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Interview With Florida Senator Bill Nelson; ISIS Brutality; Interview With U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken; Senator Drafting Bill for Strikes on ISIS in Syria; ISIS Horrors Revealed; New Poll Shows GOP Senate Leader in Tight Race

Aired September 3, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Is he contradicting himself? I will ask his deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, who is standing by live.

Exclusive: The defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, talks to CNN about the ISIS threat, the very personal interview. He's angry and he's outraged.

And ISIS' brutality revealed. We will have a chilling look at the barbaric tactics that make this the most feared terror group in the world right now.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Weeks of seemingly mixed messages in the face of a growing terror threat, now the horrifying beheadings of two American journalists have the Obama administration speaking forcefully, more consistently about its intent to -- quote -- "degrade and destroy ISIS." The president, the vice president and the defense secretary all voicing anger and outrage today, but the question remains, how will that translate into action?

We're covering all angles of the story this hour with our correspondents and our guests around the world.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, begins our coverage. He spoke exclusively today with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Jim, tell our viewers what he told you.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'll tell you, you saw the defense secretary, Hagel, speaking today very frankly and very directly on some hard questions that have hounded the administration so far. One, is the endgame against ISIS to make it a more manageable threat or to destroy it? He says to destroy it.

Is ISIS a threat to the U.S. homeland somewhere down the line or today? He says it's a threat today. In those words and in those warnings, you're hearing I think from the defense secretary preparing the American public for what's going to be a very long, difficult fight against ISIS.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With the brutality of ISIS playing out on television screens across the world, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says there's only one U.S. endgame.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're providing the president with those options -- to degrade and destroy ISIL's capability.

SCIUTTO: That's the endgame, degrade and destroy, not contain?

HAGEL: No, it's not contain. It's exactly what the president said, degrade and destroy.

SCIUTTO: There have been mixed signals from the administration as to how imminent and severe that threat is.

Two weeks ago, you said ISIS is -- quote -- "an imminent threat to every interest we have." And you went on to say, it's unlike any threat we have ever seen. After your comments, the administration seemed to pull back somewhat. You had the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff describe it as a regional threat, something the president did later that same week.

Is it an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland or to the region?

HAGEL: Well, first of all, I didn't say homeland. I said to the U.S. interests.

SCIUTTO: But you said an imminent threat to every interest we have.

HAGEL: That's right. I didn't say the homeland. I said to all of our interests.

Look at what just happened 24 hours ago in the latest video of another citizen as to what ISIL did. It is a threat. ISIL is a threat to this country, to our interests.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): But is there a plan for military action beyond the current mission in Iraq?

(on camera): Is part of the strategy military strikes inside Syria?

HAGEL: Well, that's an option. And we are looking at all those options.

SCIUTTO: Have you prepared those options for the president?

HAGEL: The president has asked for different options, and we have prepared those for him.

SCIUTTO: And Syria airstrikes are among them?

HAGEL: All their -- all these things are options that the president wants to see. And we have been working with the White House, not just starting working with the White House. We have been working with the White House for weeks.

The president talks to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ambassador Rice, national security adviser, talks to all of us. So, this isn't something that just popped up the last week or two. We have been working this for the last few weeks.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): A former soldier now leading the nation's armed forces, Secretary Hagel said that the video showing the executions of Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff affected him deeply.

(on camera): How did you personally react when you saw those videos?

HAGEL: It makes you sick to your stomach.

But it again reminds us of the kind of brutality and the barbarism that is afoot in some of these areas of the world. And it is our responsibility, the president, the vice president, mine, all of us, to do everything we can to stop this now, because it won't just recede into the gray recesses of history, until we stop it.


SCIUTTO: Another open question, will the president seek further authority from Congress before expanding military action against ISIS, including perhaps inside Syria? I asked Defense Secretary Hagel. He said that's still something being considered by the administration, but he says the president does want to work with Congress, consult with Congress before it takes further steps.

BLITZER: What about Ukraine? I know you spoke to him about U.S. military options, other options in dealing with the Russian threat Ukraine. What did he say?

SCIUTTO: I asked him. I asked him, was there any regret to taking that off the table?

