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Interview With Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson; Charleston Church Holds Bible Study; Boston Bomber Apologizes; Manhunt; Obama: No Charges Against Families Who Pay Ransom; Jindal Facing Uphill Battle in GOP White House Race. Aired 18-19:00p ET

Aired June 24, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: into the woods, the manhunt for two killers zeroing in on a remote area around a cabin hideout, as we learn intimate new details about the relationship between one of the convicts and the prison worker accused of aiding their escape.

Terrorist apology. The Boston Marathon bomber breaks his silence as he is sentenced to death. Tonight, some survivors of the attack aren't buying his words of remorse.

Massacre scene. This hour, worshipers return to the Charleston church where nine people were gunned down a week ago as their slain pastor is honored and the controversy over the Confederate Flag rages.

Hostage ransoms. With terrorists and other kidnappers now holding more than 30 Americans overseas, President Obama gives their families the green light to pay money for their freedom. Will it save lives? Or will it put more people in danger?

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 to the breaking news.

The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is opening its doors this hour for Bible study exactly a week after a shooting bloodbath during a similar class. Also breaking, we have just learned that more than a dozen New York state officials have descended on the Clinton Correctional Facility to investigate security breaches, as the manhunt continues for two escaped killers.

Police believe they're likely armed right now, possibly with weapons stolen from a remote cabin hideout. The two convicts may be more desperate, more dangerous than ever on this, their 19th day on the run. We're covering all the breaking stories with our correspondents, our analysts and the newsmakers, including the Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson. He's standing by to talk about the Charleston shooting and the racially charged controversy over the Confederate Flag.

But, first, let's go to CNN's Alexandra Field. She has got the latest on the manhunt in Upstate New York.

Alexandra, what's the latest?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one of those fugitives may be barefoot. They may be increasingly desperate. And state police say it defies logic to think that they have not made some effort to arm themselves. The last credible lead in this case came on Saturday. That was four days ago. The search continues to be focused on Franklin County, but today it is expanding.


FIELD (voice-over): Police methodically searching dense woods and fields around a cabin that they believe escapees David Sweat and Richard Matt were hiding out in.

MAJ. CHARLES GUESS, NEW YORK STATE POLICE: Their distance from that cabin could be extensive if their travel was unimpeded.

FIELD: DNA, along with a pair of boots, were found inside a cabin less than 30 miles from the prison the two convicted killers escaped from 19 days ago. Officials believe the fugitives were startled by something and left the cabin in a hurry.

GUESS: We have virtually 100 percent assurance that they were in that area.

FIELD: As the search for the escapees continues, new details are emerging on the role Joyce Mitchell played in the escape of the two inmates. CNN has learned Mitchell allegedly put hacksaw blades and drill bits into chunks of hamburger meat. She then placed the meat in a freezer inside the tailor shop.

According to a law enforcement official, she asked corrections officers Gene Palmer to take the meat to the inmates' cell, where they were allowed to cook food. The guard did not run the meat through a metal detector, a direct violation of prison policy.

Palmer willingly spoke to police and said he had no idea the tools were in the meat. Tonight, we're learning more about the relationship between Mitchell and Sweat, who worked together in the tailor shop.

Erik Jensen, a former inmate who worked alongside Sweat and Mitchell, describes how Sweat wooed her.

ERIK JENSEN, FORMER INMATE: I believe they were sleeping together, you know, and I'm not the only one that would say that. They're in the back room. You know, we always used to laugh and joke with him about how, oh, it was his girlfriend, his boo, his little side thing.

FIELD: Jensen describe Mitchell as a giggling schoolgirl when it came to Sweat. He said there were many sexual encounters between the two and that they would disappear in the tailor shop closet where garments were stored.

JENSEN: I believe they were getting it on in that back room. The way they were reacting with each other and interacting with each, that it was going on for a while, because you know what? They were -- it was too comfortable.


FIELD: Some pretty eyebrow-raising allegations from that former inmate.

But our own Brian Todd and Jason Carroll both spoke to Joyce Mitchell's attorney today asking him about those allegations. And he maintains that his client has told both him and investigators that she never had a sexual relationship with David Sweat.

Wolf, there is a lot of intrigue, of course, about what was going on behind bars between Joyce Mitchell and both of these inmates who have managed to evade capture for this long. But it is important because it does help investigators get a better sense of how these two men managed to break out of that maximum security prison.

