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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf; CDC to issue New Protective Equipment Guidelines; Obama Appoints Ebola Czar; New Terror Threat to the U.S.; Navy Kicks Out Biden's Son Over Cocaine Test
Aired October 17, 2014 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Ebola alert, urgent new efforts to keep the deadly disease from spreading in America. Up to 800 airline passengers are now being tracked down. Even a cruise ship passenger is under quarantine.
Ebola czar. President Obama names a former White House insider to oversee the federal response, as emergency efforts ramp up to protect health care workers and to develop a vaccine and treatments.
And new terror threat, why chaos and a possible government collapse half-a-world away could boost the chances of an al Qaeda attack right here in the United States.
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: We have got the breaking news in the Ebola crisis. There are now new efforts under way to track down people who may have been exposed to the disease.
Two nurses from Dallas are now being treated in two different specialized hospitals. Frontier Airlines is trying to contact nearly 1,000 passengers from a plane linked to the nurse Amber Vinson she flew when she may have already been symptomatic. And a Dallas hospital worker is under quarantine on a cruise ship after possible contact with labs samples from the Liberian man who died of Ebola in Dallas.
Even the chief epidemiologist in Dallas is being monitored after possible exposure at that same patient's bedside. A federal official now says the CDC, Centers for Disease Control, will soon issue new protective equipment guidelines to help keep health care workers safe. All of this as President Obama finally names an Ebola czar. The veteran White House insider Ron Klain will be charged with coordinating the entire federal response.
Our correspondents, our analysts and our newsmakers they are all standing by for full coverage.
Let's begin with the extraordinary move to quarantine a Dallas hospital worker, one of thousands of passengers aboard a cruise ship. CNN's Rene Marsh joining us with details -- Rene.
RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a seven- day cruise and now news someone on board is being monitored for the deadly Ebola virus. It's enough to raise concern, but experts say the risk is low.
Meantime, there's an exhaustive mission under way to find everyone who had contact with Ebola patient Amber Vinson after she flew from Dallas to Cleveland.
MARSH (voice-over): Tonight, the CDC is working to track 16 people who were near or had contact with Amber Vinson when she was in Northeast Ohio.
MARY DIORIO, OHIO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Additional work is being done to that list and we may have changes to that list, which is why we're talking today.
MARSH: Before being diagnosed, Vinson flew round-trip from Dallas to Cleveland. Frontier Airlines is notifying up to 800 passengers, including those who flew with her and those who later traveled on one of the same planes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm more worried than I am angry. It's kind of one of those things where it happened. Now I just want to be positive and deal with it and move on.
MARSH: Also tonight, a lab supervisor from the hospital where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan died remains quarantined on a cruise ship. Eric Lupher is one of the more than 4,000 passengers on board.
ERIC LUPHER, PASSENGER: I think it's more the, oh, holy cow, we're on a boat with an Ebola scare. I don't think it's, oh, I need to get off or I'm going to get sick.
MARSH: The woman never had contact with Duncan, but may have had contact with his fluid samples. In a statement, Carnival Cruise Lines says: "At no time has the individual exhibited any symptoms or signs of infection. And it has been 19 days since she was in the lab with the testing samples."
The lab tech boarded the Carnival Magic on October 12, before being notified of increased monitoring requirements.
DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, DEPARTMENT OF PREVENTIVE MEDICINE CHAIRMAN, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: If I were on this cruise ship, I wouldn't be concerned at all. In a vast excess of caution, she is isolating herself, which from an objective science-based risk assessment is quite unnecessary.
MARSH: The ship is currently returning to Texas. Mexico refused to allow it to dock. And a request by the U.S. government to evacuate the passenger through Belize was rejected. (END VIDEOTAPE)
MARSH: That ship arrives in Texas on Sunday. As for the people who were on board the two flights the Dallas nurse took, the airline tells me today it has contacted everyone. The CDC, though, is still in the process -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Rene, thank you.
The Dallas nurse, Nina Pham, the first person to contract Ebola in the United States, was moved overnight to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. That's right outside of Washington, D.C.
And that's where Brian Todd is joining us with more on what is going on.
Brian, what have you learned?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Nina Pham is nearing the end of her first full day of treatment here, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he's one oft people overseeing her care.
He described the atmosphere as "a very intense environment," and that's certainly appropriate. Tonight, Nina Pham is sealed off in a high containment chamber. She's got specialists with her 24-7, and they include two doctors who will always be with her, one of them an infection disease specialist, one of them a critical care doctors. Five nurses on each shift, and each shift is 12 hours, by the way, five nurses on each shift.
