Return to Transcripts main page


Rodman Returns Home; NSA Changes Coming?

Aired January 13, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: spying strategy as the president gets ready to unveil changes. Stand by for a heated new debate about snooping on Americans' phone records. Could the program have prevented 9/11?

Plus, slow drip. There's a break in West Virginia's toxic water crisis, but hundreds of thousands of people still are at risk if they turn on the tap. I will ask a state environmental official if he'd drink the water right now.

And Rodman's return. The former NBA star lands in the United States this hour with surprising new take on the situation in North Korea. The controversy from his trip is dogging him all the way home.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama is on the verge of revealing reforms over at the National Security Agency. And critics are worried he won't go far enough to ease up on mass spying and protect Americans' privacy. A just released study is adding fuel to the fire. It finds that one of the most controversial NSA programs hasn't done much to prevent terror attacks.

Let's go straight to our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar. She has got the latest -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is adding to the tension not just between the Obama administration and American citizens, but allies of the U.S., other countries who worry the NSA is going too far.

You saw that today as Spain's president visited the White House.


KEILAR (voice-over): President Obama meeting up with yet another leader of a country upset with U.S. spying, this time Spanish President Mariano Rajoy Brey for the first time since it came to light in October that the NSA reportedly scooped up information about 60 million phone calls made by Spanish citizens.

"The explanations were satisfactory," Rajoy said, "as long as there are no new developments."

It comes as President Obama finalizes reforms that he will detail on Friday.

(on camera): Where is he at in that process? Are those decisions complete?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They are near completion. He is finishing his work and will be doing so for the next several days. So we're not quite concluded yet in that process, but coming close.

KEILAR (voice-over): The president has signaled some openness to the changes, especially spying on allies.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should.

KEILAR: And the White House is considering several other reforms, including an improved system for issues security clearances and limiting access to classified information. A response to NSA leaker Edward Snowden's easy access to vast amounts of classified data, also new transparency reports that detail how the NSA queries phone companies and how many people have their records pulled.

But the president has defended much of the intelligence gathering.

OBAMA: We believed that we have scrubbed these programs and struck an appropriate balance.

KEILAR: Even outside experts wonder if the programs really help. A new analysis of 225 individuals linked to al Qaeda and charged with terrorism since September 11 says NSA bulk surveillance programs "had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism."

And a review of intelligence gathering ordered by the president said the metadata collection was not essential.

KAREN GREENBERG, CENTER ON NATIONAL SECURITY: Do we want to live in a just-in-case society where they have everything they want and they can say to the American people we want to do this just in case? That's really what we're talking about.


KEILAR: These studies show that traditional intelligence gathering, things like informants and tips, really do yield the best information. But, Wolf, White House officials will argue the metadata gathering where you have these -- for instance, you can see where a call began, where it ended, you can identify phone numbers, they say that helps connect the dots.

We will be hearing from President Obama. He will have the final word on this. He will be laying out his vision for changes to NSA practices on Friday. That will be at a speech at the Department of Justice here in Washington.

BLITZER: We will of course have live coverage of that. Brianna, thanks very much. Let's dig a little deeper right now with CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen. He's the main author of that new analysis of the NSA's phone surveillance program, and its impact on terrorism. Also joining us, Cliff May, the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

You really think this whole metadata thing is, as far as terrorism is concerned, a waste?


The government can only point to one case. Somebody sent $8,500 to Somalia to an al Qaeda affiliate. Not to be encouraged, but even in that case, the government waited two months to investigate this case. The idea that this is kind of critical to stopping terrorism is overblown.

CLIFF MAY, PRESIDENT, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Yes, I'm for letting our national intelligence community have the tools they need in their toolbox.

And this may be one of them. U.S. government officials say that 54 different terrorist events have been prevented in 20 different countries thanks to the use of metadata.


BLITZER: Do you buy that?

BERGEN: We need to be kind of careful here.

There's the telephone metadata, and then there's overseas e-mail surveillance. What is controversial in this country in particular is the idea that five years of all your phone calls can be stored by the government. And in this instance, there's very, very little that's stopped in terms of terrorism.

MAY: But my friend Peter has given himself a very hard task, which is to prove a negative. If my handyman comes to my house and he fixes everything that's broken using only a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, does that mean he doesn't need a hammer? Not necessarily. There are other things to do.

