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Urgent Manhunt as Second Bomb Rocks Tourist Area; U.S.-Trained Syrian Rebel Speaks Out; New Photos Show Torture by Syrian Regime; First Two Women Complete Army Ranger School. Aired 5:00-6:00p ET

Aired August 18, 2015 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Manhunt. As a second blast rocks a major tourist area, police step up the search for a suspect seen leaving a backpack at the scene of an earlier bombing that killed nearly two dozen people. Who's behind the attacks?

On the frontlines, in a CNN exclusive, one of the very few U.S.- trained Syrian rebels now speaking out about the great danger they face in the fight against ISIS. And we have shocking new images of the torture Syria's regime uses against its own people.

Front runner. They like him. They really like him. In our brand-new poll, Donald Trump's favorability rating jumps as he boosts his lead among Republican voters.

And the real G.I. Janes. Two female soldiers the first to complete the Army's grueling Ranger school, but will they be allowed to join the elite unit?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get to the breaking news. An urgent manhunt underway right now after a world capital in a major tourist area has been hit by a second bombing in two days. No one was killed in today's blast at a river here in Bangkok. But the death toll is up to 22 after yesterday's bloody bombing nearby a religious shrine that's near Thailand's equivalent of Times Square.

Police are looking for this man. He's dressed in a yellow shirt picked up by a surveillance camera entering the scene with a backpack and leaving without it just before the deadly blast. I'll speak with Congresswoman Martha McSally of the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees. Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're all standing by with full coverage.

Let's go straight to CNN's Andrew Stevens. He's our man in Bangkok right now.

Andrew, what is the very latest?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, police now have clearly linked the two explosions. The second explosion luckily causing no injuries at all. But police say it was the same M.O. It was a pipe bomb. And it hit a pillar. It was thrown. It hit a pillar and bounced into the water where it exploded. They're saying it was a big explosion. Luckily, though, no one was injured.

We're looking at surveillance video there. That's all they've got to go on at the moment. But this came just a few hours after a massive explosion in the center of Bangkok. Take a look at the moments when that bomb went off.




STEVENS: You called this the Times Square of Bangkok. You're absolutely right. And this happened. That bomb was detonated at the busiest time of the day. People coming home from work, stopping at that shrine to pay respects. And also tourists in that area, as well. A lot of Chinese tourists will visit that shrine, looking for some blessings as well as general tourists, as well.

That was time for maximum impact, maximum damage to -- to loss of life in the area. And 22 dead at the moment. Looking for a motive. They have the suspect. They now say he is the bomber. They're still looking for (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BLITZER: Do they have any idea who this bomber is who's behind these two blasts?

STEVENS: Well, all they're saying at the moment is they are very sure that this is the bomber. And they've changed their language throughout the last 15 hours or so from "We're looking for a man in connection with" to "We think he's a suspect" to "Now we're very sure he's the bomber."

All they are saying at the moment is "We don't know whether he's a Thai national." Local media here say they're leaning toward that theory he is a Thai national. As video shows, he's wearing a yellow shirt. He goes into the shrine. He very deliberately puts his backpack down under a bench and then leaves, and just a few minutes later, the blast erupts.

As I said, they don't actually know the nationality of this man, but there are so many theories to investigate, Wolf. You know, you've got political unrest, the long-term political unrest on the streets here. There's an insurgency in the south of the country. There's also suggestions the Chinese wing of the Muslim separatists may be involved. Many were deported from Thailand in July. So there's a lot of different leads they're going to be looking at, at the moment.

BLITZER: Andrew Stevens in Bangkok for us. Thank you.

We turn now to a CNN exclusive. A Syrian rebel fighter, one of just a few dozen trained and armed by the United States now speaking out, giving an account of his fight against ISIS.

[17:05:01] Let's go our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh. He's joining us live from Beirut. Nick, tell us what you've learned.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these troops, these Syrian rebels, vetted, trained, equipped by the United States, are just an absolutely vital plank of the U.S. policy against ISIS.

We have air jets and we have fighters and drones targeting ISIS. Without a force like this on the ground that can push ISIS out of the territory and let moderate societies make place, all that air power is kind of at a loss. But at this stage after some setbacks, they are just about 40 of them active inside Syria. We spoke to one of them.


