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THE SITUATION ROOM
Putin's Back, Puts Troops on Combat Alert; "Crunch Time" In Iran Nuclear Showdown; Interview with Angus King; Teens Suspected of Trying to Join Terror Group; Ex-Hostage Describes Torture by 'Jihadi John'; Saudis Warn Iraq Deal Could Trigger Nuclear Arms Race; Police Deny Beating Ferguson Shooting Suspect. Aired 5-6:00p ET
Aired March 16, 2015 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, combat alert. After a 10 day absence, Russia's President Putin reappears, once again rattling his saber with war games like this.
<17:00:00> But how close did he actually come to ordering a nuclear alert over Ukraine?
Nuclear showdown -- a deadline is looming. Urgent talks are underway.
But have Senate Republicans ruined the possibility of a deal with Iran?
And why has the U.S. reportedly built a replica of an Iranian nuclear site?
I'll ask Senator Angus King.
Plus, tortured by Jihadi John -- a former hostage lived to tell the world all about it and is now giving the inside story of his nightmare at the hands of the notorious ISIS killer.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Our top story, after lying low for 10 days, Vladimir Putin has surfaced. But so has an ominous comment from the Russian leader. In a television interview, he reveals that he was ready to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert over last year's crisis in Crimea. And today, a key part of Russia's military is on full combat alert a year after he watched these war games, Putin once again orders a massive military exercise, this time in a very dangerous part of the world.
Senator Angus King of the intelligence and Armed Services Committees, he's standing by live, along with our correspondents and our analysts.
But let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr -- Barbara, Putin clearly re-emerged today. But what do we know about where he was?
What are we saying about his mysterious 10 day absence?
BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, from the Russian point of view, Wolf, he was just working, perhaps working at home. Now, when Vladimir Putin came out today in St. Petersburg, he made some joke about, you know, all the gossip about where he had been.
I have to tell you, U.S. officials think that he had a really bad head cold or the flu. They say that's the information that they have, that there was no indication he had left Russia at any point during this 10 day period.
But look, Putin's movements obviously fairly secret, not exactly publicly acknowledged. So still a lot of concern -- what was he up to, is there a possibility something else was going on here, were there political strains inside the Kremlin that we don't know about, perhaps over the situation in Ukraine, perhaps over that murder of his opponent, Boris Nemtsov, is there something else going on? Right now, what the U.S. is acknowledging, they think he was sick. But they do not really know if there might have been something else in play here -- Wolf.
BLITZER: He's also announcing, as you know, Barbara, new military exercises, setting off alarm bells by bringing up the issue of nuclear readiness.
What's going on here?
STARR: OK. So, he has now announced again snap exercises, some 40,000 troops, dozens of ships and aircraft exercising out of the Northern Fleet of Russia, into the Arctic, an area of some concern to the United States, as the Russians are making their moves up there to militarize the area.
This coming as we are at the one year anniversary, essentially, of the move into Crimea. Putin saying on state TV that a year ago, he was thinking about putting nuclear forces on alert over the crisis in Crimea, that if he had to have done it, worst case scenario, but he was thinking about it.
What U.S. officials are saying is, their assessment, Putin is in a constant state of trying to stir up military tension and stress. The thinking is he's not about to attack the United States, he's not about to attack, you know, into the center of Europe, but that he is thriving and staying in power right now by stirring up all this military stress.
Look at it this way. If he wanted to launch nuclear weapons, he could do that pretty much from wherever they are located in Russia -- at Russian launch sites right now.
The concern about Crimea is that he's putting more aircraft into Crimea that are dual use capable. They could carry nukes, they could carry conventional weapons, and the U.S. might not be able to tell the difference. He is just thriving on stirring up this tension -- Wolf.
BLITZER: A dangerous situation, indeed.
All right, Barbara, thanks very much.
The deadline also looming right now for a nuclear deal with Iran. U.S. officials call it crunch time. Secretary of State John Kerry held marathon talks with his Iranian counterpart once again today.
But there's fresh fallout over a warning letter from Republican senators to Iran's leaders.
Could that letter actually torpedo these talks?
