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THE SITUATION ROOM
Congress Deadlocked, DHS Funding Cutoff Tonight
Aired February 27, 2015 - 17:00 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, mixed signals. The United States vowing to track down a top ISIS killer, but Britain tracked him for years, a suspected Jihadi sympathizer, and even detained him. New information on how the man known as Jihadi John managed to escape.
Final hours. Lawmakers holding the homeland security budget hostage right now. Will they act to fund the people who keep this country safe, or will they face a shutdown?
And mall threats. The attorney general of the United States calls on shopping center operators to step up their own security efforts following chilling statements by terrorists.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following two breaking stories right now. The clock is clearly ticking down toward a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security as Congress battles over funding. This showdown happening at a critical time.
The United States and Britain are vowing to hunt down the cold-blooded ISIS killer known as Jihadi John, the Londoner who has brutally slaughtered western hostages on camera. But while the world now knows his true identity, Mohammed Emwazi was known to British security services for years. And he was detained more than once.
So how did he escape that scrutiny and become a key figure in the ISIS reign of terror? And how will the Department of Homeland Security protect Americans from a terror threat which is growing daily if Congress cannot find a way to pay those workers whose job is supposed to keep all of us safe?
Looks like Republicans are moments away from failing to break the deadlock over funding the Department of Homeland Security. House Democrats, joined by 15 Republicans, voted to block an effort to keep the money flowing for another three weeks.
Let's go immediately to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. She's up on Capitol Hill.
Dana, the clock clearly ticking, but it looks like this stalemate continues.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And what's going on as we speak on the House floor is a lot of arm twisting and pretty much panic. The Republican leaders are scrambling to try to find now just a few more votes, but critical votes to keep the Department of Homeland Security running just for three weeks.
What's been going on is Democrats had already said all day long they were going to vote no in protest, because they don't like the concept of only kicking the can down the road and not fully funding the department. They don't like the short-term bill.
But now we're in the position of Democrats potentially getting blamed for shutting down the department, because they don't have the votes to at least do this stopgap measure. So that's why this vote is still open.
On the House floor, just a few feet from where I am right now, a lot of scrambling, not just by House Republicans but by Democrats trying to figure out if they want to change their votes, enough of them, to make sure that this passes so that they don't have the tables turned on them and get blamed for a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security.
BLITZER: It looks like right now, no time left. Our viewers can see it on the screen. Nays, it looks like 222; 218 is the majority. So if no one changes -- they could still change their votes, I take it, but if no one changes their votes, Dana, this is going to fail.
BASH: That's correct. It has been out of vote, so to speak, out of time for quite some time. And that's why you just saw the House speaker walk behind me as we were talking. He went from his office to the House floor, so it's going to be some -- some high-profile arm twisting going on right now.
I think he's obviously -- he's going to the floor to see what he can do. But you're exactly right. This is -- should have been over a while ago, but they're keeping it open in order to find those few more votes they need to pass this. So they're not calling it failed yet. They're hoping that they can find a way to still make this work.
BLITZER: What happens if it stays like this and it fails? What's next?
BASH: If it fails, there is a big question mark. And honestly, I don't think that there is a Plan B right now, because the Republicans are hoping that this will just keep them over for three weeks and that they can have a discussion about the whole reason why we're here in the first place, which is Republicans do not like the idea of what the Senate passed earlier today, in a bipartisan way, which is a clean bill fully funding the Department of Homeland Security through the end of the year.
Republicans are still trying one last time to find a way to include in that a rider that blocks the president's immigration plan. They haven't been able to do that in the Senate. There just aren't the votes in the Senate for that. But they have been trying to at least make a statement by telling conservatives they're going to try one more time in a couple of weeks. But so far, that tactic isn't working. And they're trying to figure out a Plan B. There really wasn't one.
BLITZER: So so far, it looks like this has failed, unless some people change their minds in some relatively big numbers. Stand by for a moment now. I want to go to Michelle Kosinski, our White House correspondent.
All right, Michelle. Let's talk a little bit about what the president is trying to do now to make sure the Department of Homeland Security after midnight tonight still has money to protect the borders, to protect national security, to protect airports, people who are flying, leaving the United States, staying in the United States. What's the president doing?
KOSINSKI: Exactly. Yes, well, we haven't heard from the president directly at this 11th hour, even though there have been plenty of questions day to day. What is the president doing. How is he going to engage? Is he going to sit down with any of these leaders directly or try to persuade some behind the scenes?
But the answer from the White House has been pretty consistent that the president has been working on this throughout, that basically the president did his job and that Congress did not.
The language from the White House is getting more and more tough day to day, too. Just today, saying that Congress, this is an abject failure of the leadership. Yesterday saying it's as if Congress is falling down on the job.
