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THE SITUATION ROOM

Walter Reed Commander Fired; Taliban Vow Revenge Against Americans

Aired March 1, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now -- America's war wounded trying to recuperate in shoddy conditions while coping with a complex bureaucracy. Now after shocking revelations about a military medical center, the U.S. Army cans its commander.

Taliban are back with chilly new vows of revenge against Americans. The commander says he's in regular touch with Osama bin Laden and has hundreds of suicide bombers ready to go right now.

And they're being called the worst in over a decade. And massive line of thunderstorms and tornadoes marching across the nation's mid section and in the south on a path of destruction. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Severe storms rampaging across much of the eastern United States this afternoon including tornadoes in the Southeast. And then slamming into an Alabama high school. The devastation, enormous. Emergency workers on the scene right now. The clearly have their hands full. Let's get the big picture first from our meteorologist Reynolds Wolf, he is joining us live from the CNN weather center in Atlanta. Atlanta is getting ready for a little rough weather, too, but nothing, Reynolds, like what's happened in Alabama earlier.

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Oh, you're absolutely right and what's interesting, Wolf, is we have some storms tremendous storms leaving the state of Alabama. And now other pockets that are now coming into the state. This last pocket, we're keeping a very close eye on is now moving just away from Tuscaloosa, possibly with a tornado moving towards the Birmingham area. Possibly a very large tornado.

And the distance from one point with a tornado, again, possibly indicating we're getting that strong rotation into downtown Birmingham, is roughly 29 to 30 minutes or so. And one thing that these big super cell storms -- they have a tendency to turn a little bit to right. So there's the potential places like Hoover and Homewood, although it looks like you might be in the clear, this storm could actually veer a little bit more to the right and hit parts of South Birmingham, Red Mountain, places maybe even towards Trustle (ph), so that is certainly something you want to watch out for.

But again, you are right, we have seen this top to bottom throughout the state of Alabama. Enterprise was hit especially hard. And we're not done yet.

BLITZER: When you say we're not done yet, explain a little bit where the storm is moving.

WOLF: The storm is moving on a well over 1,000 mile front. It extends from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, southward to the Gulf of Mexico. And again we have been dealing with pockets on of severe weather right on I-85 and also 65 in Birmingham. But look, Wolf, back towards Mississippi, we have yet another line. Chances are it may not be as severe, however when it comes crawling through south Alabama once again, you have this other phenomenon called the low- level jet stream. That is going to enhance many of these storms, possibly get them to rotate, make them strong.

So that's why I say we're not done yet. We have been dealing with round two in just a matters of hours.

BLITZER: All right, Reynolds, stand by. I'm going to get back to you in a moment.

Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre has just arrived in Enterprise, Alabama on the heels of those tornadoes. He is joining us once again on the phone. Jamie, you were covering a story at nearby military base. But when the storm hit, you made your way to Enterprise. Tell our viewers what you see and hear right now.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on phone): One of the things I see, Wolf, are the helicopters from nearby Ft. Rucker, the helicopter training school where we were doing a story, we just got a briefing on some of the capabilities there and we're seeing those rescue ...

BLITZER: Jamie I'm going to interrupt you for a moment. One of affiliates, WSFA, in Enterprise right now. They are speaking with a high school student who lived through this storm. I want to just listen in to this interview.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You strike me as pretty calm right now. You were this calm when this all happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, sir. I didn't know what to think when it hit. I mean, you never know what to think until you get put in that situation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me ask you this, Matt, you went to this school, can you give us some idea what that building is right there, what the next building to the right is, that we see it just collapsed, what are we looking at?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The building here, with some of the window knocked out was roofed knocked out is the new ROTC building. Then you go where the roof is knocked out, that's the art building, and then where the whole top of the roof here, right to the right of the football stadium was the new auxiliary gym, which was pretty new. So ... UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We keep getting reports that a ceiling fell on two students. Have you heard the same thing? Were you close to those students at that time?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I did hear that. I wasn't close to them. They said that third hall did collapse. The ceiling collapsed. We never got to make it that far. What people are saying right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is your high school. This is something that you'll always remember. How difficult is it for you to see this? A lot of people have good times, good memories of high school. You see this, how sad is this for you? What sort of memory will take from this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is something that I'll always remember. It's my senior year. Right here in the middle of baseball season. And I don't know how long we're going to be out. I mean, just something you always remember as a high school senior.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, Matt, thank you very much. I'm sorry you lost your school. Thank you so much. One thing to point out, Bob, right across the way ...