Two of them will be in there with her at all times, in the room with her at all times. But Dr. Fauci did put Ms. Pham's isolation in perspective.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: She's in isolation, but she has almost continual person-to-person contact.
We have nurses going in, doctors going in, a screen in the nurse's where we can speak to her. She has her iPad, all of the things. She has got person-to-person contact. When we say isolation, this isn't a torture chamber. This is an individual who is constantly being cared for, cheered up. Our nurses are spectacular and they do that all the time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Now, we have to emphasize that there is no direct treatment for Ebola. As our Dr. Sanjay Gupta said, there's no magic potion in the way of a medicine that you can give an Ebola patient. So they have to treat Nina Pham's symptoms here. That means she's going to be receiving fluids, potassium,
antibiotics if she gets an infection. The key question is, can she fully recover? Dr. Fauci addressed that as well.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FAUCI: When you say recoverable, in the sense of recovering, absolutely. We fully intend to have this patient walk out of this hospital, and we will do everything we possibly can to make that happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: While they take care of Nina Pham, they're also taking care of the caregivers who are attending to her. That's a critical component of this, Wolf. They're monitoring these people 24-7. Each doctor and nurse is wearing a hazmat suit.
Of course, the air in her room will never circulate out of her room. There is no outside air that will go into her room. They are working with the buddy system. That means each nurse and each doctor is monitored by a buddy. When they go into a room, they are monitored. They're watched when they come out. They're watched when they undress from their isolation gowns and things like that. It is really strictly monitored here, Wolf, because they do not want to have a breach of protocol.
BLITZER: If they can't be bread via the air, why do they have to take that specific precaution? Have they explained that?
TODD: It really is just out of an abundance of caution, Wolf. They just don't want any potential fluids circulating in the air. That's how you get it, from bodily fluids. One doctor described that component of not letting outside air in, et cetera, as not a must have, but it's something you do want to have just out of an abundance of caution.
BLITZER: Her condition, the listing of her condition, that's become a serious issue as well, right?
TODD: Sure has, Wolf. She was improving steadily since Sunday when we learned of her diagnosis. She was listed in good condition earlier in the week. Today, they listed in fair condition, which is a downgrade. But Dr. Fauci and the other specialists here have emphasized that is simply because of fatigue from her trip from Dallas.
It was a long trip. She had to be monitored constantly and they say that's really the only reason she's listed in fair condition. They expect her to improve fairly rapidly.
BLITZER: Let's hope she does. Brian Todd at NIH, thank you.
Ember Vinson, the second nurse to contact Ebola, is being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is joining us from Atlanta right now.
Sanjay, tell us about what's happening inside the Emory Hospital with the people who are taking care of Amber.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: This is the same team that took care of Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol and another patient that's there now whose name has not been released, but it's the same team, five doctors, 21 nurses. So it's 26 people total.
They work in shifts. That's why you have so many of them. But that's a far lower number obviously than what you heard about in Dallas where they think close to 80 people that may have come in contact with Mr. Duncan. They try and limit the numbers. They have obviously had a good track record.
Let me just build on something that Brian was just talking about. They also have very strict -- these biocontainment units. They're also designed for respiratory pathogens, not because Ebola is a respiratory or airborne pathogen, it's just that that is the way these biocontainment units are set up. They are set up a lot of times because people would come here, sometimes field workers, for example, from the Centers for Disease Control, with some sort of infectious disease and they didn't know what it was.
So they would basically go full bore in terms of protection until they zeroed in on it. But by virtue of the fact that these patients are in these biocontainment units, no one should read into that that in fact Ebola could be, maybe, anything, possibly airborne. It is not.
BLITZER: That's a good explanation. I'm glad you put it in perspective, Sanjay.
I want to show you and our viewers new pictures we're just getting in. This is the Dallas hospital where the Liberian died, the two nurses contracted Ebola. These are hospital workers. They're rallying to support the hospital, which has come under, as you well know, Sanjay, a lot of criticism for the way it's handled this Ebola crisis.
As you also know, a federal official, Sanjay, says the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, will soon issue new protective equipment guidelines. They should have been doing this I suspect a long time ago, but these new guidelines, I assume they will keep really the health care workers, the doctors and the nurses, the others safe.
GUPTA: Yes. I think you're absolutely right.
