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U.S. Ready to Begin Syria Airstrikes; Ukraine President Implores U.S. for Weapons

Aired September 18, 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: Thanks very much, Jake.

Happening now, ready to strike -- the United States finalizes plans to begin targeting ISIS terrorists targets inside Syria, as the group releases a new hostage video unlike anything we've seen before.

Desperate plea -- Ukraine's visiting president imploring the United States for lethal weapons to fight pro-Russian separatists. He's standing by to join us live. We'll discuss this hour.

Arson arrest -- police name a suspect in the massive wildfire that's burned more than 70,000 acres and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin with a dramatic escalation of a tangled conflict, that it may be imminent. The U.S. is now prepared to begin airstrikes against ISIS targets not only in Iraq, but inside Syria. Those strikes could begin at any time, expanding the current air campaign taking place.

The U.S. military reports two new strikes on ISIS targets inside Iraq today. That brings the total so far to 176 U.S. airstrikes.

We're covering that story and much more with all our reporters, our guests, including the visiting president of Ukraine. He's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Our Pentagon correspondent.

Barbara Starr, though, begins our coverage.

What's the latest as far as this U.S. war on ISIS?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama has now been briefed on the list of targets that the U.S. military would like to hit. Bombing could -- could begin within days.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): The classified list of ISIS targets the Pentagon wants to bomb in Syria is complete. The military is ready.

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: General Dempsey and I have both approved and spent considerable time reviewing and adapting the CENTCOM plan.

STARR: But first, President Obama must give his final approval. On his order, U.S. warplanes and pilots will fly over dangerous territory, facing ISIS, Syrian regime forces, anti-aircraft systems and other al Qaeda sympathizers. Targeting swung into high gear after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week signed a classified order calling for a detailed Syria bombing plan.

But target planning was already underway. It began with a massive intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance effort. U.S. military drones flying over Syria now have precise radar and video data on ISIS locations. The intelligence community has intercepted cell phone calls and intelligence from ISIS videos and social media.

The targets?

ISIS commanders, weapons and camps.

HAGEL: CENTCOM's plan includes targeted actions against ISIS safe havens in Syria, including its command and control, logistics capabilities and infrastructure.

STARR: If ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is found, the U.S. will go after him, officials tell CNN. But even that is still not enough.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's not just the one target that you're going to go after. You're not going to send a bomb, usually, against just one guy. You're hopefully going to want to affect the entire organization by that strike.

STARR: The target list includes what type of aircraft and bomb will be used to attack each site and the risks to U.S. pilots from ISIS or Syrian air defenses and the likelihood that civilians could be killed.

HERTLING: It isn't just as simple as dropping a bomb on a place you think the bad guys are, because I would suggest to you, many of them are already intermingled in that society.

STARR: The final step -- the decision to strike. President Obama will not approve each and every target, but he still needs to sign off on the overall plan.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

STARR: The goal is to strike targets that are so substantial that destroying them would have a real impact on stopping ISIS' vicious advance -- Wolf.

STARR: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Thanks very much.

ISIS, meanwhile, has released a new hostage video. But this one is very different from the previous ones showing beheadings of two Americans and a Briton.

CNN's Brian Todd is working this part of the story for us.

It's pretty awful.

What are you finding out -- Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this time, an ISIS hostage delivers the group's propaganda and he promises you're going to see more of him in the future.

John Cantlie, a British journalist, admits he's a prisoner, says he may live or die, but then proceeds to scold Western audiences.

TODD (voice-over): John Cantlie says he's been abandoned by his government and has nothing to lose. The British journalist, who identifies himself as a prisoner of ISIS for two years, sits in front of a camera wearing an orange jumpsuit. He appears calm, but emphasizes he is a prisoner. He admonishes British and American audiences.

In the video, he says, quote, "After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?"

Cantlie promises a series of programs where he'll explain ISIS' motivations and how he says the Western media twists and manipulates the truth.

AKI PERITZ, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Perhaps one of the ISIS leaders decided that it's much more effective to reach out to the British and American publics by having somebody not be murdered and actually explain the ISIS perspective.

So this actually might be their next evolution, their next phase, in doing something like this.

TODD: Since Cantlie is delivering ISIS propaganda and makes clear he is under duress, CNN has decided not to show the actual video.

