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Pentagon Reveals Plan to Retake ISIS Stronghold; ISIS Lures Teenagers to Join Fight; Justice Department Charges 19-Year-Old Man For Allegedly Trying To Join ISIS; Eastern Half Of U.S. Faces Bitter and Record-Breaking Cold; Rudy Giuliani Doubles Down On Comments About Obama's Lack Of Patriotism

Aired February 20, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, war plan. The U.S. releases details of a new offensive against ISIS in Iraq. Why is the Pentagon giving ISIS a heads up about what's coming?

Lured to Syria. An international hunt is under way right now for three teenaged schoolgirls who may be on the way to join ISIS. We have disturbing new details about a twist in the terrorist recruiting tactics.

Also, frozen. From Niagara Falls to the Potomac River and beyond. And with almost half of the country on ice, a new storm takes aim. We have the latest forecast for those in the danger zone.

And Rudy Giuliani declares, "I am not a racist," but now he says President Obama was raised by socialists. And he isn't backing off from his claim that the president doesn't love America.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Breaking now, new and detailed plans for an upcoming ground offensive against ISIS. This is not a leak. It's coming directly from the Pentagon.

The war plans call for Iraqi and Kurdish fighters to work together in a battle this spring to push ISIS out of Iraq's second largest city. Significantly, the plans leave open the possibility of U.S. boots on the ground in addition to jets in the skies.

Newly-released propaganda videos show ISIS fighters preparing for house-to-house combat. So why tell them even more?

President Obama's deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, is over at the White House. He'll answer our questions. Our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

Let's begin with the very latest. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is working her sources -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf. I think it's very important what you said. This is not a leak. This was -- the information came to reporters in a briefing organized by the U.S. military. They said they were offering the details to show that the Iraqis are serious about this.

This will be 20,000 to 25,000 troops going to Mosul in April or May if the Iraqis are ready, and that is the big "if." The Iraqis, five brigades' worth, are going to need some U.S. training, some U.S. assistance. The big question: how much U.S. assistance, as they move towards Mosul, which is a densely populated area. ISIS is dug in. It's urban warfare.

Will the Iraqi forces need U.S. troops to help them on the ground spot, find those ISIS targets?

Now, if President Obama were to get a recommendation and he were to approve it, the case he will have to make is that this is not putting troops into combat. He has ruled that out, that they will not have a combat task. But make no mistake: if you're on the ground with ISIS, facing ISIS, you are in a combat environment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you know, Barbara, the Pentagon has released a lot of details, a lot of information about the upcoming battle plan. Kurdish forces, for example, are supposed to block escape routes to the north and west of Mosul, for instance. Is that giving away too much information to the enemy, namely ISIS, right now?

STARR: Well, you know, Wolf, the Pentagon insists that it's not. Those escape routes already, we've seen airstrikes for several days in that area to try and cut off ISIS's access to Mosul. It's a big area. ISIS is still moving around a good deal.

The Pentagon insists that no tactical information, that fine-tuned information about how forces will be arrayed on the battlefield, how they will move, where they will move, exactly when they will move, that that information is not forthcoming. They claim, they say they didn't offer anything up that ISIS doesn't already know. And as some people are pointing out, this will give civilians in the area a chance to at least try and get out of the way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Voices in Iraq are saying not so fast. The plan to retake Mosul is not necessarily getting a warm reception from Kurdish fighters already battling ISIS in northern Iraq, raising serious concerns about the plan's overall effectiveness.

