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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Showdown: Iraq

Aired February 9, 2003 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon here in Atlanta, 9:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 5:00 p.m. in London and 8:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for this special LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq.
We'll talk with the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, about the case against Iraq in just a few minutes. But first, this CNN news alert.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: And just a few minutes ago, I spoke with President Bush's top national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Dr. Rice, welcome back to LATE EDITION. Let's get right to the issue, the immediate issue at hand. The president says a war possibly with Iraq. It's no longer a case of months away, but maybe even weeks away. How many weeks are you giving this process time to play out?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We've set no deadline. The president has set no deadline. Indeed what the president is saying is that it should be weeks not months until the United Nations Security Council or the world decides that it is going to resolve this situation. The Iraqis have had not three months to deal with this problem; they've had 12 years. And when we say we need more time, we have to keep in mind that this has been going on for a very, very long time.

Iraq is a serial abuser of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It has never taken seriously its obligations, and even under the pressures of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which gave them one last chance to comply, Iraq has done nothing but play games, and when the president says the game is over, he means that that game is over.

BLITZER: So are we talking mid-March, is that a fair deadline, sort of an informal deadline when you think this is going to be resolved, one way or another?

RICE: Well, I don't think we have a deadline in mind here. We are going to be in a fairly intensive diplomatic process over the next several weeks. It is very clear that several countries are beginning to understand the importance of the United Nations Security Council acting in a united manner to really uphold its own credibility. You can't have a situation in which the Iraqis do what they've done to U.N. Security Council resolutions, have the Security Council do nothing, and believe that the Security Council is going to have any credibility for the many very, very difficult problems that we have.

We need a strong Security Council. The Security Council was created as the teeth of the United Nations so that it wouldn't become the League of Nations. That is why the president took this matter to the Security Council back in September, why Secretary Powell made his presentation before the Security Council, why we have cooperated so greatly with the inspectors to try to get this job done, but sooner or later, the Security Council is going to have to act to defend the resolution that it passed. BLITZER: So when I just heard you say several weeks of diplomacy, several more weeks of diplomacy, that sounds as if you're going to give the diplomats a chance to try to avoid war.

RICE: The president has wanted to avoid war all along, but weeks not months really means weeks not months. The president has made very clear that we're not going to fall back into the patterns of the 1990s where the Iraqis cheat and retreat, where they give a little bit forward when they are under tremendous pressure, but of course have no intention of disarming.

Let's remember what 1441 said. It said that we accord Iraq one final opportunity to comply and to disarm. It did not say that we afford Iraq one final opportunity to be inspected. Inspection is not the issue here. The inspectors cannot be detectives. They are there to verify Iraqi compliance and Iraqi willingness to disarm, and it's not going to take us very much longer to come to a conclusion that the world has got to do something about the Iraqis' clear choice not to take 1441 seriously.

BLITZER: So when Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei say they're getting increased cooperation from the Iraqis, for example, letting some of their scientists meet with the inspectors without Iraqi officials present or getting some more documents from the Iraqis, why not let this process play out and beef up that inspection process, send in a lot more inspectors rather than let the process deteriorate to war?

RICE: There is nothing in Resolution 1441 that talks about making a little bit of progress. There is nothing in 1441 that allows the Iraqis to sit there and meter out a little bit of cooperation here, a little bit of cooperation there, in order to deceive the world and to make the world think that they're trying to cooperate.

1441 was very clear. The Iraqis were given a final opportunity to make a strategic decision to disarm. We know what it looks like when a country makes a strategic decision to disarm. South Africa has done it, Ukraine, Kazakhstan. The Iraqis have not done that. Instead, as Secretary Powell's presentation shows, they've gone to great lengths, with a committee, headed by the vice president of Iraq, to do everything that they can to deceive the inspectors.

So more inspectors are not going to solve this problem. The problem is the Iraqi attitude for compliance with 1441. That, by the way, has been the problem for the last 12 years. It's not a matter of more inspections or more inspectors, it is a matter of Iraqi willingness to comply.

BLITZER: So the whole issue of U-2 overflights, the surveillance, reconnaissance photography over Iraq, really that's meaningless as well, is that what you're saying?

RICE: Well, the Iraqis had their chance when 1441 was passed, to allow U-2 reconnaissance flights. That was part of the resolution. The Iraqis had the chance when the resolution was passed to allow Iraqi scientists to be interviewed without minders.

The Iraqis are playing a game here. They do this every time they see a little bit of pressure. What they're trying to do is to create a little bit of a sense that they're moving forward, so that they can release the pressure on themselves, but they have one thing to do and one thing only and that is to disarm, to comply fully with 1441, to answer the questions of what has happened to all of that VX, all of that mustard gas, all of that anthrax, all of that botulinum toxin. Where are those seven or more biological laboratories that are mobile?

This is not a hard issue. We know how Iraq would have acted if it wanted to comply. The world has to recognize that you have a case here, that you've had for 12 years, of an Iraq that is not willing to disarm, and since it is not willing to disarm, in order for the Security Council to have any credibility at all for the future, it is going to have to take a decision to disarm Iraq.

BLITZER: There are some experts who say -- some critics of the U.S., the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, for example -- say why not just simply pursue a policy of containment? Yes, Saddam Hussein is not necessarily a good guy, and yes, they may have weapons of mass destruction, but if the policy of containment worked with the former Soviet Union for decades, why not use a policy of containment against Iraq?

RICE: Well, first of all, let's remember that -- and I would remind those who say this -- that we have been trying to contain Iraq for 12 years, and what Saddam Hussein has done is to continue to build his weapons of mass destruction, continued to hold on to stores and to materials for VX and for serin gas and for botulinum toxin and for anthrax. He's continued his ambitions to pursue a nuclear weapon.

He has now not $500 million a year in illegal revenues from the Oil for Food program, which is supposed to be containing him, but $3 billion in illegal revenue that he can use to fuel his programs.

We have tried limited military strikes. We have tried sanctions. This is a regime that is determined to defy the will of the international community, and sooner or later, the international community is going to have to say, enough is enough.

BLITZER: So when you basically say the game is over, enough is enough, it means that irrespective of what he does now, it's too late, is that what you're saying? RICE: Well, people are going to be skeptical of whatever he does now, because we know that for the last three months, he's been hiding things and telling people not to say nerve agent. This is a regime that clearly is determined to hang onto its weapons of mass destruction.

And by the way, the Iraqi people deserve better than to live in this limbo forever, where people say they can be contained. What about the Iraqi people who've lived under sanctions for 12 years? They deserve better.

Now, Saddam Hussein knew what he needed to do when Resolution 1441 was passed. He should have done it. He still could do it, but I'm going to tell you that people will be very skeptical of anything that he does at this point, because he is a serial liar, and that's very obvious from the way that he has dealt with 1441.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about the next steps, then. Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary General yesterday had what some would suggest, some implied potential criticism of the Bush Administration. I want you to listen to this excerpt of what he said yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY GENERAL: This is an issue not for one state alone, but for the international community as a whole. When states decide to use force not in self-defense but to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations Security Council.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He seems to say the United States has no authority to go it alone, if you will, even if there are some countries who support the United States. What the U.S. has to do is go back to the U.N. Security Council before the use of force is authorized.

RICE: The president took this matter to the Security Council because he would like the Security Council to be strong and to act, but I would just remind people that we have now 18 European countries who talk about the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein. We have countries all over the world who understand this challenge, and so this is a challenge for the Security Council. In that sense, though, the secretary general is absolutely right. This is a challenge for the Security Council.

But by the way, when one says self-defense, you have to look at the circumstances that this country endured on September 11 of 2001. The President of the United States is not going to allow threats to gather and the momentum of a dictator like Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction to marry up with terrorists like al Qaeda, and to wait until those threats fully materialized in the deaths of more Americans. This is a matter of American security and American self- defense.

The president does have the authority from the Congress to do whatever he must do to defend the American people, but we are in the Security Council process, we would like the Security Council to act in a way that shows that it is capable of dealing with the threats of the 21st century, but if the Security Council cannot bring itself to act, certainly no one would expect the American president to sit and allow these threats to the American people and to American security to gather.

BLITZER: I've received a lot of e-mails from our viewers, out there in the United States and around the world, wondering why the Bush administration may even be interested in getting U.N. authorization at a time when Libya, for example, has been named Chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and Iraq is about to become Chairman of the Disarmament Commission of the U.N. What does that say about the entire credibility of the United Nations?

RICE: Well, it says that the United Nations had best pay attention to issues of its own credibility. Clearly to have Libya as Chair of the Human Rights Commission is laughable. To have Iraq in line to become head of the Disarmament Commission? It's laughable.

Yes, the U.N. -- the United Nations needs to worry about its credibility, but most importantly, the Security Council now needs to worry about its credibility. For 12 years, Saddam Hussein has made a mockery of the Security Council's repeated resolutions calling on him to disarm, calling on him to stop repressing his own people, calling on him not to import military equipment.

And time and time again, he has stood up to the world and said, I have no intention of complying. If the Security Council and the United Nations and the international community are to have any credibility at all, they will say to Saddam Hussein, enough is enough, we are prepared to enforce our own resolutions.

BLITZER: The critics, though, are not necessarily just in Europe. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, had some biting criticism of the United States, of the Bush administration, the president directly. In fact, I think we have an excerpt from what Mr. Mandela said. Let me read it to you, a quote from Nelson Mandela.

"What I am condemning is that one power with the president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunder the world into a holocaust." And then President Mandela going on to say, "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America."

What do you say about President Mandela's criticism?

RICE: Well, look, I have enormous respect for President Mandela, but I think that anybody who would argue that the United States has been anything but a force for trying to liberate people in this regard is just off-base. The United States has time and again put the lives of its own people at risk to save others. Europe would have been in very dark circumstances of Nazism and communism had it not been for the willingness of America to risk American lives for what was not at the time, many believed, a direct threat to the American homeland.

And so the United States has a very clear record here of having defended world peace and security, and done it in defense of very important values.

The United States doesn't want to act alone. In fact, all of the accumulating evidence is that the United States is not only not acting alone, but that those who want to somehow wait and wait and wait and allow Saddam Hussein another chance and allow Saddam Hussein to continue to play the games that he's done for the entire period of the '90s, that those are people who are isolated.

The world is coming to the recognition that thanks to American leadership, we may finally be able to deal with this serial abuser of United Nations Security Council resolutions. Yes, there are some isolated powers who don't seem to understand the urgency of defending the credibility of the Security Council and defending the credibility of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, but it is not the majority in Europe.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: More of my interview with Dr. Rice coming up after a quick break. When we return, I'll ask Dr. Rice about the heightened U.S. terror alert, and will terrorism potentially increase if there is a war with Iraq?

LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq, continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have said that if Saddam Hussein does not disarm, we will lead a coalition to disarm him. And I mean it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush reiterating his determination to try to rid Iraq of weapons to mass destruction.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq.

We return now to my conversation just a short while ago with President Bush's national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Is it time for Saddam Hussein to be given an ultimatum, to go into exile or expect the worst? RICE: Well, we are looking and talking with our friends about all kinds of possibilities. It would certainly be a good thing if Saddam Hussein and his cronies decided to leave and to give to the Iraqi people an opportunity to re-enter the international community of states. But we will have to see whether there is any possibility that he might do so.

