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Mistrust as U.S. and Russian Talks on Syria Begin; Syria Says It Will Sign Chemical Weapons Ban; Thunderstorms Cripple Northeast Air Travel; Putin's Public Swipe at Obama; Did Iran Force U.S. Prisoner's Confession?; Blaze in New Jersey Boardwalks

Aired September 12, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, deep divides and deep skepticism as the United States and Russia begin formal talks on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons and averting a U.S. military strike.

Also, breaking news -- Syria shocks the world, saying it's signing on to the global ban on chemical weapons. Other countries caution, however, it's not that simple.

Plus, a disturbing confession by a former U.S. Marine being held in Iran. Now he says it was all coerced.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


We begin with the fate of Syria's chemical weapons and, potentially, the fate of Syria itself, being hammered out right now in Geneva, Switzerland. That's where the top American and Russian diplomats are meeting to try to find a resolution to the crisis sparked by that chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb last month.

But from the get go, the distance and the mistrust between the secretary of State, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has been evident.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is traveling with the secretary in Geneva -- Jim, what is the very latest you're learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as we speak, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov are having a private one- on-one dinner. When you see them together, they've got a good rapport. But when they start talking about the details, you see the sticking points here.

Secretary Kerry, in his first public comments in Geneva, mentioned one of them, and that's that Syrian president, Bashar Al- Assad, has said he wants 30 days to catalog his chemical weapons, that that would be standard.

Secretary Kerry said there's nothing standard about these talks. They want much quicker action.

But certainly, the starting point today promising, that is President Bashar Assad, saying on Russian television that under Russian supervision, they're willing to commit to giving up their chemical weapons.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): In the words of every U.S. official we've spoken with, promises are not enough. The U.S. is looking for a definitive, verifiable plan of action.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is not a game. And I said that to my friend, Sergey, when we talked about it initially. It has to be real.

SCIUTTO: American negotiators here are moving immediately to a plan for the nitty-gritty of cataloguing, collecting and destroying Syria's chemical weapons. The first test of Assad's commitment, U.S. officials tell CNN, will be whether Syria provides a full accounting of its enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons, including exact locations.

These negotiations' most skeptical observers are the Syrian opposition, described by U.S. official as obsessed and distrustful of the entire process. These doubts were magnified by rebel claims, first reported on CNN, that Syria has moved some of its weapons to Lebanon and Iraq, claims that were quickly denied by the Iraqi government.

GEN. SALIM IDRIS, FREE SYRIA ARMY: I had a call today with Mr. Kerry. And he told me that he will discuss with the Russians how honest the regime is. And if our friends discover that the regime is trying to waste time, the threat of the strikes is still on the table.

SCIUTTO: Secretary Kerry was quick to publicly reiterate the threat of force.

KERRY: Because our military maintains its current posture to keep up the pressure on the Assad regime. Should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary.

SCIUTTO: Looming over the discussions is a gaping trust deficit between the U.S. and Russia -- a point highlighted in a seemingly lighthearted moment just as the talks began.

KERRY: Can you give me the last part of the translation, please?

Do you want to take my word for it?

It's a little early for that.


(END VIDEO TAPE) SCIUTTO: A trust deficit with Russia, a trust deficit with Syria, as well. They are, Wolf, the missing participant here that all this depends on. Syria says it will not deal with the United States directly, because they don't trust the US. The U.S. relying on Russia to make Syria make good on its commitment. These next 48 hours, the U.S. is going to test those commitments. As one U.S. official said to me, the reason John Kerry is here is to see if the Russians mean what they're saying and the Syrians mean what they're saying.

BLITZER: So I take it that the talks are scheduled to continue tomorrow in Geneva, is that right?

SCIUTTO: That's right. Lavrov and Kerry at dinner tonight. They're going to start up again tomorrow morning at 9:30. These next 24 hours crucial to see if they can really get to some proof that there's a viable plan for moving forward.

BLITZER: It would be nice if they come out with an agreement to move forward jointly on these elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. Let's see if that is even possible.

