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THE SITUATION ROOM

New U.S. Strikes on al Qaeda Cell in Syria; ISIS Leader Taunts Allies as 'Terrified, Weak'; Russia Denies Incursion as Ukraine Fighting Rages

Aired November 13, 2014 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Terrorists aligning as new concerns that al Qaeda spinoffs have agreed to team up with ISIS as the U.S. braces fresh airstrikes against the al Qaeda cell known as Khorasan.

ISIS leader speaks. Days after he was reportedly hit in an airstrike, the terror chief is back taunting the U.S. and its allies as terrified, weak and powerless.

Plane troubles. It's happened to the secretary of state, the nation's spy chief, and even the president of the United States. Why are America's leaders facing a series of breakdowns with their official aircraft?

And guilty plea? The day before a Virginia kidnapping suspect heads to court in an earlier case, has his legal team come up with a surprising strategy.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN's breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right to the breaking news. U.S. jets strike inside Syria at the al Qaeda group known as Khorasan, known for its bomb-making abilities that could threaten the United States. That comes amid growing concerns that a new terrorist super group is being formed in a merger among ISIS and al Qaeda factions.

The leader of ISIS is apparently back just days after he was reported wounded in an air strike. An audio message calls the U.S. effort to destroy his group a failure and says the allies will eventually send in ground troops who, in his words, will "face destruction."

Standing by, our correspondents, our analysts, our newsmakers, including the former head of the U.S. military's Central Command, retired General Anthony Zinni.

But let's begin with those new U.S. airstrikes against an al Qaeda spinoff which was targeted at the very start of the U.S. air campaign in Syria. All that comes as concerns grow of a merger between al Qaeda factions and ISIS.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. What about these airstrikes, Barbara? What are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, CNN broke the news a short time ago there have been now a third round of air strikes against the so-called Khorasan group inside Syria. This is an al Qaeda group, hardcore al Qaeda operatives that moved a few years ago from Pakistan over to Syria. They have been working on making bombs that can evade airport screening. That is why they are so critical to U.S. national security.

The U.S. struck the Khorasan the first night of attacks in Syria. They struck them again a couple of weeks ago. Now we are seeing a very focused strike against them, an indication that the U.S. is getting better intelligence about where these operatives are hiding out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Barbara, all of this comes amid -- now there's reports that another al Qaeda affiliate and ISIS have come to some sort of agreement to work together. What are you hearing from your sources?

STARR: Very concerning, Wolf. The entire CNN national security team has been looking into this all afternoon. What all of us are hearing is that the al Qaeda offshoot called al-Nusra and the Islamic state group, ISIS, have come to some sort of ad hoc accommodation out in the field, if you will, in certain places, perhaps, collaborating, joining forces to work against, perhaps, the Syrian rebels that the U.S. backs.

Not a formal merger at this point in that sense of it. But very concerning, because although they have a lot of differences, they're unlikely to come to a full accommodation. The fact that they are even talking and potentially working together causes the U.S. intelligence community an awful lot of worry about where all of this is headed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Meantime, Barbara, top U.S. defense officials were up on Capitol Hill today answering some pretty specific, tough questions about this overall U.S.-led war against ISIS. What were the headlines?

STARR: Well, you know, it's really the same bottom line question that I think most Americans want to know. Are U.S. combat forces going into Iraq and even down the road potentially into Syria? Defense Secretary Hagel said, absolutely not. No combat forces on the ground. The policy there for the military has not changed.

But I want you to listen to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs; and then we'll come back and talk about what he's really trying to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS: I'm not predicting at this point that I would recommend that those forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we're certainly considering it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: Certainly considering that. I talked to one of his top aides. What Dempsey is saying here, we are told, is what he has said in the past. Complex military operations, like the Iraqis trying to retake the city of Mosul, which ISIS has a firm grip on at the moment, very tough for the Iraqis to do themselves.

Dempsey is saying, no combat forces, but he might down the road in those kind of operations be willing to consider putting certain types of U.S. military advisers with Iraqi forces on the ground. Basically, very high-tech advisers that can pick out targets and then transmit that target information to the air. Not supposed to be in combat, but as the situation on the ground, it can always get very ugly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Thanks for that report.

