Return to Transcripts main page


U.S., Russia Sign Deal on Air Safety Over Syria; Hackers Threaten to Release CIA Chief's Personal Data; Russia: 60 Airstrikes in Syria in Last 24 Hours; CNN Poll: Trump, Carson Soar Above GOP Pack. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 20, 2015 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST, "THE LEAD": If you get an e-mail, and you're not sure whether it's legitimate, the government advises you to call the phone number on the back of your card. Don't just give all your information to these yahoos on the other end.

[17:00:11] That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over now to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, secret deal. The U.S. and Russia sign an agreement on air safety over Syria, as Vladimir Putin's warplanes step up attacks, resulting in close calls with American aircraft. Why does the deal specify how close is too close, and why does Russia want the details kept secret? I'll ask a key member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committee -- committees, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

Threatening to leak. Hackers who accessed the CIA director's e-mail account are now threatening to release more sensitive information, including personal data. CNN has made contact with these alleged cybercriminals. Has the U.S. government managed to do the same?

Underground testing. A disturbing report says North Korea's Kim Jong- un may be preparing for another nuclear test. Is he planning an atomic strike, or is it just jealous sabre rattling, designed to steal the spotlight from Russia's Vladimir Putin?

And riding high. New poll numbers show Donald Trump still firmly in the lead of the Republican race for the White House. As his war of words with Jeb Bush over 9/11 heats up, why is Trump now changing his position on the war in Afghanistan?

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

Russia's reporting 60 new airstrikes on various targets in Syria, and now after a series of close calls with American military planes, the Pentagon and the Russian defense ministry, they've reached an agreement designed to avoid a midair collision.

The two sides have signed a deal on air safety over Syria, but we're now learning that some critical issues aren't even addressed. And Russia wants details of the agreement kept secret. We're also following the investigation into claims of a cyberattack on

the CIA chief, John Brennan. The alleged hackers are now threatening to release his personal data, and in an interview with CNN, one of them says accessing Brennan's personal e-mail account was incredibly easy.

We're covering that much more this hour with our guest, including Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees and an Iraq War combat veteran.

Also, our correspondents and analysts, they're also standing by. Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has more now on the new agreement between Russia and the U.S., on avoiding these close calls between these warplanes. Barbara, what's in this memorandum of understanding?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, the problem may actually be, for American pilots, what is not in the agreement.


STARR (voice-over): The Pentagon agreed to Russia's demand not to make public details of the joint agreement on how to prevent U.S. and Russian pilots from crashing into each other in the skies over Syria. The U.S. is not revealing how vague the agreement is.

PETER COOK, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Our crews certainly know exactly what a safe distance is, and the obligation is upon the Russians to maintain that safe distance.

STARR: But CNN has learned, it does not even specify how far away U.S. and Russian aircraft have to stay from each other.

COOK: These protocols include maintaining professional airmanship at all times, use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a communication line on the ground.

STARR: If there is an incident, a U.S. pilot will have to call the American command center in Qatar. The U.S. will then call Russian counterparts in Syria.

But in reality, there may not be time to call. Russian pilots have come as close as 500 feet to American jets in recent days. On Thursday a Russian aircraft flew within 1,500 feet of two U.S. jets. The American pilots tried calling the Russians on the radio, no answer.

The Russians continuing with airstrikes. The skies getting more crowded. The Russians may not be hostile to American pilots, but an Air Force official tells CNN, "The last thing any of us wants is a mid-air collision, and that is the biggest concern."

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: If there's a close approach between any type of aircraft in another aircraft. Sometimes it's too late for those aircraft to really identify each other and then move apart.


STARR: Now, U.S. officials continue to emphasize they do not see a hostile intent from Russia. They don't believe the Russians want to shoot down any U.S. planes. But this is a very difficult situation. Few details about how all of it will work and a lot of concern about the possibility of an accident -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of concern, indeed. All right, Barbara. Thank you.

We're also getting new information right now about the cyberattack on the heads of the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. CNN has talked to the hackers, who say they're behind it; and they're now threatening to release more sensitive information, including the Social Security number of the CIA director, John Brennan.