He said one thing is very clear, boots on the ground not in Ukraine and military options not on the table for Ukraine. So when I asked him does he feel the economic costs that have been imposed on Russia have solved anything as Russia has continued to escalate, in fact, there, he said, listen, it's a long process. He granted that Russia has continued to escalate even in the face of these economic costs, but he says over time the hope is as the costs rise, Russia will be deterred.

But, frankly, Wolf, that's something we haven't seen yet.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Secretary Hagel is echoing President Obama who is taking a sharp new stance against ISIS only days after igniting serious controversy by saying the United States doesn't have a strategy yet to defeat the terror group in Syria.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is traveling with the president at the NATO summit in Cardiff, Wales. The president arrived just a little while ago. What's the latest?

What's the president specifically saying today when it comes to dealing with ISIS?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you heard the president both escalate and moderate somewhat his tone when it comes to dealing with ISIS and what his ultimate goal is in terms of dealing with the terrorist group.

Take a listen to a sample of what the president had to say at a news conference earlier today in Estonia.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our objective is clear. And that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it's no longer a threat not just to Iraq, but also the region and to the United States. We can continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities, to the point where it is a manageable problem.


ACOSTA: So those two different goals, making ISIS manageable and also degrading and destroying ISIS, those two terms seem to be in conflict with one another. But a senior administration official very shortly after the president's news conference earlier today was going to reporters and saying, look, the president was not walking back his comments, not walking back his objective, degrading and destroying ISIS, only acknowledging the reality that, even if you destroy ISIS, there may be remnants of the group that may pose a future threat to Americans and American interests around the world.

But contrast all of that, Wolf, with Vice President Joe Biden at an event earlier today in New Hampshire. His message on ISIS was clear and it was bold. He's what he had to say.


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When people harm Americans, we don't retreat. We don't forget. We take care of those who are grieving. And when that's finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice.


ACOSTA: Now, putting all the messaging aside, the president does have a mission on his hands this week when it comes to dealing in ISIS. In addition to dealing with the threat posed by Russia in Ukraine, the president very much wants to put together a coalition of partners both inside and outside of NATO to deal with the ISIS threat.

Britain will obviously be first among those nations, but, Wolf, the big question hanging over the summit here in Wales is what the president will ultimately walk away with. Will he have some sort of agreement, some sort of coalition that he can leave and go back to Washington with and then perhaps start taking the fight to ISIS in Syria?

It's really an open question at this point, Wolf. He's coming under growing pressure from fellow Democrats to do something more. Even Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota, Democratic senator from Minnesota, sent out a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder today saying he too is troubled by the president's comments recently that he doesn't have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria.

It's a big problem for the president, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Jim Acosta traveling with the president at the NATO summit in Wales, Jim, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Joining us, the president's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.

Tony, thanks very much for joining us.

Let me get, first of all, to what the vice president, Joe Biden, said. We heard what he said. He said the United States will never forget, will follow ISIS, these terrorists, to the gates of hell.

Here's the question. Does that include Syria?

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Wolf, I couldn't say it any better than the vice president said it.

He was, as he always is, forcefully clear about what we're doing, just as the president was earlier today in Estonia. We are putting together an effort, a comprehensive strategy to disrupt ISIL, to degrade it and ultimately to defeat it.

But that is something that takes tremendous effort and takes time. We're putting the pieces in place. We're trying to get an Iraqi partner with the formation of a new government that brings all of the communities in that can act as an effective partner on the ground in Iraq.

We're building out a regional coalition, so that the countries that have the most immediately at stake are in this effort. But, as the president recognized, this is something that will take time to get to the ultimate aim of defeating ISIL, but in the meanwhile, we will begin to take steps to start to put them in a box to get them off their toes and onto their heels.

BLITZER: But does it mean that the U.S. is also ready to go into Syria to destroy ISIS?

BLINKEN: What it means at this point, Wolf, there is, as you know, virtually no border between Iraq and Syria. The group is moving back and forth. We have to look at this problem holistically, including what we're able to do and what partners are able to do, what the Iraqis are able to do in Iraq and also in Syria.

In Syria, we have been very focused on building up a moderate opposition, an opposition that not only can deal with the Assad regime, but that can also deal with ISIL. The key thing is this, Wolf. We have seen a very good example in Iraq recently. We took action to deal with a threat to our personnel in Irbil at our consulate there.

ISIL was moving on to Irbil. We helped empower the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga using airpower. But they were on the ground and they were then able to take the space that had been freed up. It's important to have partners on the ground. And that's what we're building out.

