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More U.S. Ground Troops Ordered Into ISIS Fight; Obama Warns Putin Over Syrian Civil War; Interview With Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; More U.S. Ground Troops Ordered Into ISIS Fight; Cruz Taking on Trump, Surging in Iowa. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 1, 2015 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:06] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And releasing Mrs. Baghdadi. The ex-wife of the world's most wanted terror leader is freed in a prisoner swap. Is the U.S. losing a key intelligence conduit in the war on terror?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the situation room.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following important, breaking news in the war against ISIS. More U.S. ground troops are being ordered into the fight. A special targeting force will go on risky missions like the October raid when a U.S. commando died while helping Kurdish forces free ISIS hostages.

The Pentagon's surprise announcement comes as an explosion near a subway station causes havoc in the capital of Turkey, a NATO ally in the fight against ISIS. Officials say it was caused by a bomb.

And the man who just stepped down as the head of the top U.S. intelligence agency is warning it's only a matter of time before a Paris-style terror attack happens here in the United States.

I'll discuss all of this and much more with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents, analysts and experts, they have full coverage of all of today's top stories.

Let's begin with today's surprise announcement that more U.S. ground troops will be joining the fight against ISIS.

Let's go to our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. Jim, how many more boots on the ground is the Pentagon talking about now?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is not a significant increase in numbers. A few dozen U.S. Special Forces, perhaps 200 in total when you add the support troops, but it is a significant expansion and role. The kind of missions they're going to be involved in, going after HVTs, high-value targets, ISIS leaders, rescuing hostages. They are some of the most dangerous missions, after months and months the administration saying there would be no combat role for U.S. forces there. These forces will be very much in the center of the fight.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): After frequent White House denials that U.S. troops would face combat in Iraq and Syria, today the president is ordering dozens of U.S. Special Forces into combat roles, involving direct action against ISIS.

ASHTON CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: These special operators will, over time, be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders.

SCIUTTO: The new expedition area force will number in the dozens, though support forces will expand its total footprint to about 200.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: This force and the operations this force will conduct will provide us additional intelligence that will make our operations much more effective.

SCIUTTO: Part of their mission, raids like this one in northern Iraq in October. Daring joint operation involving Kurdish commandos and the U.S. Army's Delta force to freeze ISIS-held prisoners, demonstrating the added danger of direct action one Delta Force operator, Master Force Joshua Wheeler, was killed.

This new deployment to Iraq is, in addition to the 50 Special Forces the U.S. is already deploying on the ground in Syria.

CARTER: It puts everybody on notice, in Syria, that you don't know at night who's going to be coming in the window, and that's the sensation that we want all of ISIL's leadership and followers to have. So it's an important capability.

SCIUTTO: The expanded U.S. combat role comes in the aftermath of Paris. And as progress against ISIS on the battlefield has been halting, President Obama declared the group contained in an interview two weeks ago.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: From the start, our goal has been, first, to contain, and we have contained them.

SCIUTTO: Today, however, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Dunford, appeared to contradict his commander in chief.

REP. RANDY FORBES (R), VIRGINIA: Have we currently contained ISIL?


FORBES: Have they been contained at any time since 2010?

DUNFORD: Tactically in areas they have been. Strategically, they have spread since 2010.

SCIUTTO: Still, Carter insisted today the U.S. will eventually win.

REP. MICHAEL TURNER (R), OHIO: Are we winning, Mr. Secretary?

DUNFORD: We will win.

TURNER: Are we winning now?

DUNFORD: We are going to win.


SCIUTTO: Wolf, we have been watching the number of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria gradually but steadily increasing over the last several months. It started at just a couple of hundred. That's in June 2014. But look, each month going up a couple hundred more. Now we're at above 3,000.

As we look at this, remember the president has only authorized 3,550. You add in the 50 that have already been authorized to go to Syria. The 200 that were announced today, and that will put you above that authorization level. This means, the president's going to have to raise that authorization level again.

But, you know, watch that graph there. It came up from just a few hundred guarding U.S. embassies in Baghdad and Erbil. Now look where they are, and they're going to be in combat.

But just to be clear, we're nowhere near the numbers. We're going back to, say, 2008 or so when you had a peak above 150,000, still a fraction of where you were then. But again, still a steady increase from when these operations against ISIS began.

