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North Korea: Uncle of Kim Jong Un Executed; Vote Imminent on Compromise Budget; Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence

Aired December 12, 2013 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jake, thanks very much. Breaking news, important breaking news, North Korea execution, an uncle of the leader Kim Jong-Un put to death after a military tribunal. What was his alleged crime, what does it mean about security on the Korean Peninsula?

Also, Republican civil war, long-simmering tension exploding as the House Speaker John Boehner unleashes a sharp new attack of conservative groups. Who will win the battle to control House Republicans?

And worst case scenario, the Obama administration watches helplessly as its fears appear to be coming true in Syria. Extremists on the rise, the opposition at war with itself and Bashar al-Assad apparently firmly in power. Could this be the next Afghanistan?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news

BLITZER: But we begin with the breaking news from North Korea, where the state-run news agency is reporting that an uncle of the leader, Kim Jong Un, has been executed only days after he was removed from his military post.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

She's working the story for us -- Barbara, until the last few days, this uncle, Jang Song Thaek, he was considered to be, arguably, after Kim Jong Un, the most powerful person in North Korea.

What's going on?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that is the question for the United States at this hour, what is happening inside that regime?

The uncle, according to the North Korean News Agency, has now been executed. He was purged, stripped of all his posts just a few days ago. The alleged crime is what it always is in the North Korean regime, disloyalty to the regime.

The question now front and center, Kim Jong Un, the new young leader in North Korea, in power for only the last two years, what is he doing?

This man, Wolf, though that he has executed was a family member, married into the family, was a close confidant of his father's when he was in power, now apparently executed.

The concern for the United States is that basically the decision- making inside North Korea right now unstable and uncertain. Not only has this man been removed from power, the question for the United States, why are they continuing to hold Kenneth Bae, the American now held for so many months inside North Korea?

What are they up to with their missile program? They've just finished construction on new portions of a missile launch site.

What are they up to with the nuclear program?

They've restarted a reactor that could be capable of making nuclear fuel.

All of these questions on the table for the CIA, the U.S. intelligence community.

What we are seeing here, with the execution of the uncle, is just the latest uncertainty about what Kim Jong Un is up to inside of North Korea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And let's not lose perspective, Barbara. As you well know, there are more than 30,000 U.S. troops along the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. A million troops basically face-to-face with nearly a million South Korean troops. So the stakes, as far as the U.S. and its allies in the region right now, enormous, as they always are.

But is there any indication the U.S. military is taking any sort of precautionary steps right now on the Korean Peninsula, beefing up its presence or anything along those lines, given what could be some uncertainty in North Korea right now?

STARR: Well, I have to tell you, Wolf, for the last several days that they've seen seen some of this instability unfold, they certainly are keeping an eye on it. U.S. troops, South Korean troops, always at a high state of alert.

You know, the continuing concern is the status of their forces, whether they're going to make any moves. They don't see that so far. But it's the advanced weaponry that's also of concern. North Korea is working on a program for long-range mobile ballistic misses. That means they can move them around and launch them very suddenly and the U.S. and U.S. satellites might not be able to see them in time. This is one of the biggest concerns for the Pentagon right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, stand by.

Jim Sciutto, our national security correspondent, is here, as well -- Jim, the Chinese, I take it -- and you spent a lot of time in Beijing -- they are very nervous right now. They had a very close relationship with this uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and they're worried about what's going on in North Korea with this young new leader, Kim Jong Un.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No question. And that's a change we've seen over the past year, China's assessment of North Korea, even with their nuclear program. For years now, the U.S. has been trying to get China on the same page, in effect, get them as worried as we are about China's -- about North Korea's nuclear program.

That has changed and evolved in that direction over time.

So to see this kind of instability here will certainly worry China, as well, and I think it will get them more aligned, in effect, with America's more worried view of the situation in North Korea. And, remember, he's very close to Kim Jong Un. This speaks to instability inside the senior leadership.

A short time ago, you had the third most powerful man in the country deposed. That proximity to the leadership speaks to instability. And that's not good for that country.

