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THE SITUATION ROOM
Officials: San Bernardino Terrorist's Friend Arrested; ISIS Launches Deadly Assault on U.S. Ally; Interview with Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois; Putin Praises 'Bright and Talented' Trump; Officials: San Bernardino Terrorist's Friend Arrested; San Bernardino Terrorist's Friend Arrested; Rubio, Cruz Taking Debate Feud to the Campaign Trail; Terror Concerns Fuel Debate over Syrian President. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired December 17, 2015 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:18] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now:
Breaking news: under arrest. He once built pipe bombs with one of the San Bernardino killers, and he bought the rifles used by the terrorist couple to massacre 14 people. Now, officials say Enrique Marquez has been arrested and taken in for arraignment.
ISIS assault. Just days after President Obama declares that ISIS has lost its freedom of movement, the terror group launches deadly strikes on a key U.S. ally. How can the U.S. help its new partners on the ground?
Cruz versus Rubio. They have all scores to settle and now the battle for second place in the Republican campaign is turning into an all-out war between the two senators.
And Putin's pick. Russia's president is full of praise for Republican front-runner Donald Trump who's also tossed some compliments Putin's way. Do the two share similar views on leadership?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: The breaking news: more than two weeks after the San Bernardino attack and just days after the bodies of the husband and wife terrorists were buried, the childhood friend of one of the killers is now under arrest on multiple charges, including material support for terrorism. Officials say Enrique Marquez has admitted to building pipe bombs in the past with Syed Rizwan Farook and giving him the rifles later used in the massacre.
Meantime, investigators probing the Paris attacks now believe the terrorists used encrypted apps to hide their plot. And we're also learning at least two of the attackers and mastermind passed through a Greek island apparently posing as refugees.
All that comes as President Obama says there's no specific and credible terror threat to the United States homeland right now. He's urging Americans not to give in to fear.
But a new poll shows the Americans doubt the government's ability to stop lone wolf terror attacks. All of this on the same day that Disney announces it's added metal detectors at its theme parks and is barring costumes and guests 14 years and older.
I'll speak with Congressman Adam Kinzinger and our correspondents, analysts and guest. They'll have full coverage of the day's top stories.
Let's begin with our national correspondent Kyung Lah. She has the latest on the San Bernardino investigation.
What are you learning, Kyung?
KYUNG LAH, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're getting this information via Pam Brown and Evan Perez in Washington, D.C. We're also getting our first look at the criminal complaint that has just been filed against Enrique Marquez.
We anticipated that he would be facing weapons charges. That is one of the charges, making a false statement in connection with the acquisition of firearms, visa and marriage fraud. But this is the big one, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. In this charge, he is being charged by the federal government with supporting the terrorist act.
LAH (voice-over): The two semiautomatic rifles Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik used to unleash terror in San Bernardino, killing 14 people and wounding 22 others were purchased by this man, Enrique Marquez.
Years before Farook and his wife would murder in San Bernardino, Farook was stockpiling. He'd already purchased guns and wanted to avoid questions buying more. He turned to his childhood neighbor and friend Marquez who in 2011 and 2012 bought Farook the two AR-15 type rifles.
But law enforcement experts believe Marquez's role in the investigation may be bigger.
TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: At this point in the investigation, Marquez can supply a lot of information. That's a critical thing is that he can fill in a lot of blanks about a time period that electronically the FBI may not be able to recover at this point.
LAH: The terror plot stunned Marquez's family, remain out of public view telling reporters only that he was, quote, "a good boy". Those who know Marquez call him goofy, always outwardly, light-hearted as seen in this local news feature story.
ENRIQUE MARQUEZ: I'm really out of shape, but I'm sore now.
LAH: That's the Enrique Marquez Jerry Morgan remembers. He hired him to work door security at his bar, Morgan's Tavern.
JERRY MORGAN, MORGAN'S TAVERN: He couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag.
LAH: Morgan says Marquez worked at the bar for three years. Marquez never mentioned he was married to Farook's relative or that he and Farook planned then abandoned a terror plot in 2012. He never talked about the hobby he would tell investigators, building pipe bombs with Farook or the guns he bought that would murder and terrorize this community.
MORGAN: That's what makes him so spooky is because he's just a normal everyday Joe blow that you don't give the time of day to.
[17:05:08] And the next thing you know --
LAH: Now, Marquez did appear -- he did just show up at the federal courthouse in Riverside. We anticipate that there will be a hearing later today. We don't have an exact time on when that hearing will be.