[17:05:13] BLITZER: And presumably, those numbers will continue going up. We'll see what happens. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

The global war on ISIS is being hampered by differences between the U.S. and Russia. Today, President Obama revealed he personally warned the Russian president Vladimir Putin against intervening in Syria's civil war.

Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is in Paris where the president has met with world leaders, including Putin.

Jim, any progress there in breaking the U.S./Russian stalemate.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Not much, Wolf. President Obama offered a frank admission today in Paris that he has not made much progress, convincing Vladimir Putin to change course in Syria.

That shift, if it ever comes, the president acknowledged, could take months, as ISIS grows stronger. That essentially means the U.S. and Russia will keep on bombing different targets, Washington taking aim at ISIS, Moscow hitting U.S.-backed forces fighting Putin's man in Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

Still, based on their conversations, the president is convinced Putin may be shifting his calculation in Syria away from supporting Assad, but Mr. Obama cautioned, during a news conference today, that may not happen any time soon. Here's what he had to say.


OBAMA: Mr. Putin, I don't expect that you're going to see a 180-turn on their strategy over the next several weeks. They have invested four years now in keeping Assad in power. Their presence there is predicated on propping him up. And so that's going to take some time for them to change how they think about the issue.


ACOSTA: Also complicating the president's military campaign in Syria, Moscow is still outraged over Turkey's downing of that Russian warplane last week. The Russians are accusing Turkish leaders of trying to protect a black-market oil supply from ISIS terrorists.

Turkey's president, Erdogan, denied that here in Paris, vowing he would resign if the claim was proven true. And in a meeting with President Obama, Erdogan fired back that Russian bombers are slaughtering ethnic Turkmen in Syria.

Mr. Obama all but told both Erdogan and Putin in separate meetings to cut it out and that the common enemy is ISIS, but that has not resolved this conflict. And a Russian news agency, just to add more fuel to the fire, said Moscow has had evidence obtained that Turkey was importing oil from ISIS across that porous Syrian-Turkish border. The president did not weigh in on that claim earlier today, Wolf, but he did say he has had repeated conversations with Turkey's president about gaps at the border. It is a source of frustration at the White House, Wolf.

The president did appear to weigh in on that claim, the Russian claim that ISIS oil is being slipped through that Turkish border from Syria into Turkey. The president said that about 100 kilometers of that border was not controlled by the Turkish military, that people were going back and forth, including terrorists, foreign fighters, he said.

And ISIL, he said, is shipping out fuel for sale that helps finance their terrorist activities. So the president clearly showing his frustration with the government of Turkey, a NATO ally.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: Is that what you're hearing privately on the sidelines, as well?

ACOSTA: Privately on the sidelines, yes, Wolf, they are -- they are expressing their frustrations to the Turkish leaders that, yes, this porous border has to be clogged up. It is out of control at this point. It is allowing ISIS terrorists and foreign fighters to go back and forth.

Yes, he did weigh in on oil coming in to Turkey from Syria. But as for that claim -- and Putin made this claim here in Paris, Wolf, that Turkey shot down that Russian jet to protect that oil supply. President did not weigh in on that exact precise accusation from Russia, but just hearing that here in Paris, that just added more fuel to this fire, this simmering dispute between Russia and Turkey. It is not going away anytime soon.

BLITZER: Yes, clearly, the president is frustrated with both Russia and Turkey right now. Jim Acosta in Paris for us, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee as well as an Iraq War veteran. Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

The news the joint chiefs chairman, General Dunford, saying the U.S. is not limited by the 3,500 ground troops it already has in Iraq, including the 50 who are going into Syria, maybe another 200 going into Syria, as well. Does this sound like mission creep to you?

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: Well, Wolf, the first thing I think it's important to make clear is, I have long said that the United States should not be in a nation-building mission.

If we're talking about small deployments of Special Forces, troops who are going out there directly to defeat our enemy, defeat ISIS and work with local ground forces to be able to accomplish that mission, then that's something that makes sense.

That's very different than a large deployment of 10,000 or 100,000 regular U.S. ground troops or an occupying force, as we've seen in Iraq. If that were the case, that would be counterproductive to us achieving our mission of defeating ISIS. It would play directly into their rhetoric of saying this is a war between Islam and the west, and that's something that would not be good for anyone.

BLITZER: You served in Iraq. You fought there. Has the U.S. learned lessons from that experience, looking forward?

GABBARD: I wish the answer was yes, Wolf, but the answer's no, and this is my greatest concern.

