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'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Read the transcript to the Wednesday show

Date: December 17, 2014

Guest: David Sanger, Alan Gomez

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: From the Peruvian Amazon, that was
awesome. Well done, Ari. Thanks, man.


MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.

If you`re a civil servant, if you have a white collar job working for
the federal government, this is what you get paid. It`s a little chart
they update every January. It shows you what you get paid. It`s the civil
service pay scale.

And it shows, like in this matrix form basically, how your pay goes
up as you move from lower ranking jobs to higher ranking jobs and as you
gain more and more experience within each rank. So the lowest rank, the
lowest grade for a civil service employee is a grade 1. They call it GS-1.
GS stands for general schedule, I think, because this is such a basic part
of what it means to work for the government. This is a general schedule.

Anyway, a GS-1 is the lowest rank on the totem pole, right? A GS-1
at the very start of their career with no experience as of this year, your
pay scale is just under $18,000 a year. That`s kind of the bottom of the

Then the ranking of the civil service jobs goes all the way up from
GS-1 to GS-2 to GS-3, all the way up to the top jobs, the very bottom level
of the chart there, GS-14 and GS-15. And then depending on your level of
experience, once you are at that high-ranking level as a government
employee at the very top end with a civil service pay scale if you`re in
GS-14 or GS-15 with a lot of experience, you can make over $100,000 a year
working in government job.

Being at the very top end of this scale, being a GS-14 or GS-15 is
kind of a big deal if you work for the federal government.

Anna Montes was a GS-14. She`s a big deal. She`s at the very top
end of the scale. She had top secret security clearance. She worked at
the Defense Intelligence Agency.

She was also a spy for another country. And she was a good spy. She
was first recruited to spy on the United States for Cuba in 1984. At that
point, she`d only had very low ranking U.S. government job.

But once she was signed on as a Cuban spy, she not only got hired at
this incredibly sensitive agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, but she
also rose through the ranks. She briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She
briefed the National Security Council. She even briefed other countries`
heads of state on matters of her expertise at the Defense Intelligence

She had access to high level information. She had high clearance,
and she was a GS-14 and she had been there forever. She had access to tons
of high level information and she fed it all to Cuba.

When the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies did their assessment
of how much spying Ana Montes did, and what she was able to feed to Cuba,
they concluded that she was one of the most damaging spies in the history
of the United States. Part of the reason she was able to do so much damage
is because she was a high ranking government intelligence official.

Here she is, for example, with a man you will recognize as the former
director of the CIA, George Tenet. There`s George Tenet giving an award
for excellent service to a woman who at that moment was serving as a Cuban

So, part of it was that she was able to rise through the ranks.
That`s part of how she was able to do so much damage.

But the other part of it is that she was able to get away with it for
so long because she was really good at it. She was a really good spy and
did really well at the old fashioned spy movie kind of spy stuff.

She was trained on how to beat a lie detector test, for example. Ten
years into her spying for Cuba, she reportedly passed a Pentagon polygraph
with flying colors, even though she had been an active spy for a decade at
that point. So, she was clearly lying about some of the stuff they were
asking her about but she passed with flying colors.

She used advanced spy cryptography that included writing down long
strings of numbers that were secretly broadcast for her on weird
frequencies of short wave radio just like you`ve seen in "The Americans",
right? She wrote secret messages in cryptological keys on this magic spy
paper that dissolved when it touched water.

She was so good as a spy that she was even able to fly to Cuba on two
separate occasions in disguise. Incidentally, she also got to go to Cuba
not in disguise as part of her official government business as a Pentagon
intelligence officer, but twice, she went secretly. She put on a wig and
used a fake Cuban passport and was able to escape everybody`s notice as she
flew to Havana to presumably meet with her handlers.

Her name was Ana Montes. She`s now serving 25 years in federal

Kendall Myers was also a really good spy. Kendall Myers also had top
secret clearance. He worked at the State Department in the State
Department`s Intelligence and Research Bureau. He had a decades-long
career in the state department. He too rose through the ranks.

He, too, had access to lots of high level information that was of
great interest to Cuba, and he, too, fed everything that he had to Cuba.
American intelligence secrets for nearly 30 years, he was feeding that
information to Cuba before he got caught.

And again, part of the reason he was able to do so much damage over
such a long period is because he had really good training and he was a good
spy. He also used the short wave radio trick to pick up the numerological
codes for his encrypted messages. He also used the magic dissolving paper

Now, although his wife did not work for the State Department, he also
got her in on the spying as well so they essentially worked as a two for
the price of one spy couple. That might have helped with some of the
weirder ways that they passed information to their handlers.