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
He has the latest from there -- Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in a new excerpt from that interview with "Vice," the president says Senator Tom Cotton's letter to Iran, quote, "damages our country."
Senior administration officials say Iranian negotiators did raise Cotton's letter in those sensitive nuclear talks that are currently underway. But U.S. officials are confident the letter will only be what they're calling "a distraction."
ACOSTA (voice-over): While Iranian and U.S. officials try to make progress in their nuclear negotiations, the talks in Switzerland hit a speed bump straight out of Washington, as in the letter written by Senator Tom Cotton and signed by 46 of his GOP colleagues to Iran's ruling clerics.
U.S. officials say Tehran's negotiators raised Cotton's letter during the talks, but there were no apologies from the secretary of State.
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm not going to apologize for the -- for an unconstitutional and un-thought out action by somebody who has been in the United States Senate for 60 some days.
ACOSTA: Despite tough talk from Kerry and even the president...
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It damages the country. It damages our standing. It's not productive.
ACOSTA: -- the freshman senator isn't backing down.
SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: The Congress stands ready to impose much more severe sanctions.
ACOSTA: But Cotton is gaining critics, who point out he once mocked the president's own communications with Iran's leadership. COTTON: Like a love-struck teenager, he has sent four secret
letters to Ayatollah Khamenei.
ACOSTA: Still, the Iran talks are now becoming a new litmus test in the 2016 campaign, with likely GOP contender Ted Cruz saying candidates must repudiate the nuclear deal or else.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Any candidate, in my view, who will not say yes to that is not fit to serve as commander-in-chief of this country.
ACOSTA: Over the weekend, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sent a letter to Bob Corker, assuring him Congress will have a role to play and will have to take a vote. But the White House conceded they would rather Congress stay out of the process for months, well beyond the March 31st deadline for a framework agreement.
JOSH EARNEST, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: For all of the hyperventilating we see on Capitol Hill, there is no agreement that has been reached.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
ACOSTA: And Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the White House may want Congress to hold off even longer, even after a deal is concluded -- Wolf, that is not going to fly with Republicans, and even some Democrats -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You're right about that.
Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
Joining us now, Senator Angus King.
He's the Maine independent, a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees.
Senator King, thanks very much for joining us.
Do you think there's going to be a deal with Iran?
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Well, I think it's 50-50 right now. I've heard 60-40, 50-50. I think it's not done at all.
But what I think is kind of amazing, Wolf, is the way people are lining up. You heard Senator Ted Cruz a few minutes ago saying, you know, you've got to say no to this deal.
There isn't a deal yet. We won't even know the framework for another week or two. And then the details we won't know until June.
So, you know, I'd kind of would like to keep my powder dry and see what it is that's going to come before us before deciding that it's not a good deal.
BLITZER: Based on what you know right now, do you like it? KING: Well, there are some real questions. This is all about
verification, Wolf. That's the real issue.
You know, Ronald Reagan's old line was trust, but verify. In this case, it's no trust and verify like hell. That's what really is going to make this deal either good or bad is the level of verification that we can have on Iranian compliance.
So far, with the preliminary deal that's been in place for over a year now, the compliance has been, actually, quite good; surprisingly good. So that's really what is going to be the key for me, and, of course, what the other terms are, as well.
I'm not ready to say it's a good deal or it's a bad deal. I want to see what they actually come up with. I like to have the facts before I shoot.
BLITZER: Yes, well, that's not unreasonable at all.
Senator, you said that letter written by 47 Republicans to the Iranian leadership was, in your words, "unthinkable," "an unthinkable move." You said it was akin to if Congress had written a letter to Khrushchev right in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis.
Did this letter do permanent damage, in your opinion?
KING: Well, I think we have to see what the Iranian reaction is going to be and whether it, in fact, undermines the talks. To me, what's almost as shocking as the letter itself was that the author, Tom Cotton, a couple days later said, yes, my intention was to torpedo the talks, to undermine the talks.
I don't get that. I mean this is high stakes stuff, Wolf. This is -- we -- this is a very dangerous situation. By far, the preferable solution will be a negotiated settlement to get the capability of a nuclear weapon away from the Iranians. And to do anything to undermine the current discussions, I just don't get. You know, unhelpful is the mildest term I can think of.
