort of, you know, we told you so, meaning, we have to remember the Biden administration --

TAPPER: Took the Houthis off the terrorist list. Yeah.

RAVID: Took the Houthis off the terrorist list. I mean, we just saw President Biden say that there are terrorists. So you know one might wonder if they are terrorists --

TAPPER: Why off the list? Right.

RAVID: -- why off the list? You know, at least for now, the White House didn't walk back President Biden's statement, maybe they will start doing it pretty soon. But I think there's a bigger picture here as we said, a few minutes ago. And this is that Hamas, at the end of the day, backed by Iran, Hezbollah, we see what's going on, on the Israel-Lebanon border. It's backed by Iran. Militias in Syria backed by Iran, and the Houthis are backed by Iran.

And the Iranians for -- for now, I think are sitting pretty comfortably in Tehran and looking at what's going on and saying, okay, we're -- nobody is going to touch us, right?

TAPPER: Right, because these are the proxies, but not us ourselves. RAVID: And then, they -- you know, they are very comfortable because

the U.S. and Israel and the U.K. and many other countries are sort of wasting their strength and capital and energy on the proxies and not on where this whole thing comes from.

TAPPER: Interesting.

Okay, Barak Ravid and Norman Roule, thanks to both you. Appreciate it.

Parts of Iowa right now are buried in snow, with temperatures well below zero. The weather is forcing Republican candidates running for president to change their plans with only three days to go before caucuses.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our 2024 lead -- come on, guys, cue the election jam, you know? All right, thank you so much.

The Iowa caucus countdown tops our 2024 lead. Only three days, three days remaining for Republican presidential candidates to make their final pitches. But the ground game is tough because the ground is literally frozen and covered in snow -- as CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports now from Des Moines.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't necessarily as a Floridian want to be in negative 20-degree temperatures, but I know we're the campaign that's built to turnout our people --

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Three days before the Iowa caucuses, the closing arguments of the Republican race come with a winter weather warning.

NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, I know it's cold on Monday, but I'm going to be out there.

ZELENY: A blizzard and the forecast for a dangerous record-setting cold spell are testing the fortitude of campaign organizations built by Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, and even in front runner Donald Trump, who's been warning his supporters against complacency.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: Pretend you're one point down. Okay? You're one point down. You have to get out and you have to vote, vote, vote.

ZELENY: Snow and bitter winds scrambled the plans of candidates today, canceling rallies and speeches designed to build momentum heading into the final weekend.

DeSantis drop by a campaign office. DESANTIS: Every phone call, every door, everything we do between now

and caucus night is going to make a difference.

ZELENY: As Haley held telephone town hall meetings.

HALEY: Please wear layers of clothes just in case there are lines so that you are staying safe. And please go in there and know that you were setting the tone for the country,

ZELENY: Those rivals are locked in a bitter duel to become the leading alternative to Trump.

BILL FUNK, IOWA VOTER: I personally think it's time to move forward.

ZELENY: Bill Funk twice voted for Trump, but he spent the last year looking for a new choice.

B. FUNK: I think that it's time for this country to come together, I think its time to put a leader in there that can bring us together and move us forward and heal some of the past. We've had too much chaos.

ZELENY: His wife, Connie, is an independent. For much of their 45-year marriage, they've canceled one another's vote. Now, they're both supporting Haley.

CONNIE FUNK, IOWA VOTER: I'm saying my prayers. I feel like we have this opportunity to show different side to what politics can be, and Nikki is the person I feel that can do that.

ZELENY: Haley is hoping for a strong turnout in the suburbs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How's it going? Did you sign up online?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, what's your last name?

ZELENY: While DeSantis has been working toward broader support in all corners of the state.

DESANTIS: We're excited about having gotten to all 99 counties.

ZELENY: Trump is counting on loyal followers, particularly in rural areas, to help build a landslide victory, with an organization far stronger and more sophisticated than in 2016.

TRUMP: We've got to get out and vote because, you know, bad things happen when you sit back.

Kristina Brekke voted for Trump and considered doing so again. But late last year had a change of heart.

KRISTINA BREKKE, IOWA VOTER: With the way the country is going right now, I think people are looking for something else.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY (on camera): Now, she's supporting the Florida governor who today called this winter weather storm a major wildcard. And, Jake, that is no understatement there. The reality here is that campaigns are doing an array of contingency plans for how to get their support for the caucuses Monday night. They're concerned about them waiting in lines, their cars starting, et cetera.

But the Iowa caucuses begin this process, but its also a critical juncture for the Republican Party. This will be the first time that actual voters have a chance to render a verdict on the former president, if they want to slow his march to the nomination or simply set him on a glide path.

TAPPER: So, Jeff, just for people watching at home, Jeff Zeleny is from Nebraska and he worked for "The Des Moines Register" for years. If Jeff Zeleny is wearing earmuffs during a standup, then it is cold, then it is very, very cold because this man is made of hardy stock.

Jeff Zeleny in Des Moines, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

ZELENY: You bet.

TAPPER: This programming note, our coverage of the 2024 Iowa caucuses next Monday, well begin at 04:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN.


