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Interview With California Congressman Adam Schiff; Religion Bill Raises Controversy; Flight 9525 Investigation Continues; Grief & Anger at Memorial for Teenage Crash Victims; Airline CEO Apologizes for Crash; U.S. Senator Indicted on Corruption Charges. Aired 6-7:00p ET

Aired April 1, 2015 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. says it's not giving up on critical talks with Iran. Will progress be made in the next several hours amid new fears of a Middle East arms race?

New discovery. As the world gets its first close-up look at pieces of Flight 9525, we have learned investigators may have found a fresh clue.

And angry backlash. Opponents of a new religious freedom bill, they appear to score a new win, but the controversy is still exploding, threatening to cloud one of nation's biggest sporting events.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, haunting new images of the Flight 9525 crash site from a close-up view we haven't seen before. This is all that's left of the plane after the co-pilot turned it into a deadly weapon. Stand by for new information on the investigation.

We're also getting a firsthand look at widespread destruction in Iraq, the work of ISIS terrorists. They have now been driven out of the key city of Tikrit in a significant victory for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition. But, tonight, there are now new fears of deadly new revenge attacks and another even bigger battle is in the works.

A top member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, is here. He is standing by, along with our correspondents and our analysts, covering all the news breaking right now.

First, let's get the very latest from our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good evening. Iraqi forces are now inside Tikrit, but the question, can they hold on to it?


STARR (voice-over): Iraqi police cheering their victory. With the help of U.S. airstrikes and Shia militiamen, the Iraqis entered the center of Tikrit, largely taking the city back from ISIS. If the Iraqis can hold on to it, it's a crucial victory.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They need Tikrit badly because the highway that goes between Baghdad and Mosul runs right through the middle of the town.

STARR: Iraqi troops still face clearing some 200 miles of territory on the way to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. Months of fighting may be ahead.

In Tikrit, pockets of ISIS fighters still remain. In a show of confidence, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi came to Tikrit to support his troops. Not mentioned for now, the Iranian-backed Shia militias that Abadi desperately needed to help win on the ground.

U.S. warplanes again striking ISIS targets to support those ground troops. U.S. officials are adamant that the American airstrikes were never aimed at supporting Iranian-backed fighters, long opposed by U.S. commanders.

GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: And I would just to highlight, sir, that three tours in Iraq, commanding troops who were brutalized by some of these Shia militias, I will not and I hope we never coordinate or cooperate with Shia militias.

STARR: The Pentagon insists the ground offensive stalled when the militiamen proved unreliable. And U.S. officials say airstrikes were not started until Baghdad took full control on the ground. But the reality may be different.

HERTLING: You don't have an Iraqi force that has complete control of all the forces that have been fighting. They have had some command of elements of that. It's been a hodgepodge of actors all contributing.


STARR: Now, the bottom line is, the Iraqi forces simply can't fully function on their own yet. They needed U.S. airstrikes and those Shia militias to get into Tikrit -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

CNN got a firsthand look inside Tikrit at the destruction and the danger ISIS left behind. And we want to warn you, the images are graphic.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, traveled there. She's now back in Baghdad.

Arwa, tell us what you saw.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it may be called a victory, but what has been left behind is very disturbing, to say the least. We should once again warn our viewers they might find some of the images in this report very upsetting.


DAMON (voice-over): The smoke hangs thick over parts of the city we drive through. It's the smoldering of buildings, some people's homes, rigged with IEDs, we're told, Iraqi forces couldn't disable. So they say they had to detonate, the city a web of potential threats left behind.

(on camera): In the building there, they had put explosives into the staircase that detonated when one of their commanders went in.

(voice-over): He were trying to take down the ISIS flag and raise the Iraqi one. He was killed, along with one other. Elsewhere, roads still need to be cleared.

(on camera): That vehicle right there had a machine gun on it that was being used by ISIS. We're not able to advance beyond it in this particular direction because even though they say there's no threat up there opposed by ISIS fighters, there's still the possibility of the road, the buildings being filled with various different types of bombs.

[18:05:15] (voice-over): One, they defused nearby.

(on camera): This is some of the IEDs that they found lying around. This was a bulldozer lying on its side that they found filled with barrels that were all packed with explosives.

