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ISIS Threat; NFL Commissioner Speaks Out

Aired September 19, 2014 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, new ISIS victories. Their enemies flee as the terror group wages a lightning strike campaign. And now a startling admission that the U.S. intelligence community failed to understand the ISIS threat.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The flames of war is only the beginning to intensify. The fighting has just begun.


BLITZER: A dangerous new ISIS figure emerges, another masked killer, this one speaking English perfectly on a disturbing new propaganda video. We're taking a closer look at clues about his identity.

And the NFL commissioner breaks his silence. He's offering an apology and a promise to change the league's policy on domestic violence. But is that good enough?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up first this hour, huge new gains by ISIS terrorists in Northern Syria during intense battles with Kurdish forces. A Syrian human rights group says 60 villages have fallen in the past 48 hours. The terror group is clearly advancing, while the new U.S.-led war against ISIS apparently only just beginning. And now America's intelligence chief is acknowledging that mistakes were made, mistakes that helped slow the U.S. response to this new ISIS threat.

Our correspondents and analysts are standing by with new information, new insights into the widening war.

Up first, our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm told today by U.S. intelligence officials that it is now the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community that it underestimated the ISIS threat and overestimated the Iraqi army's ability to fight back. A frank assessment of how even the world's most capable intelligence agencies were surprised by ISIS' rapid success.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): From the nation's top intelligence officials, it is a startling admission that U.S. intelligence underestimated the threat of is. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper first telling "The Washington Post" -- quote -- "What we didn't do was predict the will to fight. That's always a problem. We didn't do it in Vietnam. In this case, we underestimated the Islamic State and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army."

Intelligence officials tell CNN that the CIA issued multiple intelligence reports on ISIS in the months before its lightning advance across Iraq, detailing its growing capability and ambitions. The key surprise, those officials say, was the sudden dissolution of the Iraqi security forces, even though they greatly outnumbered ISIS fighters.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA DIRECTOR: One of the most difficult things to do is determine the will to fight. It gets to the issue almost of intent. I think they were just totally overwhelmed and I think there was a cascading effect there, too, which is something very, very difficult to calculate and assess.

SCIUTTO: One key contributing factor, the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over.

SCIUTTO: U.S. saw intelligence capabilities there shrink dramatically. The administration's critics say the president did not do enough to maintain a U.S. military presence in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The fact that they didn't leave a residual force in Iraq, overruling all of his military advisers, is the reason why we're facing ISIS today.

SCIUTTO: Syria represents an even bigger intelligence hole, made worse by the very limited U.S. involvement on the ground, a situation that is only now changing significantly.


SCIUTTO: U.S. intelligence officials tell me that the intelligence community is confident it now has a better handle on ISIS, including inside Syria. Why is that? Simply because it's become a priority and the U.S. has been able to focus its "robust capabilities" in ISIS' direction.

Wolf, you're seeing here a very frank reassessment in effect of where the intelligence community was on ISIS a few months ago and where it is today as they look back, granted, with 20/20 vision.

BLITZER: Yes. They're acknowledging though they underestimated the capability of ISIS and overestimated, which turned out to be a disaster, the Iraqi military, several hundred thousand troops trained, financed, armed by the United States who simply crumbled. SCIUTTO: That's right. And that's the one they consistently zero in

on, is that dissolution of the Iraqi army so quickly is really the biggest surprise.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly is. Thanks very much for that, Jim Sciutto reporting.

Secretary of State John Kerry, he has been working today to try to rally international support for this war against ISIS. He chaired a session of the United Nations Security Council.

Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, has more on the secretary's message -- Elise.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, now that the president has authorization from Congress to arm and train Syrian rebels, the next stop is shoring up the international coalition. But for some, the case being made at the United Nations was a very familiar one.


LABOTT (voice-over): A U.S. secretary of state taking to the United Nations Security Council to argue for military action in Iraq. The comparison was inescapable. John Kerry today:

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The 7,271st meeting of the Security Council is called to order.

LABOTT: Colin Powell 11 years ago:

COLIN POWELL, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Review the situation with respect to Iraq.

LABOTT: Kerry was quick to explain, this is not deja vu.

KERRY: The last two times the eyes of the world were focused on Iraq was when its government was in confrontation with the international communities, with great consequences. Today, however, we come together in support of the new Iraqi government that has already made great strides.

