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Russian, Iran Back Syrian Troops in Major Offensive; CIA, Homeland Security Chiefs Allegedly Hacked; Interview With Rep. Adam Schiff of California; Sanders Rising in Polls, Generating Buzz; Source: Biden, Top Political Advisors Meet Tonight. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 19, 2015 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:19] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, Putin's big play. Russian forces backing thousands of Iranian Syrian troops for a major offensive. We have dramatic new video of the terrified civilians caught in the crossfire. Can they escape this deadly battle? And will the U.S. be pulled into the fight?

Stolen intel. The FBI and Secret Service now investigating reports that the heads of the CIA and the Homeland Security Department had their private e-mail accounts hacked. Did they contain sensitive information including names and personal data of CIA operatives that might be released? I'll ask the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Final countdown, the vice president, Joe Biden, meeting with his political advisers tonight as the clock ticks towards an announcement of a possible presidential bid. Speculation is swirling. Will Biden upend the Democratic race for the White House?

And it's Bernie, man. The 74-year-old democratic socialist is suddenly the cool candidate, spoofed on "Saturday Night Live" and enjoying inside jokes with Ellen DeGeneres. And now a new poll shows him narrowing the gap with Hillary Clinton. How big of a threat is he to the Democratic presidential frontrunner?

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

We're following the massive offensive unfolding right now against a major Syrian city, Aleppo, a key stronghold for U.S.-backed rebels and anti-regime groups.

Thousands of Syrian and Iranian troops, they're now targeting those rebels on the ground, backed by Russian warplanes in the air. It's unleashing a new wave of human suffering, with terrified civilians caught in the increasingly deadly crossfire.

We're also following disturbing new reports of private e-mail accounts belonging to the CIA director and the homeland security secretary being hacked. The FBI and Secret Service now investigating. CNN has been in communication with the person claiming responsibility for the online attack. We're covering that.

Much more this hour with our guests, including Congressman Adam Schiff. He's the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and expert analysts they're also standing by.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has more now on that major offensive in Syria that's under way, involving Russian forces, Iranian troops.

Barbara, all of this in support of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al- Assad. And you're getting breaking news on U.S. and Russian engagement in Syria. What are you hearing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good evening, Wolf.

U.S. pilots we now know are being privately warned by their commanders when they fly over Syria, "Do not react when the Russians come close." And the Russian airplanes are coming closer, much closer. We now know in two recent incidents the Russians have flew once within 500 feet of U.S. fighter jets. And on another instance within 1,500 feet of U.S. fighter jets. The U.S. commanders want pilots to stay calm, go about their business, not react to any goading by the Russians.

All of this, Wolf, just one aspect of what the U.S. military is dealing with.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Syrian army units backed by Iranian ground troops and Russian jets in full assault south of Aleppo, a city rebels and the regime have fought over for months. Russia says dozens of targets have been hit.

IGOR KONASHENKOV, RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (through translator): Thirty-two firing positions in the mountainous and wooded areas, nine fortified firing positions of criminal groups and the facilities, producing missiles; and missile launchers have all been destroyed.

STARR: Questions in the U.S. about the effectiveness of Russia's attack.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: One would have thought, with the amount of strikes Russia has conducted, that they would have blown some holes through, allowed Syrian forces to regain some ground.

STARR: Russia's Aleppo offensive just part of Moscow's campaign to help the Syrian regime get back several key strongholds to ensure the defense of Damascus, according to U.S. officials.

In the Aleppo area, Assad has some 6,000 troops on the ground, Iran 2,000 troops. Double just a week ago.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Everybody including the Russians and the Iranians have all said there is no military solution. So we need to get about the effort of finding a political solution.

STARR: But no indication of a political solution any time soon. [17:05:01] Russian jets are pounding near this air base to the east

where Syrian regime forces are surrounded by ISIS. U.S. warplanes also continue targeting.

