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U.S. Sending Troops to Two War Zones; U.S. Leaders Talk Tough About ISIS; Clues to Identity of Terrorist in Beheading Videos; Statement from Family of Murdered Journalist

Aired September 3, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Jake, thanks very much.

Happening now --


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: "We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice.


BLITZER: -- "gates of hell," the vice president talking tougher than the commander-in-chief, who first says he wants to destroy the terror group, then says he wants to reduce it to a manageable problem.

Tracking the killer -- before he beheads a second American, he taunts -- and I'm quoting him now, "I'm back, Obama." You'll see how investigators are now trying to identify the ISIS executioner through images, words and actions.

And 9/11 worries -- even as U.S. leaders vow to go after ISIS, does America also need to be on the defensive a week before the 9/11 anniversary?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


President Obama in urgent consultations with America's allies, as the United States puts troops into two war zones. U.S. troops will be going into Ukraine, not to on fight, but to join NATO exercises, as President Obama accuses Russia of an all-out assault on a sovereign nation.

And following the latest savagery from ISIS, the second beheading of an American, another 350 U.S. troops are now heading for a security role in Iraq, the president vowing to seek justice and to destroy ISIS. But there also seems to be a bit of a mixed message going on.

Our correspondents and guests, they're standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

He's traveling with the president at the NATO summit in Wales.

What's the latest -- Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Obama has arrived here in Wales, after reassuring NATO countries in the Baltics earlier today, that the U.S. would have their backs against any acts of Russian aggression.

The president also sharpened his tone against terrorist group, ISIS, saying he now wants to take them out.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please welcome --

ACOSTA (voice-over): Responding to calls to get tough on ISIS, President Obama all but vowed vengeance for the killing of American journalist, Steven Sotloff.

OBAMA: Our reach is long and that justice will be served.

ACOSTA: A message echo by the Vice President Joe Biden.

BIDEN: We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice, because hell is where they will reside.

ACOSTA: Attempting to clarify his policy for dealing with ISIS, the president declared at a news conference in Estonia that he wants to wipe out the terrorist group.

OBAMA: Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it's no longer a threat not just to Iraq, but also the region and to the United States.

ACOSTA: Then, just a few breaths later, the president appeared to soften that goal.

OBAMA: We can continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities, to the point where it is a manageable problem.

ACOSTA: Aides quickly told reporters that comment was only an acknowledgement that remnants of a defeated ISIS could still pose a future threat. It was another White House attempt to clean out the president's remarks.

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We don't have a strategy yet.

ACOSTA: After Mr. Obama admitted he didn't have a military plan for ISIS in Syria, a remark the president explained further.

OBAMA: It is very important, from my perspective, that when we send our pilots in to do a job, that we know that this is a mission that's going to work.

ACOSTA: Pivoting to the crisis in Ukraine, the president tried to reassure the smaller NATO states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that acts of Russian aggression won't move to the Baltics next.

OBAMA: You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.

ACOSTA: In a veiled reference to World War II, the president made it all too clear he's not buying Moscow's denials.

OBAMA: The actions of the separatists of Ukraine and Russia evoke dark tactics from Europe's past that ought to be consigned to a distant history.

ACOSTA: To hammer that point, the president met with U.S. forces who will be stepping up their exercises in the region.

OBAMA: Thanks to all of you for stepping forward, for putting on a uniform, for serving in this mission, which is so vital to the security of our nations.


ACOSTA: As for ISIS, the president downplayed any expectations for any quick action against the terrorist group in Syria. Pressed twice for a timetable during that news conference, the president declined. But, Wolf, that is one of the big questions hanging over this NATO summit here in Wales, just how soon the U.S. and its coalition, if it put one together, just might act -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll soon find out.

Thanks very much for that.

Jim Acosta traveling with the president.

While the president left question marks hanging about just how he intends to confront ISIS, the Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, was quick to clarify with some tough talk of his own.

He spoke exclusively with our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, who's joining us now from Newport, Rhode Island -- Jim, he was pretty blunt, the secretary of Defense.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question, Wolf. And if the president left some doubt earlier in the day, first saying that the endgame for a U.S. mission against ISIS would be to degrade or destroy, later talking about a manageable threat, somehow managing or containing the threat, Defense Secretary Hagel not leaving that doubt.

