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CNN International: U.S. General Ordered Tweet on Strike Drone Strike on Al Qaeda Leader That May Have Killed Civilian; WSJ Reporter's Pre-Trial Detention Extended; Anti-Putin Russians Claim Attack on Border Region of Belgorod; Man Accused of Crashing Truck Near White House Threatened to Kill the President. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired May 24, 2023 - 04:30   ET



BIANCA NOBILO CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Bianca Nobilo.

MAX FOSTER CNN ANCHOR: I'm Max Foster. If you're just joining us, let me bring you up to date on our top stories.

Ron DeSantis is set to launch his 2024 presidential campaign in just a few hours. The Florida governor will make the announcement on Twitter in a podcast with Elon Musk.

And typhoon Mawar is close to making landfall in Guam. The storm is expected to bring deadly storm surge and damaging winds.

NOBILO: And now an exclusive report. CNN has learned from multiple defense officials that a senior U.S. general ordered his command to announce on Twitter that an al-Qaeda leader had been targeted in American drone strike but without confirming who was actually killed. CNN Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann has the story.


OREN LIEBERMANN CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The drone strike on May 3rd in northwest Syria targeted a senior al-Qaeda leader -- according to the U.S. Central Command which governs military operations in the Middle East and in that region. CENTCOM -- as it's known -- promised more information with operational details of that strike had been confirmed. But now here we are nearly three weeks later and CENTCOM hasn't put out any more information about who the target of the strike was or who was killed in the strike.

Officials tell us they knew it would take a few days to confirm who it was that was killed in the strike. Because, at least partially, there are no U.S. troops in northwest Syria who can quickly investigate. So, it was a process that would take time. But multiple defense officials tell CNN that even so, even in the hours after the strike, General Eric Kurilla, the commander of U.S. Central Command, ordered that tweet out saying that the U.S. had targeted a senior al-Qaeda leader in northwest Syria.

Still as we wait on more information from CENTCOM as to who was targeted or who was killed, CNN has spoken to the family of the casualty. Who say he was a 56-year-old farmer with 10 children and had no affiliation with al-Qaeda. CENTCOM has opened up what's known as a CCAR.


A Civilian Casualty Credibility Assessment report to see if, in their conclusion, a civilian was killed in the strike.

Officials tell us there is still some belief that a member of al-Qaeda may have been killed here. But that's certainly not as high as it was when the strike was taken. One official said there was high confidence they were targeting a member of al-Qaeda. Part of the issue here is the timing. The strike itself was on May 3rd. Officials tell us on May 8th, "the Washington Post" went to CENTCOM and presented information suggesting that a civilian had been killed here.

And then that civilian assessment from the military happened a week after that. Depending on the conclusion of that assessment that may lead to what's known as a 15-6. A more formal investigation into the process behind the strike.

This whole process as it played out is almost stunningly similar to the strike in Kabul that the U.S. took in the closing days of the Afghanistan withdrawal. A strike that killed 10 civilians including several children.

At first the U.S. military and the Pentagon defended that strike, saying it had killed a member of ISIS-K who posed an imminent threat. But after several media outlets, including CNN, found issues with that narrative and spoke to family members of the casualty there, the U.S. was forced to walk that back and acknowledge that it was civilians that were killed there. In the wake of that strike, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a review of civilian harm protocols in the process there and there were more processes that were put in place.

Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, was asked today if he felt those were --processes were still followed. And he said, the Secretary has confidence that they very much are.

The question now, where does the assessment from CENTCOM lead and will there be calls for accountability if it does in fact turn out from CENTCOM's own look that it was a civilian that was killed in this May 3rd strike.

Oren Liebermann CNN at the Pentagon.


FOSTER: A Russian court has extended pretrial detention for "Wall Street Journal" reporter Evan Gershkovich until August the 30th. The American journalist was detained by Russian authorities in March and charged with espionage. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it was deeply concerned by the court's decision. Gershkovich's employer, the "Wall Street Journal," issued a statement saying it was deeply disappointed. The Biden administration continues to call for his release. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR: He shouldn't be detained at all. Journalism is not a crime. We've said this before. He needs to be released immediately. That is still President Biden's view. Still the administration's view. And we're still going to look very, very hard to see if we can get him home with his family where he belongs.


NOBILO: The governor of Russia's border region of Belgorod says the area was targeted by drone attacks Tuesday night. Just one day after a rare ground assault by anti-Putin Russian fighters.

FOSTER: And the governor reports damaged cars, homes and administration buildings. And says several people have been hospitalized. But says the region's air defenses dealt with most of the drones.

NOBILO: Earlier in the day Russia's defense ministry claimed to have killed dozens of anti-Putin fighters after pushing them back into Ukrainian territory. CNN's Matthew Chance has more.


MATTHEW CHANCE CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): It was a bold cross border raid. Exposing the weakness of Russian defenses and highlighting the increasingly brazen armed groups who say they're Russians fighting against the Kremlin.

