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Extreme Weather Predicted for Texas; Government Troops Take al Qaeda Strongholds; Source: Kidnapped Girls Believed Split Up

Aired May 8, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jake, thanks very much. Happening now, breaking news. Severe weather warnings. High winds, rain, and possible tornadoes sweeping across a large swath of the U.S. right now. Millions of people right now are being warned to brace for the worst.

Government forces killed, al Qaeda militants on the run. We're following fast-moving stories in multiple countries. Dramatic developments in the fight against terror.

CNN has learned a U.S. team is now on the way to help find hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by militants. But a disturbing new development may make that much more difficult. I'll talk about it with the White House advisor on counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco.

Sterling speaks. The embattled L.A. Clippers owner caught on a new secret recording talking about the scandal over his racist remarks and hinting at what he may do next.

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

Let's begin with the breaking news. Right now, reports of more than a dozen al Qaeda militants killed by government forces in the latest fighting in Yemen. Sources telling CNN the U.S.-backed operation has ousted hundreds of terrorists from their strongholds in multiple cities across the country, but the militants are on the run and said to be seeking new safe havens in other parts of Yemen.

And there's other breaking news we're following. Millions of people now under a severe weather warning, bracing for possible thunderstorms and tornadoes that could touch down at any moment. Our analysts and reporters, they're covering all angles of all these stories. Let's begin with Chad Myers. He's over at the CNN severe weather center -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Major wind event; also large hail and a potential for a few tornadoes tonight, Wolf. Right here, this is Dallas-Ft. Worth. Royce City, you are about to get hit with at least 70 mile-per-hour winds as this storm moves right up toward Greenville into Texas.

This is not the only area that you mentioned. It's from Minneapolis down through -- all the way through Missouri and down into Texas proper. One more spot I want to take you here into Minneapolis. A lot of lightning: 500 lightning strikes right through Minneapolis just in the past half hour. This is what our affiliate KARE is seeing out of their tower cam. But this would be from St. Cloud back into Minneapolis. We were seeing lightning strikes on this. Very heavy downpours. I'm sure that the airplanes are very slow in Dallas and Minneapolis because of this weather and much more. This is just starting. It's only 4 p.m. Central time. Not only the heat of the day all the way yet. We'll be with you all night long, Wolf. This severe weather could last all the way into the overnight hours.

BLITZER: And it looks -- specifically Dallas right now, what is going on there?

MYERS: There was a big storm. It's called a line echo wave pattern. There was a wave right through here. And for a while in this notch, there was enough rotation that there was a tornado warning for Garland and points right at about the President George Bush turnpike, right through there.

The weather service kind of deleted that and said, no, it's just going to be a severe thunderstorm warning for now, but the winds could be 70 to 80 miles per hour into this area moving east of the metroplex.

I know we're not talking about Dallas-Ft. Worth proper but a lot of people that commute to Dallas live here, and the weather is not cooperating with them right now. You could get a lot of damage with a straight line wind at 70 miles per hour, even without a tornado. If you're in Royce City, you're in Clare here, take cover. You're going to get away from the windows because those windows can break when pieces of glass, anything from outside hits those windows. A lot of windows are going to break. A lot of shingles are going to be gone. We want people to be safe, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're hearing a ground stop at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, as well, that's a major hub. It could affect traffic and passenger service all over the country.

MYERS: That means that no airplane on the ground right now heading to Dallas is allowed to take off. There's enough stuff, enough planes in the area right now, in the air that they can't get any more in the air because they may not have enough time to get them all on. They may have to divert them. They're standing, they're ground stopping on tarmacs all over the country. If you're on your way to Dallas, listen to me now: it's going to be a while before that ground stuff goes away. A lot of planes are going to be late. A lot of connections are going to be missed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to watch the extreme weather. Chad, don't go too far away.

But there's other breaking news we're following, as well. Reports of more than a dozen al Qaeda militants killed by government forces killed in the latest fighting in Yemen. Let's begin this part of the story with CNN'S Mohammed Jamjoom. He's joining us from New York. He's got breaking news on the Yemen front. What are you hearing, Mohammed?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. Major breaking developments out of Yemen. Senior level government officials telling me that two towns that have been captured by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been retaken by Yemen's army. This is a result of the ground operations that have been going on for close to two weeks now.