BLITZER: All right. We're going the break away from our affiliate WSFA, I want to thank them for that. The Enterprise High School, clearly destroyed. At least a big part of it destroyed as a result of this tornado. Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre is on the scene, I interrupted him earlier.

Jamie, you just heard what that one student had to say, but you're there, give us a little bit more on what you're seeing?

MCINTYRE: Well, Wolf, we've heard a lot of stories just like that one from students as they came about where they were, when the devastating storm tore this Enterprise High School, really tore it apart. We have seen the evidence of the devastation. Everything from cars that are flipped over in parking lot, to trees that are clipped off at about 10 feet up. Of course the scene here across the street, at the Hillcrest Baptist Church, where some of the more seriously injured students were taken and assessed before they were rushed to nearby hospitals.

One of the volunteer workers told me that both of the local hospitals were already full because of students and that she believes that some more students may be trapped inside. Earlier we talked to bystanders who rushed to the scene, a workman who was here, working on a nearby construction worker, he said he personally carried out the bodies of two young girls who were killed in this devastating tornado.

And Wolf, just walking up the long hill to get to this high school, we saw house after house that had been destroyed. My cameraman interviewed a family that lived through the storm, saw their entire house destroyed but managed to survive with no injuries.

We're also seeing, as you can imagine, the typical scene of anguished families arriving at scene, trying to make sure that their family member or loved one is safe. People breaking down in tears when they find out that's the case and others still waiting anxiously for the news. It's just -- it's hard to estimate how powerful a storm like this can devastate a small community like Enterprise, Alabama. Which, you know, this high school is the heart of the town. And they have really suffered a terrible body blow, Wolf.

BLITZER: When you say, Jamie, that people are waiting on the status of some of the students, are you suggesting there might be students that are unaccounted for. Missing or simply trapped inside that school right now?

MCINTYRE: Wolf, there could still -- just looking at the school the amount of destruction, it's easily imaginable that there are still some people in there. We saw, for instance, workers heading with chain saws and gasoline cans for the chain saws to work on the rescue. But a lot of it is just confusion. People are wandering around. Obviously their loved ones may be perfectly safe. They just don't know where they are. Until they can make that connection, find out that they're OK, they're quite worried. And you can see why when you take a look at how much destruction there is around.

BLITZER: It's a heartbreaking moment to watch this, Jamie, stand by. We have one of those students on the phone with us right now. Corey Howard (ph). Corey, where you when this tornado ripped apart this high school.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was sitting on first hall. I don't know. It was crazy -- it was really loud. All of my friends were sitting there. You know, some were goofing off and stuff. I'm just -- you know, it was the scariest thing that I have ever been through. I don't know. It's just crazy.

BLITZER: Did you have, Corey, any warning, the teachers, the principal, did anyone say, you know what, a tornado is heading our way, let's move to a safer location, anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My first indication of the warning, we were already out in the hall as part of the weather drill, all of a sudden, there's a teacher at the back of the hall, screaming get all of the people off the bus. And then I heard the wind pick up, all of the glass, the building started to shake and it was just all total violence.

BLITZER: How long did that violent period last? Was it a matter of seconds, a few moments, what was the length of the time you felt this tornado ripping through the school?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was maybe 15 seconds, I mean, it's total mayhem.

BLITZER: All right, Corey, thank you very much. Good luck to you and to all of your friends and teachers and family. In Enterprise, Alabama. These are horrible, horrible conditions unfolding right now. It's not just there, it's elsewhere as well. We have some videotape of some eyewitnesses who lived through this ordeal. I want to play that for you right now. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you tell us?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Waist down. They had that one girl, the other girl who come out was unconscious. There was a guy who was in there, they pulled him out about 30 minutes ago. When I left 15 minutes, they were still working on the girl. She's pinned, the whole wall has collapsed on her.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're going to stay on top of this story. These tornadoes, the horrible storms ripping through a big chunk of the country right now. We'll update you as more information comes in.

