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Leak Suspect Charged As U.S Reveals Highest-Level Secrets Exposed; Supreme Court Extends Access To Abortion Drug While Considering Case; Trump, Other Top Republicans Courting NRA Today; Inside NATO Training For Russian Attacks On Its Eastern Front. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 14, 2023 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You can listen to "THE LEAD" whence you get your podcasts, all two hours just sitting there like a big, delicious bowl of Fetuccine Alfredo.

Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in a place I like to call THE SITUATION ROOM. I will see you Sunday morning.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the suspect in the Pentagon intelligence leak now stands charged with two federal crimes after his first court appearance. Court documents revealing the Air National Guardsman's top secret clearance and the high level of classified material that was exposed.

Also tonight, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily extends access to a widely used abortion drug as the justices review the case. Justice Samuel Alito issuing the order just hours before new restrictions were set to go into effect.

And Donald Trump just spoke to the National Rifle Association, one of a slew of current and potential Republican presidential candidates making pitches to the group today. We're breaking down the GOP message on guns after the latest mass shootings and as the 2024 campaign clearly heats up.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, we're getting a fuller picture of the suspected Pentagon leaker and the crimes he's accused of committing after his first court appearance in Boston. CNN National Correspondent Jason Carroll is on the story for us.


JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Jack Teixeira's family leaving federal court in Boston this afternoon, refusing to answer any questions. The 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National Guardsman made his first appearance in front of a federal judge today, he's now charged with unauthorized retention and transmission of national defense information and unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents and/or material.

An unsealed affidavit shows that Teixeira was granted top secret security clearance back in 2021. He had high level access to the nation's most guarded intelligence and other highly classified programs. The affidavit alleges he began posting classified documents starting in 2022, and then recently, on April 6th, used a government computer to search a database using the word, leak, once it was publicly revealed that someone was leaking classified documents.

MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: This is not just about taking home documents. People who sign agreements to be able to receive classified documents acknowledge the importance to the national security of not disclosing those documents.

CARROLL: Teixeira was an I.T. specialist for the Air National Guard, whose job was to help maintain a network where top secret information was held. According to official U.S. sources, Teixeira is believed to be the leader of a small group of the social media platform, Discord, a site popular with video gamers and where the classified documents had been posted.

The leaked classified documents included a wide range of highly classified information, including eavesdropping on key allies and adversaries and blunt assessments on the state of the Ukraine war. Investigators ultimately narrowed in on the chat group. According to a U.S. government source familiar with the case, Teixeira was under surveillance for at least a couple of days prior to his arrest.

While, President Biden played down the security damage on Thursday, today released a statement saying, in part, I've directed our military and intelligence community to take steps to further secure and limit distribution of sensitive information, and our national security team is closely coordinating with our partners and allies.

But the ultimate national security impact of the leak still to be determined.

GARLAND: The Department of Defense is leading an important effort now to evaluate and review the national security implications.


CARROLL (on camera): And, Wolf, Teixeira graduated from a high school just three years ago. Caption next to his senior picture reads like this, actions speak louder than words. Well, clearly, some of his words even in high school made people uncomfortable. I spoke to someone who knew him not only in high school but also in middle school, and she said, whenever he spoke about guns, she said, it was really off-putting, she said he was a bit of a loner. He is expected to appear back here in federal court next Wednesday. That will be for his detention hearing. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jason Carroll in Boston for us, thank you very much. Let's bring in our national security, military and legal experts right now, and, Alex, let me start with you.

The government is clearly accusing Teixeira of leaking the highest level of classified information, top secret sensitive compartmented information.


What are the implications? Does that put real people in danger?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It certainly could, Wolf. And this affidavit reminds us that when top secret or secret information is released publicly, that it could cause exceptionally grave or serious damage to the United States.

Now, there is certainly a concern that with this information out there, this could impact national security. They are certainly looking into, trying to get a much better assessment of what has been released out there.

The major concern, Wolf, is to what's called sources and methods, who gathers this kind of intelligence, how it's gathered. There are clear references to humans or human intelligence in these documents. And so if you're an adversary reading these documents, you might look at this and say, who are the people who are around these areas, who are around these subjects who could become targets, there are certainly people who are named in these documents who could be targeted by adversaries.