And looking through this criminal complaint, Wolf, something's very clear. It isn't this attack that the federal government is charging him with for material support, it is some of the statements he made about a prior plan back in 2011-2012.
Something we should also mention, Wolf, that is approximately the time that he did convert to Islam and he became much more entrenched with the Farook family.
BLITZER: All right. A major, major development. Thanks very much for that, Kyung Lah, out in California reporting on the latest developments.
For more on these charges, let's go to our justice reporter Evan Perez.
Evan, what does it mean to be charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorism?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, it means that he now faces 15 years in prison for that charge alone. And really this centers on the 2012 plot that they ended up not carrying out. Marquez according to this criminal affidavit he backed away from the plan after an unrelated arrest of another group off people who are trying to go back to Afghanistan.
If you read through this complaint, however, it describes this harrowing plan where they were going to attack the community college where Farook and Marquez attended and also perhaps attack a highway with pipe bombs and using some of those same firearms that Marquez helped Farook obtain.
This is the big charge frankly overnight we had heard from sources that prosecutors were weighing whether or not they wanted to bring this charge immediately or perhaps just charge him with the gun charge and then add these other charges later on. They ended up deciding that they were going to work all day to try to get the warrant to be able to bring these charges, Wolf. And that's exactly what they did.
BLITZER: And as you've reported, he has been cooperating. He has been talking. He waived his Miranda rights, right?
PEREZ: That's right. He waived his Miranda rights. But later in the week, he ended upbringing a lawyer in and they continued to cooperate with the FBI. It does appear that the FBI believes that this 2012 plot was something that was real. That was one of the things they were trying to corroborate and one reason why they thought they might wait a little while to be able to bring that charge, Wolf.
BLITZER: Evan Perez reporting, thank you.
As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is continuing his efforts to make sure that the United States stops terrorism -- ISIS terrorism specifically -- America's Kurdish allies in northern Iraq they are putting some boots on the ground. They're trying to make sure that they take some steps to defeat ISIS.
Let's go to our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.
What are you learning about this latest Kurdish assault on ISIS?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this ISIS assault was one of the biggest, the most expansive operations by them in a number of weeks. The intention appears to be to push back Kurdish forces to prevent them from massing to help retake the city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, a stronghold of ISIS right now.
To this point appears the Kurds have successful repulsed the ISIS advance.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Hundreds of ISIS militants launch a barrage of rockets during a coordinated attack on a Kurdish base in northern Iraq, a chilling moment in the aftermath. Kurdish Peshmerga forces find an ISIS truck with the label in Arabic, "suicide bomber section".
Wednesday's assault was the largest ISIS attack of its kind in months and came just days after President Obama touted this fact.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Since this summer, ISIL has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground in either Syria or Iraq.
SCIUTTO: The Kurds thwarted the attack with help from coalition air support. What was behind the latest offensive? ISIS fighting to defend its stronghold in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
COL. CEDRIG LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They're basically willing to do whatever it takes to prevent the Kurds from affecting their operations. They want to keep Mosul at all costs. This is one way in which they're trying to ensure that.
SCIUTTO: Likewise, the U.S. sees the Kurds as the coalition's most capable ally on the ground. And today, Defense Secretary Ash Carter visiting the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil in northern Iraq praise the Kurds' resolve.
ASHTON CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The Kurdish Peshmerga have been exactly what we've been looking for in this whole fight in Iraq and Syria, namely capable and motivated force that we can enable.
SCIUTTO: Now, the U.S. is attempting to fortify partners on the ground inside Syria, sending a fresh shipment of ammunition to Arab rebels there. The U.S. hopes the new supplies will aid the rebels' advance on the capital of ISIS' self-proclaimed caliphate, the Syrian city of Raqqa.
[17:10:05] Delivered over land from northern Iraq, this is the third shipment since the U.S. shifted away from training rebel forces outside the country.
LEIGHTON: The feeling right now in DOD is that these types of operations are actually working. So, the re-supply efforts are not only being repeated, they're being intensified.
SCIUTTO: That re-supply effort, part of a broader change in strategy. Remember the initial strategy was to train these fighters outside the country. That strategy failed. You were left with just 50 or so, many of them captured. Now the focus is on arming moderate rebels, if you can find them on the ground and make that in effect, Wolf, the fighting force on the ground in Syria.