One of the things famously that they did to pass U.S. secrets to
their Cuban spy handlers is they did this trick in the grocery store where
they would leave information in a grocery store cart and then very sly
somehow manage to switch carts with somebody else in the store thus
completing the handoff of the information.

Kendall Myers and his wife Gwendolyn were good at spying.
Nevertheless, they right now are in prison, both of them. His wife may get
out some time in the next few years but Kendall Myers will never get out.
His sense ten was life without the possibility of parole.

Cuba and the Cuban people have had a very atypical modern history,
right, in which their development and the cultivation of the talents of
their people have been oddly and dysmorphically stilted by this half
century of American economic embargo against their country. Cuba`s been a
weird country in the history of countries over the last 50 years.

But in Cuba`s weird modern history, one of the things Cuba has turned
out to be really good at, like good as anybody in the world at is spying.
Cuba has an excellent world class spy agency. And they have run world
class spying operations around the world and very specifically here.

In 1998 an investigation led by the FBI`s Miami`s field office
exposed the huge and long running, very sophisticated Cuban spy operation
that targeted the Castro regime`s most potent and tireless and aggressive
enemies on earth, the anti-Castro Cuban exile groups based in the United
States and specifically in South Florida. Spies for the Cuban government
infiltrated those groups.

It was a spy network. They called it Red Avispa. They called it the
Wasp Network. In the mid to 1990s, the FBI figured out that this Wasp
Network had infiltrated all the exile groups, and they started to do the
very hard and difficult work of wrapping that network up.

By 2001, they`d gotten convictions for five members of the Wasp
Network. Those convictions for those Cuban spies came down in 2001. Three
of the five men who were convicted in that wrap-up of the Wasp Network in
2001, three of the five were still in prison until today.

But today, those three from the Wasp Network had their sentences
commuted by President Obama and they were sent back to Cuba in a trade.
And what the United States got in return for those three guys, those three
spies, what we got in exchange for those three guys was our spy who was
being held in a Cuban prison. Our spy specifically who provided to the
U.S. government the information that led the U.S. government to the Wasp
Network and also to Kendall Myers and his wife at the State Department and
also to Ana Montes from her highfalutin GS-14 job at the Defense
Intelligence Agency.

The senior administration official saying tonight that the person who
the U.S. just got freed after nearly two decades in Cuba was such a
valuable intelligence asset for the United States that his information led
not only to the arrests of the people he was traded for today, but also to
two other huge and really damaging Cuban spy plots in the United States,
both of which ran for years and years and years and years before they were

And that only scratches the surface of the skullduggery that`s gone
on between Cuba and the United States over the last 50 years. But that
trade that I just described, that trade, that spy for spies trade, that is
at the heart of this absolutely epic surprise announcement made by the
president of the United States today. I mean, there have been signs that
something was going to happen, that maybe something was going on, little

Tony Blinken, this guy, when he was up for confirmation for the
senior State Department job, which he just got confirmed for this week, one
of things he got asked about at his confirmation hearing was about the
chatter in Washington that something was about to happen on the issue of
Cuba. So, maybe that was a little bit of a sign. Then, on the Hill they
were hearing chatter.

In October, the Vatican had hosted Cuban officials and American
officials to talk about issues of concern. The Vatican, in fact, seemed
intensely interested in Cuban/American relations. John Kerry met with the
foreign minister from the Vatican where they discussed issues related to

And now, we learn that all along, over the past several weeks and
months, the issue of Canada has been hosting secret meetings between U.S.
officials and Cuban officials about what was announced today in this
shocker of an announcement. But it has culminated with this.

Yesterday, we`re told there was the first direct contact between an
American president and a Cuban leader since the 1959 revolution that
brought Fidel Castro to power.

Raul Castro spoke directly with President Obama on the phone
yesterday, we`re told, for about 45 minutes they talked directly. That
itself is historic.

Then, today, America`s still unnamed spy in Cuba was flown from Cuba
to the United States and the three Cuban spies held by America were flown
from the United States back to Cuba. Both countries` presidents addressed
their nations simultaneously at noon East Coast Time today. Both
presidents thanked their spies for their good work and expressed
appreciation and thanks for their spies being brought home.

In addition to the spy exchange, an American subcontractor who had
worked for USAID, Alan Gross, who`d been held in a Cuban prison for the
last five years, Alan Gross was also flown home today. This was officially
announced as a release on humanitarian grounds. And, indeed, Mr. Gross was
thought to be in worrying decline in terms of his health although he was
elated to be released today and returned to his family.