The Yemeni army in some of the -- in some of the most dangerous parts of Yemen in the south, places like Abian (ph) and Shebwa (ph). The tape we're looking at right now actually showing Yemeni army going through what they say are IEDs, explosive devices hidden, in effect, inside a stronghold that was once a base for AQAP.

We're seeing dramatic video. We're also seeing video of tanks and armored personnel carriers rolling into other towns that had been housing AQAP leaders for years. This is really a very big deal.

The Yemeni government telling me that they feel confident they have al Qaeda on the run now, that they are getting the upper hand. The fact that they have committed so many troops and so many resources with a weak central government they have in Yemen for this fight, that is very significant. The key will be whether they can actually make sure that they've run these terrorists off, that they've captured them or killed them and if AQAP will be able to regroup as they have been able to in the past.

The fact of the matter is, still is heightening security throughout the country. Even in the capital, U.S. embassy, as we reported yesterday, is still shut down because of threats directed at it and other western installations in the capital. And there's still a lot of fear in Yemen that AQAP, because they are resurgent, they will be able to strike out at Yemeni government targets as well as foreign government targets, especially American targets inside Yemen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by. I want to get back to you, but there are also efforts under way to rescue more than 200 schoolgirls, kidnapped by Islamic militants, who may have just become a little bit more difficult. A U.S. military team scheduled to arrive in Nigeria tomorrow to help locate the girls, whose captors are now threatening to sell them. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is working her sources. What are you picking up, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, U.S. officials are telling us they now have good reason to believe that this is about to get much more complicated, that at least some of the girls have been split up into smaller groups and, of course, that means possibly, possibly moved across international borders in Africa, which are vague borders at best.

That is going to make it very difficult. A small U.S. military team scheduled to land in Nigeria tomorrow, they will join up with other U.S. personnel already working on this out of the embassy military personnel law enforcement and intelligence.

But if the girls are split up into small groups, this becomes a massive intelligence problem. How do you go -- how do you find them? How do you find where they're being held. How do you go after their captors all at the same time? We've talked about this.

You have to have simultaneous raids, because if you do not do this all at once in multiple locations, that you don't know where they are yet, that gives Boko Haram warning that the Nigerians are coming after them. The U.S. is talking to Nigeria now about using drones to try and take those beginning steps to track down Boko Haram -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, stand by. I want to bring in our national security analyst, Peter Bergen. Mohammed Jamjoom is still with us in New York, as well.

Does the U.S., based on everything you know, over the years have a good handle on this Boko Haram, this terrorist organization?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think the short answer is no. But I don't think anybody had a good handle on it. You know,, it was so murky. They're -- and they haven't tried to attack an American target. There was a debate within the administration about when -- whether to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization.

And the fact is that they haven't really threatened the United States verbally, but they haven't operationalized any of that. And so, you know, I think it's a group that is difficult to decipher and, you know, recently the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

BLITZER: November of last year.

Barbara, I've been told that this group apparently relishes all the attention it's getting lately. It's sort of emboldened by it at the same time. That's a problem, because they could go out there and kidnap a whole bunch more girls.

STARR: Well, I mean, our own CNN personnel in Nigeria had been reporting for days now how precarious the security situation is, and in the north of Nigeria, where this has been happening, there virtually is no security. We saw that Boko Haram went into a village and has killed 300 more people.

This is just terrible what these Nigerian civilians are putting up with. It is going to be a tradeoff. Boko Haram may relish the publicity, but the international pressure could -- could turn so much heat on them that it is possible it may give the Nigerian government the tools TO really go after them, but the Nigerian government is going to have to make that critical decision that it really wants to do that, and so far there's a lot of evidence that the Nigerians haven't done it as aggressively as they could, Wolf.

BLITZER: Peter, take a look at this video I'm going to show you. It's very dramatic video that allegedly shows a hotel in Aleppo being blown up by rebels going after Bashar al Assad's troops. Watch this video.




BLITZER: That's pretty powerful -- pretty powerful stuff over there. These are the rebels, but a lot of those rebels now are affiliated with al Qaeda.

BERGEN: Yes. I mean, the United States is giving weaponry to vetted rebels, and that weaponry could be (ph) to come through. But of course, the most effective fighting force, and there are two groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda fighting. So they're actually fighting each other. But certainly, the al Qaeda affiliate is regarded as the most -- you know, the strongest militarily.

BLITZER: Yes. It's a real problem right now. Peter Bergen, Mohammed Jamjoom, Barbara Starr, guys, thanks very much.

