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Interview With Michael Leavitt; Interview With William Cohen

Aired January 1, 2006 - 11:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: This is "Late Edition," the last word in Sunday talk.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare.


BLITZER: Bird flu fears, the deadly avian virus spread from Asia to Europe in 2005. Will it hit the United States in 2006?

And what's the U.S. government doing to prepare and protect Americans? We'll look ahead with Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you want a judgment on the policy in Iraq you need to go ask the Iraqi people who are -- just turned out in the millions to vote in the election.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D) DELAWARE: And the fact of the matter is, democracy as we know it is not in the offering. That is not a realistic expectation.


BLITZER: Iraq's next chapter. Will the new year bring a stable country or civil war? And what impact will Iraq and the war on terror have on the 2006 U.S. elections? Two top senators, Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat Dick Durbin weigh in.

Insurgency in Iraq. Resistance from Iran. And the tenuous Israeli-Palestinian truce. What moves should the Bush administration make? Insight from former Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Plus, the newsmakers, the events, the best of LATE EDITION 2005.

It's 11:00 a.m. in Washington, 8:00 a.m. in Los Angeles, 4:00 p.m. in London and 7:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for LATE EDITION, a look at the year ahead and to all of our viewers, Happy New Year. We'll get to our interview with the U.S. Health Secretary Mike Leavitt in just a moment. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.


BLITZER: Thanks very much.

With several countries across Asia and Europe already battling cases of the deadly bird flu, top U.S. health officials are bracing for the possibility of it showing up right here in the United States in 2006.

Joining us now to talk about preparations for a potential pandemic is the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, Mike Leavitt.

Mr. Secretary, Happy New Year, welcome to LATE EDITION.


BLITZER: How worried are you that 2006, this new year, could see an outbreak of bird flu in the United States?

LEAVITT: The virus continues to spread in wild birds across the world. There is no reason to believe that at some point it will stop. That means that ultimately it would find its way to the United States. We need to be prepared.

We also need to be prepared to see a continued stream of people who are infected by contact with those birds but what we most hope not to see is a person-to-person transmission of a virus that has mutated into a form that makes that transmission rapidly and repeatedly.

BLITZER: Are you working under the assumption that it will happen sometime this year in the United States?

LEAVITT: We're operating on the assumption that some virus will ultimately reach the United States at some point. We can't be more specific than that, but we have to be prepared as though it would find the United States soon.

Now, if it does, the truth is, we have limited tools. But we need to be ready with those tools.

BLITZER: Here's what you said on October 7th. Listen to this.


LEAVITT: The world is obviously unprepared or inadequately prepared for the potential of a pandemic.


BLITZER: All right. Well, that's pretty worrisome to hear you say that. That was in early October. Is that still the case now?

LEAVITT: Well, we're better prepared today than we were in October. And we'll be better prepared in next October than we are today. It is a continuum of preparation.

We are not as prepared as we aspire to be. We have a great deal of work to do. Congress recently passed legislation that would provide funding for the development of vaccines, for the improvement of anti-virals, to create state and local plans, to increase our surveillance around the world. All of those things are part of a comprehensive plan that ultimately needs to be in place whenever a pandemic should strike the world next.

Pandemics have been with us from the beginning of time and they will be with us in the centuries in the future. We haven't seen one for some 30 years and consequently we forget, but we cannot forget because ultimately they happen.

BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence from the scientists, the medical professionals, the experts who are studying this closely, that the virus itself has mutated -- right now it's only going from birds to humans. Is there any evidence that it's making that change that it would go from human to human?

LEAVITT: The virus is constantly mutating. We know that. All viruses do. The one certainty is the uncertainty.

In 1918 a virus that had very similar genetic characteristics to the one that we're looking at now and one that acted clinically in the same way made this leap. That's what worries us the most. I wish I could tell you at some level of specificity when or why or if it would occur. I can't. What that means is we just have to be ready.

BLITZER: I'm going to put up on the screen a map showing where the avian bird flu has already spread. You can see, obviously, in China, mostly in Asia and Southeast Asia and Vietnam, in Thailand. But there have been some cases, confirmed human cases, elsewhere, including in Europe, in Ukraine, Turkey, Romania, I believe.

Is it increasingly moving toward the heart of Europe, Western Europe and potentially towards North America, South America?

LEAVITT: What scientists tell me is that there is a logical pattern to this. Wild birds infect domestic flocks. People handle domestic flocks. They catch it. My guess is that over time we will ultimately see cases of the avian flu among humans. Hopefully, it will be because they had contact with poultry or birds, not because they caught it from another human. But there is a progression, and what we do know is that the virus continues to mutate. And it will ultimately reach some form that either will burn out or some new virus which is already out there generating will begin to mutate.

We don't know if it will be this avian H5N1 virus. What we do know is that history tells us they've happened in the past. They'll happen in the future, and we are not prepared. We need to be. BLITZER: Because birds fly, the flocks -- they're flying literally all over the world. So eventually, presumably those birds who are infected in Asia will reach North America.

LEAVITT: Viruses know not sovereignty. They understand no political boundary. They travel by the rules and laws of nature and there are many of them and they are continually changing and working their way toward ways to adapt so that they can inhabit human hosts and other living things. BLITZER: To the traveler out there, especially those people who are traveling in Asia right now and countries that have been affected by bird flu and our program, "Late Edition," is seen around the world. What practical advice, if any, do you have to someone who is going to Vietnam, to Thailand, to Cambodia, to China, where there have been these cases?

LEAVITT: Just use good common sense.

BLITZER: Now what does that mean?

LEAVITT: Don't eat raw chicken. Don't drink duck blood. There are puddings and so forth that are delicacies that are made in those countries out of those things, and those are ways in which the virus can be carried. I have sat with people who have actually had avian flu, and they caught it by cleaning the chicken, not eating a cooked chicken. So it's not eating chicken, it's eating raw chicken, it's processing.

And we don't know a lot about how people catch this yet. We're still working to find it. We know that it acts like most other viruses, and it can be caught essentially by the fluids that exchange from one body to the other.

We have had very limited -- only two cases -- where a person caught it from another person. But they were administering health care on a very close basis. That's not happened yet. This virus is not efficient.

BLITZER: Here are some of the highlights of the president's plan to deal with avian flu. A billion dollars, he is seeking to vaccinate 20 million Americans. A billion dollars for anti-viral drugs. Three billion dollars for new vaccine technologies. Five hundred and eighty million dollars for state and local outbreak authorities for plans in that sense.

Is that enough?

LEAVITT: All parts of that are important, and the Congress has now funded the first year of what will be, need to be three years of preparation. I would put emphasis on vaccines because they are so important in being able to prevent an outbreak, or at least prevent the spread of an outbreak. And the second part would be state and local preparedness.

One of the things that's unique about a pandemic is that it happens many places at the same time. It also is not confined to a limited period. It can happen over a year. So we have to prepare for a situation where you could literally have hundreds of different communities, maybe thousands of communities, battling this in their own unique way, in waves over the time period that could go nine to 18 months.

BLITZER: Right now there is no vaccine. Is that right?

LEAVITT: We have a vaccine that we know produces a sufficient immune response, but when the actual virus makes that skip, or makes that transition into a human to human transmission, it will be a different virus -- it will be a cousin to this one but we know we can make a vaccine.

What we don't have is the capacity to replicate it fast enough so that every American could have one. The president's budget points to the day when every American within a period of six months could have a dose of a vaccine tailor-made to a pandemic virus.

BLITZER: At the end of the year there were some medical reports suggesting that the Tamiflu, which is the anti-viral drug, if you're already infected, that presumably could help save your life, may not necessarily be all that effective in all these cases.

