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Alito Hearings Continue; Bush Defends Terror Strategy; New Details on Sago Mine

Aired January 11, 2006 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time. Happening now, Judge Samuel Alito pressed, prodded, and grilled. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington and the Supreme Court nominee still is being scrutinized by senators. But the real fireworks came when one lawmaker took on another.
President Bush and the election year battle over Iraq. He has been answering questions about the war and the terror threat. This hour, a live report on his campaign for public support, and our brand new poll numbers. You will want to see these.

And the influence peddling probe on Capitol Hill. Who might be fingered by lobbyist Jack Abramoff? We will tell you what law enforcement sources are saying and whether they're naming names.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It may say something about Samuel Alito's chances for confirmation that the angriest moment of his hearings didn't really involve him at all. The questioning of Alito continues this hour. Senators Edward Kennedy and Arlen Specter appear to have made up after their dustup. Our congressional correspondent Ed Henry is joining us now from the hearing room with more on what happened -- Ed.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you are right. It really speaks volumes that the first two people to lose their cool in the room behind me turned out to be two senators, not Judge Alito. He was really a spectator to the senatorial spat and the White House will take that any day, because it shows that the nominee is really above the fray, sailing along.

And what the backdrop here for this spat between senators Kennedy and Specter really is, that there is a Democratic frustration building. They feel that the nominee has been evasive, and every time they've tried to pin him down, he's gotten away. So this morning we saw Democratic Senator Dick Durbin try to push again, try to press the nominee on whether or not he believes Roe v. Wade is settled law. He would not be pinned down on that question about abortion.

And then Senator Kennedy was really bearing in on this group of Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a very controversial group, and he started demanding that the committee subpoena documents. And that really frustrated the chairman of the committee.

Take a listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Mr. Chairman, I'd appeal the ruling of the chair on this.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: There's been no ruling of the chair, Senator Kennedy.

KENNEDY: Well, what is the -- my request is that we go into the executive session for the sole purpose of voting on a subpoena for these records that are held over at the Library of Congress. That purpose and that purpose only. And if I'm going to be denied, that I would want to give notice to the chair that you're going to hear -- have it again and again and again, and we're going have votes of this committee again and again and again until we have a resolution.

I think that these...

SPECTER: Well, Senator Kennedy, I'm not concerned about your threats to have votes again, again and again. And I'm the chairman of this committee, and I have heard your requests and I will consider it. And I'm not going to have you run this committee and decide when we're going to go into executive session.

We're in the middle of a round of hearings. This is the first time you have personally called it to my attention, and this is the first time that I have focused on it. And I will consider it in due course. And I will move to Senator Grassley for 20 minutes.


HENRY: Specter was clearly angry there because he felt sandbagged and he decided to call the Democrat's bluff over the lunch break. He decided to send some Senate staffers over to the Library of Congress to get these documents, get these records from this alumni group which are at the Library of Congress, without a subpoena.

So Republicans feel that it is going to end up diffusing the controversy, it would have given it more life if Specter refused for the committee to look at the documents. Instead, they are going to go through them. And the New York Times actually published a story in November about these documents and found no smoking gun in terms of Judge Alito's connection to the group. So Republicans feel confident that at the end of the day, this is going to be more smoke than actual fire -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Ed, thank you very much. Ed Henry reporting for us.

So what do we know about Samuel Alito and his association with this organization known as the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, or CAP, as it is called? Our Internet reporter Abbi Tatton has been checking the situation online -- Abbi.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, what we do know is from documents that have been released, some of them from the National Archives, this one in particular, Samuel Alito's job application in 1985 where he touts his conservative credentials.

He talks about being a participant and member of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. Twenty years later, 2005, the questionnaire that Samuel Alito submitted to the Judiciary Committee, in that he says, I have no recollection of being a member of that group, something that he's repeated in his testimony to the committee. He also says there are no current officers for whom more information can be obtained.

Now we have heard from Ed Henry that Senator Kennedy has asked for documents to be released from the Library of Congress from William Rusher. Rusher has just given an interview with the National Review Online. What he says is he hasn't reviewed those documents for 30 years and he has no recollection of Samuel Alito at all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi, thank you very much. Now we're going to take you back into the Alito hearings throughout this hour. They have just taken a break, to take another break right now. We'll go back there, we'll watch it for you. And if you want to watch it all, by the way, live, you can always go to CNN's Pipeline service,

Coming up, the Senate Judiciary Committee member Jeff Sessions, he'll join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He just wound up asking his questions of Judge Alito. We'll get his assessment on Alito's performance and chances of confirmation.

