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THE SITUATION ROOM
Saudi King Dies; Interview With Maine Senator Angus King; Chaos in Yemen; Terror Worries; Patriots Scandal
Aired January 22, 2015 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: U.S. troops on alert, growing concern that Western militants returning from Syria and Iraq are targeting American forces. What is the Pentagon now doing to try to keep them safe?
Country in chaos. The government of a critical U.S. ally collapses after days of deadly fighting with rebels. Will al Qaeda thrive in the turmoil?
Deflategate. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tackles the scandal head on in a lengthy news conference. Is he shedding any light on the mystery of the underinflated footballs?
And GloZell grills President Obama. She's an Internet star and self-proclaimed queen of YouTube famous for her wild stunts. Why is she interviewing the president of the United States?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Breaking now, dramatic developments in the war against ISIS, with a top U.S. official in Iraq now estimating that 6,000 militants have been killed by the American-led strikes on jihadi targets. We're also following new details of the Paris terror attacks with new information about the role played by one of the four suspects currently in custody.
Now there's new fear that the al Qaeda group claiming responsibility for the magazine massacre could get stronger and even more dangerous. The country it uses as a safe haven, a critical U.S. ally, has no government tonight. The government has collapsed and there's fear that terrorists will take hold in the vacuum.
We're covering all the breaking news with our correspondents and our guests this hour.
Let's begin with CNN's Barbara Starr. She's over at the Pentagon. She's got new information -- Barbara.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ninety thousand U.S. military and civilian personnel across Europe now facing more stringent security. In the wake of the attacks in Paris and the arrests in Belgium, General Philip Breedlove ordered the new measures at U.S. bases. The concern, foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria to Europe are targeting U.S. personnel and installations.
CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: It has been a threat, Barbara. And it's a reality. And we have been well aware of that.
STARR: Threats confronting Europe and the U.S. that include al Qaeda in Yemen. In a new video, a top al Qaeda operative, Nasr Al- Ansi, calls for lone wolf attacks in the U.S. and Europe.
Worry growing about more attacks like those in Paris because Yemen's rebel coup has given the al Qaeda group more freedom to maneuver. It all continues to be a concern for U.S. national security.
A top Justice official said that thousands of foreigners, including about 150 Americans who have traveled to join the fight, is -- quote -- "unprecedented."
JOHN CARLIN, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY: The landscape we are seeing in terms of threat continues to shift with an increasing number of individuals leaving their homes to fight for terrorist groups like ISIL, Islamic State, and the threat posed by the return of those foreign terrorist fighters.
STARR: The U.S. now estimates coalition airstrikes have killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters.
JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Fifty percent of the top command has been eliminated. Hundreds of vehicles and tanks which they captured have been destroyed.
STARR: Defense Secretary and Vietnam War veteran Chuck Hagel adamant a body count doesn't mean victory, in his final press conference, visibly annoyed at Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, who suggested the coalition airstrikes and troops are not enough.
HAGEL: I do disagree with the prime minister's comments. I would say even further, I don't think they are helpful.
BLITZER: That was Barbara Starr's report from the Pentagon.
We are also learning some important new information about the Paris attacks, including how one suspect now in custody allegedly aided the terrorists who beat him with a bat.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is joining us from Paris.
What are you learning, Pamela?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we spoke to the attorney of one of the suspects in custody here in Paris, Wolf.
And he admitted that his client did provide logistical support to Amedy Coulibaly, including buying him tear gas grenades. But he says his client did so under duress.
BROWN (voice-over): The attack of a kosher market in Paris left five dead, including the perpetrator, Amedy Coulibaly. Now an attorney for a suspect charged with providing logistical support to Coulibaly says his client bought some of the items allegedly used in the attack, including a car, two tear gas grenades, a knife and jackets.
FABRICE DELINDE, ATTORNEY (through translator): He did not have a choice, as Mr. Coulibaly had a hold over him.
BROWN: The attorney tells CNN Coulibaly bullied his client, even beat him with a baseball bat on a previous occasion and eventually intimidated him to buy those items. Today, we're also learning an alleged associate of the Kouachi brothers, two men who attacked the "Charlie Hebdo" magazine headquarters, is now being extradited from Turkey to Paris.
He was arrested at the Turkish border the same day Coulibaly's wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, was seen here in a Turkish airport. She was also believed seen in this surveillance video over the summer walking with Coulibaly by a Jewish institution. Sources say they were scoping out Jewish sites.
And sources tell CNN the Paris suspects urged several of their cohorts to leave France leading up to the attacks. Some of them are believed by authorities to now be hiding out in Syria.
PETER BROOKES, FORMER CIA OFFICER: To me, it shows a level of planning and forethought. And the more individuals that are involved in a plot, usually the easier it is to find out about it. And they didn't.
BROWN: Here in France's capital, Parisians continue on unafraid to read the latest edition of "Charlie Hebdo" in public, and at newsstands across the city, the magazine is sold out, a strong message of defiance just two weeks after the massacre.
BROWN: We learned today that some media companies in the U.S. that republish the "Charlie Hebdo" Prophet Mohammed cartoons will now be receiving increased security. The NYPD sending the companies a memo saying that they are sending more officers to guard their Manhattan offices -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Is that being done out of an abundance of caution or is there specific intelligence suggesting that those media publications here in the United States could be targeted?
BROWN: We're being told it's just an abundance of caution, that they have no intelligence indicating any direct threats again those media companies. But in light of what happened here in Paris, they just want to make sure they have all their bases covered -- Wolf. BLITZER: Yes. They want to be safe, rather than sorry.
Thanks very much, Pamela Brown in Paris.
