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Death in Custody; Interview With California Congressman Ed Royce; Suicide Bombings in Beirut; Video Shows Police Tasing Man Who Later Died; Immigration War Erupts Among GOP Candidates. Aired 18- 19:00p ET

Aired November 12, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Major new military offense against is with warplanes in the air and special operations forces on the ground. Tonight, the president's ISIS war envoy fears the U.S. may be condemned to fight the terror group forever.

Taser dispute. New court wrangling in the case of the man who died in police custody after officers used a Taser on him at least 18 times. Stand by for new information on the $25 million lawsuit filed by the family.

And blinding danger. More than 20 aircraft were struck by lasers overnight, a shocking series of incidents that could have caused multiple crashes. Was there a coordinated plan of attack?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, ISIS now claiming responsibility for a pair of deadly suicide bombings as the terror group wages its brutal and expanding war around the world.

At least 41 people are dead, more than 200 wounded in back-to- back attacks in Beirut, Lebanon. CNN has learned one attacker survived and he's now telling investigators he's an ISIS recruit. Also tonight, ISIS is out with a new video vowing to attack Russia very soon and warning that blood will spill like an ocean. The threat comes amid signs that Russia may be preparing a new strike against ISIS in retaliation for the downing of its airliner in Egypt.

And right now, the United States is engaged in a major new offensive against ISIS in Northern Iraq with special operation troops on the ground directing punishing airstrikes. Coalition forces are backing Kurdish fighters in an intense battle to retake the city of Sinjar that's been in the grip of ISIS for more than a year.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce, he is standing by live, along with our correspondent and analysts who are covering all the breaking news.

Up first, our national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Jim, we're getting new information about the attackers. What have you learned?


This is what we know at this hour. Two suicide bombers striking a busy market in south Beirut at the height of rush hour there. The first blast attacked a crowd, and then a second bomber struck. That's a favorite tactic to maximize casualties. ISIS very quickly claiming responsibility for these attacks via social media.

Sources telling our terror analyst Paul Cruickshank and myself that two other attackers appeared to have been part of the plot, one killed by that first blast, another apparently captured by the police. He is now talking and Lebanese police investigating his claims that he and the others were dispatched to Lebanon from Syria by ISIS.

This is the deadliest attack in Lebanon in two years. It struck a Hezbollah neighborhood, Hezbollah of course fighting alongside the regime of Bashar al-Assad across the border in Syria, the Assad regime ISIS' sworn enemy there.

In this attack, you see the Syrian civil war in effect spilling into Lebanon and, Wolf, as if we needed it, more evidence of ISIS' ability to carry out terror attacks abroad.

BLITZER: This is taking place as ISIS is now making threats of their own.

SCIUTTO: That's right. A chilling new warning, this one directed at Russia and administration official telling me as evidence grows that it was an ISIS bomb that took down that Russian passenger jet over Sinai, Russia is very likely to react under pressure from the Russian population.

And now you have ISIS putting Russia on notice in effect for more acts of terror.



SCIUTTO (voice-over): From ISIS, a new threat to a new enemy, Russia. Chanting in Russian and showing video of Russian cities, the terror group threatens attacks there very soon. What the video does not mention is the Russian passenger jet downed over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

Still, with growing evidence the loss of Metrojet 9268 was the result of a bomb planted by ISIS, U.S. officials and lawmakers are anticipating a firm Russian response.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: knowing Putin, I don't think he's going to back away from this. I think he's going to ratchet up, rather than ratchet down. And I think that those people in the Sinai who are responsible for this are probably thinking about where is the biggest rock they can get under.

SCIUTTO: Administration officials tell CNN they are in contact with their Russian counterparts, though Moscow has not detailed any military plans.

To date, Russia's airstrikes in Syria have focused on defending the forces of Bashar al-Assad, rather than targeting ISIS, frustrating U.S. officials. Both sides are now taking part in peace talks in Vienna starting tomorrow mapping a potential path to peace in Syria.


Moscow and Washington still differ on the key question of whether Assad can stay.

