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Navy Crew Returns Home; Is China a Friend or Foe Following the International Incident?; `God Squad' Discusses Holidays

Aired April 15, 2001 - 12:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon in Washington, 9:00 a.m. in Whidbey Island and Washington state, 5:00 p.m. in London, and midnight in Beijing. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for this two-hour LATE EDITION.

We'll get to our interview with pilot Shane Osborn and fellow crew members John Comerford and Nicholas Mellos shortly, but first let's check our top story.


BLITZER: Those 24 American crew members are spending this Easter Sunday with their families at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington State.

Joining me now are three members of that detained Navy crew: Lieutenant Shane Osborn -- he was the mission commander who piloted the EP-3 -- Lieutenant John Comerford and Senior Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Mellos.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us, and I'm sure all of you are having a very happy Easter Sunday today.

I want to begin with you, Shane. You were piloting that EP-3. You were on autopilot, you have said, at the time. Walk us through what happened in the seconds before the collision.

LIEUTENANT SHANE OSBORN, EP-3 PILOT: I was in the right seat. Lieutenant J.G. Vignery was in the left seat, and Petty Officer Westbrook was in the engineer's seat. We were obviously being intercepted, and the aircraft was approaching much closer than normal, about 3 to 5 feet off our wing. So, I was just guarding the autopilot, listening to the reports from the back end and from my other pilot, Lieutenant Honeck, who was in the window watching the aircraft approach.

The aircraft made two close approaches, making gestures. And then, on the third one, his closure rate was too high, and he impacted the number-one propeller, which caused a violent shaking in the aircraft. And then, his nose impacted our nose, and our nosecone flew off, and the airplane immediately snaprolled to about 130 degrees in low bank and became uncontrollable.

BLITZER: Did you have any eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the now deceased Chinese pilot Wang Wei?

OSBORN: I did on the second time he joined up on us, he came out a little bit front and was making gestures, and we could all see him.

BLITZER: What kind of gestures was he making?

OSBORN: I don't care to comment on that.

BLITZER: Had you had any previous encounters with him during earlier flight operations?

OSBORN: We've had previous intercepts.

BLITZER: But with this particular pilot?

OSBORN: I'm not sure which pilot, but we have had previous intercepts.

BLITZER: And so it was not all that unusual to see these Chinese jet fighters get very close to your plane, although this time they got obviously much too close.

OSBORN: It was unusual to have them that close, they usually don't join up anywhere near that close. It was definitely an interesting experience.

BLITZER: John Comerford, tell us where you were and what you were doing at the time of the collision.

LIEUTENANT JOHN COMERFORD, CREW MEMBER OF EP-3: At the time of the collision, I was back at my position on the aircraft about, it's about halfway back, right near the wings. I was actually out of my seat and kind of down on my haunches looking out of the port side, left side, over-wing exit window at the fighter as it approached. I was taking notes on a clipboard about the condition of the flight and things like that and was watching the approaches that he was making to our plane.

BLITZER: When you heard the collision, what went through your mind right away?

COMERFORD: Well, I was thrown backward by the collision, and I was pretty much pinned to the ground as our aircraft rolled over, inverted. So, honestly, I was thinking that, you know, "We're probably in bad shape," but I didn't really realize the severity of the damage to our plane. I didn't have any visual reference outside at that time, so I didn't know.

BLITZER: You were not clearly not wearing a seat belt, is that right?

COMERFORD: No, that's right, I was out of my seat.

BLITZER: Nicholas Mellos, what was your job on the plane, and what was going through your mind at that second? NICHOLAS MELLOS, CREW MEMBER OF EP-3: My job on the airplane is flight engineer. And as I heard the aircraft was approaching, I was in the back getting ready to go up front, and I looked out the outside window in the galley and saw two jets at a pretty safe distance and walked up to flight station. And by the time I had gotten up there, I looked out the port wing outside the side windshield, and there is a fighter right up in close formation with us, unlike anything I've ever seen, as far as this guy was definitely in our space.

BLITZER: Did you think when you obviously had that collision that this was going to be the end?

MELLOS: No. No. After I looked outside the co-pilot's windshield and saw the bulk of the fuselage passing away from us, going up in that way and Lieutenant Osborn trying to gain control of the aircraft as time progressed, and he gained more control of the aircraft, I was relatively comfortable that we were fine. We'd gotten over the hardest point, because the aircraft had not impacted the cockpit or damaged the cockpit, the physical cockpit itself. It just broke off the nose, and I watched that thing go up over the top of the engineer's window and was just in awe of what took place.

BLITZER: Shane Osborn, you're the pilot, and you know what the Chinese insistence is. I want to read to you a statement that the Chinese foreign ministry issued yesterday explaining their side of the story.

They said this: "We have enough evidence to prove that it was the U.S. plane that violated flight rules by suddenly veering into a wide angle at the Chinese plane in normal flight. Rammed into it and damaged it resulting in the lose of the Chinese pilot. These facts are manifest, and we have irrefutable evidence that the U.S. side cannot deny."

That's the Chinese explanation, that you rammed into that jet fighter.

OSBORN: It's not very common for a big, slow-moving aircraft to ram into a high performance jet fighter. And we definitely made a sharp left turn -- that was called uncontrolled flight -- inverted in a dive after he impacted my propeller and my nose.

BLITZER: And you were on autopilot at the time, and you were cruising along at a relatively slow speed.

OSBORN: Yes, we were doing about 180 knots, and the autopilot will hold the altitude well for us. And his aircraft, when he joined up, is obviously not designed to fly anywhere near that slow. So, I think video shows you how unstable they are at those slow airspeeds.

BLITZER: What happened once you got on the ground? After that 5,000 to 8,000 foot drop, you managed to stabilize the plane and make that emergency landing on Hainan Island. What happened at that point?

OSBORN: Well, once we did our rollout, we turned the left off at the end of runway. And then they had several people standing in formation there, just a few with weapons, but they also had a guy who ran out to taxi us to a parking spot. And so we pulled in, and let engines cool down for a few minutes, and then shut down.

BLITZER: John Comerford, you were in the back. I assume -- and this is what the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, other Pentagon officials were saying, that at that moment, once you are on the ground, everybody realizes that they are safe, there are emergency procedures. You begin to try to destroy some of that classified information, equipment on board.

COMERFORD: We actually began destroying our classified material and equipment as soon as Lieutenant Osborn made the determination that he had enough control of the plane to attempt to either ditch or preferably make land, and land in an airstrip. So, as soon as we decided that we weren't going to bail out, we went straight into our emergency destruct plan.

BLITZER: And how did it go? Give us a little flavor of what was going on inside the cabin during those minutes when you were trying to complete your mission of destroying classified equipment.

COMERFORD: I feel that it went extremely well. Under any circumstances, and specially under these circumstances, based on the very limited amount of time we had, I think our crew performed beyond my expectations. And I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish.

BLITZER: Nicholas Mellos, you're the senior enlisted officer on board that aircraft. As it was going down and fell 5,000 to 8,000 feet, where any of the 24 crew members seriously injured during that fall?

MELLOS: No, no one was injured. Miraculously, by the grace of God nobody got hurt during the entire evolution. There was a couple of scrapes, scratches. Other than that, that's it.

BLITZER: And so your mission upon landing, after you realized everybody was OK, is to cooperate with everyone else and make sure that the classified information was destroyed?

MELLOS: My mission after the landing was to become the senior enlisted person, senior chief petty officer, and we went into the ground phase at that. The things that go on in the back of the airplane are not on my shoulders. I'm flight engineer and sit up in cockpit. And those are my duties responsibilities.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Osborn, as you got down and you began to endure those 11 days on Hainan Island -- of course, in the end, the United States ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, a retired admiral, sent a letter on behalf of the U.S. government to the Chinese government.

Among other things, he wrote this in the letter: "We are very sorry the entering of China's air space and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely."

Why was there no verbal clearance? We understand you did try to send those Mayday signals repeatedly.

