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President Obama Defends Intelligence Agencies; Boston Bombing Investigation

Aired April 30, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And we're learning that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife got more welfare benefits from American taxpayers than we realized, and more of them were coming in just last year.

And growing fear that Islamic terrorists are feeding off of Syria's civil war right now. CNN is in Damascus. We're capturing the bloody aftermath of a brand-new attack.

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

President Obama is rejecting any suggestion that his administration deserves blame for the Boston Marathon bombings. But he also acknowledged today that a review is under way of intelligence leading up to the attack to make sure nothing was missed. The president talked at length about the Boston bombings during a morning news conference over at the White House, along with other great challenges weighing in on a second term.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, was in the front row asking questions. Jessica is joining us now with more -- Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama came to the Briefing Room without an obvious agenda and announcement. And on a range of topics, he asked for patience. From the Boston bombing to Syria, he made clear he's moving at his timetable.



YELLIN (voice-over): At his first press conference since the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama told the nation:

OBAMA: We're not going to stop living our lives because warped, twisted individuals tried to intimidate us.

YELLIN: When pressed to answer critics who allege intelligence was missed in the lead-up to the attack, President Obama defended law enforcement.

(on camera): Your DNI has ordered a broad review of all the intelligence-gathering prior to the attack. And now Lindsey Graham, who is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, has said that Benghazi and Boston are both examples of the U.S. going backwards on national security. Is he right? And did our intelligence miss something?

OBAMA: No, Mr. Graham is not right on this issue, although I'm sure generated some headlines. Based on what I've seen so far, the FBI performed its duties, the Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing.

YELLIN (voice-over): The Russians wouldn't help the FBI with much information before the attack. The president says they're helping now.

OBAMA: The Russians have been very cooperative with us since the Boston bombing. You know, obviously, old habits die hard.

YELLIN: On the thorny question of Syria, chemical weapons and the red line, the president repeated:

OBAMA: The use of chemical weapons would be a game changer.

YELLIN: But he insisted:

OBAMA: What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them.

YELLIN: Adding, even if he gets proof the red line has been crossed, he has yet to decide how the U.S. will respond.

OBAMA: By game changer, I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us. Obviously, there are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed.

YELLIN: This press conference fell on the 100th day of President Obama's second term. Though his agenda is moving through Congress very slowly at best, the president added yet another item to the list.

OBAMA: I continue to believe that we have got to close Guantanamo. And it's easy to demagogue the issue. That's what happened the first time this came up. I'm going to go back at it, because I think it's important.


YELLIN: Now, Wolf, you will recall President Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay two days after he came into office in his first term. Of course, Guantanamo Bay is still open. And so he is recommitting to his campaign promise in 2008 and to reverse that failure of his first term on closing Guantanamo Bay.

On the larger question about the Boston Marathon attack, and whether there were intelligence failures, I called some administration sources to see why the president wouldn't get more specific about whether he thinks intelligence was missed, and I'm told, basically, big picture, nobody here wants to make any judgments until the DNI, the director of national intelligence's full report is in, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin at the White House, thanks very much.

This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Tamerlan Tsarnaev's family appears to be taking steps towards burying him nearly two weeks after his death.

Let's go immediately to CNN's Brian Todd. He's got new information. He's joining us from Boston.

Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we just got word from the Islamic Society of Boston. This is the mosque where the two brothers attended in Cambridge. The Society just sent us an e-mail with a statement saying that the Islamic Society of Boston Cambridge was contacted by a man named Alvie Tsarnaev (ph), who they identify as the uncle of the two suspects, to arrange for the funeral of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The statement says they have put the family in contact with the funeral home that handles such matters for the Islamic community of Boston and that the details of the funeral rights are still not quite certain at this time. Now, in a separate conversation, I clarified some of that with a spokesperson for the Islamic Society of Boston. She said that essentially they are -- it's not clear if people from that mosque, if officials from that mosque are going to be presiding over Tamerlan Tsarnaev's funeral.

They are for now putting the family in touch with the funeral home that arranges for things like the cleaning of the body and other things. That's al-Maharma (ph) -- excuse me -- I think the Al-Marma (ph) Islamic services group in Boston. But, again, not clear if a top imam of the mosque, or any mosque in this area will preside over the funeral if it's done here in Boston.

