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President Obama Speaks Out; Terror Threat Growing; Inside Iran

Aired January 30, 2014 - 18:00   ET


BLITZER: We have more news coming up right now.

Happening now, a CNN exclusive, President Obama's first interview since his State of the Union address. So how much can he actually get done by sidestepping Congress? He's sharing new details about his plan to go it alone.

Plus, rising terror threats at the Olympics in Russia and around the globe. Top U.S. officials are warning there's a growing danger of deadly attacks.

And inside Iran, an exclusive look behind the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran decades after Americans were taken hostage there. The Iranians are now using it in a rather disturbing way.

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

Right now, President Obama's on the road promoting his plan for a year of action that he outlined in his State of the Union address. A bit earlier, he sat down for his first interview since that big speech on Tuesday night. He spoke exclusively with CNN anchor Jake Tapper in Wisconsin -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president sat down with me right here at this GE plant in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he signed that executive order.

This is his first interview following the State of the Union address Tuesday. And in our exclusive sit-down, we touched on a whole range of topics. But I began by asking him just how far he thinks this new go-it-alone attitude towards Congress will actually get him and get us.


TAPPER: Thanks for doing this, Mr. President.


TAPPER: So your big push in the State of the Union and here is whatever you cannot accomplish with Congress, you will take executive action or issue executive orders.

How much can you really accomplish doing that? OBAMA: Well, first of all, my big push is making sure we're focused on opportunity, making sure that every single day, all of us in Washington are trying to think about ways that we can help folks get good jobs, make sure that they're trained for the good jobs that are out there, make sure that those jobs pay, make sure our kids are getting a great education.

Those are the issues that the American people still, you know, very much are concerned about.

And, obviously, there is going to be more that we can do if Congress is able to break through some of the gridlock. And if we're able to, for example, pass immigration reform, that is going to add growth to our economy reduce our deficits...

TAPPER: You don't seem confident that that's going to happen, though.

OBAMA: No, actually I -- I actually think that we have a good chance of getting immigration reform done.

TAPPER: Oh, I don't mean immigration reform. I mean the jobs issue, though.

OBAMA: I -- I think there are going to be some issues where it's going to be tough for them to move forward. And I am going to continue to reach out to them and say here are my best ideas, I want to hear yours.

But, as I said at the State of the Union, I can't wait. And the American people, more importantly, cannot wait.

So, when, for example, yesterday I signed an executive order helping to set up starter retirement accounts for folks who may not have retirement accounts on the job it is not as big as if we change -- overhaul our tax code so that we're providing more incentives for working families to save, the same kinds of incentives that folks at the very top have, but it's still significant. It still makes a difference.

And what we're doing here today, talking about job training -- we actually already have a lot of resources for job training. The problem is, it's not well-coordinated and oftentimes it's not funneled to those programs that are allowing companies to help, maybe colleges, let's say, design the training so that somebody who goes through it knows they're going to get a job at the other end of it.

Tomorrow is a great example of something that we're doing that doesn't involve any legislation or funding. We know that one of the biggest problems right now in the jobs market is the long-term unemployed.

TAPPER: Yes, they're having trouble -- people won't hire them...

OBAMA: People...

TAPPER: ... because they've been unemployed so long.

OBAMA: ... because they've been employed -- unemployed so long, folks are looking at that gap in the resume and they're weeding them out before these folks even get a chance for an interview.

So what we have done is to gather together 300 companies, just to start with, including some of the top 50 companies in the country, companies like Wal-Mart and Apple, Ford and others, to say let's establish best practices. Do not screen people out of the hiring process just because they've been out of work for a long time.

We just went through the worst recession since the Great Depression. And so I'll be convening a meeting where a -- a number of these top companies will be coming in, agreeing to these best practices. And we'll have an opportunity to you know, encourage more people to come in.

All those things cumulatively are going to have an impact.

