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Police Crack Down On Anti-Government Protesters In Ukraine; Venezuela Government Blocking Coverage; Paul On Felons' Rights; Bomb Narrowly Misses U.S. Troops; Ex-Con Voting Issue; Mexico Summit Agenda

Aired February 19, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, heightened tensions in the streets of Ukraine. One day after 26 protesters were killed. World leaders are condemning the violence and now the United States is weighing in.

Also right now, we're learning the details behind this video. Purportedly shot as a U.S. Air Force plane mistakenly dropped a 500- pound bomb on a U.S. outpost.

And right now, more campaign trail controversy in Texas. A Republican candidate for governor is keeping Ted Nugent by his side, even as anger grows over Nugent's calling President Obama a, quote, "subhuman mongrel."

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We start with the worsening situation in Ukraine. A situation the White House now calls, and I'm quoting, "completely outrageous." President Obama is expected to address the recent killings later today. He's reacting to clashes yesterday in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Twenty-six people were killed, hundreds more injured in the latest crackdown by government forces against anti-government protesters. Those demonstrators have been entrenched in the city's Independent Square since November.

Our Phil Black is in Kiev right now. Phil, first of all, what sparked these latest violent clashes?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's really kind of something of a surprise because they came at a time when the general mood was thought to have relaxed just slightly after months of crisis here.

But, ultimately, what triggered it? Well, it was a group of opposition, a crowd of opposition protesters marching peacefully towards the country's parliament. They came up against a very large security presence. That proximity was enough to trigger the clashes that followed.

We don't know who started it precisely, but the government blames the opposition groups, calling them extremists, even terrorists. The opposition believes that it was the government's use of excessive force that resulted in that terrible death toll. But, ultimately, what it means is that the divisions between these two sides have never been so great -- Wolf. BLITZER: Yes, it's a serious situation. The Ukraine security forces, as you point out, they're now calling these protesters terrorists, and say they're engaged in an anti-terror operation. What do we know about this?

BLACK: Yes, it's ominous. We don't know too many details or precisely what it means. But it implies, at least, the imminent use of further force by Ukrainian authorities. They are talking about mobilizing security and defense personnel across the country to deal with this. It matches the rhetoric that they've been using since this violence really broke out and it is clearly an ongoing attempt by the Ukrainian government to paint the whole opposition movement as an extremist movement.

The fear in this square behind me is that the government is using these violent clashes as an excuse to crack down on what has largely been a peaceful protest movement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we saw those live pictures coming in from the square there. Phil, we're going to get back to you.

And just a little while ago, the secretary of state, John Kerry, spoke about the situation in Ukraine.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: All of us are deeply disturbed by the scenes of the violence by the level of abuse that the citizens in the streets have felt over the course of the last days and our hearts go out to the people of Ukraine. And we are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps with our friends in Europe and elsewhere in order to try to create the environment for compromise.


BLITZER: Moments after Kerry made those comments, Ukraine's minister of foreign affairs spoke to CNN.


LEONID KOZHARA, MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, UKRAINE: We want that Ukraine is not used as a playing card in the geopolitical games between the west and the east. And this is the right of the Ukrainian people to decide their own destiny. Of course, any positive approach which can promote peaceful negotiations would be welcome here. And in the nearest days, we expect many top west officials to come to Ukraine to talk with the authorities in the opposition.


BLITZER: Joining us now is Jill Dougherty, our former CNN State Department Correspondent and Moscow Bureau Chief. She's now a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Jill, thanks for joining us. These demonstrations, what, they started months ago as the protests over Ukraine's government aligning itself with Russia instead of the European Union. Given that, explain why all of this is of such significance, potentially, to the United States.

JILL DOUGHERTY, FELLOW, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT: Wolf, it's very important because Ukraine, you know, just look at the map, is between Russia and Europe. It's a very big country geographically. It's about the size of France. It has a population of 45 million people. That is major. And it always was major and very important for Russia during the Soviet days, and continues to be because, remember, we've reported on this before. That is also the area through which Russia sends a lot of its natural gas to Western Europe. So, it's important on many different levels. And, right now, what you're hearing from that Ukrainian official is that it is really a geopolitical -- I wouldn't call it necessarily a game, but a struggle right now to try to keep Ukraine in the western camp. Russia wants to pull it more into a union with Russia, an economic union. And that's -- so, you've got this tug back and forth. It's very dramatic and also very dangerous.