BLITZER: And so I assume the Chinese would be taking steps, as well, along the border. They have a long border with North Korea. They're watching this situation as intensively as the United States and South Korea are.

SCIUTTO: No question. And that's something that, when I was in China, you would see. You would see China react to situations on the ground in North Korea by increasing forces, increasing monitoring along the border. They would have to be doing the same thing. And they have to be doing something of what folks in Washington are doing right now, throwing their hands up in the air and wondering exactly what's going on there. There are some who are interpreting this as Kim Jong Un consolidating his power. But there is some question as to whether he's behind it. It could be another faction within that leadership. The leadership is so opaque in North Korea, it's hard to say with certainty what's actually happening.

BLITZER: Jim, I want you to stand by, as well.

Victor Cha is joining us right now from the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, a Georgetown University professor.

All right, Victor, I guess the basic question is, why did they execute the uncle?

VICTOR CHA, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Well, I think, first of all, he was considered to be a very big threat, and for that reason, he was executed. I mean we've seen executions before in North Korea, we just haven't seen the sort of theater and dramatics that have been associated with it.

What we're seeing, Wolf, this time we haven't seen in North Korea since the early 1950s, when Kim Il-sung was consolidating his power. So it is quite unusual. And I think your analysts are exactly right. I mean it speaks to some sort of problem inside the system when they have to go as high as Jang Song Thaek and General Ri Yong Ho, the general who was purged in July of 2012. When they have to go that high, it doesn't tell you it's a stable power consolidation. It tells you there's a great bit of infighting going on now inside the system.

BLITZER: And I read the statement put out by the North Koreans just a few moments ago, Victor. It described the uncle as "a despicable human scum who was worse than a dog."

These are brutally -- brutal words, if you will.

CHA: Yes. I mean some of that has to be discounted, Wolf, in the sense that they sort of use that language quite often in their propaganda. But when, as you said, when you read the list of things they charged him, you know, it's very clear that they saw him -- or they're depicting him as an enemy of the state.

And in a sense, it must have been a real threat to Kim Jong Un, such that he had to take these sorts of actions.

So I agree. I mean we have to watch this situation very closely. It's not clear at all what's coming next. And it's not clear at all, in terms of external behavior, how North Korea is going to respond.

When you have dictatorships like this that go through these unstable transitions, it usually doesn't mean they become more conciliatory in terms of their external behavior. They become more dangerous. And that's why the United States, South Korea, Japan and China are quite worried right now.

BLITZER: Well, take us behind the scenes. You worked at the National Security Council. You're an expert on the Korean Peninsula.

What do you suspect is going on right now in the Obama administration, over at the Pentagon, the State Department, the NSC, the CIA?

What do you think is going on?

CHA: Well, the first thing, of course, is that I'm sure that one would have to look to see if there's any unusual troop movements taking place inside of North Korea, you know, if there's anything resembling some sort of infighting in which there's a civil war breaking out. That's one of the first things you want to look at, because you want to be able to know how much you need to strengthen or heighten the alert, what readiness of U.S. forces on the peninsula.

The other thing would be to make contact with our allies, South Korea and Japan, as well with the Chinese, to try to share as much information that we all have about what's going on with regard to the situation in North Korea. As you said, Wolf, this is about the most opaque place in the world. And our level of intelligence on these issues is not as high as we wish it would be. I mean I think people work very hard at this, but it's not as high as we wish it would be.

I think the third thing that we're going to be doing is also consulting with members outside of our normal circle of six party members, you know, the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia. It's other people, you know, whether it's Southeast Asians or others who might have information about what is going on.

And the last thing would be to try to find out what is going on with Kim Kyong-hee. Kim Kyong-hee is the wife of Jang Song Thaek. She is the daughter of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the country. She is Kim Jong Un's aunt. And she has played a very important role in this transition from the death of Kim Jong Il to the succession of Kim Jong Un. And she has not been seen at all in public. And so that's another very important question, where is she in this picture?