And the reason for this is because, after Iraq, the United States went ahead and did the very same thing in Libya, overthrowing Gadhafi. Now ISIS is growing in strength, has a stronghold in Libya today, with plans to continue to expand.

And what's even crazier is that now the United States policy is looking to do the very same thing once again in Syria, with this focus and determination on overthrowing the Syrian government to Assad, which will only serve to make ISIS stronger in Syria, taking over that territory in Syria, providing a greater threat to the region and to the world.

BLITZER: The president, you just heard in our report, says he doesn't expect Putin to make a 180-degree turn when it comes to the future of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

You disagree with the president when it comes to the future of President Assad. You believe it's a mistake for the U.S. to focus in on his rule, his regime, right now. Explain to our viewers why.

GABBARD: Well, again, I think this is a very simple question of looking at exactly what's happened in the recent past.

When we saw the United States overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq, what was the result and the outcome? The outcome was groups like ISIS and al Qaeda growing stronger, taking over more territory. The very same thing occurred in Libya, when the United States went in and overthrew Gadhafi.

Now we have ISIS with a headquarters there in Libya and continuing to look to expand. The very same thing will happen in Syria if the United States is successful in its focus and in its objective of overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad. ISIS will walk in the front door, take over Syria and pose that very direct and greater threat to the region and increase the humanitarian crisis there ten- fold.

BLITZER: You just visited -- you were just in Paris, seeing what was going on over there following the terror attacks. We heard a very disturbing assessment from Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, saying that what happened in Paris, he could easily foresee that happening here in the United States, as well. You agree with him?

GABBARD: When I was there in Paris, it was heart-wrenching to see the impacts of this ISIS attack there. And it's the reason why we need to take very seriously. Our priority, our focus, our mission must be to dedicate our resources in executing a strong and decisive strategy to defeat ISIS, rather than what began as a distraction in overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad.

But something that has now put us in a far more dangerous position, putting us directly at odds, putting the United States at odds with Russia, creating the great potential for a head-to-head conflict, a world war and a nuclear conflict with U.S. and Russia.

BLITZER: Today the president, at his news conference in Paris, he strongly urged the NATO ally, Turkey, to do a better job sealing its border. I want to play a little clip of what the president said. Listen to this, Congresswoman.


OBAMA: I think it was about 98 kilometers that are still used as a transit point for foreign fighters, ISIL shipping out fuel for sale that helps finance their terrorist activities.


BLITZER: Very blunt comments from the president about a NATO ally, saying nearly 100 kilometers, they have one of the largest militaries in the world, the military of Turkey.

But he says they're not controlling almost 100 kilometers of their border with Syria. Terrorists are going back and forward, and ISIS -- or ISIL, as he calls it -- is shipping oil illegally through that border for sale to Europe, if you will, to make money to fund ISIS terror operations. When you hear that from the president, what goes through your mind?

GABBARD: Well, it's been no secret of the fact that Turkey has not been standing with the United States. standing with us in this fight against ISIS to defeat and destroy ISIS.

Their first priority has been to squash the Kurds, to get rid of the Kurds who, by the way, have been our most effective fighting ground force, defeating ISIS in both northern -- in both Iraq as well as in Syria.

Their second priority is getting rid of the Syrian government of Assad and doing everything that they can to send arms and equipment and weapons and ammunition to those who are working towards that end, including Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda, like al Nusra; therefore, strengthening ISIS, strengthening our enemy.

And the open borders that they have with Syria, the direct and indirect assistance they've been providing to ISIS and these other Islamic extremist groups just prove the point that Turkey is not standing with us. They have done less in the fight against ISIS than they have done for ISIS in helping strengthen ISIS.

BLITZER: Pretty strong words from the president today when he suggests that Turkey is basically cooperating with ISIS in the sale of that illegal oil in order to make money to fund further terror operations.

Congresswoman, we have much more to talk about. Stay with us. I know you're up on Capitol Hill. Much more with Tulsi Gabbard right after this.


[17:20:45] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news in the war on ISIS with our guest, Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who's on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee. She's also an Iraq War veteran.

Congresswoman, there's a chilling new warning. I mentioned it to you earlier about the possibility of a Paris-style terror attack right here in the United States. I want to play the clip. This is the man who just stepped down as the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Listen to what he told CNN's Jake Tapper.


LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.), FORMER DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Really do believe it's a matter of time. I believe that there's going to be where our luck is going to run out, and they're going to be able to achieve something along the lines of what we saw in Paris.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: So here's the question: is the U.S. prepared? Does the U.S. have adequate intelligence, because you're well-briefed on these issues?