We have more on the breaking terror news. Coming up, I'll speak with the White House counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco. Did the U.S. drop the ball? What should Washington be doing now?

Plus, shocking comments by Donald Sterling. You're going to hear what he said in a secret recording about the allegations of racism against him.







BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news. Sources telling CNN that the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic militants in Nigeria have now been split up, making a possible rescue operation a whole lot more difficult.

And Lisa Monaco is joining us from the White House right now. She's the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. Lisa, thanks very much for joining us.

LISA MONACO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: What can the United States do right now to free those girls, more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria?

MONACO: Well, as you know, Wolf, this is an absolutely tragic and outrageous situation that's happened in Nigeria, and our hearts go out to the families. And the president and the first lady's thoughts and prayers are with the families and the parents of these 200 -- more than 200 girls that have been abducted.

What the -- what the U.S. government is doing right now is deploying a team of experts from across our government to do everything we can at the president's direction to help the Nigerian's find and safely return these girls to their families.

BLITZER: How many Americans are being deployed over there?

MONACO: Well, we're in the process of adding to a team that we currently have on the ground in our embassy, Wolf. At least a dozen folks will be on the ground shortly. These are military, law enforcement, intelligence experts and also experts in victim assistance to help the families and, hopefully, the girls, when they return, cope with this.

BLITZER: We've heard our Barbara Starr reporting from the Pentagon these girls have been separated. They're in smaller groups right now. Have you heard that? I assume you have.

MONACO: Well, Wolf, I'm aware of those reports and, as you know, what we are doing is making sure that we are considering every possibility. And we've got to be concerned with exactly that type of potential movement if it -- if it is, in fact, the case. There are very porous borders in this region, very heavily forested and remote and vast area. So we've got to be concerned about that.

BLITZER: So what does this Boko Haram group want? Do they want money? Do they want ransom? Do they just want to sell off these girls? What do they want?

MONACO: Well, Wolf, this is a terrorist group that has committed brutal, brutal acts for a number of years now. We're talking about suicide bombings, attacks on churches and mosques, and now the systematic and targeted kidnapping of women and girls, to include potentially selling them into slavery and trafficking.

And this is something that is -- has escalated. This is a group that has been in -- responsible for thousands of deaths. Indeed, more than 1,000 just this year alone. So their motivation is really terror, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, which raises the question. Two years ago you were among those in the government who recommended that the State Department formally designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization. The CIA wanted the State Department to do it, the FBI. You did over at Justice.

But for some reason, the State Department rejected that advice, and the secretary of state at the time was Hillary Clinton. What was their thinking? Was that a major blunder on the part of the State Department?

MONACO: No, Wolf. Look, there's a process that this government, our government goes in and goes through to designate a foreign terrorist organization. And we have, in fact, done that, and we did that last year after a deliberate process.

BLITZER: But it wasn't until November, Lisa. That's long after this group started wiping out U.N. facilities and killing all these people. This has been a terrorist group for a number of years, as you well know.

MONACO: That's right, Wolf. But I think it's important to remember that before we designated the group as a whole, there were a number of individuals, indeed key leaders of Boko Haram that we did designate as -- as terrorists, using the authority that this government has.

Designations are one tool among a whole host of tools that we use to combat terrorist groups and, most importantly, to work with the Nigerian government in order to help them bring this fight to Boko Haram.

BLITZER: If the U.S. government, as you had recommended, had designated this group as a foreign terrorist organization, would it have made a difference, potentially, as far as these 200 or nearly 300 girls are concerned? In other words, would the U.S. have been able to do something on the ground to prevent this kind of brutality?

MONACO: I'm not going to speculate about what might have happened, had a designation happened earlier. Again, we designated leaders of the group.

But certainly, the designation was not a factor in the assistance that we've been providing for years to the Nigerian government to help professionalize their military, to help provide them law enforcement and investigative assistance, to help indeed provide economic and development assistance, which is also crucial to a secure and stable government to help them address the terrorist threat that Boko Haram presents not just now in Nigeria, Wolf, but regionally. This is a regional problem that we're facing.

BLITZER: What is the connection between Boko Haram and al Qaeda?

MONACO: Well, Wolf, we're concerned about that. What we've seen in the past is at least some funding from an al Qaeda affiliate with which I think you're familiar, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. So we're very concerned about the connections what has heretofore been a relatively locally-focused but extremely brutal group. And so we're always going to be concerned about their connections. And now we're concerned about them expanding beyond the Nigerian borders into neighboring countries.