BLITZER: And we're going to show our viewers some live television now from South Korea. They're obviously in wall to wall coverage, watching what's going on. They're obviously very concerned about stability on the Korean Peninsula. No one is more concerned than the South Koreans.

Elise Labott is with us, as well, our State Department reporter -- Elise, as -- are you getting any reaction from officials here in Washington?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm just hearing from some sources, Wolf. And the administration has not yet necessarily confirmed this behav -- information.

BLITZER: The execution of the uncle?

LABOTT: The execution of the uncle.

But what I have heard from senior administration officials says we've seen the report. We don't have any way to independently confirm.

"Don't doubt its veracity. The regime's ruthlessness toward one of its leading members is a reminder how far North Korea and its new leadership is outside of the international norms of behavior."

And this is -- for the Obama administration, Wolf, has always been the problem -- how do you understand what's going on in North Korea? We saw last week, with the release of Merrill Newman, the North Koreans calling up the State Department saying, oh, we're letting him go. No explanation.

And when we say well, why did that happen, you can't predict the North Koreans.

And so in an odd way, this uncle was one of the more predictable people that they knew, that they have been dealing with for some time.

So now they're really increasingly in the dark about the new North Korean leadership.

BLITZER: Merrill Newman, the 85-year-old American Korean War veteran who was picked up. He was a tourist in North Korea, held for a month and, suddenly, they let him go. He's back in the United States right now -- you're watching, Jim Sciutto.

Are you getting reaction?

SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting. This is a reminder of what the real source of instability in the region is. And it's North Korea. It's a nuclear power. They've done three nuclear tests.

Our attention has been distracted by another real issue, tensions between Japan and China, about the islands, etc.

But the most severe source of instability there is North Korea. And even when we think about Iran and this interim nuclear deal to keep them from getting a bomb, remember, North Korea already has the bomb and they've tested it out before. And Biden was just in China. And certainly on his agenda with the Chinese is discussions about North Korea and the seriousness with which the U.S. views that situation.

We talked about Merrill Newman being released. Remember, we have another U.S. citizen still being held in North Korea, in Kenneth Bae. So, you know, his family and others watching that situation have to be concerned by this.

BLITZER: A missionary.

Go ahead.

LABOTT: And the administration doesn't want to say anything too inflammatory right now because Kenneth Bae is also on their minds. And I think right now, what's interesting is how you say that it's the real source of the behavior -- of the instability in the region. I think, ironically, now, this is going to have Japan, China, the U.S. saying, OK, we need to really focus on the real threat right now. You need to put your differences aside and we need to see how we're going to deal with it.

SCIUTTO: That's right. And it's one issue where the U.S. and China have come closer together, on their assessment of North Korea as a problem and China getting tougher on them, on what has been their...

BLITZER: Yes.

SCIUTTO: -- you know, their client state, in effect.

BLITZER: Well, we're going to continue to monitor the breaking news out of North Korea, the execution of the man, arguably, after Kim Jong Un, the most powerful in North Korea, the uncle of Kim Jong Un, Jang Song Thaek.

We'll continue to watch this.

It was exactly three years ago, almost to the day, I spent six days in North Korea. And that was also a very tense time. There was tensions between North Korea and South Korea.

And I can tell you that that situation on the Korean Peninsula can escalate like that unless cooler heads prevail.

All right, guys. We'll continue to watch it.

Victor Cha, thanks to you.

Barbara Starr, thanks to you, as well.

Up next, long simmering tensions also exploding, as the House speaker, John Boehner, unleashes very sharp new criticism of conservative groups.

Who will win the battle to control House Republicans?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following developments on Capitol Hill where a House vote on a bipartisan budget deal is imminent. The agreement would fund the government for the next two years, eliminating the possibility of another government shutdown ahead of next year's midterm elections and it's forcing Democrats and Republicans to compromise on some key priorities.