GABBARD: Wolf, this is something that continues to be an ongoing concern. You know, Lieutenant General Flynn was the guy who called out this threat from ISIS long before many people were listening. And I think he's very much in tune with the possibility of this type of attack or this kind of threat facing the American people.

I want to mention one thing that is deeply earn concerning to me happening now at the Turkey/Syria border. We have a U.S. F-15 planes patrolling the border between the two countries, at the same time that Russia has put in place a very sophisticated anti-aircraft missile defense system.

This is deeply concerning to me because this, again, puts the United States and Russia at a head-to-head conflict with possibility, whether it's intentional or even an accident, that one side will shoot down the other side's plane, kicking off what is a much larger, potentially, world war and nuclear war between the United States and Russia.

And the thing is, with this, we've got to ask ourselves, what will the cost of this be? Devastation to the American people, to the world, and what -- for what? What's the benefit? Why are we trying to do this in Syria? Why are we trying to go to war with Russia over this disagreement of overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad? It's crazy.

BLITZER: And you don't think it legal. The president, you believe, requires congressional authorization to do what the U.S. is doing in Syria against Assad, right?

GABBARD: That's exactly right. To go to war, to overthrow another country's government, this is something that Congress must authorize.

But this is something that's been ongoing from the United States here now for a few years, with this arming and equipping, this CIA program, to provide weapons and ammunition and support to these groups, some of them Islamic extremist groups to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

Coming up, prisoner swap frees ex-wife of the world's most-wanted terrorist. Does it mean the U.S. is losing key intelligence and insights about the leader of ISIS?


[17:28:24] BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news this hour. New warning about the possibility of an ISIS-inspired terror attack, like the one in Paris, right here in the United States.

Joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM, our national security analyst Peter Bergen; our counterterrorism analyst, Phil Mudd, he's a CIA official; and our military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

Phil, you heard Michael Flynn, lieutenant general, retired, former head of Defense Intelligence Agency, say he could easily foresee what happened in Paris a few weeks ago, happening here in the United States. Do you agree with him?

PHIL MUDD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Heck, no, I don't agree for a heartbeat here. Let me explain what's happening here. Washington, there's a phrase. You under promise and over deliver. You set the bar low, and then you ensure there's not an attack.

Let's have a reality check, though, Wolf. The contrast between America and Europe. There is no geographic continuity with ISIS here in the United States.

In Europe, you get in a car, you travel across Turkey, you get into Syria. We don't have these densities of these suburban communities here that you see in Europe. We don't have information sharing problems we see in Europe. We don't have the same per capita number of cases that European security services have. And finally, we have the FBI director saying number of Americans traveling over to ISIS has declined. If you want to tell me we have the same threat picture as Europe? I don't think so. I don't buy this.

BLITZER: What about you, Peter?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I concur with Phil. General Flynn was the first person in the government to warn of the rise of ISIS.

But the fact is geography, you can't drive from Paris to Washington. You can drive from Paris to Damascus. And also, you know, the other thing is, the volume, the numbers of people who are going. We've got over 1,000 French citizens who have gone to Syria, and you're looking at maybe a couple of dozen who have succeeded, Americans, getting to Syria.

BLITZER: You did see this George Washington University study that just came out, saying that, what, there are at least 300 Americans who are acting, in effect, as ISIS ambassadors on Twitter, many of them women of the 300, many women. What is the attraction, especially to these women here in the United States, to go out there and serve the cause of ISIS?

[17:30:18] BERGEN: Well, you know, some of them have a romantic delusion they're going to marry the man of their dreams. I mean, we've done some research into the women who are going, and many of them are getting married. And they see themselves also taking part in a heroic religious struggle against Assad and restoring the caliphate, a whole set of reasons. But, you know, we are seeing American females who are recruiting

Americans to come. There's a woman called Hoda in Alabama. She's a 20-year-old who's very active on Twitter, who's been recruiting, trying to recruit American citizens, and she's not alone.

BLITZER: According to this study, 300 Americans are acting as ISIS ambassadors on Twitter.

General Hertling, the defense secretary, Ash Carter; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Dunford, they testified in front of Congress today about the plans to defeat, to destroy ISIS. We heard a lot of criticism that 50 U.S. Special Operations forces in Syria isn't going to have much of an impact. Now maybe another 200 might be based in Iraq but go into Syria at the same time. Is that really going to make much of a difference?