Other important news we're following especially here in Washington. The scandal over the treatment of wounded American troops now has claimed a casualty. The commander of Washington DC's Walter Reed Army Medical Center has been removed from his post. The move follows some stunning revelations of shoddy conditions at the military medical facility.

Let's go live to CNN's Kathleen Koch. She is watching all of this unfold over at the Pentagon. Dramatic stuff today, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Quite, so, Wolf. Major General George Weightman had been at the helm there at Walter Reed for only about six months, but still, as army officials started looking to hold some accountable his head fell on the chopping block.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH (voice-over): Major General George Weightman the man in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center since August was relieved of duty because top army officials, quote, had lost trust and confidence in the commander's leadership.

At the first meeting of the independent panel formed to investigate the problems at Walter Reed, defense secretary Robert Gates didn't mention Weightman's dismissal. But a senior Pentagon official says Gates was, quote, "very much involved in the decision."

Pressure had been mounting for some accountability for the deplorable conditions and administrative roadblocks many of the outpatients faced at Walter Reed.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (D) MO: This isn't about paint on the walls. This isn't about fixing holes in the ceiling, this is about a system that's not designed to make it easy for the wounded to get what they deserve.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The higher ups in charge who knew about this, should have addressed it. The fact that they didn't is I think is -- is shameful.

KOCH: Weightman himself had accepted responsibility just last week.

MAJ. GEN. GEORGE WEIGHTMAN, U.S. ARMY: A hundred percent of it falls on me. I'm responsible for everything that happens or doesn't happen here at Walter Reed. And it was obviously a failure on my part to reach down and touch those soldiers and find out directly from the soldiers.

KOCH: Some point out Weightman isn't the only one to blame since they told top brass shortly after the war began about the poor outpatient care at Walter Reed.

STEVE ROBINSON, VETERANS FOR AMERICA: There is a bureaucracy that people have to go through that is extremely frustrating. When you come back from war, that needs immediate attention.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH (on camera): Now until a replacement is -- permanent replacement is named for Weightman, the army surgeon general, Kevin Kiley (ph) will fill in as commander at Walter Reed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Are they expecting more heads to roll?

KOCH: Wolf, CNN has learned that two civilian employees have been fired. Administrative action has been taken against several low- level enlisted soldiers and against one officer. As to whether any other personnel action will be taken, that could likely have to wait until this independent panel finishes its review which is respected to take 45 days.

BLITZER: Shocking story, thank you for that Kathleen.

Jack Cafferty is off today. Coming up we are going to have more on our top story. These tornadoes. The devastating storms that are ripping through major parts of the country right now. These are live pictures. You are seeing in Enterprise, Alabama. There have been fatalities in a high school, there. Take a look at the destruction from these tornadoes. We will bring you some more on this story in other parts of the country that may be next.

All of that coming up.

The Taliban also making a comeback and offering some chilly vows of revenge. I'll ask counterterrorism expert Cofer Black about that threat, whether Osama bin Laden is at the center of it.

Also ahead -- the presidential trial trail leaves straight to late-night television. John McCain's presidential announcement is part of a pattern. We are going to show you some made for TV moments.

And new charges filed in the war on terror. Why is this such a crucial case for the Bush administration. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Deadly day in Missouri and Alabama. Part of a horrible storm system moving across a major part of the country right now. You're looking at these live pictures of Enterprise, Alabama. School -- a high school virtually destroyed. There are fatalities in Enterprise, Alabama. Elsewhere as well. We're watching the story. We'll update you on what's going on and where this huge storm is moving next.

Even before the war on Iraq, did bad intelligence lead the Bush administration into a nuclear standoff with North Korea. Did policy blunders make North Korea more eager to build a nuclear bomb and could the recent testing on after nuclear device by the North Koreans all have been avoided.