You know, you mentioned, I said the other day, it's like Congress writing to Khrushchev, saying don't listen to this Kennedy guy.
The president leads in foreign policy. That's the way the "Constitution" is. That's the way the country has been run since the very beginning.
Congress will have a chance to weigh in. And, in fact, I'm supporting Bob Corker's proposal, at least for now, that will give Congress a chance to weigh in.
But, you know, I've got to be convinced that those 46, 47 people that signed that letter are going to make the decision on the merits and not on some effort to embarrass the president or score points in a presidential primary. This is too serious. I mean is there no issue that we can't turn into a partisan issue
Come on. Let's see what this really says and then make our decisions accordingly.
BLITZER: But the White House says, Senator, that your role, Congress' role, the Senate's role, will be relatively limited. It's not going to be seen as a treaty, where you have to vote up or down, a two-thirds vote. It's going to be seen as an executive agreement by the United States. In fact, the administration seems to be ready to go to the United Nations Security Council for an up or down vote long before it raises this issue before the United States Senate.
KING: Well, I think we've got to do both, because don't forget, Wolf, everybody talks about this deal as if it's the U.S. and Iran. And, in fact, it's five other countries plus the U.S. that have imposed the sanctions. And most of the sanctions that have had the most impact on Iran are the ones that aren't coming from the US. They're coming from China, Japan, India, Germany, Great Britain. So they've got to be part of this deal.
So involving them has absolutely got to -- is absolutely part of it. But I think -- I disagree with the White House. I think Congress does have a significant role. And I think it's better for us to lay out what the sort of rules of the consideration of that role will be now, rather than have it be a partisan free-for-all in a couple of months. So that's why Tim Kaine and I and a group of other people that are not Republicans are involved in the discussions with Bob Corker, to try to come up with a policy not to derail the negotiations, but to give Congress a chance to take a responsible role in this.
But I've got to tell you, Wolf, my support for that is contingent upon some evidence from the Republicans that they're willing to consider this seriously. And I think Bob Corker is.
But how many of his colleagues are?
And not just as an opportunity to embarrass the president or deny him a diplomatic breakthrough. If the president is able to pull this off, the whole world wins.
BLITZER: All right.
KING: And we ought to be able to take a deep breath and say that's a good thing.
BLITZER: Bob Corker, of course, is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He did not sign that letter by the 47 Republicans to the Iranian leadership.
Senator King, stand by.
We have much more to talk about, including Vladimir Putin.
What is he up to in Russia right now?
Much more when we come back.
<17:17:14> BLITZER: We're back with Senator Angus King. He's the main independent, member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees. In Russia, the president there, Vladimir Putin, has now admitted that he was ready to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert over the crisis a year ago over Crimea. How big of a deal is this revelation?
KING: Well, I think it's -- I think it is a big deal. I think it's very disturbing that he was willing to even mention that in his -- in his rhetoric. Wolf, you've got to remember that I think part of what's going on here is domestic politics in Russia. When Margaret Thatcher -- the day before the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher's approval rating in England was 23 percent. Two weeks later, it was 70 percent.
Putin now has an 80 percent approval rating in Russia, and it's largely because of his adventurism abroad. So he's going to be talking about these things and probing and sending aircraft along our coastline. And that's why we've got to have a strong defense to deter any thought that he might have of doing something reckless.
BLITZER: Some are saying we're now on the verge of a new Cold War. Would you agree with that?
KING: Well, I'm not quite ready to go that far. But I certainly think it's a lot colder or warmer, if you will, than it was just a few years ago. It's clear, I mean, he has said that he thinks one of the great mistakes of the 20th Century was the dissolution of the Soviet empire. He'd like to put it -- put it together again.
And then of course, we've got ISIS wanting to put the Ottoman Empire back together, and we've got Iran, who wants to put the Persian Empire back together. So we're dealing with a lot of history here. And I think Putin is a guy that we've got to be exceedingly careful with, and that's one of the reasons I've been one of the ones saying, "Let's go slow on this business of increasing our engagement in the Ukraine," because you've got to think three and four steps ahead if you're playing chess with a Russian. And I think we need to be very careful about what the consequences might be.