(voice-over): Saddam Hussein's presidential compound, where ISIS was at its strongest, a charred body. We're told of one of their fighters, the palaces today more damaged than they were during the U.S.-led invasion. Somewhere within the sprawling complex lie some of the mass graves of Shia recruits, hundreds, possibly more than 1,000 executed when ISIS first took over Tikrit last June.

Under this bridge, one of the killing sites. There aren't many left here, Colonel Rahim Yunis (ph) with the federal police explains.

(on camera): This is how they are spying on ISIS fighters. They have set the radio to their frequency.

(voice-over): Next to us a building hit in a recent coalition airstrike.

"The police force has been asked to return to work," Yunis says. "And there will be a temporary force to support the local police."

The force that moved into this predominantly Sunni city a combination of Iraqi security forces and the popular mobilization units, the PMUs, mostly made up of Iranian-backed Shia militias and volunteers. Gunfire still reverberates, some from pockets where ISIS is still holding out, much of it celebratory.

Severed head in hand, one PMU fighter cries out, "This is one of the ISIS rats. These are not Muslims. Let them see what we did to them. We are coming to get them in Mosul."

The hands are bound on the headless body on the pavement. The man had been detained, then shot and decapitated. The crowd breaks out into a celebratory dance. Iraqi security forces tell us the PMU fighters cannot all be controlled, something the city's population fears when they return to the lives they left behind.


DAMON: Wolf, the U.S. may not want to collaborate directly with Iran or with the Shia militias that it does support, but when it comes to defeating ISIS in Iraq, its interests are aligning with that of its former enemies -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It looks like this is potentially a huge win for not only the Iraqi military, which obviously played an important role, but for Iran and its allies there, these Shiite militias, right?

DAMON: That's right.

Without the Shia militias, arguably, the Iraqi security forces could not have come this far. But their existence does put the government in Baghdad in a very tricky position, Wolf, because on the one hand, the government does need to exert control. It has to make sure that it is the police and the army that are the ones who are holding the ground.

But at the same time, it cannot afford to alienate these militias. So far, they have by and large been part of the solution when it comes to defeating ISIS. But it's a very sensitive situation. It could very easily turn into one where these militias once again become a part of the problem.

BLITZER: Arwa Damon, risking your life to bring us the news, Arwa, I'm glad you are out of Tikrit, back in relative safety in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

She's one of the most courageous journalists out there right now.

Let's go to the marathon nuclear negotiations with Iran and the potential impact on the volatile Middle East. The United States now saying it's willing to keep talking at least until tomorrow morning, another extension beyond a deadline that passed 24 hours ago.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM with more on the latest.

What are you hearing?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we just learned that the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, is on his way back to Switzerland, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, returning as well, possible signs that an announcement, some sort of announcement is nearing.

Secretary Kerry himself set to remain there at least they say through tomorrow, so no hard deadline, and, to be clear, no expectation of a hard-and-fast agreement either.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With a deal in danger of disappearing, Secretary of State John Kerry and his fellow negotiators still searching for resolution in Switzerland.

The nuclear talks now stretching not only the definition of deadline, but also of agreement, officials now hoping for a statement of goals, rather than the hard commitments they originally intended. The White House placed the blame on Iran.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: While the talks have been productive, we have not yet received the specific tangible commitments the international community seeks.

SCIUTTO: Iran shifted it right back to the West.

[18:10:01] MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: And I certainly hope that our colleagues will recognize the fact that this is a unique opportunity that will not be repeated. And they need to take advantage of this opportunity.

SCIUTTO: Fact is, extension has been the name of the game in these talks since the sides reached an interim agreement in November 2013. The talks were extended the following July, extended again that November, and then on Tuesday and today extended yet again, albeit just in 24-hour increments. The deadline for a final agreement is June 30.

The biggest sticking point may simply be trust. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif leads the Iranian delegation, but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei holds the power, the same supreme leader who presides over a country the U.S. accuses of supporting terrorism and who has helped cultivate a long, deep history of anti-Americanism at home, like the "Death to America" chants we witnessed on our last visit to Iran.

That toughness may be reaping dividends at the negotiating table, where longtime nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn says Iran is driving the harder bargain.

