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THE SITUATION ROOM

River of Lava; Interview With Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss; Ferguson Bracing for Protests; NASA-Contracted Rocket Explodes on Launch

Aired October 28, 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 HOST: Happening now, breaking news, security fears. The government announcing steps -- stepped up protection at buildings across the United States in the wake of the attacks on Canada's parliament. And as the U.S. faces what's being called an imminent terror threat.

Fiery disaster -- a river of lava is closing in on hundreds of homes in Hawaii with officials now going door to door. They're warning residents of the looming danger.

Bracing for the worst. Ferguson, Missouri, is preparing for the reaction when the grand jury in the Michael Brown announces whether it will indict the police officer who shot and killed him.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. 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.

Fallout in the United States from deadly attacks on Canada's capital. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has just announced he is ordering security tightened at thousands of U.S. government buildings here in Washington and other major cities around the United States. He calls it a precautionary step, citing the attack in Canada and the continued terror threat facing the United States, especially from ISIS and the al Qaeda offshoot Khorasan.

We're covering all angles of the breaking news with our correspondents, our guests, including the vice chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Saxby Chambliss,who is here with me.

But let's begin with our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. She has more on the breaking news.

What are you hearing, Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning from the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson that the department is boosting security at more than 9,500 government buildings, potentially, as we see here.

This is in response to what happened in Canada just last week where we saw a gunman shoot and kill a soldier and then, after that, run into Parliament and open fire. We had that happen. Just today there was an incident in the courthouse where two men were shot. Police say they may have been targeted.

And also there has been chatter from members of ISIS in recent weeks, calling for attacks toward government officials, law enforcement personnel, military person and also members of the media as well. With all of this combined, Jeh Johnson said it is self-evident for this change. Wolf, he is saying it is important to increase the presence at government facilities across the U.S., not just in D.C., but pretty much everywhere.

He can't get into the specifics, Wolf, about what buildings this is will happen at, what kind of security measures there will be. But we will see sort of a show of force. More personnel outside of buildings most likely, Wolf. As you pointed out, speaking to Homeland Security officials, this is not necessarily in response to any new intelligence indicating that there is active plotting against government officials. This is more in response to what we have already seen happen, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we're talking about nearly 10,000 buildings in Washington and around the country, federal buildings.

BROWN: That's right. There's more than 9,500 buildings at the Federal Protective Services watches over and there's 1.4 million visitors daily across the country. And also, Wolf, it is important to point out, we spoke about this months ago, there was a recent report done by the Government Accountability Office saying the security from the Federal Protective Services is inadequate, that there are security lapses.

So, perhaps this could be in response to that too.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to talk about this, all of this and a lot more about this Senator Saxby Chambliss, who is here with us. But we will come to you in a few moments, Senator Chambliss. Stand by.

At the same time of this growing concern, there is also growing concern about ISIS and there's now evidence it is now using chlorine gas in attacks in Iraq and Syria.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working this part of the story for us.

Jim, tell us about these chlorine attacks.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there have now been four alleged uses of chlorine gas by ISIS militants in the last several weeks, twice in Iraq and twice in Syria.

The U.S. has not confirmed the reports, but U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, say this is an issue that they take extremely seriously. We will show you pictures here of some of the alleged victims of what may be another frightening weapon in ISIS' arsenal. These are Iraqi troops rushed to a hospital after suffering what their commanders claim was a chlorine gas attack. Chlorine itself is not a chemical weapon. But when it is weaponized, it is banned from use on the battlefield because of its horrible effects and it has a long brutal history in Iraq.

ISIS' precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq, used chlorine dozens of times, including in attacks on U.S. forces, sometimes packing car bombs with chlorine. Military commanders say it has a limited effect on the battle field, but of course it can be a very potent psychological weapon for terrorizing a population or military forces. And tonight, Wolf, we are learning that the U.S. has been asked to investigate ISIS' possible use of chlorine gas in both Iraq and in Syria.

BLITZER: Very, very worrisome information. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

And there's other deeply disturbing information coming in. Alleged ISIS fighters now prisoners talking to CNN international correspondent Ivan Watson, telling him that should he fall into ISIS' hands, he would be tortured, possibly beheaded. That's what they told Ivan.

Ivan is joining us live now from Northern Iraq.

