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Runaway Blimp Hits Power Lines, Causes Power Outages; On the Front Lines: Kurds Hold on Against ISIS; Interview with Bernie Sanders; Full Court Press to Capture El Chapo. Aired 5:00-6:00p ET

Aired October 28, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Anti-missile blimp. A massive device the size of a football field breaks free from its moorings in Maryland, tracked by fighter jets. It wreaks havoc in Pennsylvania as its mile-long cable drags behind, knocking out power lines. What went wrong?

Meeting with the enemy. Iran accepted an invitation to join U.S.-led talks on the Syria crisis. And as the U.S. weighs sending more troops into combat against ISIS, Iraq says no thanks. Is the balance of power shifting to America's adversaries?

Swinging at Hillary. Just hours before the Republican debate, the Democratic presidential candidates are going at. Is their campaign about to go negative? I'll go one-on-one this hour with Senator Bernie Sanders.

And fugitive manhunt. They've stepped up the search, seizing vehicles, weapons, even airplanes. Now authorities say they're closing in on one of the world's most notorious drug lords.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, a massive military blimp the size of a football field breaks free from its mooring in Maryland and, now trailed by F-16 jet fighters, leaves a trail of damage in Pennsylvania. Used by NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command to detect missile attacks, the blimp is now down. It is being secured on the ground, but on the runaway flight, its mile-long cable dragged behind, hitting power lines and causing massive power outages.

And one of America's most inner foes, Iran, accepted an invitation to join U.S.-led talks at ending the disastrous civil war in Syria. Talks are due to convene Friday in Vienna, Austria. Peace efforts got a boost after Russia muscled its way into Syria, like Iran fighting in support of the Damascus regime.

But with the ISIS war also raging, the battle lines are blurred. And those talks won't be easy. I'll speak with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.

And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they'll have full coverage of the day's top stories.

So let's get to the breaking news first. A giant air defense blimp chased by fighter jets after it broke loose from its mooring in Maryland, caused chaos in Pennsylvania as its cable took out power lines. But that massive blimp is now being secured.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. What's the latest, Barbara? What are you hearing?


Things appear to be calming down a bit. This all began at midday at Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Washington, D.C., in Maryland. When this blimp came loose from its moorings and took off unpowered, uncontrolled flight for about 200 miles into northeastern Pennsylvania, chased by two F-16 fighters, we now know those fighters were armed.

The military says it had no plan to shoot down the blimp. It was simply tracking it, trying to keep air space safe. But look, those armed F-16s were possibly going to be called into action if it came to that.

During the four-hour ride of this blimp, the big concern is that it might impact populated areas, it might cause damage. And in fact, as it began to deflate and descend over northeastern Pennsylvania, the cable it was dragging apparently dragged through power lines, causing perhaps up to 20,000 people in the area to lose their power.

Now, the U.S. military working with state and local law enforcement authorities to secure the site. This is classified military technology. They want people to stay safe. They want them to stay away from this. It's not -- you know, they need to make sure this thing stays on the ground. It doesn't drift possibly, if the wind picks up and they need to recover that classified technology -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Major, major development today. All right, Barbara, thank you.

Joining us on the phone right now is Captain Scott Miller of NORAD. He's the director of public affairs for the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Captain Miller, thanks very much for joining us.

Did this blimp, this JLENS as it's called, did it deflate on its own? Is that what brought it down to earth?

CAPTAIN SCOTT MILLER, NORAD (via phone): Well, that's exactly one of the things that we're investigating that we'll be investigating in the coming days, Wolf.

It's unknown the specific cause of the deflation of the aerostat, but it is certainly known that it did deflate. And it has come to rest in the Montour County area of Pennsylvania, where Pennsylvania National Guard and local authorities are securing the area. It's a rugged wooded area that they're currently securing, and we

continue to monitor the situation and work closely with the National Guard and with local authorities on that securing process, to include sending a technical recovery team from Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is where this aerostat was moored earlier today before it became detached.