I think one of the basic tenets is that the previous guidelines did not seem adequate in terms of protection, did not fully cover all the skin. It sounds like a simple thing, but if you looked at some of the previous guidelines, there was still -- the neck, for example, skin on the neck was still potentially not covered.
There was all sorts of explanations saying, look, if you don't have direct contact, your protection doesn't have to be as strong as if you have direct contact. I think what you will see is more consistent guidelines. Everyone will be protected regardless how intensive your contact is. If you're in the room with a patient with Ebola, you should have full protection. I think that's what we will see here. It's going to cover all the skin.
BLITZER: These hospital workers there in Dallas, they're rallying the support of their hospital, which, as I said, has come under a lot of criticism.
Sanjay, as you know, the Obama administration says it's working as quickly as possible on scaling up Ebola vaccines, drug production. Give us a little context, what does that mean, how long before there is a vaccine? How long before there is an effective drug treatment?
GUPTA: With regard to the vaccine, I think maybe within the next month-and-a-half we probably have a trial that's completed in terms of showing that is something safe out there. Then, after that, you can start to make it more widely available to people.
I think they first want to make it more widely available to people in West Africa who are deemed to be at risk, and possibly ultimately the health care workers who may come into contact with patients with Ebola. But what basically this means when they're fast tracking it is that -- it's already being fast tracked. Now you have got the Department of Health and Human Services, a department there looking at technology transfers.
So if there is a vaccine trial going on in one part of the world, another one going on in another part of the world, can they start to combine some of the knowledge from these different trials to try and arrive at a product more quickly? It's the same sort of thing with the medications. We talked about ZMapp being a medication that was given to Brantly, Dr. Brantly, and Nancy Writebol.
Could this be something that could be made in larger volumes? There's many different steps to make that happen, and they're working on those steps, growing a tobacco plant, which is the reservoir, which can be the reservoir where the medication is developed, creating the antibodies, making the production more widely available and quicker. All of that is being worked on now for obvious reasons, Wolf.
BLITZER: Sanjay, I want you to stay with us. We have many more questions to ask.
But I want to move on to another important aspect of this breaking news. Government leaders, health care professionals, they are trying to put the Ebola threat in perspective.
But I want you to listen to Secretary of State John Kerry today. He's sounding a very, very grim warning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: If we don't adequately address this current outbreak now, then Ebola has potential to become a scourge like HIV or polio that we will end up fighting, all of us, for decades.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: For decades.
Let's discuss what he just said with his deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, who is joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Marie, thanks very much for coming in.
We're being criticized, the news media, for getting overly alarmist about what's going on with Ebola. But when the secretary says, this could be a scourge like HIV or polio that we could end up fighting, all of us, for decades, is he going too far in raising this alarm bell?
MARIE HARF, SPOKESWOMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: Not at all. He was briefing the ambassadors from around the world at the State Department on the Ebola crisis.
What he went on to say our response has to be driven by the science, not fear, but the hard facts here about how you can contain this disease. And he was updating them on our efforts, but also calling on countries around the world to do more.
We need other countries to stand up, to give resources, to give doctors and nurses, to send people to help, again, based on the science of how we contain this and not based on fear or any misinformation.
BLITZER: The United States is sending up to 4,000 U.S. troops over there. I don't see a whole lot of other countries jumping in and getting really involved, as he appealed to them to do, so far, right?
We have been calling on countries. He's made dozens of phone calls, raised this in every bilateral meeting he has almost, asking other countries to send what resources they have. Maybe that's money. We have a huge U.N. appeal for money here. We haven't raised very much of it. Put more money into this. Give resources if you have them.
There are ways we can contain this disease in West Africa. That's really the way our experts have said the best way we can fight it. And we need more people to help.
BLITZER: There's a Carnival cruise ship now in the Caribbean. It asked to make a stop in Belize to drop off one hospital worker from Dallas so this person could be sent back to the United States because this person was in contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died of Ebola.
Belize said, no, you can't drop off this passenger there. You deal with these foreign countries. What happened here? HARF: Well, again, as I said earlier today in the State
Department press briefing, we were disappointed by this. We think it could have been handled differently.
Decisions like this need to be based on information and science and not fear, even though we know this is a very serious disease, serious threat. The ship is on its way back to Galveston, Texas, right now. It's expected to dock on Sunday. Obviously, we will be giving any care to this individual that is needed, and we will keep having the conversation with countries if something like this arises again.
BLITZER: Belize said no. Mexico said no, too?
HARF: The Mexican government actually had indicated a willingness to. There was some discussion among local authorities and national authorities, but regardless, the ship is on its way back to the U.S.