Ivan, you're one of our very courageous journalists out there. What else did these militants tell you?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it was a pretty uncomfortable and downright creepy encounter going across the border into Kurdish-controlled Northern Syria and then being invited to one of the Kurds' prisons there, where we met with men that they told us were ISIS militants.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WATSON: We're in a prison run by the Kurdish militants here in Northern Syria and we're being introduced to prisoners that the Kurds tell us were members of ISIS.

(voice-over): The prisoners are brought in blindfolded and we quickly begin to wonder whether they're being forced to speak to us. During our visit here, the guards, who asked not to be shown do not us allow us to see the cells where the prisoners are being held.

This man trembles with fear as a prison guard removes his blindfold. I introduce myself as an American journalist and he begins to relax a little.

He tells me he's a Syrian named Suleiman. He confesses to be part of an ISIS cell that planted and detonated a remote control car bomb outside a Kurdish base and says he received around $3,600 for completing the job.

(on camera): What is the idea that ISIS is fighting for?

SULEIMAN, CAPTURED ISIS MILITANT (through translator): They said they were fighting for Islam and justice. They were lying to us. They took advantage of our minds and our poverty.

WATSON (voice-over): One of the prisoners the guards bring out is barely a man.

(on camera): Your name is Kareem. How old are you?

(voice-over): "I'm 19 years old" he says. But Kareem tells me he fought alongside ISIS across Syria for more than a year.

(on camera): Where were you injured?

(voice-over): He has the battle scars to prove it.

KAREEM, ISIS MILITANT (through translator): They gave us drugs, hallucinogenic pills that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die.

WATSON: Before he is captured by the Kurds, Kareem claims he saw ISIS behead many of its prisoners.

(on camera): Why does ISIS cut people's heads off?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Whenever ISIS goes into an area, the eyes of ISIS, the people there who don't adhere to their Islamic law are apostates. Everything has to follow ISIS' way. Even women who don't cover their faces, women would also get their heads chopped off.

WATSON: The final prisoner is Jaber, a former schoolteacher and father of two who also confesses to a car bombing.

(on camera): What would have happened to me if, when you were with ISIS, if you guys had found me, an American journalist?

(voice-over): "With ISIS" he tells me, "your fate would be death, and there are different kinds of death. They would torture you for sure. They might decapitate you or cut off your hands. They will not simply shoot a bullet in your head."

It's impossible for CNN to confirm whether anything the prisoners tell us was true or whether these men were coached by their captors. The Kurdish prison guards say, if set free every likely one of these men would go back and rejoin ISIS.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATSON: Now, Wolf, all three of these men, I asked them the same question. What would happen if ISIS got ahold of me? All three of them said, yes, you would be killed.

And the 19-year-old boy there even made this gesture that I would be beheaded. The entire interviews, the conversations were conducted in the presence of Kurdish prison guards. The Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria has lost hundreds of their members in their war against ISIS.

And they clearly wanted to show ISIS here looking vulnerable, looking weak, and, frankly, to demystify this jihadi movement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: But they didn't say you would just be killed. Correct me if I'm wrong, Ivan. They say you would be beheaded, but before that you would be tortured for an extended period of time. Isn't that what they told you?

WATSON: Yes.

One man said there were many ways that I could be killed. My hands could be chopped off. I would eventually be beheaded. All of them talked about the use of violence by ISIS to basically crush its enemies. All of them also said that -- at least two of the men, that they had faced threats to their families or to themselves. And they said that that was why they cooperated with the movement, though that 19-year-old boy, he said he had been paid $2,000 in cash, which is a vast amount in Syria, to enlist.

He also said that other fighters were promised wives. And, again, we can't confirm any of this. But it does fit with some of the information I'm getting here in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurdistan regional government estimates that at least 2,500 Kurdish Yazidi women have been kidnapped since last August, and that they are being sold, distributed to ISIS militants in Iraq and across the border in Syria as rewards and as an enticement to recruit more members to this movement -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan Watson joining us from Northern Iraq after he was in Syria. Thanks, Ivan, very, very much. Be careful over there.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Joining us, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss from Georgia, he's the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

When you hear a report like that, is that consistent with what you hear from U.S. intelligence analysts?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: Absolutely.