Our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman is joining us from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. What are you hearing over there?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we spent the day with Sinyuan Baizan (ph). He's one of the senior Kurdish military commanders. And when I asked him about this plan coming out of the Pentagon, he said it's unrealistic and it's impossible, he said, given that it's going to depend on the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi army, which despite years of training by the United States and billions of dollars in weaponry, failed miserably to hold Mosul back in June of last year. And of course, he said -- he made another valid point. He said look,

the Americans with all their power and weaponry, had a very hard time keeping control of Mosul, so how will the Iraqi army with such a dismal record, how is it going to get control and maintain control of a city which is -- has a large Sunni Arab population, which is going to be hostile to an Iraqi army dominated by Shiites and also hostile to Kurds, as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And you've also heard that the ISIS forces in Mosul, they're already getting ready for some sort of invasion. They're planting IEDs, improvised explosive devices, booby-trapping buildings. This is a city of nearly two million people. There could be a lot of civilian casualties if there's a major U.S. organized, shall we say, offensive.

WEDEMAN: Certainly. If you look at the record of these towns and villages, for instance the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, have been able to retake, many of them -- they've never been able to allow the original inhabitants to move back, because there are so many IEDs left behind by ISIS.

In fact, yesterday, we were in nearby a town that was liberated months and months ago, but we saw that they were still exploding. Kurdish forces, IEDs left behind months and months ago-- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ben Wedeman, be careful over there, Ben. This is Erbil.

An important U.S. ally, meanwhile, is pointing out another potential problem with the U.S. plan to try to chase ISIS out of Mosul. It has to do with the religious split among Muslims.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's working the story.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This is a very powerful protest from a very key part of the coalition. That is the Arab partners taking part.

I spoke to a senior Arab official today who said that these Arab partners are concerned that the planned operation, because it depends on Iraqi forces, will in effect be led by Shiite-dominated Iraqi forces and because of that, it will be effectively a Shiite militia operation to retake Mosul as opposed to an Iraqi operation, and because of that, it will further alienate the Sunnis.

Remember, when you're talking about Mosul you talk about an area that is principally Sunnis. Not just during this operation but afterwards, you need this to be part -- to have ownership from all the various parties. They're concerned that the Iraqi military, despite the Iraqi prime minister's efforts to make it more reflective of the broad collection of, you know, Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, Iraq is still a largely Shia-dominated force.

To hear from that Arab partners saying, listen, if you do this operation now, you're going to further split the coalition. You're going to further worsen these sectarian lines. That's a bold protest so close to this operation. BLITZER: And you're also learning new information, disturbing

information about new ISIS efforts, if you will to recruit people in the west.

SCIUTTO: That's right. A particular category of people, and that is young women. I have heard this from senior European officials, and we have another case of that today. A senior British diplomat telling me that the recruitment of women and girls is, quote, "a clear and disturbing trend" and warns that girls involved in this particular case, three young British schoolgirls on their way to Syria, it is believed, are at risk of sexual and other exploitation if they make it to the ISIS war zone.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): These three young British schoolgirls are believed to be the newest foreign recruits to ISIS. Caught on surveillance cameras at London's Gatwick Airport with their luggage in tow, London police fear they fled Britain for Syria to join jihad.

COMMANDER RICHARD WALTON, METROPOLITAN POLICE: We don't know how these three girls have come up with this plan. We don't know what has encouraged them to go out to Syria, but we obviously believe they're heading towards Syria. But we just don't know how it's happened. And the parents themselves are mystified.

SCIUTTO: The Muslim girls have been missing since Tuesday, when they boarded a flight headed to Istanbul, Turkey. This is the same airport that Hayat Boumeddiene used to enter Syria right before her husband, Amedy Coulibaly, carried out the deadly shooting at a Paris kosher market. She is still wanted by French police and now believed inside Syria.

Turkey has been the key transit point into Syria for recruits to ISIS and other extremist groups. Turkish and European authorities are still struggling to stem the flow. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told Wolf Blitzer Thursday that the U.S. is tracking these movements as best it can.

JEH JOHNSON, DHS SECRETARY: We have systems in place to track these individuals as they come and go. It's difficult to pick up so-called broken travel.

BLITZER: What does that mean, broken travel?

JOHNSON: Where you fly to country A and then you go to country B on the ground, saying we don't know that fact.

