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FBI Infiltrates Bible Study Group that Wanted to Build and Test Bombs, Surveil Capitol, Secede from U.S.; Haitian President Assassinated During Attack at Home; Biden Meeting with Key Administration Leaders on Deterring Ransomware Attacks. Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired July 7, 2021 - 10:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A very good Wednesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

This morning, we are keeping a close eye on Tropical Storm Elsa as it bears down on the Florida gulf coast. The storm is weakening slightly but still capable of causing a lot of damage. The system expected to make landfall over the next couple of hours. Millions of people face the prospect of storm surge, potential isolated tornadoes as well as heavy winds and rains.

This morning, the Coast Guard is searching for nine people still missing off the coast of Key West. 15 others were rescued.

CNN's Randi Kaye is in Clearwater Beach this morning. Randi, tell us what it looks like there and what's expected to come.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, first, I have a little information on those nine people that they're trying to rescue. I just got off the phone actually with the Coast Guard and they say that they're 23 miles off the coast of Key West. This all happened late yesterday afternoon. And they are right now doing what they call survivor debriefing, so the people that they've rescued that you mentioned, those 15 people, they're talking about to them who else they were with, where they are from, the ages, what they look like, et cetera, to try and find those people.

But it certainly was a situation there, and it's been a rough situation here. We had very heavy winds overnight, 50 to 70 miles per hour, the storm hitting us here in Clearwater Beach. This is Clearwater Harbor. About 2:00 A.M. was the worst of it. You can see the water is still pretty choppy but not too bad. We had tornado warnings, we had rain of about four to six inches hitting here and some storm surge as well is what they were concerned about because the storm was hitting about the same time the high tide was hitting.

But I can tell you the National Guard, they were ready, they were on standby. They had their high water vehicles, helicopters, they were ready to do search and rescue. But, luckily, Jim, this situation here, nothing like what they're facing in the keys with the search for those people. Back to you.

SCIUTTO: Our best, we hope they find them and quickly. Randi Kaye, thanks very much.

Well, a secretive extremist group disguised as a bible study group is now accused by federal investigators of surveilling the U.S. Capitol after January 6th. Court documents show the man at the center of this new FBI investigation expressed interest in exploiting civil unrest in the U.S., starting another civil war, while he prepared to make and test homemade bombs, this in the weeks after the violent Capitol insurrection. That's a picture of him during that insurrection.

CNN's Whitney Wild joins me now from Washington. So, Whitney, tell us what we know about this group, how big and what its plans were.

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, they were loosely discussing these plans for secession. So what the FBI did was infiltrated this group following January 6th. And what they found out what that this group was having active discussions about surveilling the Capitol, looking for weaknesses.

In fact, one person in this discussion had said to do it at a certain time when there would be fewer officers out there to try to exploit the weaknesses and find out where they were. This shows that there was still this inclination toward extremism after January 6th that something federal officials have been worried about.

So here are some of the details. An agent attended what group members called a, quote, bible study meeting in Alexandria, in which they discussed among other things, secession, weaponry, combat training. What they found was that this man, Fi Duong, had this stash of weapons that would include an AK-47. It included these homemade bombs.

At one group meeting, an undercover agent saw five boxes filled with about five glass bottles and an agent heard Duong and another person discussed what they could fill them with to make explosives. Duong and an undercover agent met another undercover agent in June to discuss testing these homemade bombs.

Jim, this investigation lasted from February to June. We're just now hearing about it in July. And what it shows is that there are people out there as the FBI and other federal officials have warned about, that are inspired by January 6th, that still hope, if maybe they don't execute, but hope to plan acts of violence, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. Some see January 6th as some sort of victory. Whitney Wild, thanks very much.

Joining me to discuss, CNN Senior Analyst Elie Honig, he's a former state and federal prosecutor. He's also the author of a new book, Hatchet Man, How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor's Code. And I do want to get to that, Elie.

Before we do, talk to me about this plot here. Because, listen, the FBI has said very publicly and repeatedly that domestic terror groups, like this appears to be, are the greatest terror threat to this country right now, even more so than international terror groups. What does a group like this and a prosecution like this reveal to us?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Jim, it tells us that January 6th is not over, that the same motivations and some of the same people who were behind January 6th are determined to strike again.