West of Aleppo, a U.S. drone struck and killed Sanafi al-Nasr, the highest ranking leader of al Qaeda operatives known as the Khorasan Group. The U.S. believes he was involved in recruiting financing and planning attacks against the U.S. He is the fifth senior leader in the group killed in the last four months, according to the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, what about that air space agreement between the U.S. and Russia so everybody can fly but stay safe? U.S. officials say they hope there will be a signed agreement and it will come out and be made public to some extent by tomorrow. But don't expect a lot of details. Russia very much wants the agreement.

The U.S. also sitting down to talk to Moscow about all of it in three separate sessions, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks very much.

All of this is only deepening the mystery of Aleppo's population. There's a lot of misery of Aleppo's population. There's a lot of misery over there, as well. The people there already traumatized by years of this bloody civil war. Many are trying to flee, only to find there's absolutely no place left to go.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is near the Syrian border.

Nick, you got some exclusive video of possible Russian airstrikes on Aleppo's southern side. What are you finding out?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, if that firefight begins, it will be shocking. The city already reduced to rubble with people living in that skeleton.

But it's already to the south of that city now in the countryside where people are being impacted. What seems to be Russian airstrikes here near a village called Talhadia (ph). We obtained this footage. It shows the impact, and it shows how the people of that town, having nowhere else to flee, have simply run into the fields around it, setting up tents around their vehicles. One family sleeping under mattresses, perhaps thinking that will make them safer somehow. Almost like their bedroom has been picked up and dumped in a farm field.

These are the least lucky ones here, Wolf. These are people who were unable to flee to Turkey or Europe, stuck in these areas now enduring relentless bombardments around them as potentially, say activists, tens of thousands are displaced by this onslaught by the regime and those allies to them, heading towards what was once the largest city of Syria, Aleppo, Wolf.

BLITZER: As this aerial of bombardment continues in the area, I take it now it's too late for these people to escape? Is that right?

WALSH: Well, it's tricky to get into Turkey. Along the border, it is heavily fortified by the Turkish military. Some still can get across, but yes, it's an extraordinarily dangerous route from the south of Aleppo, where so much of this violence is now around that city.

To its north you have many different competing militias. You have ISIS to the east. You have the regime advancing in some areas. And you see there in the faces, simply of the people who are trying to get away to safety there, real fear about what's happening them. They've endured, some of them, perhaps years of this conflict so far near Aleppo. The question is exactly where can they go now? Where is safe left inside Syria, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Nick Paton Walsh near the border over there. Thanks very much.

Let's talk about all of this with Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California. He's the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for coming in.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: You bet.

BLITZER: Is the U.S. going to be able to stop this assault on Aleppo by the Iranians, by the Russians, by the Syrian army of Bashar al- Assad?

SCHIFF: I don't think we can stop it. And unfortunately, I think it's going to have the effect of simply lengthening this horrible civil war in Syria. They may go in. They may recapture some of these cities, but they're not going to be able to hold them. Not unless the Iranians, the Lebanese and the Iraqi Shia plan to long-term occupy Syria. That will just foment war in this sectarian conflict and just prolong the war.

So it's a tragic step backward. You know, we had been seeing, perhaps, some light at the end of the tunnel, as Assad was weakening. There was increasing pressure to come to the table for a negotiated end, but this lifeline now by Hezbollah, by the Russians and Iranians, is merely going to prolong the agony for the Syrian people.

BLITZER: And let's not forget what 200,000 or 300,000 people have already been killed in this four-year civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been injured, and millions have been made homeless. Refugees internally, externally, and that's presumably, only going to continue.

SCHIFF: It is going to continue. And it's terrible. We haven't seen a refugee crisis like this since the end of World War II. It is the humanitarian catastrophe of our time.

BLITZER: So is the U.S. leaving these people high and dry?

SCHIFF: No, we're not. And in fact, I think we are increasing our support for the moderate opposition. You can certainly count on the fact that the gulf nations are going to do the same. That's what we see in this region when you have a push here now by the

Russians and Iranians. You're going to see an equal and opposite reaction, particularly by the gulf nations.