In addition to Alan Gross being released on humanitarian grounds, the
Cuban government also today agreed to release 53 other prisoners, 53 other
prisoners who Cuba calls run of the mill prisoners but the United States
considered to be political prisoners.

So, that big trading of the spies and all those prisoner releases,
those were the transactional details at the heart today of this big
breakthrough announcement. The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba
in 1961. Today, our diplomatic relations were restored by order of the
president of the United States.

The United States will now move to open an embassy in Cuba for the
first time since the Eisenhower administration. Cuba will open an embassy
here. Travel restrictions will be somewhat relaxed. Cuban-Americans will
be able to send more money home. Our government and the Cuban government
will start talking about a host of diplomatic issues, including terrorism,
and whether or not Cuba should be kept on the list of state sponsors of

For more than 50 years, the United States has been trying to bring
about regime change in Cuba with this weird unilateral isolation policy
that we dreamed up. We isolated them diplomatically from us even though
the rest of the world didn`t. We isolated them economically from us with
the super-strict economic embargo which banned Americans from traveling
there, spending any money there and doing business with any Cuban

But we did that alone. The rest of the world didn`t participate in
what we were doing. And so, it`s always been sort of a strange policy.
It`s been kind of like us covering our own eyes and saying that we`re
invisible. The rest of the world did not go along with this isolation
plan. It was just us. And we`re not the whole world.

And so, maybe it is because we tried to do it alone. Maybe it`s
because isolation tactics don`t tend to be a particularly effective tool
for bringing about regime change. But for whatever reason, trying this for
more than 50 years didn`t work to make Cuba not communist any more or to
get the Castro brothers out of power. It didn`t work.

Now, today, the economic embargo remains intact. The Obama
administration signaled today that they`ll do everything they can
administratively to push against it and they`d like to see it ended, but
the reason they can`t end it directly is because Congress enshrined the
economic embargo into U.S. law in 1996 right after Cuba shot down two small
planes, two Cessna aircraft that were piloted by members of one of those
anti-Castro exile groups based in Florida.

After those planes were shot down in `96, the Helms-Burton Act made
the economic embargo against Cuba something that the president couldn`t
dissolve on his own. It would take an act of Congress to get rid of the
economic embargo.

And, you know, is Congress going to do that? Is this Congress going
to do anything?

I mean, substantively, this Congress is deeply split on this issue.
It was a bipartisan and bicameral group of lawmakers who flew to Cuba to
bring Alan Gross home.

You see there at the end of the table, Chris Van Hollen. He`s Alan
Gross` congressman from Maryland. Alan Gross apparently once went door to
door canvassing for Van Hollen when Mr. Van Hollen first ran for Congress.
So, he was there today.

He was joined by Vermont Senator Pat Leahy who has been deeply
involved in trying to get Alan Gross freed.

They were also joined, though, by Republican Senator Jeff Flake of
Arizona. Jeff Flake is a very conservative Republican, but he says he
supports what President Obama did today. Not just to free Alan Gross but
everything else the president did to try to reset our relationship with

Other Republicans as well, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez who
himself is Cuban-American, they were harshly critical of the policy change
today, including Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida
saying today that he would do everything in his power to try to thwart
President Obama`s actions and stop him from implementing these new changes.
It`s not clear what Marco Rubio can do, if anything, but he says he`s going
to do everything he can.

As this fight happens, though, and as members of Congress figure out
where they stand on this, there does remain this problem at heart of the
argument that the embargo should stay, right, that the only way to defeat
the Castro brothers and bring about regime change in Cuba and make Cuba not
a communist country any more is to keep that embargo, right? The problem
at the heart of that argument is that if the embargo was such a good way to
get those outcomes, why hasn`t it worked in the 54 years that we have been
trying it?


significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an
outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests. To
those who oppose the steps I`m announcing today, let me say that I respect
your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy. The
question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep
doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.

Moreover, it does not serve America`s interests or the Cuban people
to try to push Cuba towards collapse. Even if that worked, and it hasn`t
for 50 years, we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more
likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to


MADDOW: The embargo and the diplomatic isolation of Cuba is a policy
that our country embarked on at the end of the 1950s in the beginning of
the 1960s. And we did it basically because of the Soviet Union, because
Cuba`s revolution was a communist revolution, because the Soviet Union was
who Cuba allied themselves with against us. And we desperately didn`t want
Cuba to be that kind of society and that kind of geopolitical threat just
90 miles off the American coast. That`s why we did it.