HERTLING: I believe it will. You're going to talk about operators that will certainly be contributing in a counterterrorism role. Those are all the roles that the secretary described.

And then you're going to have a large number that will remain in northern Iraq, probably in Erbil. We're talking about the intelligence gatherers, the transporters, the helicopters and the support troops. So you're still going to see a very small number of counterterrorism special operators conducting those raids, those hostage rescue missions and the things that you normally associate with Special Operations forces, Wolf.

BLITZER: How good is U.S. intelligence in dealing with ISIS in Syria right now?

MUDD: I think if you look at the successful rate operations that have been conducted over time, let's say over the past 6 to 12 months, the pace of operations has been pretty good. And the pace of airstrikes, which are built on intelligence from the ground, is pretty good.

The problem in these situations, though, is when you start airstrikes with this frequency, you're starting to destroy the same targets you're trying to collect on. So it's a two-edged sword. You lose the collection when these targets start to move, but as soon as they re- create their networks they have a vulnerability in that movement, meaning they've got to go back up on the networks; and that's an opportunity for intelligence.

BLITZER: All right, guys. I want all of you to stand by, because we're continuing to follow the breaking news.

Also coming up, a prisoner swap that may cost the U.S. a key source of insight into the world's most-wanted terrorists.

We're also keeping track of developments in the 2016 presidential race. Senator Ted Cruz has some new momentum, but he's stirring up some new controversy today with answers like this when he was asked about contraception and allegations that Republicans are behind a war on women.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Jiminy Cricket, this is a made-up, nonsense example. Last I checked, don't have a rubber shortage in America. It's like, when I was in college we had a machine in the bathroom. You put 50 cents in, and voila.



BLITZER: Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is enjoying an impressive surge of support in Iowa, the crucial state in the GOP nomination contest. But the question remains: can Cruz knock frontrunner Donald Trump from his perch in the polls?

Sunlen Serfaty has been following the Cruz campaign. She's joining us now. So Sunlen, what's behind his recent surge?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, his rise, Wolf, really has been fueled, in part, by his inflammatory and oftentimes controversial rhetoric. He doesn't shy away from this. It plays very well to his base, and that might be one of the big reasons why Cruz is now within striking distance of Donald Trump.


CRUZ: Let me be very clear: I don't believe Donald Trump is going to be our nominee.

SERFATY (voice-over): Ted Cruz ascending, suddenly within striking distance of Donald Trump in Iowa.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At some point, he's going to have to hit me, right? It's going to be a sad day, but we will hit back, I promise.

SERFATY: The Texas senator's success bringing greater scrutiny to his often provocative rhetoric, plenty of it in the last 48 hours alone, Cruz turning a voter's question about access to birth control...

CRUZ: So what do you do? You go, "Aha! The condom police."

SERFATY: ... into a condemnation of Democrats for what he says is a fabricated narrative.

CRUZ: When the war on women came up, Republicans would curl up in a ball. They'd say, "Don't hurt me."

Jiminy cricket, this is a made-up, nonsense example. Last I checked, we don't have a rubber shortage in America. It's like, when I was in college, we had a machine in the bathroom. You put 50 cents in and voila.

SERFATY: Cruz also criticizing media for focusing on the reported anti-abortion rhetoric of the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter. CRUZ: It's also reported that he was registered as an independent and

as a woman and is a transgender leftist activist. If that's what he is, I don't think it's fair to blame on the rhetoric of the left. This is a murderer.

SERFATY: Cruz aides say he was trying to make a point against rushing to judgment.

And in a radio interview, charging that most violent felons are Democrats...

CRUZ (via phone): Listen, here's the simple and undeniable fact: the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.

[17:40:08] SERFATY: When asked for proof, the Cruz campaign citing a 2014 study of three states, finding that ex-felons who registered to vote do so overwhelmingly as Democrats.

Such incendiary flourishes are nothing new to Cruz, who regularly takes his attacks on President Obama to an extreme.

CRUZ: The Obama administration will become quite literally the world's leading financier of radical Islamic terrorists.


SERFATY: And two months from today, the first votes will be cast in Iowa. Of course, a lot can and will change before then.

But Ted Cruz, he's also an added threat. Now, he's invested a lot of time outside of Iowa, really laying the groundwork on some southern states, which of course, could go a long way for him going forward -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen. Thanks very much.

