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Family: Sotloff Was Sold to ISIS by "Moderates"; Twitter Looking Into Terror Threats; Interview with Marie Harf; Obama to Reveal ISIS Strategy to Nation; Interview With Sen. Bob Corker: Has U.S. Targeted Top ISIS Leaders?
Aired September 9, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thanks very much.
Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report.
U.S. hostage betrayed?
A new claim that murdered American, Steven Sotloff, was sold by ISIS to moderate -- sold to ISIS, I should say, by moderate Syrian rebels.
If the U.S. goes after ISIS inside Syria, does it have a reliable ally there?
Executioner unmasked -- investigators say they know who killed U.S. hostage Jim Foley.
But can he be found and brought to justice?
And the president's ISIS strategy -- he'll reveal it to the nation, indeed, to the world tomorrow night, even as a high profile U.S. company now says it's investigating apparent death threats from ISIS supporters.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
President Obama has just briefed top Congressional leaders on his plan to defeat the ISIS terror group. He'll address the nation on his strategy tomorrow night. You'll see it live here on CNN, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
While the public may be war weary, polls show strong support for taking action against the brutal jihadists who seized a broad swathe of territory inside Iraq and Syria.
U.S. aircraft have been hitting ISIS targets in Iraq for weeks. The sticking point has been Syria. And while the president seems ready to begin strikes there, the case of a murdered American hostage is raising new questions about whether the United States now has anyone it can really count on to help inside Syria.
Our correspondents and analysts and guests are standing by with full coverage. Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight, the Obama administration, with the FBI in the lead, is investigating exactly how Steven Sotloff was captured and exactly who was responsible. There are competing allegations.
Was it moderate Syrian rebels?
Was it a local colleague?
The White House is acknowledging that these questions highlight one of the biggest challenges for the president going forward -- who is reliably on America's side there?
SCIUTTO (voice-over): President Obama is preparing to address the nation on his strategy for defeating ISIS, which will depend, in part, on supporting moderate Syrian rebels.
So the allegation, first on CNN, from Steven Sotloff's friend and family spokesman was alarming.
BARAKA BARFI, SOTLOFF FAMILY SPOKESMAN: For the first time, we can say Steven was sold at the border. We believe that the so-called moderate rebels that the -- that people want us -- our administration to support, one of them sold him.
SCIUTTO: Barak Barfi tells CNN that a moderate rebel group tipped off ISIS to Sotloff's arrival by telephone. It then swooped in an elaborate mobile checkpoint, a group of vehicles overtaking Sotloff on a road and taking him away.
A senior administration official tells CNN there is no evidence to support the claim that Sotloff was in the custody of the moderate opposition at any time. Syrian opposition officials, consulting with sources and activists on the ground, also deny the story.
However, White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, acknowledged that there are lingering questions about which parts of the opposition are truly trustworthy.
JOSH EARNEST, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This has been a difficult challenge for not just the United States, but for other countries to confront. And that is vetting the individuals who are part -- who are elements of the Syrian opposition to ensure that the support that we're providing is going into the hands of the right people.
SCIUTTO: Today, the Syrian opposition is made up of some 12 different rebel groups, some moderate, some extreme, some in between -- a key reason President Obama has resisted arming rebels in any significant way. JONAH SCHULHOFER-WOHL, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: There are these many groups. But for the most part, we know who their leaders are. We know whether or not they want to institute a more Islamic form of governance in a post-Assad Syria or whether they want secular governance. And we can pick and choose who our allies can be if the U.S. decides to fight the Islamic State in Syria.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
SCIUTTO: In one more measure of just how confusing the situation is on the ground in Syria, a Syrian opposition official presents an entirely different allegation, that Sotloff was given up by his local translator and assistant, who, unknown to Sotloff, was part of another Islamist group, Ahrar ash-Sham, which transferred him to the Nusra force, an al Qaeda tied group, and then onto ISIS. Sotloff's family has strongly defended the fixture -- you know, Wolf, this is a real measure of just the confusion on the ground here. You have so many groups, some clearly on the side against Assad, some more pro-Western, some less so, some in between. And this is a real challenge for the president going forward.