[17:05:10] Our justice reporter, Evan Perez, has been working the story for us. I mean, these hackers, they're still communicating today. Have they released any new, sensitive information from top U.S. government officials?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf they keep making that threat, but they have not yet released any of that information that they say they have. Really, they're playing "catch me if you can" with the FBI, with the Secret Service. I'm told that investigators do have some ideas of where these people are and who they might be, but they're not ready yet to make these arrests. We hope to see maybe some action on that in the next couple of days, Wolf.

BLITZER: Laurie Segall, CNN reporter, she spoke to this alleged hacker, recording the conversation. Let me play a little clip. Listen to this.


ROBOTIC VOICE: We have most of his personal information, like his name, address, phone number, Social Security number, and other things, and when we saw it, we manipulated it, AOL, to like, do the password reset on the account. It was that easy. I could have done it with one hand.


BLITZER: So what's the latest you're hearing from your law enforcement sources, Evan? Have authorities actually identified, found this individual?

PEREZ: Well, they haven't yet, Wolf. They're working, you know, on this. But you know the thing is, you know, this is not a case where they believe it might be Russians or perhaps Chinese hackers. It's not a state actor, as far as we know. This could be a teenager working out of his basement or a couple of teen teenagers, indeed. They could be anywhere in the world, really. These people have a good way of hiding. And they keep taunting the FBI. So I'm pretty sure that makes them

only more determined to figure out who they are and where they are.

BLITZER: But how do we know it's not a state actor just pretending to be some young -- some young people here in the United States who are smoking pot?

PEREZ: Well, you know, that is actually one of the things that the FBI has checked out. And they know the usual suspects of where things come from when there is a Chinese hack or there's a Russian hack or something suspected, perhaps, from Russian organized crime. They haven't seen any of those signs with this.

What we're seeing with this hack is, really, just somebody calling up AOL or Verizon and tricking them into resetting their account. Now that's something that's almost hard -- impossible to defend against, simply because you can make as good a password as you -- as you want. If these employees of these companies are not trained to not fall for these tricks, there's really nothing anybody can do.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Let's talk about this with Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. She's also an Iraq War combat veteran.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for coming in. What do you think, this report from Evan Perez, the hacker says -- told our Laurie Segall that, on a scale of one to ten, how difficult was it to hack into the private e-mail account of the CIA director, John Brennan. This guy says it was a one. It was obviously pretty easy. Here's the question: should top U.S. officials have private e-mail accounts?

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: Well, they shouldn't be using them for anything related to classified information or government information, information related to their work. People have personal lives, and I get that, but the important thing here is that, that if you are a position you should not be sending classified information. You should not be sending information related to your work and your job on your personal e-mail account. And we're seeing here now, yet another reason why this is so critical and so important.

BLITZER: Yes. Because everybody who's a top official seems to also have Gmail or AOL or some other personal account. I assume you have one, as well. So...

GABBARD: I do. I've got a personal account, but I've also got a work account. And I do my work business on my work e-mail account, just like so many other people do, both those who work in government and those who work in the private sector.

But especially those who are working in government who are handling sensitive and classified information on a daily basis, this is why it's so important, because there are so many vulnerabilities in these private e-mail servers. And unfortunately, there are vulnerabilities in the government servers, as well, that need to be fixed. BLITZER: That personal account that John Brennan, the CIA director, had has now been shut down. And I expect a lot of other senior officials are taking a closer look at their personal e-mail accounts right now, as well.

Let's talk about this deal, this agreement that was worked out today between the United States and Russia to avoid some accidental head-on collision between fighter jets over Syria. The secrecy of this deal, they're not making it public. Does that concern you?

GABBARD: It doesn't. You know, I think that the Pentagon knows and understands how important it is to make sure that our troops are not put into harm's way and that we're not put into a situation where you have this accidental military conflict with Russia in the air.

So I think making this deal with Russia to deconflict that is an important thing.

But there's a bigger issue here that I'm concerned with, and that is the fact that the U.S. and the CIA are working to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad while Russia, a longtime ally of Assad for decades now, is working to defend or uphold this Syrian government of Assad. And this -- this puts us in a position of a possible, direct head-to- head conflict with Russia, as long as the U.S. and CIA continue down this path.

