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Driver Dozes Off; U.S. Trying To Secure Bergdahl's Release; Lack Of Spying Details A Mistake; Clapper Defends NSA Spying; Interview with Rep. Peter King; Nugent Stumps For GOP; Ted Nugent's Remarks; Obama Wants $1B for Climate Change

Aired February 18, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the U.S. is doubling down on efforts to trade prisoners with the Taliban offering to free five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in exchange for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Also right now, the director of National Intelligence opens up -- opens up. He says the NSA's spying controversy could have been avoided if the U.S. government had been more transparent from the very beginning.

And right now, Ted Nugent is hitting the campaign trail in Texas after calling President Obama a, quote, "subhuman mongrel." And that's forcing one Republican candidate for governor of Texas to walk a very find line.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We start with new details on the efforts by the U.S. to get U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl back home. Bergdahl walked away from his base in Afghanistan back in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is joining us now. So, Barbara, is the U.S. actually offering a new prisoner swap for Bergdahl?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I have to tell you, this is some of the most delicate information held by the administration at this point. Obviously, a young soldier's fate is at stake here. What we do know here at CNN is that there are new discussions with intermediaries in the region. Most likely the Qataris to get in touch with the Taliban and see what room there may be for discussions to get Bergdahl back.

In the past, the Taliban have wanted the release of five prisoners being held at Guantanamo bay. The U.S. has not agreed to that in the past. Whether there is some new formulation to make that happen remains to be seen. But what we do know is discussions are underway with intermediaries in the region trying to see if after all this time, there is a way to bring this young man home -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, last month, we reported the U.S. did receive what's called proof of life on Bergdahl that came nearly three years after -- three years of silence. Does that proof of life play into these negotiations? STARR: Well, what it does is reassure the United States, clearly, that Bergdahl is alive but not, perhaps, in the best of health. People who looked at that imagery said he did appear more frail than he has in the past.

So, the belief is that there is a couple of drivers here. His health and the fact that U.S. troops may not be in Afghanistan very much longer if they leave at the end of the year. This is a renewed push, if you will, to see what can be done to get this young man out. Whether it's directly tied or not, perhaps maybe yes, maybe no. But the timing is what is so interesting to U.S. officials that they were made to have this video in hand just as they're trying to see what they can do about it all.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see what happens. Let's hope for the best, Barbara. Thanks very much.

Bowe Bergdahl's family, by the way, has just released this statement. Let me read it to you. We applaud the unity of purpose and resolve at the White House and other U.S. government agencies involved. We thank all involved for this renewed effort. We hope everyone takes this opportunity seriously. We are cautiously optimistic these discussions will lead to the safe return of our son after more than four and a half years in captivity.

Other news. Now, a revelation of sorts from the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. He says the bulk collection of Americans' phone call data wouldn't have been a big deal if people were told about it immediately after 911.

In an exclusive interview with "The Daily Beast", he says, had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 911, we wouldn't have had the problem we had. He went on to say, I don't think it would be of any greater concern to most Americans than fingerprints. Well, people kind of accept that, because they know about it. Just like we have to go to airports two hours early, take our shoes off. All of the other things we do for the common good, this is one more thing.

All right, let's discuss what we just heard from Clapper. The New York Republican Congressman, Peter King, is joining us. He's a key member of the House Homeland Security Committee. He's a chairman of the subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence. I was surprised to hear Clapper make this statement. What about you, Congressman?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Yes, I have great regard for General Clapper, but, politically, I don't agree with him. And I say politically in that I think that people still would have objected. He still would have certain people objecting to it.

And also, you know, the whole idea of (INAUDIBLE) activity is that you don't announce to the world about your enemies what you're doing. So, I think in those days after 911, especially it would have been dangerous to let the enemy know what we were doing, know what we were collecting. And so, I just don't -- to me, it would have given too much away to the enemy, to the terrorists. And I don't think it would have calmed down the people over here.

Now, average Americans, yes, but the organized anti-war people, or organized anti-Bush people at that time, for instance, back in 2004, I guess it was, 2005, when "New York times" had a big expose on the -- on the collecting of calls.

So, no, I -- listen, I think General Clapper meant well. I think he's done an outstanding job. But I think as far as reading the political tea leaves here, I think it would have been a mistake to do at the time because I still think the opposition would have been there and we would have been tipping off the enemy is what we were doing.