In fact, today the White House referred to an op-ed piece that John Boehner had done right after the midterms, saying now let's see Congress go to work. Let's see it actually working. So the White House almost ridiculing that today in the briefing.
We did see a tweet from the White House this afternoon, saying, "We can't govern from crisis to crisis. Add your name if you support a long-term plan to fund DHS."
So what the White House has been hammering home is that they did -- it did -- it's done its work. They want a long-term plan to fund DHS, and they say what's interesting is that, you know, the hard work has already been done, setting the level of funding. They're saying this isn't even a partisan dispute anymore. It's a party dispute, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. So stand by for a moment, Michelle.
I want to go back to Dana Bash up on Capitol Hill. And Dana, it's a little complicated what's going right now, but we know the stakes are enormous as far as homeland security here in the United States is concerned right now. The stakes are really, really critical.
So let's talk a little bit what has happened. There has been this debate that's been going back and forth. Everybody says they want to fund the Department of Homeland Security, but the Republicans didn't want to fund the president's executive action that would go ahead and take unilateral steps at easing illegal immigrants' opportunities to remain in the United States. In the end, the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader,
in the end he decided to put forward language that passed decisively, overwhelmingly today, to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded through the end of the fiscal year, meaning until the end of September. That passed decisively.
The Democrats were on board; the Republicans were on board. There was no mention of any immigration cutoff of spending, anything along those lines. Separate legislation was stalled on that.
That legislation, I take it, now has gone over to the House of Representatives, but the House has decided they wanted to pass simply a three-week extension, which the Democrats didn't want. They just thought that was kicking the can down the road.
BLITZER: And a lot of Republicans didn't want it, because it didn't have anything to do with cutting off spending for immigration reform.
BLITZER: As a result, we see what's up on the screen right now: 222 nays. You need 218. That's the majority that blocked this three-week -- what's called this continuing resolution during which the speaker of the House, John Boehner, wanted in effect, the negotiations to be able to continue to have the House/Senate conference committee go ahead, to see if they could come up with some sort of plan to keep the Department of Homeland Security working, functioning with full funding. But that is now very much up in the air, and it sets the prospects for a cutoff of funding at midnight tonight.
BASH: That's right. Both sides are playing hardball. And you just described the mechanics of what they're doing. Why they're doing it is this. The Republicans in the House feel that they still have one last gasp to try to push for some compromise that will at least mitigate what the president is able to do on his immigration plan, and use their power of the purse, which this is, in order to force that to happen.
Democrats are playing hardball by saying no, we're not -- you look at the screen right now, 172 Democrats voted against funding the Department of Homeland Security. They didn't do it because they don't want to fund the department. They did it because they don't want to just do it temporarily for three weeks. They're saying, "If you want to fund it, let's fund it for real." And we're not going to play -- I mean, you've heard Democrats all day on the House floor, saying stop playing games, this is amateur hour, all kinds of ways that they're pushing their fellow Democrats not to go along with this.
So I said both sides -- both sides are playing hardball. The question is which side is going to give in, and it looks like -- I mean, the numbers haven't moved now in at least ten minutes.
So what we initially thought going into this vote, frankly, is that once we got to this point where it was just a few votes needed from the Democrats for this to pass, that they would give up their protests and vote yes in order to just allow this to go through. That is not happening right now. The Democrats are really holding firm.
So now it's up to Republicans, and I can tell you, I'm just a few feet off the House floor. Deirdre Walsh, our House reporter, is around the corner. She's kind of got a closer vantage point to members of Congress. And she's talking to Republicans and Democrats, and it's pretty clear, as I said earlier, they don't have a Plan B. They're trying to figure out what to do next.
BLITZER: Dana, a lot of our viewers are looking at that -- that image coming from the floor of the House of Representatives. They see 204 yea, 222 nay. They see seven members of the House not voting. But they also see time remaining, 000. That's been about 10 or 15 minutes.
BLITZER: Zero time remaining.
Here's a couple questions. How long can they keep this vote open, keep the clock at 000 and potentially give members a chance to change their minds, change their votes?
BASH: Indefinitely. There have been times late at night votes during back when Tom DeLay was the House majority whip, they held it open for hours to try to work over members to change votes. The House Republicans or whomever is in charge, at this point House Republicans, they're in charge of the House, and they control the answer to that question. They're going to probably keep it open until they think it's absolutely pointless that they will not win this.
So it could take quite a long time for them to come to that conclusion. We just don't know.
BLITZER: And let's go back to Michelle Kosinski at the White House.