WALSH (voice-over): This what nearly a million dollars' worth of pro-American Syrian rebel looks like. These are the first pictures of the mere 54 moderate fighters the U.S. has painstakingly vetted, trained and equipped with these fancy weapons. There aren't nearly enough of them yet to worry ISIS.

In fact, some of them were recently detained by al Qaeda after a fire fight, leading to claim the $41 million program was a failure. So one of them, Abu Iskander in Syria, is speaking out.

ABU ISKANDER, NEW SYRIAN FORCE (through translator): Nearly 17,000 people Syrian men want to join, but the training is very slow. We need it to be faster: 30 days instead of 45 days. More trainees. For example, our training in Georgia was 85, and it should have been 500 there; another 500 in Turkey. They're thankful, but it needs to happen faster.

WALSH: Here they are entering Syria recently, after training rebels days before being attacked by rebels from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Some of those detained have now been released. And despite the awful start, Abu Iskander is determined to fight on.

The Americans follow him using a GPS on his wrist and his vest. But he targets airstrikes for them.

ISKANDER: I go to the front, fighting against ISIS, and I give locations for the warplanes to bomb. We have advanced satellite communication devices to target any place at the front line, whether we see it or not.

There are daily droplets, and they are in the sky as I talk to you right now. I speak to the Americans every hour. A total of four hours a day.

WALSH: One hurdle in recruiting for the Pentagon is that their unit is only allowed to fight ISIS, not most Syrian rebels' first and worst enemy, the Syrian regime. But in spite of this restriction Abu Iskander all the same insists he will also fight the Assad regime. ISKANDER: The second law of the training project is that we

fight whoever fights us. If the Assad regime is fighting us, we will take new airs (ph) from ISIS and will have to take it up. Are we going to sit still and not fight Assad? Make a no-fly zone in Syria. Then we won't lead (ph) to Europe. We will stay in our homes. We don't want to fry (ph) on TV. We want Assad's regime to be stopped.

WALSH: After the vetting, the detentions, the confused aims, one thing is clear. His unshakable enthusiasm for the fight against ISIS and the regime that lies ahead.


WALSH: Now Wolf, this program, according to one U.S. official, has always been about quality over quantity. I mean, obviously, after four years of the Syrian civil year, having about 40 of these rebels ready to go on the battlefield is undermining it in the eyes of many.

But at the same time, the quality may see it through to the end. We're going to see 70 more eventually joining them, hundreds more on top of that. They seem to be predominantly involved in calling in airstrike to assist the coalition at this stage. But if that grows, it could provide air support to more moderate rebels on the battlefield.

U.S. officials described this as not your traditional command- and-control mission. They prepare these moderates. They let them out into the field and then, potentially, they go on to some degree of autonomy, because the vetting in their mind guarantees the destination they follow is really where the U.S. would like for them to be.

But a very complex start. You can see in the eyes of Abu Iskander, when we spoke to him quite how dedicated that they are to a secular vision of Syria in the future, a notion of a modernist society that could see some traction against ISIS but right now the numbers so small. So small. That's the real challenge of the program, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, tiny, tiny numbers. And let's not lose sight of the fact that over the past three or four years maybe 200,000, maybe 300,000 people have been killed. Have been killed. Hundreds of thousands more have been injured in this brutal civil war in Syria. Nick Paton Walsh, thanks very much. Good report.

As the United States struggles to deploy a meaningful rebel force and come up with a successful strategy for Syria, shocking new evidence is emerging right now, the savagery of the Syrian regime. Brian Todd is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that evidence was on display recently here in Washington, photographic evidence of the systemic torture of Syrian civilians.

[17:10:05] This comes as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is under increasing pressure tonight. A top U.N. official calling his most recent attack on civilians unlawful.

How does Bashar Assad respond to pressure? Well, the photos we're talking about from a Syrian defector take us inside Assad's torture chambers and show a level of cruelty we haven't seen in decades. This morning, some of the images in this story should be disturbing to some viewers.


TODD (voice-over): A top U.N. envoy in Syria's capital ultimately expressing his anger over the killing of more than 100 civilians in government airstrikes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am absolutely horrified by the total disregard for civilian life by all parties in this conflict.