And then, Wolf, there are multiple references to signals intelligence, and that's how a lot of this information was gathered, and that is specifically eavesdropping or electronic communications that have been intercepted. What these documents show is that Russia's Ministry of Defense and Russian intelligence agencies have been significantly penetrated by U.S. intelligence agencies. They also show that allies, like Massad and the United Nations, are being spied on. So, all of those people could also change the ways in which they communicate, which could affect intelligence collection, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, really sensitive stuff. Colonel Leighton, Teixeira clearly had top secret clearances, but what questions does the Pentagon need to answer now about how he accessed all of this extremely classified, sensitive information?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Wolf. The big thing here is that the Pentagon really will need to find out exactly how he did this, whether it was through administrative I.T. privileges, since his job involved basically being an I.T. administrator and kind of the help desk guy, walking around, from what we can tell. It's also pretty clear that what they'll need to do is do a damage assessment, a complete assessment as to exactly not only how he was able to do this, but how he was able to exfiltrate this kind of information from this facility that he worked at in order to actually take those photographs in his home, as is alleged in the complaint.

BLITZER: Elliot Williams, when you look at the charges Teixeira is facing in this criminal complaint, which I have read, what sort of time could he be facing in prison? And do you think the government would accept a plea deal here, in other words, he would cooperate and get some sort of reduced sentence?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He could look at a significant amount of time, Wolf, because for the mishandling defense information charge that that he's facing, each count could carry up to 10 years in prison now, and that would be if he had multiple documents or whatever else.

Now, it's highly unlikely that anyone would ever get the fall of statutory maximum, the ten years or the five years for the mishandling classified information, but, still, he could look at a significant amount of time, particularly if there are a number of documents that have piled up for a number of pieces of information that has been shared here.

Now, in terms of defenses or pleading guilty, certainly it could be the case that, one, if he agrees to cooperate with the government, two, if he if he accepts it what the government deems to be a high enough penalty, or, three, he identifies other people who might be able -- who could be the prosecutor or charged with crimes. And, certainly, he has an incentive to plead guilty because of the weight of the evidence here, and the government might go along with it.

BLITZER: Yes. The weight to the evidence is clearly enormous. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Right now, I want to bring in a key member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Do these charges against Teixeira under the Espionage Act go far enough, in your view?

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): I don't know yet. I think that they need to conduct the full extent of their investigation and also determine who else might be involved. We're going to have a classified hearing next week, at which I think the Pentagon briefers can expect some very, very tough questions.

You know, how the heck is it that when we spend billions and billions of dollars collecting and preserving this information that a 21-year- old Air National Guardsman can get access to this and then download it, print it and then upload it to some random server to share with other friends? This is just mystifying.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly is. Should the government, do you believe, Congressman, weigh intent here or are the consequences for this suspect purely based on the actual harm to U.S. national security?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Again, I think that from a deterrence perspective, it's probably best to not necessarily just look at the intent but to look at the volume of information and the quantity and quality of the material that has been released.


There's potentially a lot of damage here, Wolf.

And so from a deterrence perspective, I think that you probably want to show others that, you know, messing around with this type of information and publicizing it has grave consequences.

BLITZER: Teixeira started posting highly classified information in December of last year's, you know, and his leaked documents began circulating more widely in the past few months. Do you understand why the Pentagon didn't catch these leaks of classified information sooner?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: No, I don't. And I think that that's among the number of questions that we're going to be asking. But I have a couple other questions in addition to that, which is why do so many people have access to this information? Last I checked, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence says that 1.3 million people have top secret clearance to some degree. And also I have another question, which is how can it be the case that everyone has access to soft copies or electronic access?

You know, members of Congress, we don't get entangled in too many of these classified documents scandals in part because our access is only the hard copies in classified spaces, and when we're done, basically, those documents are removed from our possession and we're not allowed to walk out with anything. So, we've got to really tighten up not only who gets to see these documents but the manner in which they get to see them.

BLITZER: I was surprised, Congressman, that President Biden appeared to downplay this leak. Listen and watch this.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm not concerned about the breaking news (ph). I'm concerned that it happened. But there's nothing contemporaneous that I'm aware of that is of great consequence.