BLITZER: That's a tough mission, finding those moderate Syrian rebels will go fight ISIS as opposed to Bashar al Assad's regime. Jim Sciutto, thank you.
Joining us now, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. He's a U.S. Air Force veteran. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.
REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: You watched the debate, the one I moderated, the Republican presidential candidate.
KINZINGER: It was a great debate.
BLITZER: There's a clear split among these Republican candidates about whether or not the Kurds can get the job done on the ground. The U.S. needs someone willing to go and provide ground forces. Almost everyone's reluctant to do so. Could the Kurds technically get the job done, defeat is in their capital of Raqqa? KINZINGER: Yes, I think the Kurds can be part of the solution. I
don't think they can be the only answer. Keep in mind, they're monitoring a border right now with ISIS that's over 600 miles long. It's basically from D.C. to Chicago that they have to, you know, even defend.
So, to think they can be the lynch pin, the ground force, I think is overestimated. They're great fighters, great allies. By the way, they're Muslim, and I think Jeb was right to say, you know, we need to be careful with our language in this fight, that's important as anything. But to say that they can be the ground force that destroys ISIS is I think overestimating, even though they are very capable.
BLITZER: You're a Jeb Bush supporter.
KINZINGER: I am.
BLITZER: That's why I want to make sure that our viewers know that.
But will these Kurds get the cooperation from the Iraqi military to get the job done? Hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq and the U.S. has trained them, provided them with weapons. Are they going to finally show up and destroy ISIS, whether in Raqqa -- they're not going to go into Syria -- but let's say the second largest city in Iraq that would be Mosul?
KINZINGER: They have to. I mean --
BLITZER: But they're not doing it yet.
KINZINGER: Well, and that's the problem. So, you know, the leadership of the Iraqi military melted away when basically it became they threw out all the Sunni Muslims and the Shia in essence took over and disaffected the Sunnis. So, we're having to rebuild that from the ground up. The question is, are they going to be capable?
They've had some very, very slight gains, they've shown some ability to do something. But taking Mosul -- Mosul is a huge city and to say that they're going to do it in the near future I think is wrong. When I was in Iraq about a year and a half ago, they had hoped to already be in Mosul by now. I don't think we're anywhere near that.
BLITZER: Yes, they were in control of Mosul, but a few thousand ISIS terrorists come in they ran away and left their weapons.
KINZINGER: Melted away.
BLITZER: Their tanks, their armored personnel carriers, all their armored vehicles behind. It was a sad moment in Iraq military history.
Congressman, standby. We have a lot more to talk about, including Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. They're both exchanging some words.
We'll update you on that a whole lot more when we come back.
BLITZER: We're talking with Congressman Adam Kinzinger, but first, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is gushing with praise for Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who's been known to toss a compliment or two Putin's way, as well.
[17:17:34] Brian Todd has been looking into this unique relationship.
Brian, why all the kindred spirits?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it seems like they are kindred spirits on the surface. Both have the same style of leadership: the bravado, the confidence, projection of strength, but in reality they come from very different backgrounds. And observers have a warning for Donald Trump: beware of public compliments from Vladimir Putin; he could be playing you.
TODD (voice-over): For about three hours, he wouldn't comment on the American presidential race, but after an exhaustive news conference, Vladimir Putin got a question he couldn't resist: "What do you think of Donald Trump?"
VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): He's a very flamboyant man. Very talented. No doubt about that. He is an absolute leader of the presidential race as we see it today. He says that he wants to move to another level of relations, to a closer deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that?
TODD: Is the feeling mutual? Donald Trump has both praised and criticized the Russian leader.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Putin is a nicer person than I am.
Putin is a nastier guy than me.
TODD: Either way Trump seems to think he's the right person to speak directly with Putin.
TRUMP: I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin. I just think so. People would say what do you mean? I think I'd get along well with him. Obama and him -- he hates Obama.
TODD: But analysts have a warning for Donald Trump, reminding him Putin once managed KGB agents.
MATTHEW ROJANSKY, THE WOODROW WILSON CENTER: He reads Trump and he says, "This is a guy, I want to feed his ego. I want to make him feel like he actually can achieve the unrealistically big things he says he can achieve, and then I want to use him in doing that."
TODD: Experts say by praising Trump, Putin probably was taking a jab at President Obama. But they say Putin and Trump also have similar perspectives on leadership. RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: They're both focused on
this image of action and strength and the individual's ability to bend global forces, that you really need the great man atop of the apex of the nation to defend it against these shadowy forces at home and abroad.
