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Terrorist Training Camp Fears; Donald Sterling Scandal; Near Misses

Aired May 21, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin this hour with a chilling new warning today about a terrorist training ground where al Qaeda fighters are getting combat experience right now. And some of them may be American.

U.S. officials sound more worried than ever that Syria's civil war is a direct threat to the security of the United States. And we learned today of a secret U.S. plan to deal with that. We have our correspondents standing by with new information about the terror threat and the Obama administration's response.

Let's go first to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr for the very latest -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a revelation on Capitol Hill today that there is a secret battle plan to deal with al Qaeda if it strikes the United States from that safe haven in Syria. It will not surprise you the details are sparse.


STARR (voice-over): In Syria, amid the fighting, al Qaeda is planting its flag, leading to a dire warning from the director of the FBI about the rise of al Qaeda affiliates.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: Its progeny in throughout the Middle East and Africa are virulent and bent on doing great harm to Americans abroad and here at home.

STARR: James Comey says one of the most virulent threats is brewing in Syria.

COMEY: An opportunity that is attracting droves of jihadis to come to Syria to learn new things, build new relationships, and then most dangerously of all, at some point to flow out of Syria. There will be a terrorist diaspora out of Syria. We in law enforcement, national security and the intelligence community are determined not to allow lines to be drawn between an outflow from Syria and future 9/11s.

STARR: The U.S. estimates 70 or more Americans have gone to Syria to fight. Nobody knows how many are back in the U.S. Comey joins a chorus of national security officials increasingly warning of the threat of an al Qaeda attack in the U.S. by fighters from Syria.

JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: We're seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts.

STARR: And now a new revelation.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The al Qaeda presence in Syria, do you agree with Director Clapper that it represents a direct threat to the homeland, the al Qaeda safe haven in Syria?


GRAHAM: OK. Do we have a plan to deal with that as a nation?


GRAHAM: Is that classified?


GRAHAM: OK. I would like for you to brief me about that because I think one of the likely next attacks is going to come from somebody who's trained in Syria.


STARR: So, Wolf, perhaps the most direct public acknowledgement today by the FBI director there is a classified plan on dealing with the -- if there is an al Qaeda attack emerging out of Syria, an attack against the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pretty chilling stuff.

Barbara, stay with us. I want to talk a little bit more about this new al Qaeda threat from Syria, from elsewhere.

Mohammed Jamjoom is joining us, our CNN correspondent, along with Eli Lake, the senior national security correspondent for The Daily Beast.

What are you hearing, first of all, Mohammed, because I know you're well-plugged-in on what's going on, the security situation in Yemen right now, specifically the U.S. Embassy, American diplomats who are in Sanaa, Yemen, the capital?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Defense Ministry officials in Yemen, which houses arguably the most dangerous wing of the al Qaeda network, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is called AQAP, they're telling me that Yemeni security forces on the highest level of alert throughout the country, that Yemeni government officials are fearful al Qaeda is planning attacks throughout the country and especially in the capital and they're especially trying to target foreign embassies, including the U.S. Embassy. As you know, we first reported a couple weeks ago the U.S. Embassy closed there because of terrorist threats against it. It's remained closed now for almost two weeks. We're hearing that it could be closed another several weeks. In fact, another national security official in Yemen told me just a short while ago that because the Foreign Ministry there has not been briefed by the U.S. officials in Yemen about when the embassy might reopen, they believe it will be closed for some time to come and they're really worried about the threats that are directed toward the U.S. Embassy.

BLITZER: Very chilling stuff there too.

Eli, what are you hearing? Because I know you have been doing reporting on this, maybe a split, a division, some contentiousness between elements of the U.S. national security team, spies and others, vs. the Obama administration, shall we say, more mainstream Obama national security officials?

ELI LAKE, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, it was more pronounced in 2012, which was an election year, but then there was a tremendous amount of pressure and even a draft national intelligence estimate to say that basically al Qaeda no longer posed a threat to the U.S. homeland.

The director of the DIA right now, General Michael Flynn, opposed that and eventually had it changed. But it was a bitter division within intelligence community at the time.

BLITZER: Because that national intelligence estimate, you're reporting in The Daily Beast, you're saying it had concluded that al Qaeda really did not represent a significant threat to the United States?

LAKE: Yes. And you saw that in the rhetoric of the president particularly in his State of the Union address in 2012.

And at the time, a number of leading intelligence officials were saying, wait a second, we better slow down here. But at the same time, those kinds of concerns continue to exist. I think that there are a lot of people who think that Boko Haram has more significant ties to al Qaeda than the official estimates are at this point.

