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THE SITUATION ROOM
Top General Won't Rule Out U.S. Ground Forces; U.S. Airstrikes Move Closer to Baghdad; Obama to Send 3,000 Troops to Fight Ebola; California Wildfires Growing
Aired September 16, 2014 - 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: Jake, thanks very much.
Happening now, combat troops in Iraq. America's top military officer leaves the door open to using U.S. ground forces against ISIS. Is he on the same page as the commander in chief? I'll talk to NATO's supreme allied commander.
Boots on the ground to fight Ebola. President Obama will send 3,000 U.S. troops to West Africa to battle the deadly virus. Is it really a serious threat right now to the United States?
Ferguson deadline, a grand jury gets more time to decide whether a police officer should be charged for the shooting at the time of teenager Michael Brown.
And raging wildfires. Thousands have been evacuated, with fires destroying a church and burning more than 100 homes already.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news. The United States has now launched two major military campaigns, one targeting ISIS terrorists in the Middle East and the other targeting the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa, which has now killed at least 2,400 people.
President Obama says Ebola is spiraling out of control, could threaten global security. He'll send up to 3,000 U.S. troops to West Africa in the coming days. But the United States will build treatment centers and train health-care workers.
Meantime, the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, tells Congress ISIS could pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. And the joint chiefs chairman is now raising the possibility that U.S. combat troops could take part in ground combat missions against ISIS.
Our correspondents, our analysts, our guests are all standing by with full coverage. Let's begin with our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today joint chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey put an option on the table that the president seemed to have taken off, putting U.S. military advisers, who are now confined to joint operations centers in Baghdad and Erbil, much closer to combat, if not in combat situations. He's not requested such a move, but he did specify missions where, if circumstances change, he might ask for them, including ground controllers if the air campaign is failing.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Within moments of starting his testimony today, joint chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey opened the door to an option the president had ruled out. U.S. troops in combat against ISIS.
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraq troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I'll recommend that to the president.
SCIUTTO: Soon a total of 1,700 U.S. military personnel will be deployed to Iraq. And just last week, President Obama again pledged...
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These American forces will not have a combat mission.
SCIUTTO: But today, General Dempsey indicated the president had told his commander he might reconsider.
DEMPSEY: He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.
SCIUTTO: Senior administration officials tell CNN the president's pledge stands. Still General Dempsey described specific circumstances where he might ask for ground forces, including if the air campaign was failing and Special Operations ground controllers were needed. Or if Iraqi forces attempted to take back the ISIS stronghold of Mosul.
DEMPSEY: It could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission.
SCIUTTO: Close combat advising or close combat? We asked General Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq during the troop surge what the difference is?
GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), FORMER U.S. COMMANDER IN IRAQ: A soldier in a combat unit knows he or she may have to engage in combat with the enemy directly at any given time.
SCIUTTO (on camera): An adviser would not?
HERTLING: An adviser is pointing the way for another military force on what right looks like.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): On the end game, the Pentagon was managing expectations, acknowledging for the first time that, while the U.S. will seek to destroy ISIS in Iraq, it may settle simply for disrupting it in Syria, where the challenges are far greater.
As the U.S. embarks on war in the region once again, Secretary Hagel sounded a cautionary note.
CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: As much as we have engaged, as much as we have bled, the treasure and the lives that we have left behind, we still haven't fixed the problem.
SCIUTTO: Both the White House and the Pentagon say that the mission has not changed, and there is no current request for ground troops.
And Wolf, just a short time ago, I got a call from a senior administration official who really got at the definition of what combat is. They're saying these troops would not be in a -- they would not be fighting combat, taking up firing positions, taking back ground, et cetera. They might be closer to combat, say for instance calling in air strikes or advising Iraqi units engaged closer to the front line. So that's the definition of combat they're using.
I think that Americans back home might think that some of these roles that the general was talking about today sound a lot like combat. But from the administration's standpoint, that's not a combat troop.
BLITZER: These are technical differences. But if you're one of those soldiers or Marines on the ground right there and you're facing the enemy, it feels like combat.
SCIUTTO: No question. During -- for instance, during the Iraq invasion, I was embedded with U.S. Special Forces, who were performing a role of close combat advisers. And while they weren't necessarily firing the guns, the Kurdish Peshmerga were, I'll tell you, I was in many situations where the bullets were flying over our heads. That felt a lot like combat to me, and the danger was certainly there.