BLITZER: And I know what worries the Obama administration and a U.S. officials across the board is as moderate, as pro-Western as many elements of the Free Syrian Army might be, there are elements there who are, in fact, cooperating, they acknowledge, w certain elements of Al-Nusra, for example, which the U.S. regards as a terrorist organization.
SCIUTTO: Absolutely. And in the bizarre sort of mathematics on the ground, al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda-tied, is seen as more moderate than ISIS, just because ISIS is so out there.
This is the thing. You know, no one is that great on the ground except the Free Syrian Army and some groups allied with them.
But you have another problem, that they're necessarily -- not necessarily the most effective fighters on the battlefield. And that's an issue going forward, as well.
BLITZER: Yes. And the U.S. doesn't want to provide weapons to the Free Syrian Army that could wind up in the hands of Al-Nusra or ISIS, even worse, down the road.
BLITZER: That's a real problem.
Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
ISIS supporters are allegedly using social media to issue death threats against a top U.S. social media company. That comes as investigators pin down the identity of the ISIS executioner who killed the U.S. hostage, James Foley.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is looking into these developments. What are you finding out -- Pamela?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, now that officials believe they know who jihadi John is, they're working feverishly to gather as much intelligence as possible as to his whereabouts. But actually bringing him to justice could come with some major risks.
JIHADI JOHN: So any attempt by you, Obama...
BROWN (voice-over): U.S. law enforcement sources tell CNN the man seen here holding a knife to James Foley's neck is a British citizen with ties to an extremist group based in London. But authorities aren't naming him, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: The only way you have categorical proof is if he takes his mask off. But if there's just a small percentage of doubt, it would be hugely embarrassing for the British and the Americans to say this is the killer and it turns out that it's somebody else.
JIHADI JOHN: Will result in the bloodshed of your people.
BROWN: Investigators have been using voice analysis to trace his accent and using human sources to pinpoint his identity. A spokesman for murdered American hostage, Steven Sotloff, says former ISIS hostages have helped the investigation.
BARFI: -- British guards are known as The Beatles. We had a lot of information on them. We know that they had East London accents from people told us from inside the prison. So we know a lot about their modus operandi.
BROWN: Identifying the masked man is one thing, finding and capturing him is another. U.S. and British authorities would have to weigh the risks of a manhunt, looking at options such as drones, cruise missile strikes or sending in Special Operations troops. A failed rescue attempt in Syria of James Foley and other hostages this past summer shows just how risky any operation could be.
CRUIKSHANK: He's a guy who's with ISIS deep behind enemy lines. So it's just very, very difficult to mount these kind of operations. And every time you do it, you're going to put U.S. Special Forces at risk.
BROWN: Meanwhile, ISIS supporters continue turning to social media to spread their message of fear, some even allegedly targeting Twitter employees with threats of violence after Twitter disabled terrorists' online accounts. One message says, "The time has arrived to respond to Twitter's management by directly attacking their employees and physically assassinating them."
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BROWN: And Twitter responded in a statement saying their security team is investigating the veracity of these threats with relevant law enforcement officials.
And, Wolf, I just heard from the FBI. We're told they are aware of this and will investigate as appropriate -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Do we know if top executives at Twitter have received extra security protection right now?
BROWN: At this point, Wolf, officials aren't going into that kind of detail. And we did reach out to Twitter again today. And they will only release that statement I just read. So they're staying tight- lipped at this point.
BLITZER: All right, Pamela Brown reporting.
Very disturbing information.
Let's go in depth now with the State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf.
Marie, thanks very much for coming in.
MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESWOMAN: Happy to be here.
BLITZER: All right, let's talk about a couple of things.
This Twitter threat, how serious is the U.S. government taking this threat from ISIS supporters, that because Twitter removes Tweets from ISIS out there, that maybe some top executives at Twitter could be in danger?