BLITZER: Another issue on Iran I want to just raise with you. Some have suggested, since Iran opposes ISIS in Iraq and Syria, for that matter, the U.S. opposes ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Maybe it's time for the U.S. and Iran to coordinate this war effort against ISIS. What do you think about that?
KING: Well, here's the problem, and there has been a lot of talk about that, but let's take what's going on in Tikrit right now, which is essentially an effort to take Tikrit back from ISIS exclusively with Shia militia and Iranian leadership and some Quds Force. That's dangerous, because if this again is viewed in, particularly, northern and western Iraq as a Shia-led war, then that pushes the Sunnis back into the arms of ISIS.
<17:20:02> KING: That's what made it so easy for is to take this territory in the first place, was the failure of the government in Baghdad to be inclusive and include the Sunnis.
And it worries me that we've got essentially a Shia-led initiative in Tikrit with Iran in the background; and the Sunnis are going to say, "Well, wait a minute. If this is what we're facing from Baghdad, maybe we need to stay with these ISIS guys and try to work with them."
So very complicated situation, but it's dangerous to have Iran in the leadership up there on this. This should be a multi Muslim army, if you will, involving the Iraqi armed forces, not just the Shia militia.
BLITZER: As I said before, a lot of analysts have said to me the good news is that ISIS might be defeated in Iraq. The bad news is the Iranians and their Shiite militia allies will do the heavy lifting, and they could emerge as the big winner in Iraq, as well.
Let's talk a little about this "Los Angeles Times" report that the United States has spent millions of dollars building replicas of Iran's nuclear centrifuges in order to try to gauge Iran's ability to convert uranium into bomb fuel. The administration, according to this article, may soon use the results to try to convince the American public that a deal with Iran is in the best interests of the United States.
First of all, are you aware of this program? Have you been briefed on it?
KING: I have not been briefed on it. I've read the article and understand some of the background, but I think, Wolf, it goes back to what we were talking about before.
The key to this deal is going to be verification. And I think the effort to build this model plant, if you will, was in order to determine how they could cheat and what needed to be measured and where to look and where the inspectors should pay attention. So I think it's -- I think it was a sensible thing to do, looking toward a deal like this, that is going to rise or fall on our ability to tell whether the Iranians are living up to it.
BLITZER: You heard over the weekend Secretary of State John Kerry saying the U.S. should be willing to sit down, negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. He's the leader of Syria, in order to come up with some sort of solution. Two hundred thousand people have been killed in Syria over the past few years in this civil war. What do you make of this statement by the secretary of state?
KING: Well, that's not exactly the way I would have phrased it, but it's been our policy for a long time that this situation is ultimately only going to be solved by negotiations. But those negotiations have to include the opposition, the Assad regime, the Russians and the Iranians. Frankly, the Russians could solve this tomorrow if they stopped
supplying him, and I think they might have some interest in doing so, now that ISIS has come out of this whole cauldron of violence over there.
The other thing you have to remember is that the Russians work very closely with us to get rid of Assad's chemical weapons. So, you know, this foreign policy stuff is very complicated. Sometimes you have to be able to compartmentalize and say we're opposing over here, but we can work together over there. I think what John Kerry was really saying is this is going to have to be a negotiation involving the regime. You know, I don't -- I wouldn't have said we're going to negotiate with Assad himself.
But that's been the goal to try to get a stalemate on the ground and get us to some negotiation so that we can have a change in the government and get Syria back to some semblance of normalcy.
BLITZER: And you may not know this, but I'll tell you if you don't. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the elections in Israel are tomorrow and he's fighting for his political life as you well know. He says there will be no Palestine, no independent Palestinian state, no two-state solution if he's re- elected. What's your reaction to that?
KING: My first -- my first reaction is maybe we shouldn't pay too much attention to what the people say three days before an election. But that's too bad is the quote I heard, because four or five years ago he supported a two-state solution.