And that's not clear either. This person at the mosque in Cambridge said that a top imam there probably would not do it, because they don't want to give the appearance of condoning the bombing. So a layperson would probably do the funeral if again it is finalized that that mosque where the two brothers attended is going to be the one to handle that funeral. That's what we know about the funeral rites for Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Also getting insight now into a recent group of setbacks, a group of setbacks that may have sent Tamerlan Tsarnaev down a somewhat dark path.


TODD (voice-over): A voice that now seems haunting. In a boxing documentary by "Entertainment Tonight," we hear Tamerlan Tsarnaev speak.



TODD: Eddie Bishop remembers that swagger. He recalls a supremely confident Tamerlan at a 2009 Golden Globes boxing tournament in Massachusetts.

(on camera): What was your first impression of him when you saw him?

EDDIE BISHOP, TRAINER: Flashy guy. He had cowboy boots on. He had leather pants.

TODD (voice-over): A swagger that soon turned sour. Bishop, who worked with another fighter, echoes the comments of other trainers who observed Tamerlan in the ring, great puncher, enough raw talent to have a shot at the Olympic team, but:

BISHOP: I noticed he was lacking a key element. He just lacked heart.

TODD: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a New England Golden Gloves champion, went to the national championships in Salt Lake City in 2009, but fell short of the title. The next year, the rules changed.

BOB RUSSO, BOXING COACH: You have to be a citizen, a legal citizen of the United States to box in a national tournament, and the Golden Gloves is a national tournament. So, the National Golden Gloves decided that they would not allow...

TODD: That killed his Olympic boxing dreams. In an interview with "Entertainment Tonight," Tamerlan's former coach John Allan said this.

JOHN ALLAN, BOXING COACH: And he felt that it was done on purpose so that the guy he beat could go to the Olympic trials.

ROB MARCIANO, "ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT": Do you think that this roadblock in his boxing career sent him on the path to these bombings?

ALLAN: Absolutely.

TODD: Other former coaches don't link that setback to the bombings, but Tamerlan Tsarnaev had other problems. Tensions simmered with several members of the family living in a ramshackle apartment in Cambridge.

There were arguments over the influence on Tamerlan of a convert to Islam named Misha. Tamerlan was arrested in 2009 for slapping his girlfriend. And there were financial problems.

(on camera): Times were often tough enough for the family while they lived here in Cambridge that they needed welfare. State officials tell us the Tsarnaevs got public assistance on and off for 10 years which covered Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. And Tamerlan's wife and child got state and federal welfare throughout much of 2012, including the six months when he was in Russia.

(voice-over): In all, a series of setbacks that friends say simply built up over time.

LUIS VASQUEZ, KNEW SUSPECT: One of the sources of this could have been some kind of dissatisfaction of the bad, slow transition to coming to another country from a different one as a teenager. That's never easy.


TODD: Failures that may have defined Tamerlan Tsarnaev'S life in the years leading up to the bombings. But as many observers here have told us, those are similar setbacks to those suffered by many other immigrants and they don't turn to violence -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. Good report.

Meanwhile, some other new developments in the Boston bombing investigation. A law enforcement source says at least one fingerprint has been discovered in the bomb debris. We're told it hasn't been matched to anyone yet, so it probably wasn't left by one of the suspects. Federal investigators appear to have spent the morning with Tamerlan Tsarnaev's widow, Katherine Russell, at her lawyer's office in Rhode Island.

Yesterday, agents entered her parents' home and left with bags marked DNA samples.

Authorities are looking into a possible link between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and a Canadian boxer who became an Islamic extremist and died a violent death in Russia. The man's father is now speaking out.

CNN's Paula Newton has been digging into this story in Canada. She's now in Boston with more.

What are you finding out, Paula?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it wouldn't surprise anyone to learn that these two men did have a connection. The problem is right now, Wolf, no one knows what kind of a connection they had, and there's no proof. Take a listen.


NEWTON: It couldn't have been easy. tipped off Russian authorities about his own son and his link to extremists.

VITALY PLOTNIKOV, FATHER OF WILLIAM PLOTNIKOV: No friends, no father, no mother, only this is (INAUDIBLE) That's it. I don't know what's happened.

NEWTON: William Plotnikov went from being a Russian immigrant in Canada trying to fit in, an aspiring boxer, a college student, to an active Islamic militant in Dagestan. In July of last year, he was killed in a shoot-out with Russian security forces, and just days after that, Tamerlan Tsarnaev left Dagestan in a hurry and flew from Russia to the U.S. At issue now, did the pair know each other? Did they meet in Dagestan? Could Plotnikov have offered any material or inspirational help in carrying out the Boston bombings?

