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Big Democratic Primaries Today; U.S. Says ISIS Leader Possibly Killed, Calls for More Troops in Syria, Iraq; Questions on MH370 Disappearance Remain. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 8, 2016 - 13:30   ET



[13:33:47] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Democrats are going to the polls in Mississippi and Michigan today. Hillary Clinton hopes to expand her delegate lead over Bernie Sanders.

Meanwhile, a new national poll shows Clinton with a nine-point edge over Sanders, 53-44 percent. In a new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, she held a 59-34 percent lead in January. That's shrunk clearly.

Joining us to talk about the Democratic race for the nomination, our CNN political commentator, Donna Brazile; and our CNN political strategist, Angela Rye, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Donna, what are you looking for tonight? I know you are a vice chair on the DNC and can't endorse either candidate but what are you looking for in Michigan and Mississippi?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I will start with Mississippi first. As you know, back in 2008, President Obama carried it 61-36. Mississippi is important. It has a lot of delegates at stake. Secretary Clinton has been able to sweep the south so far.

Will she continue to have a commanding lead in states with the diversity that you see in Mississippi? Michigan is a battleground state. Last time, there was a little delegate issue there. They went outside of the window. So Secretary Clinton won that state back in 2008. Tonight, can she win Michigan? If she can win Michigan that will give her momentum in terms of in Illinois and Ohio. And also Mississippi will give her momentum in North Carolina. This is a big night for Senator Sanders and Hillary Clinton because there's a lot at stake on big Super Tuesday.

[13:35:21] BLITZER: Given the economic problems in Michigan right now -- I was in Flint there are enormous problems because of the toxic water and all of that, but a lot of people were supporting Bernie Sanders. I don't know if that is Flint or representative of other parts of Michigan. But this is a diverse state that Hillary Clinton wants to carry. A lot of people are saying they wouldn't be shocked if Bernie Sanders does well there.

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this is an interesting conundrum we are in. Bernie Sanders has so much on the line tonight. That's why he has everything to lose. He needs to make sure his message doesn't just resonate but resonates to the point of voter turnout. I think that's where he's been struggling. We know his messages are well with Millennials and blue collars. It is interesting in Michigan the sixth highest percentage of union participation in the country. You talk about Flint and what is happening there. He talked about crumbling infrastructure and the Washington bail out. He has done well with the whitest states in the country but not the diverse.

BLITZER: Michigan is diverse, 20 to 25 percent. The Democratic vote, African-American. Mississippi is probably a bigger percentage.

You are from Louisiana. She does well in those southern states where there's a large African-American presence.

BRAZILE: Mississippi population mirrors that of South Carolina. Bernie has really run a very good campaign. He's closing the gap with Hillary Clinton. But unless he broadens his appeal, not by attacking secretary Clinton, who has deep and strong ties, but by appealing on economic issues. If he is able to do that it will be a tight race.

BLITZER: She has to make sure if she gets the nomination she doesn't over alienate the Bernie Sanders supporters out there. She will need them if she's the Democratic nominee.

RYE: That's 100 percent right. What he does well for Hillary Clinton is taking her out of the moderate safe space and moved her to a progressive message. You heard her on the stage talking about we're not just trying to -- we're not going to deal with banks that are too big to fail. We are also concerned about executives, they are not 0 too important. She is using the language that came from Elizabeth Warren in the Bernie Sanders group. I think that's the other thing to pay attention to is again, it's not just about the messaging. It is about how you drive voter turnout.

BLITZER: She really wants Bernie Sanders, assuming she gets the nomination -- we don't know if she will but she's ahead in the polls, ahead in the delegates. She wants to make sure she doesn't alienate Bernie Sanders supporters but she wants him support in a general election because of the huge base he's developed.

BRAZILE: Barack Obama put together a huge coalition. Over 50 percent of the vote. Secretary Clinton has been able to galvanize half --


BLITZER: She worked for them after that.

BRAZILE: She drew her support and money and out every day helping him to coalesce.

BLITZER: She wants Bernie Sanders to do the same if he gets the nomination.

BRAZILE: Bernie Sanders, I'm sure, would want him to do the same. There are a lot of pledge delegates at stake. I'm a neutral super delegate. We have to remember these pledge delegates want to play a role in the process. They don't want the super to put anybody over. President Obama earned the support of the pledge from the supers. That's the contest.