OSBORN: Yes. We had put out about 15 Mayday signals and distress calls, and also squawking emergency on our transponder. We addressed Lingshui directly once we know that we were going into Hainan Island on those calls, and also, as we got closer, gave them our mileage out and altitude.

There was a lot of air noise. Our pressure bulkhead had been compromised, so there was a lot of air noise in the cockpit. So I would have probably been unable to hear any responses to our transmissions.

BLITZER: So even if there were some -- so then, you leave the EP-3. It's on the ground. Tell us a little bit of what happened during the questioning that you had to endure over the next several days.

OSBORN: It was just an interrogation. They were having an investigation about the accident. They wanted details of the accident and other details that we weren't willing to disclose.

BLITZER: And when you say an interrogation, was there any use of force or any kind of punishment that you had to endure?

OSBORN: No physical punishment, just questioning.

BLITZER: And being wakened up repeatedly during the middle of the night.

OSBORN: Yes, I was deprived of sleep, especially during the first few days. However, there was nothing physical, no touching or anything like that.

BLITZER: You were isolated, you were kept alone because you were the commanding officer. The others were two to a room, the three women on board that aircraft were three to that room. Were you allowed to see your fellow crew members during the course of those 11 days?

OSBORN: During the meals we were allowed to all eat together in a room and communicate freely, and so that's when Lieutenant Honeck, Lieutenant Comerford and Senior Mellos could give me a good update on how everyone was doing, who was being questioned, and what was going on, if everybody was OK mentally and physically.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Comerford, how were you treated during those 11 days?

COMERFORD: From a humanitarian standpoint, I guess, we were treated well. We were provided with food and, you know, a bed.

But we were questioned at length. And obviously their version of events was quite different than the truth. So in that respect, we weren't treated that well. But, yes, the food and the accommodations were fine.

BLITZER: Did they try to get you to apologize for the collision?

COMERFORD: Absolutely, and repeatedly. They, you know, stressed to us that if we failed to apologize, we wouldn't be leaving. So, yes, we heard plenty of that.

BLITZER: What about you, Chief Petty Officer Mellos? How did that go with you in the interrogation you had to endure?

MELLOS: The same way Lieutenant Comerford and Lieutenant Osborn described it. They asked me repeatedly about what took place during the accident, and continuous, on and on, what took place. Just like no interrogation I've ever been involved with.

BLITZER: And they had English-speaking officers questioning you?

MELLOS: Yes, they did. There was an individual asking us questions, and they had a translator in the same room with us. And at no time was there any harm or the indication that they were going to harm us. We were treated well, under the conditions that we were in, at all times.

BLITZER: Let's go back to Lieutenant Osborn. You know, the Defense Department on Friday released videotape of earlier encounters. I want to show our viewers, who may have missed some of that, one of those earlier encounters on January 24 of this year. Watch this on your monitor.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, we got a VID on him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... going out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How far are we?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One's right there at 10:00.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Woah, right in front of us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Same altitude, all right. Woah, we got bumped.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got thumped.


BLITZER: I guess you felt a lot worse than that thump that that other pilot must have felt in that earlier encounter in January.

Some say these missions, given the Chinese intention of intercepting or getting as close to the EP-3's as possible, some say these missions are very dangerous, and should therefore require U.S. jet fighters to come along as escorts during these kinds of surveillance flights. Would that be a good idea? OSBORN: I don't set policy on whether we need escorts or not. That's decided at a much higher level than myself. I just fly when my skipper tells me to fly.

BLITZER: If you're asked to go on another one of these missions off the coast of China, how are you going to feel about that?

OSBORN: Give me a week to rest up, and I'll head right back out there.

BLITZER: And no concern that this kind of incident could happen once again?

OSBORN: Of course there's concern, but that doesn't mean I'm not going back out there and do it again.

BLITZER: What about you, Lieutenant Comerford? How do you feel if you're ordered to go back? I don't know if you've been told or not, but if you are ordered to go back, how are you going to feel about that?

COMERFORD: Obviously, after this experience, I think anyone would be a little bit apprehensive. But, you know, we are given our marching orders, it's our job. And I'm looking forward to getting back out on the road.

BLITZER: And, Chief Petty Officer Mellos, how about you?

MELLOS: I'm ready to go. Give me about 30 days to go visit some friends and family throughout this country, and I'm going to come home, get back in the airplane, take a few training flights, and I'll jump in the airplane with Lieutenant Osborn and Lieutenant Comerford or any one of our fine pilots and aircrewmen.

And if told go back to the South China Sea, well, let's go. I also will follow the orders of the commanding officer by choice, be happy to go fly in there.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Osborn, what is the major lesson that you've learned during this ordeal that you want to pass along to other EP-3 pilots who may be ordered into a similar kind of operation?

OSBORN: Train as much as you can, and I think we all do.

But I think the biggest lesson we learned is what crew integrity and having a tight crew, how important that is, coming from two different commands is. That's what got us through this relatively unscathed. And that was the most important part, having a great crew and all the support I needed to get us all through this.

BLITZER: And what was the biggest surprise that you discovered, not only a surprise maybe about the operation, the mission, the collision, but about yourself? What did you learn about yourself during this ordeal?

OSBORN: I learned that I can get through anything if I've got the right people supporting me, and I definitely had that in this case. There's no doubt.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Comerford, what did you learn about yourself?

COMERFORD: I think each one of us on the plane really got a gut check, whether we wanted it or not. We all got to see how we would respond to this situation, and that's not something that a lot of people thankfully get to experience.

So, that's what I took away from it is, we don't have to wonder how we're going to react in an emergency anymore, in an actual emergency. We kind of know that we're capable of getting the job done.

BLITZER: What advice, Nicholas Mellos, do you have for your fellow officers in the Navy who are about to go forward with these kinds of operations, to resume these kinds of flight operations?

MELLOS: Have faith in our nation, have faith in our elected officials. They are there, and they back us up.

And chief petty officers and senior enlisteds throughout our services will continue to do what our job is, and that's to take care of sailors and airmen and teach the junior officers how to become senior officers at some time and point in their careers. And we will continue to do that, as will I when I get back on the airplane and go flying.

BLITZER: Nicholas Mellos and John Comerford, Shane Osborn, congratulations. Welcome back to the United States. Thanks for joining us on LATE EDITION. And have a happy Easter, although I don't think that that is necessary for me to say it. I'm sure you are going to have a very happy Easter Sunday.

OSBORN: Thank you.

MELLOS: Thank you, happy Easter.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

And when we return, as a result of this latest incident, should the United States view China as a friend or foe? We'll talk about that and much more with Republican Senator John Kyl of Arizona and Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

LATE EDITION will be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. We are joined now by two members of the U.S. Senate: in Phoenix, Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, serves on the Select Intelligence Committee; and in San Francisco, Democrat Barbara Boxer. She's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senators, good to have you back on LATE EDITION. Thanks for joining us.

Senator Kyl, as you know, next Wednesday the U.S. and China begin high-level talks in Beijing to try to move on beyond the standoff. As far as you are concerned, what should be priority number one for the Bush administration in those negotiations?

SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: The first priority should be to send a very strong signal to China that it cannot continue to engage in belligerent activity toward Taiwan and toward the United States, and expect to have the kind of relationship with us that we had thought that it wanted to have.

Trade alone does not define our relationship. There are significant national security concerns, and human rights concerns.

We want the aircraft back as well, I think that is rather symbolic, but it will illustrate whether or not China is willing to begin to play by the rules that bind most other members of international community or whether it will continue to be in some senses a rogue nation.

BLITZER: Senator Kyl, if the Chinese refuse to negotiate on the issue of future flights by United States, surveillance flights, if they say we don't want you anywhere near the Chinese coast, if they refuse to return that crippled EP-3, what does the United States do next?

KYL: Well, there are several actions that we can take. Of course, we have the question of the armed sales to Taiwan that we'll have to deal with next week. We have the question of extending the PNTR, the permanent trade relations with China. We have questions that will define our long-term relationship in terms of the way that we continue to deal with China in its build-up of military arms across the Taiwan Straits, how we respond to that, in other words.

