Return to Transcripts main page


Syria Game Changer; Colorado Wildfires; Interview With Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger

Aired June 13, 2013 - 18:00   ET


JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: The White House confirms that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons more than once. We're getting word on what President Obama will do in response.

Plus, unprecedented damage from a raging Colorado wildfire. Now residents of a major city are at risk.

And a stunning confession by a man who says he killed more than 30 people since he was 16 years old.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The breaking news this hour, the Obama White House now says that President Obama's red line in Syria has been crossed. The intelligence community has concluded that sarin gas was used by the Syrian regime and that 100-150 people have died. The White House says the president has decided to provide more support to the rebels, including military assistance.

Let's go right now to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She is at the White House.

And, Jessica, I know Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, just wrapped up a conference call with reporters. What did he have to say?


Well, Ben Rhodes confirmed that after several months of investigation, that the intelligence community has determined that the use of sarin gas has occurred on multiple occasions, has been deployed by the Syrian regime and, as you say, has killed 100 to 150 people, that this is -- this has crossed the president's red line and this is changing the president's calculus on Syria.

The president has decided to change his response to the Syrian crisis and has agreed to engage in some sort of military support for the Syrian rebels there, but Ben Rhodes, one of the president's senior officials in his National Security Council, would not specify exactly what they will be doing next. That leaves open the option of directly arming the rebels there, providing training to the rebels, or perhaps offering even more aid. We will have to see in the coming days. Jim, one of the reasons this might be happening right now is because in just a few days the president leaves to go to Europe and meet with the leaders of France and England, the G8 leaders who will be pressing him on Syria, the next steps in Syria. He can discuss this with them there -- Jim.

ACOSTA: All right, Jessica.

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

And, Barbara, talking about some of those options, I was listening in on that conference call with Ben Rhodes, and it started off in sort of a coded fashion. He didn't really come out and say, we're arming the rebels. He talked about providing military assistance in such a way to make the rebel opposition there more effective in their fight against the Assad regime.

Barbara, what, if anything, can you tell us in terms of what they are talking about?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, what a senior administration official is telling me is that the president has not made that final decision yet about what option he wants to go for.

There's some things I think that reasonably are going to be taken off the table, no U.S. ground troops in Syria. The president also not anxious, not really looking at putting a no-fly zone into place, though Senator John McCain wants that. The most likely option, potentially arming the rebels.

Let's remember this is something that McCain himself has been pushing for for quite a bit. And listen to what he had to say just a short time ago.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I applaud the president's decision. I applaud the fact that he has now acknowledged what the French and others and all the rest of us knew, that Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons.


STARR: McCain wants to see the next step, arming the rebels. What could that mean? It could mean the U.S. either supplying directly or going to some third-party supplier perhaps in Eastern Europe, desperately needed ammunition, rifle,s heavy machine guns, mortars, rockets.

But it gets into very dicey territory very quickly. Are you going to give the rebels shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons, anti-air weapons? Because the concern always remains, with Syria so unsettled, could that kind of weaponry get into the hands of al Qaeda there or into the hands of other militants operating around Syria?

It's something that they have been reluctant to do because of that, but this is may be the step they are going to take -- Jim.

ACOSTA: And, Barbara, that's an interesting talking about the fact that the White House, the Obama administration may be working through allies.

Ben Rhodes did talk about some international partners when it comes to this operation, but of course those details are still developing.

Let's bring in our chief international correspondent and host of "AMANPOUR," Christiane Amanpour. She joins us now.

And, Christiane, one thing that I pulled away from that briefing that Ben Rhodes did over the phone with reporters, he talked about the fact that the Russians have been briefed on the fact that the U.S. has reached this assessment about the chemical weapons capabilities and use by the Syrians. Barbara said this can be dicey. How dicey is this on the international stage?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Jim, I think this is really interesting.

Basically, as Senator McCain said, the president has now come to the same conclusion that allies have come to many weeks ago, notably France and Britain, who said categorically that they have a high level of confidence that chemical weapons have been used over the last year several times against the rebels and that the rebels have not used them and chemical weapons are not in their hands. This is a very important distinction. He said some 100 to 150 people have been killed.