I don't really see it myself, but of course, it would be a very good thing if he wanted to leave.

BLITZER: Are some of the neighbors, like the Saudis, for example, are still trying that exile strategy?

RICE: The Saudis and others have said that they would like to see him leave. You have people talk about Saddam Hussein and how will the region react. This is a region that knows Saddam Hussein very well. This is a region that watched him invade his neighbor, Kuwait, and watch him threatened other neighbors, watched him invade Iran, watched him use chemical weapons against Iranians and against his own people. They know Saddam Hussein better than even we do, and they would like to see him gone.

BLITZER: You saw that story in The New York Times today that the Saudis, after another war, if in fact it comes down to a war, are going to ask the United States to leave, militarily speaking, Saudi soil. Have you been told that specifically by the Saudi government?

RICE: No, we've had no such indications from the Saudi government. Saudis continue to be a very good friend and close ally, and we do know that the crown prince has talked often about the need for reform in Saudi Arabia. That is a welcome thing. But no, there has been no indications in the Saudi government concerning some of the elements of that story.

BLITZER: This past week, the administration decided to increase the security alert in the face of potential terror attacks against the United States, going from the elevated level to the high level, from yellow to orange.

Was there some specific intelligence related to the end of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, that potentially could spark new terror attacks against the United States? Something specific you'd want to share with our viewers who are still pretty much confused out there how serious of a threat this may be?

RICE: Well, as you know, we've monitored the intelligence constantly on a daily, even hourly basis, and there has been an uptick in general threat and also in some specifics, but not specifics in terms of time or place or the kinds of specifics that we could relate in the way that you're talking about.

What we do have, though, is some indications that there are those who might try to use the period at the end of the Hajj for the carrying out of attacks, and so we are on a state of heightened alert. The attorney general, in coordination with the Homeland Security people, recommended that. It has been done. The important thing for Americans to know is that when we go to a heightened state of alert, law enforcement officials, leaders of various sectors that might be at risk, have a number of steps that they take and are taking, and so everything is being done that can possibly be done to try and respond to this.

The FBI and liaison services around the world, law enforcement and intelligence services around the world are actively disrupting and trying to disrupt any terrorist plans that may be out there, so what the American people should be assured of is that we take every threat seriously, we have heightened the state of alert so that a number of organizations and law enforcement can react, and that they should go on about their lives, but they should be vigilant.

We need to remember that it was, after all, a particularly astute and vigilant flight attendant and passengers that recognized the shoe bomber as a problem. People should be alert and vigilant, but a lot is being done to respond to what is right now a heightened threat alert level.

BLITZER: According to the latest CNN-"TIME" magazine poll that's just out today, a lot of Americans are nervous that if the U.S. does go to war against Iraq, that will spark more terrorism against the U.S. Look at these numbers. Would it be likely to happen if the U.S. sends troops to Iraq -- more terrorism in the U.S., 77 percent. Suicide bombings in the U.S., 68 percent. Attacks similar than 9/11, 64 percent believe that is likely to happen.

Inadvertently, or the CIA presumably believe the same thing, that if there is a war, that could increase, at least in the short term, the likelihood of terror attacks against the United States.

RICE: Everything that we know about the terrorists is that they are determined to try and carry out an attack, and they are determined to try to carry it out when they are best prepared to do so, which is why we have to worry about the security profile, where we have to continue to try to disrupt them.

It didn't take conflict with Iraq to cause 9/11. It didn't take conflict with Iraq for the Bali bombings. It didn't take conflict with Iraq for what is going on in London with the poisons network. These terrorists are out to try and hurt us one way or other, and so we are constantly vigilant, we are constantly working to try and disrupt them, and the important fact is that they will try and attack when they are operationally ready. That's why every effort has to be made to try and disrupt their plans.

We should note that when Iraq is disarmed and when Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to the region, we will have been able to get rid of one of the real sources of terrorism, one of the real sources of the potential links between weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and in that sense, the situation will have been made better, but there is no doubt in my mind that these terrorists do not need a potential war with Iraq to try and do us harm.

BLITZER: Dr. Rice, we have to leave it right there. Thanks so much for joining us. RICE: Thank you very much, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Thank you, and we'll see you back in Washington.

RICE: Great.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Just ahead, President Bush's blunt message to Saddam Hussein: "The game is over." But is there still an opportunity to avoid a war?

We'll ask two leading members of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Our special LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq, will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: You're what stands between freedom and fear, between the safety of our people...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressing American troops at the Aviano Air Base in Italy.

Welcome back to our special LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq.

Joining us now are two key members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In his home state of Connecticut, the Democratic senator, Chris Dodd. And in our Washington studio, the Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Senators, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

And let me begin with you with this poll, Senator Hagel, and ask you what you think. We asked the American public in our latest poll, "Is war with Iraq inevitable?" Look at these numbers. Right now, up to 75 percent of the American public believe it is inevitable; 20 percent don't. That is a significant increase from only a month ago, January, when it was only 63 percent.

In your opinion, Senator Hagel, is war with Iraq now inevitable?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: No, Wolf, I do not think it is inevitable. I listened to your interview with Dr. Rice a few minutes ago. The president has continued to say that it is not inevitable.

We are working within the United Nations, continuing within the structure of the Security Council. I was very pleased to listen to Dr. Rice and hear what she had to say about our intentions of continuing to work within that structure. Certainly, the probabilities are higher and higher each day that the military option will be the one in the end that will most likely be used to disarm Saddam Hussein.

But I think we should not get ahead of ourselves. Let's be careful here. Let's be steady. Let's be thoughtful. Let's let the world see a very wise and steady America. Just as Secretary Powell presented, I thought, a very significant and steady presentation last Wednesday. Let's get through next week. Let's see what the arms inspectors have to say in their report to the Security Council.

At the same time, I think the president is correct and responsible in forward deploying our forces, preparing for war, if, in the end, that's what it will take.

But my point, again, is -- and I heard this from Dr. Rice -- we will need our allies here. We need to do this within the framework of international support. We want international support.

Because last point I'd make here, Wolf: This Iraqi chapter will not be the last chapter written in this great book of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. These are international threats to all of us. And we're going to need to come together and work over the years to deal with these threats.

BLITZER: All right. Let me bring this to Senator Dodd.

Is war inevitable, Senator Dodd?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: No, I couldn't agree more with what Chuck Hagel has just said. I think he said it pretty well. And I take some heart in the fact that the administration appears to be willing to go back in getting a second resolution at the United Nations.

I could make a case they have, they don't need to do that. I'm glad they're doing it, but Resolution 1441 does not require them to come back to the United Nations. But I think, in light of events over the last several weeks, it's in our interests to make an effort to do that.

And so I don't disagree with Chuck. I think there is still a possibility this could still be resolved, that is, eliminating the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq without having to go to war.

BLITZER: Well, how do you do that, Senator Dodd, unless there's a dramatic change of heart in the attitude of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi leadership? How do you avoid that, given the stance taken by the Bush administration and the stance taken so far by the Iraqi government?

DODD: Well, I think a lot will depend on now what some of our allies do here. I certainly don't disagree that there's a case can be made here that war shouldn't be the first option. But I think it's going to be very important for Germany and France, Belgium, obviously the Chinese and the Russians as well, to make it clear here, much more clear about their reluctance to support us, as their determination to see the weapons of mass destruction to come out of Iraq.

Nothing, in my view, would be more persuasive to Saddam Hussein than to see a more united and unified alliance here, both within terms of NATO, but more particularly, the United Nations. To the extent that he sees that, and the people around him do, then I think there's a greater likelihood of avoiding conflict. Now, as long as our European allies continue to spend more time bickering with us than pointing out the problems that Saddam Hussein poses, then the war option becomes more likely, in my view.

BLITZER: Senator Hagel, you've been an independent, outspoken spokesman on this issue, this issue of a potential war with Iraq, going back many, many months. What specifically do you want to see the Bush administration now do to avoid a war?

HAGEL: We all should have avoiding war not as the objective, certainly, but as we, I think, all believe, an option of last resort.

This is not a political issue, in my opinion, Wolf. This should not be a Democrat/Republican issue, Republicans supporting the president's efforts, the Democrats opposed to it. No, this is far too important for that.

What I have said, and many of my colleagues have said, Republicans and Democrats -- and I quite frankly think it's what Secretary Powell said again and the president, Dr. Rice and others -- is that we work within the confines of the international community, which we are doing. We are enhancing our position in the world, explaining our position.

And in the end, if the war option is the only option, then that's the option. But there are other ways that we can get there, maybe, still, as you asked the first question.

So I think you asked the question, what do we continue to do? Let's continue to stay within the U.N. framework, within the Security Council, and work with our allies. Because we talk very little, Wolf, about what happens post-Saddam Hussein in Iraq. As powerful as America is, we cannot be the only nation in there helping rebuild Iraq.

I just noted, for example, this morning, and you all have studied this and been aware of it, look at the papers, look at the news today. It is full of the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors being ordered out of each other's countries over the weekend, in North Korea, Afghanistan, the Israeli/Palestinian things get worse, we've got huge problems in South America.

Iraq is just but one of many combustible areas that are very, very real and troubling out there that will require allied support, all of us working together to deal with it. And we have a long time to deal with it.

BLITZER: All right, we're just getting started. We're going to take a quick break, but we have a lot more to talk about. I'm going to bring back Senator Dodd in just a moment and ask him if the policy of containment -- can the U.S. and its allies simply contain Saddam Hussein without necessarily going to war?

That and much more, including your phone calls for the two senators. LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq, will return in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation now with two key senators, two key members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Senator Dodd, what's wrong with simply containing the Iraqis, as the U.S. did with the former Soviet Union for so many decades?

DODD: Well, that could have a value. But obviously we've tried that over the years, and there's enough evidence to support the conclusion that containment hasn't been enough here, that there's been a reaccumulation of weapons of mass destruction.

So the idea that you can just sort of leave that as it is, given technology today, given the ability to produce weapons of mass destruction that could be smuggled around the world rather quickly, rather than relying on intercontinental ballistic missiles, warrants, I think, more than just containment here.

Let me pick up as well, Wolf, on some points that Chuck has made. This administration, in my view, has got to do a much better job at multi-tasking here. Because how we deal with Iraq here is going to have a profound effect on our ability to deal with terrorism, to deal with North Korea, to deal with the problems that are emerging, obviously continuing in the Middle East and Latin America and elsewhere.

Secondly, this idea of just sort of denouncing the United Nations and international organizations, it's in our interest, it's in the United States' interests to build these organizations. They ought to be our strongest allies, our strongest organizations to advance the very ideals that we embrace. The idea of sort of denouncing them, calling them irrelevant...

BLITZER: All right.

DODD: ... is really a waste of time and, I think, dangerous for us in the long term.

BLITZER: Let's take a caller from Georgia.

Go ahead, Georgia, with your question.