LEAVITT: That is a very good example of how the virus mutates. We have always said that Tamiflu and other anti-virals are a very important part of a comprehensive plan, but they are not the equivalent of preparation. So they are a part of our plan, and we are working to find even better ones that could be tailor-made to a different virus, but it only is part of the preparation, but an important one.

BLITZER: Here is what Senator Hillary Clinton said in early November. Listen to this, because I want you to react to it.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) NY: They have acted late. They have acted too little. And they have not recognized that simply having vaccine available doesn't mean it will get where it's needed.


BLITZER: Is she right?

LEAVITT: Well, we acted -- we were the first in the world to begin acting aggressively, for example, to buy Tamiflu.

She is right about the fact that the problem is getting vaccines into the arms of people or getting Tamiflu into the palms of people quickly enough. That is why state and local preparedness is so important. In the next 100 days, the first 100 days of this year, I'll be in every state in America with teams working with governors to say, you need to be prepared.

Don't count on Washington, D.C. to manage your pandemic because it will be about your schools, it will be about your parades, it will be about your businesses. And you need to have the ability to be knowledgeable and to respond when -- if your hospital were to surge and need to have three to four or five times the capacity that it currently has. You need a plan.

BLITZER: Secretary Leavitt, good luck to you, good luck to everyone involved in this issue. Good luck to all of us. Thanks very much for joining us.

LEAVITT: Thank you.

BLITZER: And coming up, debating a timetable for U.S. troops in Iraq. Will 2006 be a year of significant transition there? We'll hear from the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, and the Senate's second ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin.

Then, from Syria to Iran to North Korea. We'll assess the diplomatic and security challenges ahead for the United States with former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.

And later, a look back at the people, the events, that made news on "Late Edition" in 2005. We'll be right back.



BUSH: America's actions in Iraq are essential to the security of our citizens, and will lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren.


BLITZER: President Bush vowing to stay the course, but many Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for 2006 to be a year of significant transition in Iraq.

Joining us here in Washington to discuss that and more is the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and the Senate's second ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. Senators, good to have you on our first "Late Edition" of the New Year.

Mr. Chairman, let me start with you. 2006. What do you expect -- I know what you would like to see happen in Iraq in this year, but what do you expect will happen in the coming months?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), INDIANA: I believe that a government will be formed. I think it will take weeks to bring about. That government will be important because it's a democratic government, and it will have the confidence, at least, of most of the people of the country.

I think it will also make a very quick transition in the security, and then we will have to try to work with it as to how we recede in the picture, how we help provide security for Iraq while it's gaining its foothold in a dangerous neighborhood. BLITZER: So you're upbeat, basically. You think things are moving slowly but surely in the right direction? Is that right?

LUGAR: Yes, I think so. But I think really the questions then will become ones that are not really on the agenda. How does that government pay its bills? In other words, the oil revenues aren't sufficient to pay for what they want to do. How does it get equipment for the security people? Do we leave equipment behind or do we transport things in? Our preoccupation, quite correctly has been with American soldiers, American lives, but as that transition goes to Iraqi situations, then we have a whole different set of things to talk about in terms of not only reconstruction but basically how to pay the bills.

BLITZER: And all of those are important issues, but it's basically an optimistic assessment that you have.

What about you, Senator Durbin?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I want to be optimistic as well, but Iraq is on the cusp -- I agree with Dick Lugar on this.

We look back at 2005. Over 2,150 American soldiers have given their lives now in defense of Iraq. Over 15,000 seriously wounded. We voted 79-19, a strong bipartisan vote, to say just what you did in the opening: 2006 has to be a different year, a year of significant transition. And for Iraq to move from where they were to where we want them to be, they have to move toward nationhood.

The groups that have been in tension to this point have to come together and work together as Dick says, not only to build a nation but to defend themselves.

BLITZER: Here's how the president phrased it, summed it up, the current situation in his address from the Oval Office, the recent one. Listen to this.


BUSH: My fellow citizens, not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq. It is also important for every American to understand the consequences of pulling out of Iraq before our work is done. We would abandon our Iraqi friends and signal to the world that America cannot be trusted to keep its word.


BLITZER: I spoke the other day with Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania. He is a strong supporter of the military but an ardent critic of the president's Iraq policy, and he was looking at some of the preliminary results coming in from this election, and he doesn't think the United States necessarily is winning in Iraq. He sees the clerics winning, he sees sort of those who support a theocracy winning and maybe down the road other critics are suggesting the big winner could be Iran. What do you make of those who are arguing that a secular, democratic, stable government is not necessarily in the works, but an Iranian-like theocracy could be in the works. LUGAR: That argument was almost inevitable from the beginning because the definition of victory, or winning, was never particularly clear.

I think you can say that winning means democracy in Iraq, an independent country, with a democracy in the middle of a dangerous neighborhood, but at the same time still admit that this may have a constitution, it may have practices that would not be acceptable in the United States, and our Foreign Relations Committee had debates over what would be the treatment of women? What would be the dominance of the Muslim culture? Will there be ties with Iran that are difficult?

Maybe all of the above would not be satisfying.

So I say, there's plenty of grounds for either Jack Murtha or anybody else to argue about this, but I would say, still, it's a significant step forward if in fact a democracy is established that's fairly stable and that furnishes some example for the rest of the neighborhood.

BLITZER: If, in fact, a Shiite-led theocracy, if you will, a religious state in Iraq, is democratically elected, I assume that's what the people of Iraq want, and it's up to them to decide, you wouldn't have a problem with that even though you wouldn't be happy that it wouldn't be a secular kind of Western-oriented democracy.

DURBIN: Well, we have to respect the process. We came to Iraq saying we want you to have the voice in picking your own leaders, and if they pick leaders that we're not particularly happy with, that is their decision.

But I hope that they choose leaders that would be forward- looking. They could easily split into a civil war, into factions at war, into a theocratic state that sadly does not recognize basic human rights and we will have little to show for all we've invested in this effort.

But I am more hopeful. I think in positive terms you have to say that the elections of 2005 were dramatic statements by the Iraqi people that their appetite to govern themselves even in the face of terrorism and insurgency, to go to the polls in huge numbers and to express their willingness to move forward as a nation, that's a positive sign.

BLITZER: Should there be a formal timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, a benchmark target date to get U.S. troops out?

DURBIN: It comes down to a debate that I think gets us nowhere as to whether or not to set a specific date.

But we have to say with clarity to the Iraqis, we're not staying there indefinitely. We're not going to continue to risk American lives and American treasure every single day. This is your country and your responsibility, and unless and until they have it in their minds clearly that we're leaving, I'm afraid they will not accelerate the preparation of their police and army to take our place.

BLITZER: Here's how the president, Senator Lugar, phrased it the other day in his Oval Office address. Listen to this.


BUSH: I will make decisions on troop levels based on the progress we see on the ground and the advice of our military leaders, not based on artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington. Our forces in Iraq are on the road to victory and that is the road that will take them home.


BLITZER: There is one school of thought that suggests that if the United States doesn't set some sort of target date, the Iraqis are simply going to say, you know what? Let Uncle Sam do this for us, and they won't necessarily have the incentive to go to the front line with their forces and fight the insurgents, the terrorists, those who are causing the violence there.

What do you make of that argument?

LUGAR: I don't think it's a good argument because the polling in Iraq -- unfortunately -- is that we're resented. That is, the United States forces and others, they want us out. Now some want us out with greater passion than others, but there is not overwhelming desire for Americans to stay, nor those from other countries that are with us.

