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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With California Congressman Ed Royce; ISIS Plan of Attack; New Warning Al Qaeda Cell Plotting Against U.S.; Syrian Embassy Worker Turns Spy for Opposition; Senate Approves Arming Syrian Rebels; Infamous Ex-Governor, Ex-Con Running For Congress; California Wildfire Emergency

Aired September 18, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, a chilling warning that al Qaeda terrorists are building new bombs and plotting to attack U.S. flights, posing a more immediate danger to Americans than ISIS.

And an 87-year-old veteran of politics and scandal is trying to make a comeback with his young family along for the ride. Will this colorful ex-governor and ex-convict be elected to Congress?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People say, they're all crooks anyhow. You might as well send an experienced one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

Right now, the U.S. military's classified plan to attack ISIS terrorists in Syria is ready to go. And CNN has learned that airstrikes could begin within days. We're told that ISIS commanders, weapons and camps, they are now on the target list of the United States, a target list that's been approved by top Pentagon officials.

At the same time, U.S. forces now are expanding their offensive against ISIS inside Iraq. We have our correspondents, our analysts, our newsmakers, they are all standing by with the newest information about America's war against ISIS.

First, let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, U.S. military officials tell CNN that ISIS is modifying its behavior, its communications and concealment in response to the U.S. air campaign.

Some are concerned that as the strategy is defined and debated that ISIS will become a more elusive target. But Pentagon officials tell me however that they are confident the campaign will be effective, and today we saw an example of the new, more aggressive military action. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Today, U.S. warplanes destroying a new kind of ISIS target in Iraq. A training camp near the stronghold of Mosul, the strike eliminating an armed vehicle, two buildings, and a group of militants. This is the war on ISIS as it moves from defense to offense.

Testifying on the Hill today, Secretary of State John Kerry described the group as far from invincible.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I don't think these guys are 10 feet tall, and the intelligence tells us that as we have begun to hit them, we have been able to prove that to some degree.

SCIUTTO: The U.S. battle plan still does not include U.S. troops in combat, though the vice president, like General Martin Dempsey before him, appeared to leave that option open to consideration, telling reporters in Iowa that will be determined "based on how the effort goes."

For now, though, the burden will fall entirely on indigenous ground forces. In Syria, the goal is to create a rebel force of roughly 5,000, capable of fighting in large, organized units rather than small teams. The Pentagon says, however, that training such a force could take a full year.

In Iraq, Iraqi and Kurdish forces will fight on the ground. The U.S. advisers have now determined that no more than half of the Iraqi army is fit to partner with U.S. forces, the rest either poorly led or dominated by Shiite militias. Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel again spoke of a long, difficult military campaign.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: This effort will not be simple. We are at war with ISIL, just as we are at war can al Qaeda.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: The coalition gained one more member today. French President Francois Hollande announcing that France would carry out airstrikes on ISIS as well, though in Iraq, not Syria. Hollande visited Iraq last week. She said he was answering a direct request from the Iraqi government.

And, Wolf, you remember Secretary Kerry has said some 30 countries have offered to join the military part of this campaign, but still not a lot of specificity at this point as to who is contributing what. But France, we at least know they will part of the air campaign.

BLITZER: Did they explain why Iraq, they would target ISIS targets in Iraq, but not in Syria?

SCIUTTO: They did not explain. I think that it's an easier choice. And part of it is an argument that U.S. officials have made, you have a ground force in Iraq. Right? You have the Iraqi military force and the Kurdish Peshmerga. You don't have that in Syria.

BLITZER: Syria, those airstrikes will be dangerous, because you don't have good intelligence necessarily on the ground. A lot of innocent civilians could wind up getting killed as well.

SCIUTTO: Meanwhile, as you wait, they're changing their behavior on the ground to make themselves harder to spot.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Sciutto reporting for us, thank you.

Meanwhile, new fireworks over the war against ISIS. The Senate is nearing a vote that could give final congressional approval for the United States to arm and train those moderate Syrian rebels.

Let's go to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

How is the Senate looking over there? I know they're getting ready to vote.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are getting ready to vote, Wolf.

They're actually in a middle of a series that will lead them to the final vote. It's combined piece of legislation that will not just arm and train the Syrian rebels, but it will keep the government open. This is a point of controversy that this has all kind of melded into one bill. A lot of senators in both parties saying basically give me a break, we should have a separate vote on this important issue.

But this is actually how the president himself wanted it. He made calls saying this is how I want it, because he wants to make sure that this authorization that he's asked for actually gets through in this must-pass bill to keep the government running. There's been really intense debate today on whether or not it is the right thing to do to be arming these Syrian rebels.

