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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Russia to Share Intelligence with Taliban; Discussing US Airstrike in Syria and Iraq; Tracking Santa Claus; Year's Top Stories; New Star Wars Movie. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 24, 2015 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Brian, Russia plans to share intelligence with the Taliban.

I will admit I am old enough to remember --

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right.

TAPPER: -- when the Soviets were locked in a horrible war with the precursors of the Taliban, the Mujahideen and now they're aligning themselves with them?

TODD: It changes with convenience, Jake, and as you know, Vladimir Put was a chief enemy of the Taliban shortly after 9/11.

But these days it appears Putin's thinking more about the ISIS threat in Afghanistan and that maybe the enemy of his enemy he could work with. But this is not without significant risk for the Russian president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: One of America's chief antagonists, tonight reaching out again to a top American enemy. Vladimir Putin's government is in contact with the Taliban in Afghanistan over the sharing of intelligence. That's according to a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman who tells CNN Putin's doing this to help the Taliban fight their common enemy - ISIS. The official says the Kremlin won't be giving weapons to the Taliban. But why would Putin who's been a chief enemy of the Taliban want to help them now?

U.S. commanders say ISIS has gained strength in Afghanistan in recent months, with up to 3,000 fighters there. Putin's long been worried about the thousands of jihadists from Russia's Caucasus region and the former Soviet Republics who he said are inside Syria. And he may be trying to cut off that pipeline closer to home in Afghanistan.

OLGA OLIKER, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES IN WASHINGTON: The fact that there are people from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria, maybe not as many as the Russian government says, but certainly a good number, including in leadership roles means that Russia does see ISIS and some of - you know - a lot of the other Islamist groups as a particular threat in a way that maybe the Taliban isn't.

So the Russians may think that they are the lesser of the available evils.

TODD: But it's another risk for a Russian president who's been boldly extending his reach, from his escalations in Syria to aggressive moves in Europe and North Korea. Recently, Putin's military advisors were in Pyongyang for a secretive meeting with Kim Jong-un's top generals. Putin's announced he'll construct a missile which could pierce the U.S.-led missile shield in Europe. Analysts say this is all about Vladimir Putin projecting his relevance and strength.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, THE WOODROW WILSON CENTER: He wants to go back to the 1970s when the Soviet Union and the United States were equals as geopolitical leaders, as Cold War Rivals. But they still sat down and they did deals.

TODD: Experts say by working with the Taliban, Putin's likely not risking a repeat of the Soviet's grinding bloody occupation of Afghanistan in the 80s. But there's concern about one possibility if he keeps ramping up his campaign in Syria.

BEN JUDAH, AUTHOR, "FRAGILE EMPIRE": If I was Vladimir Putin, which thankfully I'm not, I'd be very worried about footage coming from Syria of Russian pilots potentially being kidnapped or burned such as happened to a Jordanian pilot not that long ago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: A key question tonight - how is Washington responding to Russia and the Taliban sharing intelligence? A U.S. official tells CNN they don't see this as undermining the stability that they're working with the Afghan government to achieve, but what would be destabilizing, this official says, is any contact with the Taliban that would legitimize that group with international recognition. Jake.

TAPPER: It's a rosy scenario, Brian.

TODD: Right.

TAPPER: Brian Todd, thank you so much.

Joining me to discuss this all is CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.

Also here is CNN military analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a former Army commanding general. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being here. General, let me start with you. How concerned should the U.S. be that Russia is sharing intelligence with the Taliban?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well it was a great report by Brian, Jake, and I think what you have to do is just look at a map.

Russia has some interest in this area. The northern border of Afghanistan bumps up against all the other 'Stans' - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia and Mr. Putin are very concerned about the passage of terrorist insurgence - Islamists - between those borders. So he is in fact attempting to not only stop that, but I think as Brian mentioned in his report, there's a nice second order effect that he can embarrass America a little bit and his defense minister has already done that by making rude comments about we wouldn't have this mess in our southern borders had it not been for America's misadventures in Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Phil, as a former CIA official, what's your take on Putin's end goal here? I can't imagine he wants to engage in any sort of long-term conflict in Afghanistan.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I don't think this is about conflict. This is about the restoration of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, you had those independent states emerge - the states that General Hertling was referring to -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan - those states border Afghanistan.

What Putin is doing now is tell those states 'I will work with the Taliban to ensure that we have an agreement to collect intelligence about ISIS before they come across the border. When I collect that intelligence, I will pass it back to you.'

Jake, this is as much about restoring that - those - relationships and trust with the Central Asian republics and competing with the United States as it is about countering ISIS in Afghanistan. This is a pretty serious power grab.

TAPPER: Let's turn to Syria if we could. General, much has been made about the U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS. Congressman Ed Royce is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And he says that American pilots are blocked from dropping 75 percent of their bombs because they can't get clearance to strike because of concerns about civilian deaths.

