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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger; Terror in Tunisia; Caroline Kennedy Facing Death Threats; Air Force Vet Pleads Not Guilty to Trying to Join ISIS; Surveillance Video Possibly Erased in Secret Service Scandal; Manhunt After 19 Killed in Museum Terror Attack. Aired 6-7:00p ET
Aired March 18, 2015 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[18:00:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, an international manhunt for at least three heavily armed men, killers on the run.
Kennedy death threats. Someone is threatening to kill one of America's most recognized women, the ambassador of the United States to Japan, Caroline Kennedy. With first lady Michelle Obama just arriving in Tokyo, is enough being done to protect their lives?
Missed terror warnings? An Air Force veteran who allegedly tried to join ISIS pleads not guilty. And now there are new questions. More than a decade after being warned of his alleged terrorist sympathies, why wasn't the FBI tracking him more closely?
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: We are following breaking news.
A deadly terrorist attack on Western tourists in a museum right next to Tunisia's parliament. A manhunt is under way right now for at least three gunmen who fled the scene, also growing concerns right now about security at U.S. diplomatic facilities. Warnings are being issued. And no -- and now one embassy is being temporarily closed.
Tonight, there's also concern for the life of Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan. She reportedly received death threats that U.S. and Japanese officials are now investigating.
And also the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, she just got to Japan. That's sparking new security concerns as well. We're covering all of those stories, much more this hour with our correspondents and guests, including Congressman Adam Kinzinger.
But let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has much more on the museum attack.
What's the latest, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the U.S. Embassy moved very quickly in Tunis, warning all Americans to stay away from the area of the attack. There's a lot of concern about what unfolded today and a lot of suspicion about who may have been responsible.
STARR (voice-over): It happened without warning, gunmen attacking parliament and museum buildings in Tunisia's capital, people desperately escaping, led to safety by security forces.
At least 19 people, most of them tourists, killed, and 22 hurt. Two attackers were also killed. Concern this attack is at the hands of ISIS adherents, opening a new front for their violence in North Africa. Tunisian militants have pledged loyalty to ISIS and threatened attacks.
CHRISTOPHER CHIVVIS, RAND CORPORATION: It appears likely that this was an attack by the Islamic State. But we have to remember that there are also other possibilities. It could have been Ansar al- Sharia in Tunisia, which is a local group. It could have been al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
STARR: The U.S. at one time held up Tunisia as a place where the Arab spring blossomed.
JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: Certainly, we will be continuing to engage with authorities there and our counterparts there to discuss what this means moving forward.
STARR: The security situation has deteriorated across North Africa. In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, ISIS utterly brutal, slaughtering Egyptian laborers in Libya earlier this year. Just days ago, the U.S. defense secretary warning ISIS has now moved far beyond strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We are seeing it. We're seeing it throughout North Africa.
STARR: Out of the 20,000 foreigners that have joined the fight in Iraq and Syria, a British think tank says up to 3,000 of them are from Tunisia, the largest number from any country.
CHIVVIS: A significant number of those foreign fighters have returned from Iraq and Syria or from fighting in Libya for the Islamic State to Tunisia. And this clearly presents a very significant security problem.
STARR: Now, some of the tourists were killed as they stepped off buses trying to make their way to the museum for a visit. Thousands of tourists in Tunis were ordered back to their cruise ships immediately for their own safety.
Look, Wolf, the bottom line here is, this is a country with a very fragile government at the moment. The concern, another place where ISIS may take hold and another place where it may become very difficult for the government to really control things, for the economy to flourish and for people there to even have a decent life -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. And three of those terrorists still on the run right now. Two of the terrorists were killed, but three of them are on the run. Barbara, thank you.
We're also following reports of death threats against Caroline Kennedy, the United States ambassador to Japan.
Officials are taking those threats very seriously, coming just two weeks after the U.S. ambassador to South Korea was slashed in a knife attack.
Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is working this story for us.
What do we know about the threats against the life of Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the State Department is remaining very tight-lipped about these reported threats to one of the administration's highest-profile ambassadors, Caroline Kennedy in Japan.
[18:05:01] But these concerns for Kennedy's safety come as the first lady is just arriving in Tokyo for an overseas visit.
ACOSTA (voice-over): The State Department says it's taking seriously news reports out of Tokyo that Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of an American political dynasty and U.S. ambassador to Japan, was the subject of death threats.
PSAKI: We take every step possible to protect our personnel. We're working with the Japanese government to ensure that necessary security measures are in place.
ACOSTA: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the reported phoned-in threats to Kennedy and another American diplomat in Okinawa last month have not prompted security changes at the U.S. Embassy in Japan. That's despite the fact that first lady Michelle Obama just landed in Tokyo for an overseas trip that will include a meeting with Kennedy.