Unfortunately, these are not people that Americans can identify with, Wolf. One of your bravest correspondents, the fact that he's been threatened, essentially and the one thing about ISIL we know is they carry out their threats. They will torture, maim and behead people.

That's why controlling them, containing is not an option. Killing them is the only option we've got.

BLITZER: The fact that he says they now abducted 2,500 Yazidi women and are basically distributing them as prizes, if you will, to other ISIS fighters. Is that consistent with what you've heard as well?

CHAMBLISS: I haven't heard about that specific case but I'm not surprised at that. These people are, they're very sophisticated in the way, for example, they use the Internet. They promise people, they recruit people with these promises.

And they obviously have funding to pay these --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: They have hundreds of millions of dollars that they've stolen and that they've received from various sources in the Middle East.

CHAMBLISS: Exactly. And they're still getting illegal profits from oil that they've confiscated. So they'll reward them with women, with money and the promise of whatever lies in the life hereafter that we've heard about jihadists before.

BLITZER: Let's get to the breaking news. The statement just released by the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, saying the United States is going to, quote, "enhance its presence in security at various U.S. government buildings in Washington, D.C. and other major cities and locations around the country."

Nearly 10,000 federal building will now have stepped up security.

Here is the question. Is this based simply out of precaution or is there a specific threat out there?

CHAMBLISS: No. It's simply being safe rather than sorry. What we've always feared is two things, relative to domestic attacks.

Number one, soft targets: soft targets means something not very well protected, that is open to the public. Federal buildings are oftentimes not very well protected.

Second thing we worry about are these homegrown terrorists. We've just seen, for example, three Wisconsin women who were traveling to Syria.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: From Colorado.

CHAMBLISS: Excuse me -- from Colorado to become part of ISIL, maybe a part of this band of women --

BLITZER: They were 15- or 16-year-old girls.

CHAMBLISS: And they're obviously very easily influenced.

When people ask me, of all briefings you've had over the last 14 years, what scares you the most, my answer is pretty simple. It's homegrown terrorists and the possibility thereof. So Secretary Johnson is just being safe rather than having to look back a week from now and saying we failed to protect this very soft target in some rural and remote area.

BLITZER: Lisa Monaco, the president's adviser on counterterrorism, she told me last week that there was a, quote, "imminent threat" from Khorasan, one of these Al Qaeda affiliated, related groups. She didn't go into specific details, but when you hear the words "imminent threat," that sounds ominous and potentially could explain why Jeh Johnson, the security of Homeland Security, announced what he announced today.

CHAMBLISS: Well, what Lisa is referring to -- and she is absolutely right -- this group, Khorasan, has only one mission. They are an offshoot of Al Qaeda. Their mission is not to attack in Syria or Iraq. Their mission is to find a way to attack the United States on domestic soil.

So she is absolutely right there. That is an imminent threat to us and why it's important that we do everything we can to take those guys out.

BLITZER: So if our viewers see stepped-up security at federal buildings all across the country, they should not be surprised at what's going on.

Senator, I want to you stand by. We have more questions to ask you, including these reports that ISIS is using poison gas to kill Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Following the breaking news, the Department of Homeland Security here in Washington ordering security tightened at nearly 10,000 federal government buildings in the Washington, D.C., area as well as other major cities all around the United States in the wake of the attack on the Canadian parliament last week.

We're back with Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. He's the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

That's a very disturbing development; also disturbing, something you're monitoring, these reports that ISIS is using poisoned chlorine gas to go after these Kurdish targets in Syria, Iraqi targets in Iraq.

What do you know about this?

CHAMBLISS: We've known that AQI in Iraq is using poison gas in previous attacks. There's been time and time again, they've done it. You have to remember that ISIL is an offshoot of that group.

So to find out they're using chlorine gas in a crude way, putting it in bombs, frankly wouldn't be at all surprising. They have no adherence to the Geneva Convention or any other convention. They're a bunch of mean, nasty folks. And they'll do anything they can to intimidate, threaten and then carry out threats against nobody that doesn't agree with --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is that just a scare tactic? Or is that something that they think really militarily is going to work? CHAMBLISS: No, I think they're doing everything they can to push back

in regions where they're not able to hold their ground. I suspect that's what we've seen here in the town of Kobani, for example, they were pushed back by the Kurds. The Kurds did a really good job of standing their ground.