It's also throwing a spotlight out there on a bitter split unfolding right now between the House speaker, John Boehner, and some very influential conservative groups. Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is up on Capitol Hill watching all of this unfold. What's going on right now, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the atmosphere here is so different, and frankly, it's a little bit jarring. You have Democratic leaders and Republican leaders effectively working together to try to get their rank and file to vote for this budget agreement, but Republicans are really the most split and the house speaker is trying to pull in his rank and file by pushing back hard against outside conservative groups.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): John Boehner turned a spat with powerful outside groups in his own party into an all-out war.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH) HOUSE SPEAKER: They're misleading their followers. I think they're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be.

BASH: Boehner first took his private ire public yesterday at conservative groups for pressuring rank and file Republicans to oppose a budgets deal he supports, many before they saw it. Now, it's clear the speaker is using this moment to take a broader stand against outside forces that have so often made it impossible for him to convince conservative members to compromise on fiscal issues.

They've had a lot of sway in a lot of the decisions that your members have made over the past couple of years. Does this budget mark a turning point and are your members at your behest going to be more focused on maybe compromise and less on what the outside groups are pressuring them to do? BOEHNER: When groups come out and criticize an agreement that they've never seen, you begin to wonder just how credible those actions are. I thought it was my job and my obligation to stand up for conservatives here in the Congress who want more deficit reduction. Stand up for the work that Chairman Ryan did.

BASH: Mike Needham runs Heritage Action, one of the groups Boehner is lashing out at. John Boehner said groups like yours have completely lost credibility.

MICHAEL NEEDHAM, HERITAGE ACTION FOR AMERICA: Yes. Look, I don't think it's for anybody in Washington to decide who has credibility. It's certainly very frustrating that an honest disagreement about a bill that was ordeal that was struck has devolved into name calling from the speaker.

BASH: But Boehner made clear this is about more than a budget. It's been brewing for a while.

BOEHNER: They pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and the shutdown of government. If you recall, the day before the government reopened, one of the people, one of these groups, stood up and said well, we never really thought it would work. Are you kidding me?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (on-camera): Now, some of these outside groups think that what Boehner is doing is trying to clear the decks for some of the other tough issues that divide the party that are coming around the corner next year like immigration reform, perhaps, in the House.

But Republican leadership aides say that that's not necessarily the case, that this is really just genuine frustration that is boiling over from Boehner at really months, maybe even years, that he's had to deal with trying to keep his Republicans in line, trying to help find compromise while he's had these outside groups really battling against him.

BLITZER: What a story this is up on Capitol Hill. Dana, thank you.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. Why is the speaker so angry right now?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, right. And you can really hear it there. Look, I think he's had enough. I think he believes there was a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by those 60 members of the hell no caucus that shut down the government. And I think he gave them their shot, it failed miserably. Republicans are at a terribly low point in the polls, certainly lower than Democrats.

He's tired of his Republicans getting primaried by people who stand to the right of them and endangering his own majority in the House. And I think what you see is a speaker who's finally taking charge. I mean, and I also see a sense of, perhaps, regret, Wolf, that perhaps he didn't do it sooner even before the shutdown. He gave them their shot. They failed miserably. He wasn't going to do it again. BLITZER: The speaker is on the House floor right now supporting this compromise deal that's worked out by the House/Senate conferees. We're monitoring what he's saying, but it's not just the battle involving John Boehner. You have a lot of the new young Republican leaders fighting each other for all practical purposes.

Marco Rubio, rising star in Florida, Republican senator, he didn't mention any names in this op-ed he wrote on Breitbart.com, but it was clear who he was going after when he wrote "This budget deal fails to address the biggest obstacles that stand between our people and the American dream. It keeps us on the same road to ruin that Washington has placed us on."

Clearly, he's not happy with Representative Paul Ryan who helped put this deal together. Both of whom Ryan and Rubio are thinking of running for president.

BORGER: Both of them clearly are running for president. First of all, Rubio makes it sound as if this is some kind of huge global budget agreement that will last for decades. This is a short-term measure, Wolf, that's really been written so the government doesn't shut down. There are lots more big budget fights to come but look at where Rubio is coming from. He is somebody who himself was criticized by conservatives because he signed on to a bipartisan immigration reform plan.