Former President Bill Clinton was just in Tokyo, appearing alongside Kennedy before delivering a speech on her father's legacy, which was cut short a half-century ago. The president's selection of a child of Camelot to become ambassador to Japan in 2013 was a sign of Asia's growing significance in U.S. foreign policy.
THOMAS SCHIEFFER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AUSTRALIA: The Japanese government in particular will take this very seriously. They provide the bulk of the security for an American ambassador. I am confident that the Japanese will do everything they can to protect ambassador Kennedy. ACOSTA: Diplomatic personnel in Asia are already on edge after
the knife attack on U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert, who is awaiting a security report on that incident.
MARK LIPPERT, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SOUTH KOREA: I think that they're going to get to the bottom of it and take a hard look at all the tactics, techniques, procedures in place both here in Seoul and around the world.
ACOSTA: State Department security overseas is now a constant concern, considering the recent evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, the suspension of consular services in Saudi Arabia, and the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti.
ACOSTA: As for that apparent threat to Ambassador Kennedy, Japanese media reports say it was phoned in by an English-speaking man. But authorities either don't know or are not saying at this point who that person could be.
Wolf, we should point out, Japan's embassy to the U.S. here in Washington just announced within the last hour that Ambassador Kennedy will be here in Washington next week for a U.S./Japanese economic summit -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. And don't forget the U.S. embassies in Somalia and Libya have been shut down and evacuated as well. All disturbing developments.
Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on all of this.
Joining us, the Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger.
Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.
REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: Yes. Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: I want to talk about all of these things. But let's get back to that terror attack in Tunis in Tunisia today. Was this ISIS? Do you know who it was yet?
KINZINGER: I don't think anybody knows yet.
It's possible that it was ISIS or ISIS-related, a group that has sworn allegiance. It could be al Qaeda. We know that there's kind of a competition between al Qaeda and ISIS for who is in essence the lead jihadist group. We don't even fully know what the target was. There's some suspicion that in fact the target was the parliament.
Parliament was in session and that, maybe as the terrorists were going in, they saw target of opportunities. They're by a museum, they see busloads of tourists getting off and maybe they decided that was the moment. But before I got on the air here, I looked at Twitter. And I
just typed in Tunisia. And what was amazing to me was to see all the people that say, hey, I'm Tunisian and I'm standing strong with the Tunisian people. It was almost like what happened in France after the "Charlie Hebdo" attacks.
And so this could have the possibility -- it's a fragile democracy. But this could have the opposite effect, of actually solidifying the people behind their government and behind peace.
BLITZER: Yes, Tunisia, that's where the so-called Arab spring was born a few years ago, amid great hope for the entire region, North Africa and the Middle East. Hasn't exactly worked out as hoped for at that time.
But in Tunisia, at least so far, they have had relatively, relatively some good prospects.
KINZINGER: They have a tough economy. Tourism is a big part of that economy. This is especially hurtful when maybe tourists now decide they don't want to go to Tunisia.
But at the end of the day, it's -- they have had a transition of government already. It's democracy that seems to be working. And I think this is important for the United States, its Western allies and friends of democracy to come forward and lend the government the support that they need, whether it's in law enforcement, surveillance, law enforcement help, monetary assistance, because Tunisia really could be an example of what these other countries where we see a lot of tumultuous situations -- Tunisia could potentially be the best example.
BLITZER: Yes, but here is the downside; 3,000 Tunisians have left Tunisia. They have gone to Syria to join forces with ISIS. And 500 of them or so have supposedly returned.
A lot of those ISIS forces are now next door, right next door in Libya, which is for all practical purposes a failed a state right now. The fear is those guys will move from Libya next door into Tunisia.
KINZINGER: Yes, it's frightening. It's like almost the frontier of ISIS right now.
When we found out they were in Libya, we called that the frontier. Now we're finding out Tunisia, that's the frontier. What's next? And so that's why I think it's important for countries that have the ability like the United States, like Europe to help Tunisia to root out some of these terrorists that are returning.
[18:10:08] But the other point to make is this. If you have 3,000 people leaving Tunisia to go fight, what you have is people that were bent towards this kind of jihadism, but they realize, we can't do that here in our own country. We have to go fight in failed states, which I think could actually say that Tunisia has got their act together if they decide that the war is not going to be there.
This is very disturbing today. I don't think that this is necessarily a sign that Tunisia is done. I think this is a sign that maybe they are standing strong and that's why they are the focus of these terrorist attacks.
BLITZER: I have been to Tunisia, so let's hope that's the case.
KINZINGER: Let's do.