And going forward, when cases like this arise, we will have discussions with these governments about what they can do, what we can do, really based again on facts here and how you contain this in safe way.
BLITZER: But I think it's fair to say that the State Department -- and you speak for the State Department -- is disappointed, not only in Belize, but also in Mexico?
HARF: I think when it comes to Belize, we made clear that this could have and should have been handled differently, in our view.
With Mexico, I think it's a little more complicated. They did indicate some willingness to let the ship dock there. What we're focused on now is going forward, not just any one case, but how we can all come together to really put the world's efforts behind fighting this.
BLITZER: What have you heard about the condition of this passenger?
HARF: Unfortunately, we can't share a lot at this point on this individual because of privacy considerations. I heard an earlier report. I know Carnival put out a statement.
But, again, we need to look at the facts and the information and not listen to some of the misinformation out there about people who may have come in contact with this person or fluids, as they said in this case.
BLITZER: See, when I heard that Belize wouldn't even let this one passenger drop off so the passenger could be flown back, I said Belize, the United States of America can't just ask Belize to do something, a favor for the United States, and Belize says no to the United States? That's pretty shocking.
HARF: Again, we think this could have been handled differently. We know there's a great deal of fear about this. We really do. And we know it's very serious. No one is trying to downplay that. But there are procedures that can be put into place to ensure the safe passage of people who may have come into contact who can ensure that there are procedures followed, so additional aren't put in contact.
BLITZER: What's the latest on a travel ban into the United States from people from West Africa?
HARF: It's not something we're considering right now, for a couple very good reasons.
The first thing is, if you cut off the legitimate ways for people to travel, then they will still travel. They will just do so illicitly, and so you can't track them. You can't monitor them.
BLITZER: Why not make it harder for them to come to the United States?
HARF: We have implemented certain procedures so you can screen people. If people come into an embassy looking for a visa and they're sick or they have come into contact with someone, we have procedures in place to note that and to prevent that.
But if you cut off ways for people to travel, then they will just travel illicitly and they will do so dangerously. You won't be able to track them and monitor them if they are sick and you can't contain this through a visa ban. You just can't. That's not the way to handle it. Obviously, I don't take any option off the table, but that's not what we're not considering right now.
BLITZER: You're not considering revoking visas that were granted to individuals from Liberia or Guinea, Sierra Leone? They may have visas to come to the United States. They can still come, is that what you're staying?
HARF: That's correct. If they show signs of illness when they get to the airport or when they get the United States, obviously they can be dealt with through the Department of Homeland Security or other ways. So there are ways to prevent people who are visibly sick from coming into the United States.
But, again, we are not considering that at this time. You cannot contain this disease by preventing people from traveling.
BLITZER: But Mr. Duncan showed no visible sign when he entered the United States.
HARF: Again, that's not how you contain this.
If you cut off the legitimate avenues for people to come into the United States, that just pushes them into the elicit arena, which really prevents us from being able to follow them and track them and if they are showing signs of illness just pushes it underground.
BLITZER: Marie Harf, thanks very much for coming in.
HARF: Thank you.
BLITZER: The deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, appreciate it.
Still ahead, we have much more on the breaking Ebola news. We will be joined once again by our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta and a panel of medical experts. And the president finally names what is being described as an Ebola czar. Did he cave into pressure and will it help to have one person coordinating the federal government's response?
BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news.
Urgent efforts under way right now to track down people who may have been exposed to U.S. Ebola patients, including 800 passengers who flew on a plane used by an infected nurse.
With two infected nurses now in isolation and dozens of health care workers being monitored, the Centers for Disease Control plans to issue new guidelines for protective equipment.
Let's discuss what is going on.
Joining us once again, our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Gavin Macgregor-Skinner. He's an expert on public health preparedness at Penn State university. And with me here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Erin Tolbert, an emergency room nurse practitioner.
Thanks to all of you for joining us.
Sanjay, I'm curious. The -- one of the nurses who is there in the hospital, Nina Pham, her condition went from good when she was in Dallas to now being fair. She's at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. What does that tell you?
GUPTA: I don't know that I would read too much of that right now.
When a patient is transferred from one hospital to another, sometimes the condition is slightly downgraded just because the new hospital wants to create these assessments themselves. And it requires them evaluating her themselves, maybe looking at some of the lab values, all sorts of different things.