PERITZ: He's probably been told he might live or he might die at any moment. He's probably been -- obviously, he has immense psychological pressure put on him by ISIS.

TODD: John Cantlie is reported to have been captured in Syria with American James Foley in November 2012.

But this wasn't the first time he'd been abducted. In July 2012, jihadist militants captured Cantlie near Syria's border with Turkey and held him only for a few days.

He spoke to Britain's Channel 4 News about that experience.

JOHN CANTLIE, BRITISH JOURNALIST: And there were two Syrian prisoners. We were handcuffed to them. We were then blindfolded and we were told that we should prepare to meet our maker.

TODD: Cantlie escaped, he said, with the help of a moderate Syrian rebel group. As a journalist, he'd taken these photos of scenes from the Syrian civil war.

Here's a brief clip from Britain's ITN of Cantlie covering the war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CANTLIE: We've been trying to get into Idlib for a few days now, but apparently the roads are just -- just -- there's no way. It's not secure.

TODD: In the new ISIS video, Cantlie says many Europeans were held hostage by ISIS and later released, saying it was because of their government's actions. Quote, "They negotiated with the Islamic State and got their people home, while the British and Americans were left behind."

He doesn't mention that the American and British governments have policies against paying ransoms.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Contacted by CNN about this video, British officials said the The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is assessing the production, considering its implications and trying to contact John Cantlie's family.

We could get no comment from the State Department or U.S. intelligence officials on the video -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Ukraine's president is right here in Washington. He's pleading his case, seeking lethal weapons from the United States to help take on pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Let's get some background.

Our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is standing by.

The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, he went to Congress and he met with the president in the Oval Office.

He's standing by here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're about to speak live.

But tell us what happened so far. MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Right. This was

an impassioned plea before both houses of Congress, referring to Russia as "the aggressor," saying this is a clear choice between civilization and barbarism, urging the U.S. to do more, to stand for human freedom and dignity, and give Ukraine lethal aid.

Now, that's something that some top Democrats have also been asking for. But the White House made it clear today it's not giving it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PRES. PETRO POROSHENKO, UKRAINE (through translator): -- fighting today it's not only a Ukrainian war. It is the war for the free world, for the free world.

KOSINSKI (voice-over): Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cheered by Congress.

POROSHENKO: They need more military equipment, both lethal and non-lethal.

(APPLAUSE)

POROSHENKO: Please understand me correctly, blankets, night vision goggles are also important. But one cannot win the war with the blankets.

KOSINSKI: He met with President Obama.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have a strong friend, not only in me personally, but I think, as you saw in Congress today you have a strong bipartisan support here in the United States and the people of America stand with people of Ukraine.

KOSINSKI: But the additional aid the U.S. is now giving, $53 million worth, totaling nearly $300 million this year, does not include lethal aid. It does help the military -- body armor, vehicles, bomb disposing robots, equipment. Today, the White House said It would be a real challenge to arm the Ukrainian Army enough to win military against Russian-backed separatists. So...

(on camera): What really is the point of helping the Ukrainians militarily, but only up to the point of lethal aid?

JOSH EARNEST, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, we have an interest in making sure, Michelle, that the Ukrainian military isn't overrun by the separatists.

KOSINSKI (voice-over): The White House, in the past, has said it doesn't want to fight a proxy war with Russia and has repeated this conflict will not be solved militarily. There have now been some steps by that to de-escalate, but U.S. officials say Russia still has some 18,000 troops at the border, around 1,000 inside Ukraine, and the flow of weapons to separatists continues. Since the cease-fire two weeks ago, 17 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed. POROSHENKO: If they are not stopped now, they will cross the

European border and spread absolutely throughout the world.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

KOSINSKI: And, Wolf, we asked the White House repeatedly today how it is Russia's actions do not constitute an invasion of Ukraine. But they would only say that it flagrantly violates Ukraine's territorial integrity.

And it's also been reported that Vladimir Putin recently told President Poroshenko that if Putin wanted to, he could have Russian troops in Kiev and all the Baltic capitals and in Warsaw in two days' time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a pretty chilling thought.

Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thanks very much.

The president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, is joining us now.

He's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Mr. President, welcome to Washington.

Welcome to THE SITUATION ROOM.