SCIUTTO: A senior British diplomat tells CNN that women are a new and growing target for ISIS recruiters. The terrorism research group Track estimates that nearly one in six ISIS foreign recruits are women. And that ISIS recruiting network extends all the way to the U.S. homeland.

In October, three teenaged girls from Colorado were intercepted at Frankfurt Airport in Germany as they were trying to make their way to Syria to join ISIS. It was their parents who tipped off the FBI. Another American, a 19-year-old, Shannon Maureen Conley, was arrested at Denver International Airport in April last year, on her way to an ISIS camp near the Turkish/Syrian border.

She was sentenced to four years in prison after confessing that she had wanted to become an ISIS bride and wage holy war. The three British girls are friends with another British girl who traveled to Syria in December. In fact, police interviewed them at the time but did not consider them to be likely ISIS recruits.

Now, U.K. police are also concerned that Turkish airlines did not alert them when these three girls boarded the flight. This is a well- known path into Syria, Wolf. That airport in Istanbul, the fact they were three young girls traveling alone, U.K. police concerned that that should have been enough of a warning sign to get a warning from the airline. They didn't get it. Now they're desperately searching for these girls.

BLITZER: They don't know if they're still in Turkey or made their way there. That's very disturbing. Jim, thanks very much.

Joining us now from the White House is Ben Rhodes. He's President Obama's deputy national security advisor. Ben, thanks very much for joining us.

You know, this is also apparently happening right here in the United States. We spoke to the assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorist division, who said that children, the FBI has seen children as young as 15 here in the United States, who may have actually gotten into Syria successfully to join up with ISIS. What can you tell us about this?

BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Well, it's a problem that we are very focused on. In fact, the summit the president had over the course of the last several days on combatting violent extremism was focused in large part on this issue.

We want to make sure that our communities are resilient enough to recognize the threat of ISIS trying to reach into the United States and recruit and radicalize individuals.

The good news is, frankly, our communities have been far more resilient than communities for instance in Europe, where we have seen far more foreign fighters go down to Iraq and Syria. But we want to make sure people are aware of the tactics that ISIL is using, and we want to make sure that they are empowered to prevent that type of radicalization, just as we also want to stem the flow of foreign fighters from anywhere in the world to Iraq and Syria.

BLITZER: How worried are you about young girls, if you will, 17, 16, 15-year-old girls in the United States being recruited to head over, let's say, to Turkey and try to even cross that border into Syria and become those so-called ISIS brides?

RHODES: Wolf, we're worried about anybody traveling to Iraq and Syria and being recruited by ISIL. We've seen them cast a very wide net. Again, this is a dead-end path. We believe that it's going to be rejected by our communities here in the United States.

With respect to women and girls, it is very much a concern of ours that we have seen terrible treatment of women and girls living in areas controlled by ISIL. We've seen people enslaved for instance from Iraq, the Yezidi population there, for instance, has been in many cases enslaved by ISIL fighters.

So we want to make clear that people know these risks. But frankly, we want to stop any recruitment and radicalization that could lead people from the United States to go to areas controlled by ISIL.

BLITZER: Is Turkey doing enough to protect its border and prevent these young kids from sneaking across into Syria?

RHODES: They're doing more, Wolf. We've had a steady conversation with him. They have a very challenging border because of the refugee flow out of Syria and into Turkey.

But they are doing more in terms of sharing information, working with the United States. The president gathered nations from around the world at the United Nations Security Council in September and passed a resolution that will enable and has enabled greater information sharing and monitoring of individuals who are seeking to cross that border.

So Turkey has advanced its cooperation, but it's something that we're going to continue to work on with them.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor to the president. We've got a lot more questions, including the latest U.S.-led plan to try to take over Mosul. Much more with Ben Rhodes, right after this.


BLITZER: Breaking now, the Pentagon going public with detailed plans for this spring's ground offensive against ISIS. The plans call for Iraq's army to push into the ISIS-held city of Mosul in late April, early May, while Kurdish forces block an ISIS retreat to the north and west. The plan leaves open the question of U.S. troops on the ground to help the Iraqis find ISIS targets.