BLITZER: One quick question on Yemen. I know you were there in March. It looks like the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, is on lockdown. There's a credible threat, apparently, to U.S. interests there. What's going on?

MONACO: Well, Wolf, as you know, we have extremely capable focused, dedicated and brave people who serve in our posts all overseas and particularly in posts like Yemen and elsewhere, where we are always concerned about the threat posed by a very determined enemy in AQAP.

And so what we do is we focus on that threat reporting. We take prudent measures to protect our people; but these are folks who are serving diligently and bravely overseas, and we're very appreciative of it.

BLITZER: And we hope only that they are safe and sound. Lisa Monaco, the adviser to the president on counterterrorism, thanks very much for joining us.

MONACO: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, fresh bloodshed in Ukraine as president -- the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, invokes the memory of World War II. We're going live to the heart of the conflict.

Plus, a new secret recording of Donald Sterling. What is the embattled NBA owner saying about efforts to force him to sell his team? We'll have the audio for you. That's coming up.



S. STERLING: No, of course not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The tape speaks for itself, doesn't it?



BLITZER: There's a new secret recording, allegedly of the embattled L.A. Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, talking about the scandal sparked by his racist remarks and hinting at a bitter legal battle with the NBA, which wants to force him to sell the team.

CNN's Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, following the latest developments. And they've been very dramatic.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They have, Wolf. Key questions on this recording and who made the recording and why. It seems it would be something that would benefit Don Sterling. But we don't know who made it. It does seem to indicate Sterling's pushing back against allegations of racism and that he's going to fight the NBA over control of his team.


TODD (voice-over): He's talking to a longtime friend, seemingly aghast that the friend may think he's racist.

DONALD STERLING, CLIPPERS OWNER: You think I have anything in the world but love for everybody? You don't think that. You know I'm not a racist! TODD: The gossip Web site RadarOnline says it acquired a secret audio recording of Donald Sterling speaking to a friend whose identity we don't know. CNN cannot independently verify that the voice on the recording is Sterling's. But Radar Online says its source provided an affidavit confirming that the phone call was made by Sterling.

D. STERLING: How can you be in this business and be a racist? Do you think I tell the coach to get white players? Or to get the best player he can get?

TODD: It's unclear who made the recording and why they did it. The tape also indicates Donald Sterling's about to fight the NBA over its attempt to force him to sell the L.A. Clippers.

D. STERLING: You can't force someone to sell property in America.

TODD: Or can you? A source familiar with the situation tells CNN Sterling's racist comments violate a clause in the NBA's constitution, saying an owner can lose a team if they fail to meet their obligations in such a way as to affect the association or its members adversely. That could mean a moral clause might force Sterling out.

On the other hand...

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The NBA constitution addressing the ouster of owners deals primarily with owners who are unable to pay their bills or make payroll. But this is new ground for justification for ouster of an owner.

TODD: Sterling's estranged wife is maneuvering on her own. Shelly Sterling, who co-owns the Clippers, is legally entitled to retain her stake in the team, according to her attorney, and she intends to. Could she become the principal owner?

A family trust actually owns the Clippers. Shelly and Donald Sterling are the only trustees. As state attorney Michael Curtin points to one statement from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, when he talked about Donald Sterling's punishment.

ADAM SILVER, NBA COMMISSIONER: This ruling applies specifically to Donald Sterling and Donald Sterling's conduct only.

TODD (on camera): Did Commissioner Silver leave her an opening?

MICHAEL CURTIN, STATE ATTORNEY: I believe he left her a very significant opening. But the power in the trust, or the power of the trustees in the trust, would allow her to purchase assets from the trust. She may very well wind up being the owner of the entire interest.


TODD: Shelly Sterling's attorney says she's been in touch with the NBA regarding her desire to maintain her stake in the Clippers. The NBA is not commenting on that or on Donald Sterling's apparent remorse (ph) in that recording -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper now. CNN's Rachel Nichols, the host of "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS," is joining us, along with CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and our anchor, Don Lemon.

Rachel, the comments, the statements allegedly made on this audiotape by Donald Sterling, how does this move the whole story forward?

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN HOST, UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS: Well, this is the most we've heard from Donald Sterling in terms of his intentions to fight this, him saying nobody can take his property away. But that's not a surprise to the NBA. That's why they've been so careful in their legal maneuverings so far. They knew that he would likely file some lawsuits even if he couldn't win them just to try to slow them down, maybe just a reminder to them, who they're up against.