Jim Sciutto traveling with the secretary. We'll check back with you.

Thank you.

There's breaking news we're following on Syria. The country's United Nations ambassador now says the Bashar Al-Assad regime has formally signed on to the international treaty banning chemical weapons and is, quote, "a full member of the convention."

That convention signed in 1993.

That would make Syria the 190th member from countries around the world.

Yet other countries are saying maybe not so fast.

CNN's senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is over at the United Nations for us.

I know a formal letter was delivered to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, by the Syrian ambassador.

What does all this mean?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, if this goes through -- and the remaining steps are for the UN's lawyers to basically look at this letter and be sure that it is what it says it is, a letter of accession to the convention -- once it has ascertained that, then they're in the convention and quite quickly steps move forward.

And in 30 days, it's possible inspectors could look at Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. That's when the treaty comes into force. And then 60 days from now, that's when they have to make the full declaration of all that they have. And then a process continues, over the next decade, to actually destroy those weapons.

I also spoke to the Syrian ambassador here, quite clearly asking him, do you have chemical weapons?, because their suggestion on that have been ambiguous to some degree, or implicit. He was clear, look, we had these as a deterrent from the Israeli nuclear program.

So a lot happening here, certainly. But even this two month time line emerging today from the convention, that's going to face problems in simply the practicality of getting inspectors on the ground and getting this process moving during a civil war. That's never happened before.

And, also, there's still France, America and the United Kingdom pushing forward a resolution that wants to see a declaration within 15 days. And, also, still on that text, the people behind the August 21st attacks around Damascus want to see them brought to trial in the Hague, the International Criminal Court, Wolf.

So a lot still going on.

BLITZER: A lot going on. And we're waiting any day now for the U.N. inspectors to give their formal report on what happened on August 21st, when the U.S. says 1,400 Syrian civilians were killed by the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons.

PATON WALSH: That's right. Monday, everyone is telling me that's when we should see this report. It will be a very detailed document, showing basically everything from how the samples came out of the ground to what finally was in them.

Now, one Western diplomat is saying that -- to me, that this will be able to suggest, potentially, who was behind it. It's not the U.N. inspectors' mandate to assign blame, but the level of detail they put in this report, this Western diplomat says, may allow some people to draw conclusions of who was behind it.

Now, there are some people speculating that perhaps Syria's move today is preempting this particular report. We have to wait and see quite how that develops.

But Monday, we'll see this definitive report from the U.N. Which they say is entirely independent and credible, specifying what was used on the 21st of August and perhaps hinting with enough detail so people can draw conclusions who was behind that.

So all eyes still, though, on how quickly the U.N. says Syria is part of this chemical weapons convention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nick.

Thanks very much.

Nick Paton Walsh reporting for us from the U.N.

Up next, "Time" magazine obtains very disturbing pictures that are raising some serious new concerns about those Syrian rebels. Our special coverage of the crisis in Syria continues.


BLITZER: Let's get some more now on the breaking news on Syria. The country's U.N. ambassador saying Syria has now become a full member of the international convention banning the use of chemical weapons.

Let's dig a little bit deeper with CNN's chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; "Time Magazine's" international editor, Bobby Ghosh. This is the cover, by the way, of the new issue of "Time" magazine. There it is -- "How Wall Street Won."

Also joining us, CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

He's the host of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS," which airs here on CNN every Sunday morning -- Fareed, Syria says it's now accepted this 1993 U.N. chemical weapons ban.

What do you make of this?

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": I think it's a fairly important shift, because once they do that, it entails a whole set of legal obligations that they are taking on. They do have to destroy. They have to identify what they have, I think it's within a few months. They have 10 years to destroy everything that they have. They are required to let U.N. inspectors in.

So they are buying into a whole set of legal obligations and constraints. And, of course, they can violate them. And, of course, they can cheat. But in that situation, they are then violating international law. They are, you know, running afoul of treaties and things like that.

And think about that op-ed that Vladimir Putin wrote. The entire defense of the sort of Syrian case, as you -- if you will, has been about international law, has been about the fact that the U.S. shouldn't be viol -- you know, doing things that are outside of international law.

