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Fani Willis Under Fire; Tech CEOs on Capitol Hill; FBI Director Warns of China Hacking Threat. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 31, 2024 - 13:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: A dire warning, FBI Director Christopher Wray sounding the alarm about Chinese hackers and the threat that they pose to American infrastructure, his call to action as he testifies before Congress.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Plus: in the hot seat. Major tech CEOs face off with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to explain what their platforms are doing or not doing to keep kids safe. Critics say it simply is not enough.

We're going to break down what's at stake for families and how the tech leaders have been responding.

And a gruesome discovery. A man has been arrested after allegedly beheading his own father, posting video of his severed head on the Internet. The disturbing new details we're learning as we follow these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

Right now, there is a high-stakes hearing on Capitol Hill as lawmakers are grilling the leaders of the world's biggest tech companies about the risks that their platforms pose to young people, CEOs from Meta, Instagram, TikTok, X and Discord all testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee as family members of kids who died after engaging on social media look on, some of them holding signs with pictures of their loved ones.

And, earlier, the committee's top Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, told the tech executives point blank that they have blood on their hands. Listen to this.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don't mean for it to be so, but you have blood on your hands. You have a product that is killing people.



SANCHEZ: CNN's Clare Duffy has closely been watching this hearing. Clare, really some moments that stand out, including what we're

showing or what we are going to show in a moment, Mark Zuckerberg standing up and directly apologizing to these family members.

CLARE DUFFY, CNN BUSINESS WRITER: Right, Boris. I mean, it has been a really fiery hearing so far, but I think that moment where Mark Zuckerberg turned around, addressed these families in the rooms, many in the room, many of whom are holding pictures of their children who have been harmed by social media in some way, that to me has been the most striking moment. Let's listen to what he said.


SEN. JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): There's families of victims here today. Have you apologized to the victims? Would you like to do so now? They're here. You're on national television. Would you like now to apologize to the victims who have been harmed by your product?

Show them the pictures.


HAWLEY: Would you like to apologize for what you have done to these good people?



MARK ZUCKERBERG, CEO, META: I'm sorry. (OFF-MIKE) It's terrible in knowing that -- to go through the things that your families have suffered, and this is why we invested so much in our own (OFF-MIKE) efforts and are going to continue to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things that your families have had to suffer.


DUFFY: No one should have to go through the types of things that your families have gone through.

That moment from Mark Zuckerberg really striking and really shows just how much pressure these tech CEOs are under in this hearing. Another thing that stands out to me from this hearing today is all of these different legislative proposals that these lawmakers are trying to gain some momentum behind. You hear them asking these tech CEOs to endorse things like the Kids Online Safety Act, the STOP CSAM, Child Sexual Assault Material, Act.

And I think these tech companies are really under pressure and lawmakers are really under pressure to do more than just talk here, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Yes, Clare Duffy, please stand by.

We actually want to take you to this hearing live. Zuckerberg is engaging one-on-one with Louisiana Senator Kennedy. Let's listen in. (JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): ... user agreement still suck.

ZUCKERBERG: I'm not sure how to answer that, Senator.


KENNEDY: Can you still have a dead body and all that legalese where nobody can find it?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, I'm not quite sure what you're referring to.

But I think people get the basic deal of using these services. It's a free service. You're using it to connect with the people you care about. If you share something with people, other people will be able to see your information. It's inherently -- if you're putting something out there to be shared publicly or with a private set of people, it's -- you're inherently putting it out there.


So I think people get that basic part of how the service works.

KENNEDY: But, Mr. Zuckerberg, you're in the foothills of creepy. You track people who aren't even Facebook users. You track your own people, your own users, who are your product, even when they're not on Facebook.

I mean, I'm going to land this plane pretty quickly, Mr. Chairman. I mean, it's creepy. And I understand you make a lot of money doing it. But I just wonder if our technology is greater than our humanity. I mean, let me ask you this final question.

Instagram is harmful to young people, isn't it?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, I disagree with that. That's not what the research shows, on balance. That doesn't mean that individual people don't have issues and that there aren't things that we need to do to help provide the right tools for people.

But across all the research that we have done internally, I mean, this -- the survey that the senator previously cited, there are 12 or 15 different categories of harm that we asked teens if they felt that Instagram made it worse or better. And across all of them, except for the one that Senator Hawley cited, more people said that using Instagram made different issues that they face either positive or...


KENNEDY: I have got to land this plane, Mr. Zuckerberg. Let me -- we will just have to agree to disagree. If you believe that Instagram -- I know it's -- I'm not saying it's intentional, but if you agree that Instagram, if you think that Instagram is not hurting millions of our young people, particularly young teens, particularly young women, you shouldn't be driving. It is.