Really to make us once again -- I know I've been saying this for days, but the bombshell wild card here is Shelly Sterling. She's officially coming out now through her attorney and saying she is going to fight to keep this team. And remember, all of those parts of the constitution about impacting the NBA, well, Adam Silver has already come out and said that that doesn't apply to her.

She's going to have a stake here. And we're going to have to see how it plays out because, trust me, players around the league do not want her to have anything to do with this team, but she might have a case.

BLITZER: Rachel knows.

Jeffrey, you heard -- you heard Donald Sterling on this alleged tape saying, I'm a lawyer. You can't force people to sell property in America. He's referring to his NBA team. Is he right or is he delusional?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: He's delusional. The -- the contract with NBA, his agreement to follow the constitution of the NBA explicitly allows the NBA to force him to sell. That's what we've been talking about. He is gone. There is just no way in the world that the NBA is going to allow him to have any role in this team ever again.

I think Shelly is gone, too. She may have more of a chance to go into court and gum up the works but neither one of them is -- I think come opening day next season is going to be part of this team.

BLITZER: You know, Don, one thing I didn't hear in this latest audiotape was any apology from Donald. Did you hear any apology? Did you hear him say, you know, I really feel bad? I really feel awful. I'm sorry for those words. They were misunderstood. Please forgive me. Did you hear anything along those lines?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: No. It's called self-awareness. I heard no remorse and as I'm listening, I'm going, to the whole thing. OK. So look, this is what got me. And I want to get the question right. He said on -- number one, why is he talking on the phone to anyone? He's a lawyer. He knows that the last time he spoke to someone about this situation what happened? It ended up on tape and it got him into trouble.

But it's just how can you -- and this came out of his mouth. He goes, how can you be in this business and be a racist? That's the question that everybody is asking about him. How can he be in this business and be racist? Clearly the comments that came out of his mouth were racist.

Now, listen, he is even accused of discriminating against white players. Right? How can you be in this business and be a racist? J.J. Redding, we've heard about that. Right? Apparently he didn't want to sign up white players. How can you be in this business and be racist? Well, there's one where you can do it against all kinds of people. You can do it against black people, you can do it against white people.

This guy has no self-awareness. He does not understand what racism is. And Shelly, she can forget about it. She's in for a rude awakening. They are going to spend all of this money to go into court when they could just take the money and run.

BLITZER: Speaking of Shelly Sterling, Rachel, listen to this. Our Stephanie Elam had a chance to speak with Shelly Sterling's attorney, Pierce O'Donnell. Listen to what he said.


PIERCE O'DONNELL, SHELLY STERLING'S ATTORNEY: Mrs. Sterling has denounced her husband's racist comments. Totally disassociated herself. And Commissioner Silver was very clear that she's not accused of anything here, she didn't do anything wrong. It's Donald. OK. Number two, they have been estranged and not living together for over a year. OK? And while they share business -- you know, business properties, he's out of the team, has nothing to do with it and she's the owner in charge.


BLITZER: That full interview, by the way, is going to air on "AC 360" later tonight.

But, Rachel, you're well plugged in with the NBA. What's the likely NBA response to this assertion by Shelly Sterling's lawyer that she wants to keep the team, she owns half of it?

NICHOLS: Yes. The NBA is going to be scrambling a bit here because Adam Silver did make that statement that puts them in a tough position. And she is a co-owner of the team. She's been releasing all of these statements herself the past few days identifying herself as a co-owner and saying "we" a lot.

Just to remind people, she has a stake in this. Now as I said, players don't want her to have anything to do with this. But I think you guys are being a little presumptive here just assuming that she'll be out by the end of summer. It seems like this is going to be complicated. I don't think there's any shortage of lawyers in Los Angeles who want to get their hands on this.


TOOBIN: And --

NICHOLS: And starts --

TOOBIN: I know Pierce O'Donnell --

NICHOLS: -- some attempts to gum up the works.

TOOBIN: Pierce is a terrific lawyer. But Adam Silver's comment was only about whether she could still go to games, whether she was suspended from any participation with the team and she has been going to games. She -- he did not say she could still own the team. They are the same ownership group. They have been separated for less than a year. That is not separate ownership.