But yes, we're upping our support, as well, because ultimately, the only way to bring this conflict to an end is to phase Assad out. As long as he is there, there is going to be oxygen for this insurgency; and this civil war's going to drag on.

[17:10:13] BLITZER: I assume you agree with other U.S. analysts that these Russian airstrikes are primarily going after these U.S.-backed rebels who oppose Bashar al-Assad's regime.

SCHIFF: They're going after moderate rebels that we support. They are going after the al Qaeda franchise, as well. They are not going after ISIS. That is really not their primary motivation. It's all about propping up the regime.

At some point they may come into conflict with ISIS, but that is clearly their lowest priority.

BLITZER: Is there anything the U.S. can do to stop that?

SCHIFF: There's nothing we can do. And we're not going to go to war with Russia. But I think we can continue to support the moderate opposition. That will have the effect of raising the cost to the Iranians and to the Russians.

And we'll see, you know, whether that causes the Russians to consider, does this continue to make sense? They're going to run into the same problems that we have in trying to accomplish this all through the air. They may take ground. They're not going to be able to hold it.

BLITZER: But they do have the support of the regular Syrian military, which is part of the Bashar al-Assad regime. They have support of the Iranian troops. Barbara Starr now reporting 2,000 Iranian troops have gone into Syria. There are a lot of Hezbollah fighters who are working with the Iranians who are supporting the regime, as well. So this Russian-organized alliance is pretty formidable.

SCHIFF: It is formidable, but that alliance nonetheless is going to be taking increasing casualties over time. And we'll have to see how many casualties over what period is Iran willing to endure, is Lebanon willing to endure through Hezbollah and are the Russians willing to endure.

BLITZER: Can you confirm that there are 2,000 Iranian troops inside Syria right now?

SCHIFF: I can't confirm the numbers. I think unquestionably there are Iranians in Syria helping to direct operations, helping to be a part of ground forces. But in terms of numbers that's not something I can...

BLITZER: One of Iran's -- the top military commander over there, Major General Qassem Soleimani, he is reportedly in Syria right now. This is an Iranian, as you well know, who's got a lot of American blood on his hands, when he was organizing fighters inside Iraq to go after U.S. troops there. What can you tell us about his involvement, direct involvement in Syria?

SCHIFF: Well, it's been very interesting over the last several years as he has raised his public profile. This was somebody who operated mostly in the shadows, did not want much of a public face. And now we see him cropping up everywhere, proud of his involvement. The Iraqis are proud to showcase him. The Iranians, as well. This is obviously a very high priority for Iran. But it's a very high-risk endeavor for them, too, as they're about to find out.

BLITZER: All right. Congressman, stand by. We have more to talk about, including these new reports that the director of the CIA, the secretary of homeland security, had their private e-mail accounts hacked. We're going to get into that and much more when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:17:50] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congressman Schiff of California, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. We want to talk to him about the investigation into alleged hacking of private e-mail accounts belonging to the heads of the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security.

Let's go to our justice reporter, Evan Perez. He's got details.

Evan, CNN I understand now has communicated online with this person claiming to be behind the hacking?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. This is -- we haven't verified who this person is. This is the person purporting to be behind these hacks. And really, you know, we're talking about very sensitive information. Not necessarily classified information, I'm told, by U.S. officials, but it is being taken very seriously.

We have a couple of tweets from this alleged hacker. One of them says, as promised, the head of CIA's e-mail contact list is what he says he's going to post. In a second tweet he says, "Mayday, mayday, Jeh Johnson or @DHS.gov Comcast account has been compromised yet again by me, oh no."

And this is his way of goading and really boasting about the information that he claims he's able to access, Wolf.

We also have a statement that we got from the hacker. One of our producers here in Washington was communicating with him this afternoon. He says, "It was really because the government are killing innocent people. They also fund Israel for killing innocent people. It wasn't so much of a big deal for Jeh, but John had a lot of things in his e-mail he didn't want sharing."