Meanwhile, fresh U.S. airstrikes in Syria, new concerns of a terrorist alliance there, all of which underscore just how crucial the front is in the fight against ISIS. Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, is joining us.

Elise, you had first word that the U.S. is reviewing its overall strategy in this war against ISIS, in dealing with Syria. What else are you learning?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the White House is pushing back on the story, saying there's no formal review under way, just a constant weak calibration of the strategy.

Even so, the administration officials say there is widespread recognition that, to defeat ISIS you need political change in Syria, and that should be part of a plan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT (voice-over): Coalition airstrikes continue in Kobani against ISIS targets. Underground, ISIS fighters dig tunnels and trenches, hiding from the air strikes as they battle opposition forces.

In Aleppo, President Assad's forces have made their own advances, with punishing airstrikes against the U.S.-backed rebels, a two-front war in which the secretary of defense said one enemy was more lethal.

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Yes, they want to see Assad go. Yes, there's no question. But the most absolute, immediate threat to most of these people is ISIL and what ISIL is doing to their villages and to their families and their homes.

LABOTT: The White House hoped to defeat ISIS in Iraq before pivoting to Syria and has been struggling to define its plan since the president admitted over the summer...

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We don't have a strategy yet.

LABOTT: But worried Syrian rebels won't last against both ISIS and the regime. And under pressure from coalition allies, senior U.S. officials tell CNN the Obama administration is undertaking a, quote, "vigorous assessment" of whether ISIS can be defeated without a push for political change in Syria, including removing Assad from power.

The White House pushed back.

BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: There's no formal strategy or view of our Syria strategy. What there is, is a strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL that requires us to take a hard look at what we're doing on a regular basis.

LABOTT: The focus on Assad is a change in tone from two months ago when Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN there was no link between Assad and ISIS.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE; It is going to be a policy to separate Assad, who is mostly in the western part of Syria and of a certain corridor from the eastern part of Syria, which he doesn't control. ISIL controls that part. And Assad will still remain the focus of attention of the moderate opposition.

LABOTT: Now the U.S. is looking to speed up and expand a program to arm and train 5,000 Syrian rebels over the next year to battle ISIS and ultimately Assad.

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: When the U.S. trains rebels that they're out not only for ISIS but for the Assad regime, and he could begin to resist. And that's the point where, what will the U.S. do? Will they support those troops going inside of Syria? Will they let the Assad regime decimate them?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT: Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told lawmakers today that it would take about a year just to train those 5,000 or so troops, and they really need 15,000. So at a pace of 5,000 per year, we're talking three years. Officials said the opposition may not have that kind of time, which is why they want to expand and speed up that program to get those forces trained to fight ISIS and hopefully make dents against Assad's grip on power, too, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a long, long struggle that the U.S. and its coalition partners have right now. Thanks very much for that, Elise.

As the United States rethinks its strategy, ISIS is basically saying, bring it on. The new audio message is full of taunts and threats said to be from the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, just days after he was reported wounded in an airstrike.

Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon. She's on the ground for us right near the Turkey-Syrian border. So what does all this mean about al-Baghdadi? Is he really back?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that would appear to be the case, Wolf. Or at least the very image that ISIS wants to portray, that its leader is alive and well. Why was it audio and not a video message? That we quite simply do not know.

And at this stage, we cannot verify its authenticity, but al- Baghdadi most certainly continuing to make very fiery statements, talking about wanting to create volcanos of jihad.

Some clues contained within it as to when it may have been filmed. He does make direct reference to the 1,500 additional U.S. troops President Obama is planning on sending and has begun to send into Iraq.

He also talks about how ISIS is pleased to recognize the new allegiances that are being sworn by various other extremist groups from countries such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, calling on those in Saudi Arabia, for example, to carry out direct strikes against the Saudi royal family.

In all of this, Wolf, is ISIS trying to continue to establish itself and also send out, again, that clear message that, no matter what may be out there, even if its leader is, in fact, wounded, he still is putting out these messages and he still is very much at the head of the organization -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Arwa, be careful over there. Arwa Damon on the border between Turkey and Syria. Joining us now, retired U.S. General Anthony Zinni. He's a former head of the U.S. military's Central Command, former Middle East envoy, as well.