Michelle, let's say the speaker of the House, John Boehner, he convinces a bunch of Republicans to change their votes. They get 218 that they need to pass this three-week extension allowing the funding to go forward for an additional three weeks, during which there will be more negotiations between the House and the Senate, presumably the president himself.
Has the White House indicated whether the president would sign a three-week so-called continuing resolution to allow the Department of Homeland Security to continue paying workers hundreds of thousands of workers, has the White House said whether the president would sign that into law?
KOSINSKI Yes, they did address that today, saying yes, I mean, basically as a last resort, as painful as this is, for them to do yet another battle, which is what this is setting up for. But a very short-term bill. The White House said that if that's the only choice in order to keep the government shutting down, then yes, the president would sign that. But they've been hesitating to even answer that question for days. I
mean, first waiting to see whether they would even be able to do a clean bill. The president saying for sure he would veto a bill that would attach itself to the immigration executive action.
But at this point it looks like the White House would go along with pretty much anything to keep that vital part of the government functioning, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Michelle, stand by.
Gloria Borger is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM. Gloria, why wouldn't the speaker of the House do what the majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, did and allow the funding to go forward throughout the rest of this fiscal year until the end of September, since all that immigration stuff is on hold anyhow, because a Texas judge, a federal judge in Texas, says it's unconstitutional; the president didn't have the authority to do it. It's not being implemented right now. Why wouldn't the speaker go ahead and do what the Republican leadership in the Senate did?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Because -- because he doesn't have control over his caucus.
BLITZER: He's the speaker of the House.
BORGER: It doesn't matter anymore, Wolf. You know, these aren't -- it's not like the days of Newt Gingrich when he brought in the majority of the House...
BLITZER: But if he would have brought that to the floor -- and I'm going to bring Dana into this conversation.
Dana, hypothetically, if John Boehner would have agreed with Mitch McConnell and allowed the Senate version to pass, keeping the funding going through the end of September, the end of the fiscal year, all the Democrats in the House would have voted for it, and a whole bunch of Republicans would have voted for it, as well. Here's the question. Would they have reached the magic number of 218?
BASH: Yes. Likely.
BASH: Likely they would have. You know, they could have been in the same position that they're in right now. There is as much pressure -- they're gaveling. Excuse me for one sec. Let's listen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On this vote, the yeas are 203. The nays are 224. The joint resolution is not passed. Without objection, a motion to reconsider is laid on the table. For what purpose does the -- to be in order?
BASH: Wow -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right. All right, Dana, you heard the official -- the
official announcement. It failed, 224-203. So here's the question. Where do we go from here?
BASH: We don't know. We just heard Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, just say on the House floor that they're going to wait for other votes.
What Democrats are hoping in having this mass protest and voting against this is that they are going to force Republicans to take up the fully funded bill. They're going to force Republicans to take up the bill that the Senate passed. They're playing hardball or as a Democrat who is on the House floor who just texted me, saying, "We're playing a high-stakes game of chicken. They're admitting it. And it is a high-stakes game. I will tell you politically, though, the risk that Democrats are about to run is that it is going to be a lot easier for Republicans to point fingers at them and say, "You contributed to the shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security that you said we shouldn't do, because you voted against keeping it open."
BLITZER: Dana, looks like members are leaving the floor. They're moving onto other business right now. I don't know what other business they have. What could be more important than funding the Department of Homeland Security and protecting all Americans right now?
But clearly, they've got a major problem. They've got to figure out what to do; and the clock, six hours, 44 minutes, is ticking. So I assume they're going to go behind closed doors, the speaker, the majority leader, and they're going to come up with some sort of strategy what to do the next few hours, right?
BASH: That's right. The speaker has already walked by me from the House floor back to his office. I expect other members of his leadership to walk -- walk there, too, as they try to figure out a Plan B which, as I said, they simply didn't have.
The other thing I want to point out about the vote is that it wasn't just Democrats opposing it. The Republicans have such a huge majority that they could have passed this with no Democrats. About 50 Republicans, it looks like, also voted no. And the reason why they voted no is because they won't even vote for a short-term spending bill to keep the government or the department running, rather, without also protesting the president's immigration plan.
So you have the push and the pull that John Boehner has been seeing and feeling on so many issues for so many years continuing, even on an issue like this, which everybody has been saying is about the safety of the American people.
BLITZER: Yes, it doesn't get much more important than this. All right, Dana, if you could grab one of the leaders, typically one of the Republican leaders walking by you, go ahead and grab him. Get a hand-held mic ready to go. I want to bring in Gloria for a moment.
Gloria, this is a huge, huge embarrassment for the speaker of the House, John Boehner. He puts forward a piece of legislation to keep it funded for three weeks. He fails.