[17:05:24] BLITZER: What happened? How did it become detached?

MILLER: It's unknown exactly why it detached. We -- there are established weather minimums for the flying, if you will, or the launching of the JLENS aerostat. Based on our best information at this point, we were within those weather parameters when it broke free. The JLENS was -- was moored. It was operating at approximately 6,600 feet when it broke free. And then subsequently climbed to about 15,000 feet which it maintained while we were -- while we were monitoring it and prior to it beginning to deflate -- to deflate and land in Montour County.

BLITZER: Was the cause of this human error or something sinister? Or was it simply something else?

MILLER: I certainly wouldn't speculate on that, Wolf. I think that we're going to be investigating this thoroughly. In the meantime, there's a second aerostat associated with this system, which will be grounded while an investigation is conducted. But at this point, we don't know why it detached. And we're going to have to investigate it.

BLITZER: Has this ever happened before with one of these blimps?

MILLER: It has not, not with the JLENS system. This has not happened before in the history of this system.

BLITZER: It's a really sophisticated system with all sorts of surveillance equipment, heavy surveillance equipment inside. First of all, give us a rough estimate how much does one of these costs?

MILLER: I don't have the exact figure of the cost, Wolf, but I would say that it is definitely a sophisticated system. It's a system that is in operational tests currently and which is part of the system of systems, which defends the national capital region, despite the fact that this aerostat became detached today. However, we're certainly confident in the -- in the continuing status of defense of the NCR.

BLITZER: We know that U.S. Air Force F-16 jet fighters were launched to follow this blimp. They were launched from New Jersey. Was there ever any consideration, giving the need, to potentially have to shoot this blimp down?

MILLER: It is true that we very quickly launched F-16 fighters from a National Guard base in Atlantic City. And we monitored the blimp throughout. It was not a consideration to shoot down.

Our sole concentration was -- was working closely with the FAA to ensure air security, working closely with FEMA, working with the Pennsylvania National Guard and with the local authorities to -- to ensure that we were able to safely secure it, which is where we are in the process right now.

BLITZER: What would have happened if -- fortunately, it didn't, but if this blimp would have crashed into a populated area with all that heavy surveillance radar equipment inside?

MILLER: Definitely a valid concern, Wolf. That's something that we were working closely with our interagency partners on. And fortunately in this case, we appeared to have a grounding in a rugged wooded area in Pennsylvania.

BLITZER: Because as you know, this blimp was sort of flying loose over Pennsylvania in the northeast corridor. A lot of aircraft flying around there. How concerned were you -- fortunately, it didn't happen -- that a plane could have crashed into this blimp?

MILLER: We were immediately concerned. And that's -- that's part of the interagency process that we here at NORAD have in place to handle and to deal with situations just like this.

So as you might imagine, we were communicating immediately with the FAA to de-conflict the air space, to ensure air security, and to prevent an accident that could occur as the blimp continued to drift with the winds.

BLITZER: We know that the cable that was dragging along and was hitting ground and was breaking up power lines causing a lot of disruption. A lot of homes are without power in that area. Who's going to pay for the damage?

MILLER: So I couldn't speculate on that for you, Wolf. I have seen reports that there were power outages. There was an unknown amount of cable that was trailing the aerostat. And that was certainly part of our safety concerns and some of the information that we put out immediately. And we're working closely with the interagency and the local authorities to make sure that people knew that there was a concern and that they should avoid the aerostat and potential cable contact with the ground.

BLITZER: This particular aerostat, as you call it, this blimp, this JLENS, you said there were two of them in existence right now, is that right?

MILLER: That's correct. There is a surveillance JLENS aerostat, which is the one that broke loose today. And there's a fire control system version. The two aerostats work in tandem and are currently part of an operational test, which is all part again of the system of systems for defense of the national capital region.

[17:10:19] BLITZER: Normally how many people would be inside that blimp if it were a normal operation?

MILLER: Oh, it's an unmanned aerostat. These -- both the aerostats are unmanned. There are no people inside.