BLITZER: Stand by, Congressman. We have much more to discuss, including Vladimir Putin's latest moves, threatening potentially a NATO ally.
Stay with us. Much more right after this.
[18:15:18] BLITZER: Breaking right now, a not guilty plea by a U.S. Air Force veteran charged with trying to enter Syria to join ISIS.
We're learning new details of his arraignment, important clues that may have been missed.
We're back with Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger.
Hard to believe a guy like this, he's been watched since basically 9/11, professing loyalty of bin Laden. At one point, he said he wanted to "use the talents and skills given to me by Allah to establish and defend the Islamic State."
He gets security clearances to work for a U.S. Army contractor in Iraq. How does that happen?
KINZINGER: I don't know. I don't know. And in fact he is caught by the Turks at the border. It's not even by Americans that got him leaving or whatever.
This is especially sad and offensive to me as an Air Force veteran is to see that somebody that swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies ends up in this position.
I think what this shows though is that this cancer in the Middle East, this idea of jihadism, even if it's ISIS or the bigger umbrella of it, is something we have to be on guard against. We don't want to sit here and frighten everybody and say that everybody -- there could be a terrorist around the corner. But we have to be aware of it, and even if somebody so honorable as having served in the United States military could potentially be a bad person.
The other thing to point out is. Maybe these terror groups are trying to recruit veterans, people that are disaffected in society and are radicalized in their basement or whatever. And this is a huge moral victory for ISIS. And imagine had this guy made it in.
BLITZER: He would have been a huge propaganda...
BLITZER: ... videotapes talking about his experience in the United States Air Force, even though he served a while ago. That potentially could have been a propaganda boom for ISIS, on social media especially.
KINZINGER: Yes. And imagine if he stands up there and makes up lies and says, as an Air Force guy, we did this and it's lie, lie, lie, but he's saying it with no accent and he's telling a lot of situations.
That's a bad position to be in. So, I think obviously -- I don't know if he was recruited. I don't know if he did this on his own. Maybe that's something we're going to find out. But it's definitely a frightening situation.
BLITZER: Yes. I think you have to do a review of how this guy gets clearances to work in avionics at a military facility in Iraq after they apparently knew he was already professing these sympathies to al Qaeda.
BLITZER: You served three tours of duty in Iraq, right, so you are a little familiar with that. It hits home for you...
KINZINGER: Yes, it does.
BLITZER: ... when you hear a fellow U.S. Air Force veteran allegedly did all these things. So, he obviously was arraigned today.
Let's talk a little bit about security for American ambassadors around the world. Caroline Kennedy gets a death threat. Supposedly, they're not escalating security for her. But they probably should...
BLITZER: ... especially given what happened to the U.S. ambassador in South Korea two weeks ago, Mark Lippert, who was slashed with a knife in his cheek. He had one unarmed security guard with him at the time.
KINZINGER: Yes. That's tough to see.
And, by the way, I think the State Department needs to constantly go over are their -- are their security personnel armed? How many security personnel are there? I have been in some very dangerous places, theoretically dangerous, in Turkey, for instance, and had security with me that was unarmed. I think it's very important to make sure that happens. But,
look, obviously, there's copycat issues. Is this a copycat situation with Caroline Kennedy? I don't know. But every time somebody high- profile like the ambassador to South Korea gets attacked, you have the possibility that somebody says, hey, this is my opportunity to get on television, this is my opportunity to shine.
And you know what? You attack an ambassador, it sends a strong message in some people's minds. So, I think, obviously, the State Department needs to review security. And I'm sure they're doing that today.
BLITZER: Especially not only obviously hostile areas, where security is intent, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, but in Tokyo, a friendly country, a close ally of the United States, supposedly very easy-going, Seoul, South Korea, another close country, you see these kinds of threats, you have got to beef up security.
KINZINGER: Yes, and even in Europe. Even in Europe, we know there are some radicals that operate in Europe. Maybe European ambassadors have got to take this look too.
BLITZER: One of the downsides, though, these ambassadors, they like to go out and meet the local folks and get some contact with them, establish a little rapport. It's going to be much more difficult now in the aftermath of these attacks.
BLITZER: Putin in Russia, what is he up to right now? Because there's a lot of tension going on.
KINZINGER: Yes. There is.
Look, I think it's a show of force right now. This is part of his attempt to boost his domestic numbers, his domestic popularity. Folks in Russia, when they see a strong leader, they get behind him. What I get concerned is that this pivots from a show of force to a use of force, and whether intentional or unintentional.
When you see, for example, Latvia and the threat that is being put...
BLITZER: A NATO ally.
KINZINGER: That's right, a NATO ally.
