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Interview With Idaho Senator James Risch; Engaging ISIS; Terrorist Prison Break; North Carolina Murders; U.S. Helicopter Gunships Now Engaging ISIS; New al Qaeda Gains after U.S. Embassy Abandoned; Obama Condemns 'Brutal Murders' of Muslim Students

Aired February 13, 2015 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: engaging ISIS.

U.S. helicopter gunships in the air in Iraq, they are dangerously close to combat after the terrorist launched a sneak attack on a base used by American forces.

Terrorist prison break. Al Qaeda takes new advantage of a power vacuum, as more countries join the U.S. in abandoning their embassies in Yemen.

President Obama's outrage -- he's weighing in on the murder of three Muslim-American students as the FBI now looks into whether it's a hate crime.

And 40 years of parody, as "SNL" marks a milestone. We will take a look back at one of the show's favorite targets, me.



MIKE MYERS, ACTOR: Worst name, CNN Pentagon correspondent Wolf Blitzer.

DANA CARVEY, ACTOR: It's so obvious the guy made it up for the war.



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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get right to breaking news.

U.S. helicopter gunships are engaging ISIS forces after dangerous new gains by the terrorists. ISIS unleashing suicide bombers dressed in Iraqi military uniforms in an attack on an air base where American forces are based. ISIS is now in control of a nearby town, activating sleeper cells to help their fighters break through security checkpoints.

Senator James Risch is joining us. He's a leading member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. Our correspondents an analysts, they are also starting by to cover all the news that is breaking right now.

First, let's go to our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, for the very latest -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning tonight that in the last 24 hours, U.S. Apache helicopters were deployed here around the Al Asad Air Base during that assault today earlier this morning. And then tonight, eyewitnesses on the ground reporting seeing U.S. helicopter gunships engaging ISIS in al-Baghdadi, which is now contested, but largely in ISIS hands.

U.S. defense officials tell us that at no time were the many, the hundreds, 300 U.S. military personnel down here at Al Asad under threat. But they say with ISIS here, the threat to the Al Asad Air Base and the American personnel continues.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Coalition warplanes flying over the Western Iraqi town of al-Baghdadi, this after ISIS militants seized the town and launched a separate assault on an Iraqi base housing U.S. military personnel.

At 7:20 in the morning, a small group of ISIS fighters dressed in stolen Iraqi military uniforms attacked the Al Asad Air Base, where more than 300 American military personnel are training Iraqi forces.

Iraqi troops fought back, killing eight suspected suicide bombers with the help of American surveillance.

(on camera): Did the attackers at any time breach the base security?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: We are still looking at this, and it's hard to say whether they breached the perimeter or not, but they certainly got to the perimeter level, at the very least. And they were immediately engaged, I think it's important to note, by Iraqi security forces right away.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): U.S. forces stationed at the base were, the Pentagon says, kilometers away from the assault and under no threat. But they were clearly closer to combat.

(on camera): Isn't it fair to say that these military personnel, particularly in Anbar, are in combat, if not combat troops, considering the threat that's around them?

KIRBY: There's no question that they are close to danger. There's no question about that. But there's not going to be a return to a combat mission on the ground. And these individuals are not in a combat mission on the ground. Now, again, as I said, they have the right to defend themselves and should they ever feel under threat, they certainly have the right, the responsibility, the obligation to shoot back.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): But Rear Admiral John Kirby told us the U.S. does have contingency plans to evacuate U.S. military personnel if necessary.

ISIS is also on the offensive in the north. Here, the terror group parading what it claims are Kurdish forces in cages after capturing them in battle.


SCIUTTO: U.S. forces close to danger, and that's not just at Al Asad Air Base here, as we saw in the last 24 hours.

U.S. forces now deployed in four locations, in Taji camp, Bismayah just to the south of Baghdad, Irbil, in addition to al- Baghdadi. These are areas that are much closer to combat than they were before when they were confined to Baghdad.

And it's because of the forward position troops and in fact talk of moving them even closer, for instance, in an assault on Mosul planned for the spring by Iraqi forces, that they are facing greater danger as we go ahead. Not combat troops, perhaps, Wolf, but certainly closer to combat.

