Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA); Netanyahu Says Iran Had Another Secret Nuclear Site, Making Announcement A Week Before Israeli Election; U.S. Extracted Top Spy From Inside Russia In 2017 Amid Worry About Spy Being Exposed And Trump's Handling Of Intel; Trump Says Peace Talks With Taliban Are Dead As He Defends Canceled Plan For Secret Camp David Meeting; CNN Investigates Unlicensed Gun Dealer Who Sell Weapons Without Any Background Checks; All Four Crew Members Rescued After Being Trapped On Burning, Capsized Cargo Ship Off Georgia Coast. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 9, 2019 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reportedly threatened to fire top weather officials after the president's false claim that Alabama might be hit by Hurricane Dorian was contradicted -- the controversy building since Mr. Trump showed off a brazenly altered map.

Saving a spy. CNN has learned about a secret U.S. mission to extract a high-level asset inside the Russian government. Stand by for exclusive details of the operation and how it was spurred in part by concerns about Mr. Trump's handling of classified intelligence.

And starting impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee is nearing a vote to set ground rules for its impeachment investigation. Will it ultimately lead to a formal effort to force Mr. Trump out of office?

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: Breaking news tonight: President Trump declares Afghanistan peace talks are dead, even as he defends his canceled plans to host Taliban leaders at Camp David.

Mr. Trump says it was his decision to call off the meeting after a U.S. soldier was killed by a Taliban car bomb. Sources tell CNN some of Mr. Trump's top advisers, including the vice president, had warned him against meeting with the allies of the 9/11 terrorists.

Also breaking, more fallout from Mr. Trump's relentless defense of his claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama. "The New York Times" now reporting that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top NOAA employees after the agency's Birmingham office contradicted the president. I will get reaction from Congressman Gerry Connolly. He is a Democrat

on the Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, the president is rejecting harsh criticism of his willingness to meet with the Taliban at Camp David.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, he's standing by his location choice, even though he's facing pushback not only from Democrats and Republicans. He even got some criticism for the choice by members of his own staff, who said they thought the venue of Camp David just days away from the 9/11 anniversary was an inappropriate one.

But now that meeting that the president had pushed for himself and said he canceled by himself has been scrapped at the last minute.


COLLINS (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump declared U.S. peace talks with the Taliban dead after his abrupt announcement and cancellation of a secret summit with the group's leaders.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're. They're dead. As far as I'm concerned, they're dead.

COLLINS: The clandestine meeting was kept under wraps until he tweeted about it, announcing he was calling it off because the Taliban admitted to a suicide attack that killed an American soldier and 11 others.

TRUMP: The only reason I canceled that baby is because they killed one of our soldiers.

COLLINS: But sources say there was more to it than that.

TRUMP: It was my idea, and it was my idea to terminate it.

COLLINS: Trump pushed for the last-minute summit after growing unhappy with the status of the talks and thought he, the dealmaker in chief, could get last-minute concessions from the Taliban in a presidential setting.

TRUMP: In terms of advisers, I took my own advice.

COLLINS: Despite that claim, not many agreed with his tactic or his venue, including Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who argued holding a summit on U.S. soil with the leaders of the group that harbored the al Qaeda terrorists behind 9/11 was a bad idea.

TRUMP: The alternative was the White House, and you wouldn't have been happy with that either.

COLLINS: That's not how Democrats or Republicans see it.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This isn't a game show. These are terrorists.

REP. MICHAEL WALTZ (R-FL): I do not ever want to see these terrorists step foot on United States soil, period.

COLLINS: Trump says the talks are off. His secretary of state says they're off for now.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It will ultimately be up to the Taliban.

COLLINS: But sources tells CNN new dates for another meeting are already being discussed.

While Trump was willing to let the leaders of the Taliban visit the U.S., he says he's not so sure about the hurricane survivors from the Bahamas.

TRUMP: The Bahamas got hit like no thing that I have ever seen.

COLLINS: After dozens of people seeking refuge, but without a U.S. visa, were kicked off a ferry headed for Fort Lauderdale.

TRUMP: I don't want to allow people that weren't supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.

COLLINS: Customs and Border Patrol says the ferry operator is to blame. But Trump said he agrees with the move.

