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Biden Dares GOP to Sue Over Vaccine Mandates, Have at It; Email Shows Law Enforcement Prepared for Violence, Mass Casualty Event Ahead of January 6th Riot; Assessing the Terror Threat 20 Years after 9/11; Biden to Unruly Air Travelers: "Show Some Respect" Amid Mask Wars. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 10, 2021 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: My colleague, Dana Bash, will talk to West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, as well as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at 9:00 A.M. and noon Eastern.

Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, President Biden defends his new COVID vaccine mandates affecting millions of Americans, and he's challenging Republican governors threatening lawsuits to, quote, have at it.

Also, tonight new evidence that law enforcement officials prepare for a possible mass casualty event on January 6th and it is raising more questions about whether police are ready for the worst when pro insurgents rally at the capital next week.

And as Americans commemorate 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, are we any safer from terrorists than we were on that day when the towers fell, and the nation changed forever?

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.

We begin with President Biden pushing back hard at Republican critics on his new COVID-19 strategy. Our Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is over at the White House for us. Jeff, the president appears undaunted by the backlash.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House does believe it is on solid legal ground here saying it is the responsibility of the federal government to provide a safe workplace and protect workers.

Now, these actions this week have gone much farther than President Biden has gone before. And, in fact, a reversal from previous pledges not to issue mandates. But he said he never expected the resistance to vaccines to be so fierce, that's why he's taking these steps and leaving the door open to even more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We're playing for real here. This isn't a game.

ZELENY (voice over): President Biden pushing back tonight on critics blasting his new vaccine mandates as government overreach. To Republicans threatening legal challenges, Biden responded sharply.

BIDEN: Have at it.

ZELENY: In his most aggressive steps yet in the fight against COVID, the president is not only requiring all federal workers to be vaccinated but also instructing the Labor Department to require private businesses with 100 or more employees to vaccinate its workforce or submit to weekly COVID tests. Across the country tonight, Republican governors are firing back.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): When you have a president like Biden issuing unconstitutional edicts against the American people, we have a responsibility to stand up for the Constitution and to fight back, and we are doing that in the state of Florida.

GOV. DOUG DUCEY (R-AZ): What the Biden administration is doing is government overreach, pure and simple.

ZELENY: In a visit to a school in Washington, the president promoted wearing masks and suggested his critics are unnecessarily politicizing the pandemic.

BIDEN: Some of the Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier of the health of their communities. That's not who we are as a nation, and it is not how we beat every other crisis in our history. We've got to come together.

ZELENY: The White House believes it is on solid legal footing, insisting the federal government has the power to protect workers from grave danger under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Certainly, a pandemic that killed more than 600,000 people qualifies as grave risk to workers.

ZELENY: The changes come as concerns over COVID are rising, a new CNN poll finds, with 70 percent of Americans saying they are very or somewhat worried, up 10 percentage points from last summer. The president's approval rating on COVID is down, 56 percent approve of how he's handling the crisis now, down from 66 percent in April.

The administration is trying to slow the COVID case load, now at 1 million a week with about 1,500 deaths every day. The White House is not ruling out taking additional steps, including requiring vaccinations to fly.

PSAKI: We are always looking at more we can do to protect and save lives. We'll continue to look for ways to save more lives.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY (on camera): And shortly after the president was visiting that school promoting mask wearing, a Florida appeals court actually delivered a victory for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Of course, he issued a ban on any mask mandate, and the judge said for now the mandate can remain in place. The governor's decision can remain in place. So there will not be mask mandates, at least as this winds its way through court.

Now, Governor DeSantis is among the Republican governors across the country leading the charge, pushing back against the White House. He focused squarely on President Biden today and also said this.


DESANTIS: To take people's jobs and livelihoods away from them with no force of law, just an executive edict, that is fundamentally wrong. And so, we need to be providing protections for folks here in the state of Florida.


You should not lose your job just because Joe Biden is having this hissy fit. And is doing --


ZELENY: So, of course, this is the endless back and forth over politics, but the legal experts we talked to do say that that 1970 law, the OSHA Law, which, of course, provides the safety of workers at every workplace in the country does apply to this.