When I asked that question, here's how he answered.


HAGEL: The mission is very clearly. And we're providing the president with those options to degrade and destroy ISIL's capability.

SCIUTTO: That's the endgame, degrade and destroy, not contain? HAGEL: No, it's not contain. It's exactly what the president said, degrade and destroy.


SCIUTTO: The secretary also being clear, saying repeatedly, in fact, that the Defense Department has already provided the White House, the president, with military options, including military options that extend into Syria to fight ISIS.

You'll remember that some days ago, the White House hinting that those options weren't ready yet and the president was waiting for those options.

But, also, among the options, I asked, as well, would it purely be from the air?

Is it possible they would consider boots on the ground?

Here's how the secretary answered that.


SCIUTTO: Do you think it's a mistake for the president to have ruled out boots on the ground to contribute to this action?

Because you talk to generals, former and present, who will say air power is limited in what it can accomplish.

HAGEL: Well, the president has been very clear about we're not going to go back into Iraq the same way we came out of Iraq a few years ago. That means combat action, so-called boots on the ground combat action for American troops. We're not going to do that.

I support that decision. I think it's the right decision.

Now, to your bigger point about just airstrikes, no, just airstrikes alone won't fulfill, accomplish what the mission is.


SCIUTTO: On a personal note, you'll remember that Secretary Hagel, he's a veteran himself. He fought in the Vietnam War. He commanded a squad. He saw his squad mates die. And I asked him what his personal reaction was to seeing those videos of Americans, these journalists killed so brutally. And he said in very no uncertain terms that in his words, it made him sick to his stomach, I think reflecting, Wolf, some of the same emotion that we heard from Vice President Biden earlier in the day, talking about chasing ISIS to the gates of hell. And that's something to this point we haven't heard from senior administration officials, that definitive, that emotional, that somewhat aggressive response to the violence that ISIS is presenting here.

And I asked him, as well, would he vow that the U.S. would destroy ISIS? And he said he wouldn't make a promise, but he said that the U.S. will do everything it can to defeat this threat and keep America safe.

BLITZER: Jim, if the mission is to degrade and destroy ISIS, the terror group, and the Defense secretary says -- you know, we just heard it and I wrote it down, "Just airstrikes alone won't fulfill, accomplish what the mission is."

So how do you destroy ISIS if you're not going to send troops in on the ground, because air power alone, apparently, even the Defense secretary acknowledges, can't get the mission accomplished?

SCIUTTO: It's an open question, Wolf. The way the secretary answered that question today was to say that, first of all, it, it has to be international, that the president is building an international, a regional coalition, so that it's not just the U.S. leading this charge.

He did not say specifically that any of these countries the U.S. might be talking to now, whether it's Turkey, Saudi Arabia or others, would put boots on the ground. That's the real question here -- is someone, is a country willing to take that risk, put boots on the ground to do what everybody seems to acknowledge is necessary to truly take back ground from ISIS and degrade and destroy it?

That's an open question.

But one thing he did say, that this battle is won, it's going to take a long time. They're in for the long haul, months and years, not days and weeks.

BLITZER: It's going to be a long, long fight.

All right, Jim Sciutto, we're going to get back to you.

Thanks very much.

Let's go in depth right now.

Joining us is Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland.

He's the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

I'll ask you the same question. If the mission is to -- I can understand air power can degrade ISIS. There's no doubt about that. Air power can really hurt.

But if the mission is to destroy ISIS, and we heard the Defense secretary say they now control half of Syria, half of Iraq, how do you destroy ISIS if you can't do it by air power alone?

REP. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER (D), MARYLAND: Well, there are a lot of ways to do it. The first thing is that you bring a coalition in. You bring all of the other countries that are surrounding that area that are impacted.

We have unique resources in the United States that no one else has, and have the ability to use those resources to stop ISIS.

But one of the most important issues, if you're going to stop ISIS, you have to take out their leadership. You want to kill a snake, you cut its head off.

And this is what we have to do, because their leadership is strong, they're smart. They've been able to get money and they've been able to manipulate and recruit people, including Americans, all over the world.