It didn`t work. The Castros are still there now. Cuba is still
communist even if the Soviet Union doesn`t exist any more and hasn`t for

Today, President Obama announced a change in course. Out of all the
things we have done over the years to try and change Cuba, is this finally
the thing that might work?

Joining us is NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Mr. Beschloss, it`s nice to see you. Thanks for being here.

Rachel, always.

MADDOW: Let me ask you the big picture question first. I guess how
big a deal do you see this as? I mean, can you put it in context for us in
terms of other important foreign policy 180s announced by an American

BESCHLOSS: Look at all those names of all those presidents you`ve
got on your wall there on your screen. None of them did this, and it was
Barack Obama who did.

This is not at the level of Richard Nixon going to China, which after
all was an immense world power with -- you know, the fact that Nixon went
to China, and ultimately that led to the restoration of relations. Look
where we`d be today if Nixon had not done that in 1972.

The island of Cuba is not exactly central to international relations
in that way, but Cuba has been a thorn in our side for half a century.
During the Cold War, there was an argument, as you said, that since Castro
was defying the Monroe Doctrine, that at least as an expression of our
displeasure, the embargo had some root in reality.

But it hasn`t worked in recent years. It`s almost been a symbol of
America`s inability to do something to get rid of the Castro brothers. So,
you know, by making this change, if it works, if it leads to freedom,
Barack Obama can consider this a feather in his cap.

MADDOW: In terms of America`s desires for Cuba and our -- not just
historic but ongoing displeasure with their form of government, with the
way they treat their own people, with their geopolitical alliances,
obviously, the embargo and diplomatic isolation were part of that.


MADDOW: What else did the U.S. try to do over the years to change
that? Obviously, a lot of things that they`ve done, that different
presidents have tried have been covert.

BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. Well, to begin with in April of 1961 as the
president said this morning John Kennedy authorized the CIA-backed invasion
of Cuba by exiles. It didn`t work. Over a thousand prisoners were locked
up. We Americans had to ransom them.

And then John Kennedy`s operation released Operation Mongoose, which
was paramilitary raids and sabotage, and efforts to poison the Cuban sugar
crop and so forth and also led to assassination attempts against Fidel
Castro, the president may or may not have known about at this time.

And Castro interpreted all this as the prelude to an American full-
fledged invasion of Cuba and so, he went to Nikita Khrushchev, the leader
of the Soviet Union and said, do something to stop these Americans. So,
Khrushchev said, fine, I`ll put some nuclear missiles in that will stop
them. And that led, of course, to missile crisis.

MADDOW: In terms of -- in terms of what might have happened and why
it took so long, did any presidents before Obama try to take this different
route, try to take a route of ending the embargo, lessening the isolation
and hoping that more exposure to the world might bring about the kind of
change that these other kinds of force weren`t able to do?

BESCHLOSS: Sure, Jimmy Carter made some moves and I think Bill
Clinton would have liked to and toward the end of his administration did
some things, but the time was not right. And I think there was a domestic
political feeling in this country that any president who did that would
suffer politically, that if a Democratic president did that, you were
basically saying good-bye to the state of Florida and its electoral votes
for a generation.

What we`ve now seen in recent years is that the fiercely anti-Castro
Cuban-Americans in Florida, it`s not as large a group, it`s older and it`s
not as dominant as it used to be. So, I think that you have to assume that
President Obama calculated that in doing this, he was not taking that risk.

MADDOW: NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss, great
perspective, Michael. Thanks. It`s great to see you.

BESCHLOSS: Interesting day. Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: Yes, amazing day.

We`ve got more on this historic day in America`s foreign relations
ahead, as well as one other huge news story that broke late tonight --
totally unrelated to this but a very big deal. And that`s next.

Please stay with us.


MADDOW: So, quick update for you. That list you keep on your
refrigerator, the list you have of countries that the United States does
not formally talk to.

Here was the list. These are the countries on Earth with whom we do
not have diplomatic relations -- Iran, Bhutan, North Korea and Cuba.
That`s pretty much the list. I mean, yes, there are countries with
strained relationships or suspended visas or we sent the ambassador home
because we were mad or something.

But as far as no diplomatic relationships, no embassy, that`s the
list. And now today, if you want to take out a sharpie and update the list
on your fridge, today that list has been slashed by 25 percent. And that`s
what`s known as a big news day.