TODD: But there's one shadowy force who Vladimir Putin happens to respect, a man who, like Donald Trump, is an antagonist of Barack Obama, General Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top commander in Syria.
U.S. officials have classified Soleimani as a terrorist who helped target U.S. troops in Iraq. Iranian media reports Soleimani met with Putin in Moscow last week. The Russians deny it.
TODD: But if they did meet, it was very likely to talk about their common client, Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Analysts say Putin and Soleimani are both worried that Assad may fall and may have wanted to assess just how much staying power the Syrian president has left, Wolf.
[17:20:15] BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting, thank you. Thanks very much.
What do you make, Congressman, of the relationship that seems to be developing between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin? I'll remind our viewers you're a supporter of Jeb Bush.
KINZINGER: Yes. It's a nice little bromance that's brewing.
You know, look, the reality of it is Trump has thin skin. We know that. He also is very susceptible to compliments. And I think it's pretty obvious that Putin is playing him.
And I think, you know, in that segment I think it's correct. I think Vladimir Putin is taking a swipe at Barack Obama with this. And I would caution Trump, though he's not going to listen to me, is be careful about that. I mean, even though we can be critical of our leaders here and we should in a public debate, I'm still old school and believe that, to an extent, politics has to end at the water's edge. And don't play into the Russian propaganda.
BLITZER: You heard Ted Cruz say that, if he were president, he would carpet bomb ISIS. You're a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. You know something about aerial strikes. Carpet bombing ISIS, A, would that work?
KINZINGER: No. I mean, maybe there's a place at some point, but we have precision weapons for a reason now. Precision-guided munitions are way more effective than carpet bombing. We haven't carpet bombed since -- it's been quite a while.
It's really flying over, taking dumb bombs unguided and just opening up the bay doors. It's what we did in World War II. With the technology we have today, I think saying things like carpet
bombing and making the sand glow does not build into the good healthy debate like what we saw that you guys put on and that we should be having in this very serious moment in a very serious presidential election.
BLITZER: The Department of Defense, U.S. military confirmed that there are pictures of DOD personnel, Department of Defense personnel, in Libya right now. As you know, Gadhafi is gone. ISIS seems to be taking over huge chunks of Libya right now.
What, if anything, can you tell us about U.S. military personnel in Libya right now? Special Ops, I assume.
KINZINGER: Well, there's not much I can say about it here, but I'll tell you this: wherever ISIS exists, we need to stamp them out. They are a state with statish institutions. They have courts. But they also are reaching out. And it's a volcano. It's like -- actually, it's like an apartment fire in an apartment building, and it spreads. It's not just the apartment that goes down, but it spreads to the next one.
So we're seeing it in Libya. We're seeing it all over the place. We have to worry about Jordan and some of our allies in the Middle East.
So I think anywhere ISIS exists or terrorism exists the United States, with our Arab and our western allies, need to stamp this out and do it pretty intensely. And we don't have to talk about every aspect of what we're doing.
BLITZER: Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thanks very much for joining us.
BLITZER: Thank you.
Coming up, we have dramatic new details coming in on the breaking news we're following. A new arrest in the deadly San Bernardino terror attacks.
[17:26:33] BLITZER: Our breaking news, the childhood friend of one of the San Bernardino terrorists is now under arrest. Officials say Enrique Marquez faces multiple charges, including material support for terrorism. Sources say Marquez has admitted to building pipe bombs in the past with his friend, Syed Rizwan Farook, as well as giving him the rifles which were later used in the massacre.
Our justice reporter, Evan Perez, has been digging into all of this for us.
Evan, fill us in.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a dramatic, dramatic plan that these two men allegedly were planning to carry out in 2011 and 2012 while they were plotting this, according to this affidavit filed there in federal court there in Southern California. They planned to carry out a firearms and explosives attack at a library or at the cafeteria at Riverside Community College. This is a community college where both of these guys attended. Marquez and Farook attended.
They said that this, according to the FBI, this was designed to maximize the number of casualties, Wolf. The plan was to throw pipe bombs into the cafeteria or the library, and then shoot people with guns as they tried to flee.
A second plan that they had was to attack State Route 91, a busy highway there, during the afternoon rush hour. The plan was to attack a section of the highway with no exits. And Farook would throw bombs to disable cars, and then he would start moving around the cars, shooting at people, while Marquez would position himself on a highway to be able to shoot law enforcement and rescuers as they came to the rescue of people there who were trapped.