Rand Paul, who is a Republican from Kentucky, but also a probable candidate for president in 2016, was incredible -- incredibly intense in saying that this is the wrong way to go. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: The moss-covered, too-long-in- Washington crowd cannot help themselves. War, war. What we need is more war. But they never pay attention to the results of the last war.

Amidst the interventionist's disjointed and frankly incoherent rhetoric, amidst the gathering gloom that sees enemies behind every friend, and friends behind every enemy, the only consistent theme is war. These barnacled enablers have never met a war they didn't like.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Wolf, Senator Paul did not mention anybody by name, but it was very clear he was talking about some of the hawks in his own party, namely John McCain, who has been pushing for more intervention for years in a number of countries in the region, particularly Syria. He says that had people listened to him last year, that we wouldn't be in this position. So he went to the Senate floor shortly afterwards and gave a response of sorts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I see the critics come here on the floor of the Senate and talk about why everything is wrong, why nobody will fight, why we can't arm the right people. What's their solution?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: So this is an illustration of the divide within the Republican Party we're going to see playing out. But much more importantly in the short-term, it is an illustration of the divide about what the United States really should be doing.

Big questions about whether or not the strategy that the president laid out is going to work, given how complex it is in the region -- Wolf.

BLITZER: There's really not much of a doubt that resolution continuing the government operation, which includes the authorization for arming and training those Syrian rebels, that will pass the Senate, right?

BASH: It is expected to pass. Probably a handful, maybe more Democrats will vote no, because they are opposed to arming and training the Syrian rebels and likely Republicans as well. But it should pass pretty resoundingly.

BLITZER: Dana Bash up on the Hill, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now.

Joining us, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. ED ROYCE (R), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Are you with Rand Paul or John McCain?

ROYCE: I'm with neither, because I think the solution to this really is to have boots on the ground, but not American boots.

From my standpoint, it looks to me like we need Kurdish boots on the ground, we need Arab boots on the ground. I believe though that there is a role for air support, unlike Rand Paul. I think that the United States needs to go in and hit the training catches, as we did today, because if we don't take those training camps out, those fighters will come back and hit the United States. BLITZER: Because when I hear Senator Paul, Rand Paul, say the

president and his Republican friends are clamoring for airstrikes against Assad, he says they should realize the consequence of more war. What do you say to Senator Paul when you hear that kind of language?

ROYCE: The difficulty here is that this is not a war that the United States is declaring on ISIL. This is a war that ISIL has declared on that region, on Europe and on the United States. They're the ones that say, embrace our caliphate or die. They're the ones that are beheading our journalists and massacring civilians, Christians and other religious minorities.

And so in response to that, the international community is saying, well, do we allow them to continue to train in terror and learn these tactics and then send these individuals back to attack us or do we hit the training camps?

And the other thing that the international community is saying, well, you have Kurdish forces on the ground that want to do the fighting. You have the Free Syrian Army. Why not give them the equipment, vet them, train them certainly, but let them do the fighting on the ground, because we have had enough sending our troops into that theater of operation?

BLITZER: You chaired a hearing today. You're the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee -- Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives.

You had John Kerry. Secretary Hagel has been testifying up on the Hill. Did you get all the answers you need?

ROYCE: No, we haven't gotten all the answers we need. And, subsequently, I went into a classified briefing with my ranking member, Eliot Engel of New York, in order to glean some more information about the operations on the ground.

We also had an opportunity today to talk to several ambassadors from the region about their willingness to support financially, because we're pushing to have them pay for this operation. They have indicated that they will do that. But this is an ongoing process and certainly we want to continue with our hearings to glean more information as we go forward.

BLITZER: Which Arab countries are going to pay for it?

ROYCE: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates are looking at picking up a big part of the tab, and I think that's quite appropriate. We intend to talk to Kuwait and other countries as well.

BLITZER: Because a lot of us remember Kuwait was liberated by the United States and a coalition back in 1991. It's a wealthy country, as you well know, and all of our viewers know as well.

Did any of them give you a commitment? In fact, is there any commitment from any of the Arab countries in the region, from Turkey, any of the European countries to join with Iraqi troops, with Kurdish troops, with the Free Syrian Army to put so-called combat boots on the ground to try to destroy ISIS?

ROYCE: The offer or the suggestion that we get is that they're willing to work with groups such as the same tribes in Iraq, in Western Iraq that rose up against al Qaeda, if you will recall the whole awakening, Sunni awakening there in the West. They will send their specialists in who train and communicate with those elements, and likewise with the Kurdish forces.