TODD: But despite allegations that Syria's president is bombing his own people and has even used chemical weapons on them, which he denies, Bashar al-Assad likes to present himself in interviews as a soft-spoken, benevolent leader.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: I said before it's not my nature to frighten anyone. It's -- I'm a very quiet person and very frank. I wouldn't (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

TODD: But his opponents say that these photos show what happens to people who cross him. Pictures so horribly graphic we have to blur most of them. Bodies mutilated, emaciated. Many victims had their eyes gauged out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is almost routine. So many of them a sharp metal instrument is used to gouge out the eyes, causing a spray of blood that you can see sometimes around the eye sockets. And it's just as the routine welcoming into the torture that they're going to have to endure.

TODD: These picture, recently exhibited in the halls of the U.S. Congress, taken by a former Syrian military police photographer who goes by the pseudonym Caesar. He testified before Congress and is now in hiding.

Another defector, Qutaiba Idlibi (ph), says he was tortured in a way that was almost clinical. When arrested, he was made to strip. Then a doctor walked in.

QUTAIBA IDLIBI (ph), SYRIAN DEFECTOR: The doctor came. And he started, like -- like touch and seeing the muscles like I have. And then he told them start with level three, so they would not waste time doing -- like doing stuff that my body can handle.

TODD: Civil rights activists say many of these victims were ordinary citizens, some who have spoken out against Assad or were believed to have information on those who did.

Idlibi (ph) displayed a picture of the young many named Mahmood (ph), who he says was rounded up with his father and tortured just for being in Idlibi's (ph) neighborhood. Mahmood's (ph) father told him Idlibi (ph) of his son's last words.

IDLIBI (ph): He just -- he carried him and, like, put his head on his lap. And Mahmood (ph) didn't say anything. He was just -- he told me he looked him in the eye and he told him, "I just don't -- I don't want to die, Dad."


TODD: We reached out to Syrian officials in Damascus and at the U.N. about these pictures. They did not respond. One top Syrian official, asked previously about the photos, said the accusation of government tortures and killings is, quote, "a huge lie" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Those pictures are awful. Awful, indeed, what's going on in Syria. Brian, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona. She's a member of the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. She's a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, America's first female fighter pilot to fly in combat.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us. What's your reaction to what's going on? Because it looks like these past three or four years there has been such brutality there, and there seems to be no end in sight.

REP. MARTHA MCSALLY (R), ARIZONA: Absolutely, Wolf. I mean, we've seen it by the numbers, of course. We know the Assad regime as an absolutely brutal torturous regime. Hundreds of thousands have been killed. I think when we see the personal face of it and the personal stories, it hits home for the viewers, for sure.

But we've known that this regime that is backed by Iran has been killing and torturing its own people for years now. And, you know, as we're training up now 41 rebels to address ISIS but not actually addressing the Assad regime and the totalitarian area -- Iranian- backed murderer that he is, it just highlights again the incoherent strategy that we have in the Middle East.

BLITZER: Yes. All these people, almost all of them have been killed and tortured and injured. They're all fellow Syrians. They're fellow Muslims, fellow Arabs. It's brutal what's going on over there.

Here's something that's very disturbing to U.S. taxpayers. U.S. has spent $41 million to train -- get this -- 54 Syrian rebels. That's it, 54 Syrian rebels. Almost a million dollars apiece. It seems like such a failure, this entire training operation.

MCSALLY: It absolutely does, Wolf. It's been late to the game. Many of us have been calling on and stepping up those efforts much earlier. And that price tag is really concerning to me. I, for one, would like to see a breakdown of that. For 45 days of training, I mean, we put through -- our soldiers through basic training, you know, for eight weeks, and I'm certain it's much less costly than that to give them the basic skills and then the follow on skills, of course, you know, to be out on the battlefield. You can't do that in just 30 days.

But that price tag is certainly concerning, and there is no way to be addressing this entire situation in Syria and the fight against ISIS and dealing with the Assad regime and Iran's influence in the region, their destabilizing influence in the region, just with 41 guys.

BLITZER: I know, Congresswoman, you're just back from Israel. You oppose this U.S.-backed nuclear deal with Iran. You say it's a bad deal. You want the administration to go back to the negotiating table. But the supporters of this deal, including the president and the secretary of state, they don't think that's realistic. What's your response to that?

MCSALLY: Well, you know what, Wolf? Over 200 times in our history, we've had an executive branch negotiate a treaty or an international agreement, some incredibly, you know, involved with multilateral and other countries.