POROSHENKO: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: I know you came here just from the Oval Office. You're meeting with the president, earlier with a joint session of Congress.

You asked -- and I listened to every word you said in your speech before at the House and the Senate -- you want lethal aid, military equipment from the United States. And so far, the U.S. is saying no.

How disappointed are you?

POROSHENKO: First of all, this is not exactly what you said. We asked the serious increase in our security and defense cooperation with the United States. And the White House and the President Obama said yes. And I have absolutely no disappointment.

And the -- I think that the immediate step which my country and the whole region and the whole world needs now is a step for peace. This conflict is impossible to be ended by military means. And if it wants to improve the defense potential of our army, this is just for peace, to defend the peace, freedom and democracy in my country.

That's why I really thanked Michelle about this information. But I also...

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski?

POROSHENKO: Michelle Kosinski.

BLITZER: Our reporter.

POROSHENKO: Exactly. But...

BLITZER: But you did say in your speech before Congress, you want lethal and -- non-lethal and lethal military equipment from the United States, right?

POROSHENKO: Exactly. And we are fully satisfied with the agreement today reached. This does not include the lethal weapons from the United States. But we can have a possibility to receive it from other countries.

But the...

BLITZER: Well, why wouldn't the U.S. provide Ukraine, a democracy that's under assault right now from pro-Russian separatists and Russia itself, if the U.S. is willing to provide lethal military equipment to moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime in sanctions, why can't the U.S. provide lethal military equipment to a democracy like Ukraine, which faces serious security challenges?

POROSHENKO: I will be very straightforward and very blunt with you, because what they supplied to the Syrian rebels, this is just a meshing gun or automatic rifle or something like that. We have everything of that. We have a tank, we have an artillery, we have a machine gun...

BLITZER: So when it comes to lethal military, what would you like from the United States?

POROSHENKO: We'd like from the United States the instructors, trained in (INAUDIBLE) program, the radar and the new modern communication security system. We have a long list of the possible cooperation. And I think -- and I can confirm you that we received a confirmation that we have everything of that. We should modernize my army. And these weapons is not just to fighting in this particular moment in this particular war. This is impossible.

We stand solely for peace, but for the American participation in modernizing of Ukrainian Army. This is what we vitally need.

And the beats (ph) received today the final confirmation of this potential defense and security (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Because I'm surprised that the U.S. still is insisting it is only providing non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine. So you're still work -- we can conclude this part of the interview by saying you're working on that issue with the U.S.?

POROSHENKO: We...

BLITZER: It's still a work in progress?

POROSHENKO: We are completely satisfied with the today meeting with the American president. And I want to thank him for the leadership and the defending Ukrainian sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.

And today, his global leadership for organizing the methods, starting from the sanctions and including the pressure and isolation who help us to win this conflict.

BLITZER: All right. I appreciate that.

And we have a lot more to discuss.

I have to take a quick break.

When we come back. I want to talk about something else you asked Congress for. And I'm going to find out if you got a yes or a no from the president of the United States.

Stand by.

Much more of my exclusive interview with the visiting president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko.

He's here with me.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko.

Mr. President, I want to clarify something from Michelle Kosinski's report from the White House. Did Putin tell you that, if he wanted to, within two days, he could be -- have his military in Kiev and Warsaw, which is a NATO ally, in the Baltic states? Did he say -- did he say that to you?

POROSHENKO: Well, that would be a very bad idea from the confidential negotiation and try to make a diplomacy using these facts. So in that situation, my answer would be no. And I think that that can be extremely harmful to a very fragile peace process.

BLITZER: Right now there's a ceasefire. So you don't want to confirm that he made that threat to you?

POROSHENKO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: But did he? OK. All right. I've got some other important issues we've got to get to.

In your address before Congress, you appealed to the United States to provide Ukraine what's called major non-NATO ally status. Other countries like Japan, South Korea, Israel, they have this status. You want it. What did the president of the United States tell you? Will Ukraine be a major non-NATO ally, which is very significant?

POROSHENKO: My answer would be, again, very straightforward. The answer of President Obama was no.

BLITZER: He told you no?

POROSHENKO: He said no, because -- because we already have a special status for the level of the cooperation between the United States and Ukraine. The level of the security and the defense cooperation is much higher than just the status of the major non-NATO ally. For example, Argentina. And we are working under a special status, a strategic defense and security partner of the United States. And I think that that would be more efficient than just...