So, I think we're going to get assistance. But we didn't hear that they want to do the fighting on the ground. What we did -- we had a discussion the other day with the foreign minister of Kurdistan, though. He has 190,000 fighters. And if he can get the equipment that they need, anti-tank missiles, artillery and so forth, it will allow you to be much more effective with his force on the ground, men and women in these Kurdish battalions who are very good fighters, the Peshmerga.

So, these are the kinds of discussions we're having. And there is a role here for airpower from the United States and our allies. France joined us today. But I would say not on the ground, not ground troops.

BLITZER: Not yet. The U.S. is supplying those Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with some equipment. But until now, it's all gone through Baghdad and the government there under Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister.

I don't know about the new government there, the new prime minister. They haven't really given the Kurds what they -- they are badly underarmed, if you will, because of the lack of resources. Is that going to change?

ROYCE: And, Wolf, that's a great point, because Eliot Engel and I talked about bipartisan legislation today that would directly indicate that we should circumvent Baghdad and get those armaments into the hands of the Kurdish troops that are actually doing the actual fighting. And I think that will solve part of the problem.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Ukraine for a moment.

The president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, was here. He met with a joint session of the House and the Senate today, went to the White House, came here to THE SITUATION ROOM. I just interviewed him in the last hour. A couple questions. He's asking the United States to designate Ukraine as a major non-NATO ally, give Ukraine that status. Are you ready to do so?

ROYCE: I think we're ready for a debate about that. I'm not ready to categorically say at this moment that we're going to do that. I think we need to look at the ramifications, have a hearing on this.

I will talk to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. But we really need to think about all of the consequences when we talk about the road to NATO membership. BLITZER: He's also asked the United States for not only

nonlethal, but lethal military equipment. So far, the Obama administration has rejected that request. Where do you stand?

ROYCE: I think there's another way to obtain that. And I think it's from Poland and other countries in the region. I think there's a way for us to be supportive of transferring those assets that they're seeking to get without having the kind of confrontation that it might create between Russia and the United States if we began to directly arm Ukraine.

That said, there are ample armaments of Ukraine's close allies in that region, including Poland, that could be transferred to Ukrainian forces on the ground. And I think that's a possible resolution to this.

BLITZER: One final question. You do support providing lethal military equipment to those moderate Syrian rebels, right?

ROYCE: Well, I know that for two years now, the Central Intelligence Agency has been vetting -- and basically these are the middle class out of Damascus, the Sunni middle class in Aleppo.

But they are joined by a lot of defectors who are Alawites and by Christian units as well. And, frankly, within this category, as you vet them, there are people who have been fighting both against ISIS on their eastern flank, and from above those barrel bombs that are being dropped by Assad, who frankly have stood their ground.

They should be given the equipment to defend themselves and defend Aleppo, yes.

BLITZER: Well, very quickly, why do you support providing lethal equipment to the Syrian rebels, but not to Ukraine, which is a democracy?

ROYCE: We are fighting right now against ISIL that is trying to kill us. This is in our interests to put that down.

We are in the middle of negotiations between Poroshenko and Russia that grants a certain amount of autonomy. It's a guarantee of language rights and culture rights to the ethnic Russian-speaking people in the east as well as a negotiation over local autonomy.

There's every possibility that this could take hold. And I think at this moment, if we want to see the transfer of additional weapons into Ukraine, that certainly can be done, but it shouldn't be done formally by the United States with an announcement at a moment when there's negotiations going on that might wind down the situation in Eastern Ukraine.

BLITZER: Fair enough. There is a fragile cease-fire that's been holding more or less over these past several days as well.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.

ROYCE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Royce is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Still ahead, new warnings that al Qaeda terrorists may be trying to outdo ISIS fighters with a potentially imminent attack targeting Americans.

A double agent inside the Syrian Embassy here in Washington, D.C., revealed. What does it tell us about the challenges for the United States in the war against ISIS?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: While the U.S. expands its war against ISIS terrorists, America's intelligence chief is now issuing his first public warning about a group of al Qaeda fighters who may pose an even more deadly and an even more immediate threat to Americans.

Let's go to our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. She's in New York today with the latest -- Pam.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, intelligence officials are concerned about a cell of al Qaeda terrorists in Syria known as Khorasan.