The same goes for the deteriorating situation in Libya. Now, we have certainly seen a lot of attention on Syria at this point as a safe haven. And I do think that you're starting to see more cautious rhetoric coming particularly now from the top of the Obama administration.

BLITZER: But, Barbara, the DIA, where you are, over at the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, they have a pretty good track record in dealing with these kinds of threats.

So, what to you make of this information that the DIA resisted efforts back in 2012 to simply suggest that al Qaeda really didn't present much of a threat any longer to the United States?

STARR: Well, you know, Mike Flynn, the head of the DIA, is one hard- nosed customer. He's not going to be willing to say al Qaeda is going away.

I think what the Obama administration has been struggling with, which is something many Americans are questioning, is, what is al Qaeda today? Al Qaeda on the run, remember that? Well, the administration says they were referring to the old al Qaeda back in Pakistan, but now we have these al Qaeda affiliates. They're in Yemen. They're in Somalia. They're in Nigeria, in Libya. They're in Syria in droves.

So to talk about al Qaeda today is a term that is somewhat geographically meaningless because these affiliate organizations are everywhere. The bottom line is, the U.S. intelligence community thinks that most of their focus is inside the countries where they operate, but this new wrinkle is that they may be trying to come back to the United States, recruit Americans, get them over there, train them.

They have the passports. Many of them have the visas that will get them back into the States, and that's the big concern. Remember, Wolf, Boston Marathon, all it took was two guys inspired by al Qaeda already living in the U.S.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point there.

Eli, the other story you're working on, another article you have written, you made a comparison between lawyers defending President Obama's drone strikes to what Dick Cheney used to say about defending drone strikes and other very aggressive measures. Explain what you're hearing.

LAKE: Well, this is all coming back to something called the authorization for the use of military force.

It was originally introduced three days of 9/11. And that has been the legal authority that both Bush and Obama have used to justify everything from indefinite detention to drone strikes to capture missions and what we call the war on terror.

Now, when it was asked of two top Obama administration lawyers in a hearing today whether or not these counterterrorism operations, not the detention, but the drone strikes, could continue if the AUMF disappeared tomorrow...


BLITZER: Explain what the AUMF...


LAKE: That is -- sorry -- the authorization for the use of military force, this resolution passed after the 9/11.

They said, yes, the president has inherent authorities to defend the nation against imminent threats. Well, that was exactly the kind of logic that was used by David Addington, the top lawyer for Dick Cheney in the first term of the Bush administration, to justify the president's wartime authorities. And I thought it was very interesting because Obama as a candidate certainly had campaigned as somebody who believed the executive should not have all that authority and his lawyers are now making that exact kind of case.

BLITZER: Mohammed, your sources in Yemen and elsewhere, they are deeply worried right now about some kind of plot that may be in the works.

JAMJOOM: Yes, very concerned that there are plots in the works right now. And this is all happening at the time when the largest counterterror offensive that's ever been carried out, which is still going on in Yemen, this is happening in different parts of the country.

There are Yemeni boots on the ground in the most inhospitable parts of that country where al Qaeda has been able to thrive. And yet still al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been taking their fighters and having street fights in the capital close to embassies, close to government installations, in some cases killing dozens of soldiers in the capital, which is the most secure part of the country.

That's one of the reasons Yemenis and U.S. officials are so worried about what might happen there and it looks like it is deteriorating right now.

BLITZER: Mohammed Jamjoom working his sources for us, thank.

Eli Lake, thanks for coming in. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon. Thanks to you as well.

Still ahead, a new and very detailed account of the NBA's case against Donald Sterling, alleged lies, an attempted cover-up and a whole lot more. Does he risk further charges in a court of law? And the woman at the center of the scandal is now speaking out, V. Stiviano insisting Sterling has been lying about their relationship.


V. STIVIANO, EX-ASSOCIATE OF DONALD STERLING: I have never had any type of sexual contact with Mr. Sterling whatsoever.



BLITZER: We're learning even more today about the NBA's legal case against Donald Sterling, including allegations of a cover-up, as the league moves quickly to try to terminate his ownership of the L.A. Clippers.

"The Los Angeles Times" now reporting details from a 30-page NBA document. It reveals that Sterling is accused of trying to persuade V. Stiviano, his girlfriend, to lie and it also says she altered an audiotape of his racist remarks, that it wasn't his voice, that she was told to say it wasn't his voice on the recording. Also today, a new denial from Stiviano that she ever had sex with Sterling, but she told TV personality Dr. Phil that their relationship was complicated.