And the exercises that are occurring around there, maybe it's an accidental shooting that happens that sparks what would potentially be World War III, frankly, or maybe it's intentional. But I think it's important for the United States and for NATO to make it clear that if Article V is ever invoked, which means an attack on one is an attack on all, that we will take that seriously. [18:20:11] I think that makes war almost unlikely, because Putin is
not a dumb guy. And he understands that he can't win a war with the West. But as much as can he challenge us and push that barrier, he is going to do it.
BLITZER: And his popularity is going up at home, even in the midst of economic hardship, the economic sanctions, the drop in the price of oil. His popularity is skyrocketing right now. I don't know why, but it is.
KINZINGER: But his oligarchs are getting poorer. They are having less ability to travel to Europe. They are the ones that really prop him up.
And when you start to see their financial portfolio take a dip, they are invested in oil, this may be a bit of a paper tiger that eventually gets torn. And so we will see what happens. But I think it's essential for NATO and the United States to make clear that we will defend NATO allies.
BLITZER: Those oligarchs are the Russian billionaires. You say they are the power behind the scene?
KINZINGER: They are. Yes, they are.
BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the election in Israel. It looks like Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to stay on. He's still got to form a coalition. He is going to spend probably the next week or two or three working with the other members, potential members.
But it looks like he's got a really good chance of doing it. He got the most seats, his Likud Party. What do you think though of the strain, enormous strain right now in his relationship, Netanyahu's relationship, with the president of the United States?
KINZINGER: Well, look, I'm glad Netanyahu won, although I can't promise that I understand Israeli politics. I think the people that live there don't fully understand it all.
But, look, I think he's a great leader. He's very clear-eyed. And there's a lot of tension with the White House and him. This is an opportunity for President Obama, for Benjamin Netanyahu to call each other and say, OK, whatever happened in the past, let's take a deep breath and let's figure out how going forward we have a good relationship for the next two years.
President Obama is only going to be there for two more years. There's going to be a president to follow him. And we want to ensure that we're in a good situation.
But I'll tell you what. A bad nuclear deal with Iran, which is what I fear is going to happen, a bad nuclear deal with Iran, and I think Benjamin Netanyahu is going to find himself having to defend his country if he feels truly at threat.
BLITZER: What does that mean? A unilateral Israeli military strike?
KINZINGER: I think if he feels threatened and I think if Israel is threatened by that, possibly. I don't predict it. But I think, look, he is very clear-eyed about protecting Israel. Israel is surrounded by a lot of people that don't like them.
BLITZER: All right, Adam Kinzinger, thanks very much for joining us.
KINZINGER: Yes. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
BLITZER: Just ahead, an American Air Force veteran arraigned on terror-related charges, accused of trying to join ISIS. The FBI knew about him for a decade. Why wasn't more being done to track him?
Plus, the urgent concern over ISIS and its expanding footprint. Are terrorist forces positioning themselves right now for bigger and deadlier attacks on the West?
[18:27:05] BLITZER: Not guilty, that's the plea a U.S. Air Force veteran facing terror-related charges for allegedly trying to join ISIS forces in Syria. And now we're learning more about him and the evidence prosecutors have against him and the years, years of warning signs that may have been missed.
CNN's Miguel Marquez Miguel is joining us. He was inside the courtroom in Brooklyn, New York, for the arraignment.
Tell us what happened, Miguel.
MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we saw Tairod Pugh. The last time he was free was in January. We saw him in cuffs today, a black T-shirt and khaki pants, had a thick beard and close-cropped hair.
He was charged with two things, one, the attempted material support for a terrorist -- a foreign terrorist organization between May of last year and January of this year. He was also charged with destroying evidence, namely four USB drives that they say he stripped all the way down to try to keep that evidence from investigators as they were looking into this.
The judge in this case very forceful, saying he wants this thing done by summer. This will not be a typical terrorist-like case. He is basically saying they will see the case through very, very quickly, telling lawyers in-house, don't be -- don't take a vacation this summer. We will be done with this by the end of the summer.
The only thing that Mr. Pugh said during court was his name, even his lawyer entering the plea of not guilty on his behalf -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Miguel Marquez, thanks very much.
Let's get some more now.
Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown is standing by. She has details of the warning signs that may have been missed.
What are you finding out, Pamela?
PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.
Wolf, aviation and military experts I have been speaking with say if the government's accusations are true, Pugh could have caused a lot of damage, given his front-row access to airplanes and even U.S. troops. And tonight there are new details about his background and new questions about why he wasn't tracked more closely.
BROWN (voice-over): The FBI was aware for more than a decade that Tairod Pugh had become radicalized. According to court documents, he allegedly told co-workers at American Airlines he sympathized with Osama bin Laden and felt the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies overseas were justified.