And if you look at the complaint here, the details are really chilling. The individual they have now charged was plotting.


He was plotting to do surveillance of the Capitol. As Whitney said, he had firearms, he had explosives. And the thing in a case like this that I keep coming back to is, thank goodness, it was an FBI undercover who infiltrated this group. Because if that FBI agent was actually who the defendant thought he was, if he was actually a bad guy, they may well have tried to attack the Capitol again with firearms, with explosives. So, it's more proof that this is very much an ongoing threat.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Amazing that Congress is still debating a lot of changes to protect the Capitol recommended in the wake of that.

I wonder, we now have more than 500 charges filed against 500 people involved in January 6th. How much have these prosecutions, these investigations, helped federal law enforcement get a handle on these groups given them a vision inside?

HONIG: Well, I think it's a mixed bag, Jim. Over 500 prosecutions is a good thing. And we can see in this case that some of the intelligence that law enforcement has been able to gather based on those cases is useful in detecting and snuffing out future threats.

On the other hand, I think the Justice Department still has work to do. I think some of the more serious charges, up to and including sedition, that do apply to this conduct. I mean, sedition can be as simple as forcefully take over a governmental building. We saw that happen.

DOJ has not brought sedition charges yet. And I think they ought to because I think there needs to be a message sent here by prosecutors that this kind of conduct is not small potatoes, it's something we're going to punish severely.

SCIUTTO: Another topic, we're learning that an associate of Matt Gaetz in Florida, Joel Greenberg, he's asked to delay sentencing, according to his lawyers, in order to allow further cooperation with investigators. We already knew that he was cooperating. What does that tell you about the overall progress of this investigation? And what does it mean for Matt Gaetz and his potential liability here?

HONIG: It tells me prosecutors are satisfied with Joel Greenberg's cooperation as it's gone so far. This is a standard move any time you have a cooperator. You want to push off his sentencing as late as possible, really until after all the other cases have been made, after any trials have been held, because you need to hold that over the cooperator's head. If you get him sentenced now, he's not going to have incentive to continue to cooperate.

And so I used to do this all the time when a cooperator was productive, was giving the information that I believed would lead to new charges and new arrests. There were times when I pushed off cooperator sentences for years even. So this tells me that things are on track, that prosecutors are satisfied with what they're seeing from Joel Greenberg.

SCIUTTO: Understood, okay. Topic, big topic, you've just written a new book. It's on the legacy of former Attorney General Bill Barr. I'm going to quote from the book here briefly. You write that Barr brought to the attorney general's job a dangerously distorted conception of his own power to impose that social order on what he saw as the needy, dim-witted masses.

Explain that point of view of his exactly as you see it and what effect it had on the DOJ's work.

HONIG: Yes, Jim. So, going into writing this book, I knew and I think it was clear to a lot of people that Bill Barr had been dishonest, had lied to the American public and that Bill Barr absolutely played politics with the Justice Department. We saw him do that again and again to protect Donald Trump and Trump's allies.

What struck me as I researched this book is that Bill Barr has, for decades, been a real culture warrior. He wrote and we found things that he wrote and said back in the 1990s about the need to impose, and I quote, God's law on our society, on our governmental institutions. And when he took office as attorney general, he really went about in this sort of extreme way striking back against what he called secularism, meaning non-religious government. And he said back in the '90s, it's my mission to restore God's law, to restore religiosity to this country.

Now, look, it's totally fine to be a religious person and a religious believer, but to take that into a battlefield, as Bill Barr called it, and to use that as attorney general, I think, is really extreme and really alarming and something that really wasn't properly understood about Bill Barr and his motivations heading into the job.

SCIUTTO: Separation of church and state, right? Seems like an abject violation of that principle as well. Elie Honig, so much to mine there. Your new book, for folks watching, Hatchet Man, How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor's Code. Thanks so much to Elie.

HONIG: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Breaking news also this morning, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moise, has been assassinated. Armed individuals entering his home overnight, they killed the Haitian president, they shot and wounded his wife. She's being treated, the latest information we have.