Moscow dismisses them as Ukrainian saboteurs who've now been defeated in a barrage of ferocious Russian strikes carried out on its own soil. Defense officials say at least 70 of the fighters some in U.S. made Humvee armored vehicles have now been killed.

But for the Kremlin, attacks inside Russia, like a series of damaging train derailments over the past year. Or attacks on crucial fuel storage facilities have become an embarrassing feature of its war.

Even the Kremlin itself was targeted with drone strikes which Russia blamed on Ukraine. But Russian groups who say they're fighting against the Kremlin are increasingly emerging from the shadows.

CNN made contact with a fighter said to be from the National Republican Army. An anti-Putin group operating inside Russia. His voice and features have been disguised.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): A fire at the military facility the death of the agent of the regime or a day of inactivity on the railway that supplies the Russian army. For us these are all successful missions.

CHANCE (voice-over): Of course, not every attack in Russia is carried out by a member of an organized group. Some Russians are simply furious at the direction the country has gone. Taking matters into their own hands.


But some of the more shocking, carefully organized attacks have used explosives to kill pro-Kremlin figures, like Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky in April, in a St. Petersburg cafe. Russian Prosecutors say the suspected bomber acted at the behest of Ukraine. A claim the country denies.

But partisans say they want the Kremlin to feel fear like this too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Our task is to heavily damage the repressive part of the Russian system. We want to weaken the power that suppresses the people. The main factor in this is fear. This Russian regime fears war against it.

CHANCE (voice-over): Especially a war increasingly being fought at home.

Matthew Chance, CNN, London.


NOBILO: The head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner is reacting to the cross-border attack by anti-Putin Russian groups. Saying he doesn't believe Russian Defense Forces already to resist those fighters even on Russian soil.

FOSTER: Yevgeny Prigozhin says while he believes the army is the best in the world, he acknowledged the Ukrainian army has put up a fierce fight and is one of the strongest around.

NOBILO: CNN's Salma Abdelaziz joins us now here in London. Salma, this reminds me almost of Machiavellian principles of exaggerating the enemy or beating them if you're struggling with them. But what can we learn from the latest we've heard from Prigozhin?

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I guess you could say he's beating them up. But in a way you could also look at the facts on the ground, which is that Russia has fought for the city of Bakhmut -- for the area of Bakhmut this very tiny significant, at least strategic wise, place for months now. And yes, they are claiming that they have control of it. But Ukrainian forces are still very much on the ground. And not being able to claim that win for the Russian military is significant.

And Prigozhin has time and time again -- this is not unique as we know -- pointed to the Russian defense ministry. Criticize them, accused them of not providing ammunition on the ground. Calling senior officials in Russia fat cats who are sitting in their luxury offices. And yet again, he's using this opportunity in Belgorod to point out weaknesses he sees in the Russian military.

He sort of asks this question -- and I think we're all asking -- how was the Russian border breached? How was this incursion allowed to take place? All forces stretched so thin that Russia's border -- and a very important border. Remember, Belgorod is right on that border with Ukraine. It's been used in military operations.

How is that allowed to happen? That just a small handful of these two Russian national groups -- yes, backed by Kyiv's defense forces. But again, we're talking about two small groups were able to enter this territory and cause -- what Moscow calls deep concern. Launch an anti- terror operation, forced civilians out. I mean it's extraordinary. And the question really is here -- Kyiv has distance themselves from this attack saying that these Russian nationalists acted independently. The question is, is this one message and it has been sent? Or are we going to see more of these brazen ground assaults?

NOBILO: Salma, thank you.

FOSTER: Still ahead, new information about the man suspected of crashing a track near the White House. Including what he said in the truck and his plans for the White House.



FOSTER: France has banned all domestic flights for trips that could be made in 2 1/2 hours or less by high-speed trains. The country's transport minister says it's an essential step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

NOBILO: But while the government is hailing the achievement, critics claim that trains are already preferred among many travelers. Only three local roots have been discontinued so far. A clean transport campaign group says the affected roots represent just 0.3 percent of all France's flights emissions.

FOSTER: Still something.

NOBILO: Yes, the question is that will other European countries follow suit? You know that Austria is quite close.

Now some Amazon employees at corporate offices are planning to walk off the job next week over frustrations with return to office mandates and the company's climate impact. Workers asking the e-commerce giant to put the climate at the forefront of its decision-making and to provide greater flexibility for how and when employees work.

FOSTER: The collective action represents the heightened tensions inside the company after multiple rounds of layoffs. Amazon, like other big tech companies, cut tens of thousands of jobs last year and says that this year they will lay off some 27,000 workers.

We are learning more about the man accused of crashing a truck into security barriers near the White House on Monday. Court documents reveal he planned to, quote, kill the president while praising Adolf Hitler after his arrest. CNN's Brian Todd has the latest on the investigation from Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BRIAN TODD CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New information on the driver of this 26-foot U-Haul truck that rammed into the security barriers at the park across from the White House.