And Congress has directed them to go back to the negotiating table with certain conditions or restrictions and said, "Look, we'll support this thing, but you need to do the following things." That's happened 200 times in our history.

So once again the administration is sort of rewriting history and trying to have people forget that that's what a coequal branch of the government does when it comes to very important international agreements. And this isn't even a treaty. You know, John Kerry calls it a political agreement. Well, it's certainly our right to be able to identify serious flaws.

And when I was over in Israel last week, I will tell you across the board Israel is a very diverse political country, as well. But across the board people, leaders and the government, the military, journalists, academia, they are against this deal. They are confused why America has allowed Iran to have a strategic patient path to a bomb. If they don't cheat, they're allowed that.

And so it's our responsibility because of Iran's destabilizing nature in the region, being the largest state sponsor in the world. Literally, they're propping up Hamas and Hezbollah and the Assad regime. I mean, we talked to people who are dealing with these thousands of rocket attacks coming out of Gaza, aimed at civilians, school children running into bomb shelters. This is daily life in Israel.

And while this agreement was negotiated, Iran continues to chant, you know, "Death to America" and "Let's wipe Israel off the map."

So this is a bad deal. I -- you know, I appreciate the diplomatic effort. I for one, in the military, look, we see you know, military options as a very last resort. It is not this deal or war. And we need to keep the sanctions in place. We need to crank them up, and we need to lead in the international community in order to get a better deal that doesn't give them a patient path to a bomb. BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Congresswoman. We have much more

to discuss with the first U.S. fighter pilot -- female fighter pilot to fly in combat. Now two U.S. soldiers, both women, they potentially could be the first U.S. Ranger soldiers ready to fight in combat. We'll get your thoughts on what's going on when we come back.


[17:22:56] BLITZER: We're talking with Congresswoman Martha McSally. She's a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.

But first, two women soldiers have broken through an extraordinary tough barrier. Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr has the story.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For military women, history is made. For the first time, two female soldiers have passed the grueling 62-day Army Ranger training program.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Secretly a sense of pride. I say secretly because we can't really cheer these females on. But it's definitely a humbling experience to kind of sit back and get a chance to see these women come through.

STARR: But even after all the hard training, the Pentagon still won't let women actually join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the nation's premiere Special Operations units. That decision must be made by January.

Army women say that they want no special treatment. Amber Smith flew helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMBER SMITH, FORMER U.S. ARMY HELICOPTER PILOT: There has to be a mission standard, not a gender standard. It needs to be straight across the board, and there needs to be that physical and mental strength to accomplish the mission.

STARR: The 75th Ranger Regiment expertise: large-scale entry into a combat zone under fire, while executing surgical raids on targets to take out any threats.

How hard is Ranger school? Four hundred students started. Only 96 graduated. Of the 19 woman who began, 16 dropped out, one is still working to get through the program.

Little sleep and food is just the beginning. Soldiers must do 49 push-ups, 59 sit ups, a 5-mile run in 40 minutes, a 12 mile foot march in three hours, parachute jumps, helicopter assaults, and 27 days of at month combat patrols.

The Army's top general has yet the make his recommendation about whether woman will actually be allowed to serve as Rangers and in other front-line combat units. [17:25:06] GEN. MARK MILEY, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: I want to

take a hard look at all that and make sure that the standards of being a readiness force.

There's no doubt in my mind that woman can engage in ground combat with the enemies of our nations, because they've done it.


STARR: They have done it. Since 9/11 more than 150 military woman have died, more than 1,000 wounded, all assigned to combat operations -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thank you.

Let's get back to Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona. She's a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. She was America's first female fighter pilot to fly in combat.

So what do you think? Should these two women be allowed to join that elite Ranger unit?

MCSALLY: Absolutely, Wolf. Let me first say that I am so proud of them to make it through this grueling training. And for them, because they made them go back and start again, it's actually been about four months of this intense training on the ground, physical and mental training. They have shown tremendous courage, strength, resilience, leadership. And they deserve to be able to serve after they earn the Ranger tab.

I have been a strong advocate that we are a merit-based military, and we need to have the most qualified. And when you have a couple of hundred men who didn't make it, and these two women did, they deserve to serve where they're qualified and capable. And they've really shown that. I'm so proud of them.

BLITZER: You speak with authority, giving your record, the first woman to fly in combat for the U.S. Air Force.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us. We wish the best of luck to all those U.S. Army Rangers.