ROBERT EINHORN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The Iranians may have concluded that the U.S. team is under so much pressure to get a deal that the U.S. and its partners would make all the remaining concessions.


SCIUTTO: This interim deadline was originally intended by the U.S. and its Western partners to be an early test of whether a broader agreement is possible and whether Iran crucially is willing to make concessions for that broader agreement.

These delays could of course be last-minute posturing, but at a minimum, Wolf, they leave that question open. I think we need a lot of expectation management for what to expect out of an agreement if it happens. And that's if it happens.

BLITZER: We should know soon enough whether there's a deal or no deal. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that report.

Let's bring in a leading member of the House Intelligence Committee, the ranking Democrat, Congressman Adam Schiff of California.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

What are you hearing, deal or no deal?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: I'm hearing the same thing you are.

I was at the Intelligence Committee today, but really no update. And the question is, is there going to be enough meat on the bones to justify going until June 30 and enough to hold off the Congress from enacting new sanctions? I think all of us are waiting with bated breath to see what materializes in the next 24 hours.

BLITZER: Are you open-minded about all of this?

SCHIFF: I am. I try to keep my powder dry and wait until we see the whole agreement. There are a lot of moving pieces. And a lot of them are interrelated, in the sense that it's not just the number of centrifuges, but the generation of centrifuges.

It also involves whether they move uranium out of the country or keep it in, whether inspections are limited to only the known sites, or can go elsewhere in the country, how long the agreement is. There are lot of key variables that we will have to measure together.

BLITZER: What happens if they don't announce any of those specific technical arrangements and they say, you know what, the real deadline is the end of June, that's when all these technical details will be worked out, there's a framework to continue the discussions?

Is that going to hold off members of Congress like you and others, Democrats and Republicans, from imposing fresh new sanctions against Iran?

SCHIFF: I don't think so.

I think the administration is going to have to produce something very tangible. This is where we have found common ground. This is where we have the outlines of an agreement. And now all we really need to do is work out the technical details. Today, it doesn't sound like they are there. But this may be the final last-minute posturing, as Jim mentioned, before they get to a deal, or it may fall apart.

BLITZER: Would you vote for those sanctions?

SCHIFF: If we don't have a deal and we don't even have the outline of a deal, I think a sanctions bill is inevitable. And I would probably support that. The question is, what kind of a bill would that be? And would it

still hold open the prospect that by June 30 they may achieve what they haven't achieved thus far?

BLITZER: Because I spoke to Senator Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas -- he's a member of the Intelligence Committee and the Armed Services Committee -- in the last hour. He said even if the sanctions are approved by Congress, they wouldn't go into effect until after the June 30 deadline.

SCHIFF: You know, we could work with the president on even a sanctions bill that reinforces American's position in the negotiation. Ideally, that's what we should be doing, instead of working at cross- purposes.

I don't know if that will happen. But we will see what the administration comes up with when the next 24 hours have come and gone. And then we will have to go from there.

BLITZER: Senator Cotton says he would just walk away from these negotiations right now and tell the Iranians, you know what? We're going back to the sanctions and put the pressure on them that way, because they think the U.S. wants a deal more than the Iranians want a deal.

SCHIFF: That's an attractive idea, except when you realize that that leads us right back to where we were before the interim agreement, which is Iran spins up its centrifuges again, it goes beyond 20 percent enriched uranium.

It gets closer and closer to either Israel's red line or our own. That's not a very great scenario either. And I'm not sure there's much of a plausible case to be made that increased sanctions will force Iran back to the table ready to capitulate their entire nuclear program.

[18:15:02] BLITZER: That's what they want, even tighter sanctions. And they say the U.S. lost a lot of leverage by easing those sanctions over the past 18 months.

SCHIFF: You know, actually, a lot that has been said about the interim agreement has not proved to be true. In fact, a lot of the people that are making the same argument today against these negotiations were arguing that the interim agreement would be a nightmare, that the interim agreement would cause the sanctions regime to collapse.

None of that happened. So, some that are making this argument now don't have a very good track record.

BLITZER: The White House press secretary, Congressman, Josh Earnest, he said a military option, in his words, sitting on the table right now.

Stand by. I want to pick that thought up. We will take a quick break. Much more right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:20:11] BLITZER: We're back with the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff of California. We're talking about the Iran nuclear talks.