BLITZER: Teixeira is accused of leaking the most sensitive government secrets, top secret sensitive compartmented information. Isn't that of great consequence?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I would believe so sitting here, but, again, I want to go into these classified hearings and hear exactly what is the damage done before I make a final judgment about it.

BLITZER: Teixeira has held the top secret clearance since 2021. Does the U.S. military, Congressman, need to improve its screening process?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Oh, absolutely. There are way too many people with access to top secret documents at this point. And I think that -- quite frankly, I think that given this person's inclinations and what he's been doing, I think that he deserves special scrutiny. And I think that the same scrutiny needs to be leveled at others with this top secret clearance, and we've got to narrow the group of people with access to this information.

BLITZER: Do you think this leak, Congressman, could have a cooling impact on U.S. allies sharing very sensitive information with the United States?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I would hope not, but I think that there's probably some friendly nations or allied nations who are rethinking the degree to which they share information with us because they just don't know that it might not, you know, find its way into unfriendly hands. And I think that would harm our security.

And so I'm hopeful that we can reassure them, but they're probably going to want to hear us describe what changes are made as we go forward.

BLITZER: Yes. Clearly, some serious changes need to be considered right now. Congressman, Raja Krishnamoorthi, thanks as usual for joining us.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, what happens now that the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito temporarily has extended access to abortion medication? Our experts are standing by.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: The U.S. Supreme Court is extending access to a widely used abortion pill until next Wednesday night while the justices weigh the case.

I want to bring in our Senior Supreme Court Analyst Joan Biskupic. She's the author of the brand new book entitled, Nine Black Robes. There you see the cover. Also joining us, our Legal Analyst Steve Vladeck and emergency physician Dr. Megan Ranney.

Joan, first of all, walk us through what happens between now and Wednesday at the Supreme Court.

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SENIOR SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Okay. Good evening, Wolf. It was just about you know, seven days to this moment that we first got the ruling from Judge Kacsmaryk that upended so much. What Justice Alito said is that the challengers, the original challengers, the anti-abortion physicians and medical groups, now have until Tuesday at noon to make their counterarguments to what the Justice Department and the drug manufacturer, Danco, has said about the safety of this drug.

The Justice Department has stressed that this drug has been used by millions of women to end their pregnancies over the last two decades. It is safe and effective and that it should not be interfered with the court. The Supreme Court should either state keep the case, keep -- make sure that the lower court judge's decisions have been rolled back. They will counter it and they will say that, no, those earlier decisions stay in place and restrict women's access to the drug and we will know as of Wednesday night at 11:59 is when the court says that that original stay that that original stay that they put in place just now is going to be lifted. And that's when we'll see the Supreme Court act again.

BLITZER: Yes, lots at stake right now. Steve, what could the groups that brought this case say ahead of this deadline to respond to get the Supreme Court on their side?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. You know, Wolf, I think there were some pretty compelling arguments made by the two different parties who asked the Supreme Court to step in today by the federal government, but also by Danco Laboratories, one of the sponsors of Mifepristone.


And a bunch of those arguments, Wolf, are not just about the merits. They're also about procedural problems with both Judge Kacsmaryk's ruling from last Friday and with the Fifth Circuit's ruling earlier this week. I think that's really shifts the burden now to the challengers to these anti-abortion doctors to explain why these actually aren't regional problems, and, frankly, I think that's an uphill climb. I mean, one of the biggest problems facing this lawsuit is how these particular doctors are harmed by the widespread availability of Mifepristone.

You know, I think there's a lot in the government's brief, in Danco Labs brief about why the providers haven't actually made that showing. And, Wolf, that's going to resonate with at least some of the conservative justices. So, I think that's going to be the biggest mountain for the challenges to overcome when they file on Tuesday. That's going to be what I'm looking for, you know, when we got a decision from the full Supreme Court sometime Wednesday, very important, indeed.

Dr. Ranney, for now, the abortion pill is staying on the market, as is without restrictions. But how much does this case impact patients and healthcare providers, for example, like yourself?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN: So, for now, we continue to have full access to Mifepristone in states where abortion is legal. So, it hasn't changed anything for today. But, of course, what happens after Wednesday is still completely up in the air. This is a temporary stay. Physicians across the country are trying to figure out what they will do next.