According to this federal affidavit, Marquez bought two rifles for $750. And the plan was for him to buy the rifles so that Farook would not draw attention simply because of his appearance, because of his Middle Eastern appearance, according to this affidavit. One reason why he's now charged, Marquez is now charged with straw purchase of these two firearms.
The third charge that he is now facing, Wolf, is for marrying a Russian woman, who's related to Farook's brother. He was getting paid $200 a month in order to carry out this sham marriage in order for her to immigrate to this country, Wolf.
BLITZER: He's only 24 years old. Do we know when he converted to Islam?
PEREZ: He converted to Islam around that time, around 2011, according to this federal affidavit. Farook helped radicalize him, showed him videos of Shabaab and Anwar Awlaki, pretty much all the types of things that we see in these types of cases. And so these are the things that motivated him to try to plan this attack.
In the end, according to this affidavit, Marquez decided that he was going to distance himself from Farook. He wasn't going to carry it out because of an unrelated arrest of a group of men who were trying to travel overseas to join al Qaeda. That apparently spooked Marquez. And he was very surprised, Wolf, when this attack was carried out in San Bernardino, according to this affidavit.
BLITZER: All right. Evan, thank you.
Let's bring in our intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer. He's a former CIA operative. Our national security analyst, Peter Bergen; and our CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes, former FBI assistant director.
Bob, this arrest does not charge Marquez with being involved directly in the San Bernardino shooting, as you just heard Evan report. But -- but saying he bought the rifles and purchased the explosives used in those pipe bombs that the couple built, that could have -- could this have -- could this couple have carried out this whole thing, this whole operation with just the two of them, or did they really need Enrique Marquez?
[17:30:08] BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: I think they probably could have bought weapons themselves, Wolf. But I think this was part of a larger network and this is clearly material support to terrorism.
I'll tell you what disturbs me and has disturbed the FBI for two years, I know for certain, is this conversion of Latinos to Islam and interest in the Islamic State and joining these groups, which is a new phenomenon. And it's very difficult for the FBI to watch these conversions. And if -- you know, I frankly didn't believe it, but now after this attack in San Bernardino, I think it's a real problem and I'm quite sure they're looking very hard at it now.
BLITZER: Tom, why did it take so long to file these charges?
TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think they're trying to be diligent in the investigation and he was cooperating all this time. So I think the more opportunity they had to keep questioning him before they arrest him and he gets his attorney and, you know, decides to stop talking, the better to learn all these facts.
BLITZER: CNN is now reporting, Peter, and you've heard this, that the Paris killers, the terrorists in Paris, they used encryption apps. How is ISIS so good at learning how to use these encryption communications techniques so that no one can really monitor what's going on?
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, don't forget the average age of the Western foreign fighters who are going to ISIS who many of the leaders of the group is -- you know, they're in their mid- 20s and they come from the West. I mean, they're educated and they're very familiar with these technologies. And so they're using telegram, which is a German based technology application for their news service and has been discontinued but also for private communication. And, you know, there's no way for the United States government to decrypt what is going on, on this application.
BLITZER: So the FBI really has a problem here, Tom, right?
FUENTES: Oh, they have a problem. And, you know, a lot of people use these. I use WhatsApp, because if you have friends around the world and if you have Wi-Fi you can talk for free, send messages for free, e-mail for free, stay in constant contact with each other. It's very easy to use. The encryption just comes along with it, you know, whether you know it has encryption or not, it's convenient.
BLITZER: So it's just automatic.
Bob, CNN is also reporting that authorities now believe that Abdelhamid Abaaoud returned to Paris ahead of the attacks through the Greek island of Leros. It's unclear whether he entered as a Syrian refugee, but what does it say about security in these parts of Europe that he was able to enter back into the continent after he was already on a wanted list?
BAER: He was a wanted man. And he knew that going through Leros was the best way to get in. I mean, he could mingle in with the refugees whether he bought a blank Syrian passport and altered it or a stolen one. But there's no place to check these passports now that there's not really a central government in Syria. You can't go to the Syrian government because they don't know what happened to these passports. And if I were an ISIS operative and wanted to get into Europe or even the United States, that's exactly the way I'd come in and avoid the major airports.
BLITZER: Peter, as you know, Disney, Disney World, Disneyland, they now say there are going to be metal detectors to go into the theme parks. You were just there with your family on a family vacation. What does that say that Disneyland, Disney World now going to have metal detectors going in?