While the Alito hearings press on, the Supreme Court, by the way, issued its first split ruling since John Roberts took over as chief justice. The 5-4 decision upheld a death sentence for a California inmate who killed a woman in a 1982 bank robbery. It was decided on mostly technical issues but it's worth noting that Roberts sided with conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as well as the swing voters on the court, Anthony Kennedy and the outgoing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Now to President Bush who has been fielding questions in Kentucky about Iraq and the war on terror. His job isn't on the line, but members of Congress are facing re-election, and the president's wartime policies are prime political issues this election year. Our Suzanne Malveaux is standing by, she will join us with more on the trip.

But let's go to our senior political analyst Bill Schneider first. He has got some new numbers, a new CNN poll has come out on the Iraq war. What do we know, Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, President Bush's initiative to build public confidence in his Iraq policy is today exactly six weeks old. How is he doing?


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll also see more progress toward victory.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Is the president making progress in his six-week-old campaign to persuade Americans that it was worth going to war in Iraq? Yes. In November, before President Bush started trying to rally public support, 38 percent of Americans thought the Iraq war was worth it. That number is now up to 46 percent. But a majority still say the war was not worth it. The president has made progress, but he has not turned public opinion around.

Why do most Americans continue to say the war was not worth it? Because of the continuing violence.

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: So the American forces retain the military initiative. But that is not to say that this violence is due tend to soon.

SCHNEIDER: The public has confidence in the Americans over there, but not in the Iraqis. Very few people believe Iraq will have a stable government that can maintain order without U.S. help within the next year. In fact, Americans are not sure that will ever happen.


SCHNEIDER: President Bush said, quote: "Iraqis have shown that they can come together for the sake of national unity," unquote. Americans don't see it, because they don't see an Iraqi leader who embodies the hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Bill Schneider reporting. Thank you very much.

Let's find out what the president had to say about Iraq and why he decided to say it in Kentucky. Our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux has more on that -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, really it was the same message but a different venue here. President Bush this time in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a pre-screened audience that got their tickets through the RNC, or those friendly with the administration. One of the organizers said, we're going to have some tough questions here.

But it was a very polite audience. They asked him a variety of issues, immigration, health care, even the controversial domestic spy program. A moment, here, of course, was when a 7-year-old asked the president how can people help in the war on terror. And that, of course, was the question they wanted to hear. This was all about promoting the strategy to try to convince Americans to support the war on terror.


BUSH: Well, things are good, I'm confident we'll succeed. And it's tough, though. The enemy has got one weapon, I repeat to you, and that's to shake our will. I just want to tell you, whether you agree with me or not, they're not going to shake my will. We're doing the right thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MALVEAUX: Now, Wolf, perhaps what is just as equally important to what the president said is where he is saying it. And that, of course, in Louisville, Kentucky, this is the site of a race, a congressional midterm race that is going to be quite hot. You have a five-term Republican congresswoman, Anne Northup, who was with the president today. She is being challenged by a Democrat, challenged by Andrew Horne.

Now he, of course, is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. He served seven months in Iraq. He also served in the Persian Gulf War. Since returning he has been very critical of the president when it comes to the U.S. policy in Iraq. And, Wolf, what this is essentially, it's a much broader strategy, reflective of a broader strategy by the Democrats to see if they can get out veterans of either the Iraq war, the Persian Gulf War, and to take on some of those more vulnerable Republicans in the congressional midterm elections.

We'll see if it pans out, if this really is going to work. This is somebody who has no name recognition, very little money here, but of course has been very critical of Iraq policy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House, thanks for that report. Let's go up to New York, Jack Cafferty is standing by with "The Cafferty File."

Have you have been watching these hearings today, Jack?

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's painful, this is like getting dental work done without Novocain. If you put a person in a room and made them watch nothing but these hearings from start to finish, I wonder how long it would be before they have stabbed themselves in the eye with something sharp just to take their mind off the pain of watching this stuff.