There are also more terror fears as chaos engulfs one of the most important U.S. allies in the Middle East. We are talking about the government of Yemen that has now resigned after days of deadly fighting with rebels, leaving a power vacuum many fear al Qaeda will soon take advantage of if they haven't already.
Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working this story for us.
It's pretty alarming. What are you finding out?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: A complete breakdown in the political process there.
There was an agreement as recently as yesterday between the advancing Houthi rebels, the existing government and today that agreement fell apart. President Hadi saying the rebel demands essentially too high and being demanded at gunpoint, so now you have a real possibility of a split-up of the country.
It's a three-way battle going on there. You have AQAP on one side, the Houthi rebels on another and a Western-allied government now falling apart as this is all unfolding.
BLITZER: The ramifications for the U.S. are very, very significant.
SCIUTTO: No question. This government is an ally with the U.S. again AQAP. We saw the ability of AQAP in Paris just last week, the ability to project power, carry out attacks abroad.
It has become -- it has long been a real concern for the U.S. and it's a growing concern for the U.S. I spoke earlier today with a ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff. This was his assessment of what a difference this makes in the fight against AQAP.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: If we lose that Yemeni government as a partner, that's a big setback for us, because they have been key to coordinating efforts to go after al Qaeda in Yemen.
And if you see a broad takeover by the Houthis, that could really provide the kind of fertile soil for al Qaeda to make a resurgence in Yemen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: It was only a few months ago that President Obama was claiming Yemen as a success story, saying it shows the powerful combination of an allied government on the ground supplying ground forces along with U.S. drone strikes in the air. But of course, here you are seeing the breakdown with the potential loss of a very valuable ally in this fight against AQAP.
BLITZER: Yes, it's pretty devastating when you think about it.
Let's not forget, Jim, there are still hundreds of U.S. diplomats, military personnel in Yemen right now. There are thousands, we're told, thousands -- the Yemeni Embassy here in Washington -- thousands of other U.S. citizens, mostly dual Yemeni- American dual citizens who are in Yemen right now as well.
SCIUTTO: That's right.
And the U.S. government has made -- the U.S. government, the State Department, the military have made preparations to evacuate them if necessary. They haven't made the judgment that that's necessary. But they have the resources. They have two U.S. Navy warships offshore to take them out in a military evacuation.
First choice would be via commercial aircraft. But, again, they haven't made that call yet.
BLITZER: Stand by. I want you to stand by.
I also want to bring into THE SITUATION ROOM our national security commentator, the former chairman of House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, also our global affairs analyst retired Lieutenant Colonel James Reese, and our CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.
How worried are you -- I guess I should still call you Mr. Chairman. How worried are you about those...
MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Like a convicted convict.
BLITZER: ... all those Americans who are in Yemen right now?
ROGERS: Very concerned.
Two things. The embassy itself -- and I have been there several times -- is fairly self-contained. The military folks that are, the intelligence folks, the diplomat corps are all there and protected. They will have 24-hour security there.
The American-Yemeni citizens are all spread across Yemen. It's very, very difficult, A, to find them. They don't have good transportation system. Their communication systems are iffy. Some parts don't have electricity for 24 hours a day. Those Americans would be exposed in a very serious way.
BLITZER: Usually, those American citizens, even if they are dual citizens, Yemeni-American citizens, they are registered with the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. I guess American diplomats know where they are.
JAMES REESE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: They are. Wolf, what they have do is they have to register with the
regional security officer from the State Department. They will have a database. They have strict maps to where all these people are. But you can imagine, they just don't have the assets to go start rounding up hundreds of people and get them inside the embassy walls.
BLITZER: It's a really worrisome situation.
At some point though they have to make a decision, get those Americans out of there or it's going to get even worse and even more dangerous.
REESE: Yes. They either have to tell them, hey, you need to come to this place right now or start making that commitment to the commercial airlines now, which I have got to believe they have to be doing that right now for some of the non-critical staff.
BLITZER: Paul Cruickshank, the opportunity for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, as it's called, in the midst of the turmoil that is going on in Yemen right now, it's really unbelievable. They could really expand their capabilities.
PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, that's exactly right.
They're likely to take advantage of this turmoil. If there is a Houthi government that's formed in the country, they are also likely to take big-time advantage of that in terms of recruitment among Sunni tribals in the tribal areas of Yemen, the sort of central areas of the country, who view these Houthi as Shia.
And there's a lot of anger amongst these Sunni tribals which al Qaeda will be able to exploit probably to expand their zone of control in the region. Of course, that's worrying because this group has said their number one priority is to hit the United States.
BLITZER: Their slogan, their motto not, only al Qaeda's motto. We know what they want to do to the United States, but these Houthi rebels, their motto is say death to America. These are the Shiites, a sect of Shiism that is pretty closely aligned with Iran, we should say, on that point as well.
Guys, all of you stand by for a moment.
I want to bring in Angus King of Maine. He's a key member of both the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee.
Senator King, you are pretty pessimistic about those Americans who are in Yemen right now. You want the U.S. government to get them all out, right?
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: I think it's time, Wolf. It's a very complicated situation, as your guests have just been outlining.
AQAP, the al Qaeda affiliate, is in the neighborhood. They're in Sanaa as well. We know what they would like to do if they had a chance. The other complication is although the Houthi leadership apparently is making some reassuring noises to our people about not targeting the embassy, we're not so sure about the chain of command.
You have got an 18-year-old with a heavy-duty machine gun, and it could easily get out of control. I think the prudent thing is to move out. I know I have had a bunch of briefings in the last 24 hours. I know that the administration is monitoring this. I said, is it hour to hour? They said, no, it's minute to minute.
