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Massive Pileup Shuts Down Pennsylvania Turnpike; Flights Canceled Over Two Days; Snowden Stole Co-worker's Password; Federal Judge Overturned Ban Against Same-Sex Marriage; Obama Rallies House Democrats; Obama Shifts Focus to Foreign Policy; Roker Apologizes for New York School Tweet

Aired February 14, 2014 - 13:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, across the U.S., people are caught in travel nightmares. Snow and ice getting in the way of their holiday weekend travel plans and there's more bad weather on the way.

Also, right now, the south is digging out from one of its worst winters in years, while athletes at the winter Olympics wear tank tops and flip flops. What is behind all of this wacky weather?

And, right now, we are learning new details about how Edward Snowden used a colleague's password to gain access to NSA secrets.

Hi there, I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington. Wolf Blitzer is off today. And for the millions of people trying to get in and out of the Northeast right now, this is what you are facing. A powerful nor'easter has left much of the region under more than a foot of snow, and that means treacherous conditions on the roads. It's unclear right now if ice contributed to massive pileups on the Pennsylvania turnpike, but about 100 trucks and cars wrecked there in a string of accidents right outside of Philadelphia this morning, closing down traffic on the eastbound lanes for hours. Thankfully, no one was killed but 30 people were injured.

And joining me on the phone now is Maria Scholler who is, I believe, still in the middle of that mess in Pennsylvania. First off, Maria, tell us what the situation is where you are and are you doing all right?

MARIA SCHOLLER (via telephone): I'm doing OK. I am between the Bensalem exit and Doylestown and pulled over to the right shoulder and I'm doing OK.

KEILAR: OK. So, you're hanging in there. How long have you been there?

SCHOLLER: I've been here since about 8:15 this morning.

KEILAR: Oh, my goodness. OK. So, it's going on five hours, at this point. Do you have any sense of how this happened? Was this road conditions -- was this simply just a case of ice, slick roads? SCHOLLER: What I'm reading on Twitter is that it was sun glare and ice. But I can obviously see that the center line of the turnpike has not been treated very well. It's a complete sheet of ice, and it could have been the reason that a lot of these people were smacking into one -- you know, the cars were smacking into each other and there was a lot of accidents.

KEILAR: So, describe to us what happened as you came to a stop and just describe to us this scene where you are right now, what you're looking at.

SCHOLLER: I was directly behind two tractor trailers who were flipped and overturned about five cars in front of me. And I noticed that cars to the left and the right had their flashers on so I put my flashers on, swerved to miss the cars in front of me and then immediately it was like a domino effect. People were just hitting the back of each other's cars and one after the other. It was -- it was horrific.

KEILAR: And did anyone around you -- was anyone around you injured? I mean, when you're talking about it was horrific, were mostly people stunned or worse?

SCHOLLER: It was the initial shock of seeing this multivehicle accident that was horrific for me, as well as the people around me. But there was a woman who was about 11 cars in front of us who her car flipped around completely and smashed into the side of a truck and her car got taken away. I didn't see it if she was taken out of the vehicle or not.

KEILAR: Have you -- has anyone come around, official or even unofficial, to offer some help? We do actually have some video of some people there in Pennsylvania who have been coming around with sandwiches for stranded drivers. Have you seen anyone either just a good Samaritan or even someone telling you when perhaps this might be cleared up?

SCHOLLER: There is a huge sense of camaraderie when something crazy like this happens. There were fire trucks in the westbound lane that just gave us water. There has been people bringing Valentine's Day candy, pretzels, doughnuts, and people with cases of water in their car walking around asking for help. It's just really nice to know that there's people like -- that can come together in a situation like this.

KEILAR: Yes, tough situation. And it is very nice to see people getting out there and helping their sort of new neighbors, I guess you could say. Maria Scholler joining us there talking to us from the Pennsylvania turnpike. Thanks, Maria.