This is something that we have been reporting. I myself have had this confirmation from the chief of the Syrian opposition on the ground, General Idris, and doctors belonging to them. They told me all about the human samples, the air samples on the ground and other such tissue samples and blood tissues that they had confirmed that this -- chemical weapons had been used.

Now, what you're seeing right now is a gradual, a gradual upgrade of what the U.S. administration is prepared to do. I was also on that call, struck by how Ben Rhodes was not going to tell us in detail what kind of military support was going to be given to the opposition, although clearly saying that the president's red line had been crossed.

This changes the calculus. I guess a lot of that calculus- changing has to do with very real moves on the ground. As you have been reporting, Qusayr, a very important rebel stronghold near Homs the connects Damascus and the coastal heartland, has been taken by Assad. We have just been in touch with General Idris, who told us they are very, very concerned that Assad forces are preparing a major offensive against Aleppo.

This would deal an almost fatal setback to the opposition. So all of this stuff on the ground is also obviously playing into what the administration is saying and the way it's going right now. No mention at all, as you have also reported, about there being any decision on a no-fly zone. We are being told by those on the ground that they absolutely need that.

I have interviewed all of the leaders in the region over the last several months. All of them want the U.S. to help put up a no-fly zone in areas just inside the Syrian border, a limited no-fly zone that could provide some kind of sanctuary for the opposition, some kind of place for them to arm and train and to get some sort of, as I say, sanctuary, safe haven from what the Assad regime is using, which is by and large airpower, helicopter power heavy artillery.

The rebels on the ground are heavily outgunned and outmanned and this could tip the balance of what's going on right now. And, of course, that does worry the U.S. and the rest of the allies.

ACOSTA: And, Christiane, what is your sense as to how degraded this opposition is right now? Do you have a sense as to whether or not this action is being taken perhaps at a critical moment for the rebels and perhaps at a moment that perhaps this should have happened sooner?

AMANPOUR: Well, certainly, it should have happened sooner. There's absolutely no doubt about that, according to all of the people who I have been talking about, military commanders on the ground, U.S. allies in the region from Turkey, to Jordan, not to mention Western European allies.

Certainly, an arm and train program should have been implemented before now, because right now you have a balance of power on the ground where there is an arms embargo, generally speaking, and that has cemented the upper hand militarily which those which -- who had most weapons and that was the state, the Assad regime. All of the heavy weapons, airpower, heavy artillery, all the kinds of things that he has, he's had the advantage in that regard.

Just to give you an example of how desperate the rebels have been, and I again have been in touch with General Idris this evening through my team, and he's basically saying that we're fighting with small weapons, we're fighting with AK-47s, we're fighting RPGs against airpower and heavy artillery.

I think that's something really to be considered. And again the U.N. came out and said, look, 90,000 people now at least are confirmed dead in more than two years of fighting, and also very interestingly, Jim, President Clinton is reported to have said that you can't look at polling when you're deciding about issues like this. This has to be an issue that the United States takes as a matter of national security priority and not according to what the polls say. He said he would never have entered Bosnia or Kosovo if he had been listening to polling.

And, remember, not one single American boot was put on the ground in those two conflicts, Bosnia and Kosovo.

ACOSTA: And he was essentially agreeing with John McCain.



ACOSTA: Bill Clinton was when he made those comments.

AMANPOUR: Indeed he was.

ACOSTA: Christiane, thank you for that perspective.

Let's bring in our national security analyst, Fran Townsend.

And, Fran, we were just talking about this just a few moments ago with Christiane. Is arming the rebels going to be enough to turn the tide in Syria? Because, as Christiane just mentioned, if the opposition is using AK-47s and, yes, military assistance may be going into Syria to those rebels, that's just not going to get the job done.


And, look, this has been a debate inside the administration and a debate between the administration and Congress about arming the rebels before they confirmed this use of sarin gas. This is an exponential escalation, the sort of thing that naturally is going to precipitate the discussion about a no-fly zone, because of course the no-fly zone has two potential effects.

One is to create a safe haven inside Syria for not only the rebels, but for innocent civilians, Jim, who have really been bearing the brunt of this and the casualties, but it also, frankly, limits the ability for the Assad regime to continue and to use again these chemical weapons. Look, this is a big undertaking, right? You have to destroy the air defenses. You would have to have some limited no- fly zone capability.