Having said that, there are two other important pieces of information. She did get off the plane. And we saw her, Wolf, late last night. I was watching as she walked to the ambulance. That's obviously a good sign. Keep that in mind. But also she is starting to enter now what would be considered the more concerning phase of the disease.
So she has Ebola. There are different phases of the disease. We know she is going to be getting into one of the more serious phases and so she will obviously be monitored and cared for very, very closely.
BLITZER: In other words, what you're saying, Sanjay, is that she's going to get worse before she gets better, is that what you're saying?
GUPTA: I think so. There's -- no two patients are exactly the same. Someone's course of their illness as we call it can vary. But if you look at how patients sort of behave, what their conditions are throughout the time of their disease, this is going to be one of the more serious times before she gets better, Wolf.
BLITZER: Gavin, let's talk a little bit about what's going on. These nurses, they contracted Ebola from Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. But his girlfriend, others who were in the apartment where he was staying in Dallas, none of them so far, we're grateful for this, have become symptomatic.
Here's the question. Is there a reason why some people contract Ebola and others don't?
DR. GAVIN MACGREGOR-SKINNER, PENN STATE UNIVERSITY: Wolf, we have got to go back to Ebola 101.
We know that this virus has to come through the eyes, the nose or the mouth. Again, the family may not have had contact with the -- they may have had contact with the virus on the skin. As long as there wasn't an open wound there, they may not have moved their hands to their face at any time while they were in contact with Mr. Duncan.
This is information we don't have, but information we could get from them by sitting down and assessing them and talking to them and discussing what the activities they were doing while Mr. Duncan was showing those symptoms in the apartment.
BLITZER: Is it troubling to you, Erin, and you're a nurse practitioner, work in emergency room, that we still don't know exactly how these two nurse contracted Ebola?
ERIN TOLBERT, EMERGENCY ROOM NURSE PRACTITIONER: Somewhat.
But you can see how they would have gotten it. We know they weren't wearing the proper protective equipment. For example, their necks were exposed. We have seen how this protective equipment is very difficult to take off if you don't do the steps properly. You can expose yourself. Dr. Gupta has a video online even of himself wearing it.
And he touched his neck and his forearm just in taking it off. To me, that really signals that this is probably how they contracted it. There's been talk that the virus could replicate. We haven't seen that in practice yet. So I think it's probably safe to assume that they did get it from not wearing the proper equipment.
BLITZER: Sanjay, let me just follow up on that. If you touch your neck, that's enough to get Ebola?
GUPTA: It can be.
If you have the Ebola virus and somebody's infected bodily fluids on your glove, for example, if you have been caring for the patient, either you inadvertently touch your neck or some of the bodily fluid as you're caring for the patient gets on your exposed skin, that can be enough.
That's what we have been talking about in terms of something being highly infectious vs. being highly contagious. It's not highly contagious, it's not airborne, but it can be highly infectious, meaning just a small amount of the infected bodily fluids can cause an infection in somebody else.
BLITZER: Are you still concerned, are you concerned, Gavin, that this Ebola virus could mutate and could evolve and become airborne, if you will?
MACGREGOR-SKINNER: What I'm concerned about at the moment is the amount of virus, the amount of virus load in West Africa.
We really have to intensify our efforts in West Africa. The more this virus circulates in West Africa, Wolf, the greater chance it has of mutating. What gives me some confidence, though, we have many experts throughout the world now that are studying this virus on a daily basis, looking at its genomic sequence, to see whether there's any change in the virus to lead to possibly becoming aerosolization, making it -- becoming aerosol.
And that's really important we say on top of that research, but we also intensify the efforts in West Africa.
BLITZER: As you know, Erin, there is a lot of people saying there has to be better protection and better training. Doctors, nurses, other health care professionals, they really have to learn a lot right now.
Here's the question to you. You work in an emergency room. Are people ready to deal with this crisis right now?
TOLBERT: Not yet.
Unfortunately so, these things take a long time to put into practice. There are so many logistics that go into caring for a patient. What do you do with the waste? Which room are you going to isolate the patient in?
So, right now, what we're seeing is, hospitals are starting to have administrative meetings. They're looking at this closely. They're getting feedback from nurses. In my hospital, for example, they were saying, all right, everyone, you know, you need to double- glove if you have a patient who seems like they could have Ebola.
And the nurse waved her hands and said, "Have you ever tried to double glove the gloves that we currently have in the emergency department? It doesn't really work really well. We're going to need to change the brand that we order." So these small little details are being worked out, progress is being made, but really working through the situation takes a lot of time.