And you know, there are also serious air travel problems up and down the east coast. More than 8,400 flights have been cancelled, 8,400. That's just over the last two days. And most of them, because of that massive snowstorm, Rosa Flores is live at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Just how bad is it, Rosa? ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Brianna, on this Valentine's Day, if your love is in the air, then you're definitely lucky. Because, like you mentioned, there is a lot of cancelled flights, just today, about 1,300 flights around the country with about 2,800 delays. That's a lot of people stuck at airports. Now, the delays here at LaGuardia Airport are about an hour and 35 minutes. Just a few hours ago, it was an hour and seven minutes. So things are getting a little worse.

If we look at the misery map from around the country with, you'll see that at the very top, Charlotte International in North Carolina. And then, you've O'Hare Airport and then Newark. So, there's a lot of very patient people that are around the country right now in airports. Now, thank goodness for computers because a lot of us, whenever there are cancellations, we just don't go to the airport.

Now, we did a little digging to figure out just how many people have been impacted by all of this. Well, guess what? Since the beginning of the year, about 75,000 flights have been cancelled with about 5 1/2 million people. And if you add up how much money they spent, Brianna, hear this, $3 billion in extra costs. And you and I know that no one has just money stashed up these days for extra meals, extra hotel rooms, just because of flight cancellations -- Brianna.

KEILAR: It has been some kind of winter, Rosa Flores. Thank you so much for that report.

FLORES: Of course.

KEILAR: And we want to turn to other news now. A memo that sheds new light on a nagging question, how did Edward Snowden get access to all of those classified documents that he leaked to reporters? Well, the memo seems to indicate Snowden stole a password from a co-worker, something he has denied. And for more on the internal NSA document and what it says, let's bring in Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, what does it say?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Brianna, you're absolutely right. Snowden had been denying for months that he had tricked any fellow employees or stolen any of their security information or passwords but that appears now not to be exactly true.

Our own Joe Johns has obtained this February 10th memo from the National Security Agency to members of Congress detailing to some great extent what they believe now has happened. And what they're saying to Congress is there was an NSA civilian who Snowden apparently got to enter his, the civilian's, password into a computer Snowden was using. The person did not know, of course, he says, that Snowden was going to steal information from the NSA databases, enters his password, and Snowden, unbeknownst to him, is able to capture that password and use it.

That civilian, who is not identified now, has left the employment of the NSA. The NSA says that it has informed the Justice Department of all of this. No information about what will happen next. The memo pretty tantalizing because it also says there is a contractor and an active duty member of the U.S. military also caught up in all of this. But the NSA saying it's going to leave it to their employees to deal with it. So, perhaps more to come. All of this, of course, a massive security violation. And it begins to explain how some of this happened -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And, Barbara, is this NSA civilian obviously gone from the employment of the NSA but is this person in trouble?

STARR: Well, I think, perhaps, yes, because even though the person has left the employment, the memo details that it was all turned over to the Justice Department. So, it'll be up to them now to determine whether they want to proceed against this person, but the NSA certainly says that it moved very quickly to revoke the ability of any of these people to have access to classified information through their security clearances.

It's the same question that we see repeatedly in so many of these cases. Security breaches because protocols are simply not followed. People in this classified world of military and security information know not to -- you know, who they cannot give their passwords to. And, apparently in this case, the protocols, according to what we understand, simply were not followed.

KEILAR: I'm sure they will be stressing the NSA will be those protocols to their employees. Once again, Barbara Starr, thank you so much.

STARR: Sure.

KEILAR: Well, you know, there has been a major reversal for the commonwealth of Virginia. A federal judge has overturned its ban against same-sex marriage. This all coming on the heels of a similar ruling this week in Kentucky.

Right now, 17 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages and our National Political Reporter Peter Hamby joining me now to talk about this. Virginia's ban was overturned. How did this case play out and when are we going to see this going into effect?

PETER HAMBY, CNN NATIONAL POLITCAN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're not going to see any marriages right now because the judge did make this ruling. It is an unmistakable win for advocates of same-sex marriage.