BLITZER: They described the mission as being to destroy ISIS, as you point out, in Iraq, to degrade it in Syria. I listened to the hearing. I was -- they were pretty blunt in acknowledging, this is going to take a long, long time, no simple military solutions.
SCIUTTO: That's right. The word that General Dempsey used was generational. This is a generational conflict that speaks of years, decades. And I think preparing people's expectations to say, you know, this is something that cannot be stamped out completely in a matter of months or a couple of years.
BLITZER: Yes. When I heard last week administration officials saying three years, I said, three years? The U.S. has been fighting al Qaeda now for 13 years. It's been degraded, but it certainly hasn't been destroyed.
Jim Sciutto, thanks very much. Even as the chairman of the joint chiefs leaves the door open to possible U.S. combat ground troops, the United States is stepping up its air campaign against ISIS. Those strikes are being carried out closer and closer to the largest city in Iraq, the capital of Baghdad.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. What does that tell us about what's going on if the U.S. now has to protect Baghdad? We know the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, is under the control of ISIS. But if U.S. air strikes are needed to protect Baghdad, what does that say?
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, right now, these latest expanded air strikes are about 20 miles southwest of Baghdad, you know. And what they are doing is really expanding the target set. These are the strikes now that are being called offensive air strikes. They are going against ISIS targets, in particular for the first time to defend Iraqi forces on the ground that are in the fight.
Iraqi forces coming under attack by ISIS. The U.S. rolling in with air strikes. In fact, in the latest one of these offensive air strikes, they even bombed two small boats in the Euphrates River that they said ISIS was using to resupply its fighters.
Is the fight getting closer to Baghdad? ISIS is still on the march. This is the whole effort right now, is to keep rolling them back, to keep going against these targets in Iraq and keep pushing ISIS back, back towards, you know, where it came from in Syria.
And then, of course, the next decision is, do you want to go against ISIS in Syria? That may be the biggest decision the administration is facing right now. But definitely look for more of these expanded air strikes to help Iraqi forces move against ISIS, Wolf.
BLITZER: So what's next for the U.S. military? About 1,600 U.S. troops, advisers, as they're called. They're in Iraq right now. I've heard some estimates that number could go up significantly.
STARR: Well, it may well if, as we -- Jim reported, you know, on what General Dempsey said today -- if General Dempsey feels that there is a need for more troops. Very specifically, General Dempsey was talking about being -- you know, those forward air controllers on the ground, calling in air strikes and also, you know, working more with Iraqi forces in advising them. If he feels he needs more in the field, he says he will go back to the president and ask for it.
BLITZER: Barbara, thanks very much. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon.
Boots on the ground. President Obama is deploying up to 3,000 U.S. troops. They're not necessarily going off to battle ISIS. They'll be heading to West Africa to fight the deadly Ebola virus. The disease has already killed close to 2,500 people. Thousands more have already been infected.
Let's go to our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski.
Michelle, the president announced major U.S. military moves.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We're hearing even from Senate Republicans right now applauding the president's plan. One senator just declared war on Ebola. Others saying, we ought to be paying as much attention to this, taking it as seriously as we're taking the ISIS threat.
So now the president has unveiled this expanded plan. Yes, it does include boots on the ground to fight Ebola in Africa. Here's what he said just now at the CDC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: The epidemic is going to get worse before it gets better. But right now, the world still has an opportunity to save countless lives. Right now, the world has the responsibility to act, to step up and to do more.
The United States of America intends to do more. We are going to keep leading in this effort. We're going to do our part. And we're going to continue to make sure that the world understands the need for them to step alongside us as well, in order for us to not just save the lives of families like the one I just discussed, but ultimately to make sure that this doesn't have the kinds of spillover effects that have become even more difficult to control.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KOSINSKI: So this is going to be about 3,000 U.S. military personnel based in West Africa, coordinating these resources that the Africans so badly need: money, personnel, training and facilities.
They will build a hospital for aid workers, treatment centers with more than 1,000 beds, a training center that the U.S. is going to recruit for and staff. And there are a lot of elements to this, including also distributing supplies, education, enhanced screening at foreign airports and more money for research for new drugs to fight Ebola.