BLITZER: Good luck to you. Good luck to all your fellow nurse practitioners. Good luck to all the healthcare professionals who are dealing with this crisis right now. Erin Tolbert, appreciate it very much.
Sanjay, You'll be with us. Don't go too far away.
Gavin MacGregor-Skinner, thanks to you, as well.
Just ahead, more than two weeks after the first Ebola case was diagnosed in the United States, the White House now names an Ebola czar. But without any medical experience, is he the right man for the job?
While the world is focused on the fight against ISIS, a dangerous threat is emerging elsewhere in the Middle East. We have new details.
BLITZER: Over two weeks after the first Ebola case was diagnosed in the United States, the White House now has a point person for the outbreak. Ron Klain will join the administration as the so-called Ebola czar. The move comes as critics were growing more and more vocal about the government's response.
Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us now. He's got more.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: White House officials have been brushing off calls for an Ebola czar last night, but today, the president picked Ron Klain as the Ebola response coordinator. He's well known in political circles in Washington. The former chief of staff to both vice presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore. Klain is best known for his role in the 2000 election recount that was later turned into a movie.
But the White House acknowledged he's more of a spin doctor than an actual doctor.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: What does Ron Klain know about Ebola?
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What we were looking for is not an Ebola expert but rather an implementation expert. And that's exactly what Ron Klain is. He is somebody who has extensive experience in the federal government. He's somebody that has extensive management experience when it comes to the private sector.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: But Ron Klain will still have to answer to two top White House officials, national security advisor Susan Rice and counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco. You'll recall Monaco was the Ebola point person, somebody the White House said could handle both Ebola and counterterrorism earlier this week. That changed in the last 48 hours.
As for Ron Klain, he'll be on the job as soon as next week, I'm told. And the White House expects him to be in that role for the next five to six months.
But one other potential policy change to note, Wolf, and that is the White House now says it is open to a travel ban on flights from West Africa. Press Secretary Josh Earnest said today that that option is actually on the table.
BLITZER: We just heard from Marie Harf, though, that that option is not necessarily being considered right now. So it sounds like they're sending out different messages. Is that what's going on?
ACOSTA: I think so, Wolf. We went back and forth with Josh Earnest all week about this. And I think they're trying to do it on one hand, and on the other hand, with this issue, they're trying to say that that is not the preferred option, that they think the current screening measures that are in place are a much better route to take than to go for a full travel ban.
But we might end up with is something in the middle, Wolf. They may try to do something along the lines of various travel restrictions on people coming in from that part of the -- that part of the world.
And keep in mind, Wolf, the pressure is building. And you have Senate candidates like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Michelle Nunn down in Georgia, saying they would like to see this travel ban. It might force the White House's hand, the president's hand to do something.
BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta at the White House.
Let's dig deeper right now. Joining us, our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, and our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is still with us.
Sanjay, what can this to-called Ebola czar, Ron Klain -- he's a talented political insider, as we all know -- what can he do, really, that's not already being done?
GUPTA: Well, you know, overseeing some of these things that you're just talking to Jim about. I mean, besides the medical and science part of this, the issue of travel is obviously a big issue. The issue -- the interface with the military. There could be a few thousand troops now going to West Africa, and the travel ban and all that could affect that, as well. The whole notion of aid getting into West Africa. Hospital preparedness. All of these things.
There's so many different concentric circles now around Ebola beyond just the science of the virus itself, how it's transmitted and the medical treatment of it. So I think having one person who can oversee all those things, I think there's some real value in it.
BLITZER: Jeffrey, you know Ron Klain. Is he qualified for this huge new assignment?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, he's certainly not a scientist, but he's someone who's really devoted the bulk of his career to trying to make government work.
When he worked for Vice President Biden, something I know he spent a great deal of time on was the implementation of the American Recovery Act, the stimulus program. That was a real Biden project. And that involved lots of different cabinet departments.
And this certainly is a project that cuts across homeland security, health and human services, Centers for Disease Control. And they have to all be working in the same direction. His job is going to make sure -- to make sure not only that they are working in the same direction but they sound like they're working in the same direction. And that's a big assignment.
BLITZER: Sanjay, you were a White House fellow. And you understand this issue better than anyone I know. Should someone with a real medical background, though, have been named to put this whole team together?
GUPTA: You know, it's funny. I got a lot of e-mails today from some of my medical colleagues, senior people within the organized medicine world sort of bemoaning the fact that this was not a medical person.