BLITZER: So even though it's unmanned, you didn't have the capability from the ground to control it in this particular case?

MILLER: Once -- once the mooring tether was broken, once the aerostat was airborne, no, there was no means. Normally, this is an aerostat that we would return to the ground by -- by retracting it on its mooring cable.

BLITZER: Captain Miller, Scott Miller of NORAD. Thanks very much for the information. Very important information. Let's hope you guys figure out what happened so it doesn't happen again.

MILLER: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Thank you. Brian Todd is taking a closer look at this blimp, where it was flying before it eventually came down for several hours. What are you learning, Brian?

TODD: Well, new details from NORAD, Captain Scott Miller and others talking to us tonight. An official with NORAD, another official I spoke with says they have nothing to indicate this drifting JLENS was a threat to any city centers or heavily populated areas, Wolf. It became untethered, as Captain Miller mentioned, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Baltimore. A NORAD official we spoke with -- excuse me -- says the aerostat is now on the ground in Moreland, Pennsylvania, Montour County. It's up here in northeastern Pennsylvania.

We do have reports, Wolf, from Pennsylvania state officials and others of power outages there from cables dragging on the ground. This Twitter picture shows a mark on the ground near Montour County where the cable from the aerostat dragged. There have been no injuries, according to a NORAD official we spoke with. There is a recovery team headed to that area to secure the JLENS, Wolf.

BLITZER: Once it sort of just went up in the sky, there was fear it could have exploded. There's helium inside, right?

TODD: That's right. It was certainly a concern for a period of hours here, Wolf. Show you some of the other images of the JLENS. A NORAD official we spoke with says helium, of course, has a flammable quality to it, but he says the JLENS is pressurized inside it. He says that pressure dissipates. As that pressure dissipates the flammability decreases. He says they do not believe there were any explosions, any punctures, or serious punctures at least, no explosions associated with the grounding of this.

Now, on this -- on the electronics and everything, that's interesting. NORAD officials tell us the aerostat has very sensitive electronics on board. They've got to secure this quickly. As we said, recovery team is headed there now.

This aerostat has no cameras but has very sophisticated surveillance radar. Here's a picture of some of the electronics on board. This radar can cover an area the size of Texas, Wolf. It's got the capability to track fast-moving incoming planes and other projectiles including, Wolf, cruise missiles, we're told, just as they're being fired. Very sophisticated technology on board this aerostat. Those recovery teams have to get there quickly and secure this stuff.

BLITZER: Captain Miller said they're investigating how it became untethered. Do we have more information on that, Brian?

TODD: Not really, Wolf. No information yet on how it became untethered. They say they're investigating that.

What we do know is that the lines, the tether lines are about an inch and an eighth thick. They are tethered very strongly to the ground. They can withstand 100-mile-an-hour winds, but again, that's under investigation as to exactly how this thing became untethered. No word of 100-mile-an-hour winds up in that area of Aberdeen Proving Ground where we know this was moored about 6,600 feet above the ground today, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. I want to bring in our aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien.

Miles, you heard Captain -- the captain the NORAD communications director say never happen before. How could this happen?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: You know, it's hard to say, Wolf. I checked the winds. They were about 50 miles an hour at altitude. Fifty. About half of what it's rated...

BLITZER: Not on the ground.

O'BRIEN: No, no, this is right up at altitude, right where it should have been, right on 10,000 feet. Interesting, the wind direction was kind of key here. It was right out of the due south, sending it up straight to the north.

If it had been out of the southwest sending up to the northeast, think of the population centers that we'd be talking about. It would have headed toward Philadelphia, ultimately on its way to the New York metro region. Good that it went straight north toward the Wilkes- Barre area, where it was much less populated.

BLITZER: So if the wind was even -- would have been even stronger, they've got to figure out a way to make sure it doesn't get untethered.

O'BRIEN: I would say two cables is a good idea. A little redundancy would be good in this case. This has been a controversial program. It's meant...