And I think that, while we should applaud President Bush and his team for the return of these crewmen -- and weren't they wonderful in this interview? -- this long term relationship is one which is going to take a great deal of work and a great deal of patience on our part.

BLITZER: Senator Boxer, the Chinese regard these surveillance flights as provocative, and they say that the United States has no business sending these kinds of planes so close to the Chinese border. How important are these flights, as far as you are concerned? Should the Bush administration resume them right away?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: Under international law, we have a perfect right do what we are doing. And by the way, they have a right to monitor us. What they don't have a right to do is what they did, which is to essentially come so close that, obviously, there was a terrible accident.

And I just want to say how touching it was to listen to the young people that you interviewed. It seemed to me a more harrowing experience than I thought they went through. And what I think ought to happen at these talks is a real honest and candid assessment of this entire incident. I don't know that I would bring up other things. I think we need -- if we want to be a friend of China, and they want to be our friend, which I certainly hope is the case, we need to really, honestly look at what happened and get things calmed down.

This is a very long-term challenge for us, for them. And I would rather keep on approaching it the way the Bush administration approached the whole issue eventually, which was, you know, with calm, with common sense, with reserve. And I think that is the first thing we need to do before we move forward on anything else.

BLITZER: Senator Kyl, you heard the three crew members I just interviewed say they are ready to go back if ordered on a similar mission, despite the dangers.

I want you to listen to what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday about these kinds of missions, referring to the fact that there have been earlier encounters that were rather dangerous, as well. Listen to this.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Why did the Chinese pilot act to aggressively? It is clear that the pilot intended to harass the crew. It was not the first time that reconnaissance and surveillance flights flying in that area received that type of aggressive contact from interceptors.


BLITZER: And he, of course, brought along videotape to back that up.

If those missions are as dangerous as the clearly are, would it be wise for the Pentagon at this point to order a fighter escorts to accompany those EP-3's?

KYL: There are experts will know much better than I whether or not that is a good idea. So I'm not going to insert myself into that debate.

I can, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, tell you that it is important for us to engage in this very legal reconnaissance.

The Chinese have engaged in a massive military build-up, especially across the Taiwan Straits. We need to understand how they communicate, how they work, in order to deal with that.

And I think it's very important for us not to back off here, to change the way that we operate to suggest that there is a reward for this aggressive Chinese behavior. Rather, demonstrate to them that they cannot get away with hostile behavior, and that the United States will continue to do what it has to do in our national security interests -- and that of Taiwan, by the way. BLITZER: You're a member of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Kyl. What about those who say there are other ways to get this kind of information from satellite photography, from unmanned drones, unmanned aircraft, that the United States does not necessarily need to use these slow moving EP-3s on this kind of mission?

KYL: We have a lot of different collection capabilities, there are a lot of different kinds of targets out there. We try to match the capabilities with the target. And I think you can understand that we would not put our crewmen in harm's way if we didn't think that, A, it was important, and B, that there weren't good substitutes available for that.

BLITZER: Senator Boxer, as you know, the Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld on Friday said that that EP-3 cost the United States Treasury about $80 million. It's now, of course, been crippled. It's questionable whether it will ever be able to fly again. The equipment inside has effectively been destroyed.

And he says that the Chinese fighter pilot, Wang Wei, was clearly responsible for that collision. Should the U.S. government ask the Chinese government to reimburse the U.S. for that plane?

BOXER: I think we need to get that plane back in whatever condition it's in. It is our property.

There's precedent for this happening, by the way. In the '70s, there was a defector from the Soviet Union who flew into Japanese airspace and landed. And we did crawl all over that plane, and eventually it was returned in some condition.

The fact is, we need to get that plane back, but more important is your other question, which is what should we do about the safety of our young people as they fly these missions? And as Jon Kyl says, and I agree with him, we need to think very long and hard as to how we can get this information. And I know we would not send this type of operation out if we didn't feel it was necessary.

As for whether it ought to have escorts, I think we owe to it our young people to take a look that. What would that mean? I think we do have to go back and look at everything we're doing in light of this incident.

And there's one more point. It is my feeling, after being briefed by Colin Powell and many others, that there's an internal situation going on in China that we shouldn't ignore, which is, there's an argument between the hard-liners and the moderates. I think we have to put that into a context. That means we never stand back from what we need to do, but we have to understand everything we do and say and the way we do it and the way we say it impacts on what is happening.

And because I believe it is essential to have China join us in being a friend at least, even if it's a competitive friend, I think we need to keep that situation in mind. And frankly, I want to praise Colin Powell, because I think in all the briefings, I think he understood that, he got that. And he was aware that every word that he said was being measured by both sides within China. He did a good job.

BLITZER: Senator Kyl, you believe that the Chinese were directly responsible for the collision that the Chinese pilot, even though it was an accident, he was responsible -- he got simply too close. He was flying, in the words of a lot of Pentagon officials, recklessly.

Do you think it would be appropriate for the U.S. to ask China to reimburse the United States for that plane?

KYL: Well, I agree with Senator Boxer, we need to get the plane back.

It's interesting to note that we've had this kind of relationship with first the Soviet Union, and then Russia, for decades. And we've worked out arrangements with them. They monitor our flights; we monitor their flights. They get close, but not too close.

KYL: And this is a case where the Chinese were harassing our crews for a long time. We demarched them, meaning that we sent them official messages that they should back off before something tragic occurred. And, in fact, it did occur.

It was clearly their fault I think, from all of the intelligence information we have and what you heard from the crewmen here this morning, there's no question about what occurred there and the lack of culpability on the part of our crew.

So, yes, the Chinese need to begin to play by the rules of other nations, if they want to really be a part of this family of nations. And that includes treating downed crewmen better than they treated our people and returning our property after they've done whatever they want to do to it.

BLITZER: All right. Senators Kyl, Boxer, we're going to take a quick break.

When we return, we'll talk more about the China situation, and they'll also be talking about President Bush's push for his budget.

LATE EDITION will be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. We are continuing our conversation with Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl, California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer.

We have a caller from Stockholm, Sweden. Please go ahead with your question for our two senators.

QUESTION: Yes, Senators, my question is this: The United States seems to have received rather moot support, very weak support, for its conflict or stance with China. A lot of people say this is due to the stance that the United States has taken on the Middle East against Iraq with Israel. The United States is now being isolated more and more from the rest of the world. I would like to get your opinion why you think you have such weak support.

BLITZER: Barbara Boxer, you're a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. What's the answer?

BOXER: I don't think we are being isolated at all. And I think that everyone knows in the world that we do these flights, that we do these flights for world peace, and our allies support us doing these flights.

So, I don't know where the gentleman is getting his information and why he would throw in the Middle East, where we have always been a very strong supporter of peace in Middle East and a fair peace for the Middle East. So I just don't agree with the premise.

BLITZER: Senator Kyl, the editors of the Weekly Standard, a conservative publication here in Washington, wrote in The Washington Post on Friday that this was not the greatest moment for President Bush.

Among other things, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote this. Let me read to you and excerpt. "We can kid ourselves all we want, but we have suffered a blow to our prestige and reputation, a loss that will reverberate throughout the world if we do not begin immediately to repair the damage," referring to some new get tough policies toward China.

Are they right?

KYL: I think there is a sense in which they are right, and here is what it is. This matter is not over. I think that the secretary of state and president were wise to use the kind of diplomacy that they did to get our crew back. But that is only part of the story.

And where I think Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan are correct is that what happens next will define for a long time the kind of relationship that we have with China and, incidentally, with important allies like South Korea and Japan.

If our allies get the sense that we will back down too quickly in the face of Chinese belligerence, then it's going to be more difficult for them to stand with us in the future, as the gentleman from Sweden intimated.

KYL: If, on the other hand, the United States takes a firm position with China and tries to make it clear that further belligerence by China will not work, especially with regard to Taiwan, then our allies will be bolstered, and I think that our position will be bolstered, too.