Any time you see that happening, they'll take any action they can to try to kill them in any way that they can.

BLITZER: Senator Chambliss, thank you very much for coming in.

CHAMBLISS: Sure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.

Let's bring in some other experts right now.

Joining us, our counterterrorism analyst, the former CIA counterterrorism officer Philip Mudd and CNN national analyst the former CIA operative Bob Baer. His new good book by the way is called "The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins."

Phil, what is your reaction from this threat from Khorasan? You worked for the CIA. It seems like there may be an imminent threat. And as a result the Department of Homeland Security today announcing stepped-up security at nearly 10,000 federal buildings across the country.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, we have to draw a real distinction, Wolf, between what we're seeing in terms of operations in Iraq and what we might see against Khorasan in Syria. A pretty clear distinction.

You can see the enemy in Iraq. You can see them operating on the ground. They're obviously fighting Iraqi forces, fighting Kurds up in the North. the problem with degrading the terror threat is you can't see it. Let's remember, we're still chasing that bomb maker in Yemen. Been chasing him for years. He's part of this threat.

We're still chasing the head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri. We have been chasing him since 9/11 and before. So chasing an invisible enemy that has maybe dozens of members across Yemen, Syria, Iraq, to my mind will potential take years.

BLITZER: They can say, Bob Baer, that this is being done out of an abundance of caution. But it is not an easy decision for the secretary of homeland security to issue a statement and then to implement increased security at nearly 10,000 buildings in D.C., and around the country.

There has got to be some sort of specific threat. Right?

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on one second. Hold on one second. I just want to explain what we're showing our viewers right now. Let me -- hold on one second.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maintain position at your console.

BLITZER: I just want to explain to our viewers what's going on and to Bob Baer and to Philip Mudd.

This is a rocket that just was launched in Virginia and it exploded. We're not exactly sure what was going on here. We're trying get some information. We first of all want to find out where in Virginia this is taking place, what was going on. But take a look at these pictures. This is pretty dramatic.

This is a NASA rocket in Virginia that exploded on launch, we're now told. And it looks pretty ominous right there. Hopefully, there are no casualties. It exploded in a remote area. But we're just getting these pictures in right now. You can see what's going on.

It was just going to be going into an orbit, we're told, this rocket, and eventually heading toward the International Space Station. But it simply exploded. Let's listen in to NASA and see what they said.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will continue to bring you information as it comes available.

BLITZER: So there is the remnants of what was a NASA rocket exploding on launch. This is the tape that occurred just moments ago. You can see it. Let's watch this. Just watch this.

This was just moments ago. This is a scheduled -- this was originally scheduled, this rocket, to be launched yesterday, but apparently they delayed it for a day. And this is what happened today. All right. I'm going to play the launching of this rocket. We have the video right now. Watch this.

We're told this rocket was designed to self-destruct in case there was a problem. And you can see, this rocket is destroyed right now. It exploded on launch. Right there, you see how dramatic is. We can only hope that no one was injured as a result of what happened in Virginia.

The information is still pretty sketchy. Here's what we know. We will try to explain it. The rocket was due to be launched yesterday. It was reset for today. It was scrubbed due to a boat in the vicinity of the launch site, scheduled for just 6:22 p.m. Eastern time, what, five minutes or so ago. But the launch was aborted yesterday, took place today.

And you can see the powerful, the powerful explosion that occurred. This is the Wallops Flight Facility in Eastern Virginia. Weather permitting, orbital science rocket, it was supposed to go to the International Space Station with a lot of supplies for the International Space Station.

You can see what's going on right there. It is an unmanned -- I just want to make sure our viewers know this is an unmanned rocket that was going to the International Space Station with supplies for the International Space Station. But you can see what happened upon launch. It looks like it is self-destructed and it simply exploded as a result.

Let's listen to the audience from NASA.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have to work with our representatives, our mission insurance representative to secure the facility and to collect all data.

I would ask all personnel to segregate any mission notes, any photographs, any other data they have taken from the launch operation today, and to prepare that data to be catalogued and filed away in the contingency reaction process.

