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Arizona Wildfire; Did Tsarnaev Brothers Act Alone? Will Hillary Run?; Shinseki: I'm Not Resigning

Aired May 22, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: As of now, zero containment, a wildfire spreading incredibly fast through Arizona this hour.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm getting ready to get the hell out of here.


TAPPER: The national lead, thousands ready to evacuate with flames creeping towards their doorsteps, a wildfire in Arizona, big and only getting bigger, burning more than seven square miles in a single day.

The politics lead. How can anyone miss you if it you never really went away? Hillary Clinton looking more and more inevitable for the nomination in 2016, but is there so much space on her left, a fighting populist progressive might take her on?

And the money lead, it was the biggest art heist in history. The general public hasn't seen any of these 13 works of art since they were stolen a quarter-century ago. But apparently someone has, and quite recently.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Breaking news. In our national lead today, you know what they say about Arizona. It's a dry heat, but it's way too dry right now, dangerous drought conditions leaving much of the area between Sedona and Flagstaff as kindling for a wildfire that is spreading at an alarming rate.

At one point yesterday, it was 450 acres. Today, it is more than 10 times that size, bigger than 4,800 acres, the equivalent of more than seven square miles, burning near Slide Rock State Park. The fire is threatening about 300 structures. We're talking most private homes and vacation resort cabins. Some people have been evacuated. Thousands more will likely have to.

More than 800 firefighters are making a stand against the flames, but officials say the fire is zero percent contained at this point, zero percent. The team includes 15 of those elite Hotshot wildfire crews. This of course comes less than a year after a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, killed all but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The fire has led authorities to close the main road between Flagstaff and Sedona, two cities that usually attract a lot of visitors during the summer season, which unofficially kicks off on this Memorial Day weekend. Officials warn that heavy smoke may be drifting north into Flagstaff.

And that's where our own Ana Cabrera is standing by live for us.

Ana, what is the latest on evacuations?

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, about 300 people are evacuated, Jake, but some 3,000 are on standby, given that pre- evacuation order, just in case this fire continues to really roar.

You can see the winds are now picking up. You see that huge plume of smoke that is spawning to the north, because those winds are blowing it right into Flagstaff. Like you said, 5,000 acres are burning through some really heavy fuel.

You look there, there's all of that forested air, these big ponderosa pine that drop these extremely dry ponderosa pine needles. This is the kindling that is on the bed of that forest that is really fueling the flames right now. We know this fire exploded within a 24-hour period of time from 450 acres to more than 4,500 acres yesterday.

Today, firefighters are working hard to establish a line, particularly on the north and the east side of the fire. That's where those homes are that are currently threatened, no structures damaged so far, and that's what they are focusing on right now. They are throwing everything they have at this fire. Some 840 personnel are here. About 500 people are on the ground building that fire line, doing some burnout operations to try to protect that one flank, the northeast flank in particular.

You might hear that helicopter that is up in the air right now. If we can pan up to it, that's one of the air attack helicopters. We know there are a total of five helicopters, as well as three air tankers, that are also helping in this firefight, putting fire retardant on the ground ahead of where this fire is going.

Right now, the next few hours are the most crucial period in this firefight. We understand that there's a possibility there will be a low-pressure system coming in overnight, possibly rain tomorrow. So, these next few hours are going to be a key to getting a handle on this fire, Jake.

TAPPER: Ana Cabrera in Arizona, thank you so much.

Wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour are helping this fire spread incredibly fast. Combine that with the dry conditions Ana spoke about, it's going to be very tough to get a lid on this monster.

Let's go to our meteorologist, Chad Myers. He's in the CNN Severe Weather Center.

Chad, how big of a threat is this? CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I don't think you -- anybody really understands what the entire Southwestern part of the country has been going through the past few years in this drought. This is a major threat; 4,800 acres, almost 5,000 acres, let me put that into perspective.

That's five times, almost six times the size of Central Park right now on fire. And that has just grown, obviously, in the past couple of days. But the winds right now are 28 gusting there and that's the gust problem. The gust will pick up the sparks and will throw those sparks downwind, so when the firefighters think they have a handle on this, all of a sudden, there's another fire two miles down the road that they have to go chase.

It's the size of the circumference around that they have to worry about. With no containment, this just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. You want to get them while they are small, because there's not as much area around that circumference. When they start to get larger, that's when the circumference gets bigger and bigger.