Now, of course, governors will not be the ones bringing lawsuits. It would likely be business owners. We will see if that happens in the weeks and months to come. But as far as the timeline for this, Wolf, this Labor Department still has to write this rule. So, we are talking weeks before any of this actually be implemented. But for businesses who don't follow this, they're looking at fines of up to $14,000 per employee. So it's serious business here. So, this is all just getting started. We'll see if it ends in the courts, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I suspect it will. All right, Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much.

Let's bring in CNN Chief Legal Analyst, the former federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Toobin, along with CNN Medical Analyst, the former Baltimore city health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen. She's also the author of the important new book entitled, Lifelines, A Doctors Journey in the Fight for Public Health.

Jeffrey, what do you think these mandates are? Are they going to be going to court? I assume they will be. But will they hold up in court?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the lawsuits are certainty. First of all, we need to see what the regulation actually says. I think it is interesting that the Biden administration is not putting them out right away. I think they want a few weeks to get companies to start creating the procedures so that this is almost (INAUDIBLE) to complete when the regulation comes out.

Anyone who tells you with certainty about whether these laws will be upheld doesn't really know what they're talking about because this is uncharted territory. Yes, it's true that the 1970 law says grave danger can be addressed by the federal government. But that still raises the question of whether a vaccine mandate is within the arm (ph) of the law.

It also raises the question of whether the appropriate procedures are going to be followed. Will there be something called notice in common, or will this be promulgated in different way? There are lots of complicated administrative law questions that have never been addressed before. But it is clear that the Biden administration just wants these vaccines to start. And I think the delay in putting the regulation out is a sign that they want people starting now, because this issue is so important.

BLITZER: Yes, so important indeed. 53 percent of the eligible American population is now fully vaccinated. But we still have a long way to go.

Dr. Wen, let me get your thoughts on these Republican governors who are trying to shut down the president's vaccine mandates. They called the new measures overreach. How do you see it from a medical, a medical perspective?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, from a public health perspective, it is not overreach at all. And, in fact, I wish that they came out earlier and went even further. We're in the middle of the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes. We have more than a thousand Americans who are dying every single day. We, as a society, set laws that protect people's health and well-being all the time. I mean, we have laws against drunk driving, and we need to start talking about the choice to remain unvaccinated as the choice to go out and drive intoxicated.

We really need to start doing even more. I wish the Biden administration, for example, also put mandates on having vaccines for interstate travel. We should make the point that it is a privilege to be able to board a plane and a train and you have to be vaccinated in order to do that. And the most important thing I wish the Biden administration did is that -- is to issue some type of proof of vaccination system similar to what Israel and other countries have, because, otherwise, I feel people are going to counterfeit their CDC cards and that will be a significant loophole.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a very, very serious problem.

Jeffrey, as you heard a Florida appeals court just rule in favor of Governor Ron DeSantis reinstating his ban on mask mandates on schools throughout the state, where is this fight likely to go next?

TOOBIN: Well, I think the mask mandate in schools issue is really going to be fought out state by state. That is really a matter almost exclusively of state law. California is going in the opposite direction. Florida is trying to get rid of its mandates through the governor overruling local communities. That fight between local control and the big hand of state government is being fought out in Texas, in Florida and a bunch of other states.

The irony here, of course, is that Florida -- is that the Republican Party used to be the party of local control, and they're the ones now telling these local communities that they are not allowed to impose mask mandates even if the people on the ground think it is the way to protect their community.


BLITZER: Yes. That's a good point. You know, Dr. Wen, let me get your thoughts about these two new studies on vaccines. The CDC released earlier today one study found the unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die of COVID than the vaccinated. Another study found that the Moderna vaccine was more effective at preventing hospitalizations than the Pfizer or J&J vaccines. What is your takeaway from this new research?

WEN: Well, the big takeaway here, Wolf, is that the vaccines still protect you very well against severe disease even with the delta variant. And that's protection against hospitalization and death. And now we know even the real world with the delta variant they still protect you well against those terrible outcomes.

But at the same time, especially with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, one of the studies found that it is only 60 percent protective against hospitalization versus the Moderna is more than 90 percent protective. And so I think this really should be an impetus for the FDA, for the CDC to really take a close look at the question of boosters, not just for waning immunity but also to address for people who got the J&J vaccine. I'm one of them.

