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Close Call with Two Jets at Houston Airport; Arizona Wildfire Grows to 7,500 Acres; Putin Lashes Out; Near Misses; Interview with Marie Harf

Aired May 23, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, Vladimir Putin earlier today said to President Obama -- and I might have the translation a little loose here -- but it was something like, check yourself before you wreck yourself.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is the THE LEAD.

The world lead, Putin lashing out at President Obama over repeated accusations that Russia is meddling in Ukraine, while in Eastern Ukraine, blood is spilling in the streets. Somehow, in the middle of this chaos, Ukrainians are supposed to pick a new president this weekend.

The national lead. As you head into this holiday weekend, at least four heart-pounding near misses for U.S. planes in less than a month. And the really scary part, these happen so much more often than you probably ever realized.

And the pop culture lead today, "X-Men" ready to rule the box office this weekend, so keep your eye out for a Stan Lee cameo in today's show. The icon and co-creator of "X-Men" will join us, as one of the year's most anticipated films opens everywhere.

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

We will begin with the world lead. Should people who live in Glasnost houses throw stones? Russian President Vladimir Putin seeming to accuse President Obama today of hypocrisy after the White House repeatedly blamed Russia for stirring up unrest in neighboring Ukraine.

At an economic conference earlier today, Putin said this about President Obama.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Who is he to judge? Who is he to judge? Seriously, if he wants to judge people, why doesn't he get a job in court somewhere? I don't think he accused me. It's his point of view. I have my point of view when it comes to certain things.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: The White House believes that Russia has a hand in pulling the strings on pro-Russian rebels going on in Eastern Ukraine. Putin of course denies that. His comments come just two days before Ukrainians are supposed to go to the polls to select a new president to replace the pro-Russia head of state who fled the country in February.

Well, while all that is going on, so is this, gunfire at a checkpoint in Eastern Ukraine's Luhansk region, where today clashes between the Ukraine's loyalist military and pro-Russia separatists left at least 32 people dead, including 30 rebels and two Ukrainian soldiers. That's according to Ukrainian officials.

Even if voters make it to the polls on Sunday, will their votes even count? What you're looking at right now, that is a ballot box getting smashed by pro-Russia separatists who ransacked a polling station in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Putin characterizes the conflict as a full-scale civil war, but he claims that Russia will accept the legitimacy of Ukraine's elections on Sunday.


PUTIN (through translator): We understand. We can see the people of Ukraine want their country to finally emerge from this protracted crisis. Without a doubt, we will treat the choice of Ukrainian people with respect.


TAPPER: Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is live in Eastern Ukraine.

Jim, how dangerous is it going to be just to vote in Ukraine this weekend?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it really depends on where you are in Ukraine. And the contrast is jarring.

We were in Kiev yesterday. It's calm. The barricades there, they are really just backdrops for tourist photos now. And when you come here in Donetsk, where I'm standing, it's a calm street behind me. But we drove 20 minutes outside the city and we came to election headquarters there that had been attacked by pro-Russian militants, closed, all their election materials burned.

And we met the election commissioner in one of those districts. And he told us how armed men came in with machine guns and grenades, ordered people to the floor, forced them to destroy their election materials. And that's the kind of story you hear when you -- you can find in a number of districts.

And, of course, there was even worse violence, as you mentioned, more than 30 people killed in several clashes between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian militants. And it's that kind of contrast that can be very jarring here. Now, these are just two regions of the country that are experiencing this kind of violence in number, but that violence getting worse as election approaches. We are only 48 hours away, and these last two days have been the two of the most violent days of the crisis so far.

TAPPER: And, Jim, what do we know, what do you hear about Russian involvement in this violence in Ukraine?

SCIUTTO: Well, what U.S. officials will say is that they believe the Russians are coordinating these pro-Russian separatists on the ground here.

When you speak to Ukrainian officials, the authorities in Kiev, they say that even more direct evidence of Russian involvement. For instance, in this attack yesterday against Ukrainian soldiers, they say that they may have been Russian military mercenaries rather involved, so not ethnic Russians from Eastern Ukraine, but Russians who came across the border to fight inside Ukraine from Russia.

When we spoke to the election commissioner, for instance, outside of Donetsk today regarding the headquarters that was shut down here, he said that the masked uniformed men who came into his election commission in the last 24 hours, he believes were Russian, based on the weapons they were carrying and the kinds of uniforms they were wearing.

We don't know that for sure. But you hear that from a number of Ukrainian authorities. That is their fear. At a minimum, even U.S. officials will say they believe the Russians are directing them. At a maximum, to a larger degree, you will hear from some here that there are Russians involved on the ground.