The question is, who provides that? What coalition forces will provide that? We know from the military engagement in Libya the administration prefers to have sort of Arab support and capability, and so we will have to see. This will require a real diplomatic effort to put this in place.

ACOSTA: And, Fran, I want to turn now to retired General Wesley Clark. He's the former supreme allied commander of NATO. He joins us now. He's a senior fellow at UCLA's Berkeley Center for International Relations.

And, General, we talked about Bill Clinton a few moments ago, somebody you know well. He made some comments apparently up in New York essentially agreeing with John McCain that more needed to be done. Those comments were made before this decision was announced by the White House today.

You were heavily involved, as Bill Clinton was, of course, in what happened in Bosnia. And some have suggested that that could be a template for what could happen in Syria. Is that realistic? And what do you think could be done? Is just arming the rebels going to be enough?

WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, every situation is different. And so we have to learn from every one of them.

In this case, arming the rebels with RPGs and mortars and so forth is not going to be significant. We're in a full-scale -- or starting to move towards a full-scale proxy war with Iran here. Iran's engaged. They have got people in there. Hezbollah's fighting hard, and the Bashar al-Assad regime is willing to use chemical weapons. They simply don't want to lose.

So I think if the administration now has concluded, as they have, that chemical weapons have indeed been used, I think this is more than just a red line. It also gives us greater diplomatic throw weight in the United Nations. We need to go back to the Russians and Chinese. We need to say to them, look, we're going to provide more active assistance. And there's not necessarily a stopping point once we start this. And so, therefore, you need to put your efforts with us behind a diplomatic solution. Maybe we will get something out of the United Nations, because one thing we know is, when we start putting the weapons in and trying to restore the balance, the other side is going to put more weapons in and try to unbalance it again.

So, we're in for tit-for-tat escalation once this starts to go. I do think we need to do more, but I think we need to do more in a way that plays two lines of approach, both assisting, strengthening the resistance, and also going after it diplomatically. If there's one lesson we learned from the Balkans is, you have to be able to operate both militarily and diplomatically, and you have to do it simultaneously.

ACOSTA: But, General Clark, one thing that you mentioned was, well, where do we see the end in all of this? It seems to me that the endgame for the United States, for its allies, if they are going to start this, is Bashar al-Assad leaving power. And how do you accomplish that without any U.S. military personnel ever getting involved? Do you think that that is ever going to be entertained as an option in any of this?

CLARK: It all depends on the course of the fighting and how it is escalated.

Russia has said they were going to put these SA-300 missiles in. Then they said they didn't. Then some people on the ground said they are already there. The Israelis have warned it. We know the Iranians are moving across Iraq with supplies and assistance. We know that there have been some Iranians killed there.

So as we put more strength in to help the rebels, we have to assume that the other side is going to also escalate. And so where are the final end state is will depend on the will of both parties. It's how far we are willing to go and how far they're willing to go.

And the time to start down the diplomatic path on this is right now. We have got to go back to the United Nations, make a decision and say, OK, we're in on this now. So, it's not just Russia. Russia says they're going to do it. OK, we are doing it now. You want to keep this thing going, we can continue to feed weapons in it. More innocent people will die and the end result will be worse in the region than if we have a U.N. security effort to stop it.

ACOSTA: But, General Clark, to go this -- to go to this measure as the president is doing now, he has to be prepared, don't you think, to go further, that this may not be as far as the United States will go? Doesn't he have to -- even though they say all options are on the table, they have essentially said, we're not going to put boots on the ground. We're thinking about a no-fly zone. But the president has to be prepared for further options. Isn't that right?

CLARK: I think it certainly is a consideration.

Whether the president wants to do it or not right now, I think there is the expectation that if you start to add weapons to this and you're the United States, then where do you stop? Now, in the 1980s, President Reagan put advisers into Lebanon. We added weapons. We trained the Lebanese forces. We even brought the battleship New Jersey in there.

And then we pulled out. And so there's a precedent for not getting all of your objectives accomplished. In the Clinton administration, the objectives were accomplished. We will just have to see how this works.

ACOSTA: All right, General Clark, thanks for that perspective.

And we will continue to following this breaking news and go live to our reporter in Damascus later in this hour.

But, next, a mandatory evacuation order for Colorado's second largest city threatened by the most destructive fire in that state's history.

And ahead, a deadly explosion and fire at a Louisiana chemical plant. There are dozens of casualties.