There are new revelations leading to a lot of important new questions at this hour. Let's go to our State Department correspondent Zain Verjee. She's watching this story that has enormous ramifications for U.S. credibility, intelligence credibility on a whole host of issues, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. There is a growing debate on whether there was an intelligence failure on North Korea. And whether or not it had a highly enriched uranium program.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE (voice-over): Highly enriched uranium is a key ingredient in building one type of nuclear bomb. Last year the North Koreans exploded a plutonium based device but back in 2002 the intelligence community was sure they wanted to build uranium bombs, too.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: We had high confidence that they were acquiring materials that could be use for an uranium enrichment program.

VERJEE: Intelligence officials at the time they said there was evidence North Korea bought centrifuge equipment from Pakistan's nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan and acquired quantities of aluminum tubes. But the intelligence officials say they lacked specifics. Then and now.

MCLAUGHLIN: We didn't know the magnitude of the program. Where they were in its progress or where it was located.

VERJEE: In October 2002, the U.S. confronted North Korea about the existence of this program. U.S. officials say North Korea acknowledged it at the time, in essence they were cheating on an agreement not to develop a nuclear program. Now, there's a new deal with North Korea. The U.S. wants some answers.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, ASST. SECRETARY OF STATE: We need to see what's happened to this equipment. If the tubes didn't go into a highly enriched uranium program, maybe they went somewhere else.

VERJEE: At a recent hearing, an intelligence official was frank. JOSEPH DETRANI, U.S. INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL: We still have confidence that the program is in existence at the mid confidence level yes sir.

VERJEE: Mid level meaning they're not absolutely sure. Critics say the intelligence community is softening its position on North Korea's uranium program and may have exaggerated the information it had.

But a senior intelligence official tells CNN that this thinking is wrong. And nothing has changed since 2002.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: Another U.S. official tells CNN that there's high confidence that North Korea was pursuing an uranium enrichment program. And according to a recently acknowledges that there are still questions saying the degree of progress in towards producing enriched uranium remains unknown. Wolf?

BLITZER: And we're going to explore much more on this story later this hour. Zain, thank you very much.

We're also watching the tornadoes ripping through major parts of the country right now. Where they're heading, we'll update you on the severe weather watch happening in the South right now. These storms moving out of Alabama towards Georgia. We'll tell you where they're going next.

Also coming up -- he is the congressman accused of stashing thousands of dollars in bribe money in his freezer. He is now at the center of the controversy over his new House committee seat.

Today Congressman William Jefferson, though, was riding high with President Bush aboard Air Force One. We're going to tell you why.

Stick around. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The United States today filed terrorism charges against an Australian who was swept up during the war with Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. It's a crucial case for the Bush administration and a key ally of the United States.

Let's find out why from our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wolf, it really is an important case. It is one of the first test cases for the Bush administration's plan to bring enemy combatants before military tribunals.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): David Hicks is one of the few detainees at Guantanamo Bay with name recognition. An Australian citizen. Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December, 2001 while supposedly fighting for the Taliban against U.S.-led forces. He's been held since then at Guantanamo Bay as an enemy combatant without a trial.

Becoming a cause celebre in Australia with Web sites dedicated to either freeing him or returning him to Australia for trial. Last month nearly half of Australia's parliament's members signed a letter appealing to Congress to intervene in repatriating Hicks. And just last Friday in Sydney the Hicks case was raised by Australian Prime Minister John Howard when he met with Vice President Dick Cheney.

JOHN HOWARD, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: We are really pushing the Americans very hard to bring him to trial.

MALVEAUX: Cheney told Howard then that he expected the Hicks issue to be resolved in the not too distant future.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX (on camera): And the Bush administration wants to move quickly in the case of Hicks and other detainees to bring them to trial as early as this summer, Wolf.

BLITZER: Why the rush, Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Well, the are trying to get around what they expect is going to be a flood of appeals to the Supreme Court which could tie everything up and take much, much longer.

BLITZER: We'll watch it with you, Suzanne. Thank you.