BLITZER: Alexandra Field with the very latest, thank you, Alexandra.


Police say more than 1,000 officers are focusing in on a 75- square-foot search area around that cabin where the escapees apparently had been hiding out. Brian Todd is here with more on this investigation, this manhunt.

Give us the big picture right now.


BLITZER: Where are they focusing in most of their attention?

TODD: Wolf, right now, they're focusing most of their attention on the town of Owls Head. It's about 22 miles west of the Clinton Correctional Facility. That's where the last credible sighting of these men occurred at a cabin there. That was 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Wolf.

We have to keep in mind, the Canadian border is right here, only about 20 miles north of the area in Owls Head. Possibility these two men may have slipped across that border, and, you know, again, investigators focusing on many areas around here, still have not found these guys.


BLITZER: The terrain is pretty awful, though, pretty hard.

TODD: Really is, Wolf, very dense. And we're going to go through some of that.

This is the area where the cabin is in, and, again, a lot of dense forestation in the area. This is -- this covers -- the search overall covers about a 75-square-mile area of Franklin County. You have got to factor in just a lot of what the terrain encompasses here.

There are a lot of hills, mountains, ravines, wetlands, rivers, and streams that they have got to search over. Wetlands, Wolf, pose a particular problem in these areas. They have bogs, and dense forestation in these wetlands that these searchers have to negotiate, they have to navigate through. It's a tough slog, Wolf.

BLITZER: The searchers there, how much ground can they actually cover let's say in a day?

TODD: New York State Police have said they can cover about 10 miles a day, but that's if you have got some kind of a cut trail or road. Here, you see them covering kind of a standard road.

But there are a lot of different types of cuts of roads that you can cover. You have got the secondary roads like this. And here is a picture of one. Again, you can cover this pretty quickly, a secondary road like this one, but some other challenges that you have got. And, look, and you can see from that 3-D map between all these roads, again, incredibly thick forestation that you have got to negotiate.

Here's place that they can cover and get some visibility and also cover some ground, these cuts in the forestation where they have power lines. Again, you can cover some of this. It is slower going in these areas because, of course, it is not paved. But you do have visibility. And you can move through a little bit more slowly.

And, again, here is another thing that they have to take into consideration. They come across a lot of places like this, these abandoned houses, abandoned barns. You have got to search every one of them. They could be hiding in one of these.

And another particular challenge is, Wolf, the investigators have talked about doing shoulder-to-shoulder searches. And again when you see the forestation, we cannot emphasize this enough, how difficult that is. Here's a shoulder-to-shoulder search by officials going through an open area. OK, that's one thing.

But here is a real illustration of how difficult that can be in a forested area like this. Here is a picture. Look at this. This is one searcher here, this man right here. You are not very far away from him. This is in that area. Here is another one right next to him doing a shoulder-to-shoulder search. Again, you are not very far away from him. You can see him a little bit.

You can't really see this guy. And when you are coming at it from their perspective, if you are seeing two inmates that way, you are not necessarily sure what you are seeing. That's how dense the forestation is.

BLITZER: This is tough, tough. This is day 19, too; 1,000 law enforcement are searching for these two killers.

TODD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Let's see if they can find them.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Brian.

TODD: Sure.

BLITZER: Hope they can.

There's another breaking story we are following tonight here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the Boston Marathon bomber's message to the world as he was formally sentenced to die for the terrorist attack, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev admitting his guilty and claiming he's sorry.

Our national correspondent, Deborah Feyerick, she was inside the courtroom as Tsarnaev broke his silence.

Tell us how it went down.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, Wolf, it took Dzhokhar Tsarnaev about two years and two-and-a-half months to finally say the words that so many people had wanted to hear, to show even the slightest remorse.

He stood, he addressed the judge and the people in that courtroom wearing a dark suit and button-down shirt. He said -- he confessed. He said, "The bombing which I am guilty of, if there is any lingering doubt, I did do it, along with my brother."

And then he apologized to the victims, the survivors, family members of the dead. He said: "I am sorry for the lives I have taken, the suffering I have caused, the damage I have done."

And he did choke up once or twice during that last statement. He spoke in a very thick accent, sort of a combination of Russian and Arabic as he was saying all this. And he cited the fact that this is the holy month of Ramadan and that the month of Ramadan is about forgiveness, reconciliation, and what he called a month in which hearts change.