BLITZER: All right. Hold on. Don -- Don, I want your thoughts on --

NICHOLS: I don't think the question was just about that. I think the question is to Adam Silver was about the larger sense of the Sterlings and no, Jeffrey, you're absolutely right. He wasn't directly saying she could own the team or he wasn't directly addressing her ability to own the team. But it wasn't that narrow either. And I think it does open a door.

BLITZER: Don -- very quickly, Don, I know you guys are going to be back in our next hour as well because there's a lot more to discuss. But on this issue, why not? They bought the team in 1981 for about $12 million. They stand to sell it now -- if they were to sell it -- for $1 billion, $1 billion. At this stage in their lives, why don't they just end it gracefully, take the billion dollars, walk away, apologize, do some good deeds and get over it?

LEMON: Two things. It's very easy. Ego and greed. They don't want to pay the taxes. He wants to pass it on to his offspring or his wife whenever he passes. And ego. He doesn't want to be forced to do anything he doesn't want to do. Simple as that.

BLITZER: All right, guys, we're going to continue this conversation in the next hour. Don't go too far away.

We're also getting new details about those secret Sterling recordings. We'll share them with you. That's coming up.

And we're following the increasing tension on the ground in Ukraine right now. Is the standoff on the brink of all out war?

And the search for those missing girls. We have new details about what role the United States will play in the fight against those terrorists. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A very tense standoff in an eastern Ukraine City where government soldiers tried to beat back pro-Russian crowds. The tension and the bloodshed there, they are not letting up by any means.

We'll get a live report on the ground from our own Nick Paton Walsh. He's standing by. But first, our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is here. He's got more on the Russian president Vladimir Putin and his role in what's going on right now.

You're learning new information.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Right. So President Putin made this promise yesterday that he's moving those Russian forces back from the border with eastern Ukraine. U.S. officials, European officials repeating today they haven't seen any sign. They're looking at the satellite images. They don't see any signs that those troops are moving back at the border. So I spoke to Pentagon officials today and they explained to me what he's actually doing.

What he's doing is he has troops forward deployed all along the eastern border here in camps.

BLITZER: Right around here?

SCIUTTO: Yes. They are troops that came from all over Russia. What he does is he moves them closer to the Ukrainian border. They have exercises to kind of scare the eastern Ukrainians then he moves them back to those forward deployed bases. He's not redeploying those troops back to where they came from. So from the perspective of NATO allies, U.S. officials, that's not a substantive re-deployment. It's just kind of moving those chess pieces around the board.

BLITZER: In this area here. But they're still forward deployed. There's still 40,000 to 50,000 of them. They're still in a very threatening position. And that's why when you speak to U.S. officials they say they haven't seen anything substantive to say that President Putin is doing anything more than a faint, nothing substantive to show that he's taking back that threatening position from eastern Ukraine.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): The two faces of Vladimir Putin. Today the Russian president reviewing a missile test launch less than a day after promising to withdraw Russian troops from the Ukrainian border. NATO secretary-general said allies have yet to detect any sign that pullback is actually happening.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: So far, we haven't seen any indications that they are pulling back their troops. Let me assure you that if we get visible evidence, that they are actually pulling back their troops, I would be the very first to welcome it.

SCIUTTO: As for Putin's appeal to pro-Russian separatists to cancel a weekend referendum on joining Russia, today those separatists said they will go ahead with the vote no matter what the Russian president says in public.

DENIS PUSHILIN, PRO-RUSSIAN SEPARATIST (Through Translator): We don't have direct contact with Vladimir Putin. We found out about his proposal through the mass media. I think he will learn about the decision in the same way.

SCIUTTO: On the ground, the back and forth between Ukrainian forces and militants continues unabated. If government troops retaking the same city hall building in Mariupol, they had lost only yesterday. As in Putin warned the outbreak of ethnic divisions echoes the run-up to World War II.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (Through Translator): In Europe, as you know, every now and then combative nationalism rears its head, the same that once led to the birth of the Nazi ideology.


SCIUTTO: The focus now is on national elections scheduled in Ukraine for May 25th and when I speak to U.S. officials, they say that even with all this disruption, Wolf, that we're seeing now in eastern Ukraine, that if those elections were held today or tomorrow, they believe they could happen.

Now if the situation gets worse there, that's a different story and as you know and we were talking about this last week, President Obama has set his new red line in effect that if there's further disruption, that it peeves those elections, that's going to trigger those painful, expensive sector sanctions against Russia. But as of today, they still think those elections could happen May 25th.