ACOSTA: It's the most destructive wildfire in Colorado's history and it's now threatening the state's second largest city.

A mandatory evacuation order is in effect for parts of Colorado springs, as the Black Forest fire rages uncontrolled. It's already destroyed at least 360 homes and consumed 15,000 acres of forest and land. That's roughly the size of Manhattan.

CNN's Victor Blackwell is on the ground in Colorado Springs -- Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, roughly 3,000 people in the northern part of Colorado Springs are being told to get out of the way of the Black Forest fire now. Another 6,000 people are being told they should leave. That's a first for the city. That brings the number of people evacuated in this area to 41,000 and a lot of those evacuees are watching and waiting to find out if their house has survived.


BLACKWELL (voice-over): Dana Hood is looking for something she does not want to find.

DANA HOOD, HOMEOWNER: My hands are shaking.

BLACKWELL: Her address on the list of homes destroyed by the Black Forest fire in Colorado Springs.

ALEX HOOD, HOMEOWNER: We have been kind of not knowing for a few days. Yesterday, we got an aerial view of the house and showed that it wasn't burned.

BLACKWELL: Tuesday, Alex and Dana received a reverse 911 call from the sheriff's office alerting them of a mandatory evacuation. They packed up a few important things and left.

A. HOOD: We loaded that stuff up, got the dogs, got their food and got out of town.

BLACKWELL (on camera): And it's you and your wife, and how many kids?

A. HOOD: Yes. Five.

BLACKWELL: Five kids.

(voice-over): The seven of them, their Saint Bernard, Jack, and their 14-year-old black Lab, Boris, are now living in a camper in the Wal-Mart parking lot just outside of town.

They listen for updates on their neighborhoods with their new neighbors.

(on camera): The Hood family is in this parking lot with more than a dozen other families and campers, and there are parking lots like this scattered across Colorado Springs. But there is some help. There's a company offering free Wi-Fi and use of cell phones. People are dropping off pet food, offering hot showers, whatever support they can.

(voice-over): Dana does not find their address, but she finds their street.

D. HOOD: The only house listed on Freeman (ph) are on the total loss.

BLACKWELL (on camera): How many?

D. HOOD: One, two, three, four, five, six.

A. HOOD: Well, we were optimistic. So, now we need to start thinking a different direction.

BLACKWELL (voice-over): Alex won't tell his kids until he knows something for sure, but it's tough to hide his feelings.

A. HOOD: Don't assume. OK? OK? All right?

BLACKWELL (on camera): Your wife looked at the list and it's hard to keep her from crying and I'm sure at some points it's hard to keep yourself from crying.

A. HOOD: Yes.

BLACKWELL: How do you do it?

A. HOOD: I'm dad. That's what dads do.


BLACKWELL: Still no confirmation on their home, but there are no fatalities, no injuries, and the only missing person that was reported has been found safely.

But that's it for good news. You can see the wind has picked up. There's a thunderstorm in the forecast, no rain, at least not a lot of it, just the lightning and wind, of course, the exact opposite what firefighters need -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Well, we will have to hope that they get some relief very soon.

Victor Blackwell, thank you.

When we come back ,at least one person is dead and dozens injured after a massive explosion and fire at a Louisiana chemical plant. We will go there for a live for a report coming up in just a few.


ACOSTA: Happening now, breaking news: President Obama decides to give military support to the Syrian rebels after confirming the Assad rebels has used chemical weapons. We will get the first reaction on the ground in Syria.

Plus, did the NSA leaker act alone? Lawmakers have new questions for the president's top intelligence officials.

And drugs, money, and murder -- an alleged hit man's startling confession about dozens of killings for the cartels.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Our breaking news, the White House says Syria has used chemical weapons multiple times, crossing the Obama administration's red line. The intelligence community has determined that the nerve agent sarin was used by the Syrian regime, killing up to 150 people. The White House says President Obama has decided to provide more help to Syria's rebels, including military support.

Let's go live now to CNN's Frederik Pleitgen. He is live inside Syria.

Fred, what is the reaction there? I know this is just breaking. So, the reaction may be limited. But what are you hearing?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's very limited at this point in time.