The key thing here is not to send a signal to China that it can continue to get away with belligerence, that it should be tempted to continue to probe the United States. That could lead to more trouble in the future. BLITZER: Senator Boxer, another conservative publication, the National Review, had an editorial saying the following about the way the administration behaved during these 11 days of the standoff. Let me read to you this except: "Their return" -- referring to the 24 crew members -- "though obviously welcome, should never have been the principal concern of American policy. Our servicemen are not more important than the objective they serve, America's security, which includes our standing in the world."

I guess a lot of people on the conservative side are concerned that the U.S. made too many concessions, the "very sorry," the "sincere regret," in that letter to the Chinese government.

BOXER: You know, words will never really be the issue here. If it took a few words to get those wonderful people home, good, there was no damage done by that.

You know, you have to consider the source. These are people, whether it's Kristol or the others, who never wanted engagement with China whatsoever, who really want us to isolate China, who don't want trade, who don't want any kind of contact. That would lead to disaster. That would lead to another North Korea, where we have absolutely no way to really communicate with them.

We don't want an isolated China. We want to bring China into the world of nations. But we have to do it, of course, with our own set of principles, of democracy and freedom and so on. So I just would consider the source.

And for someone to say the prime objective wasn't getting home our people, I would take great issue with that. That was the objective, and we did not lose any face in that. What we did was, we worded a letter in such a way that it was OK for the Chinese to let our citizens out.

Now, should they ever have held them even a moment? No, they shouldn't. That's a violation of international law, but I think the Bush administration did the right thing on that.

BLITZER: Senator Kyl, earlier today, Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said if the Chinese don't return that plane to the United States, the EP-3, he's going to vote against extending most-favored nation trade status to China.

Is it important right now, is it appropriate to start bringing in the entire trade relationship between these two countries, because a lot of people say, if you do, both countries stand to lose a lot?

KYL: Well, first of all, he didn't bring it in. He was asked the question, and he responded. And he said he probably would not vote for PNTR.

Frankly, I would have doubts about whether I would do it again. I mean, first of all, we granted China an entire year to negotiate its entry into the World Trade Organization. And China seems to believe it can play by a different set of rules from everybody else, both in the economic sphere and in national security matters.

They've not negotiated the terms of this agreement. They basically say, "Look, we don't want to play by those rules." If they're not willing to play by the rules of the other countries of the world, both with regard to trade and diplomacy and national security, then I don't think it's incumbent upon us to waive those rules and allow them to do anything that they want to.

And let me just make this other point, too. Our military personnel all understand that they put their life on the line for the ultimate U.S. policies. And I think it would be -- while it was important to get our crewmen back, I think that that cannot be defined as the only goal here, that our long-term relationship is very important.

And what we do from now on to make it clear to the Chinese that they should not be tempted to keep probing here, that there is a point at which they will find resistance, that that is a better way to ensure that there will not be conflict in the future, that they won't be tempted to try to probe beyond the point that it's reasonable and responsible to do.

BLITZER: One of the things, Senator Boxer, that many now say the United States should do is sell a new generation of sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, especially in the aftermath of this standoff. What do you say?

BOXER: I think we're going to look at that. I've been looking at the equipment we have already sold them, from fighter planes to surveillance equipment, to all kinds of sophisticated weaponry they already have.

So I think, again, what would be wrong is to say we will do A, B, C. I think we need to look at our entire relationship with China. I think we need to look at what Taiwan needs and what they expect from us. And I think we have to weigh all of this at the appropriate moment.

I think it is not a good idea to say, well, we're going to, from this point on, do A, B and C. I think we need to make sure that, in this meeting that's coming up, that there can be an honest dialogue. We need to have some confidence-building here, both nations, one with the other, before we say exactly what we're going to do.

Look, I have a feeling in my heart that this could get out of hand, we could have another cold war, God forbid, a hot war. I think that everything we do from this point forward must be weighed.

Again, to reiterate, there is a struggle going on in China between the hard-liners and those who are more moderate. And the hard-liners said, "Well, look what they did in Yugoslavia. They bombed our embassy. They said it was a mistake -- maybe it wasn't a mistake. And now they are within 12 miles of our shores." So, we have to, when you're doing diplomacy, you need to put yourself inside the body and the head of the other individual. And what we need now is to be strong with China, you know, very clear with China. But I don't think it helps to say we're going to cut off trade, we're going to sell the Aegis. I think all of this has to be looked at. We need to see what the administration comes up with, and we need to have the ultimate goal, it seems to me, of standing firm on our beliefs, but also trying to bring China into the world -- not push her out, not isolate her.

BLITZER: All right, Senators, we're going to take another quick break. We have a lot more still to talk about.

We'll talk to Senators Kyl and Boxer, and they'll be taking your phone calls when LATE EDITION continues.


BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION. We are continuing our conversation with Senators Jon Kyl and Barbara Boxer.

Senator Kyl, let's talk a little bit about the budget. Do you feel that the way President Bush handled the China matter is going to have any impact, any spillover effect at all in his effort to secure that $1.6 trillion tax cut he so badly wants?

KYL: No, I don't think there will be any connection to the two. The matter dealing with China has been rather bipartisan in terms of response. There is a great deal more partisanship involved in the budget and tax issues. I don't think there is a connection.

BLITZER: Senator Boxer, as you know, the president wants $1.6 trillion. The Senate approved about $1.2 trillion. Is this a case where the two sides are going to simply split the difference and wind up with about a $1.4 trillion tax cut for the American people?

BOXER: I certainly hope not, because at that level, we don't have enough to take care of paying down our debt, we don't have enough to really invest in education, make sure we save Social Security and Medicare. So I would hope they wouldn't split the difference.

But if history is a guide, that's what will happen. It will take the American people speaking out, which we're beginning to see more and more.

You know, what George Bush did is he picked his tax cut, and then sort of built a budget around it. You wouldn't do that in your family. You would sort of sit down and see what your needs are. And then, in fact, you would say, well, yes we can give some back to one of the kids for a special vacation.

So it seems to me that he has done this backwards. And I would hope they don't split the difference, but if history prevails, that's what will happen.

BLITZER: You know, on that point, Senator Kyl, there are even some Republicans who seem to agree. Senator Jeffords of Vermont made a point of saying in one of the newspapers in his state, this past week, he said this. He said, quote, "It's a short walk across the aisle." And he was, of course, one of those Republicans who voted against the $1.6 trillion tax cut.

And earlier today Senator George Allen of Virginia was asked about putting the tax cut ahead of the budget. He was on Meet the Press. Listen to what Senator Allen, Republican of Virginia, had to say.


U.S. SENATOR GEORGE ALLEN (R-VA): So to me it was very interesting that the budget comes after your voting on the broader budget parameters. But clearly, unless there is a prioritization of spending on education, national defense, basic scientific research, there is not going to be enough left for the taxpayers, who in my view, ought to get some of this surplus back.


BLITZER: In this 50-50 evenly divided Senate, that is going to be a struggle for the president.

KYL: Well, George Allen is right. There has to be a prioritization, particularly focusing on items that he mentioned there. But there were a lot of votes to add all kinds of pork, and I mean agricultural subsidies and a lot of other stuff that, frankly, will overspend the budget. We have enough of a surplus for the tax cuts.

In terms of bipartisanship, yes, my colleague Jim Jeffords frequently goes over to the other side, but 15 Democrats joined us in voting for this budget. And I think that in the end that Senator Boxer, while she doesn't favor it, is probably correct that the compromise will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.4 trillion tax cut over 10 years. I think that's very close to what's right. There is still plenty of money for the other items if we prioritize them properly, and I think we will do so.

BOXER: I couldn't disagree more because the fact of the matter is 15 Democrats crossed over for a $1.2 trillion tax cut, not for George Bush's budget.

And the fact is, there simply isn't enough. The American people are really smart. You just can't say, "Step right up, I'll take care of this and that and everything."

And I think if we really mean what we say about education and the environment, if we mean what we say about strong national defense, then building a budget around a tax cut, a promise that was made several years ago, is out of sync, it's out of whack.