That will include all your checklists. It will include all handheld notes, any notes that you have on your computer, any files that have been transmitted in the course of this launch operations. Your computer will also need to be scrubbed of any files that were used for today's activities. We are going to need to lock down any data that is pertinent to the launch operations today as we pull together contingency -- a checklist and the failure investigation board.

BLITZER: On the left part of the screen, live pictures, what it looks like now.

On the right part of the screen, you see the explosion, the rocket exploding on takeoff, only moments ago, five or six, seven minutes ago. It simply took off. This is the third U.S. commercial -- supposed to be -- resupply mission to the International Space Station.

We're listening to some of the audio from NASA TV as it exploded over there. They're trying to figure out precisely what happened. It was supposed to be taking about 5,000 pounds of NASA cargo aboard this rocket to the International Space Station, taking off from the Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia.

But shortly, within seconds of takeoff, you saw what happened. You saw the explosion, and I'm sure they're trying to figure out what's going to right now.

But if -- if this launch had worked out the way it was supposed to work out, a lot of people on the East Coast of the United States, millions potentially, could have seen this rocket taking off.

Look, it just took off on the right part. And now you look at the explosion.

Once again -- once again, an unmanned rocket that was carrying about 5,000 pounds of equipment, supplies for the International Space Station exploded moments ago. There you see on the right part of the screen. You see it taking off. There is the launching of the rocket. Watch this.

There you see -- you see the explosion of this rocket. An unmanned rocket, fortunately. Let's hope nobody on the ground was hurt by this explosion, but it is a dramatic picture that we're showing our viewers. The Orbital rocket was supposed to go to the International Space Station. Obviously not going anywhere. It was supposed to take off yesterday, but that launch was scrubbed because a boat was inside what's called the rain safety zone southwest of the launch pad. So they postponed it until 6:22 p.m. Eastern. It's now 6:32. So 10 minutes ago, it was launched, and then within a few seconds, simply exploded.

On the left part of your screen you'll see the live pictures from what's going on right now. We're getting all this from NASA TV. So a powerful, powerful image that we're seeing. We're going to get more information, obviously, from NASA.

Obviously, we're going to try figure out -- hopefully no one was injured. It is a significant setback to what NASA had hoped this cargo aboard this rocket, this spacecraft, was supposed to go unmanned to the International Space Station and help everyone out there. It's a really serious, serious setback.

Jay Bolden, by the way, the NASA spokesperson, is telling CNN, and I'm quoting him now, "There was failure on launch. There was no indicated loss of life. There was significant property and vehicle damage. Mission control is trying to assess what went wrong."

Let me repeat this. NASA says no loss of life on this rocket explosion. Jay Bolden, the NASA spokesperson, telling CNN there was failure on launch; there was no indicated loss of life. There was significant property and vehicle damage. Mission control is trying to assess what went wrong.

So listen there. You see the explosion on the right part of the screen. The left part of your screen, you see live pictures, live images of what's going on right now. This is eastern Virginia, Wallops Island in eastern Virginia where this rocket took off about 11 minutes or so ago.

All right. Let's take a quick break. Resume our coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And we're following the breaking news. A rocket just exploded moments after a launch. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- transmission to the ISF. Main engines at 108 percent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This happened at the NASA facility on Wallops Island in Virginia, the eastern coast of Virginia. NASA spokesman Jay Bolden telling CNN, "There was failure on launch. There was no indicated loss of life. There was significant property and vehicle damage. Mission control is trying to assess," he says, "what went wrong." But clearly something went wrong.

It was launched at 6:22 p.m. Eastern. What, about 15 minutes, 16 minutes or so ago. And you see these live pictures right now. The aftermath. That was a private company, Orbital Sciences Corporation had this contract with NASA to launch this rocket and to take about 5,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station.

Miles O'Brien is our CNN space and aviation analyst.

Miles, we don't know if -- if it was aborted, the mission, deliberately exploded, was an accident. It's hard to tell right now. I think they themselves at NASA are trying to figure out what happened.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE AND AVIATION ANALYST (via phone): Well, yes, Wolf. You know, of course, every rocket that is fired under the NASA aegis has the ability to be destroyed by the officials who they call the range safety officials. If there's something that is going drastically wrong, they sort of push the red button to destroy it so that it doesn't cause any potential problems down range.