Now ISIS operates for that very reason in high-population areas. The Pentagon now saying they are discussing possibly changing the rules of engagement governing these airstrikes. Do you think that the rules of engagement, the ROE, are hurting the effort against ISIS?

HERTLING: Well first of all, Jake, I need to say Congressman Royce is about a year behind on his facts. They were prevented from dropping a lot of bombs early on in this campaign a year ago and pilots did return with a large proportion of their bomb load. That has changed as we've garnered more intelligence over the last several months. Estimates now - and I talked to the Syncom staff just recently and they said they're dropping between 60 and 80 percent of their bomb loads on targets because they have observation of those targets.

They have better intelligence. They have knocked off the easy targets and are going after the more difficult ones now. But you have to remember too that the laws of war - and remind anybody that says that we should indiscriminately bomb and that's what Russia's doing right now - focus on three things.

First of all, the necessity to hit the target, the distinction between military targets and civilian and the proportionality. Those three words are very important when we're sending American air or ground forces into combat because doing anything other than those things would violate the law of land warfare.

TAPPER: All right, General Mark Hertling and Phil Mudd, thanks to both of you. Merry Christmas and thanks for joining us.

UM: Merry Christmas, Jake.

TAPPER: Still ahead, the star of the night - Santy Claus. We're tracking his journey with help from the folks at NORAD. We're just minutes away from getting a handle on his location.

Call the kids, keep the TV on. When we come back, that's our story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: All right, call the kids. In our National Lead on this Christmas Eve, kids across the country - around the world, really - anxiously waiting for the annual visitor in a red suit. Of course as you know, Santa Claus is coming to town. If you're watching us from other parts of the world, he may have already paid you a visit.

According to the North American Aerospace Defense Command also known as NORAD, Mr. Claus is currently dashing through the snow in Europe. He's approaching Croatia. So far Santa has delivered about 3.2 billion - that's with a "b" - gifts since 1955, every year NORAD has been tracking the movement of St. Nick via their sophisticated radar system usually deployed to monitor potential ICBMs. But we won't talk about that right now.

They also take calls from children who have questions or requests from Santa.

Joining me now to talk about this is Major Beth Smith, she's a spokeswoman for NORAD in Colorado Springs.

Major, lots of kids watching right now. What's the latest on Santa and his reindeer - where are they? Are they are schedule?

MAJOR BETH SMITH, SPOKESWOMAN, NORTH AMERICAN AEROSPACE DEFENSE COMMAND NORAD: Hi, Jake. It's good to be here with you. I just wanted to let you know that Santa's last location is in Scandinavia.

TAPPER: Oh, OK, so last location in Scandinavia. He moves quick. Now you folks have been doing this for 60 year. Explain how this all started. Somebody said it all started with a typo of some sort?

SMITH: Yes, it's a really great story. Sixty years ago, they misprinted an ad and the children called in to try to figure out where Santa is and they got NORAD's command center. And so the good colonel there played along with them and said, hey, let's just tell everybody where Santa is.

So we use our everyday systems and we let the folks know out there - all the good little girls and boys - exactly where Santa is on that - in the world. TAPPER: That's exciting. I understand now there are volunteers manning the phones and each one gets about 40 phone calls an hour. What are the kids asking?

SMITH: You know, the kids just want to know first and foremost where's Santa and what time is he going to be at their house. We couldn't do it without all of the volunteers, they're great. We have thousands every year, and each year the program gets bigger. It's fantastic and it's wonderful to be a part of it.

TAPPER: And I understand you have a rather famous volunteer today - the First Lady Michelle Obama. Does she have the proper security clearance to do this for NORAD?

SMITH: She does. She's done it a few years and she's fantastic at it and we're happy to have her again this year.

TAPPER: And I'm also told that there were some bilingual volunteers also there to handle any foreign language inquiries.

SMITH: Yes, we can speak most any language, so I think we have eight to ten different languages. So kids can call in and talk to us any time - 1-800 - 1-877-HI-NORAD or they can also find us online too at noradsanta.org.

TAPPER: OK, so that's 877-HI-NORAD --

SMITH: Right.

TAPPER: -- N-O-R-A-D. And what's the website?

SMITH: It's noradsanta.org.

TAPPER: Noradsanta.org. Major Beth Smith, thank you so much. Merry Christmas and thank you for the service that you provide for us.

SMITH: Thanks, Jake, you too. Merry Christmas.

TAPPER: In our Pop Culture Lead today, after shattering box offices records left and right, "Star Wars - the Force Awakens" is set to make a run at the Christmas Weekend Record Books.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHARACTER FROM "STAR WARS - THE FORCE AWAKENS": Nothing will stand in our way. I will finish what you've started.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Yikes. The movie is expected to overtake "Avatar" as the highest grossing film of all time globally, but if you have already seen it or if you're not really feeling the Force, what are the other options at the movie theaters this weekend?