Right now, there has been an extension, as you know, Congressman.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said today basically what Ash Carter, the defense secretary, said yesterday. He said, "The military option, as far as the U.S. is concerned is" -- this is Earnest -- "sitting on table right now."

If these talks don't succeed and the U.S. determines that Iran is going forward with a building of a nuclear bomb, would you support a preemptive strike by the United States to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities?

SCHIFF: I don't like the term preemptive. But if Iran was moving forward to develop the bomb and that was the only option we had to stop them, then, yes, I would support it.

And for that reason, it really has to be on the table. And if this deal falls apart and if the result is that Iran goes forward, and they cross that line, they make the decision to break out and build the bomb, then, yes, as a last resort, we would have to use force.

BLITZER: Well, why wouldn't you call it a preemptive strike?

SCHIFF: I guess preemptive in the sense that it stops the ultimate step to get the bomb. But I think it has to be viewed as a last resort and not a first resort.

And I think too often in the past decade, the preemptive use of force has been so far ahead of the last step, that it has created enormous problems for us.

BLITZER: Would you agree that if the U.S. were to use military force, it would, in fact, destroy Iran's nuclear capability?

SCHIFF: We have the ability to destroy their nuclear program and set it back for a few years.

Israel probably has the capability of doing it for a smaller period of time. So, the problem is that, once you do that, Iran then begins to break out in earnest. They throw out whatever inspectors you had. They are then in a mad dash for the bomb. And you have go back in militarily, and we're in a full then, I think, asymmetric war with Iran.

And that is not a scenario that we ought to invite as anything other than the last resort.

BLITZER: Because a lot of us -- and I have been reminded of the optimism that occurred during the Bill Clinton administration when there was a nuclear deal with North Korea. We all thought the president was making public statements, the secretary of state, that there's going to be a new Korean Peninsula, North Korea is moving in the right direction, they are walking away from nuclear capability.

And we all know how that turned out.

SCHIFF: It turned out very badly. And there are a lot of unfortunately bad examples out there that people look to.

You have the bad example of North Korea developing the bomb under negotiations. You also have Libya giving up its nuclear program and Gadhafi ending six feet under the ground. Other nations watch these things and it determines how they behave. Unfortunately, we have set many of the wrong examples.

BLITZER: But do you really think that under the best of circumstances, this regime in Tehran, the ayatollah and all of his mullahs would in fact give up that dream of having a nuclear bomb?

SCHIFF: I don't think the ayatollah has made the decision, we're going to build the bomb. I don't think they have crossed that threshold.

I think they have made the decision, the mullahs, that they want to get close, that they want to have a short breakout time so if down the road they decide it's in their interest, that they can break out and quickly develop a bomb. The question is, how close are they going to get and can we live with that or do we need to act, as you say, preemptively?

And I think none of us can tell how close those mullahs are willing to get to the bomb.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Tikrit for a moment. You visited Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace, his hometown in Iraq. Today, the Iraqi military has gone in, with the aid of these Iranian-backed Shiite militias, U.S. airpower, and liberated Tikrit.

You saw Arwa Damon's report with all the damage, the destruction there. Is Iraq turning out to be a huge strategic win for Iran?

SCHIFF: I wouldn't say that yet.

Certainly, the past several years have been good for Iran in Iraq. It has seen its influence only increase. And that's a stark contrast to the days when they were at war with Iraq under Hussein. But in terms of the last few days and what's gone on in Tikrit, it has been a mixed picture for the Iranian militias and for Tehran.

After all, they had to pull back from the fight. They were not succeeding in Tikrit until the American airstrikes were called in. And the real risk, I think, is that these militias abuse, murder, decapitate people, like we saw in the video you showed. And that just makes the Sunnis cling even more to ISIS in places like Mosul.

So, they could win the battle in Tikrit and lose the war if these Iranian-backed militias overreach. BLITZER: Yes, and I'm sure they will.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Just ahead, we have much more on that chilling new video from Flight 9525 from the crash site and a new discovery by investigators.

And as teenage victims of the crash are remembered, loved ones vent their anger after learning that the airline actually knew about the co-pilot's history of severe depression.


[18:29:25] BLITZER: Tonight, camera crews can get closer than ever to the Flight 9525 crash site, thanks to a new access road.