BLITZER: Why is it controversial?

O'BRIEN: Well, it's meant to be -- to replace the airborne AWACS aircraft, which are expensive to fly and can only stay up for so long. This thing can stay up for 30 days and can surveil all the way down to North Carolina up through New York and guard against 9/11 style attacks, that kind of thing.

But it's been slow to roll out. You'll recall when that ultralight aircraft landed on the Mall, it wasn't even operational that day. No one saw it coming. And, it's -- well, this white blimp is a bit of a white elephant thus far. And today, one more thing to think about as the Pentagon spends $2.5 billion on this program.

BLITZER: Two and a half billion dollars?

O'BRIEN: It's a big program.

BLITZER: For these two...

O'BRIEN: Well, it's part of an overall program. I think the blimp itself is in the nine figures, $180 million or so, but it's an expensive project. There's no question it does afford a measure of defense. You know, operating in tandem with the targeting blimp. This is the surveillance blimp.

And if there were a slow low attack, presumably it would see it. But it's got to be operational. And it's been very difficult getting this thing up and running.

BLITZER: Miles O'Brien, thanks very much.

O'BRIEN: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Joining us now Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. She's an Iraq War veteran.

We've got a lot to discuss, Congresswoman. But let me get your reaction to this blimp disaster that occurred today. Could have been obviously a whole lot worse, but it does raise all sorts of serious questions.

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: It does, Wolf. Aloha, first of all. It's good to talk to you. I think, most importantly, it's good that no one got hurt. I think there could have been the potential for accidents of various sorts as this blimp was moving out on its own and uncontrolled.

But I also have questions, many of which you've already been asking, really about how did this thing get untethered. An asset of this value, of this size and of this importance, what exactly happened and what will happen to make sure that it doesn't happen again?

BLITZER: Are these blimps a good investment for our U.S. military?

GABBARD: Well, it's something that I think has been described as a value-added asset. I'm not as familiar with all the details of exactly everything that it can do, what's been invested and what coverage it has.

But I think as we look at what occurred today, a lot of these questions will be asked, and we'll be looking for those answers.

BLITZER: I'm sure you're going to be doing that. All right, Congresswoman, we have much more to discuss, including late-breaking developments unfolding right now in Iraq and Syria. With Iran now directly involved in these talks that are scheduled to take place on Friday.

Stay with us. Much more right after this.


[17:21:51] BLITZER: We're talking with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. We'll get back to her in a moment.

But first in Syria, poorly-equipped Kurdish fighters are managing to regain some ground from ISIS. And they're preparing for a U.S.-backed offensive against ISIS strongholds at the same time.

Our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, went to the front lines in northeastern Syria, found the newly-liberated territory is still very vulnerable. She's now back in northern Iraq in Irbil. She's joining us live.

Clarissa, the Kurdish fighters, they have paid a very heavy price.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They have, Wolf. And we visited some of those newly-liberated areas. And honestly, you don't actually see anybody celebrating just yet, and that's because the devastation, after these months of terrible fighting, is enormous. And people are still very unsure of what the future will bring.


WARD (voice-over): Weeks ago these dusty plains were held by ISIS. This is what's left of its presence now. The charred remains of a training camp hidden in a pine forest. It's where ISIS trained an elite unit of suicide bombers that attacked Kurdish positions with devastating effect.

Kurdish fighters, known as the YPG, took this entire area from ISIS in August. But holding it along a front line more than 400 miles long is a huge challenge. In the shadow of Mt. Abdulazeez, Commander Zinar told us that he had lost 30 of his fighters in a recent battle when ISIS came down from the mountain.

COMMANDER ZINAR, KURDISH MILITIA COMMANDER (through translator): The enemy attacked us with a large number of fighters using heavy weapons. They took control of three villages. And after that, the clashes lasted for hours until we were in control again.

WARD: Zinar is a battalion commander, but this is the size of his battalion. A handful of poorly-equipped men, the nearest friendly forces are miles away.