TRUMP: Everybody needs totally proper documentation.


COLLINS: And, Wolf, speaking of Hurricane Dorian, "The New York Times" is now reporting that the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, threatened to fire top officials at NOAA after the agency contradicted the president when he falsely claimed that Hurricane Dorian could hit Alabama last week, a claim that has led to days of fallout, and even had Wilbur Ross threatening to fire several of the officials, according to "The New York Times," which we should note, is a report that the Commerce Department is denying, saying that Wilbur Ross did not try to fire anyone at that agency over that.


But, Wolf, we should note that they did issue a strange statement on Friday night that was not attributed to any official at the agency that rebutted its own claims that, no, Alabama was not in the path of Hurricane Dorian.

BLITZER: All right, Kaitlan, thank you -- Kaitlan Collins in North Carolina for us tonight. Now to the push for impeachment. A key House committee is heading toward a pivotal vote this week to set the ground rules for its investigation.

Our Congressional Correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is up on Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, does this mean an impeachment inquiry is under way?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Democrats on that committee, Wolf, say yes, that the vote that will happen in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday will formalize this officially as being an impeachment inquiry.

The resolution that they are voting for is a very small, but very important procedural detail in all this, really laying out the parameters for the committee going forward and potentially, potentially pushing forward towards articles of impeachment potentially later this year.

It will give the chairman, for example, a lot more leeway, a lot more tools in his toolbox, being able to call subcommittee hearings on impeachment, being able to empower committee staff and committee lawyers to also ask questions of witnesses in committee.

And Democrats' aides -- Democratic aides on the House Judiciary Committee tell CNN today that the goal that they have is to potentially recommend -- potentially recommend articles of impeachment by the end of this calendar year.

But, of course, a huge factor in all this is and remains Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who so far has been very opposed to moving ahead on impeachment. And even today, she really dodged questions whether this means that the House is in a formal impeachment inquiry.

She said that they continue to push on with investigations and that impeachment is a possibility -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thank you, Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill.

Tonight, a CNN exclusive on a secret U.S. mission to extract the top spy from Russia.

We're told it was driven in part by concerns about President Trump's handling of sensitive classified intelligence.

Our Chief National Security Correspondent, Jim Sciutto, broke the story for us.

Jim, tell our viewers what you have learned.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge tell me that, in a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the U.S. successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government.

A person directly involved in the discussions said that this removal of the Russian was driven in part by concerns that President Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and that could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.

The intelligence concerning ISIS in Syria had been provided by Israel. The disclosure to the Russians by the president, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew discussions about the potential risk of exposure, this according to the source directly involved in the matter.

At the time, then CIA director Mike Pompeo told other senior Trump administration officials that too much information was coming out in public regarding the spy.

BLITZER: Jim, this wasn't the first time they were concerned about this asset being exposed.

SCIUTTO: No. And this context is important.

In fact, at the end of the Obama administration, U.S. intelligence officials had already expressed concerns about the safety of this and other Russian spies, given the length of their cooperation with the U.S., this according to a former senior intelligence official.

Those concerns grew in early 2017, after the U.S. intel community released to the public its report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which said that Russian President Putin himself had ordered the operation.

The intel community also shared a classified version of the report with the incoming Trump administration. Senior U.S. intelligence officials considered extracting at least one Russian asset at that time, but did not do so, according to the former senior intelligence official.

The meeting with the Russians in the Oval Office in May 2017 raised new concerns in the intel community, which continued to grow. And I should note this, because none of this happened in isolation.

Weeks after this decision to extract this covert spy, the president met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Afterwards, I'm told, intelligence officials again express concern that the president may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia, this according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the intel community's response, Wolf, to that Trump-Putin meeting.


BLITZER: Jim, what's been the administration's response to your reporting?

SCIUTTO: Well, of course, I reached out to the White House, as well as to the agency.

A U.S. official suggested there was media speculation at the time about a covert operative, but could not point to any public reporting about it. Asked for comment, Brittany Bramell, the CIA director of public affairs, told CNN -- quote -- "CNN's narrative that the Central Intelligence Agency makes life-or-death decisions based on anything other than objective analysis and sound collection is simply false. Misguided speculation that the president's handling of our nation's most sensitive intelligence, which he has access to each and every day, drove an alleged exfiltration operation is inaccurate."