So our first priority is get the intelligence and get the information that is necessary and then we start moving ahead on what we have to do.

But you can't -- you can't allow the media to dictate where you're going to go. We need -- we can't warn our enemy that we're coming after them and telling them how or why we're coming after them. So again, intelligence, the best defense against terrorism. And then we work as a coalition and we use the resources that we have in this country, which are better than any other resources in the world. BLITZER: Well, let's say the U.S. does put together a coalition, including some of the NATO allies, whether Britain, some of the other NATO allies, maybe including some of the moderate Arab states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. The UAE put out a strong statement today, their ambassador here in Washington.

Let's say you put together a group like that, you still need forces on the ground, an army, to go ahead and defeat this army, right?

RUPPERSBERGER: Well, the first thing, the countries you mentioned, they're already a part of the coalition. You know, the military and the secretary of State and the intelligence community has been working hard on this issue for many, many days and months.

But you're going have to have boots on the ground. You're going to have to have intelligence on the ground to find out where people are. The talk about going in with air power in Syria, you just don't go in and bomb people. We don't kill innocent people. And we want to make sure if we go after them that we hit the target.

So that takes intelligence. It takes information.

And then you have to decide, once you make your first attack, if you're going to do that in Syria, what is the end game?

How is that going to stop them?

How are we going to stop the recruiting?

You know, these are issues that are out there that we're working on right now, believe me.

And you heard from Secretary Hagel today. The Defense Department and the military and the intelligence community have been working day and night. And they've already given plans and recommendations to the president. I think the president was a lot stronger today because he needs to reinsure the American people and needs to reinsure the world that we are the most powerful country in the world and we're not going to tolerate our citizens having their heads cut off in front of the world and let people think that that's going to be tolerated. We're going to come after you and we're going to bring you to justice. And that's what we have to say.

And I really was glad that the vice president was strong. I think the president was strong when he said, "degrade and destroy." And it's unfortunate that he talked about managing. What he really should have said instead of the word "management," he should have said we have a strategy that's going to work to take them out.

BLITZER: And just very quickly, I want to continue this conversation. But very quickly, when you say it will require boots, boots on the ground, U.S. boots, other allies' boots on the ground in Syria to destroy ISIS?

RUPPERSBERGER: I didn't say that you have to put boots on the ground in Syria. But if it takes that, then we have coalitions of people.

We, in the United States, the American people, we want to take out ISIS and we want to protect our homeland and protect Americans throughout the world. But that doesn't mean we can be the sheriff for the whole world and that we're going to go back into like an Iraq and Afghanistan that we had before. We're war weary, but we're not going to stop protecting us wherever we go.

The biggest threat to Americans now are those Americans right now who are in other parts of the world that could be kidnapped and could be hurt. And we really have to focus on those Americans, too.

BLITZER: We have a lot to discuss, Congressman.

I'm going to take a quick break.

Stay with us.

I want to get into 9/11, the anniversary coming up next week.

What is going on?

Is the U.S. taking any special precautions?

Stand by. Much more of our conversation right after this.


BLITZER: U.S. leaders are talking tough when it comes to the ISIS terrorists after the terror group's brutal beheading of a second American. We're back with top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland. Congressman, we know the British government and the prime minister,

they raised their threat level because of concerns of terrorism in Britain. Yesterday I interviewed Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and I asked him if the U.S. should do the same thing, especially in advance of next week's anniversary of 9/11.

Listen to what the congressman said.


REP. MIKE MCCAUL (R-TX), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: Al Qaeda likes to pick anniversaries. They like to pick large sporting events, for instance, like the Boston Marathon. They look at economic damage they can inflict and political damage.

And so, I think coming up on the heels of this video and now with 9/11 just a couple of days away or a couple of weeks, I think we have to be on a high state of alert.


BLITZER: The anniversary, as you know, is a week from tomorrow. Is there information that suggests the U.S. should go to a higher state of alert now?

RUPPERSBERGER: Well, first thing, I think Mike raises some good issues that al Qaeda does like to use anniversaries and they like to make a point, but we have to have the information. Mike is a good man and works in homeland security and he is on top of these issues. But we have to have the information.