But that didn't stop him from continuing to work as an aviation mechanic or for the Army as a contractor.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: I think we're going to uncover quite a few holes in the process between the initial investigation and the present day.
BROWN: Among the more concerning issues to investigators, that Pugh was allegedly arrested carrying a cell phone with pictures of an airplane bathroom, airline seats and overhead compartment.
Today, authorities say Pugh had turned his back on America, allegedly writing a recent letter to his Egyptian wife that he was a mujahid, meaning a person engaged in jihad. And court documents reveal, back in 2002, the FBI was told by one of Pugh's associates that he wanted to fly to Chechnya to fight jihad.
Despite the apparent red flags, Pugh went on to work as an Army contractor in 2009 for military contracting giant DynCorp, which experts say would have required a background check.
DAN CALDWELL, CONCERNED VETERANS FOR AMERICA: If he had a lower- level secret security clearance, they would have not picked up on the fact that he was on the FBI's radar, because he wasn't convicted of a crime. However, if he had a top-secret clearance, they likely would have picked it up under a single-scope background investigation conducted by the FBI.
BROWN: DynCorp would not tell CNN what level of security Pugh had. Still, experts say the case highlights potential holes in how contractors are screened. COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: A lot more action
should have been taken to mitigate risk and to, in essence, remove him from being in a situation where he had access potentially, dangerous access, to aircraft, to people flying on aircraft, to weapon systems.
BROWN: What's not clear is what he was doing up until the time he was arrested in January. Investigators say they know he was living in the Middle East for a year and a half. And that, from online searches, he was intent on joining ISIS, according to the FBI. He was picked up trying to fly to Turkey. As authorities say, on to Syria. But he was stopped only because he refused to show Turkish authorities his electronics -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Pamela, good report. Thanks very much.
Let's get some more with our CNN counterterrorism analyst, Philip Mudd. Philip, this whole notion of the foreign fighters being attracted to go fight for ISIS. This is a huge, huge problem.
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: It's a huge problem. It's not a new problem. When we had the American surge in Iraq back ten years ago, where did foreign fighters come from? Places like Libya, where we see foreign fighters today; places like Tunisia, where we saw the attack today. That remains true. We're still seeing a large volume of foreign fighters from these places.
The interesting change, Wolf, is that most of these places have political or security vacuums. Yemen, Syria, Libya. There's one place that transitioned well after the Arab Spring. That was Tunisia. The question going forward from the attack today is going to be whether that relatively peaceful transition allows that government to put a lid on extremists. We don't know the answer to that yet.
BLITZER: And you know what? All these U.S. embassies throughout this region right now, they're either shutting down for a few days, shutting down permanently, for example in Yemen or Libya, there's no U.S. embassies any more, certainly in Somalia and Syria. But even in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
MUDD: That's right.
BLITZER: A place you know well. All of a sudden this week, that embassy is -- it's a huge embassy in Djibouti. They're now shutting it down today.
MUDD: Well, look, we see Djibouti on the map here, proximate to Yemen, where we've got a great deal of instability. Right to the south there, you're in the Horn of Africa.
I mentioned one of the environments where these foreign fighters and where threats from the American embassies emanate. That's places not only where you have an extremist presence but where you also have an inability of security services, because you have a vacuum to go after the extremists. What do we have right next to Djibouti? Somalia. Twenty-five
years of instability in Somalia. And I think the threat to the embassies like Djibouti comes from areas of instability like Somalia.
BLITZER: Worried about Djibouti, but really, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, you spent some time in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. embassy there is not providing services. That's a big deal.
MUDD: It's a big deal. If you look at Saudi Arabia on a map, it looks huge. Yemen looks small by contrast. If you look at the number of cases of threats to Saudis and Americans in Saudi Arabia, you're going to find a vast majority of them have individuals that are coming up from another unstable area. That's Yemen.
BLITZER: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula...
MUDD: That's right.
BLITZER: Headquartered, AQAP. Stand by. We have much more to talk about.
Also, I want to bring in our intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer; our CNN terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank; our national security analyst, Fran Townsend. All of them are standing by to discuss ISIS, the museum terror attack, much more. We'll take a quick break. Lots move coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
[18:38:21] BLITZER: We're back with our terror panel. But we're just getting some breaking news on the latest Secret Service scandal. The incident this month when a pair of agents rode into a White House barrier while returning from a party.
We're just learning the agency's director has now told members of Congress that surveillance video of what happened -- get this -- may have been erased.
Chris Frates of CNN Investigations is joining us now. What are you learning, Chris?
CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'll tell you, these are pretty stunning developments into this investigation into the two Secret Service agents who are accused of crashing their car into a barricade around an active bomb investigation.