SANCHEZ: Another testy exchange there between Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg denying that research indicates that his product and social media generally is harmful to young people, Senator Kennedy essentially saying that he did not believe that was the case.

Let's discuss what we have seen play out today with child safety advocate and the CEO of Common Sense Media, Jim Steyer.

Jim, great to see you.

I think you were watching some of that testimony alongside us. I saw you shaking your head at different points. And I want to get to that specific point that the senator was trying to make that Zuckerberg denied, because, at a different point earlier today during his testimony, he said -- quote -- "The existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes."

Is that the case? Because there are studies that show a correlation, maybe not a causation, as he puts it, but a correlation, right?

JIM STEYER, CEO, COMMON SENSE MEDIA: That's exactly right, Boris, and that's exactly the point here.

This is just mumbo jumbo from Mark Zuckerberg, who knows better. And shame on him for trying to parse his words. What you said is exactly correct. Look, I run the biggest kids media organization in the United States, and we wrote -- I wrote a book 10, 12 years ago called "Talking Back to Facebook" about these issues.

And Zuckerberg has known about the problems on Facebook and Instagram and the deep harms that have happened to children for more than a decade. And so he is just parsing his words. It's sort of pathetic. By the way, I will say this, though, Boris.

The senators, who are doing a good job today, where have they been for the last decade? They have not passed a single law to rein in Facebook, Instagram, or any of the other platforms. So they actually have -- bear a lot of responsibility for their failure to act.

That's why we have passed all the laws in California, because Congress hasn't done its job. But Zuckerberg's answers are as incredible and non-accurate as you suggest that they are, Boris.

SANCHEZ: I want to dig into the point you just made about congressional inaction, because Senator Amy Klobuchar at one point addressed the CEOs directly and said that the reason that Congress hasn't acted in the 28 years since the Internet has existed in a popular mainstream fashion is because of the power that they have.

What kind of power is she talking about? Just lobbying efforts, fund- raising? Walk us through that.

STEYER: It's all of the above, Boris, but it's a great question. And I know Senator Klobuchar very well, and she's completely correct.


I mean, by the way, just think about it, 28 years since Congress passed a law regulating social media. I mean, that's since Zuckerberg was in kindergarten. And so they have done nothing. And Amy Klobuchar is correct about that.

But the truth is, these are the largest, most powerful companies in the history of the United States, if not the world, the richest companies. They spend hundreds and hundreds of million dollars annually lobbying senators, congresspeople, et cetera, and also at the state level.

So -- and we are the biggest child advocacy group. Come on, we don't compete with them monetarily, but we have truth, justice, and the right side of history on our side. So, the truth is, they have spent so much money lobbying these issues. And Congress, for various reasons, has a lot of responsibility for failing to act.

So it's one thing to have a hearing today. It's one thing to hear Senator Klobuchar, Senator Durbin, Senator Kennedy talk tough, but pass some laws. That's what the people in the audience, the parents whose children have been harmed or who are no longer with us want. They want action.

And to some extent, it's a circus going on, because Zuckerberg sounds like the tobacco executives from 20 years ago. But Congress hasn't regulated these folks. So everybody in that room bears some responsibility to parents like us.

SANCHEZ: It strikes me that you talk about the comparison between what we're watching unfold now and the way the tobacco industry in the early '90s was sued because they had an awareness that nicotine had addictive properties and they had an awareness that smoking had serious health repercussions.


SANCHEZ: But if Congress were to act and make these companies potentially liable for causing harm, it would be really difficult to prove in court that something like social media caused a mental health issue.

Couldn't other factors be at play?

STEYER: Sure, but they'd also win. So that's a -- it's a good question, Boris, but, no, you would win those lawsuits.

By the way, again, we write much of the big legislation in the United States and globally on those issues at Common Sense Media. And we believe that the legal liability factor is huge. And, by the way, the tech companies, particularly Facebook, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to block that kind of legal liability.

And the hearing also brought up Section 230, which was passed in the 1990s, by the way, which provides some -- a fair amount of immunity to the social media platforms. But the truth is they need to be held legally liable. Senator Lindsey Graham was absolutely accurate when he said, unless you guys are held financially responsible, you won't do anything.

That's true. They will just make up these carefully nuanced statements, like you heard from Zuckerberg and a couple of the other people, about, well, we're not causing the harm. In a court of law, those guys would be paying hundreds of millions of dollars of fines per case.

And that's why they have been sued. By the way, Facebook and Instagram, also known as Meta, has been sued by over 40 U.S. state attorney generals in the United States. These -- their time is coming. They are going to be held responsible. We have kicked the can down the road at the federal level and Congress is responsible for not having acted.