It's hard to establish with any certainty, but that is certainly an accusation you hear very widely here, particularly in the eastern part of the country.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto in Eastern Ukraine, stay safe. And thank you so much.

Just a little refresher. Here's what President Obama said earlier this month on what the Obama administration would do if Russia did not de-escalate the situation in Ukraine.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russian leadership must know that if it continues to destabilize Eastern Ukraine and disrupt this month's presidential election, we will move quickly on additional steps, including further sanctions that will impose greater costs.


TAPPER: Escalating violence in Eastern Ukraine, Putin calling the ousted Ukrainian president the legitimate leader, would that be disrupting elections?

Joining me now is the deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, Marie Harf.

Marie, good to see you. Thanks for joining us.

You just heard President Obama. He also say in that same speech that these separatists are -- quote -- "Russian-backed groups" and are -- quote -- "heavily armed militants who are receiving significant support from Russia."

So isn't Russia meddling in this election?


And I want to make a few points first. This election is going to happen. In a vast majority of Ukraine -- I know you just talked to Jim Sciutto on the ground. It's calm. A vast majority of polling places, there is no violence. People are going to vote this Sunday.

There are a few isolated places, Jake, where pro-Russian separatists are trying to disrupt these elections. We have called on President Putin to use his influence to tell them not to, to really put his money where his mouth is. If he says he will honor the results of this election, then he needs to use his influence to make sure it goes forward without the kind of violence we have seen.

If he doesn't do that, we are absolutely ready to impose greater costs, including sectoral sanctions. So he really has a choice to make here, Jake.

TAPPER: Well, I think he has already made the choice, Marie. I think that's the point. President Obama said if there is meddling in the elections, there will be tougher sanctions. You just said Russia has been meddling. So, I guess my question is, where are the tougher sanctions?

HARF: Well, look, we have all of these sanctions ready to go. We can put new sanctions on very quickly.

We want to see how the election goes on Sunday. As I said, in a vast majority, over 200 polling places in Ukraine, and only I think something like 18 of them have experienced what we have seen, what Jim just reported on in terms of the violence and the real disruption.

So Ukraine is going to vote on Sunday and they are going to pick a new president, a new leader. And, look, if we see this Russia meddling continue, there will be costs. I would look for those costs very soon after the election, if that's the case.

TAPPER: But I don't understand why you keep saying, if we see the meddling continue, there will be costs. Why are there not already costs? It sounds to me like Putin and Russia have already crossed the red line that President Obama set earlier this month.

HARF: Well, we have already imposed a number of costs on President Putin, on his inner circle, and on the Russian economy.

Every economic indicator is negative and shows that they have had an impact. And, again, we have more sanctions waiting. But what we're really focused on now, Jake, is on Sunday's elections going forward. And we will take whatever steps we have to take after that and I think President Putin should know that we're absolutely ready to do so.

TAPPER: I want to play some more of the conversation that Putin had today. He said this about the U.S.' role in Ukraine and the sanctions you refer to.


PUTIN (through translator): I think that our European and American partners are in large part responsible for what happened. They supported the coup and put the country in chaos. And now they want to shift responsibility onto us, for us to clean up the mess they have done. These sanctions are absolutely illegal and of course they worsen our international relations.


TAPPER: So the U.S., according to Putin, was responsible for what he calls a coup. And he says the sanctions are illegal.

This does not sound like somebody who is being pushed and encouraged to work on any solutions. Is the State Department engaging with the Russians right now? When is the last time Secretary Kerry spoke with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov?

HARF: Well, we're certainly engaging with the Russians.

And what I would say first is that what is illegal here was Russia's actions to annex Crimea, to send pro-Russian separatists into parts of Eastern Ukraine. They are the ones who are blatantly in violation of international law right now. So, those are just the latest in a set of pretty ridiculous comments from President Putin.

But we are engaged with them. What we have said throughout this whole process is, there is a diplomatic offering up here. So, Russia has a choice. They can continue down the path that they have gone. They can be isolated.

Look, we're playing a long game here. If they want to keep playing this game, they will be increasingly isolated, their economy will be cut off, and we will impose more costs.

So, we have said there is a diplomatic offering. That is what Secretary Kerry is focused on right now. That's what our diplomats here are focused on. But we have to see actions on the ground in order for that to have any chance of moving forward.

TAPPER: Marie, before you go, I wanted to ask you about something that your boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, said at a State Department dinner about the U.S. role in Nigeria. Let's play that tape.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Boko Haram, Nigeria, only the United States is there offering the assistance to help find those young women. Other countries not only aren't there invited, but they didn't even offer.