I think one of the big considerations is, what are the people on the ground at the embassy compound telling them about whether or not they're able to do their job? But this is one of those reasons it's awfully tough to be the president. But I think prudence dictates perhaps moving these people out at least temporarily.
But even that's not an easy decision, because if we move out, the compound could be taken over and we couldn't get back in. But it's a tough call. But my inclination is err on the side of safety of those Americans.
BLITZER: Yes, that's priority number one.
Senator, I want you to stand by. I want our panel to stand by.
We are following the breaking news. Much more right after this.
BLITZER: We are following the breaking news, including a dramatic development in the U.S.-led war against ISIS.
We are back with the independent Senator Angus King of Maine, and he's a member of the Senate Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Just very quickly, wrapping up on Yemen, your big concern right now is that some of those hundreds of Americans who are still in Yemen could be taken hostage by terror groups, is that right?
KING: Well, I mean, hostage or an invasion of the embassy or simply endangered in some way or another.
We know that one of our vehicles took 80 rounds of fire earlier this week. Being able to -- it's a power vacuum, Wolf. No one really knows. It's a power vacuum, including different segments of this Houthi organization. Plus, if that isn't enough, you have got al Qaeda, AQAP, right in that area.
Whether it's -- I can't predict what might happen. But I just think it's a dangerous situation. And the question is, what's the upside of leaving our people there vs. what I would consider a very big downside?
BLITZER: I didn't know it was 80 rounds that hit that armored U.S. vehicle from the U.S. Embassy. There were no injuries, though, no American official was hurt, right? KING: That's correct. It was an armored vehicle. And it
BLITZER: Fortunately, it did work.
Let's talk about what is going on in the fight against ISIS. You heard the U.S. ambassador to Iraq announce that roughly 6,000 ISIS fighters have been taken out by U.S.-led airstrikes. Were you surprised by that number? Do you believe it's accurate?
KING: Well, you know, I don't have any independent verification of the number.
What I have heard, that that number is in the ballpark. I will tell you, Wolf, I was in the Middle East over the weekend. And one of the Middle Eastern people over in that area said that they felt that our air campaign had saved the Kurds. That was the phrase that was used.
So I think it has been effective. We have seriously degraded these mobile oil platforms that they have been getting income from. We have degraded their trucks and any of their kind of heavy equipment. So I think it has been very successful.
But, Wolf, you can't win a war simply with airpower. The question now is going to be where does the manpower come from to take it to the next level?
BLITZER: Senator King, thanks very much for joining us.
KING: Thank you, Wolf. Good to be with you.
BLITZER: All right, let's get some more now.
Once again joining us, our CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank, our CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd, our security and intelligence analyst Bob Baer, our national security commentator, the former chairman of House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, and our CNN global affairs analyst Lieutenant Colonel James Reese.
Philip Mudd, what do you think about what we just heard from Senator King, saying, get these Americans out before it's too late?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I would agree with that.
You look at the situation descending into chaos. As we said, we had firing on an embassy vehicle. If you are sitting in a chair in the White House Situation Room and you're looking at upsides, maybe the potential for marginal intelligence collection. You don't have a partner to work with anymore, though. The government is not there -- vs. the down side, you have got to sit there and say, the risk is too high to keep those guys there. I don't know what the deal is.
I would be saying it's time to get them out. BLITZER: Colonel Reese, at what point do officials at the U.S.
Embassy start burning classified documents, destroy hard drives, getting rid of stuff that if al Qaeda or some of these other terror groups in Yemen got their hands on would be very damaging to the United States?
REESE: Wolf, the protocol is on and their alert status is already -- that's probably started to happen, the protocols.
The one thing we have to keep in mind is, we can't manage this from Washington or CENTCOM down in Tampa. The guy on the ground has to be the person with the command authority to make that call. Everyone back here has to support that ground force commander. It's very easy to get caught up in the emotion and start trying to push that guy on the ground with the ambassador and the ground force commander on the ground.
BLITZER: Because there's a U.S. ambassador there. In the end, the U.S. ambassador, Mr. Chairman, they have to decide what to do. Right?
ROGERS: Absolutely. I agree with the colonel. They need to leave that decision at the embassy itself.
Remember, the transition is going on. The government may not look the same. There is some intelligence value, number one. Number two, we have another huge problem there. If we are going to continue to disrupt al Qaeda efforts in Yemen, they are serious and significant, the greatest threat to the homeland, we believe, is now coming out of AQAP or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is Yemen, you are going to need some presence there in order to deal with that.
If you walk away from all of that, I fear for the consequences.
BLITZER: I want everybody to stand by. We have major breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: The Saudi king, Saudi King Abdullah, has died, this according to an official announcement that just aired on official Saudi state TV.
The next interesting will be Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, a major development, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Fortunately, Mike Rogers, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is still with us.
We know that King Abdullah had been gravely ill. We didn't know when he was going to die. But it's now official. He's dead. The ramifications are significant.
ROGERS: They are. I will tell you, I think the Saudis did this very well. In the
last three, four months, they have had senior level delegations coming to Washington, D.C., all in preparation. I think everyone knew the king was not long for this world.
It will have significant ramifications. Hopefully, we will see no disruption. We won't see any fighting in the royal family. I think most of that has been dealt with. And again they were, I thought, very, very good about making sure that they made their intentions clear to support the next king in the last three or four months.
BLITZER: What you are saying, Mr. Chairman, is that there's been -- they have been fully bracing for this for a while and they have a plan in place?
ROGERS: I absolutely believe that. Yes.
BLITZER: You have confidence in what is going on now? Because Saudi Arabia, given the turmoil in that part of the world, is such a vital, key player.
REESE: I do, Wolf. And I know several of the senior chain of command in the ISIS air force and the ground forces, and they have been waiting for this.