LABOTT: In 2003, Colin Powell offered what he called irrefutable evidence, now discredited, to ask the world to endorse an invasion of Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein's regime by force.

POWELL: The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world.

LABOTT: A number of countries were skeptical of U.S. claims about Iraq's stockpiled weapons, and key allies like France opposed Washington's march to war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The use of force must only be a last resort.

LABOTT: It's a different story this time. As Kerry spoke, French planes had just concluded their first airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq. The threat posed by ISIS is far more visible. The militant's huge territorial gains in Iraq and Syria and the beheading of three Westerners have galvanized efforts for an international coalition, and more than 40 nations from Europe to the Middle East voice support for the American-led effort to defeat it.

KERRY: I'm absolutely confident that through a global campaign that is comprehensive and committed, we can support the promise of the new government in Iraq and we can defeat the ISIL threat.


LABOTT: But allies have been largely silent on the question of military action against ISIS in Syria. With Iraq, you have a government asking for intervention. But with Syria, you do not have authorization under international law.

As you saw during the Iraq war, Wolf, many countries are sticklers on having that legal mandate from the U.N. for that use of force, and with Russia having a veto on the Security Council, that authorization is unlikely to come any time soon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise, thanks very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now on the U.S. war in ISIS, the mistakes that were made.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is joining us, along with our military analyst Retired U.S. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, and David Ignatius, "The Washington Post" columnist and associate editor.

You had a big column, David. You spoke with the head of national -- director of national intelligence. He acknowledged mistakes were made. How surprising was this to you?

DAVID IGNATIUS, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I thought he was being frank. I put to him the question of the performance of U.S. intelligence in assessing the emergence of ISIS. He said we saw them growing and he said we saw the difficulties in the Iraqi army. And then he said the thing that we underestimated was the will of this adversary and overestimated was the will of the Iraqi army.

It was striking in part because Clapper is a longtime intelligence professional. He looked back to Vietnam and said the United States, it made the same mistake then in overestimating our allies and underestimating our adversary.

BLITZER: I assume that's why months ago, back in January, when the president was asked ISIS and these various splinter terrorist groups in that "New Yorker" magazine interview, he spoke about junior varsity, J.V.s. Was that based on bad intelligence -- he gets a daily intelligence briefing -- that he was receiving?

IGNATIUS: Clearly, the intelligence agencies were not ringing the bell. If the president could say that and not be contradicted, that was a sign of people not taking this seriously enough.

I think what Clapper was focusing on, Wolf, was the most important and mysterious factor in warfare, which is will. Do we have the will to prevail against ISIS? ISIS is clearly demonstrating the will to fight the U.S. and its allies hard.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, you're over at the Pentagon. The other blunder was overestimating what this Iraqi military would do in the face of this ISIS threat. ISIS, a bunch of guys, they came into Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, nearly two million people, and the Iraqi military, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. has spent training them, arming them, providing them with weapons, et cetera, they just ran away.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, really, a lot of military people in the Pentagon will tell you it really goes back to 2011 when the U.S. military left, the Iraqi government at the time didn't want the U.S. to stay.

There was no agreement for the U.S. to stay. And I think, again, we're talking 20/20 hindsight. As you look back, were the Iraqis really ready? Militarily, perhaps not, but more importantly, more significantly, politically not.

The Maliki government was not ever able, not ever willing to have an inclusive government and an inclusive military and it really many people will tell you sowed the seeds for what's happened now in the intervening years. Predictable at the time, no, understandable as you look back.

BLITZER: When you look back, General Hertling -- you spent a lot of time in Iraq. Would it really have made much of a difference if the U.S. had retained let's say 2,000, or even 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraqi if the Iraqi regime of Nouri al-Maliki would have given under a status of forces agreement those U.S. troops immunity?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, I think it's irrelevant, Wolf, because we didn't.

But the point is -- I will push back a little bit about the Iraqi army running away. It was becoming a good army during the period between 2007 and 2011. There was a lot of pushes toward increasing their strength, having them do operations on their own. And they were becoming good. Not great, but good.

And I think as soon as the U.S. left, Mr. Maliki had his will, started replacing leaders. When you don't have leaders in an army, that army is going to fall apart. That army didn't run away. In many ways, the tribal sheiks in the area said the government isn't supporting us, why are we fighting for the central government in Baghdad? I think they probably just walked away from their posts, as opposed to run away from ISIS.