Some of the senators say 15 hours in these isn't enough. They want more questions, not because we're learning a hell of a lot, but because they like having their picture taken and being on television.

The Washington Post Dana Milbank may have figured out what's behind all this. He discovered, doing some calculations, 10 of the first 12 senators spent more time talking than listening to Alito's answers, and it's a bipartisan thing here.

Democrat Joe Biden, who is arguably a man in love with the sound of his own voice, asked only a single question in his first 12 minutes. He spent time talking about his Irish-American roots, his son's application to Princeton, and yada, yada, yada. And at one point today he even found time to fiddle around with a baseball hat during the hearings. That's cute, very dignified, Senator.

He's just one of many, though. They're all cut basically from the same cloth. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, his softball questions included an extended exchange about Alito's ROTC membership. Hatch might have well have handed him a dozen roses. That was about the only thing that was missing. Here is the question, how good a job are the senators doing in the Alito confirmation hearings? You can e-mail us at or you can go to

I guess, Wolf, that CAP controversy is about the best story to come out of this second day now, the fact that Kennedy wants to subpoena these records to see if there is anything in there. This is an organization that Judge Alito can't seem to remember ever being a member of, even though he can remember virtually every case that's come before him as a judge in the last 15 years and all the precedence in law that his opinions were based on. That's phenomenal.

BLITZER: CAP standing for Concerned Alumni of Princeton. Jack, thanks very much.

CAFFERTY: You're welcome.

BLITZER: We'll get back to you. Still ahead, we're going to take you back live to the Alito hearings, and I'll speak live with one of the key members, Judiciary Committee member Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Plus, what-ifs and more reason for heartbreak in the Sago Mine disaster. We'll tell you about new evidence turned up by investigators.

And later, former Washington Mayor Marion Barry making headlines again and not, not in a good way after his infamous bust freezing crack cocaine, is Barry's roller coaster life on a downswing again? You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're keeping a close eye on Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings. We're going to go back live to Capitol Hill in a few minutes. Plus I'll speak live with Jeff Sessions, one of the senators who's been questioning the Supreme Court nominee. All of that coming up. And if you want to watch gavel-to-gavel coverage live online without commercials, you can go to CNN's Pipeline, They're still in a break right now, though.

Let's turn to the investigation into what happened in last week's mine tragedy in West Virginia. There is new information coming out suggesting the miners may have had options that could have increased the chances for their survival. Brian Todd has been watching the story for us, he is joining us live from the newsroom -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, within the past hour, the president of International Coal Group acknowledged the trapped miners tried to exit the mine where the explosion occurred through the main passage way where they entered and at least part of the way using the same transportation that brought them in.

Here is Ben Hatfield just moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BEN HATFIELD, PRES. & CEO, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: Initially they were traveling on the rail transportation car, the man bus, we called it, and they clearly impacted some sort of blockage, probably a piece of debris that was in the middle of the track that stopped that equipment from moving forward. That's what we have been told. And then it's clear that they got off that vehicle, traveled back some distance towards the face, donned their rescue apparatus, we call it an ICSR (ph), and then moved back toward the intake escape way.


TODD: Hatfield said the miners turned back because they encountered thick black smoke and high levels of carbon monoxide. They couldn't tell what they would find from there. So they did what skilled miners are trained to do, withdrew and barricade themselves.

CNN was also told by sources involved in the investigation, there was an oxygen tank near the miners' location that could have provided more air than the portable units the miners carried with them. Company officials would not comment on that account but they do acknowledge there was breathable air inside the mine less than half a mile from where the miners barricaded themselves.

CNN is also told rescue teams trying to make their way to the trapped miners had to relay information through at least three two-way radios underground, and Ben Hatfield admitted just moments ago, they often could do little more than shout information at one another, given some indications of what might have caused the tragic breakdowns in communications -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story all around. Thanks, Brian, very much. Brian has been on top of the story now since it broke last week.

Kentucky investigators hope to learn today what caused a rock to collapse a mine shaft, killing a miner. Forty-four-year-old Cornelius Yates was working about 900 feet inside the mine when he was crushed yesterday. Three other workers with him escaped safely. The Kentucky governor, Ernie Fletcher, visited the site earlier this morning. He's promising to try to improve safety in the mines in Kentucky.