BLITZER: So you must be disappointed. You made the appeal before Congress.

POROSHENKO: No, no, no.

BLITZER: You were applauded. They gave you -- they gave you a standing ovation when you basically...

POROSHENKO: We received more than we asked.

BLITZER: So you're basically satisfied with what you got, even though you didn't get that?

POROSHENKO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: All right. Let's talk...

POROSHENKO: We do not refuse. We have -- again, we received more than we asked, and we will have a special program for the cooperation skilled sector. We will have a special American team for performing our security and defense sector. We will have a special way of cooperation for the Ukraine -- the big (ph) problem. We have enough, and I am completely satisfied with today's cooperation with the White House.

BLITZER; Here's what's very upsetting to me, who's someone who's covered the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independence of Ukraine, the other republics of the former Soviet Union.

I have here in my hand the Budapest Memorandum that was signed December 1994. It was signed by the president of Russia, the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin; President of the United States William J. Clinton; John Major, prime minister of Britain; and others, and it guarantees Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. There would be no violation of the -- we would respect the independent sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine.

Now Russian violated it. You believe Russia violated the Budapest Memorandum.

POROSHENKO: Yes.

BLITZER: So how disappointed are you that the United States, Britain, the other signatories of this didn't do much; didn't do enough to prevent Russia from doing this? POROSHENKO: Well, we should understand that this is not only the

Budapest Memoranda that's not working and collapsed. With the Russian invasion to Crimea, with the Russian aggression to the eastern part of the Lugansk region of Ukraine, it was -- collapsed the total post-war security system in the world. Because what mechanism the world creates just for security. The National Security Council, NATO, General Assembly of the United Nation [SIC], the special regional security ally and all these teams are simply not working.

BLITZER: It's shocking that all of these -- you gave up Ukraine. You have a lot of nuclear stockpiles inside, weapons. You gave them all up in exchange for an iron clad commitment from Russia, the U.S., Britain, that your sovereignty would be respected, and it wasn't.

POROSHENKO: Exactly.

BLITZER: Look at this map right here. This is a map of Ukraine, including Crimea. We highlighted it for you. That's under Russian occupation right now.

Yeah. This is under Russian occupation but no country in the world recognizes it. And I'm absolutely sure that sooner or later, within a months, weeks, or short number of years, Crimea will come back to...

BLITZER: How are you going to do that? What is Putin up to lately?

POROSHENKO: Because, look, this is the complete isolation territory. Crimea will have no tourists, no investment, no trips, no exports from the Crimean enterprises to anybody else. That is -- bring Crimea collapse.

BLITZER: But that's why pro-Russian separatists here, right, they're working to create a land mass to bring that whole area under Russian control, right?

POROSHENKO: Exactly. But that need a clear name in the international law. This is an aggression and attack on the independence sovereign state.

BLITZER: Wasn't that international law violated with the attack on Crimea?

POROSHENKO: You're saying that if it would be just a silent occupation. The attempt to do the same by the eastern part of Ukraine and the eastern Lugansk region will have a very severe response from the Ukrainian army. We simply do not allowed to do that. But forgive me, again...

BLITZER: Yes.

POROSHENKO: ... I'm a president of peace. We are in process of the peace plan. We have a cease-fire for the 12 days.

BLITZER: Is it working? POROSHENKO: And every single day when we have a cease-fire, less

Ukrainian soldiers, less Ukrainian civilians, less Russian soldiers are dead. And I'm absolutely sure that, before the end of this week, there will be a second stage of the Minsk Memorandum which will be completely stop, withdraw the heavy artillery -- rocket, missiles, rocket (ph) system and everything like that. And I am absolutely -- I promise, I'll do my best to have the cease-fire ring the real peace to the territory.

BLITZER: As you know, there are a lot of people who fear Putin not only wants parts of Ukraine but other -- Moldova, Georgia. He's looking for -- to expand that Russian empire right now. Do you believe that?

POROSHENKO: It's possible. And we should act responsibly, and we should have Plan A for the peace plan and Plan B. What the whole world community will do if the aggression will continue.