[17:10:22] BLITZER: Well, how does the U.S. and Russia avoid that head-on contact? Because you're absolutely right. The U.S. wants to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. The Russians want to boost and protect him, together with the Iranians, their allies, the Lebanese Hezbollah group. They're trying to prop them up. So how do you avoid that potential collision?

GABBARD: Very simple. The U.S. and the CIA should stop this illegal and counterproductive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad and should stay focused on fighting against who our enemy is, the Islamic extremist groups.

Because right now, we're seeing why this is counterproductive by working towards that end. By working towards overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad, we are not only strengthening our enemy, the Islamic extremist who will walk in and take over all the country of Syria.

Right now they have about half of the country under their control, but it also puts us in that position of a potential direct head to head conflict with Russia, which brings us to the brink of a potential, larger conflict of a World War III type situation.

BLITZER: Why do you say is the U.S. effort to get rid of Bashar al- Assad's regime is counterproductive and illegal?

GABBARD: Well, first of all, there's not been a vote in Congress to authorize the use of force, to authorize a war to overthrow a sovereign government. For as long as I've been there, that hasn't happened. It didn't happen before I got there. So the American people haven't had a choice to speak their voice, to approve or disapprove such a war. Therefore, it's illegal.

Secondly, it is counterproductive, because right now, U.S. arms are getting into the hands of our enemy, al Qaeda, al Nusra, these other groups, Islamic extremist group who are our sworn enemy. These are groups who attacked us on 9/11 and who supposedly we're trying to defeat, yet at the same time supporting them with these arms to overthrow the Syrian government.

BLITZER: So you don't even want the U.S. to provide weapons or arms to these anti-Bashar al-Assad rebels?

GABBARD: I don't want the U.S. government to provide weapons to al Qaeda, to Islamic extremists, to our enemy. I think it's a very simple concept in my mind, that you can't defeat your enemy if you're arming them and helping them at the same time. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.

BLITZER: Have you told this to officials at the White House?

GABBARD: We've had conversations, both in hearings and otherwise. I think it's important for the American people to stand up and say, "Look, we don't want to go and do what happened in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, do what happened in Libya with Gadhafi." Because these are countries that have fallen into chaos and have been taken over by these terrorists because of the actions that the United States and others took.

BLITZER: You tweeted recently, "Any candidate who supports a safe no- fly zone in Syria must admit that U.S. coalition ground-air troops are needed to enforce."


BLITZER: That's a statement directed at Hillary Clinton, who now supports no-fly zone. The president opposes a no-fly zone, at least for now.

GABBARD: It is a statement directed at all of our presidential candidates, because as they are asked these questions and are taking positions on them, I think it's important for the American people to understand exactly what those positions mean.

People are calling them different things: a no-fly zone or a safe zone, but for those who are pushing for this. They've got to be held accountable for the decision they're making that this will require U.S. air assets to enforce it. It will require U.S. air assets to take out anti-aircraft missile defense systems, for example, that the Syrian government has.

And, again that puts us into a direct head-to-head conflict with a sovereign government, the government of Syria, and with Russia and their allies, and will also require a very large amount of ground troops on the ground to enforce this. There are a slew of other issues with this and why I think a no-fly zone would be a terrible mistake.

BLITZER: I know you're obviously very concerned about what happened in Libya, getting rid of Gadhafi. This current situation, there is...

GABBARD: The same thing will happen all over again.

BLITZER: It's a disaster in Libya right now.

All right. Stand by, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. We're going to have more right after this.


BLITZER: We're following Russia's escalating air war in Syria, with 60 airstrikes reported in the last 24 hours alone. Russian claims they're against ISIS and other terrorist targets, but the U.S. believes they're primarily targeting rebel forces fighting the government of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

[17:19:15] We're back with Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's a member of the armed services and foreign affairs committee, an Iraq combat war veteran, at the same time.

We're just getting this information from the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, who says he just received a letter from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, asking for greater cooperation between Iraq and Russia in this fight against ISIS, greater cooperation in a whole host of areas. The Iraqi prime minister says he's open to it. Is this good?