BLITZER: David, you spent a lot of time in Iraq. I was there as well. You know a lot of those military commanders who weren't Shiites like Nouri al-Maliki, but Sunnis, as soon as the pressure came in, they didn't trust the Shiites. They ran away and many of them not only ran away, they defected to ISIS. ISIS has a significant army right now with a lot of trained Iraqi officers.

IGNATIUS: I think that's one key to ISIS' success on the battlefield is it's taken on these Sunni majors, lieutenant colonels from the Republican Guard, from Saddam's forces.

And that's really made them much more potent. I'm really struck, Wolf, as I hear General Clapper, the director of national intelligence, listened to General Odierno, the Army chief of staff, General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the way in which the military and our national security officials are pushing back at the White House, in effect, saying if we're getting into this conflict, we need to be more honest with ourselves about our allies, about our adversaries.

I just see more pushback, especially by comparison to 2003 in Iraq.

BLITZER: We head the Pentagon spokesman, General Hertling, tell us just in the last hour there is no serious division or split or rift between the generals and the president of the United States. Do you believe that?

HERTLING: I do, Wolf. And I also think it's a great point about the pushback.

The names that were just mentioned, Odierno, Dempsey, Austin, myself, we were the ones that spent a lot of time there. I think we understand the culture when you live with the people several years, and we understand that just going in and inadvertently bombing places isn't going to work. You really have to have the Iraqi culture take over on this.

The expression of winning their hearts and minds is inconclusive. What you have to do is win trust and confidence. And that can only be won when the forces on the ground belong to the culture.

BLITZER: Were you surprised, Barbara, that General Mattis, who served as the commander of the Central Command under President Obama, was so blunt in saying these are half-hearted efforts that can backfire?

STARR: No. General Mattis has always been one of the most candid -- I think General Hertling is going to wind up agreeing with me -- Mattis has always been one of the most candid senior officers in the U.S. military.

While he was in uniform, of course, he had to be very careful and could not publicly speak against anything that was U.S. policy or the commander in chief. Now, like all retired generals, he has more leeway to do it.

But is there an opinion in the difference in opinion in strategy? I don't think so. I think the administration and the generals, the commanders have the same goals and the strategy. I think what you're seeing is that pushback; 13 years later, don't sugarcoat it, get out there, say what exactly is going on, what the problems will be, and explain to the American people the price to be paid before some of these decisions are made.

I am totally convinced that that's where the general officer corps is right now. They want to see honesty with the American people.

BLITZER: Well said, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. And General Hertling, thanks to you. David Ignatius, always good to you have here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much.

Still ahead, U.S. officials now poring over this ISIS propaganda video for new clues. They're zeroing in on another masked figure behind a slaughter.

And the NFL commissioner changes his tune about domestic violence, but refuses to resign. His critics are already firing back.


BLITZER: Experts are now combing frame by frame through a chilling new ISIS propaganda video, which highlights the terrorists' sophisticated use of social media.

CNN's Brian Todd is looking into all of this for us.

Brian, what are you finding out.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are told by the U.S. intelligence community tonight that they are specifically looking for clues about this man, this one man who has just blasted onto their radar because of this video.

He's an ISIS militant who speaks perfect English and who appears to commit a horrifying act on camera. One U.S. counterterrorism official tells me this video shifts the discussion to ISIS vs. the White House.


TODD (voice-over): In a 55-minute film, he appears only at the end, but his voice resonates all the way to Washington, where tonight a U.S. official tells CNN the intelligence community is analyzing this video, trying to determine this man's origin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we're here with the soldiers of Bashar. You can see them now digging their own graves in the very place where they were stationed.

TODD: This masked ISIS militant gloats as he presides over the execution of Syrians apparently captured from a military base near Raqqa.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They said that we abandoned the fronts and stopped fighting the kafir to turn our guns towards the Muslims. They lied. Wallahi, we are the harshest towards the kafir! And the flames of war are only beginning to intensify.

TODD: He speaks perfect English.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the end of every (INAUDIBLE) kafir that we get ahold of.

TODD: He could be Arab and educated in the West. He could be American or Canadian.

FRANK CILLUFFO, HOMELAND SECURITY POLICY INSTITUTE: Clearly ISIS had a calculated step to be able to put this guy on camera. Why? Because he seems American. The message is aimed at a Western audience. And his intent is to, A, project fear to the United States, and, B, to instill and give this sense of a projection of power.