The real threat here, according to U.S. officials, is the combination of technical bomb making experience and access to a huge pool of foreign fighters with European and American passports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): It's newer, even smaller bombs than the ones in these toothpaste tubes that have U.S. officials so concerned. First time today, an American intelligence official said publicly the government is worried about a terrorist cell in Syria known as Khorasan, saying it's working with al Qaeda bomb makers to target U.S. flights, the same bomb makers including Ibrahim al-Asiri, behind the failed 2009 underwear bomb on a Detroit-bound plane and the bomb hidden in a printer cartridge on a cargo plane in 2010.

JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: This Khorasan group, so-called, which I guess is out there, is potentially yet another threat to the homeland.

BROWN: U.S. officials Khorasan is made up of al Qaeda fighters who were fighting in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. The worry is they're now in Syria, working to recruit European and American foreign fighters who can use their passports to smuggle bombs onto U.S.-bound airplanes.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: One of the operatives who has moved from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to Syria is a Saudi operative called Abdulrahman al-Jahani (ph). He's an experienced fighter. He was part of al Qaeda's command structure in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. And a year or so ago, he moved to Syria and according to the

United States intelligence services, he's involved in plotting attacks against Western targets.

BROWN: Wednesday, U.S. officials hinted at those same concerns, telling Congress al Qaeda affiliates are intent on targeting U.S. flights.

MATTHEW OLSEN, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM DIRECTOR: For the past five years, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has sought on three times to take down an airplane bound for the United States.

BROWN: And U.S. officials say there's fierce competition between al Qaeda and ISIS to be known as the biggest, baddest jihadi organization.

CRUICKSHANK: That would be a very, very worrying scenario, indeed, if these two groups start to try and outdo each other to launch attacks back in the West. For al Qaeda, it would be a way to restore its relevance when ISIS is grabbing all the headlines.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: That is the big concern, according to U.S. officials, that these groups are competing with one another, trying to be the heir to Osama bin Laden, that Khorasan will try to outdo ISIS and grab some of the headlines back, Wolf.

Intelligence officials say this group is seen as a more immediate threat to homeland security than ISIS at this point.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown reporting for us, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director, and CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank. He's also the co-author of a brand-new book, an important one, "Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA."

Paul, tell us about this new terror cell that -- all of a sudden, Khorasan, we're hearing about it. A lot of our viewers probably never heard about them. It's an al Qaeda offshoot, is that right?

CRUICKSHANK: That's right. This group Khorasan appears to be embedded in the organizational structures of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

Over the last couple of years, you have seen a migration of al Qaeda fighters from the AfPak border region to Syria. There's been so much brain drain that al-Nusra in fact is in many ways now the new al Qaeda central.

BLITZER: How much coordination is there between these various pro-al -- let's call them pro-al Qaeda terror groups?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, a worrying amount of coordination. And Ibrahim al-Asiri, the Yemeni bomb maker with al Qaeda, in Yemen has trained dozens of apprentices in these sophisticated techniques to get bombs onto planes.

The worry is that some of these apprentices have migrated to Syria and joined groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and that they could now target the United States.

BLITZER: It's a terrorist organization, al-Nusra. So ISIS and so is some of these other groups.

From a law enforcement point of view, Tom, what does the U.S. need to now do to protect commercial civilian airliners?

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: They're doing it now.

TSA has imposed now several months ago the new measures, including turning on your electronic gear to make sure it has a battery and it works and increased scrutiny of passengers boarding flights from the U.S.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: From the U.S., what about commercial U.S. planes that are in Europe or in Asia or Africa or someplace else? They're under the control of foreign security services.

FUENTES: That's right. The U.S. has a problem there convincing foreign governments that control aircraft that are under their direct responsibility and not directly nighing to the U.S. So that's a little bit of warning to them.

But the key to this group, the Khorasan, that's more important in a way than ISIS is that they have stated unequivocally our main target is the United States. ISIS, their main target, they're still gathering land in Iraq and Syria and control and fighting the Baghdad government, fighting the Shias, taking on the world, wanting to establish a caliphate.

But al-Nusra and now with its affiliation that is now called -- calling themselves Khorasan, they want to attack the U.S. And the other issue that is concern for intelligence officials is that we're aware of from Europe and the United States, Canada, Australia the hundreds of people that have gone to Syria. What we're not aware of is once they have gotten there, did they join ISIS, did they join al- Nusra? Are they becoming part of this Khorasan group. That's not clear. That's not always positive.

BLITZER: Intelligence is murky on that front.

Paul, as you know, in Australia today, there was a huge sweeping up, arrest of ISIS sympathizers who were supposedly getting ready to behead some individual in Australia, random individual. What do we know about this?