What I'm hearing from House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, he says that director Joe Clancy showed lawmakers two videos in a closed- door hearing yesterday. And one of the videos wasn't a very good angle of what was happening out there. And the other was OK. They said, do we have any other angles going? And do we have any other angles going? And he was told that, in fact, those tapes may have been erased; all those other angles, may have been erased, Wolf.
So this was a pretty stunning development, Jason Chaffetz saying that he's going to investigate. He's sending a letter to the Secret Service today. He's going to ask for all those tapes. He wants all other physical evidence. And he wants to get to the bottom of this. He feels like, if they have two tapes, they must have others. And he's wondering, Wolf, maybe if he's getting the run around.
BLITZER: That's pretty suspicious stuff. All right, Chris Frates reporting for us. Thanks very much. We'll be all over that story.
But let's get back to the breaking news. We're monitoring here in THE SITUATION ROOM the intense manhunt following a deadly attack on a museum at the Tunisian parliament.
Paul Cruickshank, what are you hearing about ISIS, ISIS comments potentially about this attack?
[18:40:18] PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: There's been no official claim of responsibility by any jihadist group yet. But pro-ISIS Twitter accounts in Syria and Iraq are lighting up in celebration for this attack. But no official claim yet from the ISIS leadership or official ISIS channels that they are behind this.
It could, of course, be another group. There's a group called Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia which has 40,000 followers inside Tunisia. And also Al Qaeda has a brigade fighting along the Algerian border in Tunisia, as well, which threatened attacks in Tunis late last year.
So it could be any number of groups. But I think ISIS is the lead suspect at this point, given the sophistication of this attack, given that 3,000 Tunisians have gone off to fight in Syria and Iraq; and 500 have come back.
BLITZER: Bob Baer, Tunisia, as you know, we're reporting an estimated 3,000 Tunisians have left that country to join forces with ISIS. Some of them have actually returned. It's the largest contributor of foreign fighters to ISIS. Why is this happening, especially in Tunisia, which is the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring?
BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Wolf, the problem is that so many of these people are westernized to a certain degree, these Muslims. And they come to detest the west. And they're looking to join a bigger cause, which would be the Islamic State or al Qaeda. And they just -- they want to fight jihad. It means something to them. They're recruited on the Internet. They have easy access to the Internet.
There was a corrupt regime in Tunisia for decades. They came to detest it. There's few opportunities, high unemployment. They don't want to work in the tourism industry. And they truly believe that Islam is under attack, whether it's Iraq or Syria or where have you. And it's very attractive to them.
And but it's not just there. It's across North Africa. But you have repressive regimes like Algeria, which have tamped it down. And of course, you have Libya where there's no government at all and there's just an encouragement to the Tunisians. And I think we're going to see more Tunisians, rather than fewer, joining these jihadist movements.
BLITZER: Fran Townsend, you know this region in North Africa well. You've been there in Libya, remember, not that long ago. ISIS, what, beheaded Egyptian Christians there, who were working there. And now there's enormous fear that ISIS, which has already a big chunk of Libya, at least some other terrorists do, as well, that's just going to move towards Tunisia. How worried are you about that?
FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Wolf, very worried. It was the execution on the seaside of 21 Coptic Christians.
And remember, you know, when you think about an attack on a museum where there are tourists in Tunisia, let's remember, we've seen the recent pictures and photographs of ISIS desecrating antiquities and destroying antiquities at two museums across Iraq. So for a lot of reasons it feels like it might be ISIS.
People are concerned that we haven't heard a claim of responsibility. But let's remember, again, ISIS has been very sort of sophisticated in their propaganda effort, releasing clearly edited and professional videos, lots of photographs. And so I think we need to wait a little bit longer before we see whether or not ISIS claims responsibility and whether or not they put out propaganda around this attack.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, some analysts have said ISIS may be trying to expand too quickly for their own good, that this could be, in part, their downfall. You say?
MUDD: I think that's right, but only in long-term. Look, in the short-term it's only been since last summer that we talked about ISIS moving into Iraq. We've now seen cells in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Western Europe, North America, now Tunisia. That rapid expansion has been remarkable.
The question, as you suggest, is how does ISIS control these organizations, for example, whether they kill too many innocents, as ISIS has done in Iraq, and control the ground. I think long-term, they're at risk. They're not going to be able to control that ground.
BLITZER: That's a good point.
You know, Bob Baer, that U.S. airman who was arranged today in Brooklyn, arrested trying to join ISIS, as far back as 2002, U.S. authorities knew this guy, Tyrone -- Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, was trying to wage jihad. He said so. It was not a huge secret. Yet how is it possible he gets clearance to become a U.S. Army contractor in Iraq in 2009?