But their moment is coming now, and they're going to be held liable. And part of it is legal liability, Boris. And the truth is, the court -- those cases, once the law is there, will stand up in court.

SANCHEZ: Given what the liability found in the early '90s meant for the tobacco industry, some astronomical sums, I imagine the economic ramifications of that kind of liability for social media companies, we might see some of them crater.

Jim Steyer, great to get your perspective on this here.

We do want to dip back into the hearing now, Zuckerberg being questioned by California Senator Laphonza Butler. Let's listen.

SEN. LAPHONZA BUTLER (D-CA): This is the direct thing that I'm asking about.

ZUCKERBERG: Yes, I'm not defending any specific one of those. I think that the ability to kind of filter and edit images is generally a useful tool for expression.

For that specifically -- I'm not familiar with the study that you're doing, but we did make it so that we're not recommending this type of content to teens.

BUTLER: I made no reference to a study, to court documents that revealed your knowledge of the impact of these types of filters on young people, generally young girls in particular.

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, I disagree with that characterization.

I think that there's...


BUTLER: With court documents?

ZUCKERBERG: I'm -- I haven't seen any document.


BUTLER: OK, Mr. Zuckerberg, my time is up. I hope that you hear what is being offered to you and are prepared to step up and do better.

I know this Senate committee is going to do our work to hold you and great -- to greater account.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

SANCHEZ: We're going to step away from the hearing on Capitol Hill right now with these tech CEOs. We will, of course, keep monitoring this and bring you the highlights as we get them -- Brianna.


KEILAR: FBI Director Christopher Wray today giving his most direct public warning yet that Chinese government hackers are busy figuring out how to have the power to cause mass chaos inside the United States.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: PRC hackers are targeting our critical infrastructure, our water treatment plants, our electrical grid, our oil and natural gas pipelines, our transportation systems, and the risk that poses to every American requires our attention now.

China's hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities if and when China decides the time has come to strike.


KEILAR: Now, Wray is on Capitol Hill as well this afternoon. He's there with several other U.S. security experts detailing how serious and pernicious this threat is and why it's time for the United States to start dedicating serious resources to this new national security threat.

Joining us now to talk about this, we have John Miller, our CNN chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst.

And, John, of course, the FBI has been talking about these threats before, but what did you hear today that really stood out to you?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well I think what they're doing is doubling down now by exposing more information.

What Christopher Wray was talking about was literally a diabolical plot on the part of the People's Republic of China to slowly and quietly infiltrate the control systems for critical infrastructure across the country so that, at the time and place of their choosing, whether it was a military action or for some other reason, they could cause basically a meltdown in systems like transit, energy, food supply and everything else.

And this is something that the government code-named Volt Typhoon. And the way it works is to infiltrate the routers that are either Chinese- made and have built-in doors or that are older and less secure one at a time across multiple agencies, so that they can get in there and then get administrative rights and be able to override the systems.

KEILAR: Jennifer Easterly, the director of America's cyber defense agency, painted just a really vivid picture of these threats. She first talked about the regional mess that happened when the Colonial Pipeline was hacked back in 2021. Let's listen to this.


JEN EASTERLY, DIRECTOR, U.S. CYBERSECURITY AND INFRASTRUCTURE SECURITY AGENCY: Now imagine that on a massive scale. Imagine not one pipeline, but many pipelines disrupted, telecommunications going down so people can't use their cell phone.

People start getting sick from polluted water. Trains get derailed. Air traffic control system, port control systems are malfunctioning. This is truly an everything, everywhere, all at once scenario. And it's one where the Chinese government believes that it will likely crush American will for the U.S. to defend Taiwan.


KEILAR: That is sort of that apocalyptic almost picture that you were talking about those being painted here.

MILLER: Right.

And this is -- this goes back to when I was in the FBI. This goes back to when I was in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. We knew that there were literally hundreds of people from the Chinese military and intelligence services working out of a large building on the outskirts of Beijing.

It was called Unit 61486 of the People's Liberation Army and their full-time job was hacking. And this wasn't for short-time goals. This was pervasive, an active, persistent threat, APT2, they called it, to get into these systems to wreak that kind of havoc.

So, what has Jen Easterly and her team done? Christopher Wray and his team are doing the investigation. NSA is uncovering a lot of this. But one of the reasons that they are telling us all the scary stuff today, Brianna, is, Section 702 of the Patriot Act, the tool that they use to basically collect intelligence on these foreign entities, is about to expire, and there is resistance in Congress to renewing it.

They're trying to underline the importance of that and what's on the line. KEILAR: Yes, we will have to see if that registers with Congress.

John, thank you so much. It really was eye-opening listening to this hearing today.

And up next: new developments surrounding the special prosecutor involved in Georgia's election interference case. Why he no longer needs to testify about an alleged improper relationship with the district attorney, Fani Willis.