He allegedly told authorities he wanted to, quote, get to the White House, seize power, and be put in charge of the nation.

He had been planning for six months and he would kill the president if he had to -- according to charging documents. The suspect is identified as Sai Varshith Kandula from Chesterfield Missouri, 19 years old. Who graduated from high school last year.

He faces one charge of depredation of federal property after being arrested on more serious charges. Including threatening to kill or harm a president vice president, vice president or a family member. Prosecutors can add additional charges as the case progresses.

JOHN KIRBY NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESPERSON: That's a pretty violent act all by itself. Clearly this individual intended some kind of harm by ramming that truck through those pylons.

TODD (voice-over): Authorities recovered a black backpack and a roll of duct tape at the scene and a swastika flag. He told law enforcement he admired Hitler and the Nazis for their authoritarian nature and there eugenics -- according to charging documents.

JONATHAN WACKROW, FORMER SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Investigators are going to key in, was he motivated by some sort of ideological group. And in worst case, was he directed to launch this type of attack? It's too early to tell right now.

TODD (voice-over): The U-Haul was rented in the suburbs of D.C. -- a company source says. And there were no red flags against the driver that would prevent him from renting. An eyewitness says the driver rammed into the barrier more than once.

ALEXANDER GARCIA, WITNESS: He tried to first time and went to a second time.

TODD (voice-over): A bomb squad was seen at the site. But charging documents say no explosives or weapons a were found. Still, the Hay- Adams Hotel across the street was briefly evacuated.

ANTHONY CHAPA, FORMER SECRET SERVICE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: We had into consideration, there could be weapons, could be a truck bomb.

TODD (voice-over): How much danger was the president and?

KIRBY: Where this occurred was quite some distance actually from White House property. At no time was the president or first lady in any danger.

TODD: CNN spoke to two former high school classmates of the suspect. They described Sai Varshith Kandula as a quiet young man who never got into trouble.


Law enforcement sources tell CNN, authorities are now considering what role mental health may have played in this incident. Kandula has not yet entered a plea. An attorney for him has not yet been publicly named.

Brian Todd CNN Washington.


FOSTER: The Boston Celtics were on the brink of elimination in the NBA playoffs. But their superstar came through just what they needed him. We'll have the highlights.


FOSTER: The Boston Celtics will live to play game five in the NBA playoffs after beating the Miami Heat 116-99 in a must win game four on Tuesday.

NOBILO: Celtics star Jayson Tatum lived up to his reputation with heroics in elimination games. He finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. After the game he explained how the Celtics pulled off the win.


JAYSON TATUM, BOSTON CELTICS FORWARD: We tried to take it one game at a time. We worked thinking about winning forward at all tonight. We're just trying to save our season and win tonight and we get that. Tonight, you know, we played with pace, purpose and we did not stop and we that in transition. You know, you see layups and free throws go in. And jump shots often get a lot easier.


NOBILO: Now to the NHL playoffs.


The Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals. Jonathan Marchessault got the scoring started in the first period and that was actually all Vegas would need.

FOSTER: Ivan Barbashev added another goal less than five minutes later, on the way to a four nothing shut out. The Dallas Captain Jamie Benn was ejected early in the game for a cross checking penalty. Vegas goes for the sweep in game four, Thursday night in Dallas.

Stories in the spotlight. Netflix is now beginning its crackdown on users who share their passports in the U.S. The streaming video company says it's sending out emails with options on how to share the account with those who do not live in your household.

NOBILO: Global subscribers were up in the first quarter as Netflix began its crackdown in several countries earlier this year. Adobe is adding an AI powered image generator to Photoshop. The

company said on Tuesday, its new feature will dramatically accelerate how users edit their photo.

FOSTER: The new tools called "Firefly" and it allows users to add or delete elements from images with just a text prompt. Typing in desired changes and Firefly will make it happen matching the lighting and style of the image automatically. The company plans to roll the product out to all Photoshop customers by the end of the year.

NOBILO: And American's favorite prepared cheese products will still soon have new look. The famous Kraft singles will have new individual wrappings that's easier to open, a new logo and newly designed packaging by the end of the year. And they're adding language that says, "made with real dairy."

FOSTER: Kraft says the number one complaint has been how hard it is to open the slice of cheese products. The company says that the process cheese sales I've been falling over last year so the time is ripe for redesign.

NOBILO: I think if your biggest complaint is that it's hard to open a cheese product you're doing well in life.

FOSTER: Plus, world problems. I think it is great.

NOBILO: For you.

FOSTER: Did you get that?

Thanks for joining us here on CNN NEWSROOM.

NOBILO: I would like to sit. And I'm Bianca Nobilo. "EARLY START" is up next, right here on CNN.

FOSTER: Christine is sharper.