CALLER: Thank you, Wolf. Great show. Senator Hagel, should the American people have confidence in the Security Council of the United Nations? And do you, sir, have confidence in the Security Council of the United Nations?

HAGEL: First, no sovereign nation will ever, should ever, does ever hold its own national security interests hostage to any organization. And I believe that is the American position and should be and will always be.

Now, to the Security Council, I do have confidence in that organization, that, in fact, they will make the right decisions on the right issues, and the big issues.

We need to let that occur and let that happen, as you have just heard. And you know, we have been talking here about the last hour, two hours about Hans Blix's report to the United Nations Security Council on Friday, next Friday. Let's see what that is.

You heard the U.N. secretary general yesterday say the Security Council may have to step up and make a tough decision here on Iraq. Let's let that process play out.

Because the fundamental here for me, as much as anything, is not about Saddam Hussein, is he trustworthy, can he be rehabilitated, is he a fairly decent guy? He is a very bad guy. There is no question about that. The question is, how do you deal with him? And we, the United States, should not take the burden on ourselves to do it alone.

BLITZER: All right.

Senator Dodd, let me put some numbers up on the screen. The latest CNN-Time magazine poll that came out today asked if the Iraqi threat is seen as a real threat to people living in the United States. And we asked those who are respondents, 39 percent saw Iraq as an immediate threat to people living in the United States. 47 percent, almost half, said they didn't see Iraq as an immediate threat. 13 percent saw Iraq as no threat at all.

It seems like the administration still has a lot of convincing to do to convince the American public that Iraq represents a threat to people living on American soil.

DODD: Well, I think that's a good point, that the administration does have some work to do to build a stronger case. I think they're doing that. To also explain to the American public what the costs will be, what the risks are, how long this is going to take, so we don't have any illusions about what our commitment is going to be here once we undertake a military action, particularly if we take undertake it alone or almost alone.

But I also think it's important to point out that you've got to be careful about letting these polls determine your foreign policy here. There's a threat that's posed by Saddam Hussein. He does possess these weapons of mass destruction.

When Colin Powell held up that very tiny vial of anthrax and talked about what damage that had done, the tremendous damage it did to the United States Senate, today, in this day and age, it doesn't take much biological and chemical weapons to cause untold damage in this country and elsewhere. And if Saddam Hussein is providing those to people that want to do us harm, and cause us serious problems, then he can do that, and that's the reason why we need to take it more seriously. BLITZER: All right. We're going to ask both senators to stand by and continue to stay with us. We have a lot more questions to ask, including more of your phone call questions.

In addition, in the next hour of LATE EDITION, we'll continue not only our discussion with the two senators, but we'll also get into the whole issue of those U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. We'll get insight from former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright and former CIA analyst Ken Pollock.

And later on LATE EDITION, on this NBA All-Star weekend, I'll have a special conversation with two of pro basketball's biggest talents, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki.

LATE EDITION continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We'll continue our conversation with Senators Dodd and Hagel in just a moment, but first, let's check the latest developments in this CNN news alert.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: The showdown with Iraq and other subjects on our agenda. We're continuing our conversation now with two key members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

And let me get right back to you, Senator Dodd. If you take a look at the threat to the U.S. right now from Iraq, what is a greater threat, Iraq or North Korea?

DODD: No, North Korea, without any question. And I'd put terrorism next to North Korea, and I'd put Iraq at least third. But it's still a threat. I don't think we ought to minimize the threat.

But in prioritizing them, I think North Korea, in light of what's happened over the last several weeks -- you've had the expulsion of the inspectors. You've got a million-man army sitting on that demilitarized zone some 30 miles away from Seoul. You've got a country that has announced it's committed to an enrichment of uranium and more than likely going to be creating plutonium and the dangers that poses. They're a major exporter of weapons -- the one way they're able to bring some income into their country.

This poses some tremendous threats to us and requires a much more aggressive action on the part of the United States, in my view, than presently we're seeing.

BLITZER: Will you agree with that assessment, Senator Hagel?

HAGEL: I do. BLITZER: So the question is this: Why is the U.S. ready to go to war to prevent Saddam Hussein from maybe getting nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, when it's not willing necessarily to go to war against North Korea, which the CIA believes already has one or two nuclear bombs, Senator Hagel?

HAGEL: Well, I think Chris accurately framed up the three largest threats. And it is difficult, and I'm not sure it's the right thing to do, to try to say we will do one, two, three in that order, because they're all threats.

DODD: I agree with that.

HAGEL: They all present major problems. We are going to have to deal with all three, plus other, I think, almost as immediate threats, and I mentioned some of them a few minutes ago.

The administration has set out on a course on Iraq which I have supported, because I think so far they've done it exactly right, going through the United Nations.

There's no question that the immediacy of the problem of Saddam Hussein puts into some focus the violations of the 12 years' worth of U.N. resolutions that he has essentially negated. So I...

BLITZER: Senator Hagel, let me interrupt one second and ask you this, because a lot of Americans are nervous. Can the U.S. right now deal with these multiple threats -- Iraq, North Korea, the war on terrorism, you pointed out the India-Pakistani crisis, the Israeli- Palestinian crisis.

But let's take the first three. Do you believe the U.S. military, the intelligence community, has the capability of dealing with a potential crisis with Iraq, North Korea and al Qaeda at the same time?

HAGEL: Wolf, without our allies I think it would be impossible to deal with all three of those threats. And here's why I say it. There are limitations to even the great power we have.

What is going to be required here, in my opinion, to win the overall, the big issue, the big threat for the years to come, international terrorism, that fight -- which does include weapons of mass destruction and all those who perpetrate terrorism and use weapons of mass destruction -- it will be a seamless relationship with our allies of intelligence-gathering and sharing, law enforcement, humanitarian, economic, trade. Military is important, absolutely, critically important.

But the other part of what you just, you talked about here, Wolf, that gets missed here, not just the military capacity, but the leadership capacity and resources from the president on down to direct all of these various fronts, the tempo of operations of our military.

For example, just let me give you one quick example, Nebraska. In 1991, we had 155 men and women called up, National Guard, Reserves, to deal with the Persian Gulf problem then. So far, right now we have 1,400 called up. This continuation of the call-up and keeping them on the kind of tempo that would be required to handle all of this is significant.

All those things must be considered.

BLITZER: And on top of that, Senator Dodd, as you well know, the U.S. now on a higher terror threat, going from the elevated level to the high level. But at the same time, Secretary Ridge, Attorney General Ashcroft, the FBI Director Mueller insisting Americans should not necessarily change their activities, go about their day-to-day activities, go to the events, continue traveling even though there's a higher state of alert.

Are you confused about that sort of contradictory message that Americans are getting?

DODD: Absolutely. And not only that, but they've also, in their budget proposals, have cut significantly into the customs inspectors. We're going to lose 1,100 of them. We're going to lose maybe 1,100 FBI agents. They cut back on the homeland security budget, so police departments and fire departments that have been added, put on additional forces over the last few days to respond potentially to these situations, are not getting any reimbursement from the federal government.

So if you're going to set these alerts, and I believe there must be some justification, you're going to also have to provide some assistance and support for these first responders. And the administration's not doing that.

BLITZER: We're all out of time, but Senator Dodd, before I let you go, a lot of speculation, especially in the Connecticut press, that you're going to be running for president. Are you?

DODD: I haven't made up my mind, I haven't made a decision yet. Next couple of weeks I'll make a decision.

BLITZER: Are you inclined one way or another?

DODD: I'm inclined to make a decision.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: But you're not ready to tell us?

DODD: I'm not going to announce it today, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, all right.

DODD: Enjoy the NBA All-Star game.

BLITZER: You're entitled to wait and make some very important decisions.

Senator Dodd, thanks very much for joining us. DODD: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Senator Hagel, always good to have you on the show, as well.

HAGEL: Thank you.

BLITZER: When we come back, we'll speak with two experts about the showdown with Iraq, a former weapons inspector and a former CIA analyst.

Our special LATE EDITION, Showdown: Iraq, will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

U.N. weapons inspectors are continuing their work in Iraq. Their next report to the U.N. Security Council is due on Friday.

Joining us now from Washington with some analysis of what's been discovered so far including today are two special guests. David Albright is a former U.N. weapons inspector. Ken Pollack is a former CIA analyst and official over at the National Security Council. He's also the author of the book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq."

Gentlemen, welcome to LATE EDITION.

What do you make, Mr. Albright, of the latest developments, latest word we're getting today from Hans Blix and Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei that they're getting some increased cooperation but they're not exactly where they want to be?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, FORMER U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Yes, one would have expected cooperation, I mean, particularly after Secretary Powell's statement at the United Nations that Iraq certainly understands the seriousness of the situation. But I would have expected, or hoped actually is probably more accurate, for more.

It's almost too little too late. I mean, I would have liked it if Iraq had just produced statements, "Yes, we do have some chemical or biological weapons," and then take the inspectors there.

But they appear to have focused on the old issues. In a sense, let's settle the questions from '98 while avoiding the real issues of whether they have weapons of mass destruction now.

BLITZER: Ken, is that your assessment, as well? It's too little, too late? It's irrelevant, irrespective of whatever the Iraqis might do in the next few days in cooperating with the inspectors, that war is basically inevitable?

KEN POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, I certainly think that's the case because I think that it's clear that the Bush Administration has made the decisio they've come to the conclusion that Iraq simply isn't going to comply and they're determined to go to war. And everything that you're hearing, including National Security Adviser Condi Rice just on your program a little while ago, Wolf, indicates exactly that. I also agree with David's point, which is that I think what the Iraqis are doing is coming up with too little, too late. I mean, even if they now are claiming that they can produce the documents to indicate that they destroyed much of the anthrax that everyone was asking about several weeks ago, the question is out there: Why on Earth are you just producing it now? Why didn't you produce it years ago? And at the very least, why didn't you produce it as part of that initial declaration?

I think it's going to be very easy for the administration to make the case that this is Saddam Hussein just trying to give just enough cooperation to string out the inspections to make war impossible.

BLITZER: David, let's go through some of the evidence that the secretary of state brought before the U.N. Security Council earlier in the week, and I'll put up some pictures that he released, some reconnaissance, some satellite photography showing some areas in Iraq.

If you look at these pictures, this is a chemical weapons plant that we're told the Iraqis had developed. In the next picture, you see the area bulldozed, basically destroyed by the Iraqis in advance of visits by U.N. weapons inspectors.

How good is that intelligence, that evidence presented by the secretary?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think in this case, it's probably -- it's compelling. I mean, it's, you know, based on looking at other things Iraq has done, you get the sense that Iraq never intended to comply. In a sense, they thought that war was inevitable, and so it would take steps to camouflage its activities and hold onto all its weapons of mass destruction for what it viewed as an inevitable war.

Not all the evidence, I think, Powell presented is as compelling. I think there've been criticisms of the link between al Qaeda and Baghdad. There's been criticisms on the nuclear weapons issues.

And certainly, Powell, in a sense, bought in a little bit to this embarrassing episode with this British document about the deception strategies, that were -- much of the document was lifted from academic journals. And it, in essence, is dated information and not fresh intelligence information.

