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Nation Faces Cold Weather; Over Two Thousand Two Hundred Flights Canceled; ObamaCare Birth Control Mandate Under Fire; The Transformation of Charlie Crist

Aired January 3, 2014 - 17:00   ET


JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, deep freeze, temperatures plunge well below zero across the Midwest and northeast, as millions struggle to dig out from a vicious nor'easter.

Plus, pleas for clemency, what does NSA leaker Edward Snowden thinks about the growing support for his return to the United States? His legal advisor is here to respond.

And hitting the slopes, Russian President Vladimir Putin hits the slopes hoping to convince the world the Winter Olympics will be safe. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First, a massive nor'easter, now a dangerous Arctic blast is piercing the Northeast. As much of the region struggles to dig out from up to two feet of snow, bone-chilling temperatures are setting in. Tonight, it's expected to get down near zero in New York's Central Park and below zero in Boston.

But it doesn't stop there. Parts of the Midwest could see some of their coldest temperatures in 15 to 20 years, where highs by Monday will likely be in the negative, yes, negative double digits.

CNN has team coverage of this story, including the bitter forecast.

But first, let's get to our Frederick Pleitgen in Boston, where the focus is now shifting from the snow to this deep freeze -- Frederick, what can you tell us?

FREDERICK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you're absolutely right. What's going on here right now is that the skies have cleared up. And that's what's making it really, really cold. At the same time, as you can see, down the road from here, the residents here are still busy digging out their cars. It's something many people here have been doing throughout the course of the day.

And what I've just learned is that the fact these two guys there have a cone in front of their car means that they are going to dig their car out. They're going to drive away. And that cone is going to save their spot. And anyone who takes that cone away and parks there is going to get into a lot of trouble in this part of Boston.

But now the next big thing is, indeed, going to be the deep freeze. One of the things we have to say, from having worked here all of last night, is that the road crews have been absolutely amazing at keeping the roads clear. But now the big problem is going to be is with the big cold setting in, is that the salt that's being used on a lot of the highways in this region is going to become largely ineffective because the temperatures are going to be too cold even for that.

Some of the places here in Massachusetts will get down to minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit. And that's without the wind chill. And I can tell you from standing here, the wind chill is still very much a factor here in the weather.

And one more thing, Jim, before I hand it back to you. You know, I've been covering news for a very long time. And one of the things that I said before going into TV is I would never wear a hat on television. And I've actually reported from the North Pole and I didn't wear a hat on television. This is the first day that I've gotten smart and worn a hat, because it is that cold out here -- Jim.

ACOSTA: All right. Very good. And if you hadn't, we would all be calling your parents and complaining about that. So we're glad you are taking care and being safe out there.

All right, Frederick Pleitgen, thank you very much.

Appreciate it.

In the Midwest, it's even colder, where temperatures could get down into the negative double digits this weekend. Firefighters attempting to put out this blaze in Nebraska also had to fight the frigid conditions.


CHIEF MIKE WILSON, PLATTSMOUTH FIRE DEPARTMENT: Our main concern right now is with the water flowing and slips and falls, because everything is instantly turning into ice right on the sidewalk.


ACOSTA: And as for how cold it is in Minnesota, get this, the governor of Minnesota is closing all public schools statewide on Monday for the first time in nearly two decades because of the extreme weather, urging all residents to use caution.

Let's get to meteorologist Alexandra Steele in the CNN Weather Center -- Alexandra, when it gets so cold in Minnesota they have to cancel the schools, that is cold.

But first, how bad is it going to get in the Northeast?

ALEXANDRA STEELE, ATS METEOROLOGIST: All right, well, this will be the coldest Arctic outbreak in two decades. And 100 million of us Americans are going to see temperatures fall to zero degrees. So this is what it feels like tonight. It feels like 14 below in Portland. It feels like 22 below in Concord, six below in Hartford. That's the wind chill tonight. But what's happening now, we're going to see incredibly cold conditions. The temperatures are low, but it's the winds with this nor'easter behind it that's creating a very cold environment.

But this cold outbreak, a different one, Sunday through Wednesday, is the coldest in two decades. And the winds won't be as intense, but the sheer air temperature will be. So for Boston, look what happens -- 49 degrees on Monday, 15 on Tuesday -- a 30 degree temperature drop. We will kind of rebound by the end of the week, but just a dramatic drop. New York, Monday, 47, 11 for a high, Jim.

So some incredibly cold air coming.

ACOSTA: And in the Midwest, negative double digits, as the kids would say, really?

STEELE: Oh, really, wicked, right, that's what they say.


