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THE SITUATION ROOM
Biden Announces He Won't Run for President; Stolen E-mails from CIA Director Published on WikiLeaks; Assad Makes Surprise Visit to Moscow; Interview with Representative Michael McCaul; Russian Strikes on Syrian Rebels Caught on Video. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired October 21, 2015 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:18] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Bowing out. The vice president, Joe Biden suddenly announcing he will not run for president in a speech fiercely defending the Obama legacy and Democratic principles and vowing he will not be silent as the White House race continues. What impact will he have on the 2016 contest?
Still punching. Biden sends a pointed warning to Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, once again rebuking her portrayal of Republicans as enemies. Will Biden be Clinton's best ally or biggest headache of the campaign? I'll ask Clinton's communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
National security breach. WikiLeaks now says it's publishing e-mails belonging to CIA director John Brennan, stolen in a stunning cyber- attack of his personal account. Do they contain sensitive information and data about Brennan?
And front-line stunning exclusive video of Syrian rebels dodging Russian bombs as the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, leaves his country on his first wartime trip abroad.
A surprise visit to Moscow. And the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. After a sudden military buildup in Syria, is Putin now moving into Iraq?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following two major breaking news stories this hour. The sudden announcement by Vice President Joe Biden that he will not seek the Democratic nomination for president.
Biden's decision ends months of intensive speculation, but in his speech he sounded like a candidate. And he made it clear he still intends to play a role in the campaign, saying, and I'm quoting him now, "I will not be silent."
The other breaking story we're following, the CIA director, John Brennan's, personal e-mails now allegedly in the hands of WikiLeaks, which claims it's publishing information that was obtained by a young hacker.
We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our correspondents and our guests, including the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Congressman Mike McCaul, and the communications director for Hillary for America, Jennifer Palmieri.
Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, you were there for Biden's announcement.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. A senior administration official says Vice President Joe Biden made this decision last night and that there was no changing his mind back and forth, that he made one call and one alone.
The decision was based on his assessment that he had simply run out of time to raise the money and do the retail campaigning he needed to do to win the Democratic nomination.
ACOSTA (voice-over): On this day it was the vice president's Rose Garden and Joe Biden's announcement to make.
JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you for lending me the Rose Garden for a minute.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a pretty nice place.
ACOSTA: Surrounded by his wife, Jill, President Obama and senior White House officials who all hurried outside for the breaking news, Biden revealed there will be no campaign for president. He had missed his window.
BIDEN: I've concluded it has closed. I know from previous experience that there's no timetable for this process. The process doesn't respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.
ACOSTA: That process, of course, is the intense grieving Biden and his family have endured for months, ever since his son Beau succumbed to cancer earlier this year. It was reportedly Beau's dying wish that his father run for president.
BIDEN: Beau is our inspiration. Unfortunately, I believe we're out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination. But while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent. I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation.
ACOSTA: But Biden wasn't finished. He called on Democrats and Republicans to stop the partisan wars, another veiled critique at Hillary Clinton, who described the GOP as her enemy at last week's CNN debate. BIDEN: Four more years of this kind of pitched battle may be more
than this country can take. We have to change it. We have to change it.
ACOSTA: With Biden out of the race, the reactions came pouring in from Bernie Sanders, who echoed the vice president.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would not use the word quote, unquote, "enemies" to describe our fellow Americans.
ACOSTA: To Hillary Clinton, who hasn't responded to Biden's jabs but tweeted the vice president "is a good friend and a great man. Today and always inspired by his optimism and commitment to change the world for the better."
[17:05:00] Donald Trump said, "Biden made the correct decision for him and his family. Personally, I would rather run against Hillary, because her record is so bad."
Before he announced his decision, Biden had kept the guessing game going for weeks, at times poking at Clinton.
BIDEN: My wife didn't want me to be secretary of state, because I'd be traveling too much. She really wanted me, because she liked the house, and we couldn't afford one.
ACOSTA: In the Rose Garden the vice president said he had a plan for a Biden administration, one that would have battled to save other sons and daughters from Beau's fate.
BIDEN: I believe we need a moon shot in this country to cure cancer. It's personal. But I know we can do this. If I can be anything, I would have wanted to be the president that ended cancer. Because it's possible.
ACOSTA: After Biden's remarks in the Rose Garden, he and Hillary Clinton spoke by phone.