HARF: Well, we take any threat seriously, certainly any threat from ISIS. We've seen the level of their brutality many times over the past several months now. So we obviously take it very seriously and look for all of the good that happens with such an open social media world and such open Internet. There also, unfortunately, are people like ISIS, who are able to use it.
So we've talked to Twitter and YouTube and others about their own terms of service and making sure that ISIS' videos or photos don't violate those, because some of them, as you know, are quite gruesome.
BLITZER: Yes, and presumably, they're taking tight -- tighter security, which would be a prudent measure.
Let's talk a little bit about the killer of these two American hostages.
Do you know -- without telling us a name or anything, but does the United States government know who killed James Foley and Steven Sotloff?
HARF: We're still looking into that, Wolf. It's something we've talked about a number of times here on your show. The intelligence community is looking at the videos, looking at all the intelligence they've gathered to really see if we can pin that down. It's something they're still looking at.
BLITZER: Are they close?
HARF: You know, we keep getting closer every day, but, of course, don't have anything to share publicly yet. That's an ongoing process. But as you've heard the president and the secretary and many others make clear, we will find who is responsible no matter how long it takes and we will hold them accountable.
BLITZER: And what do you make of this claim from the Sotloff family spokesman, this Barak Barfi, that -- that Sotloff was actually sold by some supporter of the Free Syrian Army or some moderate rebels, if you will, and eventually wound up in the hands of ISIS?
HARF: Well, the FBI has an open investigation right now into the entire Sotloff and Foley cases. Obviously, that's for them to talk to most specifically.
But we don't have any information that indicates that he was ever held by the moderate opposition or to verify those claims made here by their spokesperson.
Obviously, we vet who we work with in the Syrian moderate opposition, because we know there are a lot of different people on the ground claiming to represent different groups and we want to make sure that the people we provide assistance to have been vetted and are -- and are appropriate for that assistance.
BLITZER: Do you want to respond to some of the other allegations?
I assume you've heard what he's suggesting, that the U.S. didn't do enough to stay -- to save Steven Sotloff.
HARF: Well, I want to be clear here. We go to every possible length that we can to find these Americans and bring them home. As you know, our special operators undertook an incredibly risky military operation to potentially rescue them. Our intelligence community has been incredibly focused on this, looking for any bit of information that could indicate their location.
Diplomatically, at the State Department, we've reached out to over two dozen countries for anyone who has any information or anything that could lead to finding the Americans and bringing them home.
But unfortunately, ISIS has shown there's no bounds to their brutality. We continue to put every effort, though, behind finding the remaining Americans who are being held by ISIL and, hopefully, bringing them home.
BLITZER: Let's bring them home soon, hopefully, indeed.
All right, stand by, Marie.
We have a lot more questions.
I want to look ahead to the president's big speech tomorrow. Will the president tell the world the U.S. is ready to attack ISIS targets, not only in Iraq, but in Syria, as well?
Much more with Marie Harf, when we come back.
BLITZER: President Obama has just wrapped up a meeting with the Congressional leadership on his new ISIS strategy. He'll be briefing the nation, indeed the entire world, tomorrow night, 9 p.m. Eastern. We're back with the State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf.
Marie, almost exactly a year ago, September 10, 2013, the president went on national television and said this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He says after careful consideration he has decided to go ahead with the target. That was against the Bashar al-Assad regime. It didn't happen for other reasons. But now he's saying, basically, he might be saying he's ready to order limited air strikes against the opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime. Is that right?
MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESWOMAN: I think what you will hear tomorrow night is really a comprehensive way we're going to work with our partners around the world to fight ISIL. That's not just potentially military like we've done in Iraq, now over 150 strikes.
But it's really more than that. It's diplomatically. It's how you cut off financing. It's how you cut off foreign fighter flows. Putting together this very broad coalition. Secretary Kerry is headed to the region right now to help build that coalition to take the fight to ISIL in a very holistic and comprehensive way. And it's not going to just be military. It can't be.
BLITZER: But should we expect limited air strikes against ISIS targets not only in Iraq but in Syria?