Because again, this is not the war against Ukraine. This is the war against the free world. This is a war against the freedom, democracy, and if we give them an opportunity to act like that, business as usual, that will be the danger for the whole world. This is a war against the freedom, the democracy, and if we give the opportunity to act like that, business as usual, that could be the danger for the whole world.

BLITZER: I was in Poland a few weeks ago, which is a NATO ally, they are worried over there. They're all NATO allies: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. They're worried.

Here's the question. You live right there. You're a lot closer to the scene than we are. Should they be worried, even though Article 5 of the NATO alliance says if there's any attack on them, all the NATO allies, including the U.S., will have to come to their defense?

POROSHENKO: Conflict in Ukraine brings absolutely new vision for the NATO approach for the security in the region and in the whole world. I think that now with most states we spend more money on the security, and the level to defend their own country would be much higher.

But I want to confirm with you that we, us Ukrainians, are ready to fight against the danger of the aggressor. And this is not just a slogan. My son is out there.

BLITZER: Your son is in the army?

POROSHENKO: Absolutely. And this is -- he's a volunteer. And he's graduating, even, from the school of economics in Seattle -- Oxford. He's...

BLITZER: He's a volunteer in the army?

POROSHENKO: Absolutely. And he's a commander of the artillery unit. And his platoon lost wounded, four person during the last three weeks and this is the very powerful signal. What does it feel not only the president, not only the citizen but the father, understanding how dangerous is the process and how important it is to bring the peace.

BLITZER: Let me get your thought on MH-17, the Malaysian airliner that was shot down over Ukraine. It's shocking to me that that area where that plane went down, there could be bodies that are still on -- that no one has even gone there to try to resolve that situation. Who do you blame for that?

POROSHENKO: This is absolutely sure. But first of all, we created the investigation commission and I, as president of Ukraine, gave leadership in this commission to the Dutch inspector, because the Dutch was the nation who suffered the most from this...

BLITZER: The only thing they've said so far is that a missile shot it down. But they're not saying who's responsible.

POROSHENKO: But within a few days a week, we will receive the preliminary report, and there will be absolutely sure demonstrated that this is a Russian weapons operated by Russian-trained personnel. And the launch of the missile was done from the territory controlled by the Russian control, the rebels and separatists.

And this is the -- just was a very important demonstration, how small is the world and how the global danger of the terrorism can attack in any country from Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, to the Netherlands and the United States and Canada.

So this is the way how we should fight against the terror on the Ukrainian territory, because this is not many thousand kilometers away. This is right here. And the danger of the terror is right here.

And that's why I was very impressed by the today reaction of the ordinary American people, which stopped me on the street; with the reaction of the congressmen and Senate in Congress and with the reaction of the United States government, reaction of the White House. This understanding that this is a danger for the world.

We have lots of conflict outside of Ukraine. We have an ISIS. We have Syria, but even during this situation, the president of the United States pays -- I don't know -- 60 percent of his time for the foreign policy to Ukraine to settle the crisis. And I think that is a lot, and this is very helpful and this is the true evidence for the leadership.

BLITZER: So here's my final question to you, Mr. President. You've been generous with your time. What is your message to the Russian president, someone you know, someone you've spoken with, Russian President Putin right now?

POROSHENKO: We need very responsible decisions, and we should keep the cease-fire, continue to develop the peace plan and be very responsible for the fate of the people living in Ukraine.

I have three points. Point number one, we should remove all the troops, all the Russian troops from --

BLITZER: There are still Russian troops, not pro-Russian troops, but Russian troops in Ukraine? You believe this?

POROSHENKO: I know that because we have prisoners of war from this troop. So we should remove it from the Ukrainian territory. No discussion. We should close the border. Close the border for the new supplier of the troops, artillery and everything. Third, we should immediately release all of the hostages and if it happens.

These three points, we find out a compromise inside of Ukraine. We don't have any internal conflict, I promise you.

BLITZER: I agree with you, the stakes are enormous right now as we speak.

Mr. President, thanks very much for coming to Washington. Thanks very much for coming here in the SITUATION ROOM. Good luck to you and good luck to all the people of Ukraine.

POROSHENKO: And I invite you to Ukraine.

BLITZER: Don't leave yet because we're going to discuss my visit to Ukraine down the road. Stay where you are.

Much more coming up here in the SITUATION ROOM.