STEELE: Minneapolis -- look at this, Jim. These are the high temperatures -- 14 below is the high temperature. These are straight air temperatures. Minneapolis, of course, that's why on Monday they closed schools, all the public schools. Chicago, as well, 20 below.


STEELE: We're going to see that early Tuesday morning. So this air is incredibly cold.

But now, unlike what we just saw and are currently seeing, this is going to drop down into the south. Nashville, as a high normally should be at about 47, 10 on Monday. And then we rebound 10 degrees.

And even in Atlanta, Georgia, it should be in the 50s, Jim. So temperatures there 25 degrees below that.

So more people certainly will be seeing and feeling this outbreak going Northeast into the South.

ACOSTA: And these are more than just numbers. They're reminder for people to be safe.


ACOSTA: Alexandra, thank you very much.

The extreme conditions are taking a huge toll on travelers. More than 2,200 flights were canceled today. That's after more than 2600 were canceled on Thursday.

CNN's Rene Marsh is over at the magic wall watching it all. The magic can't make all of these problems go away -- Rene, what can you tell us?

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly can't. You know, these are all the airplanes that are in the sky as we speak to you right now, more than 5,000.

But don't let this picture fool you, because there are plenty of planes that cannot get off the ground. We're going to look real time at some numbers. These numbers specifically for the hours of 3:00 p.m. Eastern time to 7:00 p.m. Eastern time. This is called the misery map because a lot of people at these airports are downright miserable.

This is by Flight Aware. And you can see right now, New York City has the most cancellations and delays. We're talking about 148.

Again, remember, this is just a block of four hours. Chicago also having a tough time there, more than 100 delays, again, just within a four block hour.

Again, Jim, looking really bad when it comes to delays and cancellations at some of these airports.

You see those orange lines?

Those are the destinations, as well. So you're seeing places like even LAX and Atlanta, as well Dallas. So it's a big ripple effect. Even if it's an airport not on the Eastern Seaboard, we're still seeing those cancellations and delays.

ACOSTA: The aptly named misery map there.

And can you tell us which airports are having the toughest time right now?

I guess passengers in those airports better brace themselves.

MARSH: Right. So why don't we look at that?

And, again, this is all information in real time. This is from Flight Aware. And we can tell you, at this hour, the top airports seeing the most cancellations and delays, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, O'Hare, JFK, Boston Logan. So we are seeing some problems there in the way of cancellations and delays.

That means scenes like this. We have some video from LaGuardia earlier today. You see lots of people lined up on very, very long lines. Those people were lined up at the American Airlines counter because their flights were canceled and they needed to be rebooked. A lot of these folks, they're not getting out any time soon. Many of them will be stuck in these airports for days.

Take a listen.


RUTHANN SECCIO, FRUSTRATED TRAVELER: I laid down straight so no one would take a seat, because this will be my bed for five days.

ASHLEY BETHRANT, FRUSTRATED TRAVELER: We're told that the flight is canceled. They're not giving us any hotel accommodation and we're stuck here for five days.


MARSH: All right. Well, we'll tell you, that lady is a teacher. And so her students can expect a substitute. She'll be stuck there.

We want to end on a high note. We know that Boston Logan says that all of their runways are now open. JFK now has two of their four runways open.

The moral of the story, things are slowly but surely getting back up to speed -- Jim.

ACOSTA: OK. And we can use some good news right now on that front.

Rene Marsh, thank you very much.

The frigid temperatures aren't stopping millions from digging out after that monster storm.

CNN's Brian Stelter is on Long Island, where the cleanup is underway -- Brian, we thought you had -- we had you for only a one day deal, but you came back for more.

What do you have from out there -- Brian?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, I apologize for the bad Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer impression. It's kind of late for that. But it is frigid out here. And now that the sun's setting, the temperatures are going to fall even further.

They're calling for a low of five degrees here in Islandia tonight.

But the people we talked to today, the people digging out, had a pretty positive impression of things.


STELTER (voice-over): After a night of blizzard conditions and road closures, today was all about cleanup. Paul Watchow (ph) is not getting paid to plow these driveways. He says it's his good neighbor policy in a community with a lot of seniors.

PAUL WATCHOW: There's no spring chickens here, you know. So if I can save somebody's back or save somebody from a heart attack, you know, I'll do it. It's from my heart I do it.

STELTER: Still, he enjoys the thanks he gets.

WATCHOW: The lady across the street, she says to me, when I did hers, it made me laugh. She said to me, when is the last time I told you I loved you?

I says 365 days ago.

STELTER: Last year's big snowstorm left some 30 inches on some parts of Long Island. This time it was more like 10.

WATCHOW: I started out doing it this morning about 8:00 and I just kept going.

STELTER: Sal and Joanne DiDimenico (ph) did some of their own digging before Paul arrived. The real challenge was just staying warm.