But then again, you ask the White House, well, how big a risk is there really of an epidemic breaking out in the U.S.? And they say, it is highly unlikely. It's just that this spread has been so unprecedented in Africa that it requires an unprecedented response.
The president today called it gut-wrenching, although there are some aid workers have said actually, the U.S. has been quite slow to respond. It took, after all, months to get to this point.
We just heard some fascinating numbers from U.S. health officials, too, saying that now there are just under 5,000 diagnosed cases of Ebola, and about half of those were just reported in the last three weeks. That's why there's such a fear that this is going to spread exponentially.
So now today there's a show of force. The president even met with Dr. Kent Brantly, the American doctor who contracted Ebola in Africa and was treated here. He, by the way, and the three other Americans who were treated here are now doing well. Brantly testified today before a Senate subcommittee. He called the Ebola epidemic a fire burning out of control, a fire straight from hell, Wolf. BLITZER: And the president made a point of inviting him and his wife
into the Oval Office to show that everything with this individual did come down with the Ebola virus is OK right now. That's a good report, Michelle Kosinski. Thanks very, very much.
Let's go in depth right now. Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Dr. Thomas Frieden. He's the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He was with the president today.
When I heard, Dr. Frieden, that 3,000 U.S. military personnel were heading right into the heart of it in West Africa, in Liberia. I immediately worried about those 3,000 troops. I'm sure their family members are deeply worried about them, as well.
Here's the question: You were in West Africa. You studied what's going on. How worried should they be, their families about their brothers and sisters, moms and dads, sons and daughters who may be heading over there for the United States right now?
DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, CDC DIRECTOR: Or any of us who deploy to another country, whether it's a war zone or a place where there's an epidemic raging. We can never say that the risk is absolutely zero.
Having said that, we're going to take steps to make sure that it's kept to an absolute minimum. We don't anticipate any of the individuals having contact with Ebola patients that would put them at risk, and the kinds of things they're doing are going to make a huge difference. The battle is joined against Ebola. And we're so grateful for the leadership of the president in bringing the Department of Defense on and having them help really accelerate the efforts.
BLITZER: Will these military troops who are going to Liberia now have to wear all this protective gear that we're showing our viewers?
FRIEDEN: The details still are to be worked out. But what the Department of Defense has outlined is a series of steps that will include supporting logistics, supporting training, building a hospital for both national and international responders, and doing other things fundamentally to accelerate the response, because that's what we need.
Do they have specific training, these 3,000 U.S. troops, in dealing with a crisis like this Ebola virus?
BLITZER: Many of the things that are needed aren't specific to Ebola. They're things like logistics, training, moving things around, building things. On that, they have excellent training. No one -- no one from CDC or any part of the U.S. government or the Defense Department is going to go into any place that has Ebola patients in it without complete training in how to do that.
BLITZER: The World Health Organization now estimates that the number of deaths from Ebola could double every three weeks. And do you agree with that assessment? That -- that sounds dire indeed.
FRIEDEN: We are seeing an exponential increase in cases, and we're deeply concerned. The president was very clear about this in his briefing today. And he's absolutely correct. This is going to get worse before it gets better.
And what we need to do and what we are doing with the president's leadership is surging people into the field to support the response. Not to be the first responders out there, but to make sure that those who are addressing the epidemic have all of the tools at their disposal to turn it around.
BLITZER: You said earlier this month, Dr. Frieden, that the window, your words, the window is closing for containing Ebola. How much more time does the world have?
FRIEDEN: We know the situation is dire and urgent, and we know that today's action with the president and the Department of Defense coming in and providing this incredible level of support, is going to accelerate and reinforce the efforts not just of the U.S. but of the entire world that's helping to stop the Ebola epidemic there before it spreads to Africa and is an even bigger problem.
BLITZER: There have been some concerns out there that the Ebola virus could mutate and become even more powerful, even more dangerous, even more contagious. Is that a realistic fear?
FRIEDEN: We've never been in this kind of situation before, so we don't know what the future will hold. We do know that, for every day that the virus continues to spread in Africa, it's more likely that it will spread to other countries and there's the possibility that it will have a mutation that will increase its ability to spread from person to person is there.
Our judgment is that that possibility is very low. It hasn't changed much in 40 years, and it would be unusual for something like that to happen. But we don't know. We haven't been here before.