Bernie has a movement that has galvanized, not just young people, people feeling alienated, on the outskirts. Bernie and Hillary I think are giving the country and not just the party, a way to look up. We're not running a tone-deaf campaign that we see on the Republican side. We are running a campaign of issues and ideas, and I think it will galvanize people.

BLITZER: It gets lively from time to time but it is not as tough.

BRAZILE: Notice I'm keeping my hands over here. I'm not wagging anything. I'm through.


BLITZER: Angela, Donna, Ladies, thank you very much.

We are watching the voters in Mississippi heading to the polls on the second Super Tuesday.

But first, we are also watching breaking news in the war against ISIS. We just learned that a top ISIS leader may have been killed. We have details. We will check in after this.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[13:44:00] BLITZER: Breaking news in the war against ISIS right now.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is getting new information.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: At this hour, the U.S. intelligence community and the military are assessing the results of a crucial air strike they conducted in Syria a couple of days ago. We are learning the man they targeted, and they are trying to determine right now if he is in fact killed in this air strike, a man is Abu Omar al Shashani, a top operative in ISIS. Very similar official in ISIS, he is also known as Omar the Chechnyan.

This is because he is a European essentially. He is from the Georgia Republic and served in the military in an elite unit. He has been an ISIS operative for sometime. The State Department has a $500 million reward on his head. This is a guy who the U.S. wants to get very badly, top operative in ISIS. He is said to have been involved in the past in the holding of foreign hostages, in ISIS financial operations, tied to the top of the organization.

It was on March 4th, we now know, the U.S. conducted an air strike in the Syrian border town, al Saddai (ph), a long way from Raqqa or Mosul, the ISIS strongholds. It is a crossing point for ISIS between Syria and Iraq. There has been in recent days a lot of fighting around there. Pretty unusual that someone this senior would be trying across potentially back and forth across that border.

So at this hour what we know is there was an air strike. He was the person that the U.S. was targeting and now they are conducting a post- strike assessment trying to gather all the intelligence they can to determine if they were able to kill him in this strike -- Wolf?

[13:45:53] BLITZER: On Capital Hill, meanwhile, amidst all of this, Barbara, there's a call for a bigger military presence in Syria and Iraq. The Central Command said more help is needed to retake Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa, Syria, from ISIS fighters. Is this the first real call from the military leadership for more potential ground troops to help the Iraqis and others retake these two key areas?

STARR: Yeah, Wolf. As it relates -- again, we are talking about Mosul, Iraq's second largest city a real stronghold and Raqqa in Syria, the self declared capital of ISIS. You are not going to defeat ISIS unless you get them out of those towns and get them back.

In fact today, General Austin, who oversees military operations against ISIS, talked about this on Capital Hill. He said, if you are going to do that, you need more troops. He's made a recommendation now to the Pentagon just for that very thing.

I think we have a little sound of what he was talking about and what he needs.


GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We could develop better human intelligence. We could perhaps provide more teams at various levels. We could increase our assistance in terms of providing help with logistical issues and we could increase some elements of the Special Operations.


STARR: There's about 3700 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria helping with these things. But, Wolf, it really comes full circle. If you are going to get ISIS out of those towns, you need Special Operations forces to help them. You are going to need very targeted air strikes. You need better intelligence. Possibly what we are seeing unfolding, if they were successful in getting this top ISIS operative -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Barbara, thank you very much.

Let's get analysis. We want to get reaction. Democratic Senator Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, is joining us. He is the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator, thank you for joining us.

First of all, let me get your reaction to the report that maybe the top ISIS leader may have been killed in USA air strike. What, if anything, can you tell us about that?

SEN. JACK REED, (D-RI), RANKING MEMBER, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Strategy. Strategy is multi-facetted. One part of it is to identify and take out ISIS leaders. That is to disrupt their chain of command, their ability to operate. The second is to use local forces on the ground to begin to and continue to recapture territory to squeeze ISIS. Those are the two aspects of the campaign. It's not surprising that U.S. forces would develop the intelligence and act on the intelligence and now, as Barbara points out, they are trying to evaluate if they were successful in taking out the ISIS leader.

BLITZER: I take it you have no problem with President Obama's continued authorization, no let up on his part of what they call targeted assassinations of the terrorists?

REED: We are committed to destroying ISIS, helping our allies in Iraq, trying to create and generate forces in Syria with the goal and purpose of destroying ISIS and taking out their leadership is part of that effort. This is a ruthless group of terrorists who have shown no mercy to anyone, particularly the Muslim communities they have been involved with. And our effort is to destroy this organization.