Will we be able to have more of an impact if we can get Congress, for example, to pass a minimum wage law that applies to everybody, as opposed to me just through executive order making sure that folks who are contractors to the federal government have to pay a minimum wage?

Absolutely. And that's why I'm going to keep on reaching out to them. But I'm not going to wait for them.

TAPPER: Your critics say this is diminished expectations. And I've been covering you for a long, long time, as you remember, 2005- 2006 in the Senate. I remember during the campaign when you talked about your presidency being a moment when the rise of the oceans would slow and the nation and the world would heel.

And now you're talking about pen and phone and executive orders and executive actions.

Do you think you were naive back then or have you recalibrated your expectations and your ambitions?

OBAMA: Well, part of it is we got a lot of that stuff done. We've got in this country a health care reform that has already signed up millions of people and make sure that everybody who is watching, anybody who already has insurance, will not be dropped because of a preexisting condition. And if they don't have health insurance, they can get it on

We have made enormous strides on the education front, changing our student loan programs. And millions more young people get student loans.

And so part of what's happened is that checklist that I had when I came into office, we have passed a lot of that and we're implementing a lot of it.

Where we haven't, we've taken some administrative actions. So, on climate change, which has to be a top priority for all of us, we are going to make sure that one of the biggest sources of the pollutants that are causing climate change are regulated by regulations on existing power plants. And that's a big piece of business.

And so in no way are my expectations diminished or my ambitions diminished, but what is obviously true is we've got divided government right now. The House Republicans, in particular, have had difficulty rallying around any agenda, much less mine.

And in that kind of environment, what I don't want is the American people to think that the only way for us to make big change is through legislation. We've all got to work together to continue to provide opportunity for the next generation.


TAPPER: And, Wolf, of course, you can see much more of the interview tomorrow on CNN's "NEW DAY" at 6:00 a.m. Eastern and again on "THE LEAD" at 4:00 p.m. Eastern -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jake, thanks very much.

Now to the growing threat of terrorism at the Winter Olympics in Russia and beyond. And just eight days before the opening ceremonies, new arrests and new warnings that al Qaeda is likely plotting and inspiring new attacks.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara.


Well, the U.S. military and the Russian military are now promising to stay in touch throughout the Sochi Games. It is just a concern and worry that keeps coming.


STARR (voice-over): Russia arrested two men it says were accomplices in those deadly bomb attacks last month in Volgograd, a town about 400 miles from the site of next month's Olympics. It's the latest crackdown on potential threats to the Sochi Games.

MATTHEW OLSEN, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM DIRECTOR: We have seen an uptick in the threat reporting regarding Sochi. And this was what we expected, given where the Olympics are located.

STARR: U.S. counterterrorism chief Matthew Olson believes the Olympic site itself will be safe.

OLSEN: The greater threat is to softer targets in the greater Sochi area and in the outskirts, beyond Sochi, where there is a substantial potential for a terrorist attack.

STARR: Train stations, buses and shops may be impossible to protect, the insurgency in Russia just the latest in the global threat from violent militants either inspired by or affiliated with al Qaeda, a battle the U.S. may not be winning.

JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: I can't say that the, you know, the threat is any less. I think our ability to discern it is much improved over what it was in the early part of the 2000 period. So I think that dispersion and decentralization actually creates a different threat and a harder one to watch and detect.

STARR: In Somalia, a U.S. drone fired a Hellfire missile on Sunday to try to kill Ahmed Godane, the leader of the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabab. Intelligence indicated new plotting against U.S. targets in the region.

In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, is on the rise. U.S. officials worry the government of Yemen has failed to take action. AQAP has already plotted against the U.S. with the 2009 underwear bomber attack.

In Syria, concerns are at an all-time high that foreign fighters are there and could return to Europe or the U.S. to conduct attacks.

CLAPPER: In excess of 7,000 foreign fighters have been attracted from some 50 countries, many of them in Europe and the Mideast.