HARF: I think I'll wait for the president's speech tomorrow night. I'm not going to preview it in any specific way. But I think what you can expect and what we've been talking about for many days and weeks now is how you take the fight to the terrorist organization. It is a long fight. It doesn't happen overnight.
First you push them back from territory. Then you cut off their financing. Then you take out their leadership. Then you look at foreign These are all pieces to the puzzle here that we're putting together with our partners right now. And you'll hear the president talk about that tomorrow.
BLITZER: And you say that it's being pieced together with Secretary Kerry going to Jordan. He's going to Saudi Arabia, elsewhere in the region. Secretary of Defense Hagel, he's been in Turkey. It looks like that's still a work in progress. Here's the question. Before all those things are aligned, why is the president going to address the nation?
HARF: Well, I think the president believes it's important to speak directly to the American people about a threat that...
BLITZER: Still a work in progress. The strategy if you don't have all the countries in the region right on board.
HARF: Well, I think you've heard from a lot of the countries in the region that they are very committed to fighting ISIL. Some of them have already pledged support in Iraq. Some of them have already provided weapons to the Iraqi forces, the Kurdish forces, some that provide humanitarian aid.
So this is something we've been talking with our partners about quite a bit and been very vocal about. So I think the president is important tomorrow night to speak directly to the American people, but to be clear, this is going to be an ongoing effort. This kind of fight against a terrorist organization is different than fights I think we saw in the past, but very similar to things we've done in this administration against other terrorist groups elsewhere around the world.
BLITZER: When it comes to ISIS, per se, just ISIS, is Iran paying a positive or a negative role?
HARF: Well, what we've said to the Iranians, and to be clear, we will not coordinate with the Iranians any military action. We won't share intelligence with them on this threat, but ISIS is a threat to the whole region, including Iran. And we have said very publicly that they could play a role supporting an inclusive new Iraqi government. We had a huge milestone where that yesterday. And really support the Iraqi forces as they battle ISIS in Iraq.
Because the answer there isn't militias. It's not extra governmental forces of any kind. It's really the Iraqi and the Kurdish forces. So Wolf, Iran can play a role here if they .
BLITZER: Are they doing that yet. Are they playing a positive role in terms of trying to defeat, destroy ISIS, which is a threat, correctly, to them, as well?
HARF: I think they understand the threat. Obviously, what we're focused on is the coalition we're putting together with Gulf allies, with other countries in the region. Secretary of Defense Hagel was just in Turkey with our European allies, who we talked to in NATO about this quite a bit last week. That's what we're focused on.
BLITZER: Is Qatar playing a positive or negative role? HARF: Well, we are asking every country, including Qatar, to help in
any way they can. And part of the way the Qataris can help, they can crack down on private citizens in their countries that have been financing ISIS. We don't have anything to indicate the government is, but there's a financing network here that we need the Qataris' help in really cracking down on trying to cut off this money that has really helped ISIS grow.
BLITZER: They haven't done that yet.
HARF: Well, they're working on it, but it's a tough challenge. Most of ISIS funding doesn't come from other places. It comes from crime, ransoms that are paid to it, four kidnapping, bank robberies, things like that. But there is some funding, I guess, from other countries, private citizens. We need everyone to help.
BLITZER: When they took over Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, there were banks there. They stole all the money from those banks, hundreds of millions of dollars. So ISIS has a lot of money. I think it's fair to say that.
Thursday is the anniversary of 9/11. What's the latest? Are there any specific credible threats to U.S. diplomatic compounds, whether in Baghdad or anyplace else?
HARF: The president and other top terrorism officials have spoken to this. We don't have specific and credible threats that we are following at this moment. But obviously, it's an anniversary that we pay quite a bit of attention to from a security perspective.
All of our posts around the world know to pay more attention on that day. It's obviously an anniversary where we here in the United States and at the State Department take very seriously. It's a somber day for us. It's a sad day. We are going to be honoring those we lost on 9/11, also two years ago. And that's how the State Department will be remembering.
BLITZER: Two years ago on 9/11 was the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador of Libya, were killed. Let's hope it's quiet on this Thursday, this anniversary of 9/11.