BLITZER: I know you're working on a new strategy and the secretary of defense and secretary of state will leave the NATO summit, go to the region, go to the Middle East to try to put that coalition of partners together.

What's the timeline that you have now for finalizing a strategy to try not only to dismantle or diminish, degrade, but actually to destroy ISIS?

BLINKEN: Look, Wolf, this is going to come together in the coming weeks.

As we speak, the president is deeply engaged with our partners in Wales at the NATO summit. In the days ahead, Secretary Kerry will be going out to the region. Secretary Hagel will be following suit. Lisa Monaco, our counterterrorism adviser, will also be heading out, all of this in an effort to put together a coalition of countries, each of whom have a lot at stake if ISIL is allowed to consolidate its place and to grow from where it ISIS.

BLITZER: What do you make of the criticism the president is getting when he said the U.S. strategy would be to degrade and destroy ISIS, but then a few minutes later, in response to another question, it would be to get ISIS to the point of becoming a manageable problem, his words, manageable problem?

It sounded to some as if the president was walking back from the original statement to degrade and destroy.

BLINKEN: No, absolutely not, Wolf. The president was entirely consistent.

What he said and what he said very clearly is this. This is going to be a long-term effort. In the near term, what we can begin to do is to disrupt ISIL. And, indeed, we have actually started to do that in Iraq with the strikes that we have taken.

Second, we get to the point of disrupting them, really getting them off their toes, onto their heels. That's the same thing as making the problem manageable. And then, over time with this coalition, we get them to the point of defeat.

But the president was clear and wanted to be clear with the American people and folks around the world that that's something that's going to take time. So, what he said was entirely consistent. There's a continuum that goes from disrupting them to degrading them or managing them and ultimately to defeating them.

BLITZER: Because the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, told our Jim Sciutto today that ISIS right now controls half of Syria, half of Iraq. They are very, very powerful. Can the -- can ISIS be destroyed simply by airpower?


It takes a comprehensive strategy, which is exactly what the president is building and exactly why we're being so deliberate about it. It requires elements of military force. It requires dealing with foreign fighters who are flowing in and out of the region. It requires dealing with financing that they are getting. It requires empowering local actors, the Iraqis, the moderate Syrian opposition, to be able to deal with them.

It requires taking away their local base of support by taking, for example, Sunnis in Iraq who were alienated by the previous government and getting them to line up with the new government. That's what the comprehensive strategy is all about and it takes time to put together.

BLITZER: Senator Rand Paul made a statement today. And I will put it up on the screen.

He said: "If I were president, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security, and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily."

Is that a good recommendation?

BLINKEN: We have been in close consultations with Congress throughout this process.

Of course, as you know, Congress has been out. They are just coming back in next week. I would anticipate that those consultations will intensify.

Look, at the end of the day, Wolf, this, as the president has said, is going to be a sustained effort and it is going to take time and it will probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat. And in order to have that sustained effort, we need sustained support. And we will need Congress' support. So, for sure, we will be closely consulting with Congress to build that support for anything that we do.

BLITZER: Does ISIS have the capability to attack the U.S. homeland?

BLINKEN: Right now, Wolf, ISIS is focused on the region. It poses a clear and present danger to people in Iraq, to people in Syria, to people in the region, and indeed as we have seen tragically, to Americans in the region.

It has aspirations to threaten the homeland. We don't think it's there yet, but, if it's left unchecked, it could get there. And that's what we're determined to prevent. BLITZER: As you know, the anniversary of 9/11 is a week from tomorrow. Do you anticipate the U.S. taking some new dramatic measures just out of an abundance of caution, if you will, to make sure there isn't some sort of anniversary attack?

BLINKEN: Wolf, weeks ago, the president gathered all of his national security advisers, homeland security advisers, in anticipation of the anniversary of 9/11, as we do every year, because that can be a time of heightened concern, to make sure that we were doing everything possible against all lines of effort to be vigilant and to prevent any threats. And I'm very confident we have done just that.

BLITZER: Is there a credible threat out there right now?

BLINKEN: Look, Wolf, right now, what we're seeing is an intense threat from ISIS in the region, in Iraq, in Syria, to the neighboring countries, but we're constantly vigilant about potential threats to the homeland.