The cost of pushing ISIS out has been enormous. Streets here are draped with the flags of fighters killed in battle along desolate roads through abandoned villages, we saw scene upon scene of devastation. The wreckage of months of fierce fighting and relentless coalition airstrikes.

(on camera): Dozens of villages like this one that were liberated from ISIS months ago are now still completely deserted. Now, that's partly because the ISIS militants, before they retreated, planted land mines and booby-traps all across this area.

But it's also because many people here aren't convinced that ISIS won't be coming back.

(voice-over): In the tiny village of Beklujah (ph), we met Ouetta (ph), who's lived here all her life. She told us she was too afraid to leave home when ISIS was in control. That they beat and killed people and brought misery upon the community.

"There were no airstrikes before they arrived. And then the strikes started. There was one next to me. We were scared of everything, not just ISIS."

"Are you still afraid?" I ask.

She says not but glances warily at the Kurdish YPG fighters with us.

[17:25:05] The Kurds question the loyalty of many of these villages, claiming they harbor ISIS sympathizers.

The killing may have stopped, but there is no peace here.


WARD: The main problem you have now in Syria is that these ethnic and sectarian divisions have really deepened, Wolf, after years of fighting. Our convoy was passing through one village, and a boy actually shouted at us, "God bless DAISH, God bless ISIS."

And then another Kurdish fighter was saying to us, "You know what. We're Syrians, but we are Kurdish first."

BLITZER: Clarissa Ward in Irbil in northern Iraq for us. That was another excellent report. Thank you very much, Clarissa.

Let's get back to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. This new U.S. strategy that's unfolding, more combat troops potentially in Iraq but also is Syria, you think this is a good idea?

GABBARD: Wolf, I think it is a positive development to hear Secretary Cater talking about really taking a more stronger offensive approach to defeating ISIS by using our highly-trained, highly-effective Special Forces troops working in concert with these Kurdish fighters on the ground, these Kurdish Special Forces with some of these Sunni tribes.

People who are fighting on the ground very effectively against ISIS. Again, I think the more we focus on defeating our enemy, ISIS, al Qaeda and others, the more effective we'll be in accomplishing our mission.

BLITZER: With the U.S. potentially on the verge of a major new military escalation in the fight against ISIS, do you believe it requires congressional authorization? GABBARD: I think that the president is within his right. He is

authorized to continue to go after the enemy that attacked us on 9/11. They've gone by different names: al Qaeda, al Nusra, ISIS, et cetera, et cetera. The thing that I feel is important that Congress has not had any voice on, has not authorized is this counterproductive illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad.

This is not only an issue in that respect, but it's actually counterproductive to our being able to defeat our enemy, to defeating ISIS. And the reason why is because the United States is actually working towards the exact same objective overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad as ISIS, as al Qaeda, as these Islamic extremist groups.

So I'm wondering why people aren't asking the question, why is the U.S. working hand in hand with people who are our sworn enemies, who attacked us on 9/11. We should stop that and focus solely on defeating our enemy and working with those who'd like to help us accomplish that goal.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, thanks very much for joining us.

GABBARD: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: My interview with Bernie Sanders coming up shortly, but let's get to the Republican part of the race right now. Polls show a very different race, the Republican presidential candidates, they are gathering tonight for their third presidential debate.

Our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash is joining us live from Boulder, Colorado to set the scene -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's going to be a very different evening, especially for Donald Trump, who is not used to sharing center stage.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Iowa, will you get your numbers up, please?

BASH (voice-over): Certainly not the way the candidate who talks constantly about winning wanted to go into tonight's debate, second place nationally and in the first caucus state.

TRUMP: Now, if I lose Iowa, I will never speak to you people again, that I can tell you.

BASH: For Ben Carson, being on top now means he has more to lose.

DR. BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The person who has the most to do with what happens to you in life is you.

BASH: Aides say Carson prepped hard this week on policy, in-depth Q&A with his campaign team on issues of focus in this debate: the economy and jobs.