Of course, all the Syrian officials are very difficult to get in touch with. One thing, Jim, I have been talking to very Syrian people in the Syrian administration over the past couple of weeks, and they consistently have been saying that they never used chemical weapons, that if anyone used chemical weapons, that it would have been the opposition who used chemical weapons.

They had of course one incident in a town near Aleppo where they say that the opposition was using chemical weapons. But the big thing for them right now is they of course believe at this point in time that they have the momentum on the battlefield. I was on the front lines just a couple of hours ago and you could see the Syrian soldiers, they are a lot more confident than before.

But one of the things that they are very worried about is of course the U.S. getting more involved in this conflict via through a no-fly zone, or of course additional arms to the rebels, especially at this very sensitive point in time where they have just been making these gains in the town of Qusayr, and, of course, as Senator McCain said earlier, many people believe that the Syrian army is on the move towards Aleppo.

And that would be a striking blow to the opposition, but the Syrian government very concerned if America gets more involved in this conflict, Jim.

ACOSTA: All right, Frederik Pleitgen, thank you.

We're now joined by Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, Democrat of Maryland. He's the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

And, Congressman, you just heard Frederik Pleitgen's report from Syria. The White House says they are providing military support. And it sounds like it's at a critical time for the rebel opposition there. What do you make of the decision and do you feel like this is overdue?


The first thing, we have to get proof. And the proof is -- and our intelligence community has confirmed that these chemical weapons were used. That was a red line. We have to be involved. We have to stop it. And we have to do what we can do to help train and help assist the rebels.

That does not mean we are putting boots on the ground. That does not mean that we're going to do the things that we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ACOSTA: And, Congressman, is -- are weapons going to be enough? Is a no-fly zone in order?

RUPPERSBERGER: Well, right now, there's a lot of momentum, no, question going with Assad's regime.

One of the main reasons is because of Hezbollah. And Hezbollah has troops on the ground and they have made a difference so far. Now, as far as the no-fly zone, I'm not going to discuss that now because we're evaluating it. But Syria is a lot more sophisticated than what we did in Libya.

We do -- we are the strongest country in the world. We can coordinate and show leadership with the other countries that are involved. We know that there's a lot of concern from the Arab League and the Arab countries. And they are looking for coordination and leadership. And I think that's what we can provide. We have the best intelligence in the world, and we know how to train people.

ACOSTA: And, Congressman, let me switch over to the issue of the National Security Agency.

As you know, General Alexander, the head of the NSA, has been up on Capitol Hill briefing members of Congress.

Are you satisfied -- I know you're on the intelligence committee so you're privy to a lot of this information that perhaps your colleagues are not -- but do you get the sense now that your colleagues are feeling more comfortable with the level of information that is being shared?

RUPPERSBERGER: The most important thing that we can do, and Chairman Mike Rogers and I are talking to Alexander today, said we're going to try to give as much information to the public and to our members of Congress so they know why we're doing what we do. We're not breaking any laws. We're following the law. We're doing everything pursuant to a law passed by Congress.

But it's a dangerous world out there. The cyber world is dangerous. And we know if we're going to stop terrorism, we're going to protect our country, we have to use unique resources in the cyber realm.

So when the first -- the news information came out, of course, most people who aren't aware are thinking, "My gosh, the government is listening to me." That's not the case.

There's no names involved. It's just a large inventory of phone numbers without major addresses and once we have information that there could be a connection with terrorists. And if it's going to be in the United States, we turn that over -- the intelligence community turns it over to the FBI and then the courts get involved.

So we need to educate and we need to educate exactly that we're following the law, following the constitution, and that there is no invasion of privacy whatsoever. But it's a dangerous world out there.

Congressman, I know that you and Chairman Rogers were talking about Edward Snowden earlier today.


ACOSTA: And you said that he should not be regarded as a hero. Does that mean that he should be regarded, in your mind, as a traitor?

RUPPERSBERGER: I'm not going to say what I would really like to say? Because what he has done...

ACOSTA: Why not?

RUPPERSBERGER: Because I think that he's done a terrible thing. He's put lives at risk not only now but in the future. He -- if he didn't like the way things were happening, he could raise his hand, and he could say, you know, that "I don't like what's going on," and there are whistleblower laws that will protect him.

What did he do? He goes to China who we know that China has been cyber attacking us and stealing many, many -- a lot of information from our businesses, has cost us close to $400 billion. And yet, he is over, working with China, hiding in China.