BLITZER: You heard General Austin, head of the U.S. military Central Command, say more U.S. troops maybe needed in Iraq and Syria. Your reaction?

REED: I this I what General Austin was talking about is increasing capacities we already have in Iraq, first, and one example of that is the effort to recapture successfully Ramadi, where the fighting was done by security forces, the counterterrorism section, supported by American air power. We provided intelligence, we provided training before they went into the battle. There's some question of whether we could move those training elements down from sort of the insulation to the brigade-size units, not involved in active combat, but moving the training down closer to the combat. In Syria, I asked them specifically about the training mission and his comments about revising the training. It would involve Syrians both of Kurdish background and Arab background. But I don't think he was talking about a significant commitment of American ground forces at all. We have some Special Operators in the region. We'll continue to have those Special Operators.

[13:50:51] BLITZER: Senator, you and I went to Iraq back in 2005 with the then head of the military central command, General Abizaid. Here's some video of that visit. We went to Fallujah, we went to Mosul. If someone would have told you or me then, back in 2005, that a decade later, Mosul, Fallujah, would be under ISIS control, I wouldn't have believed it. You wouldn't he believed it. But it looked like it's such a mess right now with no end in sight.

REED: Well, in 2005 and 2006, it was complicated and dangerous also, but there was a process under way to begin to assist the Iraqi forces to train to go ahead and to develop their capabilities and ultimately I think the hope, if not the expectation, was they could do that. I think what we saw over the last several years, particularly before Prime Minister Abadi took over, under Prime Minister Maliki, a specific deterioration of the Iraqi military, a lot of because of Prime Minister Maliki, of distrusting any Sunni involvement, of distrusting any sort of professional military leadership as a threat to his personal command, and those steps I think caused a significant reversal and allowed for -- at least gave an opening to the rise of ISIS and now we're back engaged and we have to be effective and continue to pursue this enemy.

BLITZER: Senator Reed, thanks very much for joining us.

REED: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead, it's an aviation mystery that has baffled officials now for exactly two years, what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370? Up next, a closer look at where the investigation stands.


[13:56:46] BLITZER: Exactly two years ago today, 239 people vanished in arguably the greatest aviation mystery of our time. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared from radar on its way to Beijing on March 8th, 2014. To this day, investigators and some family members still believe the missing plane, an American-made Boeing 777, will be found.

Our aviation correspondent, Richard Quest, has chronicled the search effort in his brand-new book, "The Vanishing of Flight MH370." It releases today, the book. As he reports, there are still so many more questions than answers.


RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT & CNN ANCHOR, QUEST MEANS BUSINESS (voice-over): Two years of searching, tens of millions of dollars spent, countless theories about what happened, and still, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 hasn't been found.


QUEST: Experts say the plane is in the southern Indian Ocean, where teams, funded by Australia, Malaysia and China, have scoured 70 percent of the huge target area, above and below the waves.

The search is unprecedented in terms of cost and complexity. The remote area is 3,000 kilometers southwest of Perth, where the seas are rough, with depths up to 6,000 meters, and the underwater terrain has mountains and canyons.

Officials are certain they are searching in the right place, especially after two independent reports came to the same conclusion.

And part of the plane's wing, the flaperon, washed up on Reunion Island, an area consistent with oceanic drift models.

Australians officials are testing another piece of plane debris found last week by an American tourist in Mozambique. This location also fits the analysis.

MARTIN DOLAN, ATSB CHIEF COMMISSIONER: We're still are optimistic that we'll find the aircraft in the current search zone. There's nearly 35,000 square kilometers still to cover.

QUEST (on camera): So, we have the where. We still don't have the why. What caused the plane to go off course? Was it a mechanical fault or a nefarious action? We just don't know.

There are those conspiracy theorists that still believe the plane was taken by a government or shot down.


QUEST (voice-over): For the families of the 239 victims onboard, this two-year anniversary marks the deadline to either settle compensation claims or bring lawsuits against Malaysia Airlines.

The families are also coming to terms with the ticking clock on the search operation. It will be called off this summer, if the plane isn't found and there are no new leads. A stark reality that, for the time being, at least, the plane and their loved ones may not be found.

Richard Quest, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: That's it for me. I'll be back at 5:00 p.m. eastern in "The Situation Room."

For our international viewers, AMANPOUR is next.

For our viewers in North America, NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right now.