And we're now getting remarkable video like this showing actual pieces of the plane that survived the impact. Investigators are analyzing all the newest evidence. And they may be finding new clues.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is in Dusseldorf, Germany, working her sources for us.

Pamela, what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the chief German investigator at the crash site in France just spoke to the media.

He said that it has been emotionally very difficult being there collecting evidence. But he did say being there has actually brought them closer to an understanding of what happened.

Meantime, we have this brand-new video in from the French interior minister. It shows these rescue workers at the site, meticulously combing through all the wreckage, collecting belongings, body parts, airplane -- all of the debris from the airplane. And in fact the Lufthansa CEO, Carsten Spohr, also visited the site there today for the first time but said very little about the investigation. Take a listen.


CARSTEN SPOHR, CEO, LUFTHANSA: We are learning more every day about the cause of the accident. But I think it will take a long, long time for everybody, all of us to understand how this could happen.


BROWN: And Spohr dropped that bombshell, or the company did yesterday, saying that they actually knew back in 2009 that Andreas Lubitz had a severe depression episode, because Lubitz reported it to the company back then -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela, are investigators where you are there in Dusseldorf any closer to a motive?

BROWN: Well, Wolf, we have just learned today from a source close to this investigation that a fresh new clue has surfaced. But right now, investigators here in Dusseldorf are staying very tight- lipped about what that finding is. Of course, the hope is that it brings us closer to an understanding of a motive.

I can tell you from another source who has been on the front lines of this investigation looking through the electronics of Andreas Lubitz and so forth, that so far they really haven't found a lot of relevance evidence in his electronics other than information about his depression episode so far, but that process continues, Wolf.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown in Dusseldorf for us, thank you very much.

Some of the youngest crash victims were remembered today. A memorial was held in Germany, honoring the 16 high school exchange students who were killed along with two of their teachers. It was a new opportunity for loved ones to share their grief and also their anger.

Many family members are struggling to process the news that the airline actually knew years ago that the co-pilot had a history of severe depression.

CNN's Will Ripley is also joining us from Dusseldorf right now with more on this part of the story. What are you seeing over there, Will?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the heartbreak at the people's faces at this memorial today and the feeling of grief was just palpable. People -- 600 people in the church, hundreds more outside listening to this memorial, crying and then holding up their umbrellas when it started to rain and sleet in the middle of the service.

It was remarkable to see the community out there. People that we were talking to say they're grieving and they're also angry. These were 16 high school students, 15-year-olds, who were coming back from the trip of their lives, a class trip to Spain. They were supposed to be sharing stories about the good times that they had. But instead, their parents and their brothers and sisters are left to wonder how this could have happened.

And others in the community wondering, as well, that these 16 students and two teachers were in a plane, helpless in the cabin, while somebody was allowed in the cockpit who clearly had a history of psychological problems.

People on the streets were telling me they don't trust the CEO of Lufthansa, because they don't believe that he told them the truth initially when he said that Lubitz was deemed 100 percent fit to fly, only to turn out that they found those documents. So people are grieving, and they're also outraged, Wolf. They want answers.

BLITZER: Certainly, a very sad part of this story; incredibly sad. Thanks very much, Will Ripley, joining us.

Also with us right now, our aviation analyst Miles O'Brien and our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes. Miles, the Lufthansa CEO, Carsten Spohr, he has now apologized for the crash once again today. But here's the question: Does he need to step down?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: I don't think he has much of a choice. I think it's inevitable, Wolf, given his previous statement that he had a pilot in Lubitz, who was 100 percent perfectly fit to fly. Nothing in life is 100 percent any way. And so that statement will stick with him and will come to haunt him. And I think the larger question here is, what's to become of Germanwings? Is this a, you know, sort of a ValuJet type of incident, where the airline won't be able to survive, either?

BLITZER: ValuJet was the airline that the plane crashed into the Potomac River here in Washington, right, and that sort of ended that relatively...

O'BRIEN: Well, it was actually the...

BLITZER: Go ahead.

O'BRIEN: It was the Everglades crash. Air Florida.

BLITZER: Air Florida.

O'BRIEN: Also, an airline that -- similar kind of scenario, low- cost airline, some difficulties that were linked back to management not keeping their eye on the ball.