For more, let's turn to our political experts. We're joined by CNN politics senior digital correspondent Chris Moody; and our senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson.

Nia, any of the controversial comments, Cruz -- I know Donald Trump's had some controversial comments -- but is it really going to make a difference in terms of the support he has from his base?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I don't think we know yet. This, of course, is what has gotten him in this race, gotten him being able to compete with Donald Trump in states like Iowa and, certainly, in the south, too. So I don't know that we know what the long-term effect, is it going to have a kind of cumulative effect, some of the comments that he's made that, again, the base really, really likes.

This is why they've really backed him so far. So I think he's got to figure out whether or not this kind of rhetoric means that his support will have a ceiling, or if he's going to have to temper if it he wants to grow beyond that really, kind of red meat base of the Republican Party.

BLITZER: And Chris, as we just saw in Sunlen's report, his numbers, especially in Iowa, the first caucus state, really going up. What's driving that?

CHRIS MOODY, CNN POLITICS SENIOR DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a combination of factors. But one is good old-fashioned hard work. Shortly, very shortly after the 2012 elections, presidential elections Ted Cruz was in Iowa that very summer, 2013. I was there with him, meeting with a group of pastors. And he has spent a ton of time in that state, working specifically with evangelicals.

Now if you look at the polls and you drill down in Iowa, you will see that a bulk of the support comes from people who say they are very conservative. The question is: can he expand that to a broader base?

It also doesn't help that Donald Trump has been questioning the intelligence of Iowans over the past several weeks. So I'm sure they're looking possibly for somebody else to vote for at the caucuses.

BLITZER: Donald Trump is clearly an outsider, no political elections that he's had to endure. Ben Carson, the same. Cruz tries to paint himself as an outsider as well, although he's a sitting U.S. senator right here in Washington, inside the Beltway. Can he project himself as an outsider like Trump and Carson?

HENDERSON: I think so, because his entire identity is that he has been in the face of the Republican Party establishment here in Washington. He essentially called Mitch McConnell, of course, is the leader of the Senate Republicans, he essentially called him a liar. He was on the leading edge of the government shutdown over Obamacare back in 2013. He has called his Republican colleagues squishes.

So I think he, you know, his whole brand, he's -- that he's willing to take the fight to the establishment here in Washington.

BLITZER: Who would the GOP establishment, the sort of old-school Republican leadership, prefer, Cruz or Trump?

MOODY: That's the most fun question a reporter could ask a member of the establishment. It's one they really don't want to answer.

On one hand, Ted Cruz has been an enemy of the so-called establishment here in Washington. A lot of them will say quietly that they see him as a person that sees his own ambition as larger than the greater good for the party.

But then, Donald Trump is, of course, Donald Trump. So I think it's a question that they hope they don't have to answer next year.

BLITZER: In Iowa, we've seen Cruz go up. Trump is still No. 1, Carson go down. Why is that?

HENDERSON: That's right. And I think part of the reason, this is sort of the post-Paris attack effect. You've seen Carson stumble with some of the responses in terms of foreign policy and national security.

And Cruz, I think, has benefited. Carson has essentially gone down about 10 to 12 points, and Cruz has gone up almost the same amount.

And as Chris said, he has been on the ground there in Iowa, courting those evangelicals. And it pays off. And he sounds like a televangelist when they talks.

BLITZER: And he and Marco Rubio, Cruz and Rubio, they have really, Chris, been going at it, the two of them. I guess they're searching to see who's going to emerge from that second tier.

MOODY: Well, so what Ted Cruz has been saying is that he's the conservative candidate, and Marco Rubio is the, quote, "moderate candidate." And that is something, of course, that Marco Rubio doesn't necessarily want to be put in those boxes. So I think you could possibly see a real matchup going forward. Maybe not just coming out of Iowa but especially going through the south where Ted Cruz has spent a lot of time.

There are a lot of possibilities that could happen next year, and a Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz matchup could be one of them.

BLITZER: Nia, Trump keeps saying, these guys as they move up, Rubio, Cruz, they're going to start hitting him.

HENDERSON: That's right.

BLITZER: And you know what? He says he's going to hit right back ten-fold.

HENDERSON: That's right. I mean, you saw Cruz kind of play nice with Donald Trump for much of the cycle because he wants Trump supporters but he said yesterday that he doesn't think Trump will be the nominee because he of course he thinks that he will be the nominee. So we'll see.

BLITZER: It could get pretty lively.