Dianne Feinstein is the Senate chairman of the Intelligence Committee. She's a Democrat. General Hayden was head of the NSA and head of the CIA. Both believe that metadata is an important and useful tool for preventing terrorism and that it has done so on numerous occasions already. We have to understand what this is and what this isn't, because I'm all in favor of individual rights and constitutional rights and privacy.

We're not talking about content, we're not talking about listening to people's phone calls. We're talking about collecting electrons and looking for patterns and networks. All that can be useful. I don't think you can prove it hasn't. BLITZER: Peter, "The L.A. Times," you probably saw this article, that they're suggesting that at least President Obama's national security advisers, some of them, concluded, have embraced this theory that if this metadata collection had been in place before 9/11, it could have prevented 9/11. Do you believe that?

BERGEN: Wolf, that -- I think this is a nonsensical claim.

What would have prevented 9/11 is if the CIA and the FBI had been sharing information that they had gathered by conventional means that they unfortunately didn't share with each other. That's an untestable hypothesis.

What we do know -- and this is one of the themes of my report -- is that conventional law enforcement intelligence techniques and the government actually understanding the information they already possess is the way that you stop terrorism plots, not like a sort of huge superstructure of information collecting that you don't really understand. And it isn't that useful.

MAY: I would argue that, yes, a problem was that the CIA and the FBI did not share intelligence, but this could have helped before 9/11.


BLITZER: How could it have helped?

MAY: Very simply. The CIA knew that there was a foreign terrorist in this country.

What you want to do is get his phone calls, get his computer, get his cell phone, whatever you can, and then find out who he's called and then find out who has been called by everybody he's called. You may get some dentists and haberdashers and others into this net, but at the end of the day you can find patterns and networks.


BLITZER: But you know, Cliff, the terrorists, they read the same newspapers that all of us read. They know what this intelligence collection is capable of doing. They're finding other means of communicating right now.

MAY: You make a great point about that, and you're absolutely right. And that's why I wish less of this was being revealed. It's also why a lot of the uses of metadata we don't know about, so we can't study, because the intelligence community has not revealed it.

But at the end of the day, terrorists have to communicate with each other, and if they do, they leave a trail. And we need to allow our cyber-spooks to follow that trail.


BLITZER: You think they're still making phone calls between Somalia and the United States? BERGEN: You can't underestimate people's stupidity, that's true.

But Cliff and I disagree. The thing that Americans are concerned about is phone data. And this is not a sort of presumption on my part. There is only case where this was useful. And so Americans have to make a decision. One small case in San Diego where somebody was sending some money to Somalia, if people are comfortable with having all their phone data preserved for five years, with this one case as being...


MAY: First of all, it's preserved anyway. It's just not preserved by the government.

Secondly, are you saying that Dianne Feinstein -- again, she's the Democrat who chairs Senate Intelligence -- she is wrong to say there are multiple cases in which metadata has played a role in preventing terrorist events? You think she's wrong?

BERGEN: I will ask our viewers to read the White House review group, which had access to all the classified information. They came to the same conclusion.

BLITZER: All right. And we will see what the president says on Friday when he announces his reforms, his changes to all of this. Guys, thanks very much.


BERGEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead, some West Virginians are being allowed to turn on their water taps, but hundreds of thousands of others are waiting for relief from a toxic water crisis. I will ask the state environmental official if the water is now safe to drink.

And Dennis Rodman's new apology. He's arriving back in the United States this hour and saying more about his rather bizarre trip to North Korea.


BLITZER: In West Virginia, the first break in a contaminated water crisis that's been dragging on now for days.

About 5,000 residents got the green light to start using tap water again with precautions after toxic chemicals leaked into the water supply. But get this. Hundreds of thousands of others still are relying on bottled water and they're very worried about their health.

CNN's Alina Machado is in Charleston, West Virginia.


SANDRA FISHER, RESIDENT OF WEST VIRGINIA: Takes 15 minutes for the hot. So I will do this.

ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That is a sound Sandra Fisher hasn't heard in her home since Thursday.

(on camera): Should you be touching it?

FISHER: Oh, I touched it. Crap.

MACHADO (voice-over): The Charleston resident is among the 300,000 people in West Virginia who have been under a no use water order for days. The ban was imposed after a chemical typically used to clean coal leaked from a tank at Freedom Industries and got into the water supply.

FISHER: I know the licorice smell in the air was something that probably couldn't be good. I didn't think it was candy.