GABBARD: I think it is. I think that, as we deal with the situation and this continued and growing threat from Islamic extremist groups like ISIS, al Qaeda, al Nusra and others, we've got it see where we can build alliances to be able to defeat them wherever they are. And we're seeing them continue to sprout up in many of these different regions.

[17:20:02] BLITZER: Does it not concern you that Bashar al-Assad's regime has been brutal, killing at least 200,000, maybe 300,000 of its own people with these barrel bombs and all these reports of hundreds of thousands of people who have been left homeless, billions in fact, refugees, and the U.S. is obviously, so many other international powers still upset about that and want to get rid of him as a result of what he's been doing to his own people over the past four years?

Yes, Wolf it concerns me deeply to see this tremendous and tragic human suffering. I think it's important for leaders of the world, leaders here in the United States, to look at this issue, though, and say, OK, if you do, in Syria, what happened in Libya, what happened in Iraq, because the same things that are being said about Assad right now were said about Gadhafi. They were said about Saddam Hussein by those who were advocating for the U.S. to go in and intervene, to overthrow those regimes and those dictators.

The fact is, that if that happens here in Syria, as U.S. leaders and others are advocating for, we will end up with a situation far worse than we're seeing today. We'll end up in a situation with far greater human suffering, with far greater persecution of religious minorities and Christians in Syria, and our enemy will be far stronger. They will take over the entire country of Syria. They will have greater weapons and capabilities and present a greater threat, not only to people in the region but to the world.

BLITZER: What you're saying is that the Russian military involvement on the air, on the ground, the Iranian involvement in Syria right now, the Hezbollah involvement, they're actually doing the U.S. a favor?

GABBARD: They are working towards defeating our common enemy. When you look at the groups that are on the ground there, the most effective fighting groups who are fighting to overthrow this government, the Syrian government of Assad, they are predominantly ISIS, al Qaeda, al Nusra and these other Islamic extremist groups. They make up the vast majority of these so-called Syrian rebels. They are the most effective force who have -- who has gained the most territory.

So the people who they're attacking in the Russians are dropping bombs are these al Qaeda people who are our enemy. People who attacked us on 9/11.

BLITZER: So you're basically saying you don't want fellow soldiers and you're a member of the Hawaii National Guard. You just were promoted from captain to major. You served in Iraq. You don't want the men and women of the U.S. military on the ground in any of those areas. Is that what I'm hearing?

GABBARD: No, there's no reason for them to go and be deployed to these situations. I think it's important for us, first and foremost, to recognize, A, who our enemy is and, B, what our mission is. Our mission is to defeat our enemy, not to take action that's counterproductive to that mission and help our enemy get stronger. It's a very simple premise, and I think it's important for us to focus on that.

BLITZER: Let's talk politics while I have you. You're still vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, is that right?


BLITZER: You know another vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, the former mayor of Minneapolis, he agrees with you that the chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, lied when she says she consulted with you about the number of debates, six debates, and when she says she didn't disinvite you to the last Democratic debate in -- in Las Vegas.

Has there been any progress in reconciling with her? Have you spoken to her? Anything happening that we should know about?

GABBARD: I've had some conversations, but this whole thing has already been laid out. The facts have been laid out in public, and the truth is there, and "New York Times," Bloomberg, a lot of media sources that have laid that out. So I think it's important to not continue to keep talking about and

actually focus on issues that are very important, like the ones we're talking about now.

BLITZER: You're going to stay on as a vice chair, not resigning.

GABBARD: As of now. As of now.

BLITZER: As of now. That leaves it open. You're thinking of resigning?

GABBARD: I don't want to talk about that right now, Wolf. I think there's a lot of other issues that we've got to be focusing on here, like the ones we're talking about, like making sure that we don't bring the United States back into -- rather continuing this illegal war in Syria.

BLITZER: You want her to step down, Debbie Wasserman Schultz?

GABBARD: I'm not going to comment on that.

BLITZER: Because you clearly have lost confidence in her leadership.