We're back with the White House deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes.

Ben, why detail all these plans? As you know, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, member Lindsay Graham, they said this risks the success of the mission. Your response?

RHODES: Well, Wolf, first of all, when it comes to operational briefings, that's a decision that we leave up to the military. So the military makes their judgments about what information is shared about their operations, whether it's their ongoing operations or their prospective operations.

I think the fact that Mosul is going to be a key part of this campaign is known to everybody. We've said we want to reclaim the land that ISIL has taken. We want to push them, essentially, out of Iraqi population centers. So clearly Mosul was going to be a focus. So there's nothing new about that.

I think again, what they spoke to is the approach that we've been taking, which is the United States provides air power. We work with partners on the ground who are training and equipping, and we're steadily going to push ISIL out of all these areas, not just Mosul but the parts of Iraq that they've moved into in the last several months.

BLITZER: But the fact that the U.S. has now given ISIS a timeline when to start getting ready, isn't that going to hurt this operation?

RHODES: Well, Wolf, the bottom line is that this operation will be conducted when the time is ready. And that's how the president has instructed the military to approach this challenge.

We want to make sure that we're setting the battlefield conditions right. That's including significant U.S. and coalition airstrikes. And what we've seen already in northern Iraq is we have steadily retaken ground from ISIL. The Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, the Iraqi security forces with our air support have been able to push ISIL back out of a number of population centers, reclaim a lot of towns.

But again, of course, Mosul is going to be a key part of this campaign. I think that that will go forward when the time is ready, when our military commanders make the judgment that this is ready to go forward.

BLITZER: What will the U.S. role be in liberating Mosul?

RHODES: Well, I think, Wolf, there will be several elements. And I think it's similar to what we've done in different parts of Iraq. It's not just restricted to Mosul.

But No. 1, we provide air support. Our air power is unmatched. It's very targeted and precise, and we're able to take out ISIL fighters, ISIL vehicles, ISIL heavy weaponry. But we are also training and equipping Iraqi forces in different parts of the country.

We provide them with arms and training and advice, and I think that will certainly apply to anything that we were going to do in Mosul. But the fighting on the ground is going to be carried out by the Iraqi security forces as it has been across this entire theater.

BLITZER: Are you leaving open the possibility that U.S. ground combat troops will also be part of this operation?

RHODES: Well, no, Wolf. The president has said that our troops are not going to be in a combat role inside of Iraq. We're going to be supporting our partners on the ground.

We do have personnel in Iraq, however, who are doing that training and equipping and advising, helping for instance, to deal with challenges like Jim raised in his report, making sure we have multi-sectarian units in Iraqi security forces are able to work with. But the president has not received a recommendation to have U.S.

troops play a different type of role in a particular operation. Again, he always leaves open the door to military commanders making recommendations, but the limiting principle that he's applied is that U.S. forces are not going to be in combat. That's going to be something that's left to our partners on the ground.

BLITZER: As you know, Mosul is a huge city, almost two million people. There's going to be house to house, street to street combat. How worried are you about civilian casualties?

RHODES: We're always concerned about this, Wolf, particularly in dealing with a group like ISIL that values civilian life not at all. And we think that they will resort to terrorist tactics, as they've done in other places.

There's one very important point I'd make here, Wolf, though, which is that the people of Mosul, we get from every report that we receive, is that they hate living under ISIL, that ISIL is not very good at governing. They're not keeping the electricity on. They're not picking up the trash. And frankly, the people in Mosul are going to want to get rid of ISIL.

So this is not simply a situation where you would have forces moving in. I think you would see people from within the city who want to get rid of living under the yoke of this horrific organization that doesn't offer anything in terms of a better life. That will be an important dynamic, as well.

BLITZER: As you know, last June, when a few thousand ISIS militants went into Mosul, what did the Iraqi army do? This is an army, the U.S. taxpayers spent billions and billions of dollars training an army. They simply ran away. They dropped their armor. They dropped their weapons and escaped Mosul as quickly as possible. What makes you think they will do any better this time?