Maybe you are not that well protected as you could be if you got a booster right now. And I hope that the FDA and CDC will really allow for individuals who got the J&J vaccine to get a booster. They may not have to recommend it, but at least allow them to get that extra level of protection.

BLITZER: Very important. Let's not forget 1,500 Americans are dying in the last seven-day average. 1,500 Americans are dying every day from COVID-19. At the end of June, early July, it was 200 Americans a day. You can see this delta variant is deadly, so transmissible, very, very dangerous. Guys, thank you very much.

Just ahead, new evidence that law enforcement was planning for what was called a mass casualty event before the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. So why were police caught completely off-guard by that violent mob?



BLITZER: Tonight, a newly revealed e-mail is showing deep concern about violence just ahead of the January 6th Capitol siege and a disturbing warning to law enforcement to be prepared for what was called a mass casualty event.

Our Congressional Correspondent Ryan Nobles is working the story for us. So, Ryan, what are you learning?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this email was obtained by a watchdog group, Wolf, and it outlines a conference call that took place with more than 300 members of law enforcement from around the country that are part of these groups called fusion centers. That's an area where there's a collaboration amongst different law enforcement groups to keep an eye on potential threats.

And this conference call was all about the threats that could emerge as a result of the Stop the Steal rally, which turned out to be the prelude for the January 6th insurrection. And they outlined a number of concerns they had about caravans of people coming to Washington at that time and the threat for potential violence. They even went so far as to create a hashtag on an internal FBI social media channel that would allow these different law enforcement agencies to keep track of events as they developed on that day.

And the fact that all this information came out just a couple of days before January 6th is another example of how the officials and people in charge of keeping the Capitol safe on that day did not interpret correctly the threat as it emerged in the days leading up to January 6th. It is a big part of what the January 6th select committee is investigating and one of the things they hope to change ahead of another potential rally where there is concerning coming up on September 18th, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Ryan, the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th attack has received thousands of pages of documents requested from telecom and social media companies. What are you learning about what this phase of the probe is all about?

NOBLES: Well, this is just about getting as much information as possible so that they can then begin the process of determining who they need to interview and bring in front of the committee for witness interviews. And the committee saying that they received thousands of pages of documents from various government agencies and also social media companies that they requested information from.

But even though the committee seems somewhat happy with the cooperation they're receiving, they still say they need a lot more. And they made it clear to these companies today that they would like to see more of this information come to them. And if they don't, they said they will, quote, use all the tools they have available to them at their disposal.

Of course, Wolf, that's a not so subtle threat that they will use that subpoena power that they have at their disposal. If it comes to that, Wolf, the committee has a lot of work to do. All of this information is going to take a long time to sift through and there is no deadline for them to wrap up their work.

BLITZER: Yes. This investigation will go on for months and months and months. Ryan Nobles, thank you very much. Ryan is up on Capitol Hill. Joining us now, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California, he's also a key member of the January 6th select committee. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

If the so-called fusion centers knew to make a plan in case this turned into what was called a mass casualty event, why did people protecting the U.S. Capitol that day so severely underestimate this threat? And are you confident they won't underestimate these latest looming threats that are out there right now?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): Well, in terms of your first question, why did they underestimate the threat, this is one of the questions, one of the most important questions that we are probing. And, you know, what I found most interesting, Wolf, about this recent disclosure by this watchdog group is that in one of those emails they have described -- one of the fusion associations describes a collection requirement.


That means we need to collect against this. We need to know of the threat that's out there, and that may answer a question that we have been posing to the FBI in some of our very general oversight hearings in our individual committees. And that is, why didn't we see all of these online threat indicators?

Because what they had been saying up until now has been, well, we're not, you know, permitted under our policies just to be combing the internet looking for things. We need a predicate. Well, these emails seem to suggest there was a predicate. And so, this is really the heart of our inquiry.

As to your second question going forward, Wolf, will we underestimate again? I have to think that the answer to that is no, that every precaution is going to be made and no one wants to have another event like we had on January 6th, period. But we certainly don't want to be prepared.

BLITZER: Unprepared, yes. The new police chief up on Capitol Hill has told me personally they are getting ready for worst case scenarios. They will be prepared. Let's see.

You are also investigating as part of this House Select Committee, Congressman, they just put out this statement saying telecom and social media companies need to provide what they call much more information. Are you running into issues with a lack of cooperation here, or is it too early to conclude that?