I spoke to several people after court. Some said they just didn't believe it. It was too little too late. Others accepted the fact that perhaps he did feel sorry -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And tell us, Deb, about that incident that happened outside the courtroom there, a man who pulled up in a car without a license plate. And, inside, authorities found a meat cleaver. We see him being walked away right now. What happened?


FEYERICK: Yes, it was really interesting, because this happened during the lunch break.

A number of the victims had gone to eat in the cafeteria. And so there was sort of -- everybody spilled out of the courtroom and the courthouse. And there was a lot of police activity. They had approached a man who, ironically and strikingly, looked a lot like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

And he was in handcuffs. When they searched his car, they found that there was a meat clever inside. Investigators from the JTTF did question him. They have so far ruled out any nexus to terrorism. But it was a little bit frightening. They brought the canine dogs to sniff to make sure that there were no explosives. And then they took this man away, so some frightening moments, because there was so much drama inside that court with these brave survivors telling the court how this marathon bombing changed their lives, some of them very defiant, telling Dzhokhar Tsarnaev exactly what they thought of him.

So, this particular incident raising the level of uncertainty just a little bit more. But for a lot of folks today, it is finally over -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick, thanks very much.

Let's get to the breaking news out of South Carolina right now, that Bible study class being held this hour at the same African- American church where nine people were gunned down exactly a week ago. The title of the lesson tonight, "The Power of Love."

We are watching the situation in Charleston and in the state capital of Columbia. It's a place of mourning tonight, raging controversy over the Confederate Flag as a symbol of racism, of hate.

CNN's Ryan Young is joining us now from Columbia with more on the very latest.

Ryan, tell us what is going on.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, talking about the power of love, when that caisson moved through the street, everyone stopped to watch it as it arrived here at the state capital, but people were talking about the flag behind me.

Of course, a lot of debate here. People want to see that flag taken down. And they were hoping that today would be that day.


YOUNG (voice-over): State Senator Clementa Pinckney's body arrived at the South Carolina Statehouse as hundreds of mourners lined the street to pay their respects to the slain law maker and Mother Emanuel reverend.

His body lying in state inside the capitol tonight, while, outside, a divisive symbol of the old South still flies on Statehouse grounds. Pinckney's casket passed under the Confederate Battle Flag, the same one embraced by gunman Dylann Roof who took Pinckney's life and those of eight other African-Americans just one week ago.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It's time to move the flag from the capitol grounds.

YOUNG: After Governor Nikki Haley's statement, South Carolina lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to open the debate to remove the flag from capital grounds once and for all.

But the vote to actually take down the flag has yet to occur. And by any measure, its passing is not a sure thing. Haley's office acknowledged in a statement that she -- quote -- "does not have the authority to remove the flag herself today or any day. And rather than violate the law, she will continue to work to change it."

As the debate over the future of the Confederate Flag overshadows the mourning in South Carolina, calls for taking down the flag are spreading across the South. Alabama's Republican governor today ordered the Confederate Flag to be removed from its state capital grounds, joining governors in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, who have also sought to diminish the presence of the controversial symbol.

Even in Boise, Idaho, Mississippi's state flag which prominently features the Confederate symbol was removed from a display of state flags at City Hall.

WILLIAM CHUMLEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: It stays there until the people of South Carolina say it should come down.

YOUNG: But in South Carolina, taking down the flag is expected to be an uphill battle, as some lawmakers are already trying to shift the focus of the debate.

CNN spoke to Republican Representative William Chumley on Tuesday.

CHUMLEY: These people sat in there and waited their turn to be shot. That's sad. Somebody in there with a means of self-defense could have stopped this and we would have had less funerals that we're having.

QUESTION: You're turning this into a gun debate? If those nine families asked you to take down the flag, would you do it?

CHUMLEY: You said guns. Why didn't somebody -- why didn't somebody just do something? Why -- you have got one skinny person shooting a gun, we need to do what we can.


YOUNG: Now, a local paper caught up with Representative Chumley to ask him about the comments he made to CNN. And he released a statement that said: "Please, let me be clear, the responsibility for the despicable murders in Charleston rests solely on the murderer. If any of my remarks suggested differently, I am deeply sorry." As we talked to the folks here in South Carolina, they said one

thing. They wanted to make sure people did not take away from the unity that everybody has been experiencing, the long lines that we saw here today in 100-degree heat showed a lot of people who are dedicated to moving forward as one state -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ryan Young in Columbia, South Carolina, for us, thank you.

