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Terror in Israel; Ferguson Tensions; Obama Orders Review of U.S. Hostage Policy; President's Immigration Flip-Flop?

Aired November 18, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So think about this. More Americans have been killed in Israel by Palestinian terrorists in the last month than have been killed by ISIS since the beginning of that group.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Three American rabbis slaughtered in a synagogue in seven minutes this morning by axe-wielding terrorists. The FBI dispatched to investigate the grisly scene, while the Israeli prime minister pledges to respond with a heavy hand. Is this holy war heating up again?

The national lead. Arctic chill, polar plunge, 10th Avenue freeze- out, whatever you want to call it and where you live, it's cold, below freezing in all 50 states, even Hawaii. But for those in Buffalo already blanketed by winter's frosty quilt, it's only going to get worse. Let me tell you about a little thing called thundersnow.

Also our national lead, Ferguson, locals boarding up their stores, preparing for a different kind of storm, protests and riots and who knows what as the grand jury prepares to decide the fate of officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown. How does the top cop charged with protecting the community plan to keep everyone safe? Well, we will ask him.

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

We will begin today with our world lead, a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, where three American rabbis and a British one are dead, butchered during their morning prayers.

We should warn all our viewers the following images are disturbing. Israeli police are still piecing together the details of the attack, but the pictures convey abject horror from inside a place of worship, the hallways streaked red from the carnage, holy garments used in prayer strewn across the floor sitting in pools of blood. The three rabbis with duel American-Israeli citizenship were Moshe Twersky from Boston, Aryeh Kupinsky from Detroit, and Kalman Levine from Kansas City.

They were in the middle of praying this morning when two Palestinian terrorists stormed their synagogue wielding axes and meat cleavers and knives and a gun. And they massacred them, along with British-Israeli Rabbi Avraham Goldberg. Police then shot and killed the assailants, police said. Mere hours after their deaths, hundreds of Jewish Israelis flooded the streets to mourn their loss, flanking hearses carrying the bodies of the slain rabbis. No groups have claimed direct responsibility for the terrorist attack yet, the deadliest in Jerusalem since 2008.

But Hamas, which controls Gaza and which both the Israeli and U.S. governments consider a terrorist group, applauded the assault. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today was quick to blame Hamas, accusing the group of inciting Palestinians. He swore to respond to the attack with a "heavy hand."

CNN international correspondent Ben Wedeman is now live for us in Jerusalem.

Ben, have the Israeli police identified the attackers or any group they might belong to?


The two attackers are from the Jerusalem, East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber. They have been identified Oday and Ghassan Abu Jamal. They are in their 30s. They are cousins. And beyond that, there haven't been any real believable claims of responsibility.

There was a statement put out by the Marxist secularist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, PLFP, claiming that they were perhaps members of the organization. But even Israeli officials themselves are downplaying that claim.

They seem to be tending to the belief that these individuals had no political affiliations that they have found so far. Now, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has issued a statement earlier today in which he said today that their houses would be demolished. The Israeli police apparently have taken into custody several of their relatives for questioning, as far as we know at this point. But, as I said, there has been no claim of responsibility.

Hamas, as you mentioned, did praise the attack, but did not allege any link to it, keeping in mind of course that it was the Israeli belief that Hamas was behind the kidnapping and murder of those three Israeli teenagers last summer that sparked the war in Gaza. So, Hamas clearly doesn't want to be in Israel's crosshairs at the moment -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ben Wedeman in Jerusalem, thank you so much.

At the White House, President Obama condemning the attacks, but imploring both sides to back away from the very violent ledge where they are teetering.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Too many Israelis have died, too many Palestinians have died. And at this difficult time, I think it's important for both Palestinians and Israelis to try to work together to lower tensions and to reject violence. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And, predictably, that does not seem to be happening.

Israeli forces moved in on the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank after the attack, launching tear gas canisters and stun grenades while Palestinians threw rocks and firecrackers. The official Palestinian news agency also says Israeli settlers are assaulting Palestinian workers.

Joining me now, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren.

Michael, good to see you, as always.

How will the government respond? As Ben pointed out, when three Israeli teens, one of them with dual American citizenship, were kidnapped and killed over the summer, that basically began a war.

MICHAEL OREN, CNN MIDEAST ANALYST: Always good to be with you, Jake. Thanks for having me on.

Israel tonight is mourning the death of these four rabbis. They are of course Israeli citizens as well killed in an Israeli neighborhood by Palestinian terrorists. And the government is going to take a number of measures to try to upgrade security in the greater Jerusalem area.

Keep in mind that this violence has not spread outside of Jerusalem. It's very much centered on rumors circulated by jihadist organizations that Jews are threatening the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the third holiest site in Islam. That, of course, is not happening.