MADDOW: We have another story tonight, a rapidly developing story
about one of the last remaining countries on the Earth now that the U.S.
does not have diplomatic ties with, the nation of North Korea. For months
now the North Korean regime has been furious about, of all things, a movie
a new movie scheduled to premiere in American theaters on Christmas Day.
It`s a movie called "The Interview." It starts James Franco and Seth

It`s a comedy about journalists who get an interview with North
Korea`s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, but they`re then recruited by the CIA
to assassinate him when they meet him.

Ever since details of that money in the works started to surface,
North Korea has objected loudly. Late last month, somebody hacked into the
computer systems at Sony Pictures and stole reams of data and emails from
people who work at Sony.

The more embarrassing portions of those emails got sent to news
groups around the world and they appeared in print. It was very
embarrassing for Sony Pictures. And it ended up getting this whole string
of apologies from bold-faced names about the content of those private
exchanges that had been revealed by this illegal hack.

As damaging as that illegal was for Sony, as uncomfortable as it was
to have their private correspondence stolen and published like that, there
was still the unsettling fact of the break-in to their servers and the
question of who carried out that hack. And what else they might be capable

And since then, the story has gotten even more unsettling. The
attack on Sony did not stop with the theft from their servers and the
releasing of all those private documents. Yesterday, a group calling
itself the Guardians of Peace released a new batch of material apparently
stolen from Sony, and along with those stolen files, they included a threat
to theaters that might be thinking about screening Sony`s new movie about
North Korea.

And I`m not going to quote from their threat because I don`t feel
like amplifying it, but it does include a direct mention of the 9/11
attacks as a way to scare people away from going to see that movie.

President Obama addressed the threat today in an interview with David
Muir from ABC News. Watch.


DAVID MUIR, ABC NEWS: I know you met with your national security
team in the last 24 hours, as you often do heading into the holiday. Do
you consider this a legitimate threat and how concerned are you?

OBAMA: Well, the cyber attack is very serious. We`re investigating
it, and we`re taking it seriously. You know, we`ll be vigilant. If we see
something that we think is serious and credible, then we`ll alert the
public, but for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the


MADDOW: My recommendation would be that people go to the movies.
President Obama responding today to this anonymous threat of a 9/11-style
attack on American movie theaters.

But people will not be going out on Christmas to American movie
theaters to see this movie that North Korea does not like. The top five
theater chains in the United States announced today that they would not
show the film. This afternoon, Sony announced they have canceled the
movie`s Christmas Day release. They called it off. Maybe Sony will
release the movie some day in some form, we don`t know.

But that leaves us with the very real question of who made this
threat of a 9/11-style attack on American movie theaters. Was it North
Korea, which does object to this Sony movie but also does a lot of
meaningless saber-rattling all the time? Was it some other group? Was it
a hacker group with some ax to grind that we don`t understand and that we
just don`t know about yet?

I mean, the threat sounds scary, but how seriously should we take it?

Late today, we got the news of at least who the White House believes
did the hack into Sony`s computers, U.S. officials are telling reporters
tonight that the North Korean government was, quote, "centrally involved in
the attack on Sony`s computer systems." One official telling "The New York
Times," quote, "This is of a different nature than past attacks."

What started as a cyberattack and has now turned into the threat of
the safety of Americans if that Sony movie made it into theaters. That
same official says there`s no specific credible information that an attack
is imminent.

We can report that a senior administration official has told NBC News
chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, that there will be
some sort of response from the threat that they believe comes from the
government of North Korea. It`s not clear what the options are but the
U.S. cannot let this go unanswered.

We`ve also just in the last couple of minutes had a new statement
from the White House tonight attributed to the National Security Council
spokeswoman which says that the U.S. government has offered Sony pictures
support and assistance in response to the attack. The FBI has the lead for
the investigation. The United States is investigating attribution and will
provide an update at the appropriate time. The U.S. government is working
tirelessly to bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice and we`re
considering a range of options in weighing that response."

Again, that just out from the National Security Council just in the
last couple of minutes.

Joining us now is David Sanger, national security correspondent for
"The New York Times".

Mr. Sanger, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID SANGER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Good to be back with you, Rachel.

MADDOW: So, in terms of the attribution first, what can you tell us
about the administration`s investigation into this, how confident that they
are that it is the North Korean government and how confident we should be
in that assessment?

SANGER: It`s a very good question because attribution is always a
very difficult thing to do. I mean, you think about this summer when
President Obama was told that it was Russia that was behind the attacks on
JPMorgan Chase, which were less severe than this one. And it turns out now
there are a lot of people that have doubts about that. And we still
haven`t quite gotten to the bottom of those attacks in recent months on the
White House and State Department unclassified computer systems.