Let's check in with Carol Costello. She is taking a look at some other important stories making news. Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Yeah, Wolf, and a look at news affecting small businesses. Beware of computer hackers with a grudge. Right now, one angry hacker could be behind a crippling new virus. Today that virus hit a division of one major company and if it spreads the virus could hijack business computer systems worldwide. The hacker said to be a personal grudge against Symantec, which makes antivirus software for many Fortune 500 companies.

And in another story affecting small businesses, what's in your wallet? Might it be extra money to spend? I hope so. Personal incomes rose in January. The government says consumers spent slightly more than month. But there is a downer. A slump in the nation's housing industry caused construction activity to decline.

That's look at business headlines right now, Wolf?

BLITZER: Thank you, Carol, for that.

Still to come here in THE SITUATION ROOM, John McCain's late- night presidential announcement. He is not the first to go on the talk show circuit but will it help voters take him seriously? And the new Taliban threat. A veteran of the terror wars offers a stunning account of the danger and the contacts of an enemy of America. Stick around, we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now -- it seems like an unlikely destination. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad heads to Saudi Arabia this weekend for talks with King Abdullah. The two nations, one Shiite, one Sunni, are regional rivals but the visit is scene as a sign that envoys have made progress in the weeks of talks on the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon.

Iraq's President Jalal Talabani has been in Jordanian hospital since collapsing at the start of the week. But he said today he's in good health and would be returning home soon. His physician says Mr. Talabani is expected to leave the hospital within days.

And it is said to be the biggest insider trading scandal since the 1980s. The U.S. government filing charges against several Wall Street traders, two lawyers and three hedge funds today. They're accused of using secret codes, secret meetings, and kickbacks to profit by trading in advance of corporate announcements.

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

The Taliban are back with some chilling new vows of revenge against America. Their commander says a major offensive is now in the works, and in a stunning interview, this veteran of the terror wars say he's in regular touch with the top man of America's most wanted list.

Let's get the latest now from CNN's Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this does not appear to be the usual bravado from a fanatical militant. This man's reputation alone is one reason U.S. officials believe Afghanistan is on the verge of another violent spring.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice over): A man so feared, his presence even miles from the battlefield is said to unnerve the enemy, has a message for American troops and their allies in Afghanistan. The Taliban's top military commander, a fanatic known only as Mullah Dadullah, said suicide bombers at his command are countless and ready to strike this spring. And in an interview shown on Britain's channel 4, Dadullah says he keeps a line of communication with Osama bin Laden.

MULLAH DADULLAH, TALIBAN MILITARY COMMANDER (through translator): Only his comrades see him. We exchange messages with each other to share plans. We also go to battlefield together. We actually meet very rarely just for important consultations.

It's hard for anyone to meet bin Laden himself now, but we know he's still alive. He's not yet martyred.

TODD: We asked CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, could Dadullah really communicate with the al Qaeda leader?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Not directly, personally. It's only through intermediaries. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have increasingly morphed together ideologically and tactically, we've seen in the last few years.

TODD: Analysts say Dadullah is reminiscent of Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, al Qaeda's ruthless commander in Iraq known for his flamboyant videos and brazen public claims who was killed by U.S. forces last year. But unlike Zarqawi, who American commanders once mocked for his seeming inability to handle a weapon in one propaganda video, Bergen says Dadullah is a hands-on fighter.

BERGEN: Well, Dadullah is widely regarded as the most capable Taliban military commander, somebody who's been engaged in, you know, battles in Afghanistan for years. And his main area or focus right now is the south of Afghanistan, where much of the fighting has been taking place in the last six months.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And his viciousness may sometimes be too much, even for Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who once reportedly relieved Dadullah of his command after he allegedly slaughtered several innocent villagers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much.

Brian Todd reporting for us.

We want to update you on disturbing news we're getting in from Enterprise, Alabama, right now. Emergency officials there confirming at least -- at least eight deaths in that apparent tornado that hit Enterprise, Alabama, just a little while ago. We have been watching this story unfold.

Tornadoes causing death now not only in Alabama, but earlier in the day in Missouri as well. You saw those live pictures from that high school. These are live picture coming in from Alabama as well, Enterprise.

