Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Passengers In Limbo As Southwest Cancels 2K-Plus Flights In U.S.; Colorado Grocery Shooting Suspect Declared Incompetent For Trial; Maryland Couple Accused Of Trying To Sell U.S. Nuclear Secrets; Columbus Day 2021: A Mix Of Pride And Protest. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired October 11, 2021 - 14:30   ET




VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Southwest Airlines is warning employees this weekend's meltdown could happen again. One-tenth of the flights have been canceled.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: So over the weekend, thousands of passengers were stranded at airports for hours trying to get to their final destinations.

CNN's Nick Valencia is live outside of Jackson-Hartfield Airport.

Nick, Southwest said they were having staffing issues. Is that what happened?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn and Victor, this is just a mess. Over the weekend, nearly 2,000 flights were canceled. And that headache continued for Southwest and the passengers on Monday when just about 300 flights were canceled.

And as you mentioned, the airline is making no guarantees that they'll be able to stop the cascading cancellations.

Earlier, their COO released a video statement to employees saying they just aren't where they want to be when it comes to their staffing.

And when you compare their staffing to pre-pandemic numbers, they've lost about 7,000 employees, Southwest Airlines.

According to union representatives, about a thousand of those 7,000 employees decided to take early retirement buyouts at the start of the pandemic.

And Southwest just has struggled to keep up with the demand of flights from passengers.

As we've been in lockdown for more than a year and various stages for more than a year, passengers eager to get out.

And we spoke to some of the passengers earlier today. They were thinking they would get on a flight back to Arkansas. They received no notification that the flight was canceled.

And it wasn't until they got to the ticket counter that they realized they weren't going to be able to get on their plane.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is going to be inconvenient for him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From here to Little Rock was like a 40-minute plane ride. Now we have to take an eight-to-nine-hour drive to get home. I mean, it is going to take us all night. So, yes, pretty frustrating.


VALENCIA: This is all caused because of the major staffing issues at Southwest Airlines.

They were really exposed on Friday because a significant portion of their flight-based crew is out of Florida. Florida had some weather issues and air-traffic-control issues, and that exposed this network malfunction, or this network meltdown at Southwest.


This is an issue that the pilot union has been complaining about to Southwest Airlines for months.

We got a statement back in August. And a new statement, after what happened this weekend, saying, quote, "Our pilots are tired and frustrated because their operation is running on empty due to a lack of support from the company."

That is Casey Murray, president of Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

Flight attendants also struggling, saying they're at a breaking point.

Southwest said that they are working on trying to hire more staff. But it is clear, Victor and Alisyn, they have a major problem on their hands right now.

CAMEROTA: Sounds like it.

Nick Valencia, thank you very much.

And this just into CNN. The man accused of murdering 10 people during that Colorado supermarket shooting back in March was just declared incompetent to stand trial.

BLACKWELL: CNN's Lucy Kafanov is in Denver.

Lucy, what are you learning?

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The two doctors evaluated the 22-year-old suspect and found that he basically wasn't mentally competent to proceed in the criminal case against him. And as a reminder, he's accused of killing 10 people at the Boulder

King Super store back in March. He's facing a total of 54 charges, including 10 counts of murder for that mass shooting.

His attorneys brought up concerns about his competence prior to a scheduled preliminary hearing. And the judge ordered that he undergo an evaluation to determine if he was capable in assisting in his own defense.

Now according to a motion filed last week, doctors concluded that, "The defendant was limited in his ability to meaningfully converse with others. And his superficial responses to hypothetical legal situations indicated a passive approach to his defense and potential overreliance on his attorneys."

Now the Boulder district attorney has asked for and been granted another evaluation. We're waiting for that to take place.

The D.A. found that the responses indicated that he was competent enough for the case to proceed. Because he seemed to understand the charges, as well as the potential sentence, as well as the roles of the judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys.

So we are waiting for that second competency evaluation to take place.

Alisyn, Victor, back to you.

BLACKWELL: Lucy Kafanov, in Denver for us, thank you.

CAMEROTA: Now to this. An FBI sting fit for a spy thriller. A Navy submarine engineer and his wife busted for allegedly trying to sell sensitive secrets, nuclear secrets wrapped in a peanut butter sandwich.

BLACKWELL: A lot going on today. Here's what else to watch.



The FBI said a Navy nuclear engineer, with top secret-secret clearance, and his wife, were trying to pass secrets to a foreign country using a peanut butter sandwich.

And I don't know, you have to go extra crunchy for something like that. You can't just slip that into a creamy.