BERGEN: Well, look, I think they're being -- I mean, they're taking sensible precautions. I mean, when I -- when I was there recently they just were searching handbags and backpacks. And, you know, if you want to kill a lot of people, and you know -- I mean, it's one of many potential targets. I think they're doing actually I think the right thing because the security they had previously was really more sort of performance art than real security.
BLITZER: Disney World or Disney -- that would be a target potentially, Tom, for these terrorists?
FUENTES: There are so many targets like that. All of the theme parks. Universal Studios and other major theme parks are doing the same thing. I know that some of the theme parks right here in northern Virginia have the same type of -- you know, going through some type of security check before you go in. So practically anywhere now where you have a large crowd that's going to be in tens of thousands of people at one time, it's going to be tried to make it into a harder target.
BLITZER: When I go to Washington Wizards game here in Washington at Verizon Center you have to go through metal detectors now. That's routine. I assume it's like that all over the country.
All right, guys, thanks very much.
Coming up, our top political story, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz they're taking their debate feud to the campaign trail. Why is a failed immigration bill front and center right now in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, he's going to have a hard time because he's not told the truth about his position in the past. SEN. TED CRUZ (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Just stop making silly
assertions that their records and my records on immigration are the same. It is demonstrably false.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz repeatedly clashed over the issue of immigration reform at CNN's Republican debate. And both candidates seem eager to continue their feud out there on the campaign trail.
Our Sunlen Serfaty is following the Republican presidential campaign right now. She's joining us live from Las Vegas with the very latest -- Sunlen.
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today for Ted Cruz the focus was really supposed to all be about this big kickoff of his Super Tuesday state fly over tour with the focus being on looking ahead but tonight Ted Cruz finds himself on the defense over his past.
SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight, the battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio intensifying into an all-out war.
CRUZ: They're trying to blur the record.
RUBIO: Ted's the one that chose to attack me personally in a very strong way.
SERFATY: The two first-term senators bringing new heat to old fights. Sparring over their roles in the 2013 debate over comprehensive immigration reform. Rubio, a co-sponsor of the failed bill, trying to turn his biggest vulnerability with Republican voters into a liability for Cruz.
[17:40:05] RUBIO: He's going to have a hard time because he's not told the truth about his position in the past on legalization. And even there at the debate he said he didn't intend to legalize people in the future. Again, I think it's very crafty language.
SERFATY: Cruz rejecting Rubio's charge that he supported granting legal status to undocumented immigrants.
CRUZ: I oppose amnesty. I oppose citizenship. I oppose legalization for illegal aliens. I always have. And I always will. And I challenge every other Republican candidate to say the same thing, or if not then to stop making silly assertions that their records and my records on immigration are the same. It is demonstrably false.
SERFATY: Cruz did offer an amendment to the bill that would grant legal status, but he claims that it was designed to be a poison pill to kill the legislation.
CRUZ: By calling their bluff, we won. We defeated amnesty. We beat it.
SERFATY: But that's quite different than the senator's own stated intention in an interview in 2013.
CRUZ: Not to kill immigration reform, but it was to amend the Gang of Eight bill so that it actually solves the problem rather than making the problem worse.
SERFATY: The Cruz-Rubio duel allowing the frontrunner, Donald Trump, to coast along largely unchallenged, appearing for laughs on late- night, showing a rare moment of self-reflection.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would like to see the Republican Party come together. And I've been a little by divisive in the sense that I've been hitting people pretty hard.
JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST: A little bit, yes.
SERFATY: But in almost the next breath, taking a shot at rival Jeb Bush.
KIMMEL: Do you think Jeb Bush is scared of you or just scared in general?
TRUMP: I think he's scared.
SERFATY: Bush keeping up the attack on Trump following Tuesday night's debate.
JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, the guy's a gifted politician but he's not a serious candidate. Donald Trump doesn't talk about anything serious.
SERFATY: And this was for both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz their most aggressive move yet to really blunt the other's rise. Also though to position themselves as an alternative to Donald Trump -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thank you. For more on this story and all the latest political news let's turn to our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny, our senior politics digital correspondent Chris Moody and our chief political correspondent Dana Bash.