GABBARD: There's been a lot of issues there. And we've talked about it a lot in public over the last week. And it's important for us to be able to move on and focus on issues that are actually important, the issues that matter to the American people as we go forward.

BLITZER: What I hear you saying is, if she leaves, you'll stay?

GABBARD: You're not hearing that, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Trying to pin you down, but you don't want to be pinned down. You want to leave options open for yourself.

I understand, the very -- and interview -- I was really concerned when you mentioned to me the other day you were surfing in Hawaii and you got hit by the surfboard. What happened?

GABBARD: I was out surfing at one of my favorite spots early in the morning. And there was a guy who had a big long board, and he wasn't wearing a leash. So he caught a set wave. He bailed on the wave, and the board came flying in my direction and, unfortunately, hit me in the face. But got a little bloody. Nothing broken. Everything's fine.

BLITZER: You look like you're OK right now.


BLITZER: Any permanent injury?

GABBARD: No. It's a little tender but nothing permanent.

BLITZER: You look good.

GABBARD: Thanks for asking.

BLITZER: All right, good. Glad you're OK.

GABBARD: Thanks.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Coming up, a new warning that North Korea is preparing to test a nuclear weapon.

Also, new CNN poll numbers showing Donald Trump's strength and his toughest challenge.


BLITZER: A new CNN poll of Republicans shows Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson soaring above the party's other presidential candidates. Let's bring in our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash. She's working the story for us.

Very impressive numbers for these two frontrunners.

[17:30:01] DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It sure is. And you know, specifically when it comes to Donald Trump, the kind of misstep that and remark that can typically destroy a political career, so far only seems to make Donald Trump stronger. And our new poll shows it only cements his status as Teflon Don.


BASH (voice-over): It may be a crowded Republican presidential field, but only two men are firmly on top, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. A combined two-thirds of GOP voters now say Trump and Carson are their first and second choice according to CNN/ORC's poll.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (via phone): We hit a chord. We are both resonating. There's no question about it.

BASH: It's not just that Trump and Carson have support. It's that their supporters are excited about them, which makes them more likely to actually go out and vote. Thirty percent of Trump supporters are very enthusiastic, 25 percent of Carson's. By contrast, only 3 percent of Jeb Bush voters are enthusiastic about him as he steps up criticism of Trump as commander in chief.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to be much more forceful, both here to protect the homeland, as well as overseas to create a strategy to unite the world against this grave threat. And I don't believe Donald Trump has the capability of doing that.

BASH: Trump is sending some mixed signals on foreign policy. In an interview this morning with CNN's "NEW DAY" he said invading Afghanistan after 9/11 was the right move.

TRUMP: We were safe in a sense, but we went into Iraq, which was a disaster decision. Just a disastrous decision. Not Afghanistan, because that's probably where we should have gone in the first place.

BASH: But just two weeks ago, on the same CNN program, he said the opposite.

TRUMP: We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn't know what the hell they were doing.

BASH: When reminded of that today, Trump denied flip-flopping.

TRUMP: I haven't said. Look, Afghanistan is a different thing. It's next to Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapon. OK?

BASH: Trump confusion and controversy has not hurt him in the past. For example, despite questionable remarks about women appearing to make fun of Carly Fiorina's face, Trump is tied for first place with female Republican voters.

CARLY FIORINA (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.

BASH: As for Fiorina, the only female candidate in the Republican race, her surge after a strong debate showing last month has ended. She dropped 11 points with women alone, registering now at just 4 percent.


BASH: And our new poll also has good news overall for Republicans, 68 percent, so more than two-thirds of GOP voters say they're satisfied and excited with their options in the presidential field. And you see there, Wolf, that is ten points higher than how Democratic voters feel about their candidate options.

BLITZER: Yes. If they can keep it up in a general election, then more Republicans...

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... will be enthusiastic about going to the polls. That's a long time away...

BASH: It is.

BLITZER: ... from that. We'll see if those numbers change. Dana, stay with us.

I also want to bring in our CNN political commentators, S.E. Cupp and Ryan Lizza. He also is the "New Yorker" magazine's Washington correspondent. Also joining us, Peter Beinart. He's a contributing editor for Atlantic Media.