As for what's next, a senior administration official said the vice president plans to devote much of his remaining time in office to fighting cancer. This official said we'll be hearing more about that in the coming days. Biden could still have an important legacy, Wolf. It just won't be as president.
BLITZER: End of the dream for the vice president on this day. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
Let's get some perspective now on the vice president's dramatic announcement in the Rose Garden today.
Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, our CNN political commentator, S.E. Cupp; our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny; and our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger. Also joining us, our CNN political commentator, Peter Beinart. He's a contributing editor for Atlantic Media.
You've been talking, Gloria, to your sources. Have you learned what was the final element that convinced the vice president it was unrealistic for him to run for the Democratic nomination.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, I think it's been a combination of things over the last few months. I think as the vice president himself said time just kind of ran out on him.
But I was talking to somebody who's close to Biden today, who said that, first of all, after his appearance with Colbert, he -- where he poured his soul out, it was kind of hard to pivot back from that.
And also earlier this week, when Congressman Clyburn, with whom he's very close, South Carolina, told "The Huffington Post" that, "You know what? I wouldn't advise him to run." It was a clear signal to Biden, "Don't do this in my state." Biden would have certainly needed to do well or win South Carolina.
But in the end the timing wasn't right for him. Some days, it seemed more doable than other days. But he's a pragmatist. And he knew he didn't have the money, he didn't have the organization and also, he was concerned about his legacy. Didn't want to be a three-time loser when you run for the president.
BLITZER: Yes. This was his -- really his last chance. He's 72 years old. It was either now or not going to happen.
He still, though, Jeff, seems to be taking a swipe or two at Hillary Clinton, even on this day in the Rose Garden at the White House.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Some would call it a swipe, and I think that's probably pretty accurate. But I think he's also offering a reminder and a lesson, perhaps to, you know, think of a different way forward here. That if you are -- he's been in Washington a long time, more than four decades. If you're going to fix Washington, it's going to take some coming together.
But I think that he's still very raw, and he's still very emotional. You could hear his words in the Rose Garden. I don't think he has fully accepted this decision himself yet. He knew the writing was on the wall. There was no clear path to victory.
But he had been telling people as recently as, you know, a couple days ago, last several days he was still going to give this a shot. So I think we have to watch to see what he does in the coming days.
If he's still doing this -- taking shots at Hillary Clinton going forward, I think the president, the man sitting there on his left, is going to say, "Hey, cut this out. We have to win this nomination here." But maybe we'll give him a day or so of space.
BLITZER: Yes, Peter, I think Jeff makes an excellent point, because it could be, potentially, pretty harmful to Hillary Clinton if Biden remains on the sidelines, sort of taking some swipes at Hillary Clinton as this contest goes forward. PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. I think what
he said today was harmful. I think Hillary's statement in that debate, the Republicans were her enemy, was a serious mistake, one that we will definitely be hearing about in the general election.
And for Joe Biden to remind people of it and then basically give his imprimatur to the idea that this is not a good idea and that, potentially, she can't be the person that brings people together, I think that hurts her. And if I were the Clinton campaign, I'd be pretty upset about it.
BLITZER: Yes. That's an excellent point, as well. S.E., the reaction from Republicans coming in, obviously, Donald Trump saying, you know what? He's happy because Hillary Clinton, he says, will be an easier Democrat to beat in a general election than Biden would have been.
S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, yes and no. I mean, you, I think, could make the argument, if you've been in Washington long enough, that Joe Biden is more liked, is better liked than Hillary Clinton is.
You've heard in this messaging that he wants to reach across the aisle, that he doesn't have political enemies. I think, had that Joe Biden run -- and we all agree that speech could have been his announcement instead of his, you know, decision not to -- if that Joe Biden ran, I think that would have been a great contrast to Hillary, who is seen as crassly political, vicious when it comes to sort of, you know, slashing and dashing at our enemies.
[17:10:16] So there's a little sort of bummer, you know, over on the Republican side, but also there is a little relief. You know, Hillary has a lot of skeletons. Hillary has a long record to go after. And so if it's a consolidated field and we can all sort of focus on Hillary as the frontrunner, that makes it a little cleaner.
BLITZER: How does this impact Senator Bernie Sanders who's doing very well? He's No. 2. He's ahead in New Hampshire against Hillary Clinton right now.
ZELENY: Right, it makes him the only Plan B, really. If you don't like Hillary Clinton, well, then you're left with Bernie Sanders.