Jeff, they're going after each other, Cruz and Rubio, but why aren't they going after the frontrunner right now Donald Trump?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, a couple of reasons. One, it's difficult to go after Donald Trump. We've seen example after example this year of Republican rivals who have tried and failed. But more importantly they really are as Sunlen said turning out to be this alternative to him. Most Republicans still think there will be a moment when voters will really reflect on this race and wonder if Donald Trump is actually the serious candidate for this job. So both Rubio and Cruz want to be in that position.
And they're sort of occupying the same space here. They're so similar in background and biography. And in politics really until these few differences that we're seeing now. That's why they're going after each other to try and sort of block one another. And it's -- we don't know how this is going to turn out. That's what's so interesting.
BLITZER: Two 44-year-old freshmen senators, both Cuban Americans, Cruz and Rubio, they're going after each other, flood gates have been opened right now. But it's been brewing for a while, right?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It has been brewing for a while but particularly on this issue. The issue of immigration, specifically what to do about the undocumented immigrants in this country. Conservatives were incredibly frustrated, as you know, Wolf, as I know, that in the four debates leading up to ours Rubio was never asked specifically about the fact that he had this bipartisan bill two years ago to allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens because he is different from everybody else in the field on that issue.
So everybody was waiting to pounce at what was the most fascinating and I'm still kind of baffled by it is the way Marco Rubio, because obviously he's been prepared for this, was able to take that and turn it around on Ted Cruz in a way that is remarkable actually because there's nobody who has been perceived as stronger and more kind of, you know, against keeping undocumented immigrants in this country than Ted Cruz. He's gotten all of the backing of all of the leaders on that particularly in the state of Iowa. And I think that's why this is such a huge issue right now because it's about Iowa.
BLITZER: In the battle, Chris, for the Republican nomination, the battle for Republican support, who is more vulnerable on this issue right now, Cruz or Rubio?
CHRIS MOODY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Certainly as of today it's got to be Marco Rubio because the meat of Marco Rubio's argument against Ted Cruz is based on an esoteric amendment in committee of bill and that amendment never passed, the one that Ted Cruz put forth. Whereas with Marco Rubio he didn't just vote for that immigration reform bill, his name was on it. And when you're talking to a mass audience certain policy things in politics often gets lost in the weeds. And I think that Ted Cruz will have a much easier time making the case against Rubio especially on a mass scale.
[17:45:07] BLITZER: Because you hear Cruz all the time now, Jeff, saying that it was Rubio who co-sponsored legislation that President Obama like with Chuck Schumer.
BLITZER: A liberal Democratic senator from New York, Obama, Schumer, Rubio, that coalition, if you will, Cruz is pointing it out repeatedly.
ZELENY: Repeatedly. And also something of a scarlet letter, amnesty. Ted Cruz can say the word amnesty. Marco Rubio, amnesty. That's all he really needs to say. You can be sure there are going to be TV ads coming on this. Ted Cruz has a lot of money behind him through super PACs. Did not spend much on this. So this is where this argument is going here. But I think you're right about this. It is more of a legislative discussion here. But I've been surprised how sort of unsteady Ted Cruz has been on this.
ZELENY: He's done a few interviews that he has not prepared for this either. That's why I said we don't know how this is going to go. Ted Cruz has run a pretty good campaign throughout.
ZELENY: But this has rattled him and I'm not exactly sure how this is going to go.
BASH: And I'm actually not so sure. Sure, it's a very clean kill when you're a conservative saying my opponent supports amnesty, but Ted Cruz's calling card is that he's an outsider. He doesn't sound like a politician. His problem is he's really smart and understands the ways to play legislative chess. And two years ago this was one of them, but explaining that to the mass public is not so easy. And it makes him sound potentially like a slippery politician which is exactly the opposite of the image that he's been able to put forward.
ZELENY: Marco Rubio is using this as a pivot to some of his very specific votes on surveillance and things. So that is the thing that's a bigger vulnerability for Ted Cruz.
ZELENY: But as Dana said, this reminds people, you know what, he's a politician. He's not an outsider. He's a politician.
BLITZER: Why is Ted Cruz willing to say negative things about Marco Rubio in private at a fundraiser that he's not necessarily willing to spell out in public? That's the criticism he's been getting lately because recording of that private fundraiser came out. And -- he was saying stuff about Donald Trump, I should say. Donald Trump, but he's not willing to say about Donald Trump in public.
MOODY: Well, of course as we learn most famously in 2012 politicians often say things behind closed doors that they don't say to the public at a mass rally. Reporters have almost had a game over the past couple of years of trying to get Ted Cruz to criticize another competitor on the Republican side and he's been very careful not to. And so I don't think there's any surprise that he does it behind the scenes. He doesn't want to alienate supporters especially of Donald Trump whose support he so wants later on.