Wolf, the types of things that allegedly he got his hands are the SF- 86 of John Brennan, the CIA director. This is information he would have filled out in order to get his top-secret government security clearance. This is very sensitive stuff. Again, not classified, but it's very embarrassing for this to have happened.

BLITZER: So what are they actually saying, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA about this?

PEREZ: Well, they're not verifying yet what exactly was taken, but we do have a statement from the CIA that says, "We are aware of the reports that have surfaced on social media and have referred the matter to the appropriate authorities."

DHS issued a similar statement, Wolf. We've had the FBI and Secret Service investigating. And just a little while ago, Twitter suspended the account of this alleged hacker. So it appears that law enforcement is already trying to put a stop to this.

[17:20:06] BLITZER: How sophisticated was this hack?

PEREZ: Wasn't terribly sophisticated. He even tells our producer that this is not something that, you know, required a lot of skill. It was more trickery, really, of these companies, that it requires them to be able to reset the passwords of these accounts. It's something that is the bane, really, of a lot of media companies, social media companies, because this is a very common way in which people take over people's Apple iCloud accounts or their Twitter accounts. It's very common, Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Congressman Schiff is still with us.

Congressman, this is pretty awkward, to say the least, very embarrassing if, in fact, the director of the CIA, the secretary of homeland security, their private e-mail accounts were hacked by this individual.

SCHIFF: Yes. And it's more than embarrassing. It's very much, I think, a risk for these individuals to have their private accounts hacked into. Even if it's not classified information, they still may have personal things that they don't want out in the public ethosphere. So it's of grave concern.

I think it highlights, Wolf, that none of us are really safe in this environment. If you're a major American company, and you haven't been hacked yet, you have; you just don't know it yet. And I think all of our personal e-mail is really vulnerable to this kind of hacking. So it's a grave risk.

BLITZER: So should people who have sensitive information, whether the legislative branch like you or the executive branch, no longer have any private Gmail or AOL or Yahoo or any kind of accounts right now?

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I think as a practical matter we have to. We have personal lives that we want to continue leading. But, you know, we probably ought to live by the maxim, which is easier said than done, which is don't put anything in an e-mail you don't want seen printed on the front page of the local paper. It's a good rule of thumb, because at the end of the day none of this can be guaranteed to remain private.

BLITZER: I assume you have a government account, but you also have a private account. Is that right?

SCHIFF: Sure.

BLITZER: Are you worried that your private account -- there have been government accounts that have been hacked into, as well, including State Department accounts, OMB accounts. There have been government accounts that have been hacked.

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I assume, frankly, that any account, public or private, that I use, if somebody wants to get in bad enough, they're going to get in.

BLITZER: Look ahead to Thursday. Hillary Clinton's going to be testifying for about eight hours, we're told, before the select committee on Benghazi. You're a member that committee. You have no confidence in what Trey Gowdy, the chairman, is doing now, I understand.

SCHIFF: I think the committee has been thoroughly discredited, not just by the comments of Kevin McCarthy or Richard Hanna or by the statements of the GOP whistleblower, who was part of their own staff; but frankly, by the committee's own actions.

We had a dozen hearings to have this year that the majority said we'd have with people like the defense chief and the head of the joint chiefs and the head of the CIA at the time of Benghazi, canceled all of them, every single one, except Hillary Clinton.

You look at the press they put out, 25 press releases since March, 20 of them, all about Clinton and the State Department. Only five about anything else.

You look at the witnesses they're interviewing and look at the witness interviews of the chairman chooses to attend for all the importance that he puts on these witness interviews. He's only gone to about ten out of the 50. And of those ten, there's a heavy focus on those staff surrounding Hillary Clinton. So the actions of the committee are just very telling.

BLITZER: So your responsibility, your job on Thursday as a Democratic minority member of this committee will be what?