BLITZER: Because it makes it sound -- and I am anxious to get your thoughts on this. It makes it sound that Snowden, Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who, last June, did release all this information, made it public about what the U.S. was doing, in terms of this metadata collection operation. It makes it sound at least, Clapper seemed to think, well, maybe Snowden did the right thing. I should have done it right after 911. The U.S. should have done it right after 911. We still wouldn't know about this if Snowden hadn't released this information.

KING: Yes, I don't think General Clapper said anything we have to be ashamed of here. I think he's just saying it would have been less of a reaction if we had put it out after 911 rather than now. But I have been in many, many meetings with General Clapper. And I can tell you, he does not think Snowden did the right thing. He has nothing but contempt from Snowden, based on the meetings I've had with General Clapper.

So, I think what he is saying is that it may have been easier to get this done at the time, and it wouldn't have had the shock effect that it -- that it's had now. But I -- my concern would be looking at it, in -- both in hindsight and trying to think what would have happened that if we had announced it then, it would have started a debate at the time which would have been generated in such a way as to let the enemy know what we're doing and those who are opposed would still be opposed.

BLITZER: But I guess the question is, given the statement that Clapper has now made to "The Daily Beast" to Eli Lake, and he's going to be joining us, Eli Lake, later in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

KING: Right.

BLITZER: Given the fact he's made this statement that what Snowden released effectively should have been released by the U.S. government immediately after 911, it wouldn't have been as big of a deal. If you're Snowden's lawyer, you use that statement to say, well, look, what Snowden did was only what Clapper himself said the U.S. should have done after 911. So, don't go after him.

KING: I think he's -- first of all, I think General Clapper is only saying it should have been done to calm down public opinion. But, also, let's keep in mind that only about two percent of what Snowden has taken involves the NSA. There is other -- you know, much other data that he has obtained which the Defense Department, for instance, has shown would -- can do tremendous damage to Americans, including our IED detection devices. It's -- he's been very damaging to our national security.

So, the NSA part I think is only about two percent of the total amount of Snowden drew down. So even if that were true, again, NSA is a small part of the damage that Snowden has done. But I think what General Clapper was saying is (INAUDIBLE.) I just think that that's a -- it's really a -- intelligence (INAUDIBLE) is supposed to be kept secret. That's just part of the survival of the government. That's why we have representative democracy, why we have people in Congress who have been elected and on the Intelligence Committee and others. They are the ones who are aware of this, and they are representing the people.

BLITZER: I suspect there is going to be a lot of discussion about this story coming up. Hey, --

KING: Sure.

BLITZER: -- Congressman, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

KING: Thank you, Wolf. As always, thank you.

BLITZER: Peter King is a member -- key member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Just ahead this hour, making big trucks that produce less pollution. President Obama focusing in on fuel efficiency as he tackles climate change. Gloria Borger is standing by live will discuss the politics of this.

Also ahead, the rocker, Ted Nugent, campaigning today for a Republican candidate running for governor of Texas. But Nugent's recent remarks about President Obama have a lot of people outraged right now, wondering why are the Republicans in Texas welcoming someone who calls the president of the United States a subhuman mongrel?


BLITZER: The political firebrand, Ted Nugent, (INAUDIBLE) at the far right, is campaigning, at this moment, with the Texas gubernatorial candidate, Greg Abbott. This despite Nugent's recent characterization of President Obama as a, quote, "subhuman mongrel." Abbott, who is the state attorney general, invited Nugent to appear with him at two events today to motivate the Republican base to vote early. Nugent's presence hit a sour note with a lot of people. They say Texans deserve better than a candidate who would align himself with someone like Nugent who said -- who offered hate-filled assessments of the president. Listen to this.


TED NUGENT, ENTERTAINER, MUSIC INDUSTRY: -- obviously failed to galvanize and prod and not shame enough Americans to be ever vigilant not to let a Chicago communist-raised, communist-educated, communist- nurtured, subhuman mongrel like the ACORN community organizer gangster, Barack Hussein Obama, to weasel his way into the top office of authority of the United States of America.


BLITZER: Shockingly, Abbott's campaign brushed aside the criticism, saying they value Nugent's commitment to the second amendment issuing a statement, Ted Nugent is a forceful advocate for individual liberty and constitutional rights, especially the second amendment rights cherished by Texans. While he may sometimes say things or use language that Greg Abbott would not endorse or agree with, we appreciate the support of everyone who supports protecting our constitution.