CRUICKSHANK: What we know is this appears to be a trigger, when an Australian ISIS member made a phone call to Australia, urging militants over there to carry out this attack. It really shows how ISIS has their sort of global leverage. They

have recruits from all around the world. So they're able to call for attacks. The worry is that in the future an American ISIS member may call for attacks in the United States, Wolf.

BLITZER: How difficult, Tom, is it to prevent something like this from happening, for somebody to be inspired, if you will, whether in Australia or Europe, the United States, and go out and start beheading individuals?

FUENTES: Almost impossible. You don't know what they're thinking. The FBI and the Australian federal police and other authorities can't read people's minds.

In this case, somebody in that group informed on them and notified the authorities to look at them or they picked it up on social media. They did something to make their intentions wider known than just to their immediate group. That was the downfall.

This is not the first major arrest in Australia of extremists. They have had several large arrests over the last 10 years in Sydney and Brisbane involving al Qaeda-related groups that have wanted to attack in Australia.

BLITZER: It's a huge issue right now in Australia, in Europe, here in the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

FUENTES: They're a close ally.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Yes. It's so shocking that it's going on in Australia, of all places.

Thank you very much for that, Tom Fuentes. Paul Cruickshank, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, a double agent turns on Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The mole inside his regime has now been revealed. So what does it mean for the U.S. war against ISIS?

And from politics to prison and back again. An infamous public figure and former reality show star is now running for Congress at the age of 87. You're going to meet him straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: How difficult, Tom, is it to prevent, you know, something like this from happening? For somebody to be inspired, if you will, whether in Australia or Europe, the United States, and go out and start beheading individuals?

FUENTES: Almost impossible. You don't know what they're thinking. The FBI and the Australian federal police and other authorities can't read people's minds.

In this case, somebody in that group informed on them and notified the authorities to look at them or they picked it up on social media. They did something to make their intentions wider known than just to their immediate group, and that was the downfall.

This is not the first major arrest in Australia of extremists. They've got -- they've had several large arrests over the last ten years in Sidney and Brisbane, involving al Qaeda-related groups that have wanted to attack in Australia.

BLITZER: It's a huge -- a huge issue right now in Australia, in Europe, here in the United States.

FUENTES: Well, they're a close ally. That's why they're...

BLITZER: It's shocking that it's going on in Australia, of all places. Thank you very much for that, Tom Fuentes.

Paul Cruickshank, thanks to you, as well.

Coming up, a double agent turns on Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The mole inside his regime has now been revealed. So what does it mean for the U.S. war against ISIS?

And from politics to prison and back again? An infamous public figure and former reality show star is now running for Congress at the age of 87. You're going to meet him, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We've got the breaking news. The United States Senate has just given final congressional approval for the U.S. to go ahead and arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS. The final vote isn't in yet. They're still counting, but it already has more than 70 votes in favor.

This is part of a much broader measure that helps prevent a U.S. government shutdown by the end of the month. So once again, like the House of Representatives yesterday, separate legislation, the Senate now has gone ahead and given the president of the United States what he wants, the authority to train and arm those moderate Syrian rebels.

We're watching this story. We're also right now getting a new look at the complicated battle lines in Syria, as the U.S. takes steps towards arming and training those rebel forces. Who -- the forces were battling ISIS as well as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

"The Wall Street journal" has been reporting that a diplomat in the Syrian embassy here in Washington turned against Bashar al-Assad and actually became a mole for the Syrian opposition.

Bassam Barabandi reportedly provided travel documents to dozens of Bashar al-Assad's foes and secretly passed along information to the opposition. We're joined now Oubai Shabandar. He's a senior adviser to the

Syrian opposition coalition; along with Andrew Tabler. He's the author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Andrew, you're cited in "The Wall Street Journal" article, which I'm sure you read. Fascinating story. Tell us about this so-called mole.

ANDREW TABLER, AUTHOR, "IN THE LION'S DEN": Bassam worked for the Syrian embassy. I knew him.

BLITZER: He was a diplomat.

TABLER: He was.

BLITZER: A career diplomat.

TABLER: Career diplomat. He knew of me, but we didn't have any interaction. One day I get a phone call. Adrenaline's (ph) friend. He wants to meet. So we meet off Dupont Circle, and I can tell immediately from his description that he's not with the regime. He's working with the rebels and thus begins a great story of actually doing the right thing at the right time.

BLITZER: So he was pretending to be a loyal diplomat, loyal to Bashar al-Assad, but secretly he was trying to help the moderate opposition.

TABLER: That's exactly right.

BLITZER: And Oubai, you met with him, as well. Tell us about it.