TODD: The entire video is pure ISIS propaganda, stylishly edited battle scenes featuring the enemy's heavy armor getting blown apart. But a crucial moment comes in the film's final minutes, when the masked ISIS militant and his comrades ready their guns and appear to execute the Syrians who dug their own graves.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: If this is a North American, this is quite extraordinary, because it would be the first time that a North American ISIS fighter has committed a war crime on camera.

TODD: A U.S. official says it's too early to tell where his dialect is from.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wallahi, the fighting has just begun.

TODD: How will they find clues?

CILLUFFO: They're going to be voice analysis. They're going to be looking at any particular accents they may have, anything that could tip off law enforcement where they can then pull the thread even further in terms of state and local to meet with some of the communities.


TODD: Did ISIS slip up and expose this man by having him say and do too much on camera? Analyst Frank Cilluffo says maybe not. The value for them, he says, is in propaganda and recruiting. And if this man gets captured or killed, they have plenty more Westerners in their ranks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly do, Brian. Thank you.

Let's dig deeper right now. Joining us, our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen and Middle East analyst Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington.

What are they trying to do? It sounds like a North American accent, if you listen closely. What are they trying to do with a 55-minute propaganda video like this?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: They succeeded in showing it on CNN. Let's start there, with wide distribution around the world.

I think it's important to note there are only a dozen Americans who have joined ISIS, according to the U.S. government, two of whom are already dead, both of them African-American. But clearly they're not going to be the last. This video was intended to recruit others similarly.

BLITZER: We know there's been at least one ISIS plot now foiled in Australia, some ISIS sympathizer clearly arrested in Rochester. Are we going to see, Robin, more of these kinds of individuals, plots, if you will, inspired by these kinds of ISIS videos?

ROBIN WRIGHT, SENIOR FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Now that the United States has crossed that threshold and entered the war against ISIS, it's clear that the United States territory, the United States personnel everywhere in the world are indeed vulnerable.

It wouldn't surprise me if we see a different kind of terrorism, not the al Qaeda kind, spectacular, but something that is small, brutal, like the plot in Australia to do something in public, whether it's behead someone or to kill them.

BLITZER: The plot in Australia allegedly was that they would just simply take some random individual and behead that individual, videotape it, and put it out there on the Web.

WRIGHT: Well, that's classic terrorism. And the idea is to use terror to intimidate and to make everyone fear and that in a way is to some degree winning.

BLITZER: How concerned are you about what happened in Rochester, what happened in Australia?

BERGEN: Well, we have only seen one successful attack in the West from these groups. That was on May 24 in Brussels where somebody went into a Jewish museum and killed four people.

The war has been going on for three-and-a-half years, so it is a concern; 2,600 Westerners have joined the group, at least. And those numbers speak for themselves. It's not like the Iraq war, where very limited numbers of Westerners went to join the group.

BLITZER: Here's what may be more disturbing right now. In the last few days, these ISIS forces in Syria, they have rolled up 60 Syrian villages. They seem to be on the offensive in Syria right now, scoring some dramatic advances.

WRIGHT: This is the danger, that we were focusing heavily on Iraq, whereas they're making a lot of headway in Syria, too.

Syria is now a trifurcated conflict. You have the Syrian government, the Western-backed rebels who are kind of -- who have not been very effective over the last three year and who are now the main focus of the U.S. effort in Syria, and then you have ISIS. And ISIS has done very well in expanding its territory, creating a regional capital for its caliphate, and that's where phase two of the U.S. intervention is going to be and it's likely to be much tougher than anything we do in Iraq. BLITZER: You know this region well. That pro-Western, pro-U.S.

Syrian Free Army, the moderate rebels that the United States now will arm and train, they have been vetted, supposedly.

Is that really realistic to think that they can get the job done in Syria, on the ground, since they're the only pro-U.S. combat forces apparently that are going to be involved?

WRIGHT: Look at the Iraqi army, which the United States says is going to take three years to retrain. Half of it after spending $25 billion is ineffective. And half has to be retrained.

Then you compare that with the Syrian Free Army, which are the farmers and the pharmacists and others, who are not a classical military unit, who don't have the discipline and don't have the arms, and who have very little experience, and have not done well. And that's going to be I think much tougher in making a difference when it comes to what our investment is.