SUSAN RICE, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The Russians certainly have their ideas. We have ours. Other players have theirs. And this discussion in Vienna will be an opportunity to try to see the extent to which we can forge a common way forward.


SCIUTTO: I asked an administration official today if the U.S. expects Russia to become a more helpful partner against ISIS following the Sinai crash and was told that is a choice the Russians have to make. That same official repeated a familiar warning from the Obama administration that Russia's military campaign in Syria makes them more of a target of ISIS.

And, of course, Wolf, that is something Russia and the U.S. share now, in light of that military...


BLITZER: Yes, ISIS clearly expanding its reach even as we speak right now.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Now to the United States' war against ISIS with new U.S. military action in the air and on the ground. It's part of an intense new military offensive to try to retake a ISIS stronghold in Northern Iraq.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, the U.S., I understand, now playing a very important role in this latest fight.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Very significant and very different, Wolf. There are a number of U.S. special forces right in the middle essentially of the battle for Sinjar. The Pentagon insists they will be safe.


STARR (voice-over): U.S. special operations troops are now on the ground atop Sinjar Mountain.

PETER COOK, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: There are some advisers who are on Sinjar Mountain assisting in the selection of airstrike targets.

STARR: The Pentagon refuses to officially call them forward air controllers, which are military personnel in a combat zone who pick out targets for airstrikes.

COOK: They are working directly with Peshmerga forces in determining exactly where the most effective airstrikes would be conducted.

STARR: The Pentagon has resisted putting targeting forces in the field until now. It's only happened once before, last month near Kirkuk.

In Sinjar, more than 30 airstrikes pounded more than 50 ISIS positions, destroying weapons, bunkers and areas where ISIS troops assemble. Taking Sinjar back from ISIS is considered vital. More than 7,000 Peshmerga Kurdish military fighters are involved. The city sits on Highway 47, the primary ISIS supply route between Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, and Mosul, Iraq's second largest city also under the firm grip of ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ISIS' two primary capitals here, and by seizing Sinjar, we will be able to cut that line of communication which we believe will construct ISIS' ability to resupply and is a critical first step in the eventual liberation of Mosul.

STARR: CNN witnessed directly the horror ISIS inflicted here on Sinjar. Last year, some 50,000 Yazidis fled to the mountain to escape the ISIS onslaught. About 5,000 men and boys in Sinjar and nearby villages were massacred, according to U.N. estimates, while teenage girls and women were sold into slavery.

The question now, can the ultimate goal, pushing ISIS out of its strongholds, really succeed?

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR PLANS AND STRATEGY: For Sinjar, I believe that's going to take weeks. For Mosul, I believe the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga forces are going to need months before they are able to go into Mosul and retake that from ISIS.


STARR: The Peshmerga fighters say they are making some gains in the Sinjar fight, but it's always the question, if they make the gains, can they hold on to them, Wolf?

BLITZER: Barbara you're also getting some breaking news over at the Pentagon, where you are. A top military aid, I think it, removed. What happened?

STARR: Fired by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, really a shocking development at the Pentagon. People are very surprised.

Carter today has fired his top military aide, Three-Star Lieutenant General Ronald Lewis. You see him there. All anyone is being told is General Lewis was removed from his job as Carter's top assistant over allegations of misconduct -- we are not told what they were -- that are now being investigated by the inspector general.

And, of course, it should be said these are allegations and he is innocent of all of this or any of it unless and until proven otherwise, but make no mistake, this is a shock. General Lewis has worked for the defense secretary in various jobs over the years. These are two men that know each other well. His job is very powerful.

He basically controls the flow of paper, if you will, people and meetings that Defense Secretary Ash Carter is involved in, someone Carter has relied on for many years, Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, thanks very much, obviously a disturbing development over there.


Let's talk about all of this, the breaking news we're following.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California, joins us live.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.

First of all, have you heard anything at all about this report that Barbara just told us, Lieutenant General Ron Lewis fired by Ash Carter?

REP. ED ROYCE (R), CALIFORNIA: No, I had not. And I was briefed today, but that had not come up at that point in time.