Our Jamie McIntyre has been reporting from the scene. We're going to go back to him shortly.

But once again, at least eight deaths in Enterprise, Alabama. We know students included among those eight.

We'll watch this story for you.

In the meantime, let's get back to Taliban comeback. How big a threat do they really pose now? And are they working closely once again with Osama bin Laden? Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Cofer Black. He was the nation's point man for counterterrorism over at the State Department after a long career at the CIA. He's now chairman of Total Intelligence Solutions.

Mr. Black, thanks very much for coming in.

COFER BLACK, CHAIRMAN, TOTAL INTELLIGENCE SOLUTIONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is the Taliban seriously making a comeback, working together with al Qaeda right now?

BLACK: That's absolutely certain. There is a little bit of cyclical nature to this.

Taliban have been conducting limited operations, probing NATO positions over the winter. Last year, in 2006, there were approximately 136 suicide attacks. These guys basically -- it's sort of like an equivalent of our Revolutionary War. They go to winter quarters, they get prepared, they come out

BLITZER: So we could brace for a lot more in the spring now, the so-called spring offensive that people are getting ready for?

BLACK: That's absolutely right. That's what we're getting ready for. We have 27,000 troops. We've got...

BLITZER: In Afghanistan.

BLACK: In Afghanistan. We have the 173rd Airborne Brigade going in there, and we are gearing up for toe-to-toe combat with the Taliban. Their usual stock in trade is ambushes, using snipers, and also suicide -- attack people.

BLITZER: When this -- when this so-called leader of the Taliban says he's in contact with Osama bin Laden and they're working hand in glove, is he right, is he doing that? Is there any evidence to back that up, that Osama bin Laden, that he is directly involved in this?

BLACK: This would not be in the American or the western context. Yes, there are contacts. They are not real time. They're indirect.

And there are lines of communication that there are, but it's not a direct command control relationship. They basically coordinate the sense of how the struggle should take place.

It's very clear that the Taliban will be coming out in the spring. They're positioned for this. They have their supplies reasonably pre-positioned. And they will be looking to engage in ambush. Those positions that they consider to be weak are lightly defended, using mortars, things like that.

This is not a cataclysmic, you know, battle of (INAUDIBLE). This is basically a counter-insurgence. Estimates -- he claims to have approximately 6,000 fighters. So we have the troops to handle that, but it's going to be toe to toe. It's going to be rough.

BLITZER: The situation in Waziristan, in western Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan, there was an agreement worked out between the Pakistani government and local tribal leaders. President Musharraf is being accused of not doing enough to fight this war on terrorism, but this is a delicate situation for the U.S. right now.

Talk a little bit about that.

BLACK: It depends where you sit on this, Wolf. If you are President Musharraf, you're looking at basically a lot of political liability, particularly in north Waziristan. You can't act too aggressively without the local tribes and religious associations reacting negatively to you.

Yes, the Pakistani army has deployed outposts, they do conduct limited patrolling. But essentially, there was a default where it was hoped that, if the Pakistani army pulled back, that the folks in north Waziristan basically would become more peaceful and less threatening. This simply has not worked out. Therefore, that became the basis of the trip of Vice President Cheney.

BLITZER: So, when the vice president goes there and supposedly issues some sort of tough warning to President Musharraf to become a little more robust, can President Musharraf do that, given his own politically tenuous situation there?

BLACK: It is a balancing act. The vice president, the Americans pushed the Pakistanis, and particularly President Musharraf, as far as they can go to basically right the situation on the border.

On the other side, President Musharraf has a lot of liabilities and has a lot of true baggage that comes with him to take real constructive action.

BLITZER: But there is a fear that if you lose President Musharraf, who might come in his place, it could be so much worse. The jihadists and Islamist fundamentalists with a nuclear bomb, because Pakistan is a nuclear power.

BLACK: That's, in essence, the problem. On the one hand, we can threaten withholding aid. On the other, if we push too hard, it is possible that his regime could be challenged. And the alternative for the United States, western interests, global war on terrorism would certainly be worse by virtually any replacement.

BLITZER: Because I've heard many people make the comparison to the shah back in the '70s. He might not have been perfect, but he was better than what came after.