JOANNE DIDIMENICO: Three layers of pants, three pairs of socks, two t-shirts and a sweatshirt, and this, and two scarves and two pairs of gloves.

STELTER: But the brutal cold and signs warning against sledding didn't keep some families from finding the fun in the first storm of the new year.

(on camera): I honestly thought it was too cold to go sledding today.


STELTER (voice-over): Some kids didn't last too long out here, though.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had a lot of fun, but now it's getting a little too windy and cold for him.

STELTER: The winter weather bringing out the kid in all of us, though some of us need to work on our sledding technique.


STELTER: I have a feeling I'll be able to practice later this winter the way things are going.

You know, Jim, some of these storms every year, they come out worse than people expected. This one, I think, was right on track. The forecasts were pretty correct. As a result, this thing didn't seem too bad. People were prepared. And as a result, they were able to get out and go sledding today -- Jim.

ACOSTA: And we can expect more of that analysis on "RELIABLE SOURCES," including, I hope, a replay of that sled run there, Brian.

I guess you're getting a new appreciation for what (INAUDIBLE)...

STELTER: I do plan on talking about what this has been like, yes. This has...


STELTER: -- this has been educational, let's put it that way.

ACOSTA: All right. Very good. To say the least. All right, Brian Stelter, thank you very much.

Braving the elements once again out there on Long Island.

Thank you.

When we come back, growing calls for clemency for NSA leaker, Edward Snowden.

But is he willing to accept?

His legal adviser joins us and I'll ask her, just ahead.

Plus, a political transition that could give you whiplash. A former GOP governor running for his old job as a Democrat with a whole new view on a very controversial issue.


ACOSTA: We're waiting to see whether the Supreme Court hands down another order in the controversy over birth control -- the birth control mandate in ObamaCare. The Obama administration is asking the high court to go ahead and clear the way for the requirement in the law that orders employers to provide free contraceptive care to their workers, even at religious non-profits.


ACOSTA (voice-over): The Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns seen here in this video operating a nursing home, won a brief victory this week when Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor granted religious non-profits a temporary break from the contraception mandate in ObamaCare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In this home, nobody dies alone.

ACOSTA: Obeying that mandate and providing birth control coverage to their employees, the nuns argued, would violate their religious beliefs. Breaking the rule, they added, would mean paying millions of dollars in fines they don't have.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) is collecting because, you know, we don't get a salary. We don't have enough income so we go begging.

ACOSTA: In its response to Sotomayor, the Obama administration noted religious nonprofits have options. They can sign a document stating their religious objections and have a third party insurer provide the benefits without the nuns' involvement. The applicants have no legal basis, the government argued, to complain that it involves them in the process of providing contraceptive coverage.

Daniel Blomberg, one of the attorneys for the Little Sisters of the Poor, says the government is bullying the nuns.

DANIEL BLOMBERG, ATTORNEY, LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR: All the little sisters are saying is that's not a solution to our religious problem. In our faith, we can't do it ourselves, and we can't order somebody else to do something that we can't do ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And to get fired up for the work ahead of us. ACOSTA: But Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, maintains the free contraception coverage is critical to women's health.

CECILE RICHARDS, PLANNED PARENTHOOD: This is a huge advance for women's health. This other matter will be decided by the court, but again, it is one that's already covered under religious exemptions that were decided months and months ago.


ACOSTA (on-camera): And later this year, the Supreme Court is expected to hear another challenge to the birth control mandate in Obamacare brought by for-profit companies. Those cases won't have an impact on the overall law, but they will probably serve as another reminder of the controversial aspects of Obamacare heading into those midterm elections later this year.

Coming up, could a dramatic political transformation give one former Republican governor his old job back?

And pleas for clemency. What does NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, think about the growing support for his return to the United States? His legal advisor joins us to respond. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


ACOSTA: What a difference a few years can make, especially for Charlie Crist, the former GOP governor of Florida is now running for his old job only this time as a Democrat and with a whole new view on same-sex marriage. CNNs Sunlen Serfaty is joining me now. And Sunlen, is this a whole new Charlie Crist that we're seeing?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that really does depend on who you ask, Jim. Charlie Crist says it is, but Republicans disagree. They say this is just the latest example of Crist embracing both sides of an issue for his own political gain. Those are strong words coming from a party that just a few years ago, he was a member of.


SERFATY (voice-over): In just three years, Charlie Crist has gone from Republican governor to independent to now a Democratic candidate for governor, a political evolution that could give you whiplash.

NATHAN GONZALEZ, DEPUTY EDITOR, THE ROTHENBERG POLITICAL REPORT: I think it's just been phenomenal in the speed and not just the dynamics of it.

