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Near Midair Collision; Crisis in Ukraine; New Donald Sterling Tapes?

Aired May 9, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. A U.S. Airways flight nearly collides with a drone. We're getting new details. It's likely the first major incident of its kind in the skies over the United States.

Plus, this: new bloodshed and provocation in the Ukraine crisis. CNN is on the ground with details on the latest deadly clashes.

And new muscle flexing by Vladimir Putin. The U.S. and its allies are slamming the Russian president for a brazen appearance in a military celebration.

And more secret audio in the Donald Sterling scandal. He apparently says the rant that got him banned from the NBA wasn't about race; it was about sex.

And we have brand-new information on this story coming right in to THE SITUATION ROOM right now. We have new information that we will share with you. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, a terrifying close call, a major American airliner flying dangerously near a drone. The consequences could have been disastrous. We're learning more about the incident and the threat to passenger planes from small unmanned aircraft.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, is here. She's got news on the breaking story -- Rene.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right, potentially disastrous and potentially deadly if that drone made contact with that passenger plane, and the two came dangerously close to colliding midair, but this isn't a first. There have been other drone disasters in the air.


MARSH (voice-over): A near nightmare in the sky. A passenger plane nearly crashes into a camouflage drone flying at 2,300 feet, well above the typical altitude for a private drone. The incident in the Tallahassee skies involved a U.S. Airways express jet flying nearby the airport. The first details of the March scare previously not revealed until an FAA official spoke about it Thursday in San Francisco.

JIM WILLIAMS, FAA: The airplane pilot said that the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it. Thankfully, inspection of the airliner after landing found no damage.

MARSH: Authorities do not know who flew the drone, but say it could have brought down the plane. "The safety of our passengers and crews is top priority," U.S. Airways' parent company tells CNN tonight in a new statement. "We're aware of the published report alleging an incident with one of our express jets and we are investigating."

There have been close calls before. The FBI is still investigating a drone that came within 200 feet of an Alitalia flight in New York earlier this year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We saw a drone, a drone aircraft.

MARSH: The pilot in that incident can be heard telling air traffic control. And this Monday, a small drone was found after apparently hitting this building in Saint Louis.


MARSH: All right. Well, in the next five years, the FAA estimates as many as 7,500 drones could be flying in U.S. airspace at any given time. The agency has been working on a plan to safely integrate drones into the airspace so that you don't have accidents with passenger aircraft. We should tell you it is illegal for commercial use and the FAA only allows hobbyists to fly drones up to about 400 feet.

BLITZER: Rene, stay with us, because I want to bring Miles O'Brien in, our CNN aviation analyst.

Miles, how big of a problem potentially is this?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: What's interesting here is, you have an industry that's gone far beyond the ability of the FAA to regulate it.

Basically, what the FAA said, back in 1981, that's the last time they addressed this classification of drone, which are considered radio-controlled models, was it was -- they were supposed to be below 400 feet, stay three miles away from an airport and if closer than that, notify the authorities.

What has happened is the drone world was self-regulating, self- policing for many years through these radio-controlled model clubs, and now it's just exploded way beyond these self-policing entities. And what you have are people flying these small drones who are not abiding by these rules.

And this can cause real problems. I think it's time for the FAA to consider this 400-feet-and-below level. It's far beyond their purview at this point.

MARSH: And the main issue is really because these unmanned drones are just that, unmanned, no pilots there, so you can't have this see and detection where if there is a pilot in the cockpit, then you could see something is wrong and you know to move away.

You don't have that luxury here because, again, there's no one in a cockpit. It is remotely operated.

O'BRIEN: And one of the big concerns, Wolf, is imagine if there had been some sort of evasive maneuver there that was somewhat violent, somebody wasn't strapped into a seat. Of course, on final approach to the airport, everybody is strapped in, but short of it hitting an engine, there could be some trouble that could be caused by these drones.

We have to rely on people exercising common sense and relying on that, as we well know time and again, can lead us to trouble. The other area above 400 feet and larger size, integrating Predator-size type drones into the national airspace, the FAA is working on that at six specific locations around the country.

And that's a distinctly different problem and actually something the FAA is more readily equipped to handle, because these aircraft can be equipped with things like transponders and can be given the kind of technology which we'd call sense or see and avoid. That technology is going to be tested at these six sites and those types of aircraft eventually will be flying side by side with aircraft that are piloted, which is kind of an interesting notion.

BLITZER: The FAA has just released a statement, Rene. I don't know if you have seen the statement yet. But basically they're saying they're working aggressively to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace.

They go on to say: "Our challenge is to integrate unmanned aircraft into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world. Introduction of unmanned aircraft into America's airspace must take place incrementally and with the interest of safety first."

