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Dennis Rodman Returns From North Korea; Crisis in South Sudan

Aired December 23, 2013 - 18:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN GUEST HOST: Happening now, Americans trapped, U.S. Marines are standing by to evacuate them if necessary from the growing threat of civil war. Will the crisis escalate?

And democratic divide. Civil rights leaders are outraged that some of President Obama's judicial pick denouncing their nominations in the strongest terms. Why are they splitting so dramatically with the president.

And basketball diplomacy. Dennis Rodman leaves North Korea, ending his controversial hosted by a brutal regime. Did he meet with its leader, Kim Jong-un?

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar, and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

There is fear of an all-out civil war in the world's newest country. And now CNN has learned that U.S. Marines are poised to enter South Sudan if ordered to evacuate some 100 Americans. They're also prepared to protect the U.S. Embassy citing lessons learned from the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador there.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is monitoring developments for us.

Barbara, what's the latest that you are hearing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, after four U.S. troops were badly wounded in an evacuation attempt this weekend, this time the Pentagon is taking no chances. If the orders come, this time they will go with significant combat power.


STARR (voice-over): As the wounded are brought out from the fighting in South Sudan, the U.N. is racing against time to provide safety for 40,000 people being sheltered in its compounds. The fear? More attacks from rebels are coming.

TOBY LANZER, UNITED NATIONS: We have been reinforcing the base. We have been literally digging and reinforcing the position for the last 36 hours.

STARR: The U.N. special representative making another plea for calm. LANZER: As I left or base and went to the airport in Bor, there was a lot of looting, lot of gunshots, a lot of dead bodies, very, very out- of-control youth.

STARR: One hundred and fifty heavily armed U.S. Marines were ordered from their base in Spain to Djibouti, ready to move into South Sudan's capital to secure the embassy and evacuate an estimated 100 Americans there if it comes to that.

The Pentagon is beefing up firepower after four Navy SEALs were badly injured Saturday when their V-22 aircraft were hit by ground fire as they attempted to land at the war-torn city of Bor to evacuate Americans. With the SEALs bleeding, a damaged aircraft flew 500 miles to Uganda, and then a C-130 took them to Kenya for medical treatment. No one is certain who fired on the U.S. troops.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's always a very tenuous situation when you're flying into a relatively unknown, very hostile environment. The rebels probably have what's, you know, is probably former Soviet Union-type of weaponry. And those AK-47s are out there.


STARR: The fighting erupted when the president of the country of South Sudan accused others of starting a coup. Now a looming humanitarian disaster, and even fear of rising oil prices as the fighting grows closer to South Sudan's oil-rich areas -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And, Barbara, what about the four SEALs? Do we know how serious their injuries are?

STARR: We have been told that at least of the four SEALs are expected to arrive in the coming hours at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, of course the very hospital that's treated thousands of wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the Navy SEAL remains in Nairobi. They flew a U.S. military surgical team out to Nairobi to provide him with more medical care. And they have an evacuation plane specially equipped for serious injured cases on standby in Nairobi to bring him back to Landstuhl when they are able to move him.

KEILAR: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Some of the President Obama's strongest supporters are blasting some of his picks for the federal bench. Opponents include civil rights leaders invoking the name of Martin Luther King Jr.

CNN crime and justice correspondent Joe Johns has more on this.

So, I mean, Joe, this is pretty rare to have Democrats mad at a Democratic president. Why are they so the angry?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's for sure, Brianna. This is a very unusual twist with the back and forth over federal judicial nominees. The White House tonight caught in the middle of a spat between its allies and critics in the state of Georgia.

And a couple civil rights leaders who have been strong supporters of the president are now pressuring the administration to change direction.


JOHNS (voice-over): Angry and disappointed, the message from black leaders to the president.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: Mr. President, the lives of the people of this state are hanging in the balance.


JOHNS: They have stood by President Obama in the past, but not now.

A local coalition including three African-American members of Congress say they were deliberately ignored, kept out of the process to fill vacancies on two Atlanta-based federal courts. They want all five names withdrawn immediately.

REP. DAVID SCOTT (D), GEORGIA: The president of the United States and the White House have made a tragic, terrible mistake. We have got to lay the blame where it is. And we have got to ask President Obama to do the right thing here and throw these nominations aside.