BLITZER: When I hear U.S. military helicopter gunships are involved in an operation that is ongoing right now, that certainly sounds like combat to me, Jim.

SCIUTTO: It is combat.

When I was speaking to Admiral Kirby today, he said that as well. He said, listen, we have pilots in the air, not even just the helicopters, but in F-18s and F-16s flying over the country flying combat missions. Yes, at a few thousand feet, but as we saw with that Jordanian pilot that went down in Syria, that still involves danger.

Yes, it's combat from the air and perhaps combat from a distance, but still danger. The thing is the distance is shortening over time as the forces are more forward deployed.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto with the latest. Thank you.

Let's go to another front line right now against ISIS, where a heated new battle may be getting under way.

CNN's Phil Black is joining us live from Northern Iraq.

What are you seeing, what are you hearing over there, Phil?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, increasingly in this country, it is two different stories in two different regions. In the west of the country, Anbar province, around the Al Asad Air Base, this is an area where ISIS is still very much on the offensive, where the Iraqi army and local Sunni tribesmen have not been able to slow the advance.

Here in the north, Kurdish fighters have slowed ISIS. They have contained ISIS. They have even rolled back some of its territory. But ISIS still controls key towns and cities, Sinjar, Tal Afar, Mosul, all of these firmly in ISIS control. The Kurdish fighters alone, while they have moved to within very close positions of these towns and cities, they are in no shape just yet to liberate these towns and cities on their own.

They still battle ISIS every day. ISIS still lashes out at their positions on almost a daily basis. And so the Kurdish fighters in this region are still waiting for the Iraqi army to finish its new training, its preparation to join a new offensive that would finally clear ISIS from the north and northwest corner of this country, Wolf.

BLITZER: Do the Kurdish forces -- you have been with them for several days, Phil. Do they say they're getting the military equipment from the United States that they need?

BLACK: They tell us all the time they are incredibly grateful for the airstrikes. But beyond that, they are frustrated because, no, Wolf, they believe they need greater weapons, new, more advanced weapons, heavy weapons and armored vehicles, because that's what they are going up against in ISIS.

Remember, when the Iraqi army fled this region, it left behind all of its weaponry, all of its armored vehicles, much of it supplied by the United States. And those are the weapons and vehicles that are now being used against the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga. They have basic light arms, much of it old, much of it really, well, ancient, relics compared to what they are going up against.

And so on that level, there's that frustration. They believe they are fighting well. They believe they are winning. But they certainly want more assistance from the United States and the West, because they believe they are performing the function of being the ground force in this international coalition against ISIS. So far, they have been the most effective, the closest thing to a force that is really fulfilling that task -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the Kurds make good points. Thanks very much, Phil Black.

Right now, terrorists also are on the move in Yemen. Al Qaeda militants attacked a prison today, freeing six of their fighters. A U.N. leader says the country is collapsing before our eyes after a rebel coup that's terror groups freer rein.

At least three more nations now are joining the United States in closing their embassies in Yemen's capital because of the escalating violence.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now. He has got more on this disaster that's unfolding.

What are you learning, Brian? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the scene in Yemen tonight

is so-called chaotic that three close allies of the United States, Germany, Italy and Saudi Arabia, are shutting down operations at their embassies there.

But it's the suspension of operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, that may be the most damaging development in the fight against terror. Tonight, we have new details of that embassy's role against a deadly American enemy and what has been lost now that everyone inside the embassy is gone.


TODD:(voice-over): At the fortified U.S. Embassy in Yemen, a scramble to get out. Documents and weapons were destroyed and all Americans inside, even the Marines, evacuated from the country. Analysts say before the pullout, this embassy was often buzzing with intelligence operations.


BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You simply cannot put officers on the ground. You can't go out to meetings. You can't drive around. You can't even go in country. So we are -- again, I will say it -- effectively blind there. And this was a huge setback, losing this embassy.

TODD: Former CIA officer Bob Baer, who once took part in operations at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, says now that the embassy has by most measures closed, dozens of U.S. intelligence operatives have left Yemen and with them some crucial listening capability and human intelligence. The CIA won't comment.