SCHIFF: And you are absolutely right. We certainly don't want to be unprepared. In terms of the cooperation, you know, I think we can certainly tell with respect to some of those that we're pursuing information from that they are cooperating, they want to be cooperative. With others, you know, frankly, because I can speak as the chair of the Intel Committee, we requested documents months ago that we have been getting slow walked on and now the select committee has requested those same documents and more. And, you know, we're going to have to use whatever tools we have, as you mentioned, to compel performance if we don't get things right away.

And, so, I think that is the response has been uneven, but even with that, we have gotten a wealth of materials and we're just beginning to go through.

BLITZER: You will be getting a lot more material, I suspect, fairly soon.

The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, has threatened these companies, as you know, not to comply with your select committee investigation. What do you expect in terms of legal challenges to these records request? How legally are you prepared to go after these records?

SCHIFF: Well, we are prepared to go after them vigorously and we will do it through lawful means. We consult very closely with the House General Counsel, who is an outstanding lawyer and the head of an outstanding team of lawyers to make sure that we're on very solid ground with everything that we request. And we're going to continue to do that.

These are really not unprecedented things in terms of Congress seeking records from agencies, from social media companies, from telecommunications companies. There is a lot of precedent for it, and we'll be careful to follow the precedent. But we all understand the importance of this task. And, you know, frankly, that we have another rally coming up on the mall and more worries about security only further validates how important it is that we get our work done and we expose what went into January 6th and the American people and the steps we need to protect ourselves going forward.

BLITZER: Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks so much for joining us. Good luck.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, the surging delta variant is dragging down President Biden's approval rating. We're going to bring you our exclusive new CNN polling results right after a break.



BLITZER: Tonight, CNN's exclusive new poll shows President Biden's ratings are taking a hit as Americans worry about the pandemic and the future are on the rise of the pandemic. Our Political Director David Chalian is here to break it all down for us.

David, the president's, I'm looking at the poll numbers, overall approval rating still at around 52 percent. That's not too bad. But there are some warnings signs in this new poll.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: There are, indeed, a lot as you look in this. First, let's put up the approval rating that you mentioned. You say he's at 52 percent now. He's at 48 percent disapproved. You noted the consistency in the approval rating but look at that hike in disapproval. So that's one area of concern. There is no doubt about that. And what we have also seen is that if you look inside, he's lost ground with independents, Wolf. He's about down five points in approval within the pandemic.

BLITZER: And the rise of COVID, the delta variant, that's having an impact.

CHALIAN: It's issue number one, far and away the most important issue to voters. Second is the economy. Nothing else is double digits. And take a look at his approval rating on handling coronavirus. The president is now at 56 percent approval, again, majority approval. But look where he was just in April on his 100-day mark. He was at 66 percent approval on COVID. Again, issue number one, he's down ten points. I think it is that information why you saw the robust, aggressive response from the president in his remarks last night to try to reset the path forward for the country.

BLITZER: Yes, so important indeed. Standby for a moment, David.

I want to welcome a new member of the CNN family, Anchor and Chief National Affairs Analyst Kasie Hunt. She's joining us here in The Situation Room.


Kasie, thanks very much. Welcome.

KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: It's an honor here, Wolf. Thank you so much.

BLITZER: We're glad to have you here. Let's talk a little bit about this new poll. The overall success of this presidency is clearly going to be tied at least in the short term to his handling of this pandemic.

HUNT: For sure, Wolf. And that's been true, of course, since the day that he walked into the Oval Office for the first time. As president, I think one thing I'm hearing from members of Congress and other sources that I am talking to that really stood out to me as I was reading this poll and the information, we learned from it is how the pandemic ties into the economy and the fact that people were expecting to get back to work, to get back to school. Parents were expecting to be able to get back to the office and not have to worry about their childcare concerns. And that number really ticked up here. 62 percent told us this time around that the economy was doing badly. And that's up from 45 percent in April.

And I'm really starting to hear that from people who are going home to their districts. Members of Congress have been there throughout the summer. And they're saying, hey, things are really tough here. That is a huge problem for the White House and for the Democrats who want to hang on to the House.

CHALIAN: And it is why it was one of the pillars in the president's remarks last night. Because what is the solution to the economy healing? People getting vaccinated. HUNT: Fixing the pandemic. It's all tied together.