MACHADO: The leak was discovered Thursday after someone reported smelling a licorice-like odor.

GOV. EARL RAY TOMBLIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: The numbers we have today look good, and we're finally at a point where the do-not-use order has been lifted in certain areas.

MACHADO: The progress means residents like Fisher, who are no longer under the ban, can start flushing the water out of their homes, but concerns about the safety of the water remain.

KATE LONG, RESIDENT OF WEST VIRGINIA: I'm not going to drink it, for a while.

FISHER: I will be concerned probably for the rest of the time that I live here. I was very concerned when I found out that one mile from our water intake was this huge deteriorating chemical vat.

MACHADO: The chemical, 4-MCHM, has a licorice odor. CNN has obtained this document from West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection showing at least one other instance back in 2010 in which a person living near the chemical plant complained about -- quote -- "an odor that smells like licorice."

The complaint does not say that a leak was detected or that there was any danger to residents, but at least one other person who lives near the plant tells CNN he has smelled licorice in the air and in the water in his home before last week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have smelled licorice here several times in the five years that I have lived here.

MACHADO: That resident, who does not want to be identified, tells us he is worried about how the exposure to the leaked chemical might affect his family's health long term. It's a concern others in this area share.

Alina Machado, CNN, Charleston, West Virginia.


BLITZER: Let's dig deeper right now.

Joining us, the secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Randy Huffman.

Mr. Huffman, thanks very much for joining us. Are you telling the folks now it's actually safe to drink the water?


The water company and the team that's been put together by the governor has implemented a very strict set of protocols. And those protocols consist of a large amount of sampling and analytical work that's gone in to ensure that the water's clean to the standard recommended by the CDC.

And now we're in the process of opening that water system back up and flushing out the system in phases, so that we don't overtax the water system. And when -- as we go through that process, the numbers that we have seen, the numbers that we know about, we believe it's safe, absolutely.

BLITZER: Would you start -- are you ready to drink that water?

HUFFMAN: Yes. As soon as I send my home through the protocols outlined by the health department and my zone is opened up, I absolutely will drink it.

BLITZER: A lot of us are wondering, how could this happen in West Virginia, where 300,000 people are told you can't even -- don't drink the water, but don't even touch the water, don't bathe in the water, get a shower, basically just flush the toilets with that water?

What was going on with that storage facility? How often had it been checked for potential leakage?

HUFFMAN: Well, I think the biggest problem is the protocols were in place and the system was in place to report any breaches of the system and have it reported to us, have it reported to the water company.

And that's under investigation right now, but there was an opportunity to make some calls a lot earlier, I think, than what we had. And had that been done, this whole thing may have been averted.

BLITZER: Was someone asleep on the job?

HUFFMAN: Well, I can tell you that the call wasn't made as soon as it could have been made.

I don't know how early in the day on Thursday that the company knew they had a problem, but I know it was -- they knew before we did, and when my folks showed up on site, we actually made the call and began implementing procedures to contain the spill. BLITZER: Because one person described the storage facility where this chemical, this poison chemical took place, the leakage, as an antique, that it really had never been inspected, for all practical purposes. I assume you're trying to get to the bottom of this?

HUFFMAN: We are trying to get to the bottom of that. There's a lot of information out there, there's a lot that needs to be looked into. We're in the data gathering process and we will take appropriate action.

BLITZER: How much longer before everyone can start drinking the water again?

HUFFMAN: I'm not sure, Wolf, of the time frame. The water company and the assessment team, they have that. I haven't been engaged in that this afternoon. I was engaged in that over the weekend.

But I know we're in zone two right now in the Charleston area. Zone three may be coming up pretty soon. So, you know, it's certainly going to go into tomorrow. I'm not sure how much longer.

BLITZER: Randy Huffman, good luck to you. Good luck to everybody in West Virginia. Thanks very much.

HUFFMAN: All right, thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, Dennis Rodman has been slammed for his North Korea trip and for some rather bizarre behavior. Is he likely to go back? I will ask CNN's Rachel Nichols about Rodman's motives and whether he's just in it for the money.


BLITZER: Rodman has just landed back in the United States after his controversial visit to North Korea. There he is.

We just have some brand-new video of him landing at the Newark International Airport. There you see him right in the middle of your screen. The former NBA star's offering a vague new apology for what's going on inside the secretive nation run by his so-called pal Kim Jong-un.