Coming up trusting Trump. A new CNN poll finds that Republican voters put their faith in the GOP frontrunner on several major issues facing the country. So what can his Republican rivals do to catch up?

And Donald Trump says super model Heidi Klum is no longer a ten. How has Heidi Klum responded to Donald Trump's controversial comments?


BLITZER: Donald Trump continues to dominate the headlines and the poll numbers in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The latest CNN/OR poll shows him with a clear lead. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans, by the way, now hold a favorable view of Donald Trump, 24 percent saying he's their first choice for the nomination.

Let's discuss all the latest political news with our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin; our CNN political contributor S.E. Cupp; and our CNN politics executive editor Mark Preston. He's at 24 percent, Mark.

Jeb Bush is now a distant second at 13 percent. He is doing amazingly well right now, Donald Trump. I don't know what the Republican strategy for the opponents, for the challengers, what that strategy is to push them down.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Well, if you're a candidate right now I don't think you can engage Donald Trump. You let Donald Trump be Donald Trump, and you use this time of the campaign to try to get your ideas out. We've seen Scott Walker do that. We've seen Bobby Jindal, really to not much success, try to do the same thing.

I have to tell you one thing about Donald Trump, though. In just talking to a senior adviser and to one of the Republican presidential candidates in Iowa, says now that he is shocked where Donald Trump is right now. And I was surprised to hear this.

Shocked, and he said that here's the problem with Donald Trump, if you're a Republican running for president, specifically in Iowa. Sixteen people are in the race. Donald Trump could win the Iowa caucuses.

BLITZER: He could easily win -- if you look at the polls now, he could win Iowa. He could win New Hampshire. He could win South Carolina. He's on a roll right now. Let's see if that stays.

Jeffrey, the poll also finds, if you go through the voters, that the Republican voters think Donald Trump would be best at handling -- get this -- best at handling the economy, 45 percent; best at handling illegal immigration, 44 percent; best at handling ISIS and those are impressive numbers.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's why they're voting for him, because they -- that's why they're supporting him in the polls, I should say, because they think that he's doing the right things.

And, you know, the problem is that people keep waiting for him to self-destruct. But even when he says incredibly things, like he gets military advice from the Sunday talk show. You know, somethings like that, which would sink most people's candidacy, it has no impact at all.

So attacking him doesn't work. Letting him say dumb things doesn't work. It is difficult to fathom what the other Republicans are supposed to do.

BLITZER: Let's ask S.E. to fathom a little bit for us. Take a look at this. The poll also shows that -- this is our new CNN/ORC poll -- 58 percent of Republicans think that the party would have a better chance of winning the White House without Donald Trump. Fifty- eight percent. But he's still winning in all of these polls.


BLITZER: What's going on here?

CUPP: Well, let's simmer -- simmer down just a little bit. Put another way in these polls, 75 percent of Republicans support a different candidate. Fifty-eight percent acknowledge Donald Trump cannot win. OK?

So when you're one of the 17 candidates and you happen to have the biggest name and money supply, then I don't think that it's that hard to be a front runner at 25 percent. So I mean, I understand Trump has stuck around a little longer than we all thought that he would, that I don't know if that's the end of the campaign for every other candidate.

BLITZER: How do you explain, S.E., 60 percent of Republican women think he's doing a good job?

S.E. CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: Only 57 percent of Republican men...

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: ... think he's doing a good job.

CUPP: You know, I don't want to get in trouble with my people, but I think women have a much lower threshold for B.S. than men do.

And women are just as sort of annoyed at the B.S. level out of Washington as men are; I think maybe even not more so.

[17:35:04] So I'm not surprised that all of the women, Republican women, some of them, are -- find Trump appealing. He talks to them straight. He doesn't talk down to them. He doesn't tells them what he thinks they want to hear. He's blunt. Woman appreciate that, too.

BLITZER: Jeb Bush's -- hold on one second. Jeffrey, go ahead. Respond.

TOOBIN: What does that mean? I mean, this is a guy who's parading the worst kind of sexism, that you know, most -- has disappeared even from corporations, much less public life.

And you're saying, S.E., that woman like that? Women like being told that, you know, "Oh, you're having your period, so you must be upset"? I mean, this hasn't been around for 30 years.

