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U.S. Denies Russia's Accusation of Bombing Aleppo; Intel Officials Say ISIS Planning Attack In U.S. In 2016; Kim Jong-Un Executes High-Ranking Army Official. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 11, 2016 - 16:30   ET


[16:30:00] BEN LABOLT, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY, OBAMA 2012 CAMPAIGN: But as we get to these bigger states and big primary votes with diverse populations, I think that will favor the Clinton campaign and favor it pretty quickly.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: S.E., I want to play a little bit more of the Ted Cruz ad that is playing in South Carolina against Marco Rubio. We saw a little glimpse of it in Sunlen's piece, but let's watch a little bit more of it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I voted for a guy who was a Tea Party hero on the campaign trail. Then he went to D.C. and played patty-cake with Chuck Schumer and cut a deal on amnesty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does that make you angry?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Angry? It makes me feel dumb for trusting him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe you should vote for more than just a pretty face next time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you guys have room for one more?


TAPPER: That's a pretty negative ad.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's a negative, just a pretty face. That's a pretty -- that's a pretty negative ad. Yes.

Look, Ted Cruz -- the fight was always supposed to be between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. And again Trump and 18 other candidates threw a wrench into that. So, now, I think those two in particular are finally starting to train their eyes back on each other and try to draw out those more substantive differences between their policies or their faces.

TAPPER: You know, Donald Trump had an ad attacking Ted Cruz. It was vicious. He pulled it. What do you think is going on there?

CUPP: Yes. Remember when Sears in the '90s unveiled that new campaign, come see the softer side of Sears? TAPPER: I do not. But I'm not a big Sears --

CUPP: You're too young to remember. But, no, it's a little too late to come see the softer side of Donald Trump. I know that Corey Lewandowski, his campaign guy, thought that the softer side of Donald Trump after New Hampshire was a real winner.

And that's true. I like the softer side of Donald Trump. But I think it's pretty baked in that Donald Trump is a rough guy. So I think it's a little late to start pulling negative ads in hopes South Carolina voters see Donald Trump as a -- you know, a softy.

TAPPER: Ben, yesterday, Jay Carney, former White House press secretary, said that he thinks it's pretty clear that President Obama supports Hillary Clinton. You worked at the White House. Is that fair?

LABOLT: Look, I don't think the president is going to make an endorsement.

TAPPER: That's not what I'm asking, though.

LABOLT: I think that the governing style of Secretary Clinton and her vision is more similar to President Obama's. President Obama is a pragmatist. He's a progressive but he's a pragmatist, who always believed in reaching across the aisle to get things done.

TAPPER: And your buddy, Bill Burton, says he thinks it's a mistake Bernie Sanders is so directly running against the Obama presidency.

LABOLT: Well, today, Bernie Sanders said that he closed the leadership gap between the president and the American people. I think a lot of Democrats were offended and surprised by that statement. We thought there was a lot of leadership demonstrated when he pulled us back from the brink of another depression, for example.

TAPPER: All right. So, you agree it might be a mistake for Bernie Sanders to run against the Obama record to a degree?

LABOLT: Well, look, President Obama's numbers among Democrats are about 90 percent. And part of his critique here, you know, bring the revolution, that's a revolution after eight years of a Democrat in office. So, in some ways, it's a bizarre message to have during a primary with a popular president.

TAPPER: S.E., just quickly if you could, Ted Cruz is out there saying Iowa has weighed in, New Hampshire has weighed in, now it's a two-man race. You know, I kind of see his point. Do you disagree?

CUPP: Well, in that Iowa picked one person and New Hampshire picked another person.

TAPPER: Just that it's kind of hard to see any of the other guys getting in there.

CUPP: Well, I don't know. I mean if you think there's no room for an establishment candidate, then that wouldn't explain why John Kasich did so well in New Hampshire. I think, you know --

TAPPER: Trump still did twice as well as he did.

CUPP: Sure, but it's still just -- it's not a majority yet.


CUPP: He hasn't been able to really solidify a majority of support. So while the other Republican voters, 70 percent of whom are still shopping for a candidate, you know, there's still quite a few choices. And I think it's a little bit of sensory overload.

Once the field starts to winnow, I think you're going to see someone like Kasich, someone like Jeb, or someone like Kasich emerge to take on a Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

TAPPER: That's what you're hoping for anyway?

CUPP: That's what I think will happen.

TAPPER: All right. S.E. Cupp, Ben LaBolt, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

A once bustling city turned into a ghost town as Syrian snipers look for rebel forces to take out. Our Frederik Pleitgen is on the frontlines. He's live from inside Syria, next.


[16:38:47] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Topping our world lead today: more destruction, more deaths in Syria, and today, one U.N. official describing the condition in the war-torn country as grotesque. The latest report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research detailing how in the past five years, more than 11 percent of Syria's population has been killed or wounded.

And the death toll is rising. With more gun battles, more air strikes, more bombings every hour of every day. Adding more to the conflict, Russia is now accusing the United States of bombing civilian areas in the most populous city in Syria, Aleppo.

Let's now bring in CNN senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen in Damascus, Syria.

Fred, just a few hours ago, you were actually in Aleppo where this alleged bombing happened. What did Syrian officials have to say?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, Jake, they didn't say anything about any American warplanes that allegedly might have been in the air there. I was in two places in Aleppo. I was on the front line right in the city center and then later on, I was actually in the north of Aleppo, which is actually the main place where the Syrian armed forces are currently conducting that offensive.

Of course, what they're trying to do is trying to encircle the rebel- held areas of Aleppo, and work their way up to the Turkish border.

[16:40:03] And while we were in both of those areas, there were actually warplanes in the air at all times or almost all the times that we were there. You could also every once in a while hear thuds from what appeared to be bombs being dropped but there was no one on the ground that would have said that they spotted an American plane or they believed there would have been American planes conducting bombings inside Aleppo, Jake.

TAPPER: Interesting. While you were in Aleppo, you also gained exclusive access to the Syrian government front lines as the pro-Assad Syrian army backed by Russia is trying to amp up its attacks to crush the forces, the rebel forces.

What did you see? What were some of the most horrific things that you witnessed there?

PLEITGEN: Well, it was -- it was all horrific. And I have to say that the front line in Aleppo inside of the city goes right through the old town, which is one of the most historic places in the world really. A lot of that has been reduced to rubble.

But what we also saw is a very confident Syrian army. They also made no secret of the fact that the reason why they're so confident is because they now have that support from Russia.

Let's have a look.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Years of urban combat have laid waste to Aleppo's old town. Syrian army snipers scan the terrain for possible movement on the other side.

(on camera): We're right on the front line in the Syrian government's offensive against the opposition and the soldiers tell us they frequently see rebels on the other side but they also say they often pick them off from the sniper's nest.

(voice-over): This soldier tells me morale has never been higher. Thanks to God, everything here is under control, he says. Our fingers are on the triggers ready to destroy the rebels.

Bashar al Assad's forces have made major gains in the Aleppo area in recent weeks, while the opposition rebels say they're simply being slaughtered. But for years, this battlefield was in a stalemate, the front line right around Aleppo's ancient citadel.

As Syrian and Russian warplanes hover overhead, the commander knows who to think for the newfound momentum.

"It's only a matter of months now until we win," he says, "Thanks to the Russian support with their airstrikes flown from the Syrian airfield, we will defeat the rebels once and for all."

Aleppo was Syria's largest and one of its most historic towns. Tourists from all over the world used to flock to the old town before it was engulfed by Syria's brutal civil war.

(on camera): The old town of Aleppo is a UNESCO world heritage site. Some of these buildings are hundreds if not thousands of years old. And now, as you can see, most have been completely destroyed and burned out.

(voice-over): But now, Assad's troops believe they are on the verge of a decisive victory. The commander warns the U.S. not to interfere.

"We are steadfast," he says. "You cannot defeat the Syrian army because we are determined to win and we're loyal to President Assad."

Amid this divided and destroyed city, Syrian government forces believe they're dealing a crushing blow to the opposition. One that could end this five-year civil war that's destroyed so much more than just the landscape.


PLEITGEN: And, Jake, there were a couple of other things that really stood out as well. One was the really horrible state that many of the people were in there in Aleppo -- not only the ones in the rebel-held areas but also the ones in government-held areas. Really psychologically this war that has been going on five years, Aleppo was on the front line, one of the places where the most horrific battles took place. It's really taking a toll on the people there.

And the other thing that stood out to us as well, this is a Syrian government offensive. There's a lot of Syrian army troops but there's also a lot of influence by Hezbollah. There's a lot of pictures of the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, that you see in many places.

And Iran as well. Many people tell us that they are very grateful to the help that they have received -- the pro-government people that they have received from Iran. Also a lot of Iranian flags hanging near the front line as well, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Frederik Pleitgen, excellent reporting. Please stay safe, my friend.

ISIS determined to strike inside the U.S. intelligence officials saying it will likely happen this year, at least an attempt to attack in the U.S. So, what's being done to stop any attack before it might happen?

Plus, more erratic behavior from Kim Jong-un, this time executing a top advisor. Why are so many people vanishing around him, and what is the North Korean leader trying to prove? That's ahead.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. The National Lead now. Whomever is elected the next president of the United States will inherit the terrorist threat that will not be vanquished before inauguration day next January. One of the most compelling of those terrorist threats we are told is the determination by ISIS to attack in the U.S. within the next year.

Today, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security said that ISIS is the most prominent terrorist group on the world stage and with six new terror-related arrests in the U.S. already just this year, it could be a matter of time before another successful plot against the homeland.

Joining me now from Capitol Hill, Congressman Mike McCaul. He's chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, a Republican from Texas, and out with a new book called "Failures of Imagination, The Deadliest Threats To Our Homeland and How To Thwart Them." Congressman, thanks for being here.

REP. MIKE MCCAUL, R-TEXAS: Thanks, Jake. Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: So the director of National Intelligence is saying that ISIS is determined to attack the United States in 2016. Last year, of course, we saw terrorist attacks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, San Bernardino, California. You get daily intelligence briefings. What type of attacks are officials most worried about?

MCCAUL: I think an active shooter type attack like what we saw in Paris. I think an attack on military installations, police officers. They send a lot of internet traffic into the United States really with two messages.

One, come to Syria and join the fight or, if you can't do that, then attack and kill where you are. That's the one that impacts the homeland. In addition to the foreign fighters who travel to the region and have come back to the United States.

[16:50:06]TAPPER: Is there anything new that officials are doing to combat this threat?

MCCAUL: Well, what we're trying to do is get the administration not only to come up with a military strategy, obviously to deal with ISIS where it exists at its root cause, but also to deal with this phenomenon over social media and on the internet, and what can be a counter narrative to that message.

And what we've seen actually from companies like Google and recently have come out with ads that pop up if you type in jihadist websites, which is a positive thing.

Twitter has now shut down about 125,000 Twitter accounts because that's what the ISIS cyber commanders use to radicalize from within the United States.

TAPPER: In your book you describe a number of potential terrorist scenarios, ones that really concern you. In one case you explore what if terrorists hacked the U.S. power grid. Do you ever get concerned that a book like this might give terrorists more ideas or is this just -- you're just going where the terrorists are already talking? MCCAUL: Well, we did a fictional scenario in each chapter to get the interest of the reader. In each chapter we say could this really happen and that's an important educational piece for the American public that they have actively either tried to do this or are actively plotting it.

So they have already thought of all these. It's an open source document, obviously. And what I'm trying to do is educate not only the American people but policy makers as to what the true nature of the threat is. And then also importantly what can we do to stop it.

TAPPER: President Obama unveiled his 2017 budget proposal. You're very critical on the spending or lack of spending you say on national security. What's an area that could use a boost in funding?

MCCAUL: Well, I think obviously FBI and Homeland, defending the homeland. We stopped a lot of bad things, 82 ISIS-related arrests, more than one per week.

But I think countering violent extremism issue is not being addressed as a priority within the administration. Something I've been trying to work with the secretary, Jeh Johnson, to strengthen our ability to counter their ability to use the internet and really prey on young military-aged males in the United States.

We can do a far better job than we're doing. We don't have a counter narrative right now and I think we ought to be focused on that.

TAPPER: All right, the book "Failures of Imagination," Congressman Mike McCaul, thanks so much.

MCCAUL: Jake, thanks for having me.

TAPPER: A high-level military leader executed as North Korea suggests the region is on the brink of war. What is Kim Jong-Un preparing? That story next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Just days after alarming the U.S. and its allies with the launch of a long-range rocket, one that could be used to carry a nuclear device, the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un, is yet again demonstrating his capacity for brutal and erratic behavior continuing his assault on his own people.

Kim Jong-Un reportedly executed yet another high-level advisor, a former confidant of his father's.


TAPPER: Just days after that so-called satellite launch, today the north is now saying that the Korean Peninsula is on the brink of war. The U.S. and South Korea militaries are on high alert in the region. Let's bring in CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, does this latest execution of a high-ranking official signal political instability within North Korea or the opposite?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's actually two different schools of thought on this. The conventional wisdom is that this is a sign of weakness, that Kim Jong-Un can't trust his own military, he's eliminating potential rivals.

But there's another school of thought that this is a sign of strength in effect, that he's gaining control over the military, establishing his supreme authority and really it's the part of what can only be described as an internal reign of terror.

Some 80 mid and senior level officials killed since Kim Jong-Un took power. This latest victim, the suspicion is he was leading too lavish a lifestyle and was killed for corruption.

We learned a little more than a year ago when one was killed, he was Kim Jong-Un's uncle and that established the fact that really no one is safe in terms of this what can only be described as a reign of terror, Kim Jong-Un establishing his authority in the country.

So whether it's a sign of weakness or a sign of strength, no one feels safe in that North Korean leadership.

TAPPER: Jim, North Korea is now warning that the peninsula is on the brink of war. Obviously there is often a lot of bluster from the north, but how serious is the Pentagon taking that threat?

SCIUTTO: They're taking it seriously all the time, and particularly in these periods that follow nuclear tests, as we saw a month ago, or missile tests as we saw just a few days ago, because you have the tit for tat response.

That comment from North Korea about the peninsula being on the brink of war followed a South Korean step to shut down a joint industrial complex. There were sanctions, et cetera. Of course the interest is to keep those from escalating to a military conflict.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much. A reminder that you can see Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tonight in the PBS News Hour Democratic presidential debate here on CNN as well as PBS stations at 9:00 Eastern.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Turning to you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, debate night --