We are not dreamed as lawyers. We shouldn't be having to consult with lawyers to decide whether or not we can give a drug that we know is safe and effective to our patients, and we're seeing a variety of responses in different states. Some states are stockpiling Mifepristone so that if it gets taken off the market, providers can still have access to it. In other states, they're trying to prepare for increase in surgical abortions, which is, of course, a second choice for many pregnant people. And in other states, folks just don't know what they're going to do should either the original decision in Texas or that second Fifth Circuit decisions stay in place.

BLITZER: Dr. Megan Ranney, thank you very much. Joan Biskupic, thanks to you, of course. And, Steve, thanks as usual, thanks to Steve Vladeck.

Coming up, former President Trump and other 2024 GOP hopefuls are hailing their records on guns over at the NRA's convention just days after the mass shooting in Louisville. We're breaking down what this all means for the 2024 presidential race. That's next.


BLITZER: Tonight, former President Trump and several other GOP hopefuls are touting their pro-gun records at the NRA convention. Their speeches against a backdrop of high-profile mass shootings here in the United States, including one in Louisville, Kentucky, just a few days ago.

CNN's Kristen Holmes is over at the convention reporting for us. Kristen, former President Trump, I understand, was just on stage where you are. What did he say?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, he just wrapped up it. And as you noted, he touted his record while in the White House. He said that he had expanded rights for gun owners. He also blamed these recent mass shootings on a mental health crisis, not on access to guns or lack of restrictions with access to gun.

The other thing he did days after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is largely seen as Trump's main rival in 2024, signed a bill in Florida allowing people to conceal carry without a permit. Trump upped the ante here today. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I will ask Congress to send the bill to my desk to (INAUDIBLE) national concealed carry reciprocity. We want protection. Just like your driver's license or your marriage license, your Second Amendment must apply across state lines.


HOLMES: Now, of course, that would have to actually be enacted. He would actually have to be in office for that to happen, unlike the comparison I made with Ron DeSantis there.

But I do want to note he was not the only person here. There was almost every single 2024 contender was here today, and it shows you the power that the NRA still has over the Republican Party. And, Wolf, I've got to tell you that this was really Trump's event. When you walked in, there was a giant billboard with Trump standing next to Wayne LaPierre. There was -- every other speaker was in a small box next to it.

And when former Vice President Mike Pence took the stage, he was actually booed both at the beginning and afterwards. And I asked an attendee why that was, and he said it was related to Trump and Pence is falling out.

BLITZER: Interesting, indeed. Kristen, we're also, I understand, getting some new reporting about former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

HOLMES: That's right, Wolf. We have just learned that the former secretary of state will not run for president in 2024. He had given every indication that he would. He had put out a memoir. He had said that he and his wife, Susan, were considering it. And he'd even gone as far as to say that if former President Donald Trump ran, that it wouldn't impact any announcement that he would make. But he's now put out a statement saying that after consideration with his wife that they have decided that that's not his time. He said specifically, time is not right for me or for my family. And, again, he had given a lot of indications that he was going to enter that race but, clearly, decided not to do that at the end.

BLITZER: Kristen Holmes reporting for us, thank you very much. Let's get some insight right now from our political experts, and, Dana Bash, let me start with you.


What's your reaction to the fact that Mike Pompeo has decided he will not run for the Republican presidential nomination? Is this another sign that all eyes right now are really on Trump?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Certainly, many eyes, most eyes within the Republican sort of universe are on Trump, no question about it. He is somebody who certainly has a lot on his resume, whether it is West Point is being in Congress, of course, being secretary of state. But I think his statement was really fulsome about saying this is not his time, that he's 59 years old. At the end, I noted that it said he's 59 years old, and maybe it will be his time, you know, at some point in the future.

But he is somebody -- this is what you were probably alluding to in your question, Wolf. He is somebody who is clearly very much aligned with Donald Trump because he was in his cabinet. Maybe he didn't agree with him on everything he did certainly towards the end of his presidency, but how could he potentially get traction in the key states when it looks like it's going to be a pretty big field, including and led by his former boss?