BLITZER: You're right, ValuJet was in the Everglades; Air Florida was here in Washington.

Tom Fuentes, the leaks have been amazing, of course. And now we're told that the head -- the actual head of the BEA -- that's the French investigator arm, like the -- like we have here in the United States, that they have actually -- police have now been questioning the head of the BEA because of all of these leaks, which raises the question, where is this investigation going?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: That's true, Wolf. Apparently, the police investigation of the leaks started the first day, when the confirmation was given that the co-pilot flew the plane, you know, into the mountain. That was a leak that that had come out from the cockpit voice recorder. And the Marseille prosecutor in France had to confirm that that part was true.

So those kind of leaks and that kind of information that early can affect an investigation. It can affect witnesses who will come forward or won't come forward or maybe don't want to be associated with the co-pilot or have their name come up in public. It does affect an investigation. That's one of the reasons why law enforcement is so secretive while the investigation is in progress.

BLITZER: A good point.

Miles, as you know, these two publications, "Paris Match," "Bild," the German and French publication, they both say, their editors, they have seen this video of the final seconds of the flight from inside the cabin. The authorities say they can't confirm the existence of any video. What do you believe?

O'BRIEN: Well, I don't doubt that something could survive the crash. I don't doubt that a searcher could put a small SD or micro SD card in their pocket and take it and potentially sell it to a reporter or share it with a reporter. I find it unusual that the reporters would see it and yet not post it. We haven't seen the video itself.

You know, it's -- this is unfortunate on one level, because these are -- it's an emotional thing that is being described. We have families' emotions involved in all of this. But you know, with all great respect to Tom and investigators, they can be so slow that it's too slow. People need to know quickly. It's good to know that the airbus didn't have a decompression event or a mechanical system failure. Those things need to come out quickly.

And so there is a press to have more transparency in the investigations. And there's always going to be this push-pull between the media and the public's right to know and investigators.

BLITZER: What do you think? Do you want to react to that, Tom?

FUENTES: Miles, it's true. It's always a balancing act, especially getting information out if there are other aircraft out there that have a defect that needs immediate correction or just this, the policies of who flies, who gets in the cockpit of an airplane to fly it.

So Miles has a point. Law enforcement has to balance that. And they do. And it's very difficult.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. Just ahead, we'll have more live reports on the Flight 9525 investigation. Our correspondents are digging for new information right now.

And we'll also have the breaking news about a new indictment against a United States senator.


BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: A powerful United States senator formally stands charged with corruption. And we're now learning that New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez has agreed to step down temporarily as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was the chairman when the Democrats were in the majority.

Our justice reporter, Evan Perez, has more now on the new federal indictment against Senator Menendez. Evan, the FBI and prosecutors, they've been investigating him for

a long time. You broke this story a month ago that he was about to be indicted.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This is a very rare, rare thing. This is a sitting United States senator that is now facing charges: 14 counts, bribery, accepting about a million dollars in gifts from a friend and donor whose name is Salomon Melgen. He's an ophthalmologist in Florida, who's had a lot of problems fighting Medicare, or allegedly for bilking Medicare.

And so Menendez is charged with using his position in the Senate to try to help his friend.

Now, Menendez has denied all of this, says he's a longtime friend with Dr. Melgen. He addressed these charges when we first broke the story last month. Here's what he had to say, Wolf.


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: I fight for these issues and for the people of our country every single day. That's who I am. And I am not going anywhere.


PEREZ: And Wolf, you know, at this hour, we have -- we know that we have some of his supporters are gathering in Newark to support him. He plans to address the media in the next hour. So he's not going to go down without a fight.

BLITZER: So has he been formally charged? Is he actually under arrest?

PEREZ: He's under indictment. And now since he is -- they don't believe he's going to flee anywhere, they're going to give him time to turn himself in. We expect that they're making those arrangements right now. And he could appear before a judge in Newark tomorrow.

BLITZER: Why does he have to resign his position as the ranking Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? He hasn't resigned from the U.S. Senate.

PEREZ: Right. He's not resigning from the U.S. Senate. He's going to stand up and fight. But this is something that both parties have tried to deal with people who are -- who get in legal trouble, they tried to move them aside from leadership positions, Wolf, while they fight these charges.