Ryan, Trump is solidly the frontrunner in all the national polls, the statewide polls. He's really driving this conversation right now for the other candidates, as well. RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's been now more than three

months that Donald Trump has been at the top of the polls, right, with everyone, including my own prediction that this would fade and this was a Summer fad.

And I think the other candidates, especially the Jeb Bush campaign, the ones that have sat back and said, "Don't worry, this is not going to last," they have to start treating him like a frontrunner, right? They have to -- the elected officials in the race, Trump, and Rubio, and Kasich, they have to realize they are now the insurgents. They are the underdogs. And they have to view the campaign totally different then when they started and act accordingly. I see today Mike Murphy, head of the super PAC, Bush's super PAC...

BLITZER: Jeb Bush's super PAC.

LIZZA: Jeb Bush's super PAC. He is still saying that this Trump thing will fade, and they'll eventually -- he's not worried about it. He called him a zombie front-runner, someone who just can't last.

BLITZER: We'll see if that happens. So far it hasn't happened. His numbers have steadily gone up.

Peter, you wrote an important article in "The Atlantic," pointing out that Donald Trump has a point when he suggested George W. Bush as president could have done more, could have done more to prevent 9/11 from happening. And all of this is becoming a vulnerability, potentially, for Jeb Bush. I know you don't agree with Donald Trump on a lot, but in this in particular area, you think he has a point?

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. It's not just me. It's the -- many of the former counterterrorism advisers from the Bush administration themselves. And we've forgotten a lot of it.

From Richard Clark, who was the counterterrorism czar under George W. Bush, wrote a book in which he talked about how despondent he was in Summer 2001 because of frantic efforts to get the Bush administration focused on the bin Laden threat didn't -- didn't pan out for him at all. He even asked to be reassigned.

You know, he took -- it took until September 2001 for Clark to finally be able to get the cabinet to sit down and talk about the issue of terrorism.

So, yes, I think Trump here is actually making a very important point. And this is one of the strange things about Trump. The fact that he doesn't really pay attention to what's considered respectable discourse leads him to say some pretty awful things.

But it also leads him to say some actually uncomfortable truths, like the fact that politicians get bought by rich donors and the fact that Bush should have done more to try to stop 9/11.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, Jeb Bush responded, just published an op-ed, just a little while ago. Among other things, he says, let's be clear, Donald Trump simply doesn't know what he's talking about. And his bluster overcompensates for a shocking lack of knowledge on the national security challenges that will confront the next president of the United States.

Can Jeb Bush effectively counter Donald Trump?

BASH: He certainly is trying and he has no choice but to try. You know, you talked about the fact others have to start treating him like a frontrunner. This is the Bush campaign's attempt to do that in that they're trying to obviously bring him down several notches on the issue of national security, that he doesn't -- not just that he's not ready for prime time, but also in that op-ed that was published today compares him to the liberal filmmaker, Michael Moore, suggesting that he is just, you know, too far to the left on foreign policy.

That is the kind of thing that they're hoping inside the Bush campaign appeals to conservatives. And you know, it's still, again, an open question whether it will. Because we've been talking about the more controversial things he says, the more he seems to be a favorite among Republican voters.

BLITZER: Among Republicans, at least in these polls.

S.E., he seems to be a master at finding the Achilles heel of some of these potential presidential rivals. He goes after them. He scores points. His numbers go up. Their numbers go down.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it's really tough to do -- to do battle with Donald Trump and win.

For one thing, I think what a lot of his supporters are responding to, not necessarily the substance of what he says, but the fact that he doesn't apologize for any of the wacky or irresponsible or if you're with Peter, irresponsible, uncomfortable truths that he says, he doesn't apologize for it. He might tweak it down the road to come up with the most palatable version of what he said. But he won't apologize. And I think we live in a culture of apologizers, and people are just kind of sick of it.

And it's sort of seen as a weak impotent person that takes what would normally be the appropriate step of saying, "Well, I didn't mean to say that." Donald Trump is really exploiting that. So I don't think, like Peter suggests, that this was an important policy, you know, conversation. He meant to have. I think he just stumbled into a conversation and said the first thing that came to mind.