TAPPER: That's not actually true, right? U.K. is there. France is there. Israel has offered. Even China I think has offered. Did the secretary misspeak?

HARF: No, Jake.

What he was referring to -- obviously, we have been very clear about the role that the U.K. and other partners have played in helping to find these girls in Nigeria. What he was referring to is that countries like Russia -- he didn't say it explicitly, but he was referring to the fact that countries like Russia are not the partner of first resort when people around the world need help.

The United States is. Whether it's a natural disaster, a tsunami, an earthquake, something like this, the United States has unique capabilities to bring to bear all around the world and we're the partner that people want there.

Obviously, we know that our colleagues from the U.K. and France and elsewhere are doing a lot of work, but what he was really referring to was Russia and actually China, which you mentioned, who have not been countries that other countries want coming in helping, because they don't have the same capabilities and they are just not the same kind of partner that we are all across the world.

TAPPER: Marie Harf at the State Department, thank you so much.

HARF: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: two planes within feet of colliding midair after an air traffic controller makes a critical error. And it's the fourth time planes have nearly crashed into each other in just the last month.

Plus, high winds and steep slopes causing a nightmare for firefighters in Arizona, as residents are forced to run from the flames. Stay with us.


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

Time now for the national lead. For the fourth time in one month, we're learning about a close call between two jetliners that could have but thankfully did not end in disaster. This one happened at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport back on May 9th when two United Airlines were taking off and were directed to fly towards each other.

CNN's aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is here with more.

Rene, how did this happen?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: That is the big question. And the bottom line is, this shouldn't have happened, but it did happen. We're talking about a passenger plane on the wrong path and we're told it was an air traffic controller new in this position who directed one of the planes to take a wrong turn. Now, this evening, the FAA is trying to figure out why this happened. An air traffic controller in training directs a United jet to turn, putting it on a possible collision with another plane departing Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport. Seconds later, according to the FAA, the controller realizes his mistake.

TOWER: United 601 stop your turn, stop your climb and stop your turn United 601.

MARSH: The two flights less than a mile away apart, setting off collision warning systems. Listen to stunned pilots second later.

PILOT: I had no idea what was going on in the tower but it was pretty gnarly looking.

PILOT: I'm guessing he was supposed to give us a left turn.

MARSH: Yet another high profile incident, putting a spotlight on something that actually happens every day -- in the skies over the Pacific, at New York's JFK and Newark.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's real close.

MARSH: The rules of separation in the skies breached. The FAA's latest numbers show planes came too close nearly 4,400 times in one year, 41 of them deemed high-risk events.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: They are scary, they are unacceptable, they weren't done (ph), but there's a back-up system and people are safe.

MARSH: It's an air traffic system under stress, increasing air traffic and a potential shortage of controllers. Almost thousands need to be hired and trained over the next seven years. Some experts worry the agency's new hiring practices could make matters worse. The agency no longer gives preference to recent graduates from aviation colleges. Just last month, a government auditor said he would study controller staffing levels and the impact of retirement. But incidents where planes get too close are not necessarily controller mistakes.

GOELZ: These mistakes can occur through a controller making an error, through a pilot making a mistake. But remember, there is avionics on board, particularly one called TCAS, which is collision avoidance assistance.

MARSH: The FAA says it has taken steps to prevent any similar occurrences in the future but they didn't say what those steps were. (END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Well, these air traffic controllers are trained in real-time. We do know an instructor was there at the moment this incident happened ready to step in, if needed. But the trainee realized the mistake immediately and corrected the problem immediately. We do know that the flights continued safely to their destinations. But still, when you hear this sort of thing, it's very disturbing.

TAPPER: It's horrifying, four in one month. Are there any repercussions? Is there any accountability behind the scenes?

MARSH: You know, if you remember, there was a situation where a controller caught sleeping on the job, where there is egregious behavior in which it's just not acceptable, yes, you do see that there are repercussions. Tat controller in that instance was fired.

But when you have an instance where there were mistakes made, it's a non-punitive system. The FAA does not fire people because they made these mistakes. And the reason for that is because there are so few accidents. When you consider all of the planes that take off and land every single day, there really aren't that many crashes.

So, they need all of the information that they can gather to look and the only way to get that information is through incidents like this. So if there are things that they can correct, they'd rather get it from the people right there in the field without, of course, punishing them for reporting it.

TAPPER: It's still scary. Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

At least four close calls in the last few weeks, that we know about. How does this keep happening?

Joining me now is Bob Richards. He was an air traffic controller for more than 20 years at Chicago's O'Hare airport. He's the author of the book, "Secrets from the Tower", that I'm told they're turning into an HBO series.