So I think we have a confluence here in which we stated in a bipartisan way in the Senate, we passed a resolution that we're going to be moving along, but it has to be in the course, at least, of the Iraqis forming their government and getting on with certain situations that they have, and I think that that is likely to lead to a mutual benefit in which the Iraqis understanding that are probably going to like our presence in the latter stages better than they like it now.

BLITZER: The current troop level around the elections went up to about 160,000. It's going to down to about 138,000 and then presumably it's going to continue to decline.

At this point next year, this coming year, at the end of this year, 2006, how many U.S. troops would you anticipate would still be deployed in Iraq?

LUGAR: That's an impossible judgment but I would think maybe half as many. I would say this...

BLITZER: Eighty or 90,000?

LUGAR: Perhaps. On the basis that our military officers the president talked about are going to advise the proper withdrawals because they understand the military requirements of the United States around the world. There's no way we can prophesy on this first day of 2006 all the crises that are going to face the world quite apart from our country. But there are going to be some, and the need to have plenty of reserve and that that be apparent to other nations so they don't take advantage of the situation which to anticipate that we are too tied up is very important to our military and I think to the president.

BLITZER: We're going to take a quick break, but a quick follow- up on that, Senator Durbin. There are critics who are already saying the U.S. Army is being stretched way to thin right now and second and third and fourth tours of duty in Iraq for soldiers and Marines, that's going to have a deep, deep impact on overall U.S. military capability.

DURBIN: I agree with that, and I'll tell you, this war in Iraq has lasted longer now than World War II, and in terms of the commitments by Guard and Reserve as well as active duty, they have been pushed to the absolute limit and to think that we can stay there indefinitely and it's just a matter of will is to overlook the obvious.

We have responsibilities to our own defense in America. We have responsibilities to the men and women who have volunteered to serve, and we have to understand that at some point those responsibilities force the Iraqis to take over this responsibility.

If by the end of 2006 there isn't a dramatic change in terms of troop commitment in Iraq,. I think our military is going to be stretched very thin.

BLITZER: All right, senators, stand by. We're going to continue this conversation.

Much more to talk about with Senators Lugar and Durbin. We're going to continue to talk about Iraq. We're also going to look ahead to this year's Congressional elections, the overall U.S. presidential contests, 2008 not that far away. Could there be a shift of power here in Washington on Capitol Hill?

But up next, a quick check of what's in the news right now. Stay with "Late Edition."




BLITZER: Welcome back to our first "Late Edition" of the new year. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're talking with the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. Listen to what the president said about intelligence capabilities, the war in Iraq. He said this on December 14.


BUSH: It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq, and I'm also responsible for fixing what went wrong by reforming our intelligence capabilities and we're doing just that.


BLITZER: Senator Lugar, you're privy to sensitive intelligence information. Is the intelligence much better now than clearly it was on the eve of the war in Iraq?

LUGAR: There are many deficiencies still and this alarms all of us, but at the same time I give full credit to everybody who is attempting to reform it. Intelligence is not easy to come by, the kind of intelligence we really want, for Iraq and the Middle East and elsewhere. So we have to do better but we have a long way to go.

BLITZER: When you get a report, an intelligence report involving the war on terror and what's going on with nuclear capabilities in Iran or North Korea or what the insurgents may be up to, can you go to the bank on what you're reading?

LUGAR: You have to use your own judgment and assign a factor from one to 10 as to how credible you think that is.

BLITZER: What do you think?

DURBIN: I'm troubled by it. I think the Central Intelligence Agency under Porter Goss has gone through a transition. Whether it's a positive transition, we don't know. It really is based on the work product that many of the old hands have left, and they just said they don't care for the atmosphere of the agency. Maybe the atmosphere today is better. I just can't answer that.

Secondly, I want to tell you from the technology viewpoint, we still have a long way to go. This has been my passion since 9/11, to try to make sure that we have technology within our government where we can receive and evaluate and collate and share the information, so that we can make the right judgments and protect America. We still have a long, long way to go in that regard.

BLITZER: Here's what a lot of people, Senator, are saying. I get tons of e-mails. The United States, great superpower, greatest military, huge intelligence budget. Osama bin Laden still at large. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two, still at large. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, terrorist number one in Iraq, still at large.

Why is it so hard, Senator Durbin, and I'll ask you Senator Lugar as well, to find these guys?

DURBIN: Obviously, if they are still alive, and we assume that they are, they're being secreted away some place with the help of others, but I've been through these briefings. I can recall a few months after our invasion in Iraq sitting down and getting a briefing and having someone, an intelligence agent point to a place on a map about the size of a quarter and say, this is where Osama bin Laden is and we're going to get him.

They were so confident -- this was three years ago -- and it's clear to me that they overstated the capacity of the agencies to find people like that and to respond to it. It obviously is an extremely difficult thing if this person is protected.

BLITZER: How frustrated are you, Senator Lugar? Because you're a consumer of this kind of intelligence and one of the best in the business.

LUGAR: Well, you wish you had more. But I think some understanding of the difficulty involved in this and I think the American people are most hopeful that following Dick Durbin's lead, we'll use technology better. That there probably are breakthroughs there that we're finding.

At the same time we're overloaded by the data we have, and likewise have language deficiencies in understanding once we get an intercept, what we're hearing.

And these are real-time factors.

BLITZER: Speaking of intercepts, how comfortable are you with the president's now publicly acknowledged decision right after 9/11 to authorize secret wiretap surveillance of American citizens, among others, involved in overseas phone calls or e-mails or faxes without getting a court order.

LUGAR: Well, I can understand in the context of 9/11 that there may have been, in a common sense way, a reason why calls coming from the Middle East or Afghanistan to America might be intercepted, but I think the Congress quite rightly is trying to take a look at now that we're past 9/11, we're going to have to live with the war on terror for a long, long while.

And whether it's the treatment of prisoners that we've been discussing, for example, or elements of the PATRIOT Act, likewise intercepts are going to have to be given, I think, a pretty good hearing.

And what ...

BLITZER: So you want hearings? You want hearings?

LUGAR: I do. I think this is an appropriate time, without going back and should the president have ever tried to listen to a call coming from Afghanistan, probably of course. And in the first few weeks we made many concessions in the Congress because we were at war and we were under attack.

We still have the possibility of that going on so we don't want to obviate all of this, but I think we want to see what in the course of time really works best and the FISA Act has worked pretty well from the time of President Carter's day to the current time.

BLITZER: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. I know you want hearings, Senator Durbin, but do you believe, based on what you know right now, that the president broke the law?

DURBIN: I wouldn't go that far at this moment, but I'll tell you that the law is clear: if you're going to spy on an American, there is a process you have to follow. It's a FISA court, and there have been some 20,000 requests before this FISA court to listen in on conversations or secure information. You can count on one hand the number of times this court has denied our government that opportunity.

So it is a process available, and it's one that was not followed by this president.

I'm glad Senator Specter, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is going to have a hearing on this, and I think as Senator Lugar says, this year, 2006, we are going to be focusing on the power of the president in time of war.

The White House wants to expand that power in so many areas. Clearly Congress is holding back with the McCain amendment on torture, with our debate on the PATRIOT Act and now with these important hearings on spying on Americans.

BLITZER: Senator Lugar, Senator Durbin, thanks to both of you very much for joining us.

Up next, the global hotspots of 2006. We'll get perspective on some potentially very tough choices facing President Bush from the former U.S. Defense Secretary, William Cohen.

We'll be right back.



CHENEY: As this region experiences new hope and progress, we will see the power of freedom change our world.