BORGER: Or Lincoln Chafee.
ZELENY: Martin O'Malley is also in the race, and Lincoln Chafee, not been paying as much (ph). It gives Bernie Sanders the -- I think some people who really, for whatever reason, are not satisfied or more comfortable with a Clinton presidency will look at him, but I think first and foremost, we saw him talk today. He was very complimentary of the vice president. He embraced this administration more than he has before. He also said that he wouldn't call Republicans his enemies, although he's called Republicans some fairly harsh things, as well.
BORGER: Homophobes just the other week. ZELENY: But first and foremost, it makes Bernie Sanders the
alternative. So we'll see him on the same stage at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Des Moines Saturday evening in Iowa. So that's a new chance for Bernie Sanders to show is he going to adjust it all? Is he going and get in some of these people who were going for Biden.
BLITZER: He's got to broaden his base if he's going to move up.
CUPP: You know what struck me about this speech was that it was an announcement speech without an announcement, right? And it certainly was nothing resembling an endorsement of Hillary Clinton.
And, you know, it is something that I could see that somebody could use in a political ad some time down the road. I mean, it was an interesting moment for him to decide to continue to take on Democrats.
CUPP: To campaign. I mean, it sounds like he is campaigning.
BORGER: This was a campaign speech.
CUPP: Yes, yes.
BORGER: In a way. And also you could hear him work it through as Joe Biden often does. "Well, OK, every day for the last 70 years whatever I've gotten up, I put on my shoes and I've gone to work in public service. Now I have to figure out what I do next. So maybe I'll help find a cure for cancer. Or maybe I'll help the middle class." So it was -- it was just one of these...
BLITZER: And Peter, I'm sure you agree with all of us over here that this speech could have been delivered even if he had announced he's running for the Democratic nomination.
BEINART: Right. That's why I thought the speech was, frankly, inappropriate and kind of weirdly passive aggressive. I mean, you either run or you don't run. Joe Biden can contribute in all kinds of ways. But the day that he says he's not running is not the day to try to inject his own agenda into the presidential campaign.
It reminds me a little bit of Mario Cuomo, you know, back in 1992. If you want to win the presidency, you have to go out and fight for it. And if you don't, you have to cede the stage to some degree to people who are willing to do it. And say what you want about the Clintons, they have always been willing to fight for it.
That's why Bill Clinton won that nomination in '92 over Mario Cuomo, who did this hemming and hawing. And I think -- I think Joe Biden did himself a disservice, frankly. I think this was not the moment to give that kind of speech.
BLITZER: All right. Guys, stand by. We're going to continue our analysis of what has happened. We're also getting more reaction coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Much more right after this.
[17:18:32] BLITZER: More on this hour's breaking news. The Vice President Joe Biden's dramatic announcement today that he won't run for president of the United States, repeating that he doesn't consider Republicans as his enemies, coming just one day before what could be one of the most significant events in the 2016 presidential campaign.
CNN, by the way, will be providing live coverage tomorrow morning when Hillary Clinton goes before the House Select Benghazi Committee.
With us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM is Jennifer Palmieri. She's the communications director for Hillary for America. That's the Hillary Clinton campaign. Jennifer, thanks very much for coming in.
JENNIFER PALMIERI, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, HILLARY FOR AMERICA: Good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: I understand the secretary called the vice president today. How did that conversation go?
PALMIERI: I think I'll let the conversation between the two of them remain private. But I think she -- you know, she said in her statement that "I think the statement the vice president gave today was moving and a good tribute to the way that he has approached public service and the work that he's going to continue to do with the administration." And, you know, they had a good conversation.
BLITZER: Did she ask him to endorse her?
PALMIERI: I don't know, but I won't -- I'll let the conversation remain private.
BLITZER: I ask the question, because there's been a whole bunch of commentary about some comments that the vice president has said in recent days. Let me play a clip for you, and then we'll discuss. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: The other team is not the enemy. If you treat it as the enemy, there's no way we can ever, ever, ever resolve the problems we have to. And you end up with the dysfunction that we're experiencing here in Washington.
[17:20:08] I have now traveled over a million and one hundred thousand miles as vice president. My wife didn't want me to be secretary of state, because I would be traveling too much.