The air conditions there about 10 to 20 percent relative humidity and even lower in some spots, so no help from Mother Nature. And some of the storms, some of the weather that Ana was talking about could be bad. Talking about dry thunderstorms, dry thunderstorms. As it starts to rain through, the air is so dry, the rain evaporates before it gets to the ground, but the lightning doesn't evaporate.

The lightning makes it all the way to the ground and it could start another fire. One more thing to talk about, there is severe weather across the eastern part of the country. We even had a tornado warning not far from Albany, New York, in the past half-hour. We will keep you advised as the hour goes on.

TAPPER: Chad Myers in the CNN Weather Center, thank you so much.

So far, there are no injuries reported from this massive wildfire in Arizona, but law enforcement does believe as of now that it was -- quote -- "human-caused." And law enforcement is asking for anybody who knows anything about how it began or remembers seeing anybody suspicious in the area to call them.

Let's go back out to Flagstaff, Arizona, and bring in Bill Morse. He's the spokesman for Southwest Incident Management.

Bill, thanks for joining us.

Do you believe this was an accident at this point or something more sinister?

BILL MORSE, SOUTHWEST AREA MANAGEMENT TEAMS: The Coconino County Sheriff's Office is investigating that.

We're sure that this was human-caused, but with the number of people that you have moving through that very popular Oak Creek Canyon, we can't just speculate if this was intentional, incendiary arson, accidental. Let me just say there's a lot of folks around and there has not been any natural ignition sources such as lightning in the area. So, we know it's human-caused. The law enforcement are heavily engaged with trying to hit that investigation.

TAPPER: Can you give us some concrete numbers on evacuations? How many have been evacuated so far, how many warned that they may have to pick up and go at a moment's notice?

MORSE: I will take a look here at the actual Slide fire map.

This is a map of the area. If you take a look at this footage, this is down in the Oak Creek Canyon itself. There's about 300 homes, businesses, campgrounds that have been evacuated in Oak Creek itself. Up above here, this is the forest highlands and Kachina Village area. We have got about 3,000 people here that are in pre-evacuation.

That's simply a warning that if the fire direction changes, if the behavior really picks up and moves on us, we're going to have to evacuate those folks. They have been put on notice yesterday.

The Slide fire, it was about 450 acres this time yesterday. During the afternoon, this time of day, it blew up to 4,800 acres now. Right? You can see the plume coming up behind us. We're getting into the afternoon winds.

Now is when we're having the most trouble. To give you a little bit of a reference, this is Highway 89-A. The fire is contained, continuing to stay west of Highway 89-A. Our value is at risk. The majority of the people, the homes, the neighborhoods are all over to the east of 89-A.

We have been very successful on this little dirt forest service road here, Forest Service 535. We had the winds calm down through the night and we have got a very good burnout combination. We feel confident, if we can, as far as the burnout's ability to hold and stand on the western slope of the fire. The real problems lay down in the canyon, fire...


MORSE: ... jumping across...

TAPPER: Bill, do you have enough? At last update, we -- you had 840 firefighters, 33 engines, three air tankers, five choppers. Is that enough? Do you need more?

MORSE: There's more resources still on order here.

Two days ago, we were just with the local initial attack forces that got down in, were doing residential, structure protection and trying to get ahead of this fire. Now, like I say, we have got 20 Hotshot crews, 40 engines, more coming in.

We have got crews from six states all moving in this direction. In a very short period of time, this has ramped up from initial attack to a type one incident, where we have got an entire city built up here and all available resources through the Southwest are here, as well as there are other fires. The resources are needed in other places as well. But this really is our biggest value is at risk, the biggest threat in the Southwest right now.

TAPPER: All right, Bill Morse in Flagstaff, Arizona, thank you and best of luck.

Coming up on THE LEAD: rambling thoughts from the Boston Marathon suspect as he lay dying -- what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote about God's plan for him and why he was jealous of his brother.

Plus, asking for backup -- was Hillary Clinton's team so worried that a Republican-led investigation would derail a potential presidential run that they begged Democrats to participate in the Benghazi hearing?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The world lead now, it's a question with massive implications for our national security. Did the Tsarnaev brothers act alone or could they have had help, either from abroad or from inside the United States, when they set off two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon?

In a motion filed yesterday, prosecutors are now arguing that those bombs, which included black powder from hundreds of emptied-out fireworks, were too sophisticated for the Tsarnaevs to have built on their own without -- quote -- "the training or assistance from others."

Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis echoed that point when I spoke to him about it a few weeks ago. The prosecutors also say in this document that the searches of the Tsarnaevs' residences and vehicles did not show any sign of black powder.

So where the bombs built and who might have helped build them?

Last year while reporting on the story from Boston, we spoke with Jim Duggan, a cab driver who says he picked up the Tsarnaevs one day before the explosions at the finish line. He said the brothers had just gotten off a train in Malden, Massachusetts, and had two bags with them.


JIM DUGGAN, BOSTON CAB DRIVER: So, I get out and they said, "Can you take us to Cambridge?"

So, I said, "No problem."

I opened the trunk. They had two backpacks. I reached out to help them put them in the trunk, and they wanted to put it in themselves.

TAPPER: Did they seem heavy? DUGGAN: I didn't touch them at that point.

TAPPER: The way they were carrying them, though?

DUGGAN: Not really sure. They put it in the trunk themselves. They were adamant about me not picking them up.


TAPPER: I want to bring in Richard Clarke, former White House national coordinator for security and counterterrorism for the Bush and Clinton administrations, and author of the new thriller "Sting of the Drone," a novel and his sixth book.

It's good to have you here, Richard. Thanks so much.


TAPPER: From this new information and from what you have seen, do you think it's possible that there were polices that helped the Tsarnaevs build these bombs?

CLARKE: There are two information gaps. One is, what did he do -- Tamerlan Tsarnaev do when he was back in Chechen? Did he often to the woods? Did he meet with the terrorist group there? We don't know.

The second gap is, where were the bombs put together? Where were they assembled? And that hasn't been uncovered yet.

So, it's conceivable. On the other hand, the bomb bears a resemblance to the design in the online terrorist magazine "Inspire." It's a variation of that. They could conceivably have came up with the variation themselves. The fact is, there are, after all of this time, still gaps in our knowledge about the case.

TAPPER: I guess I just find it -- I'm a little skeptical that these two guys, based on what we know about them, would be capable or even inclined to come up with a variation on a bomb design. They don't seem that sophisticated.

CLARKE: No, they don't. But there's no evidence yet because of these gaps in the case. There's no evidence that says this is where I may build it. This is who helped them.

But it could very well be that they had help and it could be that the help is in the United States since we don't know where the bombs were put together.

TAPPER: You have spent a lot of time putting together language of the jihadist. I want to read for you the note that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote while in that boat, hiding inside that boat in Watertown, Massachusetts, after the standoff with police that left his older brother dead.

Dzhokhar writes that he was jealous of Tamerlan. Quote, "I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive." He wrote, "God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions." He continues, "We are promised victory and we shall surely get it."

Does that sound familiar to you?

CLARKE: Yes. These are the words of a committed jihadist. These are the words of fundamentalist Islamist terrorists. When did he become that? Because it doesn't look like a lot of his activities in the months leading up to the attack were those of a fundamentalist Islamist.

But those are familiar words, which means he was converted at some point. Who converted him?

Some people are converted online. We know that. But others are converted by some very persuasive imam somewhere. So, it's possible someone in the United States helped bring him across the line and helped convert him into being a terrorist.

TAPPER: Still so much we don't know.

Let's talk about your novel "Sting of the Drone." It's interesting because as you read it there's an argument why drone strikes are good. Then, you read it a little longer and it talks about why they are not such a good idea and then you write at the end, the postscript, the true postscript, the nonfiction part of the book about how you helped convince people to arm drones that have been initially used for surveillance.

And you write at the end, "Since 9/11, the United States has killed at least 2,000 people in five countries, using armed drones and the killing continues."

I'm a little confused. Do you think that drones are a good thing, or not?

CLARKE: I'm glad you're confused because the book is meant to be a thriller and is meant to expose all sides of the case. I don't want him to read it and say, he thinks that. So, good. It worked.

Personally, what do I think? I think we've overdone it. When I advocated this in 2000 and 2001, I wanted to go after bin Laden. I wanted a small group of maybe 10 al Qaeda leaders to be targeted. Not 2,000 people in five countries.

When the program itself becomes an issue, when people are demonstrating in the streets of Yemen and Pakistan against the drone program -- when the program itself has become an issue, we've gone too far.