If all he's saying is that the security situation at this moment isn't appropriate, OK, I can understand that. But if he's ruling it out, I don't know how they solve the problem.
I mean, they've got Palestinians in the West Bank very proximate to Jerusalem. They've got Gaza, and it's an unsustainable situation, Wolf. They're going to have to come to some resolution one way or the other. And it sounds like -- you know, I'm not a commentator on Israeli politics. But it sounds like the prime minister is trying to pick up votes on the right wing over there in order to ensure his re- election.
But he may get reelected, but man, this is a problem. The issue of the Palestinians and a two-state solution is something that eventually has to be resolved. It can't -- it can't go on. I've been over there. I've been to the West Bank and been to Jerusalem. It can't go on like it is now indefinitely. There -- inevitably, there is going to be further violence.
So I think it's unfortunate the prime minister said that, but you know, like I say, maybe we ought to give him a bit of a pass a couple of days before his election.
<17:25:08> BLITZER: The election is tomorrow. So it's only one day before the election. We'll have more on that election later in THE SITUATION ROOM. Senator King, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.
KING: Thank you, Wolf. Good to talk to you.
BLITZER: Thank you.
Coming up, new details about the terrifying world of ISIS. We're hearing from a former hostage who survived torture at the hands of the terrorist known as Jihadi John.
Plus, there's a new twist in the Ferguson, Missouri, story. After finally arresting a suspect in the shooting -- in the shooting of two police officers, police now are denying allegations of abusing the suspect.
<17:30:00> BLITZER: A group of teens apparently on their way to try to join terrorists in Syria belonging to ISIS. This time they were caught, and they were shipped back home. Brian Todd has been looking into a growing, very troubling trend: teenagers heading over there. What are you learning?
TODD: Well, tonight, British officials are so worried about teenagers defecting to ISIS that they're appealing for help from parents in immigrant communities. We have new information tonight on how more teenagers are making their way to Syria, and how ISIS is helping them.
TODD (voice-over): A tense moment at the airport in Istanbul. Three teenaged boys from northwest London grabbed by Turkish intelligence. They were moments away from trying to make their way to Syria, the British say, to commit terror.
HELEN BALL, BRITISH COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: It was fortunate that the families realized very quickly what had happened, that we had time to understand and work out their travel route.
TODD: It appears the boys had help from someone Turkish officials call suspicious.
MUBIN SHAIKH, FORMER JIHADIST: It's a very good chance that the individual is a fixer. They are known by the people who run the checkpoints on the road. That's what it comes down to. And you know, a fee is, of course, passed off to the people on the checkpoints, and they're able to make their way. It happens all the time every day.
TODD: In recent days, Turkish intelligence had apprehended this man who they said was a fixer for three British schoolgirls who made it into Syria to allegedly join ISIS. It turns out the man was a double agent, the Turks say, also working for a coalition country fighting against ISIS.
What attracts teenagers to this vicious murderous band of terrorists? Analysts say for boys, the lure is adventure and the jihadist ideology, mixed with some grievance they may have in their home countries.
DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: For girls, increasingly we're seeing romance as a pathway, where they look at these fighters. They make for dashing, Che Guevara-like figures. And some of the girls have wanted to go over and marry these warriors on the battlefield.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The parents of these kids are often first-generation immigrants. They don't really understand the Internet that well. They certainly don't understand the ins and outs of YouTube, and Facebook and Twitter and all that.
TODD: The flow of teenagers from Britain is disturbing. Today, an 18-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of preparing to join ISIS. He was picked up before trying to leave his hometown of Birmingham, England.
And there were the three teenaged girls seen at the Turkish border in this new video, who got from Britain to Syria without their parents' knowledge. British officials say in the past year, 22 women and girls have been reported missing by families who fear they traveled to Syria.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: The British definitely have a problem, and they've been trying to look at ways that you can find the danger signs.
TODD: British officials would not comment when we asked about the idea that they may have a specific problem stopping teenagers from defecting to ISIS. But they are admitting they do need help from parents.
Police there have just launched a radio and TV ad campaign targeting mothers in immigrant communities, pleading with them to talk to their children, especially their daughters, about the dangers of traveling to Syria, Wolf.