BLITZER: Apparently, what, 5,000 of these guys, the Free Syrian Army, they're going to go to Saudi Arabia now and get some training for a few months, then go back. You really think they can get the job done?

BERGEN: I agree with Robin completely.

That's why there's so much skepticism in Congress about that. This is the least bad plan we have come up with so far. It doesn't mean that it's -- but it is unlikely to succeed, but it's better than doing absolutely nothing.

BLITZER: But literally any moment, the U.S. could start launching some airstrikes in Syria.

BERGEN: I'm very skeptical of that.

BLITZER: You don't think they will?

BERGEN: I think the congressional authorization would be required for some kind of broad campaign in Syria. The administration may take one position, but I think Congress is going to take another.

After all, the Syrian government is not inviting us in. This is an expansion of a war. Typically, you would want Congress involved.

BLITZER: Quickly, you agree?

WRIGHT: I think there may be military strikes. I think whether they're successful is really dubious.

I think the combination of military strikes of what? Does that in turn then strengthen the Syrian government and the inability of the forces on the ground to take advantage of the U.S. airstrikes. I think that's the problem, that, in Iraq, I think we can actually make some headway. In Syria, I have serious doubts. BLITZER: Because the major threat to the Bashar al-Assad regime is

not the Free Syrian Army, the moderate rebels. It's ISIS for all practical purposes, al-Nusra, another terrorist group that the U.S. has deemed a terrorist organization.

Guys, thanks very, very much.

Just ahead, a very different story we're watching right now. CNN pressed the NFL commissioner about his new attempt to clean up the league and its policy on domestic violence. Our own Rachel Nichols, she was there at Roger Goodell's news conference. She is standing by to join us live.


BLITZER: The embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is apologizing today, acknowledging he mishandled the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal. Goodell is promising to get it right from now on. He announced sweeping new policy to try to counter domestic abuse and sexual assault affecting every player and staff member in the NFL. But some critics still are calling for Goodell to resign.

CNN's Rachel Nichols, she was over at the news conference. She's joining us along with our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Rachel, you asked Goodell about the former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate the league's handling of the Ray Rice scandal. You pressed him about the fact that Mueller's law firm has very close ties to the NFL. Listen to this.


ROGER GOODELL, NFL COMMISSIONER: Rachel, unfortunately, we live in a world where there's a lot of litigation. There's a lot of law firms that maybe had some interaction with us in the past. Robert Mueller has not. Law firms may have. But we were hiring Robert Mueller and his credentials and his credibility to do an independent investigation reporting to the owners. I am confident that that will be the case.


BLITZER: All right. Rachel, what did you think of that?

RACHEL NICHOLS, "UNGUARDED" HOST: Well, look, as I asked him the question and followed up with after Roger gave that answer is, I'm not attacking the integrity of Robert Mueller. I am sure that he's of the utmost integrity.

What I said to him, however, is even if Robert Mueller conducts a flawless investigation, which he very well could, the appearance of impropriety is significant enough that a league that is being investigated whether they properly handled something should be concerned about whether they are looking like they are once again not properly handling something.

This investigation, more than anything, is about regaining the public trust. And it seems like, by assigning it to a law firm, which by the way just took money from the NFL for negotiating one of its TV deals and which by the way the president of the Baltimore Ravens will be key in this investigation, worked at that law firm for 30 years. That raises question marks.

Again, even if it is a flawless investigation, which all indications are, this is a guy of high integrity, why put yourself in that position if you're a league looking to regain the public trust?

BLITZER: Jeffrey, you're a lawyer. You understand the appearance of potentially a conflict. Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI, a very, very responsible individual, I'm sure he's going to do the best job he can. But I assume all the staff workers are from that law firm, which has a direct financial tie to the NFL, unless he brings in people from outside. But my suspicion is, he's going to use the lawyers from that law firm.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Sure. I mean, WilmerHale is the law firm with hundreds of lawyers. The corporate side undoubtedly dealt with the NFL deal. He will be dealing with an entirely new group of lawyers. I don't have any doubt about the integrity of Robert Mueller and I expect that his investigation will be one where he lets the chips fall where they may.

But it is true, as Rachel points out, that if you want to have a fresh start and if you want to have your -- be free from any criticism, you pick a different law firm.

BLITZER: You would think looking back on that. So, he's acknowledging now, and you were there at the news conference, Rachel, Roger Goodell, they got it wrong, they made some mistakes. They're now going to study those mistakes, come up with some recommendations by the time of the Super Bowl in February. Is that going to be good enough?