BLITZER: Because I remember the last sitting United States senator to be indicted and charged, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, you remember that.

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: In the end, he was vindicated. He went through hell, as we all know, and again, the federal government could not prove the case against him.

PEREZ: Well, he was convicted, Wolf. He was actually convicted. But what happened was, Attorney General Eric Holder came in and reviewed the case and found there was some very, very serious behavior by the -- by prosecutors. They didn't share evidence that they were supposed to with the defense. They ended up tossing the case.

BLITZER: But in effect, he was vindicated. He was not -- he may have been convicted, but it was thrown out.

PEREZ: After he lost his seat as well.

BLITZER: I'm sure that that -- that's on the mind of Senator Menendez right now.

PEREZ: It's on the mind of Senator Menendez and also on the mind of the Justice Department prosecutors, the public integrity unit. This is the same unit that did the Stevens case.


PEREZ: And that's why this has taken so long. They were up against a deadline for the statute of limitations in this case. But they really wanted to bring this case, and they wanted to make sure they had everything before they bring these charges.

BLITZER: Let's see how good their case is against a sitting United States senator right now. Let's see what happens.

Good reporting, Evan. Thanks very much.

PEREZ: Thanks.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the governor of Arkansas takes a stand on a religious freedom bill as it's called and feared it would allow anti- gay discrimination. The controversy is spreading now from state to state. We'll tell you what's happening.


[18:50:56] BLITZER: Tonight, the governor of Arkansas is refusing to sign religious freedom bill that's on his desk, bowing to pressure from businesses, gay rights groups, even his own son. A similar bill was signed just days ago by Indiana's governor causing an uproar about provisions that might allow anti-gay discrimination.

CNN's Miguel Marquez is joining us now from Indianapolis, where the controversy is still exploding.

What's the latest, Miguel?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The latest is, is that behind those doors right there behind me, Republican legislatures have been meeting now, going into their fourth hour talking about this today. All of them together, about 71 Republicans in the state house. Whatever they decide behind those doors and they say a deal is close, it will have national implications.


GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial. These are not ordinary times.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): In a closely watched decision, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson rejecting a religious freedom bill today that many saw as divisive.

HUTCHINSON: I ask that changes be made in the legislation.

MARQUEZ: Before the bill passed in the legislation, Hutchinson said he planned to sign it, but today he backtracked, asking state lawmakers to remake the bill, to mirror existing federal law.

It's a move that could head off protest, concerns the measure would allow companies to refuse service to gay or lesbian patrons.

Pressure on Hutchinson to veto the bill came from all sides, from former Arkansas First Lady Hillary Clinton, "Like Indiana law, Arkansas bill goes beyond protecting religion would permit unfair discrimination against LGBT Americans. I urge governor to veto."

To the CEO of Walmart whose headquarters are in the state and who warned the proposed law "threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold."

Hutchinson's decision comes as Indiana's governor, Mike Pence, deals with the outcry over his own state's religious freedom law.

GOV. MIKE PENCE (R), INDIANA: Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens, no.

MARQUEZ: Pence stood by the law's intent but says there was a perception problem that set off days of protests.

PROTESTS: No hate in our state!

MARQUEZ: He directed state lawmaker to offer their fix to the law by the end of this week.

But some of the state applaud Pence for signing the bill, like pizzeria owner Crystal O'Connor who says it's her right to follow her believes.

CRYSTAL O'CONNOR, MEMORIES PIZZA: If a gay couple was to come in, like say we wanted, they wanted us to provide them pizzas for a wedding, we would have to say no.


MARQUEZ: Now, I don't think most people do order pizzas for their wedding so that might not be the biggest issue in the world, but legislatures here will continue to meet tonight. They say -- we're in the capitol. Things are supposed to be closed but they are still meeting and expect they will be for some time to come tonight. They also say that they are making progress and expect to have some sort of deal tomorrow.

But whether that's just a deal amongst Republican is the giant question, and it doesn't look like both sides will come together very closely on this. The left, the Democrats here and gays and lesbians wanting a non-discrimination clause built into the charter here and it doesn't look like they're going to get that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Miguel, thanks very much. Miguel Marquez reporting.