BLITZER: The other -- some of the other information the secretary brought to the Security Council included electronic, phone intercepts, communications conversations that were monitored by the U.S.

Ken Pollack, listen to this exchange that the secretary brought up.

(AUDIO CLIP UNINTELLIGIBLE)

BLITZER: Very ominous words. What do you make of that piece of evidence?

POLLACK: Well, I think that this was the kind of evidence that plays well to a television audience, but it's the kind of thing that experts, and especially countries that just don't want to believe that the Iraqis are doing anything wrong, can pick apart a little bit.

And basically what you had there was the Iraqis saying, one commander saying to his subordinates, "Don't use the word `nerve agents' over the wireless, because we know that the Americans can listen in."

Now, having seen evidence for the last 12 years, when I was in the U.S. government, indicating that the Iraqis were continuing to hide the stuff, I'm fairly convinced that this is part of that effort.

But again, if you wanted to be, you know, a Philadelphia lawyer and go through the evidence and you wanted to pick this apart, you could make the case that, look, you know, we know that the inspectors are in there looking for this stuff, so don't talk about anything that could be incriminating over the radio, whether or not you have it.

It's one of these where I actually -- I thought the Powell presentation was very good, but in fact it was too short. I think there was more Powell could have done, should have done to really drive home some of these points.

BLITZER: Well, he spoke for about 75 minutes. I guess there's a limit to how long he can talk.

David Albright, let's take a look at a third piece of evidence the secretary brought, this animation, these diagrams, if you will, of what they said were these mobile Iraqi biological facilities, whether on trains, on rails, or trucks.

If you look at this, these pictures, which the U.S. has said they got from actual evidence, actual photography, as well as from informants, what do you make of that? How credible is this?

ALBRIGHT: Yes, I'm not sure they got it from photos. My understanding is, it was mostly from defectors. It's also a very old case. I mean, this was things that inspectors were looking for in the mid-1990s and were unable to find. So I didn't find it that compelling. I mean, it's an old story, and it's extremely hard.

But it also, it does, it raises sort of the challenge to the administration, which is to use sort of pieces of the puzzle to make a compelling case that Iraq has hidden biological and chemical weapons. And I think they have to try to make that case.

But I also think, if there's any reason to continue the inspections, it's to let the inspectors go in using the intelligence information -- and I understand they have quite a bit now -- and try to find evidence of these kinds of activities.

BLITZER: Well, David, would it make any difference if there were 1,000 inspectors, let's say, or 2,000 inspectors that were inside Iraq?

ALBRIGHT: No, I don't think so. I don't think that's the answer. I mean, they have enough, and bringing in more means you've got logistical problems, and in essence it slows you down.

And I think they have enough people now, they've started to get experience, which has been one of the criticisms. And I think they should just go forward and try to find these things, in essence, prove Saddam wrong and that he is hiding things, and then see how it ends up after several more weeks.

BLITZER: And on that point, Ken, a lot of people just say, if the U.S. has more information, why not simply give it to the inspectors and let them show up at various Iraqi locations and find what they call that smoking gun?

POLLACK: Well, because the problem is, Wolf, exactly the evidence that you first start by showing David Albright, which is that we have given the inspectors evidence. And what we've found is that, between the time when we give the intelligence to the inspectors and they actually get to the site, the Iraqis seem to know about it.

That Almus Musayib (ph) site that you showed, the satellite imagery, that was based on information that the United States had given to the inspectors. We had seen indications that indicated that the Iraqis were storing prohibited items there. We gave it to the inspectors. By the time they got there, the Iraqis had sanitized the entire facility.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there.

Ken Pollack, thanks very much for joining us.

David Albright, always good to speak with you as well.

Up next, the Columbia shuttle tragedy. We'll get the latest on the investigation into what went wrong. We'll speak with the NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, and look ahead to the future of manned space flight.

Our LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush leading a memorial this past Tuesday for the seven Columbia shuttle astronauts.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION. NASA is still trying to determine what caused the fatal breakup of Columbia just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing back on Earth a week ago Saturday.

Earlier today, I spoke with NASA's administrator, Sean O'Keefe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Sean O'Keefe, thanks for joining us once again on LATE EDITION.

And let me get right to the issue of that hard piece of foam that may or may not have fallen off upon liftoff and could have been potentially the cause of the explosion. What's the latest on that aspect of the investigation?

SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, Wolf, that's one theory and that's one approach that we're looking at. And we're making absolutely certain that we gather all the facts, all the evidence necessary to come to some understanding of exactly what contributing factor that might have been.

But it's one of many approaches we're looking at, and we're trying to look at all the facts and not at the exclusion of any piece of evidence in one way, shape or form.

So in that regard, it is certainly a very -- still a very current theory and one that we're continuing to look at. Nothing is off the table.

We'll going to let the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, you know, guide us in terms of their findings about what caused this accident so we can get about the business of fixing it and getting back to flying safely.

BLITZER: And it's only been a little bit more than a week, so obviously the investigation at a very, very early stage in the investigation.

But this past week, there were -- the media were reporting, yes, it was a significant potential cause that it had gone away, that it came back.

As of right now, it is still potentially out there as a possible cause, is that what you're saying?

O'KEEFE: Oh, sure. Everything, there's -- everything is on the table. We're trying to look at every piece of evidence, every fact that could have contributed to this.

And we're really trying very hard to avoid excluding any possible piece of evidence out there. Because, again, there's nothing that's obvious that's leading us to any conclusion, and we don't want to go down one road just to find out that we've ignored some other avenue that might have been more productive to look at. So we're trying to keep everything on the table and trying to examine every piece of evidence so that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board can help us reach some conclusion of what could have caused this tragedy.

BLITZER: Is there any evidence that you have found whatsoever that those tiles that are supposed to resist the heat when the space shuttle comes back -- re-entry into orbit -- that they may have failed in some way?

O'KEEFE: No, there's nothing that would lead you in that direction exactly, but at the same time -- again, we're looking at all the pieces we've collected. And the debris that has come off the orbiter as it came back through the atmosphere is being, you know, methodically collected right now.

I was just down in Lufkin, Texas, yesterday at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, and the collection process is going on. We're going to transport all of that to the Kennedy Space Center and try to rearray all the elements and all the pieces we have in order to find out.

And tiles positively are part of that effort. We're picking that up over about a 500-mile swath, all the way just a little west of Fort Worth. So collecting all that methodically and making sure that it gets rearranged so we can look at and examine that evidence very carefully is what we're about right now.

BLITZER: So you are going to try to rebuild, in effect, the space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center, move all the debris, all those pieces that you found to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and rebuild it along the lines of TWA Flight 800? Is that what you're saying?

O'KEEFE: Well, at least we're going to collect it all there. How much we're actually going to be able to reconstruct is something we'll know once we get all the pieces together.

But there is certainly no way we are going be able to reconstruct it. The pieces are just absolutely mangled. You know, looking at the debris that I've already examined yesterday at Lufkin, it's an awful lot of tangled stuff.

So we're going to transport all that, though, to Kennedy Space Center during the course of this week. And, again, there is a hangar there we've identified that -- where all the pieces will be laid out. And we'll try to examine all that in very careful detail to make sure all the facts lead us to a conclusion that may give us some understanding of what led to this terrible tragedy.

BLITZER: But you say you've found pieces already west of Dallas- Fort Worth. But there have been reports you may be finding pieces all the way in California, New Mexico, and some speculation perhaps as north as Vancouver. Is all that speculation wild?

O'KEEFE: Well, we've got a team in California, another one in Arizona, but none of it's confirmed yet. We're trying to run down every possible reported piece of debris that could have come off, but so far, nothing's been collected beyond just a little west of the Fort Worth area.

BLITZER: And so all the talk of California and Arizona and New Mexico, all that is at this point is premature?

O'KEEFE: It's unconfirmed, yes.

BLITZER: Is it possible that there was just some space debris, a meteoroid or something along that lines, that could have caused damage during the course of, what, the shuttle was up there 16 days or so?

O'KEEFE: Sure, we're looking at every possible piece of evidence. There's an awful lot of imagery that's coming forward now, both from other government sources as well as some private, you know, proprietary photography and footage, that we're examining everything and anything that's coming to us to try to get...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're going to interrupt that interview with Sean O'Keefe and come back to it, but right now General Amir al-Saadi, the chief scientific adviser to Saddam Hussein, is holding a news conference in Baghdad. Let's listen in to see what he has to say.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

AMIR AL-SAADI, IRAQI SCIENTIFIC ADVISER: ... the press conference at 7 o'clock, and you have heard from both gentlemen directly. And I would like to add a few things to what they said, just to give some background to the meaning of the work that we have done together in the past two days.

Resolution 1441 asked Iraq to submit a currently accurate full and complete declaration, which was duly made and done. And then, immediately after that, during assessment, we have heard that Iraq did not address disarmament issue, the remaining disarmament issue from 1998.

Now, if you read Resolution 1441, you will not find any reference to this. There is, in fact, in the resolution a complete denial that Iraq has done any work on disarmament, that Iraq is not disarmed, that Iraq harbors weapons of mass destruction and also Iraq is engaged in activities which are proscribed.

So our declaration dealt with those allegations and also gave an accurate account of our disarmament work. It did not deal specifically in a new way with the remaining disarmament issues that were left over by UNSCOM in their report in January, the report of January 1999.

But since the Blair document and the CIA report, which the Bush -- which was the basis for Bush's speech to the United Nations, both proved baseless through the inspections that began on the 27th of November. The emphasis shifted on the remaining disarmament issues, because nothing was coming in support of their allegations that Iraq harbors weapons of mass destruction or is engaged in activities which are proscribed.

And we have, on previous occasions, in New York in July 2002 and later also in Vienna a couple of months later, we invited UNMOVIC to engage with us with technical discussions, addressing the disarmament, the remaining disarmament issue. They declined. They said you have to let us first come to Iraq and begin our inspection, and then we will draw up a plan of addressing these questions.

And when, after the presentation of the report by Dr. Blix on the 27th of January, and he referred to the disarmament, remaining disarmament issue, saying that Iraq did not sufficiently address those questions, or give evidence or documents regarding those questions, the next day some members of the Council asked him whether he had discussed these questions, or had Iraq asked him to discuss those questions, and he replied candidly. He said, yes, Iraq had asked him to address these questions, but he declined.

So, that's the end of that.

As the emphasis and all the spotlight became urgent and apparent on these issues, we said -- we addressed a letter to Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei to come to Baghdad and discuss these matters, because we are ready, we have been ready a long time.

And we spent most of the time of the past two days discussing these questions. And to also show that we have done some work, we presented a great deal of documents which represent our work on these issues for the past period.

So, I'll take the nuclear, because it's somewhat easier and less complicated.

We have addressed, from January 13, 2003, up to the 7th of February, 2003, 11 letters with technical details and annexes in answer to all the questions that remained from 1998.

And they were not disarmament questions, as Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei referred to them in his report. They were questions regarding information that are not related to disarmament, but that -- questions which will clarify the entire picture of the past program and complete missing information. Those questions were dealt with.