Since that moment, he's been running as fast as he can to the right, because he wants to position himself for a potential run. He sees Paul Ryan as somebody who was labeled a moderate because he ran with Mitt Romney. Ryan, himself, is a conservative budget guy, but he felt that he had to kind of be pragmatic and say look, the people want to see us get something done. There is no appetite in this country at all to go to the brink again.

And so, he positioned himself with the Republican leadership on this, Wolf, as somebody who can get things done. And I'm sure you are going to see that played out again in 2016 and a lot more times before we get there.

BLITZER: Getting ready for the roll call, the House of Representatives. They need 218 votes. I assume they'll get it, but we'll see and then we'll continue this conversation. Gloria, thank you.

So, has anything changed since the Newtown tragedy? Are schools any safer than they were one year ago? Coming up, two people with very different views weigh in on gun control. Mark Kelly and Asa Hutchison of the NRA's National School Shield Program, they are both here. We'll discuss when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're looking at a vigil at Washington's National Cathedral which ended just a few moments ago. It was held for victims of gun violence just two days before the one-year anniversary of that horrific school shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We heard from a survivor of the massacre at Virginia Tech a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN GODDARD, VIRGINIA TECH SHOOTING SURVIVOR: Six years ago, I survived the shooting at Virginia Tech where 32 of us were killed and 25 others injured. I still have three bullets in pieces throughout my body and a metal rod in my left leg. Two years after that, April 3rd, 2009, the shooting at the Binghamton, New York Immigration Center where 13 of us were killed and four others wounded, was my tipping point. It was my Newtown moment. It was the moment I realized that unchecked gun sales are irresponsible and must stop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's Poppy Harlow is joining us now live from the National Cathedral here in Washington. Poppy, tell us about this day.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was a stunningly beautiful event, Wolf. It was a very somber, somber event, but it was filled with glorious music. We heard from singer, Carole King, the World Children's Choir sang as well. There were some politicians there, of course Senator Murphy and Blumenthal of Connecticut.

But this was really about personal experiences, survivors of gun violence, people that had lost their loved ones to gun violence both in Newtown and in other environments all across America. They said this is not just about Newtown. This is about all those who have been lost to gun violence in this country, speaking out against that.

We heard also many calls to Washington, to Congress, calling for change, calling for stronger federal gun laws. We heard a lot of that. You know, the point is, this is here, two days in Washington before the one-year anniversary of that horrific shooting in Newtown. One to send a message to Capitol Hill but also to not be in Newtown.

As you know, that community has asked for the press to stay away on that one-year anniversary, so this was a way for everyone to gather, to remember and to give that community time to heal. As we walked out, people lit candles. It was beautiful just as the sun was going down here and they asked everyone to take a heart from a basket made from people all across the country to remember those 26 innocent lives lost and everyone else who has been lost to gun violence -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Twenty children, six educators. What a horrific day that was.

Poppy, thank you.

So what should be done to stop gun violence?

Coming up, two people with very different views getting ready to weigh in. The gun control advocate Mark Kelly and the director of the NRA's National School Shield Program, Asa Hutchison, they are here with me. We'll discuss when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Saturday will mark one year since the Newtown school massacre broke the nation's heart and thrust the issue of gun control back into the spotlight. But tighter regulations failed to clear Congress and the debate continues.

Let's talk about it with gun control advocate Mark Kelly, he's the husband of former congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured in a mass shooting back in 2011. Together they founded the group Americans for Responsible Solutions.

We are also joined by Asa Hutchinson, the former U.S. congressman, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He's the director of the National Rifle Association funded National School Shield Task Force.

Gentlemen, thanks to both of you for coming in.

Mark Kelly, first to you. It's a year since the Newtown massacre. Are children safer in schools right now? What if anything has changed?

MARK KELLY, GUN CONTROL ADVOCATE: Well, you know, it's been -- Saturday will be a year and so far, the national response to that horrific act and the situation we have in this country is basically to do nothing. So I would say that children are not safer in their schools. This is a complex problem and it should be addressed and Congress has yet to do that.