I can say as a member of the Gang of Eight, with Chairman Rogers and Senator Feinstein that we don't have any direct information today, but that could change tomorrow about whether or not we have an imminent terrorist attack or need to deal with the issue of 9/11.

This allows me to raise an issue. We have a 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have our military, federal, state and local police officers all of the time dealing with terrorist threats. And we are talking about ISIS and they're out there right now, but we have al Qaeda and other groups that are just as dangerous. So we're always vigilant.

And we also need to say to the American public, if you see anything out of the unusual, make sure you get that information to the federal, state or local so that we can deal with it and protect ourselves.

BLITZER: Which of these groups, whether it's ISIS or core al Qaeda that still of exists or al Qaeda and the Maghreb (ph) or, for that matter, home-grown, lone-wolf terrorists and who represents the biggest potential terror threat to the U.S. homeland?

RUPPERSBERGER: I think they all do. I think you have to worry about a lone wolf unless they're not trained, as well, but even look at the Boston bombers who didn't have a lot of training. They used very primitive equipment, but they killed and maimed our people.

The thing that worries me the most from a homeland security point of view are the Americans who have been radicalized and they've gone to Syria. They've been trained, and they have the ability, because they have passports, to come back in our country, and sometimes we might miss them.

We've had a situation where we had an American who went to Syria and was radicalized, trained to be a suicide bomber. Came home to visit his parents and then went back and killed himself and other people. That's what concerns me more than anything.

The Brits, the Americans, the Canadians. These individuals who are radicalized. They have American passports. That's where my biggest concern is. So we have to be vigilant, and we are.

BLITZER: There's still some confusion about how many American citizens are working with ISIS, for example, in Syria and Iraq right now. Do you have a number?

RUPPERSBERGER: Well, let's just say it's over a hundred, but I do want to say this, that ISIS is recruiting people every day throughout the world. They're doing the same thing that al Qaeda did with a magazine called "The Inspire" where they would recruit people, Americans, to become part of the jihad. And we can't stop that because of First Amendment issues.

So, you know, we do have a lot of Canadians that are right next door, you know? The Brits. That's of a big concern. And it's going to be a real challenge for us after these people in Syria, which is the most dangerous place in the world, are radicalized, and they want to bomb America, because we are the No. 1 target right now.

BLITZER: Doug Ruppersberger is the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks very much.

RUPPERSBERGER: Thank you. Good. Okay.

BLITZER: Coming up, tracking an ISIS killer. You're going to see how intelligence agencies are trying to identify the executioner of two Americans through images, words and actions.

And the bloody rise of ISIS is fueling fresh concerns about a possible threat tied to the 9/11 anniversary. You just heard what the ranking Democrat of the committee had to say. Congressman Peter King serves on the House Homeland Security Committee, also the Intelligence Committee. He's standing by.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're following breaking news. You're looking at live pictures from Miami. Minutes from now we're going to be getting a statement, the first on-camera statement from the family of the U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff, who was murdered by ISIS. We're going to be hearing from a family spokesman momentarily in Miami. We're going to go there live as soon as the spokesman for the family emerges. We'll have live coverage coming up within the next few moments. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for the ISIS killer who beheaded two

Americans. And intelligence agencies in the United States and Britain are going all out to identify the killer.

Brian Todd is here to show us how they're going about their mission. What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a British official, the home secretary, calls ISIS a group of murderous psychopaths, but there's one of them who intelligence officials are zeroing in on tonight. That's the militant who authorities now say appears to be the same person in both the James Foley and Steven Sotloff execution videos.


TODD (voice-over): CNN has learned U.S. intelligence is doing a forensic examination of the execution videos of Steven Sotloff and James Foley. They're looking at the man who may be the executioner. His mannerisms, voice, his facial features. A British official says it appears to be the same man in both videos.

In the Sotloff video, notice the accent when he utters this phrase.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You, Obama, have yet again.

TODD: Compare it to a similar phrase in the Foley video.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any attempt by you, Obama.

TODD: But a week and a half after saying they were close to identifying him, British officials had no comment today when we asked if that's imminent.

How can they narrow down who they're looking for?

(on camera): The eyes are key, right?