Strangely enough, Israel enough -- it guarantees religious freedom in Jerusalem for all faiths, but the one faith that is not allowed to pray in its holiest place are the Jews. Jews are not allowed to pray in groups on top of the Temple Mount, which is the holiest place in Judaism, for the simple reason is that the Israeli Supreme Court understands that do that could possibly set off the riot and the type of violence that we are witnessing right now.

So Israel will take the appropriate military and police steps to try to monitor this violence. But, at the end of the day, it has to come from the top. And it's not just the terrorist organizations that are saying the Jews are endangering of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It's also the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.

And that is an entity that is supposed to be committed to peace and not to fueling the flames of this type of violence.

TAPPER: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already ordered the homes of the attackers to be destroyed. A U.S. State Department spokesperson called that counterproductive. The attackers are dead. What does destroying their homes accomplish?

OREN: Well, the demolition of homes is a controversial issue in Israel itself.

I'm not sure that the prime minister has the authority to order those demolitions. It has to go from a court order. That is only because the areas that Israel captured from Jordan in 1967, in the Six-Day War, remain not under Israel law, but under Jordanian and British law. And under those legal systems, if a person was guilty of terrorism, then the punitive measure would be to destroy the family's house, this under the belief that that would deter the very family-oriented and clan-oriented Palestinians from carrying out terrorist attacks.

Again, it's been a point of controversy within Israel and it will have to go through a lengthy legal process in order to actually come about.

TAPPER: Michael, of course there's no justification whatsoever for these attacks, four innocent people slaughtered in the middle of praying, but this incident does not happen in a vacuum. Palestinians are claiming that this attack was in response to a Palestinian bus driver found dead hanging in his bus on Jerusalem on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called that incident a suicide, but the driver's brother said he saw bruises and signs of blood on his brother's back and Palestinians don't think that justice is happening.

OREN: Well, Jake, the Palestinian bus driver, his body underwent an autopsy that was witnessed by a Palestinian forensic doctor, and he concluded also that it was a suicide.

Later, he returned to his village and retracted, but that was the ruling of both an Israeli and a Palestinian doctor, that it was a suicide. I don't think we have to look for cause and effect here, though, Jake. I think that waves of Islamic extremism are spreading across the Middle East, not far from where I'm talking to you, whether in Iraq and in Syria.

But it's not only in the Middle East. It's occurring overseas as well, most recently in Canada, where two Canadians were killed by extremists who are responding to calls to violence. And the fact again that this is happening in Jerusalem, and not elsewhere, that the vast majority of Palestinians on the West Bank are not participating in this violence, even the vast majority of Palestinians in Jerusalem are not participating in this violence, but are people who are being roused up by calls to jihad that are emanating from these extremist organizations that are causing these attacks in Jerusalem, but also around the world.

TAPPER: We have seen some pictures of Palestinians celebrating these attacks, passing out candy. A lot of Israelis on social media are distributing these pictures. Do you think these are isolated incidents or do you think a majority of Palestinians are happy about these murders?

OREN: I think it's coming from the top again.

The Palestinian Authority's Web page today praised the martyrs who carried out -- -- quote, unquote -- "martyrs" who carried out this heinous attack this morning. They have praised Palestinians who have driven their cars into groups of Israeli civilians. Even a Palestinian who drove his car and killed a 3-month-old baby was praised by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

If the Palestinian leaders, and particularly those Palestinian leaders who are at least in theory committed to peace, are praising terrorists, then you really can't expect much else from the people in the streets. And it's true. Today, they were handing out candies celebrating the death of these four rabbis.

TAPPER: All right, former Ambassador Michael Oren, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Turning now to other world news, it's a policy the U.S. government has never wavered on. America does not negotiate with terrorists. You have heard them say that, but now the Obama administration is ordering a full review of how it does deal with hostage situations in light of recent criticism from families of Americans brutally murdered by ISIS terrorists. That story is next.


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

In more world news -- some of the families of the Americans who have been taken hostage by ISIS terrorists and others have been critical of the Obama administration in recent weeks, and now, some indication that the White House is trying to fix whatever problems may exist. The mother of those murdered hostages, journalist James Foley openly assailed the Obama administration after her son's murder, saying officials seemed disengaged and even annoyed by efforts to free him.

Now, the Obama administration has ordered a review of how U.S. hostage cases are handled forward. But what will that mean for the country's long standing or at least initial refusal to negotiate with terrorists?

Joining me now with more is CNN's Pamela Brown.