BLITZER: Out there on the campaign trail.

Guys, thanks very, very much.

Coming up, the ex-wife of the world's most wanted terrorist released from prison. Why did Lebanon led a crucial connection to the head of ISIS walk free?


BLITZER: We're following a developing story out of Lebanon where the former wife of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has now been freed from prison.

[17:50:05] The release took place as part of a prisoner swap involving 16 Lebanese soldiers being held by the al Qaeda-affiliated terror group.

Brian Todd has been digging in on this developing story. Brian, what are you learning?

BLITZER: Wolf, tonight we're learning that this was a very important prisoner swap. This woman, Saja al-Dulaimi, was traded along with several al Qaeda prisoners for more than a dozen Lebanese soldiers who are being held by an al Qaeda affiliate. But it's Dulaimi's association with the ISIS leader that has intelligence circles buzzing tonight.

The key question, does she have any information that could lead Western forces any closer to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?


TODD (voice-over): She has an intimate connection to the most wanted man in the world, Saja al-Dulaimi. The ex-wife of Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi has just been released from a Lebanese prison and now downplays her past with the ISIS leader.

SAJA AL-DULAIMI, ABU BAKR AL-BAGHDADI'S EX-WIFE (Through Translator): We divorced six or seven years ago. He wasn't al-Baghdadi or anything.

TODD: This is believed to be footage of Dulaimi who was arrested in 2014 along with a young child. A Lebanese security source says a young girl, Dulaimi's daughter, believed to have been fathered by Baghdadi, was also released with her. One Lebanese official tells CNN Saja al-Dulaimi was freed as part of a prisoner swap, traded for a group of Lebanese soldiers held by the al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front.

FAYSAL ITANI, THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL: She was released because I think, A, her intelligence value to the Lebanese Security Forces ran out. She revealed all that she could reveal or that they could get out of her and they ran out of other options to retrieve the soldiers.

TODD: Dulaimi's marriage to Baghdadi reported lasted only a few months. The ISIS' leader's current personal life is still a mystery. Iraqi intelligence has said he has two wives. U.S. intelligence officials won't comment on whether they'll want to question Saja al- Dulaimi or on any information Dulaimi might have given to the Lebanese.

But a former CIA officer we spoke to says U.S. officials likely will want access to her. Dulaimi could provide U.S. intelligence with cell phone numbers, metadata belonging to Baghdadi, and even if it's dated it could still help target the ISIS leader. And given his obsession with secrecy, any insight Dulaimi could give on his personality could be critical.

(On camera): That far removed, could she say anything useful now?

ITANI: To be honest, I think the most they're doing is she would have most insight on is his relationships with people, who he trusts, the circles he moves around in, how he coordinates with them, how he communicates, which areas he feels secure in.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Some of the questions that could be asked of her include to what degree does Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have an obsession with the apocalypse, with the end of days, is he driven by that, is he going to go for broke, all out in his confrontation with the West?


TODD: But given Saja al-Dulaimi's current loyalties, it's not clear if she would give the Lebanese any usual information. A Lebanese security source says her current husband is involved with the al Qaeda affiliate the Al Nusra Front and she has a brother who's a senior member of that group -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, even though she's been released, the fact that she's been held and possibly interrogated could put herself in some danger. Isn't that right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. A former senior U.S. military official told "The New York Times" that during the Iraq war, the Americans captured a wife of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq which later became ISIS. This U.S. official told the "Times" the Americans got a little bit of information out of the wife but after they released her, Zarqawi killed her.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, reporting for us, thanks very much.

Coming up, more on the breaking news we're following. The Pentagon orders more U.S. boots on the ground inside Iraq and Syria in the war against ISIS.

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BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, hundreds of boots the Pentagon wrapping up the war against ISIS poised to deploy a specialized force to Iraq and to Syria. What will the growing U.S. presence in that country and in Syria mean for the fight against terrorist forces?

Rush hour bombing. A powerful explosion rocks the largest city in Turkey, a key NATO ally now being called out by President Obama for failing to secure its border against ISIS.

And tonight, new information about the Paris attackers. Why was the mastermind prepared to spend thousands of dollars on high-end clothes?

Top cop fired. Chicago's mayor demands the resignation of the police superintendent over the handling of this deadly shooting that now has an officer charged with murder. Will the move diffuse growing tension in the city? I'll talk to the NAACP president Cornell William Brooks who himself just arrested while protesting in Chicago.

Hit me.