SCHIFF: Well, look, try to see if there's something productive that can be gained from this testimony. We'll certainly want to ask the secretary about the security at embassies, what we can learn from the accountability review board, how those recommendations have been put into effect.

But she's testified twice before Congress. She's not presently in charge of security at our facilities. So there's limits to what she can -- what she can productively add.

Or also I think we're going to play a vital role in making sure she gets a chance to ask the questions and that when Republican members, if they selectively choose quotes out of context or lines from documents without giving the rest of the story in those documents that the secretary's given a chance to read the full document.

BLITZER: Very quickly, you said Trey Gowdy had not attended sensitive meetings that you think he should have attended?

SCHIFF: Actually, I think in the chairman's defense of these 50 witnesses that they keep trumpeting, many of them are completely duplicative of other witnesses. Some are I.T. people or the Clinton press people. They don't add that much value to the investigation. Many of them were already interviewed by the accountability review board.

So frankly, I can see why the chairman hasn't gone to the vast majority of these witness interviews. I haven't either. Most of the members haven't. But to trumpet their importance and then not attend, I think there's a certain discrediting quality to that.

[17:25:06] BLITZER: We'll have extensive live coverage on Thursday of these eight hours or so. We'll see how long it goes of these hearings. We'll watch very closely. Thanks very much, Adam Schiff, Democrat of California.

Coming up, new hints about Joe Biden's intentions as the vice president prepares to meet with his top political advisers. Will he join the race for president?

Plus, our new CNN poll shows presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he's gaining some ground, even as he grabs the attention of "Saturday Night Live."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm the only candidate up here who's not a billionaire. I don't have a super PAC. I don't even have a backpack. I carry my stuff around loose in my arms, like a (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you know, between classes. I own one pair of underwear. That's it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Brand-new, CNN poll shows senator Bernie Sanders gaining some ground even though nearly two-thirds of the people who watched last week's Democratic presidential debate say Hillary Clinton did the best job.

A new CNN/ORC poll taken after the debate shows 45 percent of Democrats want Clinton to be the nominee. Sanders is at 29 percent. That's up five points since the debate, with Vice President Joe Biden at 18 percent right now.

But check out what the polls were saying at this point eight years ago. In October 2007, Clinton had 50 percent to then-Senator Barack Obama's 21 percent. Sanders also is grabbing people's attention generating plenty of positive buzz out there.

Let's bring in our national correspondent Sunlen Serfaty. She's covering Senator Sanders' campaign. What's the latest, Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, even though Bernie Sanders is well behind Clinton in this new poll, it's clear he is still feeling very good. He's really having a big pop culture moment right now, where the 74-year-old senator with a unique style all his own is suddenly coming off and being seen as hip.

And the Sanders campaign is not shying away from this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): He's not the textbook definition of cool.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So that we have a government that works for all of us and not just a handful of billionaires.

SERFATY: With a personal style more disheveled than polished, a demeanor more cantankerous than smooth, for the moment, Sanders has become a pop culture sensation.

Babies are dressing like him. Adults for Halloween are, too. Now, he's getting the equivalent of campaign gold, "Saturday Night Live" treatment.

LARRY DAVID, COMEDIAN: We're doomed!

SERFATY: Larry David nailing his impersonation.

DAVID: I own one pair of underwear. That's it. Some of these billionaires, they got three, four pairs. And I have to put my clothes on the radiator. So who do you want as president? One of these Washington insiders or a guy who has one pair of clean underwear that he dries on a radiator?

SERFATY: Which the real Bernie Sanders has not only been embracing but playing it up in event after event on the campaign trail.

SANDERS: Yes, last week I bought my second pair of underwear. That's a joke. I have an ample supply of underwear.

My name is Larry David, and Bernie asked me to do this.

SERFATY: And while Sanders says he wants voters to connect with him on his ideas, not his style.

KATE MCKINNON, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": It's cool.