But in the case of North Korea, there is much more confidence in the
intelligence officials and other officials I`m talking to and that my
colleague Nicole Perlroth has been talking to what were the basis of that
article that you just mentioned.

And the reasons for that could be varied. Now, partly, it may be
that they`re looking at what North Korean said about this movie, that it
was an act of war, that it wouldn`t go unanswered and so forth, though the
North did say a week ago that they weren`t responsible for the attacks.
They couldn`t rule out they said that people who were sympathetic,
patriotic hackers, whatever, have done this.

But many American officials now seem to think they can trace it right
back to North Korea. And what they`re not discussing is how they know
that. But we do know from a variety of sources over many years of
reporting on this, that the U.S. has put implants in systems in adversary
countries, including North Korea. So, they may be able to see the attack
massing or at least gone back and seen it. We don`t know that for a fact.

MADDOW: In terms of the magnitude of the threat -- obviously, the
cyber breach itself is a significant one and Sony as a corporation has been
significantly hurt by this breach and itself is a display of a type of
force. To the extent that this is seen as a different type of threat,
though, a qualitatively different threat because there`s the threat of
physical violence on U.S. soil and that it may be coming from the same
place -- I mean, if it is North Korea, I mean, I can quote a lot of North
Korean threats from memory. They threatened to turn the Sea of Japan into
a nuclear sea of fire. The way they saber-rattle is quite exquisite.

Is there a degree of skepticism about the -- I guess about how likely
they could -- how likely it could be that they could carry out this threat
even though it is a very serious one?

SANGER: I didn`t hear a whole lot of real concern about the threat
on the theaters. But I think what people have missed in all of the news
about, you know, e-mails that called actresses spoiled brats or revealed
the salaries of studio executive, which have all been embarrassing to Sony,
the real significance, Rachel, of this attack was it was the first one on
American soil on a large scale that appeared to be state-sponsored and was
destructive. In other words, it wiped clean these computers.

Now, those are called infrastructure attacks, and we`ve only seen a
couple in recent history. There was an attack attributed to Iran against
Saudi Aramco a few years ago. There was an attack from North Korea with
great similarities to the Sony attack that hit banks and media companies in
South Korea. And then the largest cyber attack that we know of, Olympic
Games, with Stuxnet, which was a U.S./Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear
program that sort of revealed itself in 2010.

But we haven`t seen one on American soil. And I think what really
shook people was that this attack not only happened, but it was repetitive.
North Koreans or whoever it was kept getting back into the system to put
these threats up on Sony computers.

MADDOW: David Sanger, national security correspondent for "The New
York Times", this is -- this is a scary story. It is also absolutely
fascinating material.

SANGER: It is.

MADDOW: Thanks for helping us understand it. Appreciate it.

SANGER: Thank you.

MADDOW: Thank you.

All right. We`ve got much more ahead on this very news night. We`ll
be right back.


MADDOW: This is just one of those news days that you can`t quite
believe is one day.

In the last 24 hours, this Congress ended. It`s the least productive
Congress in the history of the United States of America.

Also, New York state, home of the Marcellus shale, banned fracking as
a state.

The Russian economy basically slid into a collapse.

Sony Pictures, as we were just discussing, pulled its new comedy
about North Korea after anonymous hackers who might be North Korea
threatened to blow up movie theaters that were showing it.

Also, three more people were indicted with poisoning the water supply
with a chemical leak in West Virginia this year.

And Vermont gave up on extending a single-payer health care system.

And that Tea Party in Gilbert, Arizona, that had voted to redact high
school biology textbooks, they decided they`re not going to redact high
school biology textbooks any more.

And President Obama announced 20 presidential pardons or commutations
of people`s sentences. Most of them are low level drug crimes plus one

Oh, then also the president announced that we`re normalizing
relations with Cuba for the first time in 53 years.

That`s the last 24 hours. Today`s the day when we scheduled a few
evergreen interviews and segments that really could run any time since we
figured surely there would be no news today. Congress went home, president
is ready to go on vacation, there was no major anything planned in terms of
news events for today.

We thought ahead looking in the calendar, we`re going to have to make
something up there. And then boom, this president decides again for the
umpteenth time just since the election that he`s going to go all Larry the
Cable Guy and just get `er done to everybody`s surprise.

What`s gotten into the guy and why? Part of that story is next.

Stay with us.