But she said they want to wait for this to go through the courts. So, it has to go through the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Fourth Circuit, which is a conservative leading court. Both sides thinks this will probably go to the Supreme Court, at some point. But, again, no marriages in Virginia right now.

The way -- this court -- this case was brought on behalf of two couples, one in Norfolk and one in central Virginia. A couple that moved here from California, a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, and they were seeking Virginia to recognize that. And another couple in Norfolk that just wanted a marriage license. This is one of a cascade of court rulings in the wake of last summer's rulings, the U.S. versus Windsor here in Washington, where different states have been striking down bans left and right. Utah, Oklahoma are recent ones. We -- you mentioned --

KEILAR: States you wouldn't think.

HAMBY: Yes, exactly.

KEILAR: (INAUDIBLE) more conservative states.

HAMBY: Exactly. That ruling, as Justice Scalia said after it happened, really opened the door to all of this happening. Kentucky, Ohio now recognize marriages from other states. So, this is just the latest. And what's really important about this, you know, a lot of southerners might quibble as to whether Kentucky is part of the south. Virginia would be the first state in the old south, the old confederacy, to recognize same-sex marriage. That's a big deal.

KEILAR: Let's talk about the politics of this. This has been an issue in the past, --


KEILAR: -- same-sex marriage. Is it no longer an issue that the left and the right will debate? Has it just sort of lost all of its, I guess, emphasis, whether it's Democrats or Republicans? They don't really want to talk about it.

HAMBY: The left would love to talk about --

KEILAR: Oh, sure. Yes, sure.

HAMBY: Yes, you know, again, in the wake of the ruling last -- the Supreme Court ruling last summer, I remember e-mailing a bunch of Republican strategists asking for just some sort of comment. You know, how do you think this plays out in the 2014 midterm elections?

KEILAR: Don't want to touch it.

HAMBY: No one wanted to talk about it. Someone e-mailed me and said, I have no interest in weighing in on this at all. Please keep away from me right now.


HAMBY: The only people you really see on the right weighing after this are these sort of social conservative groups who are vowing to fight it. But, you know, the Republican strategists who are trying to win elections know that same-sex marriage is popular. In 1996, only a quarter of the country supported same-sex marriage. Now, poll after poll after poll shows the majorities support same-sex marriage. This is a fight that Democrats are happy to have and Republicans aren't.

KEILAR: Yes, that's the truth. Peter Hamby, thanks so much.

HAMBY: Thanks. KEILAR: Well, the president, the kings and the prime minister, President Obama, get set to meet a list of world leaders. Does this signal a shift from domestic problems to foreign issues (INAUDIBLE) away from things like immigration. We'll have that next.

And later, controversy in New York City. The mayor fighting back against critics and gets an apology of sorts.


KEILAR: President Obama tries to rally House Democrats on issues ranging from immigration reform to income inequality, and the minimum wage. The president spoke just a short time ago with the House Democratic Issues Conference and he highlighted this week's encouraging numbers on Obamacare enrollment.

The administration says 3.3 million people have signed up, quite a few signing up in January. And the president thanked the Democrats for supporting his signature health care reform law.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We are going to keep on pushing on this to make sure that here in America, everybody can enjoy the kind of financial security and peace of mind that good quality health insurance provides. And I just want to say thank you for all of you hanging in there tough on an issue that I think ten years from now, five years from now, we're going to look back and say, this was a monumental achievement that could not have happened, had it not been for this caucus.


KEILAR: President Obama heads to Palm Springs later today for a working dinner with Jordan's King Abdullah. The meeting is just one of several upcoming events with world leaders and it's an indication that the president is shifting focus to foreign policy.

After meeting with the King of Jordan, the president will welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House on March 3rd, and he meets with Saudi King Abdullah during an overseas trip later in March.

I want to go ahead and bring in "Time" magazine political correspondent, Jay Newton Small. Does this suggest do you think, Jay, that's the president is sort of I guess discourage?