Well, this means that Syria, in order to, you know, to play its part, has to abide by this treaty. That's a very tall set of obligations. And we'll have to see whether they do it, but it is an encouraging sign.

BLITZER: Bobby...

GLORIA BORGER, HOST: And, Wolf, the -- you know, the administration is saying that the standard tests are too slow. And they're going to say, OK, you want to abide by this treaty, but we're going to have to speed things up a little bit. And what the United States is going to do is sort of set up some tests and say how much candor do they show, how much access do we get, and whether they can speed up kind of a 30 day determination you're supposed to have to -- to maybe a couple of weeks. So I think what the U.S. is saying here is this is good. This is a good start, but we're not going to give you all the time in the world.

BLITZER: And if you listen to White House officials, Bobby, the only reasons the Syrians have done this, that they've come forward now, accepted the 1993 convention, said that the inspectors can go in, detail, control, and eventually destroy their entire chemical weapons stockpile, if you listen to U.S. officials, they say it's because the president of the United States threatened to use military force.

Do you buy that?

BOBBY GHOSH, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, "TIME": Well, I'm sure that's -- that has some role to play. And, also, the other thing that has a role to play is that the secretary of State of the United States gave them that option. And, of course, Russia has a role to play, as well.

I think Syria is taking advantage of an opportunity that arose, whether deliberately or not, from what John Kerry said. And Syria is also counting on the fact that having signed this thing now, it's not retroactive. It doesn't occur -- it doesn't apply to August 21st, when, if you believe the administration, the -- that huge and quite ghastly chemical weapons attack took place.

BLITZER: Bobby, I want to show our viewers a picture in the new issue of "Time" magazine. You guys have just posted some pictures. And we're not going to show the worst of them. But these are pictures showing that the rebels, at least some rebels, they can be just as brutal as Saddam -- as Bashar Al-Assad's regime.

If you will explain what we're seeing here.

GHOSH: Well, these are -- the -- for the past two years, the Internet is full of cell phone videos of fighters on both sides, whether they're Assad's side or the rebels' side, doing the most horrific things to each other and then posting those atrocities as propaganda, either executing captives, eating their flesh.

The value of these pictures, we felt, was that this was photo- journalism. This was done by somebody -- we can't name him for his own security -- but somebody who is not Syrian, who is a legitimate photojournalist. This is not propaganda. This is not somebody posting something to propagate one side or the other of the argument. What we're seeing here is rebels. Now, there are rebels and then there are rebels. We believe that these are Islamists.

We believe that we have reporters reporting from the location. It's a small village near Aleppo from someone who was at the execution who said that these are al Qaeda rebels. They are -- that day on the 31st of August, they conducted four executions, beheadings of people. We're less clear about the nature, the motivation for these beheadings.

We are not 100 percent certain about who it is that is being beheaded. But it is clear that some -- the war has brought -- every war is vicious, but this one is plumbing new depths in brutality and these pictures capture that.

BLITZER: Brutality on both sides, clearly. Fareed, the U.S. now confirming basically they've started providing weapons to at least some of those rebels and the great fear is that who knows where they're going to wind up.

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: Who knows indeed, Wolf. The thing to remember about Syria is, you know, people say well, there are good rebels and bad rebels. The most important thing as far as I can tell having studied this fairly carefully is nobody knows. There are hundreds of different rebel groups in Syria. It appears that this rebellion against the Assad government has been quite decentralized, in many cases spontaneous, in some cases organized.

For two years, the Turkish government has been trying to in some way organize these rebel groups, create a government in exile, create a unified command structure. That has been difficult. The CIA has been trying to do it. It has proved difficult. So, the real truth is we don't know. Some of these rebel groups are clearly very nasty Islamist types. Others may be more democratically minded.

The one thing I think is important to keep in mind, there has always been a sectarian dimension to this conflict, because there is a sectarian dimension to the regime. It is a minority Alawite regime with some Sunni allies and some other minorities against almost entirely Sunni opposition. And the regime has always been very tough on the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist groups, things like that.