A spokesperson for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to comment for the story. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said -- quote -- "CNN's reporting is not only incorrect. It has the potential to put lives in danger."

I should note this, though, Wolf. This removal happened at a time of wide concern in the intelligence community about mishandling of intelligence by Trump and his administration. And those concerns were described to me by five sources who served in the Trump administration, who served in the intelligence agencies and Congress.

I should also note that CNN is withholding several details about the spy to reduce the risk of this person's identification -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting. Jim Sciutto, thank you very much for that.

Joining us now, Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat who serves on both the Foreign Affairs and the Oversight committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): Great to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to this exclusive new reporting from Jim Sciutto. What did you make of that report?

CONNOLLY: Well, the White House referred to misguided speculation, Wolf.

I don't think it's misguided. I think there was plenty of reason to believe and fear that this president's recklessness with the intelligence he gets, both on camera, through tweets, and by meeting with foreign adversaries and sharing sources and methods, deeply concerned our own intelligence agencies, and they moved correctly to protect human assets.

And I think it's a sad commentary about this president and this administration they felt the need to. I'm only glad they did, because, otherwise, lives indeed would have been lost.

BLITZER: Let me also get your thoughts on the other new reporting we're getting from "The New York Times," that the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, threatened to fire employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, for contradicting the president's claim that Hurricane Dorian could hit Alabama.

You sit on the Oversight Committee. Is that something you think lawmakers should actually take a look at?

CONNOLLY: Absolutely, Wolf.

And let's remember the history of Wilbur Ross. Put aside the fact that he was on the board of directors of the Bank of Cyprus, a big money laundering Russian oligarch laundering machine.

But, as commerce secretary, he has a record of lying to Congress about the census question, which proved pretty critical, and ultimately was the source of deep embarrassment to the Trump administration because of his machinations and his untruths.

Now we find that he is suppressing science. And the American people count as an unquestioned source of objective information the National Weather Service. If that's going to suddenly become politicized, we have got a real problem in America.

And even Trump supporters, who rely on the National Weather Service, are going to be concerned, whether it's hurricanes or tornadoes or weather patterns or blizzards in the winter. We rely on their accuracy.

To have a political figure like Wilbur Ross decide, you will not talk about that, you will not contradict the president, even though he makes a misstatement, and your statement is based in science, that's a very troubling development.

I call for Wilbur Ross to resign over this. I think it's a scandal.

BLITZER: I just want to point out the Commerce Department just issued a statement denying "The New York Times"' report.

But "The New York Times" has pretty good sources on this story as well.

Let's move on. I want to get your reaction to the president's announcement that he invited Taliban leaders to Camp David, only to cancel the summit with a tweet at the last moment.

What's your reaction to that?

CONNOLLY: Well, besides the fact that I think Camp David is kind of semi-sacred ground for Americans, it's a revered place. It's not a place for terrorists like the Taliban ever.

But I, frankly, don't think we ought to be cutting a deal like this with the Taliban. This is a cut-and-run deal after 18 years, the longest American war in our history. I think you have to negotiate for much better terms, and we're not getting good terms. And if this deal were to go through, it's going to put all Afghan

women at risk. It's going to put all intellectual and academic types in Afghanistan at risk. It is going to return the country to medieval executions and tortures based on Sharia law.


It's going to completely kill the pre-Muslim culture of Afghanistan, as we saw during Taliban rule, where they destroyed UNESCO revered artifacts throughout the country.

So this is not a good deal. And it is virtually handing over the country to the Taliban. It's time to start over. I'm glad, not for the reasons he gave, that the president killed the visit, but he shouldn't have agreed to it in the first place.

BLITZER: Well, what do you think it would take to get a deal so that the United States can bring home -- the U.S. still has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan and thousands more contractors and diplomats and civilians in Afghanistan.

CONNOLLY: You know, that that's going to be the -- that's going to be the subject of much tougher negotiations.