RHODES: Well, Wolf, you're right, we were very disappointed in the performance of the Iraqi army. I think there are two things that are different.

No. 1, there's a new Iraqi government. And part of the dynamic in Iraq had been that you had an increasingly sectarian government under prime Minister Maliki. The Sunnis had become disaffected from that government.

But now you have a much more inclusive government in Baghdad that has reached out to Sunni populations. That's changed the dynamic across Iraq.

And secondly, we have been in there training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, and where we've been able to provide them with that support and with the confidence that comes with U.S. and coalition air power, they've been able to go on the offensive and push back.

So we believe that the dynamic is very different than it was six months ago, and that's because the president has put this strategy in place. And we've been able to get a new Iraqi government in Baghdad.

BLITZER: As you know, the -- probably the most effective military against ISIS right now is not the Peshmerga, even though they're courageous. They've got old artillery. They've got bad weaponry, as you well know, not the Iraqi army.

It's the Shiite militias backed by Iran, the Revolutionary Guard from Iran. There are tens of thousands of them. They're going after ISIS. Is there any coordination that you're planning on using with them? Are they part of your coalition, shall we say?

RHODES: No, Wolf. When we're engaging with the Iraqi security forces. Again, it's the professional Iraqi security forces, it's multi-sectarian units. That's certainly who we would be looking at for the types of partnerships that we've applied already in places like Anbar province.

I think an important point to make here, too, is that while we have seen the Shiite militias active, it's generally been in Shia- predominant areas like around Baghdad. When you're talking about up in Mosul, that's a different part of Iraq.

So I don't think we're expecting a scenario where you see Shiite militias go up there. I heard this report about our air partners. We share the same concern, and we frankly, don't think that it will be Shia militias operating in the north in predominantly Sunni areas. Again, it will be multi-sectarian units and the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga in the Kurdish areas.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go, Ben Rhodes. The former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, says he does not believe President Obama loves America. You've been with President Obama since the very beginning of his campaign to become president. Now you've been working with him all of these years. What do you say to Rudy Giuliani when he utters these kind of words?

RHODES: Well, Wolf, first of all, I like many Americans first came to know Barack Obama in 2004. When he gave a speech at the Democratic convention, that was entirely about how much he loved America and about how the fact that his story was not possible anywhere else in the world.

I, like many people, went to work for him in 2007, because he filled us with a belief in the possibility of America. And he spoke to his love of country, and he inspired many young people who shared that belief. So I think that this is a president who is continually articulating the vision of this country that all of us love.

And frankly, it's just very disappointing that we're still seeing this kind of attack eight years later. You know, we heard some of this type of nonsense back in 2007, back in 2008. You would hope, and you would have expected, frankly, that all these years later, with how much this president has stood up for this country, how much he's spoken up for American values here and around the world, you would think that this kind of rhetoric would be put aside. But unfortunately, it hasn't been. And I think -- I think that

rightly, we've seen very strong condemnation of these remarks because they don't reflect the president that we've all come to know all these years. You may not agree with all of his policies, but you have to recognize that this is someone who deeply loves this country.

BLITZER: Ben Rhodes, thanks very much for joining us.

RHODES: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, ISIS reaching into America's heartland. Why are the biggest cities in Minnesota right now turning out to be a serious source of possible terrorist recruits?


BLITZER: The U.S. Justice Department is charging a 19-year-old Minnesota man for allegedly trying to join ISIS. He's the latest in a long list of young men in the twin cities area who have been radicalized and have joined terror groups. It's a serious problem that has perplexed local community leaders now for years.

CNN's Brian Todd is here in the SITUATION ROOM. He has been investigating.