BAER: The standards aren't very high. They don't do thorough background checks. You know, if you'd gone around and asked his friends that he served with, all this would have come up. But they're doing it on the cheap, the contractors. They don't want to pay a lot of money for this. If the FBI or thee CIA had been doing it, these things would have
come up. He would have never been employed.
So just like Snowden got through contracting process very easily, so did this guy. And we really have to go back and fix this to keep these people out, especially someone who had access to airplanes and apparently was taking pictures of them. He certainly would figure out how to put a bomb in one. And that kind of person we don't need in our services or working for military contractors.
BLITZER: Fran, what's alarming is that when they captured him on his cell phone, he did have these pictures of an airplane bathroom, he had overhead compartment pictures, seats. He was an avionics expert. This is frightening when you think about it.
TOWNSEND: It's very frightening. And, frankly, Wolf, while we have every right to be angry about this and ask the questions you are asking, we shouldn't be surprised. The navy yard shooter was a contractor with a clearance. We had Nadal Hassan, the Fort Hood doctor who killed our soldiers on a base. Bin Laden had a driver who was a former special operator in the U.S. military.
Why is it we don't learn from the past cases and this continues to happen? I think there are questions about the FBI's involvement in tracking this guy. How did he get a clearance? What was DOD's involvement?
There are lots of questions. And if Congress wants to do oversight, this would be a really good place for it.
BLITZER: I totally agree. All right. Fran, thanks very much.
Paul Cruickshank, Phil Mudd, Bob Baer, guys, thanks to all of you.
Other news we're following, the White House says the president will call the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in the coming days to congratulate him on his apparent victory in Israel's parliamentary election.
Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is joining us from Jerusalem right now.
So, Elise, what does a Netanyahu victory mean right now for U.S.- Israeli relations, for his own personal relationship with President Obama, which has been rather strained?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think the fact that President Obama did not call Prime Minister Netanyahu to congratulate him, that job fell to Secretary of State John Kerry, shows the uphill battle that Prime Minister Netanyahu has to repair the relationship.
I mean, it was a few weeks ago that this prime minister was in Washington lobbying not only the U.S. Congress but the American people against President Obama's policy towards Iran. So, now that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a new mandate to continue what he was doing, particularly on the security issues, Iran, I think that you're going to continue to see some tensions as that March 31st deadline for a nuclear deal takes down, because the prime minister feels that he was elected to continue to be tough and fight against the deal that he thinks is very dangerous for Israel, Wolf.
BLITZER: And what about some of the statements that the prime minister made in the final hours of this campaign, vowing to oppose a Palestinian state on his watch? As you know, he used to support it going back to 2009, the so-called two-state solution, Israel and a new state of Palestine. The U.S. spent at least two decades trying to achieve that.
How big of a setback for President Obama, for U.S. policy is that Netanyahu statement and his victory in this overall peace process effort?
LABOTT: Well, U.S. officials and senior administration officials telling me tonight that that's what they're trying to ascertain. They understand that Prime Minister Netanyahu was elected with this last- minute push to the right. And these right wing voters are the ones that do not support a two-state solution. They continue to support settlement construction.
And so, they say, what we have right now are the statements. We have to see if Prime Minister Netanyahu dials them back. If he does not, it could be a real game changer for not only the U.S. involvement in the peace process but for U.S.-Israeli relations, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, it could take him at least a week, maybe two or three to form that new coalition government. But all indications are he will be able to do so when all is said and done.
Elise in Jerusalem, thanks very much.
Much more news here in THE SITUATION ROOM, coming up in a moment.
[18:53:34] BLITZER: Senate battle over the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general is now heating up. The Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is vowing to delay a vote until the Senate completes consideration of a human trafficking bill, which contains an anti-abortion provision opposed by Democrats, and that prompted this charge to accusation from the number two Senate Democrat.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar. That is unfair. It's unjust. It's beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Very strong words from Dick Durbin.
Let's dig deeper with our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, and our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny.
Could this potentially -- the language is sharp suggesting that this woman who could become the first African-American woman attorney general of the United States -- could this eventually backfire on Republicans?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it could. And I think this entire debate is beneath the decorum of the United States Senate. This is an issue of a human trafficking bill and something on abortion that was attached in it suddenly delays the approval of the attorney general of the United States. It's crazy. It's ridiculous.
She was voted out of committee with three Republican votes because people think --
[18:50:00] BLITZER: In her favor.
BORGER: -- she's really qualified. It's been pending for 130 days. Stop tying it up in all this other stuff and just get her through.
BLITZER: Jeff, what's going on out there?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: No, question. I mean, the whole debate has taken a very ugly turn as we just saw.