And taking action. With the border deal all but gone, Democrats are preparing to fight back to secure the border. We will have that new reporting ahead.


KEILAR: One of Donald Trump's co-defendants in Georgia is suing the Fulton County district attorney's office, accusing prosecutors of withholding information.

Former Trump campaign official Mike Roman is charged with racketeering and conspiracy, along with the former president, in efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss there. And Roman just filed a suit saying that DA Fani Willis' office has failed to provide documents that could prove allegations of an affair between her and another prosecutor on the case, Nathan Wade.

Today, Wade was expected to answer questions about the allegations in divorce court, but the hearing was canceled after wade settled a dispute with his ex-wife.


We have CNN's Nick Valencia, who is at an -- in Atlanta for us outside of the Fulton County courthouse there.

Nick, what information is Mike Roman alleging that he's being denied?


He's looking for correspondence, contracts, invoices, things he and his attorney believed would prove that this alleged fair happened between Nathan Wade and district attorney Fani Willis. What they're specifically looking for is how money was budgeted and spent at the district attorney's office on this case.

They think that they will be able to prove there was a conflict of interest here between Willis and Wade and that they carried on this alleged affair while he was given this contract by Willis.

Ashleigh Merchant, Mike Roman's attorney, believes that the Georgia -- the Fulton County district attorney's office is in violation of Georgia's Open Records Act. But the DA's office is saying, not so fast. They're saying not only have they provided some of these documents, but that other documents that are being requested, they simply don't exist.

And this is what they're saying to us in a statement: "Despite consistent communication, you imply that this office has failed to meet its obligation under the Georgia Open Records Act. Respectfully, we disagree with your disingenuous implication."

That's the DA's response to Ashleigh Merchant's lawsuit. Merchant is hoping to get this -- these documents by the evidentiary hearing on February 15. And you remember, last week, we reported exclusively that both Fani Willis and Nathan Wade had been subpoenaed to testify at that hearing. It could be a potentially embarrassing hearing as they air out some of these alleged details of their alleged romance.

But they did provide a little bit of a win here today for Nathan Wade. He temporarily settled his divorce proceedings there, avoiding another potential embarrassing day of him having to testify in that divorce proceeding. But we should mention he's not in the clear just yet.

If he doesn't settle this divorce, he and Willis could both have to be deposed not just in the February 15 evidentiary hearing, but also in future divorce proceedings for Nathan Wade. So the bottom line here, Brianna, is the plot thickens and that these problems for Wade and Willis simply are not going away -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Nick Valencia, thank you for that.

Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti is joining us now to talk a little bit more about this.

And, Renato, suing a prosecutor over an open records law, have you seen something like this done before?


And, in fact, it's a tool used by the defense, and I have used it myself as a defense attorney, to obtain records from government agencies. And so I think it's fair game for the defense to complain about that and to try to seek records.

KEILAR: Willis has been criticized, we should mention, for some other ethical lapses, for instance, hosting a fund-raiser for a Democratic opponent of one of the targets of the election subversion investigation. She and Wade have not outright denied an improper relationship.

How problematic is this issue still to the perceived integrity of Willis' case against Trump and the others?

MARIOTTI: Yes, I think it's fair to say, Brianna, that she has essentially acknowledged this, in my view. I mean, in other words, she's -- she has had very opportunity to deny that this occurred. She has not done so.

So there appears to be something to this, although we don't know all the specifics. But it is problematic. It's -- I think fair to say it's extraordinarily poor judgment by Fani Willis, given that she's pursuing an extraordinary case against the former president. But in terms of how problematic it is, I think, in the criminal matter, I think that ultimately the criminal cases will move forward.

But I think there's certainly a possibility that it's going to move forward without Mr. Wade working on it, which could potentially slow it down. And other prosecutors could be brought in and gotten up to speed. It's possible Fani Willis won't be involved in the case.

I think that the fact of the matter is they're both on the same side. There's not a conflict of interest in the obvious sense, right? It's not like she has a relationship with somebody on the defense team or one of the one of the witnesses.

But, nonetheless, there's an argument that they're going to, for example, have an incentive to try to keep the case going so that Wade can get more money. So those sorts of arguments are going to be made by the defendants. And, ultimately, I suspect the judge is going to try to find some way to make this issue go away or potentially resolve the issue so that, this way, the criminal case can go forward.

KEILAR: Do you think she should step aside?


I think she should do that voluntarily for the sake of the case. She could have somebody else at her office oversee it, for example. But I don't think that she's going to do that.

KEILAR: How much do you think, in terms of embarrassment, was avoided? And I should mention, as we heard Nick reporting there, this isn't over, right?