It is drawing major concern tonight because al Qaeda's most dangerous branch, one of America's most formidable enemies, operates out of Yemen. al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they claimed responsibility for the "Charlie Hebdo" attack in Paris. They were behind the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomb plot and the attempt to place bombs in printer cartridges.

Both those attacks targeted the United States. Both almost succeeded. The master bomb-maker behind those plots, the notorious Ibrahim al-Asiri, is still at large, still believed to be operational. And with the U.S. Embassy evacuation, analysts say that al Qaeda branch is emboldened.

KATHERINE ZIMMERMAN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: AQAP is already taking advantage of the vacuum. We saw an attack recently on one of the largest military bases in South Yemen. AQAP entered the base, stole the weapons and actually then left and vacated. The base is now controlled by tribes, not the Yemeni military.

TODD: And AQAP just overran a prison in Southern Yemen and freed six of their militants. U.S. officials tell CNN, their counterterrorism capabilities in Yemen have been impacted by the chaos. But they insist they still have assets in place to combat al Qaeda.

KIRBY: We still have a military counterterrorism capability inside Yemen. We do have some number of special operations forces that are still operating in Yemen.


TODD: U.S. officials say they are also training Yemeni forces still. There have also been drone strikes in recent days. But analysts say there's still a major void with few if any American intelligence operatives to work on the ground with their Yemeni counterparts.

That hands-on cooperation with the Yemenis was always seen as crucial to the operations against al Qaeda -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, how will the U.S. compensate for the loss of those intelligence operatives on the ground in Yemen? If they don't have them, how are they going to know where to go after potential al Qaeda targets?

TODD: It makes it much more difficult. Wolf, analysts say the U.S. can have overhead coverage, aerial surveillance and they can still conduct signals intercept. They can do some counterterror operations from Saudi Arabia or from ships off the coast of Yemen and there are still special operations forces on the ground in Southern Yemen, as Admiral Kirby mentioned in our story.

But nothing takes the place of those intelligence operatives on the ground operating from the U.S. Embassy there. They are crucial and now they are gone.

BLITZER: That embassy shut down, at least for now.

Brian, thank you.

Joining us, Senator James Risch. He's a Republican of Idaho. He's a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

What's going on in Yemen looks totally like a disaster. The U.S., the Saudis, Germany, the Italians, they are all pulling out, shutting down their embassies right now. How concerned are you that Yemen potentially could be ruled, at least huge chunks of it, by AQAP, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen?

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Wolf, I guess the conclusion from your story is chaos reigns.

That has never been a terribly secure place. There's always been difficulties there. The country has been divided with Houthis in charge of one area and the al Qaeda in charge of another area. But now where we have pulled out and pulled out some of the key operations that we have there, it's going to be more difficult to operate within Yemen. We have been operating for some time, as you know, but the

president is going to have to step it up there. There's no question about it. I think to comment on the top of your story, there's a little bit of good news there, not the least of which is the Iraqis actually stood and fought. And they actually won.

More importantly, of course, is the report that others are hanging on there that are fighting. The Kurds are our best friends in the region. I have encouraged the administration at every level to engage the Kurds to help us. The Kurds are begging for our help. And we keep being told that, oh, they have to go through Baghdad in order to arm the Kurds.

I don't know who made up that rule. But somebody needs to set that rule aside and help these people out, because these are fierce fighters. They are great friends of ours. We ought to help them.

BLITZER: Yes, but they certainly don't have the equipment they need to fight these ISIS forces.

RISCH: No question about that.

BLITZER: And as Phil Black pointed out, these ISIS forces, they have taken over a lot of very sophisticated, advanced U.S. military hardware, which the Iraqi military basically abandoned as they ran away in the face of the ISIS offensive last year.

I want to talk about Iraq in a moment. But let's finish up with Yemen first.

Are you confident that Yemen will at some point be secure, or is it just going to be chaos there, potentially al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula not only growing, but dramatically becoming a greater threat? And these Houthi rebels, they're Shiites, they're dramatically backed by Iran, right? This is a lose-lose situation for the United States.