And I just don't have a lot of respect for what he did and how he did it but the investigation is continuing to go on to see whether we can bring him back and hopefully bring him to justice. He broke the law. And when you break the law in our country, you need to be held accountable. But he needs to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that's part of our system.

ACOSTA: All right. Congressman Ruppersberger, thank you very much for your time during this very busy time.

RUPPERSBERGER: OK. Right. A lot going on.

ACOSTA: Next, that's right. We will continue to go back to that scene of a deadly plant explosion where there are concerns about toxic fumes right now. The latest coming up.


ACOSTA: An explosion and fire at a Louisiana chemical plant killed at least one person and sent at least 75 others to area hospitals. The plant is south of Baton Rouge. People in the area were told to stay indoors and to avoid exposure to potentially toxic smoke.

For the latest, let's bring in Kiran Chawla of CNN affiliate WAFB. Kiran, what can you tell us right now?

KIRAN CHAWLA, REPORTER, WAFB: Jim, the scene here is still very active. If you take a look right behind me, you do not see any smoke any longer and that disappeared just about 15, 20 minutes ago. Now earlier today, let's fill you in as far as what happened. State police tell us that one of the units at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismer exploded and caught on fire around 8:30 this morning. Officials confirm one fatality so far. More than 70 people were taken to area hospitals. Eight are being treated at the Baton Rouge General Hospital burn center.

And crews did get the fire under control before noon today, but they do continue to do continued flaring. Officials say the emergency shut-down valves were closed off, and the fire was contained to one particular unit.

Now, the plant here produces ethylene propylene, which is a flammable gas helping make plastics and fibers. The Department of Environmental Quality, they did come out here, tested the air, and so far no harmful levels have been detected.

As far as shelters, about a two-mile radius was under a shelter warning. That has now been lifted. Some of the roadways around here, all of those have been opened besides one of the roadways right in front of the plant.

Now, we're told about 600 people were inside the plant at the time of the explosion. All 600 are accounted for.

As for that fatality, state police just released the name of that person. He is 29 years old. He's out of Hammond, Louisiana, Zachary Green.

A very tragic day here, and now crews will shift gears and start looking into the exact cause of what happened now that the fire is out.

For now, Kiran Chawla. We are live in St. Gabriel. Jim, let's send it back to you.

ACOSTA: All right, Kiran. Thank you for that update. We appreciate it.

Up next, the new assessment of the damage done by the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden. Some members of Congress want to know if he's a spy.


ACOSTA: FBI director Robert Mueller is promising that the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden, will be brought to justice. He went to Capitol Hill, Mueller did, to defend surveillance tactics exposed by Snowden. Here's our crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Jim, there was more talk today about whether Edward Snowden could try to make China his permanent home and how much damage he would do to the U.S. intelligence community.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JOHNS (voice-over): The FBI director on Capitol Hill Thursday framed the Snowden case as extremely serious business.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: As for the individual who has admitted making these disclosures, is he a subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety. We're taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures.

JOHNS: Members of Congress were wondering whether Snowden was a crackpot.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Listening to his own mind.

JOHNS: Or even a spy.

ROGERS: He's obviously now decided that he wants to relay information about collection on foreign-type collections which goes beyond his original, or his at least stated intention. There is a long list of questions we have to get answered about does he have a relationship with a foreign government?

JOHNS: The other question seems to be, could he have acted alone? A U.S. official tells CNN there are no signs or indications Edward Snowden had accomplices, but they will continue to look at whether someone tried to recruit him.

The official tells CNN there is nothing to indicate he was trying to sell secrets. There have been fears that because Snowden was in Hong Kong, Chinese intelligence would be eager recipients of whatever secrets he wants to share.

The U.S. government was taking an extremely close look at Snowden. An intelligence community official said, "We're going to great lengths to make sure we have all the facts regarding the suspect's history."

A former director of the White House Intelligence Advisory Board wonders whether Snowden exploited weakness in the NSA system to get the information in the first place.

GARY SCHMITT, FORMER DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE INTELLIGENCE ADVISORY BOARD: Efforts to break into a system are normally tracked by NSA itself. So, again, we're left with a question about how he could have gone about even breaking into the system to get to these documents without somebody at NSA not noticing.