Vitaly Plotnikov says he just doesn't know. He didn't hear from his son after he left Canada to join militants in Dagestan.

PLOTNIKOV: I don't know. Northwest culture, USA is enemy. Somebody change it, his mind in Canada. Tamerlan, I think same problem, same problem. Somebody changed his mind in a religion.

NEWTON: Russian media have reported there were at least a few online communications between the two. While the FBI tells CNN they are investigating a possible link, one Canadian government source tells CNN, Russia has so far offered no proof of that link and says the investigation remains in the hands of Russian security services.


NEWTON: You know, Wolf, we have to keep a mind here that when we listened to President Obama say earlier today that in 2011 the FBI had seen absolutely no proof of extremism, Tsarnaev went back to Russia in 2012, the very same time that Plotnikov was fully immersed in Islamic militancy and then later was killed.

Again, Wolf, it wouldn't surprise them if these two had some kind of connection. They're trying to piece together the actual evidence that can prove that and what influence there was, if any -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Paula, thanks very much -- Paula Newton reporting from Boston.

Up next, we're getting some new information on why North Korea's Kim Jong-un may have backed off after weeks of threatening the U.S., South Korea, Japan. What role did the Obama administration play in this? Stand by.

And Syrians under attack and angry, why some are blaming the United States.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are killing our people. Even Washington knows. Even the West knows that they are terrorists.



BLITZER: So, weeks of saber-rattling by North Korea, including threats of a nuclear attack, have suddenly and mysteriously ended.

But it's too soon to tell if it's because of pressure, pressure from China, diplomacy, or necessity, for that matter.

Our foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty is joining us now with a closer look.

What's going on? What's the best evidence, best information you're getting, Jill?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, John Kerry thinks that Kim Jong-un believes that he can get away with whatever he wants, because he simply doesn't believe that China will crack down on him. Now, Kerry hopes that that's not true anymore. But even he can't be sure.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The strongholds of our enemies will be turned into a sea of flames.

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): After threatening to unleash nuclear war, why has North Korea's young leader and his generals suddenly gone silent? The U.S. and South Korea just ended their massive two-month joint military exercises that infuriated the North. Experts say that might have helped. Another possible reason?

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: China and the United States must, together, take steps in order to achieve the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

DOUGHERTY: John Kerry's lobbying trip to Beijing earlier this month, pressing China's new leaders to use their leverage to get the North to cool it.

KERRY: And today we agreed to bear down very quickly with great specificity on exactly how we will accomplish this goal.

DOUGHERTY: Korea watchers believe transfers of money from North Korean entities in China back to Pyongyang have been curtailed, and shipments across the border have slowed, but at least on the surface, no public signs that China has turned up the heat on Kim Jong-un.

PATRICK VENTRELL, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: In terms of sort of de-escalating the rhetoric, that's a good thing, but the broader policy goal still remains in place, which is the verifiable denuclearization of the entire peninsula.

DOUGHERTY: But another possible reason for Pyongyang's silence, says one Korea expert, lies in the agricultural fields of North Korea.

JOHN PARK, CENTER FOR CONFLICT ANALYSIS AND PREVENTION: In the past, there have been cooling-off periods that align with the time when manual labor is needed in North Korea. And the biggest pool of -- organized pool of labor in North Korea in this respect is the military. So right now we're seeing reports of soldiers who are going off for the planting season.

DOUGHERTY: Park says other soldiers are needed to work in mining and manufacturing. Some of the largest state trading companies are allied with the North Korean military. The longer they stayed away, the less money they made.

Earlier this month, the North said it might return to talks on its nuclear program if the U.S. and South Korea would end their military exercises, lift U.N. sanctions, and stop criticizing Kim Jong-un.


DOUGHERTY: And Kerry wants China to do more, obviously, and he is using some American leverage. He's telling Beijing that if the North continues to threaten, then the U.S. would have to continue with a major military presence in the region, in Asia, and that's something that China doesn't want -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I had been told, Jill, that the U.S./South Korean military exercises, the month-long exercises, which are now over with, that in recent weeks the U.S. curtailed some of the drills that really irritated the North Koreans extensively, and that may have been a factor in convincing the North Koreans, Kim Jong-un to hold back. Have you heard that as well?