BLITZER: Michael Smerconish, what's your reaction?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: My reaction is first to the NRA convention. In 1999, Columbine occurred. Ten days later, the NRA was scheduled to host their convention. We know from tapes that came to light years later that there was great consternation and debate within the NRA. How could they possibly go forward with a convention ten days in the same state after Columbine? In the end, they did. Now, we've had Nashville. Now, we've had Louisville. And I'll bet it was not even a consideration that they would postpone. Such is the level of desensitization over mass shootings. I think that needs to be noted.

To Dana's point, it's all about Donald Trump. Donald Trump's opponents are not named Pence or Pompeo or Haley. Donald Trump's opponents are named Alvin Bragg, Fani Willis, Jack Smith and Merrick Garland. and those opponents can bring him down potentially but not the others.

BLITZER: Yes, those are the prosecutors going after him in this particular case.

Ron Brownstein, this is a very, very alarming statistic. So far this year, we've seen 155 mass shootings in the United States during the first 104 days of this year. What impact is that having on the cases that these Republican hopefuls are making right now?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think our crisis -- questions of gun violence is fundamentally a crisis of majority rule. There is no issue on the structure of American politics with a greater impediment (ph) the majority working it will.

And on gun control, I mean, if you look at the key elements, universal background checks on assault weapons and on capacity magazine, there is majority support not only among Democrats who do and don't own guns, there's majority support in polling even among Republicans who own guns. The only group that opposes these ideas at a majority level are Republican gun owners.

And because of the influence of the NRA inside the Republican Party and the bias of the Senate towards small states, that group that minority, a distinct minority of the country, effectively has a veto over us being able to act.

You know, Wolf, if you look at it, the 20 states that have the most highest per capita gun ownership send 32 Republicans to the Senate. The 20 states that has the lowest per capita gun under send 20 Democrats. The difference is that the states with the lowest gun ownership have 190 million people, and those were the smallest have only 70 million people. Yet, in the Senate, they have equal weight, and that's why we are stuck. Without some change in the filibuster, we are simply never going to act again, I think, meaningfully on gun control.

BLITZER: Dana, as you know, the Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who himself is also a potential Republican presidential candidate, he's visiting Virginia and New Hampshire today after signing a six-week abortion ban, but he barely mentioned that bill over at Liberty University. Why is that?

BASH: Why is it that he signed the bill at 10:30 at night and didn't have certainly put out a photo and put out a tweet and didn't give a lot of the details in that tweet? The answer is because he's trying to have it both ways politically. Obviously, he's only having it one way policy-wise, which is what matters the most to people in Florida, rather. But, politically speaking, as somebody who is trying to clearly make what is already a pretty red state, the notion of Florida being a swing state, has been winning for a long time, but a pretty red state even more so, and he wants to take credit for that.


But he knows that if he does get to the point where he gets a nomination for the presidency, then it's a whole different world when you're talking about the national audience.

BLITZER: Yes, you're right. Let me thank all of you right now. And this important note to our viewers, be sure to tune in tomorrow morning to Smerconish, 9:00 A.M. Eastern, important show, indeed.

Just ahead, the mother of the six year old who shot a teacher faces a judge and the charges against her. Her lawyer arguing there are mitigating factors in the case. We will explain, that's next.


BLITZER: Just days after she was indicted, the mother of a six-year- old who shot his teacher made her first court appearance in Virginia today.


Our Brian Todd has done extensive reporting on this story. Brian, tell us what happened in court and what you're learning about the defense team's strategy.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in court today, they set a date for a bench trial, a trial that the mother's attorney is going to try to avoid. We do have new information tonight on her legal strategy, which is going to cite some painful moments in the mother's past.


TODD (voice over): CNN has new details tonight into the legal strategy for Deja Taylor, whose six-year-old son shot and wounded teacher Abby Zwerner inside their first grade classroom. Today, a judge in Newport News, Virginia, set a starting date of August 15th for a bench trial for Taylor, just a judge, no jury. But her lawyer tells CNN they're trying to avoid that.

JAMES ELLENSON, ATTORNEY FOR MOTHER OF BOY WHO SHOT TEACHER: I am how helpful that I could come with the prosecuting attorney to try to come to a resolution of the case in a plea agreement that would be short of actual jail time.