General Zinni, always good to have you with us. Let me get right to the question. Does the Syrian president, Bashar a;-Assad, does he really need to go in order to keep this coalition together?

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI, FORMER HEAD OF CENTRAL COMMAND: Well, I think the problem with this strategy all along has been lack of a credible ground force and a hope that somehow some sort of coalition force or the Iraqi army would develop into one. And the operation inside Syria would develop into one, and I think what you're seeing is Assad is making gains and the probability of that moderate resistance developing into these ground forces becoming less likely. And so there needs to be pressure on Assad.

But let me say that, you know, this strategy is dependent upon air strikes really doing major damage to ISIS. And that probably has not occurred. That also is dependent upon some sort of coalition or Iraqi army emerging as a ground force. And as you just reported, that would take years to put something like that together.

And the third sort of hope in this strategy is that the time doesn't work against us. But I think it does. As long as ISIS holds that territory, as long as they can recruit, as long as you reported that they can actually create coalitions with al Qaeda or other forces, this works against us. And that's why I think you see this now look toward Assad.

BLITZER: And because the only ground forces in Syria that I see realistically that can deal with Assad would be the military of Turkey, a NATO ally. Do you see any reason to believe that Turkey would send in its tanks and armed personnel carriers, its air force and try to get rid of Bashar al-Assad?

ZINNI: I don't think Turkey would do that alone. Turkey would -- may consider that, if the U.S. is there, if we're involved in ground forces where this becomes a NATO operation. But to think Turkey would take it on by itself without that kind of support, commitment and coalition, I don't think that's in the cards.

BLITZER: I want you to hold on for a moment, General. We have to take a quick break. We have many more questions for you about what's going on. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: New U.S. airstrikes against an al Qaeda cell in Syria, new concerns about a terrorist alliance emerging over there and a new U.S. review of strategy on Syria and ISIS. We're back with retired General Anthony Zinni, the former head of the U.S. military's Central Command, the former Middle East envoy, as well.

General Zinni, let me read to you what the columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote, very critical of the administration's strategy right now in dealing with ISIS. I'll put it up on the screen: "To go back in and try to do again with no combat troops what we could not do with 100,000 is a definition of madness brought on by pride. It is to restart the entire war all over again." Is he right?

ZINNI: Well, I don't believe so. I think we broke it and now we own it, to use Secretary Powell's Pottery Barn. We can't have Iraq collapse. And I think now we have a commitment to Iraq. With this new government, perhaps we can get the motivation that would allow us to reconstruct their military.

But I think in the end, time works against us, and I think eventually you're going to see U.S. ground forces in there again. I don't see how we can avoid it. This thing is metastasizing and growing.

And, you know, the other side of this, too, is what's happening on the West Bank in Israel. We have brewing a potential third Intifada there, and that could compound this program, too. So the Middle East is really in a position where we've got to do something decisive here, and we're not.

BLITZER: But what makes you think, General, that right now the U.S. is going to have about 3,000 troops or advisers, what the administration calls advisers. They're helping the Iraqi military. What makes you think that 3,000 or 5,000, or even 10,000, when all is said and done, will really make much of a difference?

ZINNI: Well, I think the priority has to be to get ISIS out of Iraq. You can't get them out of Iraq with just airstrikes. You're going to have to get them out of Iraq with a counteroffensive using ground forces.

The Iraqi army is -- my guess is at least a year or so away from being able to do that. If you want to up that time schedule -- and you may have to because of the situation deteriorating as it is in Syria and elsewhere -- I think you're going to have to have ground forces from the U.S. or -- and maybe other coalition allies who would join us if we participate to push them out, to give space, to buy time to rehabilitate Anbar province, get them away from the gates of Baghdad and give a little strategic breathing room to the Iraqis in this.

We seem to have this wish to find a ground force that just isn't there, and we seem to think time is on our side. I doubt both of those factors, which are part of this strategy, are realistic.

BLITZER: Well, the U.S. spent a decade training, arming, financing the Iraqi military. They built up an Iraqi military of 2 or 300,000 troops. Once these ISIS guys came in from Syria, they just threw their weapons down; they abandoned their posts. They abandoned Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. They simply ran away after ten years and so much effort on the part of the U.S. military to train these guys. It doesn't look like they're ready to do anything, militarily speaking, for all practical purposes right now.