JOHNS: A U.S. official tells CNN's Barbara Starr that authorities actually were able to hone in on Snowden very quickly as the source of the leaks right after "The Guardian" newspaper went to the administration initially to tell them what they had. At that point, security officials began to figure out who had access to that type of document, what had been downloaded, but apparently, they were a little too late.

ACOSTA: Still many questions about Edward Snowden, why he did it, how he did it, and we'll be looking at that. Joe Johns, thank you; appreciate it.

When we come back, a break in a cold case that's exposed a murder-for-hire scheme linked to Mexican drug cartels.


ACOSTA: Now we turn to a break in a cold case in Florida that's exposed a murder-for-hire scheme linked to a Mexican drug cartel. A break came when a hitman who claims he's killed at least 30 people decided to open up.

CNN's John Zarrella has the details -- John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, a Florida connective from here in Marion County went to Alabama to interview a suspected murderer. What he came back with was far more than he ever expected.


ZARRELLA (voice-over): Their bodies were left in the back seat of a pickup truck on a rural stretch of road in central Florida, shell casings scattered around. Javier Huerta and Gustavo Rivas had been shot to death. For more than half a dozen years, the 2006 killings had gone unsolved.


ZARRELLA (on camera): No leads?

WATTS: No leads until we picked it up and started going back through the case.

ZARRELLA: That was a year and a half when Marion County Detective T.J. Watts began taking a fresh look at the evidence. A cigarette butt was the "gotcha" moment.

WATTS: It was inside of a Mountain Dew can on the scene (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

ZARRELLA: DNA was tested and linked the cigarette to this man, Jose Manuel Martinez. Watts caught up with Martinez in an Alabama jail, where he was awaiting trial for a murder there. He'd been captured in Arizona crossing the border into the U.S. from Mexico.

(on camera): Watts said Martinez confessed to the Florida killings right away, and there was more. Detective Watts says Martinez told him he had killed more than 30 people since he was 16 years old. Why? It was, he told Watts, his job. WATTS: That's how he fed his family. That's how he explained it. And if he didn't do the job, someone else would do it.

ZARRELLA: Martinez's story: he was a debt collector for the Mexican drug cartels. He would pocket 25 percent of what he collected from the overdue dealers, then he'd kill them. He told police he made $210,000 just from the Florida hits.

WATTS: Throughout my career, I've never sat across from a guy like Martinez. He's definitely a cold-hearted killer.

ZARRELLA: In the Florida case, authorities say Rivas was just Huerta's friend and may have, tragically, been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Beside the Florida killings, authorities have linked him to at least 11 killings in California, one in Alabama, and possibly one in Chicago. There may be more. According to Watts, Martinez is still talking.


ZARRELLA: Now, police say they believe Martinez finally came clean because he knew they had him this time, and he wanted to get it off his conscience -- Jim.

ACOSTA: John, interesting story. Thank you.

And let's turn back to the world stage as voters in Iran get ready to elect a new president. CNN's Erin Burnett has been allowed inside the country. At the top of the hour, she's going "OUTFRONT" from Tehran.

Obviously, Erin, Syria is some of the big news today. And that, of course, involves the Iranians. What do you have tonight?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Well, you know, Jim, it's actually amazing. We were looking at all the campaign posters, and you know, there's one for Saeed Jalili, the nuclear negotiator here, and it says, you know, Hezbollah, and Iran Committee and Council for Hezbollah supports Saeed Jalili. Here, supporting Hezbollah, which of course, has been fighting with Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. now accuses of using chemical weapons. That is -- that is something to be proud of. Obviously, a very crucial part of the story here, an important part of the election.

Jim, that campaign poster, though, one of thousands. They have been littering this city. The campaign action, though, today technically, they had to rip all those signs down as they come into final hours before the election, in which six people are running. There were originally 686, but the Supreme Council here, the Guardian Council, the supreme leader, weeded that out, and now there are six, all of whom are approved by the supreme leader, the ayatollah.

And they are running tomorrow. And they kind of range from hardline -- where I heard chants at a rally of "Death to America," "Death to Israel" -- to a more moderate candidate, who's campaigning as the reformer, where when I was at the campaign headquarters, it felt a lot more like a western campaign center. And Jim, they were also talking there about how that candidate, Hasan Rowhani, would be willing, possibly, to have conversations and be open to talking to the United States. So it's been fascinating here in the streets.