BLACK: That's absolutely right. And we would not want to address a situation whereby you had a true active sympathizer of the Taliban and al Qaeda basically has a head of state.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it there.

Cofer Black, thanks very much for coming in.

BLACK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: This note. The 11-member jury in the Scooter Libby trial today huddled with the judge to make a special request. They asked the judge for permission to leave at 2:00 p.m. tomorrow to honor professional and personal obligations.

The judge approved their request. The jury is now finished for this day. They'll resume deliberations tomorrow, Friday, until 2:00 p.m. If there's no verdict by then, they'll go home for the weekend.

Up ahead, an embattled congressman riding high on Air Force One. Democrat William Jefferson is the man accused of stashing bribe money in his freezer. Today he was with the president in New Orleans and elsewhere in the Gulf Coast. We're going to tell you why.

And CNN now confirms eight dead in Enterprise, Alabama. We're going to bring you the latest on those deadly tornadoes, a horrible storm system ripping through parts of the country right now.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Democratic congressman at the center of a committee controversy left the eye of that storm today, flying to the aftermath of another storm, Hurricane Katrina. And Representative William Jefferson of Louisiana flew in style, riding on Air Force One with President Bush.

Our congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel, is joining us now with new developments in this story -- Andrea.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Republican objections to Congressman Jefferson's new committee assignment are almost unprecedented. And so what should have been a routine vote, one that Democratic aides said to expect today, has been pushed off until next week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL (voice over): President Bush arrived in New Orleans, the hometown of Congressman William Jefferson, just one day after House Republicans kicked up a political dust storm, pledging to try to block the Louisiana lawmaker's appointment to the Homeland Security Committee. But today the Republican leader didn't raise as much as an eyebrow when he learned Mr. Bush had just given Jefferson a ride to New Orleans on Air Force One.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), MINORITY LEADER: The president's going to Mr. Jefferson's hometown. And as customary under Democrat and Republican presidents, they typically invite the hometown member to join them on those flights.

KOPPEL: Republicans are accusing Speaker Nancy Pelosi of failing to practice what she's preached. Last summer, after the FBI raided Jefferson's congressional office over allegations he had accepted bribes, and about six months before midterm elections, Pelosi forced Jefferson to resign his seat on a powerful tax-writing committee.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: The House Democratic Caucus is determined to uphold a high ethical standard.

KOPPEL: But this week Pelosi backed Jefferson's appointment to the Homeland Security panel because she said he'd be better placed to help out his hurricane-ravaged district. And again, today, defended her decision.

PELOSI: Mr. Jefferson has already paid a price not being appointed to the Ways and Means Committee. In fact, being put off the Ways and Means Committee because there was some thought that the allegations, although they're still allegations, had some relationship to the work of that committee.

KOPPEL: New York congressman Peter King is the committee's top Republican.

REP. PETER KING (R), HOMELAND SECURITY CHAIRMAN: So she's saying a person was has too many ethical issues to be on the Ways and Means Committee is going to be dumped on to the Homeland Security Committee, a committee which is one of four committees that has constant access to classified information, is aware of ongoing threats and investigations and plots.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOPPEL: But Democratic leadership aides point out that all members of the House have access to the same intelligence as members of the Homeland Security Committee. And Congressman Jefferson, for his part, Wolf, continues to deny all the allegations against him.

BLITZER: This story is not going away yet.

Thanks very much for that, Andrea.

Still ahead, we're cove covering the breaking news out of Alabama. We're going to have live updates on the tornado deaths and destruction. That's coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

Our Jamie McIntyre is on the scene. Eight confirmed dead in Enterprise, Alabama, right now.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news out of Alabama. The Associated Press now quoting emergency officials in the state of Alabama saying at least 13 people, 13 people now confirmed dead in these horrendous tornadoes that have been ripping through not only Alabama but parts of several other states as well. Earlier fatalities reported in Missouri. And this bad weather, this severe weather by no means over yet.

Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, is on the scene for us in Enterprise, Alabama, which has been devastated by these tornadoes.