STIVIANO: I was not only his assistant. I was his caretaker, I was his mother. I was his secretary. I was his driver. I did everything for this man in the last three years.


BLITZER: Now, let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, our CNN anchor Don Lemon, and Washington sports columnist Mike Wise.

Jeff, could there be legal recourse, serious legal recourse against Sterling if he, his associates were engaged in trying to destroy evidence, or lying, stuff like that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: As a theoretical matter, I suppose it's possible.

But there's no way a Los Angeles district attorney is going to wake up in the morning and say, you know what, I want my first witness to be V. Stiviano. They don't want to get involved in this sort of nonsense. This is something for the NBA to deal with. It's very bad for Sterling to keep control of the franchise, but, I mean, I don't think the government needs to be involved here.

BLITZER: Hey, Don, listen to what else V. Stiviano told Dr. Phil.



STIVIANO: Never did he ever come on to me. And what I meant by him being in love with me, I meant in love like a person, like a daughter, in love with me in terms of, he always wanted to protect me. I sometimes make bad choices and associated myself with bad people.


BLITZER: All right. Let me get your reaction. What do you think about that?


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: My honest reaction is, it's just laughable. I -- you know, I don't -- unless I was like 2 or 3 years old and I said, mommy, I'm in love with you, and she would say, no, you should say you love me, you're not -- like, you don't tell people you're in love with them if you're not in love with them once you're an adult.

She said on the tape, you're in love with me. He has said, according to the tapes that we heard from Radar Online, how he -- how she basically, you know, got -- seduced him. I don't know if that's true, but I guess she's denying it. But there was something going on for her to stay with him for three years to be his driver, as she said, his caretaker, his secretary, and his maybe lover.

Something had to be going on for her to do that. I just think it's laughable.

BLITZER: Mike, you know, the other element in "The L.A. Times" story today, I'm sure you saw it, was that two weeks or so before all of us heard that racist rant on that audiotape, it was made available to the Clippers, to the team president, and others, and they were told, according to "The L.A. Times," to delete it from someone's smartphone, get rid of it, which potentially could be a serious problem.

MIKE WISE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it reminds me, Wolf, of that movie the "Unforgiven." There were no redeeming characters in it and there are no redeeming characters in this story, including V. Stiviano.

TOOBIN: Right.

WISE: The more you hear about it, the more you just kind of shake your head.

And the NBA, Adam Silver, who we have known for a long time, must be shaking his head going, when is this going to end and when can I get back to my playoffs?


BLITZER: Well, it doesn't look, Jeffrey -- you tell me, Jeffrey, when is this going to end? Because there is a timeline that the NBA has put forward. They got five days for the lawyers for Sterling to respond. Then they will have a vote among the 29 other team owners. What do you think? Is this going it be over with in a couple weeks?

TOOBIN: Well, unless something dramatic happens, it's going to be over June 3, because Donald Sterling either has to put forward a defense or file a lawsuit and persuade a judge to issue a stay.

He's done neither of those things so far. And, you know, we have heard a lot of big talk from his lawyer, from his wife's lawyer that this is unlawful, this is terrible. But they haven't done anything. They haven't filed a lawsuit. They haven't filed the response. And if they don't, this thing is going it be over on June 3.


BLITZER: Let me play another clip for you, Don. Listen. This is a little more of V. Stiviano speaking to Dr. Phil.

LEMON: All right.


STIVIANO: I sent it to a couple of my friends and I did not once think this was going to happen. If I thought that, I never would have sent it.


BLITZER: She said she sent some of those tapes to some of her friends, but she never thought that it could get out. What do you make of that?

LEMON: What world is she living in if she didn't think that would get out? The moment you tell someone something, there's a possibility that they're going to tell someone else. If you give them tapes, then there's a possibility that they're going to give them, those tapes to someone else.

Listen, she was in control of the tapes, right? She said that he gave her permission for the tapes. OK, I take her at her word that he did that. But did he give you permission to distribute them to other people? And so I think, as Mr. Wise said here, there are no sympathetic characters. Donald Sterling said reprehensible things not only on those tapes, but in the interview with Anderson.

She at first was a sympathetic character because we thought she was exposing a racist. And now we -- I feel sorry for her.

WISE: And I want to be in a -- by the way, I want to have a boss/employee relationship where I don't have to have any intimate relationship with my boss and yet still get a $1.8 million condo and four luxury sedans, including a Bentley. I think that's a great deal, Wolf.