Right now, ISIL is focused on the region, not the homeland. But again, if it's left unchecked, it will become a threat to the homeland.

BLITZER: What about any other al Qaeda-related or inspired groups? Any threat, credible threat from them?

BLINKEN: All I can report to you, Wolf, is that we are constantly vigilant about that and we remain so right now.

BLITZER: With good reason.

Tony Blinken is the deputy national security adviser to the president.

Tony, thanks very much for joining us.

BLINKEN: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, legislation that would give President Obama clear authority to order airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. I will talk to the senator who is now drafting that legislation. My interview with Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, that's coming up.

Plus, we will get reaction to what we just heard from the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. He's walking into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

General, welcome. We will discuss.


BLITZER: Tough new talk today from the president of the United States on the ISIS threat. We just heard from his deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.

Let's get reaction from the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. General, thanks very much for joining us.

We're in our SITUATION ROOM right now, the CNN SITUATION ROOM. We got a map of Iraq. We're showing you what's going on. You spent a lot of time in the White House Situation Room when you were chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I'm going to ask you some questions that maybe the president would ask you right now if you were still chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Give me your best answers, if you can.

The president said today the U.S. objective is to dismantle and destroy ISIS. Chairman, how do you do that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS (RET.), FORMER JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Well, I think it has to be, as Tony Blinken said earlier on the earlier segment, it has to be a holistic approach.

It can't be just the military instrument of power. It has to be diplomacy working for you, economic instrument of power, information instrument of power, it has got to be a holistic approach. I think we even heard Tony use that word.

BLITZER: So economic, diplomatic, political, military, but airpower alone, military, you can't destroy ISIS with simply airpower.

MYERS: All of that.

No, you can't, because this is a movement. This is a hijacking of the Koran, if you will. This is a belief as much as it is fighters on the ground. And so to get at that, to get to the point where people don't want to join jihad, you need a lot more holistic approach and international approach to the problem than just military.

BLITZER: Is it wise to tell ISIS there won't be any U.S. boots on the ground?

MYERS: Personally, I would never telegraph all your moves.

We are at war with ISIS. I think the president has used that term. I think when you're at war, you don't telegraph all your moves. That's just not...


BLITZER: But even if you're going to launch airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, don't you need special operations forces on the ground to give you intelligence you need so you don't wind up just bombing various targets, killing a whole bunch of civilians?

MYERS: Right. I think that's a great point.

Using airpower, you can use airpower to do lots of amazing things. I think it needs to be coordinated very well with those on the ground with the special forces or other forces that are trained to do that. But you bring up the real problem. The problem is if you don't do that, then you're at the risk of hurting innocent men, women and children. You can't do that. BLITZER: Especially if ISIS, if these terrorists surround themselves

in these communities and there are a whole lot of men, women and children who have nothing to do with this.

MYERS: They would be ruthless in that regard and they would love to trick our forces into doing something that would make a big splash strategically on the international scene in terms of killing innocents.

So, yes, it's a real -- it's an issue that has to be worked.

BLITZER: Will the Arab partners of the United States, if the U.S. does decide to get militarily involved not only in Iraq because the U.S. is launching airstrikes, more than 100 already, against ISIS targets in Iraq, but in Syria, will Saudi Arabia, some of the other friendly Arab countries, United Arab Emirates, all of which have pretty good air forces, U.S. warplanes and other equipment in those air -- will they get involved as well?

MYERS: That's the part of the diplomatic effort that has to go on to get them involved in this, because ISIS is just as much a threat to them as it is to Iraq, as it is to the people in Syria, as it is to their grand design on this caliphate.

It has to be approached internationally. You would hope that our Arab friends in the Gulf would participate in a very meaningful way. This is a serious threat. I don't think it's a new one. I think it is one that came out of the '90s. The first generation was al Qaeda. Now we're into ISIS.

It's all the same threat, it's all the same map, it's all the same desire to establish this caliphate and we better take it seriously. We have had several times where we could take it seriously and we have taken it seriously for awhile and then we sort of forget about it and then it pops back up. But it pops back up now in a form that's just unimaginable.

BLITZER: The past 24 hours, the White House announced the U.S. -- the administration announced, the Defense Department another 350 American troops will be heading over to Baghdad. Now there's more than 1,000 U.S. active-duty military personnel serving in Iraq right now. I suspect that number is going to go up. What do you suspect?