While Trump and Carson duke it out at the top, the fight further down the field is red hot.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Republicans and conservatives win when we have a hopeful, optimistic message, a more Reaganesque message.

BASH: Jeb Bush has to prove he can turn things around. A Bush source tells CNN the fiscal issues likely to dominate tonight's debate is in the policy wonk's wheelhouse. But on Bush challenges -- communicating his message -- the source said he's not going to be someone he's not.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What about Bush? Because he's been kind of quiet this year, but you never know with this guy.

BASH: Marco Rubio is giving Bush a run for his money as the candidate of the GOP establishment. He released this light-hearted pre-debate video about Bush, Carson and Cruz.

RUBIO: Yes, I know I have a debate, but I've got to get this fantasy football thing right.

BASH: Less funny for Rubio: a hometown paper that endorsed him for Senate in 2010 now says he's missed so many votes he should resign.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Taxpayers provide you with $174,000 a year to do your job. Do you know how many Florida families would kill for a third of that much money each year?

BASH: Meanwhile, four Republican candidates won't make the main stage tonight, including GOP Senator Lindsey Graham.

(on camera): What about the under card situation?


BASH: So what do you really think about the under card situation?

GRAHAM: I really think the whole concept is flawed.


BASH: So that is going to be the challenge for that under card debate, which is actually going to start in about a half an hour. The four people on that stage will try to break through and to try to get, for the next debate, on the main stage, Wolf.

[18:35:09] BLITZER: Dana Bash, thanks very much.

Coming up, senator, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: As the Republican presidential candidates prepare to take on one another in tonight's debate, Hillary Clinton and her main opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, they are in an increasingly sharp long-distance debate of their own. This list of issues where they have big differences is getting longer every day. Senator Sanders is joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:40:10] Senator, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Let's go through some major national security issues. First, you want to be commander in chief. The U.S. has now invited Iran to participate in peace talks involving the future of Syria. Talks are supposed to take place Friday in Vienna. Are you OK with that?

SANDERS: Absolutely I'm OK. Look, I think -- I strongly supported the president's initiative to negotiate an effort with Iran to make sure they don't get a nuclear weapon. And I think that opens the potential for us to do more.

The irony is you've got a lot of young people in Iran who look very positively at the United States of America. I think we have real opportunities to work with them. And if we can work together in Syria, I think it's a real step forward.

BLITZER: You don't care that they support this brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad?

SANDERS: Of course I care. Of course I care. But I also care that what you've got now in Syria is a horrendous human disaster. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of refugees. God knows how many people have been killed. I want to see that war end. And if we can have Iran, and I would hope Saudi Arabia, by the way, and Russia, involved in ending that war, I think that's a step forward.

BLITZER: The Pentagon is, with the blessings of the president apparently, ready to expand the U.S. combat role not only in Iraq against ISIS, but in Syria, as well. Are you OK with that?

SANDERS: Well, I have, you know, the devil is in the details, Wolf. And I haven't seen all the details. Clearly, we have got to do everything that we can to see that ISIS does not gain more territory. Clearly, we have got to arm and support those people in the region who are taking on ISIS. I think we need American troops there to provide the training to those groups.

BLITZER: Training has not gone well so far.

SANDERS: That has not gone well...

BLITZER: Hundreds of millions of dollars in there... SANDERS: If your question is am I enthusiastic about seeing American troops re-enter combat, the answer is no.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about Hillary Clinton's comments on the V.A., the scandal involving the V.A. You were the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. She said Friday night in an interview on MSNBC, she said, "Those problems at the V.A. were not as widespread as it has been made out to be." Since then, her campaign seems to have backtracked a bit on that.

You were chairman of the committee. Were those -- the reports of the scandals at the V.A. not as significant as they seem to be?

SANDERS: They were very -- I think -- I do know something about the issue, having been chairman for a couple of years. Yes, there were significant problems.