I understand why. You know, when you've got something that is working for you to kill terrorists before they can kill us, that's all you've got that works in that manner, there's an addiction. There's a seduction. And you keep doing it because you have a responsibility to stop people from killing Americans. I had that responsibility. I know what that wait feels like. And so, I understand why we did it but I think we did it far too much and we lost perspective.

TAPPER: Richard Clarke, always a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming in.

The book is "Sting of the Drone." Appreciate it.

When we come back, just a tip of the iceberg, the congressman leading the investigation into deadly wait times at veterans hospitals says the worse is yet to come. As one doctor tell us, even veterans hit by IEDs had to wait for care.

Plus, a California airport bows to pressure to display an advertisement urging tourists not to visit a famous San Diego attraction.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In other national news, the pressure is mounting against Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Eric Shinseki, who's under fire, after CNN reported that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments to the Phoenix V.A. system. Many of whom were allegedly placed on a secret waiting list. President Obama said yesterday that General Shinseki is still the right man to lead the agency but others are not so sure.

CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is here with us now to explain. What have we learned about the conversation between General Shinseki and the president?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you may think that General Shinseki would sort of take the good soldier approach to this controversy, walk into the Oval Office, say to the president, "Maybe you want me to resign," but he told reporters today, that didn't happen.


BASH (voice-over): Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki summoned to Capitol Hill for a private meeting with the Senate number two Democrat to discuss V.A. problems.

Afterwards, Shinseki revealed to reporters he has not offered the president his resignation saying, "You guys know me better than that." Twenty-six V.A. facilities are now under examination on his watch for excessive and sometimes deadly waiting times for veterans seeking care. Congress is stepping up its investigation of the V.A. But three V.A. officials scheduled to attend a House Veterans Affairs Committee meeting didn't show up.

REP. JEFF MILLER (R-FL), CHAIRMAN, VETERANS AFFAIRS: I don't see any familiar faces from the V.A. and central office. Is anybody here from V.A.?

BASH: The V.A. says they were only invited 15 hours earlier and had scheduling conflicts. They did turn over 3,000 e-mails at 2:30 in the morning, just part of a subpoena for documents from officials at the Phoenix V.A. office, where problems first surfaced.

Today, the president's point person on this, Rob Nabors, travelled to Phoenix, to interview the V.A. offices interim director and visit the facility. A doctor with the Phoenix V.A. office described to CNN's Drew Griffin the horrors of delays in care for injured troops just back from war zones.

DR. KATHERINE MITCHELL, MEDICA DIRECTOR, PHOENIX V.A.'S POST- DEPLOYMENT CLINIC: We're talking about people being injured by being blown up by IEDs. We're talking about people who had a mental breakdown and have severe PTSD and are having trouble functioning.

BASH: House V.A. Chairman Jeff Miller told CNN he has information it's even worse than we think.

MILLER: This is the tip of the iceberg. I know there's more to come. Fortunately --

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Can you give me any example? Can you give me anything more?

MILLER: I can't. No. No, because, you know, we're giving the information that we get to the office of inspector general so that they can do their independent assessment.

BASH: As for Shinseki, the remaining support he has is tenuous.

(on camera): Do you still think that he should at the helm?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Listen, I have not called for General Shinseki to resign, although I have to admit, I'm getting a little closer. I don't want people to get confused about what the shiny ball is here. The shiny ball is the systemic failure of this agency.

BASH: So, if that's the case, why are you getting closer?

BOEHNER: The reports that continue to come are appalling. These are men and women who have served our country and -- we've not just let them down, we've let them die.


BASH: In the brief conversation with reporters on Capitol Hill earlier today, Shinseki said that the president asked him to take this responsibility and give him certain things that he wants him to accomplish. In doing that, Shinseki says that that's actually what he's working on. He also said that he understands, as a veteran himself, what this is all about and they deserve our best work and they are going to get it. TAPPER: And two House Democrats have called for Shinseki to resign. But, so far, Democrats, except for those two, standing firm, standing with the president and Shinseki.

BASH: That's right. As you heard from Boehner, a surprising number of Republicans in this election year are not jumping on it.

TAPPER: Not yet.

BASH: Not yet.

TAPPER: Dana Bash, thank you so much.

Coming up next, she is leading the pack by miles. But there are a few 2016 hopefuls who are quietly, quietly making the case, that Hillary Clinton is not the only Democrat out there.

Plus, a daring art heist. Two men dressed as cops snatched paintings worth $500 million. Now, 24 years later, the FBI says they have credible sightings of the masterpieces as the trail heats back up.