OUBAI SHAHBANDAR, SENIOR ADVISER, SYRIAN OPPOSITION COALITION: He's a good friend. Bassam Barabandi, first of all, is a hero. He's not just a mole. He did so much for the Syrian people at great personal risk. Which, you know, the regime, if they found out what he was doing, they would have not only have executed him, but they would have executed his entire family and his extended family.

The service that he provided for the Syrian people were incredibly important, because at the time, the Assad regime was simply not going to renew passports for any of those that opposed to him. In fact, what he did enabled those Syrians that were directly threatened...

BLITZER: What did he do? What did he do?

SHANBANDAR: Well, what he would do, he would provide travel documents for those that wanted to escape from the regime and to dissidents, as well. Because there's no other way to receive them.

In fact, there's a big problem that many Syrians today have, because they cannot go back to Syria. They're wanted by the regime. This is a regime that's killed thousands of people and imprisoned thousands of more. So they have only very other -- very little recourse.

In fact, what he did really invokes the image of diplomats in Europe during World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe who would go to great lengths to provide visas and passports to those that wanted to escape Nazi Germany.

BLITZER: So he's safe. Where is he right now?

SHAHBANDAR: Right now he's in Washington, D.C., and he's actively working against the regime. So ironically, the diplomats that used to work for the Assad regime here in Washington are actively not only opposing it but helping the opposition make the case to American politicians on why the United States...

BLITZER: And his family is OK, and his relatives in Syria, they haven't been picked up, arrested, killed or anything like that?

SHAHBANDAR: So far his immediate family is safe. That's why the story was delayed until -- until recently. In fact, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) himself wrote an expose of the Assad regime in the Atlantic Council blog not that long ago that revealed the inner -- the inner workings of the regime and how senior leadership of the Assad regime would purposely facilitate terror and then try to sell the Assad regime as a solution.

BLITZER: Andrew, you're a real expert on Syria. You've spent a lot of time over there. Here's the blunt question: can a lot of members of Congress are concerned. Can these moderate opposition rebels be trusted with lethal U.S. military equipment? Or will that equipment, like the Iraqi -- equipment provided to the Iraqi military, wind up in the hands of ISIS?

TABLER: Sure. The vetted ones, yes. And we have a vetted covert program that's been active there for about two years. Are all those weapons always going to be safe? Could they fall into the wrong hands? It could. But it depends on what kind of weapons, what kind of circumstances. Hopefully with this kind of backing, they'll be able to take on ISIS and also take on the Assad regime and eventually get to a settlement in Syria, which is long overdue.

BLITZER: The final vote, by the way, on the Senate floor, 73 in favor of this resolution to keep the government operating but also including authorization to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Seventy-three in favor, 22 -- excuse me, 78; 78-22. So that's a pretty lopsided vote. But a lot of people who voted for it -- don't kid yourself -- they didn't want to shut down the government. They don't necessarily want to arm and train Syrian rebels.

TABLER: When is when? When is when?

BLITZER: So what are you going to do with this?

SHAHBANDAR: The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly yesterday, 276 for a Pentagon train and equip. This was just validated by the Senate. This is a big leap forward for the United States policy regarding Syria. And it really establishes the Syrian opposition as a core member of a U.S.-led coalition against ISIS.

BLITZER: Are you going to use those weapons to go after ISIS or to go after Bashar al-Assad's regime?

SHAHBANDAR: To go after ISIS. But at the same time, the Assad regime is the root cause for ISIS. Bassam Barabandi himself wrote a very, very chilling expose on how the Assad regime used terror for its own purposes. So it's part of the same campaign.

BLITZER: Andrew, you understand why so many Americans are skeptical right now that any of this is really going to work.

TABLER: Right I understand that. But the alternative is we put boots on the ground. No other...

BLITZER: The president says the United States is not going to do that.

TABLER: Right. So in that situation, we have to back groups that are willing to take on ISIS. They're not going to be perfect. They're not always going to do what we want them to do. But the alternative is we do it ourselves, and a lot of Americans don't want to do that, including the president.

BLITZER: Andrew Tabler, thanks very much for joining us. Oubai Shahbandar, thanks to you, as well.

Just ahead, he has a young family, a scandalous past, and a prison record. Can this 87-year-old former governor actually make a political comeback? We're on the trail with the Louisiana legend Edwin Edwards.

Plus, wildfire danger is spreading rapidly right now, and there's a new charge of arson. We'll go there live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just getting word now that President Obama will make a statement at the top of the hour, now that the Senate has followed the House of Representatives and approved legislation that goes ahead and allows the United States to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels fighting ISIS and the Assad regime in Damascus, as well. We'll, of course, have live coverage here on CNN. The president making a statement right at the top of the hour.