ZINNI: Well, you know, the key is not just training and equipment. You have to have something to fight for. I don't think the Maliki government, with the way they appointed senior officers; it wasn't a merit system. The lack of motivation, the lack of allegiance to Baghdad, especially with the isolation of the Sunni population, created this environment.

So it can't be just more equipment and more training. It's going to have to be a sense that the Baghdad government now will really provide something that gives backbone to the army and motivation. And that has to be something that indicates to the Sunnis that this will be an inclusive government, and they will be involved in sharing revenues and participating in the government in a major way.

BLITZER: That seems like a little bit of, you know, a wish there, that this new government would be significantly better than the old government of Nuri al-Maliki. This new government, based on what I've seen so far, I don't see a whole lot of improvement. It's very, very close to the regime in Iran, as you well know.

ZINNI: Yes. And, you know, I think that there has to be more pressure on this new government to make the changes and to bring the Sunni into the fold, or else if there's no hope, this will just become a country that's split up, with part of it as an Iranian satellite, with the Sunni part being God knows what and under violence and chaos, much like we see in Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere, and a Kurdish population that is going to be caught in between all of this. And that, I think, will again stress the Middle East and create more problems than will stretch across it.

BLITZER: But the U.S. can't want a really peaceful solution and a new Iraq more than the Iraqis themselves, right?

ZINNI: Absolutely. And we maybe need to get a little creative about the government. It may have to be some sort of federation or confederation, semi-autonomy. We may look for regional partners to help with sponsorship. We'll take care of the Kurds. We have in the past. The Iranians may be more focused with and sponsoring the Shia. And maybe the Gulf Arabs would look more toward a stable Sunni part of this. I mean, that may be a long way down the road, but If you can't find a government to sort of pull everything together under one national system, we may have to look at more creative solutions to this.

The United Arab Emirates is a good example of how the emirates have come together and have a degree of autonomy but, at the same time, manage to do their federal part of this very -- very well. And this may be a kind of model we have to look at down the road.

BLITZER: Yes, well, I suspect the break-up of Iraq is probably, at least a lot of the analysts I've spoken to, people who really know that country suspect a Shiite area, Baghdad specifically, aligned with Iran. A Sunni are aligned with some of those Arab Sunni states, including in the gulf. And Kurdistan, basically, being almost semi- autonomous. Independent Kurdistan. That's probably going to happen sooner rather than later, given the mood over there right now. But we shall see.

General Zinni, always good to have you with us.

ZINNI: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're watching other dangerous developments in another global hot spot. Up next, caught on camera, Russian military vehicles moving directly back into Ukraine, even though Moscow says no such thing is happening.

We also have new details about a string of plane problems that scrambled U.S. officials' travel schedules and even delayed a critical mission to North Korea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: As fighting ranges between Ukrainian forces and pro- Russian separatists, NATO and international monitors say they have witnessed Russian troops and armor moving across the border into Ukraine. Russia today is denying any incursion.

Let's get the latest details from our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's watching this story -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, despite those Russian denials, NATO officials say they have extensive intelligence, including satellite photos, that show Russian forces on the ground inside eastern Ukraine and even more forces moving in, even publicly available information, like this video, which appears to show Russian tanks here crossing that border again. It's the view of Ukrainian officials that I've spoken with that

these new weapons are intended for a new offensive by pro-Russian separatists inside Ukraine. Today, one official in Kiev called such an offensive imminent.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): This is a rare view inside the fighting in eastern Ukraine. A gun battle at the airport in Donetsk. Then a rebel tank fires and destroys a Ukrainian military position.

These are Ukrainian forces battling separatists armed and supported by Russia. And now more Russian heavy weapons are on the way.

New images of Russian military vehicles and artillery rolling into Ukraine. Ukraine's president says his country has lost control of its eastern border.

PRES. PETRO POROSHENKO, UKRAINE (Through Translator): The Ukrainian-Russian border under independent monitoring is repeatedly crossed by the Russian regular forces.