BLITZER: All right. Well, that's pretty disturbing.

All right, let's talk about what is going on in Beirut right now, twin suicide bombings, hundreds of people killed and injured in a Shiite neighborhood in south Beirut. ISIS claims responsibility. Has the U.S. actually confirmed that ISIS did this?

ROYCE: I don't think there is any question. And I have had consolations on this today. ISIS clearly carried this out, a very cowardly act.

If you look at the attack on the bakery inside the market, that was primarily women and children. And then you look at the attack outside of the mosque, the Shia mosque, and again you see from ISIS this pronouncement that they are attacking Shias because they are apostates, the same excuses that they give for attacks on Yazidis or Christians or Kurds.

This is very much their M.O. And they have already claimed credit for the attack. And it is good that we now have in custody one of the attackers. Clearly, U.S. forces and Lebanese armed forces are going to have to work very closely together on this security question, because what you see in Lebanon today, Wolf, is one-quarter of that population are people fleeing from Syria. And, obviously, what happened was ISIS embedded their suicide bombers with that population.

BLITZER: Yes. The Lebanese sources tell our terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank, four suicide bombers, two Lebanese, two Palestinian, and one of them taken alive.

Is there a suspicion now that ISIS really wants to expand this war because Hezbollah has been helping Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria? ISIS now wants to retaliate by the taking the war actually into Lebanon?

ROYCE: I have seen that argument. And that's certainly part of the equation.

But, Wolf, remember, from the outset, is has claimed a caliphate for the entire Middle Eastern region and they have specifically said that Lebanon is part of their caliphate. So it's very much in character for them to be pushing this war in North Africa, in Lebanon, certainly throughout the region.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this battle that's happening in Sinjar right now in Northern Iraq.

U.S. troops, they are on the ground, special operations forces. They're calling in U.S. airstrikes to help the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters who are taking the lead on the ground. Is this going to succeed, the taking of Sinjar, because it's strategically located between Raqqa, the Islamic caliphate's headquarters in Syria, and Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, which ISIS also controls?

ROYCE: Well, again, I would like to see our primary focus on arming the Kurdish forces, as well as the Yazidis.

And the most passionate stories I have heard are from Yazidi women from Sinjar who survived. And, as you know, many of those girls and women were taken as sex slaves by ISIS. You have a highly motivated population in the 180,000 troops that are in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and you increasingly have men who are Yazidis who want to fight, but they need the armaments.

And so far we haven't been able to get the administration to transfer the types of artillery, long-range mortars, anti-tank weapons that they feel they need. So, yes, we can call in airstrikes. That is helpful.

But at the end of the day, what we really need to do is give them the weaponry to defend themselves and to defeat ISIS in Sinjar. They tell us at this point they still don't have weapons to match what ISIS has in their command. BLITZER: And according to our Nick Paton Walsh, who is there,

near Sinjar, the Iraqi military is nowhere in sight. This is a Kurdish war that is going on.

Mr. Chairman, stand by. We have more to talk about, and including what Russia might do to retaliate against ISIS for downing that commercial airliner in Sinai.



BLITZER: We're back with the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce. We're following the breaking news.

Congressman, stand by for a moment.

U.S. warplanes and ground troops, they're now supporting a new military offensive in Northern Iraq and a top U.S. official in America's war against ISIS is speaking out, this on his last day on the job.

Let's bring in our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.

Elise, you had an exclusive interview with the president's point man in this war against ISIS. What did he tell you?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we did General Allen's first interview when he first took the job.

And right then, it was a very limited campaign. The U.S. was not going to put any troops on the ground there. It was -- now ISIS has morphed into a global organization. Russian intervention has complicated the effort in Syria. And with the U.S. sending special forces into Iraq and now Syria, it seems as if the U.S. involvement in Syria is only deepening.



LABOTT: It looks as if the U.S. is getting more military entrenched in the conflict. Is this mission creep?


This is a -- this decision has been under consideration for some time. And I would say that we should view this as the right kind of next step for us to be connected to those groups on the ground that we have provided support to, vetted groups that have been successful on the ground.