Here's what's shocking to me. They really haven't addressed it since 1981, when drone technology was so primitive? Those drones have come a long way since then.

O'BRIEN: This has caught them by surprise. This is an industry that's just exploded and has gone beyond the capability of these clubs to self-police, which was what the notion was back in 1981. I think the FAA is having a hard enough time thinking about how to integrate the big drones into the system, 25 pounds and above, the Predator- style, whatever the case may be.

These little ones, there's so many. And, what, we're going to require everybody who buys a drone to get a pilot's license? How do you begin to regulate that area?

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Because it seems like they're coming a little bit late to the game right now. I don't know how you feel about that, Rene.

MARSH: Well, they have been slowly, and again the key word slowly here, inch by inch, they're laying out a blueprint, so to speak, for how they will begin to safely integrate them.

Some of the things that -- or issues that they're looking at is determining a standard for how far apart these drones would have to be spaced from an aircraft that's in the air, the type of technology that the drone needs to have on board, which is detection sensors that would be able to detect that it is too close to maybe an aircraft, because, again, there is no pilot on board.

So that's the groundwork that they're laying, but they're not there yet simply because, like you said, this industry has exploded, and they're essentially trying to keep up.

One thing, if you notice in the bottom of that statement there, they still don't know who was flying that drone. They say that they're investigating.


BLITZER: Because if a drone, if that gets anywhere near a commercial airliner with a few hundred people on board, remember what a few geese could do if they get caught up in the engines. I'm not worried about the drone because it's unmanned, but I'm worried about those passenger airliners.

O'BRIEN: Well, let's remember, first of all, that was a flock of Canada geese. That was a lot of goose meat that went into those engines. That brought down both engines -- both engines went out.

One single solitary drone at a lightweight, I'm not so sure how much damage that might cause. As a matter of fact, the FAA should be looking at -- you have seen the testing where they literally fire frozen birds into the engines to see how they survive. They should start firing drones into the engines.

BLITZER: Miles O'Brien, thanks very much.

Rene Marsh, thanks to you as well.

Still ahead, Vladimir Putin takes a victory lap, as the battle for control of Ukraine rages on. We have new information that reveals what the Russian president is really up to.

And we will talk about another secret audio recording in the Donald Sterling scandal. He appears to blame his problems in the NBA on lust and jealousy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm trying to have sex with her. I'm trying to play with her. (END AUDIO CLIP)


BLITZER: Tanks and troops on the streets of Ukraine. We're following deadly new shoot-outs between government troops and pro- Russian militants.

Another show of force, this one with Vladimir Putin at the helm -- the Russian president's visit to the disputed Crimea region sent a powerful message today, a message that triggered a stern response from the United States.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is standing by. He's on the ground in Ukraine for us.

But, first, let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM with the very latest.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you remember it was two days ago that President Putin said that he had moved his troops back from the Ukrainian border.

What officials have been telling us since then, that's not true. They're not seeing indications of that. So, here's what U.S. officials have been looking at. That's satellite images of those troop deployments along the Ukrainian border.

This is before the crisis. You could see empty here. This is the end of March. You can see these are armored personnel carriers. These are tents, other structures. And this is two days ago. No change between March 23 and two days ago, the day that President Putin made that promise.

And, indeed, as you look at these photos, you can see that these are becoming more than just short-term deployments. They look medium- to long-term. You have got a lot of structures and a lot of movement of those armored vehicles as well.

And you have this proof coming out from the State Department at the same time that President Putin makes what the State Department called is a provocative visit to Crimea, once part of Ukraine, now part of Russia.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With cheering crowds greeting him, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, turning a Russian holiday commemorating World War II into a celebration of Putin's new Russia.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): 2014 will enter into the chronicles, into the chronicle of all our country as the year when all the people who live here have firmly decided to be together with Russia. SCIUTTO: Russian military might was on full display, a Soviet- era performance as troops marched and armored vehicles rolled by.

PUTIN (through translator): We are together. This means we have become even stronger, and I congratulate you on the great victory.

SCIUTTO: U.S. reaction to the visit was immediate and firm, the White House accusing President Putin of inflaming tensions in an already nervous region.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: This trip is provocative and unnecessary. Crimea belongs to Ukraine and we don't recognize, of course, the illegal and illegitimate steps by Russia.

SCIUTTO: Beyond the pomp and circumstance, the situation on the ground very real and very bloody. Here, a man shot down point-blank in broad daylight, another victim lying dead nearby, as open gun battles played out in the streets of Mariupol.

Two days after Russia promised to reduce tensions by withdrawing its forces from Ukrainian border, the Pentagon left no doubt that the reality is very different.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NAVY: They're still there in great number. They're still capable. Our assessment is, it's still a very ready force. And, again, their presence there is doing nothing to de- escalate the tension there in Ukraine.