RISCH: Wolf, that was a great point you made about Iran. I was going to comment on that. Their fingerprints are all over this.

They are very much backed by Iran in every way possible, financially, militarily and everything else. They need to be reined up. You asked me my opinion in the short run. This is not a very pretty picture. I can't fathom that this thing is going to right itself. It's going to take intervention from the outside. Certainly other Arab nations need to get engaged.

And the other -- many of the Arab nations are very, very concerned about what's happening in Yemen.

BLITZER: Well, let's see if they step up and do something about it.

Stand by, Senator. We have more to discuss.

We have got to take a quick break. More with Senator James Risch right after this.


BLITZER: We're back with Senator James Risch. And we're following breaking news, U.S. helicopter gunships now engaging ISIS forces in Iraq.

As you know, Senator, ISIS got dangerously close to several hundred U.S. Marines at that Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. How endangered potentially are these U.S. troops?

RISCH: You know, Wolf, just from the reports that we have had, I would say the ISIS troops are probably in more danger than our U.S. Marines.

For one thing, the Iraqis themselves defeated them and reportedly killed all the attackers. So I think that the Marines can take care of themselves. They really can.

Having said all this, you know, we're going to be facing when we get back to Washington, D.C., a vote on the request for authorization for military force. All this is making the votes probably tilt one direction a lot more.

And this thing is moving very quickly. And Congress is going to have to move very quickly behind it. And the president needs to stiffen up a bit in this area also. I'm hoping he will once the resolution passes.

BLITZER: Well, what do you want to change in that resolution? I assume you want some major changes.

RISCH: You know, Wolf, there's a debate going on right now. As you know, there's a spectrum of view in the Congress.

On the one side, there's ones that don't want to engage at all. On other side, they want a full-blown foot soldier invasion. Neither one of those are going to win. But it needs to have more attention than it's getting. And I think the big criticism right now is, people don't feel that the president has the willpower that he should have to impress our will on what's going on there right now.

And we have the capability of doing it. We're going to need to do it. I agree with the people who say that we should not have a full-scale engagement. I think it's going to take some people on the ground. I think the president's idea of using the special forces is a really good idea.

Certainly, our airpower and the drone power is going to be very devastating to them if they would step it up. And they're going to need to step it up.

BLITZER: Should the American public, Senator, be ready for a 20- or 30-year involvement in that part of the world right now, given this level of insurgency and what is going on?

RISCH: You know, Wolf, you would certainly hope not.

But if you step back and look at it and look at it from 30,000 feet, this thing is -- what you do is, you go in, you get the hot spot, you suppress it, and then you try to walk away. And what happens? It blows up again.

I will say this. In the last half-dozen years or so, the situation has become very different as far as engaging the enemy is concerned. What we have done using our airpower, using drone power, has been very, very debilitating to the enemy.

Now, you remember we started off with in Iraq hundreds of thousands of troops. Then, in other -- in the other conflicts, we have had thousands of troops. And that's been ratcheting down. In addition to that, the Arab countries are now -- as I have reported to you before, are very, very concerned about what's going on with the radicals. They weren't before. They are now.

And I think things are going to change dramatically. And it is going to take the Arab nations themselves. As they have said, this is our war now. And they need to accept that.

BLITZER: You told me the other day, Senator, that ISIS, the terrorists were moving beyond their -- what you called their aspirational goals of trying to hit the U.S. homeland, that they may be in a more advanced stage. I wonder if you want to elaborate a little bit.

RISCH: Yes, I would like to elaborate, but I really can't, Wolf. Most of that material is classified.

But I can assure you, we deal with this every day. And we believe that they are moving beyond their aspirations. Look, this is a group that, as you have seen, has been very, very successful in a really short period of time. They are emboldened. They are moving, as we saw today, against a base that contains U.S. forces.

These people are very bold. Their preferred target is the U.S. homeland.

BLITZER: Are there ISIS terrorist sleeper cells, plots in the United States right now?

RISCH: You know, as far as I'm going to go with that with you, Wolf, is to tell you that there are people who have traveled to Syria, fought with ISIS and have returned to the United States.