But I think you can look at this deal as proposed by Ambassador Khalilzad, and almost anyone can conclude you could get a better deal. This is a fig leaf deal to allow the handover of the country back to the Taliban, with sort of an empty promise of: We won't -- we will do better.

Given their track record, you're condemning millions of Afghans to a terrible fate. And I don't think America should do that, as a matter of national honor.

BLITZER: Congressman Gerry Connolly, thanks so much for joining us.

CONNOLLY: My pleasure.

BLITZER: All right, there's more breaking news.

We're going to have more on the top government scientists reportedly threatened with firing for contradicting President Trump's incorrect claim about Hurricane Dorian.



BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including new reporting of the president's dogged defense of his claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama.

"The New York Times" reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top weather officials at NOAA after the agency's Birmingham office contradicted Mr. Trump's claim.

Tonight, Secretary Ross, the Commerce Department is disputing "The New York Times"' report.

Let's discuss with our analysts and our experts.

What do you think of this development, Gloria?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, this story, if true -- and Ross is denying it -- and "The New York Times" is reporting it with multiple sources -- is not the way government is supposed to work.

This is -- what the NOAA was doing was trying to keep people out of harm's way. And people depend on the Weather Service in these kinds of times, hurricanes, any kind of storms, to operate in an ethical manner and in a responsible manner.

And I just want to quote something that Senator John Thune told our producer Ted Barrett today, which is: "We want the Weather Service to operate with integrity and without bias."

And that is what we should expect. So it's a remarkable abuse of power, if true.

BLITZER: Is this further evidence that Trump administration officials are willing to go to any length, David, to defend the president?


I mean, you have a situation here, and as Gloria was just saying, where, for a week, the administration pressed ahead with this controversy, this back and forth over something that should be noncontroversial and nonpartisan.

They simply could have said at a much earlier stage that that Alabama was in some map, but, at some point, we realized that wasn't, our mistake. Moving on, let's focus on a hurricane.

And you get to a point where it gets to a Cabinet level official having to send the message down the line that facts are not as important as protecting the reputation of the president.

BLITZER: Samantha, what does it tell you about a Cabinet secretary's role in the Trump administration?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The job of a Cabinet secretary, in a democracy, at least -- maybe in Soviet Russia, it was different -- is not to be the president's personal censor.

If this reporting is true, Wilbur Ross is doing the exact opposite of what his job should be. As secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross' job is to help promote business interests.

Well, guess what? Part of NOAA's job is to provide reliable information to communities and to businesses, so that they can mitigate the financial and human costs associated with extreme weather. If Wilbur Ross is not allowing real news to get out, he's putting

businesses at risk. He's putting human lives at risk. And over the long term, why this matters so much is, the credibility of the word of the United States has been so tarnished under this president, if we can't trust the weather, if we can't trust what's coming out of the White House.

President Trump is really taking a page from Putin here and spreading misinformation while engaging in censorship. And no one knows what's fact or fiction.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey...


I don't think it is Putin. I think it's Kim Jong-un.


TOOBIN: I think this is a North Korean-style approach to government that the Dear Leader is right.

VINOGRAD: Let's just call it non-democratic, whichever despot we want to pick.



But the Dear Leader can never be seen to make a mistake. And decent, honorable federal employees -- and I used to work for the government, the federal government, so I feel for these people. They're trying to do their job. They're trying to protect the people of Alabama from wrong information that could lead to stampedes or lines at gas stations.


And, instead, that you have this authoritarian government trying to threaten their jobs because they're contradicting the false statements of the president.

BORGER: And if Wilbur Ross did this, who told him to do it?

Did he just pick up the phone on his own and say, oh, I think I will call and scream at this guy and tell him his job is in danger?

Or do you think just maybe he got a call from the White House or some somebody very high up in the White House or somebody who works for somebody very high up in the White House and said, fix this?

VINOGRAD: But he's not supposed to be the propaganda arm. Right.

BORGER: Fix this.

But that's the point. (CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Not when it -- look, everybody spins. You don't...

VINOGRAD: Not in a hurricane, though.

BORGER: You don't spin about people's lives. You don't do that. You can -- you want spit about politics, go right ahead. Don't spin about things that could provide danger to American citizens.