I think what they are watching right now is what's happening in Yemen. This might be an opportunity for the Saudis to have to get engaged in Yemen if this thing continues to collapse.
BLITZER: Because if the Shiites take control of Yemen, not only the Saudis, but the Emirates and a lot of other countries friendly to the United States in that part of the world who have no love for Iran, they would be very upset.
REESE: Wolf, that's just -- that's not going to happen in the Arabian Peninsula.
BLITZER: What's not going to happen?
REESE: The Shia are not going to take over the Yemen...
BLITZER: You think the Saudis would go into Yemen, like they did in Bahrain?
BLITZER: You do?
REESE: A hundred percent.
BLITZER: Let me ask Phil Mudd. First of all, your reaction to the official world, the announcement from Saudi state TV, Phil, that the Saudi king, King Abdullah, has died?
MUDD: Look, I have lived in Saudi Arabia before. Wolf, I think the transition will be smooth. They have been preparing for this a long time.
I agree with Mike Rogers. On the specifics of the counterterror front, Mohammed bin Naif is the minister of interior there. He's a superb partner for the Europeans and Americans. He's been around a long time.
Not only will we have I think political stability, but the partnership to deal with issues like the Houthis in Yemen and other Gulf security issues like Iran will be continuous because Mohammed bin Naif will be a source of stability for us.
BLITZER: King Abdullah was 90 years old when he passed away, just want to point out that.
Bob Baer, what's your initial reaction?
BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it's going to be a smooth transition.
King Abdullah has been pretty much out of it for months now. The problem is that the crown prince, who will now become king, Salman, is also sick. The day-to-day business of the kingdom has been run by Muqrin, who is third in line.
But I have always seen the Saudi royal family unify, especially at a time like this. There's no room for infighting at all with Yemen falling apart. I agree with Colonel Reese that if things get really bad down there, the Iranians move in any sense, the Saudis will have no choice but to move in. This is a very sensitive subject for them.
BLITZER: The Saudis have a significant military, largely U.S.- supplied, some French-supplied, but largely U.S.-supplied.
We have some pictures from official Saudi state TV in Mecca. You can see what's going on over there. Word now, it's official, Saudi King Abdullah has died. These are the images that Saudi TV is now showing the world. A very important development.
Paul Cruickshank, it's going to play out in the next few days. I assume there will be a funeral. World leaders might be going there. What's your anticipation?
This is a huge deal, any time this happens, particularly in Saudi Arabia, such a sensitive part of the world, such a key strategic ally of the United States. But I agree with all the rest of the panel. There's likely to be a smooth transition here, that they planned for this for some time.
I don't think there's going to be any real change in strategy from the Saudis, but as has been pointed out, multiple challenges they are facing in the region with the rise of ISIS. Also, there's crisis in Yemen. Of course, the Houthis took control of the capital, Sanaa, all the way back in September. They have basically been in charge since then. So this crisis has really been unfolding for quite some time, Wolf.
BLITZER: Take us behind the scenes, Mike Rogers, right now. U.S. government certainly knew King Abdullah was on the verge of death. This is not a huge surprise, 90 years old, and he's been gravely ill in recent months.
Take us a little inside. What's the decision-making process right now? What worries them the most?
ROGERS: The U.S. government?
ROGERS: Well, clearly, the Yemeni situation.
One of the things, there has been conversations for months with the Saudis. Do they, don't they? Does the U.S. help them in this Houthi problem? Mainly because it's been driven significantly by Iran. A lot of their weapons, a lot of their training, a lot of their intelligence gathering came through the Iranians. That's very, very clear.
There has been discussion for some period of months, what does Saudi Arabia do and where could the U.S. be in that particular event, if they had to go across the border?
I'm not as convinced they will move as smartly. The good news is, all of their ministers -- and so our government will be working with the ministers -- will all stay the same. They all have been cross-trained in each of the -- from a national security to the national guard, they all are very well-experienced ministers in the matters of their national security.
We will have some very serious and direct conversation. I imagine those are really happening. I know several weeks ago when I was there, they were still happening. I wouldn't see anything quickly. I do see that the biggest concern is that the Houthis either pocket themselves in and around the city and don't necessarily try to run the city. Then now we have got a bigger problem for them to deal with.
BLITZER: A period of mourning will begin in Saudi Arabia now, in memory of King Abdullah, 90 years old, who passed away today.
Correct me if I'm wrong, Colonel Reese, but the Saudis did cross the border and go into Bahrain to help the government there when it faced problems with Shiite -- Shiite opposition. Right?
REESE: They did, Wolf. They had a Shia uprising there. And, you know, you had the Saudis and Jordanians that the Bahrainians brought in to help with the royal guard there. So, yes, there's precedence for this. And...
BLITZER: So you wouldn't be surprised if Saudi troops moved into Yemen? REESE: It would not surprise me at all. I agree, it's not going
to happen tonight or tomorrow. But they will be watching this very closely. I would not surprise me if they start posturing some forces and looking at this very closely.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, I know you've been in touch with Obama administration officials. Any official reaction yet from the U.S. government to the death of King Abdullah?
SCIUTTO: Not from the White House yet and not from the State Department. I mean, just keep in mind his importance here. He's been the king since 2005. But when he was crown prince, when King Fahd, his predecessor, who was ill for a number of years, he was effectively even as crown prince running the country during the very difficult years right after -- during and right after 9/11. A real key ally of the U.S. during that time. I was lucky enough to interview him just after the invasion. He spoke very honestly...
BLITZER: Invasion -- the U.S. invasion of Iraq? In 2003?