CHALIAN: Exactly.

BLITZER: So, if you are President Biden right now, what message did you take away from these numbers?

CHALIAN: Well, if I'm the president looking at the White House and I have talked to folks, you know, this is an electorate or an American population, Wolf, where concerns are on the rise, not just about the virus, also about the economy, also about crime. We have just seen a significant uptick in concern and worry about some of the most major issues facing the country, and that certainly would give any White House sort of its marching orders of what the challenges are ahead.

BLITZER: You have heard all these Republican governors today, Kasie, say they're going to fight this with every instinct, every breath that they have. Is the president ready for this battle with all these Republican governors?

HUNT: Well, it is clear that they're trying to ready what they can, marshal what resources they can to try to make sure they're prepared to fight this in court. But it really lays down clear, political battle lines, right? And they are making a big bet that most Americans want people to have to be vaccinated. And one person I talk to sometimes on Twitter, political strategist from Florida, David, I'm sure you know Steve Shell very well, but he was looking at numbers that showed that in Florida, overwhelmingly, people say, yes, you should have a vaccine if you want to go back to school, if you want to go back to work, if you want to ride on a train with other people, that people want to be protected.

So, I think that's going to be the question. Are Democrats ready to able to explain to the angriest and loudest people that show up at these town halls why they're doing what they're doing.

BLITZER: Because over the years, we have all gotten accustomed to getting vaccines for all sorts of diseases. And all of sudden, you've got a vaccine to deal with COVID and it becomes a big, political issue.

CHALIAN: Well and we've saw the politicization of this entire virus before the vaccine was available, that has been the story of how the country had been dealing with this virus for the last year-and-a-half to the detriment of the country, Wolf.

But to Kasie's point, the White House understand majorities of Americans, they are in favor of the vaccine. So, this political battle with the Republicans, it may give Republicans an opportunity to fundraise, to fortify their base. It is hard to see right now, and this is the bet that the White House is making, that that is going to be a winning persuasive argument to a majority of the country.

BLITZER: Listen to Florida Governor DeSantis going after the president. Listen to this.


DESANTIS: To take people's jobs and livelihoods away from them with no force of law, just an executive edict, that is fundamentally wrong. And so, we need to be providing protections for folks here in the state of Florida. You should not lose your job just because Joe Biden is having this hissy fit.


BLITZER: What do you think?

HUNT: You know, it is remarkable to me how much -- you know, he is one of the new faces of the Republican Party, right? Republicans typically used to be the party of big business. What do businesses want right now? They want to reliably be able to open back up with workforces that are vaccinated.

They are -- Republicans are fighting those big businesses in the name of this freedom mantra that we have heard as the slogan emerging there. I think it is very interesting sort of narrative and trend that they are on the opposing side of that.

I think that at the end of the day, they know that this is where former President Trump's base is, and they can't get away from that. And DeSantis is clearly rallying back for people. But I think the big question at the end of the day is that will it be more than 30 percent of America?

BLITZER: Because some of this rhetoric we're hearing from these Republicans is outrageous, making comparisons to the Gestapo, for example.

CHALIAN: Yes. And you heard President Biden response to this today. He said, bring it, right? He was making the argument, once again, it is what we heard in the inaugural, it is actually what we heard in his remarks about September 11th. He was yet again today pleading with the country that this should be a moment of unity, right?


That's the whole Joe Biden theme. And he's challenging these Republicans to say you could bring all this criticism you want, but this is actually a moment the country needs to come together to put this virus behind us.

BLITZER: David and Kasie, thank very much. Kasie you'll come back with us in The Situation Room.

HUNT: Thank you so much, I would love --

CHALIAN: I can't say how excited I am to have you here with you.

HUNT: I'm thrilled to be on.

BLITZER: We're very happy to have you here. Welcome.

HUNT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, officials say about 100 Americans remain in Afghanistan tonight as another 21 U.S. citizens evacuate. This as the nation marks 20 years since the 9/11 terror attacks that sparked America's longest war.


BLITZER: All right. This just into CNN tonight, a video released only moments ago of President Biden marking tomorrow's 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.