STARR: The U.S. intelligence community now calculates that al Qaeda affiliates are active in at least 12 countries. Syria remains a vital concern, that militants there could use it as a staging ground to try and stage future attacks against the U.S. -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And today there was another U.S. warning to Syria on chemical weapons? I thought the Syrians had agreed to give up their chemical weapons.

STARR: Yes, you would have thought so, huh? Well, they did agree, but are they really doing it seems to be the question now. So far, apparently, only about 5 percent of what Syria has promised to ship out of the country has even been moved to ports and loaded on ships.

They are woefully behind, the State Department, the Pentagon coming out today voicing a lot of concern about this. The Syrians say they need more help, they need more equipment. The Obama administration's view is the Syrians are bargaining for time and they want them to stop it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr with those disturbing reports, thanks very much.

Other news we're following, the governor of Georgia now is personally accepting responsibility for the snow disaster that paralyzed the city of Atlanta and the other parts of the state. I spoke with the Republican governor, Nathan Deal, just a little while ago here in THE SITUATION ROOM. It was his first CNN interview since the storm hit on Tuesday.

Listen to this.


BLITZER: How much of a wakeup call has this been for your state?

GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: I think it's been a big wakeup call. I think it is going to cause all of us to be more aggressive in terms of declaring states of emergency, in terms of deploying our emergency personnel, especially with our Department of Transportation.

They had done some preliminary treating of the bridges and the overpasses that morning, but even that did not prove to be totally effective, because the temperatures were so low that when the melting occurred, refreezing followed it very quickly.

So it would have had to have been an ongoing treatment of the roads. And once the roads became clogged, we could not even get our DOT trucks to be able to move through the traffic in order to give further salt and sand and other solutions to be applied to the roads. It was just totally at a standstill.


BLITZER: Yes, it was, though temperatures today are starting to climb in the Atlanta area. The city, though, is not back to normal by any means. Efforts to tow abandoned vehicles away begin tonight.

Still ahead, it was dramatized in the movie "Argo," but these days few Westerners get inside the former U.S. Embassy in Iran where American hostages were seized in 1979 and held for 444 days. Now CNN is getting an exclusive tour.

And we're learning more about Governor Chris Christie's 2016 political machine. Was he really in the dark about the Bridgegate scandal? A new report is fueling some fresh doubts.


BLITZER: In Iran right now, the former U.S. Embassy where Americans were taken hostage decades ago and held for 444 days is being used in a rather outrageous way.

CNN got an exclusive look inside.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is joining us now live from Tehran.

Jim, what did you see?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I will tell you, Wolf, it feels like a place where time stopped. You walk into this building, much of it preserved just the way it was 35 years ago when the embassy was taken over.

You have got all these relics, these teletype machines, giant fax machine, soundproof meeting rooms, secure communications rooms, all of which they display as prized possessions now. But, also, as you're hearing the talk from the guide leading you around, the points of view are relics as well.

They're still trying to sell this idea that the embassy was a den of spies and that as a result the takeover was justified. Here's what the guide told me when I asked him that question, did he still feel it was right what happened in 1979?


SCIUTTO: Do you still believe it was justified to hold the Americans as hostages?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Definitely, yes.

SCIUTTO: And why ?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Based on international law, the U.S. Embassy should function as an embassy, not interfere in internal affairs. It's like somebody is snooping around your house. What would you do?


SCIUTTO: They're also selling some more recent conspiracy theories. There's a whole mural painted in the staircase there selling the idea that 9/11, that the U.S. was actually behind 9/11. Frankly, Wolf, I just didn't have the patience to listen to that.

But I will tell you, many Iranians have grown disillusioned with the revolution. This place is not the magnet for average Iranians that it used to be. And I wondered as I was there how many Iranians are still listening to this point of view as well.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect there's an increasing number who aren't. But we will see, Jim Sciutto in Tehran for us.

It's worth noting, by the way, that the United States has custody of the old Iranian Embassy here in Washington. It maintains the building remains pretty much as it was then up on Massachusetts Avenue. It's locked down. They have not made it into some sort of propaganda scene or anything like that. It's there. Presumably, if the U.S. and Iran were ever to resume diplomatic relations, that embassy would be brought out of mothballs, if you will, and the Iranians would have their embassy on Massachusetts Avenue here in Washington.

BLITZER: Just ahead: Governor Chris Christie's team and their game of political moneyball. We're getting a fascinating inside look at his 2016 campaign operation and its response to the Bridgegate scandal.


BLITZER: We're getting a new fly-on-the-wall look inside Governor Chris Christie's operation and its response to what is called that Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey.

And it zeros in on the question that many people have been asking, how could Christie not have known what was actually going on?

We're joined by David Chen of "The New York Times," part of the team that wrote this lengthy article in the newspaper.

David, thanks very much for joining us.

DAVID CHEN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Thanks, Wolf. Great to be here.

BLITZER: One of the conclusions, you have this inner circle, this political inner circle, if you will, of Governor Christie's team. They were in very close proximity, not only amongst themselves, but with the governor physically, if you will, raising the question, how could he not have known what was going on?

CHEN: I think there's still certainly the sense that, the possibility I think that he did not know, because there's no direct evidence yet.

That said, I think what we tried to do was sort of look under the hood, if you will, of his political operation, which is, by any stretch of the imagination, very impressive for a state-level operation. It's the kind of thing that you would think is the precursor to a 2016 run.

I mean, they talk about mini-Ohios and mini-Floridas. They talk about moneyball in terms of trying to assess towns that were swing towns that they could maybe persuade or win over. So it's a very sophisticated operation.

BLITZER: And they had an eye towards 2016, the presidential race.


CHEN: Yes. That was always the assumption, right. Especially when he began to really rise on the national stage as a Republican who could win bipartisan support, I think it became part of the mission statement, if you will, that he should try to run up the score almost in terms of reelection.

BLITZER: What was the conclusion, though, that you and your team had as far as the blame game, if you will? We know a couple of his staffers were fired. Others were implicated, if you will. There's subpoenas going on right now, full-scale investigation.

Bottom line, the conclusion was?

CHEN: Bottom line, the conclusion is that you can't jump to conclusions quite yet, but that everything that has been reported so far suggests that certainly it's a very top-down, tight-knit operation, in which the governor had a lot of control and took a lot of interest in politics. So sort of the gap in terms of credibility, you know, is beginning to narrow a bit.

BLITZER: Here's a new poll, "Washington Post"/ABC News poll, on 2016, the presidential -- potential presidential race, Republicans out there, Paul Ryan at 20 percent, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, 18.

Chris Christie is now down to 13 percent. He has suffered politically significantly as a result of this scandal.

CHEN: Well, having just covered the New York City mayor's race, where the polls were often not quite right, I think it's a little premature to sort of write his political epitaph for the moment.

But, clearly, what is troubling for people who support Governor Christie or are inclined to like him is the sense that he built up his reputation as someone who was a bipartisan person, who was above the fray, who viewed politics as kind of petty.

And now there's an alternate narrative that's emerging in which he's portrayed as vindictive or as a bit of a bully. And if that holds, if takes root and if there are other e-mails or other documents that come out, then that really is damaging and could last for a longer period of time.

BLITZER: And those are all ifs, obviously. So far, there's no -- absolutely no smoking gun. That's your conclusion as well, as of right now, right?

CHEN: Right.

And as -- there are multiple investigations or inquiries that are beginning to unfold. The U.S. attorney is looking into it. You have got a joint committee, legislative committee. And there could be other things. And so it is still very premature to kind of write -- to come to any conclusion, really.

BLITZER: Yes, and that would be very, very premature.

David Chen of "The New York Times," thanks very much for joining us.

CHEN: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.