HARF: Absolutely. And we always pay attention, though, and our intelligence community puts additional resources into looking at any possible threats, pulling any threads of intelligence they have because, of course, the different...
BLITZER: But no credible threat yet.
HARF: Nothing has changed on that yet, obviously. We're still watching.
BLITZER: Marie Harf, thanks very much.
Coming up, U.S. aircraft step up their strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq. Are they also targeting the terror group's leadership? And President Obama just briefed key lawmakers on his ISIS strategy, but does he need Congressional approval to strike ISIS in Syria? I'll ask Senator Bob Corker. He's the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. He's standing by live.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's get back to our top story. President Obama just briefed the top Congressional leadership on a strategy to defeat ISIS. He will unveil his plan tomorrow night in a nationwide address, 9 p.m. Eastern. Joining us now, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. BOB CORKER (R-TN), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Good to be with you. Thank you.
BLITZER: The way I see it, the president will outline his strategy. Then it will be up to the Senate and House to either do nothing, just keep on talking, vote a formal resolution of approval authorizing the use of force against ISIS targets not only in Iraq but in Syria, or simply wait on funding because the president -- the administration will need a lot of money to begin this new phase of the war against ISIS and the war on terror. What's your preference?
CORKER: Well, obviously, I think the president should come to Congress and ask for the authorization for the use of force. Bush 41 in Desert Storm felt like he had the authority, but they realized that to get the U.S. buy-in, to get Congress's buy-in was very important.
Bush 43 did so in '01 in Afghanistan, did so in '02 in Iraq, and this president came to us with Syria last year, again seeking buy-in from the American people.
So I think it would be extremely lacking in judgment for him to not come seek that from us, a formal authorization. I don't think that he's going to ask for that, and I'm dismayed by that, because when you begin these kinds of efforts, things go wrong.
You know, you want to know that you have the support of Congress. Wolf, we don't have a lot of credibility in the region, because our allies in the Syrian conflict had to watch on CNN the president say that he wasn't going to strike, he was going to go to Congress.
And then, as you know, what we did with Russia and Assad ended up delivering a great setback to us and certainly the efforts of the moderate rebels. So I think to have Congress's buy-in to them would show strength, would show credibility, would show a durable effort. So I'm dismayed by the fact that, at present, they're not seeking that authorization.
BLITZER: But just to get back to that one point, the president would point out, his aides would point out that that effort, the diplomatic effort with Russia and others to eliminate, destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, that effort worked, right?
CORKER: No. Well, sure it worked if that was the goal. There were 1,200 people that were killed by chemical weapons of -- and I hate to say this, it's very crass, I mean, the smartest thing Assad ever did. And we never delivered aid and the lethal aid and training at the levels that we said we would to rebels. Assad is still in office. We jumped in Putin's lap. We've elevated him.
So certainly we got rid of the chemical weapons we know about. We believe there are those that haven't been disclosed yet. But it's been a loser for us in Syria. It's the big -- one of the biggest issues that's caused Iraq to go through the destabilization they've gone through.
So now we have two countries that are joined. It was a terrible policy to do what we did it and to ignore supporting at a time when it would have mattered, the moderate opposition.
So, look, it's the lack of policies that our nation has had in Iraq, leaving in '11 without leaving forces there, not to combat, but just a stabilizing force. And it was our lack of policy in Syria that's driven us to this place.
But we need to focus on the future.
CORKER: And, again, I'm dismayed that this president would not come to Congress and seek the authorization. I think you can debate whether he has the authority. Most people in the White House would say they do, as most presidents do.
But that's not the debate. The debate is, are you going to involve Congress?
Are you going to ask for their authorization in advance so that he knows he has support for the longer term?
BLITZER: Well, you could introduce, Senator, a resolution on your own, saying here is an appropriate -- the authority for the president to go ahead and strike.
BLITZER: In other words, members of the House, members of the Senate, they could take the initiative even if the president doesn't do that.
CORKER: Yes, but the part of the process that's important here, Wolf, is when you seek the support of Congress, you also come up here and explain in detail what your strategy is, what your objectives are. You have members of your cabinet up here explaining how you're going to go about it.