CUPP: Well, Jeffrey, you didn't hear me say that woman like that. You heard me say that women like the straight talk on issues like immigration and ISIS and foreign policy and the economy. Woman do appreciate that.

I think you're right: Most woman find his outbursts about other woman offensive. But for some reason they can compartmentalize that.

BLITZER: Very quickly, weigh in.

PRESTON: I mean, listen. Let's talk about Ben Carson.

CUPP: Why?

PRESTON: Why is -- well, what is Donald Trump's appeal right now? He is an outsider. He's not from Washington. And he's, quote unquote, speaking truth to power.

We're seeing that in the same way with Ben Carson, somebody who's a doctor who doesn't have the ways of Washington, doesn't speak in Washington speak. And that's why Ben Carson is doing so well, as well.

And let's not forget: we're not necessarily seeing this, necessarily, on the Democratic side, because they're all career politicians. But we are seeing it, Bernie Sanders, you know...

BLITZER: Very quickly, S.E. Donald Trump -- back to Donald Trump. He says Heidi Klum is no longer a ten. Watch this.




BLITZER: She looks pretty much like a ten to me. What do you think?

CUPP: I don't know why he's picking on Heidi Klum. Because he's a jerk? Because he's a blurter? I don't know.

What I do know is you can't defend rudeness by just yelling, "Populism." You can't defend ignorance by just yelling, "Outsider." I think some of that stuff is going to end up not disqualifying him, obviously, but turning some people off.

BLITZER: We'll have more on this, all the politics coming up, guys. Stand by. Coming up also, a verdict could come any time now in the secretive trial of an American reporter detained in Iran. What makes some say the Iranians are using him as a pawn?

And later, desperate firefighters battling western blazes, they're turning to some new sources for help: the U.S. military.


[17:42:12] BLITZER: An American reporter being detained in Iran will soon learn his fate after more than a year in prison and several weeks of secretive trials. Prosecutors accused Jason Rezaian of espionage, but some say he's being used as a pawn in the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, has been looking into all of what's going on. What are you finding out, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no one in the U.S. government considers these charges substantial. They consider them politically motivated by hardliners in Iran who tend to influence the judiciary there.

We may find out as soon as tomorrow morning what the verdict is, possibly the sentence is in this case. Otherwise, at the latest early next week. His family waiting with great worry. U.S. officials watching this very closely, as well.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): He spent 391 days in Iran's most notorious prison without being charged for months, tried behind closed doors. But now a verdict could come this week.

American Jason Rezaian, the "Washington Post" Tehran bureau chief, appeared on CNN's "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN" just before he was detained last July. Eventually, he was accused of spying and collaborating with a hostile government, charges his family, his employer and the U.S. government baseless.

MARY REZAIAN, JASON REZAIAN'S MOTHER: We want Jason to have a fair trial, and the only fair verdict is to acquit him.

SCIUTTO: Along with Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Robert Levinson, Rezaian is one of four Americans held or missing in Iran. President Obama has vowed to win their release.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will not rest until we bring him home to his family safe and sound.

SCIUTTO: The president came under sharp fire for not securing their freedom as part of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, bristly when challenged by a reporter.

OBAMA: The notion that I'm content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails? Major, that -- that's nonsense.

SCIUTTO: His family feels that Jason has become a political pawn in the challenging U.S.-Iran relationship.

REZAIAN: He is paying the price of the suspicion, the animosity and the -- and the paranoia between the two countries for more than 37 years.

SCIUTTO: Iran has a history of holding Americans on trumped-up charges, from journalist Roxana Saberi to the American hikers captured in Iran, later releasing them after public trials and before serving out the sentences.

In Washington, there is concern with why Iran is detaining him and what they hope to get out of all of this. ALREZA NADER, RAND CORPORATION: Because he's a high-profile

prisoner in Iran, that there is a chance that he's being used as a political pawn. And once the Iranian government has no further use for him, he will be released.


SCIUTTO: That offers at least a glimmer of hope. And there is precedent here. When you look at the case of the journalist Roxana Saberi, she was charged with espionage, as well, one of the charges that Jason Rezaian is facing. She was actually sentenced to eight years in prison, but that was later reduced to holding classified information and then she was given a suspended two-year sentence and released.

So, Wolf, listen, it's impossible to predict what will happen tomorrow in that court or over the weekend, but there is precedent for charging, and then releasing perhaps after a short period of time. Possibly even giving him a sentence of time served which is already a year but many people watching this very closely and of course the family holding out deep hope for this.