This provides us the capacity to advice them forward. It provides them connectivity back into our own support system. And that's the role they are playing. They will not be in combat with these groups.

LABOTT: As you step down in the two wars that you most recently had a leadership role in, they are still ongoing, since you have left the battle field, some would argue even worse; 14 years Afghanistan, Taliban is thriving; 12 years after the invasion of Iraq, the borders between Iraq and Syria are in effect gone right now, and a terror group is running the area.

What lesson has the U.S. not learned about this region and how do you learn that lesson to be able to finish the job now?

ALLEN: I think that the lesson that the U.S. has learned in fact is the emphasis that has been put on this in the last year, and that is that solving in a comprehensive and a collaborative way with our partners these underlying social, economic and political subcurrents, that the underlying causes which take hope from large segments of the population, that give large elements within countries no access to the institutions of government, no hope for a decent job, no way to bring their children up, no hope for education.

If we don't get to the left of those symptoms and try to solve these underlying circumstances, working collaboratively with those who are in the region, who best understand the region, then we're going to be condemned to fight forever.


LABOTT: And that's why the -- General Allen said the U.S. is looking at some of these affiliates, Wolf, across the globe. That is where their concern is. After 45 years of service, General Allen really looking forward to spending some time with his family, but he said that if the president called, he would come off the bench. I don't think we have seen the last of him yet.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much for that, Elise.

Let's get back to the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Ed Royce.

You just heard General Allen says ISIS has a growing global reach. Are you concerned, Mr. Chairman, that there won't be a buy-in from Americans on this fight unless the U.S. is directly attacked, in other words, the U.S. is going to basically let others deal with ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq?

ROYCE: Well, the reality here, Wolf, is that every time ISIS is successful in an operation, they use it for recruiting.

And they're recruiting all over the world. So, we're not immune in the United States. There are several hundred U.S. fighters in that theater who have left here to go to fight for ISIS. And the question is, how many of them will return here?

Regardless of whether we declare, you know, our hostility to ISIS, they have already declared their hostility to our way of life. Their entire focus is on what they can do to spread terror and bring converts to the cause in order to convert everyone for this caliphate.

So whether we like it or not, we're in this struggle.

BLITZER: The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr, told me he believes ISIS likely intentionally hit Russia, downing that Russian airliner in Sinai with 224 people on board.

Is ISIS, in your analysis, directly picking a fight with Russia because they want some sort of global jihad?

ROYCE: They do want a global jihad.

And the chatter two days before that attack between the Sinai and Raqqa, Syria, where they have headquarters, indicated their focus on this mission.

And subsequently after the attack, they have taken credit for the attack. And we have been able to monitor the follow-up, and now indeed in looking through the luggage, the briefings that I have had, it's pretty clear that, you know, as the plane came down, you can tell by the way -- when an explosion goes off, the way that it has an impact on the containers and the luggage racks and so forth.

And the initial information indicates that they are correct in terms of what they are telling the world. They did carry out an attack here.

BLITZER: The order came from Raqqa, from ISIS central, that's their so-called caliphate's headquarters, through their ISIS affiliate, their supporters in Sinai, and, as a result, those 224 people on board that commercial airliner are now dead.


Secretary Kerry, he spoke to CNN's Fareed Zakaria today about this fight against ISIS. Mr. Chairman, listen to this.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There are major disruptions to the leadership and command-and-control of ISIL. Their territory has been shrunk by some 17,000 square kilometers.

There is a difference in the way they have to operate as a result of our operations. And I believe that when you combine what is happening in Iraq with what is happening in Syria, there is an enormous amount of pressure that is continually being ramped up with respect to ISIL.

Now, ultimately, we want more forces on the ground to be able to do it, not ours. There are going to have to be people on the ground.


BLITZER: You agree with that relatively upbeat assessment that ISIS now apparently is on the run?

ROYCE: Well, remember, ISIS has just carried out two attacks in Lebanon and one in the Sinai in Egypt.