BLITZER: Do you think anything has changed, Asa?

ASA HUTCHINSON, NRA'S NATIONAL SCHOOL SHIELD TASK FORCE: Yes. I think that there has been increased effort on safety, virtually every state has looked at school safety legislation and had it introduced. You've had schools that employ additional resources in terms of school resource officers and other protection for the children.

They have increased technology as well. So there is a safer response capability. But we certainly have learned that Congress said despite a full court press by the president, that the answer is not gun control legislation so the safety answer is what is much more effective and what we've concentrated on the last year and I think we have made progress.

BLITZER: You must be very frustrated, Mark, that Congress has not passed tighter gun control legislation, background checks, if you will, anything else. Who do you blame for that?

KELLY: Well, one of the reasons it's so frustrating, Wolf, is that with regard to background checks, it's something that 92 percent of Americans support, expanded background checks are also supported by 74 percent of NRA members.

I don't know what Asa's stand is specifically on that, but a lot of his membership does support this, and so, you know, who's to blame? Well, you know, I don't want to lay blame anywhere, but it is a reality that the gun lobby has an incredible amount of political influence with members of Congress in Washington.

I mean, it's very clear that many members take their cues on this issue from the gun lobby.

BLITZER: When we spoke earlier this year, Asa, you did indicate a readiness, an openness, to consider greater background checks.

Let me play the clip, the exchange that we had back in April.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What I hear you're saying is that you're open to expanding background checks personally.

HUTCHINSON: Yes. Absolutely. I'm open to expanding background checks, if you can do it within a way that does not infringe upon an individual and make it hard for an individual to transfer to a friend or a neighbor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Are you still open to expanding background checks with those conditions attached?

HUTCHINSON: I think the context of that was in reference to gun shows. The American public, as Mark points out, understand the importance of keeping firearms purchases away from convicted felons and those who have been adjudicated mentally ill. That's what we agree upon in terms of background checks.

Right now, I think one of the greatest challenges is that we have seen gun control legislation which I think was rightfully discarded as not the right solution. School safety efforts is a good solution but the third one is the enforcement side. And I know Mark's probably just as frustrated that despite the president's commitment, there has not been an increased effort enforcement of our gun laws.

And I think the Department of Justice should look at why there's hundreds of thousands over the years that have applied unlawfully for a firearm, been rejected for it, but yet they haven't been prosecuted, such a very small percent of those, and why is that the case. If there's some good reasons for it, we ought to know that, but the enforcement side --

BLITZER: All right.

HUTCHINSON: And the president was committed to it, has not been implemented.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Mark.

KELLY: Hey, Wolf, so you know, Asa made it clear that it's important to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill. And one way to do that is expanding background checks to gun shows and the Internet. And I think -- I think he agrees with that. And that's what that piece of legislation did in April, that failed on April 17th I believe it was, the Manchin-Toomey compromise bill that expanded background checks.

Now with regard to enforcement, you know, those are two separate things. We know that since 1999, there have been about two million criminals that have been prevented from buying a gun because they failed a background check. Now, yes, we didn't enforce as in we didn't prosecute all of those people for that crime they committed but they were prevented from getting a gun.

Now how many of them went down to the gun show or to an Internet or got a firearm from some other person, we really have no idea. That's why we should have pretty much a universal background check system with some exceptions.

BLITZER: All right.

KELLY: Since the law passed in Colorado recently, we have stopped 74 people, 74 criminals, these are people that have committed murder, domestic abuse, have been prevented from buying a gun.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Asa.

HUTCHINSON: Well, Wolf, let me make it clear in reference to the background checks and the quote that you played, I actually read the Toomey bill on that and that was a burden on the average citizen where, if they live out in the country, they drive 30 miles if they wanted to sell a firearm to a neighbor, they would have to have -- pay a fee, background check, and keep records.