BLITZER: Vice President Dick Cheney visiting with U.S. troops in Iraq during a surprise trip there just before Christmas.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Iraq is just one of several foreign policies facing the Bush administration this year. Joining us now with some special insight is the former U.S. defense secretary, William Cohen.

Mr. Secretary, welcome back to LATE EDITION. Happy New Year to you.

Let's talk a little bit about Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, making statements that are causing enormous concern right here in Washington, statements suggesting Israel has no right to exist, the Holocaust is a myth, perhaps Israel should be moved to Alaska or Europe or some place else. And hovering over all of this is the very sensitive issue of whether Iran is developing a nuclear bomb.

How big of an issue is this going to be for the United States in this year?

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, Iran's going to continue to be a major issue for us to contend with. But actually, the new president's statements, as outlandish as they are, may in fact work to our advantage and to the free world's advantage. To the extent that he continues to take and make these outrageous statements, it calls into question his credibility.

It also, in a way, has solidified our position with our European friends -- the British, the French, the Germans -- who have been working to try and find a way to persuade Iran that it should not pursue nuclear weapons.

And so, oddly enough, it may seem almost counter-intuitive, but he may be his own worst enemy and Iran's worst enemy in the sense of a proud nation with a proud history over the centuries of being isolated in the eyes of the world community. So this could, in fact, rebound to our advantage rather than disadvantage.

BLITZER: The president was asked about U.S. options in dealing with Iran in an interview last summer with Israel television. Listen to what he said.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All options are on the table. The use of force is the last option for any president. And we've used force in the recent past to secure our country. It's difficult for the commander-in-chief to put kids in harm's way. Nevertheless, I have been willing to do so as last resort in order to secure the country and to provide the opportunity for people to live in free societies.


BLITZER: So when the president says all options are on the table, that obviously includes the military option. But is that a realistic option in the aftermath of what has happened in Iraq, Iran being so much more potentially formidable a military adversary?

COHEN: Well, as the president pointed out, it's a very last option. It shouldn't be taken off the table, but nonetheless, I think the message is quite clear. Let's see if we can't pursue every diplomatic option available, including economic sanctions if they should ever become necessary, but calling upon the world community, which seems at this point to be solid in its view that Iran possessing nuclear weapons would be a very dangerous and destabilizing event in that part of the world.

And so I think we have a number of tools available. The president's correct by saying, "Let's not take it off the table." But realistically speaking, these other tools will be used well in advance of that.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about Syria under its relatively new president Bashar al-Assad, the son of the late Hafez al-Assad. Suggestions, U.N. investigations, Syrian intelligence may have been involved in the assassination of some prominent Lebanese figures including the former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Concerns that the Syrians are allowing insurgents or terrorists to cross into Iraq from Syria. What do you make of what's going on there?

COHEN: What I make of it is that I think the president has lost a unique opportunity, that is, the Syrian president. That he had an opportunity following his father's death, I think, to move forward and to try to find a way to really make an arrangement with the Israelis and with the United States to broker a peace in that region. I think there's been a lot of missed opportunities on his part.

Secondly, I think that he has not been forthcoming enough in terms of dealing with the issue of Iraq. The notion of sealing off that border or helping to seal off that border, I think, is another example of where he could set forth a policy and a posture that would convince most of the international community that he's serious about assuming a responsive position in international affairs.

So I think that the inquiry is going to take place. It's going to be important that the U.N. conduct an investigation, a serious one, in terms of what, if any, role he or his government had to play in the bombings and the assassinations in Lebanon. That will certainly have a toll on him.

So there's still an opportunity for him to work with the United States coalition forces, others in the region, to say that he's committed to pursuing the path of peace, rather than contributing to the destabilizing of the region.

BLITZER: Are you upbeat or pessimistic about the Israeli- Palestinian peace process in this new year?

COHEN: Well, I have mixed emotions about it. I think that Prime Minister Sharon took a very bold step. He has really started a new party, unheard of in recent memory, to be sure. But he's convinced that he needs to continue to work to bring about a two-state solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

I think that we have to do everything we can to support this initiative that President Bush has laid out with the so-called road map. We have to do all in our power, also, to empower Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian people, to pursue this two-state solution.

Security for the Israelis, but dignity, opportunity, and prosperity, hopefully, for the Palestinians. That is the path of peace, and that's the one that President Bush has laid out. And we have started an effort to develop an Internet support campaign for President Bush, saying that we want citizens who support the president's initiative of bringing leadership to the Middle East. BLITZER: Here's what the president said almost a year ago, in March of 2005. Listen to this.


BUSH: Today, people in a long-troubled part of the world are standing up for their freedom. The last few months, we've witnessed successful elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Beirut, and steps toward democratic reform in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The trend is clear. Freedom is on the march.


BLITZER: Is freedom on the march in this new year?

COHEN: Well actually, Freedom House, an NGO, a non-governmental organization, has filed a report indicating that the number of democracies have actually increased from 119 to 122 this past year. So we can see that other countries are reaching out and grasping the branch for freedom. And I think that we have to do everything we can to promote that.

So there have been a lot of successes in terms of countries reaching for freedom; there have been some setbacks. We have to look very carefully at what's taking place in Russia, whether President Putin, in fact, is becoming more autocratic than democratic. We have to watch very carefully what is taking place in Iran, and certainly North Korea, continue to be trouble spots that we will have to contend with.

But if you give people an opportunity for self-governance, and if there's a free and open election, free of corruption and any kind of oppression, then most people will reach for freedom.

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, we've got to leave it right there. But thanks very much for joining us on our first "Late Edition" of the new year, and Happy New Year to you.

COHEN: Pleasure to be here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much. And coming up, "Late Edition" will have more on what's going on, but first this.


BLITZER: What's his story? As the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad is credited with helping to foster a political atmosphere that led to a high voter turnout in the country's parliamentary elections, especially among Iraq's Sunni population. Before becoming America's top diplomat in Iraq, Khalilzad served as the U.S. ambassador to his native Afghanistan. Khalilzad is considered an expert on Islamic affairs, and is the author of more than 200 published writings.

Michelle Bachelet. What's her story? The socialist politician is the frontrunner in Chile's presidential election. Bachelet, once imprisoned by Chile's military dictatorship, lived in exile in Germany and Australia before returning to Chile, where she served as both health and defense minister under President Ricardo Lagos. If elected, Bachelet will be the first female president in the deeply conservative country, and promises that half her cabinet will be women.


BLITZER: There is much more ahead on our first "Late Edition" of the new year. From the fight in Iraq to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the passing of a beloved pontiff, a look back at the big events and people who made news. The best of "Late Edition" 2005. That begins right at the top of the hour.


BLITZER: This is a special "Late Edition," the best of 2005.


(UNKNOWN): Go, go, go!


BLITZER: The war in Iraq dominated the headlines in 2005, from the violence to the votes.


CHENEY: We will, in fact succeed in getting a democracy established in Iraq.

PRES. JALAL TALABANI, IRAQ: I think Iraqis very gradually will be able within two years to stand up and to depend on its own sources.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: The most important blow to the insurgency is that they're losing the Iraqi people.

U.S. SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA): The current policy is not working, it's not effective.


BLITZER: Hear what the top news makers have to say about the top story of the year.

Brought to justice, the trial of Saddam Hussein.


MUHAMMAD AL-SABAH, KUWAIT'S FOREIGN MINISTER: I think that he's going to go to hell.


BLITZER: But Osama bin Laden, the world's number one terror mastermind, remains at large. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. HAMID KARZAI, AFGHANISTAN: We know that for sure he's not in Afghanistan. Yes, if he were there, we would catch him.


BLITZER: 2005, a year book-ended by extreme tragedy.


(UNKNOWN): It's coming again, coming again!