Remember in 1982, they had the Hama massacre. So, the regime has been sectarian. The opposition has been sectarian for two decades now.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And Wolf, you know, pictures like this really help explain public opinion in America. There's a great sense among Americans which is we don't know who the good guys always are and are the good guys very often bad guys, and why should we get involved in this kind of a civil war. So when you see pictures like this, you know, the public is conflicted.

You see the use of chemical weapons on the one hand. You see pictures like this used by the rebels on the other hand, and Americans say well, we shouldn't be involved in this. So, public opinion is very easy to understand.

BLITZER: Right. That's why so many Americans don't want to get involved. All right, guys. We'll continue this conversation. Bobby Ghosh, thanks very much, Fareed and Gloria, guys, thanks very much to you as well.

When we come back, an American held in Iran now reportedly reveals that his confession to supposedly being a CIA spy was forced out of him. Just ahead, we have details on a letter his family claims he smuggled out of prison in Iran.

Plus, thunderstorms crippling air travel across the northeast right now. We have details on ground stops in effect for a number of major cities. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Take a look at this. These are live pictures we're monitoring right now. Look at this, what's reported as a five alarm boardwalk fire in Seaside Park, New Jersey. Enormous amounts of smoke. These are live pictures we're getting right now. The pier there is being evacuated. This is one of the boardwalks that has just reopened just after Memorial Day, after being destroyed last year in the super storm Sandy.

No word yet on the cause of this blaze, but there are reports of explosions inside. Take a look at that building there on the boardwalk in New Jersey.

Severe thunderstorms, meanwhile, are crippling air travel across the northeast right now, forcing ground stops at airports in a number of major cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, right here in the Washington, D.C. area as well. CNN meteorologist and severe weather expert, Chad Myers, is in the CNN Weather Center. He joins us now. What's going on, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, SEVERE WEATHER EXPERT: Let me explain what ground stop means to the lay person out there that doesn't get this. This means that if you're on an airplane and you're wanting to fly to LaGuardia and you're somewhere around the New York City metro area, your plane is going to sit there on the tarmac waiting for this ground stop to leave. Not everywhere.

Planes can still leave from far away destinations like L.A. and Phoenix, those places, but the close destinations have to hold. They have to sit there and not try to get in the air because they don't want them spinning around. Baltimore, you see all the ground stops. So, let me just get to the delays, because this is what's really kind of put you at unease.

Forty-five minutes, BWI, LaGuardia, two hours, Newark, 90 minutes, Philadelphia, one hour, D.C.A., 90 minutes. And there's one right here, the ground delays in Boston at an hour and Newark, JFK at three hours and 25 minutes right now. And the storms aren't even there yet. The storms aren't even to New York City yet, but it's been windy. I know you just showed those pictures from Seaside Heights -- from Seaside Park, the fun park, amusement park.

You can see the wind blowing to the north at about 30 miles per hour. That's also slowing down the airplanes as well. Those winds, you separate the planes if you have winds that are that intense. And we even have thunderstorms on the western horizon that these planes have to fly around, Wolf.

BLITZER: We only got between Washington and New York. Good day to take the train as opposed to flying.

MYERS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Probably much better idea tonight. Thanks very much. Up next, is Vladimir Putin testing President Obama on Syria? We have details of the Russian president's shot across the bow.

But first, here's a look at this weekend's "The Next List."


Dr. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: This week on "The Next List," we talk to two remarkable innovators, Ben Kaufman, the founder and CEO of Kaufman is passionate about giving would-be inventors a way to get their product ideas to market.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's human nature to invent. What stops people is to actually do that and to execute on all those ideas. It's really freaking hard.

GUPTA (voice-over): And he's using the talents of a half a million online members to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Turk (ph), you are now a quirky inventor.


GUPTA: And Saul Griffith (ph), he's an inventor, scientist, and winner of the coveted MacArthur Genius Award.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes you just have an idea and you're like, oh no, I've had the idea. Now, I have to do it.