One of the things that I've not heard yet is any coherency to how we deal with Syria. And, obviously, in Iraq, we have the ability to build off the Iraqi military, as weak as it is. We have the ability to build off the Peshmerga with the Kurds. There are Shia militia groups there.
So we have things in place there that you can build off of on the ground.
We don't have that in Syria. And I haven't heard anyone yet, from the administration, explain how we're going to deal with that.
But think about it: we have to go into Syria. So we'd be going into another country that we're now -- have been totally uninvolved in -- uninvolved in relative to military efforts. And going into another country, the president is talking about a potential three year effort and not seeking an authorization.
I just think it's incredibly poor judgment. And, again, no effort whatsoever to sell Congress, to sell the American people.
I think most people here want to deal with ISIS in a strong manner that exterminates them. But I think not seeking that approval on the front end...
BLITZER: All right...
CORKER: ... is extremely lacking in judgment.
BLITZER: Very quickly on this sensitive issue, looking ahead, you say the U.S. should be providing weapons to the moderate Syrian rebels.
BLITZER: Here's the fear, that those weapons could wind up in the hands of al-Nusra or even ISIS, other terrorist groups...
CORKER: Yes. Yes.
BLITZER: ... given how strong they are and how weak that Free Syrian Army is.
CORKER: Yes. So, look, I've advocated that a year and a half ago. We had a strong bipartisan vote in our committee to do that. It never has happened. And I like...
BLITZER: Is it too late, though?
CORKER: I like -- I -- I question whether it's too late. I mean he's talking about $500 million in support. I don't know what's left of the moderate opposition. The vacuum that we helped create there, with our policies, have now caused them to be a minim -- a de minimis factor. And so I do question that. And I want someone from the administration to explain to me that that is still a viable strategy, because, like you, I've got concerns.
We left them hanging. We've gotten to where we know or recognize people in these refugee camps that we left hanging, America. We told them what we were going to do. We didn't do it. Their sons, their uncles, their brothers have been slaughtered.
And I do question whether there's much there that matters of the moderate opposition. That's a factor that I think we should though about and they should be discussing with us. But it's not occurred yet.
BLITZER: Yes. Because we know a lot of the weapons that ISIS has in Iraq are U.S. weapons, which they took when the Iraqi military abandoned their posts, simply ran away and ISIS got U.S. tanks, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles, all sorts of other good military equipment.
It's a complex question, a complex problem.
CORKER: It is.
BLITZER: We'll hear what the president says tomorrow night.
Senator Corker, we'll check in -- check back with you after we hear from the president.
Thanks very much for joining us.
CORKER: Thank you, Wolf.
Coming up in our special report, we have new details about the latest U.S. air strikes in Iraq. Has the U.S. also targeted the top leadership of ISIS for assassination.
And later, why air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria present more of a challenge than they do in Iraq.
BLITZER: U.S. military says air strikes over the past two days destroyed 14 ISIS vehicles in Iraq, including a pair of transporting anti-aircraft artillery pieces. The Pentagon also confirms reports of a strike targeting a large ISIS ground unit, killing 50 to 70 ISIS fighters.
Has the United States also targeted top ISIS leaders of -- in this current campaign inside Iraq? CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into this part of the story for us. What are you finding out?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. has been bombing ISIS for more than a month now, and tonight we're learning that not once have the terrorist group's top leaders been specifically targeted in any airstrikes. The administration's critics are furious, saying U.S. forces should have been putting much more pressure on the ISIS leadership, especially the very dangerous man at the top.
TODD (voice-over): He's considered the new bin Laden, the man behind the ISIS tactics of beheadings, mass executions, kidnappings, but so far, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not been in the sites of American warplanes, a Pentagon spokesman saying, quote, "We have not conducted any targeted air strikes on specific ISIL leaders."
Pentagon officials say airstrikes are authorized to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, support humanitarian efforts, and support Iraqi forces, a policy that has critics fuming.
