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Desperation in Syria; Interview With Former CIA Director Michael Hayden; Aleppo Ceasefire Back On After Collapsing; U.S. Officials: ISIS Ranks Reduced By 75 Percent; U.S. Special Ops Forces Surveilling ISIS In Raqqa; Dylan Roof Refuses To Testify In His Defense. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 14, 2016 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Turning to our world lead now. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is prepared to meet with president-elect Trump at any moment and that the two countries should normalize relations. This comes as CNN has learned the Obama administration delayed going public with information about Russia's interference in the U.S. election over fears of giving Donald Trump new ammunition in his claims that the whole system is rigged against him, as well as the threat of an escalating cyber-war with Moscow.

And joining me now is the former director of the CIA and NSA retired Four-Star General Michael Hayden.

General Hayden, thanks so much for being here.


TAPPER: Appreciate it.

So, take a listen to what White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had to say in response to Donald Trump claiming that the intelligence community doesn't know really who was behind the hacking. Take a listen.


JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There is ample evidence that was known long before the election and in most cases long before October about the Trump campaign and Russia, everything from the Republican nominee himself calling on Russia to hack his opponent.

It might be an indication that he was obviously aware and concluded, based on whatever facts or sources he was -- he had available to him, that Russia was involved.


TAPPER: There, you hear the White House seeming to suggest, hey, it's obvious that Donald Trump himself knew. He made that remark that Trump later said was a joke suggesting that the Russians should go ahead and hack Hillary Clinton.


Yes, look, I think the president-elect is the only prominent American about whom I am aware that has not yet conceded that the Russians conducted a massive covert influence campaign against the United States. I think that is accepted throughout the intelligence community. That is not contentious.

There are a few things on the margins about intentionality that are being debated, but the fact that the Russians did this has been the conclusion, not just of the American intelligence community, but of private sector companies that have looked at the DNC computer system.

TAPPER: And the question, I guess, is that there is a debate among the intelligence agencies as to what the reason was. Russians do this all over the world.

HAYDEN: Right.

TAPPER: Sometimes, it's just to sow doubt, so that the public doesn't trust any institution. So, sometimes, it's to sway an election one way or another. What do you think about what the motive was?

HAYDEN: So, my personal belief at the moment, based upon the evidence that I have been able to see in the open press, is I think the Russians were messing with our heads, all right?

I am not prepared to personally conclude that they were trying to pick a winner. And, Jake, I am not doing that on any evidence either. I am just thinking that the ability to predict how that information would affect the American political process -- you know, both campaigns used that event for their own talking points.


The ability to predict that is so difficult. I think they have been quite happy to just simply sow the kind of confusion that we have just seen. And, by the way, I called this a covert influence campaign. It has succeeded beyond all expectations.

Look at what we are doing now because of it. We have the president- elect of the United States publicly condemning the intelligence services on which he will have to rely as president. If I am running that covert action, I am putting it in the win column.

TAPPER: That is a stunning -- it is a stunning development, the fact that the intelligence agencies have reached this conclusion about the Russians, the enemy, in a way, and essentially the president-elect is siding with the enemy. Is that too harsh an assessment?


What I can say is that, on this particular event, what Mr. Trump says about it is the same thing that Mr. Putin says about it. And there is, frankly, no arguing that point.

TAPPER: Now, you wrote in "The Washington Post" about this relationship between the president-elect and the intelligence community.

One of the things you wrote about this problem: "Intelligence should be called on to create the basis and set the boundaries for rational policy choices. That's still true. The odds that it will happen, though, seem a little bleaker after this past week, and we are moving in the wrong direction."

What is your advice to intelligence officers, the kind of people that you used to lead when you were head of the CIA?

HAYDEN: So, we have got a big close-in problem, what the Russians just did.

But I also think, Jake, we have got a big longer-range problem. And that's the reality that the president-elect seems to have far more confidence in his intuition, in his a priori judgments and assumptions, and he doesn't allow them to be affected by the fact- based analysis that the American intelligence community, frankly, is designed to provide him.