What's going on, Brian? What are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, 19-year-old (INAUDIBLE) is charged with providing material support to ISIS. We spoke to the U.S. attorney in Minnesota who told us this case represents a very ominous pivot in terrorist recruitment in that area where ISIS is now targeting young Somali Americans displacing a dangerous Al-Qaeda affiliate.


TODD (voice-over): Moments before takeoff at New York's JFK airport, (INAUDIBLE) was grabbed by federal agents, escorted from his plane. Law enforcement officials say he had taken a bus all the way from Minneapolis to catch a flight to Turkey with a lethal goal in mind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's charged with trying to join ISIL to fight with terrorists.

TODD: Akmad's (ph) lawyer won't comment. A law enforcement source says the 19-year-old posted these tweets, saying he wanted to become a jihadist and quote, "be a martyr." Akmad (ph) is a Somali-American from Minneapolis. The U.S. attorney there tells CNN they believe he represents a dangerous shift in terrorist recruitment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We think ISIL has pretty much picked up on the successes to use that phrase that al-Shabab had and improve upon it and try to recruit more young men and some young women from the Somali community in Minnesota to join ISIL.

TODD: Al-Shabab, the vicious Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, had previously recruited around two dozen Somali Americans in Minnesota to fight with them inside Somalia. Young people who had shown so much promise like Jamal (INAUDIBLE), a handsome 20-year-old engineering student. After he left home mysteriously, his parents saw a picture of him on the internet, dead in the streets of Mogadishu, a bullet wound to his head. CNN has investigated these cases for more than five years. Somali community leaders are still frustrated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are still losing them. (INAUDIBLE) in Midwest here in the United States it is.

TODD: Why? Community leaders tell us it's a lack of opportunity and identity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of these kids are torn between two cultures. You know, they are Americans but they are not necessarily, they don't feel totally accepted as Americans. They know they have a Somali history. Many do not have a father.

TODD: The fear? What happens if these young men with U.S. passports return to America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a concern that the minority of returnees who do come back, become involved in terrorism, are also the most dangerous terrorists.


TODD: U.S. attorney Andrew Luger denies that Minneapolis is a terrorist hotbed. He says he is fighting back with outreach programs, getting these youngsters into sports competitions, helping them get jobs. But Luger and other officials may have to work through another problem.

Law enforcement sources and analysts tell us many people in the Somali community don't trust each other. There are different rivalries between community leaders. Establishing trust between them, getting them to trust outsiders from the government, those are huge challenges in trying to fend off terrorist recruitment in Minneapolis.

BLITZER: Brian, why did so many Somalis actually come to Minnesota, pick Minnesota as an area where they wanted to settle?

TODD: And interesting question. A Somali community leader told me they first came in the early '90s as the civil war in their country was raging, and that the first few of them came because they got jobs in a meat processing plant in Marshall, Minnesota, just west of Minneapolis. Then word got around there were job opportunities there but they also came because Minnesota offered housing, social services that many other states didn't have and this leader told me that many of the people who first came were single mothers.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on this issue of domestic terrorism. Our justice reporter Evan Perez is with us, as is our CNN national security analyst, Peter Bergen. First of all, Evan, what can you tell us about this Minnesota teen,

19-year-old (INAUDIBLE)?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, he was traveling with three others. And so, those are -- we don't know the names since because there is still an FBI investigation ongoing. Now, what's really concerning here is that the FBI, they have been looking to see whether or not there's perhaps a network here. This is the only place, Minneapolis is the only place so far where, you know, law enforcement has seen these types of networks. They were mostly focused on recruiting for Shabab previously. Whether ISIS is doing that now, that would be a really big groundbreaking change from how they have been doing --

BLITZER: It certainly would be, Peter, if all of a sudden these Somali-Americans, these young teenagers, if you will, were actually being recruited by ISIS to get into Syria or Iraq, for that matter, and join ISIS.