SCIUTTO: Now those same Russian forces say NATO's Supreme Allied commander are firing at drones from the International Observer Mission. Reiterating Moscow's frequent denial, today the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said no Russian forces of any kind are in Ukraine.

ALEXANDER LUKASHEVICH, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (Through Translator): There are no military forces or any military movement across the border. And moreover, there's no presence of our troops in the territory of Ukraine.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: On the map, you could see how Russia has in effect now occupied territory inside eastern Ukraine. It's this area here that is under the control of pro-Russian separatists. So you see here, these are positions of Russian weapon systems as identified by Ukrainian authorities. You can see missile launchers here, tank divisions and in these troop divisions along the border are what U.S. officials say are 8,000 to 9,000 Russian troops positioned along the border.

And that border here, the red area here, is in effect controlled by Russian authorities and just to place it, this here is where U.S. officials say that Russian-supplied missiles shot down the Malaysian Airliner MH-17. And as this map becomes increasingly under Russian control, this, Wolf, is what's leading the concerns that the U.S. policy so far, this constant raising of the cost of this through sanctions has not, on the ground, affected Russian policy.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thanks very much for that, Jim Sciutto, reporting.

Let's go to the scene right now. CNN's Phil Black, he's back on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

What are you seeing there, Phil?

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, that denial from Russia doesn't mean a lot to officials here. The Ukrainian government says, well, they've heard that before. More than that, they say, its officials will tell you they've seen this play before and they know how it ends.

What they're talking about are these so-called little green men, well-armed professional soldiers that have shown up in unmarked uniforms at key points through this crisis, really having significant impact, and really ensuring things have not turned out well for the Ukrainian government at those points.

Based on that experience in the past in the Crimea, in the ongoing conflict here in the east, the Ukrainian government believes that its troops should be getting for an imminent attack or a widening of an assault by separatist forces in some form with significant backing by the Russian military and its regular forces as well.

What they don't know, they say, is the scope, the intent of any sort of imminent operation, whether it's limited attempt to see key infrastructure like the airport outside that key city of Donetsk or perhaps a larger land grab, a push through the south to try and establish something that Russia doesn't yet have, and that is a direct, physical link between Crimea and the Russian mainland.

For all of these reasons, the Ukrainian government says it has every reason to be concerned and all of this in the context of ongoing fighting. A cease-fire in name only, that's what we've seen here since September. Both sides have continued to trade fire. People dying still on both sides and that's really escalated over the last few days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Such an awful, awful situation seems to be getting a whole lot worse.

Phil Black in Ukraine for us. Thank you.

International monitors say they've seen a lot of military traffic along that Russian-Ukrainian border.

Joining us now is Michael Bociurkiw of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE.

Michael, thanks very much for joining us. Has Russia violated the cease-fire agreement?

MICHAEL BOCIURKIW, OSCE SPOKESMAN: Good to be back with you, Wolf. Well, what we've seen over the past few days, Saturday, Sunday, and then again on Tuesday, Wolf, was very major military convoys, unmarked military convoys crossing from the east towards Donetsk City and these were no small tracks. These were trucks with no license plates, no insignia, and many of them toying 120-millimeter Howitzer artillery as well as multiple rocket launch systems. So we -- and as Phil's piece also indicated, Wolf, is that the

shelling in and around Donetsk City has been among the most intense since the beginning of the conflict. This isn't what one would expect so many weeks after the signing of those Minsk accords.

In fact, Wolf, we haven't seen or heard of one incident of heavy artillery moving back from the so-called contact line so a very worrisome situation indeed.

BLITZER: Let me rephrase the question, Michael. Is Russia invading Ukraine?

BOCIURKIW: Well, you know, Wolf, we're certainly an observation mission, as you know, and the vehicles, the individuals that we have observed have no insignia. So we're not here to assign a particular identification to anybody but what we do see is a continuous escalation and a very, very big impact on the civilian population.

Yesterday, our chief monitor, Ambassador Apakan, addressed the U.N. Security Council the first time for an OSCE mission to do so. And he did sound, I think, the alarm bells of this escalation and the very, very heavy toll on the civilian population in eastern Ukraine.

BLITZER: Let me try a third way, and maybe you can give a specific answer this way. Those tanks, those armored personal carriers, those convoys of troops moving in, are Russian military personnel driving those vehicles?