AKI PERITZ, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: The eyes are absolutely key. They're going to be looking at the shape, the supposed droop in all these frames both on August 19 and September 2.

TODD (voice-over): During the Iraq war, Aki Peritz investigated every militant beheading video for the CIA. He says in these videos, the tilt of the militant's head is distinct. The way he holds his knife in his left hand. And Peritz noticed something else.

PERITZ: He laces up his boots in a very strange manner. He doesn't lace them up all the way in both September 2 and August 19. He laces them up halfway, which is a very strange sort of tick for an individual to do.

TODD: But is this the man who really executed Foley and Sotloff? Peritz doesn't think so. In both videos, the moment of death is not shown, so it's not clear who's killing either man.

PERITZ: If you actually look at the videos that have, at the very end, which -- where they're holding up the necks of the hostage, his hands are clean, and his tunic is clean, suggesting he didn't do it.

TODD: As horrific as these videos are, analysts say they're a recruiting tool for ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People with this extreme ideology have an almost pornographic attraction to these brutal acts. It inspires them. It energizes them. They feel that ISIS is strong. It can stand up to the super power. It can stand up to the United States. It's a force to be reckoned with.


TODD: And new information tonight from U.S. officials on those two videos. They say the U.S. intelligence community has determined that the Sotloff was shot separately and later than the Foley video, so they were not recorded in the same session -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Any indication why there's a delay in naming this murderer? Because only, like, a week and a few days ago, the British ambassador here in Washington said the British government was close to naming this person.

TODD: That's right. It's been a big question since then. That former CIA analyst we spoke to, Aki Peritz, says that right now British and American officials are probably determining what the value is in naming this man publicly and if there is value in doing it.

He says once they put together what he calls a target package on him, determining who he is, then they want to be careful. If they -- they may want to keep quiet, because if they name him publicly, then he may go to ground and be much harder to find. So they're probably weighing all that right now.

BLITZER: Those are very difficult considerations --

TODD: Absolutely.

BLITZER: -- to have to balance. Brian, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Republican Representative Peter King of New York. He's a member of the homeland security and the intelligence committees.

And congressman, if I interrupt you, you will certainly understand we're awaiting for a statement from the family of Steven Sotloff, momentarily down in Miami. We'll have live coverage of that. We want to have that. So if I interrupt you, you will certainly understand.


BLITZER: But do you think the British government, which of course, has very close intelligence cooperation with the U.S. government, knows the name of this murderer?

KING: I would think that they have it narrowed down, that they're probably relatively sure who it is. I'm not privy to it, but I would think, knowing their expertise, that they are -- know definitely or they're very close to knowing who it is, yes.

BLITZER: And based on what you know -- and we just heard in Brian Todd's report, maybe this individual was doing all the talking, making all the threats, but he wasn't the person who actually slit the throat of these two Americans. What have you heard about that?

KING: Again, I've heard that's being looked into. Certainly, the evidence that was given there, that when you come to the second person to be executed or the person that he said he's going to be executed next, there is no blood on the hands of the person who, you know, should have been the killer.

So in any event, I would say all of that is being analyzed forensically, and they have experts who are going through every -- every split second of that and looking for every possible characteristic, physical, voice, everything else.

BLITZER: I know that your district, your congressional district on Long Island, you lost several hundred people in 9/11. We all remember that. What are you hearing about the upcoming anniversary a week from tomorrow? How concerned is the U.S. intelligence community, the homeland security community about potentially some sort of anniversary attack?

KING: Wolf, they always have to be concerned. Any time there's a high-level event -- and nothing is more high level than 9/11, really, everyone's operating at full speed and not just the federal government, but obviously homeland security and the FBI, CIA, the entire intelligence community. And also at the local level, the NYPD, Nasser (ph) County Police, Suffolk County Police, New York State Police, all of them are operating at a much higher level on September 11 because of the opportunity that this presents for terrorists.

And I think it was just two years ago, a last-minute threat came in. So even there's, as far as I know and I've been in pretty constant contact, there was there no particular threat right now. We always have to assume there's a threat, but I wouldn't be surprised that somewhere between now and 9/11 something come in which may or may not be accurate. Sometimes it's done to throw us off. Sometimes it's a false lead.