SCIUTTO: And at the time, he gave the U.S. a warning about invading Iraq and about the dangers. So he's the kind of ally who spoke very directly to the U.S. but remained very close for more than a decade. It's a loss. But as others have said, including Chairman Rogers, this is something that the Saudis have been preparing for and the U.S. has been preparing for.
BLITZER: Bob Baer, the U.S. has a very important close military and strategic political relationship with Saudi Arabia. But there have been differences in recent years as far as Egypt was concerned, for example. There were some significant differences. They were not happy, the Saudis, about the U.S. supporting the overthrow of Mubarak, the former Egyptian president.
And there are also some differences now. The Saudis are not necessarily very pleased by what's going on in this U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They were surprised by some of these back-channel deals that were going on through Oman to start a dialogue with her. It's ironic, but the Saudis, the emirates, they have one thing in common with the Israelis. None of them likes what's going on right now.
BAER: You know, what Jim said about the invasion of Iraq, it shook the Saudis. They were totally against it, especially King Abdullah. He understood this wouldn't go well.
And our support for the Arab Spring in Egypt and across North Africa, the Saudis told us there clearly this wasn't going to work, and the whole Middle East could blow up. And of course, it did in Bahrain and getting rid of Abu Musallab (ph), and in Yemen did, as well. It's nothing but chaos.
Let's not forget that Saudi Arabia remains the swing producer for oil in the world. And even though prices are low, if for some reason it should go off market, there should be some sort of chaos, we would suffer considerably. BLITZER: That's a fair point, as well.
Phil Mudd, so the new king will be King Salman, the brother of King Abdullah, who will take charge. He's not exactly a young guy either. So this is a period of transition right now in Saudi Arabia.
Phil Mudd. I think we lost our connection with Phil Mudd. Mr. Chairman, what do you think?
ROYCE: The connection between us and Saudi Arabia is -- it's a key ally. And so it was interesting. During that time in Iraq, many of us went to talk to the Saudi royal family. They were saying, "If you're going to go anywhere, go to Iran," which is very important. It tells you their mindset at that time and why this Houthi problem is such a big deal.
So this relationship is absolutely critical for us moving forward. They are -- obviously, we're frustrated with some of the things that they do amongst themselves. But they are a key ally in the region and have been a solid ally in the region, especially fighting extremism and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
BLITZER: And you agree: they're concerned about the U.S. negotiations with Iran right now?
ROYCE: I can't -- I can't tell you how frustrated they were, first of all, that it happened in secret and they were not informed of it, No. 1. And No. 2...
BLITZER: You weren't informed of it either...
BLITZER: ... and you were the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
ROYCE: They completely went around all of the national security apparatus in the country, including our strongest allies, who have the most to lose in these equations. And I've never seen them more angry -- openly angry about the way this negotiation happened that they are negotiating with them. And their final statement always is, well, that means if they enrich, we're going to enrich.
BLITZER: So that's the big fear, Col. Reese, that if the Iranians were to get a bomb, it would put enormous pressure on Saudi Arabia and some other countries in the region to do the same thing.
REESE: Absolutely. You remember, you know, Iraq was the buffer between the Iranians and, really, the Saudis, you know. And Saddam was that guy who kept everything in check. So when we threw that out of balance on there, this has been a major concern for the Saudis for several years. And they continue to watch it.
You know, and I was just in Iraq last year. And I said General Soleimani (ph) and the Shia militia are driving right up the Euphrates River Valley and helping out there. We've got all these different forces. It's very confusing at this time.
BLITZER: Let me bring in Fareed Zakaria, the host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS." He is joining us on the phone. I believe you're in Davos right now, Fareed. But give us your instant analysis, shall we say, on the death of King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. The new king will be King Salman, his brother. Are the ramifications, the pitfalls potentially and maybe the benefits. What's your assessment?
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" (via phone): Well, the first thing to note is he was -- he was really quite an extraordinary figure. He was probably the most progressive and liberal-minded king of Saudi Arabia since King Faisal, which is a long time ago, in the early 1970s. And he was genuinely determined to reform.
I had the opportunity to meet with him once. And what you could -- you got a sense of was somebody who really was determined to move his country forward now. You know, it's a conservative country and a conservative society. And he kept emphasizing that to me. But he was very clear in the direction he wanted to go.
He was also much loved. I was struck by the fact -- I attended one of his (UNINTELLIGIBLE), which is the large audiences, and then I was taken in for a private audience with him. And you could see, these were ordinary Saudi citizens who were asking favors of him.
And the way in which they interacted with him was very different from what you would imagine between a king and his subjects. There was a great deal of -- it was a much more flat relationship. They were coming up to him. He was chatting with them. Of course, there was deference but also familiarity.
I think that what it means for Saudi Arabia is that at a very crucial moment they are going through a transition. Remember, the last time the price of oil fell like this, the Soviet Union collapsed. The price of oil has fallen 50 percent in four months. It may be one of the most dramatic drops in the price of oil ever.
At this moment, to also be going through a large political transition in the swing supply at the central bank of oil, it's definitely a kind of -- a touchy situation. That said, the successor is a very competent man himself, was governor of Riyadh, I think. And so I don't expect any major -- any major shift. But it marks a big change. And we'll have to see what the new king is like, particularly on the issue of being progressive and reform-minded.
BLITZER: It's going to be a critically important period. There will be a period of mourning in Saudi Arabia right now. But then they're going to get back to business. And we'll see how the new king operates.
I want to quickly bring in Nic Robertson, who's been to Saudi Arabia many times over the years. He's joining us from London right now. Are you picking up reaction over there to this news that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Nic, has passed away? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via phone): It's
-- it's really early hours here in London, Wolf. I have met King Abdullah, as well, and attended his speech. I was there when King Abdullah actually came to the throne and when his predecessor, King Fahd, was buried.
