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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Iran Prisoner Swap Details; Robert Levinson Still Missing; Growing Calls For Michigan Governor Snyder To Resign; CDC Issues Travel Warning For Zika Virus; U.K. Debates Barring Trump From Her Majesty's Soil. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired January 18, 2016 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper.
In other world news, the American hostages released by Iran Saturday finally reuniting with their families for the first time in months, even years for some of them, among them, former Marine Amir Hekmati, Pastor Saeed Abedini, and the former "Washington Post" reporter Jason Rezaian.
All three men are currently undergoing medical evaluations at a U.S. military base in Germany before they will be able to back here to the U.S. Two others, including student Matthew Trevithick, were also freed over the weekend, but the diplomatic breakthrough nearly hit a major snag at the 11th hour, leaving officials on both sides of the deal very much on edge.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): After a four-hour flight from Tehran to Geneva, these were the American prisoners' first moments of freedom and first family reunions, Jason Rezaian, "Washington Post" journalist, freed after a year-and-a-half jailed in Iran, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, freed after more than four years behind bars, including a death sentence, and American Pastor Saeed Abedini released after more than three years in jail.
But their release had to pass one final unexpected obstacle. Just before takeoff, Iranian authorities tried to block Jason's wife and mother from joining him on board.
I spoke today with Rezaian's brother Ali.
(on camera): The Iranians threw up a roadblock at that point. What happened?
ALI REZAIAN, BROTHER OF JASON REZAIAN: The Iranians, as they have done all along, continued to manipulate them, continued to try and mess with them and prevented Yegi from leaving some period of time, but thanks to the Swiss and thanks to the Americans, she came with them as well.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Rezaian, Abedini, and Hekmati are now undergoing physical and psychological medical checks in a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
Congressman Dan Kildee, who long advocated for Hekmati's release, joined the reunions.
REP. DAN KILDEE (D), MICHIGAN: I carry with me, I wear it almost all the time, this little button that says "Free Amir." I guess I can flip it around and just have it say Amir free.
SCIUTTO: The surprise announcement came on the same day as the U.S. and Iran announced the completion of the nuclear agreement, which crucially brought an end to all economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear activities.
Today, Secretary of State John Kerry denied that the hostages' freedom depended on that sanctions relief.
JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: That was not tied to implementation day. It happened to come together at that moment. I think everybody saw that that would be propitious, but it was not directly linked, believe me.
SCIUTTO: Events this weekend bring a fundamental change not just to relations between Iran and the U.S., but in Iran's relationship with the world. Iran now has access to, the U.S. Treasury estimates, $50 billion in frozen assets. It can sell its oil and gas freely on world markets.
And Western companies, including American firms, can now do business with Iran for the first time in years.
SCIUTTO: Now, unfortunately, one American was not freed this weekend. That's 67-year-old Robert Levinson. The former FBI agent went missing on Kish Island off the coast of Iran back in 2007, nine years ago.
His family claims Levinson was working as a CIA consultant when he disappeared. The U.S. has long claimed that Iran is holding him, a charge that Iran has repeatedly denied.
Secretary of State John Kerry tweeting on Sunday -- quote -- "Iran also agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson. We won't resist -- we won't rest," rather, "until the Levinson family is whole again."
Joining me now is Robert Levinson's wife, Christine, also his son, Daniel.
Daniel and Christine, I wish I was having an interview like I have had with other families welcoming this great news. I'm sorry that's not your news and thank you for taking the time with us today.
CHRISTINE LEVINSON, WIFE OF ROBERT LEVINSON: Thank you.
DANIEL LEVINSON, SON OF ROBERT LEVINSON: Thank you for having us.
SCIUTTO: I do want to ask you, I understand that you were not told about this. You weren't given warnings that the Americans, the other American prisoners were going to be released. I just want to ask you without certainly casting aspersions, but how difficult was it for you to see those families getting that news while you do not?
C. LEVINSON: Of course, we were very happy to see that those families had their loved ones back with them.
Unfortunately, we are not able to enjoy the same joy that they have. It's very difficult for our family, and especially difficult that we were not told before this happened. We actually had to learn it on our own watching TV.
SCIUTTO: Yes, that's just -- that's not the way to find that out.
Daniel, I know your family has expressed frustration with the process, with the support before. Do you believe today that the U.S. government is trying to do enough to get Robert home?
D. LEVINSON: It will never be enough until he is home because it's been almost nine years, as you mentioned. This has spanned two presidential administrations. And President Obama has had seven years to get him home. And he just promised yesterday that he was going to be doing everything he could. Secretary Kerry said the same thing.
And I worry that after things like this, after the nuclear deal last summer, after this, I don't understand what they're going to be doing. What is their plan going forward? We haven't heard from them since the initial call. And we'd like to speak with them and find out, what are they doing to get my dad home now? What are the next steps? Because we're just lost here.
And we're desperate. And we have just -- it's been going on for so long. And he doesn't deserve this. He was over there serving his country. And he needs to be prioritized to bring someone who has dedicated his life to serving his country and can't be left behind and abandoned.
SCIUTTO: Christine, I wonder if you worry that the U.S. has in effect lost its leverage now that the sanctions are lifted, that the deal is done, the nuclear deal is done.
C. LEVINSON: This has been going on so long that I don't know that the sanctions make a difference in Bob's case.
Unfortunately, I don't know what it's going to take to get Bob home. I believe that both sides need to come together and discuss Bob's case and resolve it. We believe that Bob is still in Iran.
When, in December 2007, Dan and I retraced his steps on Kish Island -- and it's a very small island and a short five-minute drive from the hotel he was into the airport -- and it's an airport that has one entrance and one exit and cameras that see everything. And we believe that they know what happened to Bob.
SCIUTTO: I want to ask you this, because even the way John Kerry tweeted about this, this weekend, "as we work to locate Robert Levinson with Iran," I mean, in effect leaving the question open as to whether the U.S. or Iran knows or believes that he's in Iran, I just wonder, has the U.S. shared with you, has anyone shared with you hard information about his location, but also about his status today, proof of life in the simplest terms.
D. LEVINSON: First of all, it's very obvious to us because the Iranian government -- a government state-sanctioned media outlet in April 2007 just a couple weeks after he went missing said he was in the hands of Iranian security forces.
So, anything -- any kind of comments about locating him and cooperation is nonsense to us, because the U.S. government believes, we all believe, I think it's very obvious that the Iranian government knows exactly where he is. And it takes more than just cooperation to find him, because we honestly don't know where exactly he is, but the Iranians certainly do.
And regarding his health, the U.S. officials we speak with have told us there is no evidence to suggest that he is not alive. So, any belief that he isn't alive at this point, this happened -- this was going on just a couple of years after he went missing that people were starting to say that. And then we got a video of him. And then we got pictures. So how is it any different now?
SCIUTTO: Christine, if I could ask you before I let you go, what is the one simple request you would make of President Obama, of the U.S. government today?
C. LEVINSON: Get Bob home. We miss him everyday. And if he can see this, I certainly hope that he knows that we will never stop searching for him, and we will bring him home safe and sound, and that he needs to stay strong.
SCIUTTO: Christine and Daniel, my heart, our hearts go out to you. We really do hope that you get that good news as soon as possible. Thanks so much for being here.
D. LEVINSON: Thank you for having us.
C. LEVINSON: Thank you.
SCIUTTO: In our next story, children drinking toxic water for years, now new investigations into what -- who knew what and when. Were politicians more interested in saving money than providing safe drinking water?
Plus, a virus so dangerous, women told not to get pregnant. Now at least one case has been found here in the U.S. That's next.
SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In our National Lead now, really an alarming story, growing anger over tainted lead poisoned water in Flint, Michigan. It may have been in people's water supply for more than a year.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not a natural disaster. This is not a mistake.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: Others are echoing Flint native, Michael Moore's message. Jesse Jackson calling the city a crime scene and also Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders expressing outrage during the debate calling for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to resign.
Right now there's a large group of people protesting in front of the governor's mansion -- his house rather in Michigan. That's where CNN correspondent, Sara Ganim is right now. So, Sara, these protesters, they are calling for his resignation?
SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're actually calling for his arrest, Jim. These people out here, about 150, 200 people have been out here in the past hour in the freezing cold. These people are angry. They're upset.
These are residents of Flint. They're upset with how this happened. How they feel like their health care had to take a backseat to cost cutting measures. How this took so long for officials to acknowledge that there was lead in their water, Jim.
They're upset that they believe that a 400 percent spike in legionnaires disease over the two years they had different water, Flint river water flowing through their taps, but ten people died. They're upset about that.
They're angry that they're still paying for this water that is flowing through their taps. Earlier today, we were at a resident's house, the water coming into her bathtub was blue and had specks of black in it, Jim.
That's what these people are angry about. They're angry it took nearly two years for FEMA and the National Guard to be called in. As you mentioned it's not just them that are angry.
This has become a national political issue with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders talking about it last night at the presidential debate.
Rick Snyder, the governor here in Michigan, has taken to Twitter to respond saying this, quote, "Political statements and finger pointing from political candidates, only distracts from solving the Flint water crisis."
He's also said that he's established a task force that will determine exactly what happened. So far one state official has been fired over this -- resigned over this.
But that's not enough for these people here. They want more accountability, as you hear, they believe this goes all the way to the top -- Jim.
SCIUTTO: Sara, this is the key question for me. Is there evidence -- and I think for many people watching this story, that officials knew the water was poisoned before they warned the residents of Flint, Michigan?
GANIM: So it's public documents begin to come into the public domain, we are learning that there is evidence that state officials knew as far back as February that certain Flint homes had very high levels of lead in their water and that as early as April the EPA was aware of some of that as well.
Now, the issue here is that the people were not told until August. And when they were told in August that was not even by the state or government officials. That was by a Virginia Tech researcher who stepped in.
And it wasn't until October that they took any steps to remedy. So now the question is for all of those months that they had the data, why weren't they acting -- Jim.
SCIUTTO: No question. I mean, alarming to watch this play out. Sara Ganim in Flint, in Ann Arbor.
[16:50:08]It is a dangerous virus that one country warning women now not to become pregnant because of the risks and now it's also here in the U.S. Health officials say that a baby born in Hawaii has been infected with the Zika virus, which can cause unborn infants of infected mothers to develop birth defects.
There is no vaccine and no medicine to treat it. Today the CDC issuing a travel warning for pregnant women. CNN's senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, explains the danger of this virus.
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Jim, this is believed to be a first, the first time that a baby has been born in the United States with microcephaly linked to the Zika virus.
Now microcephaly is a birth defect where the baby's head is too small, and that can be very, very serious. Zika virus is not spread person- to-person rather it's spread by mosquito bites.
Now, this mom while she was pregnant she was in Brazil and it's believed that that's where she contracted the virus. And most people who contract the virus, about four out of five people, they don't even know they've contracted it. They don't get sick.
Only about one in five get sick and even then it's very mild. It's a rash. It's a fever, but with babies the situation is different. With babies thousands have been born in Brazil with this birth defect and dozens have died. And that's why the CDC just on Friday issued a travel warning to women warning them -- warning pregnant women about traveling to parts of Central and South America, and to Mexico and Puerto Rico.
So far there have been no known cases of Zika virus contracted by a mosquito bite in the United States -- Jim.
SCIUTTO: Goodness, such a sad disease there. Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much.
In our Money Lead, sure gas prices have dropped, but 47 cents a gallon? It actually happened. We'll tell you where right after this.
SCIUTTO: What goes up must come down, only -- just, gosh, they were so close. A crash-landing for Spacex. The company's latest attempt to land a rocket at sea on a barge failing in dramatic fashion.
Company CEO Elon Musk posted this video yesterday on social media. He blamed the crash on one of the legs that didn't lock in as planned as the rocket came down.
This is the fourth failed attempt at sea, but Spacex did score its first touchdown on land. That was last month at Cape Canaveral. Not bad trying though, I got to say.
Gas prices have been dropping across the nation, but nothing like in one Michigan town last night where prices reached as low as 47 cents per gallon at the beacon and bridge market in Howton Lake, Michigan.
The line of cars were so long that police had to assist in directing traffic. CNN affiliates report that the rock bottom prices were the results of a local gas station war.
But don't hop into your car just yet. Prices have since returned to more normal $1.40. Not so bad though. If you were one of the lucky cars, you could have filled up your Hummer H2 for just $15.
Back now to our Politics Lead, he could become our next president, but across the pond more than half a million Brits want Donald Trump to never ever be allowed on her majesty's soil again.
Seems like a silly idea to debate but not to the overflow of British lawmakers who actually took the issue up very seriously today.
CNN international correspondent, Max Foster, is outside parliament. Max, you look at folks there, I mean, there were so many MPs, who wanted to speeches on the issue. The session's chair had to put a cap on how long they could speak?
MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they had just 6 minutes each, but most of them used that time as best they could to absolutely lay in to Donald Trump. In the room only one supporter that really expressed admiration for straight talking. Everyone else used the opportunity to criticize him. Just listen to a few of the comments, Jim.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VICTORIA ATKINS, BRITISH MP: His comments regarding Muslims are wrong. His policy to close borders if he is elected as president is bonkers. And if he met one of my constituents in one of the many excellent pubs in my constituency, then they may well tell him that he is a (inaudible).
TOM TOGENDHAT, BRITISH MP: Now, while I think this man is crazy, while I think this man has no valid points to make, I will not be the one to silence his voice.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOSTER: That's what's interesting here, Jim. While people did have these very strong views, actually most of them didn't believe in a ban. They felt that that would perhaps make him a martyr, give him a sign of victimhood, which would help in his U.S. electoral efforts.
So they don't think a ban necessarily a good idea, but they really voice their concerns about what he's been saying particularly about Muslims.
SCIUTTO: So quickly, legally, is there actually a chance that the U.K. can bar him from the country?
FOSTER: The only person that can do that is the home secretary. She hasn't ruled it out and the serious points of the debate today really did address the sort of things she would have to consider.
He could incite hatred within British society. She's banned people on those grounds before, hate preachers for example including from the United States.
But is there enough in what Donald Trump is saying to really justify a ban on legal grounds? Probably not. But it's a big topic of debate as you can see.
SCIUTTO: We'll keep watching it, Max Foster in London. Thanks very much.
That is it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto in again for Jake. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in his usual habitat, "THE SITUATION ROOM."