NICHOLS: Well, it sort of depends on what they decide to do. They talked about getting a panel of experts together, having those experts pore over their policy on their player conduct, from everything, from their punishment to who's deciding them. That's all well and good, but the panel will then take its recommendations where? Back to Roger Goodell.

So this still comes down to him, what he decides. Right now, he holds absolute power. One of the other questions I asked him was, would you be willing to give up some of that power? Because the problem is when you are judge, jury and executioner, you have the potential for getting it wrong. There's no check and balances there.

So, he said that's on the table. We'll have to see if the panel of experts recommends that there'd be more check and balances. And then we'll have to see if he agrees to those.

TOOBIN: Another level of complexity in this task is what will the role be of the players union? Will they agree to a new set of procedures? And, you know, what role will they have in setting these new policies? But the key point to remember is, nothing is going to change for

months. And Ray McDonald, who is charged with domestic violence, is still going to play for the San Francisco 49ers. Months will pass where presumably that will continue.

BLITZER: Let me play a clip. Rachel interviewed the executive director of the NFL Players Association. Listen to this.


NICHOLS: We heard Roger Goodell there talking about making a significant overhaul of the personal conduct policy. What do you think of that, and is the union going to have any say in how that shapes out?

DEMAURICE SMITH, EXEC. DIRECTOR, NFL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION: Well, the personal conduct policy is something that Roger and I have spent a tremendous amount of time talking about, perhaps not necessarily agreeing about, but hearing that they intend to have a discussion about overhauling that testimony is something that the union will have to be a part of. We look forward to working with them and correcting the problems or the issues that we believe have existed with that policy for sometime.


BLITZER: Rachel, how is this going to play out?

NICHOLS: Well, you know, they talked about cooperating. That's all well and good today. We seen that the NFLPA and the NFL don't always cooperate that well when it comes down to the nitty-gritty. And the NFLPA has a responsibility to -- like a defense attorney -- fight for the rights of its players, protect the rights of its players. I think they see this as an opportunity to get back some of the absolute power that they handed Roger Goodell, different points during labor negotiations.

But, again, this is where all the spotlight is on and I'm curious to see as the months go by, time goes on, the public scrutiny lessens, how much power the NFL offices are really willing to give up and who really gets a seat at this table.

TOOBIN: And it's not just domestic violence that's on the table. It's marijuana. They have suspended players for an entire year because of marijuana. It's steroids.

So, once you open this up, it could be an extremely complicated negotiation.

BLITZER: All right, guys. We'll leave it on that note. Rachel, thanks very much. Jeffrey, thanks to you, as well. I want to have this important reminder to all of our viewers. Rachel will back tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, with her program, "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS", must-watch TV here on CNN, "UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS". That's 10:30 Eastern later tonight. Just ahead, Hillary Clinton tries to fire up the voters who could

decide the battle for Congress this fall and whether she's elected in 2016. The importance of winning over women, that's coming up.


BLITZER: Just a matter of weeks, Democrats possibly could lose control of the United States Senate. So, the top leadership, they are trying to send an urgent message today that the midterms really do matter, and so do women voters.

Let's bring in our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

They staged a major event today.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They sure did. The reason is because Democrats are in tight Senate races this year, are largely staying competitive because of the gender gap. Women tend to favor Democrats more than Republicans.

But to really get those female voters to the polls, they need to be energized. Today, the Democrats brought out the big guns to do just that.


BASH (voice-over): A show of Democratic force to fire up female voters for November's election.

The president --

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You can measure how well a country does but how well it treats its women.

BASH: The vice president --

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not a woman's issue. This is an American issue.

BASH: And a future president?

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Because if women work hard all day, they've earned equal pay.

BASH: After losing the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton learned first hand the perils of not playing up her gender. This Democratic Woman's Forum is a clue she plans to do things differently in any 2016 rerun.

CLINTON: When women succeed, families succeed.

BASH: But first, she's recruiting female voters for this year.

CLINTON: The midterms really matter.

BASH: Women tend to turn out for Democrats in presidential years but stay home during midterms. Reversing that this year is crucial.

(on camera): Is it fair to say that the Democrats' ability to get the female vote out, particularly single women, will make the difference between holding on to the Senate and losing it?