KYL: Just a correction, if I could, for the record, that vote was for the budget. The tax cuts will come in a couple weeks.

BOXER: Well, the tax cuts were in it, as you know, and we cut them back from $1.6 to $1.2 trillion. BLITZER: Senators, unfortunately, we are out of time. I want to thank both of you for joining us. And Senator Barbara Boxer, Senator Jon Kyl, always a pleasure to have you on LATE EDITION.

And we have to take another quick break. For international viewers, World News is next. For our North American audience, stay with us for the second hour of LATE EDITION.

In this season of Easter and Passover, a prominent monsignor and rabbi offer their perspective on the role of religion in America. Plus, our LATE EDITION roundtable and Bruce Morton's "Last Word." It's all ahead in the second hour of LATE EDITION.


BLITZER: Now that the U.S. crew is finally home, what happens to U.S.-Chinese relations? We'll discuss that and more with our LATE EDITION roundtable: Steve Roberts, Susan Page and David Brooks.

And Bruce Morton has "The Last Word" on Britain's assimilation into a new nation called Europe.

Welcome back, we'll get to guests in just a moment, but first let's go to Donna Kelley in Atlanta for a check of the hour's top stories.


BLITZER: With millions of Americans worshiping on this Easter Sunday, we now get some thoughts on the role that religion and spirituality play in our national life. We get it from two men that are affectionately known as "the God Squad" -- Monsignor Thomas Hartman of the Rockville Center Long Island Diocese and Rabbi Marc Gellman of Beth Torah Synagogue in Melville, New York.

Monsignor and Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us.

And I want to begin with you, Monsignor Hartman, and happy Easter Sunday to you.

You know, we heard a lot of expressions of faith, of religious values coming from those 24 crew members who are now back in the United States. Do you think religion is on the upswing or downswing in the United States as a whole?

MONSIGNOR THOMAS HARTMAN: Well, religion has always been important in critical moments of people's lives. When people sense that they may lose something, it could be a life, it could be their health, it could be a job, they frequently turn to their family, to their faith and to their God for support.

Today, we have a number of circumstances that are affecting us. When the stock market goes down, for example, people become aware that all the money that they thought they had, they may not have. When there's a holiday such as today, or during this past week, the Holy Week, people become more and more religious. I think the American people, by and large, are a spiritual people -- not always as institutional as they are spiritual -- and when they have a crisis, they turn to God.

BLITZER: Rabbi Gellman, I want to ask you that same question.

I want to wish you, of course, a happy Passover, which the Jewish community, of course, is winding up celebrating today.

There's a poll that was recently taken, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll asking the American people, how important would you say religion is in your own life? Look at the answers: very important, 64 percent; fairly important, 23 percent; not very important, only 12 percent. Is that consistent with what you're seeing and hearing around the country?

RABBI MARC GELLMAN: Absolutely, and those aren't even all the numbers, Wolf. When people are asked if they believe in God, it's up in the 90 percent range. I think people who believe in angels is well above 75 percent.

So, what's amazing is how little you see of religion in the public media and how important religion is in people's lives. It's really the last great area of human concern that you can't learn very much about by watching television.

BLITZER: Well, why is that, Rabbi Gellman? Why do you think there's not enough religion in the media?

GELLMAN: I think there needs to be, number one, most important, more God squads. There have to be people who are prepared to bring religion to people's lives.

I think it's for many people, it's a controversial topic. They're afraid to cover religion in the media, they're afraid they'll hurt someone's feelings, they're afraid they might do it the wrong way. But the end result is that you can tune into television to learn about every way to explode something and very few ways to connect people to one another in the image of God.

BLITZER: Monsignor Hartman, I assume you agree with Rabbi Gellman on that point, and if you do, what do you do about it?

HARTMAN: Well, obviously you need a funny rabbi and a pastoral priest, and that would just do that it, that combination alone.


But actually, as Marc indicates, so many people turn to prayer in their lives, so many people belong to a community. So many people have recognized that to do good in this world, you can't do it by yourself, you need do it with other people, and there's the value of the community.

But also, the other day I was celebrating mass, and I was just stepping outside of myself, just listening to what I was hearing in the course of the mass, not only from what I was saying but what was being read. And I kept hearing words like "love," "care," "sacrifice," "sharing," "believing," "hoping," "trusting". These words were positive words; they inspired me.

So when people go to their synagogue or their mosque or their church, they frequently find a source of inspiration that enables them to not only have hope but to do whatever they're going to do with integrity and spirituality.

BLITZER: Rabbi Gellman, this past week President Bush spoke out once again on his vision of what faith-based initiatives, the roles that religion can play in helping society as a whole. I want to run an excerpt of what he said in North Carolina earlier this week. I want to talk a little bit about that. Listen to this.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What government cannot do is to understand the great power of faith and concern and love. We can rally faith and concern and love. We can encourage programs based upon faith, concern and love, and we must.


BLITZER: As you know, Rabbi, he's a religious man, President Bush. But there's been a lot of controversy about his proposal for these faith-based initiatives to give government money, taxpayer money to religious organizations to provide badly needed social services for the homeless or for other victims of society. Is that a good idea?

GELLMAN: I think it's a great idea, but the implementation is scaring a lot of people, and I think their concerns are well-founded.

Both Tom and I are in favor of faith-based programming; we're in favor of what the president has recommended. But we understand the concerns of people who are afraid that, if they go to their local church and they're running some let's say drug-counseling program, and someone comes along who's a wonderful drug counselor, let's say, but they're not a member of that religion and they don't hire them, are they all of a sudden going to be liable for some kind of federal prosecution? That's a concern.

I think the separation of church and state, which has served America so well and provided, really, for the flourishing of religion, has to be preserved.

On the other hand, when you look around communities, it's almost always religious institutions. Where we live on Long Island, it's the Interfaith Nutritional Network, the Interfaith Network. And Tom is the chairman of Island Harvest, which helps collect almost 3 million pounds from restaurants and catering halls and delivers those to soup kitchens, and these institutions need help.

There are people living in cars, there are people who don't have enough money for their daily meals, and it's religious institution who are providing that kind of care. And they need help, and they deserve help from this government.

BLITZER: What about that, Monsignor Hartman? Are there concerns, though, in your mind, about the faith-based initiative President Bush has put forward?

HARTMAN: Well, Wolf, one of the things that strikes me is that we've been doing this for years, groups like Catholic Charities, have been extending themselves, bringing Meals on Wheels to people, they've been setting up drug-counseling places, they've been taking care of kids who have been abandoned and that.

And so, it's not that Bush is starting something brand new. Perhaps he's putting a light on it.

And what I appreciate about what he talked about was, there's that intangible thing that religion can bring, and that is dedication, a purpose, a mission.

One of the things that a number of my friends talk about who have entered the AA program when they discovered they had a program with alcohol, that there was a higher power that helped them make the commitment to not drinking anymore. The same thing happens with drug- rehabilitation programs. It's not just a question of reading to somebody the facts about drug addiction, it's the motivation behind those facts. And when you have people who are absolutely dedicated, it's a wonderful thing.

The only concerns that I have are similar to what the rabbi has said, namely that we've never used these programs as a means of proselytizing for Catholicism or other religions. And as long as that is adhered to, the good work that is motivated by faith can go on and be very helpful.

BLITZER: All right. Monsignor Hartman and Rabbi Gellman, stand by. We're going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about.

We'll continue our discussion with "the God Squad," and they'll be taking your phone calls when LATE EDITION continues.


BLITZER: Beautiful Spring day here in Washington.

Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation. We're taking your phone calls for "the God squad," Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman.

We have a caller from Georgia. Please go ahead with your question.

QUESTION: Yes, Rabbi Gellman, as we celebrate Easter, are the morals of the American people getting better or worse in your opinion?