BLITZER: The dangers are enormous. They may get to Syria, they may never leave. That's one of the big problems.
All right. Thanks very much, Brian, for that.
He was certainly tortured, tortured by Jihadi John and threatened over the time he was being tortured with beheading, but a former ISIS hostage lived to tell the world all about it. He's now giving the inside story of his nightmare.
Let's go to our justice correspondent Pamela Brown. She's got more -- Pamela.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is the first time we're hearing from a former ISIS hostage about these gruesome details of daily physical and psychological torture at the hands of the man known as Jihadi John. This former hostage is just now giving his bone-chilling account of his six months in captivity after being released by ISIS a year ago.
BROWN (voice-over): Reunited with his son in Spain, Javier Espinosa finally saw the end of a hellish journey that led him face- to-face with Jihadi John.
Captured by ISIS in the fall of 2013, Espinosa, a journalist for El Mundo, described the torture he suffered at the hands of Jihadi John in an article he wrote for "The Sunday Times" in the U.K.
Espinosa said at one point, the infamous masked terrorist held a sword to his neck and said, "Feel it? Cold, isn't it. Can you imagine the pain you'll feel when it cuts? Unimaginable pain."
Espinosa, seen here in an interview with El Mundo, says Jihadi John relished scaring the hostages with gruesome details of how he would slaughter them, telling him, "The first hit of the sword will sever your veins. The second blow opens your neck. You'd make some amusing guttural sounds. I've seen it before. You all squirm like animals, like pigs. The third blow will take off your head and put it on your back."
When he was finished with the sword, Espinosa says Jihadi John put a pistol to his head, pulling the trigger three times.
DAVID ROHDE, FORMER TALIBAN HOSTAGE: Javier Espinosa wrote this as a decorated war correspondent, and he explains why people haven't been talking. They were told by ISIS if they talked about their captivity, all of the remaining captives would be punished. There's essentially only one captive left, John Cantley, and that's why Javier wrote this piece and talked about it.
<17:35:09> BROWN: Espinosa was held with more than 20 other western hostages in Syria, including Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller, who are all now dead.
Espinosa said Kassig, a humanitarian worker, told him of his own torture, saying, "When they realized I was American and that I had been a soldier in Iraq, they went crazy. They hung me from the roof and started beating me. I thought they were going to execute me." Sometime later, Kassig was beheaded, the gruesome video posted on the Internet.
BROWN: An ISIS defector who witnessed some of the beheadings also said during a separate interview with Sky News that ISIS reveres Jihadi John as the, quote, "big boss" who is the only one in the group allowed to kill foreigners -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Pamela Brown, thanks very much. Joining us now, our CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd.
He's a former CIA official. Also joining us, our terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank; and our national security analyst, Fran Townsend. She was the homeland security advisor to President George W. Bush. I want all of you, stand by for a moment.
We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, there's lots to discuss about these teenagers heading over to try to hook up with ISIS.
<17:41:00> BLITZER: We're back with CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd; our terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank; and national security analyst Fran Townsend.
Paul, has it become more or less difficult for these young western recruits from the United States or from Europe to enter Syria?
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, it's become more difficult, because the Turks have been cracking down. And ISIS itself has acknowledged this, saying they're having to smuggle recruits across the Turkish-Syrian border, that sometimes these recruits are having to crawl under barbed wire.
There has been improved intelligence sharing between western countries and Turkey, as evidenced by those arrests in Istanbul of the three north London teens over the weekend.
That intelligence sharing has led to more than 12,500 names being added to a "do not enter" Turkey list; but they're still concerned that significant numbers are managing to get into Syria.
Of course, Turkey is a top travel destination for tourists. As one CNN senior counterterrorism official told me, it's difficult to distinguish who is going to Turkey for a beach vacation and who's going there to wage jihad in Syria.
BLITZER: Let me ask Phil to weigh in on that. Explain what goes into identifying, potentially stopping these young people from going into Turkey and then sneaking across the border into Syria?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I agree with Paul. This has gotten a lot more difficult. Simple reason. Back ten years ago, for example, you could look at a central node of recruitment, an al Qaeda organization, for example, in Pakistan, focus your intelligence on that recruitment; relatively small number of people.