DOUGHERTY: Not specifically, but I have heard that there were certain things they did not do. And that would jibe with what I was hearing, Wolf. So that makes sense. I mean, they were calculating it, and trying to show a force without overplaying their hand.

BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, we're going to continue to watch what happens. It's still a very, very dangerous and volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Coming up, a plane carrying the vice president of the United States crippled and stranded. You're going to find out what happened.

Plus, we're taking you inside the Boston bombing suspect's defense team.



BLITZER: Up next: the game changer in Syria's civil war. When will President Obama decide if his so-called red line has been crossed?

And after an outpouring of praise for Jason Collins and his decision to reveal he's gay, wait until you hear his former NBA coach's response.


BLITZER: Happening now: CNN is back in Syria as terror explodes in the capital of Damascus. President Obama, meanwhile, weighing his next move against the Bashar al-Assad regime. And we will take you inside the Boston bombing suspect's new legal time. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is being defended by some of the best attorneys in the business.

And it turns out Jason Collins had a surprising phone conversation with his former coach before the NBA player told the world he's gay.

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

For the second day in a row, a massive and deadly car bombing in the heart of Syria's capital of Damascus, raising fear the country's two-year-old civil war is entering a new and even more bloody and deadly phase.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is in Damascus and shows us what happened.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The wounded were still being evacuated when we arrived at the scene, just minutes after a car bomb ripped through this area in front of a government building.

Mohammed Agha was close by when the attack happened.

MOHAMMED AGHA, WITNESS: I saw several bags full of parts of human beings here. OK. I carry them -- hurried here.

PLEITGEN: A crater marks the spot where the bomb was detonated, apparently hidden in a mini bus.

(on camera): The security forces here are very nervous, obviously, after the blast. If you look at the building, you can see just how bad the damage is. The windows are all blown out; the security fence has been blown away; and there is a lot of carnage here right in front of the old interior ministry building.

(voice-over): It's the second major bombing in just two days in Damascus. As the civil war in Syria drags on and President Bashar al- Assad clings to power, many in Syria's capital believe Iraq-style terror attacks will become more frequent. Some blame Islamist extremist groups and the U.S. for supporting the opposition.

AGHA: They are killing our people. Even Washinka (ph) knows, even the west knows that they are terrorists. Why they are providing them with weapons.

PLEITGEN: The U.S. says it provides only nonlethal aid to the opposition, and aside from political talk, others, like this woman, are simply shocked at what is happening to their country.

"They are all our children," she says, "and it is sad. We are all Syrians killing each other." If anything, the increased bombings appear to be strengthening the resolve of Bashar al-Assad supporters. "God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else," these men chant at the blast site, while the emergency workers are still busy picking up the remains of those who were killed.


BLITZER: Let's bring in Fred Pleitgen. He's joining us now from Damascus.

Fred, it looks like the situation is going from bad to worse. It's been a while since you were there. Are they really giving you any chance to really go out and see anything independently?

PLEITGEN: Well, certainly, we can go out independently; we don't have a government minder with us. I feel as though they're actually watching us a lot less than they did last time.

But you're absolutely right: the situation here in Damascus certainly is deteriorating. The last time I was here was in early February. What you had at the time was you had a lot of shelling going on by the government, especially on the outskirts of Damascus. You had jet fighters in the air, for the better part of the day.

You don't have as much of that right now, but what you have is those massive car bomb attacks. And you have those two in the past couple of days. There was one a week and a half before that. And it's certainly something that's causing a lot of fear here in the Syrian capital. And the sense that I get is that people here are feeling that the war is getting closer and closer to home. And some people I'm speaking to are saying they are getting ready to pack their bags and get out of here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So many people already have. All right. We'll check back with you, Fred, tomorrow. Fred Pleitgen is in Damascus for us.

Let's dig a little bit deeper into Syria right now and President Obama's policies towards Syria. We're joined now by Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser to the Obama administration, the author of an important brand-new book. It's entitled "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat."

Vali, thanks very much for coming in. This so-called red line that the president has drawn, Bashar al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons against their own people. Here's what the president said today. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got to do everything we can to investigate and establish with some certainty what exactly has happened in Syria, what is happening in Syria. We will use all the assets and resources that we have at our disposal. We'll work with the neighboring countries to establish a clear baseline of facts. And we've also called on the United Nations to investigate.


BLITZER: All right. So what do you make of this, Vali?