That's too much of a burden. And it doesn't solve a problem. No criminal or bad actor is going to go through that process. So rather than chasing this rainbow that doesn't work in reference to reducing violence or unlawful people from carrying firearms, let's concentrate on the enforcement and on the safety side.

BLITZER: I'll give you the last word, Mark.

KELLY: Well, that's the point, right, if you expand background checks, I mean, the point Asa is trying to make is some of them will not go through that process. But what happens when they don't go through that process, the ones that decide not to, they don't get a gun, that they are likely to use to commit a crime.

So by expanding background checks, I mean, it's only logical that it makes it much more difficult for criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to have access to dangerous weapons. And we're not about restricting, you know, the access for responsible Americans, gun owners like Gabby and I, like millions of people around this country should be able to buy a gun, but what's the -- what's the issue with doing a background check that takes two minutes. It is not a burden.

BLITZER: Asa Hutchinson, Mark Kelly, good discussion. It will continue, to be sure. Thanks to both of you for coming in.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

KELLY: You're welcome, Wolf. BLITZER: Imagine you were convicted of a crime you didn't commit. What if no one actually believed you were innocent, not even your son?

Tonight, CNN Presents the incredible story of an innocent man sent to jail for killing his wife and his fight to clear his name.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOU BRYAN, JUROR: I guess I kept looking at Michael and just noticing that he just didn't seem to have a lot of feeling about him. I guess I kept looking for some emotion that would let me know something about, you know, what was going on.

BILL ALLISON, TRIAL LAWYER: Michael had an amazing capacity to compartmentalize things so that he didn't bring his grief into the office. I don't know what he did with it.

MICHAEL MORTON, WRONGFULLY CONVICTED OF MURDER: I didn't think I was going to get convicted. It was going to be a longish trial but then it would be revealed that there can be no there there. There's nothing to convict. There's nothing hard. There's nothing that says look, this guy did it. There's nothing beyond a reasonable doubt.

And I couldn't imagine what could possibly be manufactured to make 12 people think that I killed my wife.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Watch CNN Films' "AN UNREAL DREAM" tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Just ahead, is the Syria opposition falling apart? There's new evidence that a -- Islamist extremists with ties to al Qaeda may be taking over.

And we're told cell phones are no longer a security problem up in the skies but don't try making a call just yet. One government agency is saying not so fast.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: New concerns that Syrian opposition is being taken over by extremists with ties to al Qaeda. Fifteen people were killed today when Islamist extremist group attacked a police station, killing everyone inside. This as the U.S. decides to cut off all nonlethal aid until it figures out exactly who's receiving it.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto has been following this very complicated situation in Syria and it looks dire.

What's going on?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. I talked to a number of officials and there is real concern now that the opposition is, in effect, disintegrating, that as you have this in-fighting and as it grows, in effect you have a civil war within a civil war. And the factions that have the upper hand are the most extremist elements, exactly the scenario the administration had hoped to avoid.

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SCIUTTO (voice-over): This is the extremist al Qaeda-tied militant group increasingly dominating the Syrian opposition. Today Al Nusra carried out a brutal massacre of civilians in northern Syria as other extremists raided a warehouse of humanitarian aids supplied by the U.S.

The leader of the Free Syrian Army, the moderate faction the U.S. has supported there, spoke to CNN's Hala Gorani by telephone.

GEN. SALIM IDRISS, FREE SYRIAN ARMY: The situation in the north of Syria now is very complicated and very dangerous, because there is problems between some groups.

SCIUTTO: A U.S. officials gave CNN an even more sobering assessment, quote, "What isn't clear yet is whether the various fractions will refocus attention on toppling Assad or become embroiled in internal fighting that would play to the regime's advantage.

The rapid deterioration has left the administration's stated policy of removing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in disarray.

CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Extremist groups, terrorist groups are involved in this, so it's not a matter of just an easy choice between the good guys and the bad guys here.