BOCIURKIW: We don't know. These aren't people who carry identification with them but I can tell you that in the past few days as well is that we have experienced some very unusual things. For example, you may recall that we put four unmanned, unarmed aerial vehicles into the air. So drones in eastern Ukraine. And shortly after they went into the air they were subjected to very heavy, sophisticated military grade electronic jamming as well as light fire from the ground.

So this is something we haven't seen before and, of course, it's very unfortunate because it does put the Minsk accord, the peace process into great jeopardy.

BLITZER: One quick final question before I let you go, Michael. The recovery of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, we know that a lot of the wreckage is still there. We know that bodies presumably, remains are still there as well. What's the status of getting to that area and finding out specifically what happened and at least recovering the bodies?

BOCIURKIW: As you know, Wolf, we were the first on the ground there. We were there 24 hours after the plane came down. And since then we have been back to the site many, many times escorting officials, experts there, emergency workers. We have good days and we have bad days when it comes to taking people -- taking folks out there. At the moment, there is a very robust plan in place to take the big pieces of the wreckage out but also that human remains recovery continues to take place. It's a very complex operation because it is, you know, an act of

shelling area, and this -- it's getting very cold now in Ukraine and once the snow comes down that process will have to, unfortunately, practically be delayed until springtime.

BLITZER: Well, good luck to you, good luck to all the monitors, all the men and women who with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Michael, thanks very much for joining us. We'll stay in close touch with you. We know this is a really dangerous and escalating crisis right now.

Michael Bociurkiw joining us from the OSCE.

Up next, so what's behind a string of problems with the U.S. jets that carry top U.S. officials, including the president of the United States?

And later, we have some surprising new details about the legal strategy being discussed for the suspect in the kidnapping of the University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're learning new details about a disturbing string of problems and breakdowns on the U.S. Air Force jet that carry top U.S. officials, including the president.

Our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is joining us with the very latest.

Some disturbing stuff, Rene. What are you learning?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know it, I know it. It's the dreaded announcement, plane delays due to mechanical problems. Not even our country's dignitaries are immune. Four of our nation's top officials, including the president, have recently had plane problems, delaying important missions and trips.

So is this an indication of a bigger problem or just a coincidence?

Tonight, we ask the Air Force which operates the planes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): Even the world's most powerful leaders experience plane problems. America's top spy James Clapper delivered two Americans home from North Korea last week. But two mechanical mishaps. Electrical problems in Hawaii and a navigational issue in Guam briefly stalled the high-stakes mission.

Secretary of State John Kerry had four breakdowns of his own this year. In Vienna, Switzerland, Great Britain and Hawaii. Two of the incidents forced the man who once had his name on the side of a plane to fly commercial.

In Philadelphia last week, even the leader of the free world wasn't immune to a travel delay. While flying his smaller version of Air Force One, problems on the wing forced President Obama to use a backup.

STEPHEN TRIMBLE, FLIGHTGLOBAL AMERICA MANAGING EDITOR: If the U.S. Air Force can't get, you know, the secretary of state or secretary of defense to a very high-profile meeting, of the director of National Intelligence, that is embarrassing.

MARSH: Embarrassing but everyone eventually arrived safely. And if you think the plane problems could be a function of age, experts say age is just a number.

The secretary of state, vice president and first lady usually fly modified Boeings 757s which the Pentagon says is mission ready 94.4 percent of the time. The oldest one in the fleet is just 16 years old. The same age as most major U.S. airlines. And a relative baby compared to some planes used by the U.S. Air Force. They have B-52 bombers more than 50 years old expected to be in the air until at least 2040.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a flying White House.

MARSH: The modified 747s that often serve as President Obama's Air Force One were delivered to the First President Bush nearly 25 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has the same configuration of the majority of the airliners with the exception we've got a few extras for the president, so he's got living quarters, places to cook meals, areas for the staff.

MARSH: A process to replace the plane is under way but it will be a new president who gets to break them in.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Well, the Air Force defends its fleet saying that the planes designated for the nation's top leaders are some of the most reliable in the Air Force. It just so happens they say that these string of incidents, they happen to planes that are very high-profile so people tend to notice.