What we do know is that the longer it spreads, the greater the risk of more bad things happening.
BLITZER: Does this ZMapp as it's called, really work? Is that a cure for Ebola?
FRIEDEN: There are some promising experimental treatments and experimental vaccines. We hope they work. We hope we can develop them, test them, find out if they're safe, find out if they're effective, and get them deployed in large enough numbers to make a difference. But we can't count on it.
What we can count on is that a rapid, intensive response now, the kind that the president and the Defense Department are leading starting today, can help turn this around by making sure that patients are rapidly diagnosed, rapidly isolated and that we can stop this epidemic before it spreads much, much further.
BLITZER: I know the United States is now taking the lead. One final question, Dr. Frieden, before I let you go. Why is the United States always the one who takes the lead in these -- where is the United Nations? Where is the World Health Organization? Where are the Europeans? Where's the rest of the world?
FRIEDEN: Actually, there's been a tremendous commitment to the response, not just from the U.S. We've got about a dozen different countries building laboratories in the region. We have support from the British. We have support from the African union that will be sending hundreds of workers.
But we have unique capabilities, as the president outlined today. And we're devoting those unique capabilities to respond to what is a threat, not just to Africa, not just to the world but specifically to the U.S. because of the risk of instability, as the president outlined.
BLITZER: Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director, good luck to you and all the men and women involved.
FRIEDEN: Thank you.
BLITZER: This is obviously a crisis that is unfolding right now. Appreciate everything you're doing, Dr. Frieden. Thanks for joining us.
FRIEDEN: Thank you very much.
BLITZER: Just ahead, a fresh warning about the threat posed by ISIS. I'll talk to NATO supreme allied commander General Philip Breedlove. He's now in Washington.
And a new deadline in Ferguson, Missouri. A grand jury is given more time to decide if a police officer should face charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
BLITZER: All right. Let's get back to our top story. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, is leaving the door open to possible U.S. ground combat troops fighting against ISIS. Right now the local forces, they're trying to do the fighting on the ground in Iraq.
Let's go to the front lines of this desperate battle right now. CNN's Anna Coren is joining us from northern Iraq.
Kurdish forces are deeply involved. You're in Erbil right now. What is the very latest, Anna? What are you seeing? Because you were out with those Peshmerga fighters earlier in the day.
ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. We spent the day with the Peshmerga out on the front line as they took the fight to ISIS. They were trying to claim back an area that had been seized by ISIS in the past several months and a strategic bridge which ISIS blew up a month ago. This bridge critical because it gives access from Erbil, which is where we are, the capital of Kurdistan, to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, an ISIS stronghold.
And as we know, the next phase of this operation will be the battle for Mosul. We're not there just yet. But certainly preparations are under way, which is why this fighting was so important.
Now, apart from the ground forces, Wolf, the U.S. fighter jets, they circled the entire time we were there. We were there before dawn and right until the afternoon. The presence of the fighter jets was critical, not only providing that cover so the ground forces could move in. But also taking out those enemy positions as well as the armored vehicles, which obviously are causing a great deal of problems.
So certainly those U.S. fighter jets making a huge difference on the ground. And, you know, Wolf, we sat down with the Kurdish president, President Barzani, yesterday, and I asked him about the air strikes. He asked for more. He says they're great; they're doing a good job. They're helping our troops. But we desperately need more.
So this fight is ongoing Wolf. But they need more arms. They do need more ammunition. They certainly do need more help.
BLITZER: And we -- and I spoke earlier with Anna, she told me -- Anna, I think it still holds -- there's no evidence the Iraqi military is doing anything to protect these Iraqi citizens, these Kurds in the north right now. Is that right?
COREN: Yes, that's absolutely right. And you know, the thing is that the city of Mosul is within Iraqi territory. Falls outside the borders of Kurdistan.
And I put this also to President Barzani yesterday: "Are you prepared to go outside your borders, because you aren't getting that help from the Iraqi security forces?"
He said if there's a comprehensive plan which President Obama and the global coalition are putting together, this is something that they certainly would consider to do.
But, you know, there is no doubt about it. The Peshmerga are in control of northern Iraq. They are the ones on the ground fighting ISIS. We have seen no presence of the Iraqi security forces, other than the 200 Iraqi commandos that were sent up to Mosul dam to help in that operation. It worked effectively.