In addition, there arose questions emanating from allegations that Iraq has somehow restarted its nuclear program, and allegations about imports of yellow cake and allegations about tubes and aluminum tubes special that could be used for the centrifuge isotope separation, and also a question to do with magnets, magnetic bearings that could be used for such tubes, et cetera, and other questions, as I said, emanating from 1998.

All these questions were addressed, and the replies and technical annexes were provided to the IAEA, who also suggested they were very interested in this. And they suggested to have a separate technical meeting on the expert level, which was duly done this morning.

And there remains just some information that we have to give, which concerns a person, an Iraqi person who is, at the moment, not in Iraq. And he will come soon, and that question will be also clarified.

On the nuclear issue, we also supplemented the list of names of scientists in accordance with a request submitted to us. And this list was also handed over with the names of scientists and their status currently.

On the questions of -- that are of concern to Dr. Hans Blix, which are on the chemical, biological and missile area, we have submitted a total of 24 documents, complete with technical annexes and details, regarding all the remaining questions that are left over from 1998 and mentioned in the report of UNSCOM, as I said, of January 1999, and in addition to the points mentioned in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) report of March 1999.

Some constructive ideas were proposed by Iraq as to how to resolve those questions, which require work, joint work. We say joint work because it's no good us doing the work alone without the presence of inspectors to verify what we are doing and verify everything that we do to allay doubts and fears about Iraq's past programs.

I will not bore you with the details of these questions. They are numerous and highly technical. But this was the main bulk of our work during our talks in the past two days.

We also addressed other questions. We reviewed the implementation of the agreed statement of the 20th of January, on the last visit. There were 10 points, if you remember, in this agreed statement. And we went point by point and reviewed progress made, and also we proposed and added measures in order to become, as we say, proactive, as we are required to be.

We also submitted the findings of the commission of inquiry that was set up...

(END AUDIO FEED)

BLITZER: We're going to go to the South Lawn of the White House. You're looking at live pictures of President Bush now returning on Marine One from a retreat with Republican political leaders. The president coming back to the White House after giving a brief talk to some Republicans.

General Amir al-Saadi, the chief scientific adviser to President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, providing some additional details, saying the Iraqis are increasing their cooperation with Dr. Hans Blix and Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief weapons inspectors, now wrapping up a two-day mission, a two-day visit to Iraq, saying more cooperation is on the way. They're trying to resolve some of the remaining issues.

We're going to continue to monitor that news conference with Dr. Amir al-Saadi and provide additional details as they're warranted. We're also going to continue to watch the president as he's now on the South Lawn of the White House, back from his meeting with Republican lawmakers.

We'll stand by and also listen, see if the president stops and speaks with reporters on the his way inside the White House. If he does, we'll of course have the president's remarks for you, as well.

Our continuing coverage, LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. More now with my interview with the NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: ... possible that there was just some space debris, a meteoroid or something along that line, that could have caused damage during the course of, what, the shuttle was up there 16 days or so?

O'KEEFE: Sure. We're looking at every possible piece of evidence. There's an awful lot of imagery that's coming forward now, both from other government sources as well as some private, you know, proprietary photography and footage that we're examining, everything and anything that's coming to us, to try to get some clue.

And that's certainly a possibility, and it's one we're trying to run the ground, as well. So we're not ruling anything out. We're trying to let the facts guide us in the direction and have the Accident Investigation Board help us reach conclusions of what could have caused this. So nothing's off the table at this point.

BLITZER: There is some word out there, and maybe you can help us better understand it, that you may have better pictures available than that picture you released. For example, the other day, that pixelated, that very grainy kind of picture -- yes, that we're seeing it on the screen right now -- that you may have even better photos, but you're not releasing them yet, at least for some classified reasons.

Is that accurate?

O'KEEFE: Well, everything that we've got and everything we've made available and put on our website is what we have.

And so, we're examining -- there's always a delay between the period of time we receive it and the time we're able to post it. But the standing approach we've taken here is to try to get as much of the fact, as much of the evidence out into the public view.

Because there's an awful lot of, I think, very thoughtful approaches that could come from other folks who are looking at the same information and giving us some ideas of what they think could be involved there. So we're trying to bring as -- not only our expertise to bear, but that of a lot of other people who, I think, have some expertise in trying to figure out what happened.

So we're trying to have no lag time between the time that the information and the evidence arrives and we get it out on the website so that everybody can see it.

BLITZER: But if there is a better picture -- and I don't know if there is a better picture out there -- but if there is a better picture out there, and let's say the Pentagon or the Air Force or some military branch would be reluctant to release it because it would show how the U.S. collects those kinds of pictures, that would be a sensitive matter that would have to be carefully considered before you would release that picture.

O'KEEFE: Well, as you know, Wolf, the approach we always use is we positively want to be careful with any national-security-related information or any proprietary information that individuals, private individuals, have released to us.

But, again, our standing policy is, anything that we have, we're trying to get out into the public domain as quickly as possible so that everybody has an opportunity to examine it, and we may get some interesting expertise that comes to bear that we wouldn't have otherwise had.

So that's our approach to it. And if there's a better image out there, we sure want it.

BLITZER: I'm sure you've seen this letter that Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon, a ranking member of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, has written a letter to the president raising questions about the independence of this outside commission that you've created to look into the possible causes of the explosion.

Among other things, he says that the final report has to be submitted in coordination with NASA; it uses NASA support structures and employees; it reports to you, the NASA administrator.

And others are asking questions as well, saying, maybe it's time for others to come in, other more independent, let's say, experts to be part of this investigation.

O'KEEFE: Well, Admiral Hal Gehman was contacted on Saturday within hours after the accident, and I asked him to serve as chairman of the board. He has no prior experience with NASA, but he has an awful lot of experience in prior cases in which there has been, you know, accidents or tragedies, most notably the USS Cole incident.

He has assembled a team of board members, who I think are as objective as we could possibly find and also are very, very expert in dealing with other aerospace-related accidents, not related to NASA but at Air Force, at Navy, FAA, the Department of Transportation -- a wide range of expertise. And when you collect them, they've got a collective set of experiences that span almost 50 different accidents. So as a consequence, their depth of expertise is pretty, pretty deep, and as a consequence, we're going to be guided by their view of this.

More important than anything else, Admiral Gehman very much feels that this is an independent review. My intention is to assure that it's independent and objective, and we will be guided by their recommendations.

As soon as he releases his recommendations to us, we're going to make that available to the public instantly. We have no intention whatsoever of examining anything after they've come forward with it.

There will not be competing conclusions or theories on this. We're going to be guided by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's findings and act on those immediately so as to get back to flying safely as soon as we possibly can.

BLITZER: What about the notion of adding to that panel to include non-military, non-NASA-related people, experts, civilians, if you will, who could be brought in to bring another perspective?

O'KEEFE: You bet. I mean, Admiral Gehman's expressed a willingness to consider that. He's thinking about various approaches, and I'll certainly be guided by his view of that and act on those as soon as he makes a recommendation to me. And we'll make sure that that expertise is available to him as quickly as he wants them.

BLITZER: The New York Times, you probably saw, has a lengthy front-page story this morning raising some serious questions about the cost cutbacks throughout the '90s may have caused some of the problems, the safety-related problems for the entire shuttle program. Is that a fair assessment?

O'KEEFE: Well, whether I think it is or not is irrelevant. I think, you know, the Accident Investigation Board will certainly be examining all the past history in terms of the safety record as well as whatever other contributing factors may come to that. And we'll be guided by their findings, their recommendations, and we're going to proceed accordingly.

So I don't want to speculate on what others may think of prior history on this. I'll leave that to the folks who are really making determinations about that, rather than putting our own assessment on it as well.

BLITZER: And until that Gehman commission comes up with its conclusions, the shuttle fleet's going to be frozen. Is that fair?

O'KEEFE: Well, we're preparing. We're trying to -- everything short of bringing the orbiter out to the launch pad and getting ready to fly. As you know, Wolf, there's a lot of work that goes into preparing each and every orbiter for flight. And we're continuing at a pace so as to be ready as soon as we can, as soon as we find out what could have caused this terrible tragedy. If we can fix that in an expeditious way, that's our intention.

Because we've still got folks that are aboard the international space station right now. Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Nikolai Budarin are living aboard that amazing laboratory 200 miles straight up. So we want to make sure we support them as thoroughly as we possibly can.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go. Yesterday you said there was a two-foot piece of the wing that you were examining to see if it came from the troubled left side, and you would have an answer pretty soon. Do you have an answer on that?

O'KEEFE: No, we did find a piece of the leading edge of the wing. Not sure which side it came from. It's being transported now to Lufkin (ph), Texas. And as soon as that's packaged up and sent to the Kennedy Space Center, we're going to get a better diagnostic on exactly what part of the orbiter it came from.

But that's the evidence-collection process. We're doing that as carefully as we know how to, and we want to do it as thoroughly as we can to let the evidence guide us in the direction of what possibly could have caused this.

BLITZER: Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, thanks very much. Good luck to you and all your associates in this investigation.

O'KEEFE: Well, thank you, Wolf. Appreciate it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And up next, the U.S. goes on high alert. Is another attack by al Qaeda in the works? We'll get insight from former U.S. counterterrorism ambassador Paul Bremmer and former intelligence analyst Pat Lang.

LATE EDITION continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We'll talk about America's heightened terror alert in just a moment, but first, here's CNN's Fredricka Whitfield with a CNN news alert.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Joining us now from Washington to help sort out what all the problems involving terrorism and Iraq may be involving are two special guests: Paul Bremer is a former U.S. ambassador at large for counterterrorism. He's also chairman and CEO of Marsh Crisis Consulting, Incorporated. And Pat Lang is a former analyst with the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Intelligence Agency.

Gentlemen, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

How worried should Americans be, Paul Bremer, about this higher state of alert?

PAUL BREMER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR AT LARGE FOR COUNTERTERRORISM: I think it's pretty clear we're in a higher state of alert, and really have been under a higher threat since September, when it became clear that al Qaeda was beginning to reconstitute its operational command and control.

You know, we saw these attacks in Bali, the very spectacular attack against Israeli citizens in Mombasa. Now we also are entering into the Hajj period, and of course there is the likelihood of a war in Iraq. So it's clear we're in a heightened threat period now.

BLITZER: Pat, at the end of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which is going to end in the coming days, what does that mean? Why should that be a sparkpoint, a flashpoint for terrorism against Americans?

PAT LANG, FORMER ANALYST, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: Well, across both the Arab and Muslim world there is a kind of fascination with dates and anniversaries and festivals, which they all seem to think should be commemorated in some way by signal events. And I've seen in many countries terrorists and resistance groups try to set up events to coincide with various high points in the calendar.

For the Islamic world this is certainly a high point, the end of the DhulHijjah, the month of pilgrimage, so it's reasonable to think that they might find that to be a suitable occasion.

BREMER: There's another point, too, if I can add to that, Wolf, which is that you have literally millions of people traveling. And the ability of these countries even under the best of circumstances to control who's coming in and out of their countries is pretty minimal. And with this huge influx of people traveling, there is a likelihood that it becomes easier to start moving terrorists around.