Now when you talk about thousands in Iraq and Syria, you don't have a central node, so you've got to look at the social media sites. That's a huge effort imperfect. And increasingly, really interesting, Wolf, you're seeing security services, police services in places like Australia, establish dedicated units in airports saying where's the 15 or 16-year-old with the one-way cash ticket? Let's talk to him.
The Australians are talking to 400 people a day going through airports because they look suspicious. Remarkable.
BLITZER: They're worried about that.
Fran, is there any useful intelligence that can be gathered from these young recruits, these teenagers, who may be stopped from getting into -- once they're in Syria, once they're aligned with ISIS, hard to get out of there. But before they get there, any useful intelligence that can be gathered?
FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Absolutely, Wolf. In fact, perhaps the most important thing that they can reveal is who helped them, who facilitated it in the countries they were leaving? So in the case of Great Britain, was it an imam? Who gave you the money? Who helped you get the travel documents? What flight, who helped you make those flight arrangements? How did you know what to bring with you?
There's a whole bunch of intelligence that not only helps you understand the pipeline that they are in, but it allows you then to go back and track to see did these people facilitate others, who did you miss, what kind of intelligence network is there in these source countries for these recruits?
BLITZER: I know, Paul, you've been looking into the number of young western women -- American women, European women -- who've actually been recruited by ISIS. What are you learning about them?
CRUICKSHANK: Well, there's growing concern about this, Wolf. And our viewers, of course, have seen that video of those British schoolgirls going across over into Syria. And the worry is this has become the new normal.
According to western officials, more than 500 western women have traveled to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq. And over there, up to about a fifth of all foreign jihadis are now women. Women are traveling with their husbands there. They're traveling to find husbands there. They want to be the mothers of a new generation of jihadis over there. Growing concern about this.
BLITZER: Amidst all of this, Fran, the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has now canceled all consular services. They did yesterday, which is a normal working day in Saudi Arabia. Today, as well, due to what they're calling heightened security concerns. This is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. What's going on?
TOWNSEND: You know, Wolf, people often forget it was years ago that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaeda group in Yemen, launched a very sort of brazen attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah. They were actually able to breach it and raise an al Qaeda flag.
So you've got the sort of traditional threat, right, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. You've got the Saudis surrounded by Shia militias to the north in Iraq, to the south in Yemen, the Houthi to the east in Bahrain, and to the west in Syria. And you've got that added to the mix. And then you add to this the foreign fighters. You know, we worry about foreign fighters coming back here.
Saudi has seen a good -- a good number of young men between the ages of 18 and 25 go to the fight and they've always been worried about their returning. Remember there was a Danish citizen shot by -- by terrorists inside Saudi Arabia not that long ago. And we've seen increasing presence on social media of ISIS flags being raised inside Saudi Arabia.
And so there are multiple threats. It shouldn't be surprising to anybody that the Saudis are very concerned about this and taking it quite seriously.
BLITZER: Yes. Phil, you've spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia. What does it say to you?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, the Saudis are not fighting the Iranians. This is the Sunnis fighting the Shia. It goes back centuries. We have not only the surrounding, as Fran said, of Iranian activity in places like Yemen, Iraq, Syria. We also have nuclear negotiations where Saudi Arabia is looking across the Strait of Hormuz, that is the strait separating them from Iran, saying wow, if these negotiations continue, we have the prospect from their optic, agree with it or not, of a nuclear capable Iran across the strait. This is a remarkable time.
BLITZER: And you heard the Saudi -- Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, he was the Saudi ambassador here in Washington, telling the BBC that a nuclear program, if Iran gets a nuclear program, Saudi Arabia is going to start enriching uranium as well.
MUDD: There is no good solution here. Look, the Saudis already have a program for nuclear power. They've talked to the South Koreans.
The problem here, Wolf, is you can have a bad deal or you can have us back out and have no deal. The Saudis are looking out, they're saying, we don't want a bad deal. My question to them would be, what are you going to do, what threat are you going to make when there's no deal and the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians say we're going to go ahead with the program?