VALI NASR, AUTHOR, "THE DISPENSABLE NATION": Well, the president is very deliberate in thinking about whether or not he's going to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. There's a lot lying on the line. If it's proven that chemical weapons were used, the United States would have to act militarily to punish the regime. If the United States does not do that, its national credibility is at stake.

It's also very important what the president didn't say. He did not show a road map as to how the United States would get involved diplomatically, in terms of a no-fly zone, economically, to address the myriad of problems that are arising in Syria from the spread of al-Qaeda influence, extremism, humanitarian crisis. Basically, he only said that the United States only would get involved if it is to punish the regime for use of chemical weapons.

BLITZER: When you say get involved, no one really believes the U.S. is going to get involved with so-called boots on the ground. But do you think a no-fly zone, air strikes, what the U.S. did in Libya, do you think that's realistic?

NASR: Well, in response to use of chemical weapons, they could use Cruise missiles or a targeted bombing of a site in order to punish the regime for this use of chemical weapons and to deter future use.

But actually, getting involved in finishing this very dangerous conflict requires reviving diplomacy, requires addressing the humanitarian issue, requires talking to their neighborhood about how do we help the opposition, in order to change the tide of the war. It requires much more American leadership than we are seeing. It doesn't require boots on the ground, not now.

BLITZER: You served in the State Department. You advised Richard Holbrooke, the late American diplomat, on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And in your new book, "Indispensable Nation," you tell powerful stories about tension between the State Department and the Pentagon on the one hand and young aides in the White House. Give us just a headline what you have there.

NASR: Well, in the context of what we are seeing, what Richard Holbrooke would have stood for, was that the president would handle Syria the way President Clinton handled Bosnia. Which is to empower America's diplomats to take leadership, to get the world community together, to create a diplomatic as well as a military path for breaking this conflict and ending it.

Whereas what we are seeing is that you have a structure that is trying to make sure that the president does not take any decisive actions on Syria, and to ensure that we stay out of this conflict. The consequence of which is that the conflict is snowballing; it is becoming more difficult to solve. Many in the State Department have favored from the very beginning, including Secretary Clinton, and General Petraeus of the CIA, that the United States should get involved in Syria much earlier on in order to protect America's interests and prevent this becoming -- from becoming the horrendous conflict that it has become.

BLITZER: Certainly is a disaster. The book is entitled "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat." It's a powerful, powerful book. Vali Nasr is author. He's also the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, my excellent alma mater. Thanks very much, Vali, for coming in. Congratulations on the new book.

NASR: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Up next, the bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's expert legal team, it's a who's who of defense attorneys.


BLITZER: All right. So Iraq is making news again, and it's not good news. Deadly violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims skyrocketing right -- right now. Almost 200 people have been killed just in the last week.

Our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, is back on the ground in Baghdad for us. She's been there many, many times over recent years.

Arwa, in a nutshell, how bad is the situation in Iraq right now?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's as bad, if not worse than it has been in years, Wolf. Many Iraqis are understandably incredibly fearful that the country is moving down a path that is going to see the type of violence that transpired here, back when the attacks were at their worst, 2005 to 2008. Although for many Iraqis, these tit- for-tat attacks, the surge in violence really comes as no surprise.

We've been seeing a steady increase in attacks ever since the U.S. military withdrew. Those have most certainly intensified, especially over the last week.

But the tensions that exist between the Sunni and Shia population, those have also been intensifying, in part aggravated by the actions of the predominantly Shia government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. We've been seeing for months now demonstrations in Iraq's predominately Sunni areas. We have been seeing clashes. And right now, especially when we look at what's happening over recent times, many people are warning that Iraq really is at a crossroads at this stage, Wolf.

BLITZER: And for this, the United States went to war? I guess a lot of people are wondering. The U.S. lost thousands of troops. So many came home injured, spending, what, $1 trillion, something like that, and the situation there is as chaotic and as brutal as ever, if you will. Is that what I'm hearing? DAMON: Pretty much in a nutshell, yes. Iraq most certainly has not by any stretch of the imagination turned into a thriving democracy. And of course, the situation here is only being further aggravated by what is happening in neighboring Syria.

Not only does Iraq have its own set of challenges to deal with when it comes to appeasing the sectarian tensions that exist, but in many ways, what is happening here and what is happening in Syria is part of those greater power struggle between the Sunni and Shia communities.