ANNA GREENBERG, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Absolutely. Just look at North Carolina, Louisiana, Alaska and Iowa and look at this group of voters. They're heavily Democratic. They are much less enthusiastic about voting. Getting them out will be the difference in winning and losing.

BASH (voice-over): That's why in Colorado's tight Senate race, the Democrat's top goal is to paint his GOP challenger as extreme on women's issues.

SEN. MARK UDALL (D), COLORADO: My opponent Congressman Gardner led a crusade that would make birth control illegal.

BASH: In Iowa, the Republican is a woman -- but Democrats argue wrong on a major issue that affects women, the minimum wage. She opposes raising it.

REPORTER: Is $7.25 appropriate for Iowa?

JONI ERNST (R), IOWA SENATE CANDIDATE: Well, I believe it's appropriate for Iowa.

BASH: Republicans are trying to lure female voters, too, especially married women more likely to vote Republican.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When Tom and I were first married --

BASH: Male GOP candidates are making a concerted effort in this year's ads to feature their wives.

And Democrats don't always have perfect pitch. The vice president hit a wrong note at today's Women's Forum when he praised old Republican friends.

BIDEN: Guys like Mac Mathias and Packwood and so many others.

BASH: Packwood is Bob Packwood, forced to resign from the Senate amid allegations that he sexually harassed women.


BASH: That unfortunate Joe Biden oops moment aside, Democratic strategists say the female vote is so fee that their goal in nearly every race is to make women who lean Democrat so frightened and worried about what the Republican positions will mean for their own lives, they make sure that they will actually get out and get to the polls.

BLITZER: Awkward, bringing Bob Packwood up at an event like this.

BASH: Yes. BLITZER: Gloria, do Democrats have an edge when it comes to women voters? I'm talking about the midterms.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, so there are two ways to look at it. Obviously, you look at it nationally. Democrats are up with women by 11 points. But Republicans are up 21 points with men. And if you look at some key battleground states, Dana was talking about Iowa, if you look at Iowa, New Hampshire and Kentucky, all of which have women candidates, I might add, the Republicans are up with men at about the same number the Democrats are up with women.

So, they have that kind of parody there. If the Republicans can keep that parody with men, they'll be OK. But if the Democrats get out those women voters in greater numbers, it really could make the difference.

BASH: Well, the energy is the key.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: And we have Susan Page here, the Washington bureau chief of "USA Today."

Welcome, Susan.

What do you think about, all of a sudden, Hillary today -- Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, she loves talking about foreign policy and international affairs. Now she's getting into domestic stuff. What does that say to you?

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY: Well, it says to me that she's not running for secretary of state, she's thinking about running for president. And we think that -- you know, economic issues are almost always more important than foreign policy issues. Although I do think on this whole issue of women voters in the midterms, it's a complication that the topic has turned to terrorism and foreign affairs, you know?

BORGER: Right.

PAGE: So, economic issues really work with women -- the minimum wage, equal pay. When you get to issues of fighting against terrorism, that could complicate efforts by Democrats --

BLITZER: Explain how -- because women are more concerned about that or because women don't want the U.S. to go to war?

PAGE: Well, women are very concerned about terrorism. We know that. We know also that a majority of women say that President Obama has not been tough enough in addressing some of these issues.

So, it's an opening for Republicans that they don't necessarily have on economic issues.

BORGER: You know, as "The Times" pointed out, "The New York Times" pointed out, the other day, the other thing about women is Democrats are emphasizing now the social issues, issues like contraception, which used to be Republican wedge issues -- now, Democrats are emphasizing it so they can get women out to vote.

BASH: But, you know, what Susan said is so true that national security is suddenly, because of what's going on, you've been covering, you know, for weeks and weeks on this program, the war against ISIS, the whole term "security mom," which is so 10 years ago, is coming back into Republican lingo. And even just today, the Republican head of the committee trying to get Republicans elected to the House said that they're pushing it. They have maybe four or five new ads out on the campaign trail for Republicans to hit that.

And I was talking to a Democratic strategist today who said they're going to push back and say that whole concept is sexist.

BORGER: But, you know, it could motivate the Republican base, obviously, if Republicans weren't so divided on what to do.

BLITZER: Let me ask you this, Susan. The president last night, in praising the Congress after the House and Senate voted to give them the authority to arm the moderate Syrian rebels, said this was American foreign policy at its best. But were you surprised more Democrats opposed what the president's -- what the president wanted as far as arming the Syrian rebels than Republicans?