SERFATY: His chief opponent is no stranger to the "SNL" treatment.

MCKINNON: No.

SERFATY (on camera): That certainly, though, does help if people are paying more attention.

SANDERS: I suppose it does.

SERFATY: You're OK with that?

SANDERS: I won't -- I don't have much choice about it.

SERFATY (voice-over): The campaign seems eager to ride the pop culture wave they've caught, joking they could see a Larry David bump in the polls. Dancing on "Ellen" and keeping up self-deprecating quips about his hair.

SANDERS: I think it's my hair that attracts the American people. Neat, well groomed. Your typical politician.

SERFATY: A not-so-subtle sign that they're trying to turn this moment into momentum.

SANDERS: I freely concede, you know, we started off this campaign, I was at 3 percent in the polls. And kind of people thought I was a fringe candidate. I think we've made a lot of progress in the last five months, and I think we've got a real shot to win this.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And that's where the real benefit of this moment could be from Sanders, from going from what appears to be a fringe candidate, in his words, to more of a mainstream candidate as he's introduced to a wider group of voters.

But key, this is the challenge for the Sanders campaign here, Wolf, going forward to turn this attention and this moment and translate that into support, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thanks very much.

With us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, our chief political correspondent Dana Bash; our CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza -- he's the Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine; and our senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson.

Guys, I want to talk about Bernie Sanders and a whole lot more. We've got to take a quick break. We'll have that conversation when we come back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:39:16] BLITZER: We're seeing new signs right now that the vice president, Joe Biden, may be getting ready to join the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's been working his sources for us. What are you learning?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Senior Democratic officials continue to believe that some sort of announcement from Vice President Biden could come this week, but those expectations have been dashed before. And some leaders in his own party believe Biden has waited too long to get in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Democratic sources tell CNN Vice President Joe Biden is believed to be on the verge of making his move.

BIDEN: I'm the late Joe Biden.

ACOSTA: Every time Biden steps up to the microphone, all of Washington is hanging on his every word.

BIDEN: I've been in a meeting with the president on another matter for the last two hours.

[18:40:03] ACOSTA: The latest tea leaves: Biden said to be meeting with advisers tonight as his team is setting up interviews with potential campaign staffers.

Biden has also personally spoken with the powerful president of the International Firefighters Union, Harold Shaitberger. A source familiar with the phone call said Biden told Shaitberger Friday that his decision is imminent. The two talked strategy, and Biden sounded like he's running.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: It is getting late in the fall, and I do think we'll get an answer relatively soon.

ACOSTA: But Biden has defied the expectations for a decision before. First it was the end of summer; then the first week of October and the first Democratic debate on CNN.

What's the hold up? Delaware Democratic senator says Biden is still grieving the loss of his son, Beau, who urged his father to run.

COONS: Well, I think the vice president is deeply torn. He is trying to honor the wishes that Beau expressed to him in his last days. But I also think, as a father myself, that the depths of grief that I've heard from him and his family are just -- are stunning.

ACOSTA: Biden once again spoke about Beau Saturday night.

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As my son Beau used to say, just keep moving forward.

ACOSTA: A new CNN/ORC poll finds Biden would trail Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

And Democrats seem to be losing patience. Less than half say Biden should run. Down from August.

But speculation is running rampant. Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Brendan Boyle tweeted his own source says Biden will run. Boyle tells CNN if he didn't run, it would be pulling back from a decision that's already been made. The White House is fielding questions on the matter every day.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I know there's plenty of speculation about the urgency of the political calendar, that we are, as the weather outside can attest, that we are now into the fall. And that's when more of the country's attention and more of the debate focuses on the -- who the next president might be. But ultimately, you know, this will be a decision for Vice President Biden to make.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: But sources close to the vice president say he has not made a formal decision yet. Several Democratic sources say Biden must make that decision by this weekend when the party holds a dinner for the candidates out in Iowa.