I don't believe, like some do, that it's naive to talk to Republicans. I don't think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They're not our enemies.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Those comments, as you know, they've been seen as swipes at Hillary Clinton, given the comment she made at the end of the last presidential -- Democratic presidential debate. The CNN debate last week at the end, when she was asked about her enemies she mentioned Iranians, drug companies, but she also said Republicans. And he seems to be responding to that: Republicans are not our enemies.
PALMIERI: I don't -- I don't see it that way. I don't think that that's the vice president thinks that is how she portrays this or how she -- how she views Republicans. I -- the moment at the debate I think was a light moment at the end of, as you've noticed, a litany of people who mean to do America harm.
But I think, in raising the Republicans in that way, she is trying to show the stakes that we do think are -- that are -- what's at stake in this election. And it is true that, when Republican candidates are putting forward would undo a lot of the progress that President Obama and Vice President Biden made. She's really concerned about that. And thinks that this is, you know, that that is a -- that needs to be what they -- what their view of the country would be and what they would try to pursue is a threat. And that she wants to -- that she will elevate and needs to raise the stakes in the election.
BLITZER: Well, I just want to be clear she didn't mean it when she said Republicans were her favorite enemies?
PALMIERI: I said -- I said it was a light moment. You know, she's been doing a fair bit of -- fair bit of sparring with Republicans, I think it's fair to say. But she -- but there is -- it was a light moment, but there's a real point, I think, in that she sees that what the Republicans are pursuing is a real threat to progress that the president and the vice president have been able to make, let alone what she would want to do as president.
BLITZER: The tweet -- the tweet from Donald Trump reacting to Biden's decision today: "I think Joe Biden made the correct decision for him and his family. Personally, I would rather run against Hillary, because her record is so bad."
PALMIERI: Here is what neither Joe Biden nor Hillary Clinton need is political analysis from Donald Trump. But if -- I think that's one thing I can speak for both of them on.
If he is the nominee, I feel confident that Hillary Clinton would be the victor in a general election. But we'll -- we've got a long way to go for us to -- to win the Democratic nomination.
BLITZER: Are you -- is the Hillary Clinton campaign already beginning to anticipate a run for the White House with the Republican nominee being Donald Trump?
PALMIERI: It's hard -- no. It's hard -- there are...
BLITZER: Clearly he's beginning to think that his opponent is going to be Hillary Clinton.
PALMIERI: I think he does think that. But seems things seem to be very dynamic on the Republican side still. It's hard to game out who would be the -- you know, people ask us all the time who do we think would be the strongest. I think whoever ends up coming out of the field will be the strongest, sort of by virtue of having run the gauntlet of the Republican primary. And there are a lot of candidates there.
We feel confident, you know, each of them, even though they all have different personalities, they are all pursuing the same conservative policies. They would undo a lot of the progress that we've made. We feel comfortable about her ability, the Democratic nominee's ability to wage an effective campaign against them and to win.
BLITZER: We haven't seen Hillary Clinton the last few days. I take it she's preparing for the Benghazi testimony tomorrow, the hearing that's going to go on for about eight hours. We're told she's going to be asked, obviously, some very tough questions by the Republican members of that committee, Democrats probably will come to her defense throughout that -- that hearing tomorrow.
Walk us through what she's been doing through the -- going through the last few days. Because it sort of reminds me of the preparation she did for that first presidential debate.
PALMIERI: She did -- I mean, she will be -- I don't know that I need to get into the nuts and bolts of what she's been doing, but she is -- she'll be prepared. She was certainly well-prepared for the debate. This is a, you know, more narrow slice of issues that she'll be contending with. It's questions she has all answered before, I presume, because she has testified on Benghazi before.
She was secretary of state when Benghazi happened. It was a very serious matter. It's something she takes very seriously. So this is the eighth investigation that Congress has done on Benghazi. She has testified before. She will go against all their questions. We have some concerns about the political motivations that have been unearthed about the formation of the committee and how the committee is operated, but she will go and answer all of their questions.
BLITZER: Is she doing this sort of rehearsal?
PALMIERI: She'll be prepared. It's probably, like most things in our world, it's not as interesting as it might seem, but she'll be prepared.
[17:25:06] BLITZER: We'll have live coverage of that testimony tomorrow. I'm sure you guys are anticipating that, as well.
BLITZER: Jennifer Palmieri, thanks very much for coming in.
PALMIERI: Thanks for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jennifer is the communications director for Hillary Clinton for America.