After all of the anger we saw as far as the police in Ferguson are concerned, fighting with demonstrators, there's now an urgent new effort to target what's being described as police bias.

Stay with us for that.

Also fire emergency. There are now 10 major fires burning right across California. We're going to go there live. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Pointing to the anger sparked by the police shooting of an unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, today launched an urgent nationwide push to build trust between police and the communities they serve. Holder who has been to Ferguson set goals of eliminating bias, ensuring fairness and building community engagement all across the country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, not just in Ferguson, but in many neighborhoods across this country. We can't allow these tensions to go unresolved.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: With us here in the SITUATION ROOM, the NAACP Board

Member John Gaskin and our CNN law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, a former assistant director of the FBI.

John, what's your reaction to this new study? What's your reaction to what we heard from the attorney general, saying this new study was really spurred by what happened where you are in Ferguson?

JOHN GASKIN, NAACP BOARD MEMBER: Well, it is certainly a step in the right direction to really find some solutions for this problem because, as we've mentioned and I've mentioned on your show several times, this isn't just a local issue. This is an issue that's occurring across the breath and whiff of this nation. But I know I spoke with you earlier -- a few weeks back when the community leaders met with Eric Holder and many people from the community had several questions regarding what is next. It's not just a Ferguson issue.

What is his office and the DOJ going to do in the long run to address these types of needs? And this just goes to show that he's about action and not just talk. He -- he alluded that there would be some type of long-term solution or some steps to really combat this issue. And him taking this type of action, this type of broad action, definitely shows that he wants to do something about this and see some real improvements.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask Tom Fuentes.

You've worked your whole career in law enforcement. A study like this, dealing with a sensitive issue like racial bias within law enforcement agencies, police departments all across. How significant potentially could it be?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, it could be very, Wolf. But my problem with the timing of this is that, is it a study or is he asserting that there is in fact bias in Ferguson and many other communities and there has to be something done about it? And normally I would normally say, yes, a study like that, fine, do that study and look at police departments all across the country.

But when you name it and say that it's because of the situation in Ferguson, there's a police officer there under investigation facing potential murder charges, federal charges for civil rights violation, and really this comes off as an assertion that they are biased and we've got to do something about it. And I think that's the problem I have with this.

BLITZER: I guess some of the people point out that, what, out of the 50 odd police officers in Ferguson, there were only one or two or three who are African-American, even though the community had -- maybe half of the community was African-American. Does that in and of itself raise a problem of potential racial bias?

FUENTES: Well, certainly a potential but it doesn't mean that there is in fact -- and again, I go back to, is this a study or is the attorney general asserting that there is bias and we're going to do something about it? Now later on if they determined that there's bias and need to have training and other measures around the country, that's one thing. But to do it in the heat of the moment right now as Ferguson is still, you know, undecided and, again, the officer is facing the most serious charges anyone could face, just seems a little bit --

BLITZER: Let me --

FUENTES: A little bit biased in and of itself.

BLITZER: Let me ask John Gaskin to respond to that. What do you say about that, John?

GASKIN: Well, it appears that the police department there is bias and not just Ferguson but other neighboring communities. But this is a step in the right direction. The reason I say this, Mr. Blitzer, is because this puts people like the prosecutor and other people in leadership across the country on alert that this and on notice that this is a problem and the DOJ is very, very serious about this and they're going to address this --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But what about, John, the motion that Tom makes that maybe it's all true but the timing right now as there is still uncertainty what's going to happen to this white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, that the timing is awkward?

GASKIN: Well, I can somewhat agree with that but we have to look at this. It is never too late or too early to do the right thing to address these types of issues because it is a problem and it's been a problem for too long. It's been a problem for decades. Not just for the city of Ferguson but for St. Louis County as a whole for decades, I mind you.

BLITZER: John Gaskin, as usual, thanks very much. Tom Fuentes, thanks to you as well.

Up next, California's wildfire emergency. We're just getting word here in the SITUATION ROOM of an arson arrest connected to one of the largest fires burning out of control. Stand by for that.

And in our next hour, terror warning, America's intelligence chief says veteran al Qaeda bomb makers, they are plotting attacks on U.S. airliners.