DANIELLE PLETKE, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: We need to be targeting the top ISIS military and strategic leadership. Our policy up to now hasn't been good enough. It's a day late and a dollar short, and that's why ISIS is a threat to the United States.
TODD: The military could recommend a drone or air strike on Baghdadi, but any mission to kill him would have to be approved by President Obama.
GEN. JAMES L. JONES (RET.), FORMER OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: When the president gives the word, it will be a formidable capability that we would launch against his organization, perhaps his own tent (ph).
TODD: Why hasn't the president given the order yet? The White House says they needed time to build the intelligence.
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I would anticipate that as our intelligence improves and crystallizes, that our American capabilities will expand accordingly.
TODD: So far has there been any intelligence good enough to authorize an air strike on Baghdadi?
ROBERT BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I'm quite certain that ISIS is staying off the phone, and nobody around Baghdadi would have a cell phone, for instance, or any sort of communication. We are not well-positioned to do this.
TODD: But a U.S. intelligence official tells CNN the intelligence on ISIS leaders is good, and there's a track record of success. Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen. And Abu Musab al- Zarqawi in Iraq. Some analysts say killing Baghdadi won't be effective, because someone else will simply take his place.
Others disagree, saying leaders like Baghdadi bring special skills.
PATRICK JOHNSTON, RAND CORPORATION: What he brings to them is -- is really a different image and mentality, mindset, and what -- we see this playing out through the group's aggressive use of tactics, its rhetoric and its ideology. Even, you know, the Twitter campaign and things like this are all centrally planned and organized.
TODD: Officials point out the threat from Baghdadi and his ISIS commanders is relatively recent. An U.S. intelligence official urges patience here, telling us, quote, "It is a real cat-and-mouse game, and in this case the cat is an experienced hunter."
BLITZER: Well, you have information also on how tough it is to actually track this ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi.
TODD: Discussing with intelligence officials and analysts, we get the clear picture he's a very clever, a very elusive operator. He survived the U.S. surge in Iraq. He's been in and out of U.S. custody in Iraq over the years. He's obsessed with staying in the shadows. There are reports he covers his face even when he's meeting with his own people.
The only time we've see him in the public eye was when he gave a sermon in Mosul in early July in a mosque in the video you see in our piece. Since then, we believe he's gone underground.
BLITZER: When they took over Mosul, in Iraq, now under ISIS control. Brian, thanks very much.
Let's get some more now. Joining us, "New York Times" columnist Nicholas Kristof and CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank. He's the author of a brand-new, very important book, I should say, "Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA."
Paul, let me just get the quick -- if the CIA is charged by the president, as opposed to U.S. military, to do a targeted assassination of the ISIS leadership, including al-Baghdadi, walk us through how that unfolds.
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, they would need to know where he is at a certain time. And the trouble is, they don't have good human intelligence networks in Syria right now. It took them time to develop those in Afghanistan, Pakistan, also Yemen. My book is all about one double agent inside al Qaeda who was placed in the leadership who managed to help them track down some of these people.
But the United States do not have those intelligence networks yet in Syria. And they don't really have them any more in Iraq. This is, of course, a few years ago, U.S. left.
BLITZER: It's interesting in this meeting, Nic, that the president just wrapped up over at the White House and the congressional leadership, we got a little readout from one of the speaker's aides, saying that he wants the president to authorize what he called lethal targeting of ISIL or ISIS leadership.
Is that a good idea to start targeted assassinations of the ISIS leadership right now, whether in Iraq or Syria with drones strikes, fighter missiles, or F-15s or F-16s or other capabilities?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: You know, I think if we can locate al-Baghdadi, or other ISIS leaders and indeed they should be taken out. One of the things that has been going for ISIS is that it's in a sense it's been sort of charismatic within the jihadi community. It's perceived as triumphant and successful and the assassination of some of its leaders I think would tend to degrade that charisma.
But, boy, I agree with Paul. I think it is really hard. That time when al-Baghdadi spoke in Mosul, apparently the cell phone networks were turned off in the cities so that nobody could inform foreign intelligence organizations where he was. So I think it's worth trying but I wouldn't hold my breath about its success.