ZELENY: And then we saw Senator Tim Scott, the only Republican African-American in the Senate, he accused Democrats of race-baiting. So, it's a very ugly debate.
ZELENY: Really, she should have been confirmed already.
ZELENY: We're in the middle of March. There's no reason this should have been going on.
But now, both sides are dug in. So, it looks like she won't be confirmed until mid-April. But with each passing day, you know, the attorney general that no one likes, Eric Holder --
BORGER: Looks good.
ZELENY: -- that the Republicans don't like, is still in office. So, that's what sort of absurd it.
BORGER: You know, and Republicans are saying to Dick Durbin, well, you know, you voted against Condi Rice. I mean, get over it, guys. Just go do you work.
BLITZER: Let's see what happens on that front.
Let's take a look at some new CNN/ORC polls. Hillary Clinton, the first poll since the whole e-mail controversy arose --
BLITZER: -- on the Democratic field, she does seem still to be doing OK. Hillary Clinton was 62 percent among Democrats, Joe Biden with 15 percent. Elizabeth Warren who is not even running -- Joe Biden supposedly not running either -- 10 percent. She's still way, way ahead.
BORGER: Doing better than OK, Wolf. Those are unbelievable numbers.
BLITZER: The numbers are basically the same as they were before the e-mail.
BORGER: Right. But she has a favorable rating among Democrats of 86 percent. Who has that kind of favorable rating in their own family, much less the Democratic Party? She is the envy of any candidate and, by the way, this is why Democrats have sat back and they're not challenging her, because people have sort of stepped aside and said, OK, this is her moment. She can raise the money. She's very well-liked within the Democratic Party and this isn't good news for Republicans either. I mean --
BLITZER: Jeff, we did some hypothetical in a matchups obviously, long way to go. But take a look at this -- more likely to vote in a general election, Clinton versus Jeb Bush. She wins 55 percent, 40 percent. Clinton versus Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, she wins 55, 40 percent. Senator Rand Paul, Clinton 54 percent, Rand Paul 43 percent.
Those are still hefty majorities.
ZELENY: No doubt about it. And what those numbers are telling us is the Republican race is so unsettled and so wide open. But it would be too premature to say that Hillary Clinton, if she wins the Democratic nomination, is going to be, you know, sailed to the White House.
ZELENY: History would suggest it's an uphill battle for her, because Democrats, I looked this up, today -- Democrats have failed four of the last five attempts to win three straight terms.
BORGER: That's right.
ZELENY: So, that's one problem.
But the reality, Republicans, their biggest concern now is not Hillary Clinton, it's themselves. They're trying to break out of this match up. So, that's the biggest takeaway from this poll. It's really not much of a --
BLITZER: Gloria, take a look what we saw among Republican candidates. Pretty close right now for the potential 2016 field. Jeb Bush with 16 percent. Scott Walker, 13. Rand Paul, 12. Mike Huckabee, 10.
BORGER: This speaks to Jeff's point, about people don't know who these candidates are yet. They know Jeb Bush's name a little more than they know anybody else's name and they're not sure they like that or not. But this is all about name ID at this point.
But I want to echo something Jeff said about Hillary Clinton. We saw in the 2008 campaign that she's not a perfect candidate. She's not a great transactional politician. We saw her in the press conference on e-mail where is she looked like she'd rather be anywhere else than there.
And so, you have to see how a candidacy plays out. And you have to see what the rationale for Hillary Clinton's candidacy is and the rationale for Republican nominee. And those are the two things that are going to be battling each other. She is far from perfect and so are the folks on the Republican field.
ZELENY: You remember the polls in '07 and that time.
BORGER: Oh, yes, totally.
ZELENY: She was, you know, going to be beat Barack Obama. She was ahead of Joe Biden and all these other people. So, there has to be campaign. It's what campaigns are about, sort of testing yourselves out. But we have to see what her message is going to be. So, a little premature on that. The Republicans got their own --
BLITZER: Shouldn't Jeb Bush be doing better, though? He's the most known presumably among these Republicans.
BORGER: But, you know, his name is not necessarily a plus, OK? George W. --
BLITZER: Even for Republicans?
BORGER: Even for Republicans. There's lots of conservatives who believe George W. Bush was a big spender. There are some Republicans who believe that we spent to much on the war in Iraq. There's a lot of revisionist history about that. So, you know, I don't think the Bush name is the slam dunk even in the Republican Party, just like the Clinton name is in slam dunk in Democrats.
BLITZER: Interesting numbers we have in our new poll. Guys, thanks very much. Go to CNNPolitics.com if you want more on all of this.
Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Just tweet me @wolfblitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNsitroom. Please be sure to join us again tomorrow, right here on THE
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Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
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