I mean, we heard Speaker Boehner throw cold water on the prospects for immigration reform. Is this a sign that President Obama is maybe discouraged and trying turning away from domestic policy and towards foreign policy?

JAY NEWTON SMALL, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I think, Brianna, that it's a sign of the 2014 elections are heating up and they are not getting anything else done in Washington this year. It's going to be all politics for the next few months until after the 2014 elections and then will have another window to do domestic policy after that.

KEILAR: So he'll be meeting with the King of Saudi Arabia next month. This was something that was added on to his trip to Europe. This was a very big deal. He's going to try to ease some concerns about this interim nuclear deal with Iran. What are we expecting from this, and how worried are the Saudis about this deal?

SMALL: Saudis are incredibly worried about this deal. They have made all kinds of noises that down the road, if Iran gets a nuclear bomb, they're going to get a nuclear bomb. If there is peace with Iran, they are going to go for a nuclear bomb. And last thing you really want is a nuclearized sort of Middle East, whether it's Iran or Saudi Arabia, going for that bomb.

Because once one country gets it, a lot of other countries make a run for it, Israel, you know, other countries. You don't want to see that happen and that's a huge concern. You really want to calm the Saudis down and say this deal doesn't mean we're going to be BFFs with Iran.

KEILAR: And the other issue that we're waiting to see if there will be news made during that trip will be on Syria. What are we thinking could come from this, if anything? But what do we think might go on behind the scenes in terms of the concerns of Saudi Arabia?

SMALL: Well, Saudi Arabia was really upset at the deal that we did with Russia to get the chemical weapons out of Syria. And they just -- they feel that the U.S. has pledged for a long time to get Assad out, Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad and have not done anything to fix things in Syria, as the violence has gotten out of control.

So the administration is going to try to reassure Saudi Arabia that the political process in Geneva is working. That they're trying to get a diplomatic solution here, and that -- the U.S. remains heavily involved in Syria and very engaged.

KEILAR: We're always looking when Prime Minister Netanyahu comes to town. It's -- you never kind of know what's going to happen. It can be dramatic. It can be contentious. Are they getting along? They don't always have the President Obama and Netanyahu haven't historically had the best relationship.

And we're always kind of waiting, right? There's obviously talked of trying to revive the Mid-East peace process. What are we expecting, do you think, between them and in terms of really accomplishing something?

SMALL: Well, we have -- they have a lot of issues on their plate, obviously and, you know, last time around, or not last time around, but a few years ago, you saw Benjamin Netanyahu really school Obama in the oval office.

KEILAR: Lecture him on his turf, right? It was crazy.

SMALL: And it was about this issue, about settlements, about the Middle East peace process and so obviously a very contentious issue between the two countries. And it's something that the president really wants to make a second term agenda. I mean, what bigger legacy-building thing is there than peace in the Middle East?

That every president has tried and so they're going to try for it. The question is how willing are both leaders to do it? How much capital do they have to put into the process and what are they willing to sacrifice.

KEILAR: How is really an issue of -- if you're the president of the United States, you have to try, right? Don't you have to try? Even if the hopes are dim. What do you think the reality is of making some progress there?

SMALL: These are the huge issues that will dominate President Obama's second term. And that is, you know, peace with Iran, frankly, that will change the entire face of our relations in the Middle East, and peace between Israel and the Palestine.

And if you do those two things -- if you manage to do those two things, which has been both of them on our agenda for, what, 40 years, if not more, 50, 60 years, in the case of Israel. Then you really can say you have achieved enormous things with your presidency.

But Obama has so little political capital with these leaders anymore, and it's really hard to convince Benjamin Netanyahu or King Abdullah to do anything, because they're so angry with him for, frankly, ignoring them for his first term. So he's got a lot of work to do.

KEILAR: We'll see if he can mend that bridge, those bridges. Jay Newton Small with "Time" magazine, thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.

Now up next, controversy over school closings in New York. Did you hear about this story? Pretty interesting one, it led to a very public and very ugly battle on Twitter.