BLITZER: We'll soon find out. That day is approaching.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Let's turn to the situation on the ground right now inside Ukraine where so many people are fearing there could be an all-out civil war.

Our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is on the scene for us as he always is.

Nick, tell our viewers what you're seeing right now.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A lot of confusion yesterday about what Vladimir Putin actually meant and then backed up by I think continued uncertainty today. Many people this morning sounding like they had the wind taken out of their sails, frankly, by Putin's suggestion the referendum should be delayed but still defense is being built up inside the city and a sense people are forging ahead, I think, despite growing fears that they see violence in the days ahead.


WALSH (voice-over): This is how Sloviansk's militants greet the news there will be a referendum on Sunday whatever Vladimir Putin thinks.

Laps around the town that's not about to back down. These men arriving fresh to join the militia now encircled by Ukraine's army. Putin's advice they delay, letting Putin both distance himself and claim this is a homegrown uprising.

In the central square, they mourn the dead of the past days but at this office the self-declared man also brandishes new ballot papers brought in last night.

Russia's flag is still on his desk but now he sleeps behind it with a flak jacket and rocket launcher. He reads me a note from a local girl hoping her guardian angel watches over him. He may need more than that when this vote goes ahead.

"We're ready to have a referendum," he says, "We have a commission. We've already. We have the papers. Putin is the head of the Russian federation. We have our own Donetsk People's Republic. Let's get it right."

Life here is on pause. This, the only working bank. Ukrainians caught between either a bloody intervention by the army or a messy and floored vote to likely join Russia. At the last barricade before the army, they hang this figure.

Next is the Interior minister or the president hanging themselves in the real world, they joke, before showing their arm with only Molotov cocktails. They say the bridge is mine, the safe way out of this town and this crisis decreasing fast.


WALSH: Now, Wolf, where are we really now? Well, not much different than where we were before Putin made those comments. The Ukrainian military still is amassing around that town in large numbers. Those inside still ready to defend it, armed to the teeth in many ways. The referendum still going ahead on Sunday. Most people thinking it's not going to be (INAUDIBLE) but it is going to be probably end with some solid request to join Russia. The key difference is everything that follows from now on, Vladimir Putin can say he tried to stop it.

He was trying to get the elections to go ahead in May and potentially takes the wind out of Washington and Brussels if they wish to introduce sanctions at a later date for what happens here in eastern Ukraine -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh reporting from Sloviansk. Nick, thanks very much.

Just ahead, breaking news. We're tracking severe storms threatening about 50 million people right now from Texas all the way to Minnesota.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news this hour. Severe weather now threatening 50 million Americans from Texas all the way up to Minnesota. They're going to have much more on this story coming up.

First another story we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Hillary Clinton now says she has not made a decision about whether a run for president in 2016 but that has certainly not stopped Republicans from ramping up attacks on her, her record as the secretary of state.

Our senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar is here in THE SITUATION ROOM looking into these late developments for us.

What are you finding out?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, Republicans have been looking for potential soft spots in Hillary Clinton's State Department armor from the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya to her attempted reset of U.S./Russia relations in 2009 and now to her position on this terrorist group that has kidnapped girls in Nigeria.


REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: For the life of me I cannot understand why the secretary of state did not want to designate Boko Haram as a violent terrorist organization.

KEILAR (voice-over): Republicans raising questions today about Hillary Clinton's decision not to classify Boko Haram as a terrorist group when she was secretary of state. Yesterday Clinton had pointed words for the Nigerian government for its response to Boko Haram's kidnapping of hundreds of girls.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: The government of Nigeria needs to get serious about protecting all of its citizens.

KEILAR: But sources close to Clinton tell CNN the State Department didn't want to legitimatize the group or energize its recruitment.

CLINTON: What is it you want to achieve?

KEILAR: Republicans are attacking Clinton's record at the State Department as she prepares to launch her book tour next month. Meanwhile, Clinton is racking up miles and millions with a schedule of mostly paid speeches.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Miss Clinton, if you don't represent women in politics in America as future president, who will?


KEILAR: Answering friendly questions in friendly forums with one exception.

CLINTON: A thing about two --

KEILAR: Last month when a woman threw a shoe at her in Las Vegas. Clinton concentrates mainly on social issues near and dear to her heart, but her political opponent are trying to chip away at her tenure at the State Department, something voters consider a political positive according to polls.

House Republicans forming a select committee to investigate the 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.