JOHNS: Only one of five is a minority, but two concerns over two other nominees in particular, Mark Cohen, lead defense attorney trying to adopt a stricter voter I.D. law, and state Judge Michael Boggs, who as a legislator supported keeping the Confederate battle emblem on Georgia's state flag.

In the murky world of judicial nominations, political reality has the president trying to please both his base and the opposing party. In what is called the blue slip courtesy, Georgia's two Republican senators have the power to essentially block any choice from getting a hearing. The sigh-inducing result, shaky compromise.

RUSSELL WHEELER, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Fairly aggressive policy on the part of the home state Republican senators to play hardball with the administration. The incentive is for the administration obviously to find people that the senators are willing to accept.

JOHNS: Stroke pushback from the White House to the complaints from the civil rights community. The administration touts that 18 percent of the judges he's named are African-Americans, and naming two women to the Supreme Court, including the first Latina, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

WHEELER: I think the administration is doing a pretty fair job right now, but it's still working against some pretty serious headwinds.


JOHNS: Most of these seats in Georgia have been vacant for a while, some going back several years and they have been declared judicial emergencies, meaning the shortage has created bulging dockets and delayed trials.

It's the really kind of thing we have seen nationwide as both Republicans and Democrats continue to treat the federal courts as a political battleground -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Joe, the hope of these civil rights leaders is that President Obama will pull these nominations. Is there any sign that that could happen?

JOHNS: It would just be very highly unusual and highly unlikely that the White House would actually reverse directions on this. However, now that the Senate rules have changed on nominations, there could be a day sometime in the future where we see more left-leaning judicial nomination, just because it's harder to block them before now.

KEILAR: Yes, that's right. Simple majority they need, right? And they may probably use that, you would think.

JOHNS: Yes, entirely possible, you would think. If they put that rule in place at some point down the road, they actually have to use it.

KEILAR: That's right. Joe Johns, thanks so much.

Tomorrow night, Pope Francis celebrates hi first midnight Christmas mass at the Vatican. We will be taking a special hour-long look. That's going to start at 6:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

And still ahead: high-profile prisoners released in Russia. Is Vladimir Putin doing damage control?

Plus, new details of Dennis Rodman's controversial trip to North Korea. What's the real story behind his basketball diplomacy?


KEILAR: After cracking down on his critics and his political opponents, Russia's President Vladimir Putin seems to be easing up. He's freed a former billionaire rival and a pair of rock singers.

Let's bring in CNN foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty on this.

Jill, these are members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. They were released from jail. Why?


But, officially, what President Putin is say, there was a major amnesty that was given to some 25,000 Russians and these women just happened to fall into that group. But you would have to say that obviously there's been a lot in the press about them. They're really in the limelight, and the Kremlin, as many people believe, wants to change their image to the Sochi Olympics that will be taking place now right at the beginning of February.

That could be part of it. The girls are slamming this decision by President Putin, even though it does free them. They're calling it a P.R. move, a laughable step, and here is how Nadezhda Tolokonnikova talked about it with CNN.


NADEZHDA TOLOKONNIKOVA, MUSICIAN (through translator): Putin understands his Olympics can be boycotted. He doesn't want this P.R. project of his to fail, because a lot of money has been stolen from the budget which could have been used for better purposes. He needs some sort of political relief.

Among those in prison are people who are not forgotten by the world. And I'm very grateful to the world for not forgetting them. That's why it was possible for Putin to release people like me, Alekhina, and Khodorkovsky, because we did not have a long time left to serve.


DOUGHERTY: That's another good point that's she's making. Both Khodorkovsky and the women from Pussy Riot really didn't have a lot of time left to serve, so ultimately this won't really have much effect anyway on their time in prison.

KEILAR: Jill, what about Khodorkovsky. He's the billionaire. He was pardoned this weekend. Why did Putin pardon him? Is it just that he sort of falls into this group or that's just the line?

DOUGHERTY: He actually didn't fall into that group. It was specifically pardoning from the president. You can say, yes, there ostensibly could be a connection to the Sochi Olympics as well, but some other people really do think it may be a sign that Putin feels he has humiliated Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky has been in prison and in work camps for about a decade. It may be that he just feels, Putin feels he's pretty much decimated the opposition and could be time to let him go.