CNN's Melissa Bell joins me now. What are we learning about this and any idea who is responsible?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, for time being, we've had a little more information this afternoon, Jim, as a result of a statement that's come out from the Haitian embassy just across the board in the Dominican Republican describing the people who burst into the home, the private residence of the president, killing him overnight as mercenaries.


That is the only extra piece of information we have regarding who might have been involved.

What has happened in the last few minutes is the acting prime minister who, according to that statement by the Haitian embassy again across the board in the Dominican Republic will now be taking over. There had been some lack of clarity as to whether this acting prime minister, who is, in fact, on his way out, a new prime minister was to come in in just a few days, whether he would be taking control. That has been confirmed as being the case.

And he has announced that he's placing the country under a stage of siege, Jim. Now, that is in French law that's above a state of emergency and below a state of war and essentially confers -- puts more power into the hands of the military, certainly security on the streets no longer in the hands of police but rather the army.

And I think what we've seen overnight, both the assassination of the president in his own bed and now the state of siege being announced, really a measure of this growing insecurity we've seen in Haiti in the last few months, the result, Jim, of a worsening political, economic and social crisis with gangs vying for power in large parts of the capital, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Goodness, just alarming events. Melissa Bell, thanks very much.

Still to come this hour, President Biden is huddling with intelligence leaders this morning as we learn of yet another cyberattack likely, U.S. officials believe, by a Russia-based group that may have affected some 1,500 businesses. What is the Biden administration planning to do to attempt to stop these attacks? We'll have more.

Plus, the tale of two cities, as New York prepares to host a parade celebrating the decline in COVID cases in New York, a hospital in Springfield, Missouri, is struggling to handle the surge in new infections. We take a look at that enormous discrepancy just ahead.

And stunning claims in a new book. Did former President Trump praise Adolf Hitler? The former president denies the accusations. We'll have the details ahead.



SCIUTTO: President Biden is meeting this morning with key leaders in his administration as well as members of the intelligence community on how to fight a growing number of ransomware attacks linked to groups based in Russia. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told CNN this morning that the administration has told Russian officials the U.S. stands ready to, quote, take action if Russia does not do something about hackers based in its own borders.

It comes after two recent attacks possibly linked to Russian hackers. The New York Times is reporting a breach of an I.T. provider of the Republican National Committee, though it's not known specifically if the RNC was targeted. And the RNC says no data was compromised.

There was also last Friday's ransomware attack that hit the software company, Kaseya, that has impacted up to 1,500 businesses in the U.S. and around the world.

Joining me now to discuss, Theresa Payton, she's a cybersecurity expert, former White House Chief Information Officer under George W. Bush. Good to have you on Theresa.

I wonder, this is after the Biden/Putin summit, where Biden very publicly said that he warned Putin, don't attack again. If you do, we've got capabilities. He sort of winked and nodded as he said that. As you see these ransomware attacks, is this Putin, in your view, testing Biden to some degree?

THERESA PAYTON, CYBERSECURITY EXPERT: This could very much be a test. And Putin always categorically denies that he has direct involvement. That's that plausible deniability factor that he leverages so well. But this could potentially be a test to say, I have things that I want, my needs are not being met, and I want a seat at the world stage, at the world table. And so it will be interesting to see how the administration responds and how our allies also respond too.

This is a global incident. This didn't just hit American companies.

SCIUTTO: In Geneva, Biden said that he told the Russian leader the U.S. will, in Biden's own words, respond with cyber if Russia attacks again. And in his news conference -- I was there -- he said that we have these capabilities, sort of referencing that the U.S. has its own ability to carry out cyberattacks. Is that a threat or a promise, as it were? And what kind of retaliatory attack could the U.S. take?

PAYTON: Well, in some regards, President Biden may have been giving him a subtle reminder of some of the Department of Defense activities and former law enforcement and FBI activities where we've taken infrastructure offline, where we've reached out to operators by name and let them know, we know who you are, step away from the keyboard. And so I see it as sort of a direct reminder to him, we can and we will take offensive and defensive measures.

Obviously, he's going to be meeting with advisers to find out what are the best next course of actions to take because we certainly don't want to get into some type of an escalating digital exercise between us and Russia. That is not productive. What we need to do is really get Russia to the table and find a collaborative way to stop these cybercrime attacks from happening against Americans and individuals.