MYERS: I have no idea. I don't really know. Probably it will go up.

But I think you can really help Iraq without having U.S. troops on the front lines. That's the Iraqis role. They have been well-trained.

BLITZER: but they have been MIA so far.

MYERS: Some of them have, and some of them haven't. It depends on where they are.

I think with the hope of a new government that will be more conciliatory towards all the sects, the various Sunni and the Shia and the Kurds in Iraq, there's hope that through leadership that the Iraqi army will stand tall.

BLITZER: You were here in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, in 2004. I was there with General Abizaid in 2005. This is a city of nearly two million people. It's now controlled by ISIS.

The U.S., as you know, military personnel, they invested a lot to try to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein. What do you say to the military personnel who gave so much? They are now back home, they're suffering, they may have come home without arms or legs or suffering from post-traumatic -- what do you say to them about this current mess, this horrible situation that has developed there?


MYERS: If it wasn't for them, they wouldn't have given Iraqis a chance for freedom and for the sorts of things that all humans really want.

So on the one hand, a very altruistic move over the last many years to give freedom a chance in Iraq. At this point, we all have to be very disappointed that we spent so much effort and it's been frittered away. I would say frittered away politically, not militarily, politically in the sense of Maliki and his ineptness in bringing Iraq together to take on their internal and external security issues.

BLITZER: Let's hope this new prime minister can unite those various groups.


MYERS: Yes, and then we have to work on that. That's really important.

BLITZER: Because if he doesn't, it's over.

MYERS: It's going to set things back.

BLITZER: Yes. General Myers, thanks very much for joining us.

MYERS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, as the Pentagon prepares military options in Iraq for President Obama, some critics are saying not so fast. Does he have the authority to strike ISIS targets in Syria? I will ask Senator Bill Nelson. He's a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. You see him there. We will discuss live.

Plus, mass murder, beheadings, abductions, ethic cleansing all publicized on camera. We have a special report on the brutality of ISIS.


BLITZER: As U.S. airstrikes rain down on ISIS targets in Iraq, there's growing pressure on the Obama administration to hit ISIS targets in Syria, as well. President Obama himself has promised, and I'm quoting him now, justice

will be served. But as the Pentagon prepares various options for the president, some are questioning if he has all the legal authority to go ahead and start bombing targets inside Syria.

One U.S. senator drafted legislation to give him that permission. That would be the Democratic senator from Florida, Bill Nelson. He's joining us now from Orlando.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us. You want a resolution, an authorizing legislation to be passed in the Senate that would formally give the president the authority to go ahead and bomb targets in Syria. Is that it right?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: In a word, yes. Now I believe that the president has the constitutional authority for the protection of the interests of the United States to go ahead.

However, there is some dispute, and some of the legal scholars as well as some of our fellow senators like Tim Kaine of Virginia, feel very strongly about this. And so we need to put those doubts to rest. And let's just give the legal authority in Syria. The president has the authority in Iraq. Let's give it in Syria because the head of the snake is in Syria, and that's where you have to go after to kill the snake.

BLITZER: As you know, a lot of your fellow senators will ask this legitimate question. Why vote for something like that before there's an actual strategy in place including an exit strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria?

NELSON: Well, the president has a strategy. He started on August the 25th doing the surveillance flights over Syria. He also has the strategy and has been very successful in northern Iraq and Kurdistan of having used air power to help the Kurdistan Peshmerga troops, as well as the Iraqi army. That has been deployed very successfully.

Now if we team up with a coalition, and he's talking to them right now in the NATO summit, and others such as the Free Syria Army, which by the way is not only fighting the Assad regime; they're fighting ISIS, as well. You team up with a coalition that can do the work on the ground plus Special Operations troops whenever you need to employ them, then you have a successful strategy.

BLITZER: Because the president the other day himself said that, when it comes to ISIS targets, ISIS operations in Syria, he hasn't formalized, finished that strategy yet. They're working on that kind of strategy.

Here's the question, though. Do you believe your fellow senators want to raise their hands, vote yay or nay on such a resolution? A lot of them are suggesting they want to run away from a formal vote.

NELSON: Well, it's our responsibility. It's part of the Constitution. If you declare war, it has to go through the Congress.

On the other hand, the president clearly has the chance to strike if he's protecting the country.