BLITZER: On Air Force One earlier today, one of the president's national security advisers, Ben Rhodes, said that the U.S. has, and I'm quoting him now, "a full tool kit to respond to the violence in Ukraine." What do you think that means? What's in that tool kit?

DOUGHERTY: Well, it's kind of hard, in a way, to say how effective that tool kit would be. I mean, the tool kit, obviously, would include sanctions, as secretary Kerry has been mentioning. That would be sanctions on Ukrainian officials who, let's say, have assets in the west, want to travel to the west. They've already pulled some visas.

But, right now, you have this, you know, fire and death in the streets. So, sanctions, yes. I mean, if they're thinking about traveling, at this point, it might be effective. But I don't think that that immediately is going to stop the violence in the street. The demonstrators, the opposition really want Yanukovych, the president, to step down. And they have had offers from the government. The government today is saying, look, we have done everything that they want. But that is not enough. They want Yanukovych to step down.

BLITZER: As you know, Jill, a lot of folks in the Ukraine who align themselves with Russia and the Russians, for that matter, they're at least indirectly accusing the U.S., the west of stirring up this opposition, meddling in Ukrainian politics. Here's the question, and I hope it doesn't happen now. Are we on the verge, given U.S.-Russian differences, differences between President Obama and Vladimir Putin, not only over Ukraine but Syria, Iran, even Venezuela, other hot spots, are we on the verge, right now, of the resumption of the cold war?

DOUGHERTY: I don't think -- you can't say it's a cold war, Wolf. But it's serious because, you know, Ukraine, as I've been saying, is important on many levels. And it's -- and here, you know, you see that competition that sometimes is masked, you know, by diplomacy, et cetera. You're seeing that competition on the streets and it is made especially complex by the internal situation in Ukraine.

There's a lot of jockeying among the opposition for position. Some people want to be the represent -- the replacement for Yanukovych. There is a lot of in-fighting and the economic stakes are very high as well because the Russians have a lot of business interest in Ukraine. So -- and it also has to do with Europe and the future of Europe. So, I do not think it's the resumption of the cold war, but a cold war feeling to it. There is definitely, you know, a cold war chill to this.

BLITZER: There certainly is. All right, Jill, thanks very much.

Let's turn to another global hot spot right now, Venezuela, where the security situation is deteriorating. At least five people have now died. Here is why this situation matters. Venezuela sits on some of the largest oil reserves in the world. It should be a very wealthy country. It is not. Disastrous economic policies have left empty shelves in food stores, inflation is more than 50 percent. And that's led to massive public protests.

Our own Karl Penhaul is on the ground now in Caracas for us. He's joining us on the phone. Karl, first of all, tell us what happened with the jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. What's the latest with him?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, Leopoldo Lopez, he's a Harvard educated economist, and he turned himself in to the National Guard yesterday at the height of protest then. The government then brought him (INAUDIBLE) court last night, charging him with murder, with arson and also with terrorism. And he's due to appear back in court today. But certainly no sign of him yet.

Now, several thousand of his supporters gathered outside the courtroom earlier on. And as the morning has gone on, those numbers have dwindled. And right now, anti-riot personnel far outnumber the protesters. So, it does raise also the question, how organized is this opposition and how prepared really is it to push this demand that the socialist government of President Michel Martelly (ph) quit and end a 16-year old experiment with socialism -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know that the government has been trying to keep journalists from covering this unrest, including you and our CNN crew. Tell our viewers what happened to you when armed men approached you just a little while ago and, what, they took all your equipment? What happened?

PENHAUL: Well, Wolf, Venezuela is always difficult to cover from a news perspective, because it is a very polarized country. You go onto the opposition side, and they will criticize you for your work. You go on to the pro government side, they'll criticize you for your work.