And what I have seen in terms of their operations in West Africa, North Africa, Central Asia, indicates that the process of expansion for ISIS and the ideological recruitment, which you can access on the Internet, it is not slowing.

And I don't think it will slow until there really is a major defeat and it doesn't look like destiny is with them or they can no longer say, we can't be defeated on the battlefield.

That is again why it is so important that these Kurdish forces, 30 percent of which are women, are given the weaponry, since they are the ones engaged on the ground, given the weaponry to be successful in this war.

And it's also why we have to shut down the Deobandi schools that are financed out of the Gulf states by major families in the Gulf states that exist in Central Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East. Those schools are a training ground for radicalization into jihad.

I'm speaking specifically just about the Deobandi schools. Something has to be done to get nations to close those schools within their borders.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.

ROYCE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Royce is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

This programming note to our viewers. You can watch the full interview with Secretary Kerry on "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" this Sunday 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

Just ahead, we're getting new developments in the case of that man who died in custody after being Tased multiple times by police. We're going to tell you what we're learning today.

And lasers pointed at more than 20 aircraft overnight across the United States, putting pilots and planes at risk, are these incidents connected?


BLITZER: There are new developments tonight in the case of that handcuffed man who died in police custody after police shocked him with a Taser gun. His family disputes an autopsy report, and they filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the police department.

Our justice correspondent Pamela Brown is here with the video, new details. Pamela, this case is now playing out in court. PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right,

Wolf. In fact, the defense attorneys appeared in court today disputing some of the wording in the civil suit. And they said the officers are now being threatened after this video surfaced showing them simultaneously Tasing a man who later died.


BROWN (voice-over): Today in federal court, lawyers for the Virginia police officers seen here using a stun gun multiple times on a man in handcuffs argued publicity around the $25 million lawsuit filed against them has led to veiled death threats.

Tonight, CNN has learned a local prosecutor is still reviewing a state investigation into the case, which is now garnering national attention.

It started with 911 calls complaining about noise in a hotel in South Boston, Virginia, where 46-year-old construction worker Linwood Lambert was staying back in May 2013. When police arrived, they say they found him acting erratic and decided to take him to the E.R.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to take you to the emergency room and we're going to get you looked at and make sure you're good to go.

BROWN: But once at the hospital, police video shows Lambert kicking out the patrol car window. He runs straight into the closed emergency room doors. The officers surround him and start Tasing him. Lambert admits he's on drugs and asks for help.


BROWN: Instead, police shackle his legs and put him back in a police car.

ART RODERICK, FORMER U.S. MARSHAL: Obviously, the scenario changed from a mental health observation to one of custodial. I mean, once they placed him under arrest, then they started following procedures based on a typical arrest scenario.

BROWN: Officers take Lambert from outside the hospital to the police station, but by the time they arrive, he appears to be unconscious. Video later shows an ambulance returning to the same E.R. with Lambert, and he was pronounced dead.

His family has filed a $25-million lawsuit, alleging excessive force and negligence, arguing in part that, quote, "While the defendants were depriving him of necessary medical treatment, Lambert suffered cardiac arrest and death, in violation of his rights."

[17:35:08] South Boston Police Department and the three officers involved have denied these claims. A statement from their attorney says, in part, quote, "We are vigorously defending the case. Our position is reaffirmed by the reports of two independent well- qualified experts in the field." While Taser logs appear to show the officers pulled the trigger

at least 18 times in a span of 30 minutes, with one of the officers using a Taser 15 times, it's unclear how many times Lambert was actually struck.

RODERICK: It is a common practice for multiple officers to fire their Taser, because you need the darts to correctly seat into the person's body. And every time you use that Taser, every time you zap somebody with that Taser even after you deploy it, you're supposed to -- you have to give a reason why. There has to be a reason why you continue to use that Taser.

BROWN: While Lambert's autopsy, quote, "revealed three punctures suggestive of Taser barb sites," the medical examiner ruled the cause of death an accident from, quote, "acute cocaine intoxication," following Lambert's "psychotic symptoms and violent behavior."