BLITZER: Let's hope it remains that way.

MARSH: Yes.

BLITZER: Very, very safe. Even if there are delay here and there.

All right. Rene, thanks very much.

Up next, we have new details about behind-the-scenes legal wrangling that may be going on as the accused of kidnapping the University of Virginia student Hannah Graham prepared to go before a judge.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's new and surprising information that suggests Jesse Matthew, the man accused of kidnapping the University of Virginia student Hannah Graham, could plead guilty in another case. The investigative journalist Coy Barefoot has been talking to his sources. We're joined now by Coy as well CNN law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, a former assistant director of the FBI and our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Coy, tell us what you've been learning what Jesse Matthew may be prepared to do. I know you've been speaking to sources close to his defense team.

COY BAREFOOT, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Yes, Wolf. I got a call late last night from somebody close to the defense team and got a sneak peek into the truly fascinating legal calculus that is going on as we speak. Of course, tomorrow morning, 9:00 a.m., Jesse Matthew will appear for the first time in person in the Circuit Court in Fairfax to face these three charges -- abduction, rape, and attempted capital murder.

We could hear a number of motions on both sides, but here is what everybody is waiting to find out tomorrow. Judge Dennis Smith will name the particular judge in the Circuit Court there who will oversee the trial, and that is the absolutely critical ingredient because that's going to decide if the defense is going to decide to go to trial or not. The last thing they want to do is go to trial because a jury is likely to give Jesse Matthew, their client, life in prison.

So they may decide to plead guilty, throw himself on the mercy of the court. And if you have a judge that sticks to the state guidelines, which are just suggestive, but if you have a judge that sticks to those state guidelines and -- then Jesse Matthew could plead guilty and I had a couple of lawyers total up the numbers for me. He could get 15 to 20 years and be out in 17 before he's even 50 years old.

And if he gets off in the charges he's likely to face in central Virginia, that means Jesse Matthew walks free -- a free man in 17 years.

BLITZER: That obviously is possible, Jeffrey Toobin, but to me, as a layman, I'm not a lawyer, you are, that sounds highly unlikely this guy will ever walk free if in fact he's convicted of these -- three felony charges.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, there are a lot of moving parts here. I mean, I don't think you can somehow assume that he will be acquitted in the Graham case. That certainly seems unlikely. This case, I mean, Coy can correct me if I'm wrong, there's potentially DNA evidence tying him to the crime.

BLITZER: His DNA underneath her fingernails.

TOOBIN: Underneath her fingernails. How do you defend a case like that? It seems like the prosecution --

BLITZER: But I guess what he's saying, though, if he pleads guilty, there's no trial, he just pleads guilty, these three felony charges, you could get out in 15 or 20 years? Is that possible?

TOOBIN: It seems --

BLITZER: Because the three felony charges could give him life if convicted as part of a formal trial.

TOOBIN: As Coy points out, the guidelines are maybe for only 15 or 20 years, but those are suggestive. And if there were ever a case for a judge to give a higher sentence, this would seem to be it. The classic defense strategy in big high profile cases is delay. Put things off, let passions cool. That would seem to be more ordinary circumstances.

BLITZER: Tom, what do you think?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I agree with Jeff completely. Also I don't think any of that will work. I think the passions in this case and the series of cases are not going to die down this month or this year or 10 years from now. So I think that whatever ploy the defense may do thinking that could be possible is not possible.

BLITZER: Yes. And let me just have you wrap it up, Coy. They may be indulging in some wishful thinking, these defense attorneys, given the passions underway right now and the evidence that allegedly they have against them.

BAREFOOT: Well, the way it was explained to me over the phone with somebody who said look, if you only have bad options, you're going to take your least bad option. And that's what the defense is currently looking at, the defense in charge of defending Jesse Matthew in Fairfax. And we'll see what happens tomorrow morning.

BLITZER: 9:00 a.m. Eastern Fairfax, right outside of Washington, D.C. in northern Virginia.

Coy, thanks very much. Tom, Jeffrey, guys, thanks to you, as well.

Coming up, the grand jury investigating the shooting death of Ferguson, Missouri, teenager Michael Brown hears from a crucial witness. We're going to have new details.

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