What we can expect here and what we are witnessing, the Saudi state news agencies are saying that King Abdullah passed away at 1 a.m. in the morning on Friday morning. Obviously, Friday, an auspicious day to pass away.
And in Saudi Arabia, the most important thing for the royal family is a smooth and seamless transition of power. And that's what we're seeing here. That's why there is a crown prince waiting in the wings. Was Crown Prince Salman. Now he is King Salman, the former governor of Riyadh.
He is widely viewed also in the same sort of reform-minded context, again in a conservative country, that King Abdullah was viewed, as well.
What we'll expect to see over the next sort of 18 or 20 hours, we'll see a lot of the -- all of the important Saudi princes returning to Saudi Arabia. We'll see a lot of important dignitaries and leaders, emirs from around the Gulf attending.
When I was there when King Abdullah came to the throne and King Fahd was buried, King -- Prince Charles, rather, of Britain went to represent the queen. So we'll see other royals, likely from Europe going, as well. They'll have to get there quickly, because the funeral is expected to be today. It will be a very perfunctory affair.
I was quite surprised when I watched King Fahd's funeral. Quite literally, the whole procession, several hundred of the royals walking into the cemetery. The burial incredibly swift. Literally, the coffin placed in the ground and the crowd moving on without barely waiting. There was no sort of big ceremony at the graveside whatsoever. So we'll expect to see that.
And then after that, the new king will meet. All the princes will come and say -- and give him their condolences and congratulate him. We'll expect the foreign dignitaries arriving, perhaps prime ministers, presidents among them. So it will be a very big affair. It certainly was when King Abdullah came to the throne.
And there were great expectations that this man would take the country forward and would begin steps for reforming it in the way that we would expect them. Women able to drive, these sorts of things. They didn't happen. It did move the country forward somewhat in a relative way in a conservative country, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. We're showing our viewers a live video. The feed coming in from an official Saudi state TV in Neco (ph) right now. You hear the chanting that is just beginning.
Fareed, are you still with us, Fareed Zakaria?
ZAKARIA: yes, I am.
BLITZER: The tradition -- the tradition in Islam among Muslims is do -- when somebody passes away, to have a burial very quickly, right?
ZAKARIA: Yes. The idea is dust to dust. And there's meant to be very little fanfare, very little ceremony. Very little by way of marking off the -- off the burial site. So these very grand mausoleums that you see in -- certainly in Prussia (ph) and in places like India are, certainly by the Saudi interpretation of Islam, which is very strict and very minimalist, shall you say, they would regard that as all -- as all excessive.
And so when we -- I think Nic is exactly right. What you expect to see is the body gets into the ground as quickly as possible. It's covered with dirt. There is no great marble on top of it and like that, and people move on. The idea is very much dust to dust.
BLITZER: And especially among the leading group in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis, right?
ZAKARIA: Yes. This is -- this is the Wahhabi interpretation. But it will be fair to say that this is not uniquely Wahhabi. That conservative Muslims, you know, throughout the world would tend to do a very quick and very minimalist ceremony.
And in general, if you go to a Muslim grave, you will be struck by the fact that there are very few grand marble monuments. It's all very -- it's all kept very simple.
It's all meant to be an injunction against any kind of potential idol worship, any kind of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Nobody should be turned into -- into somebody or something who could be worshipped. And certainly, with the king of Saudi Arabia, that could happen. And so you would understand why they might take those precautions.
BLITZER: You see these live pictures coming in from Saudi TV.
And Mecca, it's the middle of the night over there. And people have heard the news that the Saudi king, King Abdullah, has died. The new king, the crown prince, will be King Salman. Brian Todd is working the story for us.
Brian, talk a little bit about the succession. What's going on here?
TODD: Well, Wolf, with the death of King Abdullah, every analyst on Saudi Arabia is asking, wondering is this a real changing of the guard in Saudi Arabia? Will this signify that? Or is it going to simply be a change of kings? Will the succession bring real change to how Saudi Arabia treats its people or how it wages the war on terror?
King Abdullah's successor is going to be his half-brother. Deputy Prime Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz. But he is about 80 years old and is said to be in bad health himself. And he's thought by some analysts to be more conservative than King Abdullah was. Is King Salman going to reverse some of the limited reforms his half-brother instituted, like giving women the ability to be appointed to the Saudi parliament?
King Abdullah had also, last March, appointed a deputy crown prince, which did surprise some observers. That deputy, who now becomes crown prince, likely going to be prince, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz -- he is another half-brother, former head of Saudi intelligence.
He is not young either. He's in his late '60s. Little is known about him or any changes he might start to bring about in that new position that he will hold, Wolf.
So the main questions now, of course, how is Saudi Arabia going to wage the war on terror? What kind of ally are they going to be with the United States and its allies there? How are they going to respond to the tumultuous situation in Yemen, the pressure from ISIS, all of those issues facing them as they go through this succession tonight.
BLITZER: It's a critically -- critically delicate moment right now. A lot of crises in that part of the world.
Nic Robertson now, we're showing viewers these live pictures from Mecca, where we literally see thousands of people now have gathered there in mourning; in mourning because King Abdullah has died. Walk us through a little bit, Nic, because you were there the last time Saudi Arabia went through the death of a king. Walk us through some of -- some of the moments that we're about to see.
ROBERTSON: Well, we'll see a gathering of all the leading members of the world family. All the principles will gather. They'll come to Riyadh, which is where the funeral would be expected to take place. They will gather with the new king.
Then, they will go to the -- they will go to the grave site. There will be a very swift burial. Part of the tradition of al-Saud dynasty, it's is one that goes back to the roots in the central desert. Central desert known was Njad. This is -- they are Njadist, the people of the harsh desert of Central Arabia.