But again, you're going to see everyone operating at optimum between now and 9/11. Whether or not the terror threat level is actually raised, to me, it's even -- it's not really that significant, because everyone is going to be working at, you know, the highest possible level anyway.

BLITZER: You remember, like all of us, that a terror attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. That occurred on the anniversary of 9/11.

KING: Right.

BLITZER: Have you definitively concluded that it was done precisely on that day? KING: My understanding is that it was, Wolf, yes. It was either

begun, finished or occurred during 9/11. But it's my understanding, I don't think that's been raised, really, an issue that did it occur on 9/11? Yes.

BLITZER: So it wasn't just a coincidence. They deliberately wanted to kill those Americans --

KING: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: -- on the anniversary of 9/11, right?

KING: I think we have to conclude that, yes. That would just be too much of a coincidence to have an attack carried out like that on that would have been the eleventh anniversary of September 11. No. Those things don't -- coincidences like that don't -- don't happen. That was -- to me, there's no doubt in my mind at all that 9/11 was the intended date.

BLITZER: Who is a bigger potential terror threat to the U.S. homeland? Would it be ISIS right now? When we just heard the ranking Democrat on the House -- on the House Intelligence Committee, Dutch Ruppersberger, say there are about a hundred Americans working, serving with the ISIS terror group. Who's a bigger threat, potentially? ISIS or core al Qaeda.

KING: I think overall, ISIS is a greater threat, because they have thousands, really, at their disposal, not just the Americans but also the thousands of Europeans wo have European passports that can enter into this country without a visa. So overall, I'd say ISIS.

Having said that, I'm very concerned about core al Qaeda because they've been pushed out of the headlines. They're off the front pages. And to get back in the game, they may feel that they have to carry out an attack, and they're still capable. They're not as strong as they were. They still are very capable.

And in addition to that, you have al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which have attempted several times to attack the United States including the Christmas day bombing back in 2009. But overall, I would say ISIS. Then I'd say al Qaeda could even be more of an immediate threat, because they may want to carry out an attack. But I think ISIS is more -- is more capable. And al Qaeda may do it -- they may jump the gun, if you will, because they want to get -- you know, get back in the headlines.

BLITZER: Congressman Peter King of New York, thanks very much for joining us.

KING: Wolf, thank you.

BLITZER: You were looking at live pictures. I want to show you these live pictures out of Miami right now. We're standing by. A spokesman for the family of Steven Sotloff, the American murdered by ISIS terrorists, about to walk out, make a statement on behalf of the family. You'll see it and hear it live right here on THE SITUATION ROOM momentarily.

There's other news we're following, much more on ISIS coming up. Also, some news on politics. A new exclusive CNN poll revealing the powerful Republican leader of the Senate is locked in a tight race on keep his seat. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky leads Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes by a margin of 50 to 46 percent among likely voters, according to our brand-new poll.

Stay with us. We're going to have much more on this surprisingly tight race. That's coming up in our next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're also standing by for much more news including once again, that statement from the family of the executed American, Steven Sotloff. We'll have live coverage of that when we come back.


BARAK BARFI, SOTLOFF FAMILY SPOKESMAN: -- time again we are sucked into the world crises and are often perplexed about which policy to pursue and criticized for what we choose.

Steve was equally torn between two poles. He wanted to live in a society governed by John Ford's ideals, but ultimately, he could not turn his back on the suffering pervading Sam Peckinpah's world.

He yearned for a tranquil life where he could enjoy Miami Dolphins games on Sunday and a banal job -- office job on Monday that would provide him a comfortable middle-class existence. But the Arab world pulled him. He was no war junkie. He did not want to be a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. He merely wanted to give voice to those who had none.

From the Libyan doctor in Mistrada (ph), who struggled to provide psychological services, to children ravaged by war, to the Syrian plumber who risked his life by crossing regime lines to purchase medicines, their story was Steve's story. He ultimately sacrificed his life to bring their story to the world.

Steve was no hero. Like all of us, he was a mere man who tried to find good concealed in a world of darkness; and if it did not exist, he tried to create it. He always taught to help those less privileged then hem, offering career services and precious contacts to newcomers in the region.