The Internet is revealing new details about the Kentucky mine involved in this fatal accident. Abbi Tatton, once again, with the latest situation online -- Abbi.

TATTON: Wolf, there was some initial confusion about which was the mine involved in yesterday's fatal accident. Now at the Mine Safety and Health Administration Web site, the site has been very good about putting up information about these recent mining accidents.

Information on yesterday's accident, it was Mine Number One, a mine operated by the Maverick Mining Company in eastern Kentucky. You can search on the site for the history of inspections at this mine. This is the agency in charge of inspecting these mines. You can see that in the last general inspection, they received 68 citations, that's amongst the high end. Also in a spot inspection that took place just six weeks at the end of November, there was a violation, a citation involving rock falls, failure to protect from falls of the roof.

Yesterday Cornelius Yates was killed by a rock fall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you very much.

And Air Force One has just landed at Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, D.C. The president returning from Kentucky where he delivered a speech on the war on terror and the war in Iraq earlier today. He answered questions at a town hall meeting. Here you see some pictures of Air Force One now on the ground. Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

CNN's Zain Verjee, always on the ground, she is joining us now from the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories making news.

Hi, Zain.


A commission named by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin plans to recommend that every part of the city get a chance to rebuild. That includes the neighborhoods that suffered most when Hurricane Katrina struck. Some urban planners disagree, they say that there are parts of the city that won't be safe from future flooding.

An explosion killed a worker at a waste water treatment plant in Daytona Beach, Florida, today. Two other workers were seriously injured. Police say the men were working on a roof damaged by last year's hurricanes. A fire department official tells CNN that the men were using blow torches when tanks of flammable material exploded.

A decision from the court in the former Soviet republic of Georgia today about an incident you may remember after President Bush spoke last year in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. A grenade was found about 100 feet from the stage. Now today a court in Georgia convicted a man of throwing that grenade in an attempt to assassinate Mr. Bush. Investigators say the grenade itself malfunctioned.

And a top world health official says he is worried about the ability of some nations to quickly detect and respond to bird flu. The head of the World Organization for Animal Health says that poor nations need international aid to detect outbreaks of the virus and stop them. He says that that kind of fast action is crucial to preventing the spread of the illness among humans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much.

When we come back here in SITUATION ROOM, much more in the fight over Samuel Alito. We're going to go back live to the hearing room. I'll also speak live with one of the Republican senators who's been questioning the Supreme Court nominee.

Plus, there's more fallout on Capitol Hill over Jack Abramoff and the scandal. Who are the prosecutors eying right now? We have some information. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


JUDGE SAMUEL ALITO, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: ... representation provided in this case.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: But this really isn't about the difference between being on the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. You apparently would have -- based on what you know, you would have ruled the same way had you been on the Supreme Court?

ALITO: Well, my evaluation of the facts of the case would be the same. Now, if...

FEINGOLD: In other words, if there was not a violation of the Sixth Amendment, correct?

ALITO: Well, but I should add, however, that if a case came up in the future, the Supreme Court's decision in that case is a precedent that I would have to deal with, and they...

FEINGOLD: Fair enough.

ALITO: ... expressed the view as to how the standard applies to the facts of the case, it was a 5-4 decision, but it would be a precedent that I would follow.

FEINGOLD: Well, then, let's go back to my original question, which is, do you think the Supreme Court has been heading in the right direction in these cases?

ALITO: Well, I think that the Supreme Court is correct in viewing this as a very important part of the criminal justice system, and in particular, a very important part of the representation of clients in Eighth Amendment cases.

FEINGOLD: Isn't the court doing more than that? The court is doing -- moving in the direction of giving greater recognition and ruling on the inadequacy of counsel in this case.

ALITO: And I think it is entirely appropriate that there be a searching review in every case as to whether a defendant in any criminal case, but in particular, of course, in a capital case has received the representation that the defendant is entitled to under the Sixth Amendment.

FEINGOLD: Do you think your replacing Justice O'Connor will change the direction of the court in this regard?

ALITO: I would approach these cases under the law that the Supreme Court has established in this area with the recognition that I've attempted to explain of how important I believe this right is, in all cases and in death cases in particular.

The Supreme Court -- when the Supreme Court reviews a case that's come up through the federal system, through -- in a habeas proceeding, and the Supreme Court, just like my court, should apply the standards that are set out in the habeas corpus statute.