Pamela, if negotiation with terrorists is still off the table, at least when it comes to ransom, what could change as a result of this review?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it's likely that we'll see a change in how the policy is implemented rather big changes over the policy itself. The administration saying that it's ordering this review in light of the increasing number of U.S. citizens taken hostage by terrorist groups overseas.


BROWN (voice-over): Today, for the first time, the White House publicly acknowledged it is ordering a comprehensive review of the U.S. hostage policy.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is something that the president ordered back in -- over the summer. That given sort of the extraordinary nature of some of the hostage-takings that we've seen this year, the president felt it was warranted.

BROWN: A series of gruesome executions by ISIS of Western hostages has brought America's hostage policy into the spotlight.

CHRIS VOSS, FORMER FBI HOSTAGE NEGOTIATOR: The families are confused because they don't know what is going on. And for any of these things to be happening, the families would have to be involved on some level. And the feedback that we're getting is, no one knows what's going on.

BROWN: After ISIS executed U.S. journalist James Foley, his mother told CNN the government should have done more and said she was even threatened with prosecution if she had paid ransom for her son.

DIANE FOLEY, JAMES FOLEY'S MOTHER: We Americans failed him. I feel that our government needs to be shrewder, smarter, willing to negotiate with these people who hate us.

BROWN: Unlike the American hostages, ISIS freed some European hostages after their countries paid millions of dollars for their release.

But today, the White House said that the policy for negotiating with terrorists will not change.

EARNEST: The reason we're not reviewing the policy as it relates to not paying ransom is that our views on this are clear. And the president continues to believe, as previous presidents have concluded, that it's not in the best interest of American citizens to pay ransom to any organization, let alone a terrorist organization, as holding an American hostage. And the reason for that is simple. We don't want to put other Americans at an even greater risk.

BROWN: But what could change is how U.S. policy is implemented, when an American is kidnapped overseas, the FBI and State Department are supposed to lead a coordinated effort to funnel as many resources as possible to rescue the hostage. A top Pentagon official wrote in a letter to Congressman Duncan Hunter the review will focus on examining family engagement, intelligent collection and diplomatic engagement policies.

VOSS: Any policy is only as good as the people's understanding of how to implement it. I don't think there's any problem with the policy and the implementation has to do with coordination among agencies and the levels of expertise of the people that are implementing the policy.


BROWN: The U.S. policy does not permit deals with terrorist groups but the U.S. exchanged five Taliban prisoners fore Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl who was kidnapped while serving in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say his case is different because he was a prisoner of war and it's an exception that is made understanding of the U.S. hostage policy murkier -- Jake.

TAPPER: Pamela Brown, thank you so much. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, ransom payments are the

second greatest funding source for terrorist groups.

So how effective could any U.S. policy change be if terrorists can still get other countries to pony up?

Joining me now is "Reuters" investigative reporter David Rohde. He knows a little bit about this story. He was kidnapped by the Taliban and held prisoner in Pakistan but he managed to escape after seven months in captivity.

David, good to see you again.

What do you think is going to change in this review? Do you think the U.S. government will ever allow ransom payments?

DAVID ROHDE, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, REUTERS: I don't think there will be a change where the U.S. government doesn't pay -- you know, we do not -- the U.S. government does not pay ransoms. The unofficial policy, though, and this is what Jim Foley's mother was talking about, when a family or organization wants to pay ransom for decades the U.S. government has turned a blind eye.

And what happened in the Foley case, they were warned that it is -- and it is technically illegal, paying ransom to a designated terrorist organization is material support to a terrorist organization and the Foleys, again, for the first time it appears in many years, were warned that they could be breaking the law, that has to be clarified. So, that's one thing that could help in terms of what comes out of the review.

TAPPER: And, David, you and I have talked about this. We've seen the images of European hostages who were released by ISIS earlier this year. Ransom was paid through intermediaries.

Isn't the real problem, at least as far as the U.S. government is concerned, we're showing right now some of these former ISIS released because of ransom, isn't the real problem in the view of the president that European allies continue to pay ransom?

ROHDE: To be blunt, yes. And there has been private pressure put on these European governments but it hasn't worked. The record amount paid, at least according to the U.S. Treasury Department, was a French state-owned company, in essence the French government, paid $40 million a couple of years ago for the release of four French hostages in West Africa. That's $10 million a head.

The problem is not just that these European states are paying, they're paying more and more. The expectations from these groups is that they can get huge ransoms and when you're talking $10 million, you know, no family, no organization can pay that large a ransom.

TAPPER: Some people say that there really isn't much of a difference between paying a ransom and the prisoner swap we saw with Bowe Bergdahl earlier this year in exchange for five Taliban prisoners. As somebody who was a hostage and the Taliban tried to get prisoners and try to get ransom, what do you think?