BLITZER: And my fear is no matter how long the U.S. winds up staying in Afghanistan, the same kind of disaster is going to be there, as well. All right, Arwa, we'll stay in close touch with you. Arwa Damon is back in Baghdad for us. We appreciate it.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has become one of the most famous terror suspects in the world, and now he's being defended by some of the best criminal defense attorneys in the United States.

CNN's Jake Tapper is in Boston. He takes us inside the brand-new legal team and the challenges they face.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, what do the Unabomber, Zacarias Moussaoui and the 1996 Olympics bomber have in common? Well, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's new attorneys represented all three of them.

(voice-over): When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has his day in court, he'll be defended by some of the best lawyers in the business. Only two weeks after he and his brother allegedly set off the bombs that took three lives and severely maimed so many others, the court has appointed a defense team with client rosters that read like a worst of the worst list.

Meet Miriam Conrad, one of the country's best respected defenders. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Conrad has defended notorious clients for more than two decades. This isn't even Conrad's first terrorism case. She assisted in the defense of Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who tried to blow up a passenger plane in 2001 with explosives packed in his sneakers. Reid was sentenced to life in prison.

She also recently defended a Muslim-American radicalized by online videos who plotted to fly remote-controlled model airplanes packed with explosives into the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

TAMAR BIRCKHEAD, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOL OF LAW: Miriam is really committed to the cases that have no chance of winning, just as committed as she is to the cases that she could possibly win. She's really hard-working and cares a whole lot about her clients. And really a determined, tenacious lawyer.

TAPPER: Tamar Birckhead, an attorney who also defended Richard Reid, worked with Conrad in Boston's federal public defender's office.

BIRCKHEAD: Miriam is extremely well-regarded by the judges in Boston, as well as by the attorneys in the U.S. attorney's office, the prosecutors. She has an excellent reputation. And combined with her own intellect and natural talents, she's a very effective attorney.

TAPPER: She will have her work cut out for her. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is charged with detonating a weapon of mass destruction. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

And for that reason, prominent defense attorney Judy Clark also has joined the team. Death penalty cases are her specialty. Clark has defended the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; Eric Rudolph, who's responsible for the Atlanta Olympics bombing; and most recently, Jared Loughner, who went on a shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and severely wounding Congresswoman Gabby Giffords when he shot her in the head. All of them escaped the death penalty, getting life sentences instead, an outcome Tsarnaev's attorneys likely will be pursuing, if prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty.

BIRCKHEAD: The primary goal that Miriam is going to have is saving her client's life. And the first step towards doing that is making a connection with the client; establishing a rapport so that he trusts her, so that she can get the information that she needs from him. And so that ultimately, he respects and listens to her legal advice.

TAPPER (on camera): Legal experts say the strategy right now for Tsarnaev's defense attorneys is to slow the process down. The nation is angry right now. They want to slow things down, so that they can work their magic in the coming months when the nation's not paying as much attention -- Wolf.


BLITZER: All right, Jake, thanks very much. Jake Tapper in Boston.

When we come back, for the first time, the NBA player Jason Collins now talking about making history. Stand by.


BLITZER: At least for now, Jason Collins is probably the most talked-about athlete in the United States, and he's talking about his decision to become the first active male professional athlete in some of the major sports here in the United States to come out as gay.

Here's CNN's Rachel Nichols.


RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Long before Jason Collins came out on the cover of "Sports Illustrated," there had been an open debate about how ready male American pro athletes were for a gay teammate in their midst. Turns out much more so than the media that had been doing the debating. In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Collins marveled at the overwhelmingly positive response, which also included a phone call from the president.

JASON COLLINS, PRO BASKETBALL PLAYER: Just try to live an honest, genuine life, and next thing you know, you have the president calling you.


COLLINS: He was incredibly supportive, and he was proud of me, and said that this not only affected my life, but others going forward.

NICHOLS: On Tuesday, President Obama also praised Collins at a news conference.

OBAMA: This is just one more step in this ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly. And everybody's part of a -- part of a family. And we judge people on the basis of their character and their performance. And not their sexual orientation.

NICHOLS: Collins even earned a spot in Ellen DeGeneres's opening monologue.

ELLEN DEGENERES, TALK SHOW HOST: It was more challenging for him. He's 7 feet tall, so when he came out of the closet, he had to duck.

NICHOLS: Collins did see some minor backlash on his Twitter page and within the media itself, notably from ESPN basketball analyst, Chris Broussard.