BLITZER: I want to just get Jeffrey to react.

Congressman Jim Himes told me in the last hour that, if "The New York Times"' report is true, he thinks Wilbur Ross should either be fired or resign. Other members of Congress, Democrats, are saying the same thing.

What do you think?

TOOBIN: Well, the other person who seems to be unhappy with Wilbur Ross, for other reasons, is Donald Trump, because, apparently, Wilbur Ross falls asleep in meetings, which is a problem for the president.

I mean, Wilbur Ross is one of the very few survivors of the original Cabinet. And the president has soured on basically everyone he hired in January of 2017. So Ross' days are numbered in any case.

But it will be interesting to see if the Democrats in Congress can bring Ross in to testify and explain what went on here, and see if other members of NOAA and the Weather Service contradict what he says.

If you have "The New York Times" saying one thing and the Trump administration saying something else, based on prior records, you should believe "The New York Times" 99,000 times out of a million.

I got my numbers mixed up a little there.


BLITZER: All right, everybody, stand by. There's a lot more math we're going to be working on this hour.

We will be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with our experts and our analysts and CNN's exclusive new reporting that the United States successfully extracted a high level covert source inside the Russian government back in 2017. CNN has learned that the secret mission was driven in part by concerns that President Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy. Amazing reporting from our Jim Sciutto, Gloria. BORGER: It's really troubling, Wolf. When you can't trust -- when your own intelligence agency is worried about an important asset overseas because you cannot trust the administration to handle the intelligence and spill the beans, I mean, I don't know how you can operate covertly, and in particular, when one of the people you can't trust is the President of the United States.

I mean, this has never occurred before in my memory. And, of course, as Jim was reporting, that the decision to carry out the extraction occurred after this May 2017 meeting with the president and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. So what was that about?

BLITZER: And how do you think, as Samantha used to work in the government, clandestine U.S. intelligence officers serving, risking their lives around the world feel about this?

VINOGRAD: Well, I don't think anybody, whether it's a U.S. intelligence officer operating under cover overseas or a foreign asset feels very safe working for the U.S. government right now.

The CIA's job is not to babysit the president. It's to provide him with timely intelligence. Unfortunately, they have been doing that, babysitting the president and his worst impulses since, according to the Special Counsel, even before he came into office.

And it's important to remind all of our viewers why all of this matters, why it matters that the president can't be trusted with intelligence. It is always difficult to recruit, manage and sustain foreign assets. There's a huge amount of risk that goes into working with the U.S. government, especially in Russia, because they assassinate people they deem disloyal.

At this point, the risk reward calculation is so tilted towards the adverse because of the president's cavalier attitude towards classifications. What that means is we will have less foreign assets providing intelligence to the United States, we will have less intelligence partners providing intelligence to the United States and our policymakers won't have information on threats to our election, to our homeland, to our personal overseas. That really impacts American's national security more broadly.

BLITZER: It follows, Jeffrey Toobin, a long list of some troubling conduct by the president as far as Russia is concerned.

TOOBIN: Well, remember, the pictures you just put up on the screen, maybe we can put them back. The best thing to know about those pictures, look at the photo credit, there were no Americans in that.

There were no American journalists at that meeting, just Russian journalists. I mean, it was such an extraordinary outrage. And that was the meeting where the president said to the Russian officials, I had great [18:35:00] pressure from Comey, James Comey, the director of the FBI. That's why I fired him.

I mean, remember, the Mueller report wasn't that long ago. The Russians helped Donald Trump get elected president. We know that. Maybe he's grateful to them. Maybe that's why over and over again, whether it's in the Ukraine or at the press conference at Helsinki, he is endlessly deferential to Vladmir Putin, because Putin helped him win the election.

BLITZER: David, the cost of losing a highly placed sensitive source like this can be enormous.

SWERDLICK: When you have an intelligence asset placed highly in Moscow attached to the Russian government, it's an information goldmine. You lose that. And then if the CIA judges that you have to exfiltrate that source for their own protection and also the protection of Russians not knowing how we're getting information, you don't just re-infiltrate someone else overnight. It's like a priceless resource lost that takes, at minimum, time to rebuild.