BLITZER: The tsunami in Asia.



BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nobody's got a home. Nobody's got a way to make a living.


BLITZER: in the United States, Hurricane Katrina, and the great flood of New Orleans.


MICHAEL CHERTOFF, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: I don't think there's ever been anything like this.


BLITZER: And a devastating earthquake in Pakistan.


PRES. PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PAKISTAN: Five hundred thousand homes, households are affected.


BLITZER: 2005 also saw the passing of an icon.


COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: We truly felt we had been with somebody who was rather unique, a person of God.


BLITZER: A look back at the special guests making news on this "Late Edition," the best of 2005.

Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We'll get to the best of 2005 in just a few minutes, but first, a quick check of what's in the news right now.


BLITZER: Thanks very much. This hour we're bringing you the best of "Late Edition" 2005, the world leaders and news makers that made news right here on this program.

Iraq dominated the headlines. I had a chance to travel there in the spring with the overall commander of the U.S. military forces in the region, General John Abizaid. In our interview in Mosul he was appreciative of U.S. troops, and he was optimistic about democracy taking hold in Iraq.


GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, CENTCOM COMMANDER: I wonder why Americans are so arrogant as to think it can't happen here. It can happen here. It will happen here. The world is too interconnected. People want to live a better life.

It won't be American-style democracy, but it will be more participatory than they've ever seen before in an era where leadership of local nations will be held accountable. I'm certain of that.

What we're designed to do and what we do are two different things. And when you sit there and you listen to what these young company commanders and battalion commanders are doing, they are doing god's work out here not only to build new security forces but to help rebuild the country in a way that's important. So call it what you want to call it. The important thing is they're making a new future for Iraq.


BLITZER: Later in the year we invited the general back to the program, and even though the Iraqi insurgency had raged on, he said the United States should stay the course.


ABIZAID: The strategy really is pretty simple and it's pretty elegant, and General Casey's done a great job in developing it.

We develop Iraqi security forces. We continue to give them experience. We connect the chain of command. We build good leadership, and over time they take the lead in the counter-insurgency fight.

The insurgents can't beat us. We are very strong militarily. There seems to be some notion out there we're going to be pushed into the sea. That's not going to be anything even close to what you might see. BLITZER: But I assume they think that if they keep this drumbeat, this deadly series of suicide bombings, IEDs, improvised explosive devices, if they just keep killing a lot of individuals, Americans and Iraqis, eventually the American public will get fed up and the U.S. will pull out.

ABIZAID: Look, there's only one way for the insurgents to win, that's to drive us out before the Iraqis are ready to assume the battle space. If that's what happens, they could win, but it's very, very clear to me that we're going to stay the course, that we're going to build Iraqi security capacity, that the Iraqis are serious about being a partner in this effort and they're serious about taking over the effort. The insurgents can't win.


BLITZER: On that same program I interviewed the vice president, Dick Cheney, and asked him about some of his comments about Iraq that the critics have taken issue with.


BLITZER: Let's talk about some controversial comments you recently made suggesting the insurgents in Iraq were in, your words, "their last throws." Do you want to revise or amend those comments?

CHENEY: No, but I'd be happy to explain what I meant by that. If you go back over a year -- a year ago, we intercepted a message from Zarqawi, the top terrorist in Iraq, sent to Osama bin Laden. And it basically said that if the Iraqis were successful in establishing a democracy in Iraq, standing up a viable government, that he'd have to pack his bags and go elsewhere. And he was obviously very concerned about that possibility.

What's happened since then, of course, is that we've had considerable success. We've transferred sovereign authority about a year ago, held elections in January, first free elections in Iraq in a very long time. We've set up an interim government. There's a constitutional process in place now to draft a constitution. Later this year there will be a referendum on the constitution and then national elections finally at the end of the year in the fall.

So the political process is going forward making significant progress.

At the same time we're making progress in terms of training up Iraqi security forces. I think the months immediately ahead will be difficult months. I think there will be a lot of violence, a lot of bloodshed because I think the terrorists will do everything they can to disrupt that process and that flow that's well under way.

But I think it is well under way, I think it is going to be accomplished, that we will in fact succeed at getting a democracy established in Iraq, and I think when we do, that will be the end of the insurgency. BLITZER: The commander of the U.S. military central command, General John Abizaid, has been testifying on Capitol Hill. He says the insurgency now is at a strength undiminished as it was six months ago, and he says there are actually more foreign fighters in Iraq now than there were six months ago. That doesn't sound like the last throws.

CHENEY: No, I would disagree. If you look at what the dictionary says about throws, it can still be a violent period, the throws of a revolution.

The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand if we're successful at accomplishing our objective, standing up a democracy in Iraq, that that's a huge defeat for them. They'll do everything they can to stop it.

We look back at World War II, the toughest battles, the most difficult battles both in Europe and the Pacific occurred just a few months before the end, the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and Okinawa in the spring of 1945.

And I see this as a similar situation where they're going to go all out and do everything they can to disrupt that process, but I think we're strong enough to defeat them, and I think the process itself of establishing a democracy and a viable security force for the Iraqis will, in fact, signal the end, if you will, for the terrorists inside Iraq.

BLITZER: Do you want to offer an assessment how much longer this insurgency will continue?

CHENEY: No, I can't say that, but I do believe, because this has happened in the past -- we've seen that these political milestones are very important. When we transferred sovereign authority to the Iraqis a year ago, very important. When we held those elections last January, very important.

The president's been insistent, and I think properly so, on pushing forward and getting these things done. A lot of people say you couldn't possibly hold elections in January and others said if you hold elections, there will be a civil war. None of that came to pass.

In fact, we held the elections. The president insisted on it, the Iraqis did a great job, and I think that the success of the venture ultimately turns upon establishing a viable government in Iraq and I think we're well on our way to doing that, much farther down the road than we were six months or a year ago.

BLITZER: But is this going to be a timeframe within a year, two years, five years -- how much longer will this insurgency require the troop level of the United States in Iraq right now?

CHENEY: I think the way to think about it is defining it in terms of achieving certain conditions on the ground. We don't want to stay a day longer than necessary, but we want to stay long enough to get the job done. And the key here from the standpoint of the security situation is getting the Iraqis into a position where they can take care of their own security.

BLITZER: The Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has told me he thinks by 2006 the U.S. can start to significantly reduce its troop level. Do you agree with him?

CHENEY: I hope he's correct, but again, we've been very careful not to put a timeline on it and say we'll be through by "x" date or we can begin to bring the troops home by a certain date. We can begin to do that once the Iraqis are in a position to be able to provide for their own security.


BLITZER: The U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a frequent guest on "Late Edition." I asked her in June when she thought U.S. troops will begin coming home.


BLITZER: Do you support having a timetable for the start of a U.S. military withdrawal?

RICE: What we need, Wolf, is a recognition that we are moving toward the day when coalition forces are indeed going to be not needed for a lot of these tasks, and where they can certainly start to come home. We really look forward to that day. But that has to be a day when the Iraqis are capable of carrying out the important security functions themselves.

And we're not talking about the Iraqis having to be capable of meeting a massive army. We're talking about counterterrorism operations. They're being trained for those now. They're carrying those out jointly with us up on the Syrian border as we speak. They have carried out protection operations as their elections took place, just in January.

So they're making progress. And as they make progress, then you will see fewer and fewer coalition forces engaged and fewer and fewer coalition forces needed. And that is absolutely our desire, as well as I think the desire of the American people. But insurgencies are defeated not just militarily.