SCIUTTO: Typically, with things like this, in part due to concerns about escalation, you have sort of a menu of options, some from the more serious end of the spectrum to the less serious end of the spectrum. Give us an example of the kind of thing, cyberattack that the U.S. would be capable of doing, and would we know about it, right, if it happened necessarily?


PAYTON: We may not know about it because Putin and Russia may not want to admit that we found a weak spot and took advantage of it. But it could range from everything such as taking the infrastructure for this particular ransomware syndicate offline, potentially going after their cryptocurrency stores. It could also be sending a warning in very subtle and not so subtle ways that we may not actually know about.

SCIUTTO: Beyond specific cyber options, there are other sanctions, et cetera, that this administration, previous administrations have used considered and through multiple administrations of both parties hadn't worked. I mean, China and Russia have kept up these kinds of attacks on a grand scale. Should economic sanctions of a greater degree be under consideration, something that would really hurt Russia's economy?

PAYTON: Yes. Economic sanctions in coordination with our allies -- Putin is able to sell energy to the European Union, so it really needs to be a collaborative effort because otherwise we're just sort of pushing on a water balloon and the water just moves in a different direction, so coming up with sort of an approach on the global stage to address these issues specifically with Russia.

And with Russia, China, North Korea and Iran being stronger players as far as nation state cyber operatives, what they've all realized is they really can't match the military and intelligence might of the United States. And so they've gone to sort of the digital warfare element of things. I hesitate to call it warfare, because it's a combination of espionage and flat-out cybercrime. But if they don't respond to our requests to stop attacking civilian infrastructure, then things could escalate.

But it would be great to use some of the more kinetic options such as sanctions, such as trust but verify and sort of having these ongoing dialogues, not just unilaterally as the United States but with our allies as well.

SCIUTTO: Theresa Payton, thanks for breaking it down for us.

PAYTON: Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: Well, for the first time, CNN has been granted access to the wreckage, all that debris of the Surfside condo collapse. The haunting, ground-level look is next.


[10:25:00] SCIUTTO: This morning, search crews are back at work as we near two weeks when Champlain Towers South collapsed to the ground in a cloud of dust in Surfside, Florida. So far, 36 deaths have been confirmed but 109 people remain missing or unaccounted for.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is in Surfside this morning. Leyla, I understand you just spoke to the mayor of Surfside. What did he say?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, he told us that the families have been asking if they can revisit the site. He mentioned that yesterday during the press conference. We have now learned that officials are currently working out those logistics to allow family members to revisit the rubble where loved ones could be, something that they have expressed interest as they try to cope with everything that is happening.

We were closer to the site earlier, and I can tell you that you can really feel the pain and the agony that comes with not knowing exactly where their loved ones are, as search and rescue teams continue to dig through, hoping to provide a new sense of hope or closure for those families.


SANTIAGO (voice over): A race against the clock as crews try to dig through the rubble of the Surfside building collapse as Elsa nears Florida. The turbulent weather delaying the efforts Tuesday.

MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA (D-MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FL): They were forced to pause for a little bit, about two hours, earlier this afternoon because of the lightning, which is mandatory, to not work during lightning, and also some gusts of winds that did go above 30 miles per hour.

SANTIAGO: New search video released courtesy of the Florida Task Force Two search and rescue team is providing an up-close look of the pool deck and the building as well as a closer look of the debris left by the building. Rescue workers seen here trying to break through the rubble with power tools and heavy excavation equipment.

This is as close as we've been able to get and just being here so up close, you see the twists metal, the piles so high of concrete. You can't even see the ocean and it's on the other side. But, of course, it's what's underneath that has torn apart this community.

Workers painstakingly dig through the debris by hand or with shovels searching for any of the unaccounted for residents. Canine units also assisting the search, seen on top of the huge mound of rubble.

CHIEF ALAN COMINSKY, MIAMI-DADE COUNTY FIRE: Unfortunately we're not seeing anything positive that continues in that sense. The key things we're looking for all throughout, in regards to void space, livable space, we're not coming across that. So we're actively searching as aggressive as we can.

SANTIAGO: As Elsa approaches the state's west coast, the investigation is ramping up.


On Tuesday, more federal partners arrived on site to investigate the building collapse as task force members search through the debris.