GELLMAN: My favorite poem is by Yates and it is "The Second Coming." I'm not thrilled with the title, but I love the poem. (LAUGHTER)

GELLMAN: And in it, the code of the poem is, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned." And I think that describes the moral situation in America. The ceremony of innocence, our capacity for virtue and innocence is destroyed, and particularly in children.

Tom and I speak in many high schools and even middle schools, and we're very concerned about the penetration of cheating into very, very early grades. So it's our concern and it's our belief that in one dramatic and important way the morals of America are sinking badly, and that is in our honesty and in the development of cheating in the schools as a norm. This concerns us deeply, and we believe it threatens the stability of our culture and the future of our nation.

BLITZER: Monsignor Hartman, that was an excellent question, let me pose it to you. Are the morals of this country improving or not?

HARTMAN: Well, one of the things that Marc and I also encounter is that young people today are asking questions that people haven't asked before. So many young people see themselves as connected to people of other faiths, of other races, of other cultures. They seem more comfortable with being global citizens. They also, by the way, are very committed to things like soup kitchens and doing charity for others.

I think the challenge is, as Marc said, to take a look at some things that are getting worse, namely cheating, and at the same time, to figure out how we can inspire and invite young people to do good for other people. They're ready; we just have to lead them.

BLITZER: Getting back to what we were talking about, the faith- based initiative that President Bush is putting forward, Rabbi Gellman, there's a study, the Pew Research Center had another poll asking this question: Should houses of worship receive government funding for social services? strongly favor, 30 percent; favor, 45 percent; oppose, 13 percent; strong oppose, 8 percent.

Clearly, most Americans either favor or strongly favor government money going to houses of worship. Although some have raised questions about the mixture of church and state and that this could be a slippery slope. Are you among those who are a little concerned about that?

GELLMAN: I'm a little concerned, but when you see a little girl, as we did recently at the soup kitchen of the Interfaith Nutrition Network who walked by the chicken and walked by the mashed potatoes and went over to a birthday cake that a local baker had donated because someone ordered it and never picked it up, and with tears in her eyes she looked at the cake, and said, "How did you know it was my birthday?" She'd never had a birthday. She was sleeping in a car with her folks, they had no place to live. And she got that birthday cake at a church soup kitchen.

Now, you have to decide in your life whether there's any good argument why she shouldn't have been able to have a birthday cake in that church. And, Wolf, I don't think there's any good argument.

BLITZER: All right, let's take another caller. This time from Oklahoma, please go ahead with your question.

QUESTION: Hello, I'm concerned about the fringe groups that do, like, the religious conversion of gay people. Should that be funded?

BLITZER: Monsignor?

HARTMAN: No. When you accept government funds, I don't think that it the place to try to convert people either to a religious persuasion or a religious ideal. Therefore, as Marc said before, in the implementation of this program, we have to adhere to the guidelines that we've had all along.

HARTMAN: My brother died of AIDS. And because of that, I helped develop an AIDS center, a home for people who didn't have money, didn't have good doctors, didn't have any place to go. It is called Christa House on Long Island.

And one of the great things about it is, even though it was inspired by the church, all we are interested in is taking care of the poorest of the poor, people who are dying and don't have enough people around them to help them get through that difficult time.

We never asked what somebody's religion is. We just ask about their heart, about their peacefulness, about making life a little bit better. That's a model to me and my personal life in our church life, and also, even though we don't accept government funds, more and more people are saying, "We've got to do good with our lives." And when we see people in need, we've got to take care of them.

BLITZER: Rabbi Gellman, I guess a question that would spring from that, some have expressed concern that if the money comes from the government to religious organizations, some of it might wind up going to some religious groups like the Nation of Islam or the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church. Are you concerned about money going to those religious organizations?

GELLMAN: Well, I have an unconventional view about this, Wolf. I'm actually in favor of sending money to them for this reason: I think one of the surest ways to make fringe groups even more fanatical and even more irresponsible is to keep them out of the public mainstream and out of the dialogue we have with each other.

So, I believe, if they are doing legitimate work, if they have a soup kitchen for poor people and they don't proselytize these people, they just feed them and help them, that, by funding them, they can be brought to more balance and responsible behavior. Whereas cutting them out may make them even more committed to the fringe and even less committed to the kind of calm and ecumenical work which is, I think, the future of faith.

BLITZER: OK, Rabbi Gellman, Monsignor Hartman, we are going to take another quick break. We still have much more to talk about, including more phone calls for Monsignor Tom Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman. LATE EDITION will be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman.

Monsignor, I guess you would have liked to have been in the Vatican today on this Easter Sunday, but instead you're here with us, and we're grateful for that.

HARTMAN: I've had the privilege of celebrating Mass with the Holy Father. And one of the things that, when you're celebrating Mass with him, that you're aware of is that, when he celebrates Mass, he looks as though he's taking on all of the pain of the world that he's ever seen, and he's getting on the cross with Jesus and he is asking God to redeem that. He's kind of wiping away the tears of the eyes of so many people in humanity.

His concern for the poor, his concern for the down and out, his concern for the pain that he's seen in the world is all crystalized when he celebrates Mass. It's a very transcendent experience.

BLITZER: Very moving.

Rabbi Gellman, another aspect of the Pew research poll question that was asked is this one, let me put it on our screen: Should houses of worship express their views on social and political questions? Look at the answers. 43 percent say houses of worship should keep out. 51 percent say they should express views. 6 percent had no opinion.

This is a controversial subject, the country roughly almost evenly divided, whether houses of worship and people of the faith, clergymen like yourselves should speak out on social and political issues.

GELLMAN: Look, I would just refer the people who have a problem with that to Isaiah or Micah. Micah, Chapter 6, and what does the Lord require of you except this, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God? These are political judgments.

Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible came out of the desert, they came out of the wilderness to bring people the message that God does not want us to just be lost in our own personal rituals and be indifferent to the suffering of the world. God wants us to be a shelter to the poor, a harbor from the storm, as Isaiah said.

And the truth is that, if religion has no message to the great moral issues of our time -- because they aren't political issues. Whether a Republican or Democrat is elected president is a political issue, Wolf. But whether we treat unborn life with the dignity that it deserves, whether we treat dying people as vegetables or impediments or leaches to our medical system or as human beings made in the image of God who deserve a dignified and decent death, these are not political questions, they're moral questions. And religion must address them.

And even though there is different views about these questions, religion has to speak to them, or else it's just a bunch of ideas of how you bless bread and when you're supposed to light the candles. And that's not enough for God, and that's not enough to satisfy truly religious people.

BLITZER: Monsignor Hartman, I assume you probably agree, but I'm old enough to remember -- and I'm sure you remember as well -- when there was a Roman Catholic priest in the U.S. Congress, Father Robert Drinan of Massachusetts, and of course the Vatican decided that was not a good idea.

Do you think the U.S. Congress would be better off if there were some more Roman Catholic priests in the Congress?

HARTMAN: Well, I know, when Mother Theresa would speak, everyone would listen. And I think that there's a role for priests and religious to speak in a way such as Marc and I are trying to speak through tv and radio, through the pulpits, through public pronouncements. That doesn't necessarily mean that they have to become a congressman or a senator, but they are willing to address the issues.

Marc and I believe that God created the world with certain holes in it so we'd have something to do.


HARTMAN: And when religious leaders fight for the rights of the poor, that makes sense to me. When they point out that budgets are not only what we can do but what we ought to do, when they remind us of who we're forgetting, and if we were to remember them, maybe we would alter some of the things, that's when I think religious people speak firmly and where they should.


BLITZER: Monsignor Thomas Hartman -- yes, go ahead, Rabbi.

GELLMAN: Well, I just was just remembering Martin Luther King, and how -- you know, in some textbooks, kids don't even realize -- they aren't even taught that he was a reverend. They think that somehow Martin Luther King was some great social leader. They forget that his power and his message came from his faith, and that he was asking America to change its laws, its laws that allowed discrimination -- he was asking America to change those laws based on his religious beliefs.