Let's get some more now with Congressman Bennie Thompson. He's a Democrat of Mississippi. He's the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. He's also a leading figure in efforts to remove flags bearing the symbols of the Confederacy.


Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

I just want to get your quick reaction to what we heard from that South Carolina State Representative William Chumley when he uttered those word, these people. He's referring to those nine people who were in that Bible study session. He said, "These people sat in there and waited their turn to be shot."

He has since apologized, says he regrets those words. But it's pretty awful to have heard that, isn't it?

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D), MISSISSIPPI: Well, when I heard it, Wolf, I cringed.

I can't believe all of a sudden you are going to blame the victims. So, he should have taken it back. But in reality, he should have never said it.

BLITZER: Yes, he should have never said it. And I'm sure he regrets it deeply, because these people did not deserve, especially this week, when their families, and their loved ones, and their friends, the whole country in fact is mourning, we should not have had to hear that. But we did unfortunately.

The Alabama governor, Governor Bentley, as you know, he has ordered the four Confederate Flags on state grounds there to be removed today. What steps did you take today to remove? Because you -- you moved -- are considering at least proposing some legislation to remove symbols of the Confederacy right here in the nation's capital.

THOMPSON: Well, that's right, Wolf.

Today, I filed a privileged resolution, which calls for the removal of the Mississippi state flag from any public facility here on the House of Representatives side. What that means is within 48 hours, we will have some action by the House of Representatives either to table this resolution, to debate it and vote it, but it is an opportunity for members of the House of Representatives to be proactive in saying this kind of activity, these kind of symbols should not exist in a Democratic society in public facilities. Absolutely, they should be a part of history. But they should be

in museums, not on public display, as if we are proud of what they represent. We are not proud of what they represent. We are not trying to cover them up. But let's put them where they belong. I don't know if you know this, Wolf, but both the United States senators from the state of Mississippi now have publicly said we need to change the flag.

So if everybody is getting on board, the best way we can set the record straight is by getting our own backyard, so to speak, straight and then let the rest of the country do what they need to do.

BLITZER: I don't know if your legislation is going to succeed. And I am sure you don't know it either, although you would like it to succeed. We spoke yesterday, Congressman. I know you are the only African-American representative in the House and Senate from the state of Mississippi, even though 40 percent of the population of Mississippi is African-American.

You don't fly your own state flag outside your office on Capitol Hill because of its symbolism, because it has that symbol of the Confederacy. If your legislation were to pass, would all of your Mississippi colleagues, other representatives, the two senators, would they have to remove the state flag of Mississippi unless it is changed?

THOMPSON: Well, the good part about my resolution, it allows members from that state to fly the flag of the state. But what we are saying to the speaker, at those areas publicly viewed, the tunnel where we use the subway systems, the Rotunda, other public places that are not within the purview of that member, those flags are the ones that should be removed.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Congressman. I have a lot more questions to ask you on what is going on, not only in South Carolina, or your home state of Mississippi, but elsewhere around the country. We will take a quick break.

Much more with Congressman Bennie Thompson when we come back.



BLITZER: We are following the breaking news, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, there you see it, live pictures coming in, opening its doors to anyone tonight as it holds a Bible study class exactly one week after a racially motivated shooting massacre.

We are going to check in at the church. I assume security is very tight right now.

But I want to go back to Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson.

We're talking about the shooting. We're talking about the controversy across the South and elsewhere over flying the Confederate Battle Flag. There was a powerful moment, Congressman, only a few moments ago on the Senate floor. The South Carolina senator, Republican Tim Scott, he spoke really emotionally on the Senate floor about a conversation he had with the son of one of those church shooting victims.

Congressman, listen to what Senator Scott said, a powerful moment indeed.


SEN. TIM SCOTT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: God cares for his people. God still lives.

I was amazed, and then he said with great enthusiasm and energy, a sense of excitement, that this evil attack would lead to reconciliation, restoration, and unity in our nation. Those were powerful words.



BLITZER: I don't know if you could see him, Congressman, but he -- obviously a very emotional moment. He breaks down a bit, starts to cry, which is totally, totally, understandable, given the horrendous massacre that occurred exactly one week ago today, and that conversation he had with one of the victim's sons.