GUPTA: Griffith and his team are revolutionizing robotics, creating a whole new field of soft machines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When fully pressurized, that arm could lift a human at arm's length.

GUPTA: This Saturday, 2:30 p.m. eastern on "The Next List."


BLITZER: These are live pictures coming in from Seaside Heights, New Jersey. A fire that apparently is still raging over there. You can see the smoke at the bottom left-hand corner of your screen. We're getting more information on it, but not a whole lot more information. We'll continue to monitor this fire in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. But they're pretty dramatic pictures.

Let's get back to our top story, the efforts to resolve the crisis over Syria's chemical weapons. They are being complicated by the tense and the often very frosty relationship between President Obama and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Making matters worse, bombshell opinion piece written in the "New York Times" by Putin taking a direct swipe at President Obama.

Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us right now.

It seems that Putin, at least to a lot of observers, Jim, has been testing the president when it comes to Syria.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And the White House is walking a diplomatic tightrope, hitting back at Russian President Vladimir Putin for his controversial op-ed in the "New York Times" while at the same time praising Moscow for its willingness to work on stripping Syria of its chemical weapons.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Obama took note of the man missing in his Cabinet meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry, who's begun haggling with the Russians over Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we could make sure that chemical weapons are not used against innocent people.

ACOSTA: But the White House is already facing roadblocks. For starters, take Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's comments to Russian television, insisting that the U.S. drop its threat of military force.

PRES. BASHER AL-ASSAD, SYRIA (Through Translator): This bilateral process is based first of all on the United States' stopping its policy of threatening Syria.

ACOSTA: Add to that the shot across the bow from Russian President Vladimir Putin who argued in a "New York Times" op-ed that, "there is every reason to believe chemical weapons were used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces."

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It defies logic and probability.

ACOSTA: It was an early test to that old adage from President Reagan, now adopted by the Obama White House.


ACOSTA (on camera): Does President Obama trust President Putin?

CARNEY: I think the point of that is that actions speak louder than words and that we will -- that --

ACOSTA: He doesn't trust him?

CARNEY: Look, I think that the fact is if we can resolve this without resorting to military force, then credit will be due to the Russians and to everyone else who participates in that process to make it happen.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Putin also took exception to this comment in the president's speech.

OBAMA: I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. ACOSTA: The Russian president said, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."

(On camera): Can Putin be trusted?


ACOSTA (voice-over): Former Obama and Bush National Security official, Barry Pavel, says the White House must put aside the personalities at the bargaining table and demand a timeline for Assad to give up his poison gas.

PAVEL: This could go on for five years and the international community's going to turn its attention elsewhere, and Assad will use chemical weapons another day.

ACOSTA: Republican critics have seized on the twists and turns of President Obama's handling of Syria as a sign of weakness.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander-in-chief of this nation.

ACOSTA: But the White House sees strength.

CARNEY: I think that the American people, at least in my assessment, appreciate a commander-in-chief who takes in new information and doesn't, you know, celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness.


ACOSTA: And White House Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged that there have been some, quote, "curves in the road," in getting Syria to the point where it at least agrees to give up its chemical weapons.

Asked for a timeline as to when that might happen, Wolf, White House officials still aren't saying but they are looking to a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly that is scheduled for later this month as a timeframe to sort of assess where things stand at that point. But at this point, that's as far as they're willing to go -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of the world's leaders will be coming to the U.N. General Assembly, including the president of the United States.

All right, Jim -- Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Just ahead, we're digging deeper into Vladimir Putin's swipe at President Obama and the idea of American exceptionalism. The "CROSSFIRE" co-host Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, they are here in THE SITUATION ROOM. They will debate when our special coverage of the crisis in Syria continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The "Crisis in Syria" and American exceptionalism. President Obama invoked the idea in his speech before the nation Tuesday night.


OBAMA: With modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run. I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.


BLITZER: But the Russian President Vladimir Putin takes issue with that in a bombshell opinion piece in the "New York Times" today. Putin writes this, and I'll read it to you, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy, their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

That's Putin. This isn't the first time President Obama has discussed the issue of American exceptionalism. Listen to what he said at a news conference in Strasbourg, France back in 2009.


OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I am enormously proud of my country and its role in history in the world.

The United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability and I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, and our belief in free speech and equality, that though imperfect, are exceptional.

I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity, and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.


BLITZER: American exceptionalism. In the "CROSSFIRE" right now. Joining us, the hosts of "CROSSFIRE," Van Jones and Newt Gingrich.

Newt, what do you think about Putin's idea -- Putin's op-ed in which he criticized the president for speaking of American exceptionalism?

NEWT GINGRICH, HOST, CNN'S CROSSFIRE: If you read the op-ed carefully --

BLITZER: Which all of us did.

GINGRICH: It is one of the great case studies of absolute dishonesty and cynicism. This is a man whose policies killed 300,000 Chechens in the second Chechen war. This is a man who invaded the independent country of Georgia. This is a man whose country has been vetoing resolutions of the United Nations.

The idea that he would lecture us as a former KGB agent I find to be one of the more ironic moments in this entire experience.

VAN JONES, HOST, CNN'S CROSSFIRE: It's like a butcher sticking up for the bunnies all of a sudden.


Like, wait a minute, who are you? But I would rather talk about what Putin has to say about exceptionalism. I think what Obama has to say is important. Obama has been consistent on this point. He's been criticized for, you know, not believing in the greatness of America. He actually believes that we've got cards that we can play that no other country can play. We can play a defense card, a diplomacy card, a development card, a democracy card, and then -- and when something horrible happens, we should put those cards on the table.

Everybody doesn't agree. Rand Paul doesn't agree, but he does. I think that's important that we recognize he has a view of American greatness and he's acting from that point of view.

GINGRICH: I mean, it is -- it's grandly ironic that most conservatives would absolutely agree with the president that this is an exceptional nation. That that exceptionalism starts in our "Declaration of Independence" where we say that all people are created -- and their creator has endowed them with certain unalienable rights.

The ironic thing is to have a Russian who's an authoritarian lecturing us on whether or not we are exceptional. But I think the president's position, whether you agree or disagree about the details of the policy, his core position that this is a unique country is absolutely in the tradition of America going back all the way to the founding fathers.

BLITZER: You saw what Senator Bob Corker said yesterday. He was really critical, surprisingly because he's a moderate Republican, he's an internationalist. He supports the use of force if necessary.

I'll play a little clip. Here's what Senator Corker said.

JONES: Painful stuff, Wolf.


CORKER: The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander-in-chief of this nation.


JONES: Yes. That's painful. Look, I disagree and I'll tell you why. Well, first of all, I'm from Tennessee so that's my home state senator so it's doubly painful for me to hear him say that. He is somebody who has tried to be constructive, I think we should give him honor for that, but he's wrong.

This is a very tough situation. It's a fluid and dynamic situation. I see Obama more like Peyton Manning, OK. He's a quarterback who threw seven touchdowns recently. Why? Because he -- to the very last second, he doesn't call the play, he calls an audible. He watches everything up to the very last moment, and then he decides.

Obama is more of a Peyton Manning in the White House, looking at a very fluid situation and trying to make the right call. I think that kind of leadership in a fluid situation is a good thing, not a bad thing.

GINGRICH: I think that -- if you want to talk about quarterbacks for a second, I think this is a president who threw an interception in the way -- for example, he goes to St. Petersburg in the middle of asking for a vote to use force and says, I was elected to make peace, not to start wars. The secretary of state says it will be an unbelievably small strike.


JONES: OK. Look.

GINGRICH: You go through item after item --

JONES: Look, it has -- look, it has not been a perfect thing but just -- just because we're all a little bit seasick does not mean that the ship is going down or the captain is lost. The water is choppy. And I think he's doing a good job getting us through here.

GINGRICH: Yes, but you throw --

JONES: And we got peace on the table now -- as opposed to war. That's a good thing.

GINGRICH: Look, if he throws six interceptions and six touchdowns, it's not quite the same record.