BROWN: And none of the officers involved has been charged. In fact, the prosecutor says that she is still reviewing this case, saying this is an extremely serious matter, requiring serious deliberation.

But Wolf, we learned today Virginia State Police handed over its findings of this investigation in October of 2013. So it's been two and a half years that the prosecutor has been looking at this case.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Pamela, for that.

Let's get some more on what's going on with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, and the criminal defense attorney, our legal analyst, Joey Jackson.

You think that, as a result of what Lambert's family is now saying, it was unconscionable, Jeffrey, to use the Taser this many times, do police need to rethink how they use these Tasers?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, the issue is always are the police threatened? And that's the example, that's the defense you always hear.

BLITZER: Or the public.

TOOBIN: Or the public. Right. Here it certainly seems like he was right by the emergency room. Perhaps he should have been just brought to the emergency room and given treatment, rather than put back in the police car.

But it is always very difficult for prosecutors, for juries to look cops in the eye and say, "What you did was wrong." And especially in a circumstance where you have a violent person who, if the autopsy is correct, was suffering from acute cocaine intoxication. Most jurors, even in circumstances like this, don't sympathize with the plaintiff. BLITZER: OK. Because if in fact, Joey, if he did die, as the

autopsy says he did, from a cocaine overdose, if you will, the police would go free as part of any of this kind of lawsuit, right?

JOEY JACKSON, HLN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I'm not sure about that, Wolf, and I'll tell you why.

At the time that that evaluation and opinion and analysis was given, apparently, the medical examiner did not have the benefit of evaluating the videotape; and I think it's very telling.

You know, it's troubling, inasmuch as these officers who deployed the Taser and used this force and went against departmental regulations were not even administratively disciplined. And so now we're in an instance where there's a lawsuit, and then the prosecutors alleging that they're reviewing and elaborating and investigating. It's been two and a half years. And there's case law on this that's pretty clear.

When someone is shackled, when someone otherwise is not posing a threat, when someone is unarmed, that it is an unconstitutional seizure to do what they did.

And so ultimately, it needs to be dealt with, and officers need to be trained. They need Tasers, for sure. It's a dangerous world. But with regard to how it's used, you have to exercise caution, because people can die. That's what happened here.

TOOBIN: And remember, the police always say, "We're using Tasers so we don't use our guns." So again, that's another fact...

BLITZER: Supposedly, they're non-lethal.

TOOBIN: Exactly. So they will argue that in the first place.

But certainly, there is no excuse for an investigation going on for two and a half years. That is just too long.

BLITZER: All right. Jeffrey and Joey, guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead, war breaks out between the Republican presidential candidates over immigration. Tonight, the verbal bombshells, they are flying.

Plus, 20 aircraft across the United States hit by laser lights overnight, endangering the lives of everyone on board. We're learning new information. Stand by.


[18:44:08] BLITZER: A fierce fight over immigration is rocking the Republican race for the White House right now. Candidates, including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, they're all engaged in a war of words with huge implications for the GOP and its eventual presidential nominee.

CNN's Athena Jones is joining us from Iowa today. Athena, this immigration battle seems to be really heating up.


It really is, and a lot of Republicans and Democrats believe this fight over illegal immigration is going to hurt the GOP's chances in 2016. Still, it doesn't look like it's going to end any time soon.


JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't care what Donald Trump says. Talk to the people on the border, and they'll tell you this.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not compassionate if I'm saying I'm going to give away your job.

JONES (voice-over): The split in the Republican Party over illegal immigration...

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These people are here illegally.

JONES: ... shaking up the race for the White House.

TRUMP: Truman also sent 3.5 million people out.

JONES: Party frontrunner Donald Trump defending his controversial plan to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

TRUMP: We would do it in a very humane way.

JONES: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio trading punches on the issue.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Talk is cheap. When the fight was being fought, where did you stand?

JONES: Crews blasting Rubio for being part of the failed effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

CRUZ: When politicians are saying the exact opposite of what they have done in office, and also, I treat that with a healthy degree of skepticism.