Meanwhile, there's other news we're following. One of the nation's most colorful politicians is trying to make a comeback in a state that's critical to the battle for Congress. He's an 87-year-old former governor, a convicted felon, a reality show star, notorious womanizer, and the father -- get this -- of a 1-year-old son.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger spent some time with the legendary Louisiana Democrat Edwin Edwards.

Gloria, tell us about it. GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, we went

to Louisiana to cover what Edwards would like to be his ultimate comeback race. You know, he's the original bad boy of Louisiana politics and he really wants back in the game.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER (voice-over): It's Sunday morning at the New Life Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

But the man preaching to the choir is no minister.

EDWIN W. EDWARDS (D), FORMER LOUISIANA GOVERNOR: My God is not finished with me.

BORGER: He's Edwin W. Edwards, ex-four-term governor, ex-four- term congressman and ex-con.

EDWARDS: I may be old and rancid butter, but I'm on your side of the bread.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love the Lord, he heard my cry --

BORGER: Unrepentant and unapologetic, Edwards is in church not looking for forgiveness but for votes, because at 87, after almost nine years in prison, the flamboyant showman of Louisiana politics has a fresh act -- running for Congress.

EDWERDS: Thank you much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

BORGER: Co-starring his new 35-year-old wife and their 1-year- old baby.

(on camera): Can you tell the story of how you two met?

TRINA GRIMES, EDWIN EDWARDS' WIFE: Do you want his story or do you want my story?

BORGER (voice-over): Trina Grimes began as Edwards' prison pen pal which led to love at first visit.

GRIMES: I was expecting him to be angry or bitter, and he just wasn't.

EDWARDS: She said, if you don't mind, I only live 30 minutes from here, I would like to come back and visit you. That's like throwing a rubber raft to a drowning man.

GRIMES: He was so full of life and had such a good time, even in the situation he was in. It was really an amazing thing. I've never known anything like that before.

EDWARDS: We agreed to stay together when I got out. And when the gates opened for me to leave, she was there with open eyes and we haven't spent a night apart since.

BORGER: After marriage, along came Eli, a miracle of science. So, now, Edwards is the father to children in their 60s, a wife half their age, and a baby.

GRIMES: He changes his diaper, he bathes, he puts his clothes on, he feeds him.

BORGER (on camera): What's your secret?

EDWARDS: I never smoked, never used tobacco products of any kind. I've never used alcohol. Nobody believes that, nobody believes that, but I've never used alcohol. And it all boils down to two things -- genes and moderation.

BORGER: What if they say this is ridiculous, you're in your 80s.

EDWARDS: They said that when I announced that Trina and I were going to have a baby. But, you know, I have living roof they were wrong.

BORGER: You did --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor Edwin Edwards awaits sentencing.

BORGER (voice-over): Edwards went to prison after a felony conviction, for extorting millions in exchange for river boat gambling licenses. After serving his time, he's now living in a suburban chateau, with reminders of himself as a younger governor.

And the Silver Fox loves motoring around the neighborhood in a golf cart.

EDWARDS: You're only as young as the woman you feel, and, brother, it's fun feeling her.

BORGER: If this seems like reality TV, it was, briefly.

GRIMES: I'm the governor's wife.

BORGER (on camera): So, tell me about doing a reality show, what was that like?

GRIMES: It was horrible.

BORGER: Horrible?

EDWARDS: It was unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This bombshell is about to blow things up.

BORGER (voice-over): The Edwards now say the whole thing was kind of annoying. The critics and the viewers agreed.

(on camera): So, would you do it again?

EDWARDS: If we did, it would be about the governor's ex-wife.

BORGER (voice-over): They admit they're a bit of an odd couple.

EDWARDS: We're having fun.

BORGER: And it's not just about age. Trina is a Republican. And Edwards is an old-time populist Democrat --

EDWARDS: You are the only old man here.

BORGER: -- who wants to return to Congress exactly 50 years since his first stint there.

(on camera): So, when the seat came up, what went through your mind?

EDWARDS: That's my chance. I've got a second chance. And I'm going to take it and I'm going to surprise everybody.

BORGER: Were you for this congressional race?

GRIMES: Not particularly. I would naturally support him in whatever he chose to do. But it's really not my thing.

BORGER: So what about people who also say he's a convicted felon, why do I want to send him to Washington, D.C. to represent me?