But obviously, Wolf, if everybody comes under the one umbrella, it would be a much more effective fighting force on the ground.
BLITZER: Yes. Let's hope that that could emerge. All right, Anna, thanks very much. Anna Coren, be careful up there in northern Iraq.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're monitoring more breaking news that's just coming in. Take a look at this. You're looking at one of the dangerous wildfires burning in northern California right now. Crews on the ground. There are tankers in the air. They're trying to control the flames.
Also, more on the other breaking news we're following. NATO's top general is warning about the threat posed by ISIS-trained fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. General Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander, he's standing by to join us live right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
And later, why it could be next year -- yes, next year -- before we find out if the Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown will actually face criminal charges.
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We're now looking at the possibility of a major delay in getting answers about the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. CNN has confirmed a judge has now extended the term of the grand jury investigating the case. The jury doesn't have to issue its findings until early next year.
I'm joined now by CNN anchor Don Lemon. He covered the disturbances in Ferguson for us; our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin; as well as NAACP board member John Gaskin.
John, what's been the reaction over there in the St. Louis area to this decision that this grand jury could go on till January, let's say?
JOHN GASKIN, NAACP BOARD MEMBER: Well, as we're speaking with people here on the ground, as well as some people from the legal community, people on the legal side are not necessarily surprised. And to some extent, we can agree with them on that. We want this to be thorough. We -- as your network led last week with that new footage that came out of those workers working in the apartment complex, information is coming and dripping out each day regarding this pertinent trial or potential trial.
And so we want to make sure that all the details come forward. We want to make sure that any information that's going to be critical to bringing justice to Mike Brown and his family, that all those details are brought together for any information that could be pertinent in bringing charges against Officer Wilson.
And so we understand that. But we also want to educate people here on the ground of what that process is. So you have many people that are very frustrated, many people that are looking for answers and many people that are very upset and surrounding this very sensitive matter. We understand that.
But we do want people to understand that, if there is critical information out there that could be of a good service to the grand jury, we want to make sure that they hear all of this information, for sure.
BLITZER: Well, let me ask Jeffrey. How extraordinary or unusual is it that they're going on now -- we thought maybe October they'd come up with a decision. But now maybe January. Is this extraordinary, expected?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Ever since the prosecuting attorney announced that he would have the investigation done by October, I thought that was way too fast.
BLITZER: Why do they need so much time?
TOOBIN: Because they're only meeting one day a week. And the prosecutor also said -- and this is somewhat unusual -- that he wants to put every scrap of evidence in front of the grand jury.
So just as a technical legal matter, just in terms of presenting all that evidence, it's going to take a long time, especially when they're only meeting one day a week.
That, to me, is a sensible way to proceed. There is really no difference between an indictment, if there is an indictment, in October versus one in November. It's certainly much more appropriate to have a full resolution, a fair resolution to the case than just an artificial deadline like October.
BLITZER: Hey, Don, all our viewers know you spent a lot of time there in Ferguson. What do you make of this decision?
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Listen, I still feel like I'm spending time there, because every single day I am stopped by someone on the street. I went to get a haircut today. That's all the barber and the people in the barbershop talked about.
They want to know, why hasn't there been an arrest? Why hasn't this officer been charged? And their -- quite frankly, their question is, why does no one care, in their estimation, about black lives? Why don't people value the lives of young black men? And they're viewing that as African-Americans, many of them, and as, you know, people looking at what happened in Ferguson.
Just before I came up here, I went to the Whole Foods. A young lady, white lady on the street, same thing: "What's going to happen in Ferguson? Why haven't they arrested him?"
I think the concern -- listen, John and Jeffrey are right. People want a sensible outcome, and they want them to take time. But the prosecutor's also said this is the only thing that the grand jury will be looking at, even if they meet once a week.
And there's also a concern that if something doesn't happen soon, if there isn't some movement somewhere soon, they're concerned about rioting again. The business owners in the area are concerned, as well.
But I do think the prosecutor is -- quite frankly, I think he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. If he rushes to a decision, and people don't like it, there could be a bad outcome. And if he takes longer, people don't like that, there could be a bad outcome, as well.
BLITZER: I know a lot of people, John, are frustrated in Ferguson and the St. Louis area. But how worried should everyone be that the frustration could lead to more violence, shall we say? And we know, we've talked about it, there are outside agitators who've come in there to create violence?