JONES: If you win the game, though, and I think we're about -- the game has to be to get the chemical weapons out.

BLITZER: If that happens, that's still obviously -- we all hope that the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile are destroyed. That's a huge, huge, if still right now.

JONES: Fair enough.

BLITZER: We can all agree that that would be nice, if that were to happen. GINGRICH: It would be good.

BLITZER: See you guys a little bit later. Thanks very much for joining us.

A lot more to debate that's coming up. CNN's new "CROSSFIRE." That comes up at 6:30 p.m. Eastern, immediately following us right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stick around for that.

When we come back, an American prisoner in Iran apparently confesses to being a CIA spy, but now his family claims that entire confession was coerced by the Iranians. Up next, we have details of a secret letter they say he smuggled out of prison in Iran.

And breaking news. A serious fire at a New Jersey boardwalk. There you see the pictures. We'll have some live coverage. That's coming up as well.


BLITZER: A massive fire right now continuing. You're looking at these live pictures from the boardwalk in Seaside Park -- Seaside Park, New Jersey. And this fire continues. We're going to have a live report on what's going on. Just a tweet from the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, "En route to Seaside now, please keep everyone in the surrounding areas, the firefighters, first responders, fighting the blaze, in your prayers."

We'll have a live report, that's coming up. The smoke and the flames in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, new questions about an American prisoner being held in Iran and his apparent confession to being a CIA spy. After his family claims he smuggled out a letter out of that prison in Iran.

CNN's Brian Todd has been working this story for us.

So, Brian, you've got some new information?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The attorney for this young American says he is in poor health and in increasingly desperate shape. The lawyer and the man's family are appealing to the Iranians to release him.

Now the State Department has a letter, which Amir Hekmati smuggled out of prison, saying the confession he made several months ago is bogus.


TODD (voice-over): You're looking at a former U.S. Marine, in custody in Iran, apparently confessing to being a CIA spy.

AMIR HEKMATI, FORMER U.S. MARINE: My name is Amir Mirzaei Hekmati. TODD: According to his family, Amir Hekmati went to Iran in 2011 to see elderly relatives. At his trial, the Iranians convicted Hekmati of trying to infiltrate their intelligence service so he could connect Iran to terrorist activity. He was sentenced to death, but that was set aside.

Now his family says Hekmati has smuggled a letter out of prison, addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, saying that confession was, "obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement."

The letter dated September 1st was first obtained by the U.K.'s "Guardian" newspaper. I went over it with Hekmati's U.S.-based lawyer.

(On camera): Was he beaten? Was he tortured into giving that confession?

PIERRE PROSPER, AMIR HEKMATI'S ATTORNEY: Well, that's something that, you know, we do not know for sure. I mean, he tells us that it was -- it was an aggressive interrogation. He tells us that it was a coerced interrogation. We know that by watching the footage that he looked as though there's been some sort of an abusive process.

TODD (voice-over): A process that Pierre Prosper says included solitary confinement for months with barely any access to daylight.

Hekmati is an Iranian citizen with U.S. and Iranian passports. His family didn't want to go on camera but issued a statement after the letter came out, saying, "It's time for Amir to be released. He has never been a spy for any country or entity or person. They have punished him enough."

(On camera): No one can talk to us? All right.

Iranian officials here in Washington won't respond to Hekmati's letter. They won't tell us why they gave permission for Hekmati to go to Iran before he left, according to his family, even after he told him about his U.S. military service. They won't say what changed after he went to Iran.

Iranian officials in Tehran and at the United Nations also would not respond to our repeated request for comment on Hekmati's letter.

(Voice-over): Hekmati is being held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. I asked former CIA officer Reuel Gerecht who tracked the Iranians for years what happens there to detainees like Amir Hekmati.

REUEL GERECHT, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Being in Evin does not necessarily mean you're going to be beat to pieces, but it is the place where some of the worst things that have happened under the Islamic Republic have occurred.