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BLITZER: We're awaiting results from the vote that could leave the United Kingdom a whole lot less united. Polls just closed this hour in Scotland, where a referendum, an historic referendum asked whether the country should be independent.

CNN's Max Foster is joining us live now. He's near Edinburgh with more.

So what's the latest over there, Max? The polls have now closed. MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They have closed

and they started counting the postal votes and the big boxes on huge tables next door. They're going through each one of them one by one by hand. Big teams of people. That's one of 32 counting stations around Scotland. We expect the first results to come in about five, six hours' time from one of those 32 and then probably in about nine hours we'll get the full national results.

There are no exit polls, per se, being published here but we have got quite a small poll from YouGov, which suggests that as the polls close, no was on 54 percent, yes was on 46 percent. The polls all along suggested that they are anti-independence campaign has been ahead. According to that latest poll, they're saying.

But, you know, these polls are very unreliable, Wolf, because this hasn't been done before. The underlying assumptions, there are some questions about them and also these very young voters, the 16, 17-year-olds who haven't voted before, we don't know which way they are going to go. So we have to be a bit cautious about the polls. I think we need to wait for the full results to come in.

BLITZER: Yes. That poll you just mentioned was not conducted by CNN. So we have no polling that we've been able to do and as you correctly point out, any of those polls, including any sort of exit poll in Scotland right now, very, very unreliable. This is touch and go. The stakes are enormous.

We'll be watching it very closely, Max. Thanks very much. In the coming hours we'll find out, will Scotland still remain in the UK or not.

Still ahead, a terror alliance believed to be targeting U.S. airliners. Why intelligence officials are now increasingly worried.

Also, California's wildfire emergency. We're going there live.

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BLITZER: A state of emergency is in effect right now in California where wildfires are threatening thousands of homes. At least 10 major fires are burning in the state. The smoke is so dense you can now see a number of them from space even.

Look at this. And we're just learning about the arrest of a suspected arsonist in connection with a huge blaze just east of Sacramento.

Let's go live to CNN's Dan Simon. He's on the scene for us.

What is it like, Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, Wolf. This fire has nearly tripled in the last 24 hours. It's now burned through 70,000 acres and 2,000 residents have been displaced from their homes.

At this point, it's barely contained, just 5 percent containment. And now fire officials are telling us that this is the work of an arsonist. They tell us they have taken one man into custody, a local man, 37-year-old Wayne Allen Husband. He's been charged with one count of felony arson. There's also some aggravating factor because a couple of firefighters were injured battling this blaze.

But in terms of the conditions that we're seeing, it's a little bit cooler today, but Wolf, we're still talking about very steep terrain. So really the best way to battle this wildfire is from the air. And also you're dealing with a three-year drought in California. That's making the condition very challenging, not only here near Sacramento but through the entire state.

As you said, we're talking about 10 active fires in the state of California and because of this drought, officials fear that it could go on for a couple more months -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the weather forecast doesn't look like it's going to get a whole lot better any time soon. Is that right?

SIMON: No rain in the forecast for the time being. Hopefully, you know, maybe we'll see some rain. But meteorologists saying they're not seeing any. So that's why the resources in terms of where they put these resources so vitally important and because you've got 10 fires burning at once, they're stretched thin. But they're trying to manage the best they can -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And describe to our viewers what it's like to be there, that thick smoke we see behind you. What does it smell like there, for example?

SIMON: You can really sort of smell it everywhere you go, at least in this community. And I've been out in it all day. The smoke really takes its toll on you. It affects your eyes and so forth. We try to take breaks when we can. But you can imagine what it's like for these firefighters who are dealing with these elements all day long.

One reason why they've forced people to evacuate is because of the environmental conditions. In addition to the flames that could take over their homes, they also want to keep people safe and keep people quite a distance away from all these smoke, too -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Dan, be careful, you and your crew over there, everyone else, be careful. Because potentially could be extremely dangerous.

Dan Simon on the scene for us in California.

Coming up, U.S. warplanes destroy a new kind of ISIS target. We have details of the latest U.S. air strikes.

And U.S. officials warn of an immediate and deadly threat to Americans. Why there's now a growing concern about an al Qaeda cell in Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Happening now. U.S. warplanes on the attack against

ISIS, now destroying a new kind of target as military chiefs sign off on the next phase of the expanding war on terror.

Stand by. We have new details.