SERFATY: This week, Crist, now a Democrat, apologized for opposing gay marriage while he was Florida's Republican governor, admitting his position then was purely political. He says he was being a, quote, "good Republican" and in an interview with the LGBT website watermark, begged forgiveness. "I'm sorry I did that. It was a mistake. I was wrong. Please forgive me," which begs the question, is his apology genuine? GONZALEZ: This isn't the first issue position that Charlie Crist has changed. It probably isn't going to be the last position he's going to have to change. This is just part of the process that you undergo when you switch from being a Republican to a Democrat.

SERFATY: With changes in his position on offshore drilling and the stimulus bill already on his list. In 2010, still a Republican, Crist ran for a U.S. Senate seat, but this photo was the nail in his Republican coffin and he lost to Tea Party backed, Marco Rubio, in the GOP primary. So, he switched to independent and ran in the same race.

CHARLIE CRIST, FORMER REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA: I didn't leave the Republican Party, it left me.

SERFATY: But still, he lost the seat. Then another switch in 2012, the big one.

CRIST: Yes. I'm running as a Democrat and I am proud to do it.

SERFATY: And announced his candidacy for governor again, running this time not only against Republican governor, Rick Scott, but his own political past. Republicans have jumped on Crist's apology this week as a quote, "desperate effort of political opportunism." The question now for voters to decide --

GONZALEZ: Whether he was just kind of playing a game or whether he was really undergoing a transformation.


SERFATY (on-camera): And a spokesman for Crist tells CNN this is a transformation just like many Americans have also evolved on the issue. This governor's race, Jim, it's going to be expensive, it's going to be nasty, and this issue of political opportunism is just going to keep haunting him.

ACOSTA: Florida politics. You can't get enough of it. All right. Sunlen, thank you.

So, can Charlie Crist win as a Democrat? Joining me now to discuss this is CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza and he is also Washington correspondent for the New Yorker. Along with him, A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of "The Hill" newspaper. Guys, thanks for joining us.

I remember covering Charlie Crist versus Marco Rubio, that was basically the race that forced Charlie Crist to eventually leave the party. You know, on same-sex marriage, he's not the first politician to come around to evolve on this. President Obama being one of them. What do you think, Ryan? Can Charlie Crist pull this off?

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: Well, look, on that issue, you're right. Most Democrats in the Senate, most Democrats around the country just a couple years ago were against gay marriage. And it's only been a more recent transformation for most of them. So, I think he could get by with that switch. You know, you look at abortion, though, which is a pretty deeply held view by most politicians and most people who care about that issue, and he's moved on that.

I mean, the parties are pretty polarized in Florida. We're not talking about a state like a New England State where there's not that big a difference between the Democrats and Republicans. Talking about going from essentially a right wing Republican to a pretty liberal Democrat in a short period of time.

ACOSTA: And what do you think, A.B.?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE HILL": Charlie Crist is a very effective politician and he knows what he's doing. He knew exactly when to endorse John McCain in the 2008 cycle. He knew after his loss to Marco Rubio that the Republican Party of Florida had no room for a Republican like him.

He was actually never really a very conservative right wing Republican. He was a member of the NAACP in his youth. He is very effective at reaching out, ingratiating himself to the proper constituencies, and I'm not going to be at all surprise if he wins. It is not that it's a red state.

LIZZA: I think he's actually leading in the polls. As far as whether he could win, yes. He can.

STODDARD: I think he knows how to do this and he's going to do it.

ACOSTA: And Rick Scott, I mean, you know, there is the issue of Rick Scott down in Florida. You know, he is not exactly Mr. Popular down there. You know, he's had some issues along the way. But what about this -- I mean, the problem for Charlie Crist, though, is changing from Republican to Democrat. I mean, that is a tough thing to pull off, isn't it right?

LIZZA: I think so. Look, he's lucky because the incumbent is very unpopular. We're in a climate where incumbents everywhere are unpopular. So, that gives him an opportunity here. You know, I think there are different categories of party switchers. You know, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat at one time. Of course, he became the most important Republican of the modern era.

And lots of New England's Republicans have become Democrats like Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Islands and lots of obviously southern Democrats have become Republicans. But that was -- the sort of public moved underneath their feet and they sort of moved along with the public. What Charlie Crist is doing is there's no move in Florida.

Florida is polarized state with a very big Democratic Party, very competitive Republican Party. This is pure opportunism. You know what I mean? It's not some historic wave he's moving along with.