Coming up, today's surprise meeting between two of the biggest adversaries of the United States. How did Syria's embattled leader get all the way to Moscow?
And more breaking news, the CIA reacts after the stolen e-mails from the agency's director are leaked online.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news in the cyber theft of personal information from the country's CIA director, John Brennan. The thieves apparently made good on their threats to make public information from his stolen e-mails, and it turned up on the WikiLeaks website today.
[17:30:28] I'm joined by our justice reporter, Evan Perez, and our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Both have been going through the leaked information.
Evan, what have you found there potentially that could be embarrassing or even damaging to U.S. national security?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is all just very personal information. As expected so far, nothing that is actually classified. All of the documents have been posted are from before 2009, before John Brennan joined the White House and then moved over to CIA.
There's a government form that Brennan filled out to get his security clearance. It has personal information about his medical, health and information about his wife and friends.
And there's a few more papers that he wrote, including ones about intelligence policy on Iran.
And we just got this statement from the CIA that says, "This attack is something that could happen to anyone and should be condemned, not promoted."
There is no indication that any of the documents released thus far are classified, Wolf. And it is worth underscoring the fact that this is not a very sophisticated attack. This is something that really any of us could happen to.
BLITZER: Is -- are you getting any information from your sources that law enforcement getting close to an arrest?
PEREZ: They're having a hard time, frankly. I mean, this is -- despite the fact that, again, this is not a very sophisticated attack, these people have used the anonymity of the Internet to hide themselves. And so it's not proving very easy to find them. And we do know that the FBI's working with the Secret Service to try to find these guys. And we expect that that will happen. But it's not happening very quickly.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, you've been looking through these leaked documents yourself. What stands out in your mind?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, first thing, like Evan, intelligence officials emphasized to me this took place while he was a private citizen. These are not secret documents; they're not CIA documents. They're really the documents that would be on the e-mail server of a creature Washington.
You have a draft paper, recommendations on Iran policy, a draft paper on intelligence to meet the challenge of the 21st century. All drafts, not something different than you'd see, really, from a think tank. That kind of thing. And frankly someone who is considering a position in the incoming administration, you have that. So that's one aspect. Not intelligence sensitive stuff, private stuff.
But when you get into that SF-86, and this is why the OPM hack, the hack of the Office of Personnel Management, was so severe, because in an SF-86, a security document that you fill out to get a security clearance, you have a lot of personal information. And things that then can be used to build profiles and collected with other information.
But that said there's also just stuff in there that's personal. I mean, it has the Social Security number of Brennan's wife. And this gets to a larger issue with WikiLeaks, and I've dealt with WikiLeaks for a number of years. You know, they do this as a "got you" kind of thing. Is there any public service for putting out the Social Security number of the spouse of a government official? You really can't see that. So there's a gratuitous factor to this, as well.
BLITZER: But the concern, I know, just based on the information I'm hearing, the concern -- there's deep concern that the message it sends to government hackers, let's say, from Russia or China or other countries that, you know what? You could go get some personal information. Maybe that information, while not classified, could be embarrassing to a top U.S. official, and that official could be compromised.
SCIUTTO: No question. The thing is, Russia and China already know that. Right? We know they know that, because they've done this. They've certainly tried, and they've done it successfully.
The intelligence community has not called out China publicly, definitively for the OPM attack, but they've done everything just short of that. So that's already known.
And what intelligence officials also emphasize is that there is more than just a personal aspect to this, because there is intelligence value to gathering up all this personal information from the SF-86, healthcare information like the Anthem attack, et cetera, which helps them identify; and this is something there have already been consequences. Can identify intelligence operatives overseas and compromise them.
PEREZ: But I mean, the spy agencies of China and Russia aren't putting this on the Internet. They're collecting it for their own use.
PEREZ: This is a very, very different thing.
BLITZER: Yes. All right, guys, thanks very much. Still very, very disturbing story, especially for the U.S. intelligence community.
Coming up, Syrian surprise. The dictator Bashar al-Assad makes an unscheduled, unannounced trip to Moscow to meet with the man who's propping up his regime, Vladimir Putin.
Plus, we have exclusive video of Russian airstrikes on the rebels trying to oust Bashar al-Assad. Are Putin's warplanes changing the course of Syria's bloody civil war?
[18:39:35] BLITZER: It's an image that caught the world by surprise today. The Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, side by side in Moscow with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, one of his most important allies.