CAMEROTA: Come on.

Luckily, we're going to get the expert's advice on this.

The Justice Department said the FBI agents retrieved, quote, "an S.D. data card concealed within half a peanut butter sandwich at a prearranged dead-drop location." CNN's Jessica Schneider is following this for us.

Jessica, we don't know whether this is James-Bond stuff or Pink Panther. Which one is it?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think it is all of the above. Alisyn and Victor, unfortunately, they did not reveal crunchy or creamy. So I'm sorry about that.

But the details get more fictional. Because listen to this, guys. Not only did this engineer allegedly pass along classified information tucked inside of a peanut butter sandwich.

But also, in subsequent dead drops, as their called. These S.D. cards were also hidden in a sealed Band-Aid wrapper and a chewing gum package.

So this all started when this U.S. Navy nuclear engineer, Jonathan Toebbe, allegedly reached out to a foreign country in 2020 -- we don't know which one -- but he offered to hand over government secrets about nuclear powered warships in exchange for cryptocurrency.

Well, that foreign country turned the offer over to the FBI and that began a month's-long operation.

So Toebbe went to three different spots between June and August of this past summer to drop off that information. But he was tracked the whole time by the FBI.

He was also in constant communication with an undercover agent. And he actually provided the codes that would reveal this classified information on those S.D. cards.

And in the process, he collected more than $100,000 in cryptocurrency payments as this investigation went forward.

Toebbe was so confident that he wouldn't get caught, that he told the undercover agent that he was in this communication with, that he had gathered the information over a number of years and that he knew how to evade detection within the Navy.

But of course, Alisyn and Victor, little did he know that he had, in fact, been communicating with the FBI for months.

So over the weekend, he and his wife were arrested as they were attempting to make another drop off in West Virginia. They're now charged with violations of the Atomic Energy Act.

Prosecutors are saying they want them detained, possibly until trial. The judge will determine that. They do have their first court

appearance tomorrow.

But this entire criminal complaint really unfolding like a spy thriller with all of these crazy little details -- guys?

CAMEROTA: It really is. Jessica Schneider, thank you for all of that.


All right, let's discuss now with the former deputy director of the FBI, CNN senior law enforcement analyst, Andrew McCabe.

Andrew, we're joking because the peanut butter sandwich makes it Pink Panther like quality.

But this is deadly serious. These are nuclear secrets that allegedly this nuclear submarine scientist was trying to pass.

And so just share with us the cloak-and-dagger stuff of how the FBI would even begin to crack this case?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Sure. So just to touch on that last point that you just made, the information that we're talking about here is incredibly serious.

The ability to propel our submarines with nuclear technology is one of the things that puts us ahead of all of our enemies on the planet. And the idea that someone entrusted with a top-secret clearance would hand that over to a foreign power is troubling.

But let's step back for a minute and think about these dead drops. I know the peanut butter sandwich sounds crazy. And I would like to know crunchy versus creamy.

But think about the planning that this person went to. He was very careful to conceal those S.D. cards only in items that he would normally have had on his person when he went for a hike. And that was the ruse here.

They picked the dead-drop locations that he would explain very easily as, oh, my wife and I were going hiking for the day, and when we go hiking we take some food, we take a first-aid kit, we take chewing gum.

So those were all items that he would have on him that would not have raised suspicion about whether or not he had improper material with him.

BLACKWELL: Andrew, it is not clear from the documents where, along the chain, the FBI found out that he was trying to do this. They just start with saying that last spring, he sent a package to a foreign government offering to sell secrets.

It seems like you would know that there's a specific contact in this unnamed country who is willing to potentially engage. So where do you think the FBI would have found out about this plan?

MCCABE: Well, it is a fascinating question, Victor. And in the indictment, they're very careful to say that they -- this was the beginning of Mr. Toebbe's efforts to make contact with a foreign nation. He, apparently, took this material or this offer and he mailed it in

the U.S. mail from the United States to this unnamed foreign country.

That foreign country, having received the offer, rather than taking him up on it, they reached out for the FBI legal attache. That is the official FBI representative in that foreign country. And they handed it over and said this is something you might want to look into.

And so that alone tells us a couple of things. One, it is a country with a foreign -- an FBI legal attache assigned to it. So it is probably a friendly country, since we are sending our FBI agent permanently.

And a country likely on good terms with the United States and didn't take advantage of this as a chance to gain advantage for themselves.

But beyond that, we don't know what country it was that interceded so cooperatively on our behalf.