Jamie, we're watching you right now. And those clouds behind you still looking very ominous and we see the destruction.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's a scene of utter devastation here. This tornado ripped in half Enterprise High School and tour a huge gash in the community here.

Anguished parents coming to the school to find out the fate of their children. We know at least four children here killed. Possibly more. We have not yet been able to confirm that death count, but I can tell you that just walking to this scene from about a mile away, I saw house after house that was destroyed, culminating with the really massive destruction here at the high school, which is just in the middle, a twisted mass of twisted metal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie. Stand by. I'm going to get back to you in a moment.

Reynolds Wolf is joining us from the CNN severe weather center.

(WEATHER REPORT)

BLITZER: Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, has some new images that are just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM from the ground in Enterprise, Alabama.

Show our viewers, Abbi, what you're seeing.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, we're taking you back to 1:00 p.m. Central Time here, which is when these images were taken by Richard Turk, Jr., who sent them in to CNN. This was the view from his front porch.

The sky getting darker and darker. This right around the time the tornadoes were ripping through Enterprise.

He said it got extremely dark. It was like this for less than an hour. And afterwards, when he decided to venture out, well, he didn't get very far.

Power lines down. There are trees down. He told me that most every street he turned down was all blocked with downed trees and power lines. And he said this wasn't even the worst part of town.

He estimates he was about a mile from the worst of it where it ripped through. He's saying that now he is staying off the streets. That's what the local news outlets are advising residents do to let the emergency services get through.

But as you can see from Richard's pictures here, that's going to take some time -- Wolf. BLITZER: Abbi, thank you very much.

And we're also getting this videotape in, the reaction from one student who was right in the middle of all of this in that high school in Enterprise, Alabama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A real good friend of mine, a couple of people down. Cut her leg. Nobody was really around to do anything. I kind of took my shirt off and wrapped her leg up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give us some sense of what that was like. How unsettling was that to see something like that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see stuff like this on the news all the time and you don't really know what's going to happen. And you just -- you don't -- you don't -- it's pretty bad. I don't really know how to describe it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It's a heartbreaking situation unfolding in Enterprise, Alabama, and other parts of the South, the Midwest.

We're going to continue to cover this story for you. Jamie McIntyre is live on the scene in Enterprise. We'll go back to him and get some more updates right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: More now on our top story, the death and destruction caused by these tornadoes in the southern part of the United States, specifically in Alabama.

The Associated Press reporting 13 confirmed dead. Eight of them we have confirmed in Enterprise, Alabama. Another five in Millers Ferry. Enterprise is about 130 miles or so southeast of Millers Ferry.

We're watching all of this in Enterprise. Our senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, is standing by.

Jamie, the high school -- and you're not far from that high school right now -- is it simply flattened? Is it simply leveled? Or are parts of it still up?

MCINTYRE: Well, parts of it are still upright. But, you know, we're not far. We're at the high school.

Let me just ask my cameraman, Jonathan Sherer (ph), to show you a little bit of what's behind us here. And you can't see the worst of it from here because -- you can see that parts of the roof are gone, you can see parts of debris. And also, on the other side, there's still rescue workers going through the building. The other side of the building is even more devastated where the sports stadium is. You can see a whole forest of trees that have been clipped off. And all the houses on the road leading up to that are either seriously damaged or destroyed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume that parents, when they heard of this and they managed to make sure that they were OK, they rushed to the high school to get their kids. How hard was it for you to get there? How hard was it for parents to get to the scene?

MCINTYRE: Well, it was very -- it was very hard to get here because there were a lot of downed power lines. We had to be very careful approaching it.

We couldn't drive initially to the school. We had to walk in. And actually, that gave us a real, visceral, close-up view of what happened in this community.

And again, you know, when something like this happens, it hits the high school where all the students are, it really hits everybody in the town.

BLITZER: All right, Jamie. Thanks very much.

We're going to stay on top of this story here on CNN throughout the night. Much more coming up, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, when we're back here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Remember, we're here weekday afternoons, 4:00 to 6:00, another hour at 7:00.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now. Kitty Pilgrim sitting in for Lou.

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