We should point out that this is the launch that was supposed to happen this morning. Didn't happen this morning because a boat strayed into the zone where it was going to -- the launch was going to occur. And this is a reminder that that's why you don't launch when there are people that come into those no-fly or no-vessel zones during a launch.

Of course, you know any time you're dealing with a rocket, you're dealing with tremendous force and explosive capability. All kinds of things have to go right instantaneously. Lots of moving parts and a lot of plumbing. And it doesn't take much of a failure to cause a problem.

Now, what that explosion, actually, the rocket itself exploding, or the on-board destruction capabilities that every rocket is equipped with we don't know yet.

BLITZER: And when they say -- this official statement says there was failure on launch. There was no indicated loss of life. There was significant property and vehicle damage. I assume they mean -- this is Jay Bolden, the NASA spokes -- spokesperson -- Miles, significant property and vehicle damage on the ground.

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes. I mean, we're talking about the Wallops Science Facility, which is -- you know, it's a long history of launching rockets. It's a relatively remote and protected area. The area around the launch was well-protected: notice to airmen for overflights and for ships at sea, as I pointed out a moment ago. So I don't think we need to worry too much about loss of human life here.

It's a setback for Orbital Sciences Corporation, which was one of the bidders that succeeded, along with the California-based SpaceX Corporation, to deliver supplies to the International Space Station under contract to NASA, subsequent to the retirement of the space shuttle.

This would have been their third delivery to the space station. They were carrying about 5,000 pounds of supplies and scientific experiments to it. But it's a reminder that, you know -- that building and launching rockets is a very chancy proposition. We tend to take it for granted, but we are reminded every now and again that it can go wrong. And when it goes wrong, it goes wrong in a very spectacular way.

BLITZER: And do these rockets normally have these self-destruct or these abort capabilities? If something is indicated within 5 or 6 seconds, that somebody pushes a button and the whole thing explode? Is that what's possible, Miles?

O'BRIEN: Yes. That's -- every rocket has it, including -- not many people knew it, but the space shuttle had that capability. And, you know, a lot of astronauts would talk about how they would make it a point to get to know the person who would have the unwelcome task of pushing that button, if it had ever occurred in the space shuttle program -- of course it never did -- and reminding them that there are real human beings on board.

But that is part of the safety -- the layers of safety, the safety culture that is involved in launching rockets. You do have that capability to destroy the rocket before it could fly further. And who knows? You know, to have -- let's say you have a failure which causes some sort of asymmetrical thrust out of those rockets. It could turn the rocket right around into a populated area. That's why you really need that capability to blow the thing up if things are going wrong.

BLITZER: And they normally would make sure that, if they had to do it, there would be no people in the vicinity of this explosion, if they needed to abort this mission and explode that rocket and the vehicle on board.

O'BRIEN: Yes, you know, I mean, the general rule of thumb, you know, we're talking big distances away. I don't know the exact distance that the closest human beings would be to that launch. I do know from my days of covering the space shuttle program that there were no human beings except for the emergency rescue crew that were in a -- literally in a tank. There was nobody within three mile of the space shuttle launches, except for the crew, of course, inside the shuttle itself.

And that was to guard against this very thing. If something were to explode on the launch pad, you've got, you know, obviously, a tremendous amount of fuel, a potential amount of potential energy, certainly becoming explosive energy. You've got a big debris field. And the idea is to make sure that that is well-protected and there are not any human beings anywhere near there.

BLITZER: Hey, Miles, I want you to stand by for a moment. Tom Foreman is collecting information for us, as well. We're going to stay on top of this story. This rocket has just exploded in Virginia upon takeoff within five or

seconds. And you see this fiery, fiery development. Much more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right back to the breaking news, dramatic breaking news. A NASA rocket exploding just moments after launch. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: And we have lift off of Antares, (INAUDIBLE) on its third mission to the ISIS. Main engine at 108 percent --

(EXPLOSION)

ANNOUNCER: And launching launch team be advised. Stay at your consoles. Everyone in 4, 3 --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So there you saw what happened at the NASA facility on Wallops Island on the Virginia coast.

The NASA spokesman Jay Bolden telling CNN, and I'm quoting now, "There was failure on launch. There was no indicated loss of life. There was significant property and vehicle damage. Mission control is trying to assess what went wrong."