It's their tradition, their cultural tradition, perhaps more so than their sort of Wahhabi type religious roots that they embrace, the Wahhabist to get the power to take the thrown from the previous dynasty, you know, almost in early last century. This will be a very sort of -- a cultural event in terms of it's minimalistic. They tend not to leave a headstone marking the grave.
The important thing, again -- I don't think we can understate this enough -- this is a country where the leadership is concerned about maintaining power, maintaining law and order, maintaining a smooth transition. So, it will very quickly transition into all those princes who are coming, all those invited dignitaries who arrive to pay their respects coming to pay their respects to the new king. How that will -- how he will shape the country, I don't we should
expect any great changes fast. Continuity has been the key in Saudi Arabia, very, very slow, gradual change. Part of it is because it's passed brother to brother to brother. And necessarily, the brothers are getting older and older. But what Prince Salam will bring to this will be a certain amount more energy and vigor than King Abdullah was, who was beginning to be in ill health, who was beginning to slow down. There are a lot of expectation on a king in Saudi Arabia. All the power goes through him.
BLITZER: Nic, stand by for a moment.
Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is joining us.
I assume, Elise, the U.S. government was anticipating this. And they have a plan in place who will represent the United States at the funeral for King Abdullah.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, it hasn't been announced. But it has to be said -- I mean, this is seriously something that President Obama will consider very seriously. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia, such close allies. Obviously, U.S. president wants to show -- a show of respect to a figure as important as King Abdullah, not just in terms of the bilateral relationship but the custodian of the holy mosque, of what Saudi Arabia represents to the region.
And I think what Nick said is true. No one in the United States has been expecting that when the Crown Prince Salman takes over as king, there will be many changes. But as we have been saying, he is in his late 70s. He has his own health problems, not expected to live at long as King Abdullah. They are already looking to who is going to be the new crown prince.
And what will King Salman do? Will he take one of the last living sons of the founding king or will he move to the next generation of grandsons, people that we have heard about like Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the intelligence minister? Other figures that have been waiting in the wings. The crown prince was the defense minister. Whoever gets appointed there is someone the U.S. is going to want to get to know.
And also, if they were to go to this next generation, Wolf, those grandsons are a very different breed, closer to the United States. They have been educated there. They spend a lot of time in the United States and speak English. Could be a lot more friendly to Europe and the United States. But at the same time, they don't have the formative experience their fathers learned at the knee of the founding king. Could be willing to explore their options.
So, the U.S. obviously has been planning for this a long time. A lot of intense conversation is going on tonight, Wolf.
BLITZER: Stand by, Elise. I want to bring in on the phone a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan, is joining us. He was ambassador of the United States to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003.
What do you anticipate, Mr. Ambassador, happening in the coming hours and days?
ROBERT JORDAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA (via telephone): Wolf, I think we will see a meeting of the Allegiance Council Mubaya'a Council, which is the convocation of the 30-some most senior princes in the royal family. They will be considering what the succession should look like.
Undoubtedly, the Crown Prince Salman, of course, is going to have all of them swore allegiance to him. I think we're going to see a certain amount of jockeys as you might expect among the royal family for succession opportunities.
Let's bear in mind that there is, if you will, a deputy crown prince, Prince Muqrin, who had been the governor, is a modern fellow. He's the youngest surviving son of King Abdulaziz, late 60s, around 70 years old at this point. So, there will have to be some decision made on what his future role will be, as well as assuming the defense minister that King Salman had occupied.
BLITZER: But you don't anticipate, Mr. Ambassador, any problem as far as the new king is concerned, King Salman. He's going to be the king. There's not going to be any significant fight for power, shall we say.
JORDAN: No, not at all. King Salman is a very respected figure in Saudi Arabia. He was a governor of Riyadh province for 30 years. I dealt with him a great deal during our efforts right after 9/11. I think he will continue much of King Abdullah's policies, probably with a slightly different tone.
Although he's someone whose sons, by the way, are Western educated and very impressive. One of them was a Saudi astronaut, another one has been the deputy minister of petroleum, another runs the family publishing empire. They are quite literate, quite well- educated and Western in their thinking.
So, I think we may be well-surprised at what King Salman can do. I think a lot of it will be more jockeying in the subordinate roles to King Salman and that's something that we don't want to pay attention to.
Mr. Ambassador, one quick question, who do you think is going to represent the United States at the funeral?
JORDAN: You know, I don't know. In 2005, it was Vice President Cheney who came over for the funeral. I think President Obama would want to consider carefully attending this because of the importance of the alliance. And in some ways, it needs more attention than it's received in the last two or three years. So, this will be an opportunity to do that in a way that I think is probably necessary.
BLITZER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much. Robert Jordan, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Mike Rogers, should the president of the United States go to
Saudi Arabia at this delicate moment right now to show his solidarity with Saudi Arabia?
MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: I think he should if it's possible on his schedule. Obviously, there are other things that's happening in the world to detain him. I would try to be there. I think it sends a very important message.
We've had some strained relations. I think this is going to go a long way if the president himself showed up, if not the vice president.
BLITZER: Colonel Reese, what do you think?
LT. COL. JAMES REESE (RET), FORMER DELTA FORCE ARMY OFFICER: I agree. Especially after what happened in Paris, I think it's a time to show what we're about.
BLITZER: What about security concerns? Hastily organized, arranged trip like this.
REESE: Secret Service has this down. And diplomatic services inside the embassy and the Secret Service, there would be to problems.
BLITZER: What are you hearing, Jim Sciutto?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Still no plans yet. No announced plans yet. No announced statement from either the State Department or the Pentagon.