BIDEN: No matter how much time has passed, these commemorations bring everything painfully back, as if you just got the news a few seconds ago. And so, on this day, Jill and I hold you close in our hearts and send you our love.


Unity is what makes us who we are, America at its best. To me, that's the central lesson of September 11th, is that at our most vulnerable, in the push and pull of all that makes us human and the battle for the soul of America, unity is our greatest strength.


BLITZER: Meanwhile, U.S. officials say another 21 Americans have managed to leave Afghanistan, but an estimated U.S. citizens remain in the Taliban controlled country tonight.

CNN International Editor Nic Robertson is joining us live from Kabul right now. Nic, for the second straight day, a Qatari passenger aircraft has taken off from the Kabul airport with Americans onboard. Update our viewers on the latest.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIMPLOMATIC EDITOR: 158 people, Wolf, got out on that plane to Qatar, Americans, Canadians, Dutch, Germans, French, Belgium, British onboard. The French say 59 French citizens got out by plane. It is not clear if that was the plane, but 59 French got out of the country today.

Now, we know that 21 Americans made it out of the country. 19 were on that aircraft. But 2 U.S. citizens and 11 legal permanent residents of the United States left by a land border crossing. That still leaves a lot. That 100 figure is still a big figure to get out on aircraft. And the expectation is that the Taliban are going to keep to their word and allow all those with proper documentation to be able to leave the country. But the number of aircraft is not there yet, Wolf.

I have to say, being here in Kabul on September the 11th when those attacks took place compared to today, I think back to all that time ago and the expectations here in the country that the United States was going to arrive here to chase out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that happened. The expectation was the country could be made a better place, in many ways it is. Now, we're looking at a city with the Taliban back here again. That I think for a lot of people in the city tonight and over the past few weeks is a deep concern and it is still not clear to them in which direction this country is going, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It's hard to believe, 20 years ago the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan. Now, 20 years later, the Taliban once again is in control of Afghanistan. It's hard to believe after 20 years. All right, Nic, be careful over there, Nic Robertson in Kabul for us.

Let's discuss what's going on with the former secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson. He's also a trustee of the 9/11 memorial and museum. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

20 years after this attack on 9/11, did you ever think you would see the Taliban controlling Afghanistan once again with the United States grappling with domestic terror here at home?

JEH JOHNSON, FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT GENERAL COUNSEL: It does seem as though things have come full circle in a 20-year ark, doesn't it, Wolf? But circumstances are different. I was down at ground zero, the World Trade Center today, this morning, and I will be there again tomorrow for the observance. I try to go every year. Each year I go, which happens to be my birthday, it feels as though things have never changed.

I am working today in the same law firm in private law practice that I was in 20 years ago, and I watched the towers collapse from our midtown office that I work from now. Yet, things are very different. 20 years ago, there was no Department of Homeland Security. Bin Laden was alive. Since then, we've created a Department of Homeland Security. I ended up leading it for three years. We got Bin Laden in 2011. Al Qaeda has been degraded. They're no longer, in the view of many, including myself, able to launch another large-scale attack on our homeland and here in the United States.

But the terrorist threat has evolved. The Taliban is back in control. There is now an organization called ISIS-K that is rising in prominence. And most of the terrorist threat here at the homeland, Wolf, is domestic-based, right-wing violent extremism.

And if you were to ask me today, 20 years later, what are the top security threats to our nation, Wolf, I would say global warming, global warming, global warming, and that is the top priority, along with cyber security, cyberattacks on our nation on a daily basis and domestic violent extremism. And we have to stay one step ahead of those threats.

Every year on 9/11, I believe we should mourn and remember those who died that day, the courage showed by passengers on Flight United 93, for example, and never forget.


But the world has changed. The threats against our homeland have changed.

BLITZER: You're the former secretary of homeland security. Do you feel that the homeland is safer today than it was 20 years ago?

JOHNSON: We are safer today from foreign terrorist organizations and their ability to launch a large-scale attack on the homeland, as a result of our counter terrorism efforts over the last 20 years. Where we are now challenged is global warming, cyber security and domestic- based violent extremism. Those are the top security threats in my judgment today. And in that respect, we are less safe. We are more safe when it comes to the type of terrorism we saw 20 years ago tomorrow.