BLITZER: Probably a few outfits as well.

WISE: Exactly.

LEMON: And not sleep with him, right?

WISE: Right.

BLITZER: You see what's going on now.

WISE: Yes.

BLITZER: And you're close to the NBA. You cover the NBA. You know these teams. I assume you know some of the owners.


BLITZER: Do you have any doubt Adam Silver will get that three- fourths, 75 percent vote he needs to kick him out of the NBA?

WISE: None whatsoever.

I have talked to three on the phone and I have communicated with two via e-mail. And all of them are unanimous that not only does Adam Silver have the votes, but there's a tremendous amount of public pressure now to ensure that Donald Sterling is out of the league, not just by the players who have hinted at insurrection and maybe boycott, but also there's a feeding frenzy of a public who just wants this old racist man to go away.

And I think, just as Jeffrey said, I would be shocked if the board of governors did not get him out of the league on June 3.

BLITZER: And very quickly, Jeffrey, Shelly Sterling, her lawyer says she's going to fight this. She's determined to remain a 50 percent owner of that team. He did put out a statement, Pierce O'Donnell, the attorney for Shelly Sterling.

"Shelly attended the dinner for her husband's 80th birthday at the impromptu invitation of a friend as part of an attempt to persuade him to apologize for his racist remarks."

But they're getting divorced. They have been split up for a year. What do you make of that?

TOOBIN: What I make of it is, none of it matters until and unless he files a lawsuit. He can say nice things about his client all he wants, but he's got to file a lawsuit or none of it matters.



Jeffrey Toobin, Don Lemon, Mike Wise, guys, thanks very much.

And this just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM right now: The House has overwhelmingly approved legislation to make it easier to fire or demote top officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It's not clear if the Senate will consider a similar bill. This comes in the midst of a growing controversy.

It exploded when CNN reported about the deaths of dozens of veterans while waiting for care. President Obama said today he won't stand for that. He stopped short of firing his veterans affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, that just in.

Just ahead, we're learning just how often airliners have come dangerously close to hitting one another and it's far more frequent than you might think. We have the startling numbers. That's next.


BLITZER: They are troubling numbers for anyone who flies. The rate of near collisions among U.S. airliners is disturbingly high and some recent high-profile incidents are putting a spotlight on the problems in the say.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, is working the story for us.

Rene, what are you finding out?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, when it comes to these sort of situations, one time is too many. And CNN has learned planes flying too close happens more than you might think, on average, more than a dozen times a day.


MARSH (voice-over): Last month, at JFK, a JetBlue A-320 taking off while another JetBlue regional plane was about to touch down. In a last-minute move, the pilot approaching the runway decides to abort landing, putting the two planes about a half-a-mile apart, closer than allowed.

ROBERT SUMWALT, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD MEMBER: Any time there is a loss of separation, we are concerned about it because it's not supposed to occur.

STARR: April 24, a much more dangerous situation, a near midair collision over Newark. A United Airlines 737 landing with 160 passengers on board came within 150 yards of a United Express regional jet preparing to take off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we were putting the nose down, and, yes, he was real close.

STARR: The next day, a United 757 cruising at 33,000 feet over the Pacific gets too close to a U.S. Airways 757. The collision alert system goes off. One passenger says the plane plunged without warning.

MICHAEL BOYD, PRESIDENT, THE BOYD GROUP: For the past 30 years, we have had an air traffic control system that has not been upgraded properly. Our controllers are basically in many cases overworked.

STARR: The latest FAA numbers show planes got too close 4,400 times within a year; 41 were considered high-risk.

BOYD: I think the FAA's measure of safety is whether someone died or not. That's not good enough.

STARR: This is what can happen when planes get too close. In 1991, this U.S. Air 737 at LAX landed on top of a SkyWest commuter plane preparing to take off; 34 people died. Accidents like this are incredibly rare because of collision avoidance systems now mandated in planes.

SUMWALT: I hate to judge safety by the lack of accidents, but I will say this, and that is, since TCAS has been installed and used, we have not had a midair collision in this country involving two TCAS-equipped airplanes. I think that says a lot.


MARSH: All right. Well, the most recent stats FAA released were from 2012. Last year's stats are not out yet, so it's really impossible to say if this is a growing trend from year to year because we just haven't seen those 2013 numbers just yet.

BLITZER: Still worrisome indeed. Thanks for the report, Rene. Appreciate it.

Be sure to join us again tomorrow here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can certainly watch us live. DVR the show so you won't miss a moment if you can't watch us live.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE.