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Iran Threats; New Word From American Held Prisoner in North Korea; Winter Olympic Games Continue

Aired February 10, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Iran threats. And there's tough talk, provocative moves just as the talks on the country's nuclear program are about to resume. Is Tehran sending warships toward the United States?

Weather emergency: Atlanta bracing for another round of snow and ice just weeks after a similar storm paralyzed the city. Have officials learned from that mistake?

And Olympic ghost town, a sprawling hotel complex virtually empty even with the Winter Games in full swing nearby, so where are all the guests?

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

A missile test and warships, they are on the move. We're monitoring some menacing potentially new actions and words by Iran. Even as the country moves forward with historic nuclear talks with the U.S. and other allies, the tone at the highest levels in Tehran, that tone is growing more heated, potentially more aggressive and disturbing.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, he is just back from Iran.

What's going on with the latest round of saber rattling, shall we say?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the saber rattling, Wolf, comes from very powerful corners of the Iranian government, the supreme leader, parts of the military and something we found on our own trip to Iran. It reflects real and continuing divisions inside Iran over the prospect of improved relations with the U.S. and the West.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, Iran is celebrating the launch of a new generation of long-range ballistic missile. The state TV announcement made no mention of the U.S., but this weekend the most powerful man in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, called American leaders liars intent on toppling the Iranian government.

American officials publicly say they do not seek regime change in Iran. "That's a lie," he said. "They wouldn't hesitate a moment if they could do it." Hours later, an Iranian navy admiral appeared to issue a direct threat to the U.S., claiming Iranian warships were approaching American waters and that the move was a direct response to the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

The White House dismissed the comments as bluster.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There was an Iranian announcement that they're moving ships close to the United States, and we have no evidence that Iran is in fact sending ships close to the U.S. border.

SCIUTTO: Still, the bellicose rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West and to the voices we heard on our recent visit to Iran, including two lengthy encounters with the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

(on camera): At what point did you know that this time was different? Did you feel, you know what, I think that an agreement is within reach?

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I believe the comprehensive deal is doable, it's possible, it's within reach. It just requires the political will and the good faith.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Which is the real voice of Iran's leaders? In fact, both may be, representing the sharply divided factions for and against negotiations with the U.S.

(on camera): So who do you listen to then of those two?

VALI NASR, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: I think both sides -- both are real. We have to see which is getting the upper hand, which one has momentum behind it. I think right now many in Iran are fence-sitting.


SCIUTTO: In the midst of all this, new talks on a long-term nuclear agreement begin next week in Vienna. And I'm told there's now the possibility of monthly high-level meetings as these talks progress between the U.S., the West, and Iran.

And, Wolf, as we hear this kind of rhetoric coming out of Iran, we have to accept the possibility that there are corners, factions in Iran that would like to sabotage these talks, they want to spark a reaction from the U.S., and that there's some method, you might say, to this madness.

BLITZER: So, Zarif and maybe even Rouhani may be, relatively speaking, the more moderate elements compared to some of the others.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. And they're fighting their own battle here -- just as you have -- there -- just as you have divisions in the U.S. over whether you can trust the other side in these talks.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto just back from Iran, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, chilling words from an American man being held inside a North Korean labor camp. We have new video that has just emerged of Kenneth Bae voicing fear that the brutal conditions will hurt his health, and that message has his family here in the United States more worried than ever.

Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM working the story for us.

What's the latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, an extraordinary piece of video here. Kenneth Bae speaking in English says he doesn't think he can be in this labor camp much longer and if he is, he may have to go back to the hospital. They gave details on his health and how he's being treated.


TODD (voice-over): From the North Korean gulag wearing prisoner number 103, Kenneth Bae says he's lost 10 pounds since being transferred back to a labor camp a few weeks ago. The American missionary says he's been working with his hands a lot, that he has some cuts and:

KENNETH BAE, AMERICAN HELD PRISONER IN IRAN: Doing hard labor for eight hours a day for the next couple of months will be difficult. So, if they can do something right away, it would be the best way to do it.

SCIUTTO: Bae's conversation with a Swedish diplomat was released by "Choson Sinbo," a pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan. He told the diplomat he's being treated fairly, has access to books and TV at the camp and is staying strong mentally and spiritually.

BAE: To my family, just let them know that, you know, that even though I'm here, but I'm still -- continue on with myself, and I have not lost hope or I have not given up anything.

SCIUTTO: Bae's sister responded with grave concern in a CNN interview.

TERRI CHUNG, SISTER OF KENNETH BAE: I'm really concerned about his health. And the fact that he's been moved to the labor camp, you know, we're really discouraged by that.

SCIUTTO: Bae's family says he has a bad back and diabetes. Why is Bae being treated so harshly compared to other Americans held and then released by the North Koreans? Bae was accused of trying to bring down the North Korean government through religious activities.

Analyst Victor Cha says The North Koreans see that as a severe attack and want to make an example out of Bae. Cha says this is a no-win for the Obama team.

VICTOR CHA, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBER: If they send in someone high-level, they're going to get criticized for playing into the North Koreans' game. On the other hand, you have this American in there and somebody's got get him out. They just can't leave him there.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: And another setback in this case. Just as we were learning of Kenneth Bae's recording, the State Department says North Korea has rescinded its invitation for a special U.S. envoy to come to Pyongyang and discuss Bae's case. And the State Department says the regime has not given a reason why -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And now there's word that the Reverend Jesse Jackson may actually be getting involved in all of this.

TODD: That's right. At the request of Kenneth Bae's family, the Reverend Jackson has become involved. When the North Koreans rescinded that invitation for the U.S. envoy, Robert King, to go, Jackson offered to go in place and talk about Bae's case. There's been no reply from the regime.

BLITZER: All right, Brian Todd, we will stay on top of the story. Thank you.

Still ahead: name change controversy. New pressure on the Washington Redskins -- why keeping the name could cost the team financially.

Plus, Atlanta bracing for round two, a fresh batch of snow and ice threatening the city. Will it be paralyzed and traumatized again?


BLITZER: Right now, a major ice storm is rushing toward the Southeast, threatening to paralyze one of America's biggest cities all over again. So are officials there doing enough to prevent the chaos?


BLITZER: Let's get to some other news.

Two members of Congress have a special message for the NFL. If the Washington Redskins don't change their -- quote -- "racially offensive name, we might hit you where it really hurts, your pocketbook." The NFL is a nonprofit trade organization. The teams can make a profit, but the league has tax-exempt status.

And some members of Congress have written a letter now to the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, complaining about the name.

CNN's Brian Todd spoke with Senator Maria Cantwell.


SEN. MARIA CANTWELL (D), WASHINGTON: With our tight economic budget, we can't afford to have tax breaks going to organizations that basically have terminologies that are offensive to American people.


BLITZER: The NFL has responded by referring us to Commissioner Goodell's past comments. Goodell has said the league has met with Native American groups, respects the opinions of those who don't like the name, but says it has an 80-year tradition. The Redskins told CNN that Congress should have better things to do, referred us to Arthur Dymond.

His family is part of the Algonquin tribe. He's got season tickets to Redskins games.


TODD: A lot of Native Americans who look at this say it's clearly offensive and it's derogatory. And it's -- I mean, how does this name not offend you?

ARTHUR DYMOND, ALGONQUIN TRIBE: I'm proud of it. I'm proud of being a Redskin. I'm proud of being a Native American. I have practiced all my life Indian ways. And the Redskin team plays hard. They may not win all the time, but they do play honorably. And that's what Redskins do.


BLITZER: Despite that, Senator Cantwell says she may hold hearings to review the NFL's tax-exempt status unless a change is made.

Your plane lands, your flight is over, you're anxious to get out of your seat and into the terminal and go home. Most of know the scenario, but imagine the shock of a pilot suddenly announcing, guess what? We landed at the wrong airport. It happens more often than you might think.

CNN's Rene Marsh is here in THE SITUATION ROOM looking at this.

It's pretty shocking, when you think about it.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is. And, you know, Wolf, it happens a lot more than people even realize.

And it's very troubling, because, as one pilot put it, there's no excuse for a pilot to land at the wrong airport with all of the navigational equipment that is available. Now, based on news accounts and government data, the AP reports that since the early '90s, at least 150 commercial planes landed or nearly landed at the wrong airport.

Now, just last month, a Southwest airplane, that flight had more than 100 people on board. It landed at the wrong airport. You remember, very short runway. That was in Missouri. And then in November, a huge cargo plane landed at the wrong airport, also very short runway. That was in Kansas.

We did our own digging through the government data and other Web sites that track these sort of incidents and we found 31 similar recorded incidents since 2000 worldwide. We can tell you in one case it was the person in the jump seat who shouted alerting the pilots that the flight to San Antonio was headed to the wrong airport.

And in another case, a plane bound for San Jose International Airport, it lined up for a military airport instead. Now, that report said that this sort of thing happened several times every winter in bad weather when work was being done at a particular runway.

So, Wolf, a very scary situation.

BLITZER: Given all the sophisticated technology in that cockpit, how does a pilot make a mistake like that?

MARSH: That's the key question here. You talk to some pilots and they say it could happen by a few things being in play here, something called confirmation bias. Essentially, that means that the pilot believes they see the right airport, and because of that belief, they ignore all other information that suggests otherwise.

Also, there's the failure to use navigation equipment that is right there. They also fail to crosscheck what they see with their eyes, that -- crosschecking that with the equipment. But in the grand scheme of things, the FAA says the number of times this sort of things happened very minuscule. They tell us this.

In the past 10 years, six commercial aircraft landed at the wrong airport and there were no injuries or damage to the aircraft during more than 100 million commercial operations, so small sample here. Still, though, the consequences could really be deadly, could be catastrophic. They take it very seriously.

BLITZER: I'm sure they do. Rene, thanks very much.

Just ahead, it's like a ghost town in the middle of the Olympics. What is going on? We will show you.


BLITZER: It's an Olympic mystery, a hotel sitting virtually empty even as the Sochi Winter Olympic Games are in full swing.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, investigates.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are well under way now with gold medals coming in on both the American and Russian sides, but still one question people are asking inside is, where's the bustle? Where's the sense of thousands of fans coming in?

An acute absence of people in one location we went to.


WALSH (voice-over): They have laid on a welcome warm enough to melt the Siberian tundra, but here at least Russia's waiting for everyone else to show up.

This hotel complex up in the hills where even the snow is now ready says it's sold out, that everyone's at the Games, but, really, everyone? These were the only actual guests we found. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know where the party is. It's a little bit ghostly right now, but maybe it's early. Yes, so I have seen the film "The Shining."

WALSH: He was even told he couldn't extend his stay, it's so busy.

There's a Russian saying, that champagne too early is a bad thing. Well, there's no champagne being drunk at all. It's all a bit sad up here. Across the mountain cluster, the lights are on, but there aren't that many at home. It's hard to know, in a place as remote as this, what full occupancy looks like, but it doesn't feel that crowded.

These buses parked up on what should be a busy Sunday, those we saw driving around often empty. Still, the Russians are here in force. And nothing, not even a nearby insurgency or the at times punitive prices for nearly everything, will stop their fun.

(on camera): Russian pride, and there's a lot of it around here, doesn't come that cheap. This, coupled with this, is going to set you back well over $1,000.


WALSH: Here, they sense a Russian gold is near. They got their first moments later; 80 percent of tickets are sold, organizers say, and the venues seemed busy, the $51 billion Games, a marvel of engineering, Russian culture and security up in the hills, even if, in some places, they forgot to invite the snow.

There are pockets of winter joy, these Austrians, the team with the most direct threat against two of their female athletes, almost impossible to worry. Whatever they put in the gluhwein clearly works, enough to make them forget the price. Here's hoping the atmosphere builds, along with the numbers.


WALSH: Now, tomorrow, the snowboarding halfpipe competition will get under way. That's where the world's most famous snowboarder, Shaun White, known as the flying tomato, very prominent American here, will compete. Perhaps that will get the crowds going, certainly, people hoping the atmosphere continues to build -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Rachel Nichols is joining us now from Sochi. She's covering those Winter Olympic Games.

You got a chance, Rachel, to speak with one of the big winners.


The snowboarders have dominated the early part of these Games. You know, normally, Wolf, when I go to an Olympics, we see very serious athletes. They have been training their whole lives. They talk about personal bests and split times. But this group, it's been a little different. I had a chance to sit down with gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg, and you will see why he's become the early smash hit of these Olympics. Take a listen.


SAGE KOTSENBURG, U.S. OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: There were a ton of people, like U.S. everything, like, go America. I just looked at them. I'm like, what? I felt like we were family. I was just like, you guys are here. I don't even know you, but thanks.

NICHOLS: You were the first person to win a gold medal at this entire Olympics. But you're not the hard-core, athlete type that we're used to seeing. I mean, your routine the night before your biggest day of competition, you didn't go work out or visualize your run or anything. What did you do?

KOTSENBURG: I was -- I was eating snacks watching the opening ceremonies.

NICHOLS: Snacks, huh?

KOTSENBURG: Plus chocolate, onion rings and chips and stuff. Yes, I mean, that's the beauty of snowboarding. You don't have to be some mega athlete, like work out all the time.

NICHOLS: I do have to stop you about the onion rings as well because you made one of my favorite photos of the Olympic Games, which was the Olympic rings out of your onion rings.


NICHOLS: The night before your big day.

KOTSENBURG: It just made sense. You know?


It just made sense.

NICHOLS: And you've had great Twitter photos, this entire run. They had you in the Bolshevik hat. That was pretty good.


NICHOLS: And the language you've been dropping on Twitter, most people what gnarly means, they know what shredding means.


NICHOLS: I knew, right? But I need some more of the Sage dictionary.

KOTSENBURG: Yes. So we got -- first and foremost we have spice.

NICHOLS: OK. And what does that mean?

KOTSENBURG: It pretty much means anything you want it to mean.

(LAUGHTER) You can just be like, oh, you're spice or, you know, that trick was spicy, man.


NICHOLS: Now, Wolf, it won't surprise you that so far Sage has been compared to Sean Penn's character Jeff Spicoli from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

I have to say, Sage is turning 21 this year. So, that movie came out 11 years before he was even born. But he's seen the movie, he likes it. He says he's going to start calling this Olympics fast times at Sochi.

BLITZER: What an excellent young man he is indeed. All right, Rachel, we will check back with you tomorrow. Thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching. CROSSFIRE starts right now.