I think we should have that conversation. I don't think Donald Trump has any interest in really getting into a substantive debate. He said something. He's not going to apologize for it. It happens to be working for him. That's it.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, guys. We're going to continue this conversation. We have a lot more coming up. The political drama also intensifying on the Democratic side. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:42:39] BLITZER: The vice president, Joe Biden, still isn't saying whether he will run for president, but today he made some surprising claims about the clout he has inside the White House at a forum with the former vice president, Walter Mondale.

Biden said he privately advised President Obama to go ahead with the risky military raid that killed Osama bin Laden. That differs from the stories other insiders have told.

Let's bring back chief political correspondent, Dana Bash; as well as our CNN political commentators, S.E. Cupp, Ryan Lizza and Peter Beinart.

Ryan, I want you to listen to what the vice president said at this forum at George Washington University here in Washington today about the effort to go either to capture or kill bin Laden.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Only two people who are definitive, and were absolutely certain. Leon Panetta said go, and Bob Gates, who's already publicly said this, said don't go. And others were 59/41. Some ended up saying go, but it was such a close call.

And I joked and I said, "You all sound like 17 Larry Summers, economists, 'On the one hand and on the other hand'."

And he said, "Joe, what would you do?"

And there was a third option that I didn't really think we should do. I said, "Well" -- I said, "I think we should make one more pass with another UAV to see if it's -- if it is him." And the reason I did that is, I didn't want to take a position to go if that was not where he was going to go.

So as we walked out of the room and walked upstairs, I said -- I told him my opinion, that I thought he should go but follow his own instinct.


BLITZER: So Ryan, that seems to be a revised story there from what the president earlier said, suggesting Biden was opposed to the operation. Others have made that same claim, including Biden himself seemed to have made that point. What's going on over here?

LIZZA: Very clear, Biden a few years ago used the phrase, he said, don't go, when he was recounting that meeting he said he told the president don't go. Today of course he's saying he privately, after the meeting said, "Trust your instincts," which means go. So he went from don't go to go.

He and Hillary Clinton have fought on a lot of foreign policy battles in the administration. He was always on the more dovish side of the debates. She was also on the more hawkish side of the debates. I think in a Democratic primary, his position on Syria, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on Libya is probably the sweet spot. He was always on the more dovish side of all those debates you mentioned.

But on this one, on seeing -- telling Obama whether to do the raid or not, I think he thinks his own name was on the wrong side of history, and he's trying to change the story. I think he's putting Obama in a tough box here because now the question is going to be to the president, is this true? Did Joe Biden privately tell you --

BLITZER: The president publicly has suggested Biden wasn't on board, was one of those who was resistant.

LIZZA: And I think he's also trying to say that he had this private access to the president that other advisers, maybe Hillary Clinton, didn't have.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, maybe in retrospect we're going to look back on this and say that we were reading way too much into this. But to me, that is the best indicator yet that Joe Biden is running for president. He doesn't want to be seen as weak on one of the best, most successful national security missions in the Obama administration altogether. Particularly when he's running potentially against Hillary Clinton who, as you said, was on the right side, because she supported the raid.

So I think that there's no question about that. He's being maybe a little passive-aggressive about it, to say the least. But I think that's what he's doing.

BLITZER: And, you know, Peter, it's a strategy of trying to show that he's completely on the same page with the president of the United States, a strategy that's different right now than Hillary Clinton who's showing that she's got some different viewpoints than President Obama. It's another indication at least to me that he really is going to run for this presidency.

PETER BEINART, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, ATLANTIC MEDIA: Maybe, although, you know, the issues on which Hillary has broken with President Obama, for instance, like TPP, for instance, the trade deal, are actually issues where -- put her on the same side as most Democrats.

I think the problem with what Biden did here is that, you know, a lot of people have said that Hillary Clinton is too buttoned up. But I think what they've forgotten is that a lot of people don't think Joe Biden is buttoned up enough. That is to say he has a history of these somewhat dubious statements, statements that don't always comport with reality as other people have seen them. And I think this is going to play into that narrative and the closer he comes to running the more people are going to start remembering that.