What is your reaction, Congressman, when you hear Senator Scott utter those powerful words and effectively break down as he did?

THOMPSON: Well, let me tell you, Senator Scott, like a lot of us, have been personally impacted by the events of last week in Charleston.

I think the families of many of the people that were killed and how in this time of trouble, they reacted. I personally don't know, if I had lost a loved one that close, Wolf, whether or not I could be that forgiving. So that is a powerful statement.

And I think in those powerful statements is an opportunity for policy-makers, for Americans in general to put behind those symbols of hatred, of bigotry, and accept the forgiveness that those families have demonstrated over the last seven days, eight days.

And so what we have to do, I think, as members of Congress, is demonstrate that We see this bad act occurring, we abhor it, and we are going to do something about it. Hopefully, we can remove some of the symbols that encourage people to do bad things, that people adopt in the name of doing bad things.

You know, the Ku Klux Klan utilized that same flag as a method of intimidating citizens in this country. So, let's take it away. Let's say we want nothing to do with it. And those businesses who said we are not going to sell those flags anymore, we are not going to sell this paraphernalia that says to people we support hatred, that is the positive that is coming from this.

So, I identify with the families. I absolutely want to just say they're the strongest people that I know. Here, your loved ones have not even been buried, and you have forgiven that individual who caused their death. That's a powerful statement.

BLITZER: It certainly is. It's an amazing statement.

And we are going to monitor what is going on there in Charleston right now. That prayer service is about to take place exactly one week after that massacre.

Congressman Bennie Thompson, thanks very much for joining us.

THOMPSON: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

We will have much more on the Confederate Flag controversy, what's going on. Is it taking attention away from the horrors of the shooting massacre and the lives of those nine victims?

And after gruesome beheadings by ISIS, President Obama is changing his policy on hostages and U.S. contacts with terrorists. Stand by.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news in Charleston, South Carolina.

[18:33:42] There you see live pictures of Mother Emanuel, the Emanuel AME Church. It's holding a Bible study this hour, this exactly one week after a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, shot and killed nine wonderful people in a similar -- similar Bible study class. And now there are reports Roof will face federal charges, as well.

Let's discuss what's going on with our CNN anchor Don Lemon. He's joining us; our CNN legal analyst, Sunny Hostin; and Jamelle Bouie, he's a staff writer for "Slate."

Don, Emanuel AME Church, this very hour, holding this Bible study, the first one since a week ago when these African-Americans were targeted at the church by this racist killer. What's the message that this sends, that they're going to have another Bible study class tonight, focusing in on the power of love?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: It's not just one message: it's messages that they're sending, really, all across the world.

I saw your interview with the congressman. And you know, you were playing the -- Tim Scott and it's just -- they are setting the tone. That's why Tim Scott is emotional. It's because of the deaths but also because of these families and the members of the church. They are setting the tone for the country. They are forgiving people. They're saying they Don't want any

discord. They're not preaching hate. They're preaching forgiveness, and they're preaching for people to love and to come together. It's a very powerful message that they're sending to the country that we all should heed.

[18:35:08] BLITZER: Absolutely. Sunny, "The New York Times" is reporting that the Justice Department here in Washington will likely file federal hate crime charges against this killer, Dylann Roof. Practically speaking, he's already going to face nine murder charges. First-degree murder carries the death sentence in South Carolina. What does this mean that he's also going to face federal charges, presumably involving hate crimes?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, I think there's no question that if this goes to trial in South Carolina on all of these murder charges -- this isn't a whodunit case. We know he did it. He confessed to it. There's no question, I think, that he will be found guilty.

But the larger issue is how do we treat these hate crimes? How do we treat these crimes of domestic terrorism? And I think that the Justice Department is sending out the message that this kind of crime is, indeed, a hate crime. And that is very important. While some people will say, Wolf, that it's symbolic, because he will likely be found guilty on the state level of murder, as he should. I do think it's very important that our federal government also takes him to task for the very serious crime, a hate crime, which is generally very difficult to prove, quite frankly, sometimes in some cases more difficult to prove intent than in a murder case.

But in this case, because we have the language that he used, because we have the manifesto, because we have the survivors' stories, I think it's imperative that you lay down the foundation for what a hate crime is and try that type of case, as well.