So this isn't going to be a one- or two-day strike. This is going to go on for a while. And it's going to be absolutely essential, because if we don't deal with it now, we're going to have to deal with ISIS in the future. I mean, Wolf, the head of ISIS has said he wants the black flag of ISIS flying over the White House.

BLITZER: And you're taking him very seriously, obviously with those words. Senator Bill Nelson, thanks very much for joining us.

NELSON: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, chilling tactics and horrifying brutality. We'll get a closer look at the -- why the world's fear of ISIS is now growing.


BLITZER: ISIS brutality is so extreme it's often not seen on television. After the beheadings of two American journalists, CNN believes it's important to show you the extent of it. What we're about to show you is certainly not appropriate for children. This report runs about three minutes. When it's over we'll discuss our reporting, but we'll not show any more of the graphic images.

Here's CNN senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The more ISIS grows, the more it fights like a regular army. Light infantry backed up by artillery, tactics that have landed them heavy weapons.

But don't be fooled. These fighters are barbaric in a way no fighting force has ever been before. Cataloging and posting in near real-time their war crimes. Last week pictures emerged from human rights groups showing more than 100 captured Syrian soldiers paraded in their underwear. Then images of those same men dead.

But ISIS wanted to make sure the world knew it was responsible, wasting little time posting this video, showing commanders giving the order to fire. Then the nauseating hail of bullets, confirmation of how those soldiers were brutally executed. It's propaganda.

Like me, you want to turn away, but when we do, we give in. We are terrorized, and their goal is achieved.

Almost a decade ago, al Qaeda in Iraq, which ultimately morphed into ISIS, was led by this violent jihadist. He sprung to fame beheading American businessman Nicholas Berg. Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al- Zawahiri, wrote him criticizing his bloodthirsty tactics. The beheadings stopped.

But when ISIS murders journalist James Foley in the same way, the same al Qaeda core leader has no response. At least not yet. As a result, extreme violence for propaganda seems to have no bounds.

ISIS's wholesale slaughter of both Syrian and Iraqi army troops is institutionalized in the organization now. Even women, even young children are given severed heads to hold. ISIS leader Baghdadi (ph) is marginalizing al Qaeda's core, which means when his proteges target the west, it could be even more despicable than the terror we have seen in the past.

These are fighters who have so debased and degraded themselves they have lost moral compass. As any commander will tell you, that puts them almost beyond control and ultimately a danger to their own organization. But unless they implode, despite a regular army, there will likely be more horrors like these.

Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


BLITZER: Let's get some perspective from someone who has worked for years to combat threats like ISIS. Joining us our CNN counterterrorism analyst, Philip Mudd. He's a veteran of the CIA and the FBI. When it comes to terror brutality, is this a new level we're seeing right now, Nic?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, I'm not sure it's a new level. I'll get to that in a moment. What's new is the scope of this. If you look at the geography they control and the number of people they're affecting across villages in Syria and Iraq, I can't remember my 30 years of watching this stuff a group that owned that scope of territory and administered this kind of justice.

What's similar, though, Wolf, is the psychology. We had folks when I was at the CIA who managed our detainees, that is al Qaeda detainees, at what we call black site CIA secret prisons.

And when they would talk about the commitment of this adversary to commit acts of what we would call murder, atrocities, the commitment of these folks was remarkable from a Western perspective. We have seen it in the Taliban in Afghanistan. We have seen it in the tribal areas of Pakistan. We've seen it in Somali villages.

So, I think the psychology is in some ways similar to what I have seen in the past, but the scope of this is just stunning from a counterterrorism professional's perspective.

BLITZER: So, how should the U.S. deal with this threat?

MUDD: We have had nearly 15 years of dealing with these kinds of problems. Again, there are a couple things we have to consider.

First, something we learned during the surge with the U.S. military a few years ago. We can't own this problem -- not just from a political perspective, but from a counterterrorism, counterinsurgency perspective. Helping Sunni tribesmen who will quickly tire of these guys when they start killing Iraqis is number one, getting the Iraqis to do their own work. Number two, something we have seen successfully in places like

Somalia, is there an international component? We have African forces in Somalia. Do we have other Middle Eastern forces in Iraq?

And, finally, the U.S. perspective. We're concerned in terms of threat about a sliver of this organization that's targeted to putting bombs in places like London and New York. Do we have the intelligence to put drones on individual targets to take out those kinds of point threats? I think U.S. intelligence and drones will be critical for years to come to take out the threats of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

BLITZER: That means airstrikes trying to kill these guys.