They're defeated politically as well, and so you have to look also at the tremendous progress that the Iraqis are making on the political front, having held one election, writing a constitution now, and getting ready for elections again in December. The insurgency cannot continue to exist if it loses the Iraqi people. And with every day, the Iraqi people see their future in their political process not in some alternative, and since the only alternative that the so-called insurgents and the terrorists are actually offering is to continue carnage, to continue blowing up innocent Iraqis, including a few days ago schoolchildren, that's not an alternative that the Iraqi people desire. So the most important blow to the insurgency is that they're losing the Iraqi people. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: In November, I pressed the U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about pre-war intelligence.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There is no question but that there are fabricators that operate in the intelligence world, and that there's also no question but you can find intelligence reports on every side of every issue. When you look at the reams of intelligence information that the United States develops from different agencies, they gather from other foreign, friendly foreign liaison services, you can find in any given week intelligence that conflicts with each other. The implication there's something amazing about that is ridiculous.

BLITZER: But the basis of the intelligence...

RUMSFELD: We know the intelligence is imperfect.

BLITZER: ... that's why the U.S. went to war, the WMD and the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection that you alleged.

RUMSFELD: The reason the United States went to war, the president has announced and said it repeatedly. There were 17 resolutions in the U.N. that were ignored by Saddam Hussein.

Our planes were being shot at on a regular basis in the "Operation Southern Watch" and "Operation Northern Watch." Saddam Hussein was giving $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers. Iraq was on the terrorist list. Iraq had used chemical weapons against its own people.

BLITZER: But Mr. Secretary, wasn't Iraq under Saddam Hussein in those days effectively contained by the United Nations, by the U.S., the no-fly zones, the economic sanctions, the diplomatic sanctions, weren't they effectively contained, and certainly with hindsight, Saddam Hussein did not pose much of a threat to the United States.

RUMSFELD: You say was it effectively contained. It was certainly engaged in doing things that were harmful. Shooting at our airplanes, the only place in the world that was taking place. The United Nations ignoring 17 U.N. resolutions. The sanctions obviously were not working there.

BLITZER: Let me...

RUMSFELD: Let me answer your question. Just a minute.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

RUMSFELD: The sanctions were obviously not working very well, which sanctions tend not to after a long period of time. You've read what's been going on with the oil for food...

BLITZER: But based on the fact that the United States...

RUMSFELD: ... in the United Nations.

BLITZER: ... didn't find any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction...

RUMSFELD: It's clear the intelligence was wrong.

BLITZER: And it's clear that he didn't really represent much of a threat.

RUMSFELD: If you're talking about whether or not the intelligence was correct, everyone has agreed it was not.


BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll hear from Iraqi leaders. What are they willing to sacrifice for democracy? Then an expected critic of President Bush's war plan, Democratic Congressman John Murtha. And later, basketball's big man, Shaquille O'Neal, on what's right with the NBA. The best of "Late Edition" 2005 continues right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back. All year, top Democrats hammered the Bush administration over its Iraq policy, resulting in a vote by the Congress to require President Bush to supply a plan and provide regular updates to lawmakers. Here's Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.


BLITZER: What specifically do you want the president to do differently? What do you want him to do in Iraq to get the job done?

KENNEDY: Well, first of all, he has to outline what the plans are in terms of our national security, where we are going to -- whether we're going to need additional kinds of troops or what is going to be our situation. Secondly, he needs to have a rebuilding program to make sure that we're going to have an economic aspect, and third, he has to do something about diplomacy.

Why aren't we asking the Europeans, for example, to try and secure the border with Syria? Why don't we have people in the Damascus airport that are filming and taking a reading on the kind of killers that are coming from Saudi Arabia and causing this havoc over in Iraq today? There's a whole series of questions that have been outlined in the Armed Services Committee. This current policy is failed and flawed. The president has to give the facts to the American people and outline a new strategy. We have a losing strategy at the present time. Not just the Democrats are saying, but people like Chuck Hagel and other Republicans are saying.

BLITZER: But Senator, you heard General Abizaid, John Abizaid, the commander of the Central Command, General George Casey, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, testify before your committee, the Armed Services Committee, saying that progress is being made, that it's going to be difficult, but they think they can get the job done if the United States stays the course.

KENNEDY: Well, General Abizaid said that the rate of violence and the insurgency is just what it was about six months ago. General Vines, who spoke just last week, said that effectively, it's a static situation. I don't think anyone could feel -- the American people are rejecting this rose-colored view of Iraq today.

The vice president indicates that everything, the insurgency is in its last grasp. He ought to talk to the generals and listen to the generals. It's not. The current policy is not working. It's not effective. And the administration -- and we need accountability as well. And that's why I think the Secretary of Defense should resign. I think we need a new look at Iraq from a military point of -- reconstruction and also diplomatic.


BLITZER: One of the surprise critics of the war in Iraq, veteran and longtime military supporter John Murtha. The Pennsylvania Democrat says the Iraq war as waged by the Bush administration is not winnable, the U.S. Army is broken, and U.S. troops should begin withdrawing now.


BLITZER: I wonder if you could clarify for our viewers in the United States and around the world exactly what your position is, because it's sort of been muddled by various reports. What exactly are you calling for?

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MURTHA (D-PA): As a matter of fact they not only muddle it, they muddle it on purpose. What I'm saying is, let's redeploy as quickly as possible.

BLITZER: Now let's -- hold on. Redeploy, what does that mean?

MURTHA: Redeploy means let's take our troops out of Iraq as quickly as we can.

BLITZER: All hundred-plus thousand?

MURTHA: All 168,000 as quickly as we can. Now, we've become the enemy. Eighty percent of the people want us out of there. As you mentioned earlier, many, more than half of the Iraqis want us out, and almost half think we're the enemy, and we're consolidating the enemy against us, is what it amounts to, so...

BLITZER: So where should they redeploy to?

MURTHA: They should redeploy to Kuwait and they should redeploy over the horizon to Okinawa, even...

BLITZER: Okinawa, in Japan? MURTHA: Yeah. Well, we could even bring them back to the United States. We can go back in there very quickly if we need to. In today's world, we can bring troops back in 24, 48 hours if we need to do that. What I'm talking about is a civil war. They're already in a civil war. We're caught in between a civil war.

We redeploy, we're not the enemy any longer, our convoys aren't attacked, they start to solve this themselves. If there's a terrorist buildup, then we could go back in. If it affects the United States or our allies, we can go back in.

But diplomatic is the answer. We have lost our credibility because of the torture. We've lost the credibility because they found no weapons of mass destruction. What they need to do, at least in my estimation, is pull our troops out, redeploy them to the periphery and put 50,000 or so in the periphery because the supplies and so forth need to be there, and then let the Iraqis work this out themselves.

BLITZER: Put 50,000 in Kuwait.

MURTHA: Fifty thousand in Kuwait. And my argument is this: Democracy is not easy. They want democracy. They don't want occupation. They have to fight for this democracy just like we did.

BLITZER: The time frame for this redeployment, it's been suggested you want them out over the next six months.

MURTHA: In answer to a question to a reporter, I said we can get them out in six months, and we could get them out in six months if we decided, if the policy was to get them out. We could do that very easily. It took us a year and a half to get the ammunition out of the first Gulf War but there's no question we can get them out in six months.


BLITZER: Many top Iraqi leaders were guests here on "Late Edition." In September, the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani joined me when he visited President Bush here in Washington. I asked him when Iraq will be able to stand on its own.


TALABANI: I think Iraq is going gradually to be able within two years to stand up and to depend on its own sources. You know, Iraq is a rich country, is a rich country not only by the national resources but by the cadres. We have hundreds of thousands of...