BORGER: Which he thought, by the way, which he presented to his caucus last night, which he thought was a compromise that conservatives would buy onto.
I think now, though, Wolf, both sides are playing a very, very risky and dangerous game here. The American public believes the Department of Homeland Security should be open. That's without debate.
Now, each side has backed into a corner. You saw Democrats voting against this, because they don't want a short-term measure. But when you step back from it, the American public is going to look at this and, at this point, by -- with a bunch of Democrats voting no, they've given the Republicans the opportunity to say, "Well, you were responsible for shutting down the Department of Homeland Security," just as much as the Democrats are now saying to the Republicans.
So the public, while the majority of the public in our poll a week or so ago said that they would have blamed the Republicans over President Obama, I think now the Democrats have put themselves a little bit at risk here, because so many of them voted against this to push the Republicans in a corner.
BLITZER: Dana, I understand you've got Congressman Steve Israel, one of the Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives. Ask him how he feels about the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could be shut down, at least partially, at midnight tonight, in part because almost all of the Democrats voting at least to keep the funding going for another three weeks, the Democrats voted against that.
BASH: That's right. That's precisely why I asked the congressman to come over.
Thank you very much. And this is what I've been saying to Wolf, that you run a risk as a Democrat, and all of the Democrats who voted against the short-term bill, of being blamed for shutting down the Department of Homeland Security. I know that you're trying to make a point, but at a certain point, don't you also have to keep the department running?
REP. STEVE ISRAEL (D), NEW YORK: Well, we're not trying to make a point. We're trying to get one full year of funding for the Department of Homeland Security. We cannot budget to protect Americans from terrorists in three-week intervals.
We told the Republicans every single Democrat will vote for a one-year funding bill. Just bring it to the floor. It's not too late. They can bring that to the floor literally in the next few minutes. They will have every single Democratic vote. The American people can know that we have a homeland security budget that's not political, that's clean, and that allows for planning for the next year.
BASH: It's a high-stakes game of chicken that you're playing here.
ISRAEL: You know what? It is a game, but it's a game that the Republicans have played. If it weren't for their obsession with the presidential executive order on immigration, this bill would have passed. This is the last bill that should be subject to partisanship.
They have insisted on trying to nullify an executive order on immigration, because they have a disagreement with the president on that. They're entitled to the disagreements. They're not entitled to play games with homeland security.
I don't mind them being dumb. I mind them being dangerously dumb.
BASH: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
And Wolf, as we finish talking, I'm going to try to get a Republican. I can tell you that Republican staffers and others have been walking by here, going to John Boehner's office, trying to figure out what their next move is. They don't have one yet.
BLITZER: So it's still up in the air, very much up in the air.
Gloria, this is one of the reasons the American public, when they're asked their attitudes about the United States Congress, they've got -- it's usually within the margin of error whether anyone likes the United States Congress.
BORGER: I mean, I don't even think lots of members of the United States Congress like the Congress right now. I mean, it's down to, what, single-digit approval rating. And this is exactly why.
Dana was pointing out to Steve Israel, the Democrats have put themselves at some risk here. This is a game they're playing. They're trying to push the Republicans up against the wall, and we understand that. You know, the Republicans don't like the president's immigration plan -- executive order. They want to defund it. They don't want to spend any money on it. Everybody kind of understands that.
But at a certain point, Wolf, it's not a political game anymore. This is the Department of Homeland Security. This is important. And do they want to, by the way -- as a senior Democrat said to me yesterday, do Republicans want to close down the Department of Homeland Security -- and now I think that question has to be asked to the Democrats, as well, while the prime minister of Israel is here, who will be talking about Iran sanctions, who will be talking about Israel's security, American security? How embarrassing would that be for the United States?
I mean, that's a question I think that Republicans are probably talking about right now, as are Democrats. I would think the Democrats have made their political point. They played their political game. Maybe now they can convince, you know, a couple dozen members on both sides to do -- to do something to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
BLITZER: They have six hours and 38 minutes left before funding for the Department of Homeland Security runs out.
Michelle Kosinski, are you still with us over there at the White House?
BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about, I don't know if the president is getting ready to make a statement, if he's going to come into the briefing room, is he going to address this issue. Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, we of course, invited him to join us to hear what he has to say, because the ramifications of no funding will be enormous.
First of all, hundreds of thousands of employees potentially won't get paid. Many of them will have to work, but they're not going to get paid at least in the interim until they come up with some funding, but a whole bunch of others, thousands of other employees, many of them in critically important issues, they're going to be furloughed. They're not even going to go to work. They won't be paid, if you will.
So what's the attitude over there at the White House? Do you expect to hear from top officials, maybe even the president himself?