SCIUTTO: What's left may be just the not-so bad guys, the Islamic Front, another extremist group, though not tied to al Qaeda. Some in the administration make the case the rise of extremists may have a positive size by forcing Russia and others to the negotiating table, an assessment Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff strongly disputes.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: These extremist gains are a very serious setback. It's very hard to put any kind of a positive light on the marginalization of these secular forces. Unfortunately it's part of a trend that we've been seeing for some time now.

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SCIUTTO: Further down the line there is another serious fear that Syria becomes a new Afghanistan. Extremists from around the world fight and train there and then return home to carry out acts of terror.

And the officials I've spoken to, Wolf, has said they expect it to get worse there before it gets better. One official saying to me there will be more turbulence within the opposition as these various factions fight for the upper hand.

BLITZER: One person said to me it's going to get worse before it gets worst.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

BLITZER: So they're not very upbeat about any of this. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Let's get some perspective on the dangerous situation in Syria, from the Middle East scholar, Fouad Ajami, he's the author of the book, "The Syrian Rebellion," and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

What's your -- what's your assessment right now, Fouad? How bad is the situation in Syria?

FOUAD AJAMI, AUTHOR, "THE SYRIAN REBELLION": Well, you know, I think, Wolf, the best way of doing it is to go over some numbers, and these numbers were put forth by the foreign office in the UK. And it was a marker. The marker was 1,000 days of conflict in Syria. 9.3 million people in Syria are in need, 4.65 million of them are children. Over 100,000 are killed. I think this number is way low, I think it's maybe 130,000. 575,000 people have been -- have been injured. 2.2 million people have been made refugees. 1.9 million Syrian children are out of school. And on and on.

The numbers go on. And I think there's something very interesting about the Obama administration. In fact this is the outcome that the Obama administration in the end, in the end ended up with, because had they come to the rescue of this rebellion, we would not be here.

BLITZER: But it's not over with yet. And -- I guess if you look at a little silver lining, it does look like the regime's chemical weapons stockpiles are in fact being destroyed, right?

AJAMI: You know, Wolf, of course, the chemical weapons, I mean, you have to give it to Bashar al-Assad. He was willing to trade his chemical weapons for the survival of his regime, but nevertheless, some of the very same towns that were targeted by the regime with chemical weapons were subjected to a new weapon -- starvation.

Bashar has all kinds of weapons at his disposal. And when we look at the calamity of Syria, the tragedy of Syria, and when we say 1,400 people were killed in the use of chemical weapons, there are more than 150,000 people possibly who have been killed in a different kind of way.

BLITZER: Has he won this war, Bashar al-Assad?

AJAMI: You know, Wolf, I really don't know. I think -- I think -- I remember there is -- the State Department had Syria expert, Frederick Huff, and two years ago, almost to the day, in December 2011, Huff said that Bashar was a dead man walking.

Well, Bashar is not a dead man walking, and now he's actually a partner, if you will, in this effort to disarm Syria and rid it of its chemical weapons. It's a good outcome for Bashar.

BLITZER: Fouad Ajami, thanks very much for your perspective.

AJAMI: Thank you. BLITZER: Coming up, one arm of the government says it's safe to use cell phones on planes now, but another arm of the government steps in and says not so fast. So why the about-face?

And a kicker for a major college football team gets a personal letter from President George W. Bush. We're going to tell you why right after this.

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BLITZER: Talk about a welcome surprise. After a heartbreaking loss in which he didn't convert on three field goal attempts, the University of Alabama kicker Cade Foster received a letter from former President George W. Bush. In it Bush wrote, and I'm quoting, "Life has its setbacks. I know. However, you will be a stronger human with time. I wish you all the best."

Foster faced death threats following the loss to Auburn, which ended Alabama's title hopes.

Happening now, mixed cell phone messages, one federal agency is moving the green light calls in flight but now another agency says not so fast.

Plus, the signer speaks out. The interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial tells CNN he's not a fake, but revelations in the interview suggest he might have been a security risk.

And Senator Ted Cruz confronted a Republican firebrand got an earful from African-American Democrats for hours without any way to escape. Congressman Elijah Cummings joins us with the inside story.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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