BLITZER: I'll read to you the quote from Prince Turki. He says, "If Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it's not just Saudi Arabia that's going to ask for that. The whole world will be open -- will be an open door to go that route without any inhibition."
That's a pretty ominous statement.
MUDD: That is. I mean, I think -- I think this is a fait accompli. We know where this is headed. The Iranians have a huge scientific military establishment. We're trying to contain it. We'll see where -- where we are in the 20 years. I think the answer is already written. Iran will be nuclear.
BLITZER: Well, let's hope not.
MUDD: I hope not.
BLITZER: We'll see. All right. Phil, thanks very much. Fran Townsend, thanks to you as well. Paul Cruickshank, as usual.
Up next, police deny shocking allegations they beat the man arrested for shooting two officers during the Ferguson demonstrations.
And right at the top of the hour, Vladimir Putin resurfaces and makes startling claims about the dangerous risk he was willing to take to seize part of a neighboring country.
<17:52:15> BLITZER: Breaking now, an unexpected turn of events in Ferguson, Missouri. Just a little while ago St. Louis County Police strongly denied allegations that police beat the suspect accused of shooting two police officers during last week's demonstrations.
Let's go live to CNN's Ed Lavandera. He's on the scene for us in Ferguson.
Ed, first of all what do we know about the suspect and the shooting of these two police officers?
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the suspect is 20-year- old Jeffrey Williams. He's being held in a jail here on the St. Louis area on a $300,000 bond. He's been charged with a series of felony charges, including two counts of first-degree assault. Now Williams, according to the prosecutor here in St. Louis County, has been interrogated by investigators, and told them that he wasn't actually trying to shoot at the police officers, that he -- he'd been involved in an alteration with some people the night of the protest last Wednesday night into early Thursday morning when the shooting took place.
And according to the prosecutor, Williams is now saying that he wasn't trying to shoot at the police officers, and that's why he wasn't charged with other charges more directly associated with the wounding of those officers.
Wolf, the good news is we're hearing that those officers that were wounded have been released from the hospital and are making a good recovery -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And what about this accusation, it's a serious one, that the suspects supposedly was mistreated while in police custody?
LAVANDERA: Well, this came from a bishop who was highly involved in the protest movement here over the last few months. Excuse the ambulance as it goes by here. But a bishop told CNN here this morning who had met with Jeffrey Williams yesterday that he was severely beaten by police after taken -- being taken into custody. We're told by St. Louis County police officers in a statement
earlier today saying that these allegations of Williams being mistreated are completely false and that he had been interviewed on videotape and checked out by a nurse after he had been taken into custody -- Wolf.
BLITZER: What do we know about the supposed argument the suspect was having that, according to his own statement, led him to start shooting?
LAVANDERA: Well, that's what investigators say that they don't quite have a good enough handle on. And they are still -- they are still trying to get into that. The prosecutor said that, look, we don't necessarily buy this story at this point. But they say they want to talk to more witnesses who were there.
We're told that Williams was seen at that protest Wednesday night, left the scene and then came back in the early morning hours of Thursday morning. But prosecutors say they're still trying to track down more witnesses to learn more about what exactly that altercation was all about.
BLITZER: All right. Ed Lavandera, on the scene for us, we'll check back with you. Thank you.
Coming up, after a 10-day absence, Russia's President Putin reappears, once again rattling his saber with war games like these. But how close did he actually come to ordering a nuclear alert over Crimea?
<17:55:02> And a deadline is looming for an Iran nuclear deal. Urgent talks underway right now but will that letter to the Iranian leadership by 47 U.S. Republican senators torpedo the chance of an agreement?
BLITZER: Happening now, alive and armed. One year since seizing Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin resurfaces after not being seen in public for more than a week. Now he is putting thousands of Russian troops on alert and revealing he was ready to put his nuclear weapons on standby. We'll get more from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
<18:00:02> Under arrest. Police respond to allegations they beat a man who they say is admitting to shooting two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. Was he actually aiming at the cops or someone else?