BLITZER: We do. And I'm surprised that we haven't heard at least from senior administration officials at this point reacting to what just happened. So surely we should get at least a statement. It's possible that the president will come out and speak. We don't know for sure that that will happen.
But I would say for the most part, the White House has let the Department of Homeland Security pretty much speak for itself on this issue. Even in terms of the importance and the risk of a shutdown.
For many days, it was asked directly of the White House what are the effects really going to be, especially since so many essential employees will still have to work? What are the effects? What are the risks here?
They would refer to DHS, outlining some of those. But in the past couple days, as this has really come down to wire, although we haven't, as I said, heard directly from the president. We've seen the White House develop a tougher and tougher tone on this, saying that yes, there is a risk, Wolf.
BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, because Steny Hoyer is joining us right now, the Democratic congressman from Maryland. He's the No. 2 Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.
Mr. Leader, thanks for joining us. What do you think? What's going to happen now?
REP. STENY HOYER (D), MARYLAND: Well, the majority leader just said that we're going to be having further votes, which is good. My advice to the majority leader and to the Republicans would be bring up a bipartisan bill. That's what the Senate ultimately did and funded the Department of Homeland Security until the end of the fiscal year.
That's what we ought to do. We can do that in a bipartisan fashion on behalf of the national security of this country, Wolf. And I am hopeful that that's what will happen.
BLITZER: Did Kevin -- have you and Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader in the House of representatives, have you had a conversation since the failure of this three-week extension?
HOYER: No, we have not at this point in time. And I don't know whether he's going to call me, but I would be glad to talk to him; and we will give bipartisan support. And the Democrats will vote overwhelmingly, almost unanimously, if not unanimously, for the Senate bill, which is HR-861 here. We have a House bill that mirrors the Senate bill. That can pass and will pass easily. And we ought to bring that to the floor.
BLITZER: Well, are you sure it would pass, the Senate version would pass? I know almost all of the Democrats would vote for it, but a lot of Republicans won't. Are you convinced you can get the 218 votes to pass what Mitch McConnell put forward in the Senate?
HOYER: Yes. Absolutely. We had 12 Republicans vote for the clean Senate bill effectively earlier today. So that gets you to 200, and I'm convinced that we can get on the other side. I think there are certainly 30 responsible Republicans who have spoken out very strongly that the rational thing to do, the common-sense thing to do, the right thing to do for the American people, is to pass the Senate bill.
We have a House version of that, so we passed the House version. The Senate did the Senate, so I am absolutely confident that they would pass that by unanimous consent.
BLITZER: Let's say he decides, the speaker of the House and the majority leader, John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy, decide they're not going to want to put the Senate-passed legislation up for an up or down vote in the House of Representatives. Isn't it better to at least get a three-week extension of the funding rather than see the Department of Homeland Security effectively shut down tonight?
HOYER: Nobody wants to see the Department of Homeland Security shut down. That is why Senator McConnell decided after four attempts to do what the Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to do today, Senator McConnell came to the common-sense conclusion that was not going to work, and the responsible thing to do was to fund, in a bipartisan way, homeland security for the balance of the year.
I would hope that Leader McCarthy would follow Leader McConnell's formula on getting us to where we need to be.
And then there's more than enough time to debate the grievances that the Republicans have with what they think is an action by the president of the United States that was not consistent with law. They can introduce legislation. They control the Senate and the House. They can pass legislation. So the issue here is we ought not to go home tonight. Let it be very clear, we ought not to go home tonight without funding the homeland security as the Senate has done earlier this week.
BLITZER: All right. So let me... HOYER: That shows the path, and they ought to take it.
BLITZER: So let me just be precise, Congressman. It's either the House passes or takes up the Senate version of the funding for the Department of Homeland Security, or it's shut down. There's no in between, no additional compromises that may be on the table, something that you'd be willing to extend maybe not for three weeks but maybe six weeks, nine weeks, something along those lines, so that maybe in the process, cooler heads might prevail?
HOYER: Well, in the process, what Senator McConnell was found was that, once they had the bills on the House floor that didn't pass, Senator McConnell did what was the rational reasonable common-sense thing to do. He went across the aisle and said, "Look, we have a disagreement. We're not going to solve it. Let's fund the Department of Homeland Security." And 68 senators voted to do that.
I'm sure that we would have a similar majority here to do the same thing. And that's what we ought to do. That's what I'm hopeful we will do. And that's what I certainly will support.
BLITZER: One final point, though. We heard from our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski. They said at the White House if the president had no other option but to sign into law the three-week extension, he reluctantly would have gone ahead and signed that, in order to avoid a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. Would he have been doing the right thing from your perspective?