BLITZER: Let's hope he's released and released quickly.

All right, Jim. Thank you.

Let's dig a little bit deeper on this developing story. Joining us our counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd. He's a former CIA official.

If he's not released, what options does the U.S. have?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I think we have very few. The president I suspect is going to face a choice and that choice is how to use his executive power. We've seen him use that aggressively in recent months on accelerating the release of Gitmo prisoners, for example, the deal here if there is a deal maybe pretty straightforward. We get a conviction this week and the president has to decide whether to use its authority to trade some Iranian prisoners we've got here for some of the Americans we got in Tehran.

BLITZER: So what you're saying that the U.S. would release prisoners being held in the United States in exchange for the Americans who are being held in Iran?

MUDD: I am, for a couple of reasons. First, I can't believe what the debate that will go on Iran, like the debate here between conservatives and the people who want a deal in Iran. With that debate, I doubt the Iranian president would have the latitude to just say, let me ignore the judicial process and let these guys know.

Also, you know, my history going back, looking at the -- exchanges of prisoners authorized by the president are pretty common. This is different. We don't have spy-on-spy. We've got "Washington Post" journalists for Iranians here in America but I think the president is going to have a decision about a trade. BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens.

MUDD: We'll see.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Phil Mudd, for that.

Coming up, wildfires are ravaging several western states, stretching firefighters to the limit. Now the U.S. military is on the scene after an urgent plea for help. We'll get the very latest on the battle against the blazes.

Plus Donald Trump boosts his favorability with Republican voters nationwide. We'll have the very latest details. Our brand new poll and a lot more, that's coming up.


[17:52:03] BLITZER: I want to go to north Las Vegas. Hillary Clinton has been speaking about the e-mail controversy answering reporters' questions. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That at the very least, you stonewalled and he said that you should tell the American people, I'm sorry, I was wrong. But instead, in recent days you've been talking about Snapchat. You've been blaming the Republican attacks. Isn't leadership about taking responsibility?

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I do take -- look, and I take responsibility. Look, and I just told Jeff in retrospect, this didn't turn out to be convenient at all. And I regret that this has become such a cause celebra. But that does not change the facts. And no matter what anybody tries to say, the facts are stubborn.

What I did was legally permitted. Number one. First and foremost. OK? Number two, I turned over out of an abundance of an attempt to be helpful, over anything that I thought was even vaguely related. In fact they've already included -- more than 1200 of the e- mails I gave them have nothing to do with the work. And I said, make them public. And that's the process that one goes through to make them public.

So I know there is a certain level of, you know, sort of anxiety or interest in this. But the facts are the facts.


CLINTON: But, Ed, you're not listening to me. If it were -- Ed, if it were --


CLINTON: Well, if it were a government account, they would be saying the same thing. The fact --


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) the information got out.

CLINTON: This is a -- well, first of all, that is not in any way agreed upon. The State Department disagrees. That happens all the time in these efforts to say, what can go out and what can't go out. That is a part of the ordinary process. Everybody is acting like this is the first time it's ever happened. It happens all the time. And I can only tell you that the State Department has said over and over again, we disagree. So that's what they're sorting out.

And that's what happens a lot of the times. But whether it was a personal account or a government account, I did not send classified material and I did not receive any material that was marked or designated classified which is the way you know whether something is. What you're seeing now is in disagreement between agencies saying, you know what? They should have. And the other is saying no, they shouldn't. That has nothing to do with me.

If it had been a government account and I said release it, we would be having the same arguments.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) the FBI believes that you tried to wipe the entire server. Did you try to wipe the entire -- so that there'd be no e-mail, no personal and no official, wipe the whole thing?

CLINTON: Well, my personal e-mails are my personal business, right?

[17:55:02] So I -- so we went through a painstaking process and turned over 55,000 pages of anything we thought could be work-related. Under the law, that decision is made by the official. I was the official. I made those decisions. And as I just said, over 1200 of the e-mails have already been deemed not work related.

Now all I can tell you is in retrospect, if I'd used a government account, and I had said, you know, let's release everything, let's let everybody in America see what I did for four years, we would have the same arguments. So that's all I can say.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor Hillary Clinton. Much more on the breaking news coming up right at the top of the hour.