Joining me now is David Edelstein, chief film critic for "New York Magazine." David, "Star Wars - the Force Awakens" it's a - DAVID EDELSTEIN, CHIEF FILM CRITIC, "NEW YORK MAGAZINE": May the

Force be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: For you as well, sir.

EDELSTEIN: And I hope that Santa Claus too if he's got to dodge some of those indiscriminant Russian bombers.

TAPPER: (LAUGHTER). Well, one hopes that those two stories don't overlap. "The Force Awakens," one assumes, is almost critic-proof. But I still want to know what you think of it.

EDELSTEIN: (LAUGHTER). You know what I think of it? It's kind of interesting. This movie is beat by beat the same as the first "Star Wars." So you have a situation where the fans essentially took the series away from the creator George Lucas and said, 'You didn't really understand what we loved about it. You went off on your on wonky direction, and we're just going to repeat the thing.'

Maybe get "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in there as a Jedi knight and change the genders around a little bit. But beat by beat it's the same movie and the fans have indeed turned out.

What's really interesting is, in a - I don't know about you, but - the first two or three months leading up to this, I had that John Williams "Star Wars" fanfare going through my head constantly.

It's like a little earworm that gets in there and I can't think of a better advertisement than something that really hooked us 32 years ago or whenever people - 38 years ago - whenever people have watched it since, that's the best kind of advertising there is. When something captures your imagination like that and kind of gets into your bloodstream. And it's no wonder that it's like Beatlemania now.

TAPPER: So, that said, there are other movies playing in theaters right now -

EDELSTEIN: Really? There are? Oh.

TAPPER: -- and if you were going to make a recommendation to a friend - which is what our viewers are -

EDELSTEIN: (LAUGHTER).

TAPPER: What would you tell them to see other than "Star Wars."

EDELSTEIN: Well, I think they should see the "Big Short" because if they've forgotten how angry they were back in 2008 at, you know, the colossal scam that essentially brought down the global finance system, all they need to do is watch this movie to get angry all over again. It really is a marvelous mixture of comedy, suspense and also these weird explanatory bars that they put in to make sure that we're all up to speed, delivered by celebrities.

I think it's a miraculous movie. I don't know why more people aren't as excited about how you could pack so much information into a film and yet have it be so incredibly entertaining. One thing is that we're actually on the side of these people who are making hundreds of millions of dollars by shorting the shorting, and we really root for them. We root for the winners always and it's only at the end that we realize it was our money that went down the toilet that they made off with.

TAPPER: I have to ask - I have to ask you about the third team up of Jennifer Lawrence, David -

EDELSTEIN: Ah.

TAPPER: -- Russell the director and Bradley Cooper. They did "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle." There's this new move "Joy," I've seen some horrible reviews of it. You liked it though?

EDELSTEIN: No, I think it's a mixed effort. I think there's a lot of it that's really classic David O. Russell and classic Jennifer Lawrence. You know, they're really in synch. She has this wonderful kind of discombobulated air. She's a very graceful physical comedian, and when amid this family madness she's trying to get centered, she's trying to put this creation of hers, this invention, this mop and sell it and get out of this horrible family situation, she's wonderful to watch. It's when David Russell kind of builds a pedestal to her and decides he wants to make an inspirational movie that I think the film gets a little bit dead. On the other hand, there are lots of people who see the movie and they'll want something inspirational. So the critic and the audience may diverge here. I think people are going to like it.

TAPPER: It's a busy time of year for many people, so maybe like me they haven't gone and seen a movie in a theater in a long time. Are there any movies out there that have been out for a little while that people should take an opportunity to see before they leave the theaters?

EDELSTEIN: Well if you - if you haven't seen "Creed," you really should. That's - like "Star Wars" it's another example of going back to the original and doing a beat by beat remake essentially except where "Star Wars" flipped the genders, this one flips the races. You have an - you have an African-American - a fatherless African-American guy - coming to Sylvester Stallone and there's something really transformative and wonderful about changing that dynamic.

It's also a very gritty film - for all the Hollywood qualities of it, it also has a lot of texture, a lot of real texture of those Philadelphia neighborhoods and those boxing rings that's been absent from the "Rocky" series until now. It's a really good director -

TAPPER: Yes.

EDELSTEIN: -- and star who previously collaborated on a film called "Fruitvale Station" -

TAPPER: Right.

EDELSTEIN: -- which really is a - is a - kind of Black Lives Matter movie. This is a much more assimilationist -

TAPPER: OK.

EDELSTEIN: -- all-embracing movie. And it's really perfect for this season too.

TAPPER: David Edelstein, thank you so much. Merry Christmas. Really, really appreciate the recommendations.

EDELSTEIN: My pleasure. May the Force be with you.