I actually don't know that it needs to be a medical person, because you know, all these various departments, that part of the job, coordinating that response from homeland security, transportation, defense, I don't know that a medical person would be able to do that sort of stuff. They may not have the skill set to do that. So as long as people like Dr. Tom Frieden and Dr. Anthony Fauci who have been sort of the medical faces of this for the government are engaged by Ron Klain. I don't know that Ron's position needs to be a medical person.
BLITZER: And we know that one issue hovering over all of this, there is no surgeon general in the United States right now. There's an acting surgeon general, but the nominee that the president put forward almost a year ago still had not been confirmed by the United States Senate. That's potentially a problem, the surgeon general being the nation's doctor, if you will. That's another issue that we'll discuss on another occasion.
Jeffrey, thanks very much. Sanjay, thanks to you, as well.
Just ahead, we have some news we're following: chaos in the streets of an important American ally. Where al Qaeda is now fighting for control. There's a troubling new report on the terror threat. Stand by.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: As the United States steps up airstrikes on ISIS
targets in Syria and Iraq, violent chaos in another Middle East nation could mean a new al Qaeda threat to the United States. And that has now led President Obama to place an urgent phone call to his counterpart in Yemen.
Let's go live to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. She's working this story for us.
What are you learning, Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there was very good reason for President Obama to check in on Yemen today. ISIS, Iraq, Syria, they are huge problems, but the chaos in Yemen poses a direct threat to the United States.
STARR (voice-over): In Yemen's capital, dozens killed and injured in a suicide blast. Al Qaeda believed to be behind it. The victim, Houthi protesters, a Shia rebel group that has taken over parts of the capital and other key areas of the country.
CNN has learned the U.S. intelligence community is now urgently worried Yemen's fragile government may even lose control of the capital, Sana'a and that raises critical concerns that Yemen's al Qaeda branch could move in and succeed with its long-standing threat to attack the United States.
Al Qaeda operatives already stepping up attacks inside Yemen.
SETH JONES, RAND CORPORATION: The Yemen government, just to survive, has to focus on the Houthi threat right now. So, in other words, al Qaeda, the one organization that we're seeing or one organization that we're seeing that is most directly plotting against the U.S. homeland has now taken a back seat in a war of survival for the Yemen government.
STARR: It's exactly what Washington doesn't want, Yemen is now so precarious, just offshore in the Red Sea, the U.S. is keeping an amphibious warship with helicopters and a marine contingent on board, ready to move in and evacuate Americans if needed.
Just last month, President Obama touted Yemen as a success in fighting al Qaeda.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen.
STARR: While the U.S. continues the occasional drone strike against al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, this is the group that gathered more than 100 operatives in the open earlier this year. On Tuesday, the State Department offered $45 million in rewards for information on key members who remain at large, including Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader. JONES: President Obama's comment that this organization has
largely been defeated is simply not true. They have survived. They have continued to present a threat.
STARR: And, of course, it is al Qaeda in Yemen. Al Qaeda in Yemen that has developed that crucial bomb-making technology that the U.S. worries could potentially bypass airport screening procedures, a very direct threat to the United States -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula basically the same thing. Barbara, thank you very, very much.
Let's dig deeper right now on this new terror threat. Joining us, Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst, and former CIA operative Phil Mudd, a CNN counterterrorism analyst.
General Hurtling, the president of the United States, he called the Yemeni president today, expressing his continued support for the Yemeni government. Was this call expected?
What is your analysis?
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think it's a continual over-watch of, as you said, Wolf, the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. All across the Horn of Africa, all across the Maghreb, there are different organizations like this that are continuing to conduct uprisings. And I think the threats from the entire area are continuing to be monitored.
And I think Phil would have more view of that based on his work on that area.
MATTHEWS: Well, let's ask Phil.
What do you think? Do these al Qaeda and their affiliates basically have free reign right now in Yemen and maybe in Libya, as well?
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Not yet. But watch this space.
Let me give you a simple calculus, Wolf, that is when local insurgents, like what we see in Yemen, in Libya, when they have to focus on fighting the local army and security services, they send to spend less time focusing on staging attacks on New York and Washington.
What we've had recently is a Yemeni president who's been pretty good about working with us against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But as Barbara just reported, he's now diverted to focus on other targets, that is rebels up north.
If al Qaeda takes over in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, the risk is they'll spend less time about fighting the Yemen army and shift back to think about how they strike the United States.