So, although this is troubling enough, what really worries me is, will we be able to establish that kind of healthy relationship between the American intelligence community, frankly, Jake, that exists to inform the president, between that community and the incoming president?

So, what I would say is, my old guys, they have a heavy lift. It's their job to get into the head of the new president. Now, it's nice when the president makes that easier. But whether the president makes it easy or hard, the intel guys have to figure out, how do they get their data into the minds of that -- into the mind of that principal?

So, again, it's never a syllogism, Jake, whereas, whereas, therefore, Hayden. But you do have the responsibility to set the left- and the right-hand boundary of logical, realistic policy discussions.

TAPPER: Kellyanne Conway the other night said that they didn't like foreign governments trying to intrude in the political process, and they didn't like the intelligence agencies trying to intrude in the political process.

What's your response to that? And what is the personal response of your friends who are still in the agency?

HAYDEN: So, I will take that one first, all right? There is a great deal of disappointment and, frankly, disappointment trending towards anger to be so casually dismissed.

With regard to being political, Jake, let me put it to you this way. John Brennan, the current director out there, John loves CIA. John has been in CIA all of his adult life. There is no earthly reason John would shove the agency he loves out into this traffic lane, where they are now, unless he was compelled to do so by what they believe to be the facts.

And so this is not CIA being political or being politicized. I take it, once you put that information into the public domain in Washington's current atmosphere, one side or the other, depending on the issue, is going to pick it up and use it to hit the other side. But that doesn't mean the intelligence is politicized.

TAPPER: One of the things that the Russians have tried to do is convince the Europeans and others throughout the world that there is a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, that essentially it's just two superpowers fighting and there is really no difference, as if they have the same human rights record and stand for the same freedoms that the United States does, which is obviously not the case.

Are you at all afraid that this posture that the new president-elect has towards Russia could actually create that kind of impression within the United States of U.S. vs. Russia?

HAYDEN: Well, I mean, the president-elect -- and he is the president- elect, and his legitimacy is not in question.

TAPPER: No one has questioned it, right?

HAYDEN: All right?

He did create quite a dystopian view of America, the American economy, American borders, and American political processes.


Now, look, I know how campaigns are run. One expects, then, that successful candidates kind of trend back towards the center, tack back towards the center. We will see if this -- if this president does it.

But you created an interesting formula there, Jake. You talked about creating this equivalency between the Russian political process and the American.

You know, Jake, if you live inside the Russian information sphere, if you are there being bombarded each day by R.T., Russian television, in your native language, they do, they are attempting to build up that equivalency between themselves and the United States.

It's horribly false. But more and more people, I fear, are beginning to believe it.

TAPPER: All right, General Michael Hayden, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it.

HAYDEN: Thank you.

TAPPER: There were supposed to buses full of people escaping the horrors of war. Instead, we're being told there are buildings full of bodies in Aleppo. But now is there new hope?

Fred Pleitgen is live for us -- Fred.


Our sources are telling us the cease-fire for Aleppo is back on. But what does that mean for the people on the ground? We will have more after this.


TAPPER: Staying in our world lead, that's a look there at the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

This evening in the City of Light, the lights were turned off on the Eiffel Tower. It was a show of solidarity with the people of Aleppo in Syria, as that city appears to fall to Bashar al-Assad and his sources.

[16:45:10] A fragile ceasefire is now reportedly back on after collapsing and putting evacuations of innocent civilians in jeopardy. The deal aimed and now aims again to get families, women and children, away from the fighting and moved to the north and western country sides, but with new shelling just today, an estimated 50,000 people seem to still be trapped in the war zone. The new ceasefire, however, could help to get buses moving, currently sitting, waiting to rescue innocent civilians. In an emergency, U.N. Security Council session U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, blasted Assad and his benefactors rush in Iran for slaughtering civilians.


SAMANTHA POWER, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: Is there no active barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin that just creeps you out a little bit?


TAPPER: CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has more in this report after spending the last week in Syria.


PLEITGEN: On a day that was supposed to see calm and a ceasefire, instead, heavy fighting. Mortar and artillery fire and war planes dropping bombs. The civilians in the last rebel enclave in Aleppo once again fearing for their lives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A missile just fell on the roof of my building, and now, the people who were waiting the bus have to run for their life again.