JONES: Rubio today calling out Cruz, saying his rival backs a path to legal status.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ted is a supporter of legalizing people. I don't think our positions are dramatically different.

JONES: But Rubio disagrees with Trump's mass deportation plan.

RUBIO: There are going to be people that have to be deported. We will enforce immigration laws. That being said, I don't think it's reasonable to say you'll round up and deport 11 million people. JONES: Jeb Bush also rejecting Trump's proposal. He favors a

path to legal status.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not amnesty to say over a ten-year period you earn it. You're not cut income line for people patiently waiting and you can make a contribution that way.

JONES: Ben Carson suggesting he, too, is open to some kind of legal status, proposing a six-month registration period that would require a background check.

BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They would have to pay a back tax penalty and have to continue to pay taxes going forward, but they would no longer have to live in the shadows.


JONES: And one more thing, this trip to Iowa is the first one where Trump has Secret Service protection. Things are looking quite a bit different at this event here tonight -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The other frontrunner Ben Carson, he has Secret Service protection now, as well.

All right. Athena, thanks very much.

Let's get more on what is going on. Joining us our chief political correspondent Dana Bash, our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, and our senior political reporter Manu Raju.

Dana, President Obama weighed on this whole battle over Trump's recent comments. Listen to what he just told ABC News.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the name of the operation tells you something about the dangers of looking backwards. Imagine the images on the screen flashed around the world as we were dragging parents away from their children and putting them in, what, detention centers and then systematically sending them out. Nobody thinks that's realistic but more importantly, that's not who we are as Americans.


BLITZER: So, what's his message to the GOP presidential field, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's obviously saying this is ridiculous, the concept of trying to deport 11 million maybe more undocumented immigrants in this country. But look, the reality of the politics now is that the more that President Obama says that, the more Republicans who -- A, can't stand him to begin with, and B, blame him for using his executive power and going around Congress to deal with some of the immigration problems. That's going to kind of get their back up. The more interesting debate, of course, has been going on within

the Republican Party, within the Republican presidential field with John Kasich saying virtually what President Obama said and even Jeb Bush saying that.

So, it really does, I think, I think the more important issue now is within the Republican Party because anything that President Obama says, vis-a-vis Republican primary voters is simply toxic and nothing more.

BLITZER: So, it's such an explosive issue.

And, Gloria, let's not forget the president, President Obama has been criticized by Hispanics and others on his left because since he took office, some 2 million people have been deported from the United States on his watch. One of his critics in the Hispanic committee called him deporter in chief. He's got an issue on that, as well.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. But you compare what President Obama has done to what Donald Trump is suggesting that you do and it's -- you know, there are different ends of a spectrum.

I mean, a little reality check. Dana points out Republicans are having an internal debate in the party but it's being played out nationally in their presidential debates and you look at how Republicans have done with Hispanic voter, Mitt Romney got 27 percent. George W. Bush got 40 percent. Last election, Barack Obama got 71 percent.

So, while this may work for Republican primary voters, it's not going to work in a general election if they actually want to win. They have to find someway to appeal to Hispanic voters and that's the line Jeb Bush is walking and Marco Rubio is walking.

BLITZER: Manu, speaking of Marco Rubio. You've been doing reporting on where exactly he fits into this battle because clearly John Kasich was going after Donald Trump, Jeb Bush was going after Donald Trump. Where is Marco Rubio?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, Wolf, I mean, two years ago, Marco Rubio's political advisors told him not to get involved in this immigration issue and now we know why.

[18:50:00] He's sort of been twisted in knots on this issue on whether or not to give a pathway to citizen to 11 million people here illegally after co-authoring that bill, that comprehensive bill, the gang of eight bill, he very much abandoned that effort and said that we need to pass individual pieces of immigration reform, particularly enforcement measures.

But now, he's also -- when asked, what are you going to do about the 11 million, he says he's still open to that pathway to citizenship, assuming we get these other issues off the table first. But by just saying that, he's opening himself up to criticism from the right. I talked to Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican today, he said

that any Republican candidate who backs a pathway to citizenship should drop out of the race and expect more of that criticism to come in the days and nights to come.