On the other hand if you talk to the major veterans organizations -- the American Legion, the VFW, the DAV -- what they will tell you is that at the end of the day, the V.A. provides high-quality health care to those veterans who are able to get into the system. One of the serious problems we had is that there were very long waiting lists. Those waiting lists were real. They were very serious problems. And legislation that I worked on with John McCain, I hope, will significantly improve that situation.

BLITZER: So when Hillary Clinton says they were not as widespread as it has been made out to be, was she wrong?

SANDERS: I don't want to get into -- you know, I don't know exactly what she meant. Clearly, there were problems. Clearly the V.A. provides good quality health care to millions of our veterans.

BLITZER: You know, you've been criticized by some veterans groups for not doing more oversight when you were chairman of that committee.

SANDERS: I know that. On the other hand, I must tell you, I received the highest awards that came from the American Legion and the VFW for my service to veterans. I will stand aside to no one in fighting to make sure the men and women who've put their lives on the line to defend this country get the quality health care they are entitled to and the benefits they need in a timely way.

BLITZER: Do you wish you would have, looking back, you would have been more assertive?

SANDERS: I did everything that I can. And I think if you talk to most -- look, you know, veterans organizations, like everybody else, they have differences of opinion. But, again, I am very proud to have received the highest award from the two largest veterans organizations in this country for the work I've done with veterans.

BLITZER: One of your top campaign strategists, Tad Devine, a man I know well, you know him well, he says it's unacceptable for the Clinton campaign to attack you on your gun record and also accuse you of sexism. Then he told Politico, he says, if the Clinton campaign continues to do so, in his words, "We're going to have to talk about other things involving the former secretary." What is he referring to?

SANDERS: I have not the slightest idea. Look, we are going to run an issue-oriented campaign. If I am attacked by Hillary Clinton, she has the right to attack me. She has the right to disagree with me. We have the right to disagree with her. Of course we're going to talk about her record. She is talking about my record. That's there. So, you know, I think you're going to see some give and take. And we will give back as strongly as we get.

BLITZER: Well, that's a threat -- he made a threat. He says -- he says, "We're not going to stand for it. We're not going to sit here and let her attack him. We're going to have to talk about other things if they do that." That's a threat.

SANDERS: Well, I am not making that threat. I don't know what Tad meant by that...

BLITZER: He's your top campaign strategist.

SANDERS: Well, that may be, but I am the candidate. I run my campaign. So I will tell you what I believe. And that is obviously if we are attacked and if we're attacked unfairly, if I am called a sexist, for example, or other charges are made against me, we will respond forcefully. Of course we will, to defend ourselves. And we will very forcefully express our disagreements with Secretary Clinton on Wall Street, on the USA Patriot Act, on the death penalty. On issues where we disagree. That's called politics.

BLITZER: As someone who's covered politics myself for a long time that sounds like your campaign has come up with what's called opposition research and you're ready to unload on Hillary Clinton if she continues to criticize and challenge you.

SANDERS: Not a question of criticizing. I mean, if they make unfounded criticisms, we are going to respond forcefully. If they express disagreements with us on an issue, that's called democracy.

BLITZER: But do you have a list of issues that you're ready to unveil in case she continues this?

SANDERS: We have a secret list in my pocket that I'm going to take out. No, I think we know Hillary Clinton's record. She knows my record. We're prepared to discuss her record.

BLITZER: The polls have you doing well in New Hampshire and neighboring state of Vermont. Not well, this latest Monmouth poll in Iowa, not well in South Carolina, in Florida or these other major states right now. How do you plan on --

SANDERS: But first of all those polls -- that poll was, I suspect we are behind in Iowa. The main Iowa poll is the "Des Moines Register" poll which I think had us down seven points. These polls are not accurate polls. I think we are behind in Iowa. We are now putting together a very strong ground organization, but it's not widely known, though, is Secretary Clinton's campaign has spent many, many millions of dollars on TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. We have not yet spent a nickel. That is going to change.

BLITZER: This poll did not have Biden in the race.


BLITZER: That was a significant development because a lot of his potential supporters have gone to her, not to you.