Philip Mudd, thanks very much for joining us. I think you're right.

MUDD: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead: we're monitoring the critical races in the battleground states as the country gears up for some critical midterm elections, including an exclusive new poll that shows the Senate minority leader may -- repeat -- may be in trouble.


BLITZER: We're following some important political news here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're only 62 days away from the all-important midterm elections as Republicans fight to take control of the Senate. It's a push that could hamper President Obama's final two years in office. And we're getting exclusive new polling that shows just how tight the races across the country are.

A new CNN/ORC poll shows Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only four points ahead of his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, 50 percent to 46 percent, among likely voters.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash was on the ground in Kentucky. She's back here in Washington. She's joining us with more.

This is a critically important race, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESONDENT: That is an understatement. If Mitch McConnell wins, and Republicans do take over the Senate, it will have endless effects on the president's last two years in office. But what's striking in going to Kentucky as I did, is that voters who will determine that have such different candidates to choose from.


BASH (voice-over): This year's marquee political race is a study in contrasts, a 35-year-old Democrat, a Washington novice, running to be Kentucky's first female senator.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (D), KENTUCKY SENATE CANDIDATE: Mitch McConnell's Washington -- well, it's not working for Kentucky.

BASH: The 72-year-old top Senate Republican in the fight of his life to win and takeover the Senate.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: There is nobody Barack Obama wants to beat worse than Mitch McConnell.

BASH: Mitch McConnell is the ultimate political tactician and old school bring-home-the-bacon senator. But he's not a warm and fuzzy campaigner, at all.

Alison Lundergan Grimes is a natural at pressing the flesh with voters, but in interviews, she often sounds scripted.

(on camera): Give me some Kentucky candor. Is the president a drag on you here?

GRIMES: I think that Kentuckians are seeing this race for what it is -- a chance to actually move Kentucky forward in the right direction.

BASH (voice-over): Grimes is giving McConnell his toughest challenge in years, raking in campaign cash, getting help from family friend Bill Clinton, airing clever TV ads.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator, why did you vote two times against the violence against women act and against enforcing equal pay for women?

BASH: His goal, tie her to President Obama who in 2012 won only four of Kentucky's 120 counties and is even more unpopular now.

MCCONNELL: She's the new face for the status quo, a new face to vote for Barack Obama.

BASH: She paints him as the personification of Washington dysfunction.

GRIMES: He has nothing left to give to the people of this state, no new ideas -- actually promising further gridlock.

BASH: You have to hear McConnell's retort to believe it. The 30-year Senate veteran is running as an agent of change.

MCCONNELL: The only thing they can do in 2014 is begin to change the direction of the country is to change the makeup of the Senate.

BASH: And put him in charge.

(on camera): You know the joke that most senators look in the mirror and they see a future president. You at least I don't think --

MCCONNELL: I never had that problem.

BASH: -- is one of those people.

MCCONNELL: I didn't have that affliction.

BASH: But you have always wanted to be the majority leader of the Senate. Is that fair to say?

MCCONNELL: I would like to have a chance to be the majority leader of the Senate, yes.


BASH: And with the stakes so high, the candidates' stumbles are amplified. A secret audio of McConnell talking to Koch brothers donors and the fact that its campaign manager resigned amid scandals surrounding work for another candidate is national fodder, and so are allegations that Grimes got a sweetheart deal for a campaign bus.

And, Wolf, this is not only getting ugly. It is expensive. If it's actually expected to be the most expensive Senate race in history, north of $100 million.

BLITZER: A hundred million dollars in Kentucky?

BASH: In Kentucky.

BLITZER: Wow, that's a huge, huge amount of money. Underscores how important this race could be.

Dana, thanks very much.

The race in Kentucky just one of several key elections we're following here at CNN as Republicans and Democrats battle for control of the Senate. So, what's the forecast for the November elections?

Our chief national correspondent John King is over at the magic wall with more.

What are you seeing, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that Kentucky race part of a fascinating game of chess as we enter now the final two months of the race for Senate. Let's start with the stakes as we now have them. Democrats have 55, that includes two independents who caucus with Democrats. Republicans have 45. You can do the math at home. Republicans need a net gain of six, plus six net to take control of the Senate.