You should expect them all, key relationship for all those parts of government. The other point I would make is the real debate about Saudi leadership would be about next generation, because the new King Salman, he's in the same generation, 79 years old. The new crown prince, Muqrin, he's 69. In fact, there was some debate when King Abdullah's health was bad about moving up Muqrin up the chain because of health concerns of Prince Salman.
But the real debate and more difficult one would be about when the next generation comes in because it is an entirely new generation, Muqrin being the last of children of Abdulaziz. And with that next generation, do you have a significant ideological change? That's the debate that Saudi Arabia still has.
BLITZER: Nic Robertson, people are going to be watching very closely who's going to be attending this funeral, not only who will represent the United States but other world powers.
ROBERTSON: One of them we can expect will be General Sisi from Egypt. We understand he was one of the last foreign dignitaries to meet with King Abdullah who was admitted to hospital there, right at the end of December.
And it may -- you know, some of the people visiting may provide a little awkwardness for some of the dignitaries coming. But, of course, that's not going to be the issue of the day. I think, certainly, from Britain, we would expect to see Prince Charles. He went last time when King Abdullah came to throne.
It would be important for some of the other royal families in Europe. But again, for European leaders in the same way for possibly President Obama, it will be important for the Europeans to show their solidarity as well. This time when Europe, the United States and the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, that's begun to play a much more significant role in the Gulf, taking a much stronger elite position on the issue of Syria and fighting ISIS, at the time where there's greater unity. We can expect to see a lot of European heads of states going as well, Wolf.
BLITZER: I suspect you're right. Phil Mudd, I remember when I was in Saudi Arabia on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion, there were so many troops there. I went to the Prince Sultan Air Base. I think there were about 5,000 U.S. airmen, a lot of F-15s, and F-16s, other U.S. aircraft getting ready for that war.
The relationship is still very strong militarily. But the visible U.S. military presence of Saudi Arabia, you don't see it now days, do you?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No, it's minimal. I think that's had an affect on the security posture for the president visiting. If I were thinking about the security posture, the American president, I would be seriously, as everyone else has said, thinking about having the president there, think four reasons: Iran nuclear, oil, Yemen to the south of Saudi Arabia, ISIS to the north of Saudi Arabia.
The security situation is better than when you were there 12 years ago, Wolf. I think it's an opportunity for the president the sit down on issues that are not important in a Saudi context but pretty high on the president's agenda.
BLITZER: Bob Baer, what do you think?
BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: If he's got to go, Saudi Arabia is our most stable ally other than Israel with Middle East falling apart. He has to show that we're behind them. We simply don't know where things are going to go from this point. I've never seen the Middle East this bad. The American president showing up is a necessity.
BLITZER: As you know, Mr. Chairman, Mike Rogers, in that part of the world a gesture like that, a president going as opposed to a vice president going, that's a big deal.
ROGERS: It is a big deal. One thing about the vice president going in 2005, they have yet a very strong relationship. So, it means --
ROGERS: When Cheney went to Saudi Arabia -- BLITZER: Especially he was head of Halliburton which done a lot
of business --
ROGERS: They had very close personal relationship with many members of the royal family. So, that I think was a better fit. In this particular case, with the strained relations, and there had been strained relations, I think it's critically important that the president show up. They can find a reason for him not to go, I think they need to find a reason for him to go.
BLITZER: There will be an element of resentment if he doesn't show up, right?
REESE: I believe so, Wolf. I agree with the chairman. I mean, it's great opportunity for him to go. The commander in chief of U.S. got this critical war going on in Syria right now. The Saudis and their air force are very critical in this piece. It's a great timing.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, given the tensions, the turmoil right now, just to the south of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula -- in Yemen, looks like a Shiite takeover of Yemen right now. This is a critically dangerous moment for Saudi Arabia. Other U.S. friends in the regions like the United Arab Emirates and other countries over there right now.
MUDD: I think it's important to understand, again, having lived in Saudi Arabia, the context from their perspective. We see this as Sunni versus Shia in Yemen. It's obviously a border, huge border with Saudi Arabia.
If you live in Saudi Arabia, if you understand the Saudis, you have to know it goes well beyond simply a Sunni-Shia fight. You're talking about people who are viscerally hated in Saudi Arabia. They see the Shia as apostates. They see Iran as their rival. Iran is supporting the Houthis in the north.
So, if you add that context, you get a sense of what the flavor is about this Houthi rebellion in Saudi right now. It's a big concern.
BLITZER: Your sense is, Mike Rogers, that the U.S. government has been preparing this for a long time. So, they should have a contingency plan ready to go into place, right?
ROGERS: As far as the visit goes.
BLITZER: As far as what the United States is going to do now, symbolically, politically, strategically, military.
ROGERS: You would hope so. I believe they must have done this. I haven't see that side of it. But we did see very significant, you know, a parade of various senior Saudi officials, minister level folks, everyone from the national security organizations come to Washington, D.C., have discussions here, have formal dinners here as a show of respect. And all of the other meetings that happened.
So, this was clearly in the works. Even in those meetings when I would talk to some of the royal family, you know, the king was not well. They anticipated any minute he was going to pass. I would be shocked if they haven't made contingency plans.
BLITZER: There's a lot of important hard work to do. repairing some of the strains in U.S.-Saudi relations.
REESE: It is, Wolf. And I tell you, on the military side, with CentCom, General Walsh and other, there are CentCom in there all the time.
BLITZER: Yes. All right. Well, it's a sensitive moment. Once again, the king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, has died. There's a new king, King Salman, who will be the new king of Saudi Arabia.
Stay with us for continuing coverage. Dramatic developments unfolding in the Middle East right now.
I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.