HOYER: I think if the bill had gotten to him in that form, I think signing it would have been proper for him to do. What is improper is to pretend that the situation's going to be different 21 days from now or you mentioned six weeks or two months, that the situation will be different.
And the situation's not going to change. Harry Reid has made that very, very clear. So that we ought not to present the president with that option. What we ought to present the president with is the bill that the Senate passed with over two-thirds majority and that we can pass with a majority in this House.
BLITZER: Steny Hoyer, the Congressman, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, we'll stay in close touch with you. Obviously, the stakes here in the United States, as far as homeland security are concerned, enormous right now. Thanks very much for joining us.
HOYER: You bet. Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. There's huge breaking news emerging right now from Russia. Want to show you some images coming in from Russian television right now, the Russia state news agency announcing that a prominent Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, has been shot and killed by an unknown assailant. He was shot four times today in central Moscow.
Boris Nemtsov was Russia's deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s. He's been one of the current president, Vladimir Putin's, most vocal critics.
An unknown assailant has reportedly shot and killed the opposition leader in Russia.
We'll take a quick break. Much more on this critically important story and all the day's news right after this.
BLITZER: The breaking news coming in from Russia. Take a look at this. Russia state news agency just announcing that the prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has been shot and killed by an unknown assailant.
Nemtsov was Russia's deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s. He's been one of the current President Vladimir Putin's most vocal critics.
Let's go to Moscow. Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us on the phone.
What a shocking development, Fred. What are they saying over there?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Wolf. Very shocking developments here on a Friday night. And -- but we're trying to get additional information as to what exactly happened. There are several things that we do know and that apparently that the shooting happened very close to the Kremlin, very close to Vladimir Putin's office.
It appears to have happened on a bridge that leads towards St. Basil Cathedral which was really right in the center of Moscow. That's one of the things that makes all of this still very bizarre. Now that's actually an area where on a Friday evening there will be a lot going on. There's a lot of traffic, there's also normally actually a lot of people walking around there as well.
The latest that we have from the police is that apparently, he was shot by an unknown assailant, they say, four times. We do know that one of his close friends and another opposition figure has been at the scene since then, has seen and confirmed that the person who was killed is indeed Boris Nemtsov. At this point in time, police say that they are trying and looking for the assailant and at this point trying to chase them down.
What we have from them is that they say that there are several what they call operatives and investigators on the scene which seems to indicate that they are trying to look and see who might be behind all this.
But of course, this is a huge event here in Moscow and it also comes, Wolf, at a very pivotal time because it's only one day away from a very big opposition rally that was supposed to happen here, of course, criticizing Vladimir Putin, criticizing the crisis -- the economic crisis and of course, also the foreign policy crisis that this country is in at the moment. So this is certainly going to stir a lot of questioning, if you will, from the opposition here in this country -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, it's pretty shocking when you think about this, one of the main opposition leaders, Boris Nemtsov, shot and killed in Moscow. He gave an interview to CNN's Anthony Bourdain last year. And I want to just read a couple of sentences what he told Anthony Bourdain, speaking of Russia right now, this is the former deputy prime minister of Russia, he said this.
He said, "This is a country of corruption. And if you have business, you are in a very unsafe situation. Everybody can press you and destroy your business. That's it. This is the system." And he goes on to really, really criticize what's going on.
I sensed, I remember watching that interview and I have seen other interviews he's given. This is a guy who was worried about his own safety and obviously tonight, he has been shot and killed.
Tell us a little bit about Boris Nemtsov, Fred.
PLEITGEN: Yes, certainly. I mean, certainly he was very worried about his safety and certainly he was one of the most outspoken critics of the system here and of Vladimir Putin as well. He criticized the system very frequently, especially around the Sochi Olympics, criticized what he called was corruption there. He'd also been detained several times. He had been sentenced to jail several times.
The last time that he was in prison was in 2011. All of them for criticizing the Putin government. He was a prominent figure also at the many rallies -- opposition rallies here in Moscow and in other places criticizing the Putin government. So this is certainly someone who has had run-ins with the establishment here, with the people tjat he was criticizing and certainly someone who's paid a very heavy price.
He is also someone who is, you know, very prominent in Russian politics in general. You mentioned, Wolf, he was deputy prime minister in the Yeltsin administration in the late '90s and then of course was someone who many people believed might become prime minister himself afterwards. But then when Putin took power all of that obviously didn't happen and then he took on more of an opposition role at that point came into brushes.
Well, since 2007, he was arrested several times by authorities here, all of it because of opposition activity. Now the other thing that he did, he also founded an opposition movement, the Solidarity Movement as he called it, which frequently held rallies to frequently criticize Vladimir Putin and his government and generally the sort of power system here in Russia. So this was certainly someone who has had his brushes here with the law, with the establishment here.