The vice president also has to dance around Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Benghazi committee this week. Any sign that Biden is trying to capitalize that would backfire, Wolf.

But talking to Democratic sources today, there are several in this town who are very, very confident that Vice President Biden is going to make that decision this week. And there is a very good feeling among those sources that he is going to run, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see soon enough. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Let's bring back our panel. CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson; our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash; and our CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza of "New Yorker" magazine.

Dana, I know you're hearing that some of Biden's associates are actually already interviewing people for potential staff positions on a campaign?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I spoke to a source who is familiar with these discussions who says just that. That there are calls, e-mails going out to not only, you know, kind of put feelers out there for people who would want to do it, but actually set up interviews with potential staffers to come in and talk, either by phone or in person. And this -- you know, look, this could be an indication that this is just another layer and level of the team around Biden, making sure that he is prepared in case he runs.

However, just like Jim is hearing, I have been hearing that, if he doesn't run, that would be more of a surprise than if he does. That all indications are internally that all systems are go. It's just a question of when he announces.

But, you know, we've seen people change their mind at the last minute, including Joe Biden in the past.

BLITZER: That's right. We'll see what he does. Nia, I know that he's got the approval of his family. Dr. Jill Biden,

his wife, says if he wants to run it's OK with him [SIC]. So what's the hold up right now?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I think that's the question that's on everybody's mind. And we don't know, because we're not Joe Biden.

I do know that he's got to have some time to figure out what this announcement would look like. Probably his best day would be on that announcement day, his best day in terms of fundraising, his best day in terms of buzz. So there has to be some planning that goes into that and some thought where does he go, what does he say in that announcement speech.

But there is, I think, this conversation about Joe Biden began August 1 with that Maureen Dowd column. So there has been almost three months of a decision-making process and sort of putting out feelers.

So I think for some people, even people who I've talked to in South Carolina who might join his team are saying, "Listen, he should have maybe done this two or three weeks ago." So there is some, I think, impatience that's bubbling around this decision.

BLITZER: You've heard some people who remember in the '80s Mario Cuomo, who was then the governor of New York, will he run, wouldn't he run? Literally at the last minute there was a plane getting ready to take him to announce he was running, and then he announced he wasn't running. Some are making the analogy to that.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's right. Have it on the Hudson. He was governor of New York. He had the plane waiting, decided not to run. Probably would have been a very strong candidate in that election. Of course, that was the election that Bill Clinton won.

And one of the reasons Clinton won was you didn't have a stronger -- you know, you didn't have a lot of great competition.

You know, looking back at Biden's previous races, if you look back to his original Senate race, when he was a young man, he became, I think, the second youngest member of the Senate when he was elected. Tough race. Everyone told him not to do it, you wouldn't win. Look at his '88 race. He flamed out pretty early in that race, but he went back to the Senate, built a pretty impressive career. 2008 he tried again. Now he did not do so well in that election, right? He got less than 1 percent in Iowa and left the race. But ended that election in 2008 as vice president of the United States.

So I think from the biden perspective all of us are saying we don't see the lane, we don't see the case for him against Hillary or at least that's what I've been saying for a while. I think Biden says, you know what, I've been down this route before. I've faced tough odds and I came out better than before. Why not try it again.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Can I say one thing? You mentioned Iowa. The other thing that I'm told to look for is there's a very, very big important dinner in Iowa this weekend, Saturday night, called the Jefferson Jackson dinner. It's a big Democratic state party event there. Joe Biden is not on the list. He's not asked to go officially at least publicly yet. But I'm told by sources that people who know his process would not be surprised if he ends up there. And that obviously would mean he's in.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm also told, Nia, he's going to announce whatever he's going to announce before Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Benghazi committee on Thursday so it doesn't look as if he's going to run, it doesn't look he's capitalizing on her legal problems.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It could be before. It could be after. I mean, people I talk to said it could be sort of a week from now or maybe even two weeks from now and that in the meantime there would be this sense that he would inevitably get in there. But it could be still some time. So I think there are a lot of people talking to different sources in the different states.