MADDOW: In 2008, a young presidential candidate named Barack Obama
traveled to Miami to try to win the all-important Florida presidential
vote. George W. Bush won Florida by 5 points in 2004. You might also
remember that he famously won Florida by a squeaker in 2000. At least
that`s what the Supreme Court said.

So, in 2008 Barack Obama knew that Florida was key. And in the run-
up to the presidential election that year, this first time young candidate
for president, he went to Florida, he went to the Cuban stronghold of Miami
and he said something that everybody in Washington thought would derail his
presidential campaign.


OBAMA: I know what the easy thing to do for American politician is
when he or she comes down to Miami. Every four years they come down, they
talk tough then they go back to Washington and nothing changes in Cuba.


That`s what John McCain did the other day. He joined the parade of
politicians who made the same empty promises year after year, decade after
decade, instead of offering a strategy, a strategy for change. He chose to
distort my position and embrace George Bush`s and continue a policy that`s
done nothing to advance the freedom of the Cuban people.


MADDOW: Barack Obama went to Miami in 2008 and said at that speech
that he would be open to meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro. He said
decades of isolation had failed as a policy. He said he would get rid of
that policy and he would do something radically different.

And this was seen by the Beltway at the time as the equivalent of a
presidential candidate going to Iowa and denouncing both corn and pigs.

Barack Obama`s opponent in that election, John McCain, promptly tried
to nail Barack Obama with that position that he took in Florida. John
McCain put out a Web ad, look, with Barack Obama and Fidel Castro side by
side, like Obama was running with Fidel instead of running rather with Joe

For decades, winning the Cuban vote in Florida meant aligning
yourself against the Castro regime as much as you possibly could. But
then, then, what happened is Barack Obama won Florida -- twice. And in
2012, the exit polls had him breaking even or even winning the Cuban-
American vote in Florida despite taking the "I`ll meet with Castro"

The Beltway common wisdom about the politics of this issue has been
getting stale for a while now. As you probably know, the largest
concentration of Cubans anywhere on the planet other than Cuba is in
Miami/Dade County in South Florida.

Look at this. The last poll this year of Cuban Americans in
Miami/Dade County found that a majority of them want the embargo to be
lifted against Cuba. Yes, older Cuban-Americans still want the embargo in
place, people aged 65 and older.

But among younger people aged 18 to 29, look at that. It`s not even
close. Cuban Americans oppose the embargo by a margin of 62-8.

The policy that the president overturned today is a very old policy.
The common wisdom about what it means politically is just about as old.
Realistically, how should we expect this to go over?

Joining us is Alan Gomez. He`s a reporter at "USA Today", with a
long history of covering Cuban-American relations.

Alan, nice to see you. Thanks for being here.

ALAN GOMEZ, USA TODAY: Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: How does Miami feel about this today and how can you tell?


GOMEZ: Well, I mean it sort of depends who you talk to.


GOMEZ: I think a lot of what you were leading up to there is
absolutely accurate.

When you talk to the older Cubans, the ones who are -- that were at
least teenagers if not adults when they left Cuba -- I mean, this was a
really stunning blow. This was a very disappointing moment. They feel as
if they`ve been fighting this fight for 40, 50 years and all of a sudden,
the president just stabbed them in the back.

So, for them, it`s very difficult. They`re ones that spent time in
political prisons in Cuba. They`re the ones that had their property taken
away. So, they have that personal connection, that personal firsthand view
of what this Castro government did to them. So, for them, yes, this is
absolutely a horrendous day in their fight.

But as you were mentioning, you talk to younger Cubans, you talk to
those that maybe grew up here in Miami or left a very long time ago and
have been able to put it past them. And they kind of take that step back,
look at it objectively, and make that calculus, hey, this hasn`t worked in
50 years. Let`s try something different.

So, it`s a mix reaction. The loudest ones who were against what the
president did today, but quietly in corners around the city, you definitely
heard a lot of people who supported what the president did.

MADDOW: You know, we highlighted from that poll the fact -- the
question about the embargo itself. If you look at the polling actually on
restoring diplomatic relations, which actually is what the president did
today, the polling on that is even more popular. The president`s move to
restore diplomatic relations is an even more popular move among Cuban-

I wonder because this basically is something the president has done
and then something he`s recommending that the country do further, this
action that he`s taken today is something that`s less controversial.
Restoring diplomatic relations will be an interesting thing but even more
people like that.

As Congress starts to fight about whether or not they`re going to try
to block this, whether or not they`re going to do what President Obama
wants and act on legislation to repeal the embargo, what do you expect the
Cuban-American influence to be on that debate in Washington?