ACOSTA: And Erin, as we know, the Obama administration recently ratcheted up sanctions against Iran. What are you seeing, what are you noticing on the ground in that country? Are they having an effect?

BURNETT: You know, it's amazing, Jim. You look at sanctions, right, used for decades against Cuba, used against North Korea, where nuclear weapons program has still moved ahead. It's a fascinating story here. They are having an impact. There's no question about it.

We're going to take you to see you what regular people are doing, the people who are being hurt the worst. The low-income and the poor people in this country, they've seen prices surge. But yet you can still buy a Mercedes; you can still buy a Lexus. We went to dealerships today. Those cars are still coming in, in defiance of sanctions.

The U.S. brags about how these are the toughest sanctions in the history of the world. That's what the White House said. But are they working at their goal: getting the Iranian people to say, "This is so painful, let's give up our nuclear program"? We asked people about that. Some people are hesitant to talk. Some are happy to answer our questions. I think the answer is something U.S. politicians definitely need to hear. We have a special report on sanctions tonight, top of the hour, as well, Jim.

Back to you.

ACOSTA: All right. Erin Burnett with a rare and live look inside Iran. It sounds like it's going to be fascinating, and we're going to be tuning in at the top of the hour. Erin Burnett, thank you.

The countdown has begun for the start of CNN's all-new morning show, "NEW DAY." Chris Cuomo will be joined by our own SITUATION ROOM alumnus, Kate Bolduan, and Michaela Pereira. That is starting Monday and every weekday morning at 6 Eastern right here on CNN.

We'll be right back.


ACOSTA: All right. We're going to lighten things up in the last few minutes here. Now a strange idea that is just taking off: flying bicycles. Yes, flying bicycles. Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Bike riders, sick of sharing the streets with cars? Maybe this will give you a lift. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my goodness. A flying bicycle.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whoa, flying bike!

MOOS: OK. So it didn't fly high. It didn't fly far. It didn't fly long.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You could tell it's phony.

MOOS (on camera): It's what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's phony. It ain't real.

MOOS (voice-over): Oh, it's real. The flying bicycle's public debut took place at an exhibition hall in the Czech republic capital of Prague. There was a nonhuman on the bike, but it wasn't E.T. avoiding a roadblock.

Instead of being silhouetted against the sun, the flying bike stayed low. A total of six propellers that looked like fans provide the lift powered by batteries. It was operated by remote control.

JAN SPATNY, PILOT OF BICYCLE (through translator): I have to say that it is already good to control. I can fly it without problem.

MOOS: Three Czech companies collaborated on the flying bike. It was a sight to warm the heart of a window washer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what we need to clean windows. That would be great. I'm going to talk to my boss. And that way, she can buy some of those nice bikes, and we can be flying.

MOOS: One tiny problem. Flight time for the bike is limited to five minutes. That's when the batteries run out.

New Yorkers were skeptical.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It doesn't even look safe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Those propellers are kind of big.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now you fly above, where are you going to land? Where will you park it?

MOOS: And how are you going to lock it up like a regular bike on a sidewalk?

The lead company, Duratek, says that battery capacity will improve enough for the bike to be used for sports or tourism, but some don't see the point.

(on camera): What issues do you see with it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That it's insane from the very beginning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's like, what do they call the Segways? They made a big thing about Segways, like everybody was going to be on Segways. Didn't happen. Same thing with that.

MOOS: Oh, yeah? Tell that to E.T.

Jeanne Moos, CNN.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I guess it will sell well to extraterrestrials.

MOOS: New York.


ACOSTA: We're going to fly out of here, as well. Remember you can follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Just tweet the show, @CNNSitRoom.

Erin Burnett, who is in Iran, "OUTFRONT," she starts right now.

BURNETT: I'm Erin Burnett live from Tehran tonight. The presidential election, we're in the final countdown. What does the change here mean for the United States?

Plus the mysterious Ayatollah Khamenei. He's the supreme leader, and he's the one who said that this election is crucial to, quote, "dash the enemies' hopes." What does he mean? We have a special report.

Plus, we have breaking news on Syria from the White House. A significant development tonight. And from where I'm standing right now, obviously this is a front-and-center story. A whole new view on Syria from here in Iran. Let's go "OUTFRONT."