BLITZER: Yemen is a real source of huge concerns, General Hurtling. Libya, this is a place where the U.S., some allies, they launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, they got rid of Gadhafi, this was not supposed to be a place where al Qaeda-related terrorists now basically control virtually the whole place.
HERTLING: Well, I think what you see is AfriCom, in conjunction with Central Command, CentCom, had been watching this area for a very long time, Wolf, (AUDIO GAP) before I retired out of Europe. This was an intelligent focus for all of the military and intelligence operations, the entire Maghreb, the northern part of Africa.
I think we have been following this very closely. We have been distracting by events in Iraq and Syria, as well as most recently the Ebola virus and other places in Africa. But this is a focus of attention and it has been for many years.
BLITZER: As you know, Phil, CNN has been reporting that U.S. military now is getting some specific intelligence from Syrian Kurds on the ground in and around their besieged city of Kobani for better U.S.-led airstrikes. Is this a success, a turning point, or is way too early to come to any such conclusion?
MUDD: It's not a turning point yet, and that is because you've got to look at a simple principle in the intelligence business, which is where I came from. You saw reports in the last 24 hours or so that Turkey might allow drones out of Turkish bases into Syria. The reason that's important is if you are looking at the U.S. getting intelligence from rebels in Syria, you need what' called in my old business "validation". Somebody walks into an office and says, here's where ISIL is, here's where ISIS is, on this mountain. You've got to get other intelligence sources to validate that target because human memories are faulty.
So, that drone agreement with Turkey would allow you when you are getting this human source information from Syrian Kurds to fly over and see whether what they are telling you is true and potentially stage airstrikes against the target. But going without human intelligence alone is something I'd be cautious about.
BLITZER: All right. Philip Mudd, thanks very much. General Hertling, thanks to you as well. We'll watch this story.
Just ahead, which more of the breaking news coverage on the fight against Ebola.
Plus, the son of the vice president kicked out of the U.S. Navy. Stand by. We have the surprising details.
BLITZER: We're learning new details about the failed drug test that led to the Vice President Joe Biden's younger son being kicked out of the United States Navy.
Let's bring our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. She's got the details -- Suzanne.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's kind of a sad story. I mean, the dismissal happened in February. But it was first reported yesterday by "The Wall Street".
Well, since then, I've been talking with sources familiar with Biden's case who insist that the vice president's son was treated like other similar applicants, the way he was commissioned as well discharged.
MALVEAUX (voice-over): Forty-four-year-old Hunter Biden, Vice President Joe Biden's youngest son, was discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine. Hunter was commissioned in May 2013 and assigned a coveted position as, a public affairs officer in Norfolk, Virginia. But U.S. officials confirmed, the very next month, after reporting to his unit, Biden was given a routine drug test which he failed.
Biden's brief military career ended with this statement, "It was the honor of my life to serve in the U.S. Navy and I deeply regret and embarrassed that my actions led to my administrative discharge."
Hunter Biden comes from a proud military family. His older brother Beau is a major in the Delaware Army National Guard and served a year in Iraq.
Military service has been a big part of the Biden family public platform.
JILL BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN'S WIFE: I'm looking forward to stand by our son Hunter when he is commissioned as an ensign into the United States Navy. He follows in the footsteps of his two grandfathers who have also served in the Navy.
MALVEAUX: A source familiar with Biden's case confirms Biden received two waivers to join a special Navy reserve program. Because of his age, the cut-off is 42. But he was 43 when he applied. The source said his strong academic record pushed him through.
The vice president joked about his son's timing, unknowingly, just a month before Hunter was discharged.
JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a lot of bad judgment in my family. My son, who is over 40, has joined the United States Navy. He's about to be sworn in as an officer, Hunter Biden.
MALVEAUX: The source says Hunter was granted a second waiver for a drug related incident that took place in the late '80s, when Hunter was a teen. The source saying it's not uncommon because the incident happened so long ago.
Hunter Biden, the lesser known of the vice president's two sons is a married father of three, a managing partner of an investment firm, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Earlier in his career, he worked as a lawyer, lobbyist and policymaker under President Clinton before joining his father on the campaign trail in 2008.
MALVEAUX: And sources familiar with Biden's case tell me that the Navy never contacted the vice president's office about the discharge because like handling 44-year-old Navy reservists, they wouldn't call their mother or their father to tell them that they were kicked. It would be a private matter, up to the individual. The vice president's office also sees this as a private matter and they're not commenting, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Suzanne Malveaux, thanks very much for that report. Suzanne Malveaux reporting.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Have a great weekend.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.