ROHDE: I think there's a problem again where the administration needs to sort of clarify its position. Bergdahl was a soldier, that is different, but it was a case, it seems, where an American was traded for hostages, yet the U.S. says that's not its policy. And the broader here, you know, is the kidnappers and also, frankly, these places, having a safe haven in Syria where, you know, hostages can be held and, there's no military pressure, there's no pressure on the kidnappers, allows them to make these outrageous demands, allows them, you know, to kill them frankly.

I was held in Pakistan by the same group as Bowe Bergdahl. The failure of the Pakistani military to put pressure on the Taliban to release me or Bergdahl, that also helps this dynamic as well. So, there's all kinds of things that can be done. There was mention in the letter of coordinating diplomatic efforts. There has to be a more unified, you know, international effort to eliminate these sanctuaries, stop the payment of ransoms, and in the U.S., you know, a better treatment of these families.

TAPPER: All right. David Rohde, thank you for your perspective and congratulations on your newish daughter. Appreciate it.

ROHDE: Thanks so much.

TAPPER: Coming up, even longtime residents of Buffalo, New York, have never seen anything like this, they say. Nearly six feet expected in the area today and they are even getting hit with thunder snow.

Plus, tensions raised even higher in Ferguson, Missouri, after the Ku Klux Klan threatens it will use lethal force against any protesters that show any violence. What are police doing about it? I'll ask the St. Louis police, coming up.


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

And our politics lead -- a pending standoff between a Republican Congress and the Democratic president. Insider suggests President Obama may sign, at least one if not more executive order, as early as this week, opening a path to legal residency for millions of people in the country illegally.

In addition to all the questions about what this might do to an already staggeringly dysfunctional Washington, D.C., the question arises: does the president even have the legal authority to take this step without congressional approval? It's a question being raised by Republicans and Democrats alike and one that the president seemed to answer himself in previous interviews.

White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski is live with more on whether the president is flip-flopping on this issue -- Michelle.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jake. Yes, it's so strange to hear the president's words from back then, even as recently as a year ago, and then hear what he's been saying most recently. And the White House is pretty vague on what happened exactly there. Did the president -- was he not so sure on the law back then when he gave those statements? Has his view of the law changed? Has he expanded his view of what the law could allow him to do?

What the White House is saying is that the situation surrounding this whole thing has changed. But still, some of the president's own words now are being used against him.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We're going to fight the president tooth and nail if he continues down this path.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), INCOMING MAJORITY LEADER: It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

KOSINSKI: Those were the warning shots heard around the world. By now, Republicans have threatened everything from a lawsuit to impeachment preemptively defunding actions on immigration, even shutting down the government again.

Look at this from Red State's Erick Erickson, a prominent Tea Party voice, "Shut it down."

Now, some of the president's own past comments on taking executive action are coming under top scrutiny, times when he repeatedly said he didn't have the legal authority to do so. Back in 2011.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And sometimes when I talk to immigration advocates, you know, they just wish I could bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that's not how democracy works.

For me to simply do an executive order, ignore those congressional mandates, would not conform with my appropriate role as president.

KOSINSKI: But even just last year --

OBAMA: I'm the president of the United States. I'm not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed.

KOSINSKI: But other presidents, 11 of them, have certainly acted alone on this contentious topic, including Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Reagan allowed legalization for 3 million immigrants. Bush's action affected a million and a half people.

So, why such fury now?

It is a fiercely divided political environment and has Republicans angry over other executive actions taken by Obama on other touchy subjects as well, including climate change and both Democrats and Republicans are looking ahead to what gains can be made going into the 2016 election.

Today the White House faced questions on why the president's own view on legal authority seems to have changed.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We seem to be in a situation where the president has ordered a broader in-depth review of the existing law to determine what sort of executive authority does rest with the presidency to determine what kinds of steps he could take on his own. We've seen House Republicans refuse to act even on common sense legislation that would fix so many of the problems of our broken immigration system.


KOSINSKI: So that's what the White House is staying, that those two things have changed, that now Republicans in Congress, specifically the House, have made it clear that they are not going to take up comprehensive immigration reform.

And, number two, that the president had ordered this large-scale review of what he could do under the law. The White House is still not hinting at what could be in this executive action, how broad it will be or how soon it could happen even though the suspense is killing us all -- Jake.

TAPPER: I'm excited to see how he gets away from what he was saying a year ago. Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thank you so much.

It's a cold that goes right to your bones, below freezing temperatures hitting every single state in the country today and at least one area is wishing that was all they were dealing with. Upstate New York covered in a blanket of snow with up to 6 feet expected in some areas, not inches, 6 feet. And more is on the way along with thunder snow. Stay with us.