I think people can draw their own conclusions from that as far as what that means for us here in the homeland. It is a dangerous situation.

BLITZER: All right. It certainly sounds that way.

All right, Senator, thanks very much for joining us, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho.

Just ahead: inside the ISIS plot to attack the heart of Europe. CNN is now getting exclusive new information.

And we're also following the investigation into the killing of those three Muslim-American students in North Carolina. President Obama today broke his silence on the case. We will tell you why.



BLITZER: Breaking tonight, U.S. helicopter gunships are engaging ISIS after the terrorists seized a town in Iraq and attacked an air base where American troops are positioned.

We're covering all the new developments in the war against terror. We're also getting new details on a plot to attack the heart of Europe.

Joining us now, CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd; CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling; CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank; and Yemen analyst Sama'a Al- Hamdani. To all of you, thanks very much for joining us.

Paul, let's start with you. You are getting new information about the raid last month in Belgium, foiling an ISIS terror plot that supposed by the information you are learning, it was a lot more -- a bigger than we originally thought.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: A lot bigger. Belgian officials telling me the is leadership were behind it. They sent a Belgian ISIS cell back to Belgium to Carry this out. And the plan was to launch a terrorist spectacular.

When they went into the safe house in Essen (ph), Belgium, they found automatic weapons, they found all the chemicals necessary to make a high-process TATP. They found police uniforms suggesting that they wanted to gain access to sensitive sites. They also found a GoPro camera, suggesting that they wanted to film this for propaganda purposes.

They believe that this cell was being coordinated by an ISIS operative based in Greece. He had an elaborate system of phone calls to communicate with them, coded messages. They believe it was a very sophisticated plot, and the ISIS leadership was behind this, Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil, if the ISIS terrorists in Belgium were actually targeting a major area, like NATO headquarters, something along those lines, what does it tell you about their ambitions against the United States, even in the U.S. homeland?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, the pivot of ISIS over the past year is remarkable. Here's the reason why.

Twenty years ago, if you had looked at radical Islamic groups who wanted to spark revolutions in places like Algeria or Egypt, they would have said, "Let's take out the local government. Let's take out the local police station." Like it or not, Wolf, the revolution of al Qaeda and bin Laden was to tell these groups, if you really want to stage a revolution in the Middle East, you've got to remove the head of the snake.

Very few leaders have taken on that message. We've seen leaders in Yemen do it. Now we've seen ISIS do it. The message from this potential planning in Europe now in Belgium is that ISIS has now realized that their target isn't just Baghdad. They've absorbed the bin Laden message, the bin Laden revolution. The real target is the Americans and NATO, and go after them as -- at the same time that you're attacking Iraqi forces.

BLITZER: General Hertling, you heard Paul say that this raid, Belgian police discovered chemicals used to build bombs, automatic weapons, police uniforms, a GoPro camera to record it, maybe for propaganda purposes. It sounds pretty sophisticated to me. That sophistication potentially tells us something about ISIS capabilities, right?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Certainly does, Wolf. And I would say, I wouldn't quite put it in sophisticated, but it certainly is advanced.

And going back to what Phil said, it would have been extremely devastating, depending on what the target was. I mean, this is something that when you're talking about uniforms and the opportunity to use automatic weapons and explosive devices, compare that to what happened in Paris with just a couple of guys wielding guns. And imagine something like that against a primary target where someone comes in in police uniform. NATO headquarters or some of the military bases in Belgium. It would have been devastating, and it would have shocked the world.

BLITZER: It certainly would have.

So now let's turn to the situation in Yemen, a subject you know well. As you know, the U.S. suspended operations there earlier this week for all practical purposes, shutting down the U.S. embassy. Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and a whole bunch of other companies -- countries have followed suit. This looks like the situation is going to be a breeding ground and an enormous breeding ground for the growth and expansion of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This terrorist group potentially could flourish in Yemen, right?

SAMA'A AL-HAMDANI, YEMEN ANALYST: Yes. AQAP has operated in Yemen for such a long time. However, we heard today about a prison break in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And this is not the first time that they used political turmoil to have prisoners escape from there.