That's THE LEAD. That's when you need to tune in, THE LEAD.

Next today, a strong claim made right here on the lead, the brother of an Israeli hostage currently being held in Gaza by Hamas, says that his parents tried to get the Red Cross to help get medicine to their daughter. She needs that every day. They were told by the Red Cross, they say, that they should be worried about the Palestinian people in Gaza instead.

The chief spokesman for the Red Cross is here to respond live from Geneva.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: In our world lead, since the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel, the International Committee of the Red Cross has faced a difficult and challenging mission to try to save lives and to try to prevent the suffering of people caught in the middle of this conflict that Hamas started with Israel.


Now they are on the ground inside Gaza right now, trying to make sure that aid gets to those who need it most. The Red Cross has played a critical role in helping the freed hostages depart Gaza safely. And a one-point, the Red Cross was hoping to be the neutral party to reach the hostages to assess their conditions, and their health. But Hamas prevented that access.

Now, some Israeli leaders and families are publicly sharing though frustrations over how all of this has unfolded. Just last month, families and released hostages sued the International Committee of the Red Cross in an Israeli court, arguing that this is now medical neglect. The families also say, many of them, that the Red Cross has shown bias in some of its public comments.

Some viewers might remember a moment from just a few days ago when the brother of one of the hostages, the hostage named Doron Steinbrecher, told me that his parents heard a pretty shocking comment from a Red Cross staffer. They were pleading with the staffer for the Red Cross to get medicine to their daughter, Doron, who is being held so unjustly in Gaza, and take a listen


DOR STEINBRECHER, BROTHER OF ISRAELI HOSTAGE DORON STEINBRECHER: My mom had a few -- meets with the Red Cross and she told him my system need to get her medicine.


STEINBRECHER: And they told her that we should care more about the Arab people, on the other side.


TAPPER: Evan Watson, the chief spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, joins us now live from Geneva.

Mr. Watson, thanks for being here.

Obviously, our hearts go out to all the suffering people, innocent people, whether in Gaza or in Israel. But to hear it from the parents of Doron Steinbrecher, your representatives said something rather shocking and insensitive to them.

EVAN WATSON, CHIEF SPOKESMAN, INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS: Well, Jake, thanks for having me on and I wanted to start by saying that we really acknowledge and respect the deep, unimaginable suffering, the families of loved ones held hostage in Gaza must be feeling. It's our mission as the international committee of the Red Cross to try and help them to listen to them and ultimately to explain the ways in which we could potentially help.

And I really regret that this particular family left this meeting having heard something else. I want to really assure that family and everybody listening, other families, that we care deeply about the hostages.

And since day one, we have reiterated the fact that it is prohibited to hold hostages under international humanitarian law. And we continue to seek access to those hostages. We want to bring medicine to them. That is absolutely critical. We want them also to be reconnected, to be able to have some sort of connection to their family members and we won't rest until we've been able to do that.

TAPPER: So, it did seem as though this employee told the Steinbrechers that they shouldn't worry about their daughter and she's 30 years old, who knows what is happening to her at the hands of Hamas. She needs medicine every day. She's not getting it and it does seem like a Red Cross employee said to them -- well, you shouldn't be worried about the -- you should be worried about the poor people of Gaza, what are you guys doing about it?

Have you investigated this matter? Has this person been reprimanded? Do you want to apologize to the Steinbrecher family?

WATSON: What I can say is that that is not a message that our employees would ever wish to pass to this family or any other family. From our perspective, we care deeply about each and every one of those hostages held. As a neutral humanitarian organization, we do not rank suffering. We would never seek to compare suffering between different people or seek to elevate or diminish one person's suffering over and others. That is simply something that we would never do.

So I'm really sorry that this family heard that message during this meeting, and I want to really reiterate today that that is not our message -- that our message quite to the countries that we deeply care about their loved ones, loved ones. And were doing everything we can to help them.

TAPPER: Why do you put it that way that you're sorry that they heard that message as opposed to your sorry that somebody at the Red Cross said this to them?

WATSON: All right. My understanding is that no employee would want to pass that message. So, I think what I can be confident in telling you is that nobody in the Red Cross, whatever seek to pass the message that we were somehow minimizing or diminishing that family suffering or suggesting that they shouldn't think about their loved one being held.


I mean, the fundamental objective, the whole mission of the Red Cross of each and every one of our employees is to alleviate the suffering --


TAPPER: Right, but you're not acknowledged that anybody said that. You're not acknowledging -- I mean, do you think there was a misunderstanding? Or are you saying the Steinbrechers are lying? I mean, why aren't you assuming responsibility for --

WATSON: Not at all. Not at all.


WATSON: I am -- I am absolutely assuming responsibility in the sense that I fully respect that is what the family heard and took away from that meeting. And I'm deeply regretful that that was the case, because that's absolutely not the type of message that we are hoping to pass. We're hoping to pass a message of being in a position to listen to that family and ultimately to be able to help with visiting their loved ones, and yes, bringing medicine, once we have permission to do so.

TAPPER: Why do you keep putting it that way that this is -- what the family heard as opposed to this is what somebody at the Red Cross said?