TODD: We couldn't get response from the Iranians to that either. In his letter, Amir Hekmati says the Iranians want to exchange him for two Iranians being held abroad. And he urged John Kerry not to go for that, calling it a ridiculous proposition.

Pretty courageous for him to say this to John Kerry, hey, don't make any deal that they want.

BLITZER: How did he get that letter out of that prison?

TODD: Well, the -- his attorney would say that he got it somehow to a journalist, who is in Tehran. That journalist, he says, brought the letter to the United States, got it to the lawyers, the lawyers got it to the family who verified that it was from Amir Hekmati, the handwriting and everything. And then they got it to the State Department. The State Department does have the letter.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff. All right, Brian, let's see what happens. Appreciate it very much.

TODD: Sure.

BLITZER: Here's a quick look at what's coming up tonight on CNN.


ANNOUNCER: CNN tonight. At 7:00, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT." Raising questions about Iowa gun permits for the legally blind. And at 9:00 on "PIERS MORGAN LIVE," Piers talks to Senator John McCain about where America stands with Syria. Plus Sheryl Crow's tells Piers Morgan about her life with Lance Armstrong.

It's all on CNN tonight, starting with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" at 7:00, "ANDERSON COOPER 360" at 8:00, and "PIERS MORGAN LIVE" at 9:00.

Tonight on CNN.


BLITZER: And just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, right at the top of the hour, a new claim Syria has already moved some of its chemical weapons out of the country. I'll ask the Pentagon spokesman, George Little, about that. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Also, some breaking news. A serious fire. Look at these pictures. At a boardwalk in New Jersey. We'll go there live.


BLITZER: Let's get back to that breaking news. That massive boardwalk fire in Seaside Park, New Jersey. It's one of the boardwalks that was severely damaged in Superstorm Sandy.

We're just getting word the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, is en route to the scene right now.

News 12 in New Jersey reporter Dave Grunebaum is joining us now. He's on the scene. Tell us what's going on. What happened, Dave?

DAVID GRUNEBAUM, NEWS 12 NEW JERSEY REPORTER: Well, Wolf, we've got about an eight-alarm fire here now. This fire started about 2:15 here on the boardwalk just behind where I'm staring. You see the Funtown Park and Arcade. Behind there there's an ice cream stand and a candy store. It started in that shortly after 2:00 and then it just spread.

And the reason why it spread is because there are strong winds, gusts over 35 miles an hour at times. And that has just carried this fire all the way down the boardwalk. Kicking it -- keep in mind, not only through the buildings, but it got underneath the boardwalk. That helped to spread, with that wind just kicking it up.

They have been bringing in a number of fire departments from neighboring towns to try and help here, but it just keeps spreading throughout the evening here. A lot of businesses gone now. The boardwalk, we've got two communities struck by this. Seaside Park, where I'm standing, they've lost most of that boardwalk and businesses already, and then two blocks down is where you start the next community of Seaside Heights. They've lost most of that boardwalk now, too.

The odd thing here, though, Wolf, is that they were going to be celebrating starting tomorrow the 100th anniversary of Seaside Heights, an anniversary that was supposed to started tomorrow night of celebrations. Obviously, this just changes everything -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That pier has just been rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy, is that right?

GRUNEBAUM: Yes, and Seaside Heights, they had just rebuilt the boardwalk. You've got -- a lot of it just got wiped out by Superstorm Sandy last fall and they got most of that rebuilt in time for the summer. So a lot of these people were feeling good that they were able to recover from that. And as one of the people here in the community told me, a woman told me, to finally come back from that and have this at the close of summer is just a kick to the stomach -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Good luck. We'll stay in touch with you, Dave Grunebaum, from News 12 New Jersey, reporting for us. Thank you.

Happening now. We're getting word of new U.S. help from the Syrian rebels, even as the Obama administration works to seal a chemical weapons deal with the Bashar al-Assad regime. I'll ask al- Assad's own first cousin if the Syrian leader is ruthless enough to slaughter civilians with poison gas.

And the linchpin of a possible agreement with Syria, Russia's Vladimir Putin, speaking directly to the American people and turning lawmakers' stomachs.




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