But, last night, after dark, we were standing in a neighborhood, watching a face-off between government supporters and opposition protesters. And, at that moment, a group of armed men on motorcycles drove through the crowd of opposition protesters to disburse them. They then came to a grinding halt near us, and seconds later, I was staring down the barrel of a chrome-plated nine millimeter pistol. At that point, three armed men robbed all the camera gear and transmission gear from our CNN crew and made off with it. A National Guard unit was standing just 10 yards away and we went to one of the officers there and said, hey, can you intervene and stop this from happening. His response was, there is little I can do. I believe these men are civilians, plain-clothes members of one of the Caracas police units -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Did they -- did they actually threaten you? Did they also take your computers, your smartphones, some of your personal equipment?

PENHAUL: They took smartphones. We were able to hang on to the computers. They were in different bags in a different location in the vehicle. In terms of threat, there was no verbal threat. There was the physical threat of having a nine millimeter pistol pushed into your face and as they rummaged through the back seat of our pickup and grabbed gear, including the transmission equipment. Certainly really all the gear that we needed to tell the story. There were also a number of shots fired either onto the ground or into the air during that incident. Not at us, but also as part of the effort to disburse opposition protesters.

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul, be careful over there. We'll stay in close touch with you as well. Karl Penhaul in Caracas, Venezuela.

Senator Rand Paul is going to bat for Kentucky citizens who spent years behind bars for felonies. Here is why -- you're going to hear why he's pushing the state to restore voting rights for some ex-cons.

But up next, a narrow miss for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, nearly blown up by so-called friendly fire. We're taking a closer look at what happened.


BLITZER: A somewhat disturbing piece of video has seemingly gone viral on the Internet. It purportedly shows a 500-pound bomb dropped by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, nearly hitting an American military outpost. Watch this.







BLITZER: Wow. That's pretty scary stuff. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us.

Barbara, when did this supposedly happen? What is the Pentagon saying about it? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this apparently happened back in September 2012 in eastern Afghanistan. We are told, thankfully, none of the troops on the ground were hit. But their outpost nearly took a direct hit from that 500-pound bomb. You see the destruction all around them. I think you can understand these young troops' profanity and shock. But actually, they all moved very quickly to check on each other, to make sure everyone was OK and that nobody got hurt.

Apparently what happened is the U.S. Air Force plane was given the wrong coordinates for the 500-pound bomb. They were given the coordinates of the outpost rather than the coordinates for a suspected Taliban formation that was moving through the hillsides a short distance away. That, of course, was the target they were supposed to hit.

There was a full investigation. Everyone was cleared. It was an accident, they say. But you can only imagine that this might have turned out very differently and very tragically for the troops that were at that outpost.


BLITZER: Yes, a 500-pound bomb can cause a lot, a lot of destruction and damage. The site that posted this video says it takes submissions, Barbara, from veterans. So is this a potential breach of military rule, someone posting video like this online?

STARR: Well, you know, this is going to get to be a very interesting question as the months and years go on and the U.S. wraps up in Afghanistan. They expect to see more and more of these videos emerging. We're seeing the videos of alleged misconduct coming out, other kinds of videos. We see the ones of troops singing, doing their own flash mobs. No indication that this one is particularly problematic. That may well be because no one got hurt or killed, thankfully. But it's becoming an issue, all of these videos years later emerging from the war zone. We didn't see this in the decades past. This is the new age of the Internet, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, Barbara, thank you very much. Fortunately, none of the American troops were hurt as a result of this 500-pound bomb.

Other news. A high-profile Republican speaking out for the rights of convicted felons. Today, Senator Rand Paul is urging his home state of Kentucky to restore the voting rights of nonviolent ex-cons. He says barking them from the ballot box is an overreach by the government. And he's not championing this cause alone. He's joined forces with none other than President Obama's attorney general. Here's Eric Holder pushing this very issue just last week.


ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across this country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.


BLITZER: Joe Johns is joining us now.

This is sort of an unlikely partnership, Eric Holder and Rand Paul.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's for sure, Wolf. Surprising to a lot of people, I know. But for Senator Paul, it's consistent with the libertarian message he's been building, and likely once again to only increase the speculation that he might run for president. What he said today in his testimony, he zeroed in on drug offenders who paid their debt to society. He made the case there ought to be room for forgiveness, pointing out there is a racial component because so many people who get convicted of drug crimes are people of color.