PAGE: Yes. And look at among the Democrats who opposed it, Elizabeth Warren. Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders. I mean, these are people who are seen as potential presidential contender, these are people who are tapping into a vein in the Democrat Party that is a problem for Barack Obama and also potentially an issue for Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Because they didn't want to have the problem that Hillary Clinton had, which she voted to authorize the war back in 2002 --

BORGER: And then Hillary Clinton is glad she wasn't in the Senate yesterday because she would have had to take one of those votes.

BLITZER: But, Rand Paul, he's a potential Republican presidential candidate, he's going after some Republican hawks. I was a little surprised to see how tough he was yesterday.

BASH: Incredibly tough. He didn't name names, but you didn't have to know very much about politics at all to know who he was talking about, the John McCains of the world, the traditional hawks in his party.

And what's fascinating about him is that he has been having this tug of war sort of with himself. Does he want to be an isolationist like his father, Ron Paul, was, and was very outwardly so, does he want to be kind of the middle of the road? The way he went after what he called the interventionists yesterday, really made it clear that is where he is staking out his differences from other people.

BLITZER: I've spoken to Rand Paul, he doesn't want to be called an isolationist, he wants to be called a non-interventionist.

BASH: Non-interventionist.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much. BORGER: Tell McCain that, will you?

BLITZER: Susan, good to have you back in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much to all of you. Have a great, great weekend.

We'll have much more news just ahead. But, first, this "Impact your World".


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There is something magnetic about the man known as "The Greatest".

REBA MCENTIRE, ENTERTAINER: He draws people in. It's just incredible the power he has. Everybody wants to meet and be around Muhammad Ali, he is a force to be reckoned with.

CUOMO: It's that force that draws musicians, actors, sports personalities and philanthropists to celebrity fight night.

MCENTIRE: This is the 20th anniversary and many of you have been coming since it started.


CUOMO: The annual event raises money primarily for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson's Center in Phoenix, where everybody gets a star treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am asking $200,000 to spend the night with the Kennedys.

DR ABRAHAM LIEBERMAN, MEDICAL DIR., MUHAMMAD ALI PARKINSON'S CENTER: Muhammad, because he's Muhammad Ali, gets excellence.

He's Parkinson's close to 30 years. The Alis wanted to make sure that everybody got the same service that Muhammad Ali gets. Questions are answered, am I seeing the best doctor? Am I getting the best treatment?

CUOMO: For 67-year-old Janice Manky, the center provides more than doctors, therapists and yoga classes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If I need any information, I can pick up the phone and call. The socializing is great. I'm not alone with the disease.

LIEBERMAN: The fondest hope is to cure Parkinson's disease and we go out of business.



BLITZER: All right. This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM: the former secretary of defense, the former CIA director, Leon Panetta, speaking out about the ISIS onslaught going on in Iraq and Syria. Leon Panetta telling Scott Pelley of the CBS News, he thought it was important for the United States to maintain presence in Iraq after the withdrawal of 2011. He went on to say he disagreed with the president's decision to not arm the Syrian rebels.

Listen to this.


LEON PANETTA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The really key was how do we develop a leadership group among the opposition that would be able to take control and my view was to have leverage to do that, we would have to provide the weapons and the training in order for them to really be willing to work with us in that effort.

SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: But with virtually his entire national security team unanimous on this, that's not the decision the president made.

PANETTA: I think the president's concern, and I understand it, was that he had a fear that if we started providing weapons, we wouldn't know where the weapons would wind up. My view was, you have to begin somewhere.


BLITZER: It looks like the secretary -- the former secretary of defense certainly agreed with the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. should have started arming those moderate Syrian rebels a couple of years ago. The critics of the president now suggesting that was a mistake and the ISIS terrorists in Syria grew and grew and grew, expanded into Iraq, and now control a huge swath of land between Syria and Iraq. Interesting words from Leon Panetta.

We have a big week ahead right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm heading to the New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The world's most powerful leaders will be there, including the president of the United States. He'll be addressing the General Assembly.

On Wednesday, he'll be speaking, of course, about the war on ISIS. That would be one of many of the global issues this president of the United States will address.

I'll talk about the terror threat facing the United States and much more.

On Monday, my special guest the secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson. He'll join us live and we are lining up a number of other big name world leaders as well. Please be sure to join us throughout next week.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.