Nugent himself dismissed the controversy, reportedly saying that criticism comes from, quote, "people who hate freedom."

Wayne Slater is the senior political writer for "The Dallas Morning News." Wayne, thanks very much for joining us. You know, it's one thing for Ted Nugent to be saying what he's saying, calling the president, in effect, a communist, a subhuman mongrel. It's another thing for someone who wants to be governor of Texas to welcome him in out on the campaign trail with him. What's been the reaction there?

WAYNE SLATER, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, "The Dallas Morning News": Yes, basically, that's the real problem for the Abbott campaign. On the one hand, Nugent is very, very popular with the Republican base in Texas. He lives here in Texas. His ranch is adjacent to George W. Bush's ranch near Waco. He's a fixture at the National Rifle Association. So, he's popular among the kind of base voters that Abbott is trying to appeal to.

The problem here is, when you call the president a subhuman mongrel, which has not only a disparaging reference but also an historic racial reference in some places, and then when you call feminine women politicians, fat pigs, then Abbott has to make a decision. And he had to say, do I keep Ted Nugent on the stage with me or not? He has chosen to do so. And that's what happened today.

BLITZER: I mean do they know the history of that phrase, subhuman mongrel? That's what the Nazis called Jews leading up and during World War II -


BLITZER: To justify the genocide of the Jewish community. They called the Jews unter menschen, or subhuman mongrels, if you read some of the literature that the Nazis put out. There's a long history there of that specific phrase that he used involving the president of the United States.

SLATER: You know, I don't know what the Abbott people knew precisely about the implications of some of the things Nugent said. But Nugent has been very outspoken, has said a whole lot for years that was easy enough to look into. And, frankly, when you talk about something like the word "mongrel" with its racial and ethnic and historic ramifications, there is no doubt, it seems to me, that whether or not Abbott's people recognized it instantly or not, it's offensive, deeply offensive, to some voters, and not just Democratic voters, but other voters.

Having said that, Wolf, and this is really the dark side of this, might that phrase be a kind of dog whistle and code to exactly some of the voters that Greg Abbott wants.

BLITZER: Because I - as someone who has studied the Holocaust, studied World War II, I went back and we checked. In Der Sturmer in -- during World War II, Julius Streicher, the Nazi, this is what he would say about the Jews in justifying the genocide of the Jewish people.

SLATER: That's right. Right.

BLITZER: "The Jew is a mongrel. He has hereditary tendencies from Aryans, Asiatics, Negroes and from the Mongolians. Evil always preponderates in the case of a mongrel." So that's the history of that phrase. And, A, I wonder if Ted Nugent himself knows that history, the use of that phrase. But, B, the Republicans in Texas who are welcoming him on the campaign trail and saying, yes, you know what, he's using some outspoken language. That's Ted Nugent. Do they know what this means to so many people out there?

SLATER: You know, it's fascinating, Wolf, because you look at Ted Cruz, who has long said these outrageous things, calling the president a subhuman mongrel, calling Hillary Clinton the "b" word, calling women feminist fat pigs, saying a whole host of things, and you have to ask, doesn't he know that these are the kinds of words, these are the kinds of phrases that ought to offend people? But his support of the Second Amendment, at least for some Republican base voters, is so strong, it trumps all of that, including questions that the Davis -- Wendy Davis campaign, the likely Democratic opponent of Greg Abbott, has raised in which Nugent has acknowledged sexual relations with underage girls, something that had he ever been charged with a crime would have brought as much as 50 years to a life sentence in Texas.

BLITZER: Let me play another clip of what he said in that interview that's now been posted on YouTube. Listen to this.


TED NUGENT: I think America will be America again when Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Hillary Clinton, Dick Durbin, Michael Bloomberg and all of the liberal Democrats are in jail.


NUGENT: Facing the just due punishment that their treasonous acts are clearly apparent.


BLITZER: And so, once again, I guess the question is someone like Abbott and the other Republicans who are out there campaigning with Ted Nugent, do they have a clue of what this guy has been saying? SLATER: I have to conclude that they do have some clue. They may not know everything and all the implications, but they clearly know something. Ted Nugent lives here much. He talks here. He's a fixture of some Republican local Republican events. So he knows. And the politics of this is crazy, it seems to me, if you analyze the race. Abbott is likely to win the Republican nomination. He's the front runner to win the election in November.