BLITZER: Pat Lang, you're just back from some time in the Persian Gulf. You were in Kuwait.

Let me read to you from the new issue of Newsweek that's just coming out today, this quote, and I want to get your assessment of whether they're on point: "Our reporting strongly suggests that al Qaeda has completed preparations for multiple attacks with spectaculars set for the United States and probably Saudi Arabia, and is delaying them until just before or just after a war begins with Iraq. In that situation, al Qaeda attacks will be described as an effort to defend Iraqi Muslims against the attack of the U.S.-led crusaders."

What do you say about that?

LANG: Well, I think that's a reasonable supposition. I don't know if it's based on any real factual information, but in fact, you know, there's a whole galaxy of associated groups out there that are not strictly al Qaeda as well, and many of them are very much opposed to what may or may not happen with regard to Iraq.

And so the idea that they would try to do something as a kind of protest of action against military intervention in Iraq is quite possible. And the idea that they would publicize it as such, I think, is a reasonable kind of a thing to think.

BLITZER: With the possibility of war, Ambassador Bremer, is it likely that there will be increased terrorist attempts against U.S. interests?

BREMER: I think it's almost certain. It certainly was the case back in the last Gulf War.

And as Pat points out, our concern is not just with al Qaeda. There are these affinity groups, and then there will be sympathizers who may conduct relatively autonomous, sort of classical terrorist attacks, not the big spectaculars, against American servicemen or American businesses overseas.

I think we have to expect that the threat is there.

BLITZER: I want -- yes, go ahead, Pat.

LANG: I might say about that that I would say that force protection measures that have been taken in Kuwait are very good, both on the part of the Kuwaiti government and by our own forces there, who are making sure that people are not aimlessly wandering about in Kuwaiti population centers, that there is a good deal of segregation by duty, and there's a lot of police protection. So I think that's very much to our advantage.

BLITZER: You were just in Kuwait, Pat. What's the mood among the Kuwaiti leadership, the Kuwaiti government? What is their expectation?

LANG: Actually, I was there at the invitation of the Kuwaiti government to, as they would put it, to enrich my commentary on this. And I feel enriched, to tell you the truth.

My impression was very much that the Kuwaiti leadership and the bulk of the population are very keen to have us there and to have us remove from them this threat that they've lived under for such a long time.

I don't see how they could possibly be doing any more to support the deployment of coalition forces in that country than they have been doing. I mean, it's really quite magnificent what they're doing.

BLITZER: Ambassador Bremer, I want you to listen to what Secretary Powell told the U.N. Security Council this past week. One of the more controversial elements that he brought up, this alleged connection between the Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POWELL: We know members of both organizations met repeatedly, and have met at least eight times at very senior levels since the early 1990s. In 1996, the Foreign Security Service tells us that bin Laden met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Khartoum, and later met the director of the Iraqi intelligence service. Saddam became more interested as he saw al Qaeda's appalling attacks.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: He didn't say that Iraq was in any way responsible or involved in the 9/11 attack against the United States, but is he going too far?

Some are suggesting all of this Iraqi-al Qaeda connection is a stretch, given the very different philosophies that they have, a secular government in Baghdad, a fundamentalist Islamic terror organization, namely al Qaeda.

BREMER: No, I think there are three points here, Wolf.

First, I don't place much emphasis on this alleged difference between the secular government and the extremist view that al Qaeda has. They have a common enemy, which is us, and they will work together if they have to.

BREMER: Secondly, there's no question there have been contacts between the Iraqis and al Qaeda going back over a decade. That's really not the issue. The real problem is, what could happen in the future? And here I think the administration has it right.

The thing we have to really worry about is this nexus between a government like Iraq's, which has weapons of mass destruction, and a group like al Qaeda, which wants to kill us in our tens of thousands or millions, getting their hands on that kind of stuff. That's the real problem, is the future cooperation between al Qaeda and Iraq, which demands our attention now.

BLITZER: All right. Let me bring this point up to you, Pat Lang. What President Bush said this week about the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, giving some sort of authority to use chemical weapons. Listen to what the president said a day after Secretary Powell's presentation before the U.N.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons -- the very weapons the dictator tells the world he does not have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Was that same authorization given just before the last Gulf war a dozen years ago?

LANG: Pretty much. You know, the implication was clear that if they thought it would do something to halt the total American defeat of their forces that they were authorized to do this. And there was some uploading of munitions, especially in the air weapons area.

But they never carried that out, and I think that reflected, to a large extent, a realization, once they got down to the sober reality of it, that if they did that kind of thing to our troops, that almost just about anything imaginable might happen to them.

And I think today, if they actually carried through with such a plan to use that against our troops, that they would find our people are quite well prepared.

And I would like to say to the American people -- having just visited our forces in Kuwait -- that, in fact, that you couldn't have a more professional Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. And the planning going forward is extremely thorough.

And I think the Iraqis, especially field commanders, should think very carefully about this before they do anything like that.

BLITZER: All right. Pat Lang, don't forget the U.S. Navy, very important part of the U.S. military, as well.

Pat Lang and Paul Bremer, always good to have both of you on our program. Thanks very much.

It's time now for Bruce Morton's essay on the polar opposites of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A friend of mine here at CNN has a theory about the Bush administration. They're convinced that everything Bill Clinton ever did was wicked, bad and awful, and so they want to do the opposite. I thought he was joking at first, but now I'm not so sure.

I mean, Clinton wanted to save all that wilderness area in Alaska, and Mr. Bush wants to drill for oil there. Clinton fussed about clean air; this president wants to ease new restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

And then there's money. Clinton, my friend noted, had surpluses. Obviously, the Bush administration thinks those are evil. Because what they want is deficits -- big ones, maybe the biggest ever.

In 2001 the government ran a $127 billion surplus, the fourth in a row. This year, the Congressional Budget Office expects a deficit of $199 billion, much larger than the deficit they forecast just five months ago.

The CBO foresees a surplus again in 2007, but we know that's nonsense. Remember during those bad Clinton years, when they were forecasting surpluses for the next 10 years? Look how quickly the administration turned that around. These forecasts are closer to fortune-telling than to science.

The budget the president submitted this past week foresees even bigger deficits, more than $300 billion a year in 2003 and 2004 -- the most red ink ever. The numbers are bigger because the budget counts some of the increases Mr. Bush proposes in his budget for homeland security, for instance.

One administration official was quoted as saying it would be easy to turn the deficits into surpluses, but that must be economist humor. Has he never seen the Congress at play? "I'll vote for your pork if you'll vote for mine." And none of these estimates includes the cost of invading Iraq. That's another "Let's do what Clinton didn't" thing. Clinton mostly favored negotiations, talk. This president, just about from the beginning, has seemed to favor force. War will make the deficit higher, of course. Nobody knows how much higher because nobody knows how long or short, how tough or easy the war will be. And war's real cost can't be measured in red ink, anyway. It's real cost is in people, the lives war changes, the lives it takes.

I'm Bruce Morton.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Just a few hours from now, the NBA All-Star game gets under way here in Atlanta. Two things that seem to stand out about today's NBA: Its reach is more global than ever before, and its players are starting out younger than ever before.

Joining us now to talk about the state of pro basketball are two of its biggest stars: Kobe Bryant of the current NBA champion, the Los Angeles Lakers, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. Also joining us, the NBA commissioner David Stern, the executive director of the NBA players association Billy Hunter, and "Sports Illustrated" senior writer Ian Thompson.

Good to have all of you with us.

Kobe, let me start with you. Is this a game tonight, just going to be some fun, or do you guys take it seriously, you're actually going to try to win?

KOBE BRYANT, L.A. LAKERS: Well, we're all here for a reason, and that's because we love to compete. So even though we're out there playing for the fans and, you know, trying to put on a show, we still want to compete and play hard, because if we didn't we'd do a serious disservice to the game.

BLITZER: Is this a serious game for you tonight, or just an opportunity to go out and show off a little bit?

DIRK NOWITZKI, DALLAS MAVERICKS: I think it's a little bit of both. You want to show the fans a good time, and you want to have a good time and a lot of fun out there. But on the other hand, the West has to prove something, the East has to prove something. So it's a little competitive too.

BLITZER: You probably saw the new issue of "Sports Illustrated," some polls in there. They asked the American public about all sorts of issues involving the NBA, but of those who are really interested in pro basketball, Kobe, they asked this question: Most NBA players play hard every night, do you agree or disagree? Almost 60 percent, 57.9 percent say they agree, but 30 percent say they disagree, they don't think you guys go out there and play hard every night.

BRYANT: Well, you know, you have some who go out there and they play extremely hard. I think the number is actually, you know, a lot higher than 57 percent. But from experience, because I compete against these fellows, I can tell you everybody goes out there and they give their all-out effort.

BLITZER: You know, the same poll, among those who were really interested in the NBA, they asked this question: Compared to players, Dirk, in other sports, NBA players are less interested in winning and more interested in money. Now, if you agree, 48 percent, almost half say they agree with that. 34 percent disagree.

But that's a pretty serious slap potentially at the NBA players.

NOWITZKI: I wouldn't say so. It's not -- we don't play the game for the money. We all love to play the game. We love to go out there and compete on a daily basis and just have fun out there. And I don't think anybody plays the sport for the money. I don't feel that way.

BLITZER: Is there an image problem, Commissioner, that the NBA has right now, based on these polling results you saw in "S.I."?

DAVID STERN, NBA COMMISSIONER: Well, the problem is, with all deference to your sister institution, "S.I.," I can't imagine who they asked. And the solid information is exactly the opposite.

And so there's no image problem. We've got guys who compete, who are the most important athletes in the world. And when "S.I." asks 300 of their friends and then tries to pass it off as science, we reject it completely.

BLITZER: Well, they did -- let's go into a little bit specifics about the polling.

STERN: Let's go.

BLITZER: And let's defend a little bit "Sports Illustrated"...

STERN: Go ahead.

BLITZER: ... which is of course part of our AOL Time-Warner family.

STERN: Of course.

BLITZER: How interested -- in the general poll, over a thousand people they asked -- how interested would you say you are right now in the NBA? Of those who responded, 7 percent said very interested, 13 percent said a little bit interested, 62 percent said not interested at all, and don't know, a tiny little fraction.

STERN: Of all of our fans, those that will tune in tonight to TNT to see the All-Star game, those who watched the activities last night, those who watch the games on TNT and ESPN, ask them. They're turning out in extraordinary numbers, they're coming on nba.com. And we're not going to let "S.I." rain on our parade with their junk research.

BLITZER: Junk research? We're going to let "S.I." respond to that in a moment.

Billy Hunter, does the NBA have a problem right now, because attendance is down this year, isn't it?

BILLY HUNTER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NBA PLAYERS ASSOCIATION: No, that's not the report that I'm getting. I think attendance is actually up about 2 to 3 percent.

BLITZER: That's not what "Sports Illustrated" report...

(CROSSTALK)

STERN: No, that's right. "Sports Illustrated" probably reported something else, Billy.

BLITZER: We're piling on "Sports Illustrated," but go ahead.

HUNTER: In my discussions with the commissioner, he's informed me that the attendance is actually up. And I think in most arenas that I visit around the country it appears that the fans are coming in as they've done in the past. So I don't really see that there is a problem.