BLITZER: If something were to happen to Donald Trump's lead he would want all those supporters and there are a lot of supporters out there right now. MOODY: Right.
BLITZER: These politicians, don't they know that in this day and age almost everything you say --
BLITZER: You think it's a closed door fundraiser in some New York hotel or whatever it's going to get out.
ZELENY: It is going to get out. There are so many examples of this. And perhaps we've not heard the last of this. I mean, this is what happens in a month before the voting begins. But I think that you're absolutely right why he's not willing to take on Trump. He still thinks that a lot of those voters will be up for grabs.
ZELENY: And you do talk to voters, I was at a Trump rally yesterday in Mesa, Arizona, a lot of voters said, I'm still deciding between Trump and Cruz. Cruz is the alternative conservative he believes to Donald Trump.
BASH: And that's --
BLITZER: He's doing very well.
BASH: And that's why I pressed Cruz one more time to try to get him to clarify his stance because a lot of conservatives have seen those private comments, those who are trying to decide. And of course (INAUDIBLE).
BLITZER: And Trump made -- that bromance was very evident.
BASH: He's definitely made nice.
BLITZER: And that's stays today.
Guys, thanks very much.
Coming up, for years the Obama administration has repeatedly called for the ouster of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But that position seems to be changing a bit. How are terror concerns shaping the president's policy and the battle for the Republican nomination?
[17:52:30] BLITZER: The candidates at CNN's Republican presidential debate seized an almost every availability opportunity to attack President Obama's foreign policy. But there's one topic on which the Obama administration and most GOP hopefuls seemed to agree. The future of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is keeping track of this important developments for us.
Elise, what is the latest?
ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, the GOP hopefuls all agree that Assad's bloody crackdown on the Syrian people created the space for ISIS to rise. But they say regime change would only allow the terror group to grow further and their worrying sound very similar to President Obama's top diplomat.
BLITZER: Welcome these Republican candidates --
LABOTT (voice-over): Making their pitch to be the next commander-in- chief the Republican contenders showcased their strategy to defeat ISIS. And one by one they argued Syrian President Assad, long viewed as the cause for ISIS growth, is now key to its defeat.
TRUMP: We have to do one thing at a time. We can't be fighting ISIS and fighting Assad.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Those who have wanted regime change have made a mistake. There'll be chaos. And I think ISIS will then be in charge of Syria.
CRUZ: Assad is a bad man. Gadhafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.
LABOTT: One lone candidate made the case that keeping Assad in power would only fuel extremism in the region.
GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He must go. It will be a blow to Iran and to Russia.
LABOTT: It's a position once shared by the Obama administration, which after four years of saying Assad must go now agrees with the majority of Republicans that he should stay. At least for the time being.
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria.
LABOTT: After marathon talks in Moscow Secretary of State John Kerry accepted President Putin's long-standing demand that the Syrian people decide Assad's fate.
PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (Through Translator): We think that Syrian people alone should determine who they want to rule them, under which standards, and which rules.
LABOTT: Kerry said he still believed Assad's bloody crackdown makes him unfit to lead Syria in the future. But.
KERRY: We focus today not on our differences about what can or can't be done immediately about Assad.
LABOTT: It's a far cry from September when John Kerry told CNN Assad's ouster was the key to ending the civil war and defeating ISIS.
[17:55:02] KERRY: As long as Assad is there, you simply can't make peace. Period. Assad has done so many terrible things to his own citizens that that fighting won't stop, and we can't stop it.
LABOTT: Now tomorrow in New York Secretary Kerry will hold a fresh round of talks on Syria and hopes to get a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing this peace process. The Obama administration hopes that, if it can get a ceasefire going between regime forces and Syrian rebels the U.S. coalition can team up with Russia to focus on fighting is -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Elise, thanks very much.
Coming up, much more on the breaking news. The childhood friend of one of the San Bernardino killers now under arrest on multiple charges, including material support for terrorism. We're getting new information on alleged terror conspiracy. It's been going on between these two men going back several years.
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Terror arrests. The friend and former neighbor of the San Bernardino killers just arrested. Now facing multiple charges and revealing chilling new details of previous plots. What were their earlier targets.
Holiday threats. President Obama briefed on potential dangers during a rare visit to the U.S. counter-terrorism headquarters.