Well, how would that play out? There are 36 Senate races this year, but most party strategists on both parties will tell you, they're looking at about 14 races right now as very competitive. And most of them -- this is why the Republicans are confident they'll get those six, you see the states in blue highlighted, those are Democrat-held seats. There are a dozen Democrats held seats here that Republicans are targeting.

Only two, that Kentucky race Dana just talked about and the Georgia race, and I'll add a third in a minute that Republicans are worried about. So, Democrats are on defense in this campaign.

How do Republicans get the six? Well, they think they start, Wolf, with three pretty safety bets -- Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. So, if the Republicans get those three, then they're three away from the majority, right?

Where would they get them? Well, their top targets -- let me turn this on their top targets -- Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, all red states, none of them carried by President Obama. North Carolina, the president carried it just once.

And Republicans see surprising opportunity for those close races in New Hampshire. The president carried that state twice. Iowa, that was the birthplace of Barack Obama, right, in 2008, and Colorado.

So, if you look at those seven states, Republicans think we get those three, then we just need three more from those seven and we get the majority. Some Republicans think they could get a bit more. Democrats think they might be able to keep the Republicans just short. These races are so close. That's why the stakes are so high.

So, why does Kentucky matter? Well, as Dana just noted, Mitch McConnell would like to be the majority leader, and yet Republicans are on defense in Kentucky of all places. A little bit nervous about Georgia of all places.

Let me add a third, Kansas. Pat Roberts, the Republican incumbent, he could be in trouble there. So, do the math, again, Republicans need a net gain of six. If they lose one or two of these, then they have to gain more Democratic seats.

That's why the Republicans holding what they have is so important and why that Kentucky race, consider the irony, if the Republicans actually got that net gain of six, took control of the Senate and Mitch McConnell lost, and didn't get his dream of being majority leader. That's why that will be so expensive, Wolf. We'll watch until the very end.

BLITZER: So, for these vulnerable Democrats, where does the president fit in the schedule over the next two months?

KING: How about almost nowhere? That is one of the calculations.

Let me go back to the Democratic map. Again, the blue states highlighted in gold, we have seen the president go to Michigan. We've seen the Democrat there campaign with him.

Will he be invited to New Hampshire? He hasn't been yet. Joe Biden was there today.

Will he be invited to North Carolina? He went the Arkansas after a tornado. Hasn't been invited back yet.

The White House says they don't expect the president to get invitations to most of these states. They understand that his main job, Wolf -- raise money and then do targeted radio interviews and the like to try to generate turnout, from election day because in the number of these states, African-American turnout, Georgia for example, and North Carolina, for example, maybe Louisiana and Arkansas, African-American turnout could be the difference if the president can get them to vote without causing more harm than good. BLITZER: And Republicans clearly want the Affordable Care Act,

Obamacare, to be a key issue in these races?

KING: They do. Although, that's again one of the fascinating question why this chess is so fascinating. You have to go state by state by state. In some states, the Democrats say, you know what, the president's health care plan is not as big of a liability as they thought it would be, and because we spent so much time, and president is spending so much time right now on foreign affairs, we've seen that play. This ISIS controversy, the beheadings, an issue in New Hampshire Senate race in the last couple of days, an issue in some of these other races.

So, we expect in the end, it would be about the economy, it would be about health care. But the foreign policy crises are also having an impact on the president's approval rating and what's being said on the campaign trail.

BLITZER: So, normally, in year six of a two-term presidency, the party and power in the White House does not necessarily do well in the midterm election.

KING: History tells you the six-year itch midterm election, which was what we're in, is usually a bad one for the incumbent. That is one, remember in 2006, George W. Bush entire Iraq War sentiment was in the high, the Democrats won 30 seats in the House in 2006. In 2010, we saw the Tea Party boom in this cycle.

No one expects a big wave like that. Like the 2006 election. More like the 2010 election.

What people are expecting now is again state by state, battle here and somebody getting 51 or 52 Senate seats. Will it be the Republicans with a surge, will it be the Democrats with a successful defense? I can't answer that. And most people have pretty modest expectations of Republicans gaining somewhere between five or six to maybe as many if things the break late for them for 12 to 15 House seats.

BLITZER: All right. John, thanks very much. We're going to be spending a lot of time with you, our political team, watching these critically important contests between now and November.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.