TODD: Taylor has been charged with felony child neglect and recklessly leaving a loaded firearm so as to endanger a child. James Ellenson says he will site so called mitigating factors which he hopes will sway prosecutors and the judge. Taylor has had several miscarriages, he says, including an especially difficult one in January, 2022, a year before the shooting.

ELLENSON: She had to go to the hospital for a couple of days. And after that, she has really been suffering from postpartum depression.

TODD: Could those mitigating factors help Taylor's case?

SHAN WU, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think it could work in terms of getting sympathy from the judge and getting a lesser sentence.

TODD: But it may not speak to what could be the critical question in this case.

Can you tell us how the child got access to the gun that he brought to school?

ELLENSON: I cannot. It's just not clear. I don't know that there's an adult necessarily that can answer that question.

TODD: Ellenson had previously told CNN the parents claimed they'd kept the gun secured with a safety on the top shelf of the mother's bedroom closet. Ellenson says, in the fall semester of this school year, an adult in the boy's family would sit in class with him as the school required because of his past behavioral problems, but he now levels a jarring accusation against administrators at Richneck Elementary School, a decision he says they made after the holiday break.

ELLENSON: After Christmas break, it was determined about the school that this child was okay to come to his school by himself.

TODD: Ellenson says that call was made on January 3rd. The boy shots Zwerner on January 6th. Contacted by CNN, the Newport News school district declined to comment on that accusation.


TODD (on camera): Legal Analyst Shan Wu says even if Deja Taylor strikes a plea deal and has to serve some time, or even if she goes to trial and is found guilty, there's a good chance that she will eventually get custody of her child again. She'll probably have to give some assurances to the court of competence, Shan Wu says, and it's likely the court will be sympathetic to her. Wolf?

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

Coming up, a CNN exclusive, inside NATO training for Russian attacks as the war in Ukraine prompts the alliance to go on heightened alert.



BLITZER: The war in Ukraine has drastically raised the alert level for NATO forces operating in Eastern Europe.

CNN's Jim Sciutto got an exclusive look at how the alliance is training for the possibility of being attacked by the Russians.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At dizzying speed, the fighter jets zoom low over the NATO task force again, and again, and again. These are Polish and German air force jets, but they're playing the role of Russian aircraft on attack, part of air defense exercises and what sailors and commanders say is an increasingly tense environment on NATO's eastern front, flying, sailing, readying for any and all combat scenarios.

These exercises are taking place in the Baltic Sea, within striking distance of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and it's no accident that NATO pilots are flying MiG-29 and Sukhoi 24 aircraft, just like the Russians fly. This German frigate Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is the flagship of NATO's very high readiness task force. Designation the task force commanding officer says they take seriously.

GERMAN NAVY REAR ADMIRAL THORSTEN MARX, COMMANDER, NATO STANDING MARITIME GROUP ONE: We are training exercising right now, but when it's required, we can really to every mission from maritime security operations to deterrence to defend the alliance whenever it is required, in the very short moment.

SCIUTTO: The task force is now approaching Russian territory, Kaliningrad, and so we're practicing heightened awareness. That means greater awareness of everything from cyber attacks to close observation or even harassment by Russian aircraft and warships.

Awareness of Russian forces is high. Right in the middle of the simulated attack, officers on deck report Russian aircraft actual Russian Sukhoi fighter jets approaching fast. Sailors scan the horizon for sight of them. They're 50 nautical miles away, then 20 miles before they turn away.

Later, two Russian warships approach coming within just five miles of the task force. This force, like the alliance, is international, with ships from the German, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Danish and French navies.

I climbed down the side of the Mecklenburg for a fast boat ride to the Portuguese frigate Bartolomeu Dias. They're members of Portuguese elite special forces drill for an attack by small boats.


Their guns trained on the horizon, watching and waiting.

Helicopters patrol the waters day and night. These are exercises, but soldiers and sailors make clear they are training and readying for the real thing.

LT. CMDR. RENE, FLIGHT COMMANDER, MECKLENBURG-VORPOMMERN: We have to the capable to switch every hour from an anti submarine mission to enter surface mission to passenger transport, deployment of special forces. So every day is different.