He indulged in South Park but was just as serious about filing a 3 a.m. story. He had a fondness for junk food he could not overcome and, despite his busy schedule, he always found time to Skype his father to talk about his latest golf game.

Steve was -- Steven often said his job was to hold people's hands, to build rapport before delving into the story. He never rushed or was pressured. He was appreciated by all who met him for his sincerity and kindness.

Steve had a gentle soul that this world will be without, but his spirit -- but his spirit will endure in our hearts.

Today we grieve. This week, we mourn, but we will emerge from this ordeal. Our village is strong. We will not allow our enemies to hold us hostage with the sole weapons they possess, fear.

Our prayers go out to the family of Jim Foley. Like Steve, he suffered, but his jailers never broke him. He was an inspiration for others in that dark prison far from this country's freedom and for me, personally, I failed you, Boy Scout. I left you in the field to suffer your fate. I will carry this burden until I meet you, but I will never forget your kindness. Watch over me, Petrocles (ph).

We ask the media to respect our wish for privacy as we mourn Steve's passing.

I have a few words in Arabic for the Arabic media. (SPEAKING IN ARABIC)

Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barak, could you just speak about how the parents are doing really quick?

BLITZER: Barak Barfi, a spokesman for the family, speaking not only if English, but in Arabic, directly to the Arab world, as well, expressing the family's grief. They're in a period of mourning. Right now they're asking for privacy, a horrific, horrific event.

The second American now killed by these ISIS terrorists. Tom Foreman [SIC] is the former assistant director of the FBI. He's one of our CNN law -- excuse me, Tom Fuentes is our law enforcement analyst.

Tom, it's going to take a while for the U.S. law enforcement community, the United States, to find the killers of Steven Sotloff.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: That's right, Wolf. It's going to be very difficult, because, you know, to be able on go where these killers are, whatever camp location they have in Syria, where they're protected, where they've, you know, established enough of their own soldiers around them to protect them. It's going to be very difficult to penetrate that to even identify who exactly did it, gather the evidence, determine their location and figure out how they can be arrested later, if that's at all possible.

BLITZER: What -- just give me your reaction to what you just heard from this spokesman for the family?

FUENTES: I just think it's so sad, and you know, the families are showing that their sons that have gone over to report the stories are humane, caring, compassionate people who want the world to know what's going on, who's being oppressed, whether it's the Bashar al Assad. Whoever it might be that's doing harm to other people, they want to carry that story.

They go on their own. They don't have security with them. They don't have the benefit of being embedded with soldiers or other people that can protect them. So they're taking the greatest risk to even go. And then this is what can happen and has happened now for several people, in particular the Foleys and the Sotloffs to have to deal with this.

BLITZER: Are you among those who think it's -- it would be wise, given the strength of ISIS, for example, right now, the fact that they've stolen hundreds of millions of dollars in gold in Iraq, especially in Mosul. They've taken over some of those banks over there. The fact that they have so much U.S. military equipment that they stole from the Iraqi military. Would it be wise right now for the U.S. to go on a higher terror threat level alert here in the United States?

FUENTES: I don't think so, and the reason is that so many times in the past when the threat level's been raised and there was no information of an imminent attack, it just gets the public wound up for nothing. You know, it ends up like being the story of crying wolf so that when we actually have a real situation, nobody pays attention.

And I think also, you know, going back ten years ago or so when we had the color-coded system, most of the public thought it was ridiculous and silly. You know, the authorities, the security forces, the FBI, the CIA, the police departments, everybody is already on the highest alert. They're already treating this and don't need a color code to tell them how hard they have to work to protect this country.

So to raise it for the public, it just causes greater cynicism, I guess, later when nothing happens, because they don't know that something's going to happen. They need to save those higher alert levels for when they do know.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, thanks, very, very much. We're going to get back to this story momentarily, but there's other breaking stories we're following, involving the Ukraine crisis.

For the first time, U.S. troops now will be heading into Ukraine. They'll be joining other NATO forces this month for military exercises in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression. The Russian leader unveiled a seven-point peace plan of his own today.

Let's get some reaction from our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott. She's joining us from the State Department right now.