SCIUTTO: Now, this is where those Russian forces are in three main places. This is Kursk. This is Volgograd and this is Rostov. This is Russia, Eastern Ukraine here.

And the only movement of troops that Russia has, indeed, been doing these last couple of weeks is back and forth from these forward deployments, closer to the border and back. That's all they're doing, going back and forth. None of them are going back to where they started to other bases around Russia.

And it's down here in Rostov where those satellite images were taken showing that, indeed, since President Putin made that promise to pull those forces back, Wolf, as you can see in those pictures there, no movement.

BLITZER: No movement at all, it looks like. It looks like they're reinforcing their positions.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. And these look like long-term deployments. they don't look like short-term things.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very, very much.

Let's go to Ukraine right now. Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is on the ground for us.

What do you see over there, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Slavyansk, near where I'm standing here, Wolf, we are seeing a day of comparative calm.

But there's great tension ahead because tomorrow is the last day potentially the Ukrainian military could move in ahead of the referendum they're holding, the self-declared authorities here, the pro-Russian protesters on Sunday.

But all eyes really on Mariupol, as you're seeing in Jim's package there, a worrying death toll. The interior minister, who, let's face it, who has been known for rhetoric, rather than fact, in the past few weeks, says it includes as many as 20 pro-Russian militants, but the local officials are saying really comes to about seven dead, 39 injured.

The reason why Mariupol is so important is it's about an hour's drive if those troops that Jim was talking about choose to move across the border from Russia into Ukraine, very close, indeed, a lot of bloodshed here. And it feeds into this resonance of today, May the 9th, very important in the Russian mentality here, Vladimir Putin celebrating that victory over what they call fascism in World War II.

To all of us, they call it the great patriotic war, and many concerned that the scenes in Mariupol are feeding into that broader Kremlin narrative, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh on the ground for us in Ukraine, thank you.

Other news. A small team of U.S. military advisers has landed in Nigeria to help the search for more than 200 girls who were kidnapped by terrorists. Amnesty International now says Nigerian forces were warned of the attack by Islamic militants more than four hours in advance, but failed to act, but the Nigerian military now denying that report.

The terrorist group Boko Haram is waging a holy war against Western education and the rights for women. To find out, by the way, how you can help girls worldwide overcome barriers to education, go to and you will be able to impact your world.

Just ahead, we have new information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM about the Donald Sterling scandal. I just spoke to his estranged wife's lawyer. Rachel Nichols interviewed the new CEO of the L.A. Clippers. Rachel is standing by. Jeffrey Toobin is standing by. We will all talk about the breaking developments. That's coming up next.


BLITZER: Breaking news in the Donald Sterling scandal.

The NBA has now tapped the former Citigroup and Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons to be the new CEO of the L.A. Clippers.

Our Rachel Nichols just spoke to him. We will bring her in, in just a moment.

Just a little while ago, I spoke with the lawyer for Sterling's estranged wife, Shelly, about her fight to keep 50 percent ownership stake in the team.


PIERCE O'DONNELL, ATTORNEY FOR SHELLY STERLING: And we will fight tot death any effort by the NBA to involuntarily sell her asset. Now, at the same time, having conversations with the league, with Adam Silver this morning, we hope to resolve this dispute. But make no -- make no uncertainty about this.

She will defend her right to decide when and how and for what price she sells her 50 percent interest in the Los Angeles Clippers.


BLITZER: Meantime, more secret audio has been released by Radar Online. The Web site says it's a recording of Donald Sterling talking to a friend claiming he made racist remarks to V. Stiviano because he wanted to have sex with her.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who thinks anybody's going to tape something? What the hell? I'm talking to a girl. The girl is black. I like her. I'm jealous that she's with other black guys. I want her.

I didn't want her to bring anybody to my game because I was jealous. I mean, I'm being honest. And it doesn't matter. No one's going to hear it but you and me, so...


BLITZER: That's not true. Everybody's hearing it.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, Rachel Nichols, the host of CNN's "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS."

Rachel, I understand you had a chance to speak to Dick Parsons. He used to be our boss here at CNN when he ran Time Warner, our parent company. He's now going to be running the L.A. Clippers. What did he say?

RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he said that he was approached by the NBA this past Monday, officially accepted the job with them yesterday and it was announced of course today.

And he said that his main job there is going to be to steady the ship, ship, just calm everybody down, kind of provide some rudder to get them back to work. And he used a little "Star Wars" term with me there. He said that there's going to be disturbances in the force from time to time as this situation with ownership shakes out. But he said he will remind the people in the organization through those moments that their job is to handle the basketball and the business side, that the ownership issues will be handled, that -- quote -- "turbulence," as he put it, will be handled by the NBA.