So, if we think back to then -- and no one was ever saying, that I remember -- and I lived through those times, and I was changed by his work and his message. No one ever said that Martin Luther King was violating the separation of church and state. I think for many people it's just the fact that now the religious voices are often on the right or on a conservative agenda, and that disturbs those who are more liberal.

But the truth is that religion must speak to moral issues, just as he did.

BLITZER: On this Easter Sunday and this last day of Passover, I want to thank both of you. Rabbi Gellman, Monsignor Hartman, thank you very much for joining us, and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

HARTMAN: Thanks.

GELLMAN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And just ahead, did the United States compromise its international standing in the standoff with China? We'll go 'round the table on that and much more with Roberts, Page and Brooks when LATE EDITION returns.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Time now for our LATE EDITION roundtable. Joining me: Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today; Steve Roberts, contributing editor for U.S. News and World Report; and David Brooks, senior editor for the Weekly Standard.

All right, Newsweek has a new poll, Steve, just out today: Do you approve or disprove of the way President George W. Bush handled the U.S.-China standoff? 69 percent said they approved. Look at these numbers on the screen. 23 percent said they disproved; 8 percent say they don't know. Where would you fit in on that poll?

STEVE ROBERTS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Definitely on the positive side. I think he showed a lot of deftness, measuredness -- he was measured firm. Fortunately, he didn't listen to David Brooks and Bill Kristol and the other people who have been arguing that he should have been more truculent.

I think that the long-range interests -- it's not a question of being nice to China, it's a question of the long-range interests of United States, how would they be best served. And I think he did just about right. If they pushed too hard, it could have escalated the controversy, and I think he gets high marks.

BLITZER: You know, your boss Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, was on Meet The Press earlier today. And he was asked about Dick Cheney's condemnation of an editorial he wrote a week ago, saying this was humiliation, the way the United States behaved in its dealings with China. He was asked to respond to Dick Cheney earlier today. Listen to what Bill Kristol said.


BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I do not believe Dick Cheney is proud that the government of the United States had to send this letter, a humiliating letter to the Chinese government apologizing for behavior for which we were not responsible.


BLITZER: Now what's wrong with this picture? Bill Kristol criticizing Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, but Steve Roberts defending them.


DAVID BROOKS, CNN COMMENTATOR: And earlier on the show, Barbara Boxer. That's all you need to know as far as I'm concerned.


Listen, that letter contained things like, "We appreciate the way the Chinese treated our people." Do we really appreciate, was that honest, was that the truth?

Listen, this crisis shows that George Bush knows how to handled foreign policy crisis. He was disciplined in what he set out to do. But did we tell the truth? No, we lied, and we lied maybe for a reason, maybe we had to do it. But in combating tyranny, Ronald Reagan always said, what you got to do is tell the truth.

BLITZER: That's a strong would word, "lie." Now where specifically did he lie?

BROOKS: Well, OK, what we did was we didn't tell our honest version of events. We're not very sorry for what happened, we're not very sorry for the treatment of our plane up in the air, we don't appreciate the way the Chinese treated our people. We did not tell the people within China, who hunger for democracy, who built that statue in Tiananmen Square of the Statue of Liberty about American virtues because they admired America, we did not stand up for them the way Ronald Reagan stood up for dissidents in Russia.

Now I think maybe we had to do this just to get our people home, but we shouldn't forgive the Chinese government for what they made us do over these few days.

BLITZER: Susan, we did hear a sharply different tone from President Bush, certainly from Donald Rumsfeld who said nothing during the 11 days of the standoff, after the 24 U.S. crew members reached U.S. soil.

SUSAN PAGE, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, a huge change in tone since the crew members came home.

BLITZER: Not only tone but substance as well.

PAGE: In the substance as well.

BLITZER: Rumsfeld specifically said, "That Chinese fighter pilot was responsible for that collision. He didn't want to do it, but his reckless behavior was the cause of it."

PAGE: And released those very interesting videotapes of a previous episode between a Chinese fighter jet and a surveillance plane, which showed the Chinese fighter jet clearly acting in an aggressive and dangerous manner.

You know, it was interesting, Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security advisor was interviewed this week, and he was asked, "How would you have handled this differently?" And he said, "We would have handled it the same way, but Republicans in Congress, especially, would have been eating us alive for doing that."

That's one difference. I mean, it's not that the policy was so different, but Republicans by and large, with the exception of your magazine, have kept quiet about it. They wouldn't have if President Clinton had been handling this.

ROBERTS: In all due respect, I think you're wrong, and I think Bill Kristol's wrong. This was not a humiliating letter. This was not an apology in the classic sense. We have reiterated our right to have those flights which is what we have a right under international law to do.

And I think that to say that somehow the language of diplomacy, which is calculated to allow each side to make an interpretation, which is the lubricant that allows relationships to operate in the real world, to somehow say this is a lie and to condemn it for that, I just think misreads how the world works.

BROOKS: Well, it doesn't matter whether the letter is humiliating or not. What matters is how we view China. And if we view them as a regime, which is a totalitarian regime, a dictatorship, our primary mission is not to negotiate this and that. Our primary mission is to undermine that regime so people in China can have human rights, can have democracy, can have some level of freedom, then, you know, that's how we have to proceed.

If we view the Chinese as just another regime in the family of nations who we're going to be strategic partners with, or partner-ish competitors, or however you want to phrase that, then we're misreading what China is and how China revealed itself in the past week.

BROOKS: But that's a debate that the administration is not going to have. I mean, it was not a debate they were going to have when 24 Americans we're being held. And I don't think it's clear where the administration will come down on that debate, and maybe we'll find out toward the end of this month if they make a decision on what arms kind of package to sell to Taiwan.

BLITZER: What is clear is that, going into this meeting this coming Wednesday in Beijing between U.S. and Chinese representatives, the Bush administration is under enormous pressure to be very tough with the Chinese.

ROBERTS: And I think they should be tough with the Chinese. I don't think that they should be wimps. I think they should certainly reassert their right to these surveillance flights. I think there should be an arms package for Taiwan, although...

BLITZER: Aegis-class cruisers?

ROBERTS: No. On this program last week, John Warner, who yields to nobody as a defender of American interests, said specifically, no Aegis-class cruisers because that would be needlessly provocative.

BLITZER: But on that point -- and let's ask David because we only have a few seconds before we have to take a commercial break. If the United States now doesn't sell the Aegis-class cruisers to Taiwan, won't that send another message?

BROOKS: Well, that would be a melt-down if we didn't sell them this time. There's a treaty in place that says we almost have to send it. We have to compensate the Taiwanese for every offensive weapon the Chinese have. If we don't send it, that is a major step down.

BLITZER: And what happens in that regard? I mean, it's going to be a big debate inside the administration.

PAGE: Well, there's going to be a big debate. And they may, in fact, put off a decision, because, while they had previously said they'd make a decision this month, there's nothing that really forces them to do so. And there may be a kind of cooling-off period before a decision is made on that.

BLITZER: We heard Jon Kyl earlier say he was expecting a decision this week, but I guess these kinds of decisions have a way of being delayed if necessary.

We're going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about with our roundtable when we return.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our roundtable.

Susan, our good friend John Harris of The Washington Post wrote an article Saturday in which he said this about if Bill Clinton had still been in the White House and those 24 crew members were returning. He said, "This week's news demonstrated a new fact that Bush has made clear over and over since taking office, the empathetic presidency is over. Former President Bill Clinton rarely missed an occasion to be at centerstage during times of national celebration and mourning alike."

Earlier, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, explained why President Bush decided not to go out to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Listen to what Mr. Fleischer had to say: "He believes people should be entitled to privacy, to dignity. He does not believe that politicians need to always insert themselves into tender moments. The military will know how to welcome people back."

PAGE: Definitely a difference in political philosophy there on what a president ought to do, because I think that the Clinton people saw this as a source of great strength for Clinton. But I talked to a senior White House official about this this week, and this person said it was a conscious decision on the part of the president, that it's kind of making the crisis a little bit lower key. And this person compared it when President Bush, the elder, decided not to exalt the over the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you remember, there was criticism for the elder President Bush that he didn't do more celebration.