And later, wild weather not just in the U.S., but around the world, from historic flooding and droughts to record snowfall, we'll find out what's behind it all, coming up.


KEILAR: New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, came under fire for his handling of yesterday's snowstorm and his decision to leave public schools open. But now there's been an apology of sorts from one of his critics. Our Deb Feyerick is joining me now from New York to talk about this.

So I mean, Deb, if you followed this yesterday, the highlight was really this Twitter battle between De Blasio and the "Today" show's Al Roker. It got pretty bad, right? But what's going on today?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, what's going on today is that this is like government by tweet. Mayor Bill De Blasio definitely expected the hits to keep coming from angry parents in New York City. He did not expect it to be coming from as far away as Sochi and Al Roker usually a friendly guy. He's got a child in public school, criticized the mayor not only for blaming the National Weather Service, but also for keeping schools open yesterday, calling De Blasio's long-range forecast basically one term.

Well, today Roker did apologize. He admitted that was below the line. You see that tweet that he sent out yesterday, saying long-range De Blasio forecast, one term. And he did say, you know what, maybe he did cross the line. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Al, I was with you. I was watching you do it. You were making a serious point about the National Weather Service. The fact that he had, in fact, been warned that the chancellor had been warned, anything else you want to say this morning?

AL ROKER, "TODAY" SHOW: Look, I understand one of the reasons they say they keep the schools open is because kids -- a lot of kids who count on the meals they get at school. I understand that, but other cities have those issues too and they closed school. It's about safety, safety first for children. That's what we talk about.

Parents who can't afford to stay home, I get that too. But, again, what's more difficult? To know your kids are going to stay home, or have to all of a sudden figure out how to get them home when school lets out early?

I will say, the one tweet I do regret in the heat -- I'm very passionate about the weather. I made a prediction there would be only one term of his administration. I apologize for that. That was -- that was a little above -- below the line. But everything else I still stand by.


FEYERICK: Now, should actually say, Brianna, that was not exactly a spontaneous question that sort of popped up. But to put it in perspective, only 45 percent of the city's 1.1 million children showed up for school yesterday, some classes only a handful of children.

And you know, De Blasio, one reason that so many people are watching him is he's heralded as the progressive to watch because of his views on things like universal pre-k, income inequality, immigrant identity cards, but if you look at those pictures. You look at the snow.

That's what first and second and third graders had to overcome. The buses were slow. The streets were dangerous and critics say that, you know, after 20 years of successful governing by mayors like Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, the honeymoon for De Blasio is over.


JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The problem is, Bill De Blasio has never managed anything before. He's an ideologue. His reputation for being indecisive, he is an intelligent, engaging, affable guy with a great family. But where the rubber meets the road, whether mayors can manage in times of crisis, and keep the trains moving in the streets claim that his falling down on the job and frustrating folks.


FEYERICK: So everybody watching him, you know, De Blasio frequently repeats that he won the majority of the vote here in New York City. But what he doesn't mention is that that majority was by less than 25 percent of all registered New York City voters. So it is a very fine line, goodwill and good governing -- Brianna.

KEILAR: We'll see if Al Roker is right or not, I guess, with that tweet. But I think one of the things, Deb, that just upset so many of these meteorologists was they were looking very carefully at how many inches of snow when it was going to fall. And they felt like perhaps leaders, whether it be in New York City or in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, they just weren't paying attention.

FEYERICK: Exactly. Don't blame the weather. That's just lame.

KEILAR: That's what they were saying.

FEYERICK: You have to have a plan in place. That's it. The weather is the weather. What's it going to do?

KEILAR: Yes. And so many times meteorologists get blamed for the weather, their prediction. So I think they felt, you know -- all right. Thanks, Deb.

Historic drought in the west, next, mega storms in the east that we are experiencing now. We'll be taking a look at the recent wacky weather coming up.

And should people who pay more taxes rule the ballot box? Wait until you hear the election map one guy is pitching.