BORGER: They called it a long -- a very long path of citizenship?

RAJU: Yes, a long path -- it's the same thing that was on the gang of eight bill.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: The gang of eight, and he gets criticized for working with Chuck Schumer on this whole issue a couple of years ago. That's like for a lot of these Republicans, almost like a kiss of death.

BORGER: Well, it is. That's why he backed off of it. I mean, this is a man who had presidential ambitions and it was at the base of the Republican Party and that's why he's twisting now on this particular issue and, you know, Kasich is out there, Bush is out there and Rubio now who is positioned very well in the Republican primaries has to navigate a path and the problem is with the Republican primary voters, there isn't a middle path.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Dana.

BASH: Wolf, that's exactly right. There isn't much of a middle path. I thought what Rubio tried to do, when he was talking to reporters on the campaign trail today, was quite clever, in that, he was saying there's a lot I have in common with Ted Cruz on immigration and picked out the parts of that reform plan that Manu was talking about that are relatively noncontroversial with Republicans, increasing H-1B visas, those that allow highly skilled workers to come to the U.S., or our green cards, things like that.

Of course, leaving the elephant in the room off the table which, of course, is the thing that people on the Republican side in the party that are going to vote on this issue care most about, which is the path to citizenship or, as Ted Cruz calls it, amnesty.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much. Manu, Gloria, guys, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, by the way, at the top of the hour, Donald Trump talks about immigration and a whole lot with our Erin Burnett. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" right at the top of the hour, right after THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just ahead, blinding laser lights aimed at more than 20 planes across the United States in a single night, distracting pilots, endangering passengers' lives. Were these coordinated attacks?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:57:08] BLITZER: We're following an alarming new wave of

commercial aircraft being endangered by people shining lasers into their cockpits. Last night alone, planes reported incidents over 18 major cities in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Let's bring in our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh.

Rene, what are you learning?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the FAA and police are struggling to deal with the dramatic increase in laser strikes nationwide. We know that there were several laser strikes in multiple states. The FAA saying that more than 20 aircraft across the country were struck.

Now, more often than not, the suspects get away. But no such luck in Brooklyn, New York. You're about to see the takedown of a man tonight charged with a felony charge all because of this incident that you're seeing there.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see the people involved right now. They are walking in and out of the building.

MARSH (voice-over): This news helicopter pilot in New York caught on camera. The alleged culprit behind a blinding laser beam attack overnight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hitting us right now, don't look, George. Oh, yes, you think this is a joke, huh?

MARSH: He led local police right to the suspect. One of the men is now charged with felony reckless endangerment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, making arrests. That's perfect.

MARSH: Here's the view inside of the cockpit of a second news helicopter struck 20 minutes later near Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey. Across the country Wednesday, more than 20 aircraft were hit by lasers in 10 states and Puerto Rico.

LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: If it doesn't do any temporary blindness, it's a distraction and tantamount as far as I'm concerned to attempted homicide.

PILOT: No, I didn't get it straight in the eye. I just saw it out of the corner of my eye and a few more times it hit the top of our cockpit.

MARSH: FAA statistics show these dangerous incidents have increased steadily in recent years. Through October of 2015, there were more than 5,000 reports of laser strikes on aircraft, up from nearly 4,000 in all of 2014. That, compared to less than 400 back in 2006. Senator Chuck Schumer has called for the federal government to

ban the sale of long-ranged high-powered lasers, pilots want tougher penalties to help keep offenders from striking again.

ABEND: I think this might deter some people from playing games with these potentially dangerous toys.


MARSH: Well, this is a federal crime. The FAA advising people they can report these incidents by dialing 911. We have seen other cases where people have been caught. The California man was sentenced to more than two years behind bars, Wolf.

BLITZER: Rene, thanks very much. Good report.

That's it for me. Remember, you can always follow me on Twitter. Please tweet me @wolfblitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitroom. We'll show back here tomorrow.

In the meantime, thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.