PLEITGEN: This was supposed to be the day, the trapped and wounded citizens and the rebels were going to evacuate, with a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey. Buses were already lined up when it all fell apart, and once again, the blame-game started. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Assad's government is brazenly committing war

crimes and crimes against humanity in Aleppo. Everyone should see the truth, including those who support him.

PLEITGEN: Opposition activists spoke of many casualties on their side, blaming the regime. While the Syrian government said rebel shelling killed several in areas controlled by them as well. In an interview with Russian T.V., Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his forces would only accept a rebel surrender.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): There will be no pause, because this only happens in an area in which terrorists say that they're prepared to hand in their weapons or leave the area. Only then, military operations can stop.

PLEITGEN: And so, instead of an end to their nightmare, the tired, weak and traumatized in the rebel enclave live in fear once again. Anger not only at Russia and the Syrian government but at the west as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole world let us down and we couldn't stay in Aleppo City to help our people. Now, you can't help us, you can't help us anymore.

PLEITGEN: The U.N. has called for an immediate halt to the fighting in Aleppo that they have for years with little success. But with every hour that passes and every shell that's fired, the prospect for an end to the carnage in Aleppo fades a little more. And so now, Jake, it seems as though there is that glimmer of hope

once again. And the way all of this is supposed to work is that the ceasefire is supposed to be on right now. Although, we are still hearing reports of sporadic gunfire, but certainly a lot less than before. Then tomorrow morning, the first people are set to be evacuated. Wounded people first, sick people first, and then after that, the civilians and the fighters are supposed to get safe passage out of Aleppo. Of course, hoping that this time, it's going to be for real, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Fred Pleitgen, thank you so much. In both Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing ground and major manpower according to U.S. officials. Since 2014, they say, the American-led coalition has killed 75 percent of the terror group's fighting ranks which is believed to now stand at approximately 12,000 to 15,000 terrorists. The Pentagon says over the last few years, 50,000 ISIS militants have been taken off the battlefield, they had, but that is considered to be a conservative estimate.

Let's go right to see Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Barbara, we learned yesterday that the Pentagon said three ISIS leaders had been killed in a drone strike in Syria. How has the U.S. campaign affected the terrorist group's operational capability in Syria and Iraq?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the Obama administration thinks they've had real impact against ISIS. You'll remember Donald Trump said he wanted a new plan to fight the war from his generals. But he may come into office finding a very different war with some progress, some real progress having been made.


STARR: As President Obama prepares to hand off the fight against ISIS to the new commander in chief, Donald Trump, the White House says there is significant progress.

STEPHEN TOWNSEND, COMMANDER OF U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ AND SYRIA: The number of battle-ready fighters inside Iraq and Syria is now at its lowest point that it's ever been.

[16:50:00] STARR: The U.S. estimates there are now 12,000 to 15,000 ISIS personnel, a dramatic decline from the peak in September 2014, when ISIS had a mass close to 32,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS had always been able to replace its ranks, moving people across the Turkish border into Syria. But, no more.

TOWNSEND: ISIL now has no access to an international border, and this has significantly impacted the overall campaign, because they are now a very isolated entity.

STARR: Based on estimates from nearly 17,000 coalition strikes, the U.S. believes 50,000 ISIS fighters in total, have been killed over the last two years. Its ranks slashed by nearly 75%. The top coalition commander says that's only part of the story.

TOWNSEND: We have taken back over half of the land that Iraq, for example, lost to ISIL in 2014. So, I think that's a measure of the progress.

STARR: Now, the top priority, get ISIS out of its self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria.

TOWNSEND: We also know that they are plotting attacks on the west. And we know that central to external operations plotting is the City of Raqqa, and that's why we need to get down there and isolate that city as fast as we can.

STARR: U.S. Special Operations Forces watch Raqqa around the clock, from drones overhead. It's all led to key intelligence and a critical strike. One drone struck a vehicle with three ISIS leaders inside.