BLITZER: It certainly looks like he's about to run.


BLITZER: What do you think, S.E.? S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I think, as Dana

mentioned, there's only one reason to bring that up and clarify it, if you're expecting maybe, say, in a presidential debate, that you might get a question about it. He's getting in front of it.

I actually think, marrying himself to President Obama is probably pretty smart strategy. During the height of the Biden rumors you can actually go on Twitter and have -- and find people asking if President Obama could be Vice President Joe Biden's running mate, legally and constitutionally. That's how much Democrats still like President Obama. And as he's watching Hillary Clinton's favorabilities drop and her likability really come into question, Joe is putting his likability out front saying, I don't say that Republicans are my enemies. I've got lots of friends on Capitol Hill. So I think that is his strategy. It's probably a smart one.

BLITZER: Yes. He said today, once again, Republicans are my friends.

CUPP: Yes.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: In contrast to what Hillary Clinton said at that debate last week when she listed Republicans, Iranians, others as her enemies in response to that question.

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stay with us. Coming up, we'll move on to North Korea, said to be preparing right now for a nuclear test. What do new satellite images reveal about Kim Jong-Un's atomic plans?


[17:52:41] BLITZER: South Korea's intelligence agency now believes North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test as the regime, the dictator Kim Jong-Un wraps up its atomic bomb fuel production plants.

CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us.

Brian, is there any indication when this nuclear test might actually happen?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's really no indication of that, Wolf, tonight. And South Korean lawmakers are saying that tonight -- these are lawmakers who are briefed by their country's intelligence agencies. They're saying tonight they do not believe a nuclear test is eminent. Still, tonight, South Korean intelligence does believe that Kim Jong-Un's regime is preparing for a nuclear test, which would be their fourth.

We have some recent pictures from the group 38 North. This group tracks North Korean nuclear missile activity through satellite imagery. We have before-and-after pictures of the nuclear test facility at Punggye-ri, that's about 250 miles northeast of Pyongyang, and they do show activity at the site. I want you to watch how these pictures change from before on September

7th to after, on September 18th. First, we're going to show you the west portal entrance. This is what that portal entrance looks like on September 7th. Here's the after picture on September 8th -- excuse me, 18th. You've got camouflage netting at the entrance, you've got vehicles parked here in this area.

Now we're going to take you to the west portal guard house at Punggye- ri. You've got new buildings here, on September 7th. Now here's the after picture from September 18th. Again you're showing more vehicles in place here, a van here, vehicles here and here. Going to take you to the south portal entrance here. You see that grading has begun on the ground on September 7th.

And again, as the picture changes to the after picture on September 18th, there is a newly graded area in the ground here, and again, the presence of vehicles right about there. And again, we'll take you to the main support area at this nuclear test facility. Again, it's called Punggye-ri. This is on September -- excuse me, September 7th. This is a vehicle shown here at the main support area on September 7th and on September 18th. And you have vehicles here and trailers back in place here. Now the experts at 38 North tell us this activity could be in preparation for a nuclear test, or it could be routine maintenance.

But, Wolf, one thing you have to keep in mind, much of the activity at Punggye-ri is hidden from view, very hard to tell from this satellite imagery.

[17:55:02] BLITZER: Brian, why would they conduct a fourth nuclear test?

TODD: Well, Wolf, you know, it's interesting. Analysts say it could be to show that they've mastered the technology to build a nuclear warhead small enough to put on an intercontinental ballistic missile like this one.

Now North Koreans claim they already have that know-how, but weapons experts we have spoke to say they have not flight-tested long-range missiles enough to ensure that they won't break up upon re-entering the atmosphere.

Another key reason, though, Wolf, could be that Kim Jong-Un may need to recapture the spotlight. He knows, he watches CNN, he knows that Vladimir Putin's been getting a lot of attention lately because of his activities in Syria. Kim is always cognizant of these things. He may need to rattle his saber to try to leverage some concessions either out of the West or out of South Korea or China -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.

Coming up, a crucial deadline approaching for Vice President Joe Biden, if he decides to run for president. Did he drop some clues about his plans in his remarks today?