And so you wonder, Wendy Davis needs to attract a great number of Democrat-based voters, plus a lot of women. Ann Richards in 1990 got 61 percent of the women vote. She won for governor. Wendy Davis has to do the same thing. This is the kind of language and approach, it seems to me, the Davis camp understands could absolutely cause a problem with the moderate, suburban women voters and others who won't find it funny or find it terribly offensive. And, frankly, I don't understand the politics of having him on stage with Greg Abbott.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect they're going to be running away from him fairly soon, but we'll see. We'll see what happens and you'll monitor it for us as you do all things political in the great state of Texas. Wayne, thanks very much for joining us.

SLATER: All right.

BLITZER: And later this hour, a defector from a Syrian rebel group is now vowing to take them down. Why he says the group is even worse than the Bashar al Assad regime.

But up next, President Obama takes direct aim at truck pollution. His latest action targeting big trucks as part of a broader focus on climate change.


BLITZER: President Obama announces the latest move toward making trucks more fuel-efficient to cut down on pollution and reduce America's oil usage. The first phase just finalized back in 2011. It sets standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks and covers model years 2014 to 2018. Now the president is ordering officials with the EPA and the Transportation Department to take the next step.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Their charge, their goal, is to develop fuel economy standards for heavy duty trucks that will take us well into the next decade, just like our cars. They're going to partner with manufacturers and auto workers and states and other stakeholders, truckers, to come up with a proposal by March of next year, and they'll complete the rule a year after that. And businesses that buy these types of trucks have sent a clear message to the nearly 30,000 workers who build them. We want trucks that use less oil, save more money, cut pollution.


BLITZER: The new fuel standards for trucks are part of a larger push by the Obama administration to focus in on climate change. The president is calling for $1 billion to develop new technologies to prepare for and combat its effects. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here watching all of this.

So what is the president politically trying to accomplish right now?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He's trying to make the base of the Democratic Party happy. They've had some problems with him as far as climate change is concerned. They don't believe he's gone far enough. They'd like to get a decision on the Keystone pipeline that says don't build the pipeline. He hasn't done any of that yet.

So what he's saying is, OK, I had these regulations in effect. I'm going to make sure that they continue for trucks. And this is one of those things he can do with a pen, as he pointed out in his State of the Union speech, without having to get congressional approval. So he can sort of check the box on that.

BLITZER: He was in northern California last week talking about the severe drought there.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: And he said this. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Unless and until we do more to combat carbon pollution that causes climate change, this trend's going to get worse. And the hard truth is, even if we do take action on climate change, carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades. The plant is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come.


BLITZER: All right, so how much pushback is the president likely to get on this?

BORGER: Well, he's going to get a lot of pushback. As you know, Wolf, Congress has been divided on this, largely along party lines. And they've repeatedly rejected any efforts on the president's side to reduce tax breaks for oil exploration. You remember that energy and solar energy became a big issue during the last campaign. So I think he knows he's going to get pushback, but he's continuing to talk about it. And the big --

BLITZER: And it all is building up to the decision he's got to make on the Keystone pipeline.

BORGER: Well -

BLITZER: My own suspicion is, if he approves it, he's got to make a decision, I think, by June or July, something along those lines.

BORGER: Right. BLITZER: All of these current actions might be designed to, you know --

BORGER: Soften the blow?

BLITZER: A little bit, yes.

BORGER: Well, and it's actually John Kerry now, secretary of state, has to make a recommendation to the president on what to do with the pipeline, and the State Department report said, as you'll recall at the end of January, that the pipeline would not substantially worsen carbon pollution. So Kerry then has to report to the president. Now, Kerry's a big environmentalist. He hasn't stated where he is on this. And then the president will have to give his own decision, although, as you point out, there isn't really a hard and fast time line on any of this.

BLITZER: Right. Well, we'll see when he does.


BLITZER: Thank you. Lots at stake. Gloria Borger with us.

Some of the hardest-hit areas are the Syrian refugee camps. The crisis in Syria is clearly growing and children are so impacted. Now a young activist is trying to make the situation just a little bit better in one refugee camp along the border with Syria. My conversation with the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai. That's still ahead.

But up next, a Syrian rebel group some are calling as dangerous as the Bashar al Assad regime itself.