BLITZER: Because the other day the U.S. launched a drone strike against the al-Shabaab terrorist leader in Somalia and killed him.
CRUICKSHANK: And they must have had very, very good intelligence. A lot of people think they may have had someone on the inside in that attack. They took on a lot of the top leadership. Very specific time and place and military encampment, these people were meeting at -- Wolf.
BLITZER: A year ago almost to the day, Nick, the president delivered a speech to the American public on Syria, and airstrikes, and among other things he said this. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's true that some of Assad's opponents are extremists. But al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That was a year ago. Almost exactly. September 10th, 2013. And now we know what's happened in that year. Give me your analysis of what went so horribly wrong over the past year.
KRISTOF: Well, I think that -- you know, I don't know whether alternative policies would have worked better, but I do think -- I mean, speaking as generally a fan of President Obama's policy, I do think that this has not been one of his stronger areas. And that indeed there has been something of a vacuum that we haven't really had much of a strategy. And Assad did have a strategy.
He went after weaker commanders in Syria that helped ISIS grow. ISIS was, I think, very smart and shrewd about making money. Governing territory, using that to pay for fighters and then indeed going across into Iraq taking advantage of al-Maliki's extraordinarily poor governance. And the upshot is that today ISIS, you know, controls an area across a few countries that is roughly the size of Great Britain.
So I do hope that President Obama -- I mean, remember some of the cautionary statements that he made before. He's under tremendous pressure to move into Syria in a big way. I think it's fine to -- and important to exercise some containment, to try to degrade their capacity, but I would be really careful about trying to embark on a kind of war when we don't have any kind of allies on the ground who can follow up on our airstrikes.
BLITZER: Fair enough.
Nick Kristof of the "New York Times," Paul Cruickshank, guys, thanks very, very much. Up next in our special report, why it's more difficult to go after
ISIS targets in Syria compared to striking ISIS targets in Iraq.
And in our next hour in the SITUATION ROOM, the disgraced football star Ray Rice reaches out. Stay tuned for the message he sent to CNN's Rachel Nichols.
BLITZER: According to U.S. Military Central Command, U.S. jets and drones have already carried out 153 strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq since last month, but extending airstrikes into Syria presents a greater challenge.
CNN's Tom Foreman is here to show us why -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf. If you look at the top 20 military powers in the world, half of them are part of this coalition that will now focus its attention on trying to drive ISIS out of its strongholds here in Syria and Iraq. And to do that they have to look at what's been working.
What's worked over in Iraq? Well, strikes by F/A-18s and drones have driven ISIS back from positions they've held. Degraded their command structure to some degree. Cooperation with the Iraqi military such as it is has allowed them to exploit that air power and the presence of a friendly government. A government that wants to work with the United States, makes all of that in the eyes of the White House work in Iraq even if it is slow.
But what happens if you move that over to Syria? A very different equation. Yes, you can still fly F/A-18s and drones in and hit targets in here, but you're flying into a country where they're not necessarily welcome. Where some people might call it an act of war to even be there. Secondly, you're not coordinating with an established military. The Free Syrian Army may be now 50,000 people but these are rebel forces. To make them exploit these things properly, to lead you to the proper targets, much, much more complicated.
And last of all, the government in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, a government that the Obama administration says they want out of power. You can't expect any cooperation there -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Tom Foreman, good report. Thanks very much.
Coming up at the top of the hour, President Obama is ready to reveal his plan for a stepped up campaign against ISIS. We're getting new details on (INAUDIBLE) in tomorrow night's prime time address.
And he's been fired by his team. Suspended by the NFL. Now Ray Rice is speaking out to CNN.
BLITZER: Happening now, President Obama reveals parts of his new plan to attack ISIS. Huddling with the congressional leadership before he faces the American people and orders military action.
I'll talk to an insider who advised the president just hours ago.
Plus, a disturbing new look at the Malaysia Airlines crash site in Ukraine. We're digging deeper into the new report on the cause of the disaster and what investigators left out.