One thing I think that's also emerging is this idea, A, that Biden wants to do this and that he's wanted to do it for some time. But that even if he gets in, he sort of wins either way. If he wins, he wins. And he might even -- if Clinton wins he might get credit for sort of toughening up Clinton, making it a better race for Democrats. So that's one thing that I've heard as well.

LIZZA: He's milking it for everything.

BASH: Yes, this is true.

LIZZA: This is the period where you get the easiest coverage.

BASH: Yes.

LIZZA: It's just about yes or no, and he's really milking this.

BASH: But I think it's almost dry if you talk to a lot of people who like him, like enough.

HENDERSON: Yes. I think that's right. Yes.

LIZZA: Make a decision.

HENDERSON: Yes. Make a decision. Make an announcement.

BLITZER: It will be in the next couple of days or so. Thanks very much, guys.

You can watch Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, by the way, on "NEW DAY" tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government takes action amid the growing drone danger in a sharp increase in the number of close calls.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 800, 900 feet was our altitude. 100 feet below us was a drone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:52:06] BLITZER: The alarming number of close calls between drones and piloted aircraft has prompted the U.S. government to take action. Federal officials have announced they're creating a national drone registry.

Our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is working the story for us.

So, Rene, they are expected to see a lot more drones in the skies soon, so they want to be ready.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And there's really been a spike in the number of these close calls involving these drones. Today the federal government in a move that clearly shows that they are feeling a bit uneasy about this. They announced that they are creating that registry to help them track drones to their owners and the hope is that they'll have this registry in place before Christmas. That's when they are predicting more than a million drones will be sold.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): They've reached some of the most secure airspace in the United States including the White House and they've nearly collided with commercial planes, even medical choppers en route to emergencies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tower, Medivac H1, we almost got hit by a drone just to let you know up here.

MARSH: The LAPD arrested this man for nearly crashing his drone into a police chopper. In most cases, authorities get the drone but not the operator. Federal safety regulators hope that's about to change.

ANTHONY FOXX, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: We're going to require operators of drones to register their aircraft.

MARSH: The FAA hopes to force consumers to provide personal information when they buy a drone so it can be tracked back to the owner.

FOXX: I think many, if not most users will comply because there are penalties associated with using these devices in the national air space without complying with the registration requirement.

MARSH: The FAA says this year pilots report around 100 drone sightings every month. With nearly 1,000 drone sightings so far this year, the number of reports has nearly quadrupled since 2014 but the FAA says it's only penalized 20 rogue operators. JOERG LAMPRECHT, FOUNDER, DEDRONE: Registration is the first good

point of getting to know where the pilot is and who the pilot is, but surely it's not enough. It does not protect anything so that you need a little bit more because the bad guys suddenly will not certify the drones and not have them registered.

MARSH: The Department of Transportation hopes to have new rules in place in time for the holiday season.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Well, the idea is if authorities have the rogue drone, they can run a serial number against a national registry, which would help them track it back to the owner but the key question remains, what kind of personal information will consumers be asked to provide and how, just how will they enforce this?

BLITZER: We'll see what they do but it's obviously an important development.

Rene, thanks very much.

Coming up, a top Iranian general now spotted right near the battle field in western Syria as Iran and Russia increase their roles in that war and their cooperation.

[17:55:05] Plus Larry David as Bernie Sanders on "SNL." Is it a sign the 74-year-old Democratic socialist is a real player in the race for the White House?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY DAVID, ACTOR: Not a fan of the banks. They trample on the middle class. They control Washington, and why do they chain all their pens to the desk? Who's trying to steal a pen from a bank?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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BLITZER: Happening now, top spy targeted. An alleged hacker tells CNN he's broken into the private e-mail of a CIA director. He claims the Homeland Security chief's account also has been breached, and tonight we're learning about the motive behind the attack and the threat to go public with stolen secrets.