BLITZER: So, excuse me for interrupting, because on Friday at the Pentagon, you said two years for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq. At the end of the next two years, do you think the U.S. will be able to completely withdraw?

TALABANI: This is the maximum time I say, and I say first of all, I like to say that we want American forces to remain in special guidance, not to be engaged in daily activities. BLITZER: Even beyond the two years.

TALABANI: Even now, even now we want that American forces be special garrison, not be engaged in daily work or operations. When we needed them, because now we have a big number of police and army members, about 190,000 Iraqis are not in police and the army. We can do a lot of things that before we couldn't do it.

We want Americans be far from the daily sacrificing. It's our duty to sacrifice for our people and for our goals. I say we will be able within two years that everything will be OK, not -- they will not be needed. But I say also our need to American forces is not only for internal affairs of fighting against terrorism, but also to frighten neighbors who want to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq.


BLITZER: The prime minister of Iraq and I also sat down when he came to Washington to meet with President Bush. Ibrahim Al Jaafari told me what he was willing to give up to see democracy in his country.


BLITZER: You're a very courageous man. How concerned are you about your own security?

IBRAHIM AL-JAAFARI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): As far as my life is concerned, I lived for my young years ago. I assume the worst. I am more concerned about the life of my nation and my people than of my personal life. In fact, I'll be happy to sacrifice my life if this would lead to the happiness of my nation. As in your nation, many of your leaders were killed or assassinated in the course of duty.

Abraham Lincoln was killed in his course of duty as the president. Garfield, James also was killed in 1881. John Kennedy was killed. I think anybody who puts himself in the frontline of a public responsibility, there is a risk, and in fact, there is a price that sometimes must be paid.

In fact in our countries it is so much so that when we were in a position, we always risked our lives. And now we're in power, we're risking our lives again. It is something we expected all the time, and there is no room for the weak-hearted. It takes courage. I hope that I have that courage to fulfill that mission.


BLITZER: And coming up, a sight few would have imagined only a few years ago: Saddam Hussein on trial. What was said on this program about Iraq's former dictator being brought to justice?

Plus Afghanistan's president on the whereabouts of the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden. All that and much more coming up here on our special "Late Edition." Also a quick check of what's in the news right now.




BLITZER: Welcome back to our special "Late Edition." I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

The trial of Saddam Hussein is under way right now in Iraq. The foreign minister of Kuwait did not mince any words about the former dictator, his old neighbor, when he appeared on this program in May.


BLITZER: Do you hope he gets the ultimate price, which is the death sentence?

AL-SABAH: I cannot imagine -- I think that he's going to go to hell. What happens to him at this earth is really of a minor consequences, but I certainly believe in my heart of hearts that he's going to go to hell.

BLITZER: You hate his guts, don't you?

AL-SABAH: He is a villain. I cannot -- it's not a matter of hate. He destroyed his country, he destroyed his neighborhood, he destroyed the reputation of Arabs and Muslims. He gave a bad impression about us.


BLITZER: Osama bin Laden remains at large. The Afghani president Hamid Karzai told me what he knows about the terror mastermind's whereabouts.


BLITZER: Do you know for sure as your foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, suggests that Osama bin Laden -- he says absolutely positively is not in Afghanistan. Do you know that for sure?

KARZAI: We know that for sure he's not in Afghanistan, yes. If he were there, we would catch him.

BLITZER; There are certain parts of Afghanistan that are remote along the border with Pakistan, for example. Do you fully control all those areas?

KARZAI: There are remote parts of the country everywhere, in that part of the world, but we can tell with certainty he's not around in Afghanistan. If he is, we will catch him if he ever comes in there.

BLITZER: Do you have any doubt -- do you have any knowledge where he is? Where you do believe he is?

KARZAI: Well, that we don't know. We know as much that he could not possibly be in Afghanistan.


BLITZER: The world lost Pope John Paul II this year. The former U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, shared his intimate thoughts with me about the meeting he had with the religious leader.


BLITZER: Here you were the secretary of state of the United States, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, everybody who has met the pope, no matter how powerful, seems to come away with this notion that they were humbled, and they were so small in his presence. Talk a little bit about it...

POWELL: It's true.

BLITZER: ... How you felt in his presence.

POWELL: It's true...

BLITZER: Because you had met with world leaders for so many years.

POWELL: Nothing like the pope, and the first time that I met him was 20 years ago with my wife at an audience.

BLITZER: You have a picture of that. We're going to show our viewers that picture but go ahead talk a little bit about that.

POWELL: But Alma and I were with a group that went in to see his holiness, we were accompanying Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger at that time, and it was a very emotional moment.

It was almost a religious experience. You just weren't in the presence of a marvelous individual or a wonderful room, the setting is remarkable, but when we left that, we truly felt we had been with somebody who was rather unique, a person of god.

We're not Catholics. We're Episcopalians, but it was clear this was a unique man who was put here for a unique purpose.

BLITZER: He had a special relationship with American Catholics that you witnessed over these 26 years, and I want to wind up on this pope, Pope John Paul II and America. What did he mean to America, and you played such a pivotal role over the same 26 years, if I can say.

POWELL: I think American Catholics saw in him somebody they could align with, somebody that they could understand, somebody who was "of them," even though he was Polish.

He came here on many occasions. He always drew massive crowds, and people saw a leader who was the perfect witness of their faith, and who held fast to the principles of that faith.

But at the same time, he totally identified with American values: the freedom and democracy and the rights of men and women. Things that all of our faiths say we should believe in, and he was a perfect example of that, by his service, by his ministry, not only to Americans, but to all the people of the world.

And I think, because of that, Catholics made a connection to him. He wasn't some distant individual. He was not Italian. He was unique, and he believed in what we believed in, and he knew how to convey that message to us.

But he not only touched Catholics in America, I think he touched all Americans. We all watched when he came. We all didn't go to the masses, but we all watched on television those Massachusetts, those great celebration the pope had when here.


BLITZER: Still ahead, around the world, nature made its way felt in a big way in 2005. The tsunami in southeast Asia killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people and Hurricane Katrina, the storm that drowned the Crescent City, and opened so many wounds.


BLITZER: The year began with a huge tragedy, the tsunami in Asia. An unlikely political pair made the rounds to help, former presidents Bush and Clinton.


BLITZER: We begin with you, President Bush. Give us your thoughts. What you have seen now in the tsunami affected areas, is it what you expected?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: It's worse. It's worse than I expected. The devastation is greater.

Of course, we come in now, most of the bodies have been accounted for, or at least have been cleaned -- picked up and put into these refrigerated vaults, but so we didn't see any of that, but the devastation on the ground is worse than I expected. Just leveled, where there were schools and houses, it's just flat, flat land. It was -- I've never seen anything like it ever.

BLITZER: What about you, President Clinton?

CLINTON: Wolf, we were in Thailand this morning and yesterday, and then we went to Aceh, in Indonesia, and flew up and down the coast. They have only buried 110,000 people, only. That sounds staggering. They think at least another 130,000 are dead that they haven't even recovered yet.

We visited one little village 6,500 people had lived and only 1,000 survived. There are orphans everywhere. Nobody's got a home. Nobody's got a way to make a living. It's unbelievable, but the USAID Office is there, all these wonderful NGOs are there, the U.N. agencies are there. They seem to be working together well.

And the people are very brave. I mean, in this village, all the elderly people were killed because they couldn't get away from the wave and new leaders are trying to step in and get the job done.

It's like nothing I've ever seen but it's heartbreaking and heartening at the same time.

BLITZER: President Bush, how is the recovery effort, based on what you can tell, coming along?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: The recovery effort really is just starting. It's been cleaning up until now and trying to account for the bodies, but the recovery effort is just starting.