BLITZER: And what do you think of the president's decision to cancel the secret talks with Taliban leaders at Camp David?

BORGER: Well, we were just talking about this. First of all, obviously, Camp David is not the place to invite anybody from the Taliban. And the president was musing today about where he might have had it. Maybe it was in the White House or maybe it was there. No, these are people who should not be brought to those places. Whether the president and his national security team have decided that maybe they ought to have some communication, that's a question open for discussion.

Why did the president announce that he had canceled a meeting that was secret is my question, and you were talking about how many meetings go secret meeting --

VINOGRAD: Secret meetings are supposed to stay secret for a reason.

BORGER: And they're on and off and on and off, right, in national security.

VINOGRAD: Exactly. You don't want to hedge in your negotiators. You don't want to take away the ability to get back to the negotiating table, and the president did exactly that.

SWERDLICK: Yes. He's all about the photo op. And so if you know you're not going to get the photo op, what's the next best thing? Maybe it's, I'm going to let people know that there was going to be a photo op.

TOOBIN: But can I offer a bit of a dissent here? I mean, the Taliban is a terrible organization and they have done terrible things. But if we are ever going to get out of Afghanistan, and we've been there for 18 years, maybe we actually do have to talk to them.

BORGER: You can talk to them but you don't have to bring them into Camp David.

TOOBIN: Yes, the location is not right.

BLITZER: Everybody stick around. There's a lot more we need to cover right now as Congress faces very tough decisions about possible gun legislation. CNN investigates unlicensed gun dealers who are selling weapons without any background checks.



BLITZER: Tonight, a CNN investigation into unlicensed gun dealers who sell weapons without any background checks. The shooting rampage in West Texas over Labor Day weekend is raising new questions about loopholes in federal oversight of private gun sales.

Here is CNN Senior Investigative Correspondent, Drew Griffin.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: In many states, including Texas, guns are being sold with no background check required, sold in private sales or by repeat sellers called unlicensed gun dealers. And a CNN investigation earlier this year found dozens of criminal cases against alleged unlicensed dealers, some who sold hundreds of weapons, without any background checks, whatsoever, providing criminals, the mentally ill and prohibited possessors with weapons.

Many of these guns can be linked to violence across the country, to murders, assaults, armed robberies, suicide.

THOMAS CHITTUM, ATF DEPUTY ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: A lot of the firearms that I have seen recovered in violent crimes have come through the hands of unlicensed dealers. Some get prosecuted. I would say most do not.

GRIFFIN: In 2017, a gun allegedly sold by a suspected illegal dealer in Nevada was used in the fatal shooting of a California sheriff's deputy. Last year a gun sold by an unlicensed dealer was used in the slaying of an off-duty police commander in Chicago. And now in Odessa, Texas, seven people dead, 25 injured by a shooter with a gun he bought without a background check from a private party sale.

Unlicensed dealer selling is a private party benefit from a vague federal law that does not set a limit for the number of weapons that can be sold by a private seller. They peddle weapons on the internet, at gun shows, in parking lots, from the trunk of their cars. Some boast of hassle-free, no paperwork deals. They are, in some cases, the most unlikely of suspects.

A police officer, a Defense Department employee, a DEA supervisor, members of a prominent farming family in Washington sold guns for years without background checks. Dozens of the guns traced to crimes on the west coast, including the 2014 shooting of a Tariq Osladi (ph) a budding engineer whose career was cut short.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And by the time I ducked and tried to run away, the second shot caught me from the back.

GRIFFIN: There are plenty of critics who say background checks would not have prevented most of America's mass killings and will not stop criminals from buying guns illegally. But even legal purchases for guns from private sellers do not require background checks, which makes it easy for anyone to get their hands on a powerful weapon.

In 2005, 14 years ago, we produced this story showing just how easy it is in Texas for anyone to even buy this gun without a background check.

It is a .50 caliber rifle, a weapon of war, used by Special Forces to kill at a range of nearly 2,000 yards, with .50 caliber bullets so powerful, they can pierce a one inch steel plate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's where it went in.

GRIFFIN: We found it for sale by a private seller on the Internet, set up a meeting and bought it at a suburban home in Houston. The transaction took 20 minutes.