Now, for the attorney general, it's more of an issue of civil rights, fundamental fairness and not surprising that the first African- American attorney general would be supporting restoration of voting rights. Between 5 million and 6 million Americans are affected by this and the issue has been revisited again and again over the years by minority politicians because of the disproportionate numbers of minorities who go to prison, especially for drug offenders.

BLITZER: So the political benefit for Senator Rand Paul, who I think is seriously thinking potentially down the road of running for the Republican presidential nomination.

JOHNS: Absolutely, Wolf. The political benefit is pretty clear. He suggested and his message will be accepted by minority communities and getting behind the issue of restoring the vote to convicted felons is a step in that direction. But also important to note that this is not an entirely new position for conservatives and Republicans. Former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, also supported restoring the vote for felons. But Kentucky's very interesting. The felons there have to petition the government to get their voting rights restored. And it has one of the highest felony rates of disenfranchisement in the country. Something like one in five.

BLITZER: Interesting alliance there that we'll continue to watch. Joe, thanks very much.

Up next, President Obama travels to a summit in Mexico, but domestic problems certainly are following him. I'll talk about that and more. Gloria Borger is standing by. The issues complicating the president's trip.

And forget the NSA tracking your GPS. Now, Homeland Security wants to track millions of Americans' license plates.


BLITZER: President Obama arrives in Mexico for what's dubbed the three amigos summit. He'll sit down with Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, and the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, for a day-long meeting. Domestic issues including trade and immigration could cause some headaches for President Obama during today's summit in Mexico. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here. She's watching all of this unfold.

There's some domestic issues certainly complicating the president's agenda.

GLORIA BORGER, CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. You know, the big question when you go to a summit like this is whether you can deliver on what you're promising and what you're talking about. And I think that's a big question for this president. And he gets it from our friends to the north, as well as our friends from the south. To the north, of course, in Canada, Wolf, they really want this Keystone pipeline approved. In the south, in Mexico, where is immigration reform and what about fast track authority on trade? The president is for it. Key Democrats in the Senate, like the leader of the Democrats, Harry Reid, have said no way because labor unions are opposed to it. And so the president is going to have to walk a fine line here saying, OK, I want this done too, and I'm going to have to convince my friends in Congress, which all of us here understand will be very, very difficult for this president, particularly heading into a midterm election. So it's tough.

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) moving. And there's another issue. This latest Congressional Budget Office report, nonpartisan, they came out with their report on the impact of raising the nation's minimum wage. They say if you do it, it could cost about a half million jobs.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: At the same time, it says it would lift, what, nearly a million, 900,000 Americans, out of poverty. So it was sort of a mixed bag there.


BLITZER: The White House not happy with the first part.

BORGER: No, the White House wasn't happy with the first part. But, look, it's not going to change the debate at all, Wolf, because, where you stand on this one depends on where you sit. If you're Democrats you're saying, look, this is going to lift almost a million people out of poverty. If you're Republicans, you're saying, we told you so, this is going to cost jobs.

What we don't know is what the long-term implications of this really are. But what was interesting to me, covering politics, is that you now have a White House that has some bones of contention with a government agency that is nonpartisan. They have a little bit of a (INAUDIBLE) with them over Obamacare and whether that would indeed lose jobs or not. And now they're disagreeing with them about their numbers here and what those numbers mean, whether it would really cost jobs.

So the administration saying, well, you know, our friends over there don't really understand the academics of this and what academics are saying, and the folks over at the agency are saying, you know what, we really do get it. So they're going to have to agree to disagree.

BLITZER: See how the president does in Mexico at the same time with the three amigos.


BLITZER: All right, thanks very much for that.

Up next, the U.S. is calling violent clashes in Ukraine, quote, "outrageous." So what's at the root of the unrest and why does it really matter here in Washington?

And coming up later, a Dallas newspaper denouncing Ted Nugent as a racist, but that doesn't stop him from stumping for a Republican candidate running for governor in Texas.