BLITZER: And that's why the attorney general and Justice Department want to go forward with this.

Jamelle, there was a moment today when the casket carrying the Reverend Pinckney was going through the Charleston area, Columbia, South Carolina -- there it is -- and he was going -- the casket was going right in front of that Confederate flag that's still flying there in front of the state capital on the grounds, because they haven't removed that Confederate flag. When you see that, what goes through your mind?

JAMELLE BOUIE, "SLATE" MAGAZINE: I think it emphasizes how important it is to take down that flag, right? That a man who was killed because of racism, a man who was killed by a white supremacist, his body shouldn't have to pass by a symbol of white supremacy and a symbol of that racism. And I think just that imagery really does emphasize how much it is vital for us to remove the flag, vital -- vital for the South Carolina legislature to agree to do that, and why it's important, I think, that state after state after state in the south is saying publicly that we're going to take down this flag. That it's -- we're far past the time to have done that.

BLITZER: Yes, Don, you want to weigh in on that?

LEMON: I completely agree. We keep arguing back and forth about should the flag come down, should it not? And, you know, as I've been saying on the network for the past couple of days, there's no argument. The flag should come down. People want to be proud of their southern heritage, they can do so. They can do so in the right -- on their own property. For whatever you want to be proud of.

But that flag is a symbol of hate and of slavery and of bigotry and of Jim Crow to a whole lot of people. And I think that, even if you want to be proud of your Southern heritage, you must respect that.

BLITZER: Yes. Final thought, Sunny, go ahead.

HOSTIN: Yes, I agree. I mean, a lot of people are saying, "Well, what difference does it make? If you don't change hearts taking down a flag will make no difference." And I disagree with that. I think it's a significant start.

And I do think that symbols matter, Wolf. You know I say this over and over again: words matter, symbols matter. And this symbol is a symbol of terrorism against African-Americans.

I recall being in North Carolina in the Outer Banks on the beach, and there was a truck with a huge Confederate flag. I will tell you I grabbed my children close to me, and I walked by very quickly. And it struck terror in my heart. And that was just last summer.

And so, I think, you know, you can't underestimate what that symbol does to people of African-American descent. And it should come down; it needs to come down. And I suspect that South Carolina is going to do the right thing.

BLITZER: Yes. I suspect you're right.

And I just want to point out, that Bible study class at Emanuel AME, Mother Emanuel it's called. There's a live picture. That Bible study class tonight is happening right now in the same room where that mass murder occurred exactly one week ago. Nine people murdered.

All right, guys, thank you very much. Don, by the way, will be back with much more later tonight, 10 p.m. Eastern for his program, "CNN TONIGHT." Don Lemon, Sunny Hostin, Jamelle Bouie, guys, thank you.

Just ahead...

BOUIE: ... Wolf.

BLITZER: ... Confederate flags come down at one state house. And now there's a new push to have them removed from a state flag. Stay with us for that.

Plus, American hostages. The White House today, the president of the United States, revealing how many U.S. citizens are being held abroad. The president announcing a new strategy.


[18:44:24] BLITZER: The White House now revealing that more than 30 Americans are being held hostage abroad. This comes as President Obama is ordering some major changes in U.S. hostage policy.

Let's go to the White House. Our correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is standing by. So Michelle, what did the president announce today?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, right. We heard some numbers we haven't heard before. The president said that more than 80 Americans since September 11 have been held hostage overseas. And more than half of them have returned home.

And then his adviser for counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco, said that currently, more than 30 are being held. The president's national security team said that includes people being held by criminal gangs and cartels. But they couldn't elaborate for security reasons.

[18:45:00] And the White House made a number of changes today to hostage policy. Mostly in the way it works to make it efficient, more integrated to share more information with families. But most strikingly, they made clear the U.S. government will not prosecute families for paying ransoms to terrorists, even though it is illegal, even though U.S. government policy states exactly the opposite and that has not changed.

Here's the president.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I firmly believe that the United States government paying ransom to terrorists risks endangering more Americans and funding the very terrorism that we are trying to stop. And so, I firmly believe that our policy ultimately puts fewer Americans at risk.


KOSINSKI: OK. Well, that raises lots of questions. Doesn't then allowing families to pay those ransoms put American lives at risk? Doesn't it just perpetuate exactly the problem you are trying to stop, and send the message that ransoms might work?