STODDARD: When he was a Republican governor, he supported the stimulus. He was not trying to become a Democrat then. Hillary Clinton supported gay marriage until it was time -- I mean, excuse me, opposed gay marriage, supported traditional marriage until it was OK to come out and support gay marriage. ACOSTA: That's the question I have, because I mean, there's this case out in Utah right now that is being decided on. That is going to be very important in the coming months, but I wanted to ask you on this issue of same-sex marriage. We've seen the Democratic Party, as you just mentioned .B., have this huge shift, the president, Hillary Clinton and others. What about the Republican Party?

By the time we get to 2016, are we going to see some of these, perhaps, big contenders for the presidency have to move?

STODDARD: I think that is going to be one of the most fascinating things to watch between midterm elections this fall in 2014 to the primary process and when the Republican Party picks somebody, is that person going to come out and change their mind looking at the overwhelming numbers of support for gay marriage among young voters.

LIZZA: Look, I think we're probably another at least one more election cycle away for a Republican candidate, for competitive Republican candidate to go into a presidential election, supporting gay marriage, and the reason is Iowa. It's the first state. It has very, very solidly socially conservative Republican electorates.

ACOSTA: And then South Carolina right after that. How do you escape that process?

LIZZA: -- in the middle and that's a more libertarian state where gay marriage is more popular among Republicans, but still, the fact that Iowa goes first and South Carolina goes third --

ACOSTA: Changes the dynamic completely.

LIZZA: Absolutely. I think you're looking at 2020 before we see a competitive GOP candidate.

ACOSTA: I want to sneak this in because I thought this was a very important development today. The Obama administration announced these changes to the background checks system today, sort of slipped them out there. Basically, what they -- it makes it easier for some of the states to provide information to the background check system on mentally ill people, to keep them from obtaining firearms.


ACOSTA: This has obviously been an issue that has really dogged this president because he's had multiple high profile, very grisly mass shootings on his watch. A.B., what did you make of this?

STODDARD: Well, I'm not surprised the administration has been enormously frustrated by coming so close to moving something out of the Senate and failing. They know that there's no chance in an election year they're going to move anything through the Congress in terms of legislation, and these were not controversial.

They're simply a way to better define what terms, defining mental health problems, would prevent you from clearing a background check and then asking hospitals to share more information. I don't really think it's something --

ACOSTA: Because of these federal privacy laws, a lot of hospitals --

STODDARD: They want to address the mental health issue, and the gun rights side has been saying that needs to be done as a priority.

LIZZA: You should expect more from the White House, more executive actions going forward for the rest of this term, as his agenda sort of dries up in Congress and becomes harder and harder to get things like gun control passed through a Republican House. You're going to see the president looking more and more towards executive actions.

John Podesta, his new advisor that's coming into the White House, this is something he's been talking about for months.

ACOSTA: And the mental health issue is woefully under covered. We've tried to cover it here as much as possible here at CNN, but even a lot of Republicans have said if there's one area we can agree to focus on, it's this area. So, perhaps, he won't get as much feedback from Republicans on this, blowback from Republicans on this?

STODDARD: I don't think so, because as I said, it was addressing the mental health question which is such a big part of the crisis. Both of the orders had to do with that, and I think it's a way of trying to build much more bipartisan support because that's the policy issue that Republicans are saying you're not really taking a hard look at. You're only concerned about the weapons.

ACOSTA: All right. A.B. Stoddard, Ryan Lizza, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it. Good to see you.

When we come back, what does NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, think about the prominent new calls for support for him? His legal advisor joins us. I'll ask her just ahead.

And hitting the slopes? Look at this. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, straps on his skis, hoping to convince the world that the winter Olympics will be safe. Looks like he did OK out there. We'll take a look in just a few minutes.


ACOSTA: Two prominent newspapers, the "New York Times" and "The Guardian," are coming to the defense of controversial NSA leaker Edward Snowden. They're calling for some sort of deal which would allow him to return to the United States where Russia -- from Russia where he was granted temporary asylum.

But what, if anything, would Snowden agree to?

And joining us now is Jesselyn Radack. She is legal advisor to Edward Snowden.

And, Jesselyn, just to get us started here, because a lot of people are curious how Mr. Snowden is doing, when is the last time you spoke with Edward Snowden and how is he doing these days in Russia? JESSELYN RADACK, EDWARD SNOWDEN'S LEGAL ADVISOR: We speak regularly by encryption and he's doing great. He's doing very well.

ACOSTA: And I guess you have probably seen in the "New York Times" and "The Guardian" the last couple of days that those newspapers have called for some sort of plea bargain or clemency for Edward Snowden.

What is your sense as to whether or not he would be agreeable to something like that? Would he be agreeable to coming back to the United States, admitting some guilt in exchange for some leniency?