The same base was targeted before. And in 2011, when the revolution happened, a lot of prisoners escaped from Hana'a (ph). So the risk of AQAP performing operations is always there under the -- under the presidency of Fada (ph) and also under the presidency of Hadi (ph) and right now under the Houthis.

However, a spokesperson from the political office of the -- of the Houthi group stated that AQAP is their enemy. And so right now, the danger is if the Houthis refuse to share the power in Yemen, all the opponents of the Houthi militia group may join AQAP to fight the Houthi group in Yemen.

BLITZER: Paul Cruickshank, I want to play for you a clip. We just heard it from Senator Risch here in THE SITUATION ROOM, talking about ISIS and its aspirational goals of going after targets in the United States. Listen to this.


SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: There are people who have traveled to Syria, fought with ISIS and have returned to the United States. I think people can draw their own conclusions from that as far as what that means for us here in the homeland.


BLITZER: I had asked him, Paul, about sleeper cells, ISIS operatives already in the United States with plots or whatever. That was a pretty blunt answer.

CRUICKSHANK: Yes. And he's really making news with that, Wolf, that this is new information that there are ISIS fighters now on U.S. soil, people who've trained in Syria, the sort of people who over there would learn how to be skilled in urban warfare, learn how to make explosives, have experience in actually killing people are now back on U.S. soil.

This is a very significant development. This is new information as far as I know. And obviously, very worrying for everybody over here.

BLITZER: Phil, the senator is a member of the intelligence community. Clearly, he's well-briefed. What does this say to you?

MUDD: Look, I don't think that's a blunt answer, Wolf. Let me be more blunt as someone who witnessed about 1,000, 2,000 threat briefings. If you've got this number of North Americans, that is several hundred, going over to Syria, Iraq; if you've got 1,000 or more Europeans going over, to say that there are people back here who have undergone training out there is not a significant revelation.

Let me tell you what is the significant revelation. If you're sitting there tomorrow morning at 7:15 in the FBI threat briefing, and you think you can own dozens of people coming back to America who may decide overnight that they want to conduct an operation. The answer is, you cannot. You can't conduct surveillance on that many people simultaneously.

Here's the bottom line, Wolf. If we go onto for this fight for years at a time and if there are dozens or 100 or more Americans and Canadians who come back home, one of them will succeed, because you can't sit on that kind of risk indefinitely.

BLITZER: Well, that's worrisome to me.

All right, guys. Stand by. We're going to continue to follow the breaking news.

To find out, by the way, more about the escalating battle against ISIS, specifically what you can do to help protect Iraqi children affected by the violence, visit

Just ahead, as "Saturday Night Live" celebrates a big anniversary, we're taking a closer look at some of my favorite moments in the show's history when the joke was on me.


BLITZER: New tonight, President Obama is condemning the murders of three Muslim-American students in North Carolina. He's calling their killing brutal and outrageous. In his first public statement of the case, he says, quote, "No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship."

The FBI and other federal authorities are looking into the shooting and whether it amounts to a hate crime. Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown; our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes; and our CNN anchor Don Lemon.

Pamela, you're getting some new information on the course of this inquiry, this investigation. What are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The Justice Department's civil rights division, Wolf, officially announced today that it has launched a preliminary inquiry into whether these murders violated hate crime laws.

And we're just getting a statement from Attorney General Eric Holder. In this statement, he says that he pledges "the full resources of the Department of Justice to help ensure justice will be served in this case." He goes on to say, "Protecting the safety and security and the civil rights of this country is and must always remain a top priority. We will never waiver in this commitment, and going forward we pledge to stand with the families of these three remarkable young people."

Again, the Department of Justice opening up this preliminary inquiry, which is actually just a civil rights investigation, Wolf. This has been ongoing from a very early on to see whether Hicks did violate hate crime laws.