Well, the White House answered this way. They said there is no doubt that ransoms fuel terrorism, but at the same time, they're going to stand by the families and help them. Lisa Monaco said in the past, "We did not do right by these families", something the president says he found totally unacceptable -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Michelle, thank you, Michelle Kosinski at the White House. Let's get some analysis from former CIA counterterrorism official, CNN counterterrorism Phillip Mudd, and former FBI assistant director and our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes.

What do you think? Is this going to encourage more Americans being taken hostage if they now know families are authorized to pay ransom?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, the problem, Wolf, is the families could always pay ransom. I think this information that got out that they would be persecuted came from somebody at the White House or the State Department.

But I can tell you in my almost 30 years in the FBI, the FBI left that to the family, if they wanted to pay the ransom, whether it was organized crime, kidnappings for hire, whatever it may be, and including terrorists, that could be paid. The family, if they can raise the $15 million, $30 million, $50 million, whatever they ask for, that's always been a family decision without threat that they would be prosecuted by the Department of Justice.

BLITZER: Because, Philip, you heard the criticism, though, that by making this announcement, the president is in effect telling terrorists, you know what, you want to make money, go ahead and kidnap Americans because their families not the U.S. government will be able to pay that ransom.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, the easy answer here, Wolf, is, yes, this will fuel terrorism. I'm not sure the easy answer is the right answer.

As the White House said, we have had dozens of people taken since 9/11. There are 30-plus out there now. We had Americans taken by Hezbollah in the 1980s. This is not going to suggest to terrorists that this is a new game out there. They have already been making money off this. And I don't think this is a game changer, as Tom said, for Washington or for terrorists.

BLITZER: And they also, the president announced, they're creating what's called a hostage recovery fusion cell to better coordinate all of this. What do you make of that?

FUENTES: Well, I think that's more bureaucracy that we don't need. We've already had operations. The FBI opens a case on every individual kidnapped overseas or any other serious harm to an American. There has actually been more hostages taken in Mexico than in the Middle East in the last ten years.

I was involved in many of the cases in the program that tracks those cases to try to get the hostages back. Now, some cases, the families paid ransom got the member back. Some cases, they paid ransom and their family member was killed anyway by the cartels down there. So, this activity is going on all over the world, in the Philippines, in Asia, in Africa, in Europe and the Middle East.

BLITZER: With some of the criminal groups.

But as far as ISIS, Philip, is concerned, we know some European countries, not just private citizens, the governments, they're willing to pay for their citizens to be freed. And ISIS is willing to play that game, they free them in exchange for a few million dollars.

MUDD: That's right. And, by the way, this is going to raise bigger questions than whether we way. The Europeans, as you say, in some of the East Asians are already paying. Think about some of the follow-on questions, for example. What if a poor family can't pay, and a rich family can? What if the Red Cross says we'll help you validate who is going to get the money? What if you have to go out and say we want to stop bombing for three days?

A lot of questions are going to come out after this.

BLITZER: All right. Phil Mudd, Tom Fuentes, guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead, breaking news, a wildfire burning out of control right now dangerously near homes. There you are looking at pictures coming in. We'll update you on that and all the day's other news when we come back.


[18:54:02] BLITZER: There is breaking news in California. Look at these pictures.

There's a wildfire burning dangerously close to some homes northwest of Los Angeles. The three-alarm brush fire is just east of Interstate 5 in Valencia. It's burned about 85 acres. About 500 homes already have been evacuated. Officials say one injury has been reported, but they don't know how serious.

We'll continue to watch this wildfire.

Political news we're watching, the Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is now the 13th Republican to join the race for the White House. He announced his candidacy online and at a rally just a little while ago.

Let's dig deeper on what's going on. Joining us, our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, our senior political reporter Nia- Malika Henderson and our senior Washington correspondent JEFF Zeleny.

The 13th Republican, Gloria. In the national polls, he's barely -- he's barely right now at 1 percent in those national polls.


BLITZER: Rounding up, he's about 0.8 percent right now.

BORGER: Right.

[18:55:01] BLITZER: But he's obviously an ambitious guy.

BORGER: Yes, he is. If you look at all these candidates we're getting now, the question is why not at this point. He understands that he's not in the top tier and he may never get there. But if you look around at the field of candidates, he's been a

governor of a state. He's had some successes there. He's had some failures, the budget deficit, for example, is one of them. But if you look at the field and they think Hillary Clinton is beatable, why not get in?