Since the time we purchased this weapon with no background check required, there have been three U.S. presidents, eight congresses, two Texas governors and though some states have passed laws to ban sales of the.50 caliber rifle, in Texas, nothing has changed.

Criminals, drug dealers, the mentally ill can buy guns through private party sales, no questions asked. Why? U.S. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, says his colleagues fear the NRA who have spread fear, he says, that even a common sense universal background check threatens the Second Amendment.

REP. PETER KING (R-NY): We're not trying to take anybody's gun away, unless you're a person with mental illness, unless you're a convicted felon. And yet there's a fear among -- certainly within the Republican Party that any attempt to regulate the sale of guns, the possession of guns, it violates the Second Amendment and it's the first step towards taking every one's gun away.


GRIFFIN: Wolf, a universal background check won't stop these mass killings, won't criminals from buying guns illegally, but it will close this loophole that we're talking about, allowing unlicensed dealers to operate under this vague federal statute and, yes, despite the NRA's push back, Wolf, guns are being sold to criminals, drug dealers and mentally ill precisely because there is no universal background check -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Drew Griffin reporting, thanks for that excellent, excellent report.

Just ahead, a dramatic rescue, after four crew members trapped aboard a capsized cargo ship are found alive.


BLITZER: Tonight, a week before crucial elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is again warning about the threat from Iran.

CNN's Oren Liebermann reports.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealing what he says are new secrets from Iran's nuclear archive.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: On this site, Iran conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons.

LIEBERMANN: And calling once again on the international community to follow the lead of President Donald Trump and sanction Iran.

NETANYAHU: The only way to stop Iran's march to the bomb and its aggression in the region is pressure, pressure, and more pressure.

LIEBERMANN: Today's revelation produced with visual aids, was something the embattled Israeli leader had promised for weeks. Though not nearly as dramatic as back in May 2018 --

NETANYAHU: Iran lied.

LIEBERMANN: -- when Netanyahu revealed Israel had stolen Iran's nuclear archive in a prime-time presentation.

The only catch: analysts say none of this information is a game changer. The signatories to the nuclear deal knew about it for years, before the deal was signed.

The IAEA said there was no new evidence of any work on nuclear weapons after 2009, and experts say none of what Netanyahu showed off today shows Iran violating the deal.

JEFFREY LEWIS, NUCLEAR NONPROLIFERATION ANALYST: I think it's pretty underwhelming. What you would really need is a site that was active in the recent period, in order to suggest that Iran wasn't complying with its commitments. And, you know, we've seen a new pictures, but we are really far from that at this moment.

LIEBERMANN: Still, Trump said last year's presentation by Netanyahu was part of the reason he decided to leave the Iran nuclear deal.


LIEBERMANN: And that was a win for Netanyahu.

NETANYAHU: What we see as a consistent pattern of Iran lies, deception, and violations. LIEBERMANN: Critics say Israel's Mr. Security is looking for another

win in a tough election eight days away. His rivals slammed the statement as electioneering.

On Twitter, Netanyahu's opponent in next week's election, Benny Gantz, said Netanyahu's use of sensitive security information for propaganda indicates poor judgment, saying even in his last days as prime minister, Netanyahu cares only about Netanyahu.

If Netanyahu's goal here was to try to prevent a meeting between Trump and the Iranian president, that also appears to have failed at this point. Trump saying today he'd be willing to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And it was Iran's foreign minister who was quick to respond to Netanyahu saying on Twitter, the possessor of real nukes cries wolf on an alleged demolished site in Iran.

Wolf, he then went on to mock Netanyahu's speech from Congress in 2002. So, he had no problem attacking Netanyahu's presentation here.


BLITZER: Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem for us, thanks for that report.

Just ahead, there's breaking news on a capsized cargo ship off Georgia and the fate of four crew members trapped onboard.


BLITZER: Breaking news: we just learned four crew members trapped on a cargo ship that capsized off Georgia now have been rescued. The salvage team made contact with them this morning, discovering them after hearing tapping sounds from inside the ship. Twenty other crew members were rescued early Sunday. Officials are trying to determine why the ship capsized. Good news for a rescue.

Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.