Bob, thanks so much for being here. Appreciate it.

This appears to be operator error from the air traffic controller who was in training. He did have someone with him. How does that work if a trainee makes a mistake?

BOB RICHARDS, FORMER AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: Well, if a trainee makes a mistake, it's still on the onus of the trainer to correct it and it's his responsibility ultimately if any course of actions. Not the trainee, he's not going to suffer discipline consequences.

So, in that sense, if you're looking at that, that is what is going to happen. But in this situation, there is always going to be human involvement and when the human involvement occurs, there's always going to be a chance of mistake.

The beautiful thing about it all, though, is we have so many back-up plans to this. We have other pilots, other systems and like in Chicago O'Hare, for instance, we have a local monitor position where someone actually plugs in and monitors the position if it's a crossing runway situation.

My guess is after something like this, they just may be doing this for opposition.

TAPPER: How long is an air traffic controller in training?

RICHARDS: It depends on if he's in the tower environment, at the airport, it might, and if it's busy place like Chicago or Los Angeles, he could be training anywhere from one year to two years. If it's in Albany, New York, it could be six months. If he's in the center environment, higher altitude, like Cleveland Center or Chicago Center, it could be two to three years to be certified.

So, there's a lag time there. You don't just hire somebody and they take -- walk right in and take over.

TAPPER: That's what I wanted to ask. How much latitude and independence do they have? Is somebody watching them at all time, or is it just an occasional check in?

RICHARDS: Oh, absolutely. Trainees are watched at all time because the person responsible is the person training them that's plugged in with him at that time. So, yes, they're absolutely being watched in some cases by a monitor position as well.

TAPPER: How often -- how concerned should flyers be about this? How often do they have that?

RICHARDS: Considering the amount of airplanes that we move throughout this country, I mean, we went through a period of 2009 to 2012, we didn't have one commercial fatality after the Colgan air crash, and then that led up to the San Francisco incident.

But we have the safest system in the world. Irregardless, there's going to be mistakes made unfortunately, but if you look at the percentage as the last percent Rene just alluded to, it doesn't really even compare with the numbers that we're talking about. You look at one of those ASDs, when you see as many airplanes there at a time, 5,000, 6,000 at a time, I mean, it just staggers the mind to understand how we do as well as we have over the past 20 years.

TAPPER: Bob Richards, thank you so much.

RICHARDS: You bet.

TAPPER: When we come back, massive flames turning trees into ash in seconds as hundreds of firefighters fight what continues to be a losing battle, and the weather is just making it all much, much worse.

Plus, Speaker of the House John Boehner accused of personally blocking immigration reform. His response? It's the president's fault.

Our politics lead is coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

In national news, fire officials reporting, quote, "good progress" in their stand against the massive wildfire that has rapidly spread in the last few days. But they say they only have it at about 5 percent contained right now.

The Slide Fire is burning between in the cities of Flagstaff and Sedona. When we reported on it yesterday, it was about 4,800 acres big and today it's grown to about 7,800 acres, which is nearly 12 square miles total. The smoke blotting out the sun over Flagstaff. Some people have already evacuated, thousands more have been warned they may have to be evacuated, about 300 structures. Private homes and vacation cabins are threatened.

Right now, about 840 firefighters were on the frontlines trying to beat back the flames.

Our own Ana Cabrera is standing by in Flagstaff right now.

Ana, what's the strategy for these fire crews?

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, take advantage of the weather. Get ahead of this fire. We're seeing much improved conditions over this time yesterday, you're seeing them wearing a light jacket, it's much cooler, the wind is a lot calmer. We see a little breeze here from time to time, but again, calmer than we've seen in the past couple of days. You can tell from the big smoke plume behind me, not quite as good. So, firefighters have successfully beaten (ph) and they are doing their burnout operations, we've been seeing water drops and retardant drops. It's still a very active fire however. So, we're not quite out of the woods.

We had a chance to go into the fire zone and we still saw trees torching and flames burning, very intense, very steep, rocky, rugged, dense terrain in some places making this firefight very challenging and very dangerous for firefighters. They are really relying on that air support in some of these areas. Particularly on that northeast flank which is, of course, is crucial plank for protecting the homes that are still in danger.

And so, we saw nine helicopters up in the air today, a few air tankers continuing to hit some of the hot spots as well as spot fires that have developed in the last 24 horse and then the hot shot crews continue on the ground to build that fire line, to continue to do the controlled burns to remove the fuel ahead of the fire.

And if you'll recall it was the hot shot team from Prescott that suffered a huge loss around this time last year with the Yarnell Fire, and it turns out, this fire's incident commander was one of the safety officers there at the Yarnell Fire.