This person said that the president was aware of multiple audiences, and so he was thinking about the reception this would get not just among the American people but among the Chinese people and elsewhere.

An interesting point: clearly a conscious decision, not an inadvertence, that the president chose to do what he did this week.

ROBERTS: You know, it's interesting, because Bush so often seems to be trying to define himself as not being Bill Clinton. "I'm not going to do what Clinton would have done."

But the person who would also have been out there on Whidbey Island is someone named Ronald Reagan, because Reagan understood that the presidency is a also a head-of-state job.

George Bush says, "I'm not going to be a national cheerleader." Well, I think that's part of the job of the presidency. And I think to be a national chaplain, a cheerleader, at moments of tragedy and triumph -- I think that George Bush is minimizing on a very important role of the presidency. And it's not just Clinton and "I feel your pain." Ronald Reagan, more than any recent president, I think, understood the nature of that job.

BROOKS: I don't think that he would have hogged the spotlight. So, those people on that plane are heroes. They should be the center of the spotlight. When George W. Bush's grandmother saw her son running for president in 1988, she told him, "George, you're talking about yourself too much." That was a generation of reticence, and that has been passed down to George W. Bush. And I thought it was extremely admirable.

PAGE: And the White House believes, by the way, that this is a positive thing for him in that the American people are kind of relieved to have a president that is a little less out there all of the time.

BLITZER: But don't you think, Susan -- you know the White House well, you've covered a few White Houses -- that at least some of those 24 crew members, if not all of them, are going to make an appearance in the Rose Garden at some point?

PAGE: I wouldn't be at all surprised.

BLITZER: If the NHL Stanley Cup champions can make an appearance, then...

BROOKS: Well, they've already been invited. But even if you say he shouldn't have been necessarily trying to hog the spotlight or whatever, there's a larger question here about the nature of the Bush presidency. You look at American public opinion views. Fifteen months ago, 80 percent thought the economy was good; it's down to 50 percent. Forty-nine percent only think the country's headed in the right direction, down from the mid-60s in the Clinton years.

Bush is in danger of losing a dimension of the presidency that I think can serve him in good stead. He is shrinking the presidency.

BLITZER: While we're all focused on China, as understandably we should be, Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, has been doing her work investigating the Clinton pardons.

Our sister publication, Time Magazine, has a story out today suggesting that she has already subpoenaed the president's brother, Roger Clinton, and is prepared to give immunity, if she hasn't already, to Denise Rich, the ex-wife of Marc Rich, "the fugitive billionaire," as he is been dubbed.

What's happening on that front, as far as you can tell?

BROOKS: Well, it's moving forward. I think we are all relieved that Denise Rich won't do any jail time. We were all worried about that.

I have trouble seeing how this ends up in the criminal courts, frankly. I think what happened was terrible and shameful, but the crime is hard to prove. The quid pro quo is hard to prove. The law is the problem.

BLITZER: So she's going through the motions, but is probably not going to wind up with any indictments?

PAGE: She may be having a reasonably aggressive investigation, but it's a hard case to make. You really need somebody on the inside to say, "Yes, I gave him this and he knew that meant that he would then grant me this," which is hard to imagine in this case.

BLITZER: It's hard to imagine Denise Rich would say that "I gave the presidential library in Little Rock a $100,000 or whatever in exchange for a commitment that my ex-husband would be pardoned."

ROBERTS: This line has always been a fuzzy one. George Bush took a lot of campaign money from the coal industry and then eased air pollution standards. Is that bribe, or is that a legitimate exchange of political influence? George Bush is in the process of nominating some of his biggest contributors to ambassadorial jobs.

ROBERTS: Is there a quid pro quo here? Was there a bribe? Generally, as my friends say, it is a very hard case to prove, and I think that, in many ways, it's a wrong-headed view of the political process to say any time someone gets money and then does something for someone else, there's a crime. BLITZER: All right, we're going to have to leave it right there.

Steve Roberts, David Brooks, Susan Page, of course thanks for joining us on this Easter Sunday.

And up next, Bruce Morton's "Last Word."


BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Europe is the realm now, and, like most realms, is pressing ahead with plans for its own military, the European Rapid Reaction Force.


BLITZER: Is the European continent becoming a single nation?


BLITZER: Welcome back. Time now for Bruce Morton's last word on Britain's move toward merging with the rest of Europe.


MORTON: A British court convicted green grocer Steve Thoburn this past week. His crime? Selling bananas by the pound instead of by the kilogram. The European government in Brussels said pounds and ounces must go, and the British Parliament approved that action.

The judge said it would destroy the concept of a union if member states could go off on frolics of their own.


STEVE THOBURN, GROCER: I've yet to find one customer to ask for anything in metric, and you can ask any customer I serve and I do serve a lot of customers.


MORTON: No matter. The bureaucrats in Brussels, anxious to increase their power as bureaucrats often are, have said kilos. They haven't banned the pint of beer yet, but who knows?

And Britain, Shakespeare's blessed plot, this realm, this England, is in this case a realm no more -- something closer to a state or a county maybe.

Europe is the realm now and, like most realms, is pressing ahead with plans for its own military. The European Rapid Reaction Force, or ERRF. The goal is a force of 60,000, which could be deployed in a month and kept in the field for a year. Everyone says ERRF will compliment NATO, not replace it, but you have to wonder.

President Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair when they met at Camp David in February that the U.S. has no objection to ERRF. The only one who does maybe Britain's conservative party leader William Hague, who says, "We are getting duplication outside NATO to weaken NATO."

Well, if Europe is becoming a real country, why wouldn't it want it's own armed forces? And then, as a real country, why wouldn't it want the foreign occupying troops, the Americans in this case, to leave? You can just hear the ghosts of Charles de Gaulle commanding, "Yankee, go home."

For half a century now, ever since the end of World War II, the beginnings with the Marshall Plan, the beginnings of NATO, Europeans have wondered, wouldn't America one day get tired of its international role, it's presence in Europe? Wouldn't it decide to go back to isolationism, to leave?

Pat Buchanan unsuccessfully preached America-firstism as recently as the last election. But what if it's the other way around, with the new Europe saying, "Thanks, Americans, we'll handle it ourselves now, keep the peace in Bosnia, whatever."

What would President Bush do? He's not as fond of international engagements as Bill Clinton was.


BUSH: We're going to be reluctant to put troops on the ground to keep people apart, warring parties apart.


MORTON: U.S. leave Europe? Not next week or next month, but not quite as far-fetched as it once seemed either.

I'm Bruce Morton.


BLITZER: Thanks, Bruce.

Now it's time for you to have the last word.

Tom writes this: It's amazing how effectively this, quote, "crash in China," unquote, story has saved the Bush administration from the negative press it has gotten during its first 100 days. I hope that this incident wasn't just a manufactured opportunity for George W. to drape himself in the American flag.

But Ethan has a very different view. He writes: Why is there no apology from the Chinese communists for downing an unarmed U.S. plane? President Bush is taking exactly the correct course of action. No apology from the United States is necessary.

As always, I invite your comments. You can e-mail me at Don't forget to sign up for my free weekly e- mail at

When we return, we'll reveal what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines.


BLITZER: And now a look at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines.

Newsweek takes a look at seven ways to fix flying, "Air hell, fed up? How to get travel moving again," with a suffering passenger on the cover.

Time magazine examines the science of yoga. "Millions of Americans are discovering this ancient exercise. Here is the skinny on why it makes you feel so good," with supermodel and yoga enthusiast Christy Turlington on the cover.

And on the cover of U.S. News and World Report, "The age of robots: the promise and peril of thinking machines."

That's your LATE EDITION for Sunday, April 15. Please join us again next Sunday and every Sunday at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

And if you missed any of today's program, you can tune in tonight, 7 p.m. Eastern, for a one-hour replay of LATE EDITION.

I'll see you tomorrow night on Wolf Blitzer Reports at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. My guest: the Reverend Pat Robertson.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. Happy Easter and Passover. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.



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