Sources tell my partner Evan Perez that so far there are no indications that investigators have gathered so far indicating this was a hate crime. But again, it's ongoing and very preliminary -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Tom, you're a former FBI assistant director. Now that the president of the United States has weighed in, the FBI has weighed in, the Justice Department is weighing in. At least they suspect it's possible this wasn't simply some -- allegedly, a crazy guy who was upset about parking, but it could be actually a hate crime. Right? TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, Wolf, not to

dispute the president or the attorney general. They should be aware that the FBI was asked to come in and help the Chapel Hill Police Department the night of the murder. They helped with the crime scene. They've been helping from the beginning and providing expertise to the police department, even before it's been called preliminary inquiry or any other name that usually is what Washington provides for an investigation, because the police department recognized they don't have the experts in proving the elements of the hate crime. They could certainly do a triple homicide.

But they knew from the beginning and said so from the beginning that they knew the world would be watching this and giving it consideration that it could be a hate crime and that that's something under investigation. So, giving it a new name on Friday doesn't alter the fact that the FBI has been working diligently since Tuesday night on this case with the police department.

BLITZER: But it does point out, Don Lemon, that the president of the United States is now officially publicly weighing in with a statement. You heard that quote that I read earlier, a statement suggesting that potentially he is concerned that maybe these three young students were targeted because of their religion.

LEMON: Yes. And earlier when the attorney general of the United States was asked about it, before the statement that he just released, he said he believed that there was enough circumstantial evidence to launch a civil rights investigation. And the president was really -- maybe he was in a way shamed into it because as you know, Tayyip Recep Erdogan was shocked that the president did not say anything. So, now, he has officially weighed in.

I think because the president weighed in, it puts more weight into it.

BLITZER: Erdogan is the president of Turkey.

What's the reaction you are getting, Pamela, from Muslim American advocacy groups to this new development, the FBI, the Justice Department, the president, the White House, all weighing in?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, so far, the reaction is this is a step in the right direction, Wolf. They've been pushing for this, 150 civil rights groups sent a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking for a civil rights investigation to be launched.

In fact, one organization, Muslim Advocates, sent out a statement after this was announced, saying, "We are grateful that the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, civil rights, have opened this. This is an important step forward toward the ultimate goal that the attorney general opened of a full federal investigation" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Tom, that the FBI is involved now in this investigation, civil rights investigation, that there could be a hate crime because of the public pressure, because they suspect, yes, this individual allegedly went ahead and killed these young students because of their religion?

FUENTES: No, I don't believe that, Wolf, because the FBI was working this case before the public knew anything had actually happened at Chapel Hill. As I said, the police recognized what this case was going to be and the worldwide attention it would draw. And they asked the FBI to come in and give them help with the expertise, crime scene investigation, as well as the interviews, to try to determine what the elements are and how to go about proving the hate crime.

The other aspect of this is that they have a triple homicide. Usually, the hate crime statute is designed to increase the penalties on a regular crime. So, if it's a class B felony, it can be race raised to a class A felony.

But Hicks is looking at the death penalty. And if the cases were prosecuted individually, he could be sentenced three times to death. And adding the hate crime to the prosecution can't increase that. He's already standing to be executed if convicted of the murders.

So, it's a little bit of at this point the political name that they're applying to the investigation, but trying to make sure and reassure the world that the U.S. government and our criminal justice system is fully addressing this issue as a hate crime and that they do sympathize and have empathy for the community that may be concerned that it could have been a hate crime.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to leave it there, but we're going to stay on top of the story for our viewers.

When we come back, a very, very different story we're following, 40 years of satire and slapstick. "Saturday Night Live" celebrates a huge milestone, as an important cultural force. Up next, we're going to take a closer look at one of its top targets over these past decades.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Worst name, CNN Pentagon correspondent, Wolf Blitzer.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Wolf Blitzer, such an exciting name for such a boring man.



BLITZER: CNN is about to try something new and fun. Six of our anchors are testing their knowledge of presidential trivia in a quiz show hosted by Anderson Cooper. It's a tough competition. Here is a look at the teams.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: The teams of anchors were basically got paired up. We got Jake and Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So, I have Jake tapper. Thank you, god. Thank you.

BURNETT: Jake obviously knows a lot about presidents, right?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I thought it was going to be like which president is currently president.

CAMEROTA: I think that John Berman is a slipper.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I don't understand the question.

CAMEROTA: I think that he pretends not to know so much of our presidential history and then he like knocks it out of the park.