TAPPER: (LAUGHTER) Thank you so much. Up next on "The Lead," from the home office in Sioux City, Iowa, my top ten list of the best political stories of 2015.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: I think it's safe to say that 2015 was anything but politics as usual, so we took a look back at the top ten political stories of the year.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Number 10 - After a quarter century in Congress, Speaker of the House John Boehner declared he was done, pushed out many say by the Tea Partiers in his deeply-divided Republican Caucus.

JOHN BOEHNER, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: I leave with no regrets, no burdens.

TAPPER: After initially balking, Wisconsin's Congressman Paul Ryan finally accepted the gavel.

PAUL RYAN, SPEAKER OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: We need to make some changes starting with how the House does business.

Number 9 - Same sex marriage was deemed legal nationwide though in some states, county clerks such as Kim Davis refused to give their stamp of approval, citing their religious convictions.

UM: Whose authority?

KIMBERLY DAVIS, COUNTY CLERK, ROWAN COUNTY, KENTUCKY: Under God's authority.

TAPPER: Davis spent five days in jail over the divisive issue.

Number 8 - An anti-abortion group released videos they say showed Planned Parenthood staffers proposing selling fetal tissue for profit. The heavily-edited videos were hotly contested and the funding debate was on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Planned Parenthood must be defunded.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE AND DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will defend Planned Parenthood. TAPPER: I November three people were killed at a Colorado clinic after this man opened fire.

ROBERT LEWIS DEAR, ALLEGED KILLER AT COLORADO PLANNED PARENTHOOD CLINIC: Protect the babies.

TAPPER: Planned Parenthood blamed heated political rhetoric for the attack.

Number 7 - The Obama Administration negotiated with Iran, ending sanctions in exchange for promises of an Iran free of nuclear weapons. Israel's prime minister was vehemently opposed.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb, it paves Iraq's path to the bomb.

TAPPER: President Obama vowed to veto any Congressional attempt to block the deal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The majority of members of this Congress do not support this deal.

TAPPER: But Secretary of State John Kerry was also adamant.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There's no alternative.

TAPPER: Number 6 - Hillary Clinton repeatedly defended her use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state.

CLINTON: Everything I did was permitted.

TAPPER: An FBI investigation into the matter notwithstanding, even her chief Democratic opponent said he had heard enough about the controversy.

BERNIE SANDERS, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!

TAPPER: Clinton was confronted for hours during a hearing about the 2012 Benghazi attacks and about those e-mails.

TREY GOWDY, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (R) : You and your attorneys decided what to return and what to delete.

TAPPER: Number 5 - Nine African-Americans including a state senator were gunned down at this South Carolina charge by a 21-year-old white supremacist.

BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: The alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Rev. Pinckney and that bible study group.

TAPPER: The killer had posed for photographs with a Confederate flag, prompting the question was it time for the flag to be removed from the State Capital?

(SHOUTS FROM RALLIERS)

TAPPER: Debate was passionate, and in the end, the flag was history. Number 4 - Millions fled war-torn parts of the Middle East into Europe. President Obama vowed to take in up to 10,000 Syrian refugees.

OBAMA: Those countries that can must do more to accommodate refugees.

TAPPER: But when at least one of the Paris terrorists was linked to the masses entering Europe, 31 U.S. governors vowed to shut their doors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Embedded in that group are people who are out to destroy us.

TAPPER: Then after terrorists struck California, Donald Trump said all Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S., prompting a fierce backlash.

Number 3 - The Black Lives Matter movement became ever present in politics. Thousands rallied in Baltimore and Chicago after young black men in each city died during police confrontations. After shocking video emerged of Freddie Gray's arrest in Baltimore, and Laquan McDonald's shooting in Chicago, police officers were charged with murder in both cities. Chicago's mayor came under pressure to step down.

(RALLIERS - "We got to fight back!)

TAPPER: Number 2 - According to President Obama, ISIS rose from a so- called JV squad last year to become a quote, "Contained threat." But after two massacres in Paris drew world leaders into the fight and

an attack in California killed 14 Americans, President Obama was forced to revise his message.

OBAMA: The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it.

TAPPER: And the number 1 political story of 2015, the Donald.

DONALD TRUMP, REPUBLICAN U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I'm at number one by a lot.

TAPPER: Donald Trump, disrupting politics and redefining what it means to be a Republican presidential candidate.

TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best.

TAPPER: His blunt, some say bigoted behavior was met with outrage in a seemingly unstoppable rise in Republican primary poll numbers.

TRUMP: And frankly I'm the most solid person up here.

TAPPER: Will he win the White House next year or will America say, "Your fired."

(END VIDEOTAPE) TAPPER: After today's show, it's a special marathon of "Anthony Bourdain -- Parts Unknown." We'll be right back after this quick break.

Merry Christmas.