CHRIS BROUSSARD, ESPN BASKETBALL ANALYST: I'm a Christian. I don't agree with homosexuality. I think it's a sin, as I think all sex outside a marriage between a man and a woman is.

NICHOLS: ESPN issued this statement after Broussard's remarks: quote, "We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today's news. ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins's announcement."

And Collins said he's sure he'll eventually hear from more people who disapprove of him. The most important approval he earned this week was his own.

COLLINS: I hope that every player makes a decision that leads to their own happiness. Whatever happiness that is in life. I know that I am now the happiest I've ever been in my life.

NICHOLS: For CNN, I'm Rachel Nichols, New York.


BLITZER: Collins, by the way, played with the Boston Celtics earlier this season. Today, the Celtics head coach, Doc Rivers, told reporters about the phone call he received from Collins just a couple of days ago.


DOC RIVERS, CELTICS HEAD COACH: When he called me to tell me, you know, and you could tell he wanted to tell me, I told him -- first, I could care less what you're about to tell me and that's how I feel. I honestly feel that way. I could care less. Who cares?

But I mean -- it just -- this is not a factor to me, and I know it is a factor to a lot of people. I just have never understood why anyone cares about what someone else does. They tell me he was -- when I told him -- let's move forward. And I jokingly said I wish you could give me more rebounds, because that's all I care about, really.


BLITZER: Collins, by the way, ended the season with the Washington Wizards. Erin Grunfeld, the president of the Wizards, issued a strong statement of applause for what Collins has done.

Collins, by the way, right now is a free agent. We'll see which team signs him up next year. He's 34 years old, a graduate of Stanford University.

Coming up, severe storms in Houston and a severe attack of the hiccups for a Houston weatherman.


BLITZER: Getting the hiccups on live TV. Not a good thing. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Talk about high pressure. There's never a good time for hiccups, but this was a bad one.

DAVID PAUL, KHOU METEOROLOGIST: Couple of thunderstorms (HICCUP)...

MOOS: When KHOU meteorologist David Paul started his forecast for the Houston area, he hoped it was just a passing hiccup.

PAUL: Outside the beltway (HICCUP). Really, it's Highway 60 (HICCUP)...

MOOS: But the involuntary contractions of the diaphragm continued.

PAUL: (HICCUP) Excuse me, I have the hiccups, of course.

MOOS: David told us he'd been having bouts of hiccups all day. Usually they stop when the red light on the camera comes on.

PAUL: Some redevelopment of thunderstorms right in here (HICCUP).

(via phone): It was the most helpless feeling I've ever had on live TV. That was a mess.

MOOS: Sure, other meteorologists have suffered a single hiccup.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Close to 60, that's fair (HICCUP) -- excuse me. That's what Dr. Pepper does to you.

MOOS: We've seen talent sneeze on air.

GLENN BECK, FORMER HLN ANCHOR: But you know what? (SNEEZE) Excuse me.

MOOS: We've even seen an Australian weatherman pass out. Doing the weather, pulling 8 G's in a stunt plane, but this was no stunt.

PAUL: Had some rain showers developing, as well (HICCUP). I did put a storm track on this.

MOOS: What we need is a hiccup tracker.

(on camera): In a forecast that lasted about three minutes...


MOOS: ... we counted a total...


MOOS: ... of 14 hiccups. And seven "excuse mes."

PAUL: (HICCUP) Excuse me.

(HICCUP) Excuse me.

MOOS (voice-over): David did try one last-ditch trick.

PAUL (via phone): I slowed down and thought "I'm just going to try to speak slowly and swallow, and maybe it will go away."

(on camera): ... at least street flooding, so I'm monitoring that very carefully this evening. So far, so good there. Here's the big picture (HICCUP). Excuse me. Big picture.

MOOS: Even a drink of water didn't help.

PAUL: Thank you. I appreciate it.

MOOS: But at least he's getting praised for soldiering through and maintaining his dignity. All those hiccups are...

PAUL: (HICCUP) compared to...

MOOS: ... nothing to sneeze at.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow, that was a first.

PAUL (via phone): All I've heard today is "Hey, it's the hiccupping weatherman."

MOOS: Forecasting a 70 percent chance of scattered hiccups.

Jeanne Moos, CNN...

PAUL: Here's your extended forecast. (HICCUP) Excuse me.

MOOS: ... New York.


BLITZER: That's it for me. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.