EDWARDS: People say, they're all crooks anyhow, you might as well send an experienced one. And all this claptrap about crooked I am and what I stole from this, nobody has ever charged or accused of taking money from the taxpayers. It had nothing to do with my career as a politician. Nothing.

BORGER: A local political columnist, I'm going to read this to you, said if he'd care to ask for forgiveness for making us a laughingstock for some many years.

EDWARDS: I don't pay attention to it, and I don't think many people do.

Some things they have known about me, not too good.

JEREMY ALFORD, EDITOR, LAPOLITICS.COM: He has talked about this until he is blue in the face and he knows that if he keeps talking about it, it becomes noncontroversial.

BORGER (voice-over): Jeremy Alford is a long time Louisiana political reporter.

ALFORD: Right now, the way it's being addressed has become a non-issue.

BORGER: That's what Edward is counting on. He is running against nine Republicans in a bright red district. Everyone can name Edwards.

EDWARDS: I'm well known and that's good and it's bad.

BORGER: The story power broker who fell from grace and is looking for a comeback.

EDWARDS: I would be much better off financially if I behaved myself and stay home with my wife and baby. But that is not what turns me on. It's not what I was born to do. I was born to serve people.

BORGER: If Edwards had his choice, he'd be running for governor again, but he has to settle for a federal office because felons can't run for Louisiana state office until they've been out of prison for 15 years, when Edwards would be 98.

(on camera): If you live long enough you can run for governor.

EDWARDS: Right. If for no other reason than to please my friends and shock my enemies.

(LAUGHTER)

BORGER: It sure would.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: All right. Gloria, so, what are his chances?

BORGER: Well, when you speak with people in Louisiana, they say that he's going to make it into a runoff because that's the way the election goes. You know, it's a wide field. If nobody gets over 50 percent of the vote, the top two people face-off each other.

Since he is so well-known and a lot of people in the district say he could make it into the runoff. The question, Wolf, is whether as a populist Democrat, he can bet a Republican who might be the other top finisher in a very, very red district. So that is where he could run into trouble. But everybody knows who he is. And when you talk to people there, they say it is a convicted felon and maybe we'll forgive and forget -- but we'll learn on election day.

BLITZER: He spent about eight years in prison, right?

BORGER: Yes, 8 1/2 years.

BLITZER: And that's not a big issue for a lot of --

BORGER: It is. It is -- and for some of the voters. But they say he's done his time. And you hear him talking about it constantly. That's his strategy. He figures if he talks it to death and defends himself and says he never stole a dime from any taxpayer, that he can sort of make it go away and tell them, you know what, I've always been here for you.

As he said in church, I may be rancid butter, but I'm on your side of the bread.

BLITZER: Yes, I didn't know that convicted felons can run for federal office, but not for state office in Louisiana.

BORGER: They can. You have to be out for 15 years, though. He'd be a little old.

BLITZER: He could. But he's 87 years old now. Thank you very much. Good report, Gloria.

BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Just ahead, a state of emergency and a new arrest. We're going live to the fire zone in California. The danger there is now spreading.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news: the White House said the president is about to go into the White House state dining room, looking at live pictures. He's going to be making a statement now that the House and the Senate have both passed legislation authorizing at approval to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels in Syria.

The Senate just passed a continuing resolution, keeping the government open. Buried inside was word that the U.S. could go ahead, arm and train Syrian rebels. The House passed similar legislation yesterday. We're going to have live coverage of that right at the top of the hour. Stay with CNN.

But right now to the state of emergency in California. Wildfires threatening thousands of homes. At least 10 major fires are burning in the state.

The smoke from several of the fires shows up in these pictures from space. Check it out.

A suspected arsonist is under arrest connected with a huge blaze east of Sacramento.

CNN's Dan Simon is on the scene for us.

What's the latest there, Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, Wolf.

This fire has nearly tripled in size in the past 24 hours and you still have 2,000 residents out of their home. What's pushing this fire is the wind and drought conditions the last few years. We faced a critical drought in the state and that's why you have so many fires happening at once.

The key of this fire, this King Fire that's east of Sacramento is fighting it by air because in so many parts of this fire, you are dealing with very steep terrain like you see behind me. So, it's critical that you get helicopters and planes to come in and try to douse some of these flames. We now know that this fire was man-made. Authorities are saying

that this was the work of an arsonist. They have charged this man with one count of felony arson with aggravating circumstances because two firefighters were injured in its place -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Simon on the scene for us. Be careful over there. Thanks very much.

Remember, we are standing by to hear from the president of the United States momentarily. He's going to be making a statement now that the Senate and House has authorized training moderate Syrian rebels.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.