GOMEZ: Well, I can tell you it will be extremely -- they`re not
going to let -- (a), they`re not really going to embrace the idea of
changing the embargo. They won`t reduce that in any way.

Actually, what they`re going to try to do is stop what the president
has done. It costs money to change what we have in Havana from a Cuban
intersection to a full embassy. It costs money to do a lot of the things
that he`s doing.

So, much like we`ve seen with the immigration debate, with the
Affordable Care Act, they`re going to try to use the power of the purse to
try to limit what the president can do.

And so, that`s I think what we`re going to be seeing in the next
couple of months, because this is a process that takes a while. The
president`s actions aren`t going to just start immediately. We`re not just
going to suddenly have an embassy tomorrow. So, it`s going to take some
time and they`re going to have time to try to block it. I think that`s one
of the things we`re going to see.

MADDOW: Alan Gomez, reporter at "USA Today" -- Alan, thanks very
much for beings here on this huge day. I really appreciate it.

GOMEZ: Thank you.

MADDOW: It will be interesting to see if the politics change on what
the president did today, has a practical impact on people`s lives.
Obviously, this is going to have a practical impact in Cuba and ordinary
Cubans living in Cuba, it`s going to have an impact on Cuban-Americans,
particularly those who still have family back on the island.

As the practical impact starts to be felt, it will be interesting to
see if that also moves people`s politics on this issue, generationally or
otherwise. Fascinating stuff.

We`ll be right back.


MADDOW: So, if you`re the pope, every day is sort of a big day. But
today was a bigger than usual big pope day.

Today, both President Obama and Raul Castro of Cuba credited the
intervention of Pope Francis -- Castro called him Pope Francisco -- for
bringing the U.S. and Cuba to the table for today`s spy swap and prisoner
release and this reversal of five decades of isolationist U.S. policy
towards Cuba. So, that`s sort of a big deal.

And when he wasn`t busy for being credited for that diplomatic
miracle today, Pope Francis today was also busy having a rather epic 78th
birthday. He got a very nice looking papal cake.

And some visiting Argentinian priests also gave him some mate to
drink, out of the fancy cup out of which they drink mate, which always look
like a tike mug to me.

What else do you get for your birthday when you`re not just the pope
but the Argentinian pope? You also get tango. Hundreds of tango dancers
descended on St. Peter`s Square today to dance the tango in honor of the
pope`s birthday.

The pope is apparently a lifelong fan of tango. He says he used to
dance tango with his girlfriend when he was a young man. Yes, the pope had
a girlfriend.

But, today, people came from all over the world to tango in his honor
in Rome. Mass tango birthday surprise, solving U.S.-Cuban relations, free
mate, free cake -- big day. Even for a pope, that`s a big day.


MADDOW: Lorna Feijoo, principal, Boston Ballet. Lorena Feijoo,
principal at the San Francisco Ballet. Hayna Gutierrez Cuban, principal at
the Classical Ballet of Miami. Nelson Madrigal, principal at the Boston
Ballet. Joan Boada, principal at the San Francisco Ballet. Cervilio
Amador, principal at the Cincinnati Ballet. Carlos Guerra, principal at
the Miami City Ballet. Isanusi Garcia, principal at the Miami City Ballet.
Rolanda Sarabia, principal at the Miami City Ballet.

One of things that Cuba is brilliant at is ballet. A Cuban-American
ballerina named Lourdes Lopez took over the job at the Miami City Ballet a
few years ago, she put out word that dancers who found their way from Cuba
to her doorstep would be welcomed for an audition with that company.
There`s no shortage of amazing Cuban dancers in American ballet, Miami City
and elsewhere.

The ballet world, also the world of professional baseball, the world
of soccer, the world of music, the cultural and sports life of Cuba is so
rich that America has been immeasurably enriched by the contribution of
Cuba`s artists and athletes who have found ways to defect to here.

Right now, defectors if they get here, they then need to get a
license from the U.S. Treasury Department to unblock themselves as a
foreign asset so they can be paid to do their work in this country, in
ballet, in baseball, in everything.

That`s all about to change. It`s all at least about to start to
change. Some of it is in Congress` hands now after President Obama`s big
announcement today.

So, Congress, fair warning: prepare to start getting lobbied by some
very intimidatingly fit Cubans who can bend over backwards, literally, and
on tiptoe, if they need to, in order to make their point.


Good evening, Lawrence. I`m sorry. I took your 30 seconds.


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