BLITZER: I've known him for a long time. He's a very, very smart guy.

Jeff, he did make one comment that's generating a little bit of buzz out there. Let me play the clip.


GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R-LA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In case it's not clear by now, I am running for president without permission from headquarters in Washington, D.C.


But rest assured, I am tanned, rested and ready for this fight.


BLITZER: He smiled when he said that. Go ahead.


He's saying he's a fresh face. He's saying he brings something new to this Republican Party. He was the first Indian-American U.S. governor of a state. He would be the first Indian-American president. He is pointing out his diversity there. And his age, he's 44 years old, two weeks younger than Marco Rubio.

So, he's saying he's a fresh face for this party, a party that is in need of some rehabbing and reaching out to some different demographics. But he also served in the U.S. House of Representative representatives. He was a health and human services secretary in Louisiana. This is one smart, smart guy.


BLITZER: He was a Rhodes Scholar, too.

BORGER: He's a wonk.

BLITZER: So, obviously he's a very intelligent guy. He's only 44 years old right now.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right. And I think like Gloria said, what else has he got to do at this point in terms of his political career. He may as well do this. If Pataki can get in this race, then you might as well get in if you're Bobby Jindal as well.

I do think, you know, his record is going to be scrutinized. He talked about charter schools in that speech, for instance, the charter schools in New Orleans aren't really doing that well. You mentioned those budget issues.

And the field is just so crowded. He gave his immigrant story, I think, in that speech. Rubio also has a similar story. He wants to reach out to evangelicals. Ted Cruz is probably a better deliverer of that message.

BLITZER: He's got a powerful story. A son of immigrants from India came to Louisiana and he's done obviously very well. He took a little jab at Jeb Bush but nothing like Donald Trump does, Gloria.

I want to play for you a little clip of Donald Trump point out that he's second, according to the Suffolk University poll in New Hampshire right now, just behind Jeb Bush.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've been working, I'm all over the place. I did get that great poll today in New Hampshire. I can't believe Bush is in first place. You know, some people are thrilled. I'm not thrilled because how could Bush be in first place? This guy can't negotiate his way out of a paper bag.


BLITZER: You know, he's really going after Jeb Bush, obviously. Is he going to cause Jeb Bush some grief, though?

BORGER: Well, it's a way for him to get more attention. He attacks Jeb Bush. He's trying to goad Jeb Bush into responding to his attacks. And I guess what Donald Trump is trying to say is that he's a real estate negotiator, so, therefore, he could negotiate with Iran or not negotiate with Iran because he doesn't want to.

But, you know, it's just kind of throwing insults out there to say pay attention to me, pay attention to me, let me continue to rise in those polls, so I can be in the debate.

BLITZER: He says he can negotiate with China. He points out a lot of Chinese in his condominiums, in his buildings. But go ahead.

ZELENY: Right, a slightly different matter, though. He's definitely proved himself in the real estate world.

Look, I think that this works now but there's a growing number of Republicans out there who are worried about what kind of damage he can inflict on the party. Republicans want to win this time more than anything else. They have been out of the White House for eight years so I think they'll tolerate it for now. We'll see how long they sort of handle this.

He's not living by the 11th commandment Ronald Reagan used to say, be nice to your fellow Republicans.

BLITZER: It's lively to have him in this race, though. HENDERSON: It is. I mean, he's providing us lots to talk about,

lots of television clips and that's what his skill is. I mean, he's a marketer. He understands his brand. And I think we're going to see a lot of him and it looks like he'll be in those debates, too.

BORGER: But, you know, as Jeff was saying, running for president is a little bit different from "Celebrity Apprentice" and a reality TV show.

And the question is, how long and well does he wear with the American public? Because he's basically negative. He's negative about President Obama. Of course they all are. Negative about Hillary Clinton, they all are. But negative about his fellow Republicans.

And the question is, in a primary, how does that play, how does that kind of criticism he can't negotiate his way out of a paper bag play in the long run?

BLITZER: I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more of that kind of rhetoric in the days, weeks and months to come.

Guys, thanks very much. We have a new poll, by the way, coming out tomorrow 5:00 p.m. Eastern on the race for the White House. Our viewers will be interested in that.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.