CAMEROTA: And he wanted, in exchange, was money in the form of cryptocurrency. And the FBI, in fact, did funnel him, I think, some payments to keep the ruse going.

Does cryptocurrency -- does the advent of cryptocurrency complicate things for law enforcement?

MCCABE: It does. Because it makes the -- it creates new opportunities to exchange money in ways that don't leave traditional traces, like bank account deposits and withdrawals and that sort of thing.

And they could be based on not your real identity, of course, and online identities that makes it harder to trace.

But it is not impossible. We know this from this case, but from other notable cyber cases in the recent past.

But I have to tell you, Alisyn, this is why I went into the FBI. Each case is another opportunity to peel back some incredible mystery.

And in this case, this indictment, I mean, it reads like a spy thriller. The FBI shared incredible detail in it.

So if you're interested in that sort of thing, it is a great read. I recommend it highly. And it gives you a little glimpse into how the spy game continues to go on to this day.

This is not just some relic from the Cold War. But people are legitimately trying to profit from our national secrets and the FBI stops that.

BLACKWELL: Yes, this suspect said that he was extremely careful to gather things slowly and naturally so he won't be caught. Well, he now faces this.

Andrew McCabe, thank you so much.

MCCABE: Thank you.


BLACKWELL: We'll be right back.


BLACKWELL: Two to Four Things, national holiday edition.

You remember the grade school rhyme, "In 1492, Columbus said the ocean blue." A lot of Americans have the day off, thanks to the federal government making Columbus Day a federal holiday back in 1971.

CAMEROTA: So in New York City today, the 77th annual Columbus Day parade returned after the pandemic forced it to cancel last year. And Italian flags were on display for Italian-American pride.

But in D.C., just across the street from the White House, protesters gathered in Lafayette Park, calling for Columbus Day to be changed to Indigenous People's Day.

BLACKWELL: A few states have made it official. And on the second Monday of October, they observe Indigenous People's Day, either in place of or in addition to Columbus Day.

On Friday, President Biden issued the first ever presidential proclamation of Indigenous People's Day.


CAMEROTA: Where do you come down on this?

BLACKWELL: There were people here. I feel like that's a full statement.

CAMEROTA: That Columbus didn't discover it?

BLACKWELL: It was already discovered. I'm coming to your house and discovering it.

CAMEROTA: And taking it from you.

BLACKWELL: And taking it from you.

CAMEROTA: But how about this? As someone who marched in the Columbus Day parade in 2017, it was super fun. Why not Italian-American Day and Indigenous People's Day?

Don't we have enough floats to go around for two different things?

BLACKWELL: Nothing wrong with Italian-American Day.

But to say that someone discovered something that there was a culture here, there was a society here, there were people here, whether it was valued by those who came here or not, it was already populated.

CAMEROTA: Totally, fair. And I think that the re-examining of Columbus is totally fair.


CAMEROTA: But celebrating Italian-Americans, personally speaking, is fun. But I think that celebrating indigenous people is great and having parades. I don't see why we can't do both. I'm for more parades.

BLACKWELL: OK. All right.

It's also National Coming Out Day. It's a day to celebrate coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

CAMEROTA: President Biden released a statement commemorating the day, saying, in part, quote, "Today and every day, I want every member of the LGBTQ-plus community to know that you are loved and accepted just the way you are, regardless of whether or not you have come out.

BLACKWELL: Some troubling developments, though. Surveys by AARP and the LGBT Ageing Project found a growing number of older adults feel they are being pushed back into the closet.

There has been reporting recently about fears of when they move into senior housing, senior communities, that they will be mistreated or refused care or refused treatment by people who are anti-LGBTQ.

BLACKWELL: So there's discrimination. And if they have to come out and say what their orientation is that they're being discriminated against.

CAMEROTA: Or if they live their truth in the community, they believe or they have some anecdote they will be discriminated against.

For me, I came out, in a five-year period, starting in 2003, in college, and then to 2008, when I finally told my mother, my father as well. A lot of people come out in chapters to different part of their lives.

There's this cliche that it gets better. It's not a cliche. It really does get better.

CAMEROTA: That's really nice to hear, Victor.

I thought it was so nice for President Biden to say, whether or not you come out or not, we respect you and support you.

BLACKWELL: It's a difficult choice to make. It certainly is.

CAMEROTA: OK, this just in. That Texas boy, who was missing for several days -- these are live pictures. Because he's now out of the hospital and back in his mother's arms. We have more on this miraculous story. Look at this little boy. We'll bring you that ahead.