GASKIN: Well, as don just mentioned, you've got a lot of people that are very frustrated, and they want answers. And I think it's -- I think it is our job as the NAACP and other groups that we're working with on the ground to educate people on the process and how this works, to encourage people to be calm, to encourage them to allow them to let the system work, to let the process work.
But to also -- also, also -- keep putting pressure on the prosecutor to make sure that they move this thing along as smoothly, as quickly, as expeditiously as possible.
But, you know, as you just mentioned, there is that factor in this time bomb, almost. And so we have to be very careful surrounding that. And we have to give these people answers as quickly as possible, because a lot of people have questions all over the country.
BLITZER: We've got to make sure that everyone has cooler heads that will prevail. Guys, thanks very much, Don Lemon, John Gaskin, Jeffrey Toobin.
Up next, we're going to speak live with the U.S. general who serves as NATO's supreme allied commander. There he is. He was at the Pentagon today. He's warning about the threat of ISIS-trained fighters returning to Europe. General Breedlove, we'll discuss with him in a moment.
Also, we'll have a live update on the fight against out-of-control wildfires in drought-stricken California. You're looking at live pictures right there.
BLITZER: Today at the Pentagon, NATO's top general warned that ISIS- trained fighters returning from Iraq and Syria pose a direct threat across Europe and indeed beyond. U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove is NATO supreme allied commander, as commander of U.S. forces in Europe. He's joining us from here in Washington over at the national harbor.
General, thanks very much for joining us. I know you've got a lot on your plate. Let me quickly get your thoughts on what General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he didn't rule out necessarily the possibility at some point down the road, he might have to go to the president, the commander in chief and ask for permission to send combat troops over to Iraq. What do you make of that?
GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE, NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, I followed the comments just like you did. I think we should let the chairman sort of relate how he sees that and how he means that. Clearly, this would be an important step.
BLITZER: The other thing that sort of jumped out at me was the notion that the mission is to destroy ISIS in Iraq, to degrade ISIS in Syria. That was the first time I heard that. You heard that, as well. You want to react to that difference, shall we say? Why is there a different strategy against these terrorists in Iraq as opposed to in Syria?
BREEDLOVE: Wolf, I'm not real clear on that. I think that that's something I would want to actually talk with Lloyd Austin, the commander of CentCom and see why we make that differentiation. But I followed that just like you, and clearly, it means a difference in mission type.
BLITZER: It certainly does.
Let's talk about NATO's role in all of this. And I know you've spent a lot of time worrying about it, thinking about it. We know NATO got its act together and deployed NATO forces led by the United States to Afghanistan to deal with the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Is that feasible right now in dealing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria? In other words, will all of the allies of NATO get their act together and get involved?
BREEDLOVE: Well, Wolf, what we saw at our recent summit is not that NATO looked to address this, but we did see, as you have seen reported, a group of coalition of the willing, several nations coming together to address the problem. Right now, I do not see that problem being a NATO mission at large but some subset of NATO nations coming together to address it.
BLITZER: Because NATO did move out of its geographical boundaries to go into Afghanistan. Why not do the same thing now? What would stand in the way? Are there some NATO allies who are reluctant to get involved?
BREEDLOVE: I wouldn't want to speak for those NATO allies. But what I do know is that there is this group and that -- that came together at the summit to address how we could get after it. So I think, rather than look at it negatively, we would look at it positively. There is a group that wants to address this issue and have agreed to do so.
BLITZER: There are thousands of these terrorists in Syria and Iraq right now who have European passports, members of NATO passports. And they could easily go back and, obviously, undermine security in those countries. You spoke about this. How worried should the European allies be? And for that matter, what about the United States and Canada?
BREEDLOVE: Absolutely, Wolf. I was about to say, you have to remember there are also U.S. passports among this group. So we -- all of the NATO nations need to be concerned about it. The NATO nations are concerned about it. And as you know recently one of the nations had one of their foreign fighters return and cause some damage in the nation and injure people and then quickly dashed across one of these international boundaries into another nation.
So previous to this, the NATO nations may have been only concerned about their foreign fighters that might return to their individual states. But now because of that freedom of movement as we saw in this very first instance from Belgium to France, we have to be concerned about all of those fighters. And so this is a task that we've agreed to take on together.