WATSON: I don't think that somebody in the Red Cross would ever try and pass that message, Jake. I really don't.

TAPPER: So, are you saying -- you're not being clear, though.

WATSON: I think there may be misunderstanding.

TAPPER: You think it was a misunderstanding. Do you think that they said something and then the Steinbrechers misunderstood what was said?

WATSON: Well, whatever the reason, I wasn't in the room and I can't speculate on what the reason is, and I wouldn't seek to. But what I can say is that we would never seek to rank suffering in that way or diminish or put their deep concerns and pain --


TAPPER: I know, but you're playing -- look, I don't doubt your sincerity, but you're playing these word games and I don't understand it. Like one of -- one of our employees said something bad and we're sorry for it. That's ownership. Saying the Steinbrecher family, we're sorry that they heard something. I mean, are you saying that they didn't understand the language? Are you saying that there was like -- that they imagined it, that they thought it was a fairy whispering in their ear some magical like, what exactly you saying?

WATSON: I think this -- this -- I, as I said, I don't know exactly where this came from. Why they feel like this. I can only --

TAPPER: Why they feel like this?

WATSON: -- apologize because I do not want them -- yes. Because I think what the ICRC is always hoping to do is to pass a message of caring equally for civilians on all sides of the conflict.

TAPPER: But, you know, you're failing to do that right now because you're not even acknowledging that your employee said that.

I mean, I don't doubt that the -- the Red Cross does unbelievably important work around the world but for whatever reason, there seems to be just some sort of disconnect and you can't even just say we're so sorry that this employee said that. I mean, but you're not saying that. You're saying that they heard it or they felt a certain way.



WATSON: Jake, if that employee said that, I am really apologetic, and I deeply regret that.


WATSON: My understanding is that simply is something that the family and I completely respect that, but they took away from the meeting, which is a message that we would never ever, ever seek to pass, because it goes against our neutral mission.


TAPPER: You're saying -- this is a family that has a daughter who's been kidnapped. They don't even know if she's alive. They don't know if she's being raped, whatever.

And one of your employees, according to them, said, you should be more concerned about the people of Gaza. And a lot of Israelis find that quite credible.

I'll be honest because -- I mean, look at the social media campaign or the social media posts by the ICRC. There are so many posts criticizing Israel, which OK, fine. That's your entitled -- you're entitled to do that. And the number of posts criticizing Hamas just numerically pales in comparison.

And these families more than 100 of them still are suffering and still say how come nobody in the international community cares about this? And there's so much suffering going on in Gaza. And I'm not diminishing any of it. We cover it every day.

But you position yourself as a neutral organization and your social media posts are like seven to one criticizing Israel versus criticizing the group that attacked on October 7th and set off this, this horrific thing that's going on right now.

WATSON: Jake, what I want to emphasize here is that time and time again, we have come out publicly and even more importantly, perhaps behind closed doors advocating behind the scenes for those hostages to be released, for them to receive the medicine that they require, for them to be reconnected with family members.

This is something that we have said publicly, that we have said all parties to the conflict and others with power, including the leader of Hamas, who our president met a couple of months ago.


We continue at the very highest level to push for this. We've also really insisted on many occasions that they are simply released because they should not be held in this place.

TAPPER: Right.

WATSON: These are messages that we continue to pass and we are absolutely focused on them. We really do care.

TAPPER: Why won't Hamas let -- why won't Hamas let the Red Cross visit the hostages? I mean, there are obviously a lot of fears based on what we've heard from other hostages, based on images of what we saw, based on what happened to Israeli girls and women on October 7th, that these women are being raped and sexually assaulted. What is the position of the Red Cross when it comes to Hamas denying you access?

WATSON: We are very clear on this in the sense that we are we are pleading, we are discussing each and every day with all parties and all those with influence, including Hamas to let us in. I can't speak to Hamas's reasons for not doing that but we will not rest until those doors have been opened. And that we're allowed to go in. But we need an agreement to be in place for that to happen.

We understand the frustrations that many feel with the Red Cross because in some people peoples eyes we're not doing enough, we're not pushing enough, we're not saying enough. But believe me behind closed doors, which is where we think we have most chance of actually having the result or should we all want to see, which is that they're released, that we have access to them. We are pushing as hard as we can the highest level.

And we'll continue to do that. We won't be satisfied until those medicines are in the hands of the people that need them.

TAPPER: All right. Well, God bless you in that mission. We really hope that you succeed.

Evan Watson with the International Committee of the Red Cross, thanks so much for joining us and we'll be right back.



TAPPER: In our health lead the New Year is bringing wider access and new ways for women in America to get birth control pills. The manufacturer of Opill, the first government-approved over-the-counter birth control pill says, its products soon will be available in stores and online.

In addition, 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing pharmacists to prescribe or provide contraception without a doctor's prescription. First, one word of caution, wider access may come with higher out-of-pocket costs depending on your health insurance or lack thereof.

President Biden taken some heat over these retaliatory strikes in Yemen. A Democratic lawmaker who says Congress needed to have a say joins me next.