Assad slipped out of his war-ravaged country to thank Putin for the badly needed military support he's been receiving. Support that Putin claims is targeting ISIS even as Russian bombs fall largely on rebels. Many of them supported by the United States trying to oust Assad.
Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working this story for us. Assad's trip, Jim, to Moscow certainly caught a lot of us, all of us, I think it's fair to say, by surprise, given by the fact he's been holed up in Syria for years.
SCIUTTO: No question. In public, U.S. officials are saying they were not surprised by the trip, in effect that it make sense in light of how much Assad depends on Russia for its survival.
There's also certainly a propaganda element here, showing Russia's influence in the region. And the key demonstration, really, of both of those things, that Assad would leave his country to meet Putin on his turf right in the middle of what is, by all accounts, a critical time in the civil war there.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): It's believed to be the first time he's left Syria since the civil war there began more than four years ago. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad traveling to Moscow to meet face-to- face with the man propping up his embattled regime, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): The terrorism that is now spreading today could have, without your decisions and actions, spread to even more territories and states, not just in our region but to other regions, too.
SCIUTTO: Two weeks into Russia's surprise military intervention in Syria in the air and on the ground, Mr. Putin promised Mr. Assad continued support. VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): We are
prepared to do whatever we can, not only in the course of military efforts to fight terrorism, but also in the course of the political process.
SCIUTTO: That's a process the U.S. would like to see result in Assad's ouster. Today U.S. officials wonder how the visit will affect upcoming meetings Friday between Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The White House spokesman telling reporters, quote, "We view the red carpet welcome for Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people, at odds with the stated goal by the Russians for a political transition in Syria."
But Russia's recent military activities may not end in Syria. President Putin reportedly sending a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister al Abadi expressing his support for the fight against ISIS on the Iraqi side of the border, raising the possibility of Russia filling a perceived void in Iraq left by the U.S.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: These people in Russia and the Kremlin are going to say, "OK, we have an opportunity here. We're going to drive our version of a Mack truck right through this area. And we are going to control the agenda for the northern Middle East." And that is exactly what they're doing.
SCIUTTO: One other factor from this trip that U.S. officials are noting, and that is that Assad traveled to Russia and not to Iran. Both Russia and Iran, of course, on the same side, both deploying significant resources on the ground to defend Assad but also perhaps competing for superiority.
But, Wolf, for their part today, Russia -- rather Iran saying that it's a strategic partner of Russia on the ground in Syria. They are working together. They both have incentive to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And to be clear, that's of course, on the opposite side of the U.S. in this very complicated civil war.
BLITZER: And Russia now also stepping up involvement in Iraq, as well, just as the Iranians have a lot of influence over there in Baghdad, no doubt about that. Jim Sciutto, thank you.
Let's get some more on what's going on. Joining us, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Congressman Mike McCaul of Texas. He also serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.
I want to talk about Russia and what's going on right now, but very quickly, this -- this news today that WikiLeaks has now released the CIA director, John Brennan's, personal e-mails that were hacked. First of all, do you know who was responsible for this hack?
REP. MIKE MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: Not at this point in time, Wolf. But the idea that John Brennan's personal e-mails could be vulnerable to a cyber-attack like this, to a hack, is very disturbing.
Of course, there's been a lot of discussion about personal e-mail servers as of late, and you know, the idea that they could get his information. And I know that Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security who testified before my committee, talked about some of his private information being stolen, as well.
This is -- the breach at OPM, 20 million security clearances stolen by China. There are various nation states like China that engage in espionage. I wouldn't be surprised if China was behind this one.
BLITZER: Behind this one? Because it seems like this hacker claims to be under 22, a young kid who's stoned all the time. You think that...
MCCAUL: I apologize; you're correct about that. This was actually -- this was a young sort of anonymous-type figure that did claim to be stoned at the time he did that, which is remarkable, given what he accomplished.
BLITZER: But you're saying that China was responsible for the hack of all that personal data from the Office of Personnel Management, the government's agency?
MCCAUL: That is my -- my opinion, because it was a big data theft. A big data theft is not done for criminal purposes. It's not like a credit card breach. It's to get big data, to exploit that data and then compromise individuals in the federal government.
[17:45:03] So this is a classic case of espionage.
The attribution, it goes back to the same source of the Anthem Blue Cross attacks into China. The Chinese of course are saying it wasn't. They had nothing to do with this. But the way it was done, the fact it was espionage all fingers, all roads point to the PRC as being responsible.