PETER BERGEN, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: If this is a group phenomenon, we have seen other people who self-recruited to is and have been contacted by is recruiters over the internet. Three teenagers in Chicago, three teenagers in Colorado. We have seen Americans go over there and die. Douglas McArthur McCain, African-American, born in Minneapolis, grew up in Colorado. So, I mean, it's not an isolated phenomenon at the moment (INAUDIBLE), this more of a group phenomenon.

BLITZER: We are going to have much more on this part of the story. So guys, stand by.

Coming up also, we have new details on the U.S.-led offensive against ISIS. What role will U.S. troops actually play on the ground in Iraq.

And deadly cold, 26 million Americans now under winter weather advisories and there's more storms on the way.


BLITZER: The eastern half of the United States is facing bitter record-breaking cold with 26 million Americans facing winter weather advisories and the threat of more storms along the way this weekend. We begin our coverage over at Niagara Falls where the waters around the historic waterfall, at least some of them, are pretty much frozen.

Ryan Young is joining us now from Niagara Falls. Ryan, tell us what's going on.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What a beautiful sight. In fact, if you look over at the American side you can see the chunks of ice but the water is still pushing through. But it looks frozen from a distance. And you can see the large ice cubes that are filling this river. That we are told can reach ten stories high at some points. But what people have been coming to see, we have to show this to you, is all the water that's pushing through.

You can see it here in the distance. That is more than 20 million gallons of water that rushes over during the wintertime. In fact, 40 million usually during the summertime. Now, we are told this whole body of water hasn't frozen over in 150 years and tourists from all over are coming out to enjoy the sights. Every time they post a picture it's going viral. It's a sight to see.

BLITZER: Ryan Young, it was great assignment in Niagara Falls, thank you.

Here in Washington the cold has frozen the Potomac river. Our senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns is on the banks of the Potomac right now.

Joe, what's it like?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a beautiful sight here as well. This is something people in the Washington, D.C. Just don't see every winter. The Potomac river appearing to be fully frozen over. We set a record here in the D.C. area for this day. This record has stood for 120 years for cold. Of course, the last time it was this cold in Washington, D.C., the Washington monument in the distance there was essentially ten years old. But the ice is not safe. The fire department was just out trying to practice to make sure they could get people out of the ice.

Further out on the bay, there's a big problem. The Chesapeake bay. Tangier island, about 475 people have been iced in now for just about a week and they have asked for help. The coast guard is bringing them supplies tomorrow and the Maryland, the Maryland department of natural resources is bringing in an ice cutting vessel to try to get them out of here. So a big problem for tangier island and cold all over the mid-Atlantic, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, good luck to all those folks. Thank you.

Let's get the latest forecast from our CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray.

What does it look like, Jennifer?

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, we broke over 150 records this morning. It was cold across much of the country. Look at all these, these are all records that were broken this morning anywhere from Marquette, Grand Rapids, these are your actual temperatures. If it's outlined in red, that means you broke a record that held over a century.

Temperatures were six below in Louisville this morning, 18 below in Lexington, Pittsburgh, ten below, and then like Joe said, we did break a record down here in D.C., five degrees was your morning low. Two in Wilmington. Zero in Trenton. And then as we head down to the south, even Raleigh, even down in Macon, Atlanta, 16 degrees this morning and even down in south Florida, 42 degrees, tied a record in Miami this morning.

Current temperatures, 34 in Atlanta, 25 in Nashville, 37 in Charleston. Temperatures in the teens as we go up to the northeast. We will warm up just a little bit as we go through the weekend, but then another arctic blast on the way. Here are all the winter storm watches and warnings in effect. Nashville, a place that has had 18 deaths from this storm and the one before, ice again in your region. Should turn to rain by tomorrow. D.C., New York, Boston, you could start with rain and then we will see a wintry mix in D.C. switching over to rain later in the afternoon, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Just be careful outside. Jennifer, thanks very much.

Coming up, Rudy Giuliani is doubling down on his comments that President Obama does not love America. As the White House responds, what are Republican presidential hopefuls now saying?

And the U.S.-led coalition is preparing to strike at the heart of ISIS in Iraq. We have new information coming in from the Pentagon.