In Aceh there's not a lot of evidence that it's there and talking to the people that are on the ground, they're all quite optimistic that the houses will start being built again and schools being put up.

So I'd say it's got a long way to go, but it's not because of negligence or because of inefficiency, it's just because of the enormity of the devastation.

BLITZER: President Clinton, what has surprised you the most? You saw a lot of this on television. You read about it, but now, being on the ground, what was the most eye-opening moment, let's say, for you?

CLINTON: Seeing the orphans in their school uniforms yesterday in Thailand, and standing in the street of the town where nothing was left except a mosque, flying over the town and seeing the rice fields flooded with saltwater from the ocean, and I mean the farmers say it will be three years before they can grow a crop again.

Just the magnitude of it -- you guys have done a wonderful job covering this, but no distant picture can convey the enormity of the human tragedy and the environmental destruction until you see it.


BLITZER: Here in the United States another tragedy of epic proportions, Hurricane Katrina and the great flood of New Orleans put the federal government to the test.


BLITZER: A lot of people, as you well know, across the country are very angry by the lack of immediate response from the federal government. They're saying it was a disgrace, how could this happen in the United States of America? Are you humiliated by what happened in the immediate aftermath of this hurricane?

CHERTOFF: Wolf, as I think people are beginning to understand, this was not just a hurricane, it was a hurricane that was followed by a flood.

I've asked people who have been involved in the disaster management business for many years, and I don't think there's ever been anything like this. It's as if one was conducting a rescue effort for a tsunami where the water was still on the ground.

It was unprecedented, and I think that created a challenge that frankly overwhelmed a lot of people, state and local folks. We had people on the ground who were pre-positioned.

As the dimensions of the catastrophe became clear, we moved as rapidly as we could to mobilize National Guard and get forces in here.

Was I frustrated? Absolutely. Let me tell you, you don't want to see a situation where people are on rooftops and there are not enough helicopters to get them.

But we rapidly started to put helicopters into the area. The Coast Guard had already deployed helicopters nearby in advance of the storm and we had 50 of those. Military helicopters started to fly in.

The fact of the matter is it's never enough when there are still people suffering, but there's also a tremendous amount of credit to be given to the folks in the Coast Guard and the FEMA people and the state and local rescue people and then ultimately the National Guard and military in rising to the challenge of this really unprecedented catastrophe.


BLITZER: The man in charge on the ground was United States Army General Russel Honore, known for telling it like it is.


BLITZER: General, do the American people have the right to see what's happening in New Orleans right now, the good, the bad and the ugly, including the bodies?

GEN. RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY: I think that has been done, Wolf. I can't swing a dead cat without hitting a reporter. I mean, they attend all of my meetings. A few of my commanders meetings that are not restricted to the media. There's media with me on my airplane, on my LMTV, the truck I'm moving around with.

The specific tasks we were talking about dealt with this: we have search and rescue teams who are going out in small boats. I'd like for you to you visualize that team coming up on the remains of one of our fellow citizens, and this goes to the heart of the question, is that media embed -- I mean every private and sergeant here has a reporter that he's established a personal relationship with.

What we didn't want to happen, Wolf, was to have embeds on those search and rescue crews to a known point where there was a citizen who had died in this who may be removed from a house. We have an ethic in the army of notifying the next of kin, and maybe my articulation of that wasn't clear. What we are trying to not be a part of -- the media go where they want. This is a free country, and the home of the first amendment, after all, but what we didn't want was a media person on one of our boats and a picture be taken of the front porch of a house and for the first time, that person's relatives see that that front porch, and in the process, identify one of their loved ones being taken from the home. That's the only point that we are trying to make.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: In October, a tragedy in Pakistan: a massive earthquake measuring 7.6. The president of that country, Pervez Musharraf, gave us the devastating numbers when he appeared on "Late Edition" in November.


BLITZER: On the earthquake, how many people, how many Pakistanis have died?

MUSHARRAF: This figure is about 73,000, but some sources also quote 87,000, but I feel it is certainly 73,000. It may go a little over that, but at the moment I would quote the figure of 73,000.

BLITZER: How many people are homeless?

MUSHARRAF: I would predict that about 500,000 homes, households are affected. That is how I would like to put it.

BLITZER: Are you getting the international support that you need to deal with this enormous, enormous tragedy?

MUSHARRAF: In the relief operations, we are into the relief operations. At the moment what is urgently required is relief for the people, affected people. I think we have got, I would call it, reasonable support in the relief operations in the form of medical assistance, medical teams, hospitals, field hospitals, medical aid, medicine equipment, and in the form of shelter, blankets, tents, other relief goods including foodstuffs.


BLITZER: You'll want to stick around for our final clip of the year, when the best of "Late Edition" 2005 continues.


BLITZER: Welcome back. Many of you may not know I'm a huge basketball fan. I have season tickets for the Washington Wizards. A special treat for me, therefore, was this past year when I interviewed three basketball all-stars from the big game in Denver. It occurred in February.

Among my guests, Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill and Manu Ginobili. I asked them about the criticism there are too many slam dunks in the NBA, and not enough finesse in the game anymore. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, NBA PLAYER: One, it's a beautiful game. There's a lot of different guys that have a lot of different skills. The dunk shot is a beautiful shot. You have to understand, the dunk shot is so beautiful, that's why during the all-star game the dunk contest is the last event we have because the fans like that the most.

Did you see what Josh Smith did? You tell me that Josh Smith is not a great athlete, that he doesn't have skills? Billy Hunter was right. The guy that wrote that article, he's been smoking something, and he needs to stop. He needs to get rehab.

BLITZER: I saw that dunk contest last night. Josh Smith was incredible from Atlanta, from the Atlanta Hawks. Let me bring in Grant Hill, and you have a lot of finesse. You're one of the best players. The criticism that was leveled, is it fair? GRANT HILL, NBA PLAYER: Well, I get offended, because I can't dunk anymore, and I don't shoot three-pointers, so that's pretty much my game, the mid-range area. But, you know, I get offended, like Shaq said and Billy said, I mean, there's a lot of great players in this league, and it feels like there's all this nit-picking.

You know, you're always trying to find something wrong. I don't see anything wrong. I'm a fan. I've been a fan all my life. I've been a fan now. I've watched these guys for four years while I've been hurt, and I'm a fan now that I'm back. And I see nothing but great players.

Of course the big fella, I know he's been great for a long time, but watching Manu develop and grow into a great player, and looking forward to trying to stop him, and realizing he is a great player going against him one on one. I don't see any problems. I mean, I think the game is great. The skill level is great. The guys are committed. We've got a lot of great, young players, and the future of this league is in good hands.

BLITZER: Manu, give me your thoughts.

MANU GINOBILI, NBA PLAYER: Well, I read that article, and I couldn't believe what I was reading. It was kind of shocking. I think that every player has got to develop the weapons they can do better. If some guy is very good defending, a team is going to hire him. He's going to be the best.

If Grant is the best one shooting 18-footers or 17, he will, and the same with Shaq. He dominates the paint. You want him to shoot threes or what? No, everybody's got a dominating skill. And I think there's nothing wrong with the NBA game. And it's getting better every day.


BLITZER: And that's your special "Late Edition," the best of 2005 for this Sunday, January 1. Please be sure to join me next Sunday and every Sunday at 11 a.m. eastern for the last word in Sunday talk. I'm also in "The Situation Room" Monday through Friday 4 to 6 p.m. eastern, as well as 7 to 8 p.m. eastern. Until then, thanks very much for watching. Let's hope for a healthy and peaceful new year. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.


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