BLITZER: And as you say, you were in New York City on September 11th, 20 years ago, watching all of this unfold from your office. The response to that attack clearly shaped your career and the world for that manner. How are you reflecting, Mr. Secretary, on this 20th anniversary?

JOHNSON: When I watched the towers collapsed on 9/11, I had left the Pentagon. I was general counsel of the Air Force during the Clinton administration. I was back in private law practice for eight months.

My first reaction is, I got to get back in there. I want to be in Washington. I want to be at the Pentagon. I wanted to devote myself to national security and had a chance to do that in the Obama administration beginning in 2009. I was there in the command center at the Pentagon May 1st, 2011, which was probably my single finest day as a public servant, the day we got Osama bin Laden.

And for me, as well as a lot of others, a lot of New Yorkers, a lot of Americans, there was a feeling of some closure when we got bin Laden as a result of what he inspired on 9/11.

The threats are new. A lot has happened in 20 years. You and I are a little older, a little grayer, the threats are new, and we have to stay one step ahead of them, Wolf.

BLITZER: You certainly do.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for all your service. Thanks so much for joining us. We'll be commemorating this 20th anniversary all day tomorrow here on CNN as well. Thank you very, very much.

JOHNSON: Thanks again for having me.

BLITZER: Coming up, show some respect. That's President Biden's tough new tone on unruly airplane passengers who refuse to wear a mask. Now the president's top COVID coordinator says additional health measures could be on the stable, including testing for COVID before you fly.



BLITZER: It's being fought in courtrooms, school board meetings and maybe your local grocery store. But the war over wearing masks seems to be at the most heated and dangerous in the air, prompting President Biden to call on travelers to, quote, show some respect. CNN's Brian Todd reports.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did I get in anybody's face? Did I get in anybody's face? All these people on the plane, I didn't get in nobody's face.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A man argues with an officer over wearing a mask on board a flight, then refuses a request to get off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not leaving the flight. Get a supervisor.

TODD: This video posted on Instagram shows a passenger on a JetBlue flight in a rage over mask wearing rules. JetBlue says he and another customer were asked multiple times but would not compile with the federal mask mandate.


TODD: On this American Airlines flight, a passenger later cited for public intoxication confronts the pilot. The man does sit down, then starts chewing on his mask and growls at the flight crew. He was arrested when the plane landed in Salt Lake City.

It was not clear if this incident is related to the rules on wearing masks on passenger flights. But what is clear is that out of more than 4,000 incidents of unruly passengers reported by the FAA, so far this year, about three quarters involve disputes of mask wearing rules.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If we don't stand up, it's only going to get worse.

TODD: It's gotten so bad that President Biden has announced the TSA will now double the fines passengers will have to pay if they break the rules.

The president getting personal, sounding exasperated.

BIDEN: And, by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It's ugly.

TODD: Could the new fines curb this kind of behavior?

DAVID SLOTNICK, SENIOR AVIATION BUSINESS REPORTER, THE POINTS GUY: I think it potentially could the airlines and flight attendants unions calling for harsh penalties. They think that's what makes the difference. They actually want to see criminal prosecution, not just civil fines.

TODD: More and more flight attendants say they fear for their safety, the head of a prominent flight attendants union weighing in on the causes.

SARA NELSON, INTERNATIONAL PRESIDENT, ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: People are coming to the door of our aircraft in combative. They believe the safety precautions that we have in place are a political issue rather than a public health necessity and it has created this atmosphere that we've never seen before and what can very quickly turn into a mob like behavior.

TODD: But one industry analyst sites other factors, people letting lose after not being able to fly and alcohol intake. And --

SLOTNICK: Just people frustrated or stressed out because flights are delayed and had to deal with the extra precautions because of COVID, maybe, airport restaurants being closed, fewer services on board, and people just ending up at this sort of higher stress level that ends up boiling over.



TODD (voice-over): Analysts David Slotnick says one thing he worries if another COVID variant starts spreading leading to stricter rules that could lead to more unruly incidents, but stricter rules could be coming anyway. White House officials saying they're not ruling out mandating COVID testing or requiring proof of vaccination for domestic flights -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you very much.

We'll have more news right after this.


BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer. I'll be back tomorrow morning 8:00 a.m. Eastern from the Pentagon for CNN special coverage of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Among my guest, the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, Jake Tapper will join our coverage from New York, as well.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.