BLITZER: Let's talk about what Russia's up to right now. The fact that Bashar al-Assad has shown up today in Moscow for this meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russians stepping up their influence not only in Syria with these airstrikes but now moving into Iraq as well, a country where the U.S. devoted a lot of blood and treasure to try to build up that post-Saddam regime.
How worried are you that Russia is now extending its influence throughout the region?
MCCAUL: This is a big power play. I think, look, the president has -- hasn't had a policy, a strategy, been a failed foreign policy. And I think that Russia's filling the vacuum now. It's a big geopolitical power grab. And we're seeing Iran now through the Shia militias in Iraq, we're seeing Iran in Syria, we know the Quds Force are in there, and the Russians are in there, and the Cubans are in there.
This is changing the whole geopolitical balance in the world right now. And I believe that, you know, we're losing. He's calling checkmate on us.
BLITZER: That's a pretty disturbing development. While I have you, Mr. Chairman, today in a hearing it was revealed there, what, there have been more than 300 cases of small scale cyber physical attacks against power grids here in the United States since 2011, and not one suspect from these attacks has been identified let alone arrested.
Why can't these suspects be tracked down?
MCCAUL: Well, they can be. An attribution can take place and we can tie it back to the actors, the problem that you saw at the hearing was we have no response. There's no proportionate response to these attacks. There's no responsibility. If you don't have consequences, bad behavior will continue. I have five teenagers and if there are not consequences to bad behavior, they're going to continue.
That's the same thing, I think what's happening with China, Russia, Iran, is carrying out cyber breaches. And there are no rules to the game here. It's not defined what cyber warfare really is at this point in time. And again the president met with the leader of China and I know they're talking but I haven't seen any response to the OPM breach whatsoever.
BLITZER: Mike McCaul is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Mr. Chairman, thanks for joining us.
MCCAUL: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Up next, exclusive video we've received from the front lines of Syria's civil war showing Russian airstrikes on rebel forces.
Is Vladimir Putin now turning the tide for the Syrian regime?
[17:52:33] BLITZER: CNN has obtained exclusive images of Russian strikes on Syrian rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad whose embattled regime is now being propped up by Vladimir Putin. And with the help of Russian warplanes and cruise missiles, Assad's forces are making critical gains right now.
Our senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is right near the Turkish-Syrian. Nick is joining us live.
Nick, these are some very dramatic images. Tell us about them.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Probably some of the most substantial change of the battle field we've seen in the last year. Vladimir Putin wants to won the geopolitical side of this war but his forces, his airstrikes are assisting the Syria regime as they march toward Aleppo. A huge task to take the rebel areas, tens or hundreds of thousands of people living in the skeleton of that city but these images we obtained show how intense the fighting is against moderate Syrian rebels, some receiving help from the U.S. on the front lines today.
WALSH (voice-over): This is what it's like on the receiving end of the Russian back defensive south of Aleppo. The moderate rebel fighter now lying flat, sent us these pictures saying it was the worst assault he'd ever seen, aided by drones that they also target.
"The Russian strikes seem to hit civilians most, not us rebels," says this fighter before listing the several villages they've lost in recent days.
These eyes in the sky seem to be speeding the regime advance. The fabled tow missile, an anti-tank rocket supplied by rebels often by the U.S. hitting regime army. It helped rebels take ground fast recently but many more were needed for them to hold it now.
Syrian state TV showing while their president briefly visited Moscow, how they were advancing, ramming it home where in the south is now theirs.
These images helping suggest why 50,000 civilians may now be on the move. One rebel caught this frontline volley on a body camera. Such high-tech intimacy in a fight that can seem so brutally medieval, where a new power is changing the balance but not lessening the old threat to those helpless caught in the middle.
[17:55:03] WALSH: Now if that battle for Aleppo does get underway, we are talking about an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The probable tactic of the regime will be to surround that rebel-held area and as they say in the past, staff and force surrender of those inside of it.
Many looking to meetings on Friday between various foreign ministers including the U.S. and Russian and Syrian to see if there is any diplomatic headway that might be able to slow this down but I think the chance of that being accepted by all parties in this pretty remote.
We're looking to the battlefield now, Wolf.
BLITZER: Awful situation, indeed.
Nick, thanks very much. Nick Paton Walsh reporting for us.
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