BURNETT: John Berman is really good at trivia.

BERMAN: It's about the Oscars Hollywood. That's what he told me.

BURNETT: You got Don and Chris.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I want to beat Tapper.

BURNETT: And Don and Chris have a lot of fun.

LEMON: I hate that I have to carry this entire team.



BLITZER: Joining us once again, one of quiz show competitors, Don Lemon.

Tell us about this show that's going to air Monday night.

LEMON: I'm so scared when people see this. It's actually really fun. We were all -- I think we were all a bit hesitant about being in a quiz show. It turned out to be a lot of fun. We were playing for charity. Why not just let down your guard and do it. I don't know a lot about presidents.

BLITZER: It's going to air on President's day, right? That's the point. LEMON: The whole focus is presidents. We were given a whole

book and all those notes to study. And, you know, after the show, we want to go out and have a few cocktails and not study. And so, we ended up having to study. So --

BLITZER: So, did you actually go through all that research and learn?

LEMON: I did and it all got jumbled in my head at the last second. You know the answer and in real life you can go. When you have someone like Tapper or someone like Berman, who are really trivia buffs, Tapper who knows everything about politics, by the time you're like ah, they already have weighed in.

BLITZER: Did you have actually a bell like that?

LEMON: We had a bell. This is one of them. (INAUDIBLE) thing behind our back and we -- this is our bell.

BLITZER: So, you have to really hit it.

LEMON: You have to really hit the bell. And then we had actually buzzers. And then there was one called face off, right, where you had to give clues about what was on the screen but your partner couldn't see the thing.

And Chris and I on ours, I don't want to give too much away, we got a little bit confused and we made the game harder than it actually had to be because you could use the name of the president.

BLITZER: How did Anderson Cooper do as like the moderator?

LEMON: Well, Anderson is always awful. So, he was terrible as usual. He showed up with the same outfit on a black suit and purple tie. He wore my outfit. Obviously, he's great.

BLITZER: Did you guys coordinate that outfit?

LEMON: No, we didn't coordinate. He saw me, I think in makeup room and he went to his off and grabbed a purple tie because he didn't want to be overshadowed by me. No, it just happened.

BLITZER: Were the questions hard?

LEMON: The questions were actually hard. There were some questions that were really easy like, who is the tallest president? Right? You know that's Lincoln. Who's the second tallest? You know it's Johnson, right? You know those little things like that. Well, Tapper got all those questions.

BLITZER: Don't tell us anymore. We want to see it Monday night.

LEMON: OK, I won't tell you that much. It's really fun. Tune in.

BLITZER: I'm sure it will, Don. Thanks very, very much. So, you can watch Don every night, by the way, Monday through

Thursday, I should say, 10:00 p.m. Eastern. And tune in Monday night, this coming Monday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern for "The CNN Quiz Show: Presidents Edition".

Another big TV event is coming up. "Saturday Night Live" celebrates its 40th anniversary this week and I consider it a badge of honor I've been spoofed by "SNL" a lot over these many years. Which Wolf do you prefer?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Worst name, CNN Pentagon correspondent, Wolf Blitzer.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Wolf Blitzer, such an exciting name for such a boring man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What kind of name is Wolf?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's so obvious he made it up for the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Wolf Blitzer and this is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Homey, where you at?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Straight up. You know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to do push ups and I want you to count them out loud. Blitzer, get up here and sit on my back.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No more on-screen news crawl. The crawl is a privilege, not a ride.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My face is being haunted by the ghost of an old beard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like hi, we now take you to our war correspondent. Howitzer explosion guy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So let me warn the gun-slinging buccaneer George Bush and his henchmen Jimmy Carter and Wolf Blitzer.



BLITZER: You like that. That was very funny.

LEMON: That was hilarious.

BLITZER: Over 25 years. They had an opportunity.

LEMON: I needed that. I like that. I love that.


LEMON: No, you don't do that. You're not boring at all.

BLITZER: Yes, but (INAUDIBLE). But they did a good job. It's very funny.

All right. "SNL", congratulations, 40 years. Wonderful, wonderful entertainment.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.