BLITZER: And in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a paid season-ticket holder for the Washington Wizards, so I am a fan. So I'll be upfront and honest with all you guys.

Ian, you work for "Sports Illustrated." Tell us what the problem is the NBA has, what you guys have been reporting.

IAN THOMPSON, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Well, if there is an image problem -- first of all, I'll say that, if you talk about players not playing hard, I don't think you can say that about the star players, guys like these two guys.

Basically, a superstar in this game is a guy who plays hard and really doesn't play for the money. I mean, he wants as much money as he can get, but that's what separates those guys.

The image problem is an outgrowth of all the success the league has had. I mean, this is a league that 25 years ago was a mom-and-pop operation. Now, I think there's about 400 players in the league, and they're going to be splitting about $1.5 billion in salary this year.

The problem with that is that all that money has changed the culture of basketball across the board in America. Players, even as youngsters now, think of themselves as commodities, rather than team players. And basically it's a result of all the success the NBA has had. BLITZER: Commissioner, is he right?

STERN: I think he's right about having $1.5 billion, and one of our problems is we've got youngsters who are saying, "I can bounce the ball like Kobe or Dirk, and I'm not going to college, I'm going to go to the NBA where the big bucks are." And we all know that that's a false dream, because more kids will become rocket scientists than become NBA players, because there are so few NBA players.

BLITZER: There aren't many Kobe Bryants coming out of high school and being ready to go right into the NBA.

Kobe, you did it, but there aren't many others.

BRYANT: No, there aren't, but to say that because of that a certain player doesn't play hard is not fair. I think, if a player decides to come to the NBA, he's obviously coming in for a lot of reasons. One of them is financial, others because of the love of the game, because he loves to play basketball.

I mean, it's tough to make the jump. So, you know, the person's going to be faced with a lot of challenges, some ups and some downs. So, the person's going to have to love to play the game regardless. To say it's just for the money, and it's an image problem because of that, I don't think that's fair.

BLITZER: You went through that experience going from high school into the NBA. Is that good? Should these kids spend a year or two or three in college before they become pros? Or was it -- obviously it worked out well for you, but for every Kobe Bryant, there are plenty of others it didn't work out so well for.

BRYANT: Well, you know, I can't speak on behalf of other players, but I can only speak on behalf of myself. And in that situation, you know, it was best for me to skip college and go straight to the pros. It worked out well.

You have some scenarios where it doesn't work out and then again, you have some players who stay in school for four years, come into the NBA and are a total flop. So, you know, there's a lot of arguments on both sides. You can always go back to school and get your education or you can go receive your education and come to the NBA and test your skills.

BLITZER: Dirk, how is this playing in Europe? You're from Germany. Do they understand what's going on, these young 18-year-olds immediately becoming pros right out of high school? Some of them want to do it when they're 17.

NOWITZKI: You know actually, that trend started in Europe, too. You know, a lot of Yugoslavian players who were drafted this year were only 18, 19 years old, so the trend is all over the world. But I think it shows that basketball is just getting better all over the world, not only in America but in Europe and everywhere else and that there's talent all over the world and they just keep continuing to come over. BLITZER: Commissioner, you remember two years ago when we did our LATE EDITION town hall meeting in Washington, we had this whole subject. It was high on the agenda. Michael Jordan was with us at that time, as well.

Is this good for the NBA that all these kids right out of high school want to be stars?

STERN: It's not good for the kids. It's -- for the players that actually make it like an Amari Stoudemire, a youngster who's really a very good player, we can live with it and it really improves the talent in the league.

I, nevertheless, think there are social reasons to have an age limit but I think you can't have this discussion without talking about LeBron James and the spectacle that's going on there.

BLITZER: And we will talk about that in a moment. And Billy Hunter, I want to bring you into this conversation as well.

We have a lot more to talk about. We're going to take a quick break. We'll continue our conversation with NBA All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki and everyone else. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our discussion about the status, the state of the NBA.

Joining me once again, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA commissioner, David Stern, executive director of the NBA Players' Association, Billy Hunter, and Sports Illustrated's senior writer, Ian Thompson.

Billy Hunter, your position on these high school kids coming right out of high school, 18-year-old, they have to be 18, right?

HUNTER: That's correct. Well, what they have to be, not necessarily 18, if they're an American kid they have to, their high school class must have graduated before they can enter into the...

BLITZER: There is a different standard for...

HUNTER: For a European ball player.

BLITZER: Why is that?

HUNTER: Well, I think, in most instances European ball players don't go to college. Well, if they go to college there's no organized basketball program in college. Most European ball players play club ball, and they generally go into the pros, and I think ...

BLITZER: Well, let me ask Dirk.

Is that a good idea, to have one standard for American kids, ball players, and another standard for non-Americans? NOWITZKI: You know, the situation is different. In Europe we already play professional basketball. I played professional basketball when I was 16 already, and we started earning money, so it's a wholly different situation than over here.

BLITZER: There's one player out there right now who wants to come in. He's going to be short by a week, right?

STERN: No, actually we're -- we've made adjustments.

BLITZER: You have?

STERN: With the Players' Association.

BLITZER: Today?

STERN: Yesterday, that the technicality of a week, he'll be 18 when the draft occurs, and he wasn't 18 at the renunciation date and we decided to eliminate that technicality.

BLITZER: Have you reported this already? Is this common wisdom?

STERN: Yes, that'll be in "Sports Illustrated" next week.

BLITZER: And probably be in all the papers tomorrow. This notion that he's a little sensitive to "Sports Illustrated," but you guys have done some pretty good reporting.

What does the NBA need to do in the United States to broaden its base, to get more fans out there because, what, 60 percent said they're not very interested, according to your poll, in the NBA.

THOMPSON: You know, I think the big issue for the league is it makes its money by selling individuals, but team basketball is by far the more attractive thing.

People are going to watch the game more if there is more team play. They've changed the rules last year to allow different kind of defenses which have improved the flow of the game, but I'd really like to see the NBA and USA basketball go into business together and run coaching clinics for youths all around the country and basically force kids to learn the fundamentals, which is what the European players do from a young age growing up.

BLITZER: Let me bring back Kobe and ask you, you know, you've been watching, you've been playing, you've been in the middle of it. Without Michael Jordan next year, he says this is his last year, what are you and your fellow stars going to have to do to bring that crowd in to get that excitement going so that the base of the NBA will grow?

BRYANT: Just continue to grow and continue to play the game of basketball. I mean, we're in a transition phase. You know, fans are just now becoming acclimated with the new stars.

I mean, we're young players. I think the NBA, you know, every once in a while goes through a transition period and this is what we're going through right now.

So it's just a matter of time. The NBA's going to grow.

BLITZER: Is Kobe Bryant the new Michael Jordan as far as the whole NBA is concerned?

STERN: He's one of the new Michael Jordans, but we've got lots of...

BLITZER: I don't want to insult Dirk.

STERN: Well, you know, he invented team basketball. The Dallas Mavericks are a heck of a team. But Kobe's team is a heck of a team. The Sacramento Kings are a heck of a team. The Indiana Pacers are a heck of a team. I could probably list about 29 teams. I'd be fudging on the bottom five.

BLITZER: Dirk, when is the NBA really going to go global and have teams in Europe competing against teams in the United States?

NOWITZKI: I don't know when that's going to happen, but I'm assuming the next couple of years...

BLITZER: Are they ready for a team in Milan or London or Paris?

NOWITZKI: I think so. I think European basketball is getting better and is continuing to grow...

BLITZER: Is the NBA going to grow in that direction?

STERN: Absolutely. I bet you we have teams in Europe by the end of the decade.

BLITZER: Really? Is that good for the NBA, for teams to be traveling across the Atlantic for games?

HUNTER: Well, I think it all depends upon one's ability to develop that kind of transportation. I know the discussions that David and I have had, you know, he's referenced the fact that, probably in the future, the players will be traveling on something like the Concorde. So, if you're on a West Coast team, you'll fly to New York City, pick up the Concorde, fly over to France or to England, and then spend a week or two in Europe, and then come back.

BLITZER: You ever sit on one of those Concordes, Kobe?

BRYANT: No, I haven't, not yet.

BLITZER: You won't like the legroom. (inaudible) The legroom -- unless they reconfigure those seats in the Concorde -- you're not going to be happy.

STERN: Oh, you mean you travel the Concorde?

BLITZER: I've never been in one, personally, but I've heard about it. STERN: The bulkhead is OK.

HUNTER: But I think you have to keep in mind, Wolf, that -- and I think David alluded to it earlier -- I don't think there's any corporation around that does better than the NBA. We've had phenomenal growth over the last five to 10 years.

In 1995, the players' share of benefits and revenues was about $350 million. You mentioned $1.5 billion. It was actually $1,650,000 at the end of last season. And we're expecting the players' share of benefits and salaries to increase, probably about another $50 million to $100 million (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the next season.

BLITZER: We're all out of time, but I want Kobe to preview the game tonight. Go ahead.

BRYANT: Well, it's going to be an interesting game. It's going to be exciting. You are going to see a lot of spectacular plays. But tonight it is really all about Michael Jordan and him, you know, going out in style.

BLITZER: But he's not even starting.

BRYANT: It doesn't matter. It is Michael Jordan's last game. He's going to go out in style. He's brought so much joy to us all. So tonight it's really all about him.

BLITZER: Dirk, you get the last word.

NOWITZKI: We're just are going to go out and have fun.

BLITZER: See, he is a ball player. Dirk Nowitzki, thanks very much for joining us. Kobe Bryant, Commissioner, Billy, Ian -- thanks very much. I don't care what they say about "Sports Illustrated," I love that magazine. You do, too. I know you secretly do.

(LAUGHTER)

That's it from me. Our LATE EDITION's "Final Round" is coming up. Jonathan Karl is in Washington with the panel. They're ready to debate all the big stories of the week, from Colin Powell to Michael Jackson. Our "Final Round" starts in two minutes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Time now for an abbreviated "Final Round." Joining me, Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist, Peter Beinart of "The New Republic," Jonah Goldberg of "National Review Online," and Robert George of Alexander Hamilton's "New York Post."

(LAUGHTER)

We begin with Showdown: Iraq.

Today U.N. weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei said he thinks Iraq may be having a change of heart. Meanwhile Germany and France are pushing a plan to boost weapons inspections in an attempt to avert war. And on the Sunday morning shows, Secretary of State Colin Powell dismissed the idea.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

POWELL: If it is a plan that ignores continued Iraqi noncompliance and says the solution is more inspectors, that doesn't solve the problem. It's attacking the problem in the wrong way. It is not the need for more inspectors, it's the need for Iraqi compliance...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KARL: Peter, is war inevitable? I mean, what could stop it at this point?

PETER BEINART, NEW REPUBLIC: We've kind of entered the "Hail Mary" phase here. I think we're going to see a lot more Hail Marys. You've got -- I'm sure there'll be some move from Baghdad over the next week. We've got this French-German proposal. The Vatican is sending someone.