BLITZER: Rudy Giuliani is doubling down on his controversial comments that President Obama does not love America. The former New York City mayor refusing to apologize, arguing his comments were not racist because President Obama was raised by his white mother and grandparents who Giuliani suggests were socialists. As criticism has grown, there has been increase pressure on potential Republican presidential candidates to weigh in.

Let's discuss. Joining us are CNN political commentators S.E. Cup and Van Jones.

Van, you have known the president for a long time. What is his likely reaction when he hears someone like the person who was called America's mayor after 9/11 say stuff like this?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think if you really want to offend him, you would say something like that. The very first speech this president ever gave that brought him such attention around the world, he said, my story is only possible in America, in no other country is my story even possible.

This man's patriotism is so deep, his version of American patriotism isn't cheap patriotism, it is all (INAUDIBLE) and putting other people down. It's a deep patriotism that says, I love America, meaning I love all Americans. I love poor people. I love gay people. I love Muslims. I love all people who are Americans. And I'm trying to figure out a way to bring us together and move us forward.

To have someone like Rudy Giuliani who was an icon, I mean, he was a global inspiration, fall down the stairs down to Donald Trump level in such a short period of time I think is embarrassing. He owes not just the president but the country an apology.

BLITZER: You think -- do you agree, S.E.? I mean, you don't like what Rudy Giuliani said.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't. You know, I've been highly critical of the president and his rhetoric on terrorism and Islamic extremism. And I understand why Rudy Giuliani is offended by what the president says. I watched the speech yesterday. And it sounded like very much like he was apologizing for American exceptionalism. And I was offended by that as well.

However, I don't think it's appropriate for someone of Rudy Giuliani's stature -- and I am from New York city. I lived through 9/11. I admire Rudy Giuliani's leadership very much. For someone of that stature to really go below the national discourse and suggest that the president doesn't love the country, the president wasn't raised like the rest of us, I just think that that's really inappropriate and not the conversation we should be having, which is about his policies, which are terrible. And we should have that debate. To question his --

BLITZER: Should Republican presidential candidate distance themselves, criticize Rudy Giuliani for suggesting the president does not love America?

CUPP: No. I think it's absurd to suggest that Republicans, whether running for president or thinking about running for president or happen to just exist need to somehow explain or take responsibility for or denounce Rudy Giuliani.

What he said has absolutely nothing do to do with them. You know, we have a vice president who has a number of times on tape made racially incentive remarks. No one asks President Obama to explain Joe Biden.

So I think it's -- that's more of a media exercise that we make these guys sort of explain Rudy Giuliani than anything else.

BLITZER: You know --

JONES: But there is one Republican I think that has to say something more than he has and that's governor Scott Walker. He actually made these remarks in the presence of governor Scott Walker. Scott Walker is now really climbing, I think, in the polls. He could wind up being president. He needs to be clear, listen, does -- do I think people who say this kind of stuff in my presence are saying the right things, setting the right tone? Scott Walker I don't think has said enough. And he need to say more than he said.

The other thing I want to say is, you know, and he says Republicans should not apologize for everything any Republican dies. I think a lot of Muslims feel the same way that they shouldn't have to apologize for everything that the fringe horrible groups do. So let's have one standard for everyone on that what I think people would agree.

But I want to say one more thing about this called racial aspect.

BLITZER: Very quickly.

JONES: When Rudy Giuliani says that because Obama has a white mom, nothing he says about Obama can be racially offensive, that sits poorly in the mouth. A quarter of all the slaves had a white mother or -- I'm sorry, a white parent or grandparent. They were still racially oppressed. He is playing fast and loose with some of these very sensitive racial topics. He is should back down.

BLITZER: We are going to have much more on this in our next hour. So guys, don't go too far away.

Coming up, a major offensive meant to strike at the heart of ISIS' stronghold in Iraq. We have stunning new details from the Pentagon itself including what role U.S. troops will play.