SCIUTTO: The war in Ukraine looms large here. This task force now sails with twice as many ships and sailors just before the invasion and as the task force commander told me, they are NATO's first line of defense against any new acts of Russian aggression.


SCIUTTO (on camera): We ended our trip in Estonian. I'll tell you, Wolf. When you go to the eastern facing NATO allies such as Estonian, I met the prime minister while I was there, Kaja Kallas, they speak in even starker terms, than the Western side of the alliance that they see Russia as a continuing threat. In effect, they don't put anything past Putin. They're nervous that he might attack the alliance and they're preparing for it.

BLITZER: Very disturbing indeed. Excellent reporting. Jim Sciutto, thank you very, very much.

This note to our viewers, coming up on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT", right after THE SITUATION ROOM, the San Francisco district attorney Brooke Jenkins, she's firing back at Elon Musk following his criticism of crime in San Francisco after the Cash App murder. It's coming up right at the top of the hour, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next, CNN's Nick Paton Walsh gives us a first look at his very gripping report on his dangerous trek alongside migrants desperate to reach the United States.



BLITZER: CNN is about to debut of very compelling new weekly program hosted by our own Anderson Cooper that focuses in on one story for the entire hour. The first installment this Sunday features CNN's Nick Paton Walsh and his team hiking a trail from South to Central America, used by thousands of migrants seeking a path to the United States.

The trek is very perilous for the migrants and profitable for the drug cartels, helping smuggle people toward the U.S. border.

Watch this.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At dawn, the first thing that strikes you is how few of them seem to grasp what's coming, gently packing crackers and tying sneakers, like waving a Kleenex at a storm. The second thing that strikes you is how organized the cartel wanted to seem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first ones will be the last one. The last ones will be the first. That is why we shouldn't run. Racing brings fatigue.

PATON WALSH: They only walk when they're told to. The stories here and many, but there is only one goal: America and the dream is just that, a reverent of hope of conviction that they will be the ones to make it over danger, disease, dehydration, deportation, about this number every day every year, almost doubling. The Darien Gap is the only land corridor from South America, where entry is easier to its north, where it's not. There were no roads only 66 miles of treacherous jungle from Colombia to Panama and onwards north, 3,000 miles to the U.S. border.

We walked the entire route of the Darien Gap over five days in February to document the suffering endured by people milk for cash by cartels and wanted by any country.

What's startling is the sheer number of children on this trick as it begins on a route. Sometimes adult don't even survive.


BLITZER: And CNN's Nick Paton Walsh joins us now.

Nick, how dangerous is this trek, particularly for the children?

WALSH: With a myriad of problems you face on this, a lot of them are physical, physical exhaustion, dehydration, dirty water, lack of food, you heard there how people often don't understand just how long and complicated this walk is going to be. On top of that, you have snakes, potentially, and the hazard you face just through walking through slippery rocks, rivers, you could fall, break an ankle and that could potentially threaten your life.

And then there are the other humans there, too, who wish you ill, criminals, some people appeared to have been murdered, the bodies we found on one of the older routes there, allegations of sexual assault, too. So a myriad of potential issues but still, people are fueled by the horrors they leave behinds in Haiti, Venezuela, Ecuador, China. They're the top four nations we're seeing people from so far this year on that trek. They're fueled by that to undertake this extraordinary risk and endure these five days of -- well, frankly, physical torture going through the jungle, Wolf.

BLITZER: Amazing reporting. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much for doing this.

And to our viewers be sure to watch Nick's extraordinary report, "The Trek: A Migrant Trail to America". It's on "THE WHOLE STORY WITH ANDERSON COOPER" premiering Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

And tonight on CNN, my special report "Never Again", a tour of the United States holocaust memorial museum.

Here's a preview.


BLITZER: Hate ignited the Holocaust. Ignorance fueled it. Eight decades later, it's horrifying to see a rise in antisemitism and Holocaust denial around the world, and here in this country. We want to take you on a tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington, D.C. More than 45 million people have visited this museum since it opened

back in 1993. This institution serves as a reminder of what happens when society doesn't stand up to hate.


BLITZER: Never again airs later tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.