Has paid a heavy price so far and was certainly someone as you said, Wolf, who feared for his safety, who also of course feared for his freedom as well. And again, this comes at a very pivotal time, right before that big opposition rally. It's going to be interesting to see what all of this is going to mean for the opposition movement here in Russia, especially at this very key time right now.
Eespecially as we are looking at this time right now, especially as we're looking at this time right now, with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, with the international sanctions against the Putin government, which in many ways, of course, Putin himself hunkering down, shooting against the West, and of course, at this time, not -- or wants less to have internal criticism.
There's been newspapers that have been shut down in Russia, there's been Web sites that have been shut down here in Russia in the past couple of months. So this certainly comes at a very, very important time and is sure to stir a big reaction from the opposition.
BLITZER: Yes. It comes at a critically important time.
Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister of Russia, shot and killed, assassinated tonight in Moscow.
Jim Sciutto is our chief national security correspondent.
Big picture right now, this is an awful time in U.S.-Russian relations, Russian relations with the European Union, with NATO and all of a sudden, this happens. Given what's going on in Ukraine right now, the U.S., the European fears that Russia is moving to go ahead and formally annex huge chunks of Ukraine, this is a very worrisome development.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. This is a dangerous time between Russia and its relations with the West, no question. We see that playing out in Ukraine. And a very dangerous time inside Russia, if you are in any way a member of the opposition or a critic of the government. And this has been going on for a number of years.
You see this with the treatment of a previous challenger to Putin, Khodorkovsky, put in prison for a number of years as you remember. I covered the case of Alexander Litvinienko who you remember was a critic of the regime, of the government there. And he was poisoned with polonium. He later died. This was someone who accused the Kremlin of having staged bombings that they blamed on Chechen terrorists.
You've had a number of cases like this. And it's interesting in Nemtsov's case. You mentioned his interview with our own Anthony Bourdain a number of months ago. Just two weeks ago he gave an interview where he said that he was afraid that Vladimir Putin would kill him. Now of course, we're many miles away from having any sort of evidence that he was behind this but that gives you a taste of what opposition figures feared the treatment would be from the government, from the authorities, and if not from the authorities themselves than from power centers in Russia that are loyal to the government.
And they have reason to. These are not unfounded fears based on the treatment of others who have risen to either challenge or criticize the leadership. Other reactions coming in. We see Senator John McCain just tweeting a
few minutes ago, saying that he's very saddened to hear of the death. He had a long relationship with Nemtsov. And also another prominent opposition figure in Russia, the former chess player, as you remember, Gary Kasparov, who became a politician. I covered him during a campaign where he was challenging Putin as president.
He said that in Russia you have to -- he said, quoting, in fact, Nemtsov, he said that Nemtsov told him recently in Russia you have to live a long time to see change. Now he will never see change in Russia.
So you're seeing a very emotional but also a very worried reaction from members of the opposition there because the worry is very real and it's real for a reason.
BLITZER: Yes. It's a great patriot, an opposition leader, very critical of the corruption that's going on in Russia right now. Very critical of Putin himself in that interview with Anthony Bourdain. He did offer some optimism, though, he said this. He said Tony, referring to Anthony Bourdain, I was born here 54 years ago. This is my country. The Russian people are a bit of a trouble. Russian court doesn't work. Russian education declines every year.
I believe that Russia has a chance to be free, has a chance, it's difficult, but we must do it. And now he is dead.
SCIUTTO: Think of all the millions of dollars that the U.S. invested in Russia after the fall of the wall, the fall of the Soviet Union, for the expressed purpose of building civil society in Russia. And you had much progress over the years. The decades in the '90s. But we have seen that dismantled in the last decade under Vladimir Putin.
In a number of ways, through corruption, no question, through putting a clamp on any sort of independent media in Russia. We certainly see that play out in the Ukraine crisis. If you watch Russian accounts of what's going on in Ukraine, it is a different reality than the way that we cover it and ask questions about it here.
We have seen that all dismantled over time. There is no credible political opposition there in terms of having a chance of actually unseating Vladimir Putin. And this is something that the U.S. tried to get involved with, tried to make a difference and frankly invested a lot of diplomatic, capital and financial capital, and we're seeing that all fall apart.
BLITZER: Shocking development in Moscow tonight. We're going to stay on top of it. We'll go back to Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, get much more.
The Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has been shot and killed. He is a top opponent of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Much more on that coming up. Also, the U.S. vowing to track down the ISIS killer known as Jihadi John. New details of how he managed to escape surveillance in Britain. They are now emerging. We're going to share with you what's going on. Stay with us. There's breaking news happening.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: There are disturbing new questions today about the intelligence failures that may have allowed Jihadi John as he became known to become the ruthless ISIS murderer that he is today.
Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto once again.
You're getting new information on what happened.
SCIUTTO: Well, the more you look into this, it is very clear that this man was no surprise. He was not new to security services. In fact they first became aware of him in 2009. So we're talking nearly six years ago when he made a trip that they suspected might have been really, truly intended to take into Somalia and join the group al- Shabaab there, the al Qaeda-tied group.
In the years since then, they questioned him multiple times, detained him a number of times. This over several years. In fact there were even reports that they've tried to recruit him as an informant inside the Islamist community in Britain to inform on other possible Islamic extremists in the country. He said, no, he would not do that that. But clearly they had something that worried him over the time and the question now, of course, as he has been identified is how many signals were missed and why.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): To the outside world, his face is always obscured by his now familiar black mask. But new details show that Mohammed Emwazi, the terrorist known as Jihadi John, was a familiar face to British authorities for more than five years.
The scrutiny began in 2009 when Emwazi was detained in Tanzania on suspicions he intended to travel to Somalia to join the al Qaeda- linked al-Shabaab. Both British and Dutch investigators interviewed him, say friends and his then fiancee.
RAFAELLO PANTUCCI, ROYAL UNITED SERVICES INSTITUTE LONDON: There was a community of people in West London from the late 2000 who have gone with -- who got very excited about the conflict that was happening in Somalia. We saw a number of them going out there to fight. And some of them rose up to senior positions within al-Shabaab. Mohammed Emwazi seems to have known some of the people.
SCIUTTO: British authorities detain him again in 2010 preventing him from returning to his birth place, Kuwait. "I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started," Emwazi wrote in a June 2010 e-mail to the Muslim advocacy group Cage.
In 2011, British court documents obtained by the BBC claim that Emwazi associated with members of an Islamic extremist group that funnels money, fighters and equipment to Somalia. And while he was never charged with a crime. Today British Prime Minister David Cameron defended Britain's domestic intelligence service the MI-5.
DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: In my almost five years experience of prime minister, I think they are incredibly impressive, hard working, dedicated, courageous and effective at protecting our country. All of the time they are having to make incredibly difficult judgments.
SCIUTTO: They make those difficult judgments in the face of daunting numbers. Britain has thousands of suspected jihadis and jihadi sympathizers. And a senior British diplomat tells CNN that the profile of jihadi recruits has expanded to include rich and poor, educated and uneducated and more and more men and women.
Emwazi's case has an alarming parallel to the attacks in Paris. The gunman who stormed the magazine "Charlie Hebdo," the Koachi brothers have been known to French security services for years and put on then taken off surveillance only months before their deadly rampage.
SCIUTTO: U.K. authorities lost track of Emwazi in 2013 when after he changed his name to Mohammed al-Eon he then attempted to return to his birthplace in Kuwait. He was blocked from going there. He then left the country and, Wolf, it was determined a few months later in 2013 that he indeed had gone on to Syria. And of course, it was in August of last year when he first appeared in one of those beheading videos.
BLITZER: Andso it wouldn't have been -- wouldn't have been that difficult for him to get from the United Kingdom somewhere in Europe, take a train to turkey and cross into Syria?
SCIUTTO: That's the thing. And that's what we have seen so many other times, whether the British girls we have seen recently, other people from France, elsewhere in Europe and people attempting from France, elsewhere in New York, and even people attempting from the U.S. now.
BLITZER: I want to bring Philip Mudd, our analyst in as well.
Were there major blunders that were made? The U.K. had this guy in the radar for at least four or five years.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, Jim Sciutto is going to owe me on this because my answer is no. The reason is very simple and straightforward. Intelligence is not evidence. I can watch him on Facebook. I can watch him talk to bad people overseas. I can watch him travel to bad areas. That is not the same. That sense of smell an intelligence officer has to say he's a bad guy, to bring in a court of law and prove it. Intelligence isn't evidence. And that's what you see in this case.
BLITZER: Yes. That's a good point. Right?
SCIUTTO: No question. It's a great point. And this is the challenge that intelligence authorities have here in the U.S. like they've had in Europe. You can have snippets of information that give you suspicion. But we live in a land of law.
SCIUTTO: Andyou have to follow the law to put these guys in prison. Philip Mud.
BLITZER: Same in the U.K. of course as well.
All right, guys, stand by. We've got more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. This time from Capitol Hill. A Republican effort to temporarily keep the Department of Homeland Security in funding has now failed. The money runs out at midnight, just about six hours or so from now. The clock is ticking. What's going to happen to U.S. homeland security? Stand by.