We also are getting a tweet from Orbital Sciences, that's the private firm that launched this rocket on contract to NASA. Orbital Science is saying there has been a vehicle anomaly. We will update as soon as we are able.

We have an eyewitness from the area who saw what was going on. Chris Tolton is joining us on the phone.

Chris, where were you? And tell our viewers what you saw and heard.

CHRIS TOLTON, WITNESSED ROCKET EXPLOSION (via telephone): I was across the bay from the launch -- the launch site. There was a body of water there about a mile, mile and a half wide, and I was immediately across from the launch site. The launch initially seemed to go OK, but within a few seconds, I noticed that the top of the -- the top cone of the rocket started leaning to the left. In other words leaning to the north a little bit.

And it stopped the straight-up trajectory and it started to lean and slip a little bit and it appeared to me that they did a safety self destruct on the rocket.

BLITZER: Out of fear that maybe the rocket would be heading toward a populated area, is that what you are saying?

TOLTON: It could be. But it is more likely that the first stage somehow failed and didn't get enough thrust to get it in to orbit. And it seemed like it was in distress about two to three seconds after liftoff.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment, Chris, because the astronaut Mark Kelly is joining us on the phone right now.

And, Mark, tell us -- I assume you've seen the pictures and the images of what happened. What is your analysis?

MARK KELLY, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT (via telephone): Well, I've seen it briefly. But, you know, Wolf, with any space flight anomaly, especially after liftoff, the investigation process is going to take a while. And what you see and what somebody on the ground might witness often doesn't tell the entire story.

This is a -- this is really difficult to do. Orbital Sciences does a great job at it but it is a risky business.

BLITZER: Mark, we're told there was 5,000 pounds of supplies and equipment for the International Space Station and all sorts of other sensitive equipment, as you can imagine. But we don't know if this was an aborted mission or simply exploded. I assume you agree it's too early to tell right now. Is that what you're saying, Mark?

KELLY: Yes, I think it's all too early to tell. But, you know, often what happens when they realize, this is going to be catastrophic, there is a safety system in place where they can command the rocket to destruct in a more controlled way rather than let it fly off in a direction they don't want it to go.

You mentioned the 5,000 pounds on board, I just sent an e-mail to my brother who is going to launch on a Soyuz in March, asking him if his equipment, clothing and what he needs for the one-year stay was on board that Cygnus because it's very likely that that's the case.

BLITZER: Mark, I want you to stick around. I want to continue the breaking news, but let's take another quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. A rocket -- a contract rocket, I should say, from NASA exploded on takeoff, on launch just moments ago.

Mark Kelly, the astronaut, is with us.

We are just getting a statement in from NASA, Mark, saying that this was a catastrophic anomaly. Basically, what does that mean from NASA's perspective?

KELLY: Well, it means you lost the vehicle, you lost the rocket ship and you lost the spacecraft and the payload. In this case, it sounds like there was 5,000 pounds of supplies and equipment going up to the space station. So, that's -- you know, that is a real problem here to keep the crew on board the space station supplied over the next couple of years. BLITZER: The launch director just said on the NASA feed, Mark, that

the launch -- that all personnel are accounted for, no injuries. The spacecraft he said had classified crypto equipment on board, and as result they will need to maintain an area around the debris in a secure manner for multiple reasons. I think that means all sorts of sensitive spy equipment. Is that what they're talking about?

KELLY: Well, you don't know. I mean, crypto graphic stuff is encoding. We don't use the space station for any military purposes. You know, it's against -- you know, it's against the law and it is against the agreements we have with our international partners. But that doesn't mean there could be some sensitive coding. So, not necessarily spy equipment, but other sensitive equipment that we don't want somebody to pick up.

But the good thing is, you know, it sounds like that it was a secure area, that is why no one was hurt, because they keep folks a good distance away to prevent injuries on the ground.

BLITZER: It happened the way it was supposed to happen if you have to have an explosion. It's -- this is the best way to do it to prevent loss of life in that secure area.

All right. We're going to stay on top of this story.

Mark Kelly, the astronaut, thank you, very much. Chris Tolton, thanks to you as well. Miles O'Brien, thanks.

We're going to stay on top of this story here on CNN. Obviously, stay with us for all of the breaking news. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" picks up our coverage.