RADACK: I can't get into plea bargain negotiations, really, on the air but he certainly would love to come back to the United States if the conditions were right, and I think some sort of pardon or amnesty would be appropriate, and you know, again, if there were conditions attached to that amnesty. That's not something I can speculate about really, but he would definitely be amenable under conditions such as a pardon or amnesty to coming back.

ACOSTA: Would he accept anything less than a full pardon or amnesty at this point? Or he's just not interested in talking about that?

RADACK: No one has contacted his attorneys and the Justice Department certainly knows how to get ahold of us. If it would like to talk about these issues, which I would be glad to run by my client. I can't say for sure right now. I don't think he's committed any crime and I don't think he -- I think he's been punished quite enough already by being, you know, stripped of his statehood and basically exiled for the past six months.

I think he certainly has paid a very high price already for the amount of good he has done the public through his disclosures. Good that has now been recognized not only by a federal court judge, two federal court judges, and a White House internal handpicked review panel.

And now both the "New York Times" and "The Guardian" editorial boards said that he should be able to come back and really be able to resume his reform efforts immediately here in the U.S., here in the U.S. And not -- you know, not have to serve any kind of jail time. That would not be appropriate.

ACOSTA: And what other information does he have that might be of interest to the United States government? Because one thing that we heard from a security official over at the National Security Agency, pretty top official over there said that he would be interested in some sort of amnesty for Edward Snowden in exchange for his data.

Does he have some of this still in his possession? Would he be open to providing everything that he has back to the federal government in exchange for some sort of deal?

RADACK: As far as I know, he no longer possesses any data and has not had possession of any data since he left Hong Kong for Russia. So that would not really pertain. However, I do think he has other things to bring to bear in the conversation that the government might want to initiate and they know how to find myself and Ben Weisner from the ACLU if they want to start a conversation about amnesty or pardon.

ACOSTA: And you said just a few moments ago that you don't believe Edward Snowden has committed any crimes. I don't want to let that go unchallenged because there are a lot of people inside this country, as you know, and inside this administration, inside the Obama administration, who passionately believe that Edward Snowden did commit crimes, that he made agreements with the National Security Agency as a contractor to keep these secrets and yet he violated that. Isn't that true?

RADACK: Actually not. He -- the secrecy agreement is eclipsed by the oath he took to uphold the Constitution. And secrecy agreements don't protect violations of the law. And in terms of who is really violating the law here, it's the NSA, which has violated Section 215 of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and numerous other laws, and no one from -- from NSA has been held accountable, nor has the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, for lying to Congress.

So I would suggest the government start by looking in its own backyard before trying to go after a whistleblower who has started a conversation not only in our own country but a necessary conversation around the world.

ACOSTA: And, Miss Radack, you just mentioned the director of National Intelligence. We should point out that just today, the FISA court, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, issued a ruling that it does approve the government's application to renew the collection of that telephone metadata, and I'm just curious, having heard that, what your reaction to that decision might be and what Mr. Snowden's reaction might be.

RADACK: That decision would obviously be quite different if it occurred in an actual federal Article Three Constitutional Federal Court as evidenced by Judge Leon's ruling in Washington, D.C. Finding the metadata collection program, finding it both ineffective and likely unconstitutional.

As you may know, the FISA court hears only one side of the case in secret without challenge and has pretty much rubber-stamped all applications. In fact, in 2011, it granted all -- it was over 1,000 different applications, every single one. It's a rubber stamp. And even though there are federal judges on the FISA court, it is a creature created by Congress that operates more like a grand jury than a real open federal court where the 215 metadata program, there's no way it will be able to survive.

ACOSTA: Well, Jesselyn Radack, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it. And of course, if you could let Mr. Snowden know the next time you talk to him that we'd love to talk to him over here at CNN about what he's up to and how he's doing over in Russia and what the future might hold.

Jesselyn Radack, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it.

RADACK: Thank you for having me. ACOSTA: It's been a violent week in Russia. Over 30 people were killed by suspected suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd. So it was a strange image to see Russian President Vladimir Putin skiing today, yes, skiing, there he is, even with the Winter Olympics just around the corner.

Joining me now is CNN's foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty.

Jill, Vladimir Putin on skis. That is --


ACOSTA: He has been known to do a lot of things out there that have caught our eye and this would be another one of them.

DOUGHERTY: You know, you used the word image and the Kremlin is acutely aware of its image. Today, President Putin strapped on his skis to prove he's on the case to make the Sochi Olympics safe.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): After days of horrific images of terrorist bombings raised fears that Russia's upcoming Olympics could be vulnerable, President Vladimir Putin and his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, took to the slopes above Sochi. Media cameras in tow.

The athletic Russian leader looking relaxed and confident. Even pausing for a glass of mulled wine.