KEILAR: Interesting. Jill Dougherty, thank you so much for that.

Controversial ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman has left North Korea without meeting his pal leader Kim Jong-un. Rodman, who has been training local basketball players for a planned exhibition with former NBA players, and says he will be back.




DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER: No, but I'm not worried about it. I will see him again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you see your friends?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you see your friends?

RODMAN: It was great. It was awesome, man. We will be playing in two weeks.


KEILAR: So much interest. Just fascinating.

CNN's Anna Coren is with us live from South Korea.

Anna, this is being called basketball diplomacy. It's really kind of the only diplomacy, I guess you could say, we have seen. This is Rodman's third visit inside North Korea. What exactly is he doing?

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What is he doing? Wouldn't we all like to know?

As you heard from the man himself, his trip was awesome, even though he didn't meet with his good friend North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. As you say, he was there to train the national basketball team in preparation of the exhibition game to be held next month in honor of Kim Jong-un's birthday.

We believe he will be turning 31. But the two men did not meet. There was a great deal of anticipation that they would. This of course was Rodman's third trip. They had formed a rather close friendship. Why they didn't meet, we just don't know. Rodman said he doesn't have to meet him on every single trip. But he understands that he's a busy man.

We also need to take into account there's a lot of political instability, a great deal of political upheaval following the execution of Kim's uncle less than two weeks ago. But one development that has come about in the last few hours, the company sponsoring Rodman's trip, Paddy Power, which is the Irish online gambling company, has pulled out.

They have withdrawn their name. They say that in hindsight it was the wrong move, considering all the condemnation towards North Korea, and they will uphold their part of the deal, though. They will see out their contractual arrangement with Rodman and the team, the American team that is supposedly meant to be going into North Korea, but no comment, Brianna, from Rodman or his manager about what this now means moving forward.

KEILAR: They don't want their name attached to it, though. Pretty interesting there. Anna, human rights activists have criticized Rodman's trip. Just two weeks ago, we learned that Kim, as you mentioned, had executed his own uncle. What has the reaction has been where you are in South Korea to news of Rodman's trips?

COREN: I think people here in Korea certainly feel it was a wasted opportunity, not that the two men met. But Rodman went in saying I'm not an ambassador, I'm not getting into politics with my friend, I'm just there to train the basketball players.

But certainly there is a real feeling among activists that he needed to relay a message to Kim Jong-un. We mentioned the execution of his uncle, that political upheaval, the most serious upheaval we have seen in decades.

The national intelligence service here in South Korea has really shed some light on what perhaps took place. They believe that it wasn't a power struggle between the uncle and Kim Jong-un, but rather a conflict of interests over business deals. So that's what we're hearing. It wasn't a consolidation of power, but rather him showing that he's firmly on control, a bit of insight, perhaps, into this very repressive and hermit regime -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Anna Coren, thank you.

Ahead, she went from being a cheerleader on NFL sidelines to the battlefields of Afghanistan. Details of her remarkable story and how she's being honored next.


KEILAR: They have suffered the greatest loss a parent can face. Now two fathers are working together to prevent others from experiencing the same kind of grief.

CNN's Poppy Harlow has their story.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's an unlikely friendship born of tragedies.

(on camera): When did this friendship start?

SAM SAYLOR, PASTOR & LOST SON TO GUN VIOLENCE: I think it started way before we even knew it. I think that god had a divine plan that he would bring our forces together and respond to something great.

HARLOW (voice-over): Two fathers determined to stop gun violence.

MONTE FRANK, NEWTOWN ACTION ALLIANCE & LOST SON TO GUN VIOLENCE: I want to see an America that goes back to the America of our childhood, where kids could open up the door and go out and play in the street and have a certain innocence to them.

SAYLOR: It's about the soul and fabric of our country. HARLOW: Monte Frank lives in Newtown, which embodies loss and heart break after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. Pastor Sam Saylor's tragedy was just 50 miles away, where his son was murdered.