BLITZER: Yes. I hope so. Let's talk a little bit about Ukraine. I know that's dominating your thinking, the thinking of the NATO allies. There are a bunch of NATO allies whether in the Baltics or Poland deeply worried about Putin and Russia right now.
First question, how worried should they be about some sort of Russian advance on their countries?
BREEDLOVE: I wouldn't want to speak to their individual worries. But let me tell you what we have done. Because of the concern of these nations, and they did have a concern, we were able to quickly in place a group of assurance measures in these nations that brought air, land and sea capability to the -- all the nations north and south in NATO that quickly assured the concerns that they had. And we were able to address them. So I see this as a very positive development.
And at the NATO Summit, we agreed to continue those assurance measures until the permanent changes that we discuss and adopted at the summit are put in place.
BLITZER: I know that you're worried, I'm worried, a lot of people are worried that what Russia has been doing, vis-a-vis Ukraine, they could be doing against Moldova, Georgia, some of the other former Republics of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union obviously existed.
What's the latest on those fronts? How concerned are you and other NATO allies?
BREEDLOVE: Well, I believe this is a concern. First to the message of our NATO allies, we have completely recommitted at the summit to our collective defense. And we saw a strong unity about this mission. So that I think we have -- we can be very assured of. What happens in these nations that are outside of NATO, this is an issue that we need to address. And you've heard the discussions of how we probably need as the Western world to look at what is acceptable behavior in these nations outside of NATO.
BLITZER: It's a huge problem and will dominate a lot of your -- you've got a lot going on, General. You've got the ISIS, you've got the Middle East. I know the European Command is also involved in the Middle East. It's not just the Central Command. And you've got Ukraine, other issues in Europe as well.
Thanks very much for spending a few moments with us. Good luck.
BREEDLOVE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: And that Ferris wheel behind you is over at the National Harbor here in Washington. I don't think General Breedlove is going to have any time to go for the Ferris wheel. But if you do, General, let us know, OK?
BREEDLOVE: No time for that.
BLITZER: No time for the Ferris wheel. All right, thanks very much.
By the way, please be sure to tune in right here in the SITUATION ROOM on Thursday. Ukraine's president, he'll join us live right here, a rare interview with the president of Ukraine, Thursday, here in the SITUATION ROOM.
Up next, a live report of the dangerous wildfires burning across northern California. One blaze has doubled in size.
BLITZER: In tinder dry Northern California, thousands of people are being forced from their home by dangerous, fast-moving wildfires. It's the largest fire. It's about an hour east of Sacramento. It's doubled in size and it's burned about 17 square miles already.
CNN's Dan Simon is nearby. He has the latest -- Dan.
DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf, it's been a dramatic situation out there. You can see this ominous smoke cloud behind me. We've seen a number of aircraft making drops, dropping water, dropping retardant. But you can see how difficult the terrain is. It's very steep, rugged terrain.
Wolf, just to put this in context for you, this is a perfect example of what a three-year drought looks like in the state of California. It just makes the conditions so ideal for wildfire. Right now you have about 1,000 people who are under a mandatory evacuation order, a lot of firefighters on the ground trying to fight this thing. But given the fact that the terrain is so steep really right here the only way you can battle this fire is from the air.
There are a number of homes up there in the canyon. At this point all the homes have been saved. What firefighters are trying to do is build a perimeter around this fire. So far they've been successful in saving all of those homes. But the rains just can't come soon enough. This is what one sheriff's official had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we just want to make it through until the rains come, to be honest with you. We've already had the sand fire that was rather large and we lost a number of homes in that. Fortunately, we haven't lost any homes. But I will tell you that the fire personnel put out, but there was 11,570 acres burned up to this point. That's a lot of acres and to not have any homes lost, that's pretty good at this point.
We've had some pretty touching moments and the fire department has protected those homes and I hope that we can continue to do that. And once we get a handle on this fire, let's hope that the rains get here before we have another one.
(END VIDEO CLIP) SIMON: And right now you have a dozen active fires burning throughout the state of California. And we're just at the peak or the beginning of the peak of the fire season -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Good luck out there. Dan Simon reporting for us. Thank you.
Coming up right at the top of the hour, ISIS stepping up its propaganda and recruiting campaign with a glossy, sophisticated online magazine. That's coming up.