What's been the reaction, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, you know, that plan because it had absolutely no mention of Russian troops inside Ukraine has been dismissed by both Kiev and the United States as just a ploy to divert NATO's attention ahead of its summit and for Russia to avoid new sanctions. And on the ground despite the talk of peace, it's looking a lot more like an escalating war.


LABOTT (voice-over): Fresh shelling sends plumes of smoke throughout Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Buildings reduced to rubble as tanks the Ukrainian say came from Russia continue to advance through rebel strongholds. Signs the Russian/Ukrainian cease-fire was unraveling even before it began. President Obama said it's time to ratchet up pressure against Russian aggression.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is a brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A sovereign and independent European nation. It challenges that most basic of principles of our international system. That borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.

LABOTT: Last month President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations laid out a trigger for further action against Putin.

SAMANTHA POWERS, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: Any further unilateral intervention by Russia into Ukrainian territory including one under the guise of providing humanitarian aid would be completely unacceptable and deeply alarming.

LABOTT: Today the president said that redline has been crossed.

OBAMA: And the Russians forces that have now moved into Ukraine are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission. They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks.

LABOTT: On the eve of the NATO summit in Wales, the U.S. says it's now sending troops inside Ukraine as part of a NATO military drill this month. Vladimir Putin responded by flexing his nuclear muscle ordering up Russia's nuclear forces to hold exercises of its own at the same time.

President Obama pledged to boost Ukraine's military and in a further dig at Putin invoked one of Russia's greatest fears.

OBAMA: For countries that meet our standards and that can make meaningful contributions to allied security, the door to NATO membership will remain open.

LABOTT: A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine said that Putin may take notice of President Obama's tough talk but only if backed by action.

STEVEN PIFER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: It's time for the West to move to adopt both new economic sanctions and again begin to provide similar direct assistance to the Ukrainian military.


LABOTT: And the decision by France to delay the first of two warships to Russia is the clearest sign yet that the West is prepared to take further and tougher action against Russia. That's supposed to be followed by a new round of sanctions to be announced by the United -- by the European Union this week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Major development, the French delaying that delivery of those warships to Russia.

Elise, thanks very much. Let's go in depth right now. Joining us, Julia Ioffe of the "New

Republic." She's an expert on Russia.

What's behind Putin's latest suggestion that there could be a cease cease-fire?

JULIA IOFFE, THE NEW REPUBLIC: I wouldn't really put much stock in it. It seems like yet another red herring. We saw this a lot, for example, with the crisis with Syria last summer. Putin threw out plan after plan after plan after plan, and it was a great way to delay, to stall, to get people talking about. Talking and talking about how we're going to talk about talking. And really they didn't come to anything at all.

BLITZER: Whatever he is doing in Ukraine, annexing Crimea, maybe taking over other parts of Ukraine. It's pretty popular in Russia, isn't it? He's got a lot of support back home.

IOFFE: That's right. He does. And it's not magic or any other -- you know, it's not magic how he does it. A poll recently came out that showed that 94 percent of Russians get their information on events in Ukraine from the television. And most of television in Russia is either owned outright by the Kremlin or owned by friendly companies who control the programming on that. Only 17 percent of Russians get their news from the Internet.

BLITZER: Economic sanctions are painful and the ruble is in bad shape. The economy is in bad shape. Aren't people going to start complaining?

IOFFE: They might start complaining. The question is, will anybody in the Kremlin care to listen or care, period? And does that outweigh -- you know, does that economic hurt outweigh, you know, the potential geopolitical benefits. Remember when Russia seized Ukraine back in March, the deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, said we might start colonizing the moon and that's OK because, you know, the Russian people historically are used to dealing with hardship for the sake of a great idea.

BLITZER: Julia Ioffe, thanks very much for coming in. It looks like this crisis is going to continue.

Coming up, more from our Jim Sciutto interview, exclusive interview, I should say, with the defense secretary of the United States, Chuck Hagel. He's warning ISIS has to be destroyed now or in his words it will get worse and it will get wider and deeper.

BLITZER: Happening now --


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL.


BLITZER: President Obama takes a tough new stance on ISIS. But also talks about making the group, quote, "manageable."