SAYLOR: He deserved a better chance. And to be gunned down in broad daylight, he deserved a better chance. HARLOW (on camera): It was here in Hartford, Connecticut, where Pastor Saylor's son Shane was shot and killed last year. He was just 20 years old. His death received no widespread media attention, no outpouring of support from across the country. His homicide was one of thousands of gun murders that happen every year in America.

SAYLOR: This is where he collapsed at right here.

HARLOW: Right here.

SAYLOR: Yeah. And they took him from here to the hospital where he died.

FRANK: Living here, we're removed from what's happening in the inner cities. And I should have been thinking more about it, but I didn't. I didn't listen until Newtown. And that's a regret that I have. And I feel very guilty about that.

October 20th, the day Sam's son died, I wasn't aware of that. I was oblivious to it.

HARLOW (voice-over): Oblivious to agony like this.

SAYLOR: You don't know the pain that I go through. You don't know the sufferings that I have. No one needs to feel this pain again.

HARLOW: A father's despair echoed in the sound of gun fire in cities across America.

SAYLOR: I became the symbol of a lot of frustration of urban parents who said, look, no one's talking to me. No one's crying for me.

HARLOW: No one, he says, crying for his son as a nation wept for Newtown. His pain erupted at this rally against gun violence in Hartford.

SAYLOR: I'm sick and tired of hearing about Newtown. Newtown this, Newtown that. I don't want to hear about Newtown. I want you to know about Shane, the beauty of Shane.

HARLOW (on camera): What did you think, Monte, when you heard that?

FRANK: I was scheduled to speak next.


FRANK: So there were 20 people who were on the program. And fate had it, I'm the next speaker. And I'm listening to Sam, who I had never met before, talking about how he hates Newtown.

HARLOW (voice-over): But then Monte Frank heard this.

SAYLOR: Newtown! Newtown! Newtown! Is our town!

We are all Newtown. We deserve to live. We just can't succumb to this violence like this. FRANK: My reaction to that was, it's not about Newtown that we're all in to together that --

We're all Newtown. We're all Hartford. We're all Bridgeport. We're all New Haven.

HARLOW: Do you feel like this, Monte? There have been deaths that have happened from gun shots are not being treated equally?

FRANK: I don't think they are and they should be. And that's part of our journey, to come to a place where America pays just as much attention to the loss of a child in an urban environment as they do in Newtown and other suburban communities.

HARLOW (voice-over): Together, Saylor and Frank lobby Congress for tougher federal gun laws. At home, they fight in their own way.

Monte Frank rides with Team 26 in honor of the lives lost that December day.

SAYLOR: It's your calling to inherit a blessing.

HARLOW: Pastor Saylor preaches.

SAYLOR: My faith was hit hard. But also, it wasn't lost. And because of my faith, I have been able to make

FRANK: We're now on the same path. We're part of the same journey.

HARLOW (on camera): This a lifelong friendship, do you think?

FRANK: I hope so.

SAYLOR: I, as well. It's going to take that kind of journey.

HARLOW (voice-over): Poppy Harlow, CNN, Connecticut.


KEILAR: And now to the extraordinary story of an NFL cheerleader who has deployed twice to Afghanistan. She was honored on Sunday.

Here is Kenneth Moton of our affiliate WPVI.


KENNETH MOTON, WPVI REPORTER (voice-over): Here with a salute to one of their own who traded her Eagles cheerleading uniform for another to serve this country.

1ST LT. RACHEL WASHBURN, U.S. ARMY: I'm incredibly humbled and a little embarrassed by it, because there's certainly nothing no more special about my service than any other service member.

HARLOW: Twenty-five-Year-old U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Rachel Washburn just returned from a second tour of duty in Afghanistan. In 2009, she was cheering on the Eagles, but when once she graduated from Drexel, she enlisted and was deployed in 2011. If she wasn't in combat, she was working a cultural mission to win over the hearts and minds of women in Afghanistan.

WASHBURN: They ask questions, what was it like working with the NFL? But the Army is full of professionals, and they're worried about your competency, your work ethic and willing to pull your own weight.

MOTON: Washburn was recognized as a hometown hero during the game.


KEILAR: Be sure to watch tomorrow night as Pope Francis celebrates his first midnight Christmas mass. And we will take a special look at 6:00 Eastern.