But Rodman is not apologizing for the trip.

CNN's Anna Coren was in Beijing, China, when Rodman made a brief stop over there.


DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER: I'm sorry for what's going on in North Korea, certain situations. I'm not God. I'm not ambassador. I'm no one.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A slightly different tone from Dennis Rodman arriving at Beijing's International Airport after almost a week inside North Korea. QUESTION: How was the trip?

COREN: Initially not wanting to talk about his trip, then within minutes, the Worm couldn't resist.

RODMAN: I have done nothing wrong, I mean, nothing wrong. So I don't know why people are saying that, well, Dennis Rodman this, that. It's not about me.

COREN: Rodman believes his efforts inside this reclusive country have been wrongly represented and unappreciated, insisting his basketball diplomacy has been a success.

RODMAN: I just went over there to show the world the fact that we can actually get along in sports. That is it.

COREN: Members of Rodman's team have also spoken out in defense of the controversial visit.

CHARLES SMITH, FORMER NBA PLAYER: I think I'm astute enough to understand the dynamics, especially collecting monetary dollars from North Korea. No, we did not get paid from North Korea at all.

COREN: NBA commissioner David Stern told CNN that money motivated the trip.

DAVID STERN, NBA COMMISSIONER: They were blinded by the payday.

COREN: Rodman's visit featured many bizarre moments and his profanity-laced interview with "NEW DAY"'s Chris Cuomo, the outburst igniting a firestorm of criticism, especially after Rodman's seeming justification for Kenneth Bae's imprisonment.

RODMAN: Can you understand what he did?


RODMAN: Do you understand what he did in this country?

CUOMO: What did he do? You tell me.

COREN: Rodman later apologized for that comment and the whole episode.

As Rodman heads home, the debate over the trip's purpose continues, while the safety and future of detained American Kenneth Bae remains uncertain.

Anna Coren, CNN, Beijing.


BLITZER: And Rachel Nichols is joining us now.

Rachel, the money, they say they're not getting money from North Korea, per se, but obviously someone's paying for these trips. Somebody is paying them, right?

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, actually, it seems two someones are paying them.

There's an Irish gambling brokerage called Paddy Power that initially was sponsoring this trip. They were actually doing it because they thought they would get a lot of good free publicity out of it. Hah- hah. When they realized they were getting only bad publicity they pulled out as the named sponsor of the trip.

But they had signed some contractual agreements with Dennis, with some other players, and they said they were going to honor those contractual agreements. And that of course means the money. Also the documentary crew that was with this group filming this, and that intends to sell that documentary, also, according to Charles Smith, the former Knick who was on the trip, they kicked in some money as well. According to the players, according to PADDY POWER, that's where the money is coming from. Of course, we don't know for sure that no money is coming from North Korea, but that's what these guys are telling us right now.

BLITZER: When David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, told me the other day this would be a good payday for these former NBA players, he obviously had some information along those lines.

And Rodman is suggesting he may go back to North Korea fairly soon, maybe as early as next month. Rachel, big picture, what is going on here?

NICHOLS: Well, anybody who can tell you what is going on with Dennis Rodman should be given a hefty amount of money, because I don't think even Dennis Rodman can tell you that.

Look, this is what we know. We know that the leader of North Korea likes Dennis Rodman because he grew up watching tapes the of Dennis' Bulls teams when he played alongside Michael Jordan. He idolizes Rodman. It's exciting for him. It's got cachet to say that Rodman is his friend.

We know that Rodman will be most likely invited back. Dennis Rodman, as we know, we have watched him his whole career, Wolf. He likes attention and this makes him relevant again. He's hounded by news crews. People want to take his picture. He's got a stadium full of people in North Korea chanting his name. That is appealing for Dennis Rodman.

On the other side of it is that Dennis really doesn't seemed to have realized going into this how much negative attention and publicity that he was going to get. I think that is going to be the war within Dennis Rodman over these next weeks or months as he decides whether to, in fact, take another trip.

We have seen just here on CNN air wild vacillations and mood swings, opinions, pronouncements, statements. Dennis definitely seems to have many contradictory opinions within himself. I think we will see those play out over the next few weeks or months whether he decides to go back.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right. Rachel, thanks very much, Rachel Nichols joining us. She's the host of "RACHEL NICHOLS" -- UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS," Friday nights 10:30 p.m. Eastern.

And that's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.