Let's bring in our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and our CNN political commentator, Michael Smerconish, he's the host of "SMERCONISH", which airs Saturday mornings here on CNN.

Gloria, was Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, his decision today largely an economic decision?


You know, politics is one thing. But when Walmart in the state of Arkansas says to you, we don't think you should do something, I think you have to listen to Walmart because you know as a governor, it's going to have huge economic implications on your state.

[18:55:01] And I do think there's obviously politics here. And what was interesting to me about what Governor Hutchinson said, he said, you know, my son signed a petition saying that I ought to veto this legislation.

What he was doing was sort of bowing, in a sense, to the demographic shifts we see in this country even in the Republican Party, I might add, on the question of same question marriage. Sixty- one percent of young Republicans, that's 18 to 29, approve of same-sex marriage.

Overall in the country, it's over half of the country. So, he was also sort of taking into consideration.

BLITZER: And Governor Hutchinson, he also made the point that he wanted the legislation in Arkansas to be similar to the legislation that President Bill Clinton signed into law back in the 1990s.

What's the difference there? What are we talking about the difference?


What the mean difference is the federal law is a directive to the federal government. It says the federal government cannot discriminate against religious people in any way. These laws are very, very different because they are about the rights of individuals and businesses to reflect their own values in deciding not to do business in this case with gay people. That's a huge difference. So, it's really apple and oranges and two different laws.

BLITZER: Interesting. Michael, does the fall out from this law, the law in Indiana, for example, does it suggest there's a bigger problem for Republicans when it comes to same sex marriage, same sex rights, heading into 2016?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. They're on the wrong side of all the trend lines. So, it puts them not only at odds the direction of which the majority of Americans are moving but also with business interests as Gloria referenced in the case of Walmart or in the case of Apple, which is part of this drill.

One thing we know for sure -- every candidate running for president should the baker, should the florist, should the wedding planner have the right, have the ability to reject the same-sex couple? They'll have to answer that question. So far, they're lockstep. And I think they're on the wrong side of where the public will come out.

It's a great strategy for the Iowa caucus. It's not going to play in the suburbia. It's not going to play in my backyard in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which is where you need to win to control a general election.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Gloria?

BORGER: Yes, I do. And, you know, this pits Chamber of Commerce Republicans against evangelical Republicans, who are very important in the Iowa caucuses.

But I also think this is reflection of something else that's going on in the Republican Party. Over the years of President Obama being in the White House, the Democratic Party has been decimated at the state level. I mean completely decimated.

And what you're seeing is increasing Republican control of state legislatures. These state legislatures are passing these laws that now Republican presidential candidates are having to deal with earlier and they're becoming wedge issues before half of these candidates have been declared their candidacy.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, let me shift gears and get your thoughts on this indictment now of Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. You did a lot of reporting on the Ted Stevens indictment, the charges. As I said earlier, he was eventually vindicated. You did a lot of reporting on that.

What's the issues here? Do you see similarities?

TOOBIN: Well, the big issue is, is this bribery in the sense of I give you money in return for legislative favors or is it a social relationship between friends which these two men are? Or are they ordinary campaign contributions and is this simple constituent service?

That's why the case is hard to prove because it is legal. I mean, one of the problems with how our system works is that people who get money get things from legislatures. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But if it's a quid pro quo, it's illegal.

BLITZER: Michael Smerconish, what do you think?

SMERCONISH: I think there's something in the water in New Jersey. I mean, truly, it just seems -- and I know it's a cliche, but it just seems like they have such a problem in terms of corruption of leadership in that state. You go back the last several cycles and there's been any number of individuals who have been drowned out in the process. Torricelli is of course at the top of my mine.

BORGER: Let me say, Wolf --

BLITZER: Yes, very quickly.

BORGER: This also is going to affect whatever happens with sanctions on Iran. Menendez is a huge player on that. He's an opponent of the administration. This isn't going to make him any friendly.

BLITZER: Let's not forget, he's innocent until proven guilty.

BORGER: That's right.

BLITZER: He's innocent right now.

Guys, thanks very much.

Remember, you can also follow us on Twitter, go ahead and tweet me @wolfblitzer. Tweet the show @CNNsitroom. Please be sure to join us again tomorrow, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can watch us live or DVR the show so you won't miss a moment.

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