Operatives that had been involved, according to the U.S., in attacks against the west, two said to have facilitated the deadly attacks in Paris last year. But even with the death of many fighters, ISIS has not given up the fight. ISIS has retaken the area around Palmyra and captured Syrian regime weapons.

TOWNSEND: Some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly, some air-defense equipment.

STARR: The U.S. now watching closely to see, if in fact, those weapons, possibly including shoulder-fired missiles, will threaten U.S. troops. (END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, there are still plenty of challenges one of the enduring worries here, is that ISIS will still inspire people with its aetiology and that may - it may inspire more lone-wolf attacks. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us. Barbara, thank you.

The trial of a confessed racist and mass murderer takes another turn. While jury deliberations could begin, as soon as tomorrow. That story next.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. Our "NATIONAL LEAD" today, some major developments in that horrific mass murder trial. Racist killer Dylann Roof today, did not take the stand in his own defense that some court observers thought he might. So, less than an hour after the prosecution rested its case, the defense did the same. Tomorrow will come closing arguments to the jury, they will decide the fate of the killer who confessed to killing nine innocent people in a historically African-American South Carolina church.

Prosecutors described Roof as a cold-blooded killer obsessed with white supremacy. Chilling surveillance video shows Roof walk into the Emanuel AME church on June 17th of last year, he prayed with a bible study group then went on his rampage. CNN's Nick Valencia is covering this trial for us. Nick, the defense tried to call two mental health experts to the stand, but we didn't hear from them. Why not?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, over the course of the last week, defense has put up very little fight. And that's what we anticipated, we knew that the defense was not really going to cross- examine any witnesses and perhaps, not even call any witnesses of their own. But just before court ended today, Jake, the defense attorney for Dylann Roof attempted to bring two mental health experts, the judge denied that motion. We could only assume it's because during a competency hearing for Dylann Roof before the trial, he was found mentally fit to stand trial. The judge during the exchange also asked Roof if he had discussed testifying in his own defense with his legal team. Dylann Roof said yes, and he said that he was choosing not to testify.

TAPPER: Our team in the courtroom, Nick, heard emotional testimony from a woman named Polly Sheppard, she is a survivor of the shooting. Tell us what she had to say.

VALENCIA: Well, today's courtroom was very emotional, it started much like last week began from with the testimony of a survivor. This week, it was Polly Sheppard, Polly Sheppard was said to be the woman that Dylann Roof left alive to tell the world what he did that day. And she described in just horrific detail what she witnessed that night saying, "Just as the worshippers closed their eyes, that's when the shooting began." She says initially, she thought it was electrical sparks because Mother Emanuel is a very old church. It was only when she opened her eyes that she saw Dylann Roof standing over the bodies of her friends.

She hid under a table, she says, and then court played the 911 call. For his part, Dylann Roof, as he has been much of the trial sat emotionless, expressionless, showing no remorse as these horrific details were read out loud in courtroom.

He has not expressed any remorse, in fact, he's even double down, Jake, saying that he is pretty much proud of what he's done. The prosecution started the courtroom - I should say the court case, asking the jury and asking the courtroom. I bet you're wondering why we even have to go through this trial, it's because Dylann Roof has pled not guilty. He didn't want the death penalty in this case, he actually tried to make a deal with federal prosecutors saying, he would plead guilty if the death penalty was taken off the table. They refused that, so this case had to go forward. Tomorrow we expect closing arguments, and given the - given the confession by Dylann Roof, we expect this verdict from the jury to be relatively quick.

TAPPER: Just - and just to be precise, could mental health experts be called to the stand when the case moves to the penalty phase?

VALENCIA: Well, here's where things get pretty weird, Dylann Roof over the course of the last two weeks has said that he has wanted to represent himself during the penalty phase. The attorney he has now is a famed death penalty attorney, and he won't be able to use his legal mind if Dylann Roof plan to keep his current plans. He could call his own mental health experts. We don't know, to be honest, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Nick Valencia, thank you so much. The first book from CNN POLITICS, "UNPRECEDENTED: THE ELECTION THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING" is available in stores now.

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