FEINGOLD: Let's go to a different...

BLITZER: We're going to break away from the hearings right now. Remember, if you want to watch it uninterrupted without commercial interruption or any interruption, go to Pipeline, CNN's video service, We'll have much more on this hearing coming up and we're going to be speaking shortly with Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

The Alito hearings have not entirely overshadowed a potential threat on Capitol Hill. The Justice Department's probe into influence peddling fueled by lobbyist turned plea bargainer Jack Abramoff. Our justice correspondent Kelli Arena, our correspondent Joe Johns have been following the legal and political ins and outs of this investigation.

Kelli, let's go to you first.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a lot of tension now that Jack Abramoff has pled guilty and is cooperating. The investigation is moving forward. Sources with knowledge of the investigation tell us that at this point it looks like there may be about half a dozen individuals who could end up facing indictments for allegedly taking money from Abramoff in exchange for political favors.

Now they say there are at least two lawmakers at this time who are seriously being looked at for possible criminal activity. One is Republican Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio. And as CNN has already reported, that Ney had been subpoenaed by the grand jury, he has denied any wrongdoing and he has pledged to cooperate.

Our sources would not identify the other lawmaker at this time, Wolf. Those sources say investigators are also scrutinizing the activities of staffers from both the Department of the Interior and the General Services Administration, as well as some former and current Hill staffers, among those, at least two former senior staff members to then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

In all, Wolf, there are about 30 to 40 FBI agents working this investigation full time. And investigators have focused on a universe of about 20 people. Now that target is a continually moving one as new information comes in. And our sources also say that there is no action that is imminent.

The issue here is that while there may have been some ethical violations, when it comes to prosecuting someone for a crime, the bar is obviously much higher, and it's very hard to prove that a lawmaker officially acted as the result of a bribe -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelli Arena, thanks very much. Let's bring in our longtime congressional watcher, Joe Johns, covered Congress for a long time.

Joe, is there any indication this investigation is going to hurt some Democrats as well as Republicans?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it all depends on who you're looking at, quite frankly, here. This is an issue of what prosecutors might have to show in a bribery or corruption investigation.

Essentially what they would have to show is a knowing agreement to exchange a thing of value in exchange for an official act. Now, that's a pretty high bar, especially when you're talking about a Republican, Jack Abramoff, his partner in crime, Mike Scanlon.

The question, of course, is what kind of contacts they might have had with Democrats. The offices of the Democrats whose names have at least come up in all of this vigorously assert that they haven't had any contact with Abramoff. They don't even know who he is. And so the question is, how do you get an express agreement with someone you never met, Wolf?

BLITZER: Good question. I don't know the answer, but I'm sure they're investigating precisely that. Meanwhile, unfolding today in the midst of all of this is this proposal apparently some, serious consideration being given, by the House Speaker Dennis Hastert to just do away, to ban all privately funded trips for members of the House of Representatives and their staff members, part of a broader ethics reform package. Would this really make much of a difference, though?

JOHNS: Well, of course, it depends on just how long it goes into effect and what it really means. What we do know is that this is something that's gone on in Capitol Hill for years. Members of Congress and their staffs have been able to go on trips, frankly, all over the world, expenses paid. Now, the speaker of the House, we're told, looking into doing away with that notion. Roy Blunt, Congressman Roy Blunt, talked about that earlier today on Capitol Hill.


REP. ROY BLUNT (R-MO), ACTING HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: We clearly need lobbying reform. It's important that we have more disclosure, more immediate disclosure. We need to look at private trips, we need to ban private trips at the very least. Have pre-approval of the trip, the agenda, everything else going on in that trip.


JOHNS: Now, as far as travel goes, at least anecdotally, we have heard from some offices of members of Congress that they've already started scaling back on those free trips, at least for appearance's sake -- Wolf?

BLITZER: It sounds like a wise idea on their part. Thanks very much, Joe, for that. Joe Johns reporting for us here in Washington.

Up next, we're going to go back to Capitol Hill, the confirmation fight over Samuel Alito continuing. I'll speak live with Senator Jeff Session, one of those senators questioning the Supreme Court nominee. Plus, a piece of Las Vegas comes tumbling down. Check this out. Take a closer look at this and other stories make news today. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



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