He also joked with me about his experience playing basketball at the University of Hawaii. He said, you know, it helps. He says, I love basketball. It helps to have this job.

I asked him how good he was, Wolf, and he said, well, my college coach was asked the same question recently and his answer was he tried really hard.

BLITZER: He's a great guy, a very smart guy. I'm sure he will do a fabulous job for the Clippers.

Dick Parsons, congratulations to you.

Jeffrey, when I spoke to Pierce O'Donnell -- he's the lawyer for Shelly Sterling -- I asked him about the marital relationship between the Sterlings. Listen to what he said.


O'DONNELL: I think the marriage by now is in shambles and Shelly's weighing her legal options about what she should do. She hasn't decided yet. She has attorneys advising her. They have been separated for a year. They're estranged. And she doesn't talk to Donald about any of these things.


BLITZER: If they got divorced, it would certainly help her maintain that 50 percent stake, right?


And their marriage is actually very significant as this all unfolds, because Pierce makes a fair point when he says, look, why penalize her if she didn't do anything wrong, she didn't say anything racist? But if they are married and have one legal entity and the money is all mixed together, then the NBA would have a much stronger footing in saying the both of them have to get out of -- have to lose their ownership interest in the team.

BLITZER: Rachel, you heard what Doc Rivers, the head coach of the Clippers, said. He said he thinks the team would have a hard time accepting her if she stayed on as an owner. What are you hearing? How contentious could this part be?

NICHOLS: Yes, absolutely. I think there's a lot of people around the NBA, players especially, but also certainly fans and people within different organizations, who associate the Sterling name with so much negativity now, who've seen the allegations at least against Shelly in terms of previous incidents, although certainly not in this incident, and just want a clean break. But it will be interesting.

And, Jeff, I'm curious now if this is going to become a little bit of a foot race. If you're saying that a divorce might help her case, and if the NBA thinks it might be in their best interest to just have a clean break, do they need to get this process started quickly? Because it hasn't happened yet, by the way, guys. It's been almost two week and nothing has officially happened in terms of the ownership issue.

TOOBIN: And California, especially, but in the real world generally, everything moves very slowly in the legal system. So their divorce, if it happened would take months to resolve itself.

And the NBA certainly wants to get this -- get this process going -- at least started, if not over, a lot sooner than that. So I think that's a big problem for the Sterlings. I think the NBA clearly wants to get both of them out there.

And, remember, I think Pierce O'Donnell is doing some good lawyering, but he also may be doing some posturing. Money could solve this problem. She could get a great big check and she would be happy to go away.

BLITZER: Yes, but I'm not so sure about that. She seems to want to stay on.


NICHOLS: He said fight to the death.

BLITZER: Yes, that's what I heard the lawyer say, fight to the death.

NICHOLS: Fight to the death.

TOOBIN: Lawyers say that kind of thing all the time.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm not so sure she wants to move on.


NICHOLS: ... with a check.

BLITZER: But I did -- maybe I'm reading too much in between the lines.

When I did the interview with Pierce O'Donnell, her attorney, I got the impression he was hinting at least, according to my interpretation, that we may get some news on the marriage front in the next few days.

Did you hear that, Rachel, or Jeffrey? The same thing I heard?

NICHOLS: Yes, I mean.

TOOBIN: Go ahead, Rachel. I'm sorry.

NICHOLS: No. I mean, certainly as I said, Jeffrey, you would know how long it takes to untangle a marriage in California. I believe you when you say it's long and not a quickie trip to Mexico. But I've got to say timing is an issue here, because the fact that the NBA has not officially moved on this yet has to be significant. They came out and talked about how, quote, "expeditiously" they were going to move. But it's been almost two weeks and there has been no official notification.

So, this leads me to believe there's a lot of maneuvering and the divorce or potential divorce could be a factor here. There's so much to untangle in terms of this ownership issue. And yet, there's a rowdy crowd of players out there, fans, of other people and organizations who want this done.

TOOBIN: Pierce O'Donnell told me something interesting yesterday. He said as far as he's aware, Don Sterling doesn't even have a lawyer yet, which is an additional level of complexity that no one has agreed to represent him, which could slow the process down in every way.

The divorce, if there is one, the sale of the team. It can't be done unless Sterling has a lawyer. And as far as Pierce knows, he doesn't have one.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Unfortunately, we have to leave this conversation right there, but it will be continued. There's no doubt about that. Guys, thanks very, very much -- Rachel and Jeffrey.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead, tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

Please be sure to join us again Monday in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can watch us live. You can always DVR the show so you won't miss a moment if you can't watch us live.

That's if for me. Thanks very much for watching.

To all the mothers out there, have a happy, happy Mother's Day on Sunday.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Now, let's step into the "CROSSFIRE" with Van Jones and S.E. Cupp.