SANDERS: Well, we'll see how that plays out. But again, we have not done one penny of TV advertisement. She has done millions of dollars. And I think once we're up on the air that will change.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SANDERS: My pleasure.

BLITZER: Good luck on the campaign trail.

SANDERS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, an update on what one U.S. drug agent calls the full court press to capture one of the world's most wanted criminals. We're learning new details about the search for an escaped drug lord.


[17:51:53] BLITZER: We're following developments in the search for one of the world's most wanted fugitives, a Mexican drug lord who escaped from prison back in July.

Brian Todd has an update for us on the search. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight our sources are telling us the dragnet for El Chapo is getting more intense and the circle is closing. Authorities have got houses of his under surveillance and they've confiscated some of his most crucial assets, including some he could use to make a long distance escape.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Mexican Special Forces may be closer to finding the world's most dangerous drug lord. Joaquin El Chapo Guzman. Mexican officials tell CNN they've searched several homes belonging to the cartel in three Mexican states including his home state of Sinaloa. Police say they've confiscated vehicles, weapons, more than 450 packages of drugs, like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. And surprisingly, 11 airplanes used by the cartel.

MICHAEL BRAUN, FORMER DEA CHIEF OF OPERATIONS: They've seized a number of his small aircraft, which tells me they are cutting off his means of escape by air.

TODD: Former DEA operations chief Michael Braun says there is now a full court press to capture El Chapo who recently slipped through a dragnet by either jumping or falling off a cliff in a scene straight out of the movie "The Fugitive." Now CNN has learned the DEA and other U.S. agencies are providing intelligence while Mexican special forces make intense group sweeps searching for the notorious criminal.

If they isolate El Chapo at one of his houses, it's not necessarily game over. El Chapo has twice escaped police through tunnels. Most recently through a shower inside a prison and previously through an escape hatch built under his bathtub.

Tonight, a Mexican official tells CNN shortly before he was captured last year, Mexican Marines were tipped off he was at one of his houses in Mexico, but when they tried to break down his door, the battering ram cracked. One official says "El Chapo's" door was custom made of steel with water inside the skin. It took marines 10 minutes to get inside, enough time for El Chapo to get away. An even bigger issue may be his network of supporters especially in the mountains of Sinaloa where he's based.

IOAN GRILLO, AUTHOR, "EL NARCO: INSIDE MEXICO'S CRIMINAL INSURGENCY": If you go in with military force, people will say very quickly, now, the cartel has spies on the roads who can watch.

TODD: Making things more complicated, the fear El Chapo may also have help in the United States. CNN has learned authorities are now tracking his wife, the former beauty queen, Emma Coronel, who is an American citizen, believed to be seen in these pictures posted online.

BRAUN: She's certainly a suspect of interest on steroids. She's a direct family member. She has lived and been with him for a few years now, and knows, you know, intimate details of his operations, tactics, techniques and procedures.


TODD: If there is a confrontation looming with El Chapo, it could get messy. Michael Braun says the drug lord travels with as many as 300 body guards with him who carry weapons ranging from machine guns to grenade launchers. Braun says at one point recently when Mexican Special Forces were pursuing El Chapo at one of his ranches in Sinaloa, their helicopters came under heavy automatic weapons fire, Wolf.

[17:55:02] If this ring tightens that closely to El Chapo, some people could get hurt including him. He could go out in a blaze of glory.

BLITZER: Keep us up to speed, Brian. Thanks very, very much.

Coming up, fresh fallout from a shocking video showing that forceful takedown of a high school student. There's student involved in the incident now speaks out.,

And a massive military blimp breaks free from its mooring in Maryland and reeks havoc in Pennsylvania as its mile long cable drags behind knocking out power lines.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, runaway danger. A huge missile, this huge missile detecting blimp mysteriously breaks free, raising fears of a devastating crash as it knocks down power lines and floats on the loose for hours. Tonight the blimp is down and the U.S. military faces critical questions about what went wrong.