But there's only one Hail Mary that is serious, and that is Saddam leaving Iraq. And that one, I think, will not happen until the very, very last minute. And then the question will be twofold: Is he willing to do it, and is the Bush administration willing to do it?

KARL: Well, if anybody could send in a Hail Mary it would be the Vatican.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT GEORGE, NEW YORK POST: There you go.

Exactly, if Saddam leaves, that diffuses the situation. But, I mean, as the president said in the State of the Union, whatever France and Germany may want to do, their actions are not going to preclude us from doing what we feel is in our best interest. So, in that sense, war would be inevitable regardless of what the Europeans think.

KARL: I mean, even Democrats in Congress are thinking that at this point.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, let's pray that Saddam leaves and perhaps leave all of the evidence in a Cracker Jack box and the inspectors can hopefully find it. But I don't think that's going to happen. Unfortunately, this president has marched us to war, and we're going to war.

JONAH GOLDBERG, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: I think that's all basically right. And before the first Gulf War, we had what Tom Friedman from The New York Times called a "Primakov moment," where Alexander Primakov from the Russians tried this last-minute, twelfth- hour diplomacy push, and we're going to see the same thing again from a lot of different quarters. But I don't think it's going to work, and we're probably going to war.

KARL: New moon in Iraq at the beginning of March?

GOLDBERG: Yes, I think March. That's probably about what we're looking at.

KARL: OK, moving on. For the second time in its short history, the terror threat level was raised from an elevated alert to a high alert.

Robert, these alerts, do they do any good?

GEORGE: I don't think they do any good for the general public, because they don't know whether -- if there's a neighbor that they're supposed to be looking at a little bit more closely or whatever.

It is helpful to the extent that if they're imparting information to local police, other first-responders, telling them about possible areas that may be targeted.

GEORGE: So to that extent, it's helpful, but for...

KARL: But this looks more like bad people are going to do bad things, some time, somewhere. I mean...

GOLDBERG: Yes, I think that's right.

I think they're generally -- they don't hurt. I don't see how they hurt. I think they probably help, because all you really need is one bellhop, one waiter, one traffic cop to see something that tips off something and could really avert something terrible.

And the real question I have, which I thought, just to commit punditry, is, why on Earth was the attorney general the one announcing this threat to homeland security? What is the director of homeland security for, other than to announce threats to homeland security?

(CROSSTALK)

GEORGE: They were both there. I mean, it was kind of...

KARL: Yes, but it was Ashcroft's show. Yes.

BRAZILE: He took the lead.

Look, with war on the horizon, there's no question that we have to raise the level of alert. On the other hand, what should the average citizen do? I'll tell you what I did, I went to Eastern Market and got some oysters. That's...

(LAUGHTER)

BRAZILE: You know, you know...

KARL: Might as well enjoy yourself, right?

BRAZILE: I'm eight blocks from the Capitol, I said I'm going to have me a cajun dish tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

KARL: But even a Republican, Olympia Snowe, was complaining that up in her home state of Maine local first-responders hadn't had any indication as to what they were supposed to do.

BEINART: Yes, well, look, I mean, you assume that they are actually giving the first responders some more detailed information and that -- and, you know, if they're not doing that, I mean, it seems to me that, you know, as I think Bob Graham has really been saying, they're really, even if you're pro-war, you recognize there really is a greater threat in this period where we're going to war.

And the question is, are we cracking down on the people who represent a threat to us internally enough? I'm afraid that we're not going to know that until later.

KARL: All right, moving on, members of the president's economic team, including the newly sworn-in Treasury Secretary John Snow, will fan out across the country to taut the president's $674 billion plan to jumpstart the economy.

Jonah, I've been counting votes in the Senate. Doesn't look good there. Does this economic plan have a prayer of passing?

GOLDBERG: Well, look, first of all, it's a very Reaganesque budget. And one of the things that Reagan was great at was getting half a loaf and declaring victory. My guess is that George Bush will probably get something like two-thirds of a loaf and be very content to declare victory also.

But I think you're going to see more of it pass than a lot of the pundits think you are right now.

(CROSSTALK)

BRAZILE: Another Hail Mary, I guarantee you.

(LAUGHTER)

This is DOA.

And I'll tell you, the hardest part of this is selling those huge deficits to the American people. The president will have to admit that he's broken his campaign promise, and the Democrats will have to put forward their own alternative.

GEORGE: Well, as we know, two-thirds of a loaf is still a lot of bread. So...

(CROSSTALK)

GEORGE: Yes, exactly.

KARL: This is a pretty big loaf. GEORGE: It's a pretty big loaf.

I think we will get a -- there will be a tax cut, and it'll probably be something close to what the president wants. But I think it's going to be in a lot different form, because even the Republicans aren't really buying into the stock dividend tax cut, which I think personally is a good thing. But I think it's going to...

KARL: That part's dead, I mean, isn't it?

GEORGE: ... it's going to be a lot different form.

BEINART: Yes, you know, first of all, they propose this as stimulus, when everyone knows most doesn't go into effect in the first couple of years.

Second of all, we've been down this road before, where they said it wouldn't hurt the budget deficit to pass the last tax cut. We see that it has.

And thirdly, they're underfunding homeland security. This is the Democrats' big opportunity, because they're vetoing bills that we need for money we need on homeland security.

Their budget doesn't even have any money for the war. Can you imagine that?

GEORGE: For the Iraq war.

BEINART: For the Iraq war. It's the most astonishingly dishonest thing, and I really do think they're potentially vulnerable.

KARL: Ten seconds on that.

GOLDBERG: Well, look, I do think it's a very political budget. I'm in favor of the things like the dividend cut and so forth.

And I do think it's very strange that there's no budget in there for the war, especially when our allies aren't going to be picking up the tab for it.

So I don't know. It is -- it's a very political budget.

KARL: OK. We've got to take a quick break.

Up next, the "Lightning Round." We'll discuss Senator John Kerry's Jewish roots, Michael Jackson's TV ratings, and who will get a Valentine from our panel. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KARL: Welcome back to the "Lightning Round."

A controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina has Democratic presidential candidates tied in knots. The NAACP has asked people to stop spending money in South Carolina until the flag is removed from the state grounds, but presidential candidates can't afford to skip campaigning in South Carolina, a key and early primary state.

Donna, does this boycott make any sense?

BRAZILE: Well, boycotts are a very useful tool in a democracy, a form of protest. But as it relates to South Carolina, these candidates should be given an opportunity to campaign across the state, get their message out, and of course spend some time in South Carolina and getting to know the people and eating some of that great peach cobbler.

GEORGE: Yes, it just seems to me it's a silly boycott. I mean, boycotts in general, you know, I think are fine, but protesting the Confederate flag, obviously it's problematic and it is offensive, but I think there are other ways to try and address it.

KARL: OK, but how do you explain John Edwards, who says he is going to abide by the boycott and yet, you know, his campaign will have office space that'll (ph) be spinning ads and everything else?

GEORGE: He's the new Bill Clinton.

BEINART: I think Edwards is probably the campaign that's handled this the least well, in terms of kind of not getting out there in front as the other ones did and say, "We're basically -- we're not going to abide by it," earlier on.

But, you know, it is a symbol of a larger problem, which is you have a Democratic primary in South Carolina. You are handing a ticket to Al Sharpton to become the most important black leader in the Democratic Party, which is going to cause no end of problems for years to come.

GOLDBERG: Yes, look, I think boycotts are great, all part of democracy, wahoo.

(LAUGHTER)

I think the NAACP is nuts to make things like the Confederate flag the most important issue in its agenda, or at least publicly that's the way it seems, when there are so many other problems facing black America.

But one of the things that gets me is that if there were Republicans flirting with breaking this boycott, they would be immediately tarred as racist and called to be insensitive on racial issues. You don't hear any of that in the Democratic Party.

KARL: All right, we've got to move on. Speaking of Democratic presidential candidates, John Kerry had a very interesting week. It was reported that Kerry's grandfather was Jewish and changed his name from Kohn to Kerry in 1902, and then his wife, Teresa Heinz (ph), added her husband's name in order to avoid confusion while she is campaigning for president.

Peter, does John Kerry have an identity crisis?

BEINART: I think this potentially is a problem. He's run an excellent campaign. He is probably the closest thing the Democrats have to a front-runner.

His biggest problem is that he may get this kind of Gore-like reputation. He's been on both sides on the war, really having it every which way. And now you have this thing with, you know, not knowing that he was Jewish, people in Massachusetts thought he was Irish. It's a potential danger for him.

GOLDBERG: Yes, look, my name is John Goldberg. I'm very tempted to change my name to Worthington Rockwell...

(LAUGHTER)

... just so that I can sort of play on my ethnic roots as well. My mom was a WASP.

But that said, look, I think Peter says it exactly right. John Kerry wants to be on all sides of the issue. Now it makes him look as if he can actually claim to be of every ethnicity, too.

GEORGE: I think Hillary Clinton discovered she had Jewish roots when she ran for senator, too, so it happens in...

KARL: All right, all right, we've got to move on. It's the Lightning Round.

Would you want to live with Michael Jackson? Last week 27 million people in the United States watched the British documentary that followed the reclusive star for eight months -- the ultimate reality or unreality series. Viewers learned that Jackson still sleeps, quote, "innocently" with children. And he denied endangering his baby when he dangled him over a hotel balcony in Germany.

Robert, I know a lot of us were toggling back and forth between Bill Clinton on Larry King Live and Michael Jackson on ABC. What's your take? Do people care?

GEORGE: Yes, people care because he's been in the spotlight for 20-something years, and it's kind of an unfolding tragedy, so people can't quite turn away.

BEINART: Yes, it's the same people that like to watch Jerry Springer, you know. People like to watch people debase themselves. They like to watch human moral train wrecks. It's very sad.

GEORGE: That's why they watch this show, in fact.

(LAUGHTER)

KARL: And you were watching Bill Clinton instead of Michael Jackson?

BRAZILE: Yes, I was watching Bill Clinton. But look, I want the old Michael back. I want the old Michael back that sang love songs to grownups and people like me and not sleep with children. I really do think we need to teach Michael his ABCs.

KARL: OK, very quickly, don't forget Valentine's Day is Friday. What political figure do you want to send some love to?

Jonah Goldberg.

GOLDBERG: I can't touch the issue of valentines without sending one to my wife, who's due to have a baby any second, so I'll just leave it at that.

KARL: We're excited.

Go ahead.

BRAZILE: I'm going to send my love to the people of the District of Columbia. Taxation without representation, but now service without representation. So...

KARL: We'll see you run for office very soon.

(LAUGHTER)

Yes?

GEORGE: I send it to Bill and Hillary Clinton, who still manage to give us some nice headlines in New York.

BEINART: Certainly also to my lovely girlfriend and also to all those Democrats who actually have been forthright in standing up for the war, even though it is very, very hard on that party.

KARL: All right. Thank you all very much. Appreciate it. A pleasure to here for an abbreviated Final Round.

That is it for LATE EDITION this Sunday, February 9. Be sure to join Wolf next Sunday and every Sunday for the last word in Sunday talk.

Thanks for watching. I'm Jonathan Karl in Washington.

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