The Sochi Olympics are a little over five weeks away. President Putin has visited the sites several times but on this trip he inspected the hotels where athletes in training already are living, and, Russian media reported, completely surprised them.

He asked one of the female athletes if conditions are OK. Yes, generally, she said, but there are a few things not right. When he pressed her for details, she said she preferred to tell him when the cameras stopped rolling.

The Russian government is spending an estimated $2 billion on security for the games, but one Russia expert says there could be a broader threat.

DAVID SATTER, HUDSON INSTITUTE: Let's just say that the Olympic sites themselves are safe. That doesn't prevent terrorist attacks in Moscow, in other cities, through which people have to travel in order to get to the Olympic sites. It doesn't prevent possible attacks on infrastructure, which could cause chaos.


DOUGHERTY: Mr. Putin is intent on preventing any attacks. The Sochi games are a showcase for the Russia he wants to present to the world, and his spokesman says Putin will inspect a number of venues for the Sochi games as well as watch rehearsals for the opening and closing ceremonies -- Jim. ACOSTA: And the world will be watching. Thank you very much, Jill Dougherty. Thank you.

Just ahead, violence escalates in South Sudan as Americans flee the country. CNN gets rare access inside the war zone.

And a bulldozer explodes in Germany. Was it caused by a bomb left over from World War II?


ACOSTA: Peace talks between the government and rebels in South Sudan are under way as both sides desperately try to stop the escalating violence. More than 1,000 people have been killed and about 200,000 have been displaced. It's gotten so bad the U.S. is urging all Americans to evacuate the country. Advice many U.S. citizens are taking, helped by Marines from a Special Crisis Response Unit. Only essential staff will remain at the embassy.

And as CNN's senior international correspondent Arwa Damon, she got rare access inside the war zone.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Prior to the recent outbreak in fighting, the United Nations was not patrolling like this in the streets of the capital, Juba, nor was it in most parts of the country. In fact, the United Nations was seriously considering refocusing its mission, focusing more on development. That is how optimistic people were about the prospects for this country. But now that has all changed.


TOBY LANZER, DEPUTY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE U.N. SECRETARY- GENERAL: So our focus was really shifting in line with the situation we thought prevailed and that we were seeing in South Sudan. And it is almost unimaginable what has struck this country during the past three weeks.


DAMON: We're heading towards one of the neighborhoods that saw some of the worst violence. We were down there a few days ago and it was almost completely deserted. Part of the aim of these patrols is not just securing the local civilian population, but also trying to rebuild a sense of confidence amongst people that it is safe enough for them to go back home.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to know that there's no problem. OK. Thank you, my brother. OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything is OK. Everyone can go back.


DAMON: The neighborhood down the road does still remain fairly deserted, but out here, we are seeing more open shops, more activity in the streets and members of the U.N. team trying to engage the population. These types of interactions are especially critical at a time like this.


LANZER: There are sharp wounds that have been opened and I think it will take some time to heal the ruptures that exist. But again it depends on what we're talking about and where there really are differences across the country and just the things unraveled very quickly. It is possible that things can come together again. I have to be a believer in that as well.


DAMON: This is one of the U.N. compounds in the capital, and even though the situation outside its gates is relatively speaking fairly safe, even those who do leave the compound during the day tend to come back at night. But the main issue for the U.N. is not necessarily protecting those civilians that have managed to seek sanctuary within its various bases across the country.

The key issue is the tens of thousands of civilians who have not made it to U.N. bases, who are believed to be hiding out in remote corners of the country out in the Bush, without access to proper food, clean water, or medical care. And the longer this drags on, the more dire the situation for the civilians will become.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Juba.


ACOSTA: Let's take a look at some of the other stories coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. Two Facebook users are taking the social media giant to court, claiming Facebook collects data from users' private messages and sells it to third parties without the proper disclosure or consent of its users. They say it violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment.

At least one person is dead and 13 people are wounded after a bulldozer exploded in Germany. Authorities believe it hit an old bomb left over from World War II. The blast damaged nearby homes as well, finding old bombs in Germany is so common that companies often hire bomb disposal teams to check out cites before starting construction projects.

And General Mills says regular Cheerios are now free of genetically modified ingredients. The company switched the type of corn and sugar it uses and says its whole grain oats were never genetically modified. General Mills says the changes only apply to original Cheerios, and that removing GMO ingredients from Honey Nut or Apple Cinnamon Cheerios would be very difficult. Coming up, New York gets a nasty snowstorm on the new mayor's first week. Bill de Blasio shoveled his own driveway but did he do right by the rest of the city?

That's what everybody wants to know.

And marijuana is not only for smokers, it's also for foodies? The wide array of pot you can eat. That's coming up.


ACOSTA: You probably heard about this, but marijuana has been on sale in Colorado for a few days now. What you may not know is it's also available in all sorts of candies, cakes and pies.

Here's CNN's Ana Cabrera.



ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Forget about smoking a joint.

BEHLER: We have all the edibles you can imagine.

CABRERA: And we're not just talking pot brownies.

BEHLER: This is a 70-milligram pumpkin pie.

CABRERA: Today, the world of marijuana edibles is reaching new extremes.

BEHLER: Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different products.

CABRERA: You're inside Denver's Ganja Gourmet. Once a medical marijuana restaurant. Now a pot product supermarket of sorts specializing in marijuana infused candy, cookies and crispy treats.

CABRERA (on camera): So if you have a sweet tooth, this is a good way to go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, this is definitely the best way to go.

CABRERA (voice-over): Plus coffee, can of butter, and --

BEHLER: Chamomile tea.

CABRERA: There is something here that's sure to make everyone happy. Want a protein backed pot fix? Try the peanut butter. Gluten free? No problem. Diabetic? How about a sugar free sucker? But why edibles?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And the reason why like I choose edibles because I'm not really into like the whole smoking. And I'll do it every once in a while but, like, desperate issues, like I cough a lot more. CABRERA: Easy on the lungs, odor free. Some say it's also easier to control dosing.

(On camera): How do you know the dosage is what you say it is?

MORGAN IWERSEN, CANYON CULTIVATION: We make our hash oil. That's the base of all of our products. If the hash oil tests out at this percentage of THC and this percentage of the other cannabinoids, then we can actually do the equations and the math to break down what we want.

CABRERA (voice-over): Morgan Iwersen is in the business of making marijuana edibles. Canyon Cultivation uses hash oil to create cannabis infused hard candy, drops, breath strips and olive oils.

(On camera): Is this your office? Your kitchen? What do you call this place?

IWERSEN: So this is the lab.

CABRERA (voice-over): Iwersens is one of dozens of budding edible businesses that are part of the estimated $1.5 billion marijuana industry, which analysts say could quadruple in just a few years.


CABRERA: Love's Oven (ph) is busy baking up baklava, a top seller netting $3,000 a month.

O'ROURKE: Buttery goodness.

CABRERA: Here it's all about the canabutter (ph). Marijuana trimmings roasted in butter for up to 24 hours. The result? A high potency THC product that is baked into each treat.

(On camera): How many different items do you guys make?

O'ROURKE: We have about 44 different products currently.

CABRERA (voice-over): In three years, Love's Oven's customer list has grown from three dispensaries to 40. And that's just for medical marijuana sales.

(On camera): What do you anticipate with recreational sale of marijuana?

O'ROURKE: Chaos and craziness.

CABRERA (voice-over): Yet, state and local regulators are working to keep things under control.

While marijuana edibles aren't currently regulated by the FDA, Colorado marijuana infused food producers will have to follow new rules in the New Year. (On camera): One of the new rules with marijuana edibles has to do with child resistant packaging. Meaning, it has to come in an opaque package and it has to have a two-step process to opening it.

(Voice-over): Keeping people safe, especially children, is a high priority for this industry under scrutiny. The world is watching.

IWERSEN: And we consider ourselves pioneers in the end of prohibition.

CABRERA: As cannabis focused kitchens take a bigger bite out of the marijuana market.

Ana Cabrera, CNN, Denver.


ACOSTA: Happening now, arctic blast. About 140 million Americans are bracing for a life-threatening cold tonight and into next week, with subzero temperatures lower than they have been in many years.

Plus science smackdown. TV's Bill Nye joins us to explain why he's taking part in an evolution versus creationism debate.

And first golfer. How Barack Obama's playing style compares to other presidents who love the links.

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

Right now temperatures are starting to nose-dive, a dangerous and historic blast of cold air is expected to bring subzero weather to parts of the northeast tonight between now and Wednesday. Nearly half of the nation will shiver through temperatures of zero or below. The windchill could make it feel like 45 degrees below in New England overnight. That's on top of a mountain of snow of two feet in some places. Boston is one of the hardest-hit cities by the first major winter storm of the year.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is there.

And, Fred, how cold is it getting?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's getting very cold. I can tell you, Jim, just the time that we've been here so far this evening the temperatures have already started to plummet. I would say now we're at maybe five degrees above zero, but we do expect the temperatures to go down to at least seven degrees below zero in the time that we're going to be here in the next couple of hours. Of course the